Over the past decade, professional development has become de rigueur at large and midsize public relations agencies, where the lip service that has long been paid to the idea that “people are our most valuable assets” has been supported by actions designed to increase the value—and the retention—of those assets. But while agencies have significantly expanded their training programs, professional development for public relations professionals in corporate America is still a hit or miss affair.

On one level, the discrepancy is not surprising. Public relations agencies are required to dispense a fairly narrow set of skills to a relatively homogenous group: public relations people. Corporations, on the other hand, need to provide training to people in a wide range of functional roles—lawyers, accountants, marketers and yes, PR people—as well as to those who are responsible for manufacturing and customer service and other activities more central to the company’s mission. At the same time, most senior corporate PR people concede that the average employee at a 200-person PR firm will probably receive better formal PR training than the average employee in a 200-person PR department. 

“I think that’s true,” says John Onoda, who has held senior corporate communications positions at Levi Strauss & Co., General Motors, Visa USA, and now at Charles Schwab & Co. “But I don’t think it necessarily means that the corporation is going to end up with better people. I think it’s a reflection of the fact that there are different cultures. On the corporate side, you have to realize that you are a citizen of the corporation first and a communicator second. If you are trying to build a career within the corporation there are a lot of other things we need to know. On the agency side, communication is your only business.”

What that means is that while agency PR people may develop a wider array of PR skills, corporate PR people generally understand the big business picture better. Respondents to an informal survey of senior corporate communicators gave their companies an average of B-plus for business skills training, but only a C-plus for PR skills—and almost all agreed that agencies did a better job when it came to the latter.

Some were scathing. Training on the corporate side is “woefully inadequate,” says Larry Parnell, who has worked both sides of the fence and is now the senior PR professional at Ersnt & Young, after a stint in the corporate practice at Ketchum. “There are not a lot of good options,” agrees Matt Gonring, who was recently named vice president of corporate communications at Baxter International.

“Both agencies and corporate PR departments offer some decent things and both end up being inadequate,” is the more balanced view offered by Don Spetner, who heads corporate communications at Korn/Ferry, after holding similar positions at Nissan and SunAmerica. Says Spetner, who began his PR career on the agency side of the business, “Employees at PR firms have an appalling lack of awareness of the realities of corporate life. They are usually up to date when it comes to PR skills, new technologies and techniques, but they don’t understand business life.”

Corporate PR departments, on the other hand, can be “appallingly insular. When you are in the automotive world, companies are very good at teaching people about the automotive world. At Nissan, our PR people spent three weeks in the field learning the car business. They got to ride with the district sales managers and to spend time with service managers. The downside is that you can go years without ever setting foot outside the automotive industry. You don’t keep on top of developments in the craft that are taking place elsewhere.”

Parnell is certainly more concerned about PR skills than he is about business knowledge. “I was in the banking industry several years ago and my boss told me, ‘I have a building full of people who understand banking, some of them better than I do. What I need from you is someone who understands the latest thinking in public relations.’” So when Ernst & Young pulls its PR staff together, as it does twice a year, the emphasis is on presentation skills, media relations skills, writing skills.

Tom Buckmaster, who joined Honeywell shortly after it merged with Allied-Signal, after a career spent on the agency side with firms such as Fleishman-Hillard, Hill & Knowlton, and Edelman Public Relations Worldwide, has a similar concern. “I think when you compare the corporate world to the agency side of the business, there’s a tendency for people in the corporate world to stay in one place, to focus on one area of communications, whether it’s media relations or financial communications of public affairs. There’s not enough diversity of experience to build a really well rounded professional. 

“The lead business communicator at one of our manufacturing businesses might spend five years and never manage a crisis. But crisis management is something he needs to know about if he’s going to be a great counselor.”

Counseling skills represent a third area of training—after business skills and PR skills—that may present the greatest challenge of all.

“The biggest problem is on the counseling front,” says Onoda. “There’s a skill set you need if you are going to talk with the chairman, and those skills can be very difficult to develop on the client side, because usually the head of the function is the only person who ever interacts directly with the chairman. Those skills can be easier to develop on the agency side, because to a certain extent they’re built in to the new business process.”

Gonring is planning to bring PR staff at Baxter together at May, and will be looking at improving his team’s counseling and business skills. Ideally, he says, he would like to get the CEO on the agenda, but he also plans to bring in a senior executive from one of the company’s business units to talk about business issues, “someone who is facing a supply chain management problem, for example.” And he will bring in a seasoned counselor, someone who has worked closely with CEOs and other senior executives at other companies, to talk about strategic communications planning and counseling.

