Career moves in public relations: Climbing ladders, revolving doors and musical chairs

Are you looking for a career move or new opportunity in public relations? Judging by my own observations of the use of hashtag #PRjob on Twitter, there are plenty of opportunities around for a change of direction, as well as work placement and first jobs.

What isn’t clear is how these jobs differ, if at all, from those traditionally offered in public relations. The classic Dozier & Broom model proposes practitioners occupy technician or management roles, emphasising a hierarchical approach whereby a linear ladder is climbed by gaining experience from a junior entry route into PR management. This reflects a 20th century view of employment, particularly one where people tended to stay with one employer being promoted from account executive to account manager in consultancies or from PR officer to manager and director roles in-house (or less commonly moving upwards through both agency and in-house roles).

The concept of climbing the ladder remains current in public relations based on the perennial discussion of graduates and the new PRCA apprenticeship scheme in the UK. It is also evident in presenting training and education in terms of levels, based primarily on experience within the field. You are still perceived to need to work your way up in public relations.

There is an exception to this and that’s the employment of former journalists which makes headlines on a weekly basis in trade titles such as PR Week. Despite arguments that PR is increasingly a management function involving more than media relations (coupled with claims that mainstream media is less influential than in the past), journalism appears to still be viewed as jump up the ladder in a PR career. The reality is that there are probably dozens of hacks finding there is not an easy switch into PR – even if some clients remain impressed by a national newspaper or broadcaster on a CV, particularly if touted as important by PR agencies.

The PR-journalism relationship reveals another employment concept, that of the revolving door. Most evident in the political field, Pieczka notes the job-swap approach between those working in politics, public relations and journalism. She observes how “personal ties to powerful individuals can only help in a career in political PR” – something she terms “the circuit of power, that is a network of prestigious jobs in the media, public relations and politics”.

The notions of ladders and revolving doors relate also to encroachment in public relations. Lauzen observed this within organisations as the tendency for non-PR specialists to be put in charge of the function. This is compounded by organisations deciding their PR staff should report into the marketing department. The implication is that managing public relations is something that can be done without any specialist knowledge or experience. PR is simply a stop on the merry-go-round of a corporate career.

Within some sectors (such as my own experience with the motor industry), PR may reflect a specialist career path – occupied by former journalists, PR graduates and those coming from other functions. Here, we see a musical chairs game with people swapping from company to company. This frequently reflects limited carer opportunities within single organisations. Encroachment or restrictions on external recruitment sometimes act as stops or even snakes in the game.

With all these career concepts, it is clear that PR is seen as an open occupation, with few (if any) barriers to entry. Blurring boundaries with other functions can offer opportunities for PR practitioners to shift into marketing or other management roles. The future of PR careers is increasingly played out on a global stage – which may also require moves into managing other functions on the way to the boardroom. I’m surprised this doesn’t appear to happen more often, given that PR practitioners should have a wide set of competencies relevant to senior management. But perhaps PR practitioners are not perceived as having business acumen or other leadership skills.

Thinking beyond these classic perspectives of corporate-type careers (whether progressing upwards in organisations or consultancies), public relations offers other choices. There is an entrepreneurial dimension to public relations enabling practitioners to work in a freelance capacity or setting up their own consultancies.

Or maybe we need to be thinking in a totally different way. Will there even be careers in public relations going forwards – does the future belong to the hybrid worker (a term that both Judy Gombita and myself have adopted)? Is the current shift towards social media rather than traditional journalism going to result in a fundamental change to career opportunities? Those who talk about PR as content management or brand journalism seem to be proposing a specialist occupation. Will the future be organisations comprised of such specialists rather than hierarchies (as employees, consultants or embedded in organisations)? Or does this suggested role for PR represent a cul-de-sac with little opportunity to achieve strategic influence (or career choice) within organisations?

My own research into the origins of public relations careers identified an opportunistic nature in practitioners who responded to changing times. As such, we could claim that public relations is an adaptive occupation enabling those who are open to what is offered by the zeitgeist to create their own opportunities. This can seem exciting and perhaps inherently grabs the spirit of those drawn to public relations. It also challenges the idea presented by academics, employers and trade bodies that public relations is a profession with a linear career ladder to be climbed in a meritocratic manner. Instead, maybe we need to be more like free-runners who look to progress through the career environment by using speed, insight, self expression, innovation and creativity. What you know is still vitally important – as is who you know. But you need to think like an off-piste athlete practising efficient career movements around the obstacles offered by the modern employment environment. Parkour training anyone?

