No, Jane Sarkin (http://tinyurl.com/8vn9o5l) has not been laid off, that plum job at Vanity Fair complete with enough corporate freebies to equip a home (and a second home) is not actually up for grabs, your place of work may not actually be about to change to Sixth Avenue, New York.

But thousands of jobs matching precisely that of the features editor at one of the World’s most iconic lifestyle magazines are up for grabs in PR agencies across the globe. In fact demand for such skills has never been higher; the job description could read:

· Must be able to predict and capture coming trends and zeitgeists

· Must be able to analyse the impact of those trends through meaningful cultural, economic and social insights

· Must be able to definitively prove the existence of the same through quantitative and qualitative examples

· Must be able to coherently and compellingly identify and explain the difference between short term fads or crazes (skinny jeans) and long term shifts in style and taste (environmental activism)

· Must be able to illustrate both with precision, style and wit with respect to consumer behaviour, attitudes and lifestyle choices

· Must be able to provoke, entertain and inform in equal measure

The above skills are now at a premium because the PR dynamic has completed a shift; from ‘pitching’ and ‘placing’ our clients’ stories (stories, built around their particular brand of toothpaste or enterprise software), PR agencies are now tasked with ensuring their clients’ brands are included in other people’s stories. This shift has (or should have) transformed the way PR agencies work. Product features and competitive positioning have become subordinate to a genuine understanding of how these products and brands actually touch people’s lives and influence their conversations.

And the starting point for this is not the product or feature; on the contrary, the starting point is people’s conversations. In exactly the same way a features editor must surf the wave of popular culture and conversations, providing interesting and entertaining insights on the same, PR agencies must find a way to fit their clients’ products and services into these stories. Brands (ie products) no longer drive the media agenda; successful ones find a way of exploiting it.

This could mean that the latest episode of Desperate Housewives in HBO International could provide the ideal platform to highlight the trend towards luxury suburbs in India; what George Clooney’s Up In The Air reveals about the stress and pressures of business travel (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Up_in_the_Air_(2009_film)) in the US; and what Yahoo’s appointment of Marissa Mayer as CEO (http://tinyurl.com/9kyldwp)reveals about work/life balance and the ability to really ‘have it all’ in Europe. Feature writers, columnists and editors are absolutely certain to be covering these trends; the agency’s role is to ensure – where appropriate – their clients’ brands are included in the conversation in (a positive manner, of course).

The increasing impact of social media makes the parallel between the PR agency role and that of a features editor even more obvious. Bloggers and people who tweet are notoriously suspicious of brand-led rhetoric and less likely to participate in conversations driven by brands than those which are organic and perceived as being ‘genuine’. Geeks all over the globe basked in a new-found prestige following the successful landing of NASA’s Curiosity on Mars, and not merely because of the amazing technology at work. One of the young engineers in mission control, Bobak Ferdowsi (http://tinyurl.com/d7cewhz), became an instant geek hero with his exotic haircuts and infectious Tweeter feed (https://twitter.com/tweetsoutloud) which now boasts over 50,000 followers. Smart lifestyle brands can cash in on this type of ‘organic’ trend; does this mean that brain outstrips brawn even in an Olympic year, is geek fashion no longer an oxymoron, can a physics qualification really beat a sports scholarship to attract the ladies? All of these conversations can be extended and leveraged by brands. The key is to move quickly and carefully (ideally, with a sense of discretion and humour) introduce the brand. As President Obama so ably demonstrated (http://tinyurl.com/8cs3o3b), unlike marketing or advertising, PR/social media has the advantage of instant response. This means brands can react and surf on the conversation of the moment and – where appropriate – associate themselves with the ensuing dialogue.

This could take the form of engaging in social media dialogue or proactively pitching a feature on the trend ‘du jour’; in short, agencies need to behave increasingly like feature writers.

This logic is not limited to the fun, consumer end of the PR agency – you know, the one with crates of Red Bull and Xbox’s Dance Central (http://tinyurl.com/8zlycuv) on permanent play. It is equally relevant to corporate or technology clients. What do the travails of Barclays (http://tinyurl.com/9uafbwe) and Standard and Chartered (http://tinyurl.com/8j8oqco) reveal about attitudes and practice towards corporate governance in truly globalized businesses? What lessons can be learned, what tools, processes, services (brands) can be introduced into the conversation? What does the proliferation of Cloud technology mean for competitive positioning? Does data securely residing in the Cloud render the concept of geography meaningless; will low cost markets soon become high value ones? What products and services (from international contracting companies to security providers) could be associated with this discussion?

Once again, the perspective is squarely that of a feature writer; the trend/story comes first, the product association second.

