Public Relations, Careers in

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The wide range of career opportunities for people working in public relations include such jobs as media relations specialist for an insurance company, newsletter editor for an urban renewal agency, special events coordinator for a hotel, sports information director for a university, writer-editor for a public relations agency, community relations coordinator for a hospital, fund-raiser for the American Red Cross, speechwriter for a U.S. senator, and freelancer specializing in the preparation of video news releases.

In few other fields of mass communication would one find the range of job positions one finds in the area of public relations. As the above examples show, the array of possibilities available to a recent college graduate is vast. First, there is the varied choice of setting: public relations agency, government, industry, educational institutions, or nonprofit organizations. Then there is the range of endeavors: writing, editing, meeting the public, arranging events, replying to inquiries for information, distributing material to the news media, or coordinating campaigns with advertising and marketing people. Some public relations positions involve many or all of these skills.

Many public relations people begin their careers in other fields. Journalism has long been a starting place for careers in public relations because reporting, writing, and editing skills can be used not only by an employee of the news media, but also by a public relations person who prepares stories for a client and distributes them to the news media. The line between public relations and allied fields such as advertising and marketing gets blurred within the communications departments of many large organizations and in "full-service" agencies that offer advertising, marketing, and public relations services to their clients. The line does not exist at all in nonprofit groups.

The Public Relations Society of America has identified four levels of professional competence:

  1. "Beginning professional" refers to a junior staff member who is using basic skills and is undergoing training. In an agency, the official title might be "writer," "researcher," or "assistant."
  2. "Staff professional" refers to someone who, after amassing eighteen to twenty-four months of experience at the craft, takes on an initial supervisory role. In an agency, the title might be "assistant account executive."
  3. "Professional manager" refers to someone with at least five years of experience whose activities include direction of staff and department operations, research, planning, budgeting, evaluation, and personal communication. In an agency, the title might be "account executive."
  4. "Senior professional" refers to a top management position where the responsibilities would include running an operation, serving as adviser and policymaker, dealing with public affairs and issues management, and consulting with top management on communication policies. In an agency, the title might be "vice-president."

Alternatively, one can aspire to run one's own agency or become chief public relations officer (CPRO) at a corporation or chief information officer (CIO) in a government agency.

Unlike the field of medicine, where one attends medical school and then endures a long residency, the aspiring public relations practitioner can take many routes. If the career decision is made upon entering college, then majoring in journalism or communication makes sense. One or the other of those departments at most universities offers a sequence of public relations courses, and some offer full majors in public relations. Courses in organizational communication also provide a helpful background.

More than two hundred universities in the United States have chapters of the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA). This means that each of the respective universities offers at least five courses in public relations, has a faculty member who belongs to the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), and is affiliated with a local or state chapter of PRSA. PRSSA membership is an advantage because, in addition to sponsoring speakers and field trips, most student chapters run agencies that take on "real-world" clients from the campus and the community, which helps students build their resumes while in college.

Internships also are an invaluable way of getting experience while in college. If one is able to do more than a single internship, this provides the opportunity to try out different settings—perhaps working for a nonprofit organization and then moving to an agency or corporate position.

Lack of either a major in public relations or experience in multiple internships will not disqualify the late-bloomer who discovers public relations as a senior, after graduation, or even after sampling another career or serving in the military. For example, one can serve as a public information officer in the military and, upon discharge, present worthy credentials for employment by a civilian public relations employer. Majors in business, English, psychology, and political science can also lead to successful careers for those who belatedly discover the field of public relations.

The key to success in public relations is a skills-set that includes good writing and research abilities, strong interpersonal skills, imagination, and the ability to work in team settings. When the trade publication PR Week (1999) asked practitioners whether they would advise their children to pursue careers in public relations, the responses focused on such diverse issues as the pressures to perform, the ethics of disseminating information, the motivation needed, and the opportunity to shape the world of the future.

More and more practitioners are finding that they need to broaden their skills and learn new techniques and technologies as the field becomes more complicated and the pace of communication quickens. Membership in PRSA or the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) provides the opportunity to hear professional speakers, attend workshops, and participate in conferences where new ideas and fresh approaches are discussed. Most universities offer continuing education courses (such as those focusing on the latest computer skills) that are of value to public relations practitioners. With all of this in mind, the consensus among those working in the area is that public relations demands a high level of professionalism from its practitioners.

See also:Chief Information Officers; Public Relations.


"Would You Ever Recommend that Your Son or Daughter Pursue a Career in PR?" (1999). PR Week, Nov. 1, p. 12.

Todd Hunt

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