It happens pretty much every day – probably multiple times a day: a public relations nightmare.

A company tweets a new slogan they don’t realize is a vulgar slang term. A celebrity makes an insensitive joke in an interview. A politician gets caught in a scandal. Who comes to the rescue? A public relations specialist.

Public relations specialists don’t only handle these major foot-in-mouth emergencies. When they aren’t putting out fires, they run campaigns that influence the public’s perception of their clients, helping companies and prominent individuals to develop a positive image or good reputation.

Do you have a trustworthy face? A smooth attitude? Strong communication skills? Well, here’s how you become a public relations specialist.

What Degree Do You Need for Public Relations?

A college degree is a requirement to get most employers to take your application for a public relations specialist job seriously. The subject of your degree, however, is a lot less rigid. Technically, any college degree at the bachelor’s level may be enough to get your foot in the door. For PR specialist roles, employers care more about candidates having solid literacy skills – strong reading and writing abilities and a good sense of how to use rhetoric and communication – than about a specific course of study. As long as you can build these skills, which major you choose may not actually matter very much.

Very specific majors may do a good job preparing you for roles in equally specific niches. For example, a science background may help you get into PR roles for hospitals and health systems, science and biomedical companies or colleges of science and engineering at universities. However, a broad education with a communications or liberal arts basis may offer you the best opportunities if you don’t have such a specific sense of what kind of industry you would like to work in as a PR specialist.

Some of the best undergraduate degree options for aspiring PR professionals include public relations, journalism, English, communications and business and marketing. Other potential areas of study might emphasize American studies, cultural studies or political science.

PR Degrees

Can you earn undergraduate degrees in PR specifically? Yes, you absolutely can. In fact, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that, for the 2017 through 2018 school year, 4,971 students earned a bachelor’s degree in public relations/image management, as did 2,397 students majoring in public relations, advertising and applied communication and 1,558 students whose majors were listed as “public relations, advertising and applied communication, other.”

Public relations degrees at the undergraduate level typically require coursework in public relations fundamentals, mass media, media relations, brand communication, PR writing, marketing principles, media ethics, PR campaigns and the digital tools used for public relations efforts. Most PR programs require or at least encourage students to complete an internship as part of their curriculum.

Journalism

Journalism is a broader field of study than PR, and it’s also more popular. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that 11,049 students earned bachelor’s degrees in journalism during the 2017 through 2018 school year, as did 815 students pursuing broadcast journalism degrees, 101 students pursuing photojournalism degrees and 738 students classified as pursuing “other” journalism degrees.

Journalism is a popular choice for aspiring public relations professionals for many reasons. For one thing, PR professionals work closely with members of the media, so it’s valuable to understand the work of publishing brand stories from a journalist’s point of view. Both PR and journalism involve a great deal of writing and content creation in other forms. Public relations specialists also need strong research skills, just as journalists do, and the ability to find a story and an angle that piques readers’ interests. If you choose to major in journalism, your core coursework might include classes in writing and reporting, audio and visual newsgathering, journalism law and ethics, innovation and design in journalism and journalism’s role in society. Journalism students often take classes in one (or more) of several different areas of specialization, including broadcast journalism, journalism for magazines, visual journalism, news and public affairs, arts and culture and sports journalism. Make sure you gain as much work experience as you can, not only by completing internships but also by being part of a school newspaper or magazine.

English

English may have a reputation as a less-than-marketable major, but it’s still a popular choice. More than 32,000 students earned a bachelor’s degree in general English language and literature during the 2017 through 2018 school year, the National Center for Education Statistics reported. Studying English typically encompasses reading and analyzing literature from a variety of different periods, such as ancient literature, medieval and renaissance literature, 19th Century literature and 20th Century literature.

A degree in English may not be as in-demand as a degree in PR or journalism – at least, not on its own. Companies aren’t looking for experts on literature, and writing public relations campaign materials is a lot different from crafting literary analyses and critiques or your own creative pieces. If you’re choosing to major in English, you want to make sure that you have a strong portfolio of relevant written work to share with a prospective employer. Again, getting involved in student newspapers and magazines and completing internships in agencies or the communication departments of businesses or nonprofit organizations can help you demonstrate the skills you have gained.

Communications

Colleges and universities awarded 9,540 degrees in communications in general for the 2017 through 2018 school year, as well as 9,218 degrees in mass communication/media studies, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Earning a bachelor’s in communication degree allows students to develop their speaking, reading and writing skills without being locked into a narrow area of communications like English or public relations. Coursework will likely include communication theory, the legal and ethical aspects of communication, writing and reporting for the news media, communication editing, technical communications and management of crisis communications. Since the major is so broad, schools may allow students to pursue areas of concentration. Some schools offer a concentration in PR, with specialized courses in the principles of public relations and advertising, marketing communications, consumer behavior, advanced reporting and social media.

Business and Marketing

If you really want to understand the business side of PR, consider majoring in business administration or marketing. A business administration degree program provides a broad foundation in business through core coursework in all business fields. A marketing degree will focus more narrowly on the function of driving consumer and public behavior, with coursework in marketing strategy, market research, public relations strategies and campaigns, advertising campaigns and marketing for specific industries and channels.

Other majors may be more or less applicable to your career in public relations. For example, if you would like to work for a government agency, a grounding in political science, American studies or public policy would be helpful.