Other companies have developed sophisticated training programs, usually integrating them into broader corporate professional development activities. General Motors, in recent years, has made a major investment in training. Employees of the PR department are asked to take a minimum of 20 hours of training each year through the College of Communications at General Motors University. GMU is also the repository for an employee’s Individual Development Plan, a web-based tool that allows employees to plan and track their professional development.

Courses range from Internet and media relations skills to “The Chairman’s Perspective,” a GM history course taught by the chairman of the company, to “Leadership at the Peak,” developed in partnership with the Center for Creative Leadership. GM is also placing a greater emphasis on e-learning, partnering with Unext to provide a problem-centered learning approach designed to accelerate the application of knowledge to real world situations. GM also works closely with several of its PR agencies and suppliers, including employee communications specialist Boxenbaum Grates and crisis management firm Rowan & Blewitt.

“By aligning our training through a corporate university, we can leverage best-in-class resources to develop a variety of learning options that offer employees greater flexibility in their schedules for the pursuit of professional development targeted to directly impact GM’s business performance,” says Angie Sockol, who heads up training for the GM communications team.

As a recent refugee from the agency side, Buckmaster has an interesting perspective: “I think training is more real at Honeywell,” he says. “One of the criteria on which managers are evaluated is whether they and their people complete 40 hours of continual learning each year. That was a real eye-opener for me.” As an example, all of the company’s PR people are trained in the six-sigma quality approach that is a mainstay of the company’s manufacturing process.  

At General Electric, meanwhile, vice president of public relations Beth Comstock has been working hard to make sure that the communications function is well represented at Crotonville, the company’s legendary management development complex, using case histories such as the Ford-Firestone crisis. “That got everyone’s attention,” says Comstock. “It helped them understand that a crisis is not just a communications issue.”

What makes the GE effort unique is that it focuses not only on teaching PR people about the business, but also on making sure that business leaders understand the value of PR. One of the modules teaches communications basics for non-communicators.

But others find themselves dependent on third party programs.

“You have to constantly scan the horizon for development venues,” says Gonring, who says that he has relied on courses provided by the Public Relations Society of America and the International Association of Business Communicators, as well as sending senior staff to Conference Board meetings on branding, corporate identity, and corporate communications. Others mention seminars sponsored by Chicago-based Ragan Communications. “But most of these groups focus more to the junior level folks,” says Gonring.           

There are also more high-level courses available, though rarely cheaply. Buckmaster, for example, believes that corporate communicators need to better understand the basics of risk communication and community consensus building, advanced skills not adequately covered by traditional PR training courses. So he favors sending staff members to the Harvard-MIT program on conflict resolution.

Clearly, courses do exist for both PR skills and broader business skills, but the biggest challenge remains: developing the next generation of counselors.

Spetner is an active supporter of an organization called the San Francisco Academy, the brainchild of several senior west coast corporate communicators, which has trained more than 180 “future PR leaders” at companies including Boeing, Hewlett-Packard, Honeywell, Mattel, and Nissan. The Academy serves two purposes: first, it helps people in functional specialties broaden their perspective, so that media relations practitioners can learn about investor relations, crisis management, government affairs, branding and more; and second, it helps those people develop counseling skills and “learn what goes on in the executive suite,” says Spetner.

A similar effort is being organized this June by the Institute for Public Relations Research and the Arthur W. Page Society. The Public Relations Executive Forum is “designed especially for high potential, mid-level corporate communications and public relations executives who report to senior corporate communications officers.” Its objective is to “develop outstanding future leaders of public relations and corporate communications.”

Even with the expansion of training options, one opportunity is still being missed. After all, if agencies are typically better at providing their people with basic PR skills and knowledge, and corporations are typically better at imparting business skills and knowledge, why don’t the two realms take advantage of each others’ strengths?

Spetner says Nissan never invited agency people to take the training courses it offered to its own people. “That’s a good question,” he says. “The main reason we didn’t do it was that we didn’t trust that agency account executives were going to be around long enough for us to get a return on our investment.” At the same time, he notes, none of Nissan’s agencies ever asked if their people could participate in the corporate training program.

(Parnell cites a similar problem when it comes to getting corporate PR people into management training programs: “They don’t like to give one of those coveted spots to a PR person in the first place,” he says, “and in some ways we’re our own worst enemies, because we come and go so fast, moving from job to job, that human resources people don’t want to invest the time.”)

Meanwhile, agencies rarely invite clients to their internal training sessions. “A lot of what we discuss there is proprietary,” one agency president says. “We talk a lot about the new business development process, and sometimes about internal billing practices. That’s not necessarily something we want our clients to know too much about.”
But public relations surely adds the greatest value to an organization when the in-house PR team is as PR savvy as possible and the outside counsel understands the intricacies of the client’s culture. It’s time to get past mutual suspicion and to cooperate on building great, well rounded public relations people, in the agency world and the corporate world.