So you wannabe a PR star?

This is an article by Richard Bailey.
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Let’s ask three people what they think of public relations. You may be surprised at the differences.

If we talk to a journalist, we’ll probably hear something disparaging. PR people engage in spin; they don’t tell the truth; they can’t write; their calls are as welcome as double-glazing salespeople, and as for their emails, sorry PR people, you’re blocked.

A business or marketing manager might acknowledge that public relations is growing in importance and is a vital function for many businesses (Microsoft is often named, with Bill Gates quoted as saying ‘if I was down to my last dollar, I’d spend it on PR’). But you might hear an objection to PR’s lack of measurability (‘if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it’.) It sometimes seems too soft, fluffy even, for the profit-and-loss world of private sector business.

Sex and the CitySo we’ll ask a young woman why she’s applying to study public relations at university. Though she’ll have rehearsed an answer to this, she’ll hint at glamour, at celebrity, at no two days being alike. Does she know what PR people do? Though she’s seen Samantha Jones in re-runs of Sex and the City, unfortunately the details of the job prove elusive (controlling the guestlist to glamorous parties is the closest we come to her PR world).

So the same activity that’s looked down on by some, is very attractive to others.

As Trevor Morris and Simon Goldsworthy write in PR – A Persuasive Industry? ‘compared with journalism the prospects are better: [public relations] now offers more jobs at higher salaries and with better working conditions. In the United States and the United Kingdom public relations has overtaken advertising as a source of employment, and is rightly regarded as offering more varied career opportunities. Compared with marketing, which is sometimes perceived as a somewhat dry discipline, PR is often seen as offering more human interest and more scope for intuition: PR remains an art not a science and thus appeals to the creative.’

So public relations is seen as a desirable – glamorous even – career choice. But what exactly is it? And how can you get your PR career off to a flying start? ┬áIn this introductory feature, we’ll try to answer these basic questions.

What is public relations?

There are many definitions of PR: at one level, the name describes it very well – ‘the management of communication between an organisation and its publics’. Other definitions talk about reputation, or relationships, or mutual understanding. Meanwhile, the public perception of PR is usually much closer to publicity or media relations. There’s also an overlap with marketing, or more specifically marketing communications.

If you choose to study public relations, you’ll have time to look into this in more detail.

To counter the perception that public relations is a branch of events management, I have described it to first year students as ideas management. This description is simple and memorable and hints at what’s required.

There’s a demand on PR people to come up with promotional publicity ideas. Sometimes the idea is turned into a event or a photo opportunity; often it’s turned into words (for example, in the form of a news release). So visual and verbal skills are required.

Public relations operates in the ‘marketplace of ideas’: sometimes shouting louder will gain you attention, but in a crowded, noisy marketplace and with so many distractions all around, it usually takes something rather more entertaining to stand out.

Ideas management also covers the more senior PR roles: public affairs, issues management and corporate communications. Here PR people advise organisations on how to manage issues of public concern such as the environment, animal rights or equal opportunities. So having an antenna tuned to political issues and public debates is important. Successful PR practitioners keep up with the news and tend to read widely across different genres (fiction, politics, popular science etc).

One reason a simple definition of PR is elusive is that it describes a broad range of activities practised in the public sector (government, health services, police), the private sector (in-house and in consultancies) and in the not-for-profit sector (charities and campaigning organisations).

How do I get into PR?

A degree is not an absolute requirement (any more than it is for success in business), but given this connection between public relations and ideas, it’s now seen as a graduate-level activity. This suggests four possible routes into a public relations career.

Route one: gain a PR degree

Public relations degree courses are increasingly popular, and are widely taught at universities. Some teach PR alongside business and marketing; others teach it alongside media and journalism. Look for courses that combine the teaching of academic concepts alongside practical skills. Since a degree alone will not set you apart from hundreds of other job seekers, we recommend you choose a degree course that offers the chance of a year’s work experience before graduating.

Route two: gain any degree

Graduate jobs in PR are open to a wide range of applicants, so are also attractive to those with first degrees in anthropology through to zoology. Some employers say they prefer to train up a bright candidate, regardless of their degree though some recognise that a PR graduate may be better equipped from day one.

Route three: gain a postgraduate or professional qualification

Many of those who entered public relations with a non-specific qualification are subsequently choosing to study the subject at Master’s or professional level. Some graduates are choosing to study a one-year taught MA as a way into public relations (and there are Master’s courses taught by distance learning too). Professional qualifications are taught by block-release and/or distance learning: these include the CIPR’s Advanced Certificate and Diploma qualifications. The former is suitable for those new to public relations or in the early years of their careers; the latter is for more experienced practitioners.

Route four: transfer to PR as a second career

Ask a group of fortysomething practitioners how they got into PR and they will almost certainly mention working in another area first: journalism, the armed forces or management consultancy, say. Some experience of life and of working in different sectors can be helpful in a subsequent PR career. That’s why it’s helpful for graduates also to demonstrate relevant work experience from a placement year.

There are numerous stories of how non-graduates worked their way to the top. As Mark Borkowski writes in the preface to his latest book: ‘I stumbled into the publicity game in 1979 and it became the heartbeat to my life – I was soon utterly intoxicated by it… I fell into publicity because I failed to get into university to read history.’ Borkowski’s book is a history of the Hollywood publicity machine, so it’s clear that his lack of a degree did not hold him back from a career in PR (or the study of history). Yet there were far fewer graduates thirty years ago; his would be a hard path to follow today.

How can I learn about the business?

1: network

It’s easy to ‘meet’ PR practitioners online by following their blogs, tweets and by joining a free, dedicated social network for PR students, lecturers and practitioners: PROPenMic.

2: read the press

The two main weekly print sources for PR news, comment and jobs are Media Guardian (free with Monday’s Guardian newspaper) and PR Week (available on subscription, free for CIPR members).

3: read some introductory books

Here are some introductory texts that we recommend:

  • Anthony Davis (2003) Everything You Should Know About Public Relations: Direct Answers to Over 500 Questions, Kogan Page
  • Anthony Davis (2nd edition 2007) Mastering Public Relations, Palgrave Macmillan
  • Simon Goldsworthy and Trevor Morris (2008) PR – A Persuasive Industry?, Palgrave Macmillan


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