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Nine Essential Skills for Any Public Relations Professional

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • Skills and attributes needed to be a successful PR pro
  • How to adapt to current trends taking shape in PR

If staying current in today's PR world is important to you, adopt the famous aphorism often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: "Learn as if you were to live forever." This article highlights skills that remain essential—and some new skills we're all going to need for future PR success.

Remember, professional growth is an investment you never stop making if you want to remain valuable in business.

1. Polish your writing and editing

The fundamental skill of our craft remains writing—news or feature, online or print. If you can't string words together interestingly to tell a story, you're going to be working with a serious handicap. The most frequent error is writing in academic- or corporate-speak.

Use plain language. Eliminate the use of passive voice, infinitives, or past tense. Active voice and present tense are ideal. Varying sentence structure will get you points as well. Whether you're writing for online (digital media) or print, terse but informative writing without buzzwords wins the day. Reading a lot, including good literature, will definitely help your writing. The more you write, the better you'll become at it.

Keep in mind that most people don't read today; they scan everything, especially emails. Studies show we tend to read in an "F" pattern—top left to right, left to right, little bit of left, and on to the next document. So today you have precious few words to get attention, make your point, build interest, and generate action. Make it personal, make it interesting, and make it quick.
2. Become clearly strategic

Too often, PR campaigns take off without a flight plan. Sometimes, Marketing, or whoever is calling the shots, needs help defining and agreeing on direction. Get comfortable understanding and knowing the difference between objectives, strategies, and tactics. Many people don't. Better yet, become knowledgeable about the entire campaign-planning process. That includes branding or product differentiation, including competitive analysis and positioning.

Create relevant strategic messaging that connects with audiences and communities. Learn how to dramatize a position or message. Become very clear about how tactics must be connected to strategy. Discover the use of visual messaging and creative strategy. By growing in those important areas, you'll offer far more value than merely executing programs.

3. Vary tactical PR tools, formats, and styles

Expand your bag of tactical tricks to suit today's wide range of communications challenges. Repeating approaches rarely works, and it also gets boring. Get comfortable creating electronic and social media releases. Understand the differences between mainstream vs. citizen journalism. The blogosphere awaits. Become more knowledgeable in content creation and publishing.

4. Think like (and outthink) the media

The reason so many former journalists are in PR is that they understand the media—how journalists work, what journalists want and don't want, and what makes news. You can be equally effective by taking an outside-in perspective on storytelling and by nurturing your audience empathy. Make sure your subject is news—news to the world, not just to your boss or the CEO. Being on top of trends, issues, and what's next for your company's or client's business will put you in a far better position for thinking like a media person. Guess what? In today's self-publishing, content-development world, you are part of the media!

5. Remain focused

Remaining focused is vital, considering today's media possibilities. Chasing every potential tactical opportunity that comes along or that someone suggests will certainly keep you busy, but it likely won't help create campaign success. Keep your eye on your objectives. Weigh what you're doing by how it can affect the desired outcome. Take a hunting or fishing perspective: Prepare, and go after big game, not just rabbits.

6. Dive into video

Video communications has changed radically and is now applicable to nearly any program. Learn how it can be cost-effectively included in the media mix. Understanding how online video can be effectively applied (or not), along with learning about telling stories with pictures as well as words, is a huge professional advantage. Set yourself apart by becoming conversant, if not immediately skilled, in video production.

Video is the key new online medium and leads the way to mobile and geo-proximity marketing. You don't need to be a scriptwriter, videographer, or trained editor to create opportunities for applying video to a PR campaign. Professional help is available, however, and you will not need a $20,000 budget to get started. Moreover, working with visual communications specialists will help broaden you professionally.

7. Get comfortable managing change

Changing market focus and remaining competitively agile have never been more important. Keeping up with rapid technology changes and new communications channels and techniques is becoming a full-time job. PR pros must understand their target audiences, including media-consumption habits and media preferences. The customer is more in control than ever. You must be where they are. Broad knowledge, versatility, and flexibility must all be a large part of your personal-skills arsenal.

8. Study your subject

Understanding human behavior and communication theory and practices will make you far better at strategic planning as well as tactics. We, after all, are attempting to influence humans. You can learn a ton about that. Channel noise and a seemingly ever-shorter audience attention span are only two current challenges you can learn to deal with effectively.

9. Work on your personal demeanor

How you present yourself has always been—and still is—essential. The ways you interact with others and your skills in selling yourself and your ideas will determine how your career progresses. You must have effective communication skills, certainly, but you must also develop interpersonal skills that enable you to interact effectively with a range of people, including management, peers, suppliers, channel partners, shareholders, the media, customers, and any others who have a stake in your company's or client's success.

