ITL #173 Stuck in a hiring rut: is PR creating its own skills crisis?

3 years, 10 months ago


In order to thrive, PR must dispense with outdated talent parameters and hire more ‘T-shaped’ practitioners who possess wide-ranging skills alongside great depth of knowledge in one specific area. By Anne Costello.

Every PR or communications agency today acknowledges that the landscape we’re working in has radically changed. Agencies now use words like ‘digital’, ‘integrated’ and ‘creative’ to define the work they do and the DNA they ostensibly cultivate in their workplaces. Yet if we’ve really changed so much as an industry, why are we still hiring the same people with the same skills?


The transformation of the PR industry cannot afford to be just a self-rebranding exercise. In order to stay relevant to what our clients and their customers need, agencies must overhaul the very fundamentals of hiring and collaboration.


The best way to do this is to help its existing teams add new skills and to seek out ‘T-shaped practitioners: those with depth in one particular skill and breadth across myriad other disciplines. This approach to skills is essential if PR wants to prove that it has transformed to deliver better business outcomes – but it also requires agencies to overhaul everything from how they motivate individuals to the way they structure teams.


Cultivating ‘T-shaped practitioners

The work of the modern communications agency is far more diverse than ever before. Our remits increasingly include marketing, digital build, social media, influencer, content development, and a range of other practices that are constantly evolving.


Every agency recognises this. Yet we still seem to be looking in the same pool of people when it comes to hiring. We still need media relations experts…but having just those skills is not enough.


Going the other way and hiring the most experienced art directors, copywriters, and digital marketers won’t work either. Instead, we need to look for individuals whose skills and problem-solving abilities can adapt to, and work with, other talent from a wide range of disciplines. Collaboration and the willingness to learn new skills must be key on the hiring criteria.


At Text100, we have begun focusing on acquiring and cultivating talent with T-shaped skills. This model is not new and has been the subject of many articles and studies over the years. It comes from a background where innovation is key and the ability to shape teams quickly is essential. This is what we now need in the world of communications.


The T-shaped model focuses on developing talent with depth in one particular area (the vertical stroke of the T), complemented by basic skills that span various other competencies (the horizontal bar of the T):




The Model T approach to skills has three main advantages. It gives agencies in-house access to increasingly essential specialist experience without having to rely exclusively on third-party providers.


It also ensures greater collaboration between skill sets. Breadth of skills, when multiplied across multiple practitioners, creates a common layer through which individuals can relate to and learn from one another’s core competencies. On the other hand, each individual has a more well-defined sense of where they lend value to the agency – which we find creates greater sense of purpose and mutual respect when delivering complex client solutions.


Finally, it allows agencies to more precisely match their talent with their strategic vision. An agency which prioritises content or media relations to its clients, for example, will want to make sure more than half of its talent have either discipline as the vertical stroke of their T.


Restructuring the agency

A key trait of T-shaped practitioners is adaptability. A willingness, even a hunger to learn new skills or improve old ones is what extends the breadth and depth of the T, and in doing so defines each practitioner’s effectiveness at meeting the agency’s changing needs. That means, however, that PR agencies must also rethink how they keep these new talents and personalities engaged.


Traditional career progression and team structures become much less relevant with the T-shaped approach. The best way to engage with our top talent is not a linear path to Account Director, but constant opportunities to learn new skills, take on greater responsibilities, and be rewarded for calculated risk-taking.


These opportunities should not be restricted to traditional avenues for learning, like formal courses and training sessions. They should increasingly include hands-on exposure to other specialists or ways of thinking, through initiatives like secondments and sponsorship of relevant start-up or pilot projects. A practitioner who spends six months building her own e-commerce shop is likely to be far more capable of applying her skills to client demands than one who spends the same time attending classes on social media and digital.


The PR industry also needs to restructure its teams if it wants these new skills to generate the full value that clients demand. The static Account Director/Manager/Executive team structure, while still effective in some instances, was designed for a time where media relations was the only core competency.


Today, agencies often do better to populate teams based on the particular blend of skills that a client’s project or business problem needs. A client managing multiple social media channels, for example, may need not only a community manager but also a content specialist, designer, and project lead to deliver effective social assets cohesively and on-time.


Agility to meet need

The T shaped approach works most effectively when agencies are agile enough to assemble and re-assemble teams based on what a client needs at any given time – whether that need is media relations, marketing/comms, or (as is increasingly the case) a mix of many practice areas in varying proportions.


With all this diversification and specialisation going on, many agencies will be asking themselves: does PR even exist anymore? The key, I think, is to look at the meaning of ‘public relations’. In all our work, whether with influencers or media or direct customers, we focus on cultivating relationships on behalf of our clients.


However, the skills which we need in order to do so have diversified greatly, from creating content that starts conversations to engaging with audiences through channels like social and email. That means we need to invest in broadening our skills base. It’s not about throwing away media relations skills; it’s about building upon them. To restrict ourselves to people who have media relations experience alone, though, is to fall victim to a skills crisis of our own making.

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The Author

Anne Costello

Anne Costello is Regional Director for Text100 Asia Pacific.

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