The on- and offline worlds have been buzzing lately with talk about the dearth of suitably skilled candidates for the increasing number of digital PR roles. Indeed, this is a topic that everybody seems to have an opinion on.
PR Week has picked up on this issue, finding that only 6% of CVs mentioned social media, with fleeting mentions of Twitter, Facebook and blogging. It appears that despite the growing ranks of people with PR degrees and professional qualifications there is an industry-wide digital skills gap.
Given the explosion of internet usage over the last decade, social media has been catapulted from the preserve of geeks to part of people’s daily lives. This widespread adoption has meant organisations are keen to harness social media’s vast potential to communicate with consumers. Despite many people using social media every day, there is a shortage of people with the right blend of skills and knowledge to make it work for a client.
Having acquainted myself with the main arguments and formulated some initial thoughts, I decided to enlist the help of industry colleagues and academics to see what they thought about the digital skills gap – and how it could be bridged.
Who does the teaching?
I kicked-off by asking who should teach digital PR skills. Andy Barr, owner of 10 Yetis spoke about the need for the worlds of academia and business to work together:
‘There needs to be a combined effort that starts with the universities giving their students a basic understanding of social media and SEO that the student is then encouraged to take further themselves. Finally, internships and on-job training can polish those skills.’
Marshall Manson, director of digital strategy at Edelman was pragmatic and stressed that PR skills are acquired over time: ‘In my experience, academics are good at teaching principles and lousy at teaching practicalities. So most of the training is going to have to be done by employers.’
Karen Russell, associate professor of public relations at the University of Georgia replied on my blog that attaining social media skills is an ongoing process: ‘Social media skills can’t be taught in a day, or in a class. The tools are always changing, and we all have to respond — or in some cases, we have to change the tools. My point is that professionals, educators and students are all responsible for teaching, and learning, social media skills. Every day.’
Wanting to challenge industry figures to ‘put their money where their mouth is’, I asked specifically what digital skills they would like people to have.
Stephen Waddington, managing director of Speed Communications recommended social media platforms that people should use. ‘If you’re new to PR, you need to build your own social networks on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. And you need to develop content on a blog platform, Flickr and YouTube. Likewise if you’re in PR and want to stay in PR you equally need to learn how to use digital techniques to create and seed content’.
To gain a public sector perspective, I contacted Simon Wakeman, head of communications & marketing at Medway Council. Simon is something of a trailblazer having successfully integrated social media into a council communications strategy.
Simon was clear what he prizes in new recruits: ‘A strategic understanding of the impact of social media on communications, as well as a working knowledge of the key tools and an understanding about how to manage the reputational risks from social media. Ideally candidates will also be able to articulate how social media can be incorporated effectively into a multi-channel campaign.’
Stephen and Simon are both involved with the recruitment process at their organisations, so their comments should prove valuable reading for any budding PR student or graduate.
Recording achievement, personal SEO and creating a positive digital footprint are topics that interest me – I know from personal experience what a tremendous platform they can be. So I was curious to discover how digital skills should be demonstrated to employers.
Stephen once more shared practical tips on how to impress a prospective employer: ‘It’s the old adage. Show me what you’ve done, don’t tell me what you could do. Build out your own social networks and use a blog platform, Flickr or YouTube. I am constantly astonished at the number of PR and journalism students that aren’t sufficiently motivated to experiment with these new forms of media. I would always choose someone who had made the effort versus someone who had not’.
Simon was equally clear how a prospective employee can impress: ‘By managing their own personal digital PR well! The best demonstration of digital skills is by having an effective web presence of their own’.
Andy warned of the pitfalls: ‘We would never discourage people from talking about their Twitter and Blogger experiences, but if you do, make sure they are filled with interesting content rather than a hastily drawn up account to try and tick an interview box.’
Andy concluded: ‘A really good starting point for people looking to demonstrate their understanding of social media is to check around the web to make sure there is nothing damaging written about yourself on the web. Many recruiters I speak to check out potential employees on Twitter, Facebook, and community forums’.
There are clearly many questions that still need to be answered regarding the PR community’s digital divide. Paul Simpson, untiul recently a public relations lecturer at the London College of Communication offered what could prove the start of a solution:
‘My own experience tells me that the digital skills gap within existing PR practice seems to be such that it further underlines how useful such a profession-led, higher education offer might be, providing opportunities for existing practitioners to dip in, and share their experiences of PR with students while they brush-up on social media skills they may have fallen behind on.’
For PR education to have real value, the content has to be frequently refreshed so it can be applied in the real world. As previously mentioned, this is a topic that everyone seems to have an opinion on – and the main characters in this story – business and academia – need to sit down with the CIPR and other industry bodies to discuss how this debate can be taken forward.
My only hope is that this discussion can be had sooner rather than later, otherwise the digital divide will continue to grow.
Ben Cotton now works for the Edelman digital PR team, Spook Media.
The transcripts of the interviews for this article are available in full here.