Back to School: PR Seeks Strategy, Writing, Digital and Global Perspective from Students

It’s an unscientific system. Still, when ads for college football begin, it’s certain that summer’s days are numbered. School can’t be far behind. We're an unusual bunch at PRNEWS. Instead of football and keg parties, we wonder what undergraduate and graduate programs in communications will be teaching in the fall.

As such, we asked PR pros to tell us: What skills would you urge PR students to have? What trends should students watch as they prepare to become PR pros?

You'd think digital skills would be paramount. Facility with data and analytics a close second, right?  Surprisingly, though, writing continues to be a skill communicators insist should be part of an incoming PR pro’s arsenal. A few years ago an informal PRNEWS poll showed a mix of writing and digital skills was in demand.

The More Things Change...

Things haven’t changed too much. The group of PR pros we spoke with for this article gave similar responses. Writing remains key, in combination with other skills. Some communicators emphasize digital and analytical skills; they assume that strong writing skills are a given. A common factor in these interviews was the importance of strategic thinking.

Anthony D'Angelo is a former PRSA chair and director of the executive master's program in communications management at Syracuse's S.I. Newhouse School. He also is a former brand communicator. "Employers I speak with regularly emphasize the same thing I tell my students: writing is the most important skill." He adds, "Strong writing is obviously necessary for anyone who seeks to inform, promote or influence," he says. "It's also irrefutable evidence of strong thinking."

Anthony D'Angelo, PRSA
Anthony D'Angelo, Syracuse University

D'Angelo also touts the importance of connecting communication strategies and outcomes. "Attend to outcomes, not outputs," he says. "If you’re not synched to an organization’s essential business—whether it’s raising money, getting out the vote or selling toothbrushes—then you’re not truly strategic. You risk being expendable."

Catherine Frymark, group SVP, corporate communications at Discovery, Inc., believes the most sought-after skills are "strategic writing and positioning." Graduates should "focus on honing their writing and messaging chops. You'll stand out from the crowd," she says.

Catherine Frymark, Discovery Inc.
Catherine Frymark, Discovery Inc.

Read It All

Frymark also is a strong believer in reading. "Read everything," she told me once.  "Read widely across industries, from corporate blogs and LinkedIn posts by top CCOs, to major news releases by leading companies." Aspiring PR professionals should "look for [writing] that stands out...with clear, consistent and intentional messaging." To Frymark, writing "is always in demand and, seemingly, equally in short supply."

FleishmanHillard SVP Brendan Streich has a slightly different take. He emphasizes a combination of critical thinking with digital technology and data.

Brendan Streich, FleishmanHillard
Brendan Streich, FleishmanHillard

Streich says it's vital for students and professionals to be comfortable "with the most important word in our profession: why. With today's noise and distraction, our job as communications professionals rests on answering two simple questions: Why does what I want to say matter? And why will someone listen?"

He adds, "The digitization of everything we do allows us to get deeper than ever into audience interests and behavior. We can build programs that surgically and successfully answer those questions." Students who remind themselves to ask why, and "learn how to use data to analyze and justify answers, will be well ahead of the game.”

Business Basics and Strategic Advisors

Larry Parnell, associate professor and director of the masters program in strategic public relations at The George Washington University, also had a long career as a brand communicator. Employers, Parnell says, seek potential strategic advisers with deep communications skills. They also want a global perspective and an understanding of the basics of business and politics. This package allows them to navigate a competitive landscape.

Larry Parnell, GW University
Larry Parnell, GW University

In his view, undergrad and graduate students should focus on "a basic understanding of the communications theories that underpin most PR strategies." Beyond that, the "demand skill areas" include digital, where PR pros should be able to use social "to accomplish a business goal, not just create buzz."

Another critical skill is the ability to understand global issues and trends. In particular, you must know how they relate to your company. In addition, "PR people can't avoid business or public policy basics if they want to be taken seriously...the stakes are too high and the challenges too complex. Period." Last, he sees "a huge  opportunity and challenge" for PR pros in social responsibility, particularly to advise CEOs and other leaders. "The PR pro must know the difference between strategic CSR and basic charity, and advise accordingly."