Last week the Chief Executive of the Australian Industry Group, Innes Willox, told the Universities Australia Higher Education Conference that one in four employers are dissatisfied with the basic literacy skills of graduates.
On his visit to Melbourne for the World PR Forum, IABC Chair Kerby Meyers asked IABC Victoria to convene a roundtable of senior communications practitioners to contemplate the current and future development of the communications profession.
Joined by IABC Executive Director Chris Sorek and past IABC Chair Adrian Cropley, and generously hosted by our corporate members at Telstra, twelve corporate communications leaders gathered over lunch to deliberate Kerby’s four broad themes:
- Where is the communications profession at today?
- Where is the communications profession heading over the next five to ten years?
- What are some of the issues and opportunities in getting to where we want to be?
- Open brainstorm of ideas.
By Clayton Ford, Sponsorship Chair, IABC Victoria Board
What are the issues and opportunities in getting to where we want to be as communications professionals?
The drive for increased productivity and leaner functions was seen as a potential opportunity by some participants as it will necessitate increased skills transfer into the broader business and help organisations get better at communications across the board. A leaner function also forces greater prioritisation on value-adding activities, by both the communications team and the business.
One of the greatest challenges shared by participants is the increasing cynicism of audiences, which tends to view all corporate communication as ‘spin’. It was felt that simple language and authenticity, although vital to effective dialogue, was not enough to overcome this cynicism. Akin to the old adage that the customer is always right, one participant noted that communications is all about the audience, and if we are not connecting with them then the failure is ours, not theirs.
A controversial issue that sparked many impassioned comments around the table was the perceived decline in literacy and grammar standards, amongst communications graduates and also in the broader business. A number of participants lamented lost time spent editing, proofing, correcting or rewriting others’ communications, and being forced into the role of remedial teacher rather than coach or business partner. While technological tools such as track changes in Microsoft Word can be used to help the original authors learn from the edits and corrections made, too often the changes are accepted without review and without any learning taking place. Some participants felt a better strategy was simply to refuse to accept or review work with basic literacy or grammar errors and push it back to the author to take accountability for improving it. The roundtable also stressed that it was incumbent upon the leaders of the profession to hold themselves to similarly high standards and avoid pushing sub-standard work further up the line.
An additional consideration when it comes to literacy and grammar skills is the increasing regionalisation or globalisation of the communications function resulting in multi-location and multi-lingual teams and audiences. A balance needs to be carefully struck between the importance of communicating in the local style, and ensuring a consistently high standard across the business.
The discussion on skills and standards led to a concern over declining academic standards, and wondering where the business communicators of the future would be drawn from – university degrees, or from other functions within the business. It was felt that the best writers were not choosing public relations or communications degrees, and that entry scores into these degrees were too low. This suggests that the current generation of students are finding a communications qualification or career less interesting or relevant, posing a challenge to the profession to enhance its own image and reputation.
A final challenge and opportunity is becoming proficient with the proliferation of digital, social and video communications channels. The profession needs to improve its digital literacy, including internal governance and external regulation, social media monitoring and intelligence. The new channels and increasingly visual styles of communication challenge the profession to be as comfortable curating as creating content, and be as proficient communicating via images and videos as the written word. However, it was still generally felt that good writing skills remain the gold standard, and other communications spring from this foundation.
The key challenges and opportunities facing the business communications profession were summed up as
- audience cynicism has ratcheted up in recent years making effective communication more difficult;
- leaner teams are driving communicators to become coaches;
- basic literacy, grammar, writing and editing skills seen to be in decline;
- communicators must hold themselves to high standards to expect the same of others;
- where English is a second language, or local tone and style of communicating is different, a balance must be struck between appropriately reflecting that style and maintaining consistently high standards across all markets; and
- the relevance and attractiveness of the profession to school-leavers needs to be improved, to encourage the best and the brightest to pursue qualifications and careers (or transition in mid-career).