Alice Harper assesses the true value of a public relations degree.
The realisation that I’m not going to be a student forever is becoming more and more evident as each term whizzes by faster than the last. As the prospect of graduation draws closer, the inevitable search for a job and repayment of my student loan plays on my mind, as I’m sure it does for every other undergraduate.
By the time I finish my BA Public Relations course in 2010, I will be in at least £20,000 worth of debt. Will it be worthwhile, that’s what I want to know. It’s not essential to have a PR degree to work in public relations or any degree at all, so what will having one mean for me? Will I find myself in a more secure financial position and better able to flourish than I would otherwise have done in such a notoriously incestuous industry where it often appears to be ‘not what you know, but who you know’.
In my search to find out whether a BA in public relations will be valued when I go out into the marketplace, I contacted a range of PR graduates who have been practitioners in the industry for a considerable number of years, working both for agencies and in-house. This meant I was able to get a real sense of how valuable their degree has been to them both in terms of gaining employment and also progression in their careers.
I was reassured to find that the average earning potential for recent graduates is between £20,000 to £30,000 going up to as high as £70,000 to £80,000 for graduates who have been working for 8 to 10 years and are at the top of their profession. It was clear to see that PR graduates were able to significantly increase their salaries within a relatively short period of time and that some had doubled or trebled their salaries over a period of ten years.
The general consensus among those I spoke to is that a degree in public relations gives you the grounding you need in terms of knowledge of the industry, the workings of the press, business in general as well as an understanding of the basics of all forms of writing, from pitching stories, negotiating space and drafting statements and press releases. What was emphasised by most however is the value of work experience as part of the degree particularly in gaining knowledge of the work environment, as many felt that their placements had helped lead them to their first job. CIPR- approved BAs at colleges such as the University of Bournemouth, Leeds Metropolitan and University of Central Lancashire offer a 4-year sandwich course and strongly recommend that their students take a 12 month placement in year three.
Other reputable CIPR approved courses such as University College of Plymouth St Mark and St John incorporate work experience into their three year course by encouraging students to do a four week placement at the end of year two. They also offer students the opportunity to do a one week placement in London. Jan Young, Senior Lecturer at Marjon emphasised the dual advantage of studying a BA Public Relations course “PR students emerge from university with a set of practical and useful communication skills as well as the thinking, analytical and conceptual understanding expected of graduates.”
A quick search on the UCAS website brings up 280 degrees courses with an element of PR for 2008/9. However only 20 of these are approved by The Chartered Institute of Public Relations as they have tough criteria and only approve degree courses ‘which have been taken through a stringent process to ensure they are sufficiently rigorous in terms of academic content and provide appropriate levels of practice suited to the needs of the industry.’
Alison Delecia studied Public Relations at the University of Bedfordshire which is a CIPR-approved course. She is now press assistant at Marks and Spencer press office in the Food, Wine and Flowers Department. She highlighted that ‘doing PR’ is very different to ‘studying PR’. She sees that there are many practical abilities needed which cannot be taught. She gained work experience in the summer between her second and third years and stressed the importance of this. ‘There is no substitute for getting your hands dirty’. Alison was offered her job at M and S without her final degree result being confirmed. She assumes this is because of the strength of her coursework, her work experience and her active involvement with the CIPR during the course as she was a representative for two years, rather than just her degree alone. ‘Of course, I am very proud of my first class degree, but it’s not a golden ticket to your first PR job, let alone a guarantee of ascent to the top of your career’.
Ryan Bowd graduated from the University College of Plymouth, St Mark and St John in 2001 and has had a successful career in the industry. Now a Senior Lecturer at Leeds Met, he is also a practitioner and has clients such as the NHS and Gatorade sports drink. He feels that his degree in public relations enabled him to go into his first job at Weber Shandwick at a higher level. For him it’s the tactical skills acquired on a BA PR course that will be needed on day one and the modules designed to develop strategic thinking are only fully appreciated after career progression; ‘The better PR degrees provide students with tactical skill sets, strategic and theoretical knowledge that prepares them not only for their first day but every day after that.’
A PR degree certainly develops skills that are highly transferable and can be used in a variety of industries. Instead of going directly into Public Relations, Natasha Davidson who also graduated from University College of Plymouth St Mark and St John in 2001 went to work for TBA Events Production Agency. Although the course was not directly relevant she says that studying a semi-related topic did help.
Nick Atkinson who graduated from Leeds Met in 2007 had a very open mind about where his BA in PR could lead him; he did not feel limited by this degree. Instead he was able to progress into a very different direction with the skills he had acquired. He now works for the stockbroker, Arjent in the square mile in London. Presenting and researching are invaluable attributes which he uses daily; skills which he was able to develop both from the modules he studied and the work experience he gained at Brazen PR in Manchester. ‘I wouldn’t be in the position I am now without the skills I picked up at uni on my BA Public Relations course.’
To get a real concept of whether a PR degree makes you more employable, I talked to employers as well as graduates. Cat Macdonald, Head of Communications at Virgin Radio frequently takes public relations undergraduates on year placements; ‘Students on placements from PR courses are generally committed and enthusiastic.’ She expects someone studying a PR related course will be driven by their subject of study. Many employers like Cat see this as an advantage as they feel a PR graduate will have had a focused approach; ‘students will already have had some PR experience before they get to Virgin, so they will already have a foundation and knowledge of the basics’.
Sue Finnegan has worked in Public Relations for over 20 years and is Managing Director of Proof PR, a small agency based in Clerkenwell, London EC1. She expects a broad understanding of the basics and the theory in a PR graduate and recognises that the different modules provide solid practical skills. She considers writing as one of the most important skills needed from a creative perspective ‘You won’t get through a single day without writing.’ Similarly ‘planning and management skills are invaluable. The best PRs are those who can plan their workload and manage it in such a way that when reactive stuff hits their desk (and there’s a lot) – they don’t take their eye off the ball of the important things.’ In the past Sue has felt it necessary to send employees who are not PR graduates on CIPR courses in order to gain these skills and has also tailored coaching sessions to work on employee weaknesses and to prep them for career development.
It is clear from the feedback I got, that whilst a PR degree will not necessarily ensure you a job on graduation, if you aim to get the most out of your degree and if you are passionate about PR, the experience and skills you have gained on a reputable course will mean you are well placed to get that vital foot in the door. A PR degree gives you the opportunity to hit the ground running, plus have a fascinating career and earn a very reasonable living whilst you are at it!
Photo credit: Victoria Crampton, freeimages.co.uk