Advocacy Career Guide Inside the Profession

Mentoring in the Digital Age Requires Real Communication

Social media has hit public relations and the world by storm. It has shown its effectiveness through campaign fundraising (President Obama) and the Middle East uprisings.

However, the full potential, application and usefulness of social media and social networking as a business tool has yet to be fully developed.

Organizations are eager to engage in social media, but often lack full understanding of the return-on-investment (ROI) and applicability. The business applicability of social media is still largely in a “trend state,” rather than a fully developed business tool that provides predictability.

For all its enormous benefits, the social media platform comes with challenges. Even as the medium changes how we work, we are at the same time learning that some things cannot be replaced by technology.

We now speak in 140-character sentences, misuse the English language by finding shortcuts to words (e.g., r = are, c = see, u = you) and are basically inventing a new culture around nascent digital tools.

Ironically, this wonderful communication method hampers face-to-face and voice-to-voice contact with employees, customers and clients.

For example, it might feel good to send off an angry email or post a hasty message on Facebook, but such behavior within the digital landscape can create misunderstandings and backfire.

How many times have you gotten such an email when the person was only a couple of doors down from you? And almost everyone has experienced the “digital spokesperson” who guides you through a mirage of options when you only want to talk to someone in person.

Hiding Behind Technology

It’s all too easy to hide behind technology and lose the art of face-to-face communications, thereby robbing us of the ability to read facial expressions, see body language and hear tonality of voice — all of which can drastically alter the tenor of communication.

While social media allows us to reach others at the click of a button without adding to the cost of our phone bills, thanks to Skype and other emerging technologies, we can now communicate face-to-face and voice-to-voice across thousands of miles and around the world.

Everything we do and say communicates something. As public relations leaders, we know our success is due largely to our ability to communicate in many forms, but most importantly, face-to-face and voice-to-voice communications.

PRSA’s members tell us the same thing in surveys: that as much as they value the information and resources we provide, face-to-face meetings with peers at Chapter meetings are equally important — for getting to know each other and for learning from each other.

The Value of Mentoring Others

When it comes to learning, the art of communication and the need to mentor others is as important today as ever before. Why it is that 20-somethings can’t seem to communicate with 50-somethings and vice-versa? Why is it some professionals never learn how to work a room?

That’s not generational; that’s digital overload.

One of the most satisfying experiences I‘ve had in my career is the privilege of being a mentor. Mentoring means allowing someone to pick your brain; it improves listening skills and fosters positive professional growth.

In the digital age, there is great need for mentors. While mentoring is an implied responsibility to all managers, it is an art, as well as a science, and should be specifically included in management and leadership job descriptions to help foster a greater understanding of all forms of communications, particularly the much needed face-to-face form.

There is no substitute for mentoring, and oddly enough, social media doesn’t come close to replacing it. Mentoring requires a special effort to be available to your mentees for face-to-face interaction to share mistakes and struggles, as well as success.

Even in long-distance mentoring, picking up the phone or Skyping to hear and see each other enhances communications. In the hyperactive digital age, we all need to make more of an effort and commitment to invest in the next generation of leaders.

Digital media is a tool; face-to-face communication is the builder for mentors who hold the key to long-term success.

How are you using technology to mentor the next generation of professionals?

Barbara J. Whitman, MBA, APR, Fellow PRSA, is a member of the PRSA Board of Directors and president of Honolulu-based BJW Public Relations.

About the author

BJ Whitman


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