As public relations is increasingly viewed as a profession, Rosie Murray-West considers the role of accredited training courses
Rosie Murray-West is a journalist for CorpComms.
The world of public relations training can be baffling. Sometimes it seems that half of the industry is queuing up to give you a certificate in PR, preferably with an embossed seal and a confusing acronym to make it look extra impressive.
But is all of this training actually achieving anything - and how do you choose a course that will be worth more than the paper that the certificate is printed on? With the financial slowdown finally easing a little, and the jobs market becoming more competitive, PR training courses are finally coming out of the doldrums. Francis Ingham, chief executive of the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA), says that during the credit crunch, lots of companies attempted to fill a gap and save costs by training their staff internally. 'This has advantages, but the staff that are attending tend not to value what they are getting in the same way as they would an external training course. If someone is external, people take it more seriously.'
Ingham says that training public relations staff can have two purposes, particularly now that there are more vacancies available and PRs are beginning to move jobs.
Not only do the trainees get better at what they do, but sending staff on training courses also has a positive effect on staff retention. 'If people feel that their careers are being invested in, they are more likely to stay,' he says. 'Over the boom years, PR training became really sloppy and fat, but now people want tight, practical courses. They expect much more value for money.'
The PRCA has just launched a price commitment pledge, claiming that if anyone can find a similar course to its own elsewhere for less, the company will refund the difference and offer a second place for free. The company even went as far as to name its competitors: Pinnacle, Hawksmere, the Institute of Directors, Insead, Henshall Centre, Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR).
Lack of standardisation
Will Hardie, chief operating officer at Pinnacle Training, believes that this lack of standardisation has been a major problem for PR training.
'Across almost all the PR training industry, there is no standardisation of curriculum and no shared systematic approach,' he says. 'Providers take an educated guess at what skills the market needs, and knock out a course syllabus to fill the gap.
'How should bewildered learners choose between awards, certificates, diplomas, professional diplomas, advanced professional certificates, and so on? And what is one of these actually worth? Anyone can print off an impressive-looking certificate; but almost all are no more than glorified attendance certificates, which are, of course, meaningless.'
For a start, anyone embarking on PR training has to choose between a theoretical and a practical approach - with different companies having their own ideas on which is the most relevant. Perhaps the mostly widely known theory-based courses are accredited by the CIPR. Through the institute's training and mentoring schemes, members can become accredited practitioners or chartered practitioners, which the institute describes as a 'gold standard to which all PR practitioners should strive to reach'. The CIPR accredits BA and MA courses at various universities across the UK, and also runs diplomas, certificates and awards that can now be accessed online as well as through various accredited centres.
Critics of the CIPR schemes claim that they are too 'chalk and talk'. 'They are very theoretical,' says Ingham. 'Ours are about skills, not theory. How to write a press release is a very popular course, since it is perfectly possible to have done a PR degree and never have written a press release.'
Hardie says that many PRs have a problem seeing PR training as something that can be taught from a book. 'What we call good PR is often defined by 'soft skills' or subtle arts like positioning, persuasion and creativity,' he said. 'It can be hard to picture these in the classroom. It's also about our aspirations: our role models aren't 'book-learning' kind of people. PR heroes are quick-witted, imaginative, spontaneous, self-assured leaders and confident conjurors of strategies and campaigns. We recognise success in who they are and what they've done, not what they seem to have been taught.'
Book learning matters
However, Ann Pilkington, one of the founders of PR Academy, which is now the largest centre for CIPR qualifications, says that, far from being dry and irrelevant, PR 'book learning' can help learners to understand why their strategies work, and how to explain them to others in their organisations. 'You have more confidence when you understand the theory behind what you are suggesting,' she says. 'These qualifications equip you at a strategic level. Otherwise you might know yourself what will work, but not why you know it. And you need that confidence when you are arguing about strategy with colleagues.'
Pilkington was a journalist herself before moving into PR at British Telecom. 'I personally found gaining a qualification in PR essential in helping to make the transition,' she says. 'When I moved into PR it was back in the day when most PR people came from journalism and PR was quite a 'tactical' thing, but organisations demand a lot more from their PR people now - you have to be able to talk the language of business and the boardroom and understand change management which is a very different skill set to that of a journalist.'
Hardie hopes that eventually there will be a set of standards that all PR qualifications will meet, allowing people to more easily decide which qualification is for them and avoid wasting their money.
'On the fringes of the industry there is some pretty sharp practice going on, particularly with foreign students who are being sold pseudoqualifications based on bargain basement training with no real accreditation, assessment or quality control,' he warns. 'In at least one case, the 'accrediting organisation' is owned by the same person as the training organisation and serves no purpose but to accredit it.
'At the heart of the industry, practice is much healthier, but there's still confusion around the designation of qualifications. When is a Diploma not a Diploma? For instance, there are two good programmes each marketed as a Diploma; yet one of them involves 48 hours of classroom time, and the other involves 220 hours of classroom time. One of them can get you 40 units of credit towards a university Master's degree; the other can get you 80 units. Another reputable qualification is designated as a lowly Award, but involves 60 hours of guided learning - more than the grand Diploma mentioned above.'
Without the standardisation of qualifications that Hardie hopes for, the only way that customers can choose the right PR training for them is to spend time researching, ask the right questions and check that the training delivers what you need it to do. (See list at the bottom of this article.)
More recently, courses have begun to embrace new forms of communication such as social media, while many training organisations are also offering courses over the internet as a way to keep costs down. However, Ingham says that in all the welter of talk about standards, training and new trends, it is the simpler training that is still the most important.
'There is a growing exasperation from PR managers over the lack of basic skills held by new entrants to the market,' he says. 'The number who can't use an apostrophe correctly is appalling. It's interesting that it is never the attendees themselves who book onto that sort of course though!'
More than eight in ten (84 per cent) of PR professionals studying for qualifications currently work in-house while just 10.5 per cent work in agencies, a factor perhaps attributed to consultancies having smaller professional development budgets or even developing their own training and qualifications, a Qualifications for Communications Professional Trends Survey 2011 by PR Academy has revealed. More than one quarter of those studying for qualifications have either 'director' or 'head of' in their title, while almost 31 per cent are described as 'managers'. Three in four also hold a first degree. The majority of those studying for professional qualifications do so to enhance their skills, while six in ten do so to improve their career prospects. Indeed, 80 per cent of the survey's respondents believe that holding a professional qualification has led to or are confident will lead to career progression and promotion.