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How to make your PR training count

Many people in PR have experienced training that was either a waste of their time or of their employer’s money. But just because some training isn’t effective, it doesn’t mean that PR employers can save cash by making their people learn as they go.

Yes, experience is invaluable, but it needs to be backed up with understanding. As Julia Ruane, senior communications manager at government agency UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), says: “It’s all too easy to think the only PR training you need is ‘on-the-job’. Especially if you’ve come into the job with a degree in PR. But I believe that’s a very short-sighted move. Mastering your craft comes from learning the theory, and applying it. Over and over. Refining and adapting as you go. No degree can prepare you for that. And without continuing to reinforce and build on your theoretical knowledge you can’t properly apply strategy and planning to what you do. You just end up working on gut instinct without recognising small ways to improve.”

Ruane believes training is crucial, but she admits that it can be a hit-and-miss affair: “So many courses have promised much and under-delivered massively. For me, bespoke sessions for you and your team where you have input into the content and the course is tailored to your needs are the most effective. ‘Catch-all’ generic sessions are okay when you’re just starting out. But if you want real bang for buck, make sure you target your training, just like you target your comms work. In PR we focus on key messages, on objectives, on evaluation. Your approach to training should be the same.”

For large organisations, it can make sense to use the large amount of talent that is available in-house. Jane Fordham, executive director, talent and marketing at PR agency Golin says: “The most effective training is often delivered by those who know our industry and possibly even our organisation well. For this reason much of our learning and development is delivered by our own team members, sharing their knowledge and experience. We also have ‘Bright Collective Live’ sessions over food at lunchtime – a Golin TED Talk if you like, with illustrious guest speakers. We do run many ‘standardised’ learning modules, which must be completed in order to progress but the programme also allows scope for bespoke or specialist sessions like conferences or attending London Business Forum events.

“Those buying the courses must play their part, to understand the needs of the group and to brief the trainers accordingly. This is particularly true when the topic relates to our ‘craft’, for example, writing for PR or community management. If the subject matter is more competency-based like presentation or leadership skills, then industry specialists are not always key. In fact, we have had great success with Rada trainers coaching on ‘presence and presentation’ so sometimes there is much to be gained from experts from other fields. “

Whether you get training in-house or from a provider, it needs to be backed up with plenty of practice. Tamara Milne De Souza, senior account manager at agency Big Cat in Birmingham, feels that her most valuable lessons have all been picked up through first-hand experience: “On the whole, the basics of PR – the selling in, and pitching – is something we only learn and improve on through experience over time. We learn our own style after we’ve faced grumpy journalists, had the phone put down on us, and when we’ve had to get coverage over the line under pressure.

“PR is not a one-size-fits-all profession. We’re on the road to ever improving our communication and power of persuasion, and this is something that’s a personal journey – something that training can only guide a little. It takes practice, experience and learning from what went wrong and how to improve. Skills that are perfected based on feedback and a whole raft of good and bad experiences.

“Any amount of excellent training unfortunately isn’t going to provide an instruction manual when it comes to PR. We each hone our skill over time, just as an artist learns to paint like a master, ever improving over many years.”

The best and the worst training I have ever had

Steffan Williams, group managing director at agency Newgate Communications:

“The very best training session I had was when I attended a week-long course in Paris organised by Publicis Groupe, my employer at the time. The main exercise consisted of a business ‘wargame’ in which we were split into teams. We then had to allocate board roles; CEO, CFO, etc and run a virtual version of Publicis Groupe with different operating divisions involved in PR, advertising, media buying and other marketing services areas.

“Success was based on a number of criteria, from the stock-price performance through to employee satisfaction.

“The main thing it taught me was the limited nature and huge importance of time. Ever since I've tried to be careful in terms of how I allocate time with a hierarchy of need and another of opportunity in mind.

“And yes, I am glad to say my team did win!”

Tracey O’Connor, managing director of PR agency Pumpkin:

“As part of my training as a press assistant in the early 1990s I was sent on an assertiveness training programme. It was fun, but really had little bearing on my day-to-day work. The fact that only women were offered the course is also pretty startling!

“That same year I went on a writing course which was brilliant. My then manager suggested it, took an interest in my weekly progress and encouraged me to use some of the learnings in my job. I think that is the key – whoever is signing off the spend needs to be more than financially invested in your development.”

Melanie Johnson, account director at agency Ranieri Communications:

“One of the most valuable training courses I received was on time management. Many employers believe you should simply be able to do this without help, but when you’re looking after several clients all launching products at the same time, it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees. Agencies should always offer training on time management. It certainly made my life easier, believing I could get through busy times without relying too much on others.”

Amy Stevens, senior account manager at agency Six Degrees PR:

“I’ve been to some really awful training courses in my past where the trainer was not prepared and had nothing interesting to offer up. The problem with bringing in an external trainer is that they rarely understand the real-world challenges you face and try to serve too many people at different stages of their careers with the same content. It can be costly too and I really can’t say it’s always worth the budget allocation...” 

ClaireThompson, freelance consultant at Waves PR:

“In the early days of social media I went looking for some help with Facebook pages, and three times booked hour-long, one-to-one training sessions with various 'social media experts'.

“Bearing in mind that I have 20 years’ experience in PR and have a journalistic background, what I really needed was the technical and campaign propulsion side from features inside Facebook, not the whole ethics pitch. I'm more than capable of wordsmithing.

“Sadly, not one of the three managed to offer any insight, and were all about creating prettily worded posts. My own Facebook social media training for clients is now based largely on experience (which has been a massive learning curve), heavy reading, and the free information shared by search agencies that clients have worked with. Facebook is a really rich environment, so it's sad that professionals were unable to deliver. As it happens, Facebook has changed a lot, so I've kept up with the changes as they've happened. I guess that counts as 'on the job' training.”

Top tips for creating training that actually works:

  • Offer training at all levels, make sure it is regular and take it seriously.
  • Use your in-house talent. Create targeted workshops and sessions run by people who have first-hand experience within your organisation.
  • Where you have skill gaps, carefully choose outside training, don’t be mean and go for the cheapest.
  • Work out exactly the training you need, compile a comprehensive list of precise outcomes you expect. Do research to find a provider who offers exactly what you are looking for, ideally bespoke, and who will also provide feedback.
  • Use word-of-mouth and personal recommendations to help find the right provider.
  • Whether your training is in-house or outsourced, evaluate, evaluate, evaluate!

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