Are you too smart to work in PR?

smart bulb

“For decades a stream of bright young men and women, most of them with college degrees ranging from B.S. to Ph.D., have been coming to my office to ask me and my wife how to enter the profession of public relations.”

These words were written by Edward Bernays in his 1961 publication: Your Future in Public Relations.

In 1943, a chapter in Averill Broughton’s book: The New Profession, asked ‘Do you belong in the public relations field?  Broughton noted:

Let us grant that any really intelligent man or woman of imagination and sensitivity, who also possesses good business judgment and a wide experience with people and the practical world we live in, can become a successful public relations executive.

It seems there was real encouragement for those with intellectual capability to work in public relations.  Indeed, Bernays saw public relations practitioners as a bridge between thinkers and doers.  But I’m beginning to believe the majority of modern practitioners view PR as a non-intellectual trade, where craft skills count most, along with a friendly personality and a preference to spend time churning out releases and Tweets rather than thinking about anything more important they should be doing.

Stephen Covey has a useful time matrix comprising four quadrants.  My view is that public relations adds most value in the important and not urgent quadrant.  This is the place of pro-active, results-oriented matters; where it is necessary to “act to seize opportunity, to make things happen”.

Instead, many practitioners seems to spend their time oscillating from the stressful situation of fire-fighting the important which is urgent and the pointless position of trivial, busy work.  Just check out the typical ‘day in the life’ features about PR you can find online.

Which leads me to the question about being too smart to work in PR.

According to a report of the CIPR Profession Typology Report at PRMoment, two-thirds of UK PR practitioners (sorry I refuse to call them professionals) say their career development has mostly come from magazines.  Yes, really!

Let’s be charitable and assume they don’t mean reading Heat magazine, and are referring to articles in trade publications such as PR Week (rather than scanning job adverts).  The validity of the survey as summarised in this piece seems questionable as ‘mostly’ implies selecting a single response, where I suspect a ‘which of the following’ question was actually asked.  Nevertheless, the answers do not appear to reflect a highly pro-active approach to robust career development strategies.

This is both surprising and disappointing in the current economic climate where it is essential to demonstrate genuine continuous professional development regardless of whether or not you are looking for new opportunities.  If you are not moving ahead, then you are automatically slipping backwards as the world is moving at a fast pace.

Relying on articles in PR Week reflects a typical ‘learning on the job’ mentality which values Other People’s Experiences even when reported in a superficial, primarily positive way.  This is easier than constructing reflexive practice on a basis of intellectual frameworks that have been considered and critiqued by academics, and senior practitioners, who recognise the importance of knowing why, not simply, how to operate successfully in public relations.

This more challenging ethos is understood by many of the bright and intelligent young men and women still attracted to working in this field who have made the commitment to studying public relations at University.  This week alone, I came across two impressive examples:

If we are to attract and retain the best young professionals, then we need to be smarter as an industry.  We have to:

  • stop bashing academic study and intellectual understanding.
  • stop arguing that University courses should focus primarily on teaching basic starter-job practical skills.
  • stop recognising reading magazines and watching videos as career development.

Instead, I’d like to see us:

  • set a baseline expectation for practitioners (especially those migrating from journalism, marketing or without a PR degree) to acquire professional post-graduate qualifications.
  • make a commitment to career-long intellectual development based on acquiring Masters or PhD qualifications, engaging with research in our own field and elsewhere (whether that means technological developments, business management or even neuroscience) and mind-expanding communities of practice.
  • celebrate what is intelligent and valuable in PR work rather than focusing on the glitzy and glamorous in PR awards, case studies and profile pieces.

I don’t want to see the smartest people avoiding public relations as a career option.  I don’t want to feel too smart to work in PR myself.  Do you?

Published by

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.

21 thoughts on “Are you too smart to work in PR?”

  1. Great post. I absolutely agree. I am in my final year studying Public Relations at Sunderland University. It is fair to say I am enjoying the theory aspects behind Public Relations, its a new profession so its understandable why people have these perceived perceptions of the industry.

    Though I find myself justifying what I am studying to Journalism and Media students who believe they can do PR. I remember a Journalism student saying “Journalists can go into PR but a PR professional can never be a journalist!” I think that is absolutely ridiculous.

    So many people on Twitter believe they do PR because they are blogging about fashion, don’t get me wrong I am not knocking their hustle. I just think its time for us to get the recognition we rightly deserve.

    1. Thanks – I always think of the classic story of blind men describing an elephant when I hear of such narrow views of PR. Journalists, bloggers and others only see one aspect of PR and therefore think they can do it. When I was leaving a job in the 1990s, someone from the post room applied as she thought all we did was read newspapers all day! Bless…

  2. Great to see some PR history used and shared.

    Suspect we will witness a bifurcation of skills moving upwards at a strategic level and downwards at a tactical level.

