Navigating the Way: Use Mentoring to Build Skills and Confidence in the PR Workplace

January 1, 2015


Many PR professionals have turned to mentoring to help them get “up to speed” on the organizational and technological demands in our quickly changing profession.

Mentoring can involve general business knowledge, as well as specific hands-on skills needed for employees to complete tasks or become more valuable within the organization. Mentoring simultaneously encompasses a concept, a process, and a set of activities leading to increased knowledge and stronger personal and organizational performance.

All sectors of the workplace utilize mentoring, although our recent surveys of PR practitioners suggest that those in our profession don’t use it as frequently (or as strategically) as they could. Here are some ways to help you better understand mentoring as a concept and, perhaps, put it to work more effectively within your organization.

A primer on the concept

Workplace mentoring has traditionally been recognized as any situation in which an older or more experienced professional (mentor) imparts knowledge and skill to someone who’s younger or less experienced (mentee).

According to the Management Mentors’ “411 on All Things Mentoring Related” from 2011, these are some of the common expectations of the mentor:

• Teach the mentee about a specific issue.

• Facilitate the mentee’s growth by sharing resources and networks.

• Challenge the mentee to move beyond his or her comfort zone.

• Create a safe learning environment for taking risks.

Types of mentoring

There are two variations on traditional mentoring: reverse mentoring and peer mentoring. Reverse mentoring is a structured workplace relationship where younger or less experienced professionals train those who are senior to them.

In a PR workplace, a reverse mentoring relationship commonly involves senior people with more concept knowledge, but less technical skill. Co-workers, who know less about public relations but have more experience with social media technology, serve as mentors to the senior staff. Or, as Ken Pyle, president of the video production firm Viodi, described it: “Reverse mentoring gets kids involved while educating older folks who can’t figure out technology.”

But reverse mentoring doesn’t always have to focus on technological issues. There are good reasons for pairing senior practitioners with younger colleagues.

In her January 2013 article in the Philadelphia Business Journal about the ROI of reverse mentoring, business strategist and benefits consultant Deana Calvelli wrote: “Reverse mentoring is an inexpensive way for your organization to make younger employees feel more confident and valued.”

Reverse mentoring can help executives build the relationships to identify “the next rising star” within the organization, Calvelli noted.

And peer mentoring occurs when the mentor and mentee are on the same level of the organizational hierarchy. Often, peer mentoring involves grouping co-workers together to master a new skill.

There are distinct advantages to the peer mentoring approach. In a peer group, employees have to work together to think through the process. Research has shown that this can speed up learning and improve knowledge retention.

A 2007 study of peer relationships at work concluded that peer mentoring builds a “safe and comfortable environment” where workers trust each other and experiment with new ideas because supervisors or co-workers aren’t watching their trial and error.

New ways of learning

Consider the following points:

• Mentoring helps employees learn specific skills and knowledge. Mentoring can offer workers the ability to put new learning in an appropriate professional and ethical context. This is especially relevant in public relations, where knowledge of a particular concept is not a guarantee that it can be operationalized successfully for the client.

• Mentoring allows for confidence-building among employees. The research on mentoring reveals that it contributes to the sharing of information that co-workers might not communicate otherwise. It can help executives develop new perspectives in order to help them better manage change. It reduces subordinate role ambiguity and, therefore, can help reduce the costs that come when valuable employees leave their jobs and take important knowledge out the door with them.

• Mentoring improves workplace climate. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Public Relations Research concluded that sharing information through interpersonal interaction, creates a “sense of community” that motivates employees at all levels.

A heightened sense of belonging can improve morale and result in greater responsiveness to clients and customers. An organization that is more in tune with the needs of clients and customers is less likely to find itself in a situation where customers know more than employees do about a product or service.

Best practice suggestions

To get the most out of mentoring activities, it’s best to have a plan for what you hope to accomplish. Both the mentor and the mentee need to be open about what they want to learn from the relationship. Regardless of whether the mentorship is traditional, reverse or peer-to-peer, both involved professionals have an opportunity to benefit.

In fact, our research has shown that the best mentoring relationships are found when everyone feels like they are contributing. This is particularly true with reverse mentoring.

More seasoned professionals feel better about taking “help” from younger practitioners when they believe they are contributing. Participants should not worry too much about the knowledge transfer being “equal,” as long as both the mentor and the mentee feel like they are of value in the relationship.

By establishing goals and expectations up front, it is easier to stay focused and measure progress and success. Depending on the length of the relationship, participants can add new goals as they master skills and obtain knowledge.

Give careful consideration to the location where the mentoring will take place. With reverse mentoring, the senior practitioner’s office is usually best, allowing him or her to maintain the senior role and also making the mentoring more private. Out-of-office locations, such as coffee shops, are also excellent choices. Regularly scheduled sessions tend to keep participants on track.

Keys to success

Mentoring requires an open mind, patience and a willingness to learn. Things that are not helpful include: arrogance, contempt, using jargon and talking too fast.

While on-the-spot, skill-focused mentoring experiences such as, “How do I upload a video to Facebook?” are certainly helpful, mentoring is an ongoing process that, if rooted in concept knowledge, offers a myriad of benefits. 

In order to measure success, it’s important to regularly evaluate mentoring outcomes.

These days, PR practitioners are carrying out their planning and development work via telephone and email, meaning that there’s less personal interaction — even when people work in the same office suite.

Establishing a mentorship program, whether it’s traditional, reverse or peer-to-peer, will help your organization and its people develop stronger, smarter ways to work more productively.


Betsy A. Hays, M.A., APR, is an associate professor in the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism at California State University, Fresno. She has led the public relations sequence for the department since 1999. She advises both the PRSSA Chapter at Fresno State and the student-run PR firm, TALK. Email:

Doug Swanson, Ed.D., APR, is a professor in the Department of Communications at California State University, Fullerton. He is the supervising faculty member for PRactical ADvantage Communications, the department’s student-run advertising and PR agency. Email:


My Mentor Has My Back — and I Have Hers

A colleague and I are a great example of both successful traditional and reverse mentoring. She is 25 and I’m 43. She is a social media genius, and I’ve been practicing and/or teaching public relations for 20-plus years. We both are extremely grateful that we each know things that the other doesn’t.

I have mentored her about client fees, letters of agreement, proposals, difficult conversations and dealing with people offline. She, in turn, has mentored me about the social media scheduling site, the best practices for attracting Twitter followers, the new Facebook graf and the new features on LinkedIn. We have scheduled a session where she will teach me about SEO. Since we live in different parts of the state, she’ll be mentoring me on using a screen-sharing site called (which, incidentally, I also learned about from her).

I have to admit that, at first, it was difficult asking questions and acknowledging that I didn’t know everything about the industry. (I teach this stuff, for goodness sake!) But once I realized that it made her feel proud to teach me things, and that she believed that her sharing is like “paying me back” for the knowledge that I have shared with her, it made me relax a bit.

We are using many of the mentoring best practices, including establishing specific learning goals, having regular sessions (via Skype), and evaluating success and challenges as we move forward.

Now, since we’ve been mentoring each other for almost five years, things are very fluid and easy to manage. We constantly share articles, links, etc., that will help the other succeed. We also know that any question is allowed, and we don’t have to feel stupid when we don’t know something that we probably should. This, I believe, is one of the most significant benefits of a quality mentoring relationship.

It’s nice to know that a 20-something has my back, and I’m sure that it’s nice for her to know that a 40-something has hers.— B.H.


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