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Helping agency employees to improve their PR skills

Most public relations agencies hire employees with a mix of experience. Some already have a proven track record in generating media coverage, while others have only just begun to learn the ropes.

In this episode, Chip and Gini explore how agency leaders can help their team members to develop the skills and knowledge needed to produce excellent results for clients.

The key is understanding the needs and learning styles of each individual so that the appropriate type and level of support can be provided.


Key takeaways

  • Chip Griffin: “Do you want to invest the time and money in training or do you want to invest in the salary of someone who already has that training and experience?”
  • Gini Dietrich: “There’s no real replacement from learning from people who have more experience. You can’t replace that with an online course or professional development.”
  • Chip Griffin: “Just because they have a job history does not mean that they have expertise.”
  • Gini Dietrich: “Make sure they don’t drown, but do allow them the opportunity to fail because that is where they will learn. It’s where we all learn.”


The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.

Chip Griffin: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m Chip Griffin.

Gini Dietrich: And I’m Gini Dietrich.

Chip Griffin: Gini, can you explain this whole PR thing to me? I, I don’t really understand it, and I, I think I need to know how to do it.

Gini Dietrich: Sure, no problem.

Chip Griffin: All right. Right after this.

So. PR. Yes. It’s what a lot of our listeners do. Mm-hmm. At least it’s one of the services that they offer. And when you hire a new employee, you gotta figure out, how do I teach these people how to do PR if they’re not someone who comes into it with PR experience? And this is a question that came up in the Spin Sucks Community lately, so I thought it would be a good one for us to talk about.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, I mean the, the specific question was curious for all you PR pros who own… who run your own service agency, have you come across any great sources on resources on how to approach training, new hires to do pr? And it’s an interesting question cuz it was posted and I was like, huh. I guess we do it by just giving them the work to do and coaching them through it. Like I, we don’t necessarily, you know, send them out for professional development specific to quote unquote PR. Like, we may do things on writing, we may do things on, certainly we make everybody here go through the Peso Model certification. We might do some things on media relations but we, so we would take cer certain skill sets, but just to say, oh, you’re in PR now and, and you’re working in PR, we’re gonna give you that kind of professional development is really more on the job training types of things.

Chip Griffin: So, I mean, let’s back it up a minute. When you’re hiring, do you typically hire people with PR experience or do you typically hire people who, you know, maybe have a different background and, and they need this kind of training?

Gini Dietrich: It depends. You know, if we, if we’re hiring for what, what I would call traditional PR media relations, we always hire somebody with experience.

If we’re hiring for, you know, one of the other media types, so it was shared, owned, or paid, then we, we hire content creators, or we hire social media experts, or we hired SEM people who’ve done SEM. We also do an intern program, and the interns have to have, they have to be studying pr. They can’t just be like, yeah, I’m a business major.

They actually have to be studying our craft. So they at least have a good understanding. And then we give them, you know, intern level work, not senior at AE level work.

Chip Griffin: And, and I think this is something that, that agency owners fundamentally need to understand if they don’t already, which is that there are plenty of people out there who, who don’t have expertise already. Mm-hmm. And you can’t always hire someone who is experienced in whatever you want to do. And, and particularly in small agencies where you’re just growing, a lot of times I’ll talk with the owners and, and they’ll say, Hey, you know, I, I need to find someone who knows how to do this or that.

But they’re not willing to pay for it. And so, so at some point you have to decide, are you willing to pay for them to have the experience coming in, or do you bring in, you know, some, not necessarily raw talent, but some good talent that you can improve their skillset through training, through on the job, education and all that kind of thing?

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, I think it depends for sure. And I think it is a, it definitely, you’re right, is a choice you have to make. For me personally, I decided a few years ago that we were spending way too much time and resources on training young professionals to do their jobs and it was easier for us to grow and be as flexible as we wanna be with clients if we had people with experience.

So I pay for it and in some cases that means that my salary has decreased. But it’s easier. It’s easier for me to run my agency that way.

