Briefing: Graduate careers in 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.

Photo by Chichi Onyekanne on Unsplash
Photo by Chichi Onyekanne on Unsplash

Public relations is an expanding professional area with a seemingly insatiable demand for talent. Coupled with never-a-dull-day challenges, reasonable graduate salaries and good opportunities to develop, this makes it a very attractive route for many graduates, whatever subject they’ve studied.

This briefing will provide an overview of public relations for beginners, provide some statistics on the profession and give some indication of where and how to find work if you’re a graduate along with suggestions for further reading and options for training and development.

I should note that public relations does not strictly require a degree in the same way as law or teaching, say. There are some approved routes for non-graduates such as apprenticeship schemes for school leavers. Plus many senior practitioners today are non-graduates, having grown up at a time before the rapid expansion of higher education. Mark Borkowski, one of the best known UK public relations practitioners, describes how he fell into publicity because he failed to get into university to read history in the introduction to his history of Hollywood publicity, The Fame Formula.

Yet, in practice, public relations is a graduate profession because that’s what employers expect and because the challenge of the role, as I’ll try to show, is worthy of the best graduate talent.

Graduate profile: Claire Simpson
Connect to the wider industry; build your personal brand; and never stop learning.’

Claire Simpson

‘I studied English Language at Aston University. Their approach was very much applied linguistics, for example textual analysis and discourse analysis in real life settings.

‘Aston offered a placement year across all courses, which is why it has such a high graduate employment rate.

‘I’d been considering journalism, but started having doubts about it. Starting salaries are not as competitive as those offered in PR. I discovered public relations having researched careers with similar skill sets. 

‘I found a placement at Airbus in north Wales. For me it was a chance to test drive a career for 12 months, to see if this is something I’d enjoy. My role covered internal and external comms, and also CSR and community engagement. It was a broad and all-encompassing role.

‘I then did a part-time account executive role at Story Comms in Birmingham during my final year – I was a very busy final year student! But I realised that I wanted to move to London after graduating. I did a lot of interviews; I spoke to a lot of recruitment firms (talking to recruiters such as Reuben Sinclair or Hanson Search is a great way to practice your interview skills) before taking a role at travel-specialist The PC Agency.

‘When I first moved to London, I knew nobody. It was from taking part in a Twitter chat that Steve Shepperson-Smith (2023 CIPR president) followed up and asked if I’d like to join the CIPR London committee. That’s where I met Darryl Sparey (co-founder of Hard Numbers). Two years later a role came up at his firm, so I had a chat with Darryl before going through the formal interview process. It shows the benefit of making industry connections.

‘We all have a computer in our pockets so it’s never been easier to network. It’s about taking that first step: it doesn’t have to be a networking event, it could be a webinar or asking someone to connect on LinkedIn

‘Every time I’ve gone for a new job in PR my mum has looked slightly worried. Yet, I was very keen to get in on the ground floor of something so, while outsiders might not have heard of Hard Numbers, I knew I’d get the chance to work towards a leadership position and have greater autonomy in my role.

‘I’ve gravitated towards small and medium-sized agencies because you get that responsibility much sooner, and you can progress a lot faster.

Claire offers three pieces of advice to graduate job seekers:

‘Connect to the wider industry; build your personal brand; and never stop learning. I wanted to get Chartered as it was important for me to be able to hold my own.’

Claire Simpson‘s LinkedIn profile

Public relations for absolute beginners

The very name public relations confuses many, but it’s been in use in the UK for 100 years and is in the name of our two main professional membership associations, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), founded in 1948, and the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA), founded in 1969.

What’s confusing is that this name is not universally used, nor is it universally admired. If you’re a graduate job seeker, you should not limit your searches to ‘public relations’, but should be open to ‘digital PR’, ‘corporate communication(s)’, ‘internal communication’ and ‘public affairs’. At a junior level (the level most graduates will enter), you may see the role described as ‘publicity’ or ‘media relations’ or ‘content marketing’. At a more senior level, job descriptions may talk about ‘reputation’, ‘crisis management’, ‘stakeholder engagement’ and ‘relationship management’.

So there you have it: public relations is a versatile practice that encompasses activities that are short-term and tactical (promotions and publicity) and longer-term and strategic (reputation management). 

