Public Relations Tactics

Never Stop Learning

October 31, 2013

Q. I keep hearing that continuing education is essential in the PR business. Is this true? I tend to learn by doing, so why isn’t experience a good enough teacher?

We’re all under pressure to perform for clients and to bill hours — and we’re definitely not doing that when we’re in training.
But think about it like this: Would printing 40 copies of a press release, folding them and placing them in envelopes to go out through the mail be a good use of your clients’ billable hours? Absolutely not? I agree — today, that is. But 20 years ago, it would have made perfect sense.

The point is that our profession does change, and not only the technology. Techniques change too. The traditional media outlets don’t work the way they did 20 years ago, and some of the most powerful ones didn’t even exist back then.

So while you might know how to tweet, do you know how to use Twitter strategically to benefit your client? There is someone who has found that formula and is willing to teach it to you. Why wouldn’t you want to learn it?

The smartest agencies in the business are committed to continuing education, and many of them are even taking the initiative to create their own extensive internal programs.

Robert Burnside, a partner and chief learning officer at Ketchum, leads the operation of Ketchum University. It’s a multi-tiered curriculum that works like a real university, because the material it has to teach Ketchum’s people is that advanced and that important.

“Our view is that learning and development remain central to our people’s interests — they all want to learn and grow,” Burnside said. “It’s part of the reason they come to Ketchum and part of the reason they stay. At the same time, the agency’s ability to deliver excellence to clients depends on our people being state-of-the-art in understanding public relations, how it is evolving and how best to deliver what the client needs right now. Thus, the learning investment of the agency is a win-win because both the individual and the agency benefit.”

There is a wide range of learning opportunities within our industry. I earned a master’s degree in communications management from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. Maria Russell, who serves as academic director of the school, said the program attracts professionals who understand they cannot afford to stop learning.

“The students must have a minimum of 10 years full-time experience, but most have 10-20 years and some have 20-30,” Russell said. “They enroll in this program because they realize that life-long learning is critical to both their current jobs, to be competitive for next opportunities and to give themselves options for reshaping their careers.”

One graduate of the program was Dora Ricci, who served as public relations manager at Eastman Kodak in Rochester. She said that the program’s biggest impact was on her thinking.

“The program has enabled me to think more strategically about communications management,” Ricci said. It has also helped her “understand the value of research in conjunction with day-to-day responsibilities. I am better prepared to comprehend, speak, and apply the terminology and concepts of finance and accounting within my professional environment.”

Experience is still a great teacher. That will always be true. But if you don’t take advantage of the opportunity to learn from others, then that is just silly. Never stop learning.

Ann Willets
Ann Willets is president and CEO of Utopia Communications, Inc., an ethically focused PR agency. She was the 2010 chair of the Counselors Academy.


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