THE BEST PRACTICE CAMPAIGN: The learning curve - The latest PR Week Best Practice guidelines look at the question of continuous learning for PR practitioners

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 marketplace.

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

as complementary.

’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

limited time.’

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

with motivation.

Common sense and bitter experience, however, tells us that not all

managers have the same degree of talent for teaching. This calls for

some flexibility.

’It’s not optional to not ’do management’ as you go up in an

organisation,’ says Shandwick International director of human resources

Liz Nottingham.

’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

business insight.

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

person third.’

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.’


- 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 opportunities.

- 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.


- 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

development plans.

- Training should play a fundamental part in any organisation’s

succession planning.

- 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.


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.


- 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.

External Training

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



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

outlined below.

Level 2

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

a firm.

Level 4

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

client relationships.

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.

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