Beware of geeks bearing GIFs

The three attributes you need to get on in public relations

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

PhotoMIX-Company on Pixabay
PhotoMIX-Company on Pixabay

In the beginning was the word

Public relations practitioners have always been wordsmiths – crafting company news, writing executive speeches, drafting reports and proposals. That’s why there’s such a well-trodden path from journalism into public relations. Always was, perhaps always will be.

And rather than ushering in a new age of transparency that would have rendered corporate storytelling an embarrassing relic from the past, digital media has only increased this demand. There are more channels for communication, yet limited opportunities to earn attention. Your customers aren’t listening; even your employees aren’t paying much attention.

You have to earn their trust to win their attention – and their standards are high. They are willing to pay attention to the latest series on Netflix; they’re interested in the gossip surrounding their favourite football club. But news about the business that supplies them or pays them? Yawn.

Skilled storytellers are more in demand than ever, as long as they can weave their spells across multiple channels and formats, and as long as they can combine the slickness of an advertisement with the authenticity of human-to-human communication. It’s not easy.

Even so, words are no longer the single necessary skill required to advance in a public relations career. Words are just one of three foundational skills.

Two out of three ain’t bad

The problem is that these three skills, while complementary, are not natural bedfellows. I can’t think of a single person who exhibits equal strengths in all three (they’re out there I’m sure, it’s just I can’t think who they are). But I can think of many who are strong in two. That should be your starting point.

Let’s start with words. Good writers are avid readers. Typically they studied English or the humanities, and did less well at Maths. They’re words people, not numbers people. Not many have A levels in Maths and in English.

Yet numbers are the second of the three attributes. Our digital worlds are literally defined by numbers (1s and 0s). Even the most complex works of art can be reduced to a series of numbers. It’s not that coding is necessary for public relations, though rudimentary HTML is useful for updating web pages and diagnosing problems. It’s that we’re surrounded by data – and this data is an inexhaustible source of insight and stories. It’s that sequence (data – insight – story) that makes data the bedrock of storytelling. (We have reviewed two excellent sources on data storytelling here.)

Those in financial public relations have always known this. The financial results of a stock market listed business are audited statements of fact. Yet the results tell many stories and paint a picture when compared with a year before. Which of the numbers are most eyecatching? Which best tells the underlying story of the business? Turnover or profit? Executive remuneration or corporation tax? The financial public relations team gets to tell its story first through the results announcement and through its presentations to analysts – but financial journalists will also look to tell their own story from the data.

Indeed, data journalism has been a growth area in recent years, though there’s been much less of a focus on data public relations.

We may not all work for stock market listed companies, but we can all have access to Google Analytics or Twitter Analytics.

Public relations activity has never been so measurable – though measurement is not the same thing as evaluation. Outputs are easy to measure – but output data is not very important. It’s the outcome of our activity that’s important to know – and yet so often difficult to quantify.

A example of data journalism is the presentation of daily Covid-19 data: positive tests, hospitalisations, deaths that have become so familiar in the past 18 months.

There are advocates of using dashboards of data in public relations and corporate communication – a useful way to visualise key performance indicators (KPIs).

Show, don’t tell

So that describes the third attribute: visual communication skills.

Traditionally, writers were trained for a world of print. Early web pages were also text heavy. But from text messages to Twitter we’ve been evolving shorter forms of conversational communication. Increasingly, punctuation is being dropped and emojis are replacing words.

Our species has been pre-literate communicators for far longer than we’ve been literate, and it’s possible we’re entering a post-literate age (useful for overcoming the barriers presented by language and alphabets). Twitter may indeed be an outlier; other popular social media channels that have emerged to prominence in the past two decades are largely centred on pictures, not words (YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok).

So who are the visual storytellers among us? I enjoy selecting one defining image each week to appear in #ThisWeekinPR – but I sometimes struggle to identify even one compared to the dozens of links to text-based content highlighted each week. That could be my weakness (I’m the first to confess to being a verbal rather than a visual communicator); it could be that I don’t want to pick the same people week after week; or it could be that our industry still skews towards words over pictures.

But in knowing I’m a weak visual communicator, I also know to admire those who are strong in this area. A trusted observer of the public relations profession, PRovoke Media’s Maja Pawinska Sims has nominated Mark Pinsent and Tony Langham as the most accomplished photographers in our industry.

So there are my three foundational skills required in twenty first century public relations:

  1. Writing and storytelling
  2. Data and insight
  3. Visual communication and data visualisation

They’re not the only skills you’ll require. On top of this, there’s a whole suite of management skills (time management, project management, event management, budget management, people management). You also need insatiable curiosity about the world: of business, poltics, culture and celebrity, of pyschology. But these three are the foundations on which you can develop these other managerial skills and attributes.

I’m suggesting that being equally strong in all three may be too much to ask of any one individual – so two out of three should be adequate. If you’re only strong in one of out three, your formative years were probably in the twentieth century and you may not have adapted to the digital media landscape of the twenty-first.

If so, you need to beware of geeks bearing GIFs because they represent the future, just as the written word may increasingly come to represent the past.