PEOPLE: Will training be first victim of recession? Alastair Ray reports on whether PROs will learn from the lessons of the Nineties

It's crunch time for the PR industry as it asks itself whether the

good intentions of the late Nineties can be maintained in the tougher

environment of the early 21st century. Training has traditionally been

the Cinderella of the industry, allowed a glimpse of the good life when

things are going well, but slung out of the house when the going gets

tough.



'The problem that we had in the recession of the early Nineties was that

people just didn't train. They were too busy laying off staff,' recalls

Ian Metherell, director in charge of PR training at Communication Skills

Europe (CSE). 'The test then was basically survival. Those who did

survive are around today,' recalls Lehmann Communications chief

executive Ronel Lehmann.



However, this time around, there are signs that attitudes are

different.



Jon Aarons, IPR president-elect, argues that the generation of

consultancy bosses who led the industry at that time found it harder to

justify expenditure on training - something that's now changed. 'Firms

are run by a new generation that went through the experience themselves

of struggling to get training and not being satisfied by an on-the-job,

university-of-life approach,' he says.



The PR business of 2001 is very different from the fledgling industry

that entered the last recession. The industry is estimated to be twice

the size it was then, employing approximately 48,000 people across the

agency, in-house and public sector worlds. With the added arrival of

more human resources expertise in the consultancy sector, there's also

recognition that training pays dividends both in terms of moral and

staff retention.



'At least key agency staff are being reassured that their company is

prepared to invest in their future,' says Metherell. 'When an

organisation is focused on its people, training should be a core

tactic,' adds David Drobis, Ketchum global chief executive 'If it's

something you genuinely value, you continue to be committed to it.'



The rapid change in technology and software over the last decade, and

the skills required to use it, also mean it simply isn't possible to axe

training in the way that it used to be. 'You have to train people a lot

more because these new tools are more sophisticated than ever before,'

says Lewis PR CEO Chris Lewis.



There are also those who point out that without an impressive supply of

talented new recruits and highly trained professionals, the PR

industry's place at the top table of marketing communications could be

threatened.



'It could have serious consequences because there are all sorts of

people eyeing our space, such as the management consultancies,' says

Aarons.



'Consultancies and in-house departments have got to make it a top

priority to plug into the best people at each level and not allow a hole

to open up.'



However, Lewis warns that the training budgets of today could still be

threatened, if companies retreat to the short-term view of the past: 'In

a recession there are lots of companies that make people redundant and

cut back on training to improve margins because everyone else is doing

it. Worryingly, they can get away with it.'



There are those who argue that the repercussions of the last recession

have been with the industry every since. Recruitment restrictions in the

early Nineties, plus a lack of experienced staff combined with the high

demand of the dot.com boom, all led to a shortage of qualified people as

the industry expanded.



'In the Nineties all the big agencies that had formal graduate training

programmes cut them completely,' says Liz Fraser, Edelman human

resources director. 'There were no new recruits coming into the industry

and when we got to the mid-Nineties, we'd lost a whole raft of good

account managers.'



Although those who entered the job market once things had improved

experienced rapid promotion, that too led to difficulties. People

started to become account managers with just 18 months to two years

experience, rather than the two-and-a-half to three years that was the

norm. 'You just couldn't find any well-trained people. You were finding

people with the job titles but they just didn't have the experience or

expertise to back it up,' she says.



Fraser argues that this slash and burn approach was also exacerbated by

social changes. 'In the Nineties people were getting more interested in

the work-life balance. A lot of women, particularly those with young

children, weren't prepared to do the agency rat-race,' she says.



Arguments that the actual costs of training contributed to its demise in

hard times may also be wide of the mark, according to Terrence Collis,

now Lloyds TSB director of group corporate communications but Lowe Bell

Financial CEO in the early nineties.



'It's much more to do with the indirect costs, which require your own

resources, at a time when you're probably trying to run as lean as

possible,' he says.



Collis also casts doubt on whether the recruitment freeze is entirely to

blame for the problems of the early Nineties. 'We went into a period of

growth (after the recession). It's always difficult if there's a period

of staff growth, because there's competition for good people.'



The common perception is that the fierce cuts to training budgets took

place across the entire industry. But while agency life was indeed hard

hit by the prolonged recession, in-house and public sector staff were,

to a certain extent, shielded from some of the excess.



David McNeill, Arts Council of England head of press and public

relations, says the attractiveness of working in the public sector may

even have increased, because it was still possible for new recruits to

get training and a higher level of job security. The public sector, he

argues, could be the last refuge of the trainee in a recession.



'It depends on where you are and what organisation you are working for,

but you may be the only people with any money left for training,' he

says.



'You could make an argument that these organisations - they are to some

extent protected from the visitudes of the market - do find themselves

in a much more positive situation, compared to those in the commercial

sector.'



But when did attitudes to training become more positive again outside

the public sector? For Jay O'Connor, Fuse PR managing partner, the major

change in attitudes was seen only recently. 'I really saw the change

from about 1998 onwards, when the market was starting to get a bit

tighter,' she says. 'People started using training as a way of retaining

and attracting staff.'