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7 Replies to “Career moves in public relations: Climbing ladders, revolving doors and musical chairs

  1. I lived in Florence for a summer in undergrad and was able to pick up enough Italian to get by and I loved it! Of course I’ve forgotten all of it now but it’s such a beautiful language and culture. And, hello, gelato. 😉

  2. Heather, I started referring to myself as a “hybrid” practitioner (public relations, communication management and social media) about the same time as I agreed to write the monthly PR and social media column on Windmill Networking (which will soon be renamed Maximize Social Business, btw).

    And the reason I adopted that term was because, unlike so many others in the social media space, I am in no ways giving up on traditional public relations strategies and tactics. I think it is absolutely ridiculous to do this, not the least because the numbers do not bear out throwing in the towel regarding other communication channels. (I don’t know about you, but the vast majority of my family, colleagues and friends still are not using social media, except in a personal capacity.)

    So, theoretically, the sweet spot is the senior-level, “hybrid” practitioner is best situated to offer counsel and design the strategy (why and what) in the PR2.0 world–across all channels.

    1. Thanks for clarifying that Judy. I use the term more to reflect that I’m a ‘portfolio worker’ (Charles Handy term) combining my knowledge, experience and interest in different areas. Not surprisingly, I think emphasising competencies beyond a narrow specialism is going to be increasingly important. Great to be really good at one thing, but better to be really great at several. As you indicate – knowing about social media is one thing, but ignoring integration and distinction from the more traditional approaches to PR makes someone a one-trick pony where that trick is missing out on delivering an optimum performance.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Heather. Though you allude to “arguments” that PR Is “more than media relations,” in my experience the reason agencies and companies hold former journalists in high esteem is the perception that news media expatriates have greater access and influence to the media community. Public relations may be defined by “other” activities (which I find are often poorly or never delineated by the profession/industry), but the perception remains that PR is largely a media outreach function. This perception is only reinforced by PR agency website content and posts/articles emanating from the PR community, which tend to showcase strategies aimed at achieving media (third-party) recognition. There may be tactics, process, planning, engagement, content deliverables and “other” elements along the path, but the powers-that-be still tend to think of PR in terms of ultimate outcomes, i.e. attainment of ink, pixels or air time. To be sure, there are other functions which may be relegated to PR, but one might argue that companies view tasks such as content creation, partner/customer outreach, newsletters, event planning, etc. as hybridized elements of existing internal and/or external marketing programs.

    1. Spot on, Joel. Having migrated from Journalism myself, I have never undersstood this fascination with former journalists (pressmen). As you rightly point out awe for former politicians is also in vogue in the PR industry.

      But unlike former journalists and broadcasters who can at least claim that they’ve some tactical skills on offer, former politicians, normally have nothing else to offer apart from the fact that they’re former “failed politicians” — for it usually after they fail in politics or smell impending electoral defeat that they defect to PR.

      One reason PR firms give for hiring former politicians is that they know and understand the political process — which comes ind handy for firms specializing in political lobbying.

      1. Joel and Don – thanks for your comments. I wonder if under this view that journalists/politicians are of value to PR consultancies and their clients is less about their knowledge of those ‘industries’ than a belief that they will call on their contacts and use influence in that way. This of course, is part of why such approaches (revolving doors etc) are criticised ethically. Ironically, with relationships being positioned at the heart of (new?) definitions, aren’t we again reinforcing this who-you-know approach to PR and career development?

        1. That is a difficult question, Heather. I am sure that you in your professional life have come across individuals that don’t have any formal credentials in a field but have managed to excel in it.

          I think it boils down to what Norwegians here call “personal characteristics” (direct translation). The issue that arises is the person’s “fit” for the job, company and environment where he/she operates.

          Invariably this boils down the person’s networking and human relations skills. Because they know they lack the formal ballast, they cultivate the trust and loyalty of those who have it and thus achieve their goals through others.

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