You will also see that there’s overlap with other disciplines: marketing for promotional, publicity and brand building activity; human resources in the case of internal communication.

The claim for the enduring distinctiveness of public relations comes from the breadth of ‘publics’ addressed. Where marketing is focused on customers and the channels to reach them, public relations also focuses on the many ‘non-market’ publics, such as employees, activists, politicians, regulators, investors and more.

‘The challenge for graduates is not so much getting into public relations as getting on in public relations.’

It’s worth keeping your eye on this bigger picture because the challenge for graduates is not so much getting into public relations as getting on in public relations. The challenge is to use an entry-level role, where your tasks will be primarily tactical such as earning media coverage and gaining links for SEO purposes, to give you the opportunity to develop and thus give you a platform to evolve into these more senior, broader and better rewarded positions should you choose to take up the challenge.

Why is public relations not universally admired? That’s because of its undeniable historical associations with propaganda; because many of PR’s fiercest critics are journalists who have a pulpit to denounce perceived poor practices; and because clients and bosses find it frustratingly unmeasurable.

The answer to the propaganda charge does not lie in denial, but in formulating a vision for how public relations can improve outcomes for organisations, for publics, for society and for the environment through ethical communication. It’s a big challenge – and that’s why it’s a worthy graduate profession.

Here’s the outline of a script, based on a private sector business (the script will be slightly different and perhaps somewhat simpler for public sector bodies and for not-for-profit organisations because you don’t have to look so far to uncover their social purpose).

A private sector business has to be profitable in order to pay taxes, pay its staff and return money to shareholders. These acts are a public good in themselves, but they are not sufficient. Above all, the business wants to succeed in the medium to long term. This requires legitimacy. At different times, any private sector business will need to develop strong and stable relationships with employees, investors, regulators, competitors and partners, trades unions, activists and politicians to achieve and maintain its success. Balancing the interests of these different groups is challenging. Employees want higher wages and job security; investors want bigger returns in the short term and a long-term vision for continued profitability; meanwhile, many of a business’s activities risk damaging the environment and depleting scarce resources, so plans are needed for achieving net zero carbon emissions, say, while remaining in profit.

A public relations practitioner does not have the power to set a company’s strategy: that’s for the chief executive. But the senior public relations or corporate affairs adviser should act as their eyes and ears, warning of problems ahead. It’s a challenging and sophisticated role and it’s at variance from the myth that public relations is a lightweight, ‘fluffy’ activity.

An ambitious graduate will need to be willing to roll up their sleeves and learn the craft of public relations. While doing so, they should learn that there’s also an art of public relations, an advisory role that can take them in many different directions.

The answer to the criticism from journalists is to take it on the chin and strive to do better. Don’t pick a fight, but do take note of the one-way street from journalism to public relations. If public relations was as bad as some journalists make out, then surely none of them would ever be willing to play for the other side.

The answer to the lack of measurement is again to do better; to read up on measurement and evaluation, to love data as much as you love words, to learn the difference between outputs and outcomes, and to build measures into all of your activity from the outset. That way you’ll be shifting from a tactical to a strategic mindset and positioning yourself for promotion and higher pay.

The growth and status of public relations

Partly for reasons already discussed, it’s not easy to put a firm figure on the numbers working in public relations in the UK. But recent industry surveys put it at around 100,000 (the number has been growing for decades, with just a temporary blip at the start of the pandemic).

That figure means there are more people working in UK public relations than there are in the armed services, or in journalism, or advertising, or in general (medical) practice.

These jobs are spread across the public, private and not-for-profit (charity) sectors. What may surprise many beginners is the balance between in-house and agency/consultancy roles.

An in-house role is one where you work for one employer in public relations or corporate communication. In an agency or consultancy (the terms tend to be used interchangeably) you provide commercial public relations services to a range of clients as an external supplier.

For many beginners, agencies and consultancies are more visible. That’s because consultants are incentivised to adopt a high public profile in order to gain client referrals, and also because they’re often actively recruiting. (Constant recruitment could be a positive sign that the agency is winning new clients and growing; but it could also be a red flag indicating high staff turnover. That’s a question a smart graduate may want to investigate and ask about at an interview.)

