The third in our series of Best Practice debates was every bit as
impassioned as its predecessors. This time the focus was on learning and
professional development, a subject of utmost importance in ensuring
that individuals - and indeed the organisations for which they work -
are to live up to their full potential in today’s highly competitive
A marketplace, incidentally, in which certain kinds of knowledge and
skills can command a substantial premium.
Originally the intention was to group this latest set of guidelines
under the broad heading of training. But as discussion progressed it
became clear that training was too restrictive a word. Many of the
practitioners taking part in the Best Practice forum felt that training
is inadequate as an umbrella term in that it implies edicts handed down
from on high as to what should be learnt. What came across emphatically
was that a two-way, rather than a one-way process was necessary, and
that the required approach was better encapsulated by the term
’I don’t like the word ’training’ because in people’s minds it indicates
a beginning and an end,’ says August.One Communications managing
director Katie Kemp. Countrywide Porter Novelli director Barry Winter
adds: ’We should turn training on its head and talk more about
There was universal agreement that although employers should nurture and
develop their staff there is also an onus on individual PR practitioners
to take responsibility for their own career development by ensuring that
they continue to learn. Transfer of knowledge and skills is not
something that should be confined to training courses. Rather, it should
be an ongoing process and one that does not stop when practitioners
reach a certain senior level. There is always more that can be learnt,
as much by those who have made it to the top, as by those just starting
out in their careers.
It is essential that practitioners develop their professional
capabilities perpetually, or at least until they retire.
An emphasis on learning should be part of every organisation’s corporate
culture. But in order to achieve this staff at all levels must play
their part. ’The responsibility rests with everybody,’ says Incepta
group human resources manager Graziella Swan. ’It’s not for one person
to do it all. Everybody should buy into it and share ownership of
Republic director Deborah Lewis adds that it is essential for managers
to recognise that ’training, coaching and looking after the interests of
other people’ is a fundamental part of their job. Ketchum HR consultant
John Gage argues that a commitment to learning by senior staff is
essential in creating the right kind of culture. Gage says: ’Training
should start at the top. That way you give out a subliminal message that
it’s very important. People then begin to think: the more training I get
the more senior I get.’
However, while it is true that a learning culture should permeate
organisations, there should still be an individual at main board level
with overall responsibility for training issues and strategy. Moreover,
learning must also be seen as integral to the human resources function
as it is part of the process which starts with job descriptions and
extends to recruitment and staff appraisals. In other words, learning
should be an inextricable part of career development.
Industry bodies the PRCA and IPR have already embarked on initiatives
designed to improve skills and raise standards. This debate and these
Best Practice guidelines should therefore be seen as part of a concerted
and co-ordinated push by the industry to put learning at the heart of
every career in PR.
The PRCA’s Consultancy Management Standard has staff development at its
core, and in May this year the IPR unveiled its continuing professional
development (CPD) scheme Developing Excellence.
This came about after a 1998 membership survey found that 40 per cent of
respondents wanted to see a CPD framework put in place. The framework
defines the areas of knowledge and skills needed by practitioners at
various levels up the career ladder (see panel). While Developing
Excellence focuses on specifics, these industry-led Best Practice
guidelines are more concerned with the culture and processes required
for individuals to develop their abilities, and the two should be viewed
’I’ve been amazed at the hunger there is for knowledge,’ says Shandwick
UK chief executive officer Philip Dewhurst. ’There’s a great need there
that somehow, as an industry, we have got to get to grips with.’
It is clear however that although the need to educate and develop staff
is massive, and the desire by practitioners to learn is equally large,
many companies in the sector fall short. Often they have the best
intentions but learning is sacrificed on the altar of day-to-day
expediency. This can lead to disaffection among staff.
Edelman London managing director John Mahony says the greatest gripe
among the ’middle layer’ of PR practitioners when they are interviewed
for a job is that their employers have not delivered on a promised
commitment to training, leaving them feeling that the promises were mere
’Why is it we as an industry cannot deliver on these promises?’ he
As the guidelines show, there was agreement in principle that tailored
learning programmes should be regarded as a major part of the
recruitment process and have a role to play in the retention of staff.
