Do you know where you’re going to? Public relations career advice

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What was your route into public relations?  In 1943, Averill Broughton (a public relations and advertising executive with his own firm) interviewed leading PR executives for his book, Careers in Public Relations: The new profession. He observed that these successful practitioners had:

“backed into the field, as it were, by accident, and sat down. Afterwards it seemed natural enough, and their preliminary experience seemed as though it created public relations opportunity later”

Has much changed in the last 70 years?  Like many people, I found myself in PR by chance (my father spotted an advert in Autocar for a PR officer position at Peugeot which he thought would suit me – although neither of us knew what PR actually involved).  This opportunism seems to have been a pattern since the early pioneers of the occupation (see my paper presented at the 2011 International History of Public Relations Conference for more on the origins of careers in public relations).  I can also post-rationalise various experiences and decisions (such as a degree in psychology) to justify my career picture in public relations.  As my father used to say: if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there!

But, I wondered if the launch of PR degree courses (which is now over two decades ago in the UK), hadn’t created a more purposeful structure towards careers in the field.  Surely today, practitioners are taking a more strategic approach to their careers, I thought.  So I started to look for evidence – but was surprised to find that very little academic study had been undertaken in this area, despite over a century’s worth of literature in both PR and career studies.

The majority of thinking about PR careers seemed to be based on anecdote, opinions and personal experience.  This combines with a professionalization agenda which promotes the idea of hierarchical careers, and professional development that seems to emphasise practical training courses, with a passing nod towards the importance for PR of higher education qualifications (not essential or relevant according to the annual degree-knocking PRWeek report).

In contrast, the world of career studies offers a treasure trove of ideas and approaches that reflect a changing world of work, raising issues that seem lacking in the PR world of simplistic ladders.  We still advocate an either-or approach to in-house or agency (the recruitment agencies for example, don’t favour cross-over careers).  Despite requiring degrees, undergraduate entry routes are predicated on tactical writing skills and a friendly nature – but the goal is to become a manager, with strategic access to the dominant coalition as soon as poss.  Training frameworks tend to reflect such a hierarchy normally linked to length of tenure in PR.   However, a higher level entry route into PR is common for ex-journalists and we also see encroachment (to use Lauzen’s term) from other organizational functions to head up the PR team.

There is little emphasis on how PR fits within careers, for example, as enhancing the capabilities of future leaders.  Why is the pinnacle of a PR career seen to be head of an in-house function, senior account director/partner or setting up your own agency?  Where is the ambition beyond the PR world?

All these questions (and many more) led to me deciding to study a PhD looking a career strategic in PR.  I’m starting to draw conclusions from my extensive study of the PR and careers literature and beginning to determine my research questions and methodology for primary research in 2012.  This interest and immersion in the career field has resulted in several reflective blog posts on my personal Greenbanana site.

These have sought to combine practical reflection and a solid underpinning from my reading.  If you are interested in taking a more informed approach to your own career picture, you might find some of these posts of interest.

Whether your path into PR has been circuitous and fortunate or a deliberate approach, whether it has taken you into the corporate, not-for-profit, or public sector worlds, whether you have opted for in-house, consultancy, freelance or academic opportunities, whether you are starting out, mid-career, or have decades behind you, I feel it would be excellent for your experiences to be shared and so provide a richer tapestry of the world of work in PR – and particularly a picture of the career strategies you have undertaken or plan to put into practice.

Please feel free to share them here – or look out for future reflection on the topic here and at Greenbanana as my PhD studies move into the research phase.

6 COMMENTS

  1. “Surely today, practitioners are taking a more strategic approach to their careers, I thought.”

    Heather, it would be nice if public relations had the benefit of a structured, fairly rigorous academic program that developed analytic, strategic and tactical skills, but as I pointed out in an article for O’Dwyer’s several years ago, PR is being taught by people who have had very little actual experience in PR, at an organizational level usually well below the “dominant coalition” (as you put it) and from a motley collection of backgrounds ranging from journalism to law to sociology to speech com to even theater and film studies.

    In fact, according to “The Report of the Commission on Public Relations Education,” published by PRSA and ironically titled, “The Professional Bond,”

    “Colleges and universities are being pressured even more by their regional accrediting bodies to fill faculty positions with candidates having Ph.D.s. As a result, public relations educators are being valued more for their academic credentials than for their practitioner experience, which previously might have compensated for the lack of a terminal degree.”

