With communicators playing a more active role in company strategy, younger practitioners keen on building their skills have better career opportunities than ever before. From tried-and-true to cutting edge, here are the hot skills younger communicators need to hone,or develop,for 2020.
1. Writing with clarity and style
The ability to write well remains the No. 1 skill in a communicator's toolbox. "Writing is still the one skill that people agree everybody needs," says Burghardt Tenderich, professor of professional practice at Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. Senior communicators regularly express concern about their staff's writing skills, he says. With so many messages to craft for multiple stakeholders and channels, writing skills have never been more important. Don't forget punctuation and grammar: Getting this right conveys expertise to stakeholders,whether they are customers or your boss.
"Writing is still the one skill that people agree everybody needs," says Burghardt Tenderich, professor of professional practice at Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.
2. Fluency in the language of business
"We heard loud and clear that practitioners need to be better versed in the language of the boardroom," Tenderich says. Cross-team collaboration has grown, putting communicators in more high-level conversations that drive the organization's mission. Ask leaders what they are reading, what tools and approaches spark their interest, and make it part of an ongoing conversation, says Diane Gayeski, Ph.D., dean of the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College. "It allows you to say why a communication approach aligns with that set of initiatives," she says. A grasp of economic terms is critical, Tenderich adds. He has seen great mid-level practitioners stall in their careers because they couldn't talk to the CEO or chief financial officer about basic business concepts. Burghardt cites the terminology of quarterly earnings, for example. "But even more basic: Your company gets hit with a service outage," he says. "Does it bring down the stock? By how much? Another example is: What constitutes material information? What is insider trading? These are all issues corporate communicators face."
3. Comfort with data analysis
To be part of the conversation about business direction communication requires skills in data analysis. Communicators who know the channels and platforms for accessing big data,along with how to interpret and link the findings with company objectives,have a seat at the table when it comes to high-level decisions, Tenderich says. Data analytics applies to both big data (quantitative analysis) and small/deep data (qualitative analysis). Both are essential for developing, presenting and defending communication activities. C-suite executives are data-driven and are therefore more likely to respond to arguments and planned activities that are backed by data. Being able to build arguments on insights gained from data analytics helps communicators earn a seat at the table. The USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism recently surveyed public relations professionals about the skills future professionals need to be successful. Experience in big data came in at the top of the list, with 65% of PR professionals pointing to it as a needed skill.
4. Willingness to keep learning
Be an active learner, especially when it comes to keeping up with changes in technology, Gayeski says. "That sort of research or curiosity is not just being content with what you know but always seeing what is the latest thing that's out there and how do I find ways to play with it," she says. She recommends carving out regular time in your work schedule to read reviews and try demo versions of new tech. This means staying on top of tools for virtual teams and project management (think Microsoft Teams and Slack) to help teams that have members who are not co-located and/or are freelancers or work through agencies. It also includes new social media applications like TikTok and Caffeine, and social media analytics tools like Hootsuite, Social Report and Sprout Social. The more you learn, the more savvy you'll be about how these tools can drive business,not just in your area but across the board. Soon you may find others seeking your advice. Above all, get comfortable with change, Tenderich adds. "If you stagnate, you're outdated very quickly," he says.
5. Multimedia chops
Multimedia content production skills are in high demand. That includes shooting and editing video, podcasting, developing web content and creating design for print and online. The USC study found that 59% of PR professionals say video production skills are necessary for future leaders' success. Another key area is the development and execution of paid media strategies, Tenderich says, particularly online and web-based advertising. Experience design,including social media "moments",is another growing arena. Most practitioners will develop talents in a few specializations. One exception: communicators in small businesses and nonprofits, who typically wear many hats. "Smaller organizations are hiring communications people in ways that they didn't in the past, and those tend to be a jack-of-all-trades," Gayeski says. Master these skills to propel your career forward in 2020.
Sally Parker is freelance writer and editor with a background in business journalism and university communications. Learn more about her work on her website.