Training and Development: Management matters

The PR industry has a reputation for poor business management, but training in this area can benefit individuals, firms and the wider industry, says Cathy Wallace.

The ability to steer a client through a major crisis or secure the prestigious front-page slot are prized attributes for a PR professional. But what happens when that same executive finds herself promoted from the front line of an agency to being in charge of its bottom line? A sound understanding of business management is vital to the success of any company and yet it is a skill all too often overlooked in the PR industry.

This could be because those who set up PR agencies do so because they are good at PR - not necessarily because they are good at running businesses. Shelley Fletcher, founder of Firegrass Communications and a recently qualified CIPR chartered practitioner, says: 'I undertook training on business finance, business studies and team leading. It is one thing to be good at PR - it is quite another to set up a PR business.'

'The biggest challenge for PR agencies is scale,' says Octavius Black, MD of training provider The Mind Gym. 'There are hundreds of agencies with fewer than ten people, and precious few that make it any bigger.

'The reason for this is simple; founders focus on winning new business and exercising their craft, rather than building a team that can do it for them.'

It is not just people management skills that are needed to run a successful agency, division or team. Individuals also need to be equipped with financial and operational know-how, as well as an ability to talk business at senior level. 'If PR is to realise its potential in terms of strategic impact, senior practitioners must speak the language of the boardroom and understand the fundamentals of business strategy,' says Jay O'Connor, president of the CIPR. 'Those PR agency heads or in-house leaders who understand business strategy are more able to engage with clients at board level, because they understand the challenges and decisions faced by those running organisations.'

Better management can benefit the PR industry at every level, from the team working with a new client and getting to know that business or organisation, to the external perception of the industry as a whole.

Francis Ingham, director-general of the PRCA, says the association's Consultancy Management Standard (CMS) audit was introduced in 1998 as a response to a 'perceived lack of standards in the industry'. 'There was a lot of creativity in the industry, but there wasn't any kind of business management - the kind you would expect to find in accountancy, management consultancies or law practices,' he says.

Things have improved since the CMS was introduced, but the industry still has a way to go. As PRWeek columnist Ian Monk pointed out (PRWeek, 29 May), accountants, lawyers and management consultants do not often find themselves chasing clients for late payments.

'Management consultants have the expectation that clients will pay X amount on X date - if they do not, they walk away,' says Ingham. 'In PR, if the client is not willing to pay X amount on X date, more often than not the movement comes from the agency, not the client.'

Abigail Harrison, MD of Thebluedoor, put her agency through the PRCA's CMS audit when it was just one year old. 'As a start-up company in Surrey, I felt it was vital to do everything we could to help us get a competitive edge,' she says. 'It was certainly beneficial when it came to systems, HR, finance, mission, vision and values. It served to reassure us that we were doing everything right.

'At the time, we were a firm of three and I sat there thinking there was no way that we would be able to cope with the amount of work required to get through it - but we managed it and are looking forward to our next audit next year.'

There is a wealth of management training available to PR agencies and in-house teams, including courses run by the CIPR and PRCA, as well as external providers such as The Mind Gym, which runs PRWeek's sister title Management Today's Management Masterclass training series. Here we take a closer look at some of these options.

EXPERT VIEW

Matthew Gwyther, Editor, Management Today (sister title to PRWeek)

All good businesses require proper management. But trying to establish precisely what good management is - where the magic elixir can be found - has kept me in a job for a decade, and I'm still not completely sure where the Holy Grail lies. You know it when you see it and you know when it's absent. But I've now got a few ideas about what works and a number are contained in our new book, The Management Masterclass, and the associated workshops that bring it to life.

At MT, we meet a lot of PR consultancies - huge, medium-sized and small. I receive about 300 emails a day from them. It's a vibrant sector where rapid growth is common. PROs are natural communicators.

The best enjoy a sound measure of emotional intelligence too. But it is surprising that, while many are excellent at identifying the challenges and problems of clients, they often come a cropper when growing their own businesses.

PR entrepreneurs are often great when it comes to the restless type-A drive that is necessary to get a company up and running, but they are often not so hot at the skills required to keep the wheels on the road.

In fact, management often bores them rigid and leaves them frustrated at the human frailty of others. They are sometimes poor listeners and often believe they know it all. That's when the problems start. Most management training, however, is dire.

The masterclass is a remedy to this: engaging, vibrant and unbelievably useful when it comes to getting the job of running a business done.

Trust me - I'm a journalist.

GRAYLING TOOK THE MIND GYM SESSIONS

Name: Sam Williams
Position: Financial director
Agency: Grayling
Training attended: Mind Gym sessions

We had a series of Mind Gym classes for the leadership team before our appraisals took place. The sessions focused particularly on giving good feedback and motivating people in preparation for the appraisals.

PR is a people business and people will be promoted based on their PR skills, but it is essential they have good management skills too. It is something people need to learn; you can't just throw people into managing other people without giving them training.

The sessions on giving feedback were particularly helpful. PR people can be overly kind or try to be kind by not giving constructive criticism.

But this does not help staff; they will not learn if they do not know what they are doing wrong.

The training helps people who are prone to micro-management too, because you are not just learning to manage your staff better, but are helping them to manage other people. You have to be able to trust staff and know they will apply the same standards when making decisions as you would yourself.

We are really focusing on our leadership team at Grayling in the second half of this year. We are planning to run whole sessions on learning for leaders and more of the business-savvy skills that do not automatically just come to people. They may be brilliant at PR, but that may not help when it comes to tough decisions with procurement and staff.

IRIS PR TOOK THE PRCA CMS AUDIT

Name: Laura Mahon
Position: Director
Agency: Iris PR
Training attended: PRCA CMS audit

I joined Iris from a larger agency, where there were lots of processes already in place. But when you are a small agency, you need to make sure you think about everything you need to do.

The audit was brilliant for us.

We went through everything - people management, financial processing, new business, all the aspects of running a business. The auditor was friendly and gave us good advice on what we needed to do.

I believe having this kind of management training gives robustness to an industry that can be perceived as being a bit flaky. It is important to look at all the aspects of running a business, as if your team is working more effectively, this will also help save money in the long term.

PR professionals are people-pleasers a lot of the time, but you need to have the day-to-day running of your business in place too. It's the little things, such as organising your filing systems, that will help make an agency as efficient as it can be.

The most important thing we learned was organisation of the day-to-day filing. When you start an agency, you are almost running to stand still, you're trying to do as much as you can and impress clients. Doing this audit made us step back and say: Where is everything? Is everything in place? Are we communicating with clients? Are our people processes the best they can be?

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