Chip Griffin: Well, and I think you, you do have to look at it that as that kind of a conscious choice, where do you want to invest? Mm-hmm. Do you want to invest the time and money in training or do you want to invest in the salary of someone who already has that training and experience. And so, you know, you, you can’t expect that you’re going to get away with a lower salaried, less experienced individual and have them do the same kind of work. And I, I mean, I think that’s the biggest mistake, right, that small agency owners make because they’re, they’re trying to pinch pennies probably because they didn’t price correctly.

But that’s a whole another episode that, that I like to rant about all the time.

Gini Dietrich: Last week, in fact.

Chip Griffin: Absolutely. And so, so if you are not going to put yourself in a position where you’re willing to pay for it, then you do have to come up with, with how to train for it. So let’s, let’s assume that you’ve, you’ve made this conscious decision that you want to move ahead with bringing someone on who is a little bit greener.

What would be the first steps that you would do? Is it, is it purely on the job or are there, you know, resources other than a PESO certification, obviously we think you ought to get a PESO certification, but apart from that, that you would recommend?

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, I think we, I mean, I’m thinking it through and it’s mostly on the job. It’s very much like, all right, we have to do this, this, and this. And, you know, we, I have one young professional, she’s, she’s not, she’s probably seven years out of college now. And who’s never done, has never done crisis work, so, You know, she’s a, she’s a phenomenal writer and she’s really great at that craft, but we’ve been teaching her how to do the crisis side of things as we’re working with, with two particular clients and, you know, she’s been a sponge and, and learning. We certainly don’t have her on the front lines and we don’t have her writing the messaging or anything like that.

But we do have her come to meetings and we ask her opinion on things so that we can start to help her understand, okay, this is why that answer is great, and yes, you should continue to do that and here’s, here’s how we would handle this one differently and here’s why. So we’re doing a lot of on-the-job training with her, specifically around crisis.

But you know, I think that, I’m just trying to think through how we’re, because every, everybody who’s onboarded spends the first six weeks going through PESO model training, and then after that it really is on the job training.

Chip Griffin: Well, and, and I think that on the job is really the best way because even if they’ve learned somewhere else, even if they’ve got experience somewhere else, it’s, it’s the way that some other agency or some other business or organization does it. And it’s not necessarily the same as what Arment Dietrich does. And so it’s important for any employee that you have to really understand, not just PR generally, but PR specific to the way that you’re doing it on behalf of your clients. And so this is where I think it, it’s really beneficial to have process documentation and internal things that will help people to understand how you do it. What are the steps that you follow when you’re putting together a press release or a blog post, or a media relations program, or even the outreach that you’re doing to individual reporters because everybody’s got kind of their nuances that are slightly different from agency to agency.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, and one of the things I would add to that is that I think we tend to just, as human beings, we say, oh, that person has 10 years of experience or 15 years of experience. They know what they’re doing. And so we don’t do the typical onboarding that we would with somebody who’s just out of college or just a few years outta college.

And I think that’s a really big mistake because to your point, there are things that you do differently. There are things that you, you, there are ways you service clients differently, and that has to be part of the, the onboarding and the training, because otherwise you’re gonna get super frustrated with this person who, and they’re gonna get super frustrated too, because they have all this experience, but they feel like you don’t value that.

And then you look at them and say, you have all this experience, why can’t you do it? And it’s because you didn’t put them through the proper onboarding and training that you would somebody with less experience.

Chip Griffin: Well, I think it’s a great point that, that just because they have a job history does not mean that they have expertise.

Right. You know, one of the things I, I think I’ve mentioned before, I used to train baseball umpires and one of the things that we used to say was that there are some folks out there who are in their 10th year of first year umpire experience. You know, they’re, they’re just, they keep repeating effectively as a newbie over and over again because they’re not doing the things that they need to do to continue to improve, whether that’s because they choose not to or somehow they’re incapable of it. Usually it’s they, they’ve chosen not to, they’re not investing in their own education and development and all of those kinds of things. And so you can have that in the, the regular workforce as well where someone has managed to have longevity, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve actually become good at their craft.

