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Job Prospects in UK Public Relations

July 30th, 2008 · 6 Comments

Readers of this blog have asked for more information about job prospects, and several have specifically inquired about opportunities in the United Kingdom.  So, I sought the following guest post from Richard Bailey, Senior Lecturer in Public Relations at Leeds Metropolitan University, UK.  Richard provides a bullish forecast for PR jobs in the UK, and he offers some sound career advice.  Richard also blogs at PR Studies:  http://prstudies.typepad.com  

   I’m pleased and proud – but puzzled about our graduates’ excellent job prospects. Let me explain.

 

You don’t need me to tell you about the state of the economy, but let’s just say that we’ve learned a lot in the UK about the sub-prime mortgage problem in the US. Or to look at it another way, a 21-year-old graduating in 2008 will have grown up in a benign world of high growth, high employment and low inflation. She will probably not recall the dot com crash of the year 2000, nor the recession of the early 1990s.

 

Our graduates are now entering a world in which businesses are shedding staff, the public sector is facing a pay squeeze, and costs and inflation are rising. That’s why it’s surprising that their prospects remain so good.

 

A front page story in the UK edition of PR Week (July 25, 2008) was headlined ‘Rise in hiring of graduates’. It reported that graduate vacancies in the 10 largest PR consultancies were a third higher than the year before.

 

It looks like that to me, too. I’m frequently approached by employers keen to gain access to the best graduates: I have this conversation much more often than I do with graduates struggling to find suitable work opportunities. The buyer’s market has become an ‘appliers market’.

 

It’s not just about demand, but performance, too. We’ve just assessed 73 PR students completing full-year work placements in the UK, often within the PR teams of major multinational corporations. When we asked their supervisors to assess the students’ abilities and workplace performance, the results were surprising. They were not just giving them higher marks than we tend to at university – they were often a grade or two higher.

 

Of course, there’s no news in students being keen and diligent and averages can mask some problems. There are employers who complain about the poor levels of literacy, or the attendance record or punctuality of a Millennial student. There will always be some rough edges on someone who has not yet completed their studies and is yet to enter the job market.

 

But highly capable students and excellent job prospects for PR graduates? There’s still something surprising in this given the state of the economy and the rapid expansion in higher education that has meant more and more graduates entering the job market. (It’s not just public relations graduates applying for graduate-level roles in PR, remember.)

 

Why the good prospects, when you’d assume that times might be tough for graduates? I think there are a number of factors; so let’s review some of them.

The PR sector

 It’s a youthful industry: people tend to progress quickly, but often to burn out young. So PR firms in particular need a constant flow of young talent to replace the experienced people they lose. Graduates are cheaper than experienced practitioners, too, so this may explain some of the current recruitment at this level. 

It’s a recession-proof business, to some extent: PR isn’t the law (you need lawyers in the good times, you also need them in the bad times), but it’s not that far different. Though some overall marketing budgets may be cut back in a recession, PR can benefit from a shift from advertising to other promotional techniques. PR jobs in the public and not-for-profit sectors are less likely to be hit by cuts arising from economic uncertainty. And the senior advisory role, concerned with reputation management and long-term relationships, becomes even more important when times are tough.

 

New recruits bring new techniques: Many employers are keen to recruit today’s graduates, believing that these ‘digital immigrants’ will have a more instinctive grasp of new channels of communication and opportunities arising from social media. Older practitioners are often most comfortable doing what they know: old-fashioned media publicity. There’s still a role for this, of course, but it’s not the future. So when employers sometimes criticize students or graduates for their poor writing skills or lack of media knowledge, they’re revealing an old understanding of the role of the PR practitioner.

 

Yet, in the student sample I mentioned earlier, employers were praising students more highly than their lecturers. What can explain this?

The educational sector   

What gets you out of bed? You’re young, often away from home and you’re among friends. It’s fun to be a student. Lectures, tutorials and assignments can often seem like a distraction from the real business of being a student. Many struggle to motivate themselves and gain poor grades as a result. Compare this with the workplace: there are colleagues around you, there’s a boss supervising you, there’s money to motivate you, and clients and deadlines to respond to. Perhaps it’s no surprise that people perform better in the workplace than they do in college.

 

Abstract reality versus real reality:  Those demands of teamwork, deadlines, clients, projects are very real. The more you ignore them, the larger they loom. Compared with this, university teaching is more focused on the longer-term. Critical thinking, problem-solving and reflection will be assets in your career, but they won’t necessarily help you solve the next immediate challenge. Millennial students often find this frustrating: ‘don’t ask me all these questions – why don’t you just give me the answers!’

