In the second of three electronic roundtable discussions focusing on the most critical challenge facing senior public relations agency professionals around the world (the first focused on recruitment, the next will deal with staff retention), The Holmes Report examines the challenges of developing first-rate professionals, from training in basic skills to nurturing management and leadership abilities.
Participants in the roundtable discussion included:
Susan Eastoe, deputy CEO of Edelman London;
Bjorn Edlund, vice president of communications for Royal Dutch Shell
Charly Lammers von Toorenburg, principal of Dutch public relations firm Lammers von Toorenburg PR
Tracey Reid, group human resources director, Huntsworth plc
Gary Rudnick, executive vice president and central region managing director for GolinHarris in the U.S.
Dave Senay, global chief executive of Fleishman-Hillard
Andrea Sessler, global director of talent management for international healthcare PR firm Chandler Chicco
Stephen Waddington, managing director of Rainier PR, two-time winner of our Best U.K. Consultancy to Work For award
The discussion was moderated by Holmes Report editor and publisher Paul Holmes. Some comments have been edited for length.
Paul Holmes: I don’t think there’s any question that public relations firms—indeed, the profession as a whole—takes professional development more seriously today than it did 20 or even 10 years ago. What’s driven that change, and are we doing enough, in general? If not, what are the obstacles to doing more?
Susan Eastoe: I think two things have driven that change. The first is that the PR industry has matured and so have agencies in terms of their management structures. I can remember a time when even the largest only had one HR representative, if that. Now it is much more common to find HR reps in agencies, often more than one, who have staff development as one of their core functions. Secondly, the principle of supply and demand continues, with a shortage of staff with the requisite skills: so you either have to ensure that you have the appropriate programs to develop them yourself or provide programs that will attract them from external sources.
Personally I have always believed that professional development is key not only to staff retention at all levels but also to recruitment. I am always asked about future prospects in interviews as I suspect we all are. Furthermore, as the industry has matured people’s expectations of commitment to an agency have increased. Not too long ago a junior member of staff would expect to stay somewhere for two or three years; that period has increased. For example, Edelman holds an annual summer school for staff from around the world at all levels and this year when they presented back to the global leadership team there was a clear call for a long term development plan more akin to a law firm than one traditionally associated with a PR firm—a five to seven year commitment rather than the old style shorter term.
Bjorn Edlund: It seems to me that PR is going through—after a delay of 15 to 20 years—a development much like marketing as it found its role in the business mix, growing into a profession with visible, measurable and recognized contributions. As we broaden from the media focus of old to partner internally with HR on employee engagement and externally with all public-facing aspects of the business (from legal over political lobbying to sales), the enabling potential of PR requires professional development in the practitioner community, in-house and in agencies. There are many professional skills that must be honed in a spectrum from stakeholder conflict resolution to hard-ball positioning—success in helping the business navigate a complex and fragmenting environment brought recognition. That brought greater responsibility and accountability. That brings greater need for professional development.
Stephen Waddington: The industry is maturing from a craft into a market discipline for the all reasons Bjorn cites. It needs to go a lot further, and critical to success will be the development of clear mechanisms and performance indicators for success. Interestingly the emergence of social media provides the opportunity to create a closed loop where actions and reactions can be clearly tracked and the impact of a PR campaign on a brand or sales measured. There are some good tools being created that the industry would do well to embrace. My concern is that if the industry doesn’t continue to sharpen up its act then the management consultants will move into the space.
Gary Rudnick: In addition to the broadening scope of the agency business and its place in the marketing mix over the last decade, our clients have also evolved, diversified their knowledge and raised the bar on what an agency truly adds to their function. We need to keep our people ahead of that curve, or at the very least keep up with it, in order to truly provide information and expertise that our clients can’t find internally. I think that aspect is driving our industry’s push on professional development as much as anything else. In addition, the more diverse offering agencies provide today, like social media, has driven a change in the make-up and background of our employees and those we are recruiting. Their thirst for more and better training must be met, or they will seek employment in another agency or industry.
