August 19th, 2010 by Lloyd Gofton
As you’ve all no doubt seen, A-Level results have been announced today in England, so conversation around qualifications and careers are rife.
On a day like this it certainly takes me back to my own experiences of education, and the path I took to reach my current career. Today though, things are tougher than ever. According to today’s Guardian A-Level students are facing one of the most intense battles ever seen to get into university, simply due to a higher number of students looking for a decreasing number of places. In fact, the total number of places at English universities this year is 365,000, and each University will face fines of £3,700 per student if they exceed their limit.
This means that knowing what you want to do, and getting the correct advice on how to get there, is perhaps more essential than ever.
That got me thinking, how would I advise a student looking to get into the PR sector? To be fair this is a question I have been asked many times, and to be honest I always struggle to answer it with clear and straight-forward advice. Fundamentally, that’s because there is no single, clear and straight-forward route to success.
In my case, I started out in PR 12 years ago, and crossed the divide into social media around 2006. My degree is in Business, but to be honest I had no idea what I wanted to be when I applied or left University, in fact I stayed on at University to add an honours to my degree just to get another year of student life. However, the day finally came when I had to start my career proper, and again, if I’m honest I only took a role as an account executive at a PR agency because I thought PR sounded interesting, not much in the way of career planning there!
Back to the current situation, if graduates or students ask me how to get into PR or social media or hopefully even both, the simple truth is there is no guaranteed method. Having taken my own straw poll of colleagues throughout my career, I would estimate that less than 20% did a degree relevant to PR, now of course you could argue many degrees are relevant to PR, and you would be right, but I’m talking marketing, PR courses, etc.
Why is this the case? Well I would argue it’s simply because in the PR industry everybody starts at the bottom, you learn your trade from the ground up. It used to be the case that a degree was just a pass to get an interview, from that point on it was down to you, your qualifications counted for nothing.
In the past, and in my experience being an interviewer for various agencies, the issue with PR degrees is that the course doesn’t keep pace with the industry, although I’m now assured this is improving. I also realise this is a common complaint with many industries. Therefore, when I am recruiting, I don’t particularly give any advantage to those that have done a PR degree over those that have done History, Geography or English, for example.
This issue is now further complicated by the digital skills required to perform the roll of a PR. Or if you want to go into a specific career focusing on social media, you need to choose how you approach it, i.e. from the comms side, the technology side, web development side or creative side, and ideally with elements of all of the above.
In terms of choosing PR as a career, the number one issue in my opinion is the false reputation PR has developed among graduates, and in fact the general public, as this piece in the Independent proves, and I quote: “Why PR? Because PR is glamorous. You get to go to launch parties and meet interesting people and talk to celebrities.”
Anyone coming into PR with that opinion soon gets hit square in the face with a 2×4 of reality. But then I guess the reality for anyone starting out in PR is a little off putting – terrible pay, long hours, hard and demanding work. However, you will learn a whole host of new skills including many that will set you up for life, and your value, both of self and as an employee, will rocket.
So, to get into PR do you need to do a PR, or PR relevant, course? I would still argue no, but it should help to give you a more realistic picture of the career you have chosen.
Should you try to get work experience before leaving University? Yes, this is something that employers look for, and again it will give you a more realistic picture of the job at hand.
Do you need digital/social media skills? (there are plenty of social media-type courses around ) Yes, I probably would value this, as an introduction, because I’m part of an integrated agency.
I’m certainly not envious of those starting out at University today, well, okay I am envious of the 3-4 years of student life and all the fun that comes with it, but the jobs market and eventual value of the qualification, plus the debt we all come out with, are not attractive at all.
Those that invest time to develop a real picture of the careers options open to them will in my opinion succeed. Again when I was at Uni, careers advice basically came down to ‘what do you want to do when you leave?’ but today there are better options.
Many students take the opportunity to embrace the social web and ask advice from those in the industry, do their research and try to get involved while still studying. This is a smart move; most of us in the industry remember how difficult it was and will help out where we can.
There are also new careers services and guidance available, one of which we are involved in that will be launching soon called WYGU, (When You Grow Up), which is a social careers guidance and mentoring platform that aims to bring people of all ages and backgrounds together to get real information about careers from real people who are in those careers. Take advantage of these services as they offer invaluable advice that you just don’t find elsewhere or through official channels.
In summary, the PR industry is changing, which means the skills required are also evolving. The opportunities to get involved, if you can offer some of the skills mentioned above, are probably better than ever, but be warned if you thought a PR had to be an all-rounder before, it’s stepped up another level, there’s much more to learn.