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Question: What Is the Best Degree for a Public Relations Career?

Answer: There are several paths to becoming a public relations (PR) professional, including designated master’s in public relations degree programs and master’s in communication degree programs with a PR specialization. Students interested in pursing a career in PR may choose to major in communication in a bachelor’s program, and many communication and communication studies departments offer undergraduates the opportunity to study PR as part of a communication major. There are other academic routes that can lead to a career in PR, which include but are not limited to earning a degree in marketing or journalism, and/or studying strategic communication in a graduate program.

What Is Public Relations?

The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) defines public relations as, “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics,” adding that “public relations is about influencing, engaging, and building a relationship with key stakeholders across a myriad of platforms in order to shape and frame the public perception of an organization.”

PR professionals work for corporations, non-profit entities, government agencies, politicians, celebrities, and other organizations and individuals who are concerned with managing their relationship with the public. They are typically well versed in oral and written communication and understand how the tools of mass media can be used to enhance and protect a client’s image and influence public discourse. This often involves issuing press releases, writing speeches, conducting press conferences, acting as a liaison between a client and media outlets, and managing a client’s social media presence.

Pathways to a Career in PR

There are no formal educational or licensing requirements for working in the field of PR. Any person who cultivates the necessary communication skills and can deploy those skills to further a client’s messaging objectives may be qualified to perform PR functions. However, there are technical aspects of communication science, including the application of analytics methodologies to survey and polling data, that are integral to the practice of PR and that may require specialized training.

Many employers look for PR professionals who hold a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and who have completed some formal training in communication, media studies, journalism, or another field relevant to the practice of PR. Advanced training through a Master of Science (MS), Master of Arts (MA), or Master of Professional Studies (MPS) in public relations or communication program typically provides additional opportunities for career advancement. Some of the common steps to becoming a successful PR professional include:

  • Finishing high school and applying to a college or university with a communication or media studies major
  • Interning with a PR firm or in an organization’s PR department
  • Completing a bachelor’s degree with a major in communication or communication studies
  • Completing a master’s in public relations or a master’s in communication with a pubic relations specialization program

The list below provides an overview of some of the professional skills and technical proficiencies that are important in the field of PR:

  • Verbal communication and public speaking skills
  • Professional writing skills
  • Visual presentation skills
  • Active listening and social perceptiveness
  • Web design
  • Graphics and photo imaging tools
  • Traditional and emerging media technologies
  • Database systems
  • Media research and analytics methods
  • Strategic marketing
  • Social media strategy
  • Crisis and change management
  • Brand and reputation management

Master’s in Public Relations Programs vs. Master’s in Communication Programs with a Specialization in Public Relations

Advanced professional training for PR specialists typically takes place in graduate programs, most commonly in designated master’s in public relations programs or in master’s in communication programs that offer a specialized track or concentration in PR. The differences between these types of programs are not uniform and are often quite subtle. Students in a master’s in communication program with a PR specialization may have to take core communication theory courses (e.g., quantitative and/or qualitative research methods) that aren’t specific to work in the field of PR, although they may provide useful tools for PR professionals. Students in a master’s in PR program may not be offered courses in communication theory. Conversely, students in a master’s in PR program may have more elective options in PR related topics compared to a master’s in communication program.

Many master’s in PR programs are housed in schools or departments of communication and provide foundational training in the science and theory of communication. Prospective applicants to master’s programs who are seeking training in PR should examine program curricula carefully to ensure the program offers training that matches their academic and professional needs and/or goals.

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