PR Career Paths: Top Skills for Communications Grads

Every year, colleges around the country unleash new communications grads onto the job market. They’re smart, great with technology, and eager to set out on stellar PR career paths. What skills should they have to meet the challenge? As always, Michelle Garrett has a finger on the pulse. For these new grads, once you’ve got your job, be sure to read our article on what PR newbies can expect on their first day on the job. To take it even a step further, get prepared by reading our comprehensive eBook on how PR teams set goals, both individually and for the team as a whole.

As we head into graduation season, many newly minted PR professionals are hitting the job market and wondering about the best steps to take as they embark on PR career paths. The good news is that the employment of public relations pros is projected to grow 10 percent from 2016 to 2026.

Growth also means change. It’s important to remember that public relations job descriptions today barely resemble those of previous years. How are there changes? What skills do today’s PR job seekers need to have to stand out from the pack and succeed?

PR Career Paths Are No Longer Just About Media Relations

When we look at the job descriptions for PR pros, what do we see?

“It’s not just the standard one-two punch of writing and media relations,” says Lou Hoffman, CEO, The Hoffman Agency.

“While great writing is essential, today’s PR practitioners are expected to do a lot more than preparing releases and media relations,” said Martin Waxman, President, Martin Waxman Communications, and a social media and PR professor at Seneca College. “My students tell me employers want them to have design, photography, and video production skills. They need to be multimedia storytellers.”

They should also know how to set up and manage digital platforms and build relationships on social media, Waxman adds.

“And they require an understanding of strategy and how to link the results of their communications programs to business goals,” Waxman says.

Hoffman agrees. “More than building a media footprint, companies today want to see PR directed to solve specific business challenges.”  

And to do that, critical thinking should be one key skill possessed by those seeking a PR career, Hoffman says.

Technology Skills Top the List

Technology skills for public relations pros are now a necessity. Based on this year’s annual Global Communications Report conducted by the USC Center for Public Relations, designed to provide insight into the evolution of the global communications industry by analyzing emerging trends, these are the top technology skills that new grads need to be successful now, and as they progress down their PR career paths:

  • Big data analytics 65%
  • Video production 59%
  • Search engine optimization 59%
  • Digital design 54%
  • User experience 53%
  • Predictive AI technologies 43%
  • Data management 38%
  • Coding 17%

Fred Cook, Director of the USC Center for Public Relations, emphasizes that students are getting more comfortable learning skills like coding, not because they need to build web sites but because it’s good for them to understand how to do it — even if they don’t need to do it very often in their day-to-day roles. “Understanding the technology and how things work behind the scenes makes them more effective,” Cook says.

“In the near future, students will also need to understand statistics, analytics and data, and be conversant in what artificial intelligence is and does, and where some of the opportunities, risks, and challenges might be,” Waxman adds. “I don’t believe we’ll need to be expert coders, but we should have coding basics, and an understanding of how to communicate with data scientists, so aren’t left behind as more organizations adopt AI across the enterprise.”

Storytelling Isn’t Just about Words

Video production is another area that may show up in a PR job description. “So much of our business is in pictures these days,” says Cook.

“People who enter the PR profession often come from the world of words, majoring in mass communication or journalism or English,” Hoffman said. “Yet, the visual side of communications has increasing importance, particularly with so much content consumed on mobile phones.”

What Does All This Mean for Today’s Communications Grads?

Job descriptions will continue to evolve as the definition of what PR pros do gets broader. Cook says that one of the promising signs he sees is that while in the past, PR graduates went to work in traditional public relations roles, now they can be a fit for different types of jobs in various industries, like digital design firms or ad agencies.

“They’re taking on a much broader scope of work,” Cook says. “That’s an advantage for PR students. The opportunity is greater, but a broader skillset is necessary to take advantage of it.” 

And as they progress down the PR career path, they should expect to keep acquiring new skills. To stand out, young PR professionals should continue to hone their writing ability but look to add at least a basic understanding of analytics, video production, coding, and AI to their skill set. As what we do and how we do it continues to expand, the opportunities are there — if the talent is ready.

graduation ceremony

10 Skills the PR Pro of the Future Will Need

Almost four years ago, I wrote a post titled “10 skills the PR pro of 2022 must-have.” It was based on trends I’ve seen with clients, tidbits I’ve picked up in talking to industry friends and little bits of information I’d stowed away from articles and posts I’ve read on the interwebs.

Four years later, a lot has changed. I mean, four years isn’t that long in human years, right? But, in internet years, it’s an eternity.

So, I thought it might make sense to revisit the list and see how it stood up. See if the list still made sense today, and if I should add anything to it – and what should be deleted (or revised).

Here’s the new list of skills for the PR pro of the future:

1: Social advertising copywriting skills and an ability to manage social media advertising campaigns

While the ability to write social ads on networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram hasn’t changed, the skill set to manage complete campaigns on these platforms has evolved (this is the addition of the 2012 list). In today’s climate, PR folks are asked to manage social ad campaigns all the time. That means learning how to use Power Editor, LinkedIn’s ad platform, and Twitter ad products. It means understanding how to manipulate different components of ad campaigns. It means understanding how to bill clients. All of it.