So the surprise may be that more people work in-house than in agencies. In the CIPR State of the Profession 2022 Report, over two thirds of respondents said they worked in-house (69%) and less than one third worked in agencies (18%) or as independent practitioners (13%).

The most popular sectors for in-house practitioners were local and central government followed by healthcare (public and private). This makes sense when you consider that the largest single employer of public relations and comms people in the country is the Government Communication Service (GCS) and when you consider that the UK’s largest public sector employer (the NHS) employs three times as many staff as the UK’s largest private sector employer, Tesco.

The survey also suggests that public relations roles in highly visible sectors such as arts and entertainment, sports, fashion and consumer goods are dwarfed by much less visible roles in the public and not-for-profit sectors. So graduate job seekers should keep an open mind in order to get a foot in the door.

To put it another way and to introduce you to some industry jargon, business-to-consumer (B2C) roles may superficially appear more attractive to many, but there’s more work to be had in business-to-business (B2B) sectors – and public relations may take a larger share of the so-called ‘marketing mix’ in B2B. So the less obvious choice may prove to be a smart career move for the ambitious graduate. 

The most visible roles in public relations are just the tip of the iceberg, as this illustration from the consultancy Golin shows.

Image from Golin

They may involve working for prominent consumer brands and working in media relations roles for high profile organisations.

Most of the iceberg remains invisible. The bulk of the industry is working for companies you may never have heard of, sometimes focused on internal communication, say, or public affairs.

Let’s imagine you’ve heard of Big Brand plc. So it may sound at first glance more attractive to work for Big Brand plc than for WeMakeAnyWidget Ltd. It will also look better on your LinkedIn profile.

But consider this. Can you recall the public relations activities for Big Brand plc – as distinct from its consumer marketing activities including media advertising? Probably not. In other words, the public relations role will operate as a junior within the marketing function.

Now let’s look at WeMakeAnyWidget Ltd. This manufacturing company has identified the growing demand for smart battery storage to support investment in domestic solar energy. It’s a large commercial opportunity that could help with the UK’s net zero emission targets, while providing many skilled jobs in an area that has suffered badly from industrial decline. These batteries are not sold direct to consumers but instead to installers. So there’s no large consumer marketing budget – but instead there’s a greater emphasis on public relations in terms of raising industry awareness, lobbying for continued government support, and educating and supporting business partners such as installers.

Imagine you’re offered the chance to work for Big Brand plc and for WeMakeAnyWidget Ltd. A choice that at first glance looks a no-brainer may be a much more difficult decision. Small cog in a big wheel, or a potentially large cog in a small but growing business?

Finding work

The same CIPR survey showed that employers had vacancies and were struggling to recruit in all sectors. They reported low numbers of applicants with the required skills for the role. Graduate job seekers should note the top five missing applicant skills stated by employers (this is what you need to fix before applying):

  1. General PR experience
  2. Written skills
  3. Digital/social media
  4. Interest / knowledge in/of the sector
  5. General communication skills

The need for experience is a conundrum for the graduate who is seeking a first role in order to gain just this.

The need for experience is a conundrum for the graduate who is seeking a first role in order to gain just this. The obvious answer is to have built up some relevant work experience, perhaps during a university vacation. In the absence of this, you may have relevant experience without knowing you were gaining it. You may have been actively involved in a student club or society, and so have some experience of organising events and helping with recruitment. You may have been involved in political campaigning, or have campaigned for a cause or charity. This counts as public relations experience, especially if you can link your input to a measurable outcome (‘I raised £1,000 for Cancer Research by completing the Three Peaks challenge’).

Writing? I’m sure most of your university assignments involved writing of some sort, though this is not what employers have in mind. More useful is if you have a track record in student journalism (news and feature writing, or radio production) or if you have published a body of work to a blogging site. In the absence of a track record in writing, you can expect to be asked about your reading habits. It’s not a literary question; an employer won’t be interested that you prefer Virginia Woolf to JK Rowling. It’s a question designed to explore how curious you are to learn, and it’s a question that a graduate should be better able to answer than a non-graduate.

