Thought Leadership

The changing role of mentorship

Editor’s note: This is the 11th in a series of 12 guest posts from industry thought leaders predicting key trends that will impact the public relations industry in 2013. Hosted under the hashtag #PRin2013, the series began Jan. 7, 2013, with a compilation post previewing some of the predictions.

Educators and senior practitioners frequently tell new practitioners how important mentoring is to their professional development because it was important to our own professional development.  Back in the day, we relied fairly heavily on mentors to assist with our professional growth because we did not have the same access to information as do today’s new practitioners.  The issue these days is not one of access to information, but rather information overload with an insatiable thirst for more.  Any practitioner seeking to evaluate different communications strategies, or the applicability of certain communications tools to their own work, can now do so with a few clicks of the mouse.  Thirty years ago however, much of our practical knowledge about PR came from more experienced colleagues in chat rooms that actually had coffee pots.  For me, a key reason for joining CPRS was to meet senior PR professionals and to learn from them.  Of course, professional associations still perform this vital role, but new practitioners are also engaging senior PR pros through social media and quenching their “on-line” thirst.

Mentoring is still very important in the professional development of new practitioners, but it’s changing in ways that will have a significant impact on the profession in the years to come.  Never mind Gen X or Gen Y, this is ‘Generation Exponential” (a description that I am borrowing from my own mentor, Edsel Bonnell).  The world has changed dramatically over the past few decades and is continuing to change at exponential rates.  Students of PR (new and old) have their hands full trying to keep up with the newest, latest, trendiest, coolest thing in the marketplace.  The decline of traditional media and the rapid growth of social media cause us to focus attention on tactics.  We seem to be fixed on knowing how best to get the message out fast and with impact.

The challenge of keeping pace with innovation means that even the seasoned PR pro must occasionally turn to the young, technologically savvy practitioner for an explanation about how something works.  Call it reverse mentoring if you like, but it’s a trend that will undoubtedly continue in 2013.  It stems from a form of Parkinson’s Law for mentoring:  “exploration of cool new stuff expands to fill the time available for exploration”.  Purchasing the new “i-thing” is easy.  Finding time in our busy lives to learn what it can actually do is a luxury that many of us do not have.

The importance of mentorship has been acknowledged by some PR associations who have developed mentorship programs.  The CPRS College of Fellows established a mentorship program a few years ago and the feedback has been very positive from mentors and mentees.  The program links PR students with one or more Fellows based on mutual professional interests with the expectation that a professional relation will evolve to the benefit of all.  I lament that mentorship today is somewhat diluted from what it used to be many years ago.  Of course, helping new practitioners develop skills is important, but mentorship is more than just teaching the new dog old tricks.

My experience has been that mentors teach best when they teach by example.  They’ll provide advice and guidance on a range of matters when they are asked, but the best mentors are those that instill in the new practitioner a passion for the profession.  Passion isn’t taught.  It’s contagious.  The more you come into contact with it, the more likely you are to be infected by it.  It’s passion that sustains my commitment to the profession and ensures that I remain true to the values and principles of professional public relations.

Whatever changes may occur with regard to the role and significance of mentoring in the professional development of new practitioners, I hope that it does not come at the expense of passion.

Sean W. Kelly, M.A., APR, FCPRS, is a graduate of Memorial University of Newfoundland and was accredited by the Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) in 2002 and was inducted in the CPRS College of Fellows in 2009. He serves as Vice-President Treasurer of CPRS and has been a speaker at international and national conferences, including the United Nations Conference on Environmental Education and Communications and National CPRS Conference. He is also a part-time public relations instructor at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

3 Comments

  • Spot on post. I’ve always found that mentorship is most valluable on the “softer science” side of professional development.

  • Sean – interesting post.  Couple of thoughts that I’d like to add.  First, I’m not sure about the idea of teaching in respect of the role of a mentor.  You indicate that the best mentors instill a passion – but I’d take that further.  The role of a mentor should not be to teach at all, but to challenge, inspire and support.  Rather than giving advice or guidance, or indeed, sharing their own experiences, mentors should be wise enough to encourage self-development by talking things through and acting as trusted counsel.  The mentor should also be pro-active in stretching their mentee perhaps by introducing them to new thinking, opportunities and people. 

    Also, why have a single mentor – Andy Green (author of Effective Communication Skills for Public Relations advocates that we have around five mentors who can operate in different areas of our lives.

    Beyond the one-to-one benefits of a mentor, we should also champion the concept of Communities of Practice.  These work well for young people and offer a role for bodies such as PRSA in helping people share knowledge, experience, insight and enthusiasm in tackling problems that we experience as an occupation, or as individuals.

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