How to Keep Your Job

If you could write well, cope with hard work and conceal your occasionally questionable social skills, you used to be able to get a job in public relations (PR).

OK, so there was this weird thing where PR practitioners used to joke about having zero numeracy skills. Some colleagues (usually ex-journalists) regarded computer illiteracy as a badge of honor. There were those with a little too much personality (mwah mwah daaaarling – you know who you are) and the occasional bedraggled individual who socialized just a bit too hard, and too often.

But overall a career in PR used to be reasonably linear. The hallmarks of the most successful people were consistent. They were great raconteurs, who could animate a room with sharp ideas, and inspire people to attack client problems. The recipe was simple, if hard to attain. This made knowing how to keep your job, and get promoted for that matter, relatively straightforward.

But not anymore. The recipe for success in PR has become much more sophisticated. And the evidence shows that those who don’t, or can’t, keep up won’t be around for much longer.

Many of us have seen this coming for a while. A range of indicators show that 2013 hasn’t just been the year digital matched the mainstream, it was the year when digital became the mainstream and changed PR forever.

But for me, the catalyst for this blog was the UK’s National PR Show. Organized by the CIPR, the conference brought together the UK’s top flight speakers – and what struck me was the unanimity of every session I sat in. Each one told a similar story about how today’s communicator needs radically new skills.

First, I heard Ketchum’s Rod Cartwright describe the results of a comprehensive leadership survey sampling 6,000 communicators across 5 continents. Cartwright described how the contemporary communicator needs the credibility and deep business insight to advise boards on the most intricate and personal aspects of leadership.

Second, I heard Alistair Smith, Director of Communications at Barclays (a major UK bank) argue that communications functions now exist to change the way companies operate, not just communicate.

Third, I heard Alex Aiken, the Executive Director for Government Communications, describe how public sector communicators were “on a mission towards data driven communications.”

Fourth, I heard Peter Sigrist, Managing Director of an international digital PR and marketing agency, explain how creating a web app now takes the same time as working on a press release and each PR team needs photographers and videographers.

Fifth, I heard Ketchum’s Stephen Waddington, European Digital Director, assert that in PR “The maths men have usurped the Mad Men” and we’ll see “social science take on increasing prominence in our strategic work.”

Lastly, I heard four figures from the UK’s public affairs industry, Emily Wallace, Simon McVicker, Iain Anderson and John Lehal, agree that today’s communicator needs to have a far more cultured approach to transparency and technology.

The message from this important conference was clear. The era of mwah mwah daaaarling is already over. But so is the era of public relations as writers and newshounds. It seems that in 2014 no one will be laughing with the practitioner who jokes about their poor numeracy and computer skills. Being able to harness complex data and advise on all matters digital are now as much part of public relations, as storytelling and media pitching.