Graduate-Level Public Relation Degrees

For most public relations specialist roles, a bachelor’s degree provides all of the formal college education you need. O*NET reported that 92 percent of public relations specialists reported having only a bachelor’s degree. Although 8 percent of the occupation reported having a master’s degree, you’re in good company if you never end up going to graduate school.

However, if you want to advance to a PR manager role – and make the big bucks – then you may have a more compelling reason to go back to school. Companies are more likely to look for credentials like a master’s degree when hiring for public relations manager roles. Having this high-level education may also be an asset if you want to open your own PR firm because it is likely to impress potential clients and add to your credibility as an expert in the field.

Master’s degrees in public relations typically include coursework in areas like public relations research and reporting, the theory and principles of public relations and strategic planning and practical applications of PR. You might take classes in multimedia communications, social media strategy, advertising and consumer culture, crisis communication, strategic communication for diverse populations and the PR agency in the modern world of digital media.

In addition to traditional Master of Arts and Master of Science degree options in PR, you can also pursue a Master of Business Administration (MBA) in public relations and related areas, like communications, marketing communications and brand development. An MBA is a different kind of master’s degree program because core coursework in several areas of business – like financial analysis, leadership and management skills – is the foundation of the degree. This coursework creates the breadth of curriculum for which MBA programs are known, and a concentration in public relations is what gives this graduate program of study its depth. The PR coursework you encounter in an MBA program may include publicity and public relations, practices and principles of managerial communication, social marketing strategies, advanced interpersonal communication, effective business communication and the marketplace, public speaking for reports and presentations, crisis management and public relations, strategic approaches to public relations, strategies for social and digital media and crisis management and PR.

Other degree options for graduate-level study for aspiring PR managers include strategic communications, public affairs, corporate communication and general communications. 

Job Expectations With PR Degrees

What exactly will you do as a public relations specialist? The public relations specialist’s primary job duties are managing and building companies’ relationships with the public, protecting their client’s reputations and putting a human face on companies and agencies that can seem too big to be personal. PR specialists accomplish these goals through strong, compelling, persuasive communication that makes effective use of rhetoric devices and strategies. If you’re a person who excels at communication and believes in the power of words to fix problems and shape appearances, you’re on the right track for this career.

Public relations specialists work for and with a diverse array of companies and high-profile individuals. People and organizations in just about any industry may require professional assistance to build a positive and prominent public image for themselves. Public relations specialists often work for schools and educational services, advertising and PR firms, government entities, business and labor organizations, political organizations, media buyers and professional organizations and associations. Some PR specialists work in-house as employees of a single company for which they manage the organization’s public image full-time, while others work for agencies to serve many different clients, potentially in very different industries.

Acting as a company’s spokesperson, public relations specialists perform some of the following roles:

  • Conduct media interviews (Q&A’s) with company leaders and representatives
  • Handle a company’s social media presence on channels such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, TikTok and more
  • Write press releases, media advisories and other content intended to secure media coverage and pitch their clients’ stories to journalists and other media contacts
  • Write and prepare speeches on behalf of company leaders

It’s the job of the PR Specialist to keep an open line of communication between their clients and the public. Obviously, much of public relations today takes place on social media, so today’s PR specialists should be well versed in pop culture and current events. You must know how to spin bad press into not-so-bad press (deflect negative criticism) and, in these days of immediate feedback, be able to give a convincing apology.

pr degreesIMAGE SOURCE: Pixabay, public domain

Public relations specialists usually provide direct service to organizations in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. They write materials such as press releases for the public to read. They are in regular contact with media contacts, inviting them to press conferences and events as well as informing them of positive stories about the organization that may warrant media coverage.

Around one in ten public relations specialists work for the government. PR specialists working for government agencies usually hold the title of press secretary. Press secretaries are routinely tasked with speaking directly to the press on behalf of their agency, explaining government policies and the positions of an administration on the issues.

Public relations managers work in a managerial or administrative capacity, overseeing a team of specialists and their campaigns. These professionals manage whole campaigns and put the right people on the right jobs, all the while making sure that the campaign stays focused, consistent and on track to meet its goals.

The median salary for public relations specialists in 2020 was $62,810, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The 10 percent of PR specialists who earned the least made less than $35,350, while the 10 percent who make the most report earnings above $118,210 per year. For public relations managers, along with fundraising managers, the BLS reported a median wage of $118,430 in 2020. The highest-paid PR managers reported making above $208,000, while the lowest-paid had salaries of less than $66,740.

Both PR specialists and PR managers are seeing rapid job growth. The BLS expected job opportunities in these occupations to increase by faster than average rates of 11 percent and 13 percent, respectively, between 2020 and 2030. All in all, this anticipated job growth would add 31,200 new opportunities to the 272,300 existing roles for public relations specialists and 11,300 new positions to the 89,000 existing public relations manager jobs in America.

Careers in public relations often begin with internships with a public relations agency or the PR wing of an organization, such as a corporation, nonprofit or government agency. An internship completed during college helps you make professional contacts and gain experience for when you hit the job market.

Additional Resources

What Is a Degree in Public Relations?

What Classes Will I Take for a Degree in Public Relations?

Where Can I Work With a Degree in Public Relations?