Weblogs and other social softwares are changing PR - and staying ahead of the game can offer opportunities for students looking for first career break. If PR is about projecting a reputation, a showcase blog can be a help, writes Philip Young
Exciting new technologies are set to dramatically change the way public relations is practised. Weblogs and podcasts are springing up all over the place, and “social softwares” like MySpace, You Tube, and MSN are an essential part of daily life for many.
EuroBlog 2006, the first major study of the impact of weblogs on PR in 33 countries, painted a picture of a “two-speed Europe“. Some practitioners see wide-ranging benefits, from tracking competitors and monitoring industry trends, to bypassing journalists and communicating their own messages directly. Others failed to see benefits for their companies or clients.
Almost one-in-three respondents said they regularly write or contribute to weblogs, and 42 percent of those who didn’t already maintain blogs intended to do so within the next 12 months.
Certainly the number of agencies and organisations sending delegates to “New PR” conferences, such as those run by the University of Sunderland, suggests a real desire to understand the new technologies.
And there are signs that some are looking to new recruits to help them meet the challenges and threats they may pose.
One thing most agree on is that the blogosphere is a turbulent arena and that there are pitfalls in wait for a PR who jumps in without understanding its conventions.
One person who has tested the water to good effect is Stephen Davies, the best known PR student blogger in the UK (see this BtS post). His PR Blogger site is read avidly by some of the biggest names in the PR blogosphere and his online reputation has helped him secure a work placement at Lewis PR.
Tony Bradley, president of the CIPR, author of the PR Voice blog, and a partner in Newcastle-based Bradley O’Mahoney Public Relations, believes sharp students can be a real asset to established agencies.
“Understanding the changing mechanisms of communication is increasingly critical these days – and this is where new entrants into the industry can teach us old hands a thing or two.
“How can we tap into the latest developments like blogging and podcasting to engage more effectively with stakeholders? How can we do what we do but do it better? These are questions which graduates like Stephen Davies must help us answer. He’s been working as an intern in my own consultancy, and in the short time he’s been here he’s forced us to rethink our stance on technologies such as blogging, podcasting and how people interact with websites.”
Social media pioneer Neville Hobson takes this further. Picking up on the Chartered Institute definition which sees PR as the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics, he argues: “We’ve just entered the age of anyone-andeveryone communication where ‘planned’ can mean a luxury of time that you don’t have.
“Tomorrow’s PR graduate needs far more under his or her belt than just a good degree that’s based on the study of historical practice. They need to be able to challenge traditional thinking in order to best serve that organisation and its publics. They know about the new wave of social communication, which today means things like blogs and podcasts - media that are growing at an astonishing pace.
“Tomorrow’s PR practitioner needs to firmly grasp the changing nature of communication if goodwill and mutual understanding are to continue to have true meaning.”
But the experienced Bradley is forthright on the need to set new PR skills into a wider context – a view shared by the most perceptive of the high profile PR bloggers, including Microsoft Ireland’s Tom Murphy and Stuart Bruce (see BtS post).
Bradley expects recruits to master the core skills for PR - writing, event management, PR planning, presentation skills, excellent communications skills - but is also looking for something more. “For me, it comes down to curiosity. A bit of nosiness is probably one of the best traits to find in a PR practitioner - the ability to be endlessly interested by people, places, events, news, the world.
“People skills are a must - but by that I don’t mean ‘I love working with people’. I mean being curious about people (the ones you like and the ones you don’t!), what makes them tick, how they respond to communications and how and why they make the decisions they do.
“I’d look for someone who’s good at detail but, just as importantly, can see the bigger picture; the wider implications of organisational action, the repercussions of strategy and how decisions taken now will pan out in the longer term.”
Tom Murphy, a blog pioneer and the voice of Microsoft in Ireland, says: “The basic tenets of successful public relations practice remain as importanttoday as ever. We need to combine good writing, communications and analytical skills with the ability to understand our clients’ audience and understand how a well-executed programme can help an organization to meet its goals and objectives.