When she first entered the industry in the mid-Nineties the typical

training budget took five per cent of salary - her company now spends

ten per cent or more.



Aarons agrees that training programmes gained credibility as a way of

gaining a recruitment advantage: 'I think consultancies have always paid

lip service to training. It's been on the agenda of everyone I have ever

interviewed. Every person wants to feel that their skills are going to

be nurtured. There's a huge number of people who want to get into PR,

and finding the right candidates isn't that easy. It was a device to

help people compete in that competition for talent.'



If the harsh lessons of the last recession have been taken on board by

the agency community, it seems they are at least one step behind the

business sector. Daniel Ward, Ford executive director of communications

and public affairs, says that blue-chip corporations have long memories,

having made the same mistake in previous years.



'Large companies can remember a time when they did not take on

apprentices or trainees,' he says. 'Such companies can recall these

experiences from decades past, which is often longer than most agencies

have been around. They've learnt a bitter lesson.'



The $64m question is have the lessons of the early Nineties been

learnt?



The first signs seem positive.



Hill & Knowlton and Edelman, for example, have retained their graduate

recruitment programmes, while CSE, which runs courses for in-house and

agency staff, reports that demand for courses is stronger than ever,

after a hiatus in October.



In fact, forward bookings for the company's 41 PR-specific courses in

England and Scotland during 2002 are said to be four times higher than

they were at the same time last year. Figures from the Public Relations

Consultants Association also show the level of spend on training rising

in 2001.



Average agency spend per head is now £926, compared to just £751 in 2000.



The biggest increase in investment has come from small agencies, up 29

per cent to £745, with medium-sized companies spending 18 per cent

more than last year at £859. Staff may be being laid-off but it

seems that training is still on the agenda for those that remain.



'You may have to make redundancies, you may have to tighten things up,

but you do have to focus on the careers of the people you still have,'

says Caroline Samuel, H&K human resources director.



'If you can't give people big pay rises and financial rewards you do

need to make sure that you give them a reason to stay with you,' agrees

Fraser. As well as the recognition that well-trained staff can do better

work for clients, there's also the realisation that training can help

maintain morale at a time when pay rises might be harder to come by.



'Training has more of a role than just providing additional skills.

Training costs a lot less than a pay rise, but definitely helps in

keeping people excited in their work,' says Lewis. 'Companies have got

to understand that training and loyalty are in direct proportion. That

applies in both a recession and a boom.'



Human resources specialists also point out that this is a generation of

PR practitioners who have never known a recession. They expect

training.



CSE reports a focus on training for skills that can be put into use

immediately after a course ends, such as press release writing. 'Courses

are selling well if, at the end of it, the delegate goes away with

something tangible,' says Metherell. 'We are talking to agencies with

ten to 15 staff about their plans for next year. I think that's a really

encouraging sign.'



Others are also stressing the need for other skills that help reassure

clients as to the value of the work being done. 'We're just putting

together a workshop covering the negotiating skills that will help us

when the client comes back and says we have to cut the budget,' says

Fraser.



It seems then that the expensive agency training schemes launched during

the good times are not being burned on the bonfire of cost cutting. They

may well be being tweaked, but the central message is that the show must

go on. 'You can't cut your number of graduates down because you're

investing, if not for that year, then for the year after or the year

after that,' says Samuel.



On the agency front, it also looks as if there's an increased emphasis

on in-house training. 'If it's being spent externally, it's very easy to

see it as discretionary expenditure,' says Aarons.



Even in the in-house sector there's a recognition that training has to

fight harder to justify its place. 'Training is as important as it's

always been. But we are perhaps a little more careful about which

courses we invest in and do make sure there's a business need,' says

Isobel Hoseason, Powergen manager of external affairs. 'There's also a

more creative approach to what actually constitutes training.



'When there's less money to spend, the pressure is on to get cleverer,'

says Ward. 'We think of training as more than going on expensive

training courses. For me, training might be sending a press officer to

work on a magazine for a couple of days.'



Ward also suggests that anyone who enters the profession should look at

past performance, if they want to be reassured that a potential employer

will continue to invest if times get tougher.



'It's much more to do with the attitude of the company and less to do

with the economic climate. There are ways of being trained that is of

benefit to the individual and the company without sending people on

external day courses,' he says.



It seems that the industry's commitment to training has held up so far -

the challenge is to maintain that commitment. 'The realisation that

professional development is important has held quite well, at least in

theory. But the commercial sector can be, and has to be in some cases,

quite ruthless in its attitude to its staff,' says McNeill. 'One would

hope though that no-one over reacts.'around. They've learnt a bitter

lesson.'



TOP 10 COURSES

Most popular courses in 2002

1 Selling in Stories to the Media

2 Introduction to Public Relations

3 Evaluating PR

4 Financial PR

5 Release Writing

6 Feature Writing

7 Building Brands with PR

8 Effective Presentations

9 Running PR Campaigns

10 Strategic PR Planning

The above listing was supplied by CSE and is based on confirmed 2002

bookings of its courses.



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