Tools of the trade

Engagement. Videography. Research. These are some of the skills today's PR pros possess that vastly differ from just a few years ago.

Across the industry this year, many hires have been made for job titles that didn't even exist a few years ago. Ketchum, for example, has brought on a creative catalyst, copywriter, content strategist, and VP of multimedia content and strategy.

At executive recruiting firm PR Talent, on-the-ground recruiters in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago are increasingly performing searches for roles that include EVP, global director, digital and creative (for a top 10 international PR agency); b-to-b social media strategist (for a leading automotive company); and digital analytics specialist (for a b-to-c website startup).

At corporations, in-house communications pros are reimagining their roles, complete with new titles. For example, the official title for the PR head at Grasshopper, a Massachusetts-based provider of telecommunications services for entrepreneurs, is “ambassador of buzz.”

The new titles aren't about PR agencies and in-house departments abandoning tried and true communications strategies. Rather, it's about augmenting existing skill sets to ensure the PR discipline remains relevant and thriving.

“These titles are the harbinger,” says Rob Flaherty, senior partner, president, and CEO of Ketchum. “They are being driven by big arcs of change in our business. Those include the shift to empowered individuals and communities, extreme transparency, and the fact that news finds you now and therefore everything is shared.

“The need for new services around listening, engagement, and content creation that is shareable is driving the search for new skills,” he adds.

Katherine Barna, head of communications at Tumblr, explains that “the rules of what PR does and doesn't own have become less defined.”

As a result, she says, “PR departments are showing initiative by taking on new challenges for their companies, especially in the social sphere, in content creation, and, of course, the ability to do it all at a faster rate to keep up with the new pace of media.”

PR Talent president Jim Delulio also recognizes social media as a driving force to these shifts in desired skills because it is similarly driving major changes in how so many PR campaigns are done.

“It is no surprise that there is a much higher volume of positions that have social media or digital built into the title, from the intern level all the way up to EVP,” he says. In fact, last year his company launched a job board dedicated entirely to social media jobs.

So who are the PR pros that will flourish in a sector that is redefining itself? The industry leaders to whom PRWeek spoke – ranging from agency to in-house, academics to executive recruiters – reveal that the search for these new skills often takes them far outside the places from where they have traditionally sourced talent.

Personification of progress: Ashley Callahan, Coca-Cola

While ex-journalists are hardly rare in the PR workforce, the rationale behind their recruitment has notably changed. Ashley Callahan, digital communications and social media manager at Coca-Cola, exemplifies this.

Her broadcast journalism background includes five years as an anchor and reporter, most recently at WSB-TV in Atlanta. She was recruited by Ashley Brown, Coca-Cola's group director of digital communications and social media, whose career track is more traditional. He worked at Porter Novelli and later in Microsoft's PR department.

Callahan, who joined the company last February, is managing editor of Coca-Cola Journey, the global-in-scope digital magazine that has replaced the corporate website. She fits in seamlessly with Brown's hiring philosophy, which focuses on ex-journalists or, at least, those with journalism training. His main goal with such hires is for them to lead brand journalism efforts.

The transition from a pure journalism role to a communications position was equally logical for Callahan.

“I was motivated to enter communications because I felt the news industry, at least local TV stations, were slow to pick up new technology,” she explains. “My skills transferred flawlessly to PR, particularly at Coca-Cola. It is set up like an international news network – in 270 countries with PR people in most places.”

Callahan manages an editorial team comprising many former working journalists that create both written and visual content for Coca-Cola Journey.

While Brown finds former journalists particularly adept at telling brands' stories, he underscores the need for them to bring technical acumen to the table at the soft-drinks giant.

“You can't have a successful PR career and not get search, social media, and how content moves around the social graph,” he emphasizes. “You will see a lot more of what we're already seeing at Coca-Cola, which is heavy recruitment from journalism. It will be people from not only the newsroom or broadcast, such as Ashley, but those who also have the technical chops needed for digital and social today.”

Visual thinkers
At the Strategic Communication and Public Relations Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, an important goal is to identify a curriculum that accurately reflects the profession's evolving needs.

“While the more traditional communication skills are still important, PR pros now need the ability to express things visually,” says Burghardt Tenderich, associate professor and director at the school.

Students get instruction around production of visuals, including digital content creation, infographics, and photography. “These requirements have grown tremendously,” he adds. “Not everyone will be experts at everything, but employers are looking for breadth.”

PR pros who can demonstrate visual sensibility will be at a competitive advantage, says Flaherty.

“Storytelling has always been important, perhaps today more than ever, but the visual thinker has long been considered the lesser of the two in our business,” he explains. “Now the ability to visualize things and tell a story visually is easily equal to, if not more important than, writing skills.”

