Two years ago Ify Anyaegbunam graduated from the College of St Mark and St John with a degree in public relations. She now works in the corporate relations department of the Unilever company Lever Faberge. She says it’s now time to stop the endless debate about the value of such courses, and turn them to advantage.
Before I began my degree I was led to think that getting ahead in PR involved a bit of creativity, a little bit of having 'the gift of the gab' and a whole lot of schmoozing and hanging around London's Alphabet Bar and other favourite media hang-outs. Despite this, like many others, I decided that university would be a much better way to get a head start up the career ladder.
At the time, just 4 years ago, there were only six universities offering IPR-approved degrees. Today, there are about 12 IPR-approved courses available at undergraduate level and this figure is still not enough to satisfy the growing number of applicants. But does having a PR degree put you in a better position when applying for a job than someone with a completely different degree or even someone with no degree at all?
Some would argue that having a PR degree gives new entrants to the industry a firm foundation that allows them to settle into their roles with the ease and haste that the PR world now demands. In the fiercely competitive climate in which PR now operates there often is no easing you into the role. PR graduates are expected to hit the ground running and for most, that is exactly what they do.
Until very recently, Lever Fabergé recruited a work placement student every year from Bournemouth University to work in their Corporate Relations department. Emma Flack, Head of Corporate Relations believes having a PR degree provides candidates with the basic foundations that are often lacking in those without a PR degree. Having worked with graduates with PR, Journalism and Politics degrees, she cannot say any one of those degrees is more likely to have a successful career in PR than the others. For Emma, PR is about a lot of things that no degree can prepare you for - it is about persuasion, personality and having a certain mindset.
There are many successful people working in PR who do not have PR degrees and have reached their status through intuition and practical experiences. Understandably, it is often those people that are the first to challenge the value of PR degrees. Liz Frazer, HR Director, Weber Shandwick argues in PR Week (16 May) that she prefers to employ people who have a first degree in something else. Whilst few would argue the value of employing someone with a politics degree for a public affairs role, it seems somewhat illogical to rule out PR graduates altogether. If nothing else having a PR degree shows that you are passionate about the job.
Liz is not alone in her views about PR graduates. This is a subject that quite often divides the PR world. PR graduates are often criticised for their poor writing and presentation skills. There seems to be a discrepancy between the skills employers expect PR graduates to possess and the skills they eventually display - some work needs to be done to marry the two. The main problem is that the PR world seems to spend a great deal of time debating these issues and not enough time trying to reach a solution.
Employers should be working with the IPR as well as universities to create degree courses that produce more employable graduates. In addition to this, universities need to paint a more realistic picture of how important good writing skills and work experience are in gaining employment. Too many graduates are sent out with unrealistic expectations of how far their degree is going to get them. They are seen as arrogant because they believe their degree guarantees them success. The truth is, no PR degree can sufficiently prepare you for the reality of working in PR in the same way that no crisis manual can sufficiently prepare you for every eventuality in a crisis. It is a steep learning curve and graduates need to have that flexibility of mind to think beyond what they were taught in a lecture. It is not academic. The academic aspects don't really come into it until you are in your second or third job where the strategic aspects of PR that you learnt during your degree need to be implemented.
Having said that, it is worth noting that not all PR degrees are equal. There are several universities out there that offer excellent degrees that are taught by lecturers who have had first hand industry experience and that include a work placement. For example, PR students at the University of Central Lancashire work in their own consultancy at the university, with real clients who pay for their services.
Furthermore, the value of a PR degree lies in more than just the skills you graduate with. I for one believe that my degree has helped me understand what PR really is, what type of PR I want to practice and how I personally want to practice PR in terms of being ethically comfortable with the company I work for and my role. I would never have been able to grasp fully the implications of the ethics within PR without having studied this as part of my degree.
Kirsty Auker, Account Executive, SP Partnerships believes that having a PR degree can prepare you for a job in almost any media related field. Despite having a PR degree, Kirsty decided not to pursue a career in PR. She believes her degree has helped her to better understand the needs of the PR agencies she works with because she has that basic understanding of what they're looking for. Kirsty also believes that her degree has helped her decide that her strengths were not in PR but in a similar field. "Any degree is what you make of it and how you choose to use it - in my case I took the skills and knowledge that were relevant to me and applied that to my current job. PR is so competitive now and graduates need to show that they have the right characteristics. Its not like being a doctor. You don't automatically get a licence to practice because you've done the degree and passed your exams."
So, if PR is so complex and a degree doesn't guarantee you entry into the field, is a PR degree worth the paper it is printed on? I only need to look at the email addresses of some of my fellow ex-PR students to know that having a PR degree means something. Graduates from my university have ended up at Mitsubishi Motors, DHL, Channel 4, Cake, Bite, Weber Shandwick, Unilever, and the list goes on. Pretty impressive for just one university!
Not long ago PR degrees may have had little value but today the competition for PR jobs is tougher than it has ever been. And with PR becoming more strategic, having that basic understanding that at PR degree gives you definitely makes you stand out from the crowd. This is often evident in interviews. However, candidates now need to recognise that just having a PR degree won't secure them a job but throw in some drive, determination, willingness to learn and a little humility and they're 90% there. The other 10% is not about qualifications - it is about being the right fit for the team and the company culture.
Just a final thought - writing this article I began to feel a little deja vous. Isn't this the 'is PR a profession' argument dressed up a little differently? Sometimes, we as practitioners are too preoccupied with proving our worth, the professional status of PR and the value of degrees etc that we get too caught up in the debate to work on the solution. Whether people feel PR degrees are worth it or PR is labelled a profession or not, one fact still remains. Many people recognise the need for PR and even more people are applying to study it. How do we make sure the students of today emerge as the skilled practitioners of tomorrow?