It was also felt that it should be a matter of company policy that staff
do not drop out of training sessions, other than in exceptional
Yet these goals are suffused with a touch of idealism and may not always
be easy to realise due to the pressure of business imperatives. When it
comes to agencies clients expect their consultancy to have a commitment
to developing their staff. However, they also expect the people working
on their business to be available and there can be conflict between
these two needs.
’Client companies do not have such a stake in agency learning,’ says
Visa International EU region senior vice-president, corporate
communications Chris McLaughlin. ’If a key account member is away then
they are not servicing the account. Key people can only be spared for a
Agencies therefore need to address legitimate client concerns over the
availability of their personnel. In order for clients to buy-in to an
agency’s commitment to learning and perhaps make occasional allowances,
agencies will need to demonstrate that the learning benefits will lead
to a better service.
Going through the Investors in People process may go some way towards
tackling this issue. The IIP Standard provides a national framework for
improving business performance and competitiveness, through a planned
approach to setting and communicating business objectives and developing
people to meet these objectives. The result is that what people can do,
and are motivated to do, matches what the organisation needs them to
The process is cyclical and should engender the culture of continuous
’There is a danger that commitments to training and development are just
a pious hope which gets brushed aside in the face of work pressures,’
says head of GCI Change Management Liam FitzPatrick. ’When a training
and development strategy is not linked to the long term goals of an
organisation, there is the real danger that training interventions will
offer little lasting value and will also always be prone to cancellation
or disruption by ’more pressing’ operational problems.’
Harvard PR has recently gone through the IIP process. Director Gareth
Zundel argues that companies should not carry out training unless it can
be linked to key performance indicators for the business as a whole.
There was some disagreement on this point, however.
IPR head of education and training Alison Theaker points to the
difficulties many in-house teams and agencies are experiencing in
attracting the right calibre of staff during this buoyant time for the
sector. Offering good learning opportunities can be a strong staff
recruitment and retention incentive. ’If you want the brightest people
you have to be flexible in some ways,’ says Theaker.
She is supported in this stance by Leeds Business School principal
lecturer and PR speaker Ralph Tench, who says that staff development
programmes are like building blocks and as such may ’not have directly
observable benefits at each stage’, he says this sometimes requires
businesses to have a ’creative understanding’ of their objectives and
the individual’s contribution to them.
A learning log in which staff record the skills they have learnt is
widely seen as a useful device, as is appraising managers on the success
they have enjoyed in developing their staff. Managers should also
provide their staff with clear development plans, which can really help
Common sense and bitter experience, however, tells us that not all
managers have the same degree of talent for teaching. This calls for
’It’s not optional to not ’do management’ as you go up in an
organisation,’ says Shandwick International director of human resources
’But the challenge is to be flexible and play to people’s
Text 100 managing director Glen Goldsmith says the principle of
flexibility came out very strongly during a fundamental review of
training undertaken by his agency last year. ’We realised our mistake
was to try to make everybody the same. Some people are hopeless at
in-house training, but good at mentoring, for instance.’
While it is imperative is that line managers are given the skills to
train as well as to manage. There are times when external training may
also be beneficial. But Cabinet Office communications manager Jo Clift,
cautions that such training should never be driven by the promotional
flyers sent out by training companies. External courses should still
match the needs of an organisation and its staff.
PR as a discipline is in an unusual position in that it is able to learn
from a couple of audiences with which it has contact. Clients can learn
from agencies and vice versa - and both can learn from the media.
Microsoft group manager corporate PR Karen Bergin says there should be a
’symbiosis’ between client and agency when it comes to learning, and a
good client will ensure that knowledge is exchanged. She adds that joint
client/agency training helps with the team bonding process and leads to
everyone ’talking the same language’.
However, at Shandwick, Dewhurst wonders whether there is sufficient
’cross-fertilisation’ in the industry. Mahony says Edelman’s approach is
to ensure its senior staff transfer knowledge and skills to their
counterparts in-house. This forces the agency team to acquire new skills
so that they will continue to offer added value to their clients.
However, PRCA chairman Adrian Wheeler thinks there will always be limits
to the amount of knowledge and expertise transferred. ’I want my clients
to appreciate what we do and go: ’Gosh! Amazing!’,’ he says. ’I
certainly don’t want to train them to the point where they think they
can do it themselves. Some people are apt to forget that PR is first and
foremost a business.’