Creative hires
Ketchum has recently hired the likes of Amy Andrieux, a former editorial director of MTV World at MTV Networks who led editorial strategy for the entertainment brand's online portals.

As Ketchum's VP of multimedia content and strategy, Andrieux spearheads the Ketchum Digital video group tasked with evolving the firm's multimedia capabilities.

Corporations are also adding to their in-house capabilities. Brad Shaw, VP of corporate communications and external affairs at The Home Depot, says, “We've been adding people who can move nimbly and create content without having to outsource [production].”

Blake DeVries is an example. He is a former store associate in California who was brought to Atlanta as a social media channel specialist. DeVries was behind a post this year on the company's Facebook page that generated more than 2,000 likes and 700 comments. The post was a picture of a cologne bottle with The Home Depot logo on it, accompanied by a few lines of cheeky copy that said the unisex fragrance would launch in the summer.

It was not a real offer, as it was posted on April 1 and intended as an April Fool's joke.

“He saw a huge amount of positive conversation online about the way Home Depot stores smell, so he tapped into what was already a hot and current topic in a way that was creative and funny,” says Shaw. “He took it upon himself to set up a shoot in our office, photographed a perfume bottle, doctored it with our logo, and then posted it on Facebook.”

Given such posts often need to be accompanied by witty copy, The Home Depot has looked at off -the-beaten-path sources for talent who can write for social media. To date, the retailer has contracted writers from comedy video website Funny or Die, which since April 2012 has had a commercial division that pairs companies with the writers who were behind some of its most popular videos.

“We want to create content for social and the Web with an eye on what actually plays with audiences,” Shaw explains. “If the Internet is anything, it is self-deprecating and funny. Those are not characteristics that most corporate people have.”

While The Home Depot has yet to put a comedy writer on staff, Shaw notes that one of DeVries' strengths is his humor. “He is as close to a professional comedy writer as you can get,” he adds. “Some of our best and funniest content comes from him.”

Deliverers of Data
PR firms and corporate communications departments are also looking for people with an ability to conduct and analyze research. Having a sense of the media landscape is considered a bonus.

Three years ago, Catalyst PR hired Michelle Gordon – a researcher by training  – as its first director, consumer insights. Gordon has built up the agency's research department, which now helps account teams optimize client programs by using data-driven insights to accurately target audiences.

“We used to have a research role, which was good, but it never really leveraged insights,” explains Catalyst MD Bret Werner. “We wanted to blend both of them together, which meant finding someone who could look at things from both a quantitative and qualitative point of view.”

Even graduates coming out of USC Annenberg are for the first time “getting hired as analysts by communication organizations,” says Tenderich. “We hear about Big Data every day. We know it will become even more important as a business driver, including in PR.”

Like Werner, Tenderich emphasizes the need for PR pros to understand both qualitative and quantitative. “The goal of the practitioner is to extract actionable insights,” he adds, “not just interesting, but random academic findings.”

Cheryl Ann Lambert, assistant professor at Boston University's College of Communication, has seen another fundamental change in terms of skills practitioners need – or rather, in this case, do not need.

In the past, she says the college underscored to students the differences between paid and earned media. “It hurts my heart to say,” she admits, “but the differentiation between them is not as important to understand today because PR pros are doing both. Even our guest speakers from the field talk about how they're getting into paid media.”

Among the PR firms that are bridging earned and paid media is Cohn & Wolfe, which won Nokia's multimillion-dollar global integrated marketing account in May. To make sure the firm has and cultivates the right kind of talent for current and future accounts, SVP of HR Stephanie Howley has been recruiting from ad agencies like never before.

“Three years ago, looking to hire people from ad agencies was not something we would have necessarily done,” she points out. “The people we've hired with these new types of skills are the first for us. We're definitely putting them to use. As we do more of this kind of integrated work, their skills will eventually become the norm.”

In fact, C&W has recently partnered with sister WPP agency Young & Rubicam on a new pilot program for interns whereby they get training from both agencies, giving them knowhow of both earned and paid media and how they work together. “We want to develop those entry-level people so they become that much more valuable to us as they move up the ranks,” adds Howley.

Artificial borders aren't just crumbling between different kinds of agencies. Talent who have come into PR from outside industries tell PRWeek that they are looking outside their traditional careerpathways, citing a turned-upside-down job market  and a personal understanding that their skill sets can be used at different kinds of companies.

Personification of progress: Michelle Gordon, Catalyst

Until Michelle Gordon started three years ago at Catalyst, she had never worked in PR. Up until that point, the psychology major had built her career in research, largely at media companies. As research director at Hearst Magazines from 2006 to 2008, she helped create sales collateral for Cosmopolitan. From 2008 to 2010 she was director of consumer insights at MediaCom, extending her expertise into other media, such as television.

