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January 04, 2018

Anna Ruth Williams



This article originally appeared in IRPA.

When I graduated college 12 years ago, my fellow public relations majors and I eagerly looked at job titles that we wanted to assume. At that time, roles such as data scientist, SEO specialist and even social media manager didn’t exist. I was destined to become a PR manager, corporate communications director or media relations specialist. And then, all that changed thanks to the advent of social media, search engine algorithms and the rapid evolution (errr…downsizing) of newsrooms.

It’s no wonder that only 27% of agency leaders believe that by 2020 the term “public relations” will adequately describe their work. Our 120-year old industry is being forced to quickly write the next chapter of its history. Agency revenues and profit margins are declining in tandem with shrinking client tenure. At the root is our industry’s need to elevate our practice and then measure it with greater accuracy and insight.

As the founder of a high-growth technology PR firm – I know how time intensive and unprofitable it is to train fresh talent. It’s a vicious cycle. Higher education programs send us recent grads who lack all of the knowledge and exposure needed in today’s PR landscape, and we have to eat the cost of training them before putting them to work on client billables. As a result, learning curves are high and PR industry salaries are lower than other professions.

Of course, it’s employers’ jobs to continually invest professional development in employees of all ages due to the fast-paced nature of the media ecosystem. But there are two key areas that I challenge higher education to look at in order to mold the next crop of PR young guns:

Ability to create diverse digital content

Thinking back to my days at the University of Alabama College of Communications & Information Sciences, customers – whether consumer or business buyers – were reached at physical events, via traditional press and occasionally in their inboxes. A decade later and SiriusDecisions says that 67% of a B2B buyer journey is done digitally today. Our omni-channel world, combined with media outlets that are short staffed, has forced PR practitioners to write exponentially more content for both digital channels and for editors. As a result, college curriculum must prepare students to 1) write well, 2) have multimedia savviness and 3) understand the nuances of creating content for various channels.

The UK’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) revealed in its 2017 State of the Profession that only 35% of PR practitioners say they spend most or some time on photo and video creation and editing. Moreover, HTML and coding are the least desirable skills by hiring managers at an abysmal 4%.

In other words, the PR workforce doesn’t fully embrace multimedia nor do they have the technical skills and/or software tools needed to create these digital content pieces. Agencies and in-house communications teams need higher education to help us quickly resolve this gap. Here’s a few nuggets why: 1) press releases that contain multimedia have 10 times higher views than those that are text-only; 2) Tweets with images receive 150% more retweets than tweets without images; and 3) YouTube is the second largest search engine today. The fix? Require PR majors to take graphic design, website development and video production courses.

And what good is digital content today if it’s not optimized? Web users will inevitably search for the terms that brands have capitalized on throughout their websites, and thus related content will appear in users’ search results. The real win here is that these users are well-qualified buyers since they’re already searching for what the brand(s) offers. But the CIPR study found that SEO is alarmingly low on the sought-after skills list from recruiters, at just 7-8%. Colleges can elevate the importance of SEO in the PR industry by offering more technical curriculum and even bringing in guest lecturers from SEO firms as well as brands like Google, Twitter and Hubspot.

Ability to analyze and measure campaigns

Since buyers are turning to the web to make purchasing decisions in droves, the ability to measure the effectiveness of digital content is paramount. It’s no secret that our industry is scrambling to quantify our results in a meaningful way. Eighty percent of marketers struggle to demonstrate the effectiveness of their marketing spending, yet PR firms are still serving clients with antiquated measurements like ‘ad value equivalency’ and ‘overall impressions.’ Perhaps the biggest gift higher education could give the PR industry is recent grads who have the analytical and technical knowledge needed to decode marketing metrics.

Keep in mind, the value and insights of any measurement is exponentially enhanced when the person analyzing the results has strong business acumen. Traditionally, collegiate PR programs have been isolated from business degree curriculum, putting students at a disadvantage. For example, what good is it for you to measure how many visitors a social media campaign drove to a website if you don’t know the ultimate sales conversion goals and financial positioning of the company? I relish the day that PR programs actually sit INSIDE business schools – not on the other side of the campus.

The future of PR depends on it

Is strong writing, event planning skills and earned media acumen still needed in today’s PR workforce? Absolutely. In fact, the future of PR needs professionals who have holistic views of the media landscape and understand how the integration of all specialties breeds stronger success. As colleges and universities across the globe head back for second semester this winter, it’s my hope that students grasp both broad comprehension and specific technical skills in order to quickly land well-paying jobs and add value to their new employers after graduation.