’Everyone will tell you we need senior PR training but when we put
courses on, agencies don’t send their management, they send Henrietta
Bloggs who has just joined the company,’ moans IPR executive director
’Why?’ he asks. ’Perhaps as account directors or in-house managers they
may be embarrassed at the thought that they need improvement.’
It’s a fair assumption. Anyone heading a department or even their own
agency has, by rights, years of experience behind them and has probably
sat in on one or two training courses in their time, starting with ’how
to write a press release’ as a graduate trainee.
The only problem is that now many clients are demanding a higher level
of education from agency staff. They want people to have a good
understanding of their business environment in order to be able to
Lessons, at a high level, in people management, strategy and creativity
can surely only serve to boost the status of the in-house practitioner
within an organisation as well.
But how exactly do senior staff gain the skills of top-level
Evidence of senior training is hard to locate in the average PR
In agencies, the quantity and quality of courses vary. Burson-Marsteller
offers a range of senior level courses which are one step beyond PR
These include negotiation tactics, financial training, client planning
and strategic planning for account directors.
’We work on the basis that people who have reached the senior posts are
experts in their field,’ explains senior training manager Mimi
Beresford-West. ’Its not general industry skills we are trying to
However, almost every agency encounters the problem that the higher the
people you want to train are in the company, the harder it is to get
bums on seats on the day of training. Client and staff pressures push
training down the list of priorities.
’The idea is that people are only promoted if they have had the
appropriate training but due to time commitments this isn’t rigidly
policed,’ says Beresford-West. ’When people reach the upper echelons you
cannot insist they attend.’
Hill and Knowlton’s senior staff can attend an annual seminar at the
London Business School. H&K also run internal workshops but, again, the
courses are not compulsory.
’Careers can be furthered but staff who attend will not be leapfrogging
over their colleagues,’ says H&K chairman Antony Snow.
Snow sees training as ’an add-on’ to the experience of actually doing
the job. ’Gurus are formed at graduate level training,’ he says. ’These
are the people we train to become specialists in whichever area they
Adele Biss, who formed her own agency AS Biss and Company from the
remnants of Ian Greer Associates two months ago, thinks it is never too
late to train. Despite having just 11 staff, most of whom are at
director level, she has set aside a ’very large’ training budget.
’It is important that everyone understands their development does not
come from osmosis,but is something which requires outside help, with a
proper system of appraisal,’ says Biss. She is still finalising training
details but the programme will include secondments with client companies
and college courses in presentation, technology literacy and policy
The in-house story is slightly different. Although many organisations
appreciate the need for senior training, there were no fixed budgets for
such courses at the selection of firms contacted by PR Week. Some felt
this is because they are closer to the business in-house and therefore,
already possessed of a good understanding of the wider issues faced.
’You can’t sit on the board and make decisions unless you know what is
going on in the business,’ says Sainsbury’s head of communications
While recognising the value of training courses, Fry also feels that the
benefits of hands-on dealings with the press, politicians and financial
analysts, who automatically expect you to understand their business,
shouldn’t be underestimated.
Nationwide head of external affairs Paul Atkinson agrees. The company
has ’limited straightforward practitioner’ courses but Atkinson says:
’Fifteen years in the business, in-house and consultancy gives you
strategic depth. Most public relations skills in multi-national
organisations arise through exposure to a range of issues.’
Atkinson advocates an internal system of ’monitoring and coaching’ his
seven-strong public affairs and media relations team - rather than
formally training them - as the best way to help them cope with the
public roles as company spokespeople.
Unipart group communications director Frank Nigriello favours gaining
tips from the top from other high level practitioners, via professional
associations like the Employee Communications Association, over formal
The company’s own college provides all its staff with training on, for
example, ’lean thinking’ or ’supplier relations’ but these are courses
designed to suit all its employees and public relations training,
especially at a senior-level, is considered to be too narrow a
However Nigriello appreciates that in the fast changing world of PR it
is dangerous to think you know it all.
’Professional associations allow you to more easily integrate learning
into what you do within time constraints,’ he explains. ’You can share
experiences, ask and be asked for help and crystallise your thoughts.’
According to Nigriello, part of the problem is the lack of top level
courses which have the gravitas of an MBA without the length and
expense, and which teach you the type of things that you can put into
practise on the shop floor later that afternoon.
Trainers in this area tell another story about the PR industry’s
attitude to training. One trainer described classroom scenes where
clients’ mobile phones and bleepers go off incessantly. One PR director
even made alterations to a fax transmission over the mobile phone during
Another trainer, Raymond Rudd, whose client base is now 75 per cent top
level staff, says that the aim with this audience is to make it clear
that you are ’fine tuning’ them, rather than teaching them brand new
This way you avoid bruising any egos, he says.
’PR people are competent, they have gotten to where they are by being
self-motivated. They don’t want to know about their weaknesses but you
can show them how to use their strengths better,’ says Rudd.
After all, he concludes, if a top golf player like Nick Faldo consults
other professionals to check that he is doing the right thing with his
swing, why shouldn’t top PR people seek a little extra help?
SYNECTICS: ACHIEVING CREATIVITY THROUGH POSITIVE THINKING
Unilever, Whitbread and Hewlett Packard are among the big names to have
called in the consulting group Synectics to get the creative juices of
its senior executives flowing.
The company was founded in 1960 by George Prince and Bill Gordon - two
members of the Arthur D Little Invention Design Group.
