Why You Don’t Need a Degree in Communications to Excel in PR

Before I wrote this blog post, I Googled my topic, as one does, to see if it had been covered before: does an aspiring public relations professional have to study public relations or communications in college to be successful? In my search, I came across a blog post written by a senior PR executive. In no uncertain terms, he prophesied that one must study PR in school to be successful – in fact, he wouldn’t even hire an intern without previous experience gained from a PR degree.

As a PR professional without a communications degree, I have to disagree. Luckily, I did not attempt to start my PR career at this unnamed-executive’s agency. My path to public relations was a winding one, but coming up on my one year anniversary at SHIFT, I can say it has been successful.

In college, I studied political science and international relations and had a medley of internships, none with a PR focus: I worked at a women’s political council, a district attorney’s office in the victim/witness unit and completed a Congressional internship. After graduation, I did as all good political science students do and joined a political campaign, where I began as the third member of the press team.

For aspiring PR professionals, politics is a great place to begin: you’re surrounded by passionate people with a common goal, and the all-hands-on-deck atmosphere of a campaign rewards any staffers who show initiative, giving you a great way to build up your press skills – fast. On the campaign, I found myself building media lists (without the help of tools like Gorkana), calling reporters to convince them to cover my candidate’s events, staffing press at rallies and generally having the time of my short press life.

When I came to SHIFT after the campaign ended, those short six months were my only public relations experience. I was totally unexperienced in the corporate and public relations world – but since transitioning from a green intern to account coordinator to account executive, I can share that there are just three aspects you need to excel at your first PR job – and it’s not a communications degree.

  1. Hard Work. Without a grounding in PR, even learning the lingo can be tough (what’s a HARO again?) – but follow-through and hard work is essential. Keep putting forward your best and hardest work, and especially as a PR freshman, learn from your mistakes. Try to improve on the job you did yesterday, and you’ll begin to build up your core PR skills.
  1. Willingness to Learn. If you don’t have a communication background, commit to learning the basics until they’re perfect. But once you’ve mastered basics like a client coverage note, keep pushing yourself to learn new, better skills and tricks of the job.
  1. Always Ask for More. As a PR newbie, you can’t be intimidated by the constant news cycle, client requests and a never ending to do list. Instead, master your basic tasks, and look ahead to see what new skills you can work on, and what projects will make you a better publicist.

Simple as they are, these key skills will lead to a successful start, even when you lack educational communications experience.

In a way, your first PR job is similar to communications boot camp: one of my first weeks into my SHIFT tenure, I was talking with my then-vice president about my lack of experience, and he offered advice that has stuck with me: “A year at an agency is like a master’s in public relations.” And it’s true – especially in PR, there’s no substitute for on-the-ground learning. You can learn the fundamentals of what makes a good pitch, but you don’t know how to hone your tone and subject line until you’ve experienced success and failure. As we love to say at SHIFT, the media landscape is constantly changing: skills you learned three years ago in college may not be relevant by the time you’ve graduated, and gone to work in an agency.

Study what you’re passionate in, whether it’s public relations, anthropology or even biochem: take advantage of your college time, because once you’ve graduated you’ll realize it’s a luxury to spend hours or days thinking critically about a certain subject and then writing a leisurely (or at 2 a.m. in the library) paper about your thoughts. And once you’ve graduated with a degree in a field like political science and want to start your career in public relations – well, the SHIFTern program is a great place to start.

Audrey Coulter
Account Executive,



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