Greg Brooks

The Spin Sucks Question: How Do You Plan for Professional Development?

By: Greg Brooks | January 11, 2019 | 
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best gifts for communicatorsWell, it’s a new year and we’re right in that special, special part of January where you—well, if you’re me—have a growing pile of already-abandoned resolutions you tell yourself didn’t matter anyway, right alongside a smaller pile of resolutions you’ve managed to keep so far.

What? Oh, I’m the only one like that? Fine.

One of the most common resolutions among communications pros is to learn more, learn more effectively, or both.

The proliferation of new channels and new client demands means staying on top of new skills. And this is more than just a good idea in our business; it’s a key to career or entrepreneurial survival.

Still, all of that leaves open the really big question: how do you actually plan to keep yourself trained up?

That’s what we asked the smarties in the Spin Sucks community, and they had a lot of wisdom to share.

Formal Folks: Working Their Systems

Some people are more comfortable with a system than without one; heck, some people are absolutely adrift without a task-and-subtask list.

For these well-organized souls, professional development is a matter of planning the work and working the plan.

Consider Caitlin Copple Masingill’s take:

Our agency’s budget is $1,500 per person every other year. And sometimes, they’ll invest more in leaders or split the cost of tuition for more spendy programs. We also do “lunch-n-learns” as an office every other week. So if you pick up a new skill or go to a conference, you can expect to share your learnings with the team.

Lisa Potter takes a similar approach, aided by the Chartered Institute of Public RelationsCPD process:

…I use the annual Continuing Professional Development (CPD) process to structure my learning. I set broad goals at the start of the year and tag each element of CPD to one of these. For 2018 I also undertook the CIPR Professional PR Diploma, which I self-funded. My employer did contribute towards it later in the year which was a bonus.

In my team, budget for training is limited, but every month we get together for dedicated shared-learning time. Each member of the team takes a turn to take the lead, either basing it on their own experience, or sharing learning if we were able to send them on a formal training opportunity.

Sara Hawthorn concurs on the value of formal programs like CPD, but leaves room around the edges for ad hoc professional development with her team:

I do CPD with the CIPR and make a plan for what I want to focus on each year. Doing CPD means I need to achieve a certain amount. But beyond that it’s as-and-when for catching up on podcasts and blogs to new knowledge. For my team, I allocate a couple of hours a week to industry knowledge. And I encourage them to send me details of courses they feel would be beneficial to them.

And you don’t have to be part of a big operation to have a formal professional-development mindset.

Melissa Wallace simply makes it part of her schedule:

As someone working for myself, I schedule at least one two-hour block per week for education. I usually exceed that as I include listening to podcasts and seem to do that more than once a week.

Professional Development with Less Structure

Of course, not everyone has the resources or the personality for all that structure.

Tersia Landsberg makes no apologies for her flexible approach:

Most learning takes place on the fly through all the other work. A new trend or platform emerges. You catch up with its ins and outs as you go along, as quickly as possible (through specialty podcasts, tutorials, videos, blogs, etc.). Other than that, I try to learn one big new thing each year. But, it’s self-funded and on my own time. Udemy is great to pick up new skills quickly, and it’s affordable.

Mary Barber, a long-time PRSA member, threads the needle between conference learning tracks and ad-hoc self-education:

I make a commitment to attend regular PRSA meetings where there’s professional development, and to attend the international conference. I also attend at least one conference in my practice niche. Other than that, it’s less formal and not as costly tactics like reading articles and blogs.

And for Sunny Hunt, it’s a matter of discipline—deep-diving to learn one thing before moving on:

I’m strict with my goals but flexible with the methods. I’m primarily focused on my company revenue goal and results-based goals for my clients – Increasing and sharpening my skills and knowledge is essential to help me reach those goals faster, so it’s theoretically an easy investment to make. I usually pick one area per quarter where I spend time and effort “getting smarter” – this could look like deep research, taking online courses, or even sandbox testing. There are a lot of things I want to learn but I force myself to pick one thing and complete it before moving on to the next item on the list. I block out dedicated time on my calendar every week for personal improvement (usually during a time when clients don’t want to meet, like Friday afternoons).

But discipline only gets you so far—if you’re an employee, getting management’s buy-in for training is crucial, as Heather Feimster explained:

As the new kid on the block at our company (and only one trained in PR vs sales), I worked with my supervisor during annual performance review /goal setting to have one measurable goal for the year to be attending a PR development conference of some kind and show actionable skills/information learned. So it’ll not only help me professionally, I can have a budget to my “project”, and it looks good for my boss to have me succeed at another goal. Just a suggestion for any other non-agency ppl to get the support!

Which Approach is Best? Like Grandma, We Love You All the Same

In the end, deciding which approach to take with your professional development is a process of knowing yourself and how you learn — not just what you need to learn.

Mitch Rezman practically brings a tear to my eye with inspiration, showing us what’s possible when you decide to dive in:

Being unhappy with my $20,000 ecommrece site built by 28 “experts,” which went live in 2016 – it was redesign number six dating back to 2002.

I’m building the new one on my own – started last April.

I held back because I never learned CSS and I’m an HTML hack… (But) in the past 24 months “page builders” (for WordPress) have enabled me to create content in 60 Minutes that my former developers tell me I would be charged for five hours of hand coding.

…From April till June or July of last year I watched 10 to 30 videos a week learning how to use these new space-age tools. I still reference 1-3 instruction videos every day.

…I thought I’d be slowing down at 66 but I’m actually accelerating my learning curve(s).

Evolve or Stagnate

No matter what approach you take, the world of marketing and PR has a pretty simple mandate: You grow as a professional or you stagnate and suffer.

Whether it’s getting an advanced degree or desperately searching for last-second answers on internet forums, it’s all the same. You need to be good at what you do. But to thrive, you need to be really good at learning.

Maybe something’s been gaining ground the past year that will really make an impact in 2019. Or perhaps there’s something new and unexpected we can look forward to. So, I ask you:

What do you want to learn in 2019? What are the top trends, innovations, technologies, or opportunities that you’re looking forward to in the new year?

You can answer here, in the free Spin Sucks community, or on the socials (use #SpinSucksQuestion so we can find you).

About Greg Brooks


For nearly three decades, Greg Brooks has advanced complex ideas, policies and technical issues to the press, the public, elected officials and stakeholder groups. A former journalist, Brooks' work ranges from outreach explaining small-town recycling ordinances to media and legislative relations for landmark Supreme Court cases. His practice, West Third Group, is based in Las Vegas and he works throughout the U.S.

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