The Gateway guide to PR & Communications

Our comprehensive guide to a career in spin.
Choosing a career

As Gordon Brown made his way to Buckingham Palace for an audience with the Queen, it was a Conservative Party press officer who took the plaudits for thinking fastest on his feet. With the prime minister in the process of requesting a dissolution of Parliament to trigger May's general election, James Drewer was busy sending two teams to Trafalgar Square armed with placards. Knowing that Sky would send its famous helicopter along to the Palace, the words 'Vote for Change' could be clearly seen from the air, a veritable two-fingered salute to Labour and a piece of quick thinking that had them celebrating over at Tory HQ at nearby Millbank Tower.

If you think you could emulate Drewer's exploits, a career in public relations could be for you. In its purest form, PR is essentially centred on encouraging harmony between the public and an organisation. This sector encompasses a huge range of options as far as a potential career is concerned, ranging from press officer to account director in fields as diverse as government, finance and entertainment. Good public relations can only be a benefit to companies and so it is vital for them to assemble a talented team of specialists whose role it is to ensure harmonious and lasting relations.

Public relations is a thriving and important sector, accounting for a UK workforce of some 48,000, according to the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR). It is also hugely popular with graduates, consistently ranking in the top three in terms of the most popular workplace choices, post-university. So what exactly underpins this evergreen popularity?

Well, firstly, there appears to be a sense of glamour attached to the PR world, some of which is merited, some of which is not. Everyone loves a freebie and for this reason, PR certainly has its attractions. Goodie bags at launch events can contain anything from designer t-shirts, to alcohol, to expensive shaving lotions. But be warned: for every free lunch, there are endless phone calls to clients, the hundreds of emails to be sent, the drudgery of the office... you get the picture. Saying that, the rewards can be rich in this particular industry and anecdotally, satisfaction levels among employees appear high compared to other industries.

How to get a foothold into the PR industry: It is all about the experience

"Do you know the difference between education and experience? Education is when you read the fine print; experience is what you get when you don't." Pete Seeger, folk singer.

Speak to anyone who has forged a successful career in PR and you are likely to meet someone who cannot emphasise enough the importance of gaining practical experience in the workplace. Plenty of top PR firms will be willing to provide work experience, although paid work can be something of a luxury, unfortunately. Visiting your university's career advisers will give you a clearer idea of which aspect of PR to focus on and the PR Jobshop website is a great resource for graduates and undergraduates alike. Speculative contact with firms can also be beneficial as it underlines the extent to which you are prepared to follow your career dreams. Company websites will provide the relevant contact details and some of the big firms, such as Hill & Knowlton and Weber Shandwick, will offer first-hand experience for graduates and undergraduates in their second and third years working on accounts in areas such as food & drink and retail & leisure. As you can imagine, however, companies will be inundated with applications so it is imperative that your CV and covering letter are both tailored to meet the needs of the PR firm in question. Stressing why you have a desire to pursue a career in PR, along with emphasising your relevant work experience and transferable skills earned in the workplace, as well as at university will be beneficial in placing yourself at the head of the internship queue.

Is it too late for me to consider a career in PR if I haven't studied a related field at university?

The answer is no. Like any career, it is recommended that you gain as much experience as possible and therefore studying a literary discipline such as English or Modern Languages is always going to be beneficial. If you want to gain an extra edge over the competition, an MA in communications may be a legitimate option. There are a range of masters courses available throughout Britain that have been designed to provide industry-related experience with one eye on the job at the end of it. There is also the huge benefit of taking a course which is approved by the industry's governing body, providing peace of mind that the content offered is as relevant as it possibly could be.

How easy is it to get a PR jobs in Government?

