It’s a chronic problem in PR and communications: Employee training. Despite the dizzying number of disciplines that are now being foisted on communicators—ranging from the ability to think strategically to how to leverage social channels—PR training remains the industry’s Achilles’ heel. Senior PR execs understand intellectually the growing need to train communicators and prepare the next generation of PR managers. But that need is often eclipsed by more pressing responsibilities, such as knocking out that news release that the client (or your CEO) wants post-haste, or creating yet more content to push online. The result is that PR training gets relegated to the back burner.
It’s a syndrome that Stephanie Smirnov, CEO, North America, DeVries Global, is all too familiar with. That is, until she put a stop to it.
The agency’s five-year plan, which rolled out earlier this year, features three main elements, according to Smirnov. “Our brand, our clients and our people,” she says, adding that the “people” component includes a dedicated commitment to PR training at all levels and no more de-prioritizing the job. “One of two things happens if you don’t make training a priority: your people won’t be as strong as they can be—or they’ll leave you and go someplace where training is a priority,” Smirnov says.
DeVries has started to customize its PR training for all of its 95 employees in the agency’s New York office. The agency is deploying a “tiered approach” to PR training with classes specifically geared to senior-level managers, middle managers and account executives.
‘DEATH BY POWERPOINT’
The training focuses on four distinct areas of PR: strategy, creativity, media and digital. Employees partake in a “half-day immersion” in each discipline, with a participatory, workshop approach, Smirnov says, adding that the half-day programs are followed up with classes to fine-tune the initial training.
“It’s not death by PowerPoint, but hands-on training, collaboration and role play,” she says. “We actually went to clients and asked, ‘What does strategy mean to you and how does that translate to behavior?’” she says. Smirnov adds that, as the agency develops its training programs, it could expand the effort to a “university approach,” starting next year. “Because things are so competitive, you need the smartest, best trained people. Our people are our best calling cards.”
For PR pros, there’s a wide array of training programs to use, such as in-person training, e-learning and, depending upon budget, continuing education. But the actual training is academic. What gets PR departments in trouble is not having the commitment to training, which raises questions among clients about whether communicators can expand (and cultivate) their skillsets.
THE SNIFF TEST
“If an agency or company lets training fall by the wayside, employees are the first to see the disconnect,” says Frank Ovaitt, president-CEO of the Institute for Public Relations and former VP of international public relations at AT&T. “Employees are the first to see the disconnect; they feel they were promised [PR training] but the reality is, how many hours can they can bill?”
Ovaitt says that there are three macro areas of training that senior PR executives should now focus on:
1. Solid writing: “The ability to express yourself in writing continues to be the core,” Ovaitt says. “If you have good writing skills, it stands to reason that you’ll have better than average thinking and oral skills, which often go together.”
2. Social media: It’s imperative that PR managers train their employees on the proper use of social channels as it relates to the brand, and how to bake social media into the overall PR strategy, according to Ovaitt.
3. Research and measurement: “This is a huge area,” Ovaitt says. “We cannot behave as professionals if we don’t know how to use research to set the path and how to use measurement to make sure we’re on the right path.”
With media markets moving at warp speed, it’s also important that PR training involves real-world scenarios.
Tellabs, for example, uses working reporters to “give employees a realistic sense of what to expect when dealing with the news media, versus getting the perspective from only corporate or only an agency,” says George Stenitzer, VP of marketing and corporate communications at Tellabs. “You need an outsider’s objective so you know whether you’re drinking your own Kool-Aid, or is this a believable message that someone can carry.”
Tellabs also uses so-called Message Maps to train both its marketing/communications employees and the company’s senior-level executives.
“Every executive may tell a different story,” Stenitzer says. “Message mapping enables you to make sure everyone is on the same page and everyone agrees on how to deliver the story,” via multiple platforms, whether the message is being communicated in-person, through an annual report or via the CEO at the annual meeting.
Another tool that Tellabs increasingly relies on for PR training: E-learning videos. They provide a relatively low-cost way to determine whether your PR reps and/or C-level execs are camera-ready, which is crucial when you consider the growing ubiquity of online video.
“Video calls give you moving images of the person you’re training,” Stenitzer says. “You’re able to coach them not only on the words they say, but also on the props they use, the gestures and expressions they show on camera.” PRN
Frank Ovaitt, firstname.lastname@example.org; Stephanie Smirnov, email@example.com; George Stenitzer, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Well-Rounded PR Training Sharpens Communications
Weber Shandwick promotes a holistic, blended learning approach. Here are three tips on how to enhance your PR training at both the corporate and agency levels.
▶ Get out of the classroom: 24/7 access
Instructor-led, live training will never go away entirely, but agencies and corporations need to extend learning beyond the classroom at any given moment. With that in mind, we designed a customized learning-management system (LMS) that delivers critical information to every employee 24 hours a day. At the click of a button, our LMS provides e-learning, self-directed study, videos, articles, apps and digital education.
▶ Global exchange: Learning that spans the world
A huge part of learning comes from solving challenges in the moment and nothing will ever fully replace the benefit of live encounters. To that end, we’ve developed a global exchange program so our employees can learn about the people, culture and inspiration of Weber Shandwick offices in different regions around the world.
▶ One size does not fit all: Diversity is key
The key to learning resides in the relevance of the content. Nothing we do is off-the-shelf because there is no such thing as a “one size fits all” agency or client. What differentiates Weber Shandwick’s approach is the vital innovation we use to address skill gaps and ensure we design unique, customized solutions for our clients. We use both internal and external resources to build, step-by-step, on each learning encounter. Together, the needed face-to-face interaction, the world of virtual and on-the-job learning and the diversity of our global exchange create an all-inclusive development experience.
Laura Tessinari is executive VP, Global Knowledge Officer at Weber Shandwick.