Post written by Nollie Haws
As a college freshman still deciding on what to major in, a course entitled “Intro to Public Relations” caught my eye. “I’m a people person,” I thought, and enrolled for the following semester.
In one of our first classes, a visiting professor gave a lecture on “puffery,” a term I’d never heard before. It refers to exaggerated or false praise, a communication strategy that some businesses and individuals employ to make something sound better than it is. His point was that as aspiring PR pros, we needed to avoid puffery because you lose credibility, and it’s a reason why sometimes PR people are referred to as “hacks”. I was fascinated by the discussion and hooked on the previously unknown intricacies of the communication field.
As the semester proceeded, we learned about press releases, PR plans, media relations, pitching, crisis management, internal and external audiences, and all the other aspects of communication of which you are familiar. Needless to say, I quickly realized that succeeding as a public relations and communications professional requires much more than just being social. Drawn from education and experience, here are some of my “Must-Have Skills for Communicators.”
1. Strong Writing and Editing Chops
Writing, writing, and more writing. Good writing is the basis for good communication and must be a foundational part of your skill set. Since many collegiate PR/comms tracks are associated with a journalism program, most beginning communications students learn the fundamentals of journalistic writing: The inverted pyramid, the 5 Ws and H (Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How). It’s vital to learn the style and language of the media you will interact with, as well as what makes a good story. You also must write tight, concise prose that conveys your message clearly and quickly.
This is especially important in our current attention economy, where you only have a few words to get your point across and make an impact before your audience moves on to the next thing that catches their eye. Writing is also essential as you’re likely tasked with lots of content creation (especially for SEO) and have to write for varying audiences.
Related to writing, you must also be a good editor - thorough and ruthless with your own and others’ words to make sure the message is not only grammatically correct, but conveys the right tone and meaning for its audience.
2. Organizational Skills
No matter what type of work setup you have (agency, freelance, in-house, whatever), you’ve got to have your crap together, literally and figuratively. Whether you’re managing one client or many, you have to not only balance meetings, documents, correspondence, and deadlines, but also have the brain space to anticipate and prepare for communication issues that might come up. Just this week I read an article stating that communicators now must add deep fake and fake news response strategy to their PR crisis plans. Something else for your list!
Lots of new tech tools help with organization. Some that you might find helpful are:
Technology is inescapable, so harness it to become a master of, not a slave to, all the projects you’re juggling at once.
3. Trying the Newest Things First
Over the past decade, communication has expanded beyond mainstream media outlets to social media to AI to VR to video everything. If relevant media, influencers, clients, customers, or potential audience are there, you need to be familiar with it. Find out how different tools or platforms can help communicate your message to different groups.
The Pew Research Center writes that “Social media sites have emerged as a go-to platform for connecting with others, finding news and engaging politically” and that 72 percent of U.S. adults engage with a social media platform regularly.
Popular social media platforms for brands are Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter. And quite a few are now dabbling in Tik Tok. As you create content, think about how it can be incorporated into social sharing. Also consider how you can create conversations with your audiences that help them feel a connection to the business, product, or service. Conversations show that companies are listening and offer a great way to get useful feedback that can help make better products and services and improve customer outcomes.
The immediate nature of social media also makes it one of the most useful tools for communicating quickly with customers and journalists and for responding in real time to any PR issues.
You will need more visual content to accompany social media, with video most often being more useful and engaging than just a picture.
This helpful article from Incentric Digital Marketing outlines the importance of video for marketing/communication and how to implement an effective video use strategy. Some important points they mention:
If you’re wondering if you or your clients can afford video, Spin Sucks has some tips on how to pay for video without busting your budget.
As one recent article stated, “Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) will finally proliferate in 2020. Communication pros will seek creative ways to use the emerging technologies to better deliver corporate and brand messages to consumers.”
Forbes predicts that VR will be used more widely for training and teaching, entertainment, in cars, and general industry purposes. How can these tools work for the companies you work with?
4. Being Social
Don't worry. Those “people person” leanings that tipped me toward communications didn’t go to waste. Even if you’re not an extrovert, your interpersonal skills will come in handy every day. It might be when you need to tactfully counsel an executive that their preferred path isn’t the best strategy. Or if you have an upset client or customer and need to explain things quickly and clearly to smooth things over without making matters worse. Perhaps you’re trying to land new business and need to illustrate what unique attributes you bring to the table.
Careful listening, tact, the ability to talk to people from all different backgrounds, consideration of various viewpoints, and being positive, efficient, and clear-headed will aid you as you serve your clients and put your many communication skills to work.
What Do You Think?
Do you have anything to add to this list? What skills do you think communicators must have to thrive in the ever-changing media, social, business, and political landscapes?