Communications professions are more dynamic today than they have ever been. And with the shifting media landscape, the plethora of channels and digital tools, and the influence of audience preferences and expectations, public relations practitioners in the field must continuously evolve or face antiquation.

Joe Cohen, national chair for Public Relations Society of America, suggests that learning and adaptation must be embraced. “In a media environment where constant change is the norm, and where the role of the PR professional continues to expand and evolve, ongoing professional development will be increasingly essential for PR pros across all levels of experience,” Cohen says. “The lines between marketing, advertising, and PR have blurred, as have the lines between journalism and brand/organization-generated content.”

The digital influence is significant. Consider the top 10 job trends on in summer 2014. The search terms that appear in the most job listings relate to web technologies, mobile media, and data analytics.

Areas of Focus for Professional Development

  • Learn to code. Statistics icon and author Nate Silver suggests that the next generation of communications professionals will be expected to code. He has been known to accurately predict other things so it is at least worth considering.
  • Become fluent in mobile and social media. Both of these have changed the way that publicists pitch and journalist discover story ideas. Now experience with social media strategy is a required competency on a résumé. Anything less than years of work and complete comprehension act as a strike against an applicant. Over 50 percent of American adults digest digital content on a smartphone, and we should be prepared for that figure to increase.
  • Get comfortable with data. Analytics is nothing new in the communications world. But it has developed a lot from five years ago when article clippings and page views were the primary key performance indicators. Publicists are now expected to demonstrate a return on investment measured in more than one metric. They must use analytics software and reasoning to do it. PR job descriptions without mentions of Google Analytics, Hootsuite Analytics, or Moz Analytics are becoming increasingly rare.

Identifying Opportunities for Professional Development

Of course, professional development is an investment of finite resources. The ROI comes up often when talking to Lorianne Weston, accreditation and education director at the Canadian Public Relations Society. She frames professional development and its value with familiar idioms. If you don’t know where you are going, all roads look the same, she suggests.

“I receive phone calls from young people asking what they should study for a public relations career path and what steps they should take,” Weston says. “I suggest that they look at job postings in the field and identify which jobs appeal to them in terms of where they would like to see themselves in three to five years, then make a note of the qualifications that are listed. After viewing a number of these postings, they have a much clearer idea of what skills and competencies they need and then can determine how best to acquire them.”

It is also worth contacting people who currently hold those dream jobs. They might be more willing to help young professionals than many realize, even providing ongoing guidance. Weston recommends starting with an informational interview, which could lead to a mentorship if the pairing feels like a good fit.

Professional development opportunities, both in terms of informal research with more senior professionals or structured courses, might be encouraged or sponsored by employers. Kathy Cripps, president of the Council of Public Relations Firms, attests that all parties win with professional development.

“It benefits the businesses because they need well-trained and skilled people in order to compete,” she says, “and it has obvious benefits for the individual, who, if they want to have a prosperous career, must keep their skills sharp, particularly when it comes to understanding and using new digital platforms.”

Luckily, opportunities for professional development and career advancement are available. The Council of Public Relations FirmsPRSA, and the Canadian Public Relations Society all have resources and ways to learn. Harvard offers a handful of professional development programs in related areas. Professionals simply need to weigh their options and make an investment.