Public Relations Specialists Overview

Employment as a Public Relations Specialist is projected to grow faster than average, but intense competition is expected at the entry-level. Job opportunities will increase for college graduates who complete dual enrollment or have multiple degrees in public relations, journalism, or any other communications associated field. Public relations internships or other related work experience with strong communication skills are essential.

Nature of the Work for Public Relations Specialists

Public Relations Specialists

Public relations specialists are also called communications or media specialists. They work as advocates for organizations that wish to build and maintain positive relationships with the public. Because the public supports an organization's goals and policies, reputation, profitability and even its continued existence are dependent upon this relationship. Managers continue to recognize the importance of good public relations and the success of their organizations, so they increasingly rely on public relations specialists for advice on the strategy and policy of their communications.

Public relations specialists are paid to relate and understand the attitudes and concerns of the micro and macro community through consumer, employee, and public interest groups. They must establish and maintain cooperative relationships between them and representatives from print and broadcast journalism, governmental units and political campaigns, represent interest groups, be fluent in conflict mediation and manage employee and investor relations. Public relations specialists draft press releases and contact people in the media who might print or broadcast their material. Many radio or television special reports, newspaper stories, and magazine articles start at the desks of public relations specialists. Sometimes, the subject of a press release is an organization and its policies toward employees or its role in the community. For example, a press release might describe a public issue, such as health, energy, or the environment, and what an organization does to advance that issue.

Public relations specialists also arrange and conduct programs to maintain contact between organization representatives and the public. For example, public relations specialists set up speaking engagements and prepare speeches for officials. These media specialists represent employers at community projects; make film, slide, and other visual presentations for meetings and school assemblies; and plan conventions.

In government, public relations specialists may be called press secretaries. They keep the public informed about the activities of agencies and officials. For example, public affairs specialists in the U.S. Department of State alert the public of travel advisories and of U.S. positions on foreign issues. A press secretary for a member of Congress informs constituents of the representative's accomplishments.

In large organizations, the key public relations executive, who often is a vice president, may develop overall plans and policies with other executives. In addition, public relations departments employ public relations specialists to write, research, prepare materials, maintain contacts, and respond to inquiries. People who handle publicity for an individual or who direct public relations for a small organization may deal with all aspects of the job. These public relations specialists contact people, plan and research, and prepare materials for distribution. They also may handle advertising or sales promotion work to support marketing efforts.

Public relations specialists work in busy offices. The pressures of deadlines and tight work schedules can be stressful. Some public relations specialists work a standard 35- to 40-hour week, but overtime is common, and work schedules can be irregular and are frequently interrupted. Occasionally, they must be at the job or on call around the clock, especially if there is an emergency or crisis. Schedules often have to be rearranged so workers can meet deadlines, deliver speeches, attend meetings and community activities, and travel.

Training, Other Qualifications and Advancement for Public Relations Specialists

A bachelor’s degree in a communications-related field combined with public relations experience is excellent preparation for a person interested in public relations work.

Many entry-level public relations specialists have a college degree in public relations, journalism, marketing, or communications. Some firms seek college graduates who have worked in electronic or print journalism. Other employers seek applicants with demonstrated communication skills and training or experience in a field related to the firm's business—information technology, healthcare, science, engineering, sales, or finance, for example.

Many colleges and universities offer bachelor's and postsecondary programs leading to a degree in public relations, usually in a journalism or communications department. In addition, many other colleges offer courses in this field. Courses in advertising, business administration, finance, political science, psychology, sociology, and creative writing also are helpful. Specialties may be offered in public relations for business, government, and nonprofit organizations.

Internships in public relations provide students with valuable experience and training and are the best route to finding entry-level employment. Membership in local chapters of the Public Relations Student Society of America (affiliated with the Public Relations Society of America) or in student chapters of the International Association of Business Communicators provides an opportunity for students to exchange views with public relations specialists and to make professional contacts that may help them to find a full-time job after graduation. Some organizations, particularly those with large public relations staffs, have formal training programs for new employees. In smaller organizations, new employees work under the guidance of experienced staff members.

Entry-level workers often maintain files of material about company activities, skim newspapers and magazines for appropriate articles to clip, and assemble information for speeches and pamphlets. New workers also may answer calls from the press and the public, prepare invitation lists and details for press conferences, or escort visitors and clients. After gaining experience, they write news releases, speeches, and articles for publication or plan and carry out public relations programs. Public relations specialists in smaller firms usually get well-rounded experience, whereas those in larger firms become more specialized.

In addition to the ability to communicate thoughts clearly and simply, public relations specialists must show creativity, initiative, and good judgment. Decision-making, problem-solving, and research skills also are important. People who choose public relations as a career should have an outgoing personality, self-confidence, an understanding of human psychology, and an enthusiasm for motivating people. They should be assertive but able to participate as part of a team and be open to new ideas.

