One of the strongest messages coming through from clients in the
1997 PR Week Agency Report (PR Week 21 November 1997) was the need for
real business acumen among consultants.
To date, PR training has traditionally concentrated on the core
communications skills such as writing press releases and presenting, but
in an increasingly competitive commercial environment clients now expect
a real understanding of the business issues they face and appropriate
strategic advice from PR professionals.
On the academic front, universities are waking up to the idea that their
students need to put their PR knowledge in context. Paul Noble, course
leader on the BA PR course at Bournemouth University, says: ’You could
describe our course as a business studies degree with a strong PR
It’s not appropriate to spend three or four years learning pure PR
We aim to give an appreciation of the political, economic and business
environment in which organisations operate. ’
Danny Moss, senior fellow and course leader of the MA in PR at
Manchester Metropolitan University, says: ’There is this technician
preoccupation in some areas of the PR industry, perhaps because they
need someone who can drop straight into a job?’
The MA at Manchester teaches business organisation, strategic management
and marketing. Practitioners teach significant sections of the
programme, and students work on business case studies intended to show
them how their role in communications fits into the broader business
Likewise, the two-term diploma course includes a series of business
lectures at Cardiff Business School covering topics such as marketing,
corporate policy and strategic management, and a business project in
which students monitor a FTSE company and write a critique of their
In the consultancy world, there is also a greater awareness of the need
to understand clients’ business from the shop floor up.
Harvard PR, for example, recently hired a trainer to run in-house
courses geared specifically to the business problems facing the
Countrywide Porter Novelli’s nine month graduate training scheme also
includes day long workshops on commercial understanding, finance and
corporate strategy and, according to director of personnel and
development at Countrywide Barry Winter, examines how PR fits into the
In addition trainees also spent time learning about integrated
communications at various Omnicom offices worldwide. To hone their
business skills senior managers from Countrywide attend an annual
workshop run by Omnicom in the US at which tutors from Harvard Business
School run courses which cover finance, business strategy, marketing and
However Winter says: ’I know that some university PR courses are
focusing more on the commercial context in which PR operates, but I
don’t think you really develop commercial acumen until you’re thinking
about business issues on a day-to-day basis - until then it’s rather
Fellow Omnicom group company Fleishman-Hillard also sends its senior
staff on the management workshops in the US. This year F-H is planning
to look at issues like brand strategy and will hold marketing
masterclasses with client marketing directors.
’We’ll get people in to discuss the realities and challenges of their
remit and look at what they expect from PR in order to achieve their
business objectives. We’re saying to senior marketing people ’tell us
how it looks from your side’, which is probably something we don’t do
enough as an industry,’ says lead director Deborah Saw.
Mark Pinsent, UK marketing manager at hi-tech specialist agency Text
100, admits: ’A lot of the training we do for junior staff is focused on
PR skills. However, we start giving people a feel for the financial side
as early as possible by teaching them how to manage and structure
budgets and about the marketing structure clients have in place so they
can position PR within the whole business.’
Pinsent believes Text 100 has an advantage over generalist agencies when
it comes to industry knowledge. ’Part of people’s job description here
is to know the IT industry. In a generalist agency working on, say, food
and drink or dog food it’s possibly less easy to get an in-depth
knowledge of a client’s business. The feedback we get from clients is
that our people do know technology.’
At first glance, in-house PR staff seem to have an obvious advantage
over agency staff in terms of developing business acumen in that they
are much closer to the business.
’We have in-house training courses which are available to anyone in the
company, such as sales training courses which enable people to learn
more about particular products,’ says Jan Shawe, director of corporate
relations at Prudential Corporation. ’People in my department go through
some of the same courses as those working at the sharp end of the
However, Shawe still does not think in-house PR staff are necessarily
more commercially aware than their agency counterparts. ’On a big
account in a good agency you’re probably as much exposed to the
commercial side of business as you are in-house,’ she says.
Inchcape group corporate affairs director, Paul Barber says: ’We have a
policy of internal recruitment first and we’re keen in my department to
take on people from other functions,’ Not surprisingly, therefore,
people in the department tend to already have good commercial
Inchcape operates an accelerated training programme for junior to middle
managers which covers the skills needed to be a manager at Inchcape,
regardless of the function worked in.
