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Do PR qualifications make you better at PR?

Like the interminable nature/nurture argument, the debate as to whether experience trumps qualifications goes on and on in PR. However, the truth is that they are not mutually exclusive, both are valuable. As Kate Baldwin, MD at comms agency The Flywheelers, says: “For those that know they want a career in PR, dedicated qualifications are a great route into the industry. But they should only ever be one of many routes. One of the best things about the PR industry - and why I believe we always prove to be so creative and multifaceted - is because there’s no one route in. The diverse mix of education and vocational training that brings people into our industry makes us richer for it.”

Below, PR professionals with either plenty of qualifications or experience (usually, both) debate to what extent studying PR as a discipline benefits your career.

The value of a PR degree

It can be a useful, but not vital, first step

Jessica Pardoe, account manager at agency Source PR: “I studied PR at Liverpool John Moores University and it was great, it gave me a lot of knowledge that I’ve carried through my career. However, I think I’d have struggled if I’d not have completed internships at the same time as they gave me the real hands on experience that PRs need. Plus, the industry changes so often that studying can only get you so far. It’s about living it. I don’t think you need any sort of education to begin working in communications (as long as you can write well and have the right personality). I know quite a few agencies that hire people straight out of school and train them up, and it works really well for them. So in short, yes a qualification in PR is great, but you absolutely don’t need one to do well, and that’s coming from Jessica Pardoe BA Hons!”

It gives you confidence as well as skills

Madhu Dhanapal, recent PR graduate and former senior account manager: “I was a PR newbie when I first joined APCO Worldwide in Dubai, in 2018. Like many others in the industry, I had to learn the ropes on the job. It was a challenge acclimating to the agency world, especially where it’s important to not only manage multiple accounts under tight deadlines but also to form solid working relationships with clients and the media. It was either sink or swim learning, and I did whatever I could to keep my head above water.

“Whilst this sink-or-swim situation helped me jumpstart my career and level up to a senior position within the agency, looking back, I wish I had the formal education to help me prepare for the unfamiliar.

“Today, as a recent graduate of Seneca College’s Public Relations-Corporate Communications program, I can firmly attest to the benefits of a PR qualification. It has equipped me with the knowledge and transferable skills and helped develop industry contacts and networks, making me workplace-ready (with little on-the-job training needed).

“From writing newsworthy press releases and developing strategic communications plans within pressing deadlines to effective client management, media communications and ethical practice, I now have all the necessary tools to progress in my PR career.”

They offer a great way in

Mike Maynard, managing director at PR agency Napier: “Recently there has been a trend of PR personalities questioning the value of PR qualifications. This is ridiculous: they are trying to look cool by shooting the industry in the foot. PR degrees are a great way to get into the industry and to build a solid foundation of knowledge that will serve you well throughout your career.

“Of course, there are great candidates for PR roles that didn’t get a PR qualification. Yes, it’s perfectly possible to be successful in PR without spending three years on a PR degree. But does that mean PR degrees are not valuable? Absolutely not!

“We’re supposed to be a profession, but sometimes our attitude to PR education is anything but professional It’s time the industry stops being so pretentious about who they want to hire, and starts supporting, rather than undermining, PR education.”

Why post-grad professional qualifications matter

 They improve competencies

Heather Yaxley, managing consultant at Applause Consultancy: “My expertise is in effective strategies for sustainable mid-career development. Anyone with a few years practical experience in PR/communications or transferring into the field.

“We’re talking about post-graduate level professional qualifications from bodies such as CIPR or PRCA. These improve competence in critical thinking, problem solving, reflection and applying theory to practical situations.”

They demonstrate a commitment to your career

Heather Yaxley: “Professional qualifications demonstrate a commitment to lifelong, life-wide and life deep learning to take careers forwards, upwards and in new directions. Building on experience and existing capabilities, learning comes from various fields - management, leadership, communication - but also ethics, psychology, sociology, political science, for example.”

They help you to earn more

Heather Yaxley: “There’s clear evidence that qualifications improve career potential. They can also realise an immediate financial result. Recently I supported a student with an assignment that created an expanded remit with a multinational client by presenting a solution to an issue before it developed into a crisis.”

