FOCUS: TRAINING AND DEVELOPMENT - Creating a healthy breeding ground/Maintaining a programme of ongoing staff development is one of the surest ways of protecting a company’s most valuable assets. Mary Cowlett reports

With the threat of recession still looming large, you would think that the well-documented staff retention problem which dogs the PR industry would be resolving itself.

With the threat of recession still looming large, you would think

that the well-documented staff retention problem which dogs the PR

industry would be resolving itself.

However, many PR companies still face the problem of high staff


Despite the fact that these days, good training programmes are vital in

attracting and keeping staff, research suggests many PR companies are

just not putting the money into training.

The PRCA 1998 Benchmarking Study on training by Harris Research

certainly makes for disappointing reading. PRCA deputy director, Damian

Beeley says: ’The survey reveals that an average of only one to two per

cent of members’ net fee income is spent on training’. He emphasises

that the PRCA would like to see this figure at between five and 10 per


But there is a greater commitment to staff development made by some of

the big players. Particularly in sectors which are still recruiting

furiously and face a shortage of good calibre staff - notably hi-tech

and healthcare PR -there is a commitment to staff training policies

which are far-thinking.

Although boasting a modest staff of around 40, Grant Butler Coomber

(GBC), spends roughly eight per cent of revenue on training and

development, according to board director, Melissa Geddes.

She points out that rather than relying solely on home-grown stars, it

is vital for a successful company to bring in occasional new blood.

However, she stresses that training alone is not enough to hold staff.

’The main reason people leave is because they feel they are getting

stagnant,’ she says. ’Training and development have to go hand in hand

with challenges to use new skills and career opportunities, otherwise

you are setting people up for dissatisfaction.’

Geddes says a prime reason for GBC’s good staff retention record is that

employees are very much tied in with the future of the business. ’We

have a clear idea of where we want to take the agency and involve and

communicate that to staff,’ she says.

This is a view shared by Deborah Lewis, joint founding partner of

strategic business communications agency, Republic. ’Growing people with

you is the most important thing you can do, so they feel the scope of

the company is always embracing their aspirations,’ she says.

As director of a young operation, Lewis dismisses the idea that a small

agency’s lack of internal vacancies makes it difficult to meet

individuals’ career hopes. ’The opposite is true,’ she says. ’If people

want it, there is huge scope for them to develop their interests.’ To

underline the point, Lewis highlights that in an expanding consultancy

culture, staff can entertain all sorts of future possibilities, such as

heading up a specialist division.

At the top end of the scale are large organisations such as Countrywide

Porter Novelli which ensures that every employee has at least 140 hours

of training and learning time a year. In addition, there is a vast

in-house pool of talent for less experienced employees to learn from.

’What motivates talented people more than anything else is being

stretched and working with other talented people,’ says Barry Winter,

director of personnel and development.

CPN is also able to satisfy employees’ considerations. With an

international network, staff with wanderlust can broaden their horizons,

without necessarily leaving the company.

Miranda Kavanagh, director of corporate and public affairs at

pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, says her UK staff are able to broaden their

experience in the company’s international corporate and public affairs

departments in New York and Brussels. Pfizer also has a staff

development system that recognises the way people perform their jobs and

rewards long service.

This approach is echoed by Isabel Greenwood, managing director of Biss

Lancaster who says: ’The point is not to stop people leaving, but to

reward loyalty.’ As an incentive to employees who stay the course, Biss

Lancaster has introduced a sabbatical scheme, where after five years

service staff can take a four-week paid break.

In addition, as a company that since 1996 has had Investors in People

accreditation, staff development is very much focused on contribution to

the business. Everybody in the agency has a development manager -

usually somebody two steps further up the career ladder - and appraisal

of senior staff includes input from those they manage. As proof that

this approach to staff retention really works, Greenwood says that

personnel as senior as board director Fiona Noble originally joined the

company as a graduate trainee.

On a similar note, Manchester Airport is also prepared to sponsor staff

on lengthy training initiatives. Sally Sykes, head of press and PR says

that since 1995, her company has been funding a member of the PR team

through a part-time MA in PR at Manchester Metropolitan University.

More impressively, there is no tie-in clause involved. Sykes says: ’We

take a long term view and training is one of our contractual agreements

with employees.’ She admits that in an in-house department it is hard to

satisfy promotional hopes as there is not much movement of staff. But

instead, she places importance on variety and investing in people’s


’It is short-sighted not to develop people’ says Sykes. ’But you have to

accept that people leave for a variety of reasons. There are some wishes

you simply can’t fulfil.’

