Riots on the steps of Topshop, protests on the streets of London, sit-ins in lecture theatres around the country – the students are rebelling because the future smells revolting.
Kids as young as 12 are worried about a jobless, debt-laden future. They’re turning their anxiety into anger and directing it at the government, tax-dodging mobile phone giants and ‘the rich’.
Since my guest lecture at Greenwich University recently (the day after the Millbank riot), I’ve been thinking about the skills that students will need to sell themselves upon graduation. Arguably, this is the most dynamic period in PR’s history – and we’re all learning more new than we ever thought we would; those of us that aren’t learning are toast, even if it’s the hilarious editorial coverage kind.
Don’t just take my word for it. Publicising his latest sci-fi stonker, Zero Gravity , William Gibson said in a BBC interview (aside – his publishing tour of course is an example of a traditonal PR being used to sell books): “In the 1960s the present was three or four years long…Now the present is the length of a news cycle some days.” To make PRs and PR under-grads feel twitchier still, writing about the 100 year career in Wired UK, Russell argued that climbing up the career ladder might be pointless when the ladder “is being set on fire from below, dismantled from above and no longer has anything to lean against.” Douglas Coupland (also promoting a recent book) predicts that technological disruption will continue for years to come – making for a nerve-jangling ride into the future for some (maybe all).
So what changes do today’s students need to make to become more employable in the face of industry-wide disruptions? And how can universities help prepare them? What core skills will remain marketable, and what new ones will make students stand out? I’ve jotted down a few thoughts on what the industry will be looking for. If you have any comments or ideas please throw them in.
Traditional skills still crucial
A solid understanding of business, a grasp of branding and marketing, and professional-quality writing skills will all continue to be sought-after.
Despite the decline of newspaper and print magazines sales, we will still con tinue to think and behave like journalists in many regards. So media literacy, having a keen ‘news sense’ and being highly generative – the ability to produce many relevant ideas – will still be absolutely vital. And news reports will still observe some of the basic tropes they have for years, as parodied in this funny-but-true video from Charlie Brooker’s mirthsome Screenwipe.
“Stop communicating products & start making communication products” – Gareth Kay, Goodby Silverstein & Partners.
Nike may be known for its apparel but it’s almost better know for its content and communication products, like Nike+. Indeed, the invention is still held up as one of the smartest marketing innovations of our times. Useful and free, it communicates training data to people and helps them share it with others. In doing so builds loyalty to the brand whilst further promoting Nike by allowing training data to be shared on Facebook walls, for instance.
PRs who grasp the technological dimension – particularly in embedding tech into our everyday lives seamlessly – will be better placed to develop the comms content and products of tomorrow. Go out and make apps. Learn how to code. Have a go at making an Android app or some Facebook ‘FMBL’ coding. Befriend hackers and work on cool new things together.
On a more modest scale, you can see evidence of code as editorial content more and more. This can draw people into a story in a new way that was previously impossible. The Guardian seems to be doing this better than anyone else. For instance, its recent spending review cuts app let users interact with the story in an amazingly engaging way – by playing God (or at least George Osborne) with the budget. If that was just a plain old article, a reader might merely have read for a minute or two, or even skimmed it for a few secs. The app, on the opther hand, draws you in and lets you interact, explore and really engage with the story. It’s sheer genius. There’s absolutely no reason why PR content can’t evolve in the same way. Bright graduate talent will grasp this and, if they can’t code, they’ll know someone who can.
The key questions you should be looking to answer include “what can you make to help people connect and share branded and editorial content?”, “how can I help people engage and interact with this content in a more meaningful way?”
You’ll find many examples on sites like David McCandless’s corker, which show the grey and lifeless world of number-crunching colliding with the verve and finesse of art and design to create visual data journalism.
We work with data stories and content all of the time in PR. That’s why you see so many top tens and consumer opinion poll/survey stories. The area ain’t shrinking either: as more companies promote cloud computing, data are fast becoming many companies’ crown jewels. So being able to turn data into attention-seizing narrative will become a marketable skill. Making data look cool isn’t the only aspect of design that applies to PR, though.
From standout visual storytelling – your average national newspaper photo editor has more than 17,000 new photos per day to choose from on PA Newswire alone – to professional presenting (the age of text and chart-laden Powerpoints is hopefully behind us), having multimedia visual and design skills are becoming more and more prized. Having an artistic and design-oriented mindset, as well as understanding the visual semiotics of the media will increasingly help you sell yourself to potential employers.
Gaming as campaigning
“Life is just a game, we’re all just the same,” sang pint-sized popstar Prince, in his song Controvery, during his purple reign of the charts in the 80s.
When he was supposedly removing ribs to auto-fellate, miners were striking, Ronald Reagan was surviving assassinations in order to get consumers addicted to debt, and women with enormous shoulderpads and men with treadmills in their offices took themselves too seriously. The world didn’t exactly seem overly playful. Now however, in spite of our collective problems, gaming and play has found its way into the damndest of brand-est places.
Meanwhile, brands would kill (or will in the future, if you believe sci-fi novel, Jennifer Government) to have fans like those who take part in Star Wars cos play events. Sticking with the world of entertainment, games like Call of Duty (CoD) have given shoot-em-ups the profile of Hollywood movies, whilst Mafia Wars have drawn people into a hopeless addiction to Facebook games. Both have conditioned consumers to expect higher production values in their content (CoD), and gaming to drive social interaction (Mafia Wars).
So what the f*** does this mean for my PR education, Scot? Simply trying to make a general point about becoming game-minded, really. Develop an awareness of how to create and develop games. Work with people who make them, hell – try to make your own. Interrogate the quotidien and mundane and generate ideas around livening them up with a bit of play. And make fantasy brand PR campaigns build around play to change behaviours.
As Clay Shirky wrote in Cognitive Surplus, social media are “the connective tissue in society.” In the same book, Shirky shows how people harness social media to drive both frivolous and highly focused communities. A good, current example of the latter sees students organising their fee protests using social media. Related, a frivolous example at my nephew’s school da kids organise a 5 minute ‘lie down’ happening on Facebook.
Brands, of course, decided to dive into the ocean of social media, splashing the good marketing word around on twitter, Facebook and forums. Pepsi turned off its $10m Superbowl ads to pile money into Facebook et al. People are talking about most brands online anyway, so most brands are getting their heads wet, and are looking for people like graduates to help them stay afloat.
See, in today’s brand communication world, if we’re not joiners, we’re splitters, and PRs help brands join, continue and start conversations. So being an online conversationalista, already engaging online in forums, blogs, facebook and twitter is something we look for in candidates.
So running your own blog, and boosting it up the Google rankings will serve you well. It might make you a no brainer hire. I’m not talking about blogs with posts as hopelessly infrequent and pathetically under-promoted as this one, either. Achieving page rank above 4 will put you in good stead – 5, even better. As clearly you’ll understand niches, audiences, promotion, ‘stickiness’, design, content – and being an all-round Jedi with writing, audio, video and still images.
What’s your take?
It’s a scary time for students, certainly in England and Wales, where tuition fees are set to climb to their highest ever, and graduates leaving saddled with more debt than any generation in history. So if you have any ideas on what skills you think graduates will need in the coming years to nail their dream PR job, holler.