How to Become a Public Relations Specialist

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The role of public relations specialist was included in U.S. News & World Report’s list of the top three Best Creative and Media Jobs in 2020. Find out what makes this occupation so desirable — and how an “outsider” can join the exciting field of PR.

What Is a Public Relations Specialist?

In the most basic terms, a public relations specialist is someone who helps maintain public relations for an organization. As defined by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), PR is “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

It is the job of a public relations professional to manage an organization’s communication with the public and ensure that the company or client they represent is viewed positively by key stakeholders and audiences. PR specialists do this by taking on a variety of roles: They are communications specialists, relationship builders, advisors, influencers, and reputation managers, all in one. They’re also fast-thinking strategizers who can adapt to any situation that may impact an organization’s public perception. That’s what makes careers in PR so dynamic and engaging.

A public relations specialist speaks as part of a panel.

What Does a Public Relations Specialist Do?

The role of the public relations specialist is multifaceted. PR specialists usually work on a variety of projects at once, but each activity has the same goal of ensuring their clients communicate effectively to internal and external audiences, from investors to customers. Here are some of the typical day-to-day responsibilities of this occupation:

  • Write press releases and speeches
  • Participate in PR campaign development, implementation, and analysis
  • Assess target audience demographics and behaviors
  • Evaluate advertising and promotion programs’ performance metrics
  • Prepare organizational leaders for press conferences
  • Respond to requests for quotes or information from media outlets
  • Create and implement crisis communication plans
  • Act as social media specialists by monitoring activity and publishing content
  • Liaise with public interest groups and community or consumer representatives
  • Monitor public opinion of the organization and industry as a whole
  • Collaborate with peers and report to a public relations manager

How Much Does a Public Relations Specialist Make?

Public relations specialists typically enjoy higher-than-average compensation. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), professionals in this role earned a median salary of $61,150 in 2019.

However, actual pay can vary significantly, depending on education level, years of experience, industry, and geographic location. For reference, the lowest 10% of earners made $34,590 in 2019 while the highest-paid 10% saw salaries of more than $115,430, according to the BLS. Joining the workforce with an online Bachelor of Science in Marketing or an online Bachelor of Science in Management can help you secure a higher-paid position at the entry level, which can improve your lifetime earning potential.

Salary data from PayScale suggests that the largest salary jump occurs between one to four years and five to nine years of experience. More specifically, a public relations specialist who has spent more than five years in this role can earn $13,000 more, on average, than a less-experienced counterpart. Professionals who spend several years in a public relations specialist position can see significant pay increases prior to advancing to a management position.

PR specialists working in metropolitan areas also tend to earn higher salaries, according to PayScale. In 2020, the three top-paying cities for this role were:

  1. Seattle, Washington
  2. New York, New York
  3. Sacramento, California

Where Can a Public Relations Specialist Work?

PR specialists are in demand in a variety of industries. Essentially any brand or organization that wishes to maintain its reputation can take advantage of the services of a public relations professional. Employers of PR specialists include:

  • PR firms
  • Private companies
  • Nonprofit organizations
  • Government agencies

PR specialists may go by different names depending on the employer and industry. For instance, a public relations specialist employed by an educational institution, government agency, or another organization where they’ll communicate to members of the public rather than other businesses may be referred to as a public affairs specialist or press secretary. Other common job titles include communications specialist and media specialist.

Wherever they work, public relations specialists spend most of their time in office environments. In a survey conducted by the Occupational Information Network (O*NET), 100% of PR specialists reported communicating via phone and email every day, whereas 75% said they participated in face-to-face discussions every day. However, professionals in this role may travel to deliver speeches, share presentations, or attend meetings, industry events, and conferences.

What Is the Job Outlook for Public Relations Specialists?

The BLS expects the employment of public relations specialists to expand at a rate of 6% between 2018 and 2028, which is on pace with the national average for all occupations. There will be an estimated 17,300 new public relations specialist jobs created by 2028, for a total of 287,300 openings in this field throughout the U.S.

This growth is fueled by the continued reliance on digital communication. The rapid spread of information through social media platforms, news outlets, and other internet-based media can have a dramatic impact on a brand’s reputation, making the PR specialist’s role even more important.

How Do You Become a Public Relations Specialist?

Becoming qualified for these exciting positions opening in the field of public relations over the next several years takes the right combination of educational preparation, skill development, and work experience.

