Michelle Sullivan Communications

Top 10 qualities of a PR practitioner in the digital age

Remember back in high school? When the guidance counselor had you take a personality test and then announced with great authority that you should become a ‘teacher, journalist, lawyer or communicator’ ? Looking around at my peers, I can definitely spot some common traits.

But what does it take to do PR in the digital age? Here’s my top ten list of qualities a PR practitioner must have to successfully make the transition from traditional PR to new PR:

1. Intellectual curiosity. If you’re the type of practitioner who is satisfied with what has been tried and tested, and who isn’t naturally inclined to check out new ways of thinking about and doing PR, you may want to step aside and let someone else run your client’s social media campaign. Social media isn’t about tools. It isn’t Twitter or Facebook, but what the popularity of Twitter and Facebook have to say about how people want to communicate, share and learn. It’s about a new mentality and new expectations. Right now, social media is still the Wild West. Anything can happen. Scary? Depends on your personality.

2. Passion. The advent of social media represents a new era for PR and the way in which it is practiced. This should excite you, and your significant other and friends should either find your enthusiasm contagious or start to complain that you’re sounding like a broken record. If you’re not passionate about how you spend a significant part of your day, not only is social media likely not for you, you may want to start thinking about a new career. Life’s too short and our industry’s reputation needs passionate advocates.

3. Dedication. Taking the social media plunge doesn’t mean staying in the wading pool and splashing a bit of water around. It means diving in to the deep end. It means getting wet. Very wet. It means knowing what a blog is, by blogging. What a podcast is, by podcasting. What an online community is, by becoming part of one. It doesn’t have to be a PR blog or a PR community. If you’re nervous about swimming with your peers, then check out the pool of fellow scrapbooking, cycling, photography or Sherlock Holmes fanatics.  If you’re going to add social media to your box of tricks, then commit to it fully. If not, outsource, because you’re better off working with someone who does.

4. Integrity, authenticity and transparency. In the world of social media, there is a code to live by. Transgress this code by putting up a fake blog, for example, and not only will your client suffer the wrath of the public once the subterfuge is uncovered, your own reputation will take a hit. No one likes a fake. It’s just lame. Any future endeavours will automatically be considered suspect.  Flogs are the clearest indication that your PR philosophy remains old school. Be real. Be straightforward. Don’t play games or try to manipulate. Be confident in who you are, and in the value of the message, product or service your client has hired you to communicate, or walk away.

5. Humility. There is no such thing as a social media expert, just yet. All leaders in the space have wisely, and firmly, refused the crown. Anyone who claims to be one is delusional, self-aggrandizing or a liar. The space changes too quickly. We’re gaining competence, but true expertise remains elusive. So why bother pretending? Ask questions, solicit advice, get help. Work with like-minded peers and the community you’re reaching out to for feedback and advice. Read their tweets, blogs and books, listen to their podcasts. Comment and call in. Engage them at the next networking opportunity or online.

6. Generosity. This is the flipside of #5. Share your discoveries and learnings with your peers. Do someone .. even a competitor .. a favour. You’ve made a mistake? Humility will have you admit it. Generosity will have you share it with others so that they can avoid the same pitfall. Do it in the interest of raising industry standards. In the spirit of Akoha, play it forward. Such goodwill will come back to you in spades.

7. A touch of geekiness, or at the very least a desire to learn about tech. While you can hire people to help you with the technical side of social media, a basic understanding of things like RSS, iTunes subscriptions, WordPress, sound editing and website navigation can go a long way towards helping you help your clients. If you ignore the nitty gritty and only spend time on the theoretical, you won’t feel as though you have a complete handle on the tools you’re proposing that your client leverage in his next social media campaign. You won’t appreciate their complexity, or the time and effort involved in their implementation. There’s no way around it: to sell something well, you need to understand it. Only then will you understand its potential and limitations and be in a position to intelligently counsel your clients. Go ahead. Get your hands dirty. Trust me, it’s fun.

8. Respectfulness and courteousness. No one owes you or your client anything. Apply the Golden Rule, and do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Need examples? End pitch-blasting. Instead, take the time to know the journalists and bloggers in your field of interest. Know what they write/talk about. Know if they’re receptive to hearing from PR consultants and, if so, know the best way to reach them. If they prefer Twitter, tweet. It also means always taking the high road. Remember that there is a human being behind each blog or newspaper article. It is your job to engage that person appropriately. A little « savoir-vivre » takes you far in life, both online and off.

