To get a PR degree, or not to get a PR degree, that is the question

Is a degree in public relations necessary to be successful in the industry?

By Staci

I was browsing the latest and greatest discussions in one of my LinkedIn groups last week and came across a topic that was stirring up some heated responses. A young professional working outside of the field of public relations was wanting to the switch to PR and asked the following questions:

“I was wondering what the best degree is to go into public relations? Should I study communications? Is a degree required for public relations?”

As you can imagine, there was a dividing line drawn between those who feel it is best to jump right into the trenches and work your way up in the industry and those who advised taking the time to get a formal education and training. I happen to fall into the latter camp for the following reasons:

The times they are a-changin’

Back in the olden days – you know, before the internet, personal computers and…gasp…fax machines – bright eyed and bushy tailed kids could jump headfirst into the industry and work their way up to the top. Keep in mind that a college degree wasn’t necessary to make your way in the world only a couple of decades ago. Formal public relations programs were even only just broadly adopted by most schools of communications within the past 15 to 25 years.

So yes, many of the pioneers in the field did not need a degree in public relations to be successful. I tip my hat to those veterans. In fact, it is because of those trailblazers that many colleges and universities have excellent degree programs which include faculty who were initially among the ranks of degreeless practitioners. But, the truth is that you often need a degree in public relations (or a related field) in order to even get past most automated application systems today. Most employers won’t consider your candidacy without meeting their minimum requirements for the job.

And with so many great public relations degree programs available throughout the country, why wouldn’t you just go for it and get your degree anyway? This brings me to my next point.

It’s more than just a degree

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Photo credit: University of Denver / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

A degree in public relations is more than just a slip of paper that can help you get past automated application systems. If you choose the right program, you will walk away with a strong foundation based in theory, a thorough knowledge of public relations practice fundamentals and, most importantly, you will be exposed to all aspects of public relations before being cast out into the cruel harsh world. (This broad exposure early on will make you a better practitioner.)

The most optimal time to get your sea legs in the industry is to do it while in school. You will get countless hours of writing practice, be exposed to numerous internship and networking opportunities and will most certainly experience personal AND professional growth. If you are going to make mistakes, do it surrounded by the comfort and constructive support of your school. Don’t worry, you will get the opportunity to have blunders on the job, because really trial and error is what this industry is all about, BUT you are expected to walk into an entry level job in the field already well versed in the public relations skill set. (Personal Note: I don’t even take on interns who can’t demonstrate a basic PR skill set. Ain’t nobody got time for that.) The learning curve once you land that first entry level job is already steep enough.

My advice is to do yourself a favor and get a degree. Starting behind the curve is just that – starting behind a large pool of applicants who are immediately more qualified than you because they have a degree.

Only you can lead the way

Another reason to get a degree in public relations if you want to seriously practice in the field is because most organizational leaders do not understand public relations. This is a constant battle that you need to be prepared to take on for the rest of your career. (Public relations is not simply media relations!) I’m not knocking senior managers here. Public relations is a complex and multilayered craft. Sometimes it is even hard for me to explain the full scope of the field to other people who are not practitioners. An organization that is not utilizing all aspects of the public relations machine in its strategic communications strategy is not realizing its full potential.

Let’s be honest here. You are the practitioner. It is your job to counsel on all matters of communications for your organization. If you don’t even know what it is that you are supposed to be doing or could be doing, you are doing a disservice to your organization.

Now, I realize that may be a little harsh, but we live in a cruel harsh world.

Whether you start with or without a degree, you are going to have to work VERY HARD to make your way in the industry. The only difference is that starting with a degree gives you a head start. A degree in public relations is like the Yoshi to your Mario. It gets you where you are going faster and proactively helps protect you along the way. I choose Yoshi.

So, if I haven’t already made it clear by now, go ahead and get that degree in public relations. Where do you fall in this debate? Let me know in the comment section below!

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