If you want to get ahead in PR you need to gain the right skills. Here PROs describe the training hits and misses they have experienced, so when you put together your own training plan, you know what to aim for and what to avoid.
Takes a personal approach
Louise Chandler, PR and communications at Oxfordshire County Council, says that the best training is honest, relatable, practical and in person: “It’s great to read about different scenarios and case studies, but learning needs to be put in to practice to help it to sink in and make it memorable. For example, audio visual aids can help to embed the knowledge, rather than power point presentations that lack interaction.”
Chandler adds that it is good to mix with other people on the course and learn from them too: “When you meet likeminded PR professionals in smaller groups, you can chat about ideas and learn from others with topical observations. Basing the training on real-life scenarios (when it went well or really badly) can test us to know what we would do if we were in that position and under pressure.”
Is right for you
Chandler points out that the best training is training that you actually need, but it is up to you to work out what this is: “I think it is important to be honest with training to pinpoint what you need to know and what knowledge you already have.”
For Melanie Johnson-Holliday, account director at agency Eskenzi PR, the most useful training she has ever had focused on helping her to structure her time; “Time management training by far has been the most useful in my career to date. When climbing the PR career ladder, I think we all go through a stage about six months in to becoming an account executive where you think ‘I just can’t cope’. It is an overwhelming stage and one that is absolutely normal, trust me we all go through it and again when you get to account manager level.
“If you feel this way you must ask for time management training or similar because it helps prioritise jobs (one of the hardest tasks when everyone is shouting at you), compile daily ‘to do’ lists that really work and not to procrastinate. Never ever suffer in silence if you’re feeling overwhelmed by your workload, this is not a good way to be and not productive at all. Also, don’t feel embarrassed by asking, all good PR agencies will support your development and work with you to make sure you have all the tools and skills you need to do your job.”
Richard Cook, founder of agency Champion Communicaitons, says learning to cold call is a fantastic learning experience: “The best PR training I had was before I got into PR, selling classified ads for Construction News. We were given a telephone and a section of the alphabet and we had to cold-call advertisers in competitor titles to sell them a series of adverts. Each morning we would start standing up only gettting a chair once we had done our first deal. When I landed my first job in PR I couldn’t believe that the office provided breakfast and duvet days before we had done anything. I was fearless when it came to pitching as a result of the baptism of fire.“
Acting out isn’t always a bad things, claims Patrizia Heun, account executive at PR firm the Hoffman Agency, who learnt a lot from improve classes: “Earlier this year our team attended an improv class as part of our team-building day. Despite what you might think, improv has a lot to do with PR. Improv focuses on skills like thorough listening, thinking outside the box and on your feet, as well as teamwork. All this combined ultimately leads to great stories. Working in PR means finding stories where there don’t seem to be any on first sight, being creative no matter the situation, coming up with new ideas, and all as a team. People often find themselves slipping into a certain routine that gets less creative over the time and improv can disrupt these patterns.”
Broadcast media training
Last, but by no means least, Lauren Mitcham, editor at PR agency Bottle, describes the value of some proper media training: “Some training that I have found invaluable in my career has been broadcast media training from Master the Media, run by ITN’s Sharon Thomas. I’ve worked with her many times when training spokespeople and also when running workshops with larger teams around crisis and incident communications. Getting people who have little to no experience with press to be comfortable and assured in front of broadcast media can be a huge challenge, doubly so when the aim is to prepare them for a crisis scenario; good training should help them feel confident and equip them with the tools to nail that interview. It should of course also be mildly terrifying, and having an experienced journalist on hand to ask those difficult questions in a safe environment makes all the difference when hammering home the reality of being grilled on camera.”
Offers no examples
Louise Chandler says it is important that training allows you to get involved: “Bad PR training lacks interactivity, doesn’t give examples or provide enough explanation for individuals to understand. You need to be able to take the learning back to your workplace to fully use the tips and techniques.”
Chandler gives a terrible example of training where the trainer obviously wanted to be somewhere else: “I recall going to a training session that was rushed and the trainer was completely disinterested and seemed bored. I think people zoned out and became bored too because he didn’t capture the attention or imagination of the room, even though the topic was interesting!”
Social media skills
Social media training can be a waste of time as Melanie Johnson-Holliday explains: “The worst training by far has to be some of the using ‘social media’ for PR training, for a while it felt like people were just regurgitating what we already knew and making a fast buck. I sometimes think you learn more about using social media platforms by bringing in new graduates and young talent.”
Irrelevant and impersonal
Richard Cook describes ‘media’ training that was way off the mark: “The worst PR training I ever had was at HubSpot’s Inbound Conference. Champion was a Gold Partner and they had a workshop in Boston for the PR agencies encouraging us to sell more inbound marketing services to our clients. The trainer proposed that PR people should set up automated digital workflows to manage media relations and that press releases should be gated, “because no-one likes to talk to journalists”. The session lasted a long time and was so irrelevant to the way we engage with the media. I contemplated walking out, but I am glad I didn’t as I learned a lot about other agencies’ approaches, particularly in the North American region. There was a number of in-house teams also present and I got insight into the challenges that they are faced with when it comes to connecting with the press.”
It is important that teachers actually know what they are talking about says Patrizia Heun: “My worst trainings were the ones where teachers tried to explain tools or processes they didn’t understand themselves, or that were obsolete. I remember going to a digital marketing course where the teacher, in his 60s, introduced social media (specifically Instagram) as if it was something completely new – in a room filled with PRs in their 20s. Not only could he not answer some of the questions the attendees had in a PR context, but he had also never properly used it himself and could, therefore, only refer to examples. “
Lauren Mitcham describes a hilarious training session which was all wrong, and sexist to boot: “Quite a few years ago I went on a ‘presentation skills’ training session, on the understanding that it was going to cover tips and advice on presenting to an audience. It quickly became clear that the session (which had only female participants) was actually more about literal presentation – down to the importance of wearing pop socks with your heels when wearing trousers and finding the right shade of lipstick to complement your colouring. I still do not own a single pair of pop socks.”
Assuming that you are wearing exactly the right type of socks, it is time to pull them up and get planning your next training session. As Louise Chandler concludes: “We all need to improve and develop in some areas, at some point in our careers, so some self reflection is key to build and develop learning”.
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