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How to get a job in PR

Chaperoning top-level celebrities to fundraising for a charity, lobbying the government, arranging creative stunts or communicating about global business - the world of public relations is all this and much more.

Case study

Emma Thwaites, Associate Director of News and PR, Central Office of Information (COI)

Photo of Emma Thwaites
Emma Thwaites of COI

The public sector may not always have a reputation for being fast-moving and at the cutting edge. But public relations professionals working in the Central Office of Information would beg to differ.

COI is the Government's centre of excellence for marketing and communications and the biggest employer of communications professionals in government. Its scale and breadth makes it a force to be reckoned with in PR terms. The scope of the government departments it works with is huge – from health and education to benefits, rights and welfare. The news and PR department alone employs around 120 people.

"We can be called upon to respond incredibly quickly to government briefs, particularly when there's a crisis, so we need to be able to work on the hoof as well as more strategically. When you walk through the door of the COI, you know it's a real hothouse for building knowledge and learning," says Emma Thwaites.

In addition to an in-house team that operates in a similar way to a PR agency delivering PR campaigns on behalf of government departments and the public sector, COI helps to source PR specialists using a framework or roster of PR agencies. This means agencies can compete for government and public sector work without going through a lengthy procurement process for every contract.

Thwaites entered the world of PR after a 12 year stint in journalism at the BBC across a variety of roles in regional broadcasting including reporter, producer, news editor and presenter. "It gave me a lot of skills and knowledge that I could bring to the job," she says.

Regardless of the degree you study, if a communications career is what you aspire to it's important to get involved in communications activities at college. "PR is about people and it's about delivery," Thwaites says. "You're persuading people to do things, getting them to understand your message and changing behaviour."

Thwaites believes PR degrees are not always the best way in to the industry, and advocates a more hands-on approach to learning. "While a three year degree in PR can be valuable, personally I think you're better off learning on the job and learning from your mistakes. If you want to be good in this business, cutting your teeth on the shop floor is as good a route as any."

If you do decide to study for an undergraduate degree in PR, go for one that includes work experience as a core part of the course, Thwaites advises. "Get work experience and do as much as you can. When I started in broadcast I worked a lot for nothing. I think that's fair for a short period of time. One good thing about PR courses is that course leaders often have contacts that facilitate placements."

Rather than adopt a scattergun approach to work placements, be as strategic as possible in your choices of work experience and, later on, jobs. "Find somewhere where you're going to get something out of it. Research the people in the organisation and find out about their backgrounds. Do they have specialisms that really interest you?"

Standing out from the crowd is a sure-fire way to make a name for yourself and could result in a job offer and a fast track to the career of your dreams. But what attributes differentiate good interns from the rest? "Enthusiasm, a willingness to jump into anything and give it your best, not being afraid to ask questions and delivering to the best of your abilities on anything – even making the tea!," says Thwaites.

Those who prefer to hide in the background need not apply, she warns. "There's no place in this business for shy retiring types. People who don't have ideas or who are afraid to talk about them are unlikely to succeed."

No surprise then that PR is a popular career choice, consistently ranking in the top three career choices of graduates. Today an estimated 48,000 people work within PR in the UK across a huge variety of roles, companies and industry sectors.

There are two ways to work in PR: either in a consultancy providing advice and specialist services to clients, or in-house working exclusively for the organisation. But beyond that, employers say misconceptions about PR are rife, alarmingly even among those looking to forge a career in the industry.

"I come across a huge number who don't know the difference between PR and advertising and want to go into public relations because they're good with people," says Anthony Wilson, operations director of international agency Hotwire PR.

"It's not all about working with celebrities or champagne receptions," says Nina Croad, PR and marketing manager at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. "It's a fast paced and challenging industry. If you have the right aptitude you can progress quite quickly; it's not unusual for good people to move up to director level by their late 20s."

Some misunderstandings about the public relations industry are to be excused. Averill Gordon is course leader of the University of Gloucestershire 's BA in Public Relations. "There are so many definitions [of PR] today and it demands a lot of adaptability," she says. "It used to be just media relations and that's still a fundamental part but there are lots of other things creeping in and playing a more important role."

In particular corporate social responsibility, internal communications, reputation management and crisis management are all now a fundamental part of the PR professional's remit.

Certain personal attributes will stand you in good stead for success in a fast-moving and highly competitive field. "Candidates need to be intelligent, ambitious, good at multitasking, disciplined and business like," Wilson says.

The changing boundaries of PR jobs mean that to succeed is to be nimble. "You also need to be creative, a good writer and articulate. Having a personal interest helps because you're naturally motivated to learn about the discipline. And PR is a team effort so if you're not a team player you won't succeed," says Averill Gordon.

PR makes use of knowledge and skills drawn from different disciplines like business management, marketing and psychology, for example. That's perhaps one reason why it tends to welcome students from a wide variety of academic backgrounds.