It is widely accepted that many of the recruitment problems facing the

PR industry currently stem from lack of investment in training

throughout the last recession. Although a straw poll among agencies

which invest heavily in training reveals that there are no plans to

reduce training levels at present, when push comes to shove in an

economic downturn, the reality is that training is one of the first

areas to suffer.

Chairman of the PRCA and managing director of the GCI Group Adrian

Wheeler is adamant in his views. ’I would urge any manager planning to

work in PR for longer than the three-year cycle of the average downturn

to think twice before economising on training. Short-changing our

employees is no way to behave, and the whole industry will pay a stiff

price if we sacrifice long-term quality to short-term gain.’

If the industry is to survive this recession, it would do well to

remember that its people are its main asset.


Most PR consultancies conduct staff appraisals annually or every six

months, with interim check ups. While these address career aspirations,

skills gaps and specific goals, the focus is very much on the big


So in the meantime, how do employees solve problems and sharpen the less

tangible aspects of their professional skills?

’Mentors are not quite Catholic priests, but they are definitely the

next best thing,’ says Melissa Geddes, board director at Grant Butler


Increasingly UK companies are turning to the idea of mentoring. By

allocating each employee an experienced member of staff as a

confidential ear, worries over workplace problems can be discussed


But how the concept works in practice varies enormously between


Grant Butler Coomber’s mentoring programme has been running for 18


Geddes says it not only provides a safety valve for staff, but also

gives the mentors themselves extended management experience.

In addition, she highlights the way the scheme benefits the company’s

bottom line. ’It enables us to put back into the pot all the GBC senior

experience and helps mesh the company together,’ she says. And while

there is the guarantee of complete confidence, the company has certain

escalation procedures in place for emergencies.

While some companies have very formal mentoring structures, at

Countrywide Porter Novelli, the scheme tends to be run by the staff

themselves. Barry Winter, director of personnel and development says:

’There are clear principles and we train mentors in coaching skills, but

it is very much based on need.’

Other differences include those who allocate a mentor and those who let

employees pick their own. For the most part however, these counsellors

are usually a senior member of staff at account director level or


But at Harvard PR, employees are likely to be assigned a person with

only slightly more experience than themselves.

PR director, Gareth Zundel says: ’It is a very flexible system and there

are various options, but having someone who is almost a peer looking

after you can be useful.’

However, many agencies have also refined their programmes to reflect the

input of staff. Annabel Abbs, client services director at Firefly says

her company has experimented with many things over the past four years.

’Originally, everybody at Firefly had a mentor, but this has now been

honed down to just the junior staff and a time limit of a year.’ She

adds: ’We encourage more senior people to find mentors outside the

agency or even outside the industry.’

And it’s not just the junior staff who find it useful to have a

confidential sounding board - mentors say can also benefit from the



Whether it is winning a piece of new business against the odds, or

struggling into the office at death’s door, there are occasions when

staff deserve a big thank you. Undoubtedly most people are motivated by

money and enjoy the occasional financial bonus. But when staff go beyond

the call of duty, how do you reward that extra effort?

According to managing director Isabel Greenwood, Biss Lancaster has

moved away from a formalised recognition system for outstanding effort.

’We felt it was quite patronising and it ended up causing more problems

than it solved,’ she says.

Her agency still offers weekends away and spot bonuses, but these are

focused on specific criteria relating to business performance.

Day-to-day achievements are rewarded with champagne at the monthly staff


As part of the Shooting Stars staff development programme at Key

Communications in Birmingham, employees are annually audited on the

sorts of rewards they would like. Managing director, Christine Arthur

says: ’This year, financial remuneration only ranked fourth. People

considered issues such as pride and recognition and job satisfaction

above financial rewards.’ In response to these findings, Key displays

employees’ outstanding achievements in the agency for a month as a

public ’well done’ and Arthur says she is constantly looking to improve

working conditions.

However, while Key rewards all employees with the usual meals and social

events Arthur says ’it’s the little things that matter’. For instance

every new employee receives flowers or a bottle of wine on their first

day, and in December, staff were each given an afternoon off to go

Christmas shopping.

But the most common way agencies afford staff respect and recognition

from their peers, is by holding annual awards ceremonies. For the most

part these recognise serious achievements, such as the best campaign of

the year. However, others are more oriented towards morale, so focus on

the fun elements of, say, who best handled a difficult client.

But at Countrywide Porter Novelli, such awards are judged on criteria

relating to the success of the business. Barry Winter, director of

personnel and development says the agency has a range of recognition


Among these is the ’Four Is’ awards for initiative, improvement,

imagination and irreverence. Winners receive a bottle of champagne.

Winter says: ’All rewards are in recognition of achievements that really

help move the company forward in meeting an ambition.’

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