TRAINING: Old dogs, new tricks

More people from established professions are moving into PR than ever before. But how do they pick up the tools of the trade? Patrick Dye reports.

Public relations has always held an allure for the young, and graduate entry is an established route into the profession. But now the industry is attracting a growing number of experienced professionals from other fields who have decided to change tack mid-career.

Research carried out by recruitment firm The Works in January revealed 40 per cent of the candidates it placed in financial PR posts in 2007 came from a non-PR background - a ten per cent increase on 2006 figures.

New influx
Journalists moving to PR follow a well-trodden path. But now they are being joined by other professionals - lawyers and teachers, people from the voluntary sector and City slickers.

Cash is the traditional lure for journalists, but this is rarely a motive for City folk, who appear to have more subtle motivations.

'These people often feel they don't quite "fit" in the City,' reports Sarah Leembruggen, managing partner at The Works. 'They understand the figures, but they want to work strategically and see the bigger picture.'

Having transferable skills obviously makes the transition easier, and journalists certainly do not have a monopoly on relevant experience.

'Investment bankers have the attributes that most closely match our own,' says David Simonson, managing director of financial PR shop Merlin. 'They are aware of the personality issues as well as the commercial considerations of bringing together two different companies, and are sensitive to how clients are portrayed to the outside world.'

For other professionals, the change can be more fraught.

'If you work in a bank or legal firm, you don't talk to the press,' says Archie Berens, a former lawyer who is now a director at Pelham PR. 'Journalists are seen as people who will take everything you say out of context.'

Many firms believe that immersing newcomers in daily practice is the best way to acclimatise them.

'In financial PR, media relations is learned on the job,' says Miranda Lane, managing director of financial training firm Finance Talking. 'The assumption is that if you recruit an excellent communicator with analytical skills and a good brain, they will pick up PR skills fairly easily.'

Others argue that even modest amounts of professional tuition can make all the difference. CIPR director Paul Mylrea says: 'Someone with specialist knowledge could move into a PR role in that field, but they would need more than just an aptitude for communications. Without media or crisis communications training, for example, how could a new entrant expect to handle these situations, or reasonably advise others how to do so?'

Like any new profession, PR cannot be mastered overnight, and it is broadly accepted that a combination of vocational and classroom training is needed to prepare career 'switchers' for their new roles.

Experience needed
'The best approach is to learn on the job, interspersed with short courses,' says Robert Taylor, managing director of training firm Taylor-Made. 'An initial burst of a week's training would be a useful introduction, but this will never give someone all the skills that they need.'

The basic skills required to become an effective PR practitioner will vary depending on the role someone is going into, but at more senior levels an understanding of the main disciplines is essential. 'Strategy and planning, media relations, crisis and issues communications, corporate social responsibility and online PR are the key skills. There are others, but I think this is the essential toolkit for someone making a mid- to senior-level shift into PR,' says Jennifer Hardie, managing director of training firm Pinnacle PR.

A degree of 'unlearning' some old assumptions may be necessary, with entrants used to more concrete professions. Short courses can help entrants shed some of their 'bad habits' and introduce them to the more subtle tone required in PR communications.

'People coming from accountancy, engineering or a science background will often write in a very rigid fashion,' says Warwick Partington, managing director of Media Training Masterclasses. 'They have to learn how to communicate emotionally, to convey to the reader what the information they are writing about actually means.'

Strong interpersonal skills would normally be expected of any newcomer to the profession, regardless of background. But ultimately, the art of smoothing relations between client and media may only come with experience.

'They will have to acquire a "people antenna",' says Fiona Thorne, managing director of Fishburn Hedges. 'Only then will they learn how to read a room and aid the flow of conversation at a lunch between client and journalist.'

Jason Nisse - Fishburn Hedges
Current role Director at Fishburn Hedges
Previous job/industry City editor of The Independent on Sunday
Previous PR jobs Media relations director at Barclays
Year moved into PR 2006

After 20 years in journalism, Jason Nisse's introduction to PR proved to be a baptism of fire. In April 2006 he left his post of City editor at The Independent on Sunday to become media relations director at Barclays Bank.

A number of shocks awaited him. 'You had to account for everything you did. In journalism the only thing you take responsibility for are the stories that appear in the paper,' says Nisse.

Jason NisseEqually problematic was the corporate structure: 'As a journalist you have a short reporting structure and decisions are made quickly. At Barclays it was much slower.'

Toughest of all was client service. 'The job required a lot of client relationship skills and a relationship with an internal client is not the easiest thing to manage,' he recalls.

The transition was not helped by the lack of training, though Nisse admits that he learned a lot from the then head of corporate affairs Stephen Whitehead. 'He showed me what would or wouldn't work and how to get internal clients to buy into what we were trying to achieve.'

Nisse's stay at Barclays was fairly short. He left in April 2007 and, after a brief return to journalism at The Telegraph, joined Fishburn Hedges in June. Once there, Nisse joined colleagues in sessions covering key PR skills: 'It was more formal than on-the-job training, with three or four of us sitting down with someone who was expert in an area such as client relations.'

This tuition has paid dividends, as Nisse shed some of his lingering journalistic tendencies: 'In journalism, you can say "that won't work". In PR, the phrasing has to be more like "perhaps a better approach would be ... ".'

Now settled into agency life and working with clients including BT and Barclaycard, Nisse values the diversity that agency work offers - something he feels was lacking at Barclays.

'I'm doing what I was before, just from a different angle,' he says.

Tom Randell - Merlin

Current role Director at Merlin
Previous job/industry Corporate lawyer, financial sector
Previous PR jobs Consultant at Brunswick
Year moved into PR Joined Brunswick in 2000 before moving to Merlin in September 2001

After three years as a corporate lawyer, the chance remark 'I think you'd make a better journalist than lawyer' redirected Tom Randell's career.

The comment, from his boss at law firm Linklaters, was a compliment for a piece Randell had written in the in-house magazine. Its repercussions were far-reaching.

After flirting with the idea of a course in journalism, a neighbour working at Brunswick suggested he try PR: 'She told me it was like journalism and law, with a lot of detailed work concerning deals and transactions.'

Tom RandellSuitably convinced, Randell extracted himself from Linklaters and joined Brunswick as a consultant eight years ago.

Training for his new profession came in a familiar guise: 'In the law firm I had shadowed a principal, sitting in their office as they took phone calls. It was similar at Brunswick.

'Effectively I shadowed someone and was involved in transactions using my experience of mergers and acquisitions.'

In September 2001 Randell moved to Merlin, also as a consultant. Formal training was available to help new starters understand financial PR, but as a City veteran Randell concentrated on developing his softer skills.

'Informal training dealt with skills that were more difficult to acquire,' he says. 'Understand precisely what it is a client is asking for and how to give journalists exactly what they need. These aren't things you can learn in a classroom. They are personal, but also practical, skills that are developed from interacting with other people.'

Randell became a director of Merlin in 2004 and now handles clients including African Gold, Aricom and EADS NV.

Looking back, he says he has no regrets about leaving the law and believes the crossover between the two professions is considerable.

'They both involve advocating the client's point of view and doing that to a deadline,' he says.

'In law that deadline may be three months away; in PR it could be in time for tomorrow's newspapers.'



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