It’s hard to imagine a profession changed more thoroughly and more quickly than my business: communications. The textbook I have on my desk — Advertising & IMC: Principles and Practice — already looks like an ancient tome. The cover illustration includes a non-touchscreen, non-keyboard smartphone and a pre-clickwheel, pre-touchscreen MP3 player with actual buttons on it. The copyright date? 2012.
But with these changes has come new challenges, and the PR/marketer/advertiser stereotypes (the hard-spinning press secretary, the bubble-headed party planner, the eccentric, self-isolated creative genius) are increasingly hoary. Today’s communicator has to be far more nimble. To that end, there are 10 skills that are now crucial. Some of these skills have always been important but are now even more critical, and some entirely new to the profession:
- Writing: We may live in a multimedia age, but we generate more written words than those in this profession ever have. In my first few gigs, in the pre-email age, you could get by on the strength of the spoken word. Now we write everything down, and people notice when you consistently confuse “that” and “which.”
- Reading: Yes, there is no shortage of information to fill our screens, but it’s also staggeringly easy to shut ourselves in a bubble where we only read certain perspectives or certain topics. Today’s communicator has to read incredibly widely and in a number of formats (including, yes, dead-tree publications). This is often not billable work, but it doesn’t matter. Knowing the news landscape as a reader is one of the greatest value-adds in this industry.
- Coding: Doug Rushkoff was explicit about this point when we warned we must “Program or Be Programmed.” I’m not suggesting everyone needs to go out there and learn Python. But understanding, at a basic level, how programming languages work is crucial to communicating with the coders in your life. And if you think there aren’t coders in your life: just wait. There will be.
- Social Media Engagement: It’s not enough to have a Twitter account. It’s not even enough to post things every once in a while or click the tweet button on your favorite webpage. The modern communicator needs to know how to engage. How to have conversations. How to share and curate and credit. It used to be enough to know, in theory, how these tools worked. No longer.
- Social Media Experimentation: It’s nearly impossible to tell what the next big thing will be, so we have an obligation to sample everything that comes down the pike. Yes, you’ll get burned sometimes (the hours wasted wandering in Second Life) but the insights that come from early adoption swamp that (I would have loved to be on Twitter a year earlier).
- Understanding What Makes News: At the end of the day, most of the information we swap via new communications platforms comes from professional writers, and understanding the topics that can quickly garner the mindshare of those professionals means the difference between a message getting disseminated and one that gets ignored.
- Speed: News is happening now. The lifespan of a news cycle is shrinking. That means that the comment or tweet or response video needs to be conceived, created and released immediately. Keep Red Bull on ice.
- Graphic Design: It used to be, you could slap some bullet points and some clip art into a PowerPoint deck and get away with it. Now, using a silly font or a grainy image or clashing colors will stand out to communicators as clearly as a misplaced apostrophe does for writers.
- Continuing Ed: Here’s the thing: if you need to bone up on #1, #3, #5, #6 or #8 (or almost anything else), there are folks out there willing to teach it to you. I spent the better part of 2 years taking public health courses to improve my understanding of statistics and risk communication. Again: not billable time. But the best use of 2 years imaginable.
- Humor: We live in an era in which one of the biggest challenges we face is sounding like human beings — not corporations, not computers — online. And the best way to do that is to let a sense of humor come through. Because while Watson can kick ass in Jeopardy and robots can now beat us in beer pong, a healthy dose of wit is the best way of reminding the world of our humanity.
I’m not living up to this ideal yet (I have lots of work to do on #2, #3, #5, #8 and #10, in particular), but there are plenty of others who are getting close. And it’s those individuals who will drive the next leaps forward in communication.
(Know anyone who fits this bill? We’d love to talk to them.)