Which degree courses make you good at PR?

From what degree is preferred, to other skills and personality types in demand, senior PR folk discuss what it takes for a graduate to get noticed by PR recruiters.

Preferred degree subjects

Arts and business

Rosa Mitchell, creative strategy manager at agency Bring Digital: “As PR is all about understanding audiences’ behaviour and harnessing creativity, courses like English, psychology and journalism may give graduates a head start. Courses like creative writing or art help students hone the creative skills they need to develop compelling narratives – something that is highly valued in PR. Additionally, anyone who studies a business degree will understand the importance of marketing as a whole; they’ll possess a forward-thinking and strategic knowledge that provides creatives with the commercial vision they need to improve performance.”

PR

Chris Lee, independent PR and digital consultant at Eight Moon Media: “I’ve worked in the PR industry for two decades and I really don’t think it matters what degree someone has. PR is as about personality, imagination, creation, people skills and application.

“Two of the best people I have ever worked with did have PR degrees. With PR degrees the risk is that – in our fast-evolving industry – the content is quickly out-of-date. Also, candidates could go into the workplace finding that the reality is very different from the theory, which is why it’s essential that degrees include some work experience in-agency or in-house. 

“I have an Australian colleague who’s surprised how few UK PROs have a PR or journalism degree, as in Australia students tend to study for their intended career. I don’t – I have European Studies and just fell into the industry!”

Journalism

Marcia Veiga, account executive at agency Uprise PR: “Attending a university that specialised in multimedia journalism, as opposed to a broader course, contributed to my choice to work within the PR industry. My course taught me to write all styles of articles, edit using multiple programs and curate content regardless of the media outlet. It provided me with a style of flexibility that no other course would, whilst aiding in building my communicative skills. During my final year, shortly after hearing that my peers had applied for alternative roles within the media industry, I applied for a three-month PR internship. It offered me the opportunity to communicate with clients, pitch and write articles, manage social media presences and work on PR campaigns.”

Steve Lambert, account manager at comms agency Freshwater: “I studied journalism in university with the ambition of a career in that role. It was during my studies that I realised the skills I developed could be used in a number of careers outside of journalism, which eventually led me into public relations.

“I believe that utilising transferrable skills is vital. Some of the most creative projects I’ve been involved in have been in collaboration with colleagues, who have a vast mix of professional backgrounds. This has not only enhanced the quality of output for the client, but also helped my own development.”

More arts, less STEM

Connor Mitchell, consultant at PR agency Tyto: "Breaking into PR doesn’t only require graduates to have studied a degree in public relations, or even to have limited their area of study to a certain pool of degrees. However, the transition out of education, and into an agency or in-house gig, is likely to be all the more seamless for those who have taken a subject focused on churning out essays or communicating in a foreign language.

“Traditionally, subjects like politics, history, English literature or philosophy, or even Spanish, Arabic or French, probably make these graduates better suited for PR than those with STEM degrees. Although, given our growing reliance on technology, these degrees still absolutely play an important role in the evolving nature of communications too. “

Art history, literature and performance

Digby Halsby, director at agency Flint Culture: “As a communications consultancy for the cultural and creative industries, we are inevitably looking for candidates with a close understanding of the sector, which tends to favour more specialised degrees in art history, literature and performance. Our staff can draw on specialist knowledge, insight and importantly personal passion, which is meaningful to our clients and beneficial to our campaigns. Yet working in communications, it is also important to be able to rapidly assimilate and analyse information, to develop an engaging narrative and craft compelling copy, and that’s a skill-set that can be developed by a range of different subjects and environments. We have had highly effective staff join the agency from a legal background, journalism and creative writing degrees. When it comes to recruitment, we make a point of looking beyond the degree itself, exploring what candidates have done alongside their chosen course or gone on to do once their studies are complete. “

From archaeology to zoology

Karen Cooper, managing partner at comms agency onebite: Matching a degree to any career is never an exact science and that is particularly true in PR where there are so many different specialisms. Some of the most talented PR people I have worked with have had the most varied degrees from archaeology to zoology. It really is more about application than subject studied.

“Personality is one of the biggest factors in success. For example, in crisis and issues communications it is essential you can keep calm when many moving pieces are being thrown at you at rapid speed.

“At onebite where we focus on the telecoms and technology sector we recruit graduates based on their passion for these areas. It is also critical that people take a real understanding of the world around them and how these events can create a story for their clients.”

Discussing further why personality is more important that degree subject, PROs describe the types of people they are looking for in the panel below.

Never mind the degree….

