Obsolete at 27?

Employers and educators need to help young pros navigate the speed of change.

I have recently been interviewing PR professionals at the 5-7 year experience level, to find out what they want to do with their lives.

Agencies frequently complain about how difficult it is to retain people at this level. The conventional wisdom is that competitor agencies dangle large salary packages in front of these early-to-mid-level pros, giving them a financial bump that would take them years to realize by staying put.

While I'm sure that happens, especially when agencies are staffing big new accounts, we've relied too heavily on this generalization, and it needs to be unpicked. I was surprised to hear from more than one individual that money is not the only motivation. Rather, the fear of not keeping up with the rapid changes in technology is equally powerful.

One woman told me that several of her friends had made lateral moves, purely for the training opportunities available to them at other firms. She was also worried about keeping pace with the "kids coming into the industry with more skills than I have." Can one be obsolete at 27? Probably not, but it doesn't matter - the fear makes it real.

Edelman's bi-annual Academic Summit, which PRWeek sponsors, underscored the need to prepare students for more than the traditional suite of skills. "We have become a profession that is brilliant with the written word, but we must become a profession that knows how to show as equally as we tell," Richard Edelman told the group in his keynote. "Video and photos are not only more snackable, they're emotive and therefore more sharable". He added, "Everyone entering the profession should be adept at understanding how to show, not just tell today."

Edelman quoted Ann Lewnes, Adobe's CMO, who underscored the opportunity in this new world. "Public Relations is the number one driver of revenue for Adobe, as articles prompt searches, which lead to visits to our website," Lewnes was quoted as saying. "PR + social media is the most efficient and best way to immediate awareness."

As validators like Lewnes emerge, so the pressure on young PR pros grows, especially when social media is the accelerant of results. But one cannot progress on social media alone. At the Summit, Frank Ovaitt, IPR president and CEO, articulated the challenge of providing the appropriate balance between broad-based skills and new media knowledge. Without the contemporary social media skills, kids can't get jobs. But in order to progress through the senior levels, they need the high-level understanding of language, strategy, and business knowledge.

One speaker expressed concern that in the 140-character world, where mainstream media pitching is no longer the center of the universe, students and young professionals were not exercising the muscles of persuasion needed to grow into sophisticated professionals.

I was reminded of my previous discussions with those professionals at the 5-7 year range. They came into the industry just as the new world order was becoming the norm. Have we done enough to help them navigate the new demands, and knit all of it together into the new discipline? 

We take it for granted that more seasoned pros need the Twitter training and Pinterest primers. But this moderately experienced generation came into the profession when it was one thing, only to find it turning into something else - and fast. Their college courses, for the most part, did not cover social media or engagement, not on any strategic level anyway. But many of us took for granted that these digital natives knew it all by virtue of their age. We failed  to recognize that connecting the dots between the broad-based skills and stratetgies and the emerging social media would would be difficult, if not impossible, without support.

Some of those 5-7 year pros decamping for new agencies are looking not only for more money, but for an ongoing committment to technology and new-media training in tandem with leadership and strategic development. Intelligent organizations will be working to respond.

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