COI business effectiveness manager Pat Johnstone makes the point that
getting feedback from staff is crucial. She says: ’Often people will
have training but no one asks them: how did it go, did you find it
valuable, what was good/bad about it and why?’
The higher up the career ladder practitioners progress the less the
skills and expertise they need to acquire are intrinsically to do with
PR. Instead they need to understand how to manage and develop business
units and how business functions in a broader sense, thereby enabling
them to offer strategic advice that will be taken seriously. There is
also a cogent argument to be made for more junior practitioners to gain
Wheeler says: ’There needs to be some way of giving our executives the
business savvy that MBA graduates have got, so they can hold their own
around the table with Goldman Sachs, and so that they have got an angle
on the client’s business which is really interesting to the chief
executive and the chairman. Most young PR practitioners risk being
dismissed as being rather wet behind the ears. We need to do something
about this, and the best answer is a well-rounded, continuing business
course which is nothing to do with PR.’
Zundel echoes that sentiment. ’In the PR world we must think of
ourselves as a business person first, a marketing person second and a PR
It is clear that the PR industry as a whole must invest more time,
effort and capital in developing its practitioners. Only by so doing
will it improve its standing among boardroom decision makers, whose
exposure to and familiarity with the likes of management consultants,
investment banks, accountancy firms, lawyers and a plethora of marketing
services companies leads them to expect nothing but the highest levels
of knowledge and insight from their advisers.
Gage concludes: ’McKinsey spends 10 per cent of its revenue on training
and charges three times what we do. We spend naff all. So I think that
tells us something.’
BUILDING AND SUSTAINING A KNOWLEDGE-HUNGRY CULTURE
- A learning culture should permeate every organisation.
- Continuous learning is essential as it raises the status and value of
individuals and their companies. Agencies and in-house departments that
have a strong commitment to learning will be able to keep pace with a
changing business and communications landscape, give better advice,
command larger budgets and attract and retain high quality staff.
- Learning needs to be seen as an integral part of the HR function.
It is part of the process which starts with job descriptions, includes
recruitment and appraisals and sees learning as an inextricable part of
career development. But that is not to say that learning issues be
restricted to HR departments.
- There should always be somebody at main board level with overall
responsibility for training issues and strategy. However, managers at
all levels should take responsibility for training, nurturing and
developing other people within their organisation. This should be spelt
out in their job descriptions.
- Senior figures in an organisation should have the same commitment as
junior employees to learning themselves. This ensures that top
management continues to acquire fresh skills and also sends out a clear
message to the entire organisation that CPD is important.
- Learning is not merely the responsibility of employers. Individuals
must take it upon themselves to ensure they are continually learning
relevant new skills. PR practitioners with strong career development
plans are far more likely to be successful than those who have given
little thought to developing their skill sets.
- Employers must deliver on the promises they make to staff about
- Learning needs to be planned, monitored and managed to ensure that it
helps deliver the results to which an organisation is committed.
Learning should be tied in to an employer’s business objectives.
- At the very least the senior management team of a PR agency or
in-house PR team should decide the role which training and development
is to play in their operations. This process involves asking what
skills, knowledge and competencies are needed for the organisation to
meet its objectives.
From there the organisation is able to define its training and
development strategy. PAs well as referring to publications produced by
the Institute of Personnel and Development (covering issues such as the
development strategies), managers would do well to investigate the
Investors in People standard which offers simple processes to ensure
that development programmes are linked to business needs.
- However, CPD or training programmes should go beyond just contributing
to the bottom line and ’billability’ of executives.
- It should be a matter of company policy that staff do not drop out of
training sessions, apart from in exceptional circumstances.
- Tailored learning programmes should be regarded as a major part of the
recruitment process and have a role to play in the retention of
- Organisations should strive to provide the conditions in which
individuals can continue to develop professionally. The breadth of
learning covered by a CPD programme will vary dependent on an
individual’s job and personal needs.
- Every organisation should review its business plan and objectives
annually to identify any new developments that necessitate extra
- Training should not be perceived as an easily expendable overhead
which is the first thing to be cut the moment budgets come under
pressure. It is an investment, not a cost.