    This week I received my first sales email from a web copy service based in India.

    So, the polarity between premiumization and commoditization will be mirrored in my view in the jobs market

    1. I agree with you Andy of bifurcation and outsourcing to a lower cost base like India. This is something that David Phillips and I discussed last year (we plan to write a post on it).

      Talking of history, just read the following by Bronson Batchelor from 1938 in his book: Profitable Public Relations, describing public relations as “a new kind of social and political engineering. It endeavors to apply to the human relationships of business something that approximates the engineer’s knowledge of stresses and strains, something of his ability not only to calculate and balance known factors but to anticipate unforeseen contingencies”.

      He continues: “To this skill in appraising intangible factors, there is then added a still more expert knowledge of mass psychology and human behaviorism. After years of training and experience, the possessor of these essential essays to interpret the mass mind.”

      Great insight from 74 years ago.

  3. I definitely agree with what you’re saying here. I don’t think that there are enough guidelines in place, and that there needs to be some level of education to begin in the field. One cannot just land in the role and expect to know what to do. There is so much to learn about PR and all it’s intricacies, in my opinion… and I noted that once I started studying. I had no idea the amount I had to learn to be even the tiniest bit successful/capable in the field.

    Further, the idea of committing to a life-time of learning is something that EVERYONE should strive for, and happily so. Unfortunately, I do recognize that the world doesn’t always work that way. But, thankfully, I think that with the onset of the digital world and the subsequent increase in information exchange and information access that people will all be unwittingly learning everyday!

    Great post!

    1. Thanks Anita – I like to think that good education needs to offer long-term as well as short-term learning; with depth as well as surface understanding and looks back, around and forward for inspiration. So, yes, the digital world offers a great reminder of the need (and resources) for learning – alongside all the accumulated knowledge of the present and past.

    2. Agreed. I think it’s very difficult to walk in to a new job, especially your first job, and be able to do an adequate job, let alone a good one. I’ve had many friends who have graduated from other courses, gone in to new jobs and have been told that they will undergo training for a period of time. If you’re thrown straight in to a job, any job, then you’re in danger of losing confidence very quickly due to just a couple of small mistakes that some training would help you to deal with.

  4. Awesome Job, Heather. I shared this on G+ for you, where I found it. Do you dare question whether I belong in PR or not? he he, I love how candid you are about this. The authenticity shines right through and that as well as passion are the two utmost characteristics I look for in a business partner. Please connect with me on Google + under “Curt Bizelli” 😉 Blessings!

  5. Thank you for recommending my posts.

    I really love Bernays idea of PR being the bridge between thinkers and doers, it essentially sums up much of what I want from PR.

    I also strongly agree with your ideas, I do not want my education to finish when I complete my degree, I think it is important to continue learning formally and informally and I am certainly hoping to do further academic work later in my career.

    1. Rachel – there’s so much great advice in the PR texts from early last century that I wonder why we lost all that insight in the rush to work in press release factories 🙂

  6. I think the difficulty is that there is currently a massive disconnect between the subjects taught on PR degrees, including post-graduate options, and the skills and knowledge actually required to do the job.

    The students that come out of undergraduate degrees are genuinely not much more qualified to work in PR that the students that come out of a degree in French, History or any other subject.

    However, I do think that, as well as trying to teach some of those key ‘real world’ skills, there should also be an extra level of thinking, learning to think and learning about the theory of PR involved in PR degrees.

    I’m told that this is already there, but I don’t see much evidence when I interview graduates.

    Life-long learning is part of the answer. In order to really make that work, academia should recognise that there is some value in ‘on the job’ learning (and even in the articles in PR Week) whilst the workplace should recognise that academia can offer a lot as well. I think this might result in a more positive collaboration.

    If Universities are going to produce graduates who are both fit for work and, crucially, fit to become the next generation of PR thinkers and innovators they need to create a balance between vocational and theoretical study.

    Equally, PR Week and the publishing industry that serves our sector needs to shake of the ‘Heathrow University Library’ tag and start producing content that is fit for an evening’s study not a coffee break or a short haul flight.

    When this starts happening the industry will begin to genuinely look upon those sources of information available to us for continued learning as genuinely useful.

    1. Richard – thanks for the comment. Your comment about the disconnect between what is taught and what is needed to do the job and observation of PR graduates not being qualified to work in PR is where I find practitioners the most frustrating. University is not a glorified training course and if the job primarily entails writing press releases and phoning up media, surely we don’t need bright young things to spend 3 years of their lives and thousands of pounds to gain those skills. My question then is whether PR really is a degree subject if the practice just wants people to be trained to do the job from day 1.

