Training: Back to basics

Forward bookings for courses on PR reveal the industry has cut training budgets in some important areas. Mary Cowlett reports on the implications

'Good managers invest in training' is regarded as a cornerstone of management wisdom when it comes to maintaining a motivated workforce. Employees see training as an opportunity to upgrade their skills and reap personal and professional growth. But if next year's forward bookings for PR courses at specialist training institutions are a guide to the PR industry's investment in skills, 2003 looks gloomy.

A PRWeek straw-poll of forward bookings for the year at top training companies to the PR industry shows that courses on so-called 'soft skills' are underbooked. This compares unfavourably with previous years when take-up of strategic skills courses was stronger.

It is worth noting that writing courses are the most prolific (with more such courses offered than any other kind). In the middle of December, when the poll was carried out, presentation courses were far and away the most heavily subscribed (80 per cent), beating 'managing PR campaigns' by 28 per cent, while crisis management courses are enjoying healthy uptakes at an average of 52 per cent of places booked.

It is no surprise to discover that pitching courses, which tend to be adopted on a needs-only basis, come in last with eight per cent forward bookings. But, what is telling in the current economic climate, is that while training in core PR skills, such as media relations, are holding firm, 'softer' skills, such as creativity, seem to be falling by the wayside.

Trade associations are seeing a similar trend in their forward bookings. Michael Bland, who runs workshops for both the PRCA and IPR on topics such as press-release writing, winning new business and creativity, points to an IPR training session he was due to run on stress and motivation in 2002, which had to be cancelled due to lack of interest.

'It's back to basics, with crisis and presentation skills courses absolutely packed out, while anything a little peripheral is being ignored. I think that's partly down to budgets, but it's also psychological, whereby people like to postpone the things they find scary,' says Bland.

In addition, many training specialists highlight that PR professionals are becoming more cagey about their forward plans, with bookings running on much shorter deadlines. 'People used to sign up three to six months in advance, now it's more likely to be three to six weeks in advance,' says Communications Skills Europe director Ian Metherell.

This tighter timeframe seems to be driven by a general uncertainty about the business climate, but is also the result of PR practitioners looking to meet needs on a more immediate basis. As Lexis PR operations director Margot Raggett says: 'We are more aware of where we need flexible pots of money for specialist individual training.'

Many trainers report that as organisations increasingly look to cut their overheads and encourage staff to work harder, any course longer than one day is a luxury, both financially and in terms of work-hours lost.

As a result, there is an increasing trend toward bite-sized training, ranging from breakfast briefings to lunchtime sessions and more informal discussions with guest speakers over a bottle of wine, at the end of the working day.

Similarly, while open courses will always be popular for PR professionals in smaller organisations, demand for the one-size-fits-all approach to training appears to be waning.

'In 2003, we will not be able to undertake training just because it's nice to do,' says Dennis Kelly, Leeds Business School Centre for Public Relations Studies director.

'The enquiries we receive at the Centre are becoming ever more specific.

In essence, people are saying, "This is our problem or opportunity. Can you help us?".'

And while overall investment in PR training remains steady, there does appear to be a shift in where money is being spent.

For example, the IPR saw overall numbers attending its training workshops increase by 12 per cent in 2002, with a focus on core skills, such as writing, event management, crisis communications, media interview techniques and internal communication.

But demand for these workshops was strongest at account manager/PR officer level, while growth in entry-level training was checked, reflecting the slowdown in recruitment.

In addition, the IPR's figures indicate that increased training spend has come largely from in-house departments with a seven per cent decline in the number of consultancy employees attending courses.

The cynical interpretation of this cutback among agencies, would be that PR firms (in particular, large ones) have been hard hit by tough times and are simply reducing budgets across the board.

However, IPR president Jon Aarons says: 'Our figures may indicate that consultancies are bringing more training in-house to keep costs down or they may be encouraging their staff to take part in more informal training programmes.'

Certainly, multi-practice consultancies such as Weber Shandwick and GCI, which has its own 'GCI Academy', are harnessing in-house expertise to train the PR practitioners of the future.

And as Countrywide Porter Novelli director of personnel and development Barry Winter highlights, this trend is set to continue as pressure grows on the larger PR firms to demonstrate return on investment for training.

'More and more, we've been questioning the value of training and examining the latest research, which suggests that training negatively contributes to shareholder value,' he says.

