Training: Striking the balance

How much should PROs invest in external training courses when in-house senior practitioners' knowledge may be just as effective? Maja Pawinska investigates.

Sitting on an uncomfortable chair, you're vaguely aware of a distant drone at the other end of the room. After almost a full day on a training session, the course content has yet to reveal significant relevance to your business, and concentration levels have, inevitably, dropped.

Is this an all too familiar scene? Staff training and development is often regarded as the backbone of any company, but it can be easy to slip into the trend of booking courses for the sake of it, rather than sending staff on relevant courses that will prove beneficial to staff and ultimately provide a return on investment.

While budgets may have been reined in, there is evidence to suggest that agencies are rethinking strategies to look more introspectively. Rather than solely relying on sending staff on external courses, more and more consultancies are using a static economic climate as a reason to turn to their own senior expertise and experience and put it to use in developing the younger members of the team.

This appears to be a trend particularly in consultancies - according to the IPR, there has been a sharp drop in the number of agencies booking its courses this year compared to 2001. In 2003, 22 per cent of IPR workshop training attendees have come from consultancies, while two years ago that figure stood at 30 per cent.

Weaknesses in training within the PR industry are as prevalent as they are across others. As HM Customs and Excise head of communications Peter Rose points out,'there's no shortage of material about new courses coming through, but it is difficult to identify what is suitable'.

Relevance is a key issue that training provider TNR managing director David Wallace feels needs to be addressed. His advice to those responsible for finding external courses is to first look for relevance to the organisation's business needs, and then check the course is at the right level, and being delivered by the right trainer. He also recommends the benefits of the course are then evaluated.

'There should also be feedback from every person who attends the course,' Wallace adds. 'Training managers need to ensure they are getting a solid return on investment, and the most effective way to do that is to make sure they get good feedback from trainees. In addition, it's worth remembering this cannot happen if the delegate is simply sitting there listening but is not taking part, or if the group is too large.'

Making sure staff are attending the right courses run by the most appropriate trainers is key, but IPR head of training and education Alan Rawel also suggests a common failing across in-house and consultancy PR training programmes is that most of the attention is put on training the junior members of the team.

'The professional development of all practitioners, whatever their level, is a must,' he emphasises. Rawel uses the example of the IPR's Continuous Professional Development (CPD) scheme, which points to the benefits of very senior practitioners sharing experiences and expertise.

Kaizo human resources director Richard Baines, himself retrained from account director to become the consultancy's first HR director, agrees. 'We have expanded our training in the past year to include an external coaching programme for directors,' he explains. 'It makes sense to invest more time in our senior people, as it is the business managers who are driving the business forward.'

PR-specific training programmes are not the only solution for the industry, according to Phipps PR director Sara Tye. She explains that as the consultancy works for a number of wine industry clients, employees are just as likely to take a wine appreciation diploma as they are to attend a presentation training course.

Phipps and her team are also making the most of the free courses springing up across the industry: 'PR Newswire and other suppliers are starting to provide training to the industry as part of their own marketing budgets - it's free for our industry, but brings them a relationship with us,' she says.'

Nevertheless, it is when times are tough that training is often regarded as the easy target for consultancies and in-house departments to make cuts. In addition to the cost of all those hours away from productive client work, invoices from external trainers soon mount up, and it is easy to think that putting training programmes on hold while you ride out the economic storm won't do any harm.

But conversely, when the work does pick up, isn't it better to have your teams fighting fit and well-versed in the latest skills, rather than battle-weary and underdeveloped?

A healthy balance

Baines argues that he sees little point in training staff if it does not contribute to the overall business performance.

'Everything you do needs to be designed to get a return on that investment,' he says. 'This means the HR team must be close to the board to ensure the business implications of training are understood.'

Grayling UK CEO Amanda Riddle agrees: 'A large part of holding on to good people in your team is keeping them motivated, and increasingly, the first thing graduates are interested in is "what will this company do for me?" If your people are being developed, they stay longer; you then have happier clients, so they too stay longer.'

Yet, while these agencies claim their training and development activity has a significant, positive impact on the bottom line, fe3 Consulting business consultant Karen Drury, whose company advises on encouraging employee loyalty, is suspicious of many organisations' claim that this is the case.

'It's difficult to measure how training can affect your bottom line precisely,' she argues. 'There is little clear evidence to show that training increases performance in an organisation - not because it doesn't, but because it's so badly measured. I wouldn't for one moment suggest that training should be stopped, but I would suggest it's done more carefully.'

However, Firefly founder and MD Claire Walker explains how concentrating on the development of internal training does lower budgets. 'Instead of paying for external training, we are doing it ourselves by using senior people whom we have sent on 'trainer' training courses,' she says. 'But it remains offsite and it is formal. The budget is lower, but the effort we are putting in is higher. And if our training didn't have an impact on our bottom line then we would be doing something different.'

Walker also points out that investing in internal staff training and development has a beneficial impact on maintaining staff. 'One of the measures by which staff motivation is assessed is through the number of sick days taken, so it's in our HR team's interests to make sure everyone is kept motivated through development and training,' she adds. 'Our people average just two sick days a year, compared with the industry average of around eight.'

