Dec 16

Soft Skills to Master Digital Communications in 2021

If you’re a fresh communications graduate, having a degree, people skills, and digital savvy is the bare minimum to win in the new marketing and PR environment. In other words, it’s not enough. As the classic action flick, Top Gun taught us, going up against the best of the best in any field requires more than aptitude and technological skill. Stinger put it succinctly to the duo Maverick and Goose; “You have to do it tighter and cleaner than the other guys.” For the PR graduate entering or re-entering the workforce after the unpredictable year of 2020, cultivating soft skills like communication, speed, and social commerce takes, as Charlie puts it, “a lot more than just fancy flying.”

Donna Stein, Adjunct Professor of Public Relations at Syracuse University advises new grads to build up competency in “excellent listening skills, organizational skills and the ability to successfully multi-task.” This certainly gets your foot in the door, but will it help you compete in the marketed job market?

The short answer is ‘no’. However, building on these three soft will increase your chances of standing out and excelling in this field well beyond 2021.

“Talk to me, Goose”

It took our favorite fighter pilot, Maverick, an hour and a half to set his ego aside and cultivate the ever-important art of listening in Top Gun. (Audiences would agree he made up for it with some great flying, so we forgive you, Tom Cruise).

In the PR world, listening is more than just hearing what colleagues have to say about a media trend. It encompasses analytical skills – the ability to read and ‘hear’ digital data – read between the lines of customers, clients, and journalists, and then articulate that message through the lens of various stakeholders and departments. For example, communicating the value of a media opportunity to a CEO is a lot different than what one says to the CMO. The former might view a media opportunity through the lens of “Is this building the company’s reputation to potential investors?”, while the latter asks, “How will this lead to more sales?”

The ability to communicate internally across teams, departments, and up and down the chain of command is one of the toughest challenges within public relations. It requires taking the 30,000-foot aerial view in every campaign and pinpoint what is and isn’t moving the needle.

Maverick was hardly the poster child for good communication skills (see: Unauthorized fly-bys, ignoring orders, and pissing off every character except for Meg Ryan’s bubbly character Carole Bradshaw), but he eventually came to the understanding that he was better off working with his fellow pilots than trying to outdo them in a silo on every mission.

“The Need for Speed”

Media relations works in two paces: Fast and very fast. Reporters are on tight deadlines, you’re competing with various other PR agencies and experts who want ‘in’ on a good story, and always at the mercy of breaking news coverage. Professor Stein says, “In the public relations profession, no two days are exactly alike, and public relations grads need to be disciplined and flexible to adapt to any challenge or pivot that may occur.”

Top Gun IFeel The Need GIF - TopGun IFeelTheNeed TheNeedForSpeed GIFs

This is less about multi-tasking and more about the ability to prioritize. Oftentimes, the challenge isn’t the speed of the PR professional but with clients themselves. Not every client will prioritize a media opportunity just because you know it’s important. Behind-the-scenes, a PR pro must move fast to get the right person on board, prepared, and on message. Knowing when to call or email, when to jump on an opportunity or pass, and pull together clear and concise messaging within the hour of a journalist calling takes skill and finesse. Then, there’s all the follow-up that happens in between. New grads and even junior employees often struggle with the ‘need for speed’ mentality, tethered to their long to-do list and unsure on what to prioritize, or when to chase a reporter or client.

The best advice for these grads is simple: Watch and learn. Observe how superiors communicate and move with urgency at the drop of a hat. Absorb what they say and how it’s said, and finally, notice that in order to move fast, every PR pro has a wingman to delegate to or support them in moving the media opportunity forward. No one works alone. Maverick may have been the better pilot, but as Iceman put it, he was too dangerous, reckless, and liked to work alone. That never bodes well in warfare, and that mentality certainly won’t work with a new grad on the ground.

“A Target Rich Environment”

Maverick’s idea of a target-rich environment is quite different than the one in the media world. For one, there’s less singing and two, it demands an eye for social commerce and digital prowess. Professor Stein explains social commerce as the “practice of understanding the behavior of the empowered customer to narrow the gap to conversion […] proving return on investment.”

In other words, companies are looking for ROI on their marketing and PR spend and they want clear, measurable metrics to track it. New grads must immerse themselves in social commerce, social media, technology, analytics and the influence they all play on our society and our industry, says Stein. Social analytics and insights are a driving force in the world of digital communications, and drive better marketing and PR programs that achieve business outcomes for all involved.

At Syracuse University, students in the public relations graduate programs take three courses designed specifically around digital and analytics topics – a vital part of today’s business environment. More important is the ability to grow one’s digital skills as more and more businesses shift marketing budgets to build out their digital capabilities.

Traditional media relations will soon become a relic of the communications world as digital communications take top priority. We’ve seen this shift take place over the last seven years – PR companies have consolidated and acquired digital marketing agencies, brands are sourcing for talent with both media knowledge and analytical savviness, and emerging technology is making it easier to track metrics online. Soft skills are the make-or-break competencies one learns in the trenches, and it’s by far, the most valuable soft skills new grads should cultivate. Top Gun is really a competition drama and the best way to compete is to build on the soft skills that one can’t learn in the classroom.

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