The ‘feature editor’ perspective is one which I’ll be investigating in detail in later posts, but I believe it remains the most fundamental shift in PR since (and probably because of) the advent of social media. Agencies which can – literally – think and write like features editors are going to be the ones best placed to drive visibility for their clients over the coming years.

I can’t promise the number of freebies typically associated with a Conde Naste features writer, but behaving like one from an agency perspective will certainly bring its own rewards.

Post by: Roger Darashah

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(alt. title@ “how Gary Neville ever managed to play for Manchester United”)

Wanted; serious media hound, must possess exquisite writing skills which are perfectly adapted and adaptable to the needs of our clients (from corporate brochure to rap), must enjoy granular, detailed work such as formatting and proof reading, must possess and be prepared to nurture a deep pool of media contacts (from daily newspapers to the most obscure subscription trade title) and – most of all – must be prepared to take direction and work as part of an extremely structured team. Hobbies and interests? If you must, but see below for hours of work; and make sure it’s nothing too dangerous as we don’t provision much time for illness or injury. Hours of work, 9h until 18h (that’s just the weekends, we reserve the right to finish later during weekdays). In short, we are looking for a PR apprentice who is capable of and prepared to learn the roles of our esteemed industry.

Also wanted; social media guru, must live and breathe new media, possess a large and lively personal social media profile, must be prepared to improvise, work independently and convey the essential in 140 characters or less. Neither structured pros nor proof-reading nor formatting are likely to feature heavily as part of the role. Working hours are not structured, but you will be expected to deliver insight and response in real time from your mobile (wherever you may be; whether queuing for lunch or moshing at Glastonbury). Speaking of moshing; do people still do that? We are very interested in your hobbies and interests you see. In fact, your outside interests could actually be good for business, especially that of our clients; particularly if you regularly blog about them. Oh, yes we are quite relaxed about your blogging and Tweeting on company time; in fact, depending on your aforementioned outside interests, we’ll actually require you to furiously blog and Tweet on behalf of our clients. To summarise, just about as far a departure from the traditional PR apprenticeship as you could imagine.

And here’s the dilemma . . . agencies need both of these people. Despite the demise of Rupert (or perhaps because of it) traditional print and online media is not about to disappear. The proven skills required to deliver compelling PR will still be required; and that includes an attention to detail and pure copywriting skills. However, agencies also need social media experts to help give a voice to their clients’ products and services, to help position them across the increasing range of user generated content platforms and to continually monitor online opinion and feedback on the same.

So what’s the solution? I realize that this will prompt hails of “cop out” but I actually believe that there are two approaches to this dilemma. The challenge is basically to figure out which to apply to which candidate:

· Approach 1. The apprenticeship; social media mind sets should be coached and trained to deliver a minimal level of detail, copywriting and structure. They should also be required to undertake ‘due diligence’ in terms of media knowledge, press contact and drinks with the usual array of trade press misfits (insert your own).

“Traditional media mindsets” should likewise be supported to understand and participate in a minimum level of social media life (i.e.. on a personal level through Twitter, online communities etc.) and learn to effectively select and communicate the benefits of various platforms.

· Approach 2. Play to their strengths; in footballing terms, Gary Neville was never going to make a centre forward (despite his finishing), and Romario never likely to track back and defend. They were specialists, and what amazing specialists they turned out to be (well, Romario).

While Manchester United and FC Barcelona can afford such luxuries, can PR agencies afford employees who are not going to “track back”? In this case, adhere to deadlines, write up minutes from meetings or, even, proof read? I believe that agencies can employ specialists; but on certain conditions:

  • The size of the agency or department; while such social media specialists are great within a structured and functioning team, they are going to be of less use in a start up environment where staff are expected to do everything from cold calling prospects to making the tea.
  • What is the social media specialism? Does it fulfill a current or future client need, is it really a specialism we are talking about, or simply someone who never learned to punctuate
  • Does this person possess experience or knowledge that is not currently covered by the existing more generalist staff. This is a vital consideration if you decide to accommodate a genuine specialist, in order to avoid resentment amongst the incumbent team.
  • Finally, above all, do you want to see this person working for the competition? If not than you’d better him or her!

So that’s the agency dilemma and my dual approach (cop out) to addressing it. Specialists (particularly social media ones) can cause disruption and resentment within a team due to the nature and relative informality of their work. They can also prove a secret weapon for agencies who can genuinely harness them.

I’d love to hear any feedback on the dilemma and my suggested approach; at what size can a team/department start considering social media gurus as stand-alone hires? How can you tell if the candidate before you requires Approach 1 or Approach 2? What’s the best way to incorporate them into an existing team to maximize performance and minimize disruption? How should they be trained and measured?

If nothing else, let me know your thoughts on my incorporation of Gary Neville in yet another blog about PR!