Organizations cast a broader net in efforts to recruit social media talent

Despite the recession, digital is a growing and evolving space within the PR industry.

Despite the recession, digital is a growing and evolving space within the PR industry. As companies and agencies work to staff their digital and social media teams, many are shifting their requirements of potential hires.

“Over the past few years, PR and other agencies have sought people with some sort of authentic experience in social media, without necessarily being as critical of their marketing and communications expertise,” says John Bell, MD of 360 Digital Influence at Ogilvy. That is changing because “what we now do in the digital influence, social media space is very much a convergence between marketing and communications and other disciplines.”

Scott Schneider, EVP and head of RF Innovation Studios at Ruder Finn, says staffing used to be about “how to build a Web site. Over the years, we've changed that. With the explosion of social media over the past two years, we've been staffing more about strategy and outreach online.”

Cross-functioning needed
With the recession forcing many companies to focus more energy on social media, digital teams will play a bigger role in overall strategy. This trend influences staffing, says Erin Byrne, CEO of Proof Digital Media and digital strategist for Burson-Marsteller.

“Digital is the center of all marketing and communications,” she says, “so we really need cross-functional people who have a very strong understanding of both digital tactics and also strategies.”

Julie Jarrett, VP at Heyman Associates, has seen a shift toward companies hiring people with more of a communications background, including advertising and marketing.

“They'd like that somebody understands those two disciplines and maybe has had more traditional experience in that area,” she adds, “but still has the wherewithal to change and reinvent themselves.”

Curtis Hougland, founder of Attention PR, seeks professionals who are personally and professionally involved with social media. But, he adds, they also must be conversant in data and analytics, which is key to measurement.

“Data is at the front and center of social media marketing communications,” he says. Understanding data and analytics “is a skill not traditionally owned in PR.”

Within corporations, a general understanding of the culture and personality of the company is particularly important, explains Mark Squires, communications director for social media at Nokia, who has transferred people who had been with Nokia for years to his team.

“I basically recruited people who had been with the company for a while, knew their way around Nokia products, and they were all actually online already,” he says.

Customer interaction
Just like agencies are looking for social media professionals with more client experience – a difference from a few years ago – corporations now need social media and digital experts who can interact with customers.

While social media started out as more of a marketing and branding tactic, it is now very direct-to-consumer, says Abby Lunardini, director of corporate communications for Virgin America. The airline introduced fleet-wide Wi-Fi in May, allowing for the communications team, including the interactive marketing and social media arm, to communicate in real-time with customers.

“We've found that a really critical part of it is having an enthusiastic person who is familiar with this sphere and has grown up a bit in that space,” Lunardini says.

Hougland says the challenge for the PR industry is to find senior-level people for this digital space. Exhaustive training is one solution.

“It generally takes us between three and six months of training to get people in a position that we think they can really succeed,” he notes.

Ruder Finn has an executive training program in place and introduced several social media trainees this year.

“What is more important to us is that they really understand not necessarily Twitter, but microblogging. And not necessarily Facebook, but the idea of socializing online,” Schneider says. “There are lots of people who talk about the tactics, but we really want to focus on the larger trends that are going on.”

Where to find your next social media hire:

In its first group of social media executive trainees, Ruder Finn has an artist, as well as business school and sociology students

Attention PR looks to word of mouth and social media to find people conversant in the space

Burson-Marsteller has hired corporate pros, who bring a structure and understanding of larger companies, or from sectors that tend to attract creative people, like the music industry

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