Three Pr and Comms workers

PR is all grown-up: Time to train our rising stars to sit at the top table

This blog post is written by our Co-Founder Sarah Scales.

Being a comms professional, life can feel a bit schizophrenic

Firstly, we need to be the creative driving force for a business or client’s campaign, completely in tune with the relevant media, trends and technologies for the business. This involves giving the outsider’s perspective on the wider context in which the company operates.

Secondly, with communications becoming an increasingly important part of commercial success, we now have the hot seat at board level meetings, advising on everything from sales strategy to product development, to customer service. In the wake of Brexit, with many companies unsure of their future, communications feels like an even more imperative part of operations, and the counsel we offer needs to be even more qualified and considered.

It is not just financial comms experts who need to understand commercial context. Consumer, social media and corporate communicators must all soak up and respond to information about the value and goals of the client’s business in areas from HR to IT to finance. Only with this kind of overview can we contribute to its success and offer valuable advice to senior leaders.

It isn’t easy managing this split personality

Trying to be both an inward-looking business strategist and a big picture creative thinker is tough. But if we don’t understand that our value comes from the strategic advice and customer service that we offer, as well as our creative vision and industry knowledge, then it is all too easy to miss the mark and have the wrong conversation with a client or stakeholder at the wrong time. For instance, you may not know the implications of the company’s cost-cutting drive on marketing, or understand the role of comms in an international trade expansion plan. This is particularly dangerous territory when businesses are now facing uncertainty in many markets and potential regulatory changes.

Don’t be a toe-dipper

To cope with this dilemma, some agencies and in-house marketers might dabble in the more strategic element of the work, without fully understanding it. Or, worse, they could focus entirely on creative outreach and completely ignore business implications.

It is easy to see how this can happen. This is a young industry. We cannot expect those in their twenties and thirties on the fast track to career progression to have been there and done that. It is the responsibility of more senior comms leaders to guide them on how to accumulate commercial insight and experience from day one.

Understanding the “why” as well as the “what”

We should never assume young comms professionals will absorb the strategic significance of their day job by osmosis. There are probably many communications professionals out there who do not fully understand their client’s financial position, its long-term goals or the full commercial impact of their work.

But if business and agency leaders do not trust their teams with the very information they need to do their jobs better, they will unknowingly block their team’s progression, creating a robotic culture, where employees do things because they have been asked. Naturally, this approach demotivates the team and is to the detriment of their work.

Strategic training is the answer

Many training programmes in our industry cater for creative, tactical element of comms, such as media relations, content creation or digital communication.While these courses are valuable, they are not going to equip people to give strategic consultancy.

We need to offer the kind of training that gives the confidence and knowledge to ask the right questions and understand a client’s environment. At Brands2Life, for instance, we run a two-day residential course for our future Practice Directors with the Ashridge Business School. The course helps give them the confidence to engage in strategic client conversations, building practical skills in listening to real client dilemmas and developing effective and credible questioning skills. They learn about the business’s operational structure, explore possible board level discussions and identify the most important information they will need to uncover from members of the C-Suite.

The impact of this programme goes beyond the individuals who attend, spreading throughout the organisation so that the whole team understands the “why” behind the tasks they’ve been set.

Find a commercial “heavyweight” coach

For comms professionals who don’t have access to this type of formal training, one-to-one coaching with external experts such as entrepreneurs, financial directors, managing directors, investors and non-executive directors is an alternative way to develop commercial awareness.

In my experience, it is often those who seek out this type of contextual information and request strategic training who fast track their careers, while those, whose approach is more tactical, plateau.

So before we send our rising stars to the top

Let’s make sure we equip them with the right training and guidance to feel confident talking to the board. Then they can offer the level of strategic advice and insight that brings real commercial value to communications. The more commercially aware comms professionals we have, the more stable the future of the industry will be, no matter what developments await our economy.

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