The great PR degree debate

TWL has an interesting debate going on the merits or otherwise of PR degrees. Richard Bailey has also chimed in (it was Kirsty O’Connor, one of his students who started it with a letter to PR Week).

Personally I think most of the people commenting have got a point, but it’s not really such a clear cut issue.

Do you need a PR degree to be a good PR person? Of course not, you don’t even need a degree. What a PR degree does do is give people a head start in certain areas. A PR degree very much helps to set in context what public relations actually is.

One of the problems of moving into PR from journalism is that they’ve only got experience and expertise in one small part of public relations. It means they should be an excellent writer (sadly that isn’t actually always the case), with an eye for a strong story – but not always a full understanding of using communications to meet a business objective. I once remember working with an ex-journo who had a brilliant story idea that would almost certainly have made a decent splash in The Sun. She was right, it was a great tale. Unfortunately, it would have had almost zero business benefit. The time and other resources were far better spent on something more productive.

One of the big benefits of PR degrees is that they try to equip students with the ability to see the big picture and understand PR in context. They also teach the basics of many skills needed, they don’t do it in depth as that’s what experience and investment in ongoing training is for.

You can easily come into PR from a different field, but if you do you then you must start to learn and develop the areas you don’t know about – for example by doing the CIPR Diploma.

What you can’t and shouldn’t do is pretend you can learn it all on the job. That isn’t providing good counsel. If we are to hold our own with professionals such as lawyers and accountants, then we need the training and qualifications to back it up.

7 Replies to “The great PR degree debate

  1. Please note that the term "accountant" is unregulated. If you are referring to a "professional accountant," the individual in question would have completed the requisite program of professional studies (i.e., have successfully learned/been tested on a recognized body of knowledge, including research, best practices and training/education), as well as all requirements (in the case of our professional accounting designation, a complementary practical work experience component must also be met before the designation is achieved).

    Many professional accounting designations are also recognized by government statute, because they are regulatory bodies and serve in the public interest as part of their mandate.

    Unless the type of accountant to which you refer is your basic bookkeeper (A/P and A/R clerks, ledgers, etc.). But that's certainly not what professional accountants do; nor do I believe it is what you aspire for the PR "profession" to evolve into.

    (As I continue to do some "PR for professional accountants" everywhere.)

  2. david brain – Variously a founder, director, investor, chairperson and cheerleader of Parkable, Enero, StickyBeak, Share My Super and The Spinoff. In exile in New Zealand. CTID.
    David Brain says:

    Interesting and timely post Stuart. Yesterday the London Edelman office was busy with our "boot camp" for our graduate intake. Every year, we take on about ten graduates (not necessarily from PR or comm's courses). We invite about 30 here and then torture them for a day with exercises and see how they behave. I think we end up with about a 50/50 split of general grads to specialist degree types. I am consistenly impressed and humbled by the efforts and attention and sheer energy they all put into this process and I'm reminded that nowadays PR is a targeted career wheras most people of my vintage got into it as a distress purchase. And that is a big difference and I have to say I am massively hopeful about the future of the industry given the quality of those now entering and I think a big part of that goes to vocational degrees . . . but not everything. There will always be room at Edelman for the anthropologist or nuclear physicist if they have the right stuff.

  3. It is becoming the perennial debate, much in the same way as whether you should choose a specialist or full service agency in the marketing media. It is not a particularly satisfying subject to reflect on too much as there is no definitive answer – certainly not one that says you should choose a PR graduate over an English graduate.

    I do not believe that a PR degree is essential, except for getting that all important step on the career ladder.

    It would be beneficial to the industry if a PR qualification was essential to be able to practice as you point out for the standing of the profession. I am not sure it will happen; it hasn't happened with the CIM diploma and marketing.

    I think there are too many attributes that are of value to a PR and not all come with a degree: ability to establish relationships, ability to write, openness to learning and creativity to name a few. And any PR that does not have a background or real understanding of marketing is at a loss.

    I was a at retail outlet not too long ago and the person who served me had excellent customer service skills, is confident and is tri-lingual. If he can write, I would seriously consider him as an employee. Does he have a degree or a PR degree? I haven't got a clue and it would not be the most important question for me.

  4. Judy – you may do PR for professional accountants (as you call them) but please don't get carried away with the idea that a certain education confers a certain skill. ICAEW doesn't test competency except in matters of form filling, much to the chagrin of people like me. (I used to be a partner in a firm of CAs)

    If you read Greendotlfe (Deloitte's unoffical staff forum) you'll see the key to success as measured by your position on the greasy pole has nothing to do with how good you are or even how good clients think you are. It's all about internal perception. In other words, your success is measured by the amount of brown stuff you have smeared on your snout.

    Stuart – I had a giggle over the comment about journos and writing skills. I could tell tales that would make your hair curl about some of the tech rock star hacks I've had to edit. Ugly.

  5. Dennis, our program of professional studies is competency based; one of the ways it is differentiated from that of the other accounting designations.

    And our collaborative PD Network resource (which has just been opened up to non-members who qualify), includes a very sophisticated online competency assessment tool, whereby individuals can assess their current levels of competency in technical knowledge (eight categories), leadership (three categories), professionalism (four categories) and general management (five categories).

    Members pick a target profile (by position), then assess their current level and target level. Once they have the results, they can plan their continuing professional development (which is mandatory, to ensure currency of the accounting designation), accordingly.

    It doesn't sound like you enjoyed your time as a partner in the CA firm. Pity.

  6. Every time I read a comment by someone who demands that PR professionals have some sort of degree, I cannot help but hear them REALLY saying, "Everyone should jump through all the hoops I had to jump through."

    It seems to be a sort of childish and exclusionary tactic. Let's get real. If a person is not qualified to fill a PR position, the responsibility lies upon the corporation to make the decision.

    However, in nearly ever field of expertise, some of the most brilliant and talented professionals have been uneducated, at least having fallen short of receiving a formal degree. It's a simple fact that natural talent can do wonders even when training fails.

    Let's not be quite so snobbish as to bully others into believing that there is only one path to success. By paving a wide road and expecting all to pass through, we would merely be amplifying the mediocrity of our own talents and stating our own reliance upon someone else's experiences rather than creating our own. Education is wonderful and quite necessary.

    Formalized education, however, begins and ends with the faulty conclusion that all people are the same, that they think the same, should be taught the same, and tested the same. This faulty logic also states that test results are always indicative of how much the student has learned, despite a student's predisposition to auditory, visual, or sensory learning and communication.

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