Career paths in the PR world used to be simple and linear. You graduated from university and got a job as an account assistant at an agency, or perhaps did a cadetship in journalism and worked in a newsroom for a while before moving over to the dark side as a PR practitioner.

Today, the profession of public relations is much more complex and demanding and we are seeing much more crossover between industries – and mid- or even late-career changes as people bring skills from a variety of backgrounds over to the communications profession.

I view this as a positive trend for the profession because, in an increasingly specialised world, there is a dearth of PR professionals who really understand how business and specific industries work. A PR practitioner with a business background can be a step ahead of the game. They understand how a supply chain works; the relationship between R&D, product development and manufacturing; the intricacies of marketing and sales; and how the money goes around.

By welcoming recruits from different business backgrounds, we can enhance the consultation and deliverables a PR agency or marketing department can produce – assuming the new recruits’ transition into the PR profession is well-managed.

I have some simple advice for anyone considering a career change to public relations: do your homework. The best way to really learn what PR is all about is to talk to as many different people in the industry as possible. Joining the Public Relations Institute of Australia is a good first step. This will allow you to meet a variety of practitioners of different levels and backgrounds – from both agencies and in-house, and ranging from highly qualified specialists with a narrow industry or skills focus, to generalists who work across a variety of industries and product sets.

Once you start getting an idea of what might interest you, seek out a mentor. Remember you are not looking for a soul mate or a lifelong friend, but an adviser – someone you can bounce ideas off. So don’t be narrow-minded about age or gender. In fact, often the older and more experienced practitioners are better because they’ve had their fair share of career bumps and bruises, and now have fewer illusions. But also talk to someone of your own gender and near your age to gain another perspective if you don’t feel comfortable relying on only one adviser.

While HR and recruitment professionals are very knowledgeable and may even have marketing or PR experience themselves, some may focus more on pay scales, benefits and where the industry demand is for specific roles. For this reason, and also to keep up-to-date with the latest developments and skills requirements, I recommend against solely relying on the advice of recruiters.
While researching the profession of PR, it would also be a good idea to think carefully about yourself. Sure, you may want to move into communications… but what can you bring to the profession and a potential employer?

Start by running a skills audit. What skills do you have that are transferable from your current role to PR? What are your weaknesses; i.e. what will your new employer need to teach you in order to build you into a productive PR professional? That’s a tough question and it sounds negative, but I can guarantee that is what will be going through a potential employer’s mind when he or she meets you.

Here are a few of the skills that are highly regarded by potential employers in the PR industry:

  • time management, because everything we do is to a deadline and agencies sell their time to clients
  • writing, because it permeates everything we do for all media and communications channels – as well as many less obvious applications such as plans, strategies and business pitches
  • business presentation and public speaking skills
  • people skills – particularly the ability to establish credibility with executives and influencers from a variety of backgrounds, and then influence them, and
  • business and industry knowledge that can make you a better, more effective PR consultant.

If you don’t have these skills or experience from your current or previous job, then develop a plan around how to get them. You can do this by taking on additional studies and training – again through the Public Relations Institute of Australia, or the many TAFE and community colleges, universities and private training providers around Australia that offer certificate, diploma and part-time courses.

While certain skills can be acquired through additional studies and training, personal traits that are valued in the industry – such as passion, loyalty, integrity and drive – come from the individual. Take the initiative and volunteer for a charity, not-for-profit organisation or community service club that will allow you to build up some experience in these areas. You get to give to the community and accumulate some marketable skills in the process – not a bad deal.

It is essential to show enthusiasm and commitment when applying for a role that entails a sideways shift into public relations. Remember, you are asking this employer to take a risk and make an investment in you. So emphasise what you have to offer in the new role, not just what you did before. It may be heartbreaking to ignore the good work you have done in the past, but it is essential to focus on skills that are transferable and useful to your new employer.

This is where you refer back to your skills audit, so it should be very clear in your mind how to bridge your past experience and accumulated skills to the new world you are seeking to enter. Don’t be half-hearted about it. Future bosses will want to feel that you are enthusiastic and committed, and that you will make the most of the opportunity offered.

The profession of public relations needs new blood, so don’t be discouraged in your quest to change careers. But do be realistic, assess what you have to sell and identify what you need to learn. And above all, be persistent and be tenacious.