Creative communicators who thrive on the demands of client reputation management should check out the competitive field of public relations

Public relations (PR) is about managing reputation. A career in PR involves gaining understanding and support for your clients, as well as trying to influence opinion and behaviour.

You'll use all forms of media and communication to build, maintain and manage the reputation of your clients. These range from public bodies or services, to businesses and voluntary organisations.

You'll communicate key messages, often using third party endorsements, to defined target audiences in order to establish and maintain goodwill and understanding between an organisation and its public.

As a PR officer, you'll monitor publicity and conduct research to find out the concerns and expectations of your client organisation's stakeholders. You'll then report and explain the findings to its management.

Responsibilities

You'll usually work in-house in either the private or public sectors, from the utility and media sectors to voluntary and not-for-profit organisations. Some PR officers may be based in consultancies.

The role is very varied and tasks will depend on the organisation and sector. Responsibilities often involve:

  • planning, developing and implementing PR strategies;
  • communicating with colleagues and key spokespeople;
  • liaising with, and answering enquiries from media, individuals and other organisations, often via telephone and email;
  • researching, writing and distributing press releases to targeted media;
  • collating and analysing media coverage;
  • writing and editing in-house magazines, case studies, speeches, articles and annual reports;
  • preparing and supervising the production of publicity brochures, handouts, direct mail leaflets, promotional videos, photographs, films and multimedia programmes;
  • devising and coordinating photo opportunities;
  • organising events including press conferences, exhibitions, open days and press tours;
  • maintaining and updating information on the organisation's website;
  • managing and updating information and engaging with users on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook;
  • sourcing and managing speaking and sponsorship opportunities;
  • commissioning market research;
  • fostering community relations through events such as open days and through involvement in community initiatives;
  • managing the PR aspect of a potential crisis situation.

Salary

  • The average salary range for a PR assistant is around £18,000 to £20,000. This is a typical graduate entry-level role if you're looking to become a PR officer.
  • Average starting salaries for PR officers can range from £22,000 to £28,000.
  • With a few years' experience, salaries can increase to more than £40,000.
  • Senior management positions, such as PR director or head of corporate affairs can range from £40,000 to more than £100,000.

Salaries in PR vary depending on the setting and the region. For example, pay is typically higher in the private sector. Apart from the public sector, there are generally no set salary scales, and initial starting salaries can be modest.

Salaries are usually higher in London and the South East.

Some organisations operate bonus schemes, while others may offer other incentives such as private health insurance or a company car. You may also be provided with a laptop and/or mobile phone.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are full time, generally 9am to 5.30pm but can often increase depending on workload, with some unsocial hours. You may have to attend events in the evening or be on call at weekends in order to deal quickly with the PR aspect of a crisis.

Self-employment and freelance work are possible, although this is more common for experienced PR professionals. Career breaks and part-time work are possible as well.

What to expect

  • PR officers are generally office based but you may be required to attend networking and media events as well as meetings with clients, suppliers and partner organisations.
  • At an early stage, you can expect to work closely with a variety of clients, key spokespeople and managers, often at senior level.
  • The numbers of men and women working in the PR industry are roughly equal, although the number of women occupying senior positions is still significantly lower.
  • The PR industry has a wide geographical spread throughout the main commercial centres in the UK, with openings often occurring in all regions. However, there is a heavy concentration in and around London.
  • Dress is generally smart.
  • You will be expected to network and socialise with clients, the media and colleagues to build and maintain relationships. Social and working life may become slightly intertwined.
  • It is likely that you will have to travel during the working day, including occasionally staying away from home overnight. The role may require international travel, depending on the organisation.

Qualifications

No set qualifications are required to become a PR officer, but most entrants tend to have a degree or a HND.

There are few specific PR degree courses available, and entry to the profession is generally open to all graduates. However, as PR is one of the most popular career choices for graduates in the UK, the following degree and HND subjects may be particularly helpful:

  • business/management;
  • communication and media studies;
  • English and creative writing;
  • marketing;
  • politics;
  • social sciences.

Postgraduate qualifications in PR are available and may improve your chances of securing a position, although they will not replace the personal qualities and experience that employers are looking for. Search for postgraduate courses in public relations.

Skills

You will need to have:

  • excellent communication, interpersonal and writing skills;
  • drive, competence, flexibility and a willingness to learn;
  • excellent organisational and time management skills with the ability to multitask;
  • the ability to cope with pressure;
  • creativity, imagination and initiative;
  • good teamwork, analytical and problem-solving skills;
  • business awareness and a good knowledge of current affairs.

