This is the first in a series of “Back to School” posts being planned for the next few weeks. My intention is to provide advice for those who have decided to study for a professional PR qualification – whether at University or with a body such as the CIPR.
Having been involved in PR education for over a decade, I hope to have useful insight to share gained from my own experience (as a tutor and a student myself) and feedback from the hundreds of successful (and less successful) practitioners I have worked with in this time.
The old saying goes that failing to prepare is to prepare to fail – so I thought it would be useful to start with some thoughts on how to prepare to study public relations. Here are my top 5 tips:
Know what you are going to study It is surprising the number of first year undergraduate students who have signed up to spend three or four years studying public relations without any clear idea of what the subject involves or what they are going to learn. We’ve also had practitioners enrol on the CIPR Advanced Certificate and Diploma courses who have totally different expectations from the reality of studying an academic qualification. Although you will gain valuable vocational knowledge, the primary focus of a PR qualification is the body of knowledge that underpins practice. That means you will study theories, models, opinions, paradigms – and counter-theories, critiques, etc. The aim of academic study is to address the question “why”, rather than simply teach you what is involved in PR and how to do it. Check out the syllabus, Unit guides and other materials that are normally available for any PR qualification. If possible, speak to those who have studied the qualification previously.
Get some experience If you’ve never worked in public relations, it is really helpful to talk with those who work in the field and ideally, gain some experience. Even if you are starting your course in a few weeks, there is time to contact professionals in your area and ask if you could undertake some voluntary work experience or shadow them for a day or two. Being pro-active is a key asset in PR, so making initial contacts may also pay dividends with vacation work in the future. If you are already working, then look to build your contacts among professionals in other areas of PR. If you specialise in media relations, talk to colleagues or contacts within internal communications for example. If you work in-house, spend some time in a consultancy or vice-versa. Likewise if you are public or not-for-profit sector, swap job experiences with friends in the private sector. Or look for pro-bono work with local charities or organisations. Could you help a local amateur theatre with its media relations, or offer to develop a school’s corporate social responsibility strategy? There are lots of ways to gain experience – and this can continue whilst you are undertaking your studies. Many PR consultancies use freelance staff, so you may be able to find opportunities other than working in a fast food outlet to provide an income whilst at University.
Monitor the news It may seem obvious, but I’ve found very few University students really follow the news avidly. Being familiar with what is going on in the world will help relate your studies to practice – and provide examples to use in your assignments. There’ve been some classic crisis management situations this year – many of which are ongoing. So check out how these have been reported, developed and critiqued – especially in the context of the public relations aspects that have been extensively reported. You should also follow the development of the Barcelona Declaration of Measurement Principles which have generated discussion around the issue of evaluation and the Stockholm Accords which set out a framework for greater understanding of PR. These types of initiatives reflect the news of public relations itself and developments that should already be integrated into your course of study.
Enter the online PR community If you’ve found this post, then you are probably already reading blogs, maybe following Twitter etc. But don’t just lurk, leave comments, reTweet, connect through LinkedIn or Facebook (I’m easy to find). There is a great global community of PR professionals, academics and students online and it is open to newbies. Don’t be shy, share your thoughts and opinions, ask questions and participate in the conversations. Follow the trail of who is following who, commenting on each others’ blogs and so forth and start to build up your own micro-community. Start groups for your fellow students to join – there’s always got to a be a leader and why shouldn’t that be you?
Start your reading early For the CIPR Advanced Certificate and Diploma students we provide interesting articles and recommended reading as part of our pre-study materials. These are generally lighter than most academic journal or textbook pieces – and include speeches, blog posts and media articles. The intention is to help students get into the habit of reading, reflecting and developing critical thinking skills. We look at different opinions regarding public relations, ideas about where it is going, media rants about practitioners, ethical questions about the practice and so on. Interesting features about PR can be found on various websites: Behind the Spin, CIPR, PR Conversations for starters. You can also check out your course’s reading list and read through some introductory texts and chapters to get ahead of the curve.
What else would you recommend for those preparing to start a qualification in PR? Please share any of your thoughts on preparing to study – and next week, I’ll post some tips for starting your studies.