A graduate’s guide to public relations

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Oxford: Pixabay (Creative Commons)
Oxford: Pixabay (Creative Commons)

This post is not written for PR graduates. It’s for those from other disciplines who aspire to work in the field, and is based on teaching and talking to graduates with English and Journalism degrees among others.

Industry or profession?

We’ll return to the question of professionalism later. For now, what you need to know is that public relations is not a closed shop. PR jobs are not exclusively open to PR graduates and progression is not limited to members of professional associations.

You need to know that there’s an industry that continues to grow (it employs more people than journalism and more than advertising), and that the constraints on its growth are partly down to the ability to recruit and develop talented people. So what does it take? Could this be you?

This guide is structured into three parts. You can view them as introductory, intermediate and advanced. You will only need some mastery of part one to find your first role in public relations, though if you’re to progress you’ll need to come back to parts two and three.

Part one: Media, marketing and communication

There’s more to public relations than publicity, but entry-level roles will almost certainly demand some competence in promotional techniques.

The building blocks of the promotional role are an ability to communicate across different media (words, pictures and video for example) and creativity. The good news is that almost any degree course should have given you some of these transferable skills. Your challenge will be to prove it to potential employers.

One way is to find examples where you’ve been involved in PR-like activity without knowing it. Have you helped organise a 21st birthday party? Have you raised funds for a good cause? Have you campaigned against an injustice, or stood for election to your students’ union?

Another way is to show what you’ve done to develop ‘brand you’. Do you have a professional profile on LinkedIn? Does this link to your Twitter profile, and how extensive are your professional networks on these channels? Do you have your own website or blog, and can you use this as a shop window for your PR talents by demonstrating your interest in the field and showcasing your ability to write?

Assessment days and interviews used to involve standard tests like writing a news release from a brief and within a time constraint. It’s still a useful technique to master (and it’s one that can be learnt: here’s a PR Place guide How write a news release). But media knowledge now goes beyond gaining mentions in print media, so you are as likely to be asked about the role of social media influencers as you are to be asked about your relationships with journalists and editors. How many other graduate jobs will welcome your knowledge of YouTube, Snapchat or Instagram ‘influencers’?

The mention of marketing is that in entry-level roles marketing and public relations are used interchangeably. So don’t only search for job ads mentioning ‘public relations’. Be open to those that use terms like ‘content marketing’, ‘digital’, ‘search/SEO’.

Put simply, content marketing is where brands and businesses seek to attract interest by giving their communities things that interest them rather than bombarding them with unwanted marketing messages. Red Bull remains the classic example: it’s hard to find any mention of its products on the website. Instead, it’s a channel for adventure sports targeting active young people. (This may look easy, natural even. Read section two below for an explanation of why this approach is still so rare.)

Being interesting, building a community, developing trusted relationships rather than focusing on short-term sales transactions. It may be called content marketing but it sounds very similar to public relations to me.

The same distinction happens when you consider the boundaries between public relations and digital or search marketing. So we publish interesting content with an eye to Google’s search index, and this means chasing valued links back to our website. But to treat this as a purely technical activity misses out on the key ingredient: relationships. Why would a trusted website give a link to a site they’d never heard of? Why would reporters cover non-news? Public relations works closely with digital marketing and I’d encourage you to gain some mastery in both areas.

For a job interview, the shortcut is to be able to acknowledge the PESO model of media communication (standing for Paid, Earned, Shared, Owned) which recognises the complementary roles each plays in marketing communication.

The smart graduate will want to know more. Gini Dietrich’s book Spin Sucks is a good read (she’s credited as being the source of the PESO model) and her website and community of the same name is worth following.

Part two: Business and sectors

Your media, marketing and communication skills may be sufficient to get you the first job. But I’d recommend you grasp the key concept in this section too – and that’s money.

It’s obvious that private sector businesses should strive to make profits, and that public relations consultancies (they often call themselves agencies) provide their services commercially. Their success depends on their ability to win and retain client business in a competitive market.

There are big rewards for success: you can quickly boost your graduate salary in the consultancy sector if you can help win and retain client business.

Nor can you escape conversations about money by choosing to work in the public sector (organisations funded by government spending) or in the third sector (covering charities and not-for-profit membership organisations). Here’s why.

Your salary (and those of other members of a public relations, communication or marketing team) are a cost to the organisation. Let’s say they pay a member of the team £30,000 (a below average salary in public relations). The total cost to an employer is roughly £60,000 when everything’s added in (pension contribution, national insurance, office space, technology, support functions like HR and IT). That means a PR person earning £30,000 needs to be able to justify at least £5,000 of value each month, otherwise in the public sector people will ask if the money could not be better spent on nurses or police officers; and in the third sector whether it could not be better spent directly on the good cause.

So, you need to think through your sector and consider the challenges it faces. Money is an issue for all organisations – and if you have a student loan to repay, it should be for you too.

I said I’d return to the Red Bull example. It may appear obvious, but imagine getting hard-headed business people to use the company website not to promote their product, but instead to give away interesting articles for free? Imagine persuading these managers that the content is the stronger for not mentioning the sponsoring brand. Imagine the budget for this level of content production. Someone has had to make the business case and others have agreed to allocate the necessary resources – and to keep on doing so, and that’s why there are still so few comparable examples.

