PR degrees: reputations on the line

Monday 04 August 2008 12:44

From A-list celebrities to big business, public relations plays a vital role in protecting clients, says Meriel Pritchard.

Ask anybody in public relations (PR) what they love about the job and they will tell you it’s all about variety. You might be working in-house for a large multinational corporation, in a smaller specialist agency dealing with fashion, sport or consumer goods, or even for a charity or environmental pressure group.

The job remit itself varies hugely too. You could be running a major charity event, managing a crisis, entertaining the media at a lunch or developing new branding and corporate identity – all during the course of one day!

PR means working hard but also playing hard. Few careers are so all-consuming but also rewarding – both personally and financially – if you have the drive and the ambition to get to the top.

There is one central theme that holds all these activities together and that, according to the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), is reputation: “The result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you”.

Just think about the importance of reputation for the survival of an organisation or an individual. It could be argued that a lack of planned communication contributed to the poorly managed Northern Rock downfall, the bad press on Gordon Brown recently and the relative falls from grace of Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse. Effective communication can make a real difference to reputation, and it is this element that all PR activities centre around.

Over 48,000 people work in PR in the UK, managing the communication of organisations to customers, shareholders, the media, politicians and the community. A 2005 report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research identified the industry’s annual turnover as £6.5bn.

PR these days puts an emphasis on twoway communication, based on the idea that the most effective dialogue is a balanced one. It would be hard to find any organisation now that doesn’t name good communication as one of its key objectives. Some of the best PR practitioners have a low profile, in order to make sure that it is the clients (and not themselves) that get the credit. Nevertheless, behind every top business name you can normally guarantee there is sound PR advice.

The CIPR seeks to position PR alongside other research-led professions, working to a strict code of conduct and with an emphasis on fact and accuracy. PR practitioners work closely with journalists, for example, and although the industries have a very different role, they both value excellent levels of fact and accuracy very highly and demand good writing skills employees sometimes move from one sector to the other, in fact.

Some higher education institutions allow you to combine journalism and PR in one degree, and elsewhere public relations and/or journalism can form part of a wider degree, such as communication studies. It is worth finding out as much as you can about both career paths, perhaps by seeking out some work experience in the sectors.

Public relations programmes are usually three years, or four if they include a year out in industry. Most will offer some form of work experience, and it is important that they do as employers will be looking for graduates who have already proven their worth. Assessments often mirror real-life scenarios, such as evidence-based portfolios, group presentations re-enacting pitches for new business and the analysis of award winning PR case studies. Many graduates choose to do further study such as a Masters or one of the CIPR postgraduate qualifications, while others undergo in-house training on the job.

Academics teaching on the programmes are usually happy to provide information to potential students. However, one thing we can tell you right now is that public relations studies will open the door to exciting and challenging careers in industries that are fast moving and constantly evolving.

  • Meriel Pritchard is deputy head of social and communication studies at the University of Chester for more information on the Chartered Institute of Public Relations

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