A four-day residential programme identifies trainees’ strengths and
weaknesses and function experts are used as coaches in areas where more
knowledge is needed.
Esther Kaposi, director of corporate affairs at Powergen, says: ’If
people in my department are keen to develop their business acumen we
encourage them to attend courses or visit different parts of the
business where they can learn more.’
However, Kaposi says appropriate external courses are hard to find.
’More imaginative marketing of general courses would pay dividends. I
tend to only get information about public relations and communications
Looking at the courses offered by some of the biggest names in PR
training it is true that most of the emphasis is on communications
However, several of these companies also offer courses in other areas
which are relevant to PR people.
Training specialist Hawksmere’s new programme for 1998, for example,
offers courses in strategy, business development and the financial
skills of management and business planning.
’Take-up from PR people on these courses is increasing as more is being
demanded of them and many now have profit responsibility,’ says
Hawksmere chairman, Neil Thomas.
The Henshall Centre has a range of management courses, including
developing PR strategy, managing the corporate brand and negotiating
Likewise, Communication Skills Europe, the preferred training provider
to the PRCA, offers mainstream courses such as effective management as
well as specialist subjects such as corporate identity and understanding
financial PR. The company also offers specially tailored courses and PR
training director, Ian Metherell, says: ’All in-company programmes now
include a high degree of training aimed at improving business
For those prepared to look beyond the names mainly recognised in PR
training there are other courses teaching commercial awareness.
Henley Management College, for example, offers a five-day business
acumen programme, covering areas such as the scope of strategic
management, and understanding and practising the marketing mix. In
November the college will also be running a three-day course on managing
corporate affairs and PR, which is aimed at enabling senior executives
to explore and develop the strategic role of PR.
Cranfield School of Management’s courses include strategy and strategic
management and general management for specialists.
Sri Srikanthan, director of the marketing accounting research centre at
Cranfield, makes a special study of the impact of financial information
on marketing and PR programmes. ’PR budgets are getting significantly
higher and PR can be the making or breaking of companies so I think it’s
very important the financial implications of PR should be understood,’
One PR department that has sent its staff on courses at Cranfield is
Railtrack. ’Because we are a large organisation we buy training modules
from places like Cranfield,’ says Railtrack corporate affairs director,
Philip Dewhurst. ’Now we are in the private sector I want my staff to
follow best private sector practice. We have our shareholders to think
about so we do a lot of financial training. The corporate affairs
department in a big company is a place where people can get a broad
overview of how a company operates and possibly move into another sector
such as general management or corporate development so training in
business acumen is essential.’ l
PUBLIC AFFAIRS: IMPROVING UNDERSTANDING OF GOVERNMENT
It’s been a busy first year for the Centre for Corporate and Public
Affairs set up by Phil Harris and Danny Moss at Manchester Metropolitan
University to provide research, training and consultancy in areas such
as influencing government policy, corporate governance and developing
effective corporate communication strategies.
Driven by an advisory board which includes Alan Watson from
Burson-Marsteller and management guru Cary Cooper, plus representatives
from leading organisations like Boots, Vauxhall and Manchester Airport,
the centre has put together a varied programme reflecting current
concerns in corporate and public affairs and undertaken research in
’Our emphasis is on research,’ stresses Harris, who has been studying
the non-political processes involved in party conferences with the
intention of publishing a research document this year. Meanwhile Moss
has been interviewing senior executives about the role of PR in the
boardroom and the strategic value it adds and will publish his findings
soon. Organising seminars is another important aspect of the work of the
centre. Coming events include Machiavelli at 500, with speakers
including Lord McAlpine and Countessa Machiavelli, looking at power and
influence on the 500th anniversary of the birth of the Florentine
Although Harris insists that the centre does not view itself as a
training company, a raft of short courses on subjects such as dealing
with government, public relations and strategy, crisis management and
direct marketing are currently being put together and will be run on a
In-company courses are also offered. Last year middle and senior
managers at North West Water were put through a course in understanding
and influencing government, and several organisations have asked for
’The centre is all about sharing best practice, pulling back and
reflecting, and in the medium to long term writing up some of the best
ideas,’ says Harris.
