Nurturing public relations talent

Nurturing the upcoming generation of leaders in public relations is something that should be of concern to all current PR practitioners and educators. Finding and developing bright young talent is one of the biggest challenges according to senior in-house and consultancy managers that I speak with. The industry has a good record of employability for those graduating with PR degrees – and with a couple of years’ experience on top, there are plenty of exciting opportunities on offer.

We’ve a classic supply and demand problem though. Lots of vacancies, but too few people who have the initiative, skills, knowledge and entrepreneurial spirit that recruiters are seeking. But at the same time, there are pressures impacting negatively on work in public relations – the demand leads to reduced standards as there remains a belief that anyone can work in PR. This means many young people coming into the occupation have zero understanding of what public relations involves and learn on the job. In turn, this perpetuates many of the industry’s worst habits, compounded by the rise in social media where young practitioners are often spending their time simply scheduling routine Tweets or Facebook updates.

Even if we view the opportunities for young practitioners (whether or not they have a PR degree) positively, the question is how are they being nurtured as the leadership talent of tomorrow?

Do we have a survival of the fittest mentality? I believe this is often the case, with the argument made that the best will rise to the top, demonstrating their hunger for promotion and delivering value to their employers. Or more likely, such individuals will be managing their own career and looking for the next opportunity rather than being nurtured or retained by their employer. Consequently, employers may be reluctant to invest in developing talent and seek to poach from elsewhere – reinforcing the merry-go-round approach.

Not only are we then not nurturing talent, we are encouraging an aggressive, personality-driven career approach where those who make the most noise are seen as successful and promoted. It is the equivalent of the modern popstar doing anything to get attention – whilst those with real musical ability are overlooked.

There is another potential issue of encouraging this flotsam approach to talent management. Young women are traditionally not brought-up, educated or trained to be as pushy as their male counterparts in terms of self-promotion. Add to this that the female of the species is genetically handicapped in terms of taking career breaks to have children, and no wonder we continue to see men dominate higher positions in PR.

Although Pompper and Jung (forthcoming paper in Public Relations Review) have found men at entry- and mid-levels are worried about a future when women will replace them at PR highest management levels, their data revealed organisations tend to “think only men can make tough decisions, that only men can drive business, that only men can close the deal”. Another respondent reported people assume “men are more strategic thinkers than women”. This again alludes to a chance approach to nurturing PR talent based on preconceptions and possibly even prejudice.

Something that has surprised me recently in talking with educators and practitioners in relation to PR careers is that they do not believe students or practitioners can be, or indeed should be, developed from a young age for leadership roles. The attitude seems to be that it is okay to emphasise PR as a strategic management function with a place at the top table as a key aspiration – but how you get there is up to you. I’ve heard arguments that are essentially based on having ‘the right stuff’, being innately entrepreneurial, or needing to reflect a PR personality. In other words, all trait based ideas (which ironically have been displaced within contemporary career studies literature).

Another argument is that there are so few ‘top’ roles that it isn’t worth focusing on these opportunities which most students or practitioners will not achieve. That again ignores the trends in employment and organisational structures which are flatter and frequently offer more opportunities to develop positions laterally within organisations or independently. Setting up a consultancy or working as a freelance or interim worker are also not encouraged for young practitioners where the idea is still that people need make their way in to and up in PR. That’s a time-served mentality rather than a talent-spotting one.

There are many ways in which we can nurture public relations talent – as fellow practitioners, educators, employers, members of professional bodies etc. At the least we can act as role models, mentors, champions and connectors for the young practitioners we encounter. We can encourage them and offer opportunities that challenge them and develop the leadership and entrepreneurial competencies they will require in taking on roles with responsibility and a higher profile. We can organise events with inspirational speakers who can open their eyes to what they can achieve. We can invite them as our guest so they can learn to network and meet other more experienced practitioners.

Within MIPAA, the motor industry PR group in the UK, we held a Kick Start day last week which gained excellent feedback for being open, encouraging and introducing those new to the industry and/or PR to senior contacts. Of course, we have a vested interest as we want to attract and retain top talent in our field. But it is a win-win approach.

Perhaps in November we could have an ‘adopt a young PR practitioner’ campaign – started by PR Conversations where we reach out and connect with those who show great potential. I have one or two young bloggers in mind, who could contribute great guest posts here.

I think we need to stop having a laissez-faire attitude to talent management – and be pro-active in nurturing the next generation. If you agree, please share your thoughts, suggestions and examples on how we can do this.

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5 Replies to “Nurturing public relations talent

  1. Something else to note about this topic is that many young professionals are entering the PR profession through short-term internships that do not allow them to develop and adapt their skills within a company. While some are hired onwards within the company, it has become quite rare. Most often, companies hire interns and then move onto the next person who is willing to work for credit or unpaid.

    I think that this often leads PR professionals at a disadvantage for being promoted, as they must get accustomed to the inevitable learning curves at a new job.

    1. I’m not sure that short-term internships were ever about developing within an organisation in terms of longer-term employment. In fact, I’d say that being pro-active in gaining transferable skills is how young practitioners should view such opportunities. When I graduated from University (early 1980s) it was as hard as today to find full-time employment (my degree is in psychology). I gained secretarial skills and found that temporary employment increased my knowledge and skills in a variety of organisations which eventually led to offers of permanent roles.

      My view (and experience from studying changing environment of work in my PhD) is that being accustomed to learning curves in new jobs is exactly the experience that is an advantage in gaining promotion. Being able to manage your own direction rather than relying on any organisation to spot and nurture talent is the future – and in fact, has been the norm more than any planned career path, from what I can see.

  2. I find the idea of the ‘adopt a young PR practitioner’ campaign brilliant! The collaboration between experienced and young practitioners would help young people to advance in their career faster and is a good way to improve their managing skills.

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