Andrea Sessler: I agree with Bjorn that PR has gained greater responsibility and accountability within corporate America and that this has driven the need for professional development. As PR has taken a seat around the board room table the definition of what we are responsible for has become very broad. Our clients not only expect good PR counsel but they expect us to possess a general business acumen and overall industry knowledge. Professional development is key to retain that seat and to insure that there’s always someone ready to step in to fill it.
Based on audits we’ve done about professional development offered by agencies there’s a lot being offered. The issue has been, and will no doubt continue to be, making the time for professional development.
Dave Senay: I can only add one thought to the very good points that have been made already: our industry is creating knowledge and new or best practices at such an alarming rate that only through a vigorous and dedicated professional development program can we ensure the capture and proliferation of such advances institutionally.
Tracey Reid: Without doubt professional development is key to the PR agenda. It creates a point of difference both internally for staff you are trying to develop and retain and externally for those you are trying to attract—or even impress, such as clients who work in industries with strong development programs. The key to making it work optimally in our pressured working environment is both content quality and getting the balance right, making professional development part of the day job versus a “nice to have.” We have found that how you package the content of any program is an integral part of its possible success, be it the length of programs, the subject matter or the method of delivery. For example, some courses work very well as virtual programs.
However, professional development that is divorced from internal people management systems rarely delivers against original objectives. This is why we are building an integrated talent program and are involving key directors across the group in its establishment and ongoing relevance to potential leaders, their teams and new hires.
PH: One of the things I am hearing in the roundtable on recruitment is that the quality of entry level candidates is improving, but that writing skills are lacking. Around the PR business, I hear that all the time, along with a variety of explanations, from the notion that “these kids today” don’t read enough to the claim that Powerpoint and text messaging are eroding the ability to write in narrative form. Are we being forced to spend too much time on what I would consider the basics, things people should have learned in college—in high school even—before we can provide them with the tools they need to develop more broadly?
BE: The short answer is yes. My long answer is colored by my background as former foreign correspondent and news editor who covered whatever happened in my patch. Analytical and writing skills are crucial. If you can’t plow through complex matter and produce a clear situation overview—and/or a PR plan with the all basics—and if you can’t produce appealing, non-buzzword copy, you’re not providing the skill set that truly sets PR people apart in business, and makes us valued. At Shell, we’re building our new training program to remedy this situation. We did the same thing in ABB.
SE: I agree. However, I would say that there has always been an issue between the style of writing that students are encouraged to follow at university, for example, and the style needed for public relations and indeed business more generally. Like Shell we ensure that this kind of writing is embedded into training programs at the earliest stage—graduate training—to ensure that the requisite skills are developed from day one.
Charly Lammers von Toorenburg: It all becomes worrying when we receive job applications with spelling mistakes. I hear professors complain about the language used and that they can only have people passing exams if they disregard the spelling. However I have not yet had any new people that I hired, that were good in their job and bad in spelling. It still seems to go together and maybe also with the ambition to work in a text oriented job like PR.
From the start I worked in my agency with professional writers next to the consultants. One cannot be the best in both professions. Our writers have become such specialists that it has even become hard to find people who are able to write customer cases.
GR: I agree with all of the comments below, but I think the definition of “basics” is also changing. Of course we should expect that our staff can communicate effectively—in person, in writing, over the phone—and that they should have these skills coming in versus learning them once hired. That said, we also used to spend a lot of time teaching junior staff other “basics” of our business, for instance how to effectively research issues, clients, and industries.
Today their ability to quickly find reams of useful and relevant information, then to condense and analyze it, is clearly much more highly developed than it was 10 years ago. They also bring with them skills that are highly relevant to our business now, but which our more experienced staff may be lacking: social networking, simple design, Powerpoint and Excel. So while some of the more traditionally “basic” skills may need more attention than before, these employees also bring more to the table in other areas, at least partially compensating for the learning curve.
AS: I agree with all of that, specifically Gary’s thoughts on what the junior hires can bring to an organization. That said, we do spend time training our junior staff on writing skills and basic business etiquette simply because they are not taught these skills in college.
