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Make an impact: PR is a popular profession for both graduates and career changers

Kate Hilpern finds out what opportunities and support are available

Public Relations is consistently ranked among graduates' top three career choices. It doesn't stop there. Increasing numbers of people are switching jobs into PR, with the last 12 months having seen a rapid growth in the number of journalists taking the plunge. "This is a particularly interesting trend, because traditionally it's been a case of 'never the twain shall meet'," says Jay O' Connor, chair of the education and professional standards committee at the CIPR (Chartered Institute of Public Relations).

It's no coincidence that the PR industry has matured in recent years, she believes. "PR people are sitting on boards of directors and showing that practitioners can have a real impact," she explains. She adds that people are attracted to the strategic side of PR. Indeed, whether you work in the private, public or charitable sector, many projects are hard-hitting, highly skilled and largely autonomous.

Graduates and people in first careers may also be turned on by the increasing power of the media, adds O'Connor. "I think the rise of blogs and the consumer voice is significant too. It's given an insight into how reputation is managed. Then there's the growing understanding of the link between reputation, success and survival. Graduates recognise PR as a career that will offer real responsibility."

For Holly Wright, it was the brand itself that enticed her into her role as press office manager at Bravissimo Ltd. "When I graduated with a business degree four years ago, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, but when I saw this job advertised, I was attracted to the idea of a company run by women for women. Once I joined and had a taste of PR, I really enjoyed it."

Like many practitioners, Wright entered the industry with no directly-related qualifications, but once in post her employers agreed to fund her through the CIPR's advanced certificate. Designed for those in the first few years of their PR career, it is a part-time course run over 12 months. "The most invaluable assignment was producing a portfolio of work to include everything you'd need to consider and produce a PR campaign," she says. "I use what I learned all the time now."

Others like Ruth Sparkes, PR and communications manager of Cornwall College, fund themselves before making a career move. "I wanted to take a vocational qualification to show that I was dedicated to pursuing a career in PR and it definitely helped me get interviews," she says. "The only downside to doing this course before getting a job in PR was that I didn't have anyone to bounce ideas off."

Among the qualifications for more experienced practitioners is the CIPR diploma. Also a part-time course run over 12 months, it looks at PR as a management function, strategic PR tools and techniques, reputation management, crisis management and PR planning. "Although I was a journalist for 23 years, I soon realised I needed to do some learning more directly related to PR," says Vivienne Saunders, communications officer for Buckinghamshire County Council. "It's given me a lot of confidence in explaining to people things like why we have a policy of absolute openness in this authority and in dealing with child protection issues at schools.

Some practitioners find themselves more suited to short courses, whether in how to deal with clients or how to win new business. Dan Doherty, director of Cadence Market Strategy, believes people should never consider themselves too long in the tooth. "I'm 47 and am doing the Continuous Professional Development scheme, run by the CIPR. Although it's not a qualification as such, participation leads to accredited practitioner status after three years."

He explains, "You start by agreeing an effective learning programme for the year and the CIPR helps you work out how it will benefit you, your industry and your company, and they get you thinking about investing enough time into getting the return you want."

For Saul Townsend, the press and communications manager at the Chartered Institute of Building, the scheme is much more valuable than any academic qualification. "Academic qualifications are fine, but they only recognise you at that moment in time. This says something about where you are in your learning and development in the present."

'Working for a charity is like having a second family'

Stuart Gendall is the director of corporate communications at the Royal British Legion (RBL), whose Poppy Appeal 2006 won the Not-for-Profit category in the 2007 CIPR Excellence Awards and whose Poppy Appeal 2007 is shortlisted for the 2008 Not-for-Profit award.

I've worked all my life for corporations – first as a journalist, then in PR – but six years ago I decided to come to a charity because I find the single focus really interesting.

I head up a team involved in lobbying, PR, website and print productions, internal communications and our helpline. We are 15 strong, with five people specialising in PR.

There are very specific challenges to charity PR. Probably the most notable is the volunteer aspect. The dynamic between paid staff and volunteers is interesting, to say the least. You have to remember that there's a lot of emotion in charities.

One of the most exciting projects I've been involved in was last year's Honour the Covenant campaign, aimed at making the Government and public think about the duty of care to service and ex-service people. It was the first time we'd ever really campaigned and that in itself had an impact. People were thinking, "It must be something important to get the Legion to campaign". We are still working away on it, but it had immediate, life-changing results.

Another highlight was our 2006 Poppy Appeal. We started to target younger people and ex-service families. Our team were very good at picking up opportunities as they arose. For instance, we had a student who designed a poppy dress and separately we'd been talking to Catherine Jenkins. So we put them together and she wore the dress.

Charities are relatively complicated and unique organisations – there's fundraising, volunteers and sometimes complex trustee structures, for instance. From a PR perspective, it's a different approach, but once you're used to it, it's like having a second family.

'I found I was driven more by creating than delivering news'

James Dunne is corporate marketing officer for Norfolk County Council, whose Don't Be A Loser road safety campaign won the Public Sector category in the 2007 CIPR Excellence Awards

Although I started out working for newspapers, I found I was driven more by creating than delivering news, so I moved into PR, where I started out writing press releases and speeches. That's where my background came in handy – and so did my contacts book.

As your career progresses, you become more tactically and strategically aware and I was no exception. But after seven years, I became a bit disillusioned with PR agency life and after a stint of freelancing, I joined the public sector. I liked the idea of making a difference and because our communications plans each last three years, I felt it would be far more of a strategic challenge than doing the hard sell on a brand.

I think the reason we won the award for the Don't Be A Loser campaign was because it was hard-hitting and very focused around the media that young people are interested in – dance festivals, bars and clubs. Basically, we knew we had a problem with road casualties among 17- to 25-year-olds, but we also knew that young people see themselves as immortal. Avoiding death would therefore not be a driver to road safety – whether it was about drink driving, use of mobile phones while driving or using seat belts – but not injuring their friends or winding up disabled would be. So we used dark humour to make that the key theme and we did everything from posters to sponsoring acts.

The feedback was that we used all the right messages at the right times of the year in the right places – and the killed and seriously injured figures reduced by 19 per cent countywide and 26 per cent across the north-west by the end of the 14-month campaign.