      I agree with you though that it is frustrating when graduates aren’t confident in showing their thinking and learning about PR at interviews. That’s something I encounter when teaching in terms even of students being enthusiastic about the subjects we are studying, the wider world in which PR operates and so on. Indeed, what breaks my heart most is when they come back after a year’s placement and are fired up by organising parties etc. However, when I dig down during the process of supervising dissertations, that’s when you find that most have more to them than the superficiality that being young, and getting excited about the fluffiness of PR, presents.

      Academia and practice have work to do, but so also do those students who aren’t as engaged as those we encounter via social media. Or maybe we just let those ones incur the debts and muddle through party-PR careers until they are replaced by computers or cheaper labour in other countries.

      Your point is well made about ensuring graduates are “fit to become the next generation of PR thinkers and innovators” – and they do need a “balance between vocational and theoretical study”, but also when they experience the world of PR, can they not gain opportunities to do more than junior tasks. Industry still seems to have a ‘work your way up’ attitude and a resentment almost of those who’ve been to Uni.

      Love your suggestions for PR Week to be a better publication – and I wasn’t knocking learning from vocational articles, just that the PR Week style lacks substance.

  7. Heather, PR is an untamable beast: long live PR! It is and always will be a trade rather than a profession.

    I agree, academic output and PR theory is held in low esteem. But I believe the real problem is that it currently deserves to be so perceived.

    University courses designed to meet the needs of employers and which take as a mark of excellence (and marketing their courses) endorsements from PR trade bodies about the degree to which they do so (Bournemouth et al) reveal how low the Academy has stooped. Proper academic study does not aim to produce trades people – it studies things for the sake of it or at the very least to produce professionals for the professions: medicine and law etc. But academic PR has fallen into the trap of many other university courses and lowered expectations and standards of what the Academy is about by training trades people to work in trades.

    Hence, as far as I can see, if PR academics are held in low-esteem, and if degrees in PR are not properly respected, it is for good reason. The way forward is not to blame the trade and its practitioners for their justifiable contempt but to raise the level of academic output by developing a truly academic curricula that is largely divorced from what PR trade bodies claim employers want (as we know most PRs never studied PR at university and what PR employers say they they want from potential employees is mostly not what they really really want etc.).

    At the end of the day, I fear we shall remain where we are training people to be trades people – but that means that the really bright kids won’t end up studying PR…. and the really bright kids who do enter our trade (and they are many) will continue to do so from courses other than PR or via unacademic routes altogether.

    The way forward is to raise the level of academic discourse in the PR field….for the sake of it.

    1. Paul – I support your call for academic study for its own sake in PR. This is the paradox though as the practice holds graduates and degrees in low esteem because they do not offer ready-to-use compliance (like taking an Apple product straight out of the box). If academia rightly shifts towards more abstract and robust curricula, then will practice not whine more and the courses lose numbers (which in this market-driven University environment mean certain closure)?

      Ironically, there are courses that we’d recognise as PR at the more ‘elite’ Universities, but they would never be called PR. Perhaps we should call the trade approach a publicity degree (or a sandwich course, maybe even the PRCA-led apprentice programme) and push for PR degrees to more in the other direction. Problem is the former would be accepted more by the practice – with as you say the brightest coming in from non-PR courses.

      Interestingly that’s exactly the view I found in the historic PR literature where there was little sign of progress from a technical role into management since PR managers were viewed to need to come from outside this trade route.

  8. Part of the problem, Heather, is the images we see in movies and on TV that PR is all about throwing great parties and hobnobbing with celebrities and celeb wannabees. The heavy thinking and planning aspects of what we do isn’t as sexy to portray, so the focus gets put on the “glamorous” things that some of us do.

    I agree that education needs to be a part of it, but the groups that represent us, like PRSA here in the U.S., should undertake a PR campaign to elevate the image of our profession.

    1. David – you might like this new site: It is a collaborative endeavour of academics and practitioners from various countries seeking to create a resource of depiction of public relations in film, TV, radio and books, across all media. Looks like it could be useful and foregrounds your observations. Next step would be to look at how alternate perspectives of PR than the classic party-PR or spin doctor could become evident in popular culture. I agree that representative bodies could do more. Clearly what we need is a ‘produce’ placement campaign!

  9. I totally agree with you. The thing is,though, that some of these pr practitioners may be running into the same problem I have been for the past week and a half. It is so hard to find a good place to study pr. I mean, sure there might be great places out there, but no one can tell you where they are. I’ve been looking for a college that has an amazing pr program. After a ton of research, I don’t have a list of schools that have the best pr programs. I have no clue where I’m going to start my career in pr. This just gives me the feeling that not even those who are involved in the profession care about getting properly trained. It makes it seem like formal training isn’t required at all since no one has bothered to tell me where I should go to school

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