Facing up to the PR talent challenge

One of the interesting outcomes of my position on the boundary of PR academia and practice is that I’m often asked for recommendations about finding PR talent.

This frequently applies to recruiting placement students (interns) or young graduate practitioners.  However, at the PR career starting point, there are many who advocate a specialist degree is not important.  For example, a study by the PRCA in 2009 found three-quarters of its PR Leaders’ panel were unimpressed by PR degrees.  The view seems to be that necessary vocational skills can be taught to non-PR graduates.  This “encroachment” of non-specialists isn’t exclusive to juniors starting out in PR as it is common to see those from journalism, marketing and other fields securing more senior PR positions.

Both of these factors relate to the challenge the PR industry faces in respect of demand for talented mid-career professionals. On the one hand, there is a belief that anyone can work in PR – but on the other, the industry has a shortage of those who have the communications and management competencies that are the mark of an effective PR consultant (whether that is in-house or within an agency environment).

PR Week recently reported that Sir Martin Sorrell (group CEO of global marketing services group WPP) felt a shortage of talented people was a major issue for PR. Indeed, he compared PR unfavourably to professional management consultancy firms when it come to hiring the best people.  Instead, the sector is said to have:

a tendency to ‘steal’ talent from other firms, rather than training, developing and evaluating people in-house.

The PR talent challenge is not exclusively one of consultancies, as Sorrell also noted increasing demand from blue-chip organisations in the communications arena.  Ensuring quality of talent is essential if PR is to be institutionalised as a credible and valued senior management function, I believe.

In a video on the WPP Fellowship site last April, Sorrell contrasts the investment made by organisations in capital equipment with much lower spend on training and development of people.  I believe this is the heart of the matter and an issue we need to address.  Public relations is all about people – and it is gross negligence on the part of the industry to pay lip service to maintaining the talent pool.

In a Fortune Magazine article Geoffrey Colvin considered “what it takes to be great” and concluded it isn’t about innate talent, but about hard work:

The best people in any field are those who devote the most hours to what the researchers call “deliberate practice.” It’s activity that’s explicitly intended to improve performance, that reaches for objectives just beyond one’s level of competence, provides feedback on results and involves high levels of repetition.

The talent argument isn’t one simply in favour of specialist PR professionals, experience versus education or recruiting gifted individuals.  Rather it is about personal and organisational commitment to continual improvement and ongoing adjustment to achieve maximum results.

There are many ways to learn and develop – but the best take effort and investment (of time and/or money).   Too much training and development in PR seems to involve attending industry conferences where the pinnacle of learning seems to be listening to other practitioners giving anecdotal reports of their own experiences.  Examples of “best practice” are frequently little more than case study examples from award programmes, which are self-selected and edited highlights.  Learning is primarily “on the job”, often at the hands of those who do little more than pass on poor practices.  I believe these are all areas where the professional bodies need to do more – and not simply with an eye on their revenue generation potential.

And, as Sorrell indicates, organisations need to look at better strategies than recruitment for improving the quality and quantity of talent in PR.  We should insist on creating the best communicators, the best managers and the best strategists within public relations – not simply poaching from elsewhere.

Of course there are already many talented individuals in public relations – I meet them all the time.  Most of these people believe in investing in themselves – through networking, personal development, mentoring and other developmental activities.

However, the vast majority of organisations I hear about have cut back on training budgets, or their Heads of PR do not effectively undertake appraisals or promote development activities.  Talented individuals need support if they are not to play the revolving doors game.

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10 Replies to “Facing up to the PR talent challenge

  1. Thanks. In my educator role I agree about equipping graduates to fulfil PR professional roles – including those they will need to work hard to achieve. I hate the way some people think we should only teach the basics though. For me the critical skill they learn is to think for themselves with a foundation of knowledge onto which they can layer skills throughout their careers.

    1. Heather, thanks for a well argued post on the need for foundational knowledge before one plunges into “practice” to learn on the job.

      One cannot underestimate the importance of both theoretical knowledge and “performance” for success. Trouble with some “A” graduates is that they think the world owes them a living.

      Truth is, an “A” performance at University is no guarantee for superior performance in a work environment.

      It is sometimes the supercilious attitude of young graduates that puts off “middle management” that may have learnt PR on the job, from hiring the young upstarts.

      That having been said, it is also misguided to delude one self that one can drop out of University and become a mega success like Bill Gates. Gates is the rare exception, not the rule,

      A word of advice to “As”: 1. The world doesn’t owe you a living, 2. Your “A” is zero if you don’t perform, 3. You are hired to perform, your “A” got you to the job interview, beyond that it is performance, period, 4. And finally, your work place exisisted before you and will most likely continue to exisit without you. Humility is a virtue.

      1. Don, Good advice. We have a year’s placement with the PR degree course at Bournemouth which definitely helps impart a realistic attitude in our students. Neither education nor experience alone is a reason or arrogance or complacency. We should all strive to keep learning and improving. I am shocked by those whose careers have plateaued (voluntarily or otherwise) who feel same old, same old will do. They often resent graduates whose enthusiasm can be mistaken for arrogance. Graduates need to develop smart interpersonal skills to work with others. As you say, their degree is just the beginning

        1. Heather, I hope I don’t sound like one of those “olds” whose career has plateaued =:-)
          Fact is that in both my lecturing and work environments I have met well meaning young people who are talented but never make it in the work place.

          I have also encountered those “olds” who are scared of anything new. The blunt advice was for young people who might be wondering why things don’t work out and yet they are so smart.

          1. Don – my comment wasn’t directed at anyone specifically (certainly not labelling you as an “oldie” or having plateaued!). I support entirely teaching young practitioners the “life skills” they will need – indeed, my PhD topic is Career Strategies in PR with entirely the aim of producing some insight that I hope will be of benefit to young and old alike.

  2. Great post Heather. And spot on.

    Basic training in core skills and practice (PR degrees) should the foundation of the industry. To support the industry educators need to ensure alignment with the day-to-day role of a PR professional.

    Successful people (in any industry) are those that work hard (and surround themselves with other successful people). Malcolm Gladwell says you need 10,000 hours experience to become exceptional.

    The chasm between basic training and expert knowledge in a field requires continuous professional development, training and mentoring.

    Practitioners and their employers (agency and in-house), supported by industry organisations such as the CIPR and PRCA, have a crucial role to play in developing the next generation of experts.

  3. Talent with a proven track record is a Public Relations Agency best friend. Companies are looking for individuals or an Agency that can address serious company threatening issues. A sub par PR specialist just wont due and if training isn’t in the budget better hope that hiring an excellent agency is. You never know when damage control could be the one thing to save your sinking ship.

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