TR: Again, our experience is similar. We run a writing program in the U.K. that has been designed and developed by two of our directors who are just plain fed up with the writing quality they are being presented with from younger team members!
PH: One of the interesting things about this discussion is that we all seem quite naturally to focus on what employers need from a professional development program. But what do employees need? We’ve all heard that the contract between companies and employees is changing, that job security and stability are no longer the norm, and that employee expectations have changed—and that the ability to grow and develop professionally is important to them. What kind of growth opportunities do employees want, and is there a conflict—or at least a trade-off—between the kind of skills employers need and the kind of skills people want to develop?
SE: Professional development is definitely a retention tool and today’s candidates expect it. It’s the what’s-in-it-for-me factor when people are interviewing and testing the market. The market is so tight at the moment, candidates—especially junior candidates—can pick and choose who has the best package. Salary-wise, we know most PR agencies operate on par so it’s the value add that makes the difference.
TR: I agree with this—and for the most part what they are asking for does fit with what we believe is required to strengthen the business offering.
PH: If there’s a complaint I hear more often than any other from clients, it’s that public relations people don’t understand the business side of business. They may be good communicators, they may know the media inside and out, but they don’t know how to read a balance sheet or how the rest of the business really operates. Is this a valid criticism? And is it something you are addressing in your professional development efforts?
CLvT: The moment I read your e-mail, some of my associates were bending over the bad results of a large American blue chip. In the third correction round someone made the remark that the millions of turnover really should be billions...
Anyway, the way we plan the education path for our executives, is first of all to look at the skills a communication consultant at account manager level should have. We have the luck that there are some institutions here that supply tailor-made courses. As soon as people ask me how they can make a next move I often answer: as soon as you can sit next to the managing director and together judge the business challenge in order to translate that into the communication challenge. I therefore recommend them to invest time into a marketing and business economics course at business management level.
It is our experience to better educate a communication professional in this order, than the other way around, a business person into a communication professional...it has something to do with what you need to have in the blood I guess.
SW: I recognised this as an issue early on in my career, and when it came to set-up Rainier PR, gave everyone in the business an operational role within the business, in addition to a consulting role. Broad areas include marketing, infrastructure, suppliers, international, training and financial performance.
These roles are rotated on a six month basis so that over time everyone gets exposed to every aspect of the business. It creates a level of overhead to manage, but ensures that everyone is exposed to the rudiments of running a business which delivers a direct benefit to clients.
We are also completely transparent in the publication of business plan and targets each year in terms of turnover and profit, with reporting provided to all staff on a monthly basis. As a result everyone in the business understands a P&L and balance sheet.
SE: I believe this question goes to the heart of how PR has changed and is changing. In areas such as financial public relations and public affairs this requirement has really always been there. However, there is no question that this has now broadened out to all practice areas. An understanding of business process and decision making is therefore crucial as we find that we are drawn into the decision making process much earlier rather than being told what the decision is and then communicating it.
This level of premium consulting does require two types of training. The first is specific—learning to read the FT is a good example of a simple basic training course and we ensure our financial director gives commercial training courses as well to include areas such as procurement. However, to be in the C-suite you have to bring added value and sensibility and the greatest help we can give to staff is ensuring that business understanding is ingrained throughout the company. Understanding how Edelman works and why we make the business decisions we do is a good start and from day one we encourage employees to be involved ranging from looking at the implications of Edelman’s green approach to business to working on detailed budgets for clients.
DS: I can’t recall hearing this from a client in donkey’s years.
We have 26 industry, practice and specialty groups: shame on us if we bring in people who don’t know how our client’s business operates. We are far more successful at that than at getting our counselors and office GMs to adhere to stringent financial requirements...a nd it’s that part of the business that takes some education. Like “how we run our business 101!”
PH: That raises another perennial question, which is how we avoid the danger of taking out best client-facing people and pushing them into management roles for which they might not be suited. Firms have to create career paths that don’t lead inevitably away from client counsel—and more of them are doing so—but for those who do want management responsibility, the answer has to be better leadership and management training. Is that an area of increased emphasis?
DS: We have multiple paths for advancement here. We are well past the era when general managers were gods.
