Wouldn’t you hire a qualified mechanic to fix your car or an accountant to do your taxes?
Here is a crazy one: How about a PR graduate to do your PR?
I recently graduated from Manchester Metropolitan University with an MA in Public Relations. I quickly got a job in an agency, but getting that all-important interview was more down to my perseverance than having a PR degree.
I later discovered I was the only candidate with a degree in PR who had made it to the interview - although many applied. That made me wonder whether it was because a PR graduate is only as qualified for a job in PR as any other graduate, or because employers do not know much about PR degrees. Perhaps universities should be doing some PR for their PR degrees?
On a random day in February I looked at the Vacancies page on the CIPR website. Of the 25 jobs advertised, only one said applicants should have a specific PR qualification. Another said: “Educated to degree level in communications, English or marketing”.
I have a degree in communications and, even though I learnt many valuable things, it did not qualify me to work in PR as my MA in PR did. So why is there this perception that one is as good as the other? Perhaps it is not as important when recruiting top level practitioners with many years experience, but isn’t it natural to ask for a PR degree when recruiting for a junior level PR job?
I concluded my MA with a dissertation examining what skills and personal characteristics are perceived to be the most important for PR practitioners entering the industry. It was based on interviews with UK agency practitioners. What became an important aspect of the research was the lack of interest in public relations degrees. Surprisingly, when asked what they thought, the answer was clear - a PR degree is not bad but not particularly an advantage. In fact, any degree would do.
One interviewee said: “That guy working down the road, who has been working in a bar for two years could just as well work in PR if he is creative, has got the personality is friendly and outgoing.”
I wondered if this perception was because they did not rate PR courses in the UK, or due to lack of knowledge about them, so I asked what they thought were the most important skills for new practitioners. Writing skills, language skills and media relations techniques came top of the list. I do not know the structure and content of all degrees but in mine, writing and media relations were some of the most important elements. Following this, interviewees were asked to put together a degree in PR to be most useful for the needs of their agency. Again, most items they chose were elements which are in fact taught in most degrees.
If the skills employers believed to be the most important are taught in PR courses, why do they not prioritise PR graduates? Before my job interview I was asked to plan a media campaign for a specific brief. I had 24 hours. My PR degree had equipped me strategically to analyse the market, consider the relevant target audience, identify the appropriate media and so on. I imagine a person with a degree in English would have about the same understanding of this process as a PR graduate has of Shakespeare.
Obviously many degrees involve writing, language and making presentations but to me there is far more to PR than that.
Bob Bion is the director of twentyfour7, a specialist legal PR agency, who in summer 2005 recruited me as an account executive. He said: “I wasn’t particularly looking for a person with a degree in PR. To be honest I thought any degree would do, as long as it included language and writing.”
Seven months later I asked him what he now thought of PR graduates. “I had never given it much thought before and didn’t really know much about PR courses. Now that I have, I think I might favour someone with a PR degree next time I recruit at that level.”
When I asked another colleague whether she rated PR degrees, she said: “I don’t know – I know a lot of people in PR who don’t have degrees and they are doing fine”.
I cannot argue with that. I have also worked with many well-qualified, successful practitioners who have never opened a PR book. All I am saying is let’s “raise the game”. Let’s get even better than we are now, then maybe one day we won’t have to persistently argue our place in the world of business. It is no secret that work experience is key to getting a job in PR. With a growing number of applicants, employers can afford to be selective and demanding. Because of this, unpaid work experience has become a necessary evil for students trying to get that very important foothold in this competitive industry.
One of my interviewees said about getting a job in PR: “I think it is just work experience. I think a lot of people get into it just doing work experience which is a faster route and cheaper than doing a course.”
PR practitioners are expected to hit the ground running and be fully fledged and experienced account executives from day one - ready to get down to business. Work experience gives you just that — the very basic skills to do very basic tasks. I did work experience, and admittedly came away a little wiser as to what it was like in “the real world”.
But I do not feel those hours spent selling-in Press releases to annoyed journalists and sticking Press cuttings on a presentation board were better spent than my year at university writing, planning and implementing media campaigns. What it gave me was a name to put on my CV to make future employers more comfortable taking on a green graduate. I would like to encourage employers to see further into the future.
My degree taught me so much more than just writing. It taught me the logic and strategy behind a successfully planned and implemented campaign. It educated me to understand other relevant disciplines such as marketing and design.
More importantly it gave me the answer to a question often asked by top management: “So why do we need PR?” If your employees can answer that convincingly, it might just land you a new client.
The question: “What is the key to success?” is one often asked in PR. I am happy to say my degree is a large part of my success if that means getting a job, achieving good coverage and, more importantly, having something relevant to say to that all important question. I feel I have something to bring to the table because of what I learned in my PR degree. If bar staff are perceived to be as qualified for a job in PR as a PR graduate, it is not so strange that the industry is still trying to earn a reputation for being a serious and important strategic discipline.
For PR to raise its profile in the business industry as being a serious player, it needs to embrace PR qualifications, and universities have an important role to play. I would like to encourage university lecturers across the country to communicate even more with the PR industry – find out what employers need and explain how you can give it to them.