Answer: Both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in public relations prepare students to work to build and maintain the public identity of a variety of organizations, from those in the private sector to those in the public/government sector. Depending on the program they select, students may have the option to specialize in specific areas of public relations, such as digital storytelling or strategic communication.
Public relations, which is defined as an organization’s maintenance of its public image through concerted efforts and strategy, is a crucial part of business, government, the technology sector, non-profit work, and many other areas besides. Organizations rely on the public’s trust in them, key investor and partner relations, and good standing with regulatory bodies in their industry, all of which require a robust and ongoing public relations strategy. Professionals in public relations must know the core principles of media relations, reputation and crisis management, brand awareness, and event coordination and management, while also learning the new ways in which this information is designed and distributed to the public and other stakeholders.
Examples of public relations professions include but are not limited to the following potential career titles. Please note that the role titles and descriptions outlined below are meant to serve as examples only, and are not illustrative of the full depth and breadth of careers possible in the field of public relations. Moreover, while we have listed common responsibilities associated with specific public relations roles, different companies may have different responsibilities and titles for their public relations professionals.
- Communications Officers/Specialists design and evaluate external-facing communications strategies for companies and other organizations. This includes managing various media channels, distilling and properly conveying an organization’s mission and values, and coordinating with internal staff and contractors/vendors to design campaigns that uphold the reputation and value of their organization’s brand.
- Public Relations Associates and Assistants conduct research regarding public relations issues for their team, and also outline, write, and edit public relations content, including press releases, social media announcements and responses, and web and print content that aims to build and maintain a positive public image for their organization. In addition, they support senior public relations staff in reaching out to, responding to, and developing relationships with media stakeholders, partners, and the public.
- Public Relations Coordinators and Public Relations Specialists serve as liaisons between their organization and the public, business partners, investors, government bodies, and/or other stakeholders. They manage their company or organization’s relationships with these parties through effective communication, which includes press releases, white papers, emails, events, and announcements.
- Public Relations Managers manage the execution of high-level public relations and external-facing content initiatives. They also foster key relationships and work to expand exposure of their company’s brand, values, and mission.
- Media Relations Specialists and Managers are similar to public relations managers in that they seek to advance their organization’s mission statement through strategic media initiatives and relationship building with media outlets, other businesses, investors, and the public. They also identify opportunities for positive media coverage through research and partnership-building.
- Directors of Public Relations oversee the strategic communication vision of a public relations department, which includes managing the development of numerous public relations initiatives, formulating long-term and short-term goals, and assessing the progress and impact of campaigns and initiatives.
Academic Training for Public Relations Careers
While it is not strictly necessary to enter a career in public relations, academic training in this field can be quite valuable in preparing students to perform and advance as public relations professionals. While bachelor’s degrees in public relations typically prepare students for entry-level jobs in the field, master’s degrees in public relations often have coursework and projects that aim to help professionals further specialize and also advance to more leadership or management positions.
Bachelor’s degrees in public relations generally cover fundamental principles, such as effective written and oral communication, public communication, communication research methods and their relevance to industry, business writing, and public relations ethics. Upon graduating from an undergraduate program, students are generally qualified to enter entry-level public relations positions, such as public relations assistant, media associate, and even marketing associate roles. With sufficient years of experience and a commitment to assuming progressively more responsibilities on their team, these professionals may also be able to advance their careers.
Another option for public relations professionals who have their undergraduate degree and want to advance in their careers is to earn a master’s in public relations or a master’s in communication with a specialization in public relations. Graduate degrees in public relations may provide helpful structure to students’ career growth, through class concepts and projects that can be directly applied to the work setting. In addition, master’s in public relations programs can enable individuals to develop expertise in a particular area of public relations, such as public relations for healthcare institutions, strategic corporate communication, or public relations strategies for the digital era. For more information on public relations degrees at both the bachelor’s and the master’s levels, please refer to the sections below.
Bachelor’s Degrees in Public Relations
Bachelor’s degrees in public relations are generally comprised of courses that fulfill general education requirements required of all undergraduate degrees, and public relations major-specific courses that cover essential principles and skills in written, oral, and multimedia communication; research for industry practice; and strategy development and assessment for external-facing communication. Undergraduate programs in public relations are typically 120 semester credit hours, though the precise number varies by institution. Traditionally, students take four years to complete a bachelor’s degree, though there are accelerated programs that may take less time.
Examples of Undergraduate Public Relations Major Courses
- Introduction to Public Relations Writing: In this course, students learn the fundamental principles and skills for public relations writing for different organizations. Students examine case studies and also engage in projects that help them develop a clear, concise, and precise style of communication for business contexts.
- The Principles of Media Development and Distribution: This course provides an overview of the history and impact of media at the national and global levels. Students trace media’s development across the ages and also explore the ways in which media has come to intersect with consumer lives and other industries.
