Hiring a digital person for a PA position

January 3, 2011

A few acquaintances looking to recruit people with digital expertise for positions in Public Affairs have recently asked me what sort of profile I’d recommend. Not the easiest of questions: digital PA people are few and far between, given that it’s a new field, so candidates usually have to be selected based on a good balance of skills gained from other disciplines, rather than spot on relevant experience. Plus there are many areas within digital which are relevant to PA – strategy, intelligence gathering and analysis, community engagement, operational, measurement etc. – and one person won’t usually cover the lot.

Nonetheless, here are my thoughts on what I’d look out for if I were looking for a first digital PA hire with a balanced skill-set, but primarily focused on strategy and a good understanding of how to integrate traditional PA practices and digital.

Digital PA is not as “whacky” as online consumer PR, digital marketing and the like. Most issues are niche which means you tend not to have a critical mass of people to play around with, which tends to be where the whacky stuff comes in (community building, user generated content etc.) Don’t get me wrong, campaigns within PA can potentially include the full suite of online tactics, but usually not. The key is usually to not get too carried away: have a good listening set-up, sound content strategy aligned to your offline narrative, and a search strategy. Sometimes more, but often not.

For this reason, I’d argue the following:

Don’t go for the super eager early adopter: the person who is on 12 social networks and has 15,000 followers on Twitter. They’ll sound like they know their stuff, and they probably will. However, as good as they’d be at other online pursuits, they may well struggle with digital PA as they’ll likely look too much at how to harness the power of networks. For tiny niche issues on which you’re trying to communicate subtly (and slightly below the radar), you don’t need that just yet. In fact, in digital PA, it might even hinder the more measured, cerebral approach which is often required. If you happen to find a geek, rather one who is into politics then technology rather than the other way around.

Beware of the PA professional who has developed a sudden interest in digital. If they’ve grown to realise that government relations plus the odd press release is the Public Affairs of a bygone age and comms is becoming increasingly important (including digital) then fine. If it’s just digital, beware: they’ll tempt you through their mastery of PA and enthusiasm for digital, but they’re unlikely to have a holistic view of communications in which government relations and digital are just two elements amongst many others.

Likewise, beware of the PA professional who has dealt with ICT issues and thus thinks they can do digital. Some agencies have (bizarrely) put digital communications under the remit of their ICT experts assuming that given that you’re dealing with technology, surely it’s all the same. These people know what Facebook and Google are up to but won’t know how to reach an audience through them.

Instead, do look out for generalists who like communications and politics and appreciate where the two intertwine. They should be comfortable with technology, but not obsessed with it. Where are you most likely to find them? Probably not in politics or digital marketing. Possibly in existing PA roles with a strong generalist comms remit rather than government relations. Most likely, in media and PR.

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