Yesterday, I attended the PRCA Industry vs. Academics Debate. The discussion focused on the need for a degree and honed in on the idea that perhaps the best practitioners, and future candidates, should, or do, have a degree in PR.
Firstly, let’s address the idea that you need a degree to work in PR. If you’d asked me this when I started my first job in 1999, I’d have been adamant that it was a pre-requisite. Looking back, the reason for my answer is clear – I’d just spent four years studying for a degree (not PR but, in marketing and French). Quite simply, I thought it should be me who was considered for that junior account executive position, not someone who had just left school with A-levels or the equivalent.
It was also a time when there was a strong emphasis on the fact that a degree was the best option for those serious about a career. From a PR recruitment perspective, a fair few agencies wouldn’t even consider candidates with less than a 2:1, let alone one from a ‘new’ university. The attitude was that a degree gave a candidate a ‘certain level of education’ and a skill set that enabled them to analyse, debate and communicate more effectively.
Moving forward almost 18 years later, I’d answer unequivocally ‘no’. A degree doesn’t necessarily make you a better PR. I’ve worked with plenty PRs over the years with differing educational backgrounds. Those with and without a degree; who had a 2:1 or above, or below; went to a ‘red brick’ university; and those who went to a ‘new’ university. It made absolutely no difference to how good they were as a PR. It was simply down to the person, their attitude and ability to work in a fast-paced, often brutal industry. Having a thick skin, being able to adapt to the ever-evolving – and sometimes questionable - working practices of different clients and a desire to do the best job are in my mind the most important attributes, not the ability to pass an exam.
On top of this, we have a broken education system here in the UK. One where graduates are leaving university with an insane amount of debt and for those deciding on a move to London, having to deal with high rents that their salaries can barely cover. So, it’s perhaps unsurprising that school leavers are searching out alternative options such as apprenticeships and on the job training. The PRCA Apprenticeship scheme is a great example of this. I’m going through my first experience of being a mentor to our PRCA apprentice at CCgroup, and it’s a positive one. She’s simply fantastic and exactly what I look for in a potential candidate – dedicated, hard-working, with a little bit of sass. There’s also those who’ve worked in an industry, that have invaluable knowledge and experience . By focusing your recruitment on those who’ve decided university is the best option for them – and can afford it – in my mind cuts out a huge potential pool of talent.
Now on to the PR degree. if you decide at the age of 18 that PR is for you and you want to learn more, then why not? It can give you a good grounding and set certain expectations of what it is like to work in an agency or in-house, especially if there’s options for work placements and/or internships. But is it essential or a necessity? Absolutely not!
The PR industry is diverse, it covers a multitude of sectors from finance, technology (B2B, consumer, deep-tech), pharmaceutical, food and drink, travel, film, music, celebrity … it never ends. For each sector, there’s a specific need and it could be argued that from a knowledge perspective that a medical degree would be desirable for healthcare, or a computer programming degree for technology, or even experience as a trader for those working in finance or capital markets.
A PR degree doesn’t take into consideration the different working practices of agencies themselves (and their clients). It's not a unified industry with the same needs, beliefs or expectations. In addition, it fails to take into account the ever-evolving face of the PR agency and the multi-disciplines we now cover – I am guessing too many to fit into a three-year course. Demanding a PR degree from a candidate, again, limits the pool of talent and doesn’t necessarily offer you the best person that meets your needs.
A reply to one of my tweets from last night asked ‘accounting technicians do a good job, but would you go to an accountant without a qualification?’ I don’t think this has anything to do with the need for a degree - PR or not. However, it does bring up the question: "Is there a need to ‘professionalise’ PR?" Should we be demanding a further professional qualification akin to a PGCE; Law conversion course or CIMA/CIFA from those working in PR? With the CPD, the PRCA is going someway to address this. But, this is another topic for debate … watch this space!