Why PR agencies should invest in apprenticeships

By James Gee | February 7, 2022

Apprenticeships can be a balancing act. On the one hand, they are an excellent opportunity to upskill new or existing employees and, with so many types of courses out there, offer the opportunity to tailor their training to meet both their interests and the needs of the business. This creates a solution where everyone benefits— whilst you are supporting someone’s personal and professional growth, they provide you with skills and capacity you need to take your business to the next level. However, on the other hand, they can be somewhat of a risk. What if you don’t get the right, motivated person? Will it create a lot of additional work, and will this result in valuable resources being taken away from the business?    

To try to answer some of these questions, we wanted to share our experiences as an apprenticeship employer and some lessons we have learnt along the way.  

The business perspective: Jodie Affleck, Account Director & PRCA Apprenticeship Line Manager 

As a human- and relationship-focused field, PR apprenticeships make sense. Whilst there is of course value in the best practice you can learn in the classroom, it cannot replace the experience and knowledge you gain from actually interacting with clients, audiences and fostering that clear communication between the two. Our current apprentice, James, is the second apprentice we have trained in the business and the first I have mentored.  

He joined Smith Goodfellow at a particularly challenging time. We were still in lockdown, working from home, and balancing multiple changing priorities for our business and our clients. And it did initially feel like a risk— what if we couldn’t manage to support James in the way he needed to progress? However, he has not only taken everything in his stride, but has helped to ease the pressure on the team and enabled us to continue grow our team and client portfolio. 

His apprenticeship course with the PRCA offers a broad range of topics, allowing him to build a foundation in all the key skills of our profession. This, combined with his own research and talents, has meant we could quickly rely on him to produce high quality content and digital strategies that takes into consideration the tone of voice of our clients and the needs of their audiences— and that feeds in the best-practice he has learnt from training. Bringing him in on projects has surfaced a real passion for our specialism (construction) and shown him to be resourceful and diligent. This has given us the confidence to increase his responsibility, already making him a Junior Account Executive despite not yet completing his apprenticeship. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, he is an absolute joy to be around. From his very first team Zoom, his enthusiasm, kindness and good sense of humour instantly made him part of the team. He has also been invaluable in helping our newer recruits settle in, relating his experience and sharing the knowledge he has gain with them to make them feel comfortable and informed.  

It would be dishonest to say it has all been plain sailing. This is the first PRCA Apprenticeship we have put someone through, and it took us a few months to get to grips with exactly how to structure how we approach it as a business. PR is not your standard 9 to 5, and every day looks different, so it has required a lot of flexible thinking and honesty about what is needed from both our and James’ perspectives to make sure that balance is struck between his learning and workload. However, with a bit of trial and error and support from the whole team, James has been getting the experiences he needs to complete his course and grow his understanding of our industry.  

The apprentice perspective: James Gee, Junior Account Executive and PRCA Apprentice  

Some of the frustrations of past studying have been the feelings of learning so much, yet applying it to so little. This is the main reason I decided an apprenticeship was for me. Using what I learn in theories and models to create real change, in real situations, for real clients is hugely rewarding when paired with a supportive team like the one at Smith Goodfellow. I wanted to both dive into the world of work with tangible projects, whilst developing my knowledge and laying the foundations for future academic growth; an apprenticeship was the perfect way. I decided I wanted to work with Smith Goodfellow before I’d even chosen my course, which is rare for apprentices and a little back-to-front. However, from hearing of their work, and meeting the team, I knew I could develop skills to fit into their business perfectly, as it’s a place I really wanted to be.  

The apprenticeship initially was a huge adjustment, taking much more time and planning than we initially expected. This has meant working hours outside of work, and learning to say no to new work in the office because time is unfortunately not unlimited, as hard as I tried to stretch it. Understanding my personal capacity has been a huge learning curve, but the whole experience has taught me a how to better organise work commitments, and it’s been a useful practical experience for the future. The main advice I’d give to anyone starting an apprenticeship is to start small and work up; it’s tempting to want to impress your new employer and take on the world – but it’s much better to start slow, and settle into work more gradually. 

Looking towards the future, I’m excited to take on more responsibility and be more autonomous with my work. I’m lucky to have been trusted with clients and small projects at Smith Goodfellow from the very start, but as my skills develop and I become more valuable to the team as a whole, I will have the opportunity to create my own campaigns and pitch my own ideas – something which really excites me. Being immersed in the work environment from the start has helped me grow much faster than I feel I would have in a purely academic setting, so in terms of hitting the ground running, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. 

7 practical tips for businesses looking to take on an apprentice 

  1. Find the right person – Apprenticeships are hard work. They require you to be self-motivated, able to manage your own time and juggle multiple deadlines. Understanding exactly what is expected of an apprentice can help you decide if this training pathway is right for a particular employee. They also need to work within the larger context of your business, both on a team level and in terms of its development. 
  1. Find the right provider – There are so many different types and structures of apprenticeships. Talk to a few providers and see what they can offer and how their training could help to meet your business needs. We were supported by Greater Manchester’s Business Growth Hub to ensure we found the right pathway for us.
  1. Seek out funding – The government offers funding to help businesses take on apprenticeships, providing the business and apprentice meet certain criteria. There is also a levy match funding scheme where large corporations can opt to fund apprenticeships for smaller businesses. James’ course is 95% funded by the government and we meet the remaining 5% cost as a business.
  1. Be prepared for a heavy initial workload – As mentioned above, the first few months can be a challenge as your apprentice finds their feet with both the course and your business. Allow additional time for them to work through what they need and don’t be afraid to ask for support from your course provider. 
  1. Get organised – Make sure everyone knows their responsibilities and what is expected and that you have all the tools you need.
  1. Establish honest communication from the outset – When workloads are high, you don’t want to find out your apprentice has fallen behind. Establishing clear lines of communication early on is important. Regular informal one-to-one check ins have been useful in doing this.
  1. Be ready to take some chances and offer additional responsibilities – The whole point of an apprenticeship is that they learn through work and allowing them to take on new challenges is vital for development. 

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