Is the ability to sell the most important skill in PR?

As so much of working in PR involves pitching, the ability to persuade is a powerful advantage. And great sales techniques are vital when it comes to getting money out of stakeholders.

So one might assume that teaching PROs sales skills is a key aspect of training. However, Bournemouth University's professor of PR Tom Watson says that there is no demand for sales skills on his course, adding: “We don't teach sales skills in any direct form. I can't recall ever being asked by the innumerable PR folks (including CIPR, PRCA, AMEC) we are in contact with to include sales training within our courses. It's just never arisen and we don't see it as a gap.“

Watson highlights that traditional selling techniques involve pushing products at customers, whereas PR demands building a relationship and a dialogue between publics/stakeholders and organisations.

The reason many play down the value of traditional selling skills is because it makes PR look pushy. As Gemma McCartney, associate director, Talent at PR consultancy Porter Novelli says, “Unfortunately, the term ‘sales’ seems to have an association with industries such as estate agents whereby people perceive it negatively.”

McCartney herself is happy to admit to the value of sales skills, saying they are important for PR because they are needed for pitching to media and new business prospects. She also points out that they go hand-in-hand with people skills. She adds: “When I’m recruiting, the key skills and attributes I look for are high emotional intelligence and by that I mean someone that listens, forms relationships, and then uses that to their advantage. The ability to close a deal is very important – that is to get commitment from a journalist that they will write about your client and include their messaging. Employees must be clear, concise communicators and have a certain warmth and magnetism about them.”

There are two kinds of selling skills required in PR, soft selling, which is needed for pitching ideas, and hard selling, which gets money into the business. Martin Loat, chief executive of PR agency Propeller, points out that hard sales skills are less imperative when you work in-house than if you are in an agency: “The ability to sell – be it new business, cross-selling products and services or up-selling your current offering is of fundamental importance to any PR agency, where the ebb and flow of business demand keeps us on our toes. When it comes to in-house, from a communications point of view, hard sales is obviously less of a requirement. As long as the internal PROs can keep their jobs, they can assume internal clients are going to use them (or at least that's usually the default option).”

Loat gives a useful tip for those moments when hard selling is required: “Most important is the ability to look the client in the eye and ask for the money! This point is one that PROs often struggle with, perhaps through lack of confidence, training or natural tendency to a softer collaborative modus operandi. One closing tip: when talking about fees, make your pitch and shut up. Whoever speaks next will lose!”

Even if you do not have to get clients to part with their cash, Graham Goodkind, founder of consultancy Frank PR, concludes that sales skills are a must: “PR people are always selling. Whether it be stories to media, ideas to clients, or themselves to their bosses! It follows that those with better sales skills will therefore be more successful in these tasks. In a lot of people I’ve come across in this industry, you actually find a lot of these skills are innate. So it seems to be a natural trait of many PR people. There is an art to selling and being good at it does no harm to a PR career.”

First Person

Andy Turner, founder of PR agency Six Sigma, believes selling skills are crucial to PROs and suggests how to develop them, in particular the art of listening:

“Before he retired I had the privilege of working with the guy who wrote the manual on B2B relationship selling, an American expert and management consultant called Don Hammalian. At Xerox, he developed what became the world’s largest selling sales training programme, used by 80 per cent of the Fortune 500, 7,500-plus other firms around the world, that was translated into 14 languages. I learned a lot from Don.

“The best people are so good at selling you don’t even notice that’s what they’re doing. Good sales skills are made not inherent; you can teach the basic skills in a classroom, but they must be regularly reinforced in the field using coaching. The most important foundation is to be a good listener: every sale starts with listening and understanding a customer. But PR firms so often launch into ‘show and tell’ mode in a sales pitch situation without first making any attempt to listen, understand and then make an appropriate response.

“I wonder how many PR people know there are rules of listening, about the bad habits that are easily accrued and how to apply good listening skills that help increase sales? A skilled listener will create a deep bond with a customer that enhances the relationship and almost always increases the likelihood of a sale. But, after 28 years in business, I’ve found it’s a skill that’s frequently in short supply.

“It’s such an important skill, there’s even an organisation dedicated to its improvement and recognition. The International Listening Association studies the impact that listening has on all human activity. Despite its fundamental importance, it’s amazing to think that we are not taught listening skills alongside reading and writing during formal education.

“Employees at Hewlett-Packard, for example, are taught to listen, mirror back what they heard and elaborate what it meant. They learn to listen for the deeper context and hidden meaning of the conversation. Only then can they really understand what someone is trying to say and make an appropriate response.”