While public relations budgets rarely run into millions of pounds, with fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) there’s often an advertising budget in the millions, and it’s likely that money has been diverted from one channel into another.

The smart graduate applying for jobs in public relations will need to have thought through the shifting boundaries between marketing, advertising and public relations (see comments on PESO above) and to justify their decision to apply for a role in public relations or communication.

But not every graduate aspires to helping big business to sell more stuff. I often have conversations with students and graduates who want to use their skills to make the world a better place. One way to do this is to work for a conservation charity or an environmental campaign.

It suits activists to depict themselves as the good guys and to paint businesses as the bad guys. There’s some truth in this narrative. But who has more power to enact change: government, business or activists?

Your work for a local authority could do more to promote recycling than any number of slogans or campaigns by activists. Public relations is ultimately about behaviour change and communication and relationships are a means to this end.

Your work in retail or manufacturing could do more to reduce the use of non-recyclable packaging than that of campaigners (who’d have thought that retailer Iceland would take a lead in this?). As this simplified example shows, campaigns, legislation and commercial interest can converge: it’s known as public affairs. That’s another interesting area for ambitious graduates to consider. (Public affairs – often called lobbying – is the specialism within public relations that addresses public policy.)

So money is an unavoidable consideration whichever sector you choose to work in, and purpose and the public good versus private profit is an important consideration. For more on this, read on.

Part three: Purpose and professionalism

We have introduced the concept of purpose, but have until now avoided the question of professionalism.

This may be a question to defer in your early career years. You don’t yet know whether to identify as public relations, or as public affairs or marketing or digital marketing and this decision affects your choices around qualifications and professional affiliations.

Some people love gaining qualifications; others love belonging. The choice may seem endless: CIPR, PRCA, IOiC and IABC among public relations, communication and public affairs. Then there’s CIM, CIPD and many other related professional bodies. Most of us will have limited time and budgets for memberships, so must choose our affiliations carefully and for the long-term.

Professionalism is partly a question of skills and commitment. You qualify for membership, often through training. You stay up to date by completing a programme of continuing professional development (CPD).

But belonging to a profession also suggests believing in a higher purpose. Beyond selling more stuff or protecting your employer’s reputation, are you using public relations or communication for the public good (and not just for private profit)?

Acting ethically suggests some knowledge of ethical principles and ethical decision making tools. Ethical choices also affect your career choices. Are you more driven to provide a public service or to campaign for a good cause than to return profits to shareholders? Do you have no problem with private profit as long as it’s allied to social purpose? Where are your personal redlines for companies or causes you would not work for?

Whatever you studied at university, you will have gained some expertise in weighing up arguments based on evidence, and presenting them in a reasoned way (it’s called essay writing).

Whatever you studied, you should have developed self-awareness. That’s an important step on the professional journey, involving becoming a reflective practitioner (here’s our PR Place Guide to Reflective Practice.)

There’s a lot to consider, which is why I’ve presented this as a step-by-step development. I’ve written this with non-PR graduates in mind, so it’s worth considering what options are open to those wanting to fast-track and future-proof a career in public relations.

It’s unlikely that your first employer will have all the answers and provide all the development opportunities you might want. So you need to keep a step ahead.

One good option for non-PR graduates would be to gain the CIPR Professional PR Certificate once you have a couple of years’ experience. For a few days’ teaching and studying – and for a fraction of one year’s university tuition fee – you’ll be setting yourself apart from the crowd and embarking on a journey towards a professional qualification. Your employer should be willing to give you time off to complete this, and may be willing to help fund the course as part of your training and development plan.

With the Certificate behind you and a few more years’ experience under your belt, the next step would be the more advanced CIPR Professional PR Diploma.

Kevin Ruck of PR Academy has written about the distinctions between training, qualifications and accreditation. One helps you to sharpen up skills, one to step up in your career and one to sign-up to the professional project.

There are many challenges and opportunities in a career in public relations, but there’s also a recognised path to success and there are people with the experience to help you on your journey.

To get on and to keep ahead, there are many things to consider:

  • Are your skills sufficient and up-to-date. Are you qualified?
  • Are you future-proofing your career to avoid obsolescence through AI or in dead-end specialisms?
  • Are you an advice taker or an advice giver? On what basis do you give advice?
  • Are you guided by a set of values and principles, or do you blow with the wind?
  • What does professionalism mean to you, and what commitment have you made as a result?

Your degree will have shown you the value of asking smart questions. You will need this if you work in public relations (Why? Because you need to know what questions to ask. Why? By asking the right questions, you reach better answers? Why? Good questions lead to a greater insight? Why? Questions are at the heart of the creative process.)

Asking questions of your own progression and development helps turn disparate jobs into a career. It’s what turns you into a reflective practitioner capable of managing your own development.

Employers are unlikely to take on this role since there are so few jobs-for-life. So you need to find the right combination of self-reliance, a supportive mentor and personal and professional networks that work for you.

Think of this as building your community. And that’s one more way to view public relations: as a means through which causes, campaigns or organisations seek to build supportive communities from among their various constituencies.

Public relations is often viewed by outsiders as a lightweight and frivolous activity. Why would smart graduates want to get involved in this? So you will need to develop a richer understanding of the discipline.

PR graduates have several years to develop this understanding. Graduates from other disciplines have to show they can catch up, keep up and then overtake the competition.