This view is based on two studies. The first, Watson Wyatt's Human Capital Index report 2002, suggests that well-trained individuals either demand a higher salary or else move on. While the second, 'Practice What You Preach', by professional services expert David Maister, indicates that training is a long way down the pecking order in terms of drivers of financial performance.

Instead, these two reports suggest that coaching is a more rewarding human resources practice. So, while CPN staff go to external institutions to study for formal qualifications, the bulk of core skills instruction is delivered by internal practitioners with relevant experience and hands-on knowledge of clients' needs.

The current tough business environment also goes some way to explain why government, not-for-profit and corporate organisations are investing more heavily in PR training.

As budgets restrict, in-house communications staff increasingly need to equip themselves to handle more responsibilities.

'Having a well-rounded and hands-on in-house team is very important to us, because we have opted to maintain and build the PR function in-house in the UK, at this stage,' says Dow Jones & Company director of corporate communications (EMEA) Kate Dobbin .

As such, last September one of her staff undertook a CAM advanced diploma in communications studies, learning how to write press releases, budget, communicate effectively and plan.

However, while the emphasis is likely to remain on traditional PR skills training in 2003, some new areas are opening up. Communications Skills Europe is running six new PR programmes this year, including Managing International Programmes; Corporate PR and CSR, and PR for Financial Services. Meanwhile, PMA Training is launching a ten-week intensive PR course for post-graduates (see box).

In addition, the PRCA is looking to develop its Advanced Professional Diploma in PR Consultancy Management, which launched in 2002, to offer delegates a modular option.

But trainers and industry experts alike share concerns about areas in which the PR industry currently appears to be underinvesting in training. For example, with the current global situation, it seems likely that crisis and issues management will be a key business area this year.

In addition, many question how well prepared PR consultancies are to manage and protect their interests in terms of the client-agency relationship.

One case in point is negotiation skills, whereby once the pitch has been won, an increasing number of organisations are using their procurement departments to negotiate the terms of the contract.

Results Business Consulting MD Jim Surguy says: 'That's definitely a training issue, because the procurement people are more skilled than the people on the PR agency side.'

However, the PRCA is planning to address this by running workshops in 2003. The industry body will also be organising sessions to help consultants manage and develop their relationships with clients, according to comms director Martin Cairns.

IPR head of education and training Alan Rawel is disappointed by the lack of commitment to improving measurement and evaluation through training.

'PR evaluation is still rooted in advertising benchmarks and the advances that the academic sector has made in focusing on cultural influences and customer relationships has as yet, made little impact on business,' he says.

Those specialising in presentation and pitching skills training, also question how much time and money the PR industry is investing in basic communications skills. 'I tear my hair out at the unimaginative way PR people present visual information,' says Speak First MD Cristina Stuart.

These doubts aside, however, those committed to investing in their people despite industry-wide downturn, are viewing the traditional ploy of cutting training budgets to make short-term savings as misguided.

Post-graduate study PMA to offer intensive training

In March, media and communications specialist PMA Training is launching a ten-week 'real life' PR course for postgraduates.

Unlike more theoretical approaches to PR training, PMA claims that its programme will whisk delegates out of the classroom and focus on the practical skills needed to land a job in an agency or in-house. 'When they start to work, delegates will not just know the theory, they will also have an understanding of what the problems are in practice,' says PMA chairman David Davis.

Over the ten weeks, successful applicants will learn about media relations, client relations, direct marketing, product placement, creating press kits, plus commissioning and using research. In addition, delegates will pick up key skills in pitching for new business and performing on radio and TV.

'Uniquely, we will give them training in writing skills that will make them think like a journalist,' adds Davis.

With two classes of 12, delegates will be assigned a core tutor who will monitor their progress. But much of the time will be spent on real PR assignments, with some of the UK's top PR agencies, businesses and charities providing work placements.

As yet, PMA is unable to disclose details of which organisations will be supporting the programme, but Davis says: 'I'm certain that delegates will be making a positive contribution to real PR assignments'.

At £3,995 a shot and with sessions continuing into the evenings and weekends, this course is not for the faint-hearted. Having already attracted more than 200 applicants, PMA is currently whittling down its shortlist to identify the delegates who have the passion and desire that could enable them to succeed.

At the end of the course, delegates will have a further month's access to the PMA media centre to work on their CVs and gain tutor advice on securing the right job. In addition, while the programme has yet to gain accreditation from the PRCA or IPR, a further course is planned for 29 September to 5 December.

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