Here are the types of people employers are impressed by

Good talkers

Nikki Scrivener, director and co-founder at agency Fourth Day PR: ““For us, it’s much more about the 360 view of a person than about the specifics of their degree. Can they communicate naturally and effectively? So many can’t. Can they explain why they chose their particular degree and what they loved/didn’t love about it? Do they feel confident talking about technology? This is crucial for the clients we work with. Do they speak any additional languages? Also very relevant to us. Can they talk knowledgeably about the world around them and demonstrate an understanding of news and why reputation matters? Can they grasp subject matter quickly and write concisely?”

Team players

Katie Buckett, co-founder of digital agency OneFifty Consultancy: “We look for exactly the same type of people – we’re a small but growing business so our people are everything. The core things being: Values-led (doing the right thing not the easiest thing, and owning mistakes), make things happen and want to achieve excellence. 

“Ultimately though, everything is undone if you say “doing everything myself and not asking for help” is your biggest weakness… “

Can-do people

Selina Beresford, operations director (people) at comms agency TVC: “The degree studied doesn’t matter at all – very few people at TVC have a degree related to media or communications. It’s totally about the type of person – do they have the right attitude, are they driven, do they keep up with the latest news and emerging channels – that’s what we’re looking for if we’re ever recruiting at grad level. The emails that stand out are the ones where people have really done their homework about TVC and those who spend their spare time gaining experience, so working at a local radio station or local paper, that kind of thing.”

Creative thinkers

Joanna Wilmot, PR director at marketing agency The Think Tank: “What’s needed are creative, high-energy people hungry to solve problems. If you’re able to empathise with others, and understand the psychology of “what’s in it for me”, then you’ll be ahead of the competition.

Furthermore, as someone with dyslexia/dyspraxia, I also advocate for those who’re not “traditional” in their approach or skills. If as a team we can consistently think differently, than that’s a big advantage for us.

New grads or entrants need to be hungry to get on, work hard and most importantly be curious. Being accountable and able to communicate well across everything from email, to What’s App and the phone are absolute essentials not having a (specific) degree.”

Information gatherers

Cath Shuttlewood, freelancer at SY1 Consulting: “The ability to digest and analyse information effectively; communicate clearly and be open to differing points of view are all essential if you’re to forge a successful career in PR. Being abreast of the news agenda and current key trends is also vital. Those skills aren’t necessarily gained by studying a particular subject, although courses where you’re required to research, write, present and debate will no doubt prove to be invaluable experience for anyone starting off in PR and comms.”

Those with ambition

Jodie Harris, head of content and digital PR at agency MediaVision: “The best candidate is someone that understands the marketing and PR world but has the hunger and drive to want to learn how your team works. Respect and hard work are old fashion traits, but they are still so important when you are learning the ropes of the profession. I want to have a graduate that wants to have the ambition, but also have the inquisitive mind to ask the ‘what if we do this?’. A balance between wanting to learn. but also speaking up on ideas and better ways to approach work is equally what I seek from a graduate who is looking to join my team.”

Natural communicators

Paul Spiers, managing director of amplifier & amplifier academy: “In my 25 years in PR, the best hire I have ever made was someone who, when they applied for the role, had a job picking up used gun cartridges at a clay-pigeon shooting range. But they displayed such creative thinking and initiative in the initial interview, they got the opportunity to present their creative ideas at the next stage and they were brilliant. They just instinctively ‘got it’.”

Storytellers

Jessica Pardoe, digital PR executive at digital marketing agency Tecmark: "Working in public relations requires more personality traits than it does academic qualifications. I mean sure, you need to be able to write well and it doesn't hurt to have a bit of background knowledge into the industry. But all in all, I think more important qualities include: creativity and the ability to create a good story, passion and determination and above all else – the capabilities to grow and change. PR changes all the time (we're shifting more toward digital every day) and you need to be an adaptable person to cope with that, that's something no degree can teach you.”

Researchers

Liz Cartwright, managing director at Cartwright Communications: “My biggest piece of advice to graduates is to carry out extensive research i

nto the agencies and businesses they contact, ensuring any letter, email or conversation with a potential employer is personalised and not just a round robin littered with typos and incorrect information. An ex-editor of mine called Barrie would put CVs straight in the bin if the letters were addressed ‘Barry’. Attention to detail is a must in our sector, as is standing out from the crowd. In an on-line age, I’d highly recommend sending a letter and a CV through the post. It’ll land on the right desk and will grab attention.”

Hard workers

Sarah Whittle, HR director at Freshwater: “Our team have a diverse range of skills, with backgrounds in public relations, journalism, computer science, teaching and more. This enables a fresh perspective that wouldn’t exist if our staff had all followed the same route.

“Any employee who possesses a qualification that demonstrates the required level of competence, works hard and offers a new outlook, has the potential to be successful in public relations regardless of their background, subject degree or equivalent educational background.”

So gathering all those requirements together suggests that you don’t have to be pretty darn perfect to work in PR, but it sure helps!