And so, you know, beware of that when you’re hiring, know what you’re actually getting and probe to make sure that they actually have the expertise you think they do.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. I think it’s, that’s probably one of the biggest mistakes that I see my agency or clients and my, my client clients, our agency clients, that when they, they hire people and they go, oh, this person has so much experience.

Great. Go do your thing. And then everybody ends up frustrated six months later because, There hasn’t been any onboarding or training and that I would say I, that’s one of the biggest mistakes I see over and over and over again. So that has to be something that you can’t just say, oh my gosh, great, Chip, this is awesome.

I’m so glad you joined my team. You have all this experience. Go do your job. And you’re like, where do I find documents and how do I sign onto my email? Like, you’d probably figure it out. But also you’d have to have that the same kind of onboarding.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. And, and you also need to, I mean, this is yet another plug for weekly one-on-ones.

If you’re, if you or whoever the direct manager is of this individual is having that weekly one-on-one, it’s your opportunity to answer questions, to serve as a mentor. Yes, yes, yes. But it’s also, it’s also your duty in those conversations to figure out where are they struggling, what help do they need? Is there some kind of specific outside training that they need or internal documentation that would help them do their job better?

Or shadowing someone for a little bit of time? Yep. You know? Yep. What are the things that they need? And if you’re, if you’re doing those weekly one-on-ones, it really helps you to identify those things much more easily and much more quickly.

Gini Dietrich: That’s a really great point, because then somebody will say I need to do X, Y, and Z, but I have no idea where to even start.

And you go. Oops, sorry.

Chip Griffin: Right, and you likely have a lot of resources internally, I mean, either your own brain power or other people on your team. Yes, yes. There’s likely already a lot there, so you don’t need to constantly go out and seek and pay for things. You may actually have a lot of the resources available to you.

Absolutely already that you can leverage and showing people examples is really powerful, but ultimately there’s really not much of a replacement for actually giving them the opportunity to do, do the work and potentially fail. Yep. And so, yep. It’s another one of the reasons why I often recommend that you treat yourself as a client, because that’s a great learning ground.

Yes. For your younger employees. Yep. Have them do PR on behalf of the agency itself, because the odds that they do something that is catastrophic are really small. And so if they simply are underperforming or make a little faux pas, something like that, that’s, that’s much more manageable if they’re doing it for the agency.

And it, it’s psychologically easier for you, the owner to, to take that risk versus, you know, you put ’em on the biggest account and, and let them screw that up. Yeah. So, you look for those opportunities because it’s the actual doing that is where you figure out what they do and don’t know. And it also helps them build their confidence that they are learning and, and executing better.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s really great advice. And, and you’re right, like we’ve talked about this before too. One of the things I do and it, it, it’s still even to this day, gets me all like I’m, it’s gonna be okay. But, you know, I’ll put as, as people are growing through their careers, whether or not they’re new in our, in our agency, we will start to put them in front of clients.

And one, it’s one of the hardest things to do because you have to be willing to let them quote unquote, fail. I mean, you’re, they’re not gonna lose the client for you, but, you know, let them lead meetings and you sit in the background and not say a word and it’s so hard to do because you’re watching it and you’re going, I, I wouldn’t have said that.

Or, oh, I wouldn’t have answered it that way, or, Ooh. And, you know, you go through this whole internal debate, but what you can do then is take that opportunity to leave the meeting and have a coaching session with them to say, When you answered this, it was great and here’s why we liked it. But when you answered this it, you know, we would’ve preferred it. We do it this way because this is how we do things, and it gives you that opportunity to coach them and mentor them versus you just stepping in and, and it allows the client to see them as the expert versus you stepping in and going, okay, hang on a sec. This is h not how we would do things. Like, you know, you ha you have to be really good at just sitting in the background and observing, taking notes and using that opportunity to coach as, as you’re leading your team through their career development.

Chip Griffin: And that is really hard for most owners to do.

Gini Dietrich: So hard. It’s so hard.

Chip Griffin: And I look, I’ve, I’ve been there, I. I know it will shock listeners to know I have a very difficult time keeping my mouth shut. I just do, but so, so hard. It’s something you really need to work at because if you are always stepping in and stepping on your subordinates when you are working with clients.

