Over the past few years, I’ve often questioned why so many communication professionals – both in-house and in PR agencies – were slow and hesitant to adapt to the dramatic industry changes sparked by social technology. There are many logical explanations for this lag: caution about legal issues, concern about a public misstep, fears about rogue employees, a distaste for real (and potentially negative) interaction with consumers…the list goes on. But based on recent research I’ve seen the explanation may be more basic: most PR professionals simply don’t have the social media skills and expertise to be effective (or confident) advocates for change.

This excellent post by friend and former colleague Richard Binhammer provides a good summary of the skills gap in marketing and across the general US employee population. Indeed, the problem is not limited to communication professionals. However, this is where the problem is most acute and noteworthy, since our jobs dictate that we provide cogent, informed counsel and support on digital engagement with both external and internal audiences. By some estimates in these studies, only about 10 percent of workers truly understand digital technology well enough to incorporate that knowledge into their work and planning. For more background on the PR skill gap see this article and this study.

Even millennials, who tend to be much more tech-savvy than older workers and use most major social platforms every day, have their blind spots. Though younger workers have grown up with the mobile Internet and have likely posted most of their lives online, they lack the strategic savvy and broader perspective required to use their knowledge in a business context. Put another way, they understand the technology, but not the PR business. This article in Fortune provides a good snapshot of the millennial strengths and weaknesses.

All of this evidence reflects what I’ve seen over the past 10 or so years as both a communication executive and consultant. We are falling behind in a digital world. Badly. Events like SXSW, the tip of the spear in digital innovation, suggest that everybody is fully immersed in digital media and driving cutting-edge social media strategies in marketing, advertising and communications. But I don’t think the folks at SXSW reflect the average PR professional, or company – particularly outside the tech havens of Silicon Valley, Portland and similar global outposts.

Leaders who are socially savvy and proactive are extremely rare, the proverbial unicorn. A surprising number of communication teams seem to rely on one or two in-house digital gurus – typically social media managers, digital designers or marketing experts – who are often over-taxed and overwhelmed. Lacking adequate depth and breadth of critical social skills, many communication teams rely on a range of outside experts ranging across digital disciplines to cobble together programs: web design, platform vendor/technology, visual/video content, editorial content, social community management, research and analytics, and so forth. I’ve rarely seen all this requisite expertise housed within a PR agency or team, much less inside the same organization. Though the outsourced virtual “best team” approach may be effective in the short-term, it doesn’t support the efficient, dedicated work required to plan and execute a robust digital strategy.

There is urgent need to address this social skill gap; the credibility, relevance and effectiveness of the communication/PR business are at stake. The solutions are obvious, if not easy or inexpensive: training in social media history and skills; built-in time to participate in relevant seminars and meetings; progressive BYOD and social media policies; reverse mentorship programs; recruitment of tech-savvy professionals; mandatory boot-camps on digital metrics; and, alignment with related disciplines (i.e. digital design, intranet technology, social analytics, CRM.) Smart communication leaders will take steps to ensure they – and their teams – become the social media experts their clients expect and need to be successful in the digital age. Without making progress in the social skill gap, I fear PR may simply be pushed out by smart marketing or technology firms (and teams) who pull together the requisite social capabilities.

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