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.
- How many PR practitioners does it take to change a lightbulb? – considers the world of work with ideas on how the traditional technician-manager roles could be expanded into other conceptual areas.
- Follow the Yellow Brick road for an ethical PR future – calls for an centre for ethical enquiry in public relations which would support the use of brain, heart and courage in practitioners.
- Talking about my generation – PR and pretty young things – highlights the dangers of seeing PR as an inherently feminine occupation (a topic also explored her on PR Conversations).
- Public relations through the looking glass – identifies a possible schism which will result in a career choice between being a pawn and a higher piece on the PR chess board.
- Preparing to study public relations – the first of three “Back to School” posts from 2010, offered five practical tips to those embarking on a PR career via undergraduate study.
- Starting to study – the second “Back to School” post counselled on steps on the road to success.
- Making the most of work experience – the third “Back to School” post advised on securing and maximising the potential of internships (placements), shadowing, and volunteering in PR.
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.