Nobody could dispute that the skill set required in the communications industry has changed dramatically in the past 10 years. But whether training and continuous professional development (CPD) has moved with the times is up for debate. Industry bodies are taking their responsibilities seriously, but experts and PR professionals say there is still a shortfall, particularly in the areas of digital skills and mentoring.
“There is generally an issue with the quality of courses that are being taught at universities,” says Andrew Canter, global CEO at BCMA. “This is not universal, but there needs to be more co-ordination and consistency.” Alex Robinson, managing director UK and Europe at Capstone Hill Search, agrees: “There is a severe lack of talent and low retention across the industry.”
If not all graduates are entering the industry armed with the right skills, it is an upward struggle from there onwards.
“The rate of change is underestimated,” Canter says. “We used to invest hugely in people and train them comprehensively. Sadly, most of the training now is on the job, which has a place but should not be over-relied upon.”
But for busy and often cash-strapped agencies or communications departments, sparing the time and money needed to bring professionals up to speed is not always easy, especially when the range of training required is so broad. “Clients expect their agencies to be at the cutting edge of everything,” says Robin Grainger, director of connected communications at Ruder Finn UK. “But I don’t see that agencies’ training budgets have massively increased.”
There are several areas where training is coming up short. The most obvious of these is digital skills. A report last year from the PRCA found companies were failing to invest in digital training, with respondents from the industry in the UK saying they needed more education in areas such as digital and social outreach, social networking, crisis management and SEO.
Secondly, experts say professionals are not being coached and mentored to develop their own careers, vital for the strategic leaders of the future. “When climbing the career ladder, people become experts at their craft but often don’t properly develop their leadership skills at the same time,” says Gabriela Lungu, founder of WINGS Creative Leadership Lab. “Seasoned executives rarely allocate enough time to mentor up-and-coming leaders. When they do, they often struggle to pass on their skills effectively as many of them didn’t benefit from structured leadership training either.”
“The big barrier is mentoring,” agrees Grainger. “Deep conversation with an experienced mentor is really valuable and easy to put into place. Unfortunately, a lot of organisations tend to confuse mentoring and line management. They are very separate things.”
Aiden McLaughlin, director of international communications at Indeed.com, says: “Understanding the elements of a good strategy and how to root it in data to achieve business goals is paramount. Too little time understanding how a business operates is the death knell to any marketing or PR career.”
Accelerator schemes speed up valuable learning
The challenge, then, is to offer training that equips PR professionals with the skills they need and more importantly fulfils the need for mentoring that can be lacking in a busy and goal-focused workplace. Grainger notes that most professional bodies are “heavily skewed towards classroom learning. I think they could place a heavier emphasis on mentoring.”
Other industries, most notably the tech and startup sectors, have embraced the concept of the accelerator, an intense and immersive programme designed to bring delegates up to speed in a limited time period. They literally fast-forward an idea, business or individual with a combination of hands-on skills training and mentorship from those who have already walked the path.
The concept has also been successfully applied to industries including banking and finance, and healthcare. And experts say the time has come for the same approach to be applied to the communications sector.
“By the nature of the name, accelerators speed to the good stuff,” says Robinson. “The modern world doesn’t want to wait for much these days and this is the same for professional development.”
For agencies and comms departments, the value lies in the relatively small time investment needed away from the day job, for considerable returns. “There will always be a place for more conventional training as it allows a time away from work that forces people to focus on learning and bettering themselves,” notes Robinson at Capstone Hill. “But I would expect more accelerator programmes to raise their heads in future.”
According to Susan Cohen, of the Robins School of Business at Richmond University, there are four distinct factors that make accelerators unique. They are fixed-term, cohort-based, mentorship-driven and culminate in a graduation or demo day. Networks created during the programme can often remain as a source of professional and personal support and mentorship.
“This is how we can shorten the traditional five to 10 years’ experience needed to be a seasoned PR professional, to develop talent faster,” says McLaughlin at Indeed.com.
Ruder Finn’s Grainger agrees: “They could help promote a big shift in how we train and develop upcoming talent, but the key factor will be how employers respond. They should see graduates of accelerator schemes as a cut above the rest.”