- In-house training courses enable content to be tailored to promote the
values of that organisation. Best practice covered by such courses
should be spread internally.
- Learning should not just focus narrowly on PR skills. Practitioners
should develop a 360-degree view of marketing, gaining knowledge of all
its channels and competencies. They should also develop a broad
awareness of business in general and understanding of the international
picture as well as focusing on developing their skills as managers.
SINKING THE FOUNDATIONS ON WHICH TO DEVELOP SKILLS
- The actual skills of all staff, and whether they need to acquire new
skills, should be assessed continually. If an organisation-wide
mechanism for identifying learning needs does not already exist, one
should be put in place.
- As much as possible, learning should be personalised to provide each
individual with the skills they most require to fulfil their role in an
- How well individuals are learning should play a part in staff
However, when structured learning is taking place employers should
create an environment in which mistakes can be made. If individuals fear
that any mistakes they make might count against them, they will be more
hesitant and less likely to learn as freely.
- Employers should motivate staff by formulating clear skills
- Training should play a fundamental part in any organisation’s
- Learning programmes should be structured for the sake of clarity yet
be flexible enough to address the strengths and weaknesses of each
individual who takes part.
- The internet affects all forms of PR and must therefore be a component
of learning programmes.
- Use working journalists to provide realistic media training. Ideally,
journalists with training skills.
- The importance of on-the-job learning should be made crystal clear to
staff. Learning is most definitely not confined to formal training
- Devices such as ’learning logs’ can encourage staff to reflect on what
they have learnt and to disseminate it to other people. They can also
help formalise on-the-job learning and coaching.
- Give staff the space to learn. If necessary, hire in freelance
- Some development programmes could and should act as CPD building
blocks and may not have directly observable benefits at each stage.
- Advice and assistance on education matters can be obtained from
industry bodies the IPR and PRCA. On 9 May the IPR launched a CPD scheme
called Developing Excellence while the PRCA has initiated a Diploma in
Public Relations Consultancy Management, through Leeds Business School,
which is accredited with points that can be transferred onto a range of
post-graduate courses, including a full or part-time MBA.
SETTING IN STONE
The most contentious and divisive issue to emerge from this Best
Practice debate was how a commitment to learning within an organisation
should be quantified.
In the end, no consensus could be reached that enabled any concrete
formula to be incorporated into the guidelines per se. But taking into
account the strength of feeling engendered by this area of the debate,
it is undoubtedly useful to outline some of the suggestions aired during
our round-table discussion.
HR consultant to Ketchum John Gage was probably the most impassioned
advocate of a definition of commitment, saying he would like to see
’some figure you can get hold of’ appearing in the guidelines. He
proposed five key steps for organisations to take in committing
themselves to staff development: allocating a budget of pounds 750 per
head; allocating 21 hours of classroom training and 14 hours further
learning per year; evaluation and appraisal of training; promoting
people only once they have met defined competencies; and incentivising
managers on training delivery and staff development.
Gage says that the most forward-thinking employers in the sector will
match such targets. This should ’create a momentum among the next tier’
of employers who will come to see the depth of their learning programmes
as an important means of attracting and keeping staff.
Other participants in the debate, such as Communication Skills Europe PR
training director Ian Meth-erell, felt it would be impractical to try to
impose a formula for expenditure on staff development on agencies and
in-house departments. Days per year would serve better, he said.
In this he was joined by IPR head of education and training Alison
Theaker who pointed out that the IPR’s recommended figure for CPD is a
minimum of 4.5 days per person a year. PRCA chairman Adrian Wheeler
added: ’In my opinion somewhere between five and 10 (training days) a
year is substantive as well as being viable.’ Everyone, however, agreed
that the current level of commitment to learning and CPD within the PR
industry was inadequate.
THE BENEFITS OF LINE MANAGERS AND MENTORING
- Mentor/managers who have a close working relationship with an
individual are well-placed to identify and remedy gaps in that
individual’s skills and knowledge base.
- Incentivise managers for committing to the development of their
- Learning needs should be discussed on an ongoing basis rather than
just at annual reviews.
- Discuss educational programme objectives with managers and their staff
before it begins.
- Line managers should view passing on skills and knowledge as part of
their management role. Employers should ensure that their managers stick
to their commitments to teach.
