Assessing the PRCA diploma

This post originally appeared on the PRCA’s website as a guest blog and on the Liquid blogroll.

I’m a glutton for study. My office wall has two neat rows of what my colleagues affectionately call my ‘swimming certificates’ to prove it.* Having dropped out of a theology degree (long story, probably predestined to happen) more years ago than I care to remember, I seem to have developed an academic inferiority complex which refuses to budge.

Having already completed postgraduate diplomas from the Chartered Institute of Marketing and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, as well as other qualifications from the likes of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (I kid you not), I feel well qualified to assess the relative merits of the PRCA diploma.

One of the most appealing aspects of the offering is that it can be tailored to meet specific training requirements. It covers five disciplines: ‘understanding finance’; ‘managing people and processes’; ‘managing money’; ‘keeping and growing clients’ and ‘prospecting and winning new business’.

These give a comprehensive grounding in delivering PR consultancy at a senior level and in running an agency. Whilst delegates are required to choose at least one module from each section, there’s a great deal of flexibility as to which area(s) you concentrate on.

Nowadays, I do very little consultancy. My role requires me to spend almost all of my time actually running the business. This means setting strategy and ensuring we’re positioned correctly, but it also means focusing on the operational and financial aspects. I’m one of five executive directors at Liquid. The others focus on client work and leave me in charge of ‘numbers and stuff like that’. This led me to choose several masterclasses and a couple of full day sessions with Neil Backwith, author of ‘Managing Professional Communications Agencies‘ and former CEO (EMEA) of Porter Novelli.

Was he good? Boy, he was good. Neil’s vast experience, distilled down into clear and concise principles and processes, has already had a positive impact on our profitability.  Mind you, we’ve got a long way to go to become the lean professional services firm that we could be, if we rigorously implement his teaching.

Neil isn’t the only outstanding individual the PRCA uses for the diploma, which is delivered by a variety of experienced senior practitioners. What it lacks in robust theory (this is not an academic course), it more than compensates for with pragmatic teaching, borne from decades of working at the highest level.

On day one of the PRCA diploma – and I really didn’t really know what to expect – I arrived at the funky Hill & Knowlton offices in Soho Square (the diploma’s face-to-face training is held at various locations and this one has stunning rooftop views and offers superb pastries!). The subject at hand was ‘pitching to win new business’ with Adrian Wheeler, former chairman of GCI Europe and CEO of GCI UK.

It was the single most valuable day of training I’ve ever had. The man’s brilliant. A highly-practical six hours laden with real life illustrations of what works and, with great candour and wry observation, what doesn’t. It’s a session that anyone who has business development as part of their responsibility would do well to sign up to. Every year. Yes, it’s that good.

No overview of the course would be complete without mentioning the fascinating and charismatic Bill Moir, whose session on ‘leading and motivating PR teams’ was both highly enjoyable and sage; Lionel Zetter, past-president of the CIPR, who quite literally ‘wrote the book’ on lobbying and John Major’s former political press secretary, Sheila Gunn. This is the calibre of tutor that the PRCA engages.

It took me a year to fit in all of the modules, which included full days, half days and webinars. The diploma could conceivably be completed more swiftly, but I found it useful to have time to apply what I was learning as I went along.

Once you’ve completed all the modules, you’re required to submit a 2,000 word paper. I chose one of the set questions:

“What lessons, if any, can future PR entrepreneurs learn by examining the winners of PRWeek’s New Consultancy of the Year?”

Serendipitously, at the same time I was mulling over what topic to choose, I was a PRWeek Awards judge on the same panel as PrettyGreen Founder Mark Stringer and Kaper founder Chris McCafferty. PrettyGreen was the PRWeek ‘New Consultancy of the Year’ in 2010 and Kaper won in 2011. An interview with both guys over a convivial lunch provided the majority of the material for my essay. Both were open about their failures and fears as well as their (quite evident) successes. The final piece in the jigsaw was an in depth interview with Sara Price, co-founder of the current PRWeek New Consultancy of the Year, Pagefield. Like the others, she was incredibly open and generous, both with her time and with the insights that she gave.

I’d wholeheartedly and unreservedly recommend the PRCA diploma to anyone in a senior role in a PR consultancy. It’s rich in wisdom, distilled through decades of experience, gained at the highest level.

From my perspective, if you’re already an experienced public relations professional, but you’re humble enough to learn, then the diploma will help sharpen your thinking and your practice of PR. Plus, if Adrian Wheeler offers to buy you a beer after the course, take him up on it. The anecdotes get even funnier once the slides are finished!

*I think ‘swimming certificates’ is a term of endearment, but that question will play on my mind now…

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