Young, gifted ...and flack?

Young talent comes in all shapes and sizes, but PR people tend to be white and middle class. John Owens reports on a scheme to educate more young people about PR and bring greater diversity to the industry.

Education, education, education: School kids in Liverpool take part in a CIPR programme on comms

We’re in a Liverpool community hall noisy with talk of Twitter, newspapers and fundraising and Ray Bethell, 16, is showing interest.

"To be honest, if you’d asked me a week ago what PR was I would’ve been clueless," he says. "I’ve heard the term but had no understanding of it, and I don’t think anyone of my age does. I know now that it is an important role with a lot that goes into it."

Ray is not joking when he speaks about his peers. Of the 53 young people taking part in a CIPR programme offering insight into the world of comms, just one indic-ated they had an understanding of what it is you, dear reader, actually do.

That PR is not up there with being an astronaut or fireman in the imaginations of youngsters is no revelation, but it does remain a problem when popular cultural reference points are less than flattering. 

Absolutely Fabulous may have left our screens, but the ghost of The Thick of It lives on, while ex-Labour media manipulator Damian McBride’s exploits have been exhumed for posterity. Oh, and let’s not forget the trials and tribulations of Max Clifford.

Progress when it comes to educating young people on comms has not been deeply encouraging.

PR lecturer at Edge Hill University Paula Keaveney is helping the CIPR effort, which involves showing how comms skills can help a group of 16- to 18-year-olds with a National Careers Service fundraising project.

"I’ve been at Edge Hill for seven years and I don’t think awareness of it has got any better in that time. By the time they get to university it is almost too late," she says.

So why should the profession care? PR is undoubtedly growing in importance, PR degrees are prevalent where they were once scarce and we are seeing plenty of smart young things battling over entry-level jobs.

Diversity is one answer. An industry reaches its audience best when it is representative of that audience, and PR’s disproportionately white, middle-class make-up hinders its ability to reach the right people.  

And if the industry is serious about climbing its way to the c-suite, it must continue to fight for its pick of the top people.

This is not about clinging more closely to well-developed academic routes.

It is about opening up the pool of talent at an age when youngsters currently unaware of PR but used to handling media on a scale unimaginable a decade ago are still contemplating their futures.

This extends to opening up the industry beyond graduate schemes, allowing school-leavers the opportunity to gain on-the-job experience that agency bosses say is so important to them. Practical education, if you will.

It is also requires the industry to go out evangelising. Or, as MHP’s CEO Gavin Devine puts it: "We should be prepared to go into schools and spread the word about what we do, and the impact we have."

How early should this be done? If kept simple, there is no harm in careers talks to younger pupils, but it is the GCSE students for whom university is unaffordable or undesirable who should become the main focus.

The problem is not new, but both the CIPR and PRCA are taking notice. Efforts to engage young people unlikely to be exp-osed to the world of PR have led to sessions such as the one seen in Liverpool and a PRCA-backed drive on paid apprenticeships.

But there is more to be done. As Grayling UK CEO Alison Clarke argues, leaders in the industry should not simply look to trade bodies to handle everything.  

"It is incumbent on us as senior PR professionals to go out there and participate in careers days and engage directly with youngsters," she says. "There’s not much of that going on and we can’t just wait for people to ask."

These youngsters include those like Ray. He is smart, keen and quick to take the lead when gently introduced to how thinking like a PR person can help him back a good cause.

He is not sure what life holds. But thanks to the past two hours, one more door may have opened.

"It’s made me think. My future is open and it could be a possibility," he says. 

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