- Although learning policy should be centralised it must also
acknowledge individuals’ skills in order to build on each individual’s
- Line managers or mentors should review training with an attendee
within a few days of it taking place to check what has been learnt and
agree on how it is to be implemented. Subsequently, managers should
check that implementation has taken place and identify what else should
be done to maximise the benefits of learning.
- Staff themselves should have the opportunity to evaluate their
learning and feedback any strengths or weaknesses to their line
- Early recognition and reward for developing management skills should
ensure that once staff reach a senior level they consider management,
and its teaching function, to be a fundamental to their work.
Use only reputable external suppliers: the IPR is conferring Approved
Training Provider status on those commercial providers it recognises as
giving a high quality and reliable service. Although of course reputable
suppliers have existed for quite some time. The PRCA already has an
approved training provider.
- Send staff on external training courses only when there is genuine
value specific to your organisation’s needs to be had out of what they
will learn on such a course.
- Make sure that what is learnt on external courses is implemented in
the office so that it is not forgotten.
- Often it can be especially beneficial for training to take place in an
environment away from the distractions of the office. This is
particularly the case with senior staff learning about areas such as
business management and strategic direction.
- External training enables in-house and agency staff to develop by
exchanging ideas and experiences in the training room.
- Contact and discussion with delegates from other organisations,
sometimes even from other business sectors, may provide useful insight
into problem solving.
Client-Agency Learning Issues
- Agencies should make it clear to clients well in advance when members
of their staff are to take part in formalised learning and will
therefore be unavailable for client work. Such commitment to learning by
agencies should be viewed in a positive light by clients.
- Agencies should not reschedule training at short notice in order to
please clients, except in extreme circumstances.
- Transfer of knowledge and skills between client and agency, and vice
versa, is an essential part of the learning process.
- Training of client and agency staff together can lead to a more
consistent, shared approach to communications and better
- Secondment of staff (both ways) can be difficult to arrange and budget
for, but may provide real insight and added value to a client-agency
- Clients should select agencies that take staff development
Standards such as Investors in People and the PRCA Consultancy
Management Standard are indicative of such a commitment. Clients should
also look out for firms that support the two advanced training schemes
in the industry, the IPR Diploma and the PRCA Diploma in Consultancy
DEVELOPING EXCELLENCE - THE IPR’S CPD SCHEME
The IPR’s Developing Excellence programme defines which areas of
knowledge and skills are useful for PR practitioners at various levels,
Level 1 being the most inexperienced, such as agency account executives
and Level 4 the most senior practitioners, such as corporate
communications directors and top consultancy directors. Many topic areas
apply to more than one level, as befits the need for learning to
continue throughout one’s career. The contents of Levels 2 and 4 are
Knowledge: Creativity and managing creativity; Impact of technology on
PR practice; Project management; Media and techniques; Maintaining and
building client relationships; Advertising/sponsorship; Motivation and
Business Skills: Strategic management; Meeting techniques; Presentation
skills; Budget setting and control; Management skills; Consulting
skills; Negotiation skills; Networking; Delegation and supervision;
Communication audits; Assertiveness and interpersonal skills; Risk
analysis; SWOT analysis; Investors in People; Time management.
PR Skills: Use of IT in PR; Speeches and presentations; Pitch
preparation; Print selection, briefing and production management; Event
planning and management; Sponsorship selection, planning and
organisation; Radio production and placement; Selecting external
resources; Negotiating features and interviews; Client liaison; Briefing
designers and photographers; Business writing; Issue management;
Understanding the different emphases of various market sectors;
Editorial promotions; Handling editorial enquiries; Crisis management;
Counselling techniques; Identifying trends, risks and issues relevant to
Knowledge: Motivation and leadership; Management of change; Corporate
and international strategy; Financial and strategic management; Building
the firm’s culture; Role of company director and board; Making
partnerships work; Developing an effective strategy for the firm; Uses
of IT in PR; Legal framework of the UK and EU; Maintaining and building
Business Skills: Investors in People; Human resource planning and
management; Training and development of individuals and teams; Time
management; Information management.
PR Skills: Crisis Management: Identifying risks, issues and trends
relevant to an organisation.