The PR profession’s digital divide


Derek DeVries, a senior associate in the digital practice at Lambert, Edwards & Associates, or LE&A, contributed to this post.

There's a major concern in the public relations world right now. It’s a generational issue as well as a technical issue. The digital gap is widening in a profession that's largely responsible for brand content development and social media issues.

The issue is twofold: senior level executives in public relations firms lack the technological skills to both perform and measure digital tactics for a company and so do millennials.

The problem is really that people are able to “do" social media for themselves, but not for professional use, aka for a company brand. Shel Holtz (public relations superstar) noted in a recent article posted to PRDaily that a Chartered Institute of Public Relations state of the profession study revealed that “digital and social media are clearly critical components of almost any PR effort, and 59 percent of survey respondents agreed that issues influenced by technology and innovation represent one of the industry’s biggest challenges. No other issue was viewed as more significant.”

Despite an industry that tries diligently to claim and usually wins the claim to digital and social assets as “ours,” the requisite skills used to write the strategy, execute the tactics and perform evaluation measures in digital/social are not present among the industry ranked professionals. In the CIPR survey, technical and digital assets are weakest among those surveyed with the skill level worsening the more senior the practitioner is within a firm or corporation. Holtz points out that the worst part is that relatively no one is seeking senior professionals with these competencies and that they “are not ranked among the top five competencies across all sectors likely to hire a senior candidate.”

Furthermore, if senior level executives are both recruiting and interviewing new hires without the skill set or background themselves, they are likely depleting their firm/corporation by an inherent level of skill bias that both parties — the senior executive and the entry-level candidate — lack. You can see where this is going, right? It might be a little dramatic in saying this, but this digital divide could lead to PR extinction when or if another business area perks up and decides to “own” this space by creating continuity within its own profession of responsible digital practitioners. PR practitioners are already displaced by many businesses in the confusion of duties between marketing, advertising and journalism, oftentimes relegated to simply one aspect of our profession, typically media relations or publicity (not that those are poor aspects; they are simply not the total of the profession).

No agency or department will be able to implement transformative digital strategies without its leadership being fluent in digital. Many leaders point to the constant evolution of digital technologies as one reason they’re unable to round out their skill sets. When the C-suite hides behind that justification, they're allowing laziness to let them shirk their responsibilities.

The problems faced by agencies whose leadership is not digital-savvy go beyond offering advanced services to clients; they also prevent the agency from managing for the long-term. Though junior- and mid-level digital experts can do much of the work, there are important decisions to be made within any agency that they are unable to make.

For example:

  • Should the billing structure for digital be different from traditional PR? (If so, what should it be to ensure both client value and profitability?)
  • Where should the firm be investing professional development resources for the digital team?
  • How should the need for digital influence the long-term hiring strategy of the agency?
  • Looking forward, what percentage of an agency’s work portfolio should be digital? (This is especially important as both the reach and credibility of traditional news media continues to wane.)
  • What metrics should the firm advise its clients to track? And how can digital KPMs be combined with traditional metrics?

Though tactics are the most visible and frequently employed, digital is both a strategy and a tactic. The "many-to-many" dynamic enabled by social media is unlike anything in human history and demands its own strategic approach.

So what are the solutions? Chin up, people, it’s not all doom and gloom. In PR we are masters of evaluation, metrics on the run, and adapting to the current needs and ecosystem of our clients, so let’s do the same for our profession. Here’s what we suggest:

Senior-level officials: Continuing education. Take your medicine; it’s irresponsible to continue down this path. This is for your own good. If you need a higher calling, it’s for the good of the field of PR that has been so darn good to you. If you feel out of place taking a course, a webinar or attending a conference, then why don’t you use your own assets internally? Use your digital/social employees. You know, the ones that can maintain a healthy and meaningful conversation in 140 characters or less, that know they are sandwiched between comments like “what do they do anyway?” and “hey, why won’t my monitor turn on?” breakroom activity, and usually tucked into Generation X trying frankly not to attract “too much” attention. They are soundly in the middle of “born with typewriter communicated over telephone” and “born with smartphone communicate with emoticons and Snapchat,” and are willing to be the conduit that is necessary for both those digitally challenged and digitally native, yet still n00b.

Entry-level job seekers: Grow up. Yep, I said it. Don’t start emails with “plz” instead of please and take your selfie game down a notch. You know we love you, but you are going to have to meet us in the middle. We have heard your demands and would like to help you attain them. So please put your smartphone down for a few minutes, unplug your earbuds from your ears and contribute to the conversation. Interpersonal skills are a requirement in PR and your voice is valuable, but it has to be used in the context of our business and our future. See someone struggling to text on their new Phablet? That’s your target. Your asset is your familiarity with use of digital devices. Partner that with your senior executive level strategy and inform your tactics while teaching an “old dog” new tricks. This is real world group work. For the good of the client, your company and the future of the PR profession, adapt. That’s what we have been told you are good at, so show us why you should get that ribbon, job or promotion. Sell this skill set in your interview and watch the doors open.

Educators: Continuing education. Yes, you, the educator, should go back to school or get a mentor and then read, study, apply, repeat. Learn how to use the tools of the new PR trade. It’s not enough to tell students about it anymore, you should also be able to entry-level demonstrate to your captive audience how the tool works and what the metrics are for evaluation/measurement. This will be the difference between your students gobbling up the job search or rotting in their parents’ basement for the next five years or so until they land that sales job they never wanted in the first place. Does that mean only talk digital/social in the classroom? No. Try integrating it into every single class in the major! There is room in your lesson plans for at least a few guest speakers and in your curriculum for modern tactics partnered with traditional methods. The future of your students depends on your willingness to also actually adapt, not just talk about it.

Professional groups: Outreach. Your professional group is dead without the next gen anyway. Provide compelling reasoning for the three aforementioned groups to need you; otherwise, you are simply a social group parading around as a professional group and you should just rename yourself and go drink beers together (which is totally fine!). Is your programming compelling enough to warrant that hefty professional fee for membership? You can probably tell by your attendance if it is or is not. Do some seriously quick soul searching and a little research into your target public and see that they have needs — real needs. Your profession needs you to provide exciting and relevant mentorship, too. Train these people before you lose them to marketing, advertising or journalism forever. Do you have a succession plan? Get them on board for the leadership to train early — they have skills! They will be loyal to our trade if they are given a reason.

Are these claims alarmist? Perhaps. However, what do you have to lose by improving your PR practice and the future of our trade? Nothing. Now quickly, go learn something or teach someone something!

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