Career advice

There’s a world of opportunity for graduating students, but they should expect competition. Getting the first break is often the hardest thing. So here’s my advice on preparing for a key interview:

  • Research the company thoroughly. Read websites and blogs, check news reports (often available via Google News) and sound out experienced people in your network. Lack of research can be fatal at interview.
  • Analyse your skills. Think what you can offer an employer now, and be ready to show evidence. Writing skills, presentation skills, web design, successful media relations activity, event or project management can all be useful. But they’ll also be assessing you for your managerial potential: have you managed people, projects, budgets? Are you results-orientated and ambitious? Do you have a positive attitude? What have you done or what have you got to set you apart from other candidates with similar resumes? This is where your sporting, musical or voluntary activities can be useful.
  • Answer their questions: You will often be asked why you want to work there. Your answer has to be specific to their business, not a general ‘I just want a job’ – so that’s why you should do your research.

If you’re a job-seeking graduate: good luck. If you’re an employer, please let me know whether graduates are meeting your requirements. If you’re a graduate working in public relations, how does your degree qualification help with the work you’re now doing? Please join the discussion and help solve the puzzle of our graduates’ success for me.

Tags: Job Search

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Kevin Saghy // Aug 3, 2008 at 1:08 pm

    Richard,

    Excellent post and great suggestions. I fit into the “graduates who are working in PR” category and I can see (and hopefully fulfill) the value of young PR practitioners firsthand.

    Yes, the economy is trudging along and our agency’s clients aren’t immune to shrinking marketing/communications budgets. The need for PR in these tough times still exists—maybe even more so—but clients seek more value for their dollar (or euro, or pound). Insert the entry level PR practitioner.

    Recent graduates bill at a much lower rate than their senior counterparts, so you’ll find a lot of work driven downward in an agency to boost value. This doesn’t mean quality is sacrificed. You cited the “old school” methods of some more senior PR folks. Newer hires might actually be better suited to research, discuss new media, etc. because of their firsthand experience with tools that didn’t exist just a few years ago. Employees at all levels bring different strengths to the table. Fortunately, junior PR talents cost less!

    PR grads shouldn’t be discouraged by the tough times. You are still viewed as a valuable asset to this profession.

  • 2 Kayode Dauda // Aug 12, 2008 at 6:06 am

    Yes there might be a lot of doom and gloom in the media, but don’t panic! It’s summer, they don’t have much more to write about…Economic conditions may not be great but PR as a sector seems to be holding up pretty well. As a PR recruiter we’ve seen the job market remain pretty healthy, the economy just affects it in different ways. For example, last year organisations were bringing a lot more of their PR in-house and there were more opportunities there. Now, companies are using agencies more so they can save money and change their spending depending on how the market’s doing, so we’re seeing more agency roles opening up. The most important thing continues to be whether you’ve got the talent and the right skills – and if you have, you won’t have a problem, no matter what scary stories the broadsheets may be printing.

  • 3 Pinaz // Aug 24, 2008 at 10:10 am

    The article is very informative and highlights how PR can strogly stand the financial turmoil the world is going through.
    I am an undergraduate student and this is the last year of my B.S in Mass communication from North Dakota State University (USA) and here is where I have to decide between advertising or PR as a major course.
    I am too confused, advertising is a pretty old career now but PR is nascent. Both lure me and fascinate me and sometimes scare. I dont want to end up making a wrong choice..could you please share with me the pro’s and con’s of both…?

  • 4 Richard Bailey // Aug 24, 2008 at 1:10 pm

    Advertising or PR? There’s so much to write about this (and so much that has already been written). Here’s something that may not have been said a thousand times.

    I suggest it’s more useful to think of ‘communications’ and to recognise that advertising (and PR by some definitions) are simply tactical approaches to communicating with specific audiences.

    I tend to agree that the Twentieth Century was the era of mass media advertising. The advertising industry has always been a tough place to succeed – but it’s getting harder. Yet marketing and PR aren’t going away.

    The fundamental need to communicate, to form groups, to promote issues, products, campaigns stays the same. But the means of doing this always adapts to changing media, fashions, boredom thresholds.

    Looked at like this, advertising-marketing-public relations are simply different points on a communications spectrum. I suggest you think of yourself as a communicator who is able to use all available and appropriate means to communicate.

    That would be the start point – but you will still have to gain expertise in a sector and in specific tools if you’re to become well-paid.

    Good luck – and never stop reading and asking questions like these!

  • 5 Rajinder Kaur // Aug 28, 2008 at 4:11 am

    Hi Richard,

    It’s always a pleasure to read your blogs- an insight into the PR world answers many of my questions!

    This recent addition (the blog above) is an eye opener.

    My first placement this year was at a fintech agency. The credit crisis was felt across the board and as purse strings tightened, i was the first to go…are we really as disposable as everyone makes out? or does it just feel that way?

    I would consider myself as proof that whatever happens, PR is always needed becasue at the other end of the scale, i’m now working for a luxury brand, food and drink agency and it’s surprising to see that even in the current climate, everyone’s still finishing their day with a nice large glass of wine!

  • 6 Advertising or PR? // Aug 30, 2008 at 9:56 am

    […] a similar resource at the PRSA Job Center.  In comments to his earlier post about jobs in the UK, Richard Bailey provides an intriguing answer to a similar question.  Key to your decision is to pursue what […]

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