PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Preparation and education for public relations
© 2008 Michael Turney Return to
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Practicing Public Relations
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Not surprisingly, when public relations was predominantly promotion and publicity, many of its best practitioners were former journalists. That's true even today, but as the range and scope of public relations expanded so did the prior experiences and academic credentials of its practitioners.

Most early practitioners were experienced journalists.

In the early years of public relations, when it was generally viewed as the one-way transmission of information and persuasive messages, many people began doing public relations work after they had worked in the news media for several years. The media were, after all, one of the primary vehicles used by public relations. It was very reasonable for those who had worked well in the media to think that they could apply those same skills and expertise to public relations. And, so it was for quite a while. Over the course of several decades, thousands of journalists crossed over and went from being reporters and news-gatherers to being spokespersons and news releasers.

Some were drawn by better pay or the perception of a more affluent working environment, -- e.g., a private office instead of a desk in a crowded newsroom, or a secretary to do typing, or an expense account for taking people to lunch -- while others dreamed of having 9-5 working hours instead of chasing news 24-hours per day. Still others simply saw there were more jobs and more opportunity for advancement in public relations than in the media.

Thus, working as a reporter or editor and gaining prior news media experience or attending or journalism school were the most common routes into a public relations career from the turn of the twentieth century until well after World War II.

Most of the older practitioners were at the outset less interested in public relations as a desirable career than in the greater income or job security they hoped to find.
Robert Dilenschneider & Dan Forrestal        
The Dartnell Public Relations Handbook (3rd edition)        

Practitioners' backgrounds changed as the field did.

As public relations matured and the full scope of its activities became more widely accepted, business and organization managers came to realize that public relations is more than transmitting messages. Once they realized that, they also realized that not all public relations practitioners had to be message technicians with the communication skills to construct and transmit messages. Some could be problem-solvers or relationship-builders of other sorts. Thus, organizations began accepting -- and, some specifically began looking for -- public relations practitioners with different, non-journalism backgrounds.

A surprising percentage of these new, non-journalist, public relations practitioners had business or management degrees. This was partially due to the general post-World War II trend that emphasized the need for business executives and managers to have college degrees, and it was also partly due to the explosive growth of business schools that occurred during those years. If a job specifically required a certain type of degree, e.g., accounting, engineering, or finance, then only those with that degree were considered. But, since public relations was not -- as noted above -- seen as specifically requiring a communication degree, almost any degree would suffice. But, because there were so many business school graduates available and, perhaps, because of the backgrounds of those doing the hiring, there seems to have been a disproportionate number of business majors hired for public relations positions.

As a group, these business-trained public relations practitioners tended to have a broader knowledge of contemporary management theory and much more focus on the bottom line profitability of their employers than journalism-trained public relations practitioners. Some of them also had special expertise in areas like marketing, personnel (which is now usually called human resources), or industrial psychology. Using these backgrounds, they helped integrate public relations more fully within their organizations and further spread its influence.

In some companies, especially during times of rapid expansion and growth, the influx of non-journalists into their public relations departments led to re-naming or the creation of hybrid departments such as marketing public relations, marketing communications, employee communication, or personnel relations. Further discussion of these changes in the scope and nature of public relations and the increasing popularity of alternative names for public relations are found in linked readings.

During this period, the routes into public relations careers became almost as diverse as the practitioners themselves. General management or specialized business experience became as common as media experience. College degrees could be in almost any field from literature, economics, or psychology to biology or information sciences. Opportunities for broadly-educated, quick-thinking, and flexible public relations practitioners abounded, and creative, enthusiastic people, regardless of their backgrounds, could find niches for themselves.

Colleges have tried to provide public relations career preparation.

Edward Bernays taught the first college course in public relations at New York University in 1923 and Boston University established a program of study for public relations in 1947, but it wasn't until the 1960s and `70s that a sizable number of colleges followed suit. During those decaders, a few of the schools that added public relations to their curriculum created entirely new programs and even new departments of public relations, but most simply expanded their existing departments to encompass public relations.

All of this shifting and reorganization of their curricula reflected more than the maneuvering of academic departments and universities for students. It also reflected the changing nature of public relations and the expanded duties that are expected of today's practitioners. Writing and editing skills remain important, but they're no longer the sole element in effective public relations training. And, practically speaking, while communication-based public relations programs remain a popular route to public relations careers, they are neither the sole route nor necessarily the best one.

In today's world of integrated corporate communication, upper-level public relations practitioners need to be masters of management strategies as well as communication skills, in addition to having thorough knowledge of the disciplines and environments in which their organizations operate.

Students following a traditional journalism program -- even one with a public relations specialty -- won't get the breadth of expertise they'll need. Neither will those seeking an organizational communication degree, a communication arts degree, a marketing degree, or a business management degree. Students who aspire to be successful public relations practitioners need to expand their horizons beyond a single college major and take a wide range of business, communication, psychology, information science, and audiovisual production courses.

Chief executives today need more than a wordsmith. They need someone to orchestrate their appearances, develop and articulate their themes, build their media connections, research their chosen issues, develop their positions, and help them to express themselves persuasively.

Robert L. Fegley        
PRSA Annual Conference (New York; 1983)        

Table of contents
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Underlying concepts of public relations Practicing Public Relations
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Versatility in career preparation Duties and responsibilities of public relations practitioners. Must-read public relations books