Work experience

Pre-entry experience in PR, communications, marketing and media is highly desirable, although relevant paid experience may be difficult to find.

Volunteering is a very useful way of gaining experience. Helping at a local charity can give you exposure to planning events, contacting media outlets and writing press releases and articles. Keep a record or copy of anything you organise or write. Employers also like graduates with experience of writing for student magazines or who have been involved with student radio or university societies.

It is worth contacting your university careers service, as they may have details of available PR work placements.

As a student, you can join the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) at a reduced rate. This will enable you to access details of work placements and opportunities to network with employers. The CIPR provides details of graduate training schemes and offers courses and training, including the qualifications leading to Chartered Public Relations Practitioner status.

Joining a consultancy or in-house PR department in a junior role, such as a PR assistant, may be a good starting point. Many PR departments and consultancies are small and not rigidly structured so, by demonstrating the right mix of ability and commitment, you may get the opportunity to develop your career. Entry as a secretary or administrator could also lead to professional opportunities.

Competition for jobs is fierce, and although PR has a glamorous image, you should be aware of the pressures as well as the rewards of a career in this field.

Employers

PR practitioners work across a range of industries and may work in any of the following settings:

  • business-to-business (B2B);
  • consumer;
  • corporate;
  • financial;
  • internal communications;
  • local government;
  • not-for-profit organisations and charities;
  • public affairs;
  • trade and technical.

Vacancies for PR officers exist in-house and in consultancies:

  • An in-house department works exclusively for one company or organisation, which may be public, commercial or not-for-profit. As an in-house PR professional, you'll need to acquire specialist knowledge of the particular area in which you are working to enable you to design and implement a specific PR programme to meet the organisation's requirements.
  • PR consultancies provide an independent service to several client organisations, often working within very different market sectors. Consultancies vary in size, from large international firms with offices throughout the world to small local firms who may specialise in a specific area such as fashion, music, healthcare or finance. Larger consultancies are likely to have a wider client base, ranging from law firms to builders' merchants.

In some cases, in-house PR professionals may work cooperatively with PR consultancies on certain projects.

Look for job vacancies at:

Vacancies for in-house PR posts are often advertised in the national, regional or local press, as well as the industry press listed above. Consultancy vacancies may also be advertised.

There are specialist PR recruitment agencies, but they invariably deal only with vacancies for experienced practitioners.

Some graduates obtain their first post as a result of a speculative approach. To identify contacts for speculative applications use the publications listed above and social networking sites such as LinkedIn.

Professional development

Your training will vary depending on the organisation. Some larger firms offer graduate training schemes, which provide you with a structured programme of work experience and skills development. However, the majority of training will be on the job, working with more experienced colleagues with responsibility being extended gradually as ability and opportunity allow.

Many organisations encourage new employees to go on short, external courses that are designed for PR professionals. For example, a range of short courses specifically tailored for PR professionals are run by the:

There is an increasing emphasis on gaining professional qualifications in PR. The CIPR offers the following courses, which are available on a part-time and distance-learning basis:

  • Advanced certificate - aimed at graduates interested in pursuing a career in PR or people who have been working in the business at fairly junior levels for at least two years. It is designed to provide knowledge and understanding of the theory and practice of PR as well as the strategic roles and functions of the PR practitioner, in preparation for the diploma;
  • Diploma - helps PR practitioners to develop as effective and efficient professionals with leadership potential.

A range of relevant professional courses are also provided by the:

Career prospects

PR is a growing industry and offers good career development opportunities. However, there is strong competition for jobs at all levels.

PR departments and consultancies do not always adhere to traditional patterns of career progression but, if you demonstrate outstanding ability, promotion can be rapid.

As a new graduate, you could expect to work as a PR assistant or junior account executive for one or two years before gaining promotion to PR officer or account executive.

Further progression to management-level posts is likely to take a further two to three years and depends heavily on your personal aptitude, performance and motivation. A willingness to move between employers or geographical areas may be necessary in order to broaden your experience or move into a more specialist role.

Consultancy can offer broad experience before specialising. It is possible to move between in-house and consultancy roles.

Professional qualifications may also assist with career development and can be gained through the CIPR.

There is little standardisation of PR job titles, so these may vary depending on the agency or organisation.

Self-employment may also be an option later in your career if you wish to operate as a freelance consultant or set up your own PR firm.