If the health of an industry can be judged by its popularity as a
career choice, PR is in the pink.
Agencies report hundreds of applications per job and PR courses are
But the introduction of tuition fees in September may dictate the choice
of degree that a student who is interested in a career in PR, will
Statistically, vocational PR degrees are more likely to lead to a job,
but many in the industry still prefer graduates with non-vocational
According to Anna Fairbairn, chair of the IPR student group, PR students
are concerned by the debate between the value of PR degrees and
’They are worried about their courses on which they have spent a lot of
time and money, which are now being criticised,’ she says.
The introduction of tuition fees may also mean that for many, a
post-graduate qualification is a financial step too far.
Many students, faced with rising costs and shrinking grants, are
struggling to balance the books. Helen Gawler is in her final year of a
combined degree in PR with IT at the University College of St Mark and
St John in Plymouth. Like others on her course she works part-time to
make up the shortfall in her grant, and will still end up in debt. ’It’s
quite worrying,’ she says. ’Nowadays you don’t only leave with a degree
but also with about pounds 5,000 of debt.’
Given the high employment levels among graduates from PR courses,
candidates with degrees in other subjects may become a thing of the
Nigel Kennedy, managing director of Grayling, supports PR diplomas and
degrees, but would be unhappy at this turn of events. ’I would be
concerned if we got to the stage where the relatively few opportunities
for graduates are all being filled by those who took an academic
qualification in PR,’ he says.
The new IPR diploma may go some way to addressing the problem. Announced
last month, it is designed to offer a vocational route to IPR membership
for those joining the industry with a non-vocational degree. Plans are
in hand to offer 12-month part-time courses at Thames Valley University,
Ealing; Hackney Community College; Leeds Metropolitan University and
Queen Margaret’s College, Edinburgh.
IPR president Peter Walker is in no doubt that PR practitioners will
support the new qualification. ’The industry looks to the IPR to provide
a framework for professional development,’ he says. ’There’s even more
pressure to ensure that there is a clear industry-accepted training
structure that all employers can use as a benchmark.’
Employers are operating in a buyer’s market, the choice of candidates
has never been so wide. The skills, qualities, the type and class of
degree are theirs to specify and course providers have been quick to
develop courses designed to meet employers’ needs. The new Masters in
European PR offered by Leeds Metropolitan University is a good example,
according to scheme leader Alison Theaker.
She says: ’The programme was developed in response to industry demands
for practitioners with strategic understanding of communications issues,
combined with broader understanding of the European context.’
Many students gain their initial foothold in PR through work placements,
which can lead to a permanent position. ’There’s one man who joined us
for three months, without the guarantee of a job,’ says Grayling’s
’I said, ’if you make yourself indispensable, you might get a job.’ Four
years later, he’s a senior account manager.’
Kennedy believes the main problem graduates face is not knowing what
employers want. ’My impression from the number of unsolicited CVs I get
is these poor graduates have no idea of what to expect.’
Grayling, which does not have a formal graduate training scheme, has
over the years employed nine graduates. Kennedy believes the industry
should adopt a more transparent policy on graduate recruitment.
’All consultancies, but certainly the larger ones, need to be clearer
about their requirements so that the graduate world can have some kind
of knowledge and understanding about how they can enter PR.’
Carol Yapp, personnel and development manager for Argyll Consultancies
says that by offering paid work placements the industry could go a long
way towards alleviating the financial strain of a degree. Over the last
five years Argyll has offered two 22-week paid work placements to
students at Brunel University interested in a career in PR.
The company is considering broadening the scheme to include other
’I think work placements are an ideal way of helping students, because
if, like us, you pay above the PRCA guidelines, students can actually
save some of their earnings to fund themselves during their next year at
college,’ she says.
As well as giving something back, Yapp maintains that Argyll also
’From our point of view it’s good management training - we assign the
interns to our more inexperienced managers who don’t line-manage people,
to look after. So it’s quite a good practice ground.’
Peter Walker thinks we may see a return to the sponsorship arrangements
of his student days, where companies provided students with financial
assistance in return for commitment to employment for a certain number
’It may be asking a bit much of companies with a turnover of a half a
million pounds to fund someone through university, but it shouldn’t be
too difficult for the bigger consultancies or some of the major
employers,’ says Walker.
It is an idea which may be beginning to take hold. Launched this month,
Graduate 2000 is the brainchild of Riley Advertising, part of the Lopex
Group. Aimed at undergraduates who will complete their courses in the
year 2000, the scheme offers paid holiday work in one of Riley’s network
of offices, to between ten and 15 first-year undergraduates, for the
duration of their course. If both sides are satisfied, and a job is
available, the intern is automatically offered a job on graduating.
’With tuition fees, people will want to get into full-time work as
quickly as possible, and we were worried we might miss out,’ explains
Jenny Ibison, managing director of Riley Advertising North. ’Since we’ve
talked about it there’s been huge interest from the group, I think
several companies could follow suit.’
Helen Gawler is enthusiastic about the scheme. ’I think that kind of
support needs to happen across the board. We’re the next generation of
employees, if companies can teach us how they want things done, it’s
ultimately to their benefit.’
PRESS GANG: POST OFFICE DELIVERS FIRST CLASS MEDIA RELATIONS
As a business which touches most people every day, the Post Office
places a high premium on media relations. This approach has paid
Last year the Post Office’s press relations office was voted the best
press office department in British industry following a MORI survey of
leading industrial and labour journalists. It is the fourth time it has
topped the poll.
There is stiff competition for a place on the newsroom’s graduate
recruitment scheme with over 100 applicants for one place. The scheme
has been running for ten years and has taken on four graduates. ’Mainly
we recruit journalists from the national end of the spectrum,’ explains
Nick Lillitos, head of the Post Office’s newsroom. ’We decided to have a
blend of experience and to provide on-the-job training. Then we thought
why don’t we take this a step further and grow our own.’
Vacancies are advertised in the university careers bulletin Prospects
Today and the Guardian. While Lillitos has an open mind about degree
subject, he prefers to employ those with degrees which have involved
writing and research.
’If you can write research and write well you’re half way there. The
rest - how to structure a story in the language of journalism, can be
taught on the job.’ Candidates are initially interviewed over the phone
by the personnel department which sends forms from the 30 most promising
candidates to the newsroom. Eight to ten candidates are then invited to
a selection day at the Post Office’s management college in Rugby.
Graduates take part in verbal and numerical reasoning skill tests, role
play and a panel interview.
A typical test might involve writing a plan in response to a brief for a
product launch, or a PR problem, to tight time deadlines.
’We want to test their strategic thinking, in so far as it has developed
and to see whether they can see news in a PR context at a very early
stage,’ explains Lillitos.
Successful graduates are offered a year long placement within the
newsroom from where, if vacancies are available, they can move into
other areas of the business.
Training is on the job, often carried out by ex-TV producers and
national journalists - 90 per cent of newsroom staff have a background
Culturally, the Post Office’s newsroom is closer to journalism than to
PR, and trainees are taught to think like journalists.
Keith Hardie joined the Post Office in 1991 through the general graduate
intake, with a view to joining the national newsroom.
’The training provided by the newsroom was invaluable. There aren’t many
places where, as a graduate you get so involved in such a broad range of
activities. It also gives you a good overview of the business.’ Hardie
is now head of PR at Post Office Counters and believes his time in the
newsroom has had a big impact on his career. ’The newsroom is highly
regarded within the Post Office, which has made it easy for me to move
FISHBURN HEDGES: TAILORING THE TRAWL THROUGH HOPEFULS
The advertisement for Fishburn Hedges’ graduate trainee scheme gave the
usual details about the company and job then issued a challenge:
’Interested? Then interest us’.
Fishburn Hedges launched its first graduate training scheme last
’We felt we had come of age and that we had a strong enough reputation
to attract good calibre people,’ explains Andrew Boys, one of the
agency’s founding directors.
The scheme was advertised in the Guardian’s media section in September
and applicants were asked reply to Lisa Kelly, head of Median
’We had 600 responses so filtering through them was a very big job,’
says Fishburn Hedges consultant Philippa Dale-Thomas. Kelly interviewed
60 people by phone and 30 face-to-face. A shortlist of eight were
invited to Fishburn Hedges’ graduate recruitment day.
Fishburn Hedges carefully researched the format for its graduate day,
talking to recruitment consultants and drawing on the experiences of its
own staff. Candidates were required to complete a timed written test,
take part in a round table debate and give a presentation on ’my
greatest success and my greatest failure.’ While strong communications
skills and creativity were important, Boys admits that the ’X’ factor
played an key role in the final decision. ’Throughout the process what
we were looking for was ’fit in factor’ and how they would perform in
front of the client.’
Two candidates appeared to fit the bill; Amanda Prosser, a English
graduate from Leeds University, and Alan McCormick, who studied politics
and history at London University. They were offered six-month contracts
as graduate trainees and are now receiving intensive training on all
aspects of PR.
For Prosser, whose clients include Nuffield Hospitals, the most useful
training has been actually doing the job. ’What’s great is that the
company trusts us enough to just get on with it.’
This year’s graduate recruitment drive is already underway. ’We’re
trying to implement some of the lessons from last time,’ explains
One of these has been to start the process earlier. Instead of
advertising in the Guardian, the company sent graduate information pack,
including a Rough Guide to Fishburn Hedges, to the careers offices of
the top ten UK universities, and to the PR courses at Cardiff and
’This year instead of 600 CVs we’ve had 60, but the quality has been
consistently high,’ says Dale-Thomas. ’Like all good PR, it’s about
developing a targeted approach.’