Should PR students choose between skills and knowledge?

What’s the point of a qualification in public relations?  It seems that many practitioners still believe that learning practical skills on the job is all you need.  PR Week in the UK has just run its annual end of term report questioning the value of a PR degree, and citing those luddites who favour non-PR graduates.

The truth is that to be successful in life (not just PR), you should understand why you are doing things, not simply have “how to do it” competencies.  That’s accepted in other areas – from the traditional professions of medicine and law, to skills based occupations such as plumbing and being a pilot.

Why do many in PR continue to celebrate ignorance and treat the work as little different to working on the checkout of a supermarket in theoretical underpinnings?  What’s to be proud of in thinking anyone can do your job? 

Of course, some PR graduates may not be able to apply the knowledge that they’ve studied and need to work on improving their skills.  But it is ridiculous to criticise the value of PR degrees on the basis that graduates lack practical experience – indeed, many have undertaken vocational experience as part of their studies.

No-one is completely competent in everything when they start their careers – or when they encounter new areas (such as social media).  So working in PR should be about lifelong learning – and that means those practitioners who have practical experience considering the value of substantiating this by improving their knowledge of underlying principles.  That’s what the many successful students of the CIPR qualifications are doing.

It seems terrible to me that many in PR are content to keep doing what they’ve always done – and never bothering to read a book or improve their knowledge or competencies.  Learning on the job doesn’t necessarily mean doing things right – look at the ongoing criticisms of many PR practices. 

I’ve worked in and around PR for over 20 years – and I’ve been involved in the academic side for the last decade.   But I continue to seek to improve my skills and also my knowledge – I don’t see these as mutually exclusive nor something that is only for juniors.

As Malcolm Forbes is quoted as saying: The dumbest people I know are those who know it all.

At least the PR graduates that I’ve worked with are willing to learn – unlike those who seem year after year to trot out the lazy criticisms of PR degrees.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

9 thoughts on “Should PR students choose between skills and knowledge?”

  1. Interesting post.

    Although there are some PR graduates that barely have the basic skills, I’ve met many PR graduates that have taken on several internships to expand their knowledge. I think that there are people like that in every profession though.

    For those who do realize that their career is about lifelong learning, I think they will have very successful.

  2. The PR Week piece hinted at one of the reasons for any prejudice that may remain. Most people in PR management today (who are from our generation) gained arts degrees from old(er) universities. The expansion of higher education has happened remarkably recently, as has the success of women (a story widely reported today).

    One thing you’ll also have noticed is the quality of intelligent practitioners coming on the Diploma course. I met several yesterday to talk about their projects: in most cases they were more academically-minded than their tutor.

    It’s not what degree you have that matters, it’s what you do with it.

  3. Richard – I saw that comment from Trevor Morris, who of course, was at Quentin Bell for many years. When I was at National Breakdown, we appointed QB and I found their people to be very smart – although it was in the days before PR degrees were common.

    Like you, I’m a fan of the professional qualifications – and the calibre of the practitioners who are adding academic-underpinnings to their practice. I’m also encouraged by the number who really engage with aspects of theory that aren’t the standard G&H – and who ask for more and more reading.

    Interestingly, I’ve several CIPR Advanced Certificate students who are looking at Holtzhausen’s principles of the organisational activist for their final critique.

    Great for me as I’m then challenged to keep at least one step ahead of them.

  4. I’ve been disappointed with candidates with general arts, English or media studies degrees. I always prefer a candidate that has a pure PR degree or a CIPR qualification. Jounalism is my second choice, if I have to settle.

  5. Sherrilynne – thanks for your employer perspective. My degree is in psychology – which I feel gives me a good scientific underpinning (I took a BSc) as well as understanding of the people behave. But my writing skills were really honed by a passion for reading combined with very good colleagues over the years, who also taught me how to edit.

    One of my most interesting bosses gave rubbish feedback though – he just used to throw work back at you and say it wasn’t right. I saw it as a challenge, but I’m sure many others wouldn’t find that much of a way to learn.

  6. I used to work for this old Scottish editor who used to crumple my copy up into a paper ball and shoot it at my head from across the room. This really focused my mind on ‘clean copy’. I’ve been tempted to do the same from time to time over the years, but so far I have resisted. 🙂

  7. Part of the “challenge” is that many PR programs are separate from business programs, at least in U.S. universities. For example, at the University of South Florida, we require our PR majors to take a slew of business classes, but the undergrad business majors cannot take any PR classes, due to the requirements for getting into the School of Mass Communications. Historically, the separation (regardless of who is responsible for it) has led to each side knowing little of the other.

    The second challenge is that PR is considered a feminine field in the U.S. In most programs, the male population is less than 10 percent, if that. As such, many creative, PR-minded males go into Advertising or Marketing. This mindset certainly has long-term implications, particularly when it is the “boy’s network” that makes decisions about PR departments.

    More to your point, I plead with my student’s to develop “intellectual curiosity,” which I see as essential to future success. The communicator’s job is broad, so a person who isn’t willing to learn is going to get filtered out pretty quickly. Even young professionals who focus on one area, for instance high tech or financial PR, need to master a broad array of skills for any number of really different clients.

    Alas, we cannot really force them to read. Maybe we should collectively figure out a way to do so.

  8. Interesting post Heather. PR Degrees vary in their quality as do the students. I myself did a PR degere at Leeds Metropolitan University many moons ago. I found that the theory wasn’t as useful in my first few years in PR but now as a more senior practitioner I use it regularly when developing online communication strategies for my clients. If you can do a degree on your chosen profession – what can be wrong with that?

  9. In the broader context is a university degree of any use at all? Wht stop there an 8th grade education used to be deemed sufficient? (A reference that will make more sense to readers from the US where I lived for three years).

    If there is nothing to be gained from studying PR why should anyone hire an agency? Denigrating education is ultimately self-defeating. “I have my PR in 60 minutes do-it-yourself book is the logical conclusion”. (Doubtless it will work in some cases as well).

    The CIM and marketeers is a solid example of what can be done. They promote marketing. That doesn’t mean you need a marketing degree or CIM qualification (not strictly true in Singapore) but people do not go around attacking the profession.

    In time qualifications – both academic and professional – will hopefully acquire gravitas; to the benefit of everyone in the industry. A leap of faith perhaps but one I took when I very deliberately opted to study PR. I could have started work; taken English at Durham say – I have the necessary 3As and 580 UCAS points. I want to be involved in communication however.

    I have no illusions about a PR (or any other) degree magically opening doors or that my CIM Certificate and Professional Diploma in Marketing will make a difference. Deciding to study is a leap of faith that in the longer term such qualifications will make a difference.

    Experience, accreditation, qualifications; a three legged school. Will it be allowed to support the profession going forward?

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