There is increasing demand for trained professionals who can communicate effectively in today’s fast moving, globally connected world. Public relations is a critical component of shaping public perception of clients and products, especially with the advent of social media and direct interaction with consumers. Master’s in public relations blend theoretical concepts in audience-based communication with practical skill development in writing and publicity that prepare students to work for Fortune 500 companies, start-ups, social advocacy organizations, digital agencies and more.
In these graduate programs, students are introduced to the fundamentals of public relations, building a foundation in strategic communications, writing and ethics, research and data analysis. Learning how to produce content for specific audiences, master’s in public relations graduates are positioned to impact and mold public opinion, respond to reputation crisis situations, and build public relationships with their clients.
Note: As the field of public relations concerns shaping the relationship between an organization and the public through carefully crafted communications, master’s in public relations programs and master’s in communication programs with a specialization in public relations and marketing often have significant overlap in course concepts. For more information about the similarities and distinctions between these two types of programs, please refer to the section below.
Classification of Graduate Programs in Public Relations
One of the fastest growing fields in the country, public relations is a multi-disciplinary profession that can be found in every industry. Graduate programs in public relations are designed to teach students to be dynamic, tactical thinkers through comprehensive coursework that covers communication theory, digital and traditional media, branding and crisis management, and writing and ethics. Throughout, students gain an understanding of public relations best practices before specializing their education in a professional arena.
Sample specializations in public relations include the following:
- Corporate Communications
- Sports and Entertainment
- Digital Media and Communications
- Advocacy and Cause Communications
Public relations graduate programs vary by university, but generally fall into three degree categories: Master of Arts (M.A.), Master of Science (M.S.) and Master of Professional Studies (M.P.S.). Concentrated in various departments, from schools of journalism to communication departments, example programs include:
- Master of Arts in Public Relations and Advertising at DePaul University
- Master of Arts in Public Relations at Boston University
- Master of Arts in Public Relations at Emerson College
- Master of Arts in Public Relations at the University of Miami
- Master of Arts in Public Relations at the University of Southern California
Online Master’s in Public Relations Programs
With more professionals in communication seeking to advance their careers through a graduate program, while still keeping their job, online master’s in public relations programs have expanded to meet this need. Online programs are often a strong option for students whose work and/or personal schedules prohibit them from commuting to campus for weekly lectures. In addition, they provide students who do not live near a campus-based program options for earning their master’s without having to relocate. Compared to campus-based programs, online master’s in public relations programs tend to be fairly focused, and may not offer the same concentration options or breadth of electives, although this varies by program.
For students interested in earning their degree online, online master’s in public relations programs typically use either asynchronous or synchronous instruction, and the two formats vary to accommodate the learning styles and preferences of online students. For example, some online programs mainly use asynchronous instruction to deliver course content, which allows students to access course materials and complete assignments on their own time, provided they meet specific deadlines, which typically include weekly discussion posts. Asynchronous instruction provides students with the greatest flexibility as they are not required to attend online classes at specific times. However, it requires students to be self-motivated and dedicated to their studies so they do not fall behind.
Programs that use synchronous instruction include live lectures and/or discussions that students must be online at specific times to attend. Typically, these involve video conferencing where students can see instructors and fellow classmates using a webcam. Synchronous instruction provides the benefit of a more traditional classroom-like feel, as well as direct, real-time feedback from instructors and peers. Online lectures are typically recorded so students who miss a session can still access the material. This is also an advantage for students who want to revisit a lecture in case a course concept was not clear. Online programs that use synchronous instruction typically have asynchronous elements as well, which can include discussion forums and individual and group projects.
Examples of online master’s in public relations programs include:
- Master of Arts in Public Relations at Webster University
- Master of Science in Public Relations at Quinnipiac University
- Master’s in Strategic Public Relations at The George Washington University
Curriculum Details for Master’s Programs in Public Relations
The rapid and exponential transformation of digital and social media has changed the communication landscape and redefined the public relations industry. In turn, universities have updated and refined their curricula in public relations to equip students with a modern skillset, one that can deal with the demands of online communications. Through comprehensive programs of study, students learn how to conduct research, develop strategic messaging through print and digital mediums, manage public relations campaigns, and handle difficult crisis situations.
The first year of study focuses on core concepts in public relations, from writing to ethics, content creation to data analysis. After finishing 12 to 15 hours of study in these core classes, master’s in public relations program progress into a second year of study that includes customized elective coursework in specialized areas ranging from entertainment to social media. Specialization or elective classes generally require 15 to 18 credits to complete. During the tail-end of the second year, students may complete an internship for professional skill development and usually end their program with a master’s thesis or an applied project in their chosen specialization.
Below is a list of example courses students in a master’s in public relations may take in their program:
- Introduction to Strategic Public Relations: An overview of the foundations of strategic communication, reviewing the multi-disciplinary nature of public relations across business sectors – from corporations to agencies, government to nonprofits.
- Managing Media Relations: An introduction to audience-based communication across online, network and print news, including exploring how organizations determine the timing and content of news, how media reacts to corporate messaging, and how ethics and disclosure come into play during crisis management.