The Universal Accreditation Board accredits public relations specialists who are members of the Public Relations Society of America and who participate in the Examination for Accreditation in Public Relations process. This process includes both a readiness review and an examination, which are designed for candidates who have at least 5 years of full-time work or teaching experience in public relations and who have earned a bachelor's degree in a communications-related field. The readiness review includes a written submission by each candidate, a portfolio review, and dialogue between the candidate and a three-member panel. Candidates who successfully advance through readiness review and pass the computer-based examination earn the Accredited in Public Relations (APR) designation.

The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) also has an accreditation program for professionals in the communications field, including public relations specialists. Those who meet all the requirements of the program earn the Accredited Business Communicator (ABC) designation. Candidates must have at least 5 years of experience and a bachelor's degree in a communications field and must pass written and oral examinations. They also must submit a portfolio of work samples that demonstrate involvement in a range of communications projects and a thorough understanding of communications planning.

Employers may consider professional recognition through accreditation as a sign of competence in this field, and such designations could be especially helpful in a competitive job market.

Public relations specialists who show that they can handle more demanding assignments are more likely to be promoted to supervisory jobs than those who are unable to do so. In public relations firms, an entry-level worker might be hired as a junior account executive and be promoted over the course of a career to account executive, senior account executive, account manager, and, eventually, vice president. Specialists in corporate public relations follow a similar career path, although the job titles may differ. Some experienced public relations specialists start their own consulting firms.

Top 10 Most Popular Public Relations/Image Management Schools

1. The University of Texas at Austin (Austin, Texas)
2. University of Florida (Gainesville, Florida)
3. University of Houston (Houston, Texas)
4. The University of Alabama (Tuscaloosa, Alabama)
5. University of South Carolina, Columbia (Columbia, South Carolina)
6. Texas Tech University (Lubbock, Texas)
7. University of Georgia (Athens, Georgia)
8. Texas State University (San Marcos, Texas)
9. Quinnipiac University, Hamden (Hamden, Connecticut)
10. Central Michigan University (Mount Pleasant, Michigan)

See All Public Relations/Image Management Schools

Most Popular Online Public Relations/Image Management Schools

1. University of Maryland University College
2. Golden Gate University - Online School
3. Marylhurst University - Online School

Employment and Job Outlook for Public Relations Specialists

Number of People in Profession


Changing Employment (2008-2018)

Employment is projected to grow much faster than average (increase 20% or more).

Public relations specialists held about 275,200 jobs in 2008. They are concentrated in service-providing industries, such as advertising and related services; healthcare and social assistance; educational services; and government. Others work for communications firms, financial institutions, and government agencies.

Public relations specialists are concentrated in large cities, where press services and other communications facilities are readily available and where many businesses and trade associations have their headquarters. Many public relations consulting firms, for example, are in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. There is a trend, however, toward public relations jobs to be dispersed throughout the Nation, closer to clients.

Employment change. Employment of public relations specialists is expected to grow 24 percent from 2008 to 2018, much faster than the average for all occupations. The need for good public relations in an increasingly competitive and global business environment should spur demand for these workers, especially those with specialized knowledge or international experience. Employees who possess additional language capabilities also are in great demand.

The recent emergence of social media in the public relations is expected to increase job growth as well. Many public relations firms are expanding their use of these tools, and specialists with skills in them will be needed.

Employment in public relations firms is expected to grow as firms hire contractors to provide public relations services, rather than support more full-time staff when additional work is needed. Among detailed industries, the largest job growth will continue to be in advertising and related services.

Keen competition likely will continue for entry-level public relations jobs, as the number of qualified applicants is expected to exceed the number of job openings. Many people are attracted to this profession because of the high-profile nature of the work. Opportunities should be best for college graduates who combine a degree in journalism, public relations, or another communications-related field with a public relations internship or other related work experience. Applicants who do not have the appropriate educational background or work experience will face the toughest obstacles.

Additional job opportunities should result from the need to replace public relations specialists who retire or leave the occupation for other reasons.

Earnings and Salary for Public Relations Specialists

Median annual wages for salaried public relations specialists are $51,960. The middle 50 percent earn between $38,740 and $72,180; the lowest 10 percent earn less than $30,520, and the top 10 percent earn more than $96,630. Median annual wages in the industries employing the largest numbers of public relations specialists in May 2008 were:

Management of companies and enterprises: $55,530
Business, professional, labor, political, and similar organizations: $55,460
Advertising, public relations and related services: $55,290
Local government: $51,340
Colleges, universities, and professional schools: $46,660

Annual Salary for Public Relations Specialists

On average, Public Relations Specialists earn $51,960 per year.

10% 25% 75% 90% $30,520/yr $38,740/yr $72,180/yr $96,630/yr

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook