Remember how difficult it was to finally settle on a major when you first started school? For most college students, this decision is petrifying in that, theoretically, it determines how the entirety of the rest of their lives will be spent after graduation. Understandably, nerves tend to be present throughout the process.
That being said, in many instances, that’s not necessarily the case. In fact, according to Jaison Abel and Richard Dietz of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, as of May of 2013, only 27 percent of college graduates even had jobs related to their respective majors. Surprisingly, for many working in the field of professional public relations, the aforementioned is their reality.
My Personal Experience
I am one of those people. If you’ve taken any time to read up on my past, then you already know that my degree selections were anything but normal. Yup, that’s right—as a young, wide-eyed freshman at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, I declared myself a Latin American Studies major during my second semester. Later on, I’d also add a degree in Spanish to my repertoire.
While the move was originally intended as a way for me to diversify myself as a future law school applicant, once graduation came and my career path had changed, I felt completely confident with the various skill sets my pair of degrees had given me. As I entered the world of professional PR and won promotions over those who’d made a degree in communications a worthwhile pursuit, I quickly began to realize that a formal degree in a related field was anything but necessary.
The Core Skills Necessary to Succeed In PR
Let’s be real with each other right from the get-go: PR isn’t brain surgery. Seriously, if you can write a 15-page dissertation on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” you sure as heck can pen a press release when the need arises. So what’s to be earned from the undergraduate experience for up-and-coming PR people? Simply put, they’ll need the ability to communicate both succinctly and effectively, multitask, adhere to strict deadlines, remain organized and write like there’s no tomorrow.
In order to learn just that, it’s by no means required that a formal degree in communications be obtained. In reality, you might actually be better off pursuing a different major to make it in the competitive world of PR. Think I’m crazy? Well, here’s what I’m seeing:
1) Completely Blind to Communicative Jargon
At one point or another, some unknown person in some unknown location once famously said to an unknown listener, “Dude, ignorance is bliss.” While generally being used in situations having little to do with PR, there’s a great deal of application found within the old adage for our current topic of discussion.
Take for example, the topic of buzzwords. What’s always been crazy to me is how passionately nearly all PR people abhor them during light conversation, yet are readily willing to use them whenever it’s time to compose a press release. Writing like a real human is another one, especially during an email pitch.
Admittedly, I owe my passionate hatred of robotic pitching to the infamous Ed Zitron, who first pointed out to me how commonplace the disgusting practice both was and currently is. Trust me, if I could claim the idea as my own, I would’ve done so long ago.
What am I getting at with all of this? English, History, Political Science and Linguistics majors are so naive—perhaps the wrong word, but you get what I’m driving home here—as to what PR has to spit at them, that corners are rarely cut.
This devotion to learning the ins and outs of our industry often leads to well-crafted pitches with a focus on the recipient, devoted social media engagement and content that’s actually been thoroughly researched prior to production. Students of the humanities, liberal arts and international studies (cough cough) are generally excellent candidates for making this sort of thing happen right out of the gate.
2) The Determination to Work One’s Way to the Top
I’m the first to admit that, while confident in my abilities as a PR professional, there’s plenty that I’ve yet to have learned about the industry. Though still true, this sort of humility was never more present in my mind and heart than it was when I landed my first PR-driven internship while nearing graduation back in college.
I’d discovered the internship a few months before applying and, in order to properly compete with those who’d opted for a more traditional education for making it in PR, started building a professional portfolio through on-campus publications at BYU and part-time social media work.
Fortunately, the strategy worked and I was accepted to begin working with a talented team of about ten interns. Honestly, as the only one with a peculiar educational makeup, I felt I couldn’t work hard enough to prove my worth to the ad agency where I was interning.
Listen, as a Millennial, I don’t need to hear any more about the entitlement that those of my generation supposedly feel, but mercy—if ever evidence was needed of the aforestated, my intern group could’ve provided enough data to fill an entire textbook. Needless to say, content quotas were seen as extreme and deadlines viewed as too firm. With complaints flying every which way, soon, my peers were dropping like flies.
Now, with that in mind, in no way shape or form am I ignorant enough to think that all communications students figuratively bathe in arrogance each night before going to bed. What I do know, however, is that successful PR people have a certain grit about them which comes from an ability to work harder than their peers. Without a degree in PR or a related field, the desire to conquer all is ever present.
3) Versatility With an Array of Clients and Situations
More than just about anything else, this is by far the strongest of arguing points for those who support the hiring of non-PR students fresh out of school. Yes, specialization at the agency or firm level is wonderful for bringing in clients, but in large part, most PR entities are dealing with a wide variety of clients from a host of different industries.
Because of this, apart from a love of anything and everything editorial, creativity is held at a premium for recruiting teams looking to bring onboard the brightest of PR minds. It’s not that communications students aren’t able to think outside of the proverbial box, it’s just that they’ve all been trained to analyze situations in the exact same way.
If an agency is looking for similar results, they’ll bring in more communications students; conversely, if growth is an earnest pursuit, people with different mindsets will be brought onboard to bring about real change. From pitching and social media marketing to client relations and crisis management, rest assured, there are countless individuals who are very much capable of dominating PR—even if they’ve never enrolled in Media Writing 101.
Before signing off, I want make it abundantly clear that those with an academic background in communications have, if I’m being completely honest here, a real advantage out in the ever-competitive PR job market. As much as I’d like to admit it, at least initially, they’ve got a better idea of what’s going on and what’s to be expected of them.
At the end of the day, however, with the right attitude and willingness to learn, there’s little difference between what “Peter PR” and an underwater basket weaver can do. Truthfully, some might even go as far as saying that the latter would be better equipped for a PR gig. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, I subscribe to this mentality.
Lucas Miller is the Founder of Echelon Copy. When not writing, editing or running, he's working tirelessly to perfect what he claims is the "World's Greatest Pompadour." Additionally, for what it's worth, his editorial works have been featured on Social Media Today, Business2Community, Ragan's PR Daily, Spin Sucks and many other top-tier PR publications.