Yet her background – which included work as a research assistant helping grad students with their dissertations – was exactly what the PR agency wanted.

“We realized two things,” explains MD Bret Werner. “First, the media landscape was getting incredibly diversified. If we were going to interact with our target consumers, we needed someone who could help us navigate that a bit better. Second, we wanted to make sure our creative thinking was grounded in strong insights. Michelle clearly brought both skill sets to the table.”

In July 2010, Gordon joined as VP of insights – a newly created position at the firm. The decision to join was an easy one for Gordon, who was seeking to expand her expertise outside paid and owned media.

“There was a lot of excitement around social media,” she notes, “and PR was really driving that since it's all about earned media. I thought learning the earned side of the business was a natural next step. In addition, leading and growing a research and insights group at a small, but growing agency was definitely of interest.”

Since then, she has brought forward primary, syndicated, and some proprietary research to help drive strategic insights for Catalyst.

“The staff now understands the importance of having the right information,” says Gordon. “When you have the right insights, your program will be more impactful.”

Unexpected career course
Andy Dahm joined Minneapolis-based integrated agency Fast Horse as a producer last fall. He oversees video productions that aim to tell brand stories in formats such as short films and documentaries. Dahm also readily acknowledges that he never envisioned being employed by a PR firm. A graduate from the Peter Stark Producing Program at USC's film school, Dahm worked in the film industry for a few years. However, when looking to flex his creative muscle, his job search became more focused on his skills than a particular industry.

“I wanted to look beyond traditional media channels, such as movies and TV,” he explains. “There are so many different avenues today to express your desire to tell stories and fulfill your creative aspirations. I don't even consider that one of the components I operate in is PR because I never had a goal to go into it, but I find myself on that frontier now.”

He notes, too, that he sees young people adding various elements to their CVs to show their willingness to work outside their comfort zones. “In addition to written articles for newspapers, a recent internship applicant also included some video that, while she acknowledged wasn't great, shows her understanding that the medium is very useful to an agency such as ours,” Dahm explains.

Title talk
As new skills are being sought for today's PR pros, quirky-sounding job titles such as “ambassador of buzz,” “social media ninja,” and “media evangelist” have emerged. These monikers are amusing and grab attention, but opinions vary on whether or not they are too gimmicky or, perhaps, even harmful for job prospects.

Taylor Aldredge, ambassador of buzz at Grasshopper, admits his title has drawbacks. For starters, reporters sometimes ask him for his “real title” because they think “ambassador of buzz” sounds unprofessional.

Aldredge's title also came under criticism in a recent blog post by Time. The reporter wrote that, as cool as these titles might sound, they are “a huge résumé liability” because HR people are not exactly scanning CVs looking for them.

Still, claims Aldredge, the advantages often outweigh the negatives.

“The thing with this job – and it is reflected in the title better than any traditional one out there – is that it's so different,” he says. “You have this freedom to take how you view marketing and PR and apply that in the different ways you promote the company. We don't do normal event sponsorships or press releases, so the emphasis is on using non-traditional ways to get into media and promote the brand.”

The company's “ambassador of buzz” title was created in 2009 when it rebranded as Grasshopper from GotVMail. Aldredge says his title is also great conversation fodder, a fun way for him to start talking about the company. Even when he reached out to Time, the reporter that penned the piece followed up his first piece with a Q&A with Aldredge.

Tumblr's Barna is also in favor of such titles – under the right circumstances.

When she first joined the company in March 2011 – following a career that included two years as a publicist at Newsweek – she was known as a “media evangelist.”

“Joining Tumblr when we were still a small tech company, the title and the style of communications needed to fit that tone,” she says. “My official title now, head of communications, would have stood out like a sore thumb, not to mention that communications was a department of one at the time.

“Of course, as companies grow, the communications team is right at the front of these changes, some incredibly nuanced,” she continues. “I left ‘media evangelist' behind over a year ago, though I do miss the reaction I used to get when handing someone my business card.

“Alternative titles don't come from a total change in the PR industry,” concludes Barna, “but rather a view that PR isn't a one-size-fits-all operation.”

The impact of specialization
By most accounts, PR used to be very insular in terms of its hiring practices. PR firms and inhouse departments typically recruited employees from other PR agencies or in-house PR departments. Likewise, job seekers in different fields did not typically consider PR as a viable career move. However, the look for new skills has shaken up the job market. Where candidates come from has become less important than where they can help take a PR firm or brand.

“We're becoming more specialized. I'm not sure it's essential now for someone to have agency experience if they're in a content creation role and came from a movie studio,” says Ketchum's Flaherty. “The goal is they come in with these skills and do something close to what they were doing before.

“These new titles,” he adds “show that our industry is trying to do new things in different ways.”

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in