Firms strive to better social media skills of every staffer

As social media has become such an important part of the PR landscape, many agencies have spoken about having all employees - not just digital "experts" - conversant in the topic.

As social media has become such an important part of the PR landscape, many agencies have spoken about having all employees - not just digital "experts" - conversant in the topic. As such, many firms have had their digital practices create comprehensive employee-training programs that cover all aspects of social media.

Julie Atherton, worldwide director of digital for Hill & Knowlton, says, "Our goal is to train all of our client-facing people by the end of 2010." To date, more than 50% of the agency's staff have completed the in-office, full-day training.

The curriculum is divided into three levels: entry, middle, and senior. For entry-level employees, the focus is "about getting them to start thinking more strategically and creatively about social media."

"You almost want them to migrate what they do in their private life with these platforms to their clients," says Atherton. "With our senior people, it is about giving them the knowledge and confidence to have those conversations about social media with their clients."

GolinHarris targets its 12-week course - which covers everything from engaging bloggers to creating content for different social media platforms - at mid-level employees. Those staffers are typically nominated into the program by supervisors.

Jeff Beringer, SVP and global practice leader of Dialogue, the digital practice at GolinHarris, says, "If we train them right, they can take the learning and not only pass it down to staff fresh out of college, but also share some of it with their managers who have more of the strategic conversations with clients that lead to new business."

That being said, GolinHarris also trains executives who lead pieces of business on the selling of, and strategy behind, social media. "They need to be able to articulate answers to questions like, 'Why should PR drive social media? And how do I measure this kind of program versus a traditional matte release?'" explains Beringer.

Promoting better skills
Edelman has created a "belt" system, which allows staff to improve their social media skills at their own pace, as well as incrementally. Staffers are awarded a belt color (from white up to black) by completing a series of online modules and then scoring 80% or better on a quiz.

To encourage employee participation, "belt" status is tied to promotion.

"There is an expectation, for example, that account executives won't be promoted and advance in their careers until they get their orange belt," says Matt Harrington, president and CEO for Edelman US. To date, 1,500 of the firm's 3,200 staffers worldwide hold belts.

Some PR agencies are also turning to their younger, more junior staff to help educate senior counselors.

M Booth & Associates created a group called "Digisquad." It meets weekly about social media and includes at least one employee from every practice area. Account supervisors and SAEs within Digisquad are part of the agency's social media mentoring program, in which the junior staffers show SVPs how to use social networking for personal use.

"We took a personal approach to social media because SVPs are already very smart strategists," says Josh Rosenberg, SVP and director of FirstWord Digi- tal at M Booth. "They just need to experience the value of communicating this way."

"For example," he adds, "we had one mentor who introduced an SVP, who is a wine lover, to Snooth, an online community for wine lovers. Now she has a first-hand sense of how people interact in this space."

GolinHarris also invites junior staffers within its digital practice to share their experiences with those in its training course, says Beringer. "We want our staff to learn from senior people, as well as junior employees, who are on the front lines pitching bloggers all day and managing client presences on Facebook."

Best practices for social media training

1. Stay up to date
Make sure to evolve the agency's training programs to keep up with the latest trends

2. Start at the top
Demonstrate buy-in from the senior level. CEOs and other top executives should attend training

3. Make sure that education is ongoing
Supplement ways for employees to learn in addition to "course work" - from internal blogs written by digital specialists to "brown bag" visits from social media vendors

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