What skills do you need for a successful public relations career? My firm recently interviewed a dozen Chief Communications Officers (CCOs) at top B2B and B2C companies, and some of their observations might surprise you.
1. Business fluency is now paramount – more important than other skills, including writing. Having a detailed understanding of how your company sources, makes, distributes and markets its products will ensure that your business and communications advice is practical and actionable. Business fluency includes a strong understanding of company culture and finances.
As one CCO observed: “Communications is a business-enabling function. Our staff need to understand the business and that what we do drives business outcomes. We have a material impact on the reputation of the company and its ability operate.”
2. Writing, media relations, graphic design and other communications skills are still core competencies, and social/digital media skills are ascending in importance. But CCOs are starting to see this broader set of technical communications skills as a given – merely the price of entry to work in public relations. Without business fluency and other skill sets, your value to a company will be limited.
3. Strong interpersonal skills turn communicators into more valued colleagues. CCOs mentioned collaboration, influencing, empathy, organizational savvy and an ability to deal with ambiguity as especially important skills for communicators.
“Communications staff must have the ability to build strong and productive relationships across the enterprise,” one CCO noted. Another said: “Curiosity and the ability to deal with ambiguity are key.”
4. To move into more senior positions, you’ll need to demonstrate early on that you can manage projects and lead others. The communications and interpersonal skills that got you a seat at the leadership table probably won’t keep you there. Some of the emerging skills CCOs want include process management, data synthesis, measurement/reporting and stakeholder engagement.
As one CCO said about senior professionals: “Separating great from good comes down to leadership skills and how well you manage teams.”
5. At a time when teams are still lean and discretionary spending remains limited, be prepared to take ownership of your own professional growth and development.
“A successful communications professional must have a hunger to learn,” one CCO noted. Another observed: “The (development) road here is open, but you are going to have to pull out a pickax and do some carving.” A third CCO lamented: “In-house training at (my company) is almost non-existent today.”
What does this research mean for aspiring and young communicators professionals? Among other things…
- Immerse yourself in your company’s operations, culture and finance.
- Become a fluent and indispensable expert on the business, not just public relations.
- Strive to master communications skills early in your career. Volunteer for assignments and attend training programs or seminars that will help you quickly close any capability gaps.
- Speak with your CCO and others in leadership roles to pinpoint the specific interpersonal skills you need to be effective. Find ways to acquire those skills on-the-job or through external coaching or training.
- Take a conscious, deliberate approach to nurturing your management and leadership skills. Start with project involvement and then leadership, build a track record, and expand from there. Prove that you are ready to assume responsibility for leading people before you are formally promoted into that position.
- Be prepared to invest time and, if necessary, your own money in your own professional development. Be open about positive and negative performance feedback, stay open and continually learn.
Finally, make sure you have an annual development plan. This should spell out what you, your manager and your company will do to develop you to your full potential. Your development plan should tie directly to your annual performance review and be formally and informally discussed several times a year, not just at year-end.
Above all, be purposeful, deliberate and disciplined in developing your skills and charting your career. It’s your future – take charge and own it.
Mark Bain is President of upper 90 consulting, a talent and performance firm. Previously, he headed communications at two large global organizations. For more on this study and its findings, visit upper 90 consulting’s blog and website.