Public relations for absolute beginners

About the author

Richard Bailey FCIPR MPRCA is editor of our Insights, formerly PR Place. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay
Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

This piece is in response to a challenge that we need to get better at explaining public relations and appealing to those who’ve not yet considered it a possible career or subject to study. Your comments and improvements are welcome on this first attempt.

Public relations is about influence

What is public relations? Sure, it involves communication – but which job doesn’t? It involves persuasion – but so does advertising.

So, as a starting point and to distinguish the field, let’s say that public relations involves influence. It describes how we influence others to think or behave. We can use influence to:

  • Encourage people to try or to buy a product (this is where public relations most closely overlaps with marketing and advertising)
  • Encourage people to change their attitudes (to racist behaviour, say, or to dropping litter in public)
  • Encourage people to change their behaviour (say by taking more exercise, or reducing the amount of sugar they consume)

Public relations: invisible but important

It might surprise you that more people work in public relations than in advertising. Many more work in public relations than in journalism. Both of these better-understood fields have been struggling to respond to the shift in reading habits (from newspapers and magazines to online sources) and from the shift in advertising from print and broadcast to online.

Public relations has had its own challenges in adjusting to the digital world, but its core strengths in content, conversations and community are increasingly sought-after in the digital age and jobs are still being created in the sector.

What’s confusing is that recognisably public relations jobs are often called different things. So if you’re seeking a job or work experience, you need to be open to many different roles:

  • Content marketing
  • Brand journalism
  • Digital marketing
  • Information officer
  • Internal communication
  • Corporate communication
  • Public affairs

Best of all, public relations roles are everywhere which allows you to follow your interests. You are not limited to working for private sector businesses: there are roles in the public sector (police, hospitals, local and central government) and in charities and membership organisations (such as trades unions). There are roles in all sectors, allowing you to pursue your interest in sport, fashion, food or travel.

How to gain experience

I often hear about the job seeker’s paradox. You need experience to find work, yet how are you going to gain experience but through work?

The answer to this riddle is easier than you think. I’ve said that public relations is about influence. I’ve also said that people in public relations roles are strong at content, conversations and community.

You need to find an example that demonstrates your strengths in these areas.

  • Have you fundraised or campaigned for a good cause?
  • Have you volunteered for a club or charity?
  • Have you organised and promoted an event?
  • Have you created your own media content and built a social media following (of couse you have!)?

If you’re still struggling to think how your experience is relevant, then try to answer this:

  • Which brands, organisations or individuals do a great job at communicating and winning support?

In junior roles, public relations involves a lot of content writing, event management and social media community building. Things you already do for fun could be the very things that people will pay you to do!

Routes into public relations

It’s not essential to have a degree to work in public relations – but employers prefer graduates because they are looking for people with the critical thinking skills that should be develped by studying for any degree. Certainly, a degree in public relations is not a requirement, but it can help you get a head start by giving you a theoretical understanding of the field along with industry experience (particularly on courses offering the option of a one year paid placement).

If you haven’t been to university, or don’t want to go, there are still some routes to consider. You could apply for an apprenticeship offering you the chance to earn while you learn. The PRCA runs the PR apprenticeships programme and other providers such as Juice Academy offer digital marketing apprenticeships.

Then there’s the argument that says that any work experience could be useful background in that you’ll have learnt how organisations work and communicate, about the pressure on bosses, and on the challenges of keeping customers satisfied.

Many people start in public relations having already worked in a different field: I’ve worked with former journalists, teachers, management consultants, HR managers and army officers.

Once started in public relations, it’s possible to study part-time for a professional qualification. Often, your employer will be keen to support you in doing this, and may be willing to fund your professional development.

The future of public relations

Public relations is now well-established. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) is over 70 years old; the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) is fifty this year. The numbers employed has been increasing through good times and through recessions in recent decades.

But the past is not a perfect guide to the future.

My prediction is that public relations will continue to be the big winner from changes in marketing and advertising, but that public relations people will not necessarily benefit from this. Let me explain.

Public relations thinking is needed in advertising, where the emphasis is shifting from large paid-media campaigns using TV slots and billboards, to creative-led campaigns that get people talking, using free media such as YouTube to create word-of-mouth.

Public relations approaches are needed in digital marketing, where achieving high Google search results requires patient link building campaigns involving plenty of relationship-building outreach to high domain authority sites such as media sites. That’s what I mean by building influence (and it goes beyond just working with influencers).

Then there is a strength in a public relations approach that’s distinctive from advertising and digital marketing approaches. The challenge of reputation management that is a pressing concern for all public, private and not-for-profit organisations – as it is for individuals and celebrities. To put it crudely, while people in junior PR roles often seek to get their organisations or clients talked about for the right reasons, the role of the reputation manager is often to prevent organisations being talked about for the wrong reasons.

Reputation management is a complex field, and employers will not expect junior job applicants to be experts in this area. But in preparing for an interview, I’d encourage you to keep an eye on the news and to have some thoughts on how a big brand, celebrity or public figure is handling an issue or crisis they’re facing.

  • Can Boeing survive the damage caused by problems with its new 737 max aircraft?
  • Is the Duchess of Sussex (Megham Markle) wrong to expect privacy now she’s a member of the royal family?
  • How did Ben Stokes go from being charged with affray to a match-winning performance in the cricket world cup?
  • Is Extinction Rebellion likely to win or lose support by its protests in city centres?

(Tip: I don’t know the answers to these questions either. But I could make the case for either side of the argument.)

If nothing else, this will show your curiosity – a key success factor for public relations practitioners.

Skills and attributes

Do you have – or do you have the curiosity to develop – influencing skills? Have you:

  • Helped to run a voluntary club or community activity?
  • Campaigned for or raised funds for a good cause?

Do you have strong communication and networking skills? Do you:

  • Write content and produce visuals for social media?
  • Have a good response to your content and good follower numbers?

Are you curious about issues, events and people? Do you:

  • Have an expert level of knowledge on your favourite subject?
  • Have an ability to hold a conversation about someone else’s favourite subject (even if it’s business)?

Further information

Our aim at PR Place is to be a resource for professionals – at all stages of their development. Our series of guides give practical advice on how to do and manage various aspects of the job. Our Friday #ThisWeekinPR posts summarise the issues and talking points of the week and let you hear from a range of inside voices.

If you don’t know anyone working in public relations, our Friday round-ups suggest some people you can start to follow on social media. Most are friendly and many of them are employers too. Recruiters are aware of the challenge to look wider in search of talent, and many would welcome an approach from an enthusiastic newcomer. At very least, they may be able to offer you some advice.