PR jobs: digital skills are the new currency in communications

Whether the job title is Chief Communications Office, Head of Content or Director of Corporate Affairs, the day-to-day tasks in-house professionals in the public relations industry are asked to perform are undergoing fundamental change.

Across sectors as diverse as retail, financial services and health, the nature of PR jobs is being redrafted by the inevitable rise of digital technologies. New skills are needed at the highest level so businesses can compete in a world where new forms of communication are increasingly important.

Published late last month, PR Week’s PR Census 2013 throws a sharp light on the new duties that form part of the working life of a modern PR professional.

It’ll come as no great surprise that the industry predicts digital tasks will only increase in importance over the next two years. However, it’s worth pointing out that PR Week’s survey found that ‘General media relations’ is still the predominant task for PR people as 80% of all PRs said it formed part of their duties (81% for in-house PRs).

In addition, PR Week said:

Activities that have decreased in importance and are forecast to continue that downward spiral are in several instances mainstream activities that remain important in the grand scheme of things. So Sales promotion, Event planning and organising and Writing articles and newsletters may be the top three tipped for decline, but 70 per cent of PR professionals still write and 64 per cent still organise. Sales promotion, admittedly, seems to belong to a bygone era.

Digital skills are obviously important, but they are yet to fully oust traditional crafts. In addition, some digital duties that one might assume to already be a fundamental part of the modern PR day, currently rank low on duties actually undertaken. But as we’ll see, both those things are likely to change.

Online comms, the survey found, is now a duty undertaken by 74% of PR professionals (75% for those working in-house), making it the third most prevalent task that PR professionals are asked to perform. Digital duties came a lowly tenth on that list, with just 61% (60% in-house) of respondents claiming it formed part of their job. However, it may be true that ‘Digital’ duties are now so ingrained into other, general duties, that stripping them out as a separate category doesn’t fully recognise the part they pay in the working day.

Given the great hubbub surrounding around content marketing in recently times, the low importance of SEO as a task PR professionals are asked to perform seems surprising. Just 19% of PR professionals (16% in-house) said it was a duty they undertook, placing SEO 23rd on the overall list of duties. Publishing and editing was a task asked of 32% of PRs, placing it 21st on the tasks list. Content creation (writing articles and newsletters), on the other hand, is task asked of 70% of PR professionals.

Despite rankly lowly as a duty PR professionals include in their current roles, SEO was found to be a task that was rapidly gaining importance. Of those who took part in the survey, 72% said SEO was a task that had increased in importance in the last two year (65% for in-house PRs). Only Digital and Online comms, were said to have increased in importance by more respondents in the last two years (93% and 92% respectively).

Of those tasks likely to increase in importance in the next two years, 66% of respondents said SEO was amongst them. Eighty-nine per cent of respondents said both Digital and Online comms would increase in importance, with Reputation management also increasing in importance, according to 68% of overall respondents.

While it’s likely that SEO will become a bigger part of the PR professionals world, it’s unlikely it will become a mainstream activity. In a content-rich future, PRs are more likely to focus on creating promotional material than analysis and optimisation of it, which is likely to be left to specialist agencies.

It’s perhaps also worth noting that General media relations was a task seen as increasing in importance in the last two years by just 32% of respondents overall, while just 27% of further respondents believed General media relations was a task likely to increase in importance in the next two years.

It’s worth bearing in mind that a duty that scores lowly on ‘importance in the next two years’ doesn’t directly relate to a decline in the significance of that task, it’s just an acknowledgement that new skills will be needed in the mix in coming years to sit alongside alongside those core competences.

Communications headhunters are increasingly asked by corporations to find PR chiefs who can bring news skills to their businesses. There can be little doubt that digitally-aware customers and prospects have brought a new set of demands to big business. The knock-on effect is that firms increasingly need PR professionals with new skills, but that doesn’t mean that cajoling journalists, mastery of a brief, and wining and dining won’t remain part of the mix.

And Amen to that.