The pattern of PR careers

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.

Asymmetry (@marcelkl on Instagram)
Asymmetry (@marcelkl on Instagram)

Dr Heather Yaxley discussed her doctoral research into careers in public relations with Philippe Borremans for the Wag the Dog podcast on 6 September. Here’s our summary.

Her starting point is that ‘so many people make career decisions based on gut instinct rather than planning.’ Yet we’re not going back to the ‘Mad Men era’ of hierarchical career ladders.

‘Most of us have organic and messy careers, yet we still speak the language of career ladders and ‘getting to the top’.

‘Most people in comms work in relatively small teams or organisations. But we’re still stuck in the large organisation mentality.’

Public relations offers opportunities for flexibility (if you are in a position to take this up). Some choose to continue horizontally (as communication specialists) rather than to progress vertically into general management.

‘We need to have a better understanding of the scope of PR careers and how we can develop them.’

‘My interest is in mid-careers: second and third job onwards. How can people with different backgrounds craft a career in PR?’

‘Fewer and fewer people have an exclusive career in-house or in agencies. There’s a lot of fluidity in people’s careers.’

‘There’s a huge emphasis on the individual, but what’s missing is the collective picture (how we work in networks).’ The film industry model was cited by way of examples: teams of specialists coming together to work on projects, then disbanding, and sometimes choosing to work together again..

‘Work is important, but it’s not everything. We’re not wedded to the job. What is full-time? 24/7 is not possible. There is a need for balance, for turning off. We’re not all free to travel all the time.’

There’s a need for customised careers rather than forcing people to fit into a culture.

Mobile technology has enabled people to get away from the desks. But what are the rules? What’s being done about mental health and mental wellbeing?

‘HR functions really don’t understand public relations and the nature of the work. There’s a lack of recognition of the expertise required. How to identify the core skills? Global Alliance competency project should help with this.’

There’s a richness and variety of opportunities within PR (from party planning to management functions). It’s a changing beast that can be all things to all people.

Few people take the time to stop and think about their careers. People are opportunistic. What’s the plan? How to avert a crisis situation?

Yaxley called for a new cadre of proactive and reflective practitioners.

The invisible hand

In response to Heather Yaxley’s challenge, here are some fragments of reflection on my thirty years in PR (writes Richard Bailey).

It’s easy to find a retrospective narrative to make sense of our careers (I sometimes cite a horoscope produced on a 1980s dot matrix printer that predicted I’d make my living out of writing or teaching. Teacher, publisher, journalist, editor, public relations consultant, university lecturer… Was this prophetic or has it become a self-fulfilling prophesy?)

Take three moments of jeopardy in my career. What help was there but gut instinct and faith in the future?

  1. Not long into my first PR role, my biggest client tried to lure me in-house. It was flattering, and could have been lucrative. But I backed off: something felt not quite right and I judged I’d continue to learn more in a team than in a PR department on my own. A moment of self-reflection led to a decision. (Long view: the big technology client no longer exists but the consultancy is now part of a large global player with a strong reputation).
  2. After five of the busiest years in my life, I took an even bigger risk. I left that same consultancy without a job to go to: I went freelance. Now there really was no one to guide and push me. What could possibly go wrong? Well, I carried one or two projects forward (lesson: never fall out with colleagues or employers, even when you’ve left). The space I created by leaving was filled with a mix of interim in-house posts and project work. This is when I broadened my experience from consultancy PR in one sector to wider corporate communication. As an educator, I draw on all this experience and my life would not have been richer for five more years doing the same thing in the consultancy. But now I’m cheating: this is on reflection. I had no guiding hand to steer me beyond instinct and optimism. But time is precious, and being busy is not always desirable: it can hinder creativity and innovation. Sometimes we have to create space for opportunities.
  3. The third moment of jeopardy is right now. After fifteen years of welcoming undergraduate students to induction, I’m no longer teaching at this level having given up most of my university commitments. Why? Because being constantly busy has been my excuse for not doing any worthwhile scholarly work. So, inspired by Heather Yaxley, Kevin Ruck and others who’ve completed PhDs later on in their careers, I’m starting over as a student. My completion date for the proposed PhD is some time after my assumed retirement date, so this is not a career move. But money and promotion are not the only rewards we seek from a career: there’s fulfilment, recognition and legacy too. Sometimes, less is more.