Two Cultures – Key competencies for future communications managers

If you consider the future of communications management against the backdrop of today’s digitalized media and digital value creation in business, you’re inevitably confronted with the question: what skills and qualifications will the next generation of PR professionals require? The issue is complicated by the longstanding and ever-controversial “nature vs. nurture” question: in this case, whether one can become a good communicator through education and experience or whether one must be born with the necessary talent.

In fact the job requirements of a communications manager – to borrow terms from John Neville Keynes (1852-1949) – demand a combination of positive science (the rational perspective: the world as it is), normative science (the normative perspective: the world as it ought to be) and art (how do I move from what is to what ought to be). Put simply: a good PR manager needs to be a scientist, artist and craftsman. Not many successful communications professionals today would deny that comms managers require both effective training, in both theory and practice, as well as the abovementioned PR “gene”.

In today’s world of digital communication – with our algorithm-based data analysis and the supposed trend towards predictable results through social engineering – the weight appears to be shifting towards the more rational side of the spectrum.

This calls to mind a trend identified by the British physicist and writer C.P. Snow back in 1959 as part of his epochal Lecture in Cambridge entitled “Two Cultures”. Snow argued that intellectual life in the West is deeply split between a culture of science focused on changing the world and a culture of the humanities focused on understanding the world. He doubted whether these two cultures could communicate effectively with one another; nevertheless, Snow thought that a successful future depended on being able to combine our rational, creative drive with a more empathetic understanding of the world. Today in the age of the critical stakeholder, we know that Snow was right.

Form versus content

With the digitalization of communications, there is an additional calibration being made today: that between form (aesthetics) and function (content). As with previous innovations in media, digital media today – primarily the hardware and software on which they are based – have a strong aesthetic component which takes on a dynamic of its own. The American bestselling author and avowed boycotter of the Apple universe Jonathan Franzen, in his brilliant analysis of Karl Kraus’ essays, refers to “a more contemporary version of Kraus’s dichotomy” – between Mac and PC: “Isn’t the essence of the Apple product that you achieve coolness simply by virtue of owning it? … Whereas, when you’re working on some clunky, utilitarian PC, the only thing to enjoy is the quality of your work itself”. Another way to phrase it: high-quality content that truly satisfies the needs of the respective audience requires no bells and whistles.

When considering the skills required by future communications managers, one should strike a balance between Keynes’s creative drive and empathetic interpretation, as well as a balance between Kraus’s form (aesthetics) and function (content). The former holds the answer to the question of how to secure the future of PR in the age of opinion-making algorithms; as futurist Gerd Leonhard says: we need to bring our androrithms (traits such as empathy and compassion) up to speed with our algorithms. The latter points to the distinction between ornamentation and substance as the basis of our work as communications professionals. Robert M. Pirsig, the recently deceased author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, put it quite succinctly when he wrote: “Quality isn’t method. It’s the goal toward which method is aimed.” This remains the secret to successful communications work.

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