2: Video AND audio production skills

Sure video production skills are still in demand in 2016. No doubt about that. But, suddenly, with more brands considering audio content as part of their mix, audio production skills are also in demand (this is the 2016 addition). Even just a basic understanding of Garageband (which you can essentially teach yourself, or take classes at an Apple store) would go a long way right now.

3: Ability to lead the exploration of new media and tools on behalf of your organization

I think I whiffed on the “mobile” skill set in 2012. Not sure PR folks really need any kind of mobile dev skills – even rudimentary ones. But, increasingly, what I see is a constant need to explore new media and tools in an effort to keep pushing organizations forward. And, I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

Laptop with Analytics Dashboard

4: Ability to create effective social media content and manage social content systems

Much like #1 above, the ability to create social content is certainly still a key skillset among PR types. But, the ability to manage all that content is now becoming increasingly important as brands start to rack up huge stockpiles of content (this is the 2016 addition). Tagging and taxonomy are hallmarks of this skill set. Do you know how to repurpose the right evergreen content? Do you know how to organize content effectively so it’s searchable and findable? These are keys to the management piece of this skill.

5: A deep understanding of traditional, digital and business analytics

Despite the big surge of need in this area, I feel like we’re still light here. Sure, most people have a cursory understanding of Facebook Insights, Google Analytics and a few other platforms at this point. But, do those people understand how to take that data and translate it into actionable ideas and approaches? That’s where it feels like we’re light. Every time I see a company here in Minneapolis searching for an analytics person, it seems like they struggle to find the ideal candidate.

6: Understanding how to produce reports that make sense to clients

While SEO skills are still important and made my 2012 list, I’m seeing a new skill set emerge (well, emerge probably isn’t the right word – I’m sure this need has almost always existed) that’s much more critical: The ability to produce reports with context, actionable intelligence and clearly articulated next steps. So often, I see reports from partners and other agency vendors and they’re almost non-sensical. If I’m the client, I’d be left to think: “What do I do with this?” The key with solid reporting is to not only report on the data–but more importantly, to make that data come to life. Provide relevant context. Provide ideas as outcomes of the data. And, always, always cull the data down and present it in terms the client can understand.

man writing a report

7: Ability to develop a visual style for brands online

Sure, many larger brands have internal creative departments that are dedicated to this sort of thing. But, a lot of brands don’t. And, that’s where it can typically fall to a PR counselor to fill in the gaps. Regardless of size, PR pros play a large role here. For example, think about social content. A BIG part of that right now is obviously visuals. So, have someone who has an eye for photography and a good feel for how to position the brand visually online matters. Actually, it more than matters–it’s becoming essential.

8: Ability to write clearly for external AND internal audiences

Today’s PR pro is being asked to do more–not less. That often includes writing for external audiences in a traditional PR sense but also writing for internal, employee audiences. Not exactly a new development, but I feel like more PR people are being asked to do this in 2016 vs. 4-5 years ago. What’s more, with the onset of more employee social advocacy programs, PR folks are often being asked to lead those initiatives, too. That means understanding what motivates and inspires employees–as well as those writing skills (which are absolutely essential).

9: Managing virtual teams AND the ability to work effectively as part of a virtual team

As I pointed out on the blog last week, I see virtual work environments as a HUGE trend in the next 5-7 years. That means understanding HOW to work virtually will be a key skillset among PR folks. And, it’s not as easy as you might think. Understanding your ideal workflows, the best tools to use, and how to best use those tools to collaborate and communicate quickly become key when you’re working remotely most of the time.

10: Identifying and collaborating with influencers from Instagram to YouTube to bloggers

4-6 years ago, everyone was talking about blogger outreach. And for good reason–blogs were still largely the dominant cog in the social media machinery. Fast forward to 2016, and you now have platforms like Instagram and Snapchat that simply weren’t around 4-6 years ago. And, you have influencers on those networks who are commanding serious attention. What’s more, you have brands that are having a tough time getting started and building communities on those platforms. Enter influencer outreach – which has become a critical skill for PRs. Knowing how to find the right influencers. Knowing how to approach them – without offending them. Knowing how to draw up contracts that make sense (because, in essence, influencer outreach is almost all pay-for-play now). These are the traits of today’s PR when it comes to influencer outreach.

This article was written by Arik Hanson from Business2Community and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

PR Collaboration: Don’t Be Afraid to Take the Lead

PR impacts too many other aspects of a communications and marketing organization to operate in a vacuum. Here we discussed the skills new graduates needed to take on the PR world. For a comprehensive discussion on shared goals, how to track them, and ultimately drive optimal PR results, read our eBook, Everything You Need to Know to Prove PR ROI.