Investing in sustainable professional development

Chapter 22, by Heather Yaxley, is on the topic of sustainable professional development. This chapter offers practical ideas and tools to create a learning culture, develop a learning and development strategy and demonstrate sustainable return on investment.

You can find #FuturePRoof on Twitter at @WeArePRoofed – come and join the conversation. 


You’ll learn:

• How investing in sustainable professional development opens up employment opportunities
• Ways to create a learning culture and introduce a learning and development strategy in the workplace
• How embedding a learning culture creates competitive advantage, secures team loyalty and supports forward planning

We are neither at the beginning nor the end of any evolution or revolution of PR practice. This ‘middleness’ position underlines the importance of continuous professional development (CPD) for individuals, and those responsible for developing teams of public relations practitioners.

Surviving the rise of the robots

Four types of knowledge traditionally lie at the centre of effective public relations – what, how, who and why. Already automated technology can outdo humans in recalling information, connecting it to other information and taking action faster than most people can type in a password. 

It is no longer enough for public relations practitioners to keep up to date with the latest tech developments nor for organisations to rely on recruiting digital literate talent – this narrow perspective will not survive the rise of the robots. 

The added value required to #FuturePRoof public relations practice comes through the human expertise required to collaborate and engage with individuals and communities in ways that are relevant to them regarding the issues, products and services they care about.

Investing in sustainable professional development means connecting existing competencies to new skills and abilities through effective ways of learning. 

Practical ideas and tools supporting this progressive perspective are presented in the next three sections.

1. Creating a learning culture

Creating a learning culture helps attract and retain talented PR practitioners, boost performance, improve problem solving and drive innovation. Learning is an active process that works best when encouraged and nurtured as a shared experience. It is a bridge between current competencies and achieving future potential. 

The most powerful motivation for successful professional development is normally intrinsic when someone is curious and interested in gaining new knowledge or skills, or when learning is spontaneous and exploratory. Extrinsic motivation in the form of external incentives and reinforcements can be useful, particularly for compliance and recognition, but may be less effective in achieving sustainable learning.

Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, argued learning is enhanced through scaffolding – a technique of linking progression to existing knowledge and skills. Coaching, feedback, teamwork and other collaborative approaches encourage an open environment where learning is natural and sustainable. 

As a learning community, members of the public relations team are encouraged to question existing practices, identify possible changes, take informed risks, test ideas, evaluate effectiveness, and spot new opportunities. What works well can be developed into best practice, with less successful approaches improved or replaced. 

A learning culture needs to support a range of learning styles – the preferred ways in which people understand new information and develop their capabilities. Kolb’s learning cycle identifies nine styles that can be combined to encourage sustainable professional development:

Fig 1.   Combine a range of learning styles for sustainable professional development (based on Kolb’s learning cycle) 

Fig 1. Combine a range of learning styles for sustainable professional development (based on Kolb’s learning cycle) 

2. Learning and development (L&D) strategy:

A learning and development (L&D) strategy involves pro-active management of KSA (knowledge, skills and abilities) and/or competencies to ensure effective and sustainable performance. Adopting a structured L&D framework enables planning, implementation and evaluation around developmental goals, priorities, budgets and required outcomes. 

The PR-Praxis Professional Development Framework (PDF) helps to establish:

• Professional development needs of individuals and teams

• Review processes that monitor continuous and incremental learning

• A pro-active learning culture and community of practice

• Identification of available and suitable developmental strategies

• Specific learning objectives, responsibilities and expectations

• Evidence of performance improvements to support career progression.

These six elements use an acronym – PRAISE – as a mnemonic:

Fig 2.   Adopt the PR-Praxis – PRAISE – Professional Development Framework (PDF) 

Fig 2. Adopt the PR-Praxis – PRAISE – Professional Development Framework (PDF) 

Each element contributes towards a Professional Development Programme (PDP) to be incorporated into personal, functional and organisational planning processes. The PDP is intended to draw on existing job performance indicators, benchmarking studies and wider occupational competency frameworks. 

A one-page professional development résumé records a useful statement of learning intent for any individual, team or project. This acts as a snapshot of the current position, intended outcome(s), learning methods to be adopted, and milestones for determining progress.

Fig 3.   Use a checklist for developing a databank of learning activities and resources. 

Fig 3. Use a checklist for developing a databank of learning activities and resources. 

Learning opportunities can be found within and outside traditional educational frameworks. Opportunities to participate in communities of practice, volunteering or charitable work, sports and other more social activities, alongside life experiences, should also be recognised as delivering personal and professional development.

3. Return on investment

Establishing an evidence-base for personal, functional and organisational benefits of professional development helps justify investment, and demonstrate sustainable, tangible and intangible learning outcomes.