Although most entry level PR jobs stipulate that a good first degree is a must, a degree in PR is not necessary. Hotwire PR this year took on 15 graduates across Europe onto its in-house training programme. Anthony Wilson says as far as the agency is concerned, degree discipline is irrelevant. "Some people are snobby about PR degrees but we don't differentiate between PR or otherwise. It's about finding people with a first rate academic track record."

But as more and more people now have degrees and both companies and PR agencies cut down on the amount of in-house training they provide, the industry is beginning to realise the value of PR graduates. Averill Gordon admits that it has taken a while for PR degrees to gain widespread credibility across the industry. "In the past I think people thought it was a fluffy degree," she explains. "Now they realise we're attracting a higher level of candidates."

Bear in mind that not all qualifications are equal. If you do decide to go down the PR degree or postgraduate qualification route, target universities that have built up a good reputation for their media courses. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) accredits around 40 courses (all are listed on its website). Cardiff, Bournemouth and Leeds are among those with the best reputations for PR courses in the UK.

Some of the larger consultancies offer graduate trainee schemes but the number of places up for grabs is small and the selection process vigorous. Tricia Moon is a director of Resonate, one of the top 10 consumer PR agencies in the UK and part of Bell Pottinger, the UK's largest PR group. Moon is also responsible for graduate recruitment. "To us, what's most important is strong academic achievement -- a 2:1 degree plus."

This year the group had nine places on offer on its graduate training programme – and more than 400 people applied. Despite the huge over-subscription, Moon says some fundamental mistakes on the part of applicants made it very easy to whittle that huge number down to 150. "You'd be surprised at the poor quality of some applications – poor punctuation, spelling mistakes, bad English. Some people don't put in the time and effort. If they're trying to get into a communications role, they need to be able to communicate."

When filling in an application form for a job, remember to do your research, from the basics (what is PR – the CIPR website can help you there) to more specifics about the company in questions. "Some people have been known to cut and paste from our website for applications and it's very easy to spot," Moon warns.

Fortunately it's easy enough to find information on the Web that will add real clout to your application and personalise it enough to prick up the ears of a prospective employer, Hotwire's Wilson says. "Find out which campaigns the agency has worked on. If someone gets in touch and says ‘I saw that really good bit of PR you did for Duracell, that will impress me. And if you know someone at an agency, grill them."

PR may have a glamourous and at times quirky image, but looking the part at interview could make a big difference to your chances of success. "You need to look good but if in doubt play it a bit safe at the first interview," Wilson says.

Work experience is crucial as it provides aspiring practitioners with a better understanding of the business. Paid work experience can be a temporary position or a short-term contract. And although as a volunteer you may not receive payment, you'll be building all-important contacts. Any relevant experience is useful as it shows initiative and commitment.

You can't start too early when it comes to planning your work experience assault. "We get booked up a year in advance for our work experience placements. Work experience is terribly, terribly important," says Tricia Moon.

That's one of the advantages of signing up to a PR degree, where a professional placement is a core part of the curriculum and universities have established links with PR industry employers. "We offer a full year placement as part of our degree course," says Averill Gordon. "After that they can specialise in public affairs, consumer affairs, online PR. Our course structure means after they graduate students can go for jobs that are asking for one year's experience."

The Hollis UK Press & Public Relations Annual is a good source of contact details for PR consultancies and in-house PR departments. But in addition to the largest national PR agencies you should also target local agencies and remember that any local company is likely to have a PR department. "A placement with any media organisation will help you understand communications," Gordon says.

In addition to an up-to-date CV, speculative applications to PR agencies should include a focused covering letter that outlines your reasons for wanting to do work experience with that company and details of how you think you can add value. "Being a team player, managing budgets and anything that involves writing or presentations will be an advantage," says Gordon.

"Contact as many agencies as possible and offer to work for the minimum wage," says Hotwire's Wilson. "We wait until we get a really compelling approach. They need to email the person in charge of recruitment and persevere."

If you do secure a stint of work experience, make sure you extract maximum value from it by being as proactive as possible and turning it into a valuable learning experience. "Offer yourself up to do anything and ask questions all the time. Enthusiasm and initiative go a long way," says Moon.

"You need to make an effort to add value – look business like, be on time, be professional and solve problems. Do all of that, and very often at the end we'll ask if you want a job," says Hotwire's Wilson.

Rather than leaving things to chance, it's advisable to talk to your manager when you start to outline a plan for what you are going to be doing. "If you don't do that at the beginning you could find yourself stuck doing the photocopying," advises Gordon. "You need to understand the company protocol – is it formal or informal. Find out from the start what your duties are."

Gordon also advises people on work experience placements to keep a ‘reflective diary.' "You should write what you've learnt and how, challenges and how they overcame them." Such a diary will, Gordon says, help interns identify how they learnt, what they found easiest and overcame challenges. "Keep as many examples as possible of what you've done and put yourself forward as much as possible. Participate and be engaged."

The CIPR organises career days aimed at both undergraduates and graduates. The next event will take place on 27 November.