Careers: The pros and cons of a degree in PR

Almost half of agency bosses are dismissive of the benefits of studying public relations at degree level. But not all agree ... Cathy Wallace investigates.

Gerry Hopkinson values a university education in his recruits. The co-founder of Unity PR likes to hire workers who can 'think for themselves' and likes to see candidates with degrees in philosophy, arts and social sciences. 'Everyone here has at least one degree and quite a few have two,' he boasts.

Hopkinson is typical of the modern PR agency boss, according to a recent survey by the PRCA. In total 70 per cent of agency heads think a university education is more important now than it was 15 years ago.

But Hopkinson is also typical of many PR agency bosses when he reveals no-one at Unity has a degree in PR. This is not out of prejudice against PR degrees, he adds. Unity takes on students studying PR degrees who spend a year in the industry as part of a sandwich course. But his concern is that 'PR is not brain surgery and there is a danger we can teach students PR but by the time they graduate, things will have moved on'.

According to the PRCA's figures, 43 per cent of agency heads say a PR degree makes no difference when recruiting graduates. And a further 34 per cent say it actually makes graduates less attractive.

'My question is, what are these graduates bringing to PR?' muses Hopkinson. 'They are bringing pre-packaged skills, which is great, but where is the edge? Where is the added value?'

Stuart Wilson, CEO of MS&L, adds: 'Our industry is not an exact science and operates across various sectors, from healthcare to financial, so we need people with a broad range of educational backgrounds to keep us thinking outside the box.' Trevor Morris, visiting professor of PR at Westminster University, says it is essential graduates with qualifications outside PR continue to join the profession.

'PR degrees are valuable but it would be a disaster for the industry if they became mandatory,' he says. A core skill required in PR is an understanding of the outside world. If all account executives joined the industry with a PR degree, there would be no new thinking or different perspectives. 'A good PR team is like a football team: it needs attackers, defenders, goalkeepers and strikers,' he points out.

So are PR degrees useless? Not at all, according to Julia Hobsbawm, founder of Editorial Intelligence and professor of PR at the London College of Communications.

'Students get to know the history of comms, marketing, advertising and PR and all of this makes them better prepared for the world of PR.' But whether you study PR or whether you study fine art, a degree alone is not enough. 'If you do not have work experience, no amount of academic qualifications can help,' says Hobsbawm. She believes the best PR degrees are those with a strong practical element: 'PR cannot be a dry academic discipline.'

Morris believes the major benefits of PR degrees appear after graduates have spent two or three years in the industry. 'That is when the depth and breadth of their PR understanding will have kicked in.'

So why the prejudice against PR degrees? It could be a generational issue, says Morris. 'People tend to like what they did at university. My generation values arts degrees because that is what we tended to do.' As people with PR degrees, a relatively new phenomenon, move to the top of the profession, the aversion to PR degrees will begin to fade, he predicts.

Hobsbawm is confident the agency world is beginning to embrace PR degrees. 'The industry is doing more positive work in this area,' she says. Resonate director Tricia Moon, who runs Chime Communications' graduate scheme, agrees. 'PR degrees usually involve a year's work placement and that is useful from both a graduate and an employer's perspective.' She continues: 'PR graduates also bring a great knowledge of how to do research, of which we are doing more and more.'

Michael Prescott, MD of corporate comms and public affairs at Weber Shandwick, says he welcomes PR degrees in new recruits. But Prescott echoes Hopkinson, Wilson, Moon and many others when he says at the end of the day it is the individual that counts, not the course they have studied. PR degrees may have their benefits and their drawbacks, but a talented individual will succeed in the industry regardless of their academic background.

OPTION 1: A degree in PR

Name: Dominique King

Age: 22

Position: Account co-ordinator, Waggener Edstrom

Studied: Public relations at Bournemouth University

In college I always had a big interest in the media and in psychology. I wanted to combine the two, which led me to PR. I looked at media courses and at psychology courses but I always wanted to do something quite specialised, so I chose PR. I thought doing a PR degree would help me in my career. Part of the course was a placement year and I thought I would rather do that than spend three years sitting in a classroom.

The placement was paid and that was a small factor in me deciding to do the course, but not the main one. It was more important to get experience of what a job was like - I had had weekend jobs while I was in college but I had never had a nine- to-five. I am really glad I did it as it equipped me for work.

I am the only one in my office with a PR degree. I do not think my colleagues view me differently but I feel I have a definite advantage. When I first joined in brainstorming sessions I had a lot of valuable things to say, which I learned from debates throughout university.

I can put my ideas to practical use very quickly and show my ideas to management. This makes me feel part of the team and helps me integrate.

I would really recommend a PR degree, it helped me greatly. It also helped me decide which part of PR I wanted to do, as we covered everything from politics to advertising. I then got the job I wanted within a tech team.

OPTION 2: A non-PR degree

Name: Simon Pugh

Age: 24

Position: Graduate trainee, Chime

Studied: Chemistry at Oxford University

I decided I wanted to work in PR after studying chemistry for a year and a half. I have always had an interest in politics, media and political comms so I looked for interesting jobs in that area and the Chime graduate scheme seemed perfect.

I chose chemistry as a degree subject because my A-levels covered a broad range of subjects. I picked chemistry because I knew I would enjoy studying the subject further.

My knowledge occasionally comes in useful when the clients are science-based, for example pharmaceutical clients. But I think the degree benefits me more in terms of transferable skills such as logic and analysis.

I do not feel at a disadvantage to colleagues who have PR degrees. It is the kind of job where you can learn skills as you work. People with PR degrees may come into the industry with a better understanding but I am able to get up to speed very quickly by learning on the job.

I did work experience in the press office of a government department and at a public affairs firm so I was not a complete 'newbie' to the business. Coming into the job there was no one element where I felt a PR degree would have helped. It was just about learning the ropes.

If I had to recommend to someone whether or not to do a PR degree, I would say do something you know you are going to enjoy. You have to study it for at least three years, so make sure you are going to like it. I never feel at a disadvantage having a degree that is not in PR.

OPTION 3: A masters qualification in PR

An MA in PR could be the best of both worlds. After studying a different discipline at undergraduate level, broadening their knowledge and skills base, graduates can learn the core PR skills in a year-long degree course.

One such course is the MA in public relations offered by Bournemouth University, and recognised by both the CIPR and the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

'Some of our students will be interested in the theoretical aspects of PR and others will want to learn the skills related to the discipline,' says course leader Hilary Stepien, who has taught the MA since 2005. 'The degree is a mixture of theory and practice.'

The advantage, Stepien says, is students can join the course with expertise gained in other sectors, and then learn PR skills so they are a complete package when they enter the industry. Students join the course with undergraduate degrees in all kinds of subjects.

'One student has an undergraduate degree in classical citizenship, and another studied marine biology,' she says. 'They will be experts in another field and can bring new perspectives, and become very well-rounded individuals as a result.'

The university has links with professionals working in the PR industry to help the course remain relevant and up-to-date.

But with a price tag of £5,000 for UK and EU students, rising to £9,000 for non EU students, the course does not come cheap.

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