Pursuing PR-Focused Education

Most employers will require that public relations specialist job applicants hold a bachelor’s degree in a related discipline. Most professionals working in this role do not hold an advanced degree. According to O*Net, 92% of public relations specialists hold a bachelor’s degree and only 8% hold a master’s degree. PR professionals with graduate degrees can advance to higher roles and leadership positions in the field.

An undergraduate degree in public relations or an adjacent field of study — like marketing, advertising, journalism, business administration, English, communications, or management — can prepare you to begin a career in PR.

Through an online Bachelor of Science in Marketing or an online Bachelor of Science in Management from UAB’s Collat School of Business, you can develop a strong theoretical and practical foundation. You may also take advantage of the flexibility an online program offers, which can allow you to continue working full time or balance other professional and personal obligations while completing your studies.

Developing In-Demand Skills

While completing a marketing, management, or public relations program, focus on cultivating a combination of hard and soft skills. Employers tend to prioritize the following skills when looking to hire an entry-level public relations professional:

  • Writing skills, including composition, editing, proofreading, and adherence to brand guidelines and industry style guides
  • Interpersonal skills, including leadership, persuasion, consulting, verbal and written communication, collaboration, and public speaking
  • Creative skills, including overseeing or designing campaign concepts, collateral, and content
  • Technological skills, including using various software programs such as media monitoring tools and website management platforms
  • Business skills, including the ability to confidently and competently use sales tactics, marketing principles, customer service strategies, and administrative abilities

An emerging PR professional can cultivate these skills — as well as other industry-specific capabilities — through their choice of educational and professional experiences. For instance, depending on the specific sector and professional focus they desire, a prospective student might choose a marketing or business management degree track.

During UAB’s online Bachelor of Science in Marketing program, students work through a robust communication and marketing curriculum that features courses such as:

  • Business Foundations
  • International Marketing
  • Marketing Research
  • Retail Marketing
  • Professional Selling
  • Integrated Marketing Communications
  • Social Media in Marketing
  • Strategic Marketing

In contrast, throughout UAB’s online Bachelor of Science in Management program, students focus on business skills and competencies. They take courses from a comprehensive business curriculum, including:

  • Business Foundations
  • Information Systems
  • Quantitative Analysis
  • Basic Marketing
  • Business Communications
  • Management Processes and Behavior
  • International Business Dynamics

Gaining Work Experience

Although many entry-level positions don’t require years of previous work experience, emerging PR professionals can gain familiarity with the industry through jobs and internships in their desired field.

Interning at a public relations agency that serves a variety of clients is a great way to develop a well-rounded set of PR competencies and perspectives in a real-world setting. However, working in a PR department at a company in a field of interest can open the door to future opportunities in that niche. Either way, these types of formative professional experiences are easier to balance while studying through a flexible online program.

In addition, volunteer experiences can help set entry-level candidates apart from the competition. Relevant volunteering opportunities can range from contributing to a community group’s newsletter or helping a nonprofit with marketing initiatives to serving on the event planning team for a local organization.

Building a PR Portfolio

Early-career candidates should use these jobs and internship opportunities to build up a portfolio of work that will show prospective employers what they’ve accomplished in the past and what they may be capable of in a new role.

In addition to a concise resume and a well-written cover letter, a public relations portfolio is often required for job applications. A portfolio can be formatted as a professional website or a binder of work examples. Both have their advantages: Many employers request digital portfolio samples during the job application process, but hard copies are easier to share in person at career fairs and interviews. Gathering work samples in both formats can make it easier to showcase past projects at a moment’s notice.

PRSA recommends including a wide range of project samples in a PR portfolio to demonstrate both depth and breadth of experience. No matter what you include, be prepared to discuss the context, process, and results of that project. Here are some typical items to include:

  • Media pitches and placements
  • Writing samples
  • Speeches and talking points
  • Social media content
  • Event itineraries and photos
  • Campaign analysis

Take the First Step on Your PR Path at UAB

Eager to pursue a public relations specialist career? Find out how you can reach your dream job in PR with an online Bachelor of Science degree from UAB by contacting an enrollment advisor today.

Recommended Readings:

Online Bachelor’s Degree in Marketing

Online Bachelor’s Degree in Management

Why UAB? The Benefits for Online Students

Sources:

BLS, Public Relations Specialists

O*NET, Summary Report for Public Relations Specialists

PayScale, Average Public Relations Specialist Salary

PRSA, About Public Relations

PRSA, 5 Essential Tips for Creating a PR Portfolio that Gets Results

U.S. News & World Report, Best Creative and Media Jobs