Have you ever wondered how a business or organisation builds or maintains its reputation? Well, it is through public relations – or PR for short. PR is all about how organisations communicate with the public, promote themselves, and build a positive reputation and public image.
The Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) says: “The way an organisation is represented in the media has a huge impact on how people perceive it. PR professionals try to influence the media to represent their organisation positively and communicate key messages.”
The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) says: “Reputation is often the one feature that can make a fundamental difference to a company and thus, give it a competitive edge.”
Building a good reputation is usually down to a team of great communicators, known as a public relations or communications officers. Their roles are usually very varied and can include writing engaging press releases for the world’s media, securing features in magazines, setting up interviews or organising events.
The skills required are what you’d expect. You need to be an excellent communicator with good interpersonal skills and be able to think strategically. You will need to be creative and good at multi-tasking, with the ability to juggle and prioritise work. You will also need to be ‘aware’ – having an interest in news and current affairs is key.
There are many routes into PR. You can study a PR, communications or marketing related degree at university, or you could embark on an apprenticeship in a related field.
Ellie Adshead, PR and marketing account manager at CPMM Media Group (cpmmmedia.com), studied sociology, graphic design and media studies at sixth form.
She said: “I wasn’t too sure what I wanted to do before I left college, I really enjoyed media studies and so I looked into courses relating to this and came across PR. It sounded interesting and an industry that was continuing to grow.”
Ellie went to Leeds Metropolitan University, now known as Leeds Becket University, to complete a degree in public relations.
She added: “I was really drawn to this particular course because I had the opportunity to carry out a 12-month placement before my final year. For me, this is where I really learnt about the industry and gained hands on experience that no lecturer ever taught me!”
A sandwich degree – a course involving practical work experience in addition to academic study – is now a popular option for a lot of students.
Ellie continued: “I worked for a PR agency outside of Manchester which had some great clients including Manchester City FC and Everton FC. I had the opportunity to really get stuck in and gained some incredibly valuable skills.
“After the 12 months, I returned to university to complete my final year. Before I finished my degree, the PR agency offered me a full-time job which I was obviously ecstatic about – it also meant there was no stress about finding a job once I graduated.”
A starting salary within an agency is around £18,000, depending on its location. PR, or marketing, agencies will work for many businesses or ‘clients’ across a range of sectors. Some firms will have a specialism such as business-to-business (B2B) which helps organisations promote their products and services to other businesses, not consumers (B2C).
Carlie Wittred studied with Ellie at university. She works in-house at Gousto which supplies subscribers with recipe kit boxes which include ready measured, fresh ingredients delivered to their door.
Growing up Carlie always had a thirst for media. She said: “For as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with the idea of storytelling and mesmerised by those who do it well. I vividly remember being a child and reading every inch of the Sunday paper, observing how brands and individuals navigated the often ferocious media landscape to tell compelling stories.
“I loved the thrill of knowing that a reputation could be built or destroyed overnight and liked to observe those who I viewed as having to navigate a daily tightrope walk to manage their image. This passion and curiosity still exist within me today but is fuelled even more by the modern media available at our fingertips.”
An alternative to working for an agency is to work ‘in-house’. This means you work directly for a company and your focus is solely on the marketing or PR for this organisation.
Carlie said: “PR is just one function within my broader role as head of brand marketing and PR at Gousto. I’m fortunate enough to lead a three-person in-house PR function, whilst overseeing an extensive team across our consumer, corporate and link-building PR agencies.
“Since joining the brand in 2017, our brand awareness has grown fivefold, we’ve achieved tech unicorn status and tripled in size – the expectation and role of PR has grown in line with that. From leading our crisis communications strategy, to driving brand love and trust through innovative creative consumer campaigns, to building a business with purpose through corporate PR and influencing positive industry change through public affairs – our days are busy, but ambitions are high and it’s the most exciting job I’ve ever had.”
Hannah Fowler made the switch from PR agency to in-house in 2019.
Hannah said: “After five years, I wanted a new challenge and to try my hand at in-house PR, working for one organisation as opposed to lots of different clients. I loved working with the education clients at the agency as the PR felt really rewarding, so when a marketing co-ordinator job came up at a local college, I applied without a second thought.”
Working in-house can mean your role is just as varied as working for a PR agency. Starting salaries are similar to those of an agency. In addition, you may also become responsible for internal communications which is all about delivering effective communications to employees within an organisation.
The Institute of Internal Communications puts it simply: “At the most basic level, you have to communicate well at the right time so employees know what is expected of them and what is happening in the organisation. At a deeper level, for employees to feel engaged with their workplace and give their best, they have to see that their organisation cares about their views and understand how their role contributes towards overall business objectives.”
