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

It’s an unscientific system, but when stories about and ads for college football emerge, it’s a sure sign that summer’s days are numbered and school can’t be far behind. At PR News, thoughts of college and grad school starting make us wonder about what skills undergraduate and graduate programs in communications are advocating to students who soon will be looking for employment in the field.

We asked several PR pros, including former brand communicators-turned-academics, to answer the following question: What skills would you urge students of PR to gain and what trends should they watch closely in preparation for joining the profession?

In the digital era, you’d think digital skills would be paramount, with perhaps facility with data and analytics a close second. Somewhat surprisingly, though, writing continues to be a skill communicators insist should be a part of an incoming PR pro’s arsenal. A few years ago an informal PR News poll showed a mix of writing and digital skills was in demand.

The More Things Change...

Things haven’t changed too much since then. 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 under the assumption that strong writing skills are a given. Interestingly, a common factor in the responses of the PR pros we queried was the importance of, and comfort with, strategic thinking.

Anthony D'Angelo—PRSA chair and director of the executive master's program in communications management at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Communications as well as a former brand communicator—says, "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, but it’s also irrefutable evidence of strong thinking."

Anthony D'Angelo, PRSA
Anthony D'Angelo, PRSA

But D'Angelo also touts the importance of being able to connect communications strategies and outcomes with those of the  organizational as a whole. "Attend to outcomes, not outputs, and 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 and you risk being expendable."

Catherine Frymark, group SVP, corporate communications at Discovery, Inc., believes the most sought-after skill is "strategic writing and positioning." She encourages graduates entering the field "to focus on honing their writing and messaging chops to stand out from the crowd."

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

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," she says, urging that aspiring PR professionals "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 somewhat different take, emphasizing a combination of critical thinking with digital technology and data. In some ways, though, his outlook is not far from Frymark's ideas on strategic writing.

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, and 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.”

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, a global perspective and an understanding of the basics of business and politics so they can 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 pro should be able to use social "to accomplish a business goal, not just create buzz."

Another critical skill is an ability to understand global issues and trends and how they relate to your company. Parnell feels time spent working overseas is essential. 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 to 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."