Working in PR requires more than PR skills

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An article by Laura Sutherland

Having worked in PR for 15 years I realise that less experienced practitioners, in particular students, don’t really grasp the full extent of the PR business.

I was on an interview call last week with a student who wanted to discuss the topic of her dissertation – gender (in)equality. Whilst many final year students have perhaps had placements/work experience and obviously knowledge of the theory of PR, many areas aren’t discussed or touched upon that are outwith PR, for example, business.

The same can potentially be said of journalists who make the leap into public relations. They have the skills to spot and write good stories but do they have other skills aligned to the role?

PR skills

#1 Business acumen

Having a business orientated brain isn’t just for those who run the business, it’s also for the teams which ARE the business. As the industry evolves and now demonstrates a ROI in-line with business objectives even younger PR professionals are increasingly finding understanding business a necessity.

Sandra Duhé of Southern Methodist University wrote about teaching business as a “second language” to public relations majors – she transitioned from being a financial analyst into public relations and quickly saw the correlation as her role became the intrepreneur between the communication and financial functions.

If you’re going to give strategic counsel to clients to advance the business/organisation, you can only do this if you have an intimate understanding of the business and the landscape. Increased organisational transparency and stakeholder empowerment see PR as a strategic management function and we need to increase efforts to prepare our future leaders.

There is definitely a requirement for academia to include ‘business’ within the curriculum – there is little evidence of this being taught.

Agencies are increasingly developing teams in this area, too.

#2 Customer service

More often referred to as ‘client services’ within the industry, customer service is a key aspect of client management.

At the core of every successful team, campaign and business is a strong relationship between the client and agency. Don’t get me wrong, every client is different and comes with its own nuances, but the fundamental concepts and behaviours are the same.

We learn about clients over time, and normally there is a familiarisation session to start the ball rolling, but we need to READ the client every step of the way.

You need to build trust with your client – they will reveal the good the bad and the ugly and they need to be confident that you can manage the information in the relevant and correct manner. They will also trust you will be giving them the best advice and you will manage their business account with professionalism, in a timely manner and you’ll be there for them when they need you.

#3 Business development

Every PR practitioner has, to a certain degree, been relied upon to bring new business to the agency they work in. The agency may have a dedicated team or smaller agencies expect the whole team to be proactive. For many, business development won’t be a natural skill. There needs to be a strategy and it’s the job of the agency to nurture the team to know how to be great at bringing in new business.

From spotting opportunities to support the pitch team, agency practitioners can apply their own jobs to business development: what’s the story, who are you building a relationship with and how are you going to engage them? With many agencies being invited to pitch what will make yours stand out?

For more junior and inexperienced practitioners, business development will either seem like a great opportunity to make their mark or they will shy away from it as they don’t understand it and don’t have the confidence to pick up the phone.

Agencies need to instil business development as part of their culture and the team, if they believe in the agency they work for, will want to help grow the business and be rewarded.

#4 Common sense

PR practitioners can sometimes be guilty of forgetting what they do – ‘public relations’. Building and managing relationships with the publics of an organisation/business.

Common sense is essential in public relations. It’s about understanding, knowing and articulating. Public relations just make sense!

Just as humans need to adapt the way we go about our lives to take into consideration the feelings, beliefs and behaviours of others, so do organisations. It is necessary as no person or no business exists in isolation from others. And it is necessary to help us ultimately be happy about our behaviour and ourselves, which very much includes within a business or work context. It is necessary to achieve objectives.

Common sense is looking at what we do as practitioners, from every angle, analysing risk and potential outcomes.

Common sense in a simple context is not sending an email to a journalist as a forward with the wrong name and wrong publication title! We’ve all done something similar when starting out.

#5 Creativity

Creativity in PR is essential. Clients like to do things differently and stand out from their competitors.

When I Googled ‘creativity in PR’, The Holmes Report threw up some good slide decks.

The 2015 Report was co-authored by the Holmes Report and Now Go Create, in partnership with H+K Strategies. It suggests that things are changing fast.

In particular, the Report indicates that creativity is becoming viewed as a central element in organisational culture, rather than being seen solely in terms of output. More resources are being devoted to creativity. Creative confidence is high. And clients are more likely than ever to approach PR agencies for big brand-building ideas.

Here’s my take on it.

Firstly, we’re an industry that says we’re part of the creative industries, but too often, PR agencies and practitioners don’t think outwith the realms of traditional media relations.

The PESO model encourages practitioners to think of using other forms of media to engage audiences and depending on the audience and platform, you can be very creative in the delivery, including content marketing and videos to name a couple. Not limited to PESO there other activities which can be included, such as events. It all hinges on a very strategic plan, which has been developed around the business/organisation, not just to what knowledge and skills you have.

PR now demands a more creative approach, and for those of us who don’t have the luxury of in-house design and tech teams, it means we need to start building our networks and our businesses around people who have the skills to assist us in delivery.

Claire Bridges, Now Go Create, recently wrote in PR Week:

Creativity is PR’s lifeblood. It’s debated, coveted, bragged about, awarded, misunderstood. There is a seemingly unrelenting requirement for it. But there are barriers to being creative in PR and most often cited in our workshops is lack of time. But does the 24/7 news cycle, infomania and the much-bandied-about always-on mean that we must all be always-on? The importance of idea-time that leads to creative output is well documented.

Creativity thrives on collaboration. Of course our devices do provide us with inspiration and stimulation, among many other benefits, but can you genuinely say that your creativity at work is positively influenced by your screen time? Perhaps if we occasionally cut off our internet connection, we might just reconnect with our creativity.

In response to the research undertaken to inform The PRofessionals line-up, I have programmed a whole afternoon session on Friday, 17 June, which will be run by Claire Bridges, which will help PR practitioners in Scotland understand how to use creativity in PR.


Laura SutherlandPR practitioners need to have a wider skill-set and continued knowledge development of the PR business and ‘business’. Through weaving learning and development of these other skills into CPD, it means you’re continuing to add to your toolbox and personal brain power.

The CIPR and PRCA develop training services which will help, and there are plenty of blogs and webinars to read and participate in, to ensure a breadth of knowledge and skills development.

After I finished this post, Future PRoof released its whitepaper, in conjunction with PRCA and ICCO. Definitely worth a read to see what the top PR dogs are saying about building better PR agencies.

It’s better to know too much than too little!

Laura Sutherland FCIPR is Chief of Glasgow-based Aura PR. This article has been reposted from the Aura website with permission.