Hannah tells us more about what her job includes: “My role involves implementing marketing campaigns to support the college’s recruitment targets, building brand awareness and sharing student successes. On a typical day this could include writing press releases, organising events and designing print materials alongside the digital side of things, such as email campaigns, Google advertising, website management, social media and Google Analytics.”
PR can be a rewarding job in many different ways. Hannah said: “Seeing a piece of PR do really well and take off for your client or organisation is so rewarding. There are so many amazing stories which go untold or don’t break through to the media, so to help a client get recognised (for the right reasons!) feels amazing.”
Ellie agreed and added: “There is no better feeling than seeing a story that you believed in, gain traction in the media. When the client is pleased, you are too!”
Carlie also explains how the growth opportunities are endless in the industry. She said: “I’ve always believed that if you understand the foundations of PR and communications (relationship building, reputation management, how to communicate), then you don’t need to be a specialist to figure out the rest.
“I’ve worked cross-sector in government, financial, grocery, healthcare organisations – and cross-discipline in consumer, corporate, financial PR, crisis and public affairs. Where it gets interesting is sewing all of these together and aligning with brand strategy to develop a brand people know, respect and love. We’re on that journey in the PR team at Gousto and it is super engaging.”
Ellie said: “The Educate Awards is such a feel-good event. The planning and management is fun, although as you can imagine, it can get a little stressful in the run up but that is something you just accept. When it all comes together without a hitch on the night, it is amazing. Seeing everyone enjoy themselves is what it is all about, especially at last year’s ceremony!
“As part of the PR, it is great to be able to spread the message of the awards and work with media from across the North West, sharing the news of who made the shortlist and then the overall winners.”
If PR sounds like an industry you could see yourself working in, Hannah recommends gaining work experience first.
She suggested: “Get as much experience as you can! An agency is a great place to soak up lots of knowledge and experience when you are starting out. Here you can really finetune your skills and decide what path to take. You might find your calling in a niche sector or branch off to another specialism such as marketing or social media.
“I think some people have a dated view of PR and see it all as ‘spin’ but the public are very savvy, they will see through an inauthentic story and won’t be afraid to share their opinions on social media!”
The perfect example of this is the Fyre Festival. Many people refer to this as a complete and utter PR disaster – especially if you have watched the Netflix documentary!
Hannah continued: “It was by far the most talked about festival that year, but for all the wrong reasons. With tickets costing thousands of pounds, guests were promised luxury accommodation, music, good food and adventures. They turned up to rain-soaked mattresses, cheese slices on bread and just overall chaos.
“I think this story shows the power of social media – guests were tweeting in real-time, and the world was following along every step of the way. What started out as a powerful PR and social media campaign with influencers and celebrities selling the dream, ended up as a PR nightmare. Again, I think it also goes back to authenticity, transparency and trust. Fyre Festival got every one of these wrong and had no way back when the truth was revealed.”
Whilst you will definitely want to avoid handling a PR disaster such as this in your career, PR proves to be an exciting industry to be part of and is evolving year in year out, thanks to the constant developing of communication channels, both online and offline.
Where to study?
Liverpool John Moores University offers the following courses associated with PR and communications (www.ljmu.ac.uk):
BSc (Hons) Business with Media Communications
Course Duration: Three years or four years with placement
UCAS code: NP12
Points required: 112
BA (Hons) Media, Culture, Communication
Course Duration: Three years
UCAS code: LP63
Points required: 104
Edge Hill University offers the following course (www.edgehill.ac.uk):
BSc (Hons) Marketing with Digital Communications
Course Duration: Three years or five years part time
UCAS code: N590
Points required: 112-120
Alternatively, why not look into an apprenticeship?
Search on www.gov.uk/apply-apprenticeship to find all the latest apprenticeships.
Carlie Wittred’s advice to anyone thinking about entering the PR industry:
Make time for curiosity – Contrary to popular opinion, curiosity doesn’t kill the cat (in my opinion). In fact, since the mind is a muscle, curiosity makes it stronger. Practice asking ‘why’, create space for research and reflection, and be open to the opinions of others. This continual exercise makes your mind observant of new ideas and broaden your thinking and creativity – all of which are so important in PR.
Absorb the world around you – Every PR agency I’ve ever met and worked in, talks about creating campaigns that speak to culture. Achieving this is impossible if you don’t know what’s going on in the world. Read the news, watch the TV, take a walk, engage with social media – discovering the world around you will only help you identify opportunities in your role.
Operate with integrity – ‘Spin doctors’ is a common misconception of the industry, when actually integrity and ethics are fundamental to PR. PR is about sharing carefully crafted information with the world to drive trust and build relationships, so it must revolve around honesty.