“The emergence and adoption of new online tools from e-mail to podcasts, blogs and search engines doesn’t change the requirement for those traditional skills.
“In fact it increases their value. Likewise Stuart Bruce of Leeds-based BMA PR says: “I look for enthusiasm, commitment and an awareness of the world. One of my favourite interview questions used to be ‘What newspaper did you read this morning and what did you think was the most interesting story in it?’
“Now I ask “What’s happening in the news today that interests you and how are you keeping up with it”. The answer doesn’t matter as much as the fact that they can answer it. I’m amazed at the number of graduates I’ve interviewed who confess to not being interested in the news.
“The ‘perfect’ answer is a news junkie who consumes news by newspapers, TV, radio, websites, blogs and RSS.
“Some of the technical skills needed for ‘the New PR’ are different from those that went before but the attitudes and philosophies of the people aren’t.
“I also put great store on the portfolio. Not so much the college or work placement generated pieces but the ones that they’ve done on their own because they’ve learnt new skills and wanted to put them into practice for the student union, a pressure group, a charity, a community group, their friend’s band, the village hall pantomime, a political party or anything really.
“Anything that demonstrates that they care enough about something to do something about it. If they can’t do it for a cause they are interested in, they can’t do it for someone who is simply paying them to do it."
Like Tony Bradley, Tom Murphy expects a little more than the basics. “Our challenge is to marry those skills with the willingness to understand how our audiences’ behaviour is changing and how we must adapt our communication programme to meet those changes. This ability to combine the basics of good communication practice with the flexibility to identify and incorporate new practices is a recipe for professional success.
“The combination of these professional requirements with a continuous hunger for learning and a passion for work are a killer combination. Stephen Davies has demonstrated all these elements. From a strong focus on the basics, through embracing the new media, thinking through its implication, as demonstrated on his blog, and getting out and communicating and networking with other practitioners, he’s illustrating exactly what you need to get your career off to the right start.”
Foot in the Door
Carol-Ann White, global HR Director for Lewis PR, who offered Davies a placement after seeing his blog, takes a similar view: “A good graduate candidate is someone who comes into the company with enthusiasm and a desire to learn. It’s advantageous if they have knowledge of the industry but having the right attitude is more important.
“The majority of global agencies offer internships for willing and eager candidates to gain that all-important insight into the industry. This enables graduates to experience, first hand, the skills and attitude required to be successful and provides them with a ‘foot in the door’ for their first permanent role."
Not surprisingly, CIPR President Tony Bradley has high hopes of PR students graduating this summer: “If the Class of 2006 shares Stephen Davies’s enthusiasm for applying new techniques to age-old PR problems, and constructing methodologies to deliver results using every tool in the box, the future of our industry is in safe hands.”
As Tom Murphy wisely remarks: “When I think about the modern world of work, I’m often reminded of Gary Player’s famous quote that the harder he worked the luckier he got. That’s not a bad mantra for anyone interested in a career in business.
Richard Bailey (PR Studies): http://prstudies.typepad.com/weblog/
Stuart Bruce, BMA PR: www.bmapr.co.uk
Stephen Davies: www.prblogger.com/
Neville Hobson: www.nevillehobson.com
Tom Murphy (PR Opinions): http://www.natterjackpr.com/
Philip Young (Mediations): http://publicsphere.typepad.com/mediations/
FORWARD is an online resource that allows PR students to learn about important new tools they might not otherwise be exposed to. It also provides a place for them to discuss relevant PR issues — regarding both new media and traditional PR — with other students and professionals of varying levels.
Forward’s Erin Caldwell says: “I think new PR professionals definitely need to grasp the idea that information and knowledge isn’t always going to be spoon fed to them. They need to go in search of knowledge. They need to read and research and find what really interests them and pursue it with genuine and thoughtful curiosity.”