FOCUS: TRAINING - Teaching old dogs some new tricks/Senior staff may know ’everything there is to know about the business’, but that doesn’t mean they can afford to overlook the benefits of on-going training. Lexie Goddard reports

’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 John Lavelle.

’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

John Lavelle.

’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

advise strategically.

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

Dominic Fry.

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

senior training.

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

a session.

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?


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

these ideas.

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,

but ...’.

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

big fan.’


’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

taking notes.’

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

strategy training.’

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