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Having a degree in PR does not guarantee a career in PR

Public Relations practitioners are often accused (unfairly so) of being like post-boxes: Nice to have but not necessary. Marketing spoke to Emma Dale, co-founder & managing director (Asia) of special recruitment agency Prospect, about the key skills and training gaps that stop the PR profession from being taken as seriously as it deserves, and the skills PR people really need to have to succeed.

[Dale is speaking at Marketing magazine’s 3rd annual PR Asia 2015 conference, happening 26-27 November in Singapore.]

Marketing: What are the biggest gaps you see in PR training?

Dale: PR professionals require a broad range of skills, but as a whole the industry lacks regular and consistent training at all levels. Most agencies and in-house teams we work with offer the standard training in press release writing, client management and media skills. However more often than not, the training lacks teaching of advanced skills such as leadership and development.

Another notable skill gap that exists is the lack of business management training. Executives need to be commercially-focussed and understand their way around a balance sheet. Agencies and companies need to include lessons in P&L responsibility, team management, problem solving and negotiation in their training programmes.

From my experience, small and medium sized agencies tend to rely mostly on internal courses but larger global agencies have the resources to offer international programmes with a better breadth of training options. For example Edelman has a global and local training function, Edelman Learning Institute (ELI) which ensures their consultants at every level have a licence to operate and counsel. They have global level training modules as well as intensive local curriculums designed to build great careers.

Marketing: What are the biggest skills gaps that you notice in senior PR professionals?

Dale: From experience, senior PR professionals need a more rounded set of experiences today than they did 20 years ago. They also need a breadth of knowledge way beyond the media. With the onward march of all things digital, the increased desire for a more integrated approach to briefs and continued pressure to add value and improve ROI, some senior PR’s lack the capability to analyse ways to measure effectiveness across digital platforms.

Another major skills gap we see in senior PR executives is the lack of management and leadership skills. It is imperative that companies train their leaders to inspire. With many employees leaving due to the lack of strong leadership, it’s critical that staff stepping into leadership roles are helped to do this and given the proper training to succeed as leaders.

Marketing: What PR skills are most in-demand by clients?

Dale: When speaking to clients, the ‘must-have’ PR skills are very much dependent on the level of experience and seniority. At the account manager level, clients are looking for PR professionals with fantastic media relations skills, smart client management and strong writing techniques. At a more senior level, experience with crisis communications is high up the list of must-haves. Driven by the rise of online reputation management, clients are increasingly searching for effective crisis communicators in Asia.

In terms of industry support, the PR industry is well aware of the skills needed to become a PR expert. While there is adequate training for areas like writing and media relations, cases like crisis communications require executives to experience crisis first hand to improve the skill set.

Similarly, the need for PR professionals to be fluent in Chinese and English is highly sought after in Asia. Most firms are looking for bilingual and trilingual communicators to develop strong media relations and manage various clients across the APAC region. Unfortunately, we often see candidates struggle with their writing tests during the interviews. In my opinion, writing is one of the top skills needed in PR, yet excellent writing skills in Chinese and English are hard to come by.

Marketing: How should a PR person just starting out in the industry acquire strategic business knowledge?

Dale: A fresh graduate is not expected to have strategic business knowledge immediately but this will be developed over the course of time in their role. I have seen the greatest skills development in junior executives after they have spent time on secondment in a client’s organisation – it provides an opportunity to connect the PR function to the business and ultimately boost the understanding of the importance and the power of PR for a business.

Understandably, many graduates, particularly those who have pursued a Marketing or Communications degree, want to be client facing as soon as possible. The reality is, senior executives need to be proactive in mentoring their junior members and coaching them through this experience. While agencies have expressed concerns about talent retention among junior members, it is evident that agencies who spend time and invest in junior talent through training programmes and help them chart their career path, tend to produce the most skilled professionals.

Marketing: Should PR professionals study PR, or a discipline like business, law or others directly related to the businesses they aspire to handle communications for?

Dale: In truth, there is no need to study PR to have a career in communications. Many PR agencies and in-house comms teams prefer to hire people that have gained a business or law degree as they are able to understand and speak the business language. Likewise, having a medical or science degree is very beneficial for those working in the healthcare PR sector, while a degree in journalism is hugely advantageous as strong writing skills and the ability to understand media is crucial.

Marketing: Is a PR degree worth the money?

Dale: After more than 20 years in the industry, it’s safe to say that having a degree in PR does not guarantee a career in PR. It is uncommon for clients to insist on hiring a candidate with a PR or Communications degree as a pre-requisite. In fact, we often find that graduates of a communications discipline have inflated expectations of their own experience level and placement in the workforce, which can be a challenge to manage.

Broadly speaking, the industry still functions in quite a traditional way. You need to start at the bottom and work your way up, regardless of your degree or qualification. No matter what you may have studied, gaining practical experience is far more crucial to climb to the top.

Hear more from Dale at Marketing magazine’s 3rd annual PR Asia 2015 conference, happening 26-27 November in Singapore.

To book your seats for the conference contact Carlo Reston at carlor@marketing-interactive.com or +65 6423 0329, +65 9727 0291

For sponsorship opportunities, contact Johnathan Tiang at johnathant@marketing-interactive.com or +65 6423 0329

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