Public relations officers manage the reputation and image of their clients, working to gain public understanding and support through planned publicity campaigns

A career in public relations (PR) involves using 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. This may be between organisations (business-to-business, or B2B) or individuals, and the general public.

As a PR officer or PR account executive, 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

As a public relations officer, you'll need to:

  • work as part of an account team (in smaller organisations you may be the sole PR lead or work as an agency PR officer) where you’ll plan, develop and implement PR strategies
  • build strong relationships and networks with colleagues, clients and the media and answer enquiries from the media and other organisations
  • monitor the media, including newspapers, magazines, journals, broadcasts, newswires, social media sites and blogs, for opportunities for clients
  • research, write and distribute press releases to targeted media
  • collate and analyse media coverage
  • write and edit in-house magazines, case studies, speeches, articles and annual reports
  • prepare and supervise the production of publicity brochures, handouts, direct mail leaflets, promotional videos, photographs, films and multimedia programmes
  • devise photo opportunities and coordinate studio or location photography
  • organise events (such as press conferences, exhibitions, open days and press tours), source speakers and seek out sponsorship opportunities
  • maintain and update information on the organisation's website
  • manage and update information and engage with users on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook
  • prepare regular client reports and attend client meetings
  • commission market research
  • undertake research for new business proposals and present them to potential new clients
  • foster good community relations through events such as open days and through involvement in community initiatives
  • manage the PR aspect of a potential crisis situation.

Salary

  • Starting salaries for PR officers are around £18,000 to £24,000.
  • Senior PR officers and account managers usually earn in the region of £25,000 to £40,000.
  • Senior management positions, such as PR director or head of corporate affairs, attract salaries of up to £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 generally 9am to 5.30pm, but are frequently longer due to the demands of your workload. As client deadlines are all-important, you'll have to work until outstanding jobs have been completed. Press launches, crisis management and pitches can all result in long hours. Some agencies have a much more ingrained long-hours culture than others.

Working in a self-employed or freelance capacity is possible, although this is more common for experienced PR professionals. Career breaks and part-time work are possible as well.

What to expect

  • The job is generally office-based, but you may have to travel frequently to attend networking and media events and exhibitions, as well as meetings with clients. International travel may also be necessary.
  • The work can be stressful, for example when meeting tight deadlines, juggling various projects or working on a new business proposal, but it can also be very rewarding.
  • PR professionals are often expected to network and socialise with clients, the media and colleagues to build and maintain relationships. The boundaries between your social and working life may become somewhat blurred.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Qualifications

There are no set qualifications to becoming a PR officer, but most entrants tend to have a degree or an 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.

A postgraduate qualification in PR may improve your chances of securing a position, although personal qualities and experience may be more important to employers. To see what's available, search postgraduate courses in public relations.

Skills

You'll need to demonstrate:

  • excellent interpersonal and communication skills, including effective writing skills
  • self-confidence, drive, competence and a willingness to learn
  • excellent organisational and time management skills with the ability to multitask
  • flexibility, determination, enthusiasm and the ability to cope under pressure
  • creativity, imagination and initiative
  • good teamwork, negotiation and problem-solving skills
  • business awareness and a good knowledge of current affairs
  • the ability to think strategically, for planning successful PR campaigns
  • the capacity to prioritise tasks and projects effectively.

Work experience

Pre-entry experience in PR, communications, marketing and media is highly desirable as this is a competitive career. However, 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.

Your university careers service may have details of available PR work placements, but you may need to approach PR agencies directly. You can also find out about work placements and graduate training schemes by joining the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR). Student membership is offered at a reduced rate. Membership will also enable you to access details of courses and training, including the qualifications leading to Chartered Public Relations Practitioner status.

Find out more about the different kinds of work experience and internships that are available.

Employers

PR practitioners usually either work for a PR agency or in an organisation's in-house PR department. Working across a range of industries and settings, including:

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

In-house department - this is where a company has its own PR department, which works exclusively for it. It may be a public, commercial or not-for-profit organisation. As an in-house PR professional, you'll need to acquire specialist knowledge of the particular area in which you're working to enable you to design and implement a specific PR programme to meet the organisation's requirements.

PR consultancies - these 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:

Specialist recruitment agencies such as PR Futures handle PR vacancies but these are often for experienced practitioners.

A speculative approach can be fruitful. The professional PR body PRCA (Public Relations and Communications Association) has a Member Directory list of PR consultancies. It also offers membership, careers information, training and qualifications. LinkedIn is also a good resource for finding PR agencies and vacancies.

Joining a consultancy or in-house PR department in a junior role, such as a PR assistant, could be a good starting point.

Another route into PR is via an apprenticeship, such as those run by the Public Relations and Communications Agency (PRCA).

Professional development

Your training will vary depending on the organisation. Some larger firms have structured initial training and continuing professional development (CPD) courses or even a graduate training scheme. However, the majority of your training will be on the job working with more experienced colleagues, with your responsibility being extended gradually as your ability improves and opportunities arise.

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

There's 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:

  • Professional PR 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.
  • Professional PR diploma - helps experienced PR professionals develop the skills and leadership qualities needed to progress to senior management.

A range of relevant professional courses is also provided by The Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM).

Continuing professional development (CPD) will form an important part of your career development and by continually developing and enhancing your skills, you can increase your chances of progression. CIPR runs a CPD scheme designed specifically for public relations professionals.

Career prospects

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 can 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, such as senior account executive or account manager, 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.

After a further two to three years at this level, you may have enough experience to seek promotion to account director, where you'll have responsibility for higher-profile clients and all the staff working on the account teams. From here you could progress to PR director and eventually perhaps be asked to sit at board level, or you may choose to set up your own agency.

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

Self-employment is an option later in your career if you've built up a good network of contacts and wish to operate as a freelance consultant or set up your own firm.

Find out how Beth became a music PR manager at BBC Bitesize.

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