The Top 5 Skills That Young (And All) Communicators Should Develop

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One of the more enjoyable elements of being an executive in communications today is that my work brings me into contact with a wide variety of individuals. Whether it’s participating in webinars, interacting with people online, or speaking at industry, company or academic events, I meet people who are at varying levels of comfort with the fast-paced world in which we live.

Many times, I’m asked by younger communicators what skills they should concentrate on as they finish their degree or begin seeking an agency role. Although to be clear,  this is not a question limited by age; I’ve also gotten the question from career changers or communicators who simply wish to improve their marketability.

As the communications industry continues to change and to adapt to digital environments, these are the key skills/specialties that I see as key to communicators:

Analytics: The ability and necessity to measure results in a digital environment is stronger than ever. By understanding how to think about and interpret data, communicators need to be able to draw inferences and understand trends by providing insights based on what they observe. For us here at SHIFT, it’s a key part of what we mean when we talk about data-driven PR; in fact, it’s the driving force that led us to seek out and attain Google Analytics™ Certified Partner status. We view the future communicator as someone who is able to effectively blend the art and science of PR to be able to counsel clients with facts and insights as well as experience and intuition.

In our recent webinar on Google Analytics Basics for PR Professionals, our VP of Marketing Technology Christopher Penn outlined ways to improve your skill in this area, including sources of free information.

Visuals: Traditionally, communicators have been trained in writing. Interviews, profiles, employee updates, press releases – all are based on the written word. The digital age requires that the communicator be a better storyteller in a variety of media, and that includes visuals. Video, photos, infographics and the like are necessary in a mobile and digital world.

Find photographers that you respect and study their craft. Read forums and blogs related to the visual media that you’re interested in. Find a creative director who can act as a mentor. While you may not be able to create your own infographic at the end of it, you’ll begin to have a better eye for visuals and will appreciate the intricacies of storytelling with fewer words.

Coding: A strong understanding of the technical side of the profession is helpful. While the communicator doesn’t necessarily need to know how to code (although some basic HTML is certainly helpful), they should understand the basic elements of coding and building sites and apps so that they can make recommendations and help clients be able to navigate the trickier waters.

Again, there are many resources out there such as Code Academy, Code.orgKhan Academy, or resources from Google such as HTML5 Rocks or Google Developers University Consortium.

Social: Without a doubt, social is a key element in anything digital today. But more than understanding how to use the platforms, it is helpful to understand the offerings to brands, how paid promotions fit in, and how to build an effective program that includes social from the beginning, rather than adding it on after the plan is fully developed.

Go further than simply using each platform; make yourself a student of the changes that are happening each week, whether it’s the latest change in Facebook’s algorithm or Twitter’s new direct messaging option. Staying one step ahead of this for clients and for your business  is essential – not only to keep your team tactically nimble, but because the communications executive should have a strong understanding of industry trends in order to effectively act as a strategic counsel to leadership.

Strategy: Speaking of strategy, this is probably the most essential skill – and it’s the one that many younger communicators ask about. “How can I learn strategy?” is a common question, usually in response to a manager saying, “Be more strategic!” The challenge is that strategy is a vague term that may take on different meanings to different people. Indeed, it’s very common to see strategy and tactics confused, when one has to do with short-term results and activities (tactics) and the other is concerned with long-term goals (strategy). If you don’t have goals, then it’s very difficult to think strategically.

Communicators should have a keen knowledge of external market forces, competition, customer desire, business units outside of communications or marketing, and how they all come together. As you may have inferred, learning about strategy is more than reading a book or a blog post; it takes time and experience in your field. But as you begin to absorb the facets of strategic thinking, always push yourself (and your team and your clients) to focus on the why first – rather than on the how.

The good news is that for the curious and the life-long learners among us, it’s never been easier to expand your communications skills. There is a wealth of information available at your fingertips (including an email subscription to the SHIFT Communications blog) and you’re surrounded by colleagues who are sponges for information.

Are there any other skills that you think are essential for communications professionals of today and tomorrow? Let us know.

Scott Monty
EVP, Strategy

Image credit via Wikimedia Commons

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Posted on April 23, 2015 in Analytics, Careers, Learning, Public Relations, Strategy

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