    University of Nebraska, Lincoln, much to its credit, is currently advertising positions for two assistant professors with the minimum qualification of a master’s degree. Of course, the Ph.D. is preferred, and at least a newly minted Ph.D. with less than five years’ professional experience will probably fill one of the jobs. But Nebraska is the overwhelming exception in an environment where dippy little colleges with fewer than a thousand students are requiring doctorates because that’s what U.S. News and World Report (a failed magazine owned by a real estate developer) uses as a measure of academic quality.

    • Bill – whilst I agree with you that faculty teaching on PR degree courses should have a strong level of practical experience (or understanding at least), I think one of the reason many degree courses gained a poor reputation is that they lacked credibility of academic rigour. Again, I wouldn’t support someone leading a PR course on the basis of a PhD which is not based on an examination of a topic relevant to PR. There is, of course, a third competency required of those teaching PR, which is the ability and knowledge of pedagogy itself. Historically it has probably been difficult to find strong candidates who fulfil all three requirements to a high standard. However, my experience from attending international conferences is that we do have a strong body of knowledge driven by those working in Universities, who also have backgrounds in practice (and in many cases, still have practical experience and/or contacts to bring into the teaching environment) and who are increasingly trained in education.

      The bigger career problem for me is not at the undergraduate level, but in the body of practice itself. Too few practitioners are engaged with the business in terms of their own career development, continuous learning or sharing best practice with others. Rather than being concerned about ‘dippy little colleges’, I’m concerned about ‘dippy little consultancies’ and other practitioners who think same old, same old is good enough.

      • Hi Heather,

        Interesting research, look forward to seeing the results of the primary research.

        Like you I’m also concerned about how PR is sometimes practised and PR degrees are critical to the way that the profession evolves.

        From my limited knowledge of PR degrees in the UK, they seem to be pretty good. Though I do think they should be aligned to Business Schools, not Media Schools. After all, PR is a business function.

        I also think they should be a bit more multi-disciplinary. I’d like to see stronger associations with business studies (so students know how organisations work) and psychology (so students know how communication works).

        My own thoughts on components for a useful PR degree are:
        Business fundamentals, corporate culture, corporate strategy, leadership, business ethics, corporate responsibility, mass communication theory, public relations theory, social psychology, cognitive psychology, marketing communication theory, media relations, digital communication, public affairs, internal communication and employee engagement, issues management (stakeholder identification, prioritisation and relationship management), crisis communication, communication research methods, integrated and strategic communication planning, creativity (the process and tactics), writing styles, event management, team work, project management, managing people, managing clients and presentation skills, and communication measurement (outputs and outcomes).

        I would emphasise digital communication within the programme. It’s incredible that in some UK PR degrees the words “social media” and or “digital communication” are still not even mentioned.

        As you know, my specialist area is internal communication and I’m very surprised to see that at one UK university, well-known for its PR degree, internal communication is not even given a passing mention. As a student at the “PR and Education” event at the University of Westminster last night said, internal communication is fundamental for reputation. It’s time for internal communication to be given a much higher profile in PR education and I’m looking forward to seeing the first Masters in Internal Communication coming to fruition at the University of Central Lancashire in the not too distant future.

        Kevin

  2. How to get a job in public relations – some simple tips

    A job in Public Relations can be very rewarding, fast-paced and exciting. It is because of this, however, that PR is a very competitive industry to break into. For any budding PR practitioners out there, it’s important you take this into account before applying for a job or contacting an agency for work experience. To get noticed you need to have a bit of an edge over your competitors – don’t leave things up to chance. We receive hundreds of emails a week from people looking for work so make sure you stand out from the crowd.

    At InsideOut PR we recommend the following:

    Research the company first
    Find out the type of PR they specialise in and look up the brands they represent. Could you see yourself working for similar brands? Do they work for an industry area you’re interested in? PR agencies often specialise in niche areas. If you’re interested in representing people, then it’s not really worth your while working for a corporate agency. Find out about the companies values and culture. Make sure they’re in line with you and your work ethic.

    Check and re-check your email or cover letter then check again
    Believe it or not, we’re constantly receiving letters of application or cover letters for public relations agency jobs with spelling errors and mistakes. It doesn’t take long to proof your work, and remember, writing and communicating is the biggest part of what we do so we want to ensure we’re hiring someone that is capable of the work. Mistakes and typos happen, so give your application to a friend to check for you. We can always see through a rushed application.
    Tailor your application to suit the agency
    We know you’re applying for a number of different jobs at the same time, but if you’re interested in working for us, then make sure you show that. A generic application stands out just as much as an amazing application so if you’re serious about the job, go that little bit further and let us know you’re interested. Oh and be sure to attention it to the director of the agency you’re applying to and not the one before!

    Hopefully these tips will come in handy when you begin the job hunt.
    Good luck!

    – InsideOut PR

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