- Communication Research Methods: Students explore and learn to apply the qualitative and quantitative research methods that are used in media science and public relations, including literature reviews, surveys, focus groups, and interviews, and how to analyze their findings to inform public relations strategy.
- Business Principles for Public Relations Professionals: This course employs case studies and targeted projects to help students understand the relationship public relations communication has with business development, finance, and regulation.
- Crisis Communication: Students learn how to manage relationships, design and implement a crisis communication strategy, manage risk, oversee community and consumer relations, and uphold corporate social responsibility in diverse crisis situations.
- Media Law and Ethics: An overview of the laws and ethical principles that are relevant to communication professionals, including First Amendment rights, copyright, regulation of business communication, consumer privacy, cyberspace law, libel, and defamation.
- Government and Public Affairs Communication: How public relations communication principles and practices apply to the world of government affairs and political accountability at the local, state, national, and international levels. Students examine different political situations and the role that public relations and public affairs communication had in the outcome of these situations.
- Public Health Campaigns: The principles and practices of developing campaigns that aim to improve community health by educating consumers. Students discuss pressing health issues, such as drug and alcohol abuse, pollution, accessible health care, STD education, and preventative lifestyle measures. They also examine case studies of current and past health campaigns to evaluate how and why they are effective or ineffective.
- Undergraduate Public Relations Capstone Course: In this course, students apply all of the concepts, principles, and skills they have learned to a comprehensive or situation-specific public relations plan for a company or organization.
Readers should note that the course list and sample curriculum plan outlined above are meant to serve as informational examples only, and do not represent the curricula of all bachelor’s degrees in public relations. Prospective students should thoroughly research available undergraduate degrees in public relations in order to understand the diversity of options and to find the program that best meets their career needs and goals.
Master’s Degrees in Public Relations
While the coursework for bachelor’s degrees in public relations provides students with a fundamental understanding of public relations principles and key skills for entry-level work in the field, master’s degrees in public relations are generally geared towards individuals who wish to step into more advanced or leadership roles. The curriculum for master’s in public relations programs typically includes classes on higher-level public relations strategies, multimedia content development and distribution, and advanced research methodologies for communication and media. In addition, master’s programs often have courses that enable students to specialize in one or more areas of public relations, such as the non-profit space, corporations or technology companies, the health care industry, or government.
As master’s degrees do not have the general education requirements that are commonly required for baccalaureate degrees, master’s in public relations programs generally require fewer credits and take less time relative to bachelor’s programs. Typically, master’s in public relations degrees require the completion of between 30 and 60 course credits, which students can complete within one or two years of full-time or part-time study (however, the number of credits and the time it takes to complete a program varies by school and by student).
Examples of Master’s-Level Public Relations Courses
- Public Relations Research and Insights: Students learn how to design both qualitative and quantitative research studies that help them gather data on the needs and expectations of an organization’s stakeholders, including consumers, investors, business partners, and government bodies.
- Advanced Skills in Public Relations Management: This course builds off of students’ foundational understanding of effective business communication, and introduces concepts of and methods for public relations management, including overseeing a public relations team and various projects, employing new technologies in the effective design and dissemination of content, managing relationships with media outlets and other stakeholders, and evaluating the performance and impact of an organization’s PR department.
- Public Relations Management for Health Institutions: Students who wish to specialize in public relations for health organizations will take this class to learn the specific public relations needs of hospitals, medical centers, pharmaceutical companies, medical device companies, health startups, and other organizations. This class uses case studies and tailored projects to empower students to design PR campaigns, crisis communication plans, and other content specific to the health care industry.
- Persuasion and Social Influence: Students examine persuasion and social influence from different key perspectives—as consumers themselves, as public relations specialists, and as individuals who are cognizant of and committed to the ethics inherent to the public relations industry. This class includes exercises that hone students’ written and oral rhetorical skills, as well as assignments that encourage critical thinking about the use of persuasive communication in business and consumer media.
- Elements of Organizational Reputation Management: This course focuses on one of the key responsibilities of public relations professionals—to uphold the reputation of their organization through concerted efforts across different channels. Students discuss the relationship between corporate reputation and both internal and external-facing media, and learn how to apply public relations tactics to a variety of situations to improve or maintain an organization’s brand identity.
- Social Media and Mobile for Public Relations: Students of this course focus specifically on the new roles that social media, mobile devices, and multimedia design play in the world of public relations. They learn how to manage relationships with stakeholders through these new technologies, and also how other elements of an organization’s digital and social content/presence (e.g. social media marketing, mobile advertisements, marketing videos, employee training content, etc.) impacts this organization’s standing with the public.
- Integrated Communication Strategy: This course pulls together the different elements of a comprehensive public relations strategy, including crisis management, media relations management, campaigns, relationship building with the public and business partners, digital and social media management, data analysis, and coordination with marketing and advertising departments.