FOCUS: PR TRAINING - Business is now par for the PR course/As corporate strategy plays an increasing role in the PR person’s remit, understanding broader business concerns has become an essential part of PR training

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.

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

investment strategy.

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

bigger picture.

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

skills training.

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,’

says Srikanthan.

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


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

little-explored areas.

’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

needs basis.

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

similar programmes.

’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.


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.


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.

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