Given the fast pace of the modern working world, and the ever-changing position of public relations – at operational and strategic levels – professional development is a pragmatic investment. It is necessary to retain a competitive position, secure team loyalty and support forward planning. 

The benefits of professional development can be measured in relation to improved ability to deliver goal-oriented performance. The PRAISE PDF outlined earlier emphasises the important of setting SMART objectives and learning outcomes in relation to required key performance indicators (KPIs) or competencies. 

Assessment can be undertaken against KPIs/KSAs, immediately and subsequently, using the four levels of evaluation developed by Kirkpatrick, along with Phillips’ 5th level:

1.  Reaction: satisfaction with learning experience, perceived achievement of Learning Outcomes (LOs),  anticipated change

2.  Learning: change resulting from the learning experience

3.  Behaviour: application of learning

4.  Results: tangible and intangible benefits resulting from change

5.  ROI: calculation of the efficiency and effectiveness of devoting resources to the particular learning activity

The cost of not investing in learning and development also needs to be considered, along with the financial and other benefits gained by dissemination of learning outcomes within the public relations function and across the organisation.

An effective learning culture enables participants to reflect on learning, transfer this into improved practice, and benefit personally through enhanced career opportunities and rewards. It supports team building, succession planning, recruitment of talented individuals and leadership within the organisation and public relations community.

Sustainable organisational and functional return from investment in professional development includes:

• Enhanced reputation
• Evidence of social responsibility
• Improved employee engagement,
• Better personal and team wellbeing

Cost-benefit analysis to assess return on investment in learning and development
Measure sustainable improvement in performance, proficiency, productivity, efficiency, effectiveness, motivation, commitment, innovation, and reduction in supervision time, correction action, negative feedback, staff turnover, against cost resources (time + money) incurred. Recognise cost is not only measure of return on investment. 

Methods to monitor, evaluate and demonstrate learning achievements:
Feedback loops, appraisals, ad-hoc performance review, relective diaries, e-portfolios, KSA assessment, test results, benchmarking, presentations, coaching, reporting, career progression. 

Fig 4. Apply robust process to analyse sustainable return on investment*

* Note: Return on Investment is a calculation of inancial returns against resource expenditure. The metric is increasingly applied to cultural and social capital areas eg L&D, innovation, reputation and stakeholder relationships. Harder to quantify in monetary terms, these require robust processes to analyse and justify investment.

A sustainable future

Professional careers are in a period of transition with greater flexibility of movement, reduced stability of employment, increased work-life pressures and changes arising from new and emerging technologies. Commitment to professional development and career progression has shifted in emphasis from the organisation to the individual.  

Continuous professional development extends upwards with directors and other executives under unprecedented public and regulatory scrutiny to lead principled-organisations, whilst delivering stronger levels of performance and ensuring sustainable future success in an increasingly complex world. 

Public relations leaders face greater expectations to provide high-level consultancy, strategic management, innovative entrepreneurship and impeccable professional conduct than may typically have been the case in the past. 

The need for responsive, transferable, T-shaped (generalist and specialist) competencies challenges the concept of traditional hierarchical progression. Career pathways are becoming more personalised, rhizomatic and agile to avoid the threats of occupational obsolescence. 

Future jobs require new skillsets, alongside existing core competencies. Career opportunities – in whichever form they will be found – will require individuals to evidence their achievements, demonstrate sustainable professional development and a commitment to life-long learning. In turn, organisations will be expected to offer career enhancing experiences if they are to attract and retain the best talent.

Sustainable professional development will involve portable ‘passports’ where learning and achievements are recorded – and accredited – as a key element of personal career identities. 

Young practitioners, currently benefiting from digital work opportunities, need to be supported in transitioning into better paid, strategic jobs, as their KSAs are threatened by automated technologies and generations that are even more digitally connected. Learning is not just for the young, with longer working lives offering potential for changes in career direction, demands for on-going meaningful work, and fears over the ‘uberisation’ of professional work. 

In the middle of this dynamic, changing working environment, public relations practice can only benefit – and survive – by adopting an industry-wide learning culture, developing robust learning and development strategies, and offering a solid evidence base of the return on investment in sustainable professional development.


Heather Yaxley FCIPR has a reputation as an independent, rhizomatic thinker and passionate enthusiast of professional career development as a hybrid practitioner-academic-educator-consultant. She is an experienced and qualified trainer, director of the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association and long-standing blogger (at the Top Inkybee PR blogs, Greenbanana and PR Conversations). Heather is a published author and is completing her PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations. 

Twitter: @Greenbanana


[For further information on Sustainable Career Development in Public Relations links to training and professional development resources, visit the PR community of practice site: or follow Twitter: @prpraxis]