- Public Relations Research: An overview of research methods used in public relations, including primary, secondary and informal research methods, data gathering and analysis, developing business intelligence, conducting media analyses, and evaluating the effectiveness of public relations campaigns.
- Public Relations Writing: Advanced, skills-based course that focuses on professional-style public relations writing techniques and mechanics, and introduces students to real-world communications strategies used for a variety of audiences, including press releases, speeches, executive memos and more.
- Organizational Communication: Serves as a fundamental overview of organizational communication, studying how the structure, mission, culture and values of a company impact both internal and external communications, as well as messaging during corporate crises.
- Reputation Management: Teaches core principles of reputation management, investigating how professionals can affect public opinion of a client or organization through branding and strategic communication efforts.
- Digital Analytics: Examines how digital data is used, collected and leveraged in public relations, offering instruction into how professionals can use digital analysis tools with polling, market research, social media and other data types to develop strategic communication insights.
As discussed above, master’s in public relations programs traditionally require students to earn between 36 (semester system) and 48 (quarter system) credit hours, typically including a research thesis, to graduate. Schools may also offer varying enrollment options, including part-time, full-time and fast-track programs that allow students to earn their degree in one calendar year of study.
Below is a table with a sample course plan for students completing a master’s in public relations program.
Master’s in Public Relations versus Master’s in Communication with a Specialization in Public Relations and/or Marketing
Master’s in public relations programs and master’s in communication programs with specializations in public relations (or strategic communication) cover very similar concepts and teach students the same skills in strategic public-facing communications and internal communications. The similarities between these two degree programs are reflected in the fact that many master’s in public relations programs are offered through schools or departments of communication.
However, depending on the program, there may be subtle differences between the core and electives courses in master’s in public relations programs versus master’s in communication programs with a focus in public relations. For example, as the sample course plan above illustrates, master’s in public relations programs may focus more on strategic planning, relationship management, and both the communication and non-communication aspects of crisis management. In addition, dedicated public relations programs often offer more electives in areas of public relations (such as PR-focused data analytics or partnership building), which may not be offered in communication programs. Master’s in communication programs with a focus in public relations, however, often focus on the types of writing (e.g. press releases, speeches, emails, informational pamphlets and white papers, social media posts, etc.) that PR professionals must complete to execute on PR campaign strategies, optimize stakeholder relationships and business partnerships, and alert the public regarding crises or other important events.
Master’s in public relations programs and master’s in marketing communication or integrated marketing communication programs also share key concepts and principles, and therefore may have overlap in curricula as well. As marketing and public relations are fields that intersect and often depend upon each other, prospective students may find that master’s in public relations and master’s in marketing programs (and master’s in communication with a marketing and/or PR focus) have similar courses in areas such as audience engagement, strategic communication, campaign development and implementation, crisis communication, and social media management.
However, graduate programs in marketing communication nevertheless differ from graduate programs in public relations in that the former tends to focus more on creative advertising of products and services. Marketing communication programs blend creative thinking with strategic communication across integrated marketing channels, including social media, print, online media, and word-of-mouth. Classes in these programs tend to focus on conducting market research, identifying target consumers and their needs, and creating effective written, visual, and audio messages that cater to these needs while also establishing brand trust.
Career Paths for Graduates with a Master’s in Public Relations
Public relations is a multidisciplinary profession, one that can be found throughout public and private industries. Whether it is working for market leaders like Edelman or W20, in community affairs for Home Depot or Disneyland Resort, or as an independent consultant, graduates of master’s in public relations programs leverage their knowledge of media relations, communication marketing and digital analysis in a variety of roles.
These roles span diverse professional areas, from aerospace and defense to the health industry, travel and hospitality to financial services. The sheer breadth of public relations means graduates have the opportunity to shape their curriculum into a unique path that fits their future career goals. With an understanding of audience-based communication, they may create events for clients, build a roster of speaking engagements or even develop calculated campaigns to rebuild the image of a company, product or individual.
Below is a list of employment paths that graduates with a master’s in public relations may want to consider:
- Communications Consultant: Communications consultants are independently employed professionals hired across every industry, helping clients design, implement and improve their strategic communications by handling tasks such as internal communications audits, media training for senior leadership, launching brand positions, or managing external public relations responsibilities.
- Press Agent/Representative: Working in both the public and private sectors, press agents serve as the primary point of contact for clients in public relations matters, developing relationships with media contacts, building press kits, scheduling interviews, and creating promotional events.
- Public Relations Manager: Public relations managers handle large-scale public relations for corporations, nonprofit organizations and governmental agencies, and are tasked with developing marketing communication strategies, dealing with reputation management, managing public relations staff members, scheduling press conferences and interviews and developing stories to pitch to the media.
- Social Media Manager: Social media managers oversee social media accounts for clients or organizations. They publish relevant and original content, interact with customers, build relationships with news outlets and other media influencers, develop social media marketing campaigns, and promote clients through digital channels.
- Marketing Analyst: Market analysts perform research into market trends, brand reputation, and competitors, using analytics and data to identify marketing opportunities, sales strategies, demographic audiences and marketing channels for clients, products, or organizations.