Expertise in digital and social media. People graduating this year were mostly born after the millennium – and well after Google was founded. You’re as old as Wikipedia! You grew up with smartphones and social media. That doesn’t make you an expert, of course, but it does give you experience. If you’ve built up a sizeable following on Instagram or TikTok or YouTube, then an employer will be interested. They almost certainly want to increase the engagement with their social media posts. You may also know more about influencers than your interview panel.

One of the great things about public relations is that any knowledge and any interests can prove valuable. So you’re a huge fan of Love Island. A recruiter may not share your passion for this reality TV programme, but if you can explain what’s on trend and why that programme manages to keep its audience engaged, that’s potentially useful information for a role in public relations.

Interest in and knowledge of the sector. It’s basic courtesy to show interest in your application email and in an interview. It’s not hard to do your basic research given that every organisation has an online presence that tells what they want us to know about them, and when articles about the organisation in the media are only a Google News search away.

Research, analyse, report: it’s the basic process you’ll have used to gain your degree, so this is your opportunity to show your curiosity and your commitment.

Very often the key question in an interview is not the formulaic one (what are your key strengths and weaknesses) but the one at the end. Do you have any questions for us?

Remember, an interview is a two-way conversation. They’re working out if they should offer you a role; you should be working out if you want to work there. So seize the opportunity. Why do people (or clients) leave? What opportunities do you provide for training and professional development?

What about general communication skills? An interview is designed to test this, picking up on verbal and non-verbal cues. Remember that communication does not just involve talking; it also requires you to be an active listener. Non-verbal cues might involve your posture and your ability to engage in eye contact.

This year’s graduates have missed out on face to face contact during the pandemic; you’ve also grown used to communicating through IM and email, Zoom and Teams. So you’ll need to dispel any impression that you’re uncomfortable in company. There are increasing opportunities to work remotely, but organisations are about collective endeavour and you’re being assessed for your potential contribution to teamwork and not just on getting the job done as efficiently as possible.

But first you have to secure an interview. This means identifying and applying for a vacancy.

Not all jobs are advertised, in part because of the decline in classified advertising as the circulation of printed media has fallen. Yet all organisations and indeed all individuals, especially in the comms profession, have their own media presence (websites, LinkedIn pages, social media accounts) and this is where you’ll find out about vacancies.

Nor do you have to wait for a vacancy to apply to an organisation. Surveys show that at present most employers are struggling to recruit, so a speculative approach may be timely. If that seems too forward (and if you’ve set your heart on working for ABC Ltd, then you may be better advised to make your mistakes somewhere else first, and then apply to them when you have some experience), then you should at least follow the relevant company pages and key individuals. That way you’ll begin to learn about them and will be among the first to learn of their plans including any vacancies.

How do you know who to follow if you’re an absolute beginner? There are some people who are prominent cheerleaders for (and also critics of) public relations. They may be volunteer presidents or past presidents of the CIPR, they may be prominent commentators or trade journalists, they may even be academics and public intellectuals. Then there are people working in the sectors or organisations you’d like to work in. Public relations and communication practitioners make themselves easy to find because of their role as organisational spokespeople. You should be able to find them on LinkedIn (you are on LInkedIn, aren’t you?) and Twitter among other social media sites.

Twitter is an open network; you don’t need permission to follow someone, and they may even follow you back. LinkedIn is trickier: you can research (call it stalking if you must) anyone, but you don’t have permission to connect to a stranger. Think of this as a public relations challenge: how to turn a stranger into a friend. ‘I’m graduating this year with a degree in Politics and am keen to learn more about the public affairs industry. I hope you’ll accept my invitation to connect.’ Remember, most employers are recruiting, so you may also be a useful connection for them. Just don’t be too pushy at the outset (ask to connect; don’t ask for a job!).

If you need a start with connections, you can look out for our selection of content we publish each Friday under #ThisWeekinPR. During the academic year, we also publish a selection of student content (this is open to public relations students and non-PR students) so you can gauge the level of potential competitors for graduate positions.

Training and professional development

Employers hire graduates not because of what you know (they’re not interested that you specialised in Voltaire in your degree in French). They’re investing in your capacity to learn.

So that’s what you need to show them at interview. What skills and knowledge have you gained alongside your French degree? Skills in Microsoft Office applications are, like typing and driving, hardly exceptional. But if you’ve gained some Google qualifications, say, then that’s more impressive and a good indication of your commitment to learning and development.

