Public relations is a wide-ranging and popular career specializing in professional communication, and always in firm demand by employers. If you think that PR is just about influencer meets, product launches, and award nights, you have a lot more to learn about this exciting career path. One example of the vital role of public relations specialists is the way organizations around the world have needed to communicate well to internal and external audiences about their organization’s responses and plans during the COVID-19 pandemic. Using the tips in this article as a guide, you can prime yourself for a PR career.
The PR industry is embracing, demanding, competitive, and fulfilling. You can enter a PR role from many different directions. A degree in PR and communication is a great stepping stone. PR specialists typically have a bachelor’s degree in public relations, journalism, communication, English, or business. However, as long as you are personable, a good writer and possess innovative communication soft skills and creativity, you’ll have a shot at a successful PR career. I ran a university PR course for 6 years, and found undergrad and postgrad participants had arrived from many different backgrounds and were planning to go in many different directions after completing their studies because of the wide range of career choices available in PR.
Public relations careers are available in almost every sector of the economy:
- Privately owned companies of varying sizes
- Public companies responsible to shareholders and the stock exchange
- Federal, state and local government agencies and regulatory bodies
- Semi-government entities, such as water and power utilities
- Education institutions – universities, colleges, private schools
- PR agencies and freelance PRs
Core PR skills
The core PR skill is being able to write well, and to adapt this skill to many varied purposes – ranging from formal documents like annual reports and communication plans, journalistic news angles in media releases, to web writing, social media posts, newsletters, and to promotional activities like marketing emails and even marketing and promotional brochures.
Writing is just one form of communication, which broadly comprises:
In addition, some people advocate listening as a fifth type of communication.
A multitude of PR definitions due to the broad field
As public relations is a very broad concept, a multitude of definitions have been offered over the years. In fact, as long ago as 1976, Rex Harlow found 472 definitions of public relations! His findings were published in the article, “Building a Public Relations Definition,” in the Public Relations Review that year. That’s more than 40 years ago. Imagine the number if he searched now!
The current definition by the Public Relations Society of America states that “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” (This is fine as far as it goes, but PR activities need to have an end-purpose, not just a process role of maintaining ‘beneficial relationships,’ ie. perfect Grunig two-way communication). Many people believe persuasion is the key purpose of PR, eg media relations, which is at odds with the concept of perfect two-way communication.
The difficulty in defining public relations is that it is not a single function or activity, and applies all around sectors of the economy. It is a wide ‘field of practice’ in several broad areas of specialization where you can conduct your PR career, such as:
- employee (internal) communication
- media relations
- marketing communication
- community relations
- stakeholder relations
- corporate social responsibility
- issue management
- crisis communication
- government relations
Since it’s crucial for a business to have a strong and decent reputation, people who want to work in public relations are in demand. But people’s perception of the field as a thrilling and attractive career option means there’s tough competition for PR jobs. In fact, many professionals previously employed in other fields and industries also moved to join PR agencies and in-house teams. Thus, you need to stand out.
Be aware that a public relations role needs you to be energetic and adaptable. The job requires you to meet deadlines, and your work is always in the public eye, whether this is liaising with journals on material that will be read or viewed by the public, and/or will be distributed to employees. This can be stressful. But you get lots of satisfaction in this people-centered career.
5 ways to prime yourself for a PR career
If you’re currently looking for a career in PR, here are five ways to help you prime yourself and get the job of your dreams.
- Engage in networking for yourself
If you are intent on starting a public relations career, you need to become involved early with PR networks. This means joining the nearest professional PR body as a student member (or the parent body if you are not a recent student), and attending their activities. Meet people there, even online, and start friendships. For instance, ex-UK PR students in 2021 formed TheCommsPeople networking group on LinkedIn. I don’t know if this is just open to UK residents.
Don’t aggressively ‘push your own barrow,’ which will deter others, but offer to commit your time, interests and experience for committee work. Attend functions, contribute bylined articles to their newsletter and even to the newsletter of the parent professional body. Volunteer to help organize events. This will increase your circle of contacts. Make friends with others you like and get involved in their social circles as well. In this way you will hear about potential job opportunities. During my own career, 3 jobs were suggested to me by contacts, which I followed up and which were later formally offered to me after an interview. I didn’t even have to start actively circulating in the job market.
2. Engage in personal branding
Personal branding is especially vital for those who don’t hold a PR or communication degree or who come from other disciplines. Here’s what non-PR degree holders and professionals with minimal to no PR experience in the past can do to market themselves as having worthwhile initiative and PR job skills suitable for a PR career.
- Create a blog that shows off your versatile writing ability, and your knowledge of PR industry-related topics and news. This would include interviewing PR leaders and writing on current topics based on the interviews. Apart from other benefits, this would get your name known to them for your own networking.
- Approach the editors of PR-industry newsletters to get these interviews published with them. Demonstrate your flair for media relations in doing this!
- Approach the internal newsletter editors of relevant potential employers to get them to publish your selected interviews and articles that are relevant to employees. If you are confident you have a good topic, you can contact the editors of external publications.
- Monitor and manage your online reputation, especially in different social media platforms
- Publish relevant personal case studies, experiences or observations in your blog.
- See if you can find a mentor to provide career guidance for you. If some contacts are particularly helpful with the above points, you could try suggesting they be available for advice. Some PR institutes also have a list of members who are available to advise and mentor.
If you are a new graduate of a PR course you can also follow the tips above. With a degree in hand, you can actively establish your name by highlighting all your PR experiences at university and during your internship. If you are an older graduate, you can write about some of the lessons you have learnt in previous jobs, and how the lessons are relevant to your PR role.
3. Practice your verbal and written communication skills
Securing a good PR career will require you to get your point across as concisely and quickly as possible, including a good ‘elevator pitch.’ That’s why you need to know how to effectively speak in public. You will also need to be aware of and flexible in using the right media, tones, and messaging. This includes being capable of creating content for various audiences. Note that you will need to know how to write articles, press releases, as well as content for social media and blogs.
Of course, new PR graduates have been taught in their course how to write with public relations purpose in mind. From my experience in running a university PR course, many graduates still can’t write very strongly, even after graduating, so they still need to practice, practice, practice! Practice as frequently as possible, since learning how to write well takes time. Get a good friend to edit your work and give you useful feedback on your writing.
But what if your background isn’t PR-related? Fortunately, you can readily find online writing skills courses that can guide you on how to be better. Good news-writing and copywriting skills will give you a strong career foundation.
4. You need to understand the media well
If you want to have a successful PR career, you’ll need to understand the media landscape since these are the people who will read your ideas and stories. When you reach the cutting edge of the industry, you can pitch the right stories to various journalists and know what suits every media organization.
In the meantime, to ensure a good interview, you should understand as many aspects of the relevant news media and social media as you can. This includes noting and remembering the names of reporters who cover the subject area of your potential employer/s. If you are looking for a job in a PR firm, or even a shortlist, check who their clients are, and see what type of coverage those clients are getting that have originated from the firm. This will help to familiarize you with media relations at various levels. And it will help you to make small talk in interviews. Make it a habit to read news online and offline, along with current affairs programs. Gaining a better understanding of the media and staying on top of industry-related news will make you more attractive to organizations looking for PR pros.
5. Embrace technology
Working in a PR career is a great opportunity to promote brands and businesses you’re passionate about. It’s not only for those who are PR graduates, but also for recruits from other fields. It’s a field in which writing skills, a personable presence and creative thinking are highly valued..
By following the ways mentioned above and developing your network and experience at the same time, you’ll be sure to find an opportunity in the PR industry that’s right for you.