They can take you to the top

Andrew Bartlett, director of science and engineering at PR agency Definition: “If you really want to make it to the very top as a professional then you need the intellectual rigour and broader world view that comes with a qualification. Indeed, if you plan to achieve the highest professional status, which is to be a chartered member of the CIPR, the assessors will generally be looking for the breadth of knowledge that comes with having a relevant qualification.

“That doesn’t have to be a degree in PR, although they are great. There is a lot to be said for studying for a qualification whilst working, such as the PR Diploma, as that enables practical knowledge to be combined with theory.

“One of the reasons that I am so keen on PR qualifications is that I wouldn’t be here without them. Over 30 years ago I had reached a good level as an engineer but really wanted to change career into PR. But I fell into the trap of every employer wanting experience, but without a job I couldn’t get experience. I was given some great advice, which was to go and do evening classes in the old CAM (Communication Advertising and Marketing) courses. That enabled me to start closing the credibility gap and meet lots of people who were working in PR, and eventually one of them told me about a job that was going.

“Because I know from experience how hard it can be to get started in this career if it doesn’t immediately appear that you have the right qualification I take a very broad view and look mainly for aptitude and attitude. But I do regard formal PR qualifications as essential for long-term career development.”

A masters in journalism is particularly useful

Eddie Hammerman, managing director at marketing communications agency The 10 Group: “If I'd pick one qualification to further a career in PR, it's the journalism masters. It's so useful to be able to think like a journalist and understand what is required for brand storytelling. It sets candidates apart. Digital and social hands-on experience is also essential, especially around new channels but PR courses with low level qualifications can help to provide basic levels of knowledge which should kick-start a journey of personal growth and discovery.” 

Why experience is most important

 Theory is only good in theory

Amy Martin, freelance PR consultant and head of UK PR at dash cam brand Nextbase: “I have worked freelance for many agencies and climbed the ladder relatively quickly, despite having no formal PR qualifications.

“The question of education vs experience is an interesting one, particularly now, when qualifications alone rarely equip you for even entry-level PR roles. I studied law with the Open University, so entered the world of PR as green as it gets. From work experience at agency House PR to my current role as head of PR for a leading tech brand, I’ve found that the best PRs - regardless of background - have soaked up the lessons of the mentors, managers and colleagues around them. Theory isn’t what distinguishes them, its learnt best practice, fair judgement, unbridled creativity, and active empathy. Theory can only take you so far in a business that lives through the hearts and minds of people. The cost of a degree is far better spent investing in internships and work experience, and is far more likely to lead to a job.”

You need to learn from mistakes

Olivia Bence, digital PR campaign manager at agency Marketing Signals: “Every little bit helps and having a PR qualification is not going to harm your chances of being a success. However, I will always say experience is vital for excelling in this industry, learning how to deal when a campaign doesn’t go the way you want it to, a crisis, a demanding client or when you haven’t hit your targets. You’ll learn all of this when you’re in the job, making mistakes and learning from them is the real secret to success. Whilst a qualification will teach you the ins and outs of PR, it won’t teach you how to deal with a stressful situation.“

First person

Why PR needs to build better relationships with unis

Stephen Waddington, managing partner at PR advisory firm Wadds Inc and visiting professor in practice at Newcastle University: “The poor relationship and weak ties between education and experience in public relations is systematic of the insecurity of the role of the profession. This isn't a debate that occurs in any other management profession.

“Practitioners expect students that have studied public relations to emerge from university with practical skills that they are able to apply immediately to the working environment. In any other professional discipline there is a formal period of conversation for graduates. Degree apprenticeships have gone some way to addressing this issue but also tackling diversity in public relations. 

“Building stronger relationships between education, research and practice would help improve the pipeline of talent in public relations. Improved relationships between academics and practitioners would also help address some of the big challenges facing public relations such as innovation, misinformation, and measurement.”

Many creative industries place greater emphasis on experience rather than qualifications, which makes it hard to break into them. PR is one industry which particularly values people who have a good few years’ practical experience under their belts, whilst at the same time suffers from a skills shortage, so it seems short sighted to ignore the value of PR graduates. As for continuing with gaining professional qualifications, they may not be necessary to progress in your career, but they can certainly help.

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