PR jobs are numerous within Whitehall and Westminster. Comms form a vastly important role in keeping the electorate informed on the latest white paper, bill or development in local government and for this reason, the government is a great port of call in terms of getting a foothold into the industry. Here are just some of the departments worth considering, although this list is not exhaustive:

  • Department for Education and Skills (DfES), http://www.dfes.gov.uk/
  • Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC), http://www.esrc.ac.uk/ESRCInfoCentre/index.aspx
  • Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), http://www.hefce.ac.uk/
  • Learning & Skills Council, http://www.lsc.gov.uk/National/default.htm
  • Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). http://www.qca.org.uk/
  • Sector Skills Development Agency, http://www.ssda.org.uk/

Is it better to work for a consultancy or in-house?

  • 54.6% work in consultancy
  • 44.1% work in-house

Entering into the PR industry will require a decision on whether to commit to a consultancy or an in-house team. There are pros and cons with both, of course, but in the broadest terms, the key difference between the two centres on the breadth and diversity of the work encountered. So, for example, a press officer at a charity will be expected to lead campaigns solely for their specific employer whereas someone at a consultancy would experience more variety in their day-to-day role, as they would be focusing their attentions on the needs and wants of a whole range of clients. It would be worth bearing in mind therefore how passionate you are for an individual organisation before committing to an in-house team as a lack of variety may not be ideal.

The sheer amount of graduates that a big agency can bring through the door will be enough for them to take certain liberties as far as starting salaries are concerned. Expect to be looking at somewhere between £14k and £21k for a London-based agency, compared with perhaps £18k to £22k for a starting in-house salary in the capital. And that is a London salary remember; wages could be considerably lower in Newcastle or Manchester for instance. It would be worth bearing in mind, however, that although the immediate hit on salary may be an unwelcome proposition, it is also more than likely that the opportunity for career progression and higher wages at a larger agency will be greater in the long run, dependent on talent, as well as grit and determination.

Hard route to the topLizzie Fee, 26, works in the PR department at BBC Children in Need and charts her rise in the profession:

What made you decide on a career in PR?

"I always knew I wanted to work in a job connected to the media and one that would involve people. I had always been an avid newspaper and magazine reader but found the behind the scenes element of PR more interesting. I remember wondering what went into the big publicity stunts that would work brands into the media spotlight. I was also particularly interested in the reputation management side of PR- particularly in the entertainment world."

Did you find it an easy sector to get into? And which companies have you worked for?

"PR is not an easy sector to get into, full stop. Work experience is the only way in and you need to expect long hours and often low pay. Making the tea and chasing samples back from press are all part of the first rung of the ladder. However, there are hundreds of people on work experience placements every week so you need to stand out. I used the summers of my 4-year degree to work for free at PR agencies and in-house and would recommend the same to anyone wanting to get into PR. My first placement was three months at an international fashion brand's busy press office and was invaluable in terms of me learning the ropes, meeting journalists and learning what really goes on in PR - something you would struggle to learn from reading a book or doing a degree in the subject. I bought a big address book and wrote every person I came across in it - PR is all about networking and your contacts grow as you do. Never underestimate the power of a junior editorial assistant - when you've been in PR for five years, they could be an editor! My first paid job was at Shine Communications, a consumer PR agency in London, which I joined through their graduate scheme. I had previously done work experience there and kept in touch with a few of the execs to see if there were any positions going. I stayed at Shine for two and a half years, leaving as a Senior Account Executive before joining BBC Children in Need's PR team where I am currently. My role involves me telling the story of the projects we fund through the media, as well as managing our celebrity supporters and their involvement in the charity."

Have the roles you have had in PR been what you expected in terms of the day-to-day workload, the people you work with and what is expected of you?

"You need to go into PR with your eyes open and expecting hard work. The night before a launch you can be in the office until midnight, in at 7am the following day and not in bed until the final journalist has left the event, but it's all worth it in the end. No two days in PR are the same and that's what makes it such an attractive industry. One day you could be on the red carpet with A-List talent, the next you could be on your hands and knees making paper-mâché dogs for a press launch. You need persistence, a tough skin for all those 'no thanks' from news editors and a creative head to get your client those all-important column inches."

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