Getting a start in PR was once about being bright and keen, and doing a bit of schmoozing with the right people. But now would-be PR execs are heading for the library, not the bar, to get a head start up the career ladder.
Since the first university PR course was launched in the late 1980s, the number of tertiary qualifications available has grown to about 25 nationwide, and there are more than 100 other courses that combine PR with other media or communications-related fields.
The Institute of Public Relations has just approved two more undergraduate courses - at the University of Huddersfield and the University of Teesside - taking the number of IPR-endorsed courses to 17 at undergraduate level, 12 post-graduate courses, one higher national diploma and two diploma courses.
But although the number of places keeps growing, it still falls well short of the number of applicants trying to get on PR courses. At the University of Central Lancashire, for example, course leaders are sifting through 160 applications for 35 places on the BA (Hons) in public relations for the coming year.
There may be plenty of PR stalwarts who privately snigger at the idea of their craft being an academic pursuit, but consultancies and in-house PR teams are increasingly becoming dominated by graduates - of both PR and other courses.
And this trend is sure to continue with the Government's efforts to encourage more school-leavers into university.
'We should welcome the increase in PR degrees,' says IPR president Anne Gregory. 'If people are prepared to learn about their career it shows they're committed to it and understand what PR can achieve.'
But does a degree impress employers, and does it make for a better PR practitioner?
Ryan Bowd, co-managing director of 1090 Communications, says his understanding of PR through his BA (Hons) in PR at the University of Exeter impressed all three agencies that offered him a job when he graduated, and helped him start on a salary a few thousand pounds higher than the industry norm.
John Walding, now PR manager at the Manchester Chamber of Commerce, got his first PR job at an agency in Macclesfield that targeted graduates of the Masters degree in PR he finished at Manchester Metropolitan University in 2001.
Meanwhile, Bournemouth University graduate Sarah Woodhouse, who left with a BA (Hons) in PR in 2000, said her course - which crucially included a placement year - helped her to get a job as an account executive rather than on a graduate scheme. She is now a senior account manager in the consumer brands division of Edelman.
However, PR graduates are still the exception across many of the UK's consultancies and in-house PR departments.
Brave PR joint MD Annabel Hillary says the vast majority of her staff have degrees, although only about a third have them in PR.
'Although it's not essential to have a PR degree, it tends to be beneficial for newly recruited trainees as they settle in quickly,' she says. 'Our staff come from a variety of backgrounds, from in-house PR departments, big PR agencies, journalism and the charity sector, but they all have a passion for PR.'
At pharmaceutical company Roche, corporate affairs manager Ruth Blakey (who has a geography degree and a journalism qualification) says none of the four-strong PR team has a PR degree, and she wouldn't rule out hiring someone with no degree at all. 'For us it is more about experience in PR and the scientific environment,' she says.
Sceptics are quick to point out that academic excellence is not the most important quality of a successful PR practitioner. Gregory, who was the UK's first full-time professor of public relations, and is director of the Centre for PR Studies at Leeds Metropolitan University, concedes that, as in other industries, there are some graduates who are unsuitable or are simply not very good.
Nor are all PR degrees equal, Gregory warns, and students should look carefully before applying. 'Not all teachers have first-hand industry experience, and not all courses include a placement, which graduates say is instrumental in securing them a job,' she says.
In the main, however, graduates are well prepared for becoming competent PR officers. 'They really do jump right in and hit the ground running, which is what's expected of them,' says Julia Jahansoozi, course leader on the BA (Hons) in PR at the University of Central Lancashire.
'Employers say "you've got a PR degree, show me what you can do".' In preparation for the world of work, all her students go on a placement before graduation and work in their own consultancy at the university, which has real clients who pay for their services.
Although a body of opinion persists that PR degrees are not worth the parchment they are printed on, this perception is likely to diminish as the industry continues its efforts to be viewed as a body of professionals and dispenses with any lingering images of spin merchants.
According to Gregory, the ethos of PR is gradually changing. 'People are saying "hang on, you can't just do things by the seat of your pants and by experience".
Experience means always looking backwards; education helps you look forward and question how you do things.'
It's an issue that has strong arguments on both sides. But the outlook for the PR industry's intake of graduates over the next few years is brighter than it has ever been.
FOOT IN THE DOOR
YES - ELLIOTT GRADY, SENIOR PRESS AND BROADCAST OFFICER, LIBERAL DEMOCRATS PRESS OFFICE
If it hadn't been for university, Elliott Grady might never have worked in PR at all. Part-way through an undergraduate degree in journalism, film and broadcasting, he decided to stay on to do a post-graduate diploma in PR at Cardiff University.
'I was keen to follow a career in journalism, but studying political communication as part of my degree really stoked up my interest in politics, especially PR. After doing a couple of placements in journalism and then in PR, I realised I enjoyed the variety and quick pace of PR a lot more,' he says.
Apart from a few weeks' work experience, he did not work in PR before finishing his studies. On graduating, he got his first job at Text100, where he worked for two years before moving to his current job with the Lib-Dems.
'The course at Cardiff was great at cementing my interest, gaining the writing and consultancy skills needed for PR but also getting an understanding of all the different sectors that the industry caters for,' Grady says.
'PR is an immensely complicated job - a lot more influential than many people give it credit for.' The course taught him the basics of writing for PR, client management skills and how PR fits in with the broader marketing mix. The curriculum also covered aspects such as financial PR, public affairs and the charity sector. People from different areas of the PR industry spoke to students about their work. Grady says the course helped him to establish contacts.
In the real world, though, he says: 'One of the things that did shock me was how little time you have to do things and make decisions on a day-to-day basis.'
But Grady says he would recommend a formal PR course as a good way for aspiring PR practitioners to get a foot in the door.
'I'm still in touch with people I studied with, and all of us did end up getting jobs in the PR industry,' he says.
BRAINS AND GRAFT MATTER
NO - LIZ FRASER, HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR AT WEBER SHANDWICK, IS A FORMER SENIOR PR PRACTITIONER AND RAN HER OWN PR CONSULTANCIES
Knock on Liz Fraser's door asking for a job and she'll quickly tell you that a PR degree won't help you. In fact, it will probably put her off.
'The feeling is we'd rather have people with a first degree in something else,' she says.
'We want people who want to study a subject. PR is something you can teach them later, and we're probably in a better position to do it.'
Graduates hired by Weber Shandwick go through a thorough training programme that covers issues such as writing and handling client relationships, presentation skills and how to sell a story in to the media. They all learn about public affairs, creativity, proposal writing and financial management.
'We're looking for people who are bright and have got good brains, people who work hard. If you've got a good brain and you work hard, you will usually go to university and have a degree of some kind.'
A very small minority of WS's staff have a degree in PR, but there are graduates in subjects such as politics or biology, and many have English degrees. Fraser herself has a degree in food science.
'We're looking for graduates across a whole spread of disciplines,' she says. 'For public affairs they need to be interested in politics; for healthcare PR we're looking for people with degrees in biology or something similar. We don't look at a PR degree and say "yes, we must have this person".'
Fraser says a key area in which PR graduates fall down is understanding how budgets and the behind-the-scenes side of PR work.
Rather than taking first degrees, she says: 'There are some very good post-graduate courses around, and I think PR is something that is more suited to that, after people have spent some time working in the industry.'