Mapping key PR competencies

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I recently conducted a study of the public relations competencies that are most valued by corporate communications professionals. In this study, I invited participants to rank what they see as the most important technical and behavioural competencies for public relations managers.

I have always been fascinated by the importance that organizations place on performance and knowledge competencies as tools for setting and achieving both employee and organizational goals. This past fall, I began a search for information about public relations competencies, and was finding that there is not much information available. My interest grew when I found that corporate communications students at a local community college were interested in the subject. My discussions with this group of bright and intelligent public relations upstarts inspired me to develop a list of public relations competencies. The students viewed it as a list of things they had to learn, as they prepared to launch their careers in this growing profession. I shared their interest in the list, seeing it a good reference point for taking inventory of my consulting services, my know-how and my wish list for continuous learning and development.

And, the survey says...

A cross-section of 66 corporate, not-for-profit, and government communicators participated in the PBK public relations competencies study. While many respondents said they view most of the 22 technical and 22 behavioural competencies listed in the survey as important, they each selected a critical few choices in both the technical and behavioural categories. I then tabulated the results, assigning a value of three points for each top choice, two points for a second choice, and one point for a third selection.

For the purposes of this research, technical competencies include public relations skills (like writing) and any specific knowledge (e.g. community relations); behavioural competencies include a skill (e.g. problem solving), image, attitude and value, trait, motive or any other personal characteristic that is essential to superior performance.

Here are the top technical competencies seen as important for achieving superior public relations performance:

  1. strategic public relations planning (80 points)
  2. writing (58)
  3. measurement, evaluation, reporting (53)

Image and reputation management (45), media relations (25), and public relations leadership (24) are the next picks.

The key behavioural competencies for public relations practitioners are:

  1. listening, understanding, responding (97)
  2. strategic business sense (44)
  3. creativity (36), impact and influence (36)

Some respondents identified specific things they would like to learn more about in order to improve their personal effectiveness. The leading areas for learning include:

  • community relations
  • measurement, evaluation, reporting
  • event management
  • sponsorship management
  • strategic public relations planning

Is strategic planning a common PR practice?

It is encouraging that strategic public relations planning is cited as the most important technical competency. (This finding is consistent with a survey of 3,500 pr professionals conducted on behalf of the PRSA's Universal Accreditation Board, which showed that strategic planning was the top function of pr professionals.)

My experience shows that public relations leaders and their teams enhance their credibility throughout an organization by consistently demonstrating the linkage of their contribution to the organization's vision, values, business priorities and brand positioning. While much of the work of a public relations practitioner involves strategic thinking, it would be interesting to know the percentage of corporate communications teams that have mastered the crafting of a relevant strategic planning process.

Some questions:

  • Do you have the time, patience and know-how for producing a clear and compelling plan?
  • Who is involved in the planning?
  • Who cares about it?
  • Who cares for it?
  • Is it shared with interested officers throughout the organization?
  • Is it revised annually?
  • Does it make a difference in not only what your team does, but also the way you perform your duties?
  • Has the plan helped your team build a stronger reputation throughout the organization?
  • Have you included learning and measurement of competencies in your plan?

Why is measurement so important?

Clearly, measuring, evaluating, reporting is a competency that continues to challenge, if not haunt public relations practitioners. In response to senior management questioning about the value of pr investments, especially in tight times, more and more public relations leaders are searching for clear and compelling measures of success.

Some questions that beg for an answer around measurement include:

  • Do you measure what matters most about your work?
  • How do you know what matters to your organization's key stakeholders?
  • Are you able to use existing measures of success?
  • Is your measurement aligned to your organization's strategic plan?
  • Have you considered including key PR competencies among your measures of success?

The beginning of a dialogue

Even though the scope of the PBK public relations competencies study is broad and the survey sample lacks quantitative depth, it has sparked important dialogue. This dialogue is about finding ways to shape the study and practice of competencies to enhance public relations effectiveness. And, that is where this study is a quest full of questions.

One thing this study has made clearer to me is a sense that public relations competencies could serve as a compelling baseline measure of corporate communications effectiveness.

This article by Pat Kahnert originally appeared in PR Canada. Pat is a fee-for-service corporate marketing and communications consultant, helping business, not-for-profit and government organizations to add clarity, credibility and impact to their work. He is an accomplished community coach, guest columnist and popular speaker - covering topics like corporate social responsibility, community relationship building, effective team building and corporate communications effectiveness. Pat can be reached at, or 905-337-7933.

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