The World's Top Communications HR Exec on What it Takes to Make It.

Nigel Miller is the Chief Human Resources Officer at Edelman - the world's biggest PR and communications agency. Nigel oversees the standards and practices used by the world's top communications marketing firm in order to find and retain the best possible employees. I caught up with Nigel to find out about what new skills executives in marketing and communications will need in the digital age.

Let's start with this statement - digital changes everything. Out go the old school Mad Men-style execs who were the masters of print ads and in come the millennials who grew up holding iphones and understand how to leverage the power of social influencers, short-form content, and search engines. The firms and agencies who are slow to embrace this transformation are the ones falling behind, loosing out on new business, and even closing their doors. In the Ted Talk below given by machine-learning expert Anthony Goldbloom, he shows that while professions like doctors and lawyers are highly threatened by machine automation, marketing and communications are given as examples of a profession that can never be replaced by machine-learning or artificial intelligence. 

Nigel recently wrote an article called PR Talent of the Future: Everything, and Nothing, is Changing. In it, he points out that while digital technologies are changing the way that communicators reach people, certain skills always have and always will be required and irreplaceable. Among those skills include writing, research, project management, and presentation. 

But, as important as it is for us to nail down the basics, I would say that we should dedicate an equal amount of resources to understanding the new competencies required in the digital age. In my conversation with Nigel, I asked him if  he thinks that technical or digital competencies have a place in his list of core skills?

I specified that by 'technical or digital competencies', I mean awareness or proficiency in areas like Search Engine Optimization (SEO)/Search Engine Marketing (SEM), social network functionalities, and analyzing the impact of impressions through digital publishing. Nigel explained," I absolutely do believe that technical or digital competencies have a place in core skills nowadays. It's just that these are new skills in our industry. My point in the blog was that some skills have always been needed and remain as relevant now as ever."

But he went on - "Digital fluency is among the core skills in our new communications marketing competency model. And by core skill, I mean it will be a requirement of all Edelman employees, wherever they work and whatever they do. For some that will mean proficiency in areas like SEO/SEM, social network functionalities and analysis. For others, it will simply represent the ability to make effective choices about technology that improves understanding, enables participation and supports creativity in the service of the firm and our clients."

Nigel's admission that the world's biggest communications agency is about to implement digitally fluency as a core competency is proof that industry leaders agree on something - those who want to play a role in the communications or marketing industry in the future must be digitally-minded. But what does digitally-minded mean? So many of the definitions surrounding this term are too broad and vague, so instead of defining it, here are some specific qualities I've observed as extremely common in digitally-minded people:

  • A personal Instagram account with at least 300 followers and 20 posts.
  • A basic understanding of how Google Rank works.
  • An active follower of lifestyle brands and social influencers.
  • Has active groupchats with friends on apps like GroupMe or WhatsApp.
  • A member of online music streaming communities like SoundCloud, Spotify, or Tidal.
  • Uses memes and emojis in communication with friends. 

Interestingly enough, the curricula at most communications and marketing schools have not changed to teach students new digital competencies. Neither have most interview processes. Things like SEO/SEM, social platform analysis, impression analysis, online content distribution, and social infleuncer campaigns can easily be taught in a series of classes or screened for in an interview. 

Perhaps this could explain what Robert Phillips (former President of Edelman) calls one the primary threats to the PR industry - the war over qualified talent. In his book Trust Me, PR is Dead, Phillips explains that there's too few people coming up with the big ideas that push the industry along and war over talent and qualified staff is looming over the horizon. New technologies and multiplied channels of communication are skyrocketing the demand for a reinvigorated and specialized workforce.

People like Nigel Miller, who are charged with being the main players in the fight over industry talent, have an extremely interesting battle ahead of them that we should watch closely. I think one of the most effective answers to this challenge would be to infiltrate academia and form close partnerships with academic institutions in order to great new digital communications programs that are selective, incorporate real internship experience, and offer promising post-graduate employment opportunities.