Fundamental Skills for the Profession

I just want to say this right up front: I had nothing to do with last week’s Twitter and Facebook outages.

But I could not have orchestrated a better example for the point I made in last week’s post about how communicators fawn over social media while allowing other fundamental skills and capabilities to languish for lack of attention.

What has our profession become when we are so reliant on one form of communication — for our own use as well as to carry out the work of our clients — that its failure cripples us? A reader of another blog shared a quote from a PR manager who “said she felt ‘completely lost’ with Twitter out because ‘it gives me all the breaking news I need.'” This kind of statement makes me fear for our profession.

As I wrote last week, I understand the tremendous impact social media have made on communication in general and on the communication professions in particular. I am not a Luddite; in fact, over the years I have embraced technology as a powerful tool for organizational communication. I use and participate in social media all the time. And there is no denying that social media skills are necessary to work in our profession today.

The thing that bothers me about social media is how so many communicators are so enraptured by it that we have lost sight of skills and capabilities that are more lasting and, I believe, ultimately more important to succeed in PR and communications. I am especially concerned that the next generation of PR/communication professionals will be well-versed in social media but will lack other fundamental skills.

What skills do I believe are necessary for PR/communication professionals? Here is my list. I’d like your reactions:

  • Writing. This is the foundation upon which everything else we do is built. The ability to express oneself and to use our language correctly is important for anyone, but it is required of communication professionals. There’s no room for sloppiness. We wouldn’t hire a carpenter who decided 13 inches rather than 12 equals one foot. Neither should anyone hire a professional communicator who fails to uphold basic standards of writing. Our credibility as communicators is at stake and we need to know how to use this most basic skill.
  • Strategic thinking/planning. The ability to put together a strategic communication plan is important, but the real value lies in possessing a strategic mindset. This is the ability to connect the dots between PR/communication activities and business goals. My mentor and friend Les Potter taught me everything I know about strategic communication planning and I believe his model remains the best.
  • Problem solving. This is akin to research, but at a more tactical level. It’s the ability to break down a problem to its root cause and then to create solutions that meet the needs of diverse constituencies. Negotiation is part of problem solving.
  • Research. Business leaders don’t base their decisions purely on gut instinct. The ability to research an issue on the front end in order to understand it and on the back end in order to measure it is vital. By the way, social media can be tremendous aids in research.
  • Tactical skills. We must know how to use the tools of our trade — from how to develop a website to how to produce a publication to how to plan an event. Social media are among the tools at our disposal, but there are so many more of which we also need a working knowledge.
  • Business acumen. PR and communication pros must know how business works, how to navigate organizational politics and how to speak the language of business.
  • Relationship management. We must know how to build and maintain relationships with various stakeholders inside and outside our businesses and our clients’ industries. It’s also important for us to manage our personal relationships within our profession because they enhance our lifelong learning.
  • Flexibility. We must learn how to be open to opportunities that come to us. We must be open to criticism, adaptable to changing circumstances and open to learning. This mindset is a skill that is learned; it does not usually come naturally.

What do you think of this list? Do you see anything being especially neglected while social media command our attention?


7 Responses

  1. Robert, I think your list is comprehensive and on target. I particularly feel that problem-solving ability should be a priority. After all, employers pay us to solve problems more than anything else using the skills we have in communication/PR, the very skills you have listed here.

    Research knowledge and skill is a must, too. We must base what we do on fact, not fiction. Leave that to the politicians.

    You know how I feel about strategic planning, so enough said. And thank you for your generous comments about my life’s work in that area.

    I am also pleased that you put writing first. You have been clear in your observations on the importance of writing in the communication/PR profession, and the effect that social media is having on this vital craft skill. Keep it up.

    If I could add anything, it would be work ethic. This is the tried and true fundamental underpinning of success. You can’t fake this.


    • Thank you for your input, Les. As someone who is on the “front lines” of educating the next generation of PR/communication pros, your insight is valuable. I agree with the addition of a strong work ethic. It is necessary for everyone, but especially for those just starting out and especially when it comes to doing the grunt work that is often required to prove our mettle to a new employer.

  2. Very good list. It should be shared with every potential PR/communication student and intern coming up in the profession.

    I can remember years ago when knowing how to type was considered a business skill. Now kids can text 60 wpm on cell phones without necessarily communicating.

    Writing is the foundation for everything else, because if you can’t communicate clearly in writing, you can’t be effective in most other areas. But that’s just square one. Les hit the nail on the head in emphasizing problem solving; if we as communicators are not working every day to create positive outcomes for our clients and organizations, we won’t be around long, and we don’t deserve to be. Which is one reason that one of my pet peeves is when managers say “we need a newsletter/web site” for no other reason than they want a newsletter/web site. What business need will it address? What problem will it solve? If there’s no business case for it, why waste the time and money? It’s an insult to us as professionals, too, if that’s all they think we can do for them.

    Every one of your other points is critical as well. Good post.

  3. Robert, I think that some communicators are neglecting many of the things you list because of their infatuation with social media, and that you are right to put writing first. I’ve heard the argument that because social media is informal, typos and grammar mistakes don’t matter. I disagree. A piece of writing can be conversational and grammatically correct.

    When a few months ago you pointed out that a blog post by a PR person was full of poor writing, I was amazed that most people flocked to the writer’s defense. Poor writing saps a writer’s credibility, and even minor mistakes can distract readers from the message. Believe me; readers notice. Social media allows them to show it. I’m one of many authors for city blog We Love DC, and heaven help the writer who uses a word wrong or misspells something; a reader is likely to post a snarky comment pointing out the error.

    To build on Ray’s comment about problem solving, this is happening with social media as well, clients wanting blogs or online communities without knowing why, how these tools can advance their business goals, or how to set them up to be most effective.

    While I think good communicators with solid backgrounds in research and other basics see social media as an additional tool, those who focus only on social media ultimately will pay the price of communicating less effectively.

    • Donna, thank you for well-written response. 🙂 I believe you make some excellent points, especially about how a lot of clients want blogs or other social media without really knowing why. Sadly, there are plenty of communication consultants out there who will build these communication vehicles without ever asking why. This is what bothers me the most, I think: that communication professionals are getting so wrapped up in social media only because the tools are new and exciting and everyone’s using them. Strategy, problem solving and, yes, good writing are cast aside in favor of the tactics. Of course, this is not true of every communicator out there, but I observe a frenzy over social media that causes me to be concerned. I’m wondering if anyone else notices it.

      On a more positive note, social media are well-suited to support relationship building. In fact, I believe that role is social media’s greatest benefit to PR professionals.

  4. Donna/Robert

    I am so glad that writing is number one on the list. Whenever I see poor writing, especially from purported experts, I have to cringe. Just look at the number of television commercials that don’t use an adverb where there should be one.

    As for social media, I have just been to a networking session and presentation on how to use social media in looking for a job/developing business contacts. It was all very interesting and useful. Yet, at the end of the day, we still have to do something so fundamental to communication; we have to talk to people. Sadly, all this electronic media is getting in the way of face-to-face communications.

    Blogs, Facebook, Twitter et al, maybe the communications channels du jour, just as newsletters and brochures were a few years ago. Instead of the typical business leader request, “we obviously need a newsletter,” we now have “we need to have a blog,” with little thought of the outcome we are trying to achieve.

    Robert, thanks for opening this can of worms. There are some really juicy ones.

  5. […] skills silently fading away? Posted on January 5, 2010 by Robert Holland A few months ago I made a list of what I believe to be the fundamental skills every professional communicator should have in order […]

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