PR Technique training: The ABCs of developing talent - They've got a lot to learn before you can let them loose on your clients. So how do agencies introduce PR newbies to the rigors of the real world? Sheryl Nance Nash reports

Picture the scene. Your newest junior account executive makes his first set of calls to journalists. Now be honest - don't you cross your fingers hoping he won't embarrass your agency?

Picture the scene. Your newest junior account executive makes his first set of calls to journalists. Now be honest - don't you cross your fingers hoping he won't embarrass your agency?

Picture the scene. Your newest junior account executive makes his first set of calls to journalists. Now be honest - don't you cross your fingers hoping he won't embarrass your agency?

'Baptism by fire and learning by doing is completely inadequate,' says Michelle Bowman, of Bowman Communications Group, Bellevue, Wash., which offers customized PR training to corporations and agencies. 'Can a company or agency really afford to have an inexperienced PR staffer representing their agency to the press and working with clients?'

Ray Kerins, senior vice president at GCI Group in New York, agrees. 'A couple of years ago, training and development were extra - you would fit them in if you could. Over the last 18 months, this has become our number one thing. It has a direct impact on clients. Smarter people do a better job.'

Training junior-level executives has become mission critical within companies and PR agencies, and in-house universities and branded training programs are popping up all over the place. With client service more important than ever, competition demands excellence from top to bottom.

Then there's the impact of the labor crunch. These days, PR agencies are going beyond traditional communications graduates in their attempt to grab the best and brightest. As a result, they have to put extra effort into training, some even using it as a recruitment tool. Since many agencies can't compete with the lure of stock options and other goodies flaunted by dot-coms, they can score by offering a comprehensive training and career development program.

'Training and professional development is a magnet for talent,' says Ed Menninger, director of training and professional development-US for Burson-Marsteller.

It is also a useful retention tool, says Angela Scalpello, senior vice president for employee development at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide.

'The hardest person to snatch out of an agency is someone involved in a training program,' she says. 'Not only does it give them a sense of community, it also reduces anxiety, because we give them a foundation.'

That foundation should cover the fundamentals of public relations. Among the skills agencies are trying to bring home to their junior staff are communication, client service, strategic thinking and time management.

Many of the issues PR people must tackle require a delicate touch and, therefore, more sophisticated training techniques. 'The challenge for juniors is going from theory to practice,' says Tina Rodriguez, a senior vice president at Shandwick and the New York liaison for the firm's Reputation Management University.

'How do you manage conflict with a client; how do you give disappointing feedback?' asks Evans Scala, professional development manager for BSMG Worldwide. In other words, being gracious under pressure is just as important as being able to write attention-getting press releases, knowing how to make a killer presentation or being persuasive with a reporter. As a result, PR agencies are becoming far more rigorous in their training programs.

At Burson, for instance, completion of the company's core curriculum is a requirement for a promotion or a raise. And, says Kerins, the firm's new push on training and development has become so evident that even senior managers are getting involved in teaching. However, there is a downside to using agency staff to train juniors.

'Big agencies are trying to do their own training, which can be precarious at best,' says Bowman. 'Managers are too busy with clients, and they are fundamentally not teachers. You can't discount the fact that agency managers can also be intimidating to junior staff. They may be afraid to ask questions that might be perceived as silly, or wonder if their performance in the class is being evaluated.'

At Edelman, training is now likely to include clients, who come in and speak about what they need most from the agency, or reporters may come in to talk about how they best work with an agency.

Technology is also enhancing learning, be it pre-programmed courses or online chats. 'In the last month we've begun to offer training on demand,' explains Agnes Gioconda, chief talent officer at Fleishman-Hillard. The agency has introduced a facility whereby employees can be trained at their desks using video streaming,and they can even type in questions and see the instructor talking and using Powerpoint slides.

Connect Public Relations, a Provo, Utah-based agency that specializes in hi-tech clients, has hired a business coach that works with all employees for an hour every two or three weeks. 'We talk about what the person needs to change, develop a plan and set a course of action,' says Kitty Cole, the firm's recently hired coach. 'The person walks away with several things to accomplish over the next few weeks.'

If all this sounds expensive, it is. For example, Shandwick devoted dollars 500,000 in billable hours to internally develop its Reputation Management University in 1998. Since then, it's cost a minimum of dollars 1.5 million a year just on RMU in North America.

Likewise, at Connect PR, with the new coach and beefed up training program, costs are running dollars 250,000 a year, nearly five percent of the firm's revenue, says president Neil Myers. Even if companies trim some expenses by not hiring consultants, there is the matter of all the billable hours senior management gives up, as well as the cost of training materials.

But for now, costs are secondary. Scala of BSMG echoes many of her agency peers. 'I haven't gotten pushed back in spending on juniors. The thinking is, whatever it takes to get them up to speed, to feel comfortable, then do it. Paying for it is not an issue.'

The important issue, though, is whether the ramped-up training efforts are reaping rewards. Says Myers, 'The investment is worth it. Without training we'd be dead in the water.'



DOS AND DON'TS

DO

1 Make training a part of the corporate culture

2 Keep classes no longer than 90 minutes

3 Teach practice, not theory

4 Make classes a forum for networking as well as training



DON'T

1 Allow employees to skip training or treat it casually

2 Forget to formally evaluate your program's progress

3 Be wedded to your program. Be willing to change and make adjustments.





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