Staff Development: Training the elite

How can PR firms keep their senior staff motivated enough to remain in the industry, asks Mary Cowlett.

The PR industry is currently facing a problem with its senior practitioners.

Instead of taking the next step up the management ladder, a significant number are deciding to quit the business for pastures new.

According to research by Zoomerang for the PRCA human resources forum, one reason for this exodus is a lack of adequate training.

'We looked at what motivates people in the PR industry and found that at account director and associate director level, training dries up,' says forum chair and Hill & Knowlton director of HR Caroline Samuel.

As a result, senior practitioners who have built up a wealth of skills and experience over the years are frustrated in their attempts to move their careers forward and look for professional satisfaction elsewhere.

To address this issue, the industry's trade bodies are ploughing more resources into transforming successful client-facing consultants, and PR managers, into the smart business leaders they want to become.

In 2004, the PRCA ran a series of two-day commercial skills courses for account directors and senior PROs, offered by specialist PR training consultancy

Delivered by Neil Backwith, former European chief executive of Countrywide Porter Novelli, the first day of the course looked at planning and managing PR businesses.

The session covered topics including key ratios, over-servicing, understanding management accounts and forecasting, plus revenue balancing and capital expenditure.

On the second day, delegates addressed winning, managing and growing client accounts, including producing estimates and quotations, working with client contracts and negotiating deals.

In a similar move, this year the IPR is offering a number of new workshops for senior PROs covering the Freedom of Information Act, which came into force on 1 January, and the value of corporate reputation.

Identifying need

However, the main issue for those looking to provide adequate training for senior practitioners is identifying need.

At H&K, Samuel says that the starting point is always the aims of the business: 'You have to relate training to the business plan.'

This means that over the past year, her agency's focus has been on meeting new business objectives, with senior PROs honing their pitching, sales and negotiation techniques.

Meanwhile, the goals of specific H&K divisions have been addressed with workshops covering relevant topics within particular industry sectors, including a session on the latest developments in the NHS for the healthcare team.

'You have to be flexible and consider what the organisation needs to achieve, what a team needs to achieve and then it's down to the requirements of individuals,' explains Samuel.

It also seems that one of the challenges as PROs progress up an organisation is that as individuals' remits and experiences diverge, so training needs become more bespoke.

GCI addresses this issue by identifying the business skills every individual needs to achieve at each level within the firm, and then relates these back to job roles and remits.

'There is a danger in assuming that people have the requisite skills for the next step up, when in fact they may have been promoted for being good at presentations or client relations,' says GCI London chief executive Sue Ryan.

Therefore, as part of each staff member's personal development plan, GCI provides a competency checklist, so that all group account directors, for example, have clear guidelines of their responsibilities across PR programmes, client relations, administration, budgeting, employee management and new business.

In addition, from group account director level upwards, the agency sets aside £500 per head each year for individuals to go on a business-related course of their choice.

However, while formal training has its role, senior PR practitioners are keen to acquire skills that can be put to instant good use. So they can also benefit from on-the-job learning techniques.

'As PROs become more senior and their needs a little more complex and less tangible, it is important to provide less rigorous but more timely training,' says Richard Baines, managing director of PR specialist human resources provider Argyll HR.

At Westminster City Council, this is achieved through a combination of formal instruction and job placements. Currently, three of the council's PR managers are studying for advanced IPR or Chartered Institute of Marketing qualifications, while another is on secondment at the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames.

In addition, Westminster head of communications Alex Aiken recently took a study trip to the US to examine local and national government models with experts at The White House, Boston University and the office of the governor in Atlanta.

'Continuous learning is an absolute requirement as unless you learn and understand the value of what you do, it is difficult to be taken seriously within the business,' says Aiken.

For most senior practitioners, however, while it is important to continually refresh PR and business attributes, one-off challenges are often better addressed through coaching and mentoring.

As part of its commitment to improve best practice, the Guild of Public Relations Practitioners is spearheading a confidential mentoring programme designed to help PR people face pivotal points in their career.

This might cover advice for PROs switching from long-term work in-house to a consultancy, or a female returner looking to juggle a career with a young family.

'This scheme is not a substitute for the training and coaching provided by the PRCA, IPR and in-house organisations and agencies,' says programme volunteer and the guild's past master Rosemary Brook. 'But we are aware that people get to their early to mid-30s and decide to do something different toPR.'

As industry bodies, agencies and client organisations strive to provide the learning and support senior PROs need to drive their careers forward, over time, such schemes might help retain the talent that too often views PR as a profession with limited long-term prospects.


External training

When Liz Andrew stepped up from director to become joint managing director of Kaizo, with Paul Smith, in April last year, she faced a whole new set of challenges and responsibilities.

In preparation, Andrew worked with external PR coach Andrew Boys, a freelance consultant and founder of Fishburn Hedges.

Now in its second year, this relationship involves a two-hour session once a quarter, where the pair discuss current problems and review progress.

'When you run a business, it's very easy to get sucked into day-to-day concerns,' says Andrew.

'However, a senior PR coach enables me to talk about the broader picture with somebody outside the company who has run their own PR firm. This helps put a different perspective on issues relating both to the company and to me personally and helps me find a suitable strategy and structure.'

Having undertaken formal financial training to become a director of Kaizo in 2002, Andrew had few worries about the commercial aspects of her new role.

However, she was aware that her experience in managing a team of people was a different proposition to motivating and leading people to drive a business forward.

'You can always learn more about how to get people to buy in to a proposition and perform to the level you expect. And I feel I learn how to inspire our people and clients from those I deal with on a daily basis,' she says.


Internal and external training

A director of Fishburn Hedges' financial practice, Andrew Reid is a firm believer in combining formal training with shared knowledge and learning from colleagues.

'From the chairman and CEO down, it's part of the culture here that no one person can know enough and no one person knows everything. There is a recognition that learning is essential for continuous professional development and delivery for clients,' he says.

In practical terms, this means that most recently, Reid attended a two-day external training session with seven colleagues, designed to refresh budgeting, people management and client relationship skills. 'We learnt about best practice for motivating and challenging colleagues, negotiating both internally and externally and managing finances,' he says.

In addition, Reid has benefited from internal talks by external experts, including Press Complaints Commission director Tim Toulmin, senior journalists from the broadsheet newspapers and a specialist within the No. 10 Policy Unit. At least once a month, Reid has the opportunity to talk over professional development issues with his personal manager - another senior director within the business.

Having recently been promoted to the agency's board, Reid is also conscious of his increased accountability in contributing to the growth of Fishburn Hedges, including the management and marketing of the firm. 'As I operate in the financial area, I also need to keep on top of developments in the capital markets, while meeting the responsibilities I have in helping to lead our financial practice,' he says.

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