With a lot of work to be done in the often neglected area of corporate
and public affairs, the centre clearly has another busy year ahead.
POST-GRADUATE OPTIONS: TAKING TRAINING A STAGE FURTHER
For those wishing to extend their study of PR, and perhaps improve their
employment prospects, there is an ever increasing choice of
post-graduate courses on offer throughout Europe.
In the UK the IPR recognises five post-graduate courses, at Stirling,
Manchester, Cardiff, Dublin Institute of Technology and West Herts
The post-graduate Diploma in International PR at West Herts College is
likely to appeal to anyone considering working in Europe. Lasting 36
weeks, the course includes a four week work placement and an
international visit, which this year will be a trip to the European
Parliament in Brussels and meetings with the National Bank of Belgium
and the Belgian Radio and TV Corporation.
Full-time PR courses in Europe are accredited by the Confederation
Europeenne des Relations Publiques (CERP), which publishes a booklet
listing details of all such courses. Many of the courses have a
communications rather than pure PR title, although it is often possible
to focus on PR.
Complete details of courses can be obtained from CERP via the IPR, but
the following gives a flavour of some of the post-graduate courses on
Attached to the Sorbonne at the Universite de Paris IV, CELSA, the
School of Higher Studies in Information and Communications Sciences,
offers a number of specialised courses including an MA in information
and communication; a five-year DESS in techniques of information and
communication with an option in European PR; and a one-year DEA doctoral
course with an option in PR.
In Milan the Accademia di Communicazione runs a one-year MA in business
communication and image, focusing on three main areas - PR, marketing
communication and account management.
The University of Leipzig in Germany created an Institute of
Communication and Media Sciences in 1993 and has an MA in communication
and media sciences, with a possible focus on PR and Eastern Europe.
The Swiss Public Relations Institute runs a post-graduate course with
the University of Neuchatel and the Hochschule St Gallen in
Communication and Management. The course is conducted in French and
German and involves eight one-week sessions over a period of nine
months. The focus is on creating innovative communications in order to
influence corporate strategy and solve complex problems.
THE STUDENT’S VIEW: GREAT EXPECTATIONS OF THE INDUSTRY
At the University of Stirling, the first semester of the Masters Degree
in Public Relations is behind us. Projects, pitches, press-conferences
and media-content analysis have been completed and critiqued. Like PR
students everywhere, we can to begin to anticipate applying what we have
learned to the reality of public relations practice.
A graduate trainee programme at one of the 12 consultancies listed by
the IPR is one way to ease the step into the working environment.
Otherwise the transition requires the industry’s understanding of the
different characters of the graduate applicants. There are good and bad
graduates, just as there are good and bad practitioners and the
responsibility is not the employers’ alone.
The onus is on the graduate to appreciate that in business, failing
standards affect more than grade averages. The responsibility of the
employer is to realise that assisting the graduate’s assimilation into
practice is an investment in the future of the industry.
At Stirling we are lucky in having the support of many practitioners who
deliver lectures, judge work and offer work placements. Their
contribution bridges the gap between academia and industry, providing a
framework of reality to our studies. Their sponsorship demonstrates and
awareness of the advantages of the graduates in the workforce.
One year at Stirling or three years at Manchester cannot replace years
of hard-earned experience, but it does require motivation and a
commitment to oneself and the industry one has chosen.
Employers who realise that a graduate is dedicated to a specific end,
but is still malleable, can guide them into practised abilities,
confident of the prudence of committing valuable resources to the
All graduates have had to hear ’you’ll only need half of what they teach
you’, but an expansive education is more than superfluous knowledge.
It ensures an understanding of the possibilities and extent of
It implies a shared expectation of a minimum standard, effectively
bringing a much needed definition of the field into the practising
As the business world gets to grips with PR and its uses, such a
definition and commitment legitimises adoption of our services.
There is a lot to do before graduation day and our success relies upon
the sympathies of the many who have already succeeded in this field.
Lee Robinson Brooke.