A Mass Comms Curriculum Alone Short-sheets Tomorrow’s PR Pro

I was delighted when Steve Farnsworth asked me to contribute a guest post to his blog.

The content follows.

While it’s not exactly focused on storytelling, it still falls under the communications umbrella.

Steve originally approached me to share my perspective on the changing role of internal PR practitioners.

No question, the economic downturn has been one catalyst for change.

I can’t think of one corporate PR department – with the possible exception of the Johnson & Johnson PR folks who support Purell – that hasn’t been asked to do more with less after a reduction in staff or agency budget or both.

Yet, the more I thought on this topic, the more I came to realize the skills and way of thinking that will elevate tomorrow’s corporate PR pro are the very same traits that will enable tomorrow’s agency PR practitioner to succeed.

Don’t get me wrong.

I appreciate there are marked differences between an internal and external role, although my own internal experience was limited to the PR department of a union called the California School Employees Association (CSEA).

The internal demands of serving so many different stakeholders alone require a certain quality that defies definition. At the tactical level, shepherding a news release through the labyrinth innocuously known as the corporate review process requires finesse and patience.

But the same macro issues impact both internal and external professionals – hence, the decision to look at the future of the overall PR professional from a skills perspective.

I’m going to call this PR person of the future “Ruvin” (squished together my parents’ two names; not above looking for ways to one-up my siblings with the holidays around the corner).

Here’s the key.

Ruvin must command interdisciplinary skills.

Time Magazine ran a provocative Q&A last month with Malcolm Gladwell who pontificated that aspiring journalists should skip J-school and study other domains. He stressed that today’s journalist must bring something more to the table than reporting skills. As exhibit A, he pointed to Jonathan Weil from Bloomberg who broke the Enron story thanks to financial acumen as much as reporting expertise.

I’m not ready to say Ruvin should bail on a mass comms degree, but he/she might if the school’s curriculum doesn’t have the flexibility to cut across multiple disciplines.

Because Ruvin needs finance to read a balance sheet like Brother Weil.

Ruvin also needs videography, photography and editing skills that exceed your garden-variety postings on Facebook.

And don’t forget computer sciences, where programming and an affinity for adopting the latest software tools provide the means to “write on the Net.”

It might have been years since Ruvin walked into a traditional library, but he/she better have a background in library science tuned to dig out and correlate information from that big digital library in the sky called the Web.

Aspects of anthropology such as ethnology all have a place in shaping Ruvin’s foundation for a career in PR.

In other words, tomorrow’s PR practitioner must straddle business and science as well as the arts.

Yes, Ruvin should evolve and polish the soft skills too.

The art of persuasion.

The ability to probe a resource to pull out meaningful content.

Knowing how verbal cues and body language can communicate strength of conviction.

Etc.

But with society redefining relationships and what influences those relationships, and the PR profession evolving toward communications that go direct as well as through third parties, the social gadfly + writing formula by itself won’t automatically translate into success down the road.

One of my favorite modern artists is Chuck Close who takes portraits to a different level. His painting and photography talent serve as only the starting point for his pieces.

Close has immersed himself in the printing process ranging from carving linoleum blocks to applying acid to his etching plates. Geometry – the use of a grid to break the face down into incremental units – and even topology also come to play in his art.

This collision of creativity and science produces stunning results not possible with only the “arts.”

That’s how I see the future of public relations.

Only by drawing from science, business and the arts will PR continue to make extraordinary contributions to organizations.

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