An ambitious graduate should be looking at the potential to develop in a role, not just in the salary and benefits offered.

A role starting on £20,000 but with a structured training programme and with a commitment to fund professional qualifications could be a better choice than a sweatshop with high staff turnover offering £30,000 but no commitment to training or development.

Employers are competing for talent, and that means the range of options facing graduates is much greater than it was a few years ago. Some offer duvet days, a generous paid holiday allowance, even sabbaticals. A negotiation over the balance between office and remote work is now usual.

This article is written for non-PR graduates. That means that you’ll be starting your first role without any grounding in the theory and history of public relations. You won’t be alone in that.

Your problem comes if in five or ten years time you still have no knowledge of the principles. Here’s why.

Public relations is professionalising. While qualifications may not be a requirement today, they will increasingly become so tomorrow. They may begin to appear on job descriptions and may make the difference between two strong applicants for the same role.

So a lack of professional development could limit your career before it’s even got going. Nor can you rely on an employer to push you in the right direction.

Some larger graduate employers will offer structured training programmes. But most public relations and communication teams are small, so you’re expected to learn on the job. These small teams mean that you’ll be given greater responsibility faster, and may have to cover for more senior colleagues surprisingly soon in your career.

In the absence of an employer pushing you to develop your skills and professionalism, you’ll have to do it yourself. This will start with skills training but may move on to professional qualifications. The CIPR has a well structured sequence, with face to face or online options available for most courses.

The Foundation in Public Relations is aimed at school leavers and is largely skills and knowledge based. The CIPR Professional PR Certificate is designed for graduates in their early years in a public relations role, and introduces planning, content and measurement frameworks. There’s also a specialist Internal Communication Certificate.

The CIPR Professional PR Diploma is for experienced practitioners who are looking to step up into a leadership role. There are also specialist diplomas in crisis communication, digital communication, internal communication, public affairs and sustainability communication.

PR Academy also works with PRCA to offer professional qualifications in Integrated Communication Management, Change Management and Communication, and Public Affairs Management; and with AMEC in Measurement and Evaluation.

If you join a professional body like the CIPR or the PRCA, then you’ll be encouraged to complete annual continuing professional development (CPD) returns. These can lead to Accredited Practitioner and, later, Chartered Practitioner status and set you apart from most of your peers. In some organisations, these are an important internal signal. The chief finance officer is expected to have a qualification in accountancy, so why shouldn’t the chief communication officer have their own industry qualification?

Reading and resources

You’re a graduate. You were expected to read around your subject, whatever it was you studied. So if you want a career in public relations, you need to show the same willingness to keep on learning.

The challenge is that there’s no single textbook that can provide you all the answers to every question you’ll be faced with. They can provide a bedrock of knowledge and insight, but you’ll have to build a structure above this.

Literature can help with an understanding of human behaviour. But so can psychology. History and biography can help you understand events and power dynamics; so can politics. Languages can help you understand communication; so can journalism. Maths can help with data and analytics.

So we can’t give a comprehensive reading list or list of people to follow, but here are some tips to help a beginner get up to speed.

Who to follow

Check out our Friday morning #ThisWeekinPR selection on this site for a range of insights and opinions from practitioners. This will give you some suggested people to follow: remember, many of them are actively recruiting, and all may be willing to offer advice if you approach them appropriately (a public relations challenge).

Introductory reading

You can download our free What is Public Relations? guide (we publish regular book reviews on this site too). And here’s one very solid textbook by a respected US academic:

Ron Smith (2013) Public Relations: the basics, Routledge

Intermediate reading

Take your pick of two: the first by British academics and the second by a US practitioner.

Alison Theaker and Heather Yaxley (2018) The Public Relations Strategic Toolkit, (second edition) Routledge

Sandra Stahl (2018) The Art & Craft of PR, LID Publishing

Advanced reading

Here are two academic books. The first, by a Dutch scholar, views corporate communication as a more evolved practice than public relations. The second, by two British scholars, argues for the distinctiveness and continued relevance of public relations.

Joep Cornelissen (2020): Corporate Communication: A Guide to Theory & Practice, (sixth edition) Sage

Anne Gregory and Paul Willis (2022) Public Relations Strategic Leadership, (second edition) Routledge