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 heated responses.
A young professional working outside public relations and seeking to switch to PR 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?”
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As you can imagine, there was a rift between those who feel it is best to jump right into the trenches and work your way up and those who advised taking the time to get a formal education and training.
I 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 even fax machines—bright-eyed, bushy-tailed kids could jump headfirst into the industry and work their way 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 only broadly adopted by most schools of communications in the past 15 to 25 years.
So, yes, many pioneers in the field did not need a degree in public relations to be successful. I tip my hat to those veterans. It is because of those trailblazers that many colleges and universities have excellent degree programs that include faculty who were initially among the ranks of degreeless practitioners.
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 your meeting their minimum requirements for the job.
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
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 and a thorough knowledge of public relations practice fundamentals. Most important, 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 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 most certainly experience personal and professional growth. If you are going to make mistakes, it’s better to do it surrounded by the comfort and constructive support of your school.
Don’t worry, you will get the opportunity to commit blunders on the job, because trial and error really 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. (I don’t even take on interns who can’t demonstrate a basic PR skill set.) Once you land that entry-level job, the learning curve 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 using all aspects of the public relations machine in its strategic communications strategy is not realizing its potential.
Let’s be honest: You are the practitioner. It is your job to counsel on all 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.
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?
Staci Harvatin is the digital marketing manager for the Saint Louis Science Center, a free science museum designed to make science fun through informal, interactive learning experiences. She also writes a blog, The Communicator’s Quick Tip Guide, in collaboration with Isabel Pastrana, vice president of Account Services at Tripp Co. Creative where a version of this story first appeared.