I have frequent conversations with students and graduates about routes into PR; I’m also alert to the changes in higher education and the arrival of apprenticeships.
While no piece of advice can be right for everyone, here are five ways to get into PR (if that’s what you want). Please note that public relations is in a slow and unsteady process of professionalising – but there as yet no barriers to entry for talented and ambitious people. Degrees and professional membership can all help you on your journey, but are not as yet essential requirements.
1. Gain a PR degree
The brakes are now on following the decades-long expansion in higher education: more universities, more students, more courses. Public relations has been popular both as a degree course and as a subject to study for business, marketing and journalism students.
There are fewer places on offer now (because of the cost to government of supporting the loans to students) – and some courses and institutions even may not survive. In this context, it’s important for students to choose carefully. A good start point is to check the list of CIPR recognised courses: there are currently 32 approved institutions offering undergraduate and/or postgraduate degrees in the UK and Ireland. The PRCA works with a smaller list of 11 ‘elite’ universities.
Other courses and universities may be a good choice, and some on the list may not be right for you: you’re making a big decision, so you should take every opportunity to get it right.
2. Gain any degree and apply for graduate schemes
Few public relations vacancies specify a PR degree or qualification – but most will expect you to have a degree. There’s much to be said for studying your first choice of subject at the best university you can get into (as judged by league tables, by recommendation, and by your own gut instinct).
By seeking work experience, by writing for the student newspaper, by organising events you may already be building up a creditable CV by the time you graduate. Most graduate schemes in the field are open to applicants with any degree. The sort of questions you can expect to be asked, and the sort of assessment centre tasks you might be given include:
- A discussion of news and media: are you able to talk about celebrities – and about Syria?
- Can you write to a brief – and to a deadline?
- Are you able to describe public relations – and say why you think you’re suited to it?
- Are you active on social media (of course you are) – and how can this be useful in PR?
3. Become a PR apprentice
With university tuition fees of up to £9,000 and living expenses on top of this, a typical three year degree might lead to debts of up to £50,000. Worth it for those who succeed and gain their dream careers, but wasteful for others. A real alternative is now available in the form of PR apprenticeships. Successful candidates go straight into a workplace and earn a (small) salary while studying for a qualification at someone else’s expense.
It’s the flip side of university, where students pay to study and gain work experience for free. You won’t have the social experience of university, but you have the support of an employer and you emerge debt-free and in work. There appear to be many upsides, but expect the first apprenticeships to be very competitive – and as they’re only just starting there are some uncertainties about the journey you’ll be embarking on.
4. Gain work experience and then take a professional course
Education is too often wasted on the young. Mature students are often the most motivated, and working practitioners among the most rewarding to teach. So whether you have a first degree or not and however much relevant work experience you have, there may be a professional qualification to suit you. The main ones are:
- CIPR Foundation Award: a short starter course for beginners
- CIPR Advanced Certificate: introduces you to professional public relations and teaches some skills as well as some theory
- CIPR Diploma: higher level qualification in strategic and managerial public relations for those with extensive work experience
- Specialist CIPR qualifications in Internal Communication, Public Affairs, Crisis Communication
5. Read, network and make your own way
Mark Borkowski is one of the best-known PR practitioners in the country. As well as his frequent TV appearances, he’s written a book on the history of Hollywood publicity. In the introduction he tells us ‘I fell into publicity because I failed to get into university to study history’. Now that higher education has expanded to include almost half of all school leavers, it may be harder to make your own way without a degree. But it’s still possible.
You’ll need to show great determination, though, and will need to compete with graduates for jobs. So if you want to teach yourself PR, why not start with the following recently-published books (with links to Amazon UK):
- The Public Relations Strategic Toolkit by Alison Theaker and Heather Yaxley, Routledge, 2012
- PR Today: The Authoritative Guide to Public Relations by Trevor Morris and Simon Goldsworthy, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012
- Share This: The Social Media Handbook for PR Professionals by CIPR Social Media Panel, Wiley, 2012