By Jenna Wenkoff

As a young professional looking to break into crisis communications, I often wonder what the necessary skills are for the job. To answer this question I interviewed James Hoggan of Hoggan and Associates, one of Vancouver’s top crisis communication firms for over 25 years. They had clients ranging from UBC to Shell and won the PRSA Silver Anvil for Best Crisis Management Business in North America. Having personally hired hundreds for his firm, I knew James could help.

James Hoggan says the world of public issues is essentially about conflict resolution, making it an important subject to study.

Conflict Resolution and Psychology

James believes that understanding human psychology is essential for effective communication. I asked him where to learn this skill. 

“Social sciences of some sort. Develop an understanding of social psychology and how people actually think. What is the role of emotion in how people think? You can see with the stuff going on in the US right now how complicated human thinking can be.”

He specifically emphasizes the importance of conflict resolution skills. 

“The world of public issues is essentially about conflict resolution. Disagreements are seen as threats when people are in a fight or flight state. If you want to be a good communicator, you have to move people from these unreasonable states to communicating.” 

He recommends taking courses in conflict resolution such as the Complicating the Narrative Training Program by the Solutions Journalism Network. Based on Peter Coleman’s research from Columbia University, this course explains how emphasizing narrative complexity results in less polarization. But ‘wait’ I hear you thinking, isn’t PR about simplifying narratives? Not necessarily. 

Coleman found that when two participants who strongly disagree over an issue were presented with nuanced reading material, the discussion that followed was relatively amicable and productive. 

As odd as it sounds, the ability to simply explain complexity might be an essential skill for communicators.  

Writing and Working Hard

Although James thinks PR courses are great, he often hired people who had not formally studied PR. 

“I would like to see someone who can write, who can think, who pays attention to politics, who has people skills and who is involved in the community. Subject matter background can be good, but it’s not as important as you might think. I have hired people with law degrees, master’s degrees and business degrees. Anything that shows me they are smart and know how to work hard.”

He also believes that strong writing skills are essential. 

“It’s also really important to know how to do high-end writing. Try English classes and do a lot of university level writing. Writing is about storytelling, it’s about English, it’s about grammar. Being well read is very important.”

James mentioned that he reads books ranging in topic from fiction such as Nineteen Eighty-Four (which he can’t believe I’ve never read) to contemporary academic philosophy. He recommends getting as much reading and writing in as possible, and making sure your writing is clear and concise. 

“Most people don’t have enough time for complicated, so the job of a comms person is to make ideas and information easier for people to understand and absorb. A Lot of people are smart but not necessarily familiar with the area you are working in. There is a natural resistance to complexity. Help people with the fact that they don’t have a lot of time to get into complexity.”

It was interesting when James said that people don’t have time for complexity, and that adding complexity reduces polarization. To paraphrase, if you want to change minds about controversial issues, your key message might be that the issue is complex. This key message however would be written and communicated as simply as possible.

You Can’t Be Overqualified

During our conversation James kept repeating the phrase, “You can’t be overqualified.” I could tell I was interviewing a professional communicator since he managed to sneak a key message in.

There is a lot of competition in crisis communications, especially at high-end firms. Learn as much as you can about psychology, writing and working hard, and you might set yourself apart. 

Courses That James Recommends:  

Complicating the Narratives Training Program: Created by the Solutions Journalism Network, this course teaches how emphasizing narrative complexity results in less polarization.

Complicating the Narratives by Solutions Journalism Network

Masters of Science Conflict Resolution: This program will demonstrate that you have essential skills for communications and that you can work hard. 

Master’s Degree in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University

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