As Prince and Gordon searched for new product ideas they noticed that,
while some brainstorming sessions were highly productive, others just
ended in arguments.
An examination of the creative process led to the formation of Synectics
- which is both the name of the firm and the service it offers. The word
comes from the Greek words ’syn’ and ’ectics’ suggesting ’the bringing
together of diversity facilitating innovative thinking’.
Synectics Europe partner Jonne Ceserani explains that the company
specialises in innovation and creativity.
Unlike management consultant giants who dispatch hoards of employees to
install new working systems, the firm has just 50 ’process consultants’
worldwide who aim to ’help you help yourself’.
The philosophy is that people are far more willing to follow their own
ideas through than adopt other peoples’, even if they are management
It is simply a matter of breaking down individual barriers and accessing
According to Ceserani the trick is to allow your subconscious to
freewheel in the same way you did as a child. ’This habit of letting the
mind wander is drummed out of us at school when we are told to pay
attention, but it is a skill which needs to be re-learnt to access
innovative thoughts,’ says Ceserani.
Good ideas are also often quashed due to the way staff meetings are
Brainstorming sessions are like a game of tennis where people
intentionally or unintentionally discount the ideas of others. According
to Ceserani, ideas are usually stalled by the disinterest of others, or
by people saying ’not right now’ or ’that’s all very well in theory,
For pounds 850 participants can take part in a three-day workshop run by
two Synectics consultants. Their aim is to develop creativity skills and
unlock potential by stimulating individual and group creativity and, in
turn, produce more imaginative thinking.
Participants are encouraged to open their minds to all suggestions,
however crazy they may initially seem, on the premise that a good idea
often lurks behind it.
Some common aphorisms used in the sessions are ’join, don’t judge’,
’probe, don’t assume’, ’don’t reject a weak idea, use its faults to
better it,’ ’fight problems, not people.’ All ideas are given equal
consideration and participants are discouraged from giving negative
responses to the ideas of others.
Interestingly, of 750 senior managers questioned in a Synectics survey,
80 per cent thought innovation was important to their organisation, but
only four per cent thought they were any good at it.
Many of the firm’s customers, like Unilever and Whitbread, work in new
product development in highly competitive FMCG industries. They use
Synectics in an effort to trigger creative impulses.
Some breakthroughs come via very strange routes. During one innovation
session a participant expressed a wish to ’get snails to walk around the
toilet bowl eating dirt as they went.’ This bizarre thought was used to
develop new thinking about using enzymes to ’eat’ dirt and the first
enzyme-based toilet cleaner was invented.
Colin Hambridge, PR manager of Unwins Seeds, took part in a workshop
last December with a view to coming up with new product or packaging
Hambridge initially felt ’insecure and embarrassed’ by the training
session, which included asking each delegate to pretend to be an
But he found the end result stimulating and picked up some useful ideas
on communicating the Unwins proposition from fellow participants.
’I was pleasantly surprised when people who were not involved in the
business came up with potentially good suggestions,’ said Hambridge.
’Hearing comments like: ’I wish gardening wasn’t so complicated’ and ’I
want it now’ let me see what others, as gardeners or potential
gardeners, wanted.’ Dermot McKeone, deputy chairman of the media
analysis and PR company Infopress uses Synectics to solve communication
problems and carry forward the results of media analysis. ’It’s a good
way of honing ideas down and creating solutions,’ says McKeone. ’I’m a
IN-HOUSE: TACKLING TEACHING TECHNIQUES
’I guess there are some people who at the top who feel there is nothing
further to learn,’ says Alison Clarke, deputy managing director of the
Shandwick-owned agency Welbeck/Golin Harris Communications.
’A lot of what we learn comes from on the job experience,’ she adds,
’but I don’t think the industry equips people to run businesses.’
Clarke has just taken part in Shandwick’s first senior managers’
training programme. Using part of the company’s annual training budget
(which is around pounds 300,000), the course is designed to reach all of
Shandwick’s 180 company directors and account directors.
Sixteen top managers sat in on the two-day modules which covered
everything from marketing strategy (aimed at teaching candidates how to
apply innovation to business) to leadership and people management.
Colin Trustler, chairman of Shandwick Consultants, hopes the courses
will build a ’culture of fiscal maturity’ in the agency both to increase
the profitability of individual agencies and to keep up with an
increasingly sophisticated client base.
’Clients are becoming increasingly mature business people who expect to
have conversations about business itself,’ explains Trustler. ’They are
getting very good, the quality is rising all the time. We have to stay
one step ahead of the clients. As a quoted company we want to be in the
business of consultancy, not in the commodity business.’
One module, which focuses on client relationships, is designed to help
agency leaders move away from short term ’sausage machine’ relationships
with his or her client on to a more ’strategic platform’.
The idea, according to Trustler, is to encourage the client to ’see you
as a business partner, rather than a downstream supplier’. This, he
hopes, will lead to longer term, bigger fee contracts instead of the
current situation where, he says, PR agencies frequently find themselves
working to a budget which is ’an extension from the petty cash box’.
The training technique, however, has to suit the audience. ’PR people
get very impatient with academic chalk and talk sessions, they like to
be involved,’ says Trustler. ’They are pro-active people by nature who
prefer to be actually problem solving, than to be sitting in a classroom
Clarke, meanwhile, is just grateful to receive formal lessons in
something she believes many PR people get by on through ’gut
’Most PR people are good at budgeting but there is a big difference
between that and running a healthy company,’ she says. ’The
communications industry appears to have a big block on business and