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March 14, 2017

The ‘Micky Mouse’ degree. Are qualifications holding back communicators?

The importance of a university degree and demonstrating a certain level of learning, has long been spearheaded as an ideal route into the PR industry. Whilst some have wrongly deemed it a ‘Micky Mouse degree’, the need or preference for a degree when applying for roles isn’t uncommon, with many industries offering non-graduate roles with a glass ceiling guaranteed – this is particularly notable, quiet ironically, in the public sector.

But is a degree really an absolute must when it comes to being an effective communicator? In my experience this answer tends to be no. I have worked with a number of highly professional and skilled people over the years that offer real insight and life experience when it comes to the industry, similarly I’ve worked with a lot of young, fresh faced graduates that can talk the talk, but fail to walk the walk. Which raises the question – is a degree really required, and if so, what could be done to make such courses more effective?

I didn’t study PR at university. I undertook a joint honors degree in English Literature and Art; it’s arguably relevant… the art represents the creativity and a certain level of understanding on how political movements can impact on consumerism and society as a whole, whilst the English element of my degree taught me how to become more eloquent in my writing. But these are just two very small traits required to be an effective communicator.

The above didn’t teach me common sense, it didn’t expose me to a fast paced, deadline driven environment, it didn’t show me how to handle clients, manage a team, get under the skin of business management or generate an eye for a news story. Arguably a PR degree would have offered me some of these distinctive skills – but from my experience of graduates leaving university following a PR degree, I’d beg to differ.

In fact I have a couple of examples of truly inspiring communicators that didn’t go to university. And, I’ve got to say, the majority of my colleagues that did go to university, certainly didn’t study PR as a discipline. So, for me, this raises an interesting question. Should we be doing more on the ground to entice young blood into the industry at an earlier age? Pre-university, perhaps even pre-college? And if so, how would this shape the way we approach the industry as a whole? How we connect with our audiences and how we embrace new technology?

There’s a skills shortage. This is apparent across a whole range of different industries, and PR is no exception. The shortage in PR however sits in the middle ground. Good quality execs are not hard to come by, good quality managers however are. So consider this. If the majority of practitioners are heading to university, we don’t receive the bulk of new blood until they’re around 21 to 23 – meaning it will take another three to four years for them to fulfill the roles we so desperately need to in management positions. However, if we were to engage with a younger generation of potential communicators, we could have them at management level by the time they hit their 20s. That’s a time saving of at least three years.

But it’s not just youngsters we should be encouraging into the industry. From journalists, to other creative sectors, there are plenty of people; skilled and talented professionals that can help shape our industry in a more effective way. Degree or no degree. It’s time we invested more in vertical sector outreach to ensure we’re attracting people into the sector at all ages, up-skilling them and providing our businesses with the skilled labour we desperately need.

To conclude, being an effective PR practitioner is less about the certificates you keep under your bed, and more about your real life experiences – your ability to connect and relate with your audience. As a successful PR, you need an eclectic skill set – if that includes a degree then great. If it doesn’t… I personally don’t see the problem. Regardless, one thing is clear. In order to really spearhead industry development we need to focus less on the traditional and more on the upcoming – surely this is something that fresh faced school leavers, combined with a healthy mix of experience from sister sectors can provide in abundance?

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Ella Sykes

Blogger & Account Director @prohibitionpr. Vogue obsessed! Love the ‘f’ words; fashion, food, family, friends, females. Based in Leeds.

Comments

  1. Absolutely right that you don’t need a degree to be an excellent public relations professional. However, I would argue strongly that you need to practice and record continuous professional development and ideally supplement this with professional qualifications. Experience on its own is not enough as it’s quite possible to meet PR people (not professionals) who have 20 or more years of experience… of doing it badly.

    It’s also right that we attract people from other disciplines, although to future proof the industry they need to come just as much from psychology and data science as they do from journalism or other communications disciplines.

    Universities should also be questioning if degrees really need to take three years, or four with a sandwich year to gain experience. It should be possible to teach high quality undergraduate degrees in two or even one year. There should also be more options such as starting work at 18 and simultaneously doing a degree over say four or five years. This would give young people far more choice and create a more diverse mix of people in the workplace. It might also help those who don’t want to accumulate student debts and would prefer to earn and learn.

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