The client is never gonna trust that individual. Right. That’s right. The individual is never gonna have the opportunity to grow. That’s right. And you’re gonna be stuck. You’re gonna be in these meetings forever. Yep. Yep. You need to accept that they can do a good enough job, maybe not exactly the same job you would, but a good enough job that, and they’re not gonna put the, the whole business at risk that you just need to let them go and let them.

Coach them through things, mentor them through things. Frankly, you learn a lot from the mistakes that you make along the way. I mean, we, I always talk about you learn more from failure than from success. That’s right. You have to let your team have the opportunity to mess up a bit in order to to continue to advance their own careers and what they can do for you as an agency.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. We have one client who every single week she sends an email before the weekly team meeting and says, here’s the agenda. Is Gini going to attend? Every week and every week I send the account leader to the meeting and say, no, Gini does not attend these meetings. She attends your quarterly meetings and your leadership meetings, but she does not attend the every week.

She does it every week. And every week my, our account manager is like, no, here I am. We’re it’s, yeah. And I feel bad for the person on my team because she’s like, does she not trust me? I’m like, no. It’s just her personality that has nothing to do with you. But I’m also not going to attend those meetings, so, right.

Chip Griffin: Well, and, and, and I mean, a lot of clients just didn’t like it when the owner is there. You know? I mean, yeah. It’s not…

Gini Dietrich: I mean, sure if she wants to pay for it, but her budget doesn’t afford it, so No, I will not be there.

Chip Griffin: And, and even if it did, it wouldn’t really make sense in all likelihood for just about every client account that an agency has for the owner to be actually in it, even if the client’s willing to pay for it.

So, yeah. But you know, I think the other thing when it comes to training people is, you know, to some extent you gotta kind of throw ’em in the deep end of the pool. Yep. And, and hope that they float Yep. Be ready to dive in after them if they are actually drowning. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Don’t, don’t just sit there and say, oh, sorry.

Gini Dietrich: Well, next!

Chip Griffin: That’s, it was a witch. Yes, it was a witch. That’s funny. But yeah, but I, I mean, I, I think back to my very first internship that I had 30 plus years ago, and I walked in on day one and the very first thing I was told to do was to write a one minute speech for the member of Congress that I was interning for.

Woo. And just, you know, here, here’s some, some basic background research on the topic. And by the way, it was a complex tax topic that I had no idea. I didn’t understand at all. I barely understand it even today, even though, but it was, it was a really arcane bit of the tax code and so I, you know, I sat down and I dutifully wrote a one minute speech as best I could, and I had never written a speech for anyone except myself previously. And certainly I’d never written one as short as one minute. So it was a, it was a challenge and, and I learned from it. You know, I’m not gonna tell you it was the best piece of writing I ever did.

I can’t really remember exactly what I said. Whether it was true or not, even, who knows, but hey, it was politics. So true doesn’t matter as much.

Gini Dietrich: Whether it’s true or not.

Chip Griffin: Well, I mean, if you don’t understand the topic, it’s a little hard to, you know, fair, I mean fair, fair, you know, then, then you’re basically ChatGPT. So you know, someone better proofread it at the end of the day.

But I mean, but the, but there, there’s a lot to be said for that. And yes, particularly in Washington where I got my start, it is very common to have very young, inexperienced people just told, Hey, go and do this. And you’re just kind of pointing the right direction and they hope. Because a lot of organizations don’t have much in the way of budgets.

Yep. And so, you know, they’ll just roll the dice and see what happens.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. I mean, there, there is something to be said that for that too. And you’re right, like make sure they don’t drown, but do allow them the opportunity to fail because that is where they will learn for sure. It’s where we all learn.

Chip Griffin: And, and if you, if you wait until they are ready, and I put that in air quotes, if you wait until they’re ready, you will never, ever be able to assign anything. Nope. So it, it is a balancing act. You need to make sure that they know enough that they’re, that they’re not gonna instantly sink. I mean, you can’t let ’em go in there with cinder blocks into the pool, but you, you know, I probably tortured the pool analogy.

