These days, successful communicators have to be Aristophanes with an iPad. Every PR guy will tell you he knows how to use Twitter and reads FT Alphaville on his phone. But to go with tech smarts, you still need skills that hark back to the writers of Ancient Greece.
This is because there is just so much information available today – so much advice and guff that the skills of creating a compelling narrative or a killer line are more important than ever. This applies not just to PRs but also to CEOs, for whom comms expertise is now part of the job description.
When a crisis strikes a large organisation, the boardroom and video-conference suites quickly fill with senior people and their advisers, all striving to offer solutions. Everyone usually has advice – from the CEO to the grad fetching the Red Bull – but what are almost always lacking are rallying points. An easy-to-grasp, two-sentence "what happened?" narrative offers a framework around which advice can cohere, while a one-sentence "what are we going to do?" line pulls the team together.
Of course, there is an arena where the ability to cut through can be crucial for a business: social media. Cutting through the endless noise (generally of detractors) does not always mean describing the story or coming up with a memorable phrase. It can also mean making a move that simply shows where you stand in a way that resonates.
A great example of this was TSB chief executive Paul Pester who tweeted apologies from his personal account during a bank systems outage. His comments made all the major news reports, demonstrating to customers that the bank’s senior leadership was listening and acting.
With much more media available to readers – not just Twitter and YouTube, but all those niche online publications, blogs and aggregator sites, Guardian and Telegraph forums – it may seem strange to say that the skills of telling stories well and coming up with a good line are currently so valuable. Surely you can get anything published now? Yes, you can, but sites that publish anything are worth nothing.
If you want to promote a client or a point of view, the kind words of a respected third party are still invaluable, and those third parties are – depending on the way you see it – the leading media brands or the journalists writing for them. Either way, you are faced with securing a slot on some of the most prized real estate on the web – say the FT’s homepage or a prominently displayed story on TechCrunch. To land those slots requires taking your raw material and presenting, to the reporter, the elements that make it compelling – and thankfully for those in the PR industry this task has not yet been automated.
Understanding digital channels and the media landscape is just the starting point for PR professionals and CEOs. Communicators still need to craft memorable narratives. Even with online video, you need to sum things up in a sentence – and it’s the PR guy who should come up with a line that sticks in the mind. As Aristophanes wrote: "By words the mind is winged."
Rory Godson is managing partner of Powerscourt