What Next-Gen Communicators Look Like From Senior Leaders’ POV

Next GenAccording to PR News’ just-released 2018 Salary Survey, the most important skills for advancement in communications are written communications (deemed most important), media relations and content creation. Way down on the list, at No. 8, is measurement/data analysis skills. Keep in mind that the 900 communications professionals who took our survey in October and November 2017 represent a wide range of experience, salary and seniority levels.

A roundtable conversation I moderated a few weeks ago in Huntington Beach, Calif., with 14 senior communications pros (almost entirely from the brand or nonprofit sectors) painted an alternative picture. The participants at the Communications Leadership Roundtable, which was organized by PR News and PublicRelay, all have hiring power, so their perspective is very different, say, from a communications manager who might have completed PR News’ salary survey form.

To paraphrase Frances McDormand’s Oscar acceptance speech the other night, I have two words to leave with you today: data analysts.

Let’s just say that excellent writing and media relations skills weren’t the first things that came to mind when roundtable participants were asked which baseline skill is most important for both new hires and current team members looking to advance their careers.

A global head of brand, marketing and communications said that many of the tasks that used to be assigned to entry-level communicators are now automated, which has changed his expectations of team members. “My interns have advanced data analysis skills,” he said. “We’re hiring people out of engineering programs, not communications programs.” This obviously sets the bar pretty high for new hires and current team members.

“Managing the robots are what the entry-level people are doing,” the global head of brand said. “You used to need someone who could write well. I don’t even think about the writing anymore. I’m looking for someone who understands code and design, or who has a combination of communications skills plus coding.”

Roundtable participants said they’re seeing an increase in reverse mentoring. “Young people on the team are teaching data analysis skills to the veterans,” said a corporate communications head. “It’s the first time I’ve seen that.”

A head of corporate global influencer marketing said she’s looking for people with computer game algorithm skills. “For our last summer internship program we had one person from MIT who was good with algorithms and someone else who was good at communications. They learned from each other.”

The communications leaders in the room said they’re under pressure to present a business case for everything, grounded in data and research. This pressure leads naturally to what they’re looking for in new hires and in rising stars on their current teams. They realize, though, that comfort with creating data sets is just a baseline skill. The full package includes critical thinking skills and, finally, the ability to tell a story from the data.

“The data lets you show you’ve done your homework,” said another corporate communications leader. “Once my boss knows I’ve done my homework with the data, then he wants me to tell a story.”

As we wrapped up this conversation, one of the participants pointed out that “there’s always an element of faith with data.” Even the most honest, well-researched data offers just an angle on reality, not the totality of reality. Using communications data to help an organization grow, and telling a story that makes clear that you and your team are best equipped to lead the organization down that path—that’s what the next-gen communicator looks like.

—Steve Goldstein, editorial director, PR News @SGoldsteinAI