Gini Dietrich: You’re continuing with this.

Chip Griffin: Just going to beat on this swimming pool analogy. Anyway, so, you know, do, do, make sure that they have the basics, but don’t wait until you feel like they are truly ready, because if you do it, it, it’ll never happen.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, I mean, I was a 27 year old managing supervisor at a big global agency, and I was running a $2 million account.

I had no business doing that. None. Zero, zilch. But they put, they threw me into the deep end. They’re like, figure it out. And there were times that my boss was super mad at me. Like I remember sitting in her office and her just berating me because I’d made the wrong decision. But they also let me make the wrong decision and I have not made those wrong decisions since.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. I mean, going back to, to Washington, when I was 22, I was the chief investigator for a congressional subcommittee investigating the White House. I’m sitting across the table basically as, as the peer to the Deputy White House counsel. That was nuts.

Gini Dietrich: That’s nuts. Yeah.

Chip Griffin: It’s nuts. I mean, and, and most places other than Washington don’t go quite to that extreme, and I’m not suggesting that you, you necessarily do that if you’ve got a Coca-Cola as your client, maybe you don’t, you know, put your fresh outta college you know, just barely above an intern account person in front of them and say, okay, this is your new account lead.

No, probably not the best idea. Probably not because it’s not Washington. And so people don’t accept it in the same way. Right. But you certainly can give them a lot more responsibility than you probably are inclined to just based on your own nervous energy that most owners tend to have.

Gini Dietrich: And let them go to meetings.

Let them go to meetings and observe, you know, and have them take notes. Absolutely. And certainly just say, you know, and I had this experience in my career too, where you, I was told sit in the back and take notes and don’t say anything. But you learn a lot just from sitting in those, you hear things, you observe things and you, you, there are certainly questions that they will have from being in those meetings, but they should absolutely be in those meetings.

Chip Griffin: Yes. Absolutely. They should be in internal meetings. They should be external meetings. Invite them to more rather than less. Yep. You can always cut it back. Right. You know, you can always say, look, we’re not gonna load your schedule up by having you sit in on everything, but early on, if they’re just getting started, have them sit in more rather than less.

Yes. Have them. You know, copy them on emails or forward them the emails after the fact so they can see, you know, what the actual back and forth is so that they can learn what is the style, what, you know, how do you actually communicate, what are the steps? Because there’s no real replacement for seeing how it’s actually being done.

Gini Dietrich: That’s right. That’s right. And there’s no real replacement from learning from, you know, people who have more experience just observing what they’re doing and how they’re behaving and what they’re saying. There’s, you can’t replace that. You can’t replace that with an online course. You can’t replace it with professional development.

You can’t, you just can’t.

Chip Griffin: And, and of course you know you should visit, Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks community. There’s all sorts of good resources there and other places where you can access lots of information as a newbie to level up your skills and of course get that PESO certification. I gotta say.

Gini Dietrich: Yes. Thank you.

Chip Griffin: I’ll take my commission there for that.

Gini Dietrich: No problem. Your checks in the mail.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. Great. Double last month’s?

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. Absolutely. Still zero.

Chip Griffin: I think the listeners figured that one out. I don’t think you needed to spell that one out for them. At least I hope that I have enough respect for the owners who listen to believe that they knew.

Gini Dietrich: That they got that I didn’t need to. Yeah. It’s not funny if you have to tell them the punchline. I get it.

Chip Griffin: Probably not funny anyway. Anyway, on that note, we are gonna wrap up this episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m Chip Griffin.

Gini Dietrich: I’m Gini Dietrich,

Chip Griffin: and it depends.

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The Hosts

Chip Griffin is the founder of the Small Agency Growth Alliance (SAGA) where he helps PR & marketing agency owners build the businesses that they want to own. He brings more than two decades of experience as an agency executive and entrepreneur to share the wisdom of his success and lessons of his failures. Follow him on Twitter at @ChipGriffin.


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, the lead blogger at Spin Sucks, and the host of Spin Sucks the podcast. She also is co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Follow her on Twitter at @GiniDietrich.

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