9. Ability to embrace a service mentality. Journalists have high praise for PR practitioners who are effective and efficient, who serve as resources even when they’re not running campaigns and who apply the effort required to support requests and, perhaps, even anticipate them. Similarly, experienced bloggers are already pleading with PR types not to waste their time with poorly targeted pitches that clearly show that they haven’t even bothered to get to know them or their blog. A good PR practioner aims to serve both his client and the traditional or social media person he or she is working with. We need to keep our ear to the ground, do our research, know our stuff and develop and share our network even when there’s no immediate or apparent payoff.

10. Ability to embrace change. As PR practitioners, we are known as guard dogs when in reality we should be known as facilitators.  Once you’ve gotten a handle on the reality of social media, you’ll realize that our industry’s guard dog days are over. Stop deluding yourselves. Controlling the message is an outdated PR imperative which, in the real world, has officially been relegated to the past thanks in large part to the growth of social media. Don’t become an anachronism. Embrace the future.

There you have it. My first top 10 list. Anything different come to mind? I want to hear what you’d add to the mix.

Twitter, Bernard Derome and the way the news is delivered

While Bernard Derome sat at the anchor desk of Radio-Canada’s Le Téléjournal for the last time last night,  Montreal’s start up community gathered at Radio Lounge for a holiday bash called Celebrate Camp. Not able to go, and knowing that the room would be full of geeks with iPhones handy, I kept one eye on my Twitter stream and one eye on the Téléjournal in order to follow what was going within my own personal community and around the world. As PR consultants start to become more familiar with micro-blogging, one thing they’ll realize is that Twitter geeks love to ‘live Tweet’ events. They arm themselves with laptops and iPhones and send short messages to their Twitter account. Speakers beware, this is often done at conferences. No sooner have words passed through your lips than they are reported by a Twit to all his or her followers on Twitter. *

Derome’s last night at the desk went off without a hitch and, while technical glitches limited the amount of Tweeting done at Celebrate Camp that evening, I still had enough material to keep myself entertained. Result? The two-part Xtranormal animation below was produced, by moi, for your amusement.

Without further ado, I present to you, in two parts, A Twitter’s eye view of Celebrate Camp 2008:


After 33 years at the helm of the Téléjournal, Bernard Derome has a unique perspective on many things including politics, society and technology. In both his closing remarks and in a one-hour interview with Michel Désautels which followed the news bulletin, he spoke about journalism and the way news gathering and telling has evolved over the years. How, when he started out, there was no such thing as production meetings and how, now, journalists live on their Blackberries. Most tellingly, he spoke about his wish that technology not get in the way of thoughtful journalism. For Derome, the biggest change over the last years has been the acceleration of the rhythm in which journalists are asked to work and report the news. He refers to this as ‘Blackberry journalism’ and says that he hopes that journalists .. and, consequently, society in general .. remember the importance of taking the time to step back in order to put things in perspective.

As Quebecor’s Sun Media cuts staff and monuments like the Chicago Tribune see their parent company file for bankruptcy protection, it’s important to keep Derome’s words in mind.  In a world where bloggers and Twits report on events hours before the daily newspaper hits the sidewalk, the industry has no choice but to evolve. From Mumbai to Obama’s election and the prorogation of the Canadian parliament, we’ve seen how Twitter has been used in the sharing of information. Regardless, the kind of thoughtful journalism Derome speaks of should never go out of style, in my mind. He’s right in that it offers the kind of analysis and perspective that remains critical as our society makes decisions and shapes its future.

Twitter is instantaneous, short, and perfect for a fast-food consumer world that wants everything delivered as quickly as possible.

I suspect that as the days go on, my impression of last night’s Celebrate Camp event will change as others help fill in the blanks, on Twitter, in conversation, on blogs and, who knows, if anything newsworthy really happened, in the pages of the Gazette or La Presse.


* Twitter lexicon:

Twitter = the microblogging platform itself.

Twit = someone who uses Twitter.

Tweet = a Twitter message of 140 characters or less which can include hyperlinks.

Twittering = sending a Tweet

Follower = Other Twits who find your interesting enough to add your Tweets to the stream of other Tweets that appear on their main screen

Retweet = Repeating another Twit’s message for the benefit of your followers, who, because they don’t necessarily follow that Twit, may not have seen it. Often using the abbreviation RT.

Tweeple = People you know on Twitter. Your community.

(Disclosure: Xtranormal is a client. Regardless, I think their animation software is fun and yesterday’s project was not work)