Welcome to the first of several entries which will address the question of how important it is for aspiring PR professionals to have a degree level qualification in the discipline. Is education or experience more important? Is having a first degree in a non-PR subject a drawback? There may be no definitive right or wrong answer, and so I will be interviewing PR professionals to give us their perspective.
We are joined today by Ross Wigham.
Who is Ross?
Ross currently runs communications, PR and marketing at Northumberland County Council, one of the largest local authorities in England, and before this was media relations manager at Gateshead Council.
He is a current PRide award winner and has worked on some of the biggest public sector campaigns in the region. He has spoken extensively about how local public services can use social media and regularly finds himself helping politicians handle the media.
Ross is also an experienced journalist, having spent a decade in London working for top trade publications as well as producing content for firms such as Sony, HSBC and Business link.
He has interviewed some key figures in British political life including senior government ministers, and even one-time England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson.
Ross is from Northumberland originally but now lives in Monkseaton after spells in the midlands and London.
Interesting Fact: With the summer’s event on the horizon Ross once got to wear Kris Akabusi’s Olympic Silver medal!
Tell us about your journey into PR.
It’s probably fair to say I sort of fell into it by accident. I was originally a magazine journalist in London working on a few different titles but mainly specialising in management and workplace issues. After that I went freelance and starting doing loads of assignments for consumer and business magazines. Once area of my work that really expanded once I went freelance was copywriting and reworking copy on corporate websites.
After taking some time off to travel I was offered a temporary assignment to work in house at a council PR department covering maternity leave and 5 years later here I am.
Do you feel PR degrees are necessary for a career in the sector?
After seeing my route in you won’t be surprised to hear me say no. While I think a degree in PR will give people a massive advantage I don’t think it’s an absolute necessity for a career in the sector. We’re currently in a period of massive change and I think new ideas and innovation can come from people with all sorts of backgrounds. The short answer is probably that candidates need a solid set of skills, and although a PR degree will probably provide them, there are other ways in.
What would you say to a student who has the option of a long term internship in a comms role? Would they do better to get that experience than complete a Masters in PR?
For me absolutely. Probably lots of others will disagree but in my particular field (local government PR) I would always encourage people to get some real, frontline, on-the-ground experience to back up qualifications.
It was the same when I was starting out as a journalist and getting experience of doing the job as well as just learning about the workplace is really valuable. You can always opt for further qualifictions like an MA later in your career, which is what I did through the CIPR.
For PR MA students, does having a non-PR/comms undergrad degree make a difference to your employability?
Not for me. In fact it may give you an advantage depending on where you want to work. A background degree in things like History, English or even something totally different can sometimes give you a bit of an edge.
With increasing numbers of people completing BAs in PR, and increasing numbers of experienced ex comms/journalists taking a turn into the sector, what advice would you give to PR students in terms of being as employable as possible?
The first thing to say is that it really is tough out there not just because of the lack of jobs, but because the standard is so high. All the students and graduates I’ve met recently are incredibly well qualified so the competition is going to be tough.
I was asked this on twitter recently and this is what I said: for me standard was so high that they need a little something to make them stand out. Thinking a bit wider than just pr/comms is now a must. Knowledge & work experience of key areas such as like politics, culture, events management etc really shone out in some candidates. Also an understanding of audience – don’t just trot out the latest SM platitudes. Don’t overlook internships to build experience quickly. Finally be yourself: personality goes a long way.
Thanks very much to Ross for taking the time to answer these questions. Next time we’ll be hearing from an Account Executive who feels their PR MA was crucial to starting their career in the industry.