We have elevated the importance of the role of client relationship manager—a concerted effort begun four years ago—and put an organization behind it to help those client-facing individuals advance their knowledge, skills and careers and, of course, grow the client relationship. Being a CRM for our larger accounts has become a position of prestige, and being the CRM of any account has become a mark of leadership, success and of course ownership.
I earlier mentioned our practice groups, industry groups and specialty groups. These 26 groups drive our intellectual property through the creation of our points of view and the stuff we need to back them up. We began with five or six practice groups in 1997.
Neither CRMs nor practice groups have P&L responsibility officially, but of course we track our growth at the client as well as the practice and industry and specialty level. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” as the old saw goes.
Back to the gods (with a small g): In truth this job is the most complex, the most challenging, and as you pointed out, it is not everyone’s cup of tea. Small office GMs or MDs have very different jobs than large office GMs or MDs and we hold regular “GM Jam Sessions” where they can exchange experiences. In all honesty, we didn’t do a very good job of putting our GMs through finishing school, but that is changing. Part of our 40 percent budget increase in talent development this year is earmarked just for this purpose. Amazingly, we didn’t have standard financial management tools across regions, either, so I appointed our COO of Europe the additional task of establishing global standards and creating a common language of management.
All of this supports your overall theme. Our people are largely humanists with strong liberal arts backgrounds, more inclined to be of an artist’s temperament than an accountant’s. That’s fine as long as we don’t become starving artists. Thus a never-ending push to train.
AS: While we believe that all senior level executives should always continue to be immersed in their business, we also believe that key people who are able should receive training in leadership. To that end, we have brought in a coach for a few individuals to help them focus on areas that would help them be stronger leaders.
TR: Agreed. Our key leaders are exposed to a combination of leadership and personal development programs that provide both ‘generic’ tools and tailored plans per the needs of the individual. It is an important part of the ‘package’ for these staff and of extreme importance to those who are lead and managed by them!
SE: Good question. We have a policy that ensures that all executives from the global CEO downwards have a degree of client focus which means that no career path of client facing staff ever moves completely out of a client facing role. Equally the senior leadership has to manage the business as well and there is definitely an increased requirement for leadership and management training. However, there is also a need for more support in the so-called back office to reinforce this. So in addition to the multi-level management training we put a lot of focus on having highly trained HR and business administration people to support managers at all levels.
PH: Obviously, professional development is important regardless of whether someone is working for a large or small agency or in-house PR department. But the challenges are different for each. What’s the balance between on-the-job learning and formal professional development programming? Do you prefer to conduct training in-house or use outside courses? If the latter, what’s the quality of external training courses like in your market? What needs are under-served or unfulfilled?
GR: We certainly use a combination of in-house training and outside courses. Much of our junior level training is done internally, led by senior officers in the company or great resources through our parent company. From time-to-time, we’ll bring in outside experts for specialty training, but we start internally, as there is obviously a great deal of relevant experience and expertise within our agency we’d like to tap first.
At more senior levels, the balance shifts a bit to outside resources. Often, those sessions are tailored to a specific employee interest, practice area or their own professional development goals. We still offer internal trainings to our senior team, but have found more interest in the outside perspectives and approaches, which they then share with the broader team. We have found several courses and trainers in our market that provide high quality, valuable sessions. Often, it’s the more non-traditional courses that interest our teams and receive the most favorable feedback: sessions around team building, staff motivation, management, etcetera, versus more tactical topics.
CLvT: In the Dutch market there are possibilities to hire semi-private tutors that train our account managers to become senior advisers with counseling skills during the course of one year. A big investment, but for us a great opportunity to educate both inside and outside and have people ready for senior roles faster than a headhunter can find new people for us. The quality of the training is perceived as good and the people trained really go through rough exams and tests.
For new hires, this path is a good USP to choose us. Lately large companies seem to have deep pockets to just offer money to job applicants and this is how we compete. We ask: “Do you want to learn a profession or want to have a job?”
In Belgium however, we have no real courses we can have our people follow. Here we see within the country that people hop from job to job, not even for money, but hoping to learn something extra.