I failed my first driving test on minors. I was a good driver, the examiner assured me as I tried to control my shaking jelly knees, but I was just too nervous to pass.
Twenty years later, I sat my first CIPR Chartership Assessment. And, having been pretty much kept in-check for the intervening two decades, my nerves once again rose-up. Adrenaline kicked in, my mouth overtook my brain, and sabotaged any chance I stood of securing coveted Chartered status.
However, just as I managed to pull myself together enough to gain my driving license on my second attempt, I also successfully became Chartered my second time round (– you get to re-sit the assessment, but it must be within a year of your first try).
So, what did I learn during the eight months between my two Chartership assessment days? And how did my initial failure lead to me cruising through my second assessment?
Here’re my six pieces of advice to other PR professionals who are hoping to gain the highest qualification awarded by the CIPR:
1. Know your own ‘why’
When I took my first driving test, I couldn’t quite believe I could soon be let loose on the roads, on my own. I knew I could drive, technically, but was I ready to be in control of a machine that could potentially kill people?
Ever the overthinker, similar kinds of doubts crept in as my first Chartership Assessment Day loomed.
Yes, I’d completed the CIPR’s Professional PR Diploma a couple of years before; and yes, I had the necessary continuing professional development (CPD) points and professional experience to be eligible to put myself forward to be Chartered – but who was I to think I should have those letters after my name?
The eight months following my first assessment were spent doing quite a bit of soul-searching.
What did I want from my career? What would it mean to me to be a “proven professional”, with the “highest ethical and professional standards”?
Also, what did the CIPR want to hear from those who presented themselves for Chartership? How did its Code of Conduct apply to the way I approached my work? And what would be my next steps if I passed?
I threw myself into lots of reading, attended every relevant webinar available, and had many conversations with my See Media colleagues, and by the time the August assessment day rolled around, I understood my own personal reasons for wanting to be Chartered.
This was fortunate, as it was one of the first things the assessors asked about on the day itself. And, having put myself through all that self-reflection and learning, I was able to articulate my thoughts clearly and effectively.
2. Prepare strategically
Chartership Assessment Days are held virtually via Zoom and are split into an introduction, where you meet your examiners and fellow candidates; three main hour-long assessed sessions, each focussing on a different professional competency (ethics, leadership, and strategy); a peer review of your two-year CPD plan, which you must have ready to share with the other candidates; an individual feedback session; and a ‘reception’ to congratulate those who have progressed to Chartership.
Exactly two weeks before your assessment day, you’re sent the material you need to prepare for the three assessed sessions. This includes case studies, articles, and research papers, along with lists of questions that will form the basis of your conversations on the day.
When that email landed in my inbox ahead of my first Chartership assessment day, I panicked, and proceeded to cram as if for an exam. Reading the material itself, as well as any other relevant articles and research I could find, staying up late to ‘study’, and writing copious notes that were impossible to refer to under pressure on the day itself.
That first experience taught me that I didn’t need to panic. Nobody was going to drill me to find out more about the sources of my references or to expand on a particular PR theory.
The assessment is about candidates’ own experiences, and how they can apply what they’ve learned through their research to their own personal professional practice.
With this in mind, I turned to a system I knew well: the PowerPoint presentation. Creating a slide for each of the questions that could be asked – and restricting my answers to three main points.
I summarised each piece of material provided in bullet points, highlighted facts and ideas from my additional reading, and put together slides that summarised my own experiences, focussing on examples I felt would make the most interesting and relevant contributions to the discussions.
Also, I added images, knowing this would help me to quickly locate information as I got myself ready to answer the assessors’ questions.
3. Take all the help available
Before I even considered becoming Chartered, I had my very own CIPR Progress Mentor, Jenifer Stirton, who is a CIPR Fellow. I’ve talked to Jenifer a lot about her career path, and my own ambitions – but did I turn to her for advice ahead of my first assessment day? No, I didn’t.
I was too busy panic-reading and trying to convince myself I knew what I was doing. At that point, I didn’t want to waste other people’s time, because, what if I failed?
Eight months later, I wasn’t so concerned with ‘failing’, I only cared about representing myself well, and articulating my ideas in a constructive way.
My conversations with Jenifer ahead of my second assessment day focussed on presenting myself well via Zoom and identifying experiences I might want to reflect on during the assessed discussions.
Between my two assessments, the CIPR launched its Chartership Support Buddy initiative, which involves people who have already achieved Chartered status providing advice to others hoping to follow in their footsteps.
I asked Jarrod Williams, digital and brand lead at Bromford, to be my buddy. My talk with him reminded me not to launch in with answers I hadn’t taken enough time to reflect upon.
Every candidate is called upon for their thoughts during the assessment, so it’s fine to stop and consider what you want to say before making any contributions.
Also, my chat with Jarrod helped me to define the Chartership Assessment Day in my own mind. Between us, we decided it’s a cross between an exam, a job interview, and a challenging conversation with professional peers.
Jarrod suggested that if each of those were circles on a Venn Diagram, the Assessment Day would be where the three overlapped. And I completely agree.
Finally – and it sounds so simple in hindsight – I had a chat with my See Media colleague Sara-Anne, during which I talked through the main points I was hoping I’d be able to make during the three assessed sessions.
This gave me a last-minute opportunity to spot any arguments I needed to refine, and to recognise the gaps in my knowledge that I needed to fill.
4. Remember, there’s no ‘we’ in Chartership (but there is an ‘I’)
This is a small point, but an important one. The Chartership Assessment Day focusses on you and your work. It’s about taking ownership for the decisions you’ve made and identifying what went well, and how you might take a different course of action next time.
Therefore, my habit of always referring to ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ didn’t go down too well during my first assessment.
Every job you do is a team effort, but for the Assessment Day, it’s important to focus on the role you’ve played, and the times when you’ve needed to make ethical judgement calls, led campaigns or projects, and developed and evaluated comms strategies for your organisation or clients.
5. Set yourself up for a successful day
Another obvious piece of advice, but something I didn’t realise until after my first assessment, is, plan the logistics of your day well.
This isn’t just another virtual meeting, it’s hours of intense, assessed, conversation. Children, animals, family members coming and going around you isn’t going to do your concentration levels any favours.
6. Stay positive, whatever the outcome
The way the See Media team made me feel better after first assessment day made me appreciate (even more) what a supportive bunch they are.
Also, I learned so much while preparing for my second try and met such an interesting group of people during the day itself, it was an opportunity I’d have hated to miss.
One of the ideas I read about, which I’m sure will stay with me, is John Doorley’s equation: Reputation = (Performance + Behaviour + Communication) x Authenticity.
And it’s in the spirit of authenticity that I wanted to share my experience of achieving Chartership. It wasn’t straightforward – there were bumps in the road – but I kept on driving myself and ultimately secured an important qualification.
I also managed to overcome the type of nerves I’ve only experienced once before, and that, to me, feels like an even bigger achievement.
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