Senior PR practitioners and the skills gap

Speaker Post: Padraig McKeon

Over the coming weeks leading to #PRFest, the speakers will blog about their subject area, giving you a flavour of what to expect on the day. 

Just over a year ago I found myself studying an academic paper on the ‘academician-practitioner gap in advertising’ (Nyilasy & Reid 2009)[1]. It centred on how advertising practitioners disagree with the theoretical knowledge base that exists in advertising academia.  Practitioners, they noted, have “autonomous conceptions about how advertising works” which centre on “prescribing creativity as the sole dictate for advertising”.

Is there a similar gap in the study and understanding of Public Relations and communications management?

As the body of academic work on PR grows and starts to explore PR’s interaction with complementary fields of practice – traditional and new –  are practitioners sticking to what they know while research explores and maps a new future in a separate furrow.  If they are, does it matter?

In 2014 I conducted a review of PR Education in the Irish market for the Public Relations Institute of Ireland (PRII). In consulting with agencies to establish their expectations of PR education they spoke to only one thing – writing, writing and more writing.

The recently published 2018 edition of The Conference Board’s “Corporate Communications Practices” report reaffirmed that writing ability remains the most sought-after skill by US communications teams.  In the UK, the CIPR’s State of the Profession 2018 published this week tells us respondents spent 73% of their time ‘copywriting and editing’ (p.21) which was also perceived by both senior practitioners and non-managers as the ‘strongest skill or competency’ required (p.22/23).

But if we step back from what we have been asked to do (by clients/employers), should we question the sense of that ‘sole dictate’ for PR practitioners?

As an employer in agency PR (up to 2013) I certainly wondered.  For me the skill of writing was only of value in context. Too often I found myself admiring crafted prose that missed the point because the writer had not adequately established ‘why’ they had been asked to prepare the piece – for whom and to what end?

I spent 2016 and 2017 studying digital marketing in an academic context. While the fields of Marketing and PR are different in focus, there is a lot to learn from the well-advanced use of digital tools in marketing.  Above all, the ability to refine an audience and target by location or demographic, and pretty much in an instant, repeatedly if one wishes, changes the context for what we do in public relations.

Of course, we need to be creative – there will always be a front row role for craftsmanship.  Craft with purpose though relies on PR practitioners getting to grips in the first instance with a much tighter and more ‘current’ understanding of the audience, its behaviour, the media it consumes, where and when. The tools available demand a realignment of planning and analysis as primary skills of effective public relations.

There are advocates for changing and broadening the emphasis of what we do. However, when I took a formal look last year beyond the space of the advanced thinkers, the academics and the development budgets of the multinational agencies I found a big gap between the study and the practice in terms of the skill sets that public relations actively develops and deploys. The Conference Board and CIPR data reiterates what is happening in practice.

That gap I believe comes with a cost for the practice of PR in the future. At #PRFest, I would like to explain what I believe that research indicates about that cost and explore whether there is a need to ‘mainstream’ the case for a more urgent realignment of focus in the practice of PR to mitigate and offset that cost. I look forward to you joining me.

[1] Nyilasy,G. &. Reid, L., 2009. Agency practitioner theories of how advertising works. Journal of Advertising, 38(3), pp. 81 – 96.

Come and hear Padraig speak at #PRFest on Thursday, 14 June. There will be an opportunity to take part in the discussion around senior practitioner skills, skills for the future and what we can learn and implement from the research.

You can buy your tickets here.