Specialist solutions

The need for specialist information within particular sectors, such as healthcare and technology, have also pushed the need for an increase in internal training. Most of Burson-Marsteller's extensive training programme is done in-house for this reason, to ensure staff development remains as relevant as possible. B-M healthcare MD Kate Triggs says that, however good external courses are, the lessons learned can be difficult to apply at work.

'Therefore, if we train around very specific issues, it makes the training sink in further,' she explains. 'It also means we can take a real client issue from our healthcare team and, instead of having a team of five working on that problem, we'll have 25 people from across the company looking at it.

'The training doesn't ever stop - there are always changes in EU law, new cancer therapies, new technologies, and we have to constantly upgrade our own knowledge before we can help drive our clients forward.'

The business effects for a client company investing in in-house PR training are even harder to assess, but Rose says a formal training programme the division introduced two years ago is making a difference to the way the PR department is viewed internally.

'There's still plenty of room for improvement in our training, but I'm very keen that my staff can develop professionally,' Rose says. 'It's important because they need to demonstrate to the rest of the organisation, as their client, that they have the skills and knowledge to be giving the right information and advice to the media.'

Understanding the media

It's no secret that journalists aren't fond of the junior PRO on the end of the phone enquiring if the latest press release reached them, but they concede that it does make a difference to the working relationship when junior staff have been properly trained in the basics of media relations, preferably with input from working journalists.

It is a practice Press Association editor Jonathan Grun would like to see more of. 'The biggest irritation is when a PRO doesn't know how to communicate a story effectively,' he says. 'It's the quickest way to put a journalist off a story. Improving a PRO's understanding of how journalists work, and what that journalist looks for in a story, is something we fully support and recommend.'

Tailoring media training for specific sectors was a primary reason behind the recent launch of Asparagus Media. Established by former Fleishman-Hillard and Burson-Marsteller directors Alison Spink and Gerry Griffin, the agency claims to focus on preparing pharmaceutical spokespeople to deal with speaking to the media more effectively. Asparagus tailors its training to various audiences, ranging from a scientific approach for key opinion leaders to familiarisation of the media for patients or patient advocacy groups.

Budgets may have been cut back, but training remains a key component for the PR industry's progression and development of employee skills.

By combining the expertise of senior practitioners with relevant external courses that encompass both PR practice and sector knowledge, those days of keeping an eye on the clock while fighting off the urge to sleep could be over.

FIVE COURSES ON OFFER

The PR industry is awash with training courses, run by anyone from industry associations to former journalists. PRWeek asked for trainee opinions on five of the courses available.

NAME: Effective Communications through the Media: An Introduction for PR Professionals

Organiser: TNR/Press Association

Content: A new two-day course divided into six modules, led by experienced working journalists. Centres on getting maximum press and broadcast coverage by improving PROs' quality of communication with the media. Includes news, features, and pictures. Aimed at practitioners in the first three years of their career.

Verdict: Weber Shandwick account executive Briggie Anderson: 'The course was a useful opportunity to get into a newsroom - enabling us to see the pressures journalists are under, how many press releases they get in a day. This taught us how we can make their lives easier.'

NAME: Strategic Leadership Workshop

Organiser: IPR

Content: How senior practitioners can interact with clients and colleagues at a senior level to ensure the PR function is at the centre of organisational development.

Verdict: European Council to the Chemical Industry comms manager Caroline de Bie: 'It was good to hear what other people have done or been faced with, and how thinking strategically can help deliver effective communications.

I came out of this training workshop more confident that I could approach issues differently, and that there were specific things I could do to be involved in the strategic process at my organisation.'

NAME: The Secrets behind a Creative Mind

Organiser: PRCA

Content: A FrontLine breakfast seminar for account manager level and below. Led by Hill & Knowlton creative director Peter Lawlor, the course covers the process of coming up with ideas, including brainstorming and creative thinking techniques.

Verdict: Portfolio Communications account manager Clare O'Sullivan: 'The PRCA seminars have proven useful - the content is tailored, so you leave with a clearer idea of how to apply the theory. In Peter Lawlor's session on creativity, he gave advice on running more effective brainstorming sessions and techniques to generate ideas that have proven particularly valuable.'

NAME: Press release writing

Organiser: Editorial Training Consultants (ETC)

Content: Kaizo worked with ETC to develop a press-release writing course, with candidates drawing up real releases, which are then critiqued over a two-month period.

Verdict: Kaizo senior account executive Dan Leach: 'I had always written a press release from a PR perspective, but as the course was run by a journalist it made me consider the effectiveness of the releases I was writing. I went away with a clear idea of areas I needed to improve on and other 'trade secrets' to help me achieve a better success rate on the literature I send out.'

NAME: Communicating in a Crisis

Organiser: Communication Skills Europe

Content: For middle to senior professionals with responsibility for crisis communication and corporate reputation management. Trainer Kevin Traverse-Healy takes delegates through reducing the impact of crises on reputation, best practice in crisis communication and effective PR techniques, as well as managing risk.

Verdict: Sue Ryder Care regional PR co-ordinator Helen Jocelyn: 'It was an intense training day, but there were elements from the course that I was able to put into practice straightaway in terms of planning. It was a small group and we were encouraged to talk openly to each other.'

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