Why PR Can’t Write – Sunday Coffee Contemplations

There seems to be a universal complaint that young public relations professionals can’t write. At the 2011 Public Relations Society of America International Conference this month, I ended up in several discussions about the lack of good writers and how it’s a problem for the profession.

There’s a very good reason for the lack of good writer’s in the PR profession – we’re refusing to hire them.

Writing is a skill that requires time to develop

Excellent writing is a skill that develops with practice over time. Yet the PR industry persists in hiring young, inexperienced professionals and expecting veteran performance out of them. Former International Association of Business Communicators Chair Mark Schumann told of an encounter with one industry recruiter on his blog A Communicator’s View:

I had a most disturbing conversation with an “executive search consultant” looking for a head of internal communications for a Fortune 500 company.

He told me he only wanted candidates with strategic views of how communications can engage employees. Good.

He only wanted candidates with the emotional intelligence to deal with a collection of strong egos in the executive suite. Ideal.

He only wanted candidates with “board presence” who could effectively advocate for the importance of internal communications. Great.

And he only wanted candidates who understand new media well enough to incorporate it into a holistic communication strategy. Perfect.

And one more thing. He only wanted candidates who had not yet celebrated a 45th birthday.

What? I was speechless. I am not sure what shocked me more – that he actually believed in this restriction or he told me.

“What is magical about age 45,” I asked.

“Well, let’s get real, Mark,” he said, using my first name in a way that I usually reserve for my family and friends. “Anyone over 45 is, in this profession, over the hill. There is no way any one over 45 has stayed current in the profession.

I adjusted my walker before asking, “and what about that emotional intelligence and board presence you described, don’t you think some of that is acquired with time?”

“No,” he said, “in your profession, Mark, board presence means cool, a communicator has to be cool, and no one over 45 can pull off cool, no matter how experienced.”

As I stared at my recently-received AARP card, I asked, “and what if you found the candidate who had everything you wanted, with all the skills and savvy you describe, but had a birthday before 1965. What would you do?”

He paused and said, “Mark, I’d tell them good luck, this is a young person’s profession and there’s not a lot of room for older people.”

What have we done in our profession to make someone searching among us for the best to bring such a limited view?”

Don’t you find it ironic that the generation symbolized by Jack Weinberg’s phrase, “we don’t trust anyone over 30,” is now coping with “ignore everyone over 30,” at least when it comes to their careers?

PR Hiring Guilty of Age Discrimination?

Take a look at postings for PR positions. Notice how many of them want “X years of experience.” Not a specified number of years experience in a particular skill set. Just total experience. That’s more than age discrimination, that’s incredible short-sightedness.  So don’t complain when you can’t find good writers, because I’ll respond with another famous quote:

Be careful what you ask for…you just might get it.

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2 comments

  1. Part of the problem is that many PR majors graduate from college with little or no education in writing. So they’re unschooled as well as inexperienced.

    I had the good fortune to attend a journalism school in which crusty ex-editors delivered scathing criticism of every split infinitive or awkward sentence. When I hired writers in the 1980s, I found that most PR graduates had never received critical feedback on their writing until they worked for me. (One described my editing style as Texas chainsaw massacre.)

    I also encountered the myth that PR people don’t have to write as well as journalists. If anything, we have to be better writers: to capture an editor’s attention in the first lines of a news release, to explain complex subjects and to put an executive’s vision into the words of a memorable speech. Many journalists don’t have these skills, either, and I’ve seen some who failed to make the transition to PR.

  2. I also encountered the myth that PR people don’t have to write as well as journalists. If anything, we have to be better writers: to capture an editor’s attention in the first lines of a news release, to explain complex subjects and to put an executive’s vision into the words of a memorable speech. Many journalists don’t have these skills, either, and I’ve seen some who failed to make the transition to PR.
    +1

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