How to build a career in modern PR

It would be an understatement to say that the communications profession is witnessing possibly the most transformative period in its history. The era of drafting and distributing a press release is firmly in the rear-view mirror, as organisations attempt to grapple with a host of political, technological and socio-economic changes impacting their business, and influencing the way they chart their future. Now more than ever, the onus is on communications professionals to effectively navigate these uncertain waters on behalf of brands and clients.

As an ex-journalist who jumped into the world of communications and had the opportunity to work with a range of Fortune 500 brands as an agency professional, I’ve seen first-hand the myriad changes that continue to reshape the public relations profession. With that in mind, here are my thoughts on what it takes to succeed in a highly demanding and perpetually changing industry.

1. Keep up with the news cycle

This should be the foundational function of any public relations specialist and should be the first thing that PR professionals do the minute they step inside the office. The idea is quite simple: know the news. Not being aware of the news cycle is antithetical to being a public relations practitioner. It precludes you from providing sound communications counsel, analysing the competitor landscape, gauging public sentiment or identifying relevant opportunities for your brand or clients. With a mobile-centric citizenry and the dominance of social networks, tracking news, in real-time, is more important – not to mention complex – than ever before.

2. Become a digital native

This goes without saying, but gone are the days when print and broadcast reigned supreme. Digital media is both our present and our future – and yet, too many PR professionals don’t possess the digital literacy that would mark them as ‘integrated’ or ‘360-degree’ specialists, as they frequently purport to be. Whilst we have not reached a critical tipping point yet, the writing is on the wall: digital natives will rule the roost in the days to come. Those who don’t catch up and adopt a digital-first mindset risk falling behind in what has become a highly competitive profession.

3. Have an awareness of the media landscape and its ever-changing nature

At this point in time, the media industry is one that is witnessing an unprecedented wave of consolidation, budget cuts and staff turnover. Any public relations professional needs to be aware of these changes in the media landscape.

It’s also important to know how to tailor content to the requirements of journalists and the new forms of storytelling that they have now started to engage in. Social networks and popular blogs have forced many traditional media outlets to revamp their business models, as well as their approach to the news. As a result, many reporters are now being trained to work with video and social platforms. In recent years, prominent news outlets around the world have launched their own blogs, podcasts and online video channels. Leveraging this can open up new opportunities for your brand or your client.

4. Be curious and try to see beyond the obvious

We have reached an interesting inflection point where the PR industry now operates at the confluence of technology, business, politics and economics. As such, the industry is constantly subject to a variety of changes. Having a sense of curiosity about everything you come across can help you thrive in this landscape of perpetual fluctuation and uncertainty. This mindset will enable you to become a multi-faceted communicator and foster a new level of creativity. Ask questions such as “How can we do this better?”, “How can this be approached differently?” and “What more could we do with this?”.

5. Write, write, write… and then write some more

I cannot emphasise this enough. Along with proactively tracking the news cycle, writing should be the bread and butter of any PR professional. Communications is a profession where writing is more or less a daily requirement and you will be tasked to create a host of content, ranging from speeches and press releases to opinion articles, corporate statements and social media posts. Practice is a cornerstone of being a good and effective writer, so it goes without saying that you need to get involved in writing as much as possible.

6. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable

As opposed to many other industries, the PR profession is not one where you can expect to stay at your desk for long. Time and again, you’ll be expected to go over and above expectations and this is not an industry for those who are pedantic about specific job descriptions. You can expect to write a press release in the morning, take the lead on an off-site presentation the next hour, pitch a time-sensitive story to a journalist in the afternoon and deal with a reputation crisis before the end of the day. All in a day’s work for a PR professional. Remember that adaptability and versatility can give you the edge in this industry.

7. Keep up to date with new trends and innovations having an impact on the PR industry

Much like how you need to be aware of changes in the media landscape, it is equally imperative to keep your finger on the pulse of your own industry. Public relations is undergoing an interesting period of change, as a result of industry consolidation, cuts in client marketing budgets, a concerted shift towards digital media and changes in the media sector.

At the same time, transparency, trust and ethics have become renewed areas of focus for PR agencies in recent years, partly driven by high-profile scandals such as the Bell Pottinger controversy in 2017. Up-and-coming PR professionals need to realise that, sooner or later, they will be the standard bearers in this new era of public scrutiny, citizen activism and government oversight.

8. Be open-minded about wider marketing functions

Today, the lines between PR, advertising and social media are becoming increasingly blurred. At the same time, brands have started favouring creative shops that are multi-disciplinary in nature. As a result, agency models have rapidly transitioned to more integrated ones, offering multiple services under one roof, and this trend will only pick up further steam in the years to come. With this in mind, aspiring communications professionals would be well advised to try and become acquainted with the wider marketing discipline. At some point, you will encounter terms such as ‘media-buying’, ‘customer journey’ and ‘sales funnel’. While you don’t necessarily need to become an expert in product marketing or lead generation, having a basic know-how of marketing functions will undoubtedly enhance your skillset and value to your organisation.

Written by Adnan Bashir, senior manager for corporate communications at telecommunications company Sigma Systems