Among those skills are collaboration and leadership capabilities that help gain consensus, integrating and directing efforts toward common goals. Add the need for crossing time zones and executing worldwide, any time of day, via a variety of media.

* * *

Being a consummate PR pro has never been easy. Being above average and creating a path to your success takes more than just showing up. Developing the skills and attributes discussed in this article will go a long way toward increasing your success and your value to clients.

The exciting thing about our field is rapid change and the challenges of applying new thinking and technologies. Don't let yourself get bored. There's too much happening that can make a difference in your career. Embrace learning about it as if you were to live forever!

(Image courtesy of Bigstock, Dart and Board.)

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Ford Kanzler is principal at Marketing/PR Savvy, a public relations and communications firm.

LinkedIn: Ford Kanzler



H. Buford Barr has lectured in marketing and communications at Santa Clara University, with which he has been associated since 1989. His professional career includes senior marketing positions at Actel, NV Philips, McCann-Erickson Advertising, and General Electric.

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  • by Nick Stamoulis Thu Nov 10, 2011 via web

    "Make it personal, make it interesting, and make it quick."

    Great motto to write by! There is still a time and place for long form content but you have to know when it's appropriate and when it is going to turn your visitor off. Catch their attention with quick, relevant content and draw them into your longer articles.

  • by Don Tepper Thu Nov 10, 2011 via web

    The overall points in the article are good, though I'd quibble with some (6: Dive Into Video, for instance). But there's a gaping hole in the picture that Kanzler and Barr present. And that is: "Understand the needs and expectations of the media you're trying to reach--both on a macro and a micro level." The only PR that will make it into print or on air or online is information that serves the specific needs of that publication, website, or similar.

    Example: I edit a magazine for physical therapists. They're part of health care. But 95% of the pitches I receive aren't relevant to my readers. Some have nothing to do with healthcare. (Seriously!) Some relate to healthcare, but deal with some advance or study in surgery or chemotherapy or neurology. That's usually far outside our area of interest. Some relate to rehabilitation, but feature chiropractors (a distinctly different area of interest, one we don't cover at all) or athletic trainers (again, a different area of interest), or occupational therapists (getting warmer, but still not our focus).

    The best PR for me is something that says: "Here's something that physical therapists truly will be interested in." Now, you can certainly represent the same manufacturer or supplier and have a product that's of high interest to physical therapists, chiropractors, athletic trainers, and physical therapists. But most editors won't go out of their way to say, "Hmmm. This is pitched at one target audience. Can I somehow repurpose this for mine?" I do that, but I don't blame editors who react, "This isn't for us" or, worse, "That PR person has no frigging idea what we do."

    Bottom line: Know your intended audiences. Then craft your efforts (print, digital, etc.) specifically for those audiences.

  • by Ford Kanzler Thu Nov 10, 2011 via web

    Don - Certainly a good point. Thank you. The article wasn't meant to be all-includsive of everything a proficient PR pro or business communicator should be doing. Knowing your audience, including the needs of media people you're working with is absolutely essential and frankly quite obvious. We chose areas we felt were too often missing and some that are becoming more important and available to us. A longer list could easily be made but who's going to remember them all? :)

  • by Pam Didner Thu Nov 10, 2011 via web

    Enjoy the article. "Become Clearly Strategic" resonates with me. Knowing the differences between objectives, strategies and tactics is vital. Once you know your objectives (why) and your strategies (what), the tactics (how) will soon follow. I also agree that PR needs to be familiar with the overall campaign planning process.

    Not totally related to PR, but sharing the thoughts of strategic and campaign planning:

    Marketing is Innovation's BFF

    The Secret to a Solid Marketing Strategy

  • by Karen Luttrell Thu Nov 10, 2011 via web

    Thank you for an interesting article that kept me reading to the end despite my ever-decreasing attention span. ;-)

    I agree with you that these are all important skills, and I love the fact that you put polishing your writing at the top of the list.

    Interesting and useful note about the F -shaped reading pattern. I also believe that people scan through titles, subheads, and photo captions. These are still some of the most-read parts of any material published. It amazes me how often I see materials that don't carry the main messages in these critical, highly-read areas. When working on your writing skills, practise condensing your message so you can fit it in these areas and still keep it clear, interesting and memorable.

  • by Julia Stewart Mon Nov 28, 2011 via web

    Sorry to be late to the discussion: Great start! New PR pros, take note -- not-so-new pros, refresh. I would add: Become indispensable to senior management. PR continually has to prove our value to the management team. This is where your advice to "become strategic" can help; become a valued strategic counselor to your own senior management, and it will be easier to get the team's support when your program wants/needs it.

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