Why you shouldn’t study public relations at university
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.
I’ve spent 20 years teaching public relations to university students. I’m very proud of the achievements of so many of them.
So I’m not about to perform a public act of self-harm. But things have changed in this time: university now involves much more debt than before; and there are other ways into the industry.
Besides, undergraduate public relations and communication courses are less popular than they were a decade ago, and no one can convincingly tell me why this should be. It’s certainly not about a lack of demand from employers. I’ll be revisiting this topic in a forthcoming article on this site.
By arguing against studying public relations at university, I hope to explore the reasons for this decline – and perhaps help some to make the right decision for their own futures.
Here’s the problem, as I see it.
You shouldn’t study something you don’t understand
No one takes an A level in public relations, so no one expects an applicant to have a sophisticated understanding of the field – only to have some self-awareness and to have the capability and curiosity to develop their understanding over three or four years at university.
Yet we should see university as a big investment, second only to a mortgage. You would view a house before buying it; you’d investigate the neighbourhood; you should hire a surveyor to inspect the fabric of the building and a lawyer to check the terms and conditions.
You can’t cover yourself against all eventualities, but you do try to protect your interests long-term. Does this house offer potential space for the future? Can I add value to it?
You can start your house search online, but it’s not where you should end it. You have to walk around the property and explore the neighbourhood, perhaps at different times of day and night.
This should be true for university applicants. Do your searches, but don’t stop with the university’s online prospectus. Like the sale particulars of a house, they’re presenting the course and the university in the best light, and downplaying any negatives. Universities are notoriously selective about how they present National Student Survey data. Best pizza ovens at any university in the north east… Sign me up!
Try to find out who’s already on the course, follow them on social media and read their content. That will give you a more authentic view (but remember that some university marketing teams hire students to blog). So go beyond the post to engage in a conversation.
So, what is public relations?
There are textbooks written for students, there are websites (like this one) focused on practice, study and professional development. But where’s the Ladbybird book of public relations?
How can you study a subject you can’t explain to your mother?
So let me try.
Public relations promotes and protects. It uses communication to develop relationships and protect reputations.
At that point, you can reach for any number of stories from the media to explain what this means (drawing on your interest in sport, celebrity, business or politics).
Here’s a model that shows the connection of public relations to the worlds of politics, business, media, society and psychology.
So why not study one of these instead?
Go back to the university prospectus and see which of these areas your possible course emphasises. Tip: most public relations degree courses are sited either in a business school (so they will teach business, management and marketing alongside public relations) or a media faculty (in which case you’ll get journalism and media theory and production).
The perfect course will offer the right mix of doing and thinking (skills and concepts) to make it a worthwhile investment. Skills only? These will date. Concepts only? Then why not study philosophy?
Still confused about public relations? Our main professional bodies, the CIPR and the PRCA, combined to produce a simple introduction a few years ago (downloadable pdf). It’s very good: take a read.
When should you study?
The youngest person I’ve taught on a public relations course was 16. The oldest? Well, that’s confidential but probably late 50s.
If you know nothing of the world, you’ll struggle to make sense of public relations. It does not exist in isolation and is not taught in laboratory conditions. It’s a real and evolving field that makes more sense once you have a more rounded experience of life.
Embarking as a school-leaver on a full-time public relations degree course is not the only option. Here are some others:
- Study a broader degree including some element of public relations and communication (eg marketing, business, communication or media studies)
- Study part-time as a mature student
- Study public relations as a Master’s student (courses are usually 12-18 months long)
- Apply for a public relations apprenticeship (these are being promoted by the PRCA). That way you’ll learn as you earn and emerge debt free (and with the possibility of a secure job).
- Find work in public relations (with any degree) and then study for a part-time professional qualification such as the CIPR Professional PR Certificate and the CIPR Professional PR Diploma to develop your career
Either way, the university route will be the longest and most expensive journey. There are intangible benefits to university (leaving home and developing your independence; building friendship groups to last a lifetime) – but you could also gain these from an extended period of volunteering or world travel.
That doesn’t make it the wrong decision – but it does need to be the right decision for you, at the right time.
What’s right for you?
It’s difficult to predict the future. But there are things you can explore.
If you’re studying public relations because you think you’d like to work in the field, then you can find out more about what’s involved.
Most organisations use public relations in some form (though it’s not always called that, and it isn’t always a managed process).
Practitioners are able communicators and you can find out about their roles on social media. They’d be happy to answer sensible questions (learning how to approach strangers is a very useful public relations skill, so why not jump right in?)
If you need some pointers to find practitioner and students, then look out for our Friday #ThisWeekinPR round-up where we feature some of the best content about public relations.
Or ask me if you have questions. There’s so much more I could have included here.
Nor have I quite convinced myself. Public relations is worth studying because issues affecting politics, business, media and society are interesting and important. It’s a bonus that there are plenty of opportunities to work in the field and develop a rewarding career.
UPDATE: This article was first published on 20 March 2018 and updated with new information in March 2023.