We recently had a conversation in the office about our routes into our PR careers, and one topic that kept on recurring is just how competitive it is. This got us thinking – is the number of talented graduates heading into PR on the rise? To find out, we submitted Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to the top 10 universities for media and communications degrees, as specified by the Complete University Guide.

Nearly all the universities we approached reported a huge rise in the number of students studying media and communications degrees. For example, the University of Southampton reported a 77% increase in student intake for the academic years 2015/16 to 2019/20, while the University of Loughborough reported a 71% increase, and Cardiff University a 70% rise for the years 2015/16 to 2018/19.

Given the increased competition, how can you stand out from the crowd and get that proverbial first foot in the door? And do you really need a degree to get a job in PR? We asked some of the most seasoned professionals at TopLine for their advice on how to get into PR.

Do you need a degree?

Our CEO, Heather, believes that a degree, especially a communications degree, isn’t a fundamental requirement. She said: “Some of the best people we’ve hired at TopLine haven’t been to university. Rather, you need a gritty work ethic sprinkled with a good dose of creative flair, and a strong interest in the sector you’ll be focusing on. These traits will have the biggest impact on your success.”

Luke, our Head of PR and SEO, agrees. He said: “I studied English Literature and Language at university, and I liked writing, so getting into PR was a good option for me. However, I ended up spending 18 months job hunting, going to more than 10 interviews. The problem was that I lacked experience, but I couldn’t get that experience if nobody was prepared to give me a chance.

“This classic chicken and egg situation stuck with me, and it’s something we now consider when recruiting for entry-level jobs. We’ve hired a few people over the years without degrees or experience, and they’ve turned out to be superb.”

Consider an internship or work without pay

Our digital strategist, Tom, believes experience in the industry will put you one step ahead of the competition. He said: “I decided to be proactive and went in search of a summer job at an agency to get a feel for the environment. I simply googled ‘PR agency’ and selected the first three I spotted [our SEO services vindicated]. I emailed each a concise and polite message, expressing my interest in a possible internship to gain some experience. I included a summary of my current situation and attached my CV.

“Two replied and agreed. I got to attend strategy meetings, assist with pitching, and draft some copy. Apart from travel expenses, it was unpaid work, but the experience you gain in the process is the reward.”

However, that doesn’t mean you should leave non-comms related experience off your CV. Tom said: “Remember to include hospitality jobs (like bar tending) on your CV. It’s also client-facing work, and shows employers that you have what it takes to deal with people and handle potentially tricky situations under pressure.”

The importance of a good CV

For Katy, Head of Client Relations at TopLine, having a well-written CV is of paramount importance if you want a job in comms. A carefully considered CV without any errors demonstrates that you have an attention to detail and can summarise key points in an engaging way; essential skills for any PR professional.

Heather adds that “freelance writing samples, a decent blog and an established social media profile, are also valuable when you apply for a job. Most importantly, however, is a CV free of typos and grammar errors. Combining this with thorough research on the company you’re applying to will ensure your application ends in the top 5%.”

Go into your interview with some PR and journalism knowledge

Jamie, one of our Comms Executives, counts himself lucky. He said: “I studied journalism at university and wrote for a couple of regional newspapers prior to joining TopLine. This gave me a solid understanding of journalism and communications, which I was able to demonstrate in my CV and job interview with TopLine.

“But don’t be too concerned if you have an unrelated degree or no degree at all. One of the most essential skills for a successful PR professional to have is a keen news sense, which essentially means being able to spot and develop a good news story. By consuming lots of news in print, online, and broadcast, you’ll develop an excellent news sense that any reputable PR company will value.

“There are also lots of resources you can read to develop your understanding. Journalism Principles and Practices by Tony Harcup and The Universal Journalist by David Randall are both books we were advised to read at university and will give you an insight into the inner workings of the media. You should also check out Tony Harcup and Deidre O’Neill’s ‘What is News? Galtung and Ruge Revisited’, which gives an excellent introduction to news values and what makes a good story.”

Industry publications such as PR WeekThe DrumMarketing Week and Search Engine Land (if SEO is going to be part of your remit) are also useful resources.

Pick up as many skills as you can

Heather emphasises that having a wide range of communications skills will make you stand out to prospective employers. She said: “Some of these skills you’ll learn on the job, but getting a head start will improve your chances of being hired. Learn how to use Adobe InDesign and Photoshop, take a course in photography or film production, read a book on how to write copy, and listen to podcasts on business strategy. Then, brag about these skills in your CV and interview, and sit back while the job offers roll in.

“We’ve also put together a PR Masterclass specifically for beginners and students (paid for resource). It’ll help you with everything from journalist outreach to maximising engagement with your content.”

Want to learn more about PR? Take our Udemy course, ‘The Ultimate Public Relations Masterclass’.

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