How to Become a Public Relations Specialist

How do public relations specialists boost their organization’s credibility? Explore how to become a public relations specialist along with salary details.
A smiling public relations specialist sits at an office desk working, with co-workers visible in the background.

How can a hospital boost its reputation and influence the public’s perceptions of its new surgical wing? Who can help a manufacturer recover from a string of negative reviews about a product line? What does it take for a renewable energy startup to promote its brand? Corporations, nonprofits, and other types of organizations rely on the expertise of public relations specialists to help them communicate with the public. 

Those inspired to help organizations craft compelling stories about their work should learn about how to become a public relations specialist. By getting familiar with the ins and outs of what public relations specialists do, as well as salary and job information, one can make an informed choice about whether to pursue the career. 

What Does a Public Relations Specialist Do?

Public relations specialists play a key role in helping organizations project a favorable image of themselves and their work to the public. This involves developing a strategy that improves the recognition of an organization’s brand, handling issues that can harm an organization’s reputation, and strengthening ties with the community.

Public relations specialists often work within corporations, helping them establish effective marketing plans and relationships with consumers and the public at large. Public relations specialists may also work within agencies or public relations firms. These firms specialize in helping businesses, individuals, and organizations expand their audiences and manage their public image.

Governments hire public relations specialists as well. In these positions, public relations specialists inform the public of government activities and respond to requests for information from the media and other sources. Nonprofits may also need the services of public relations specialists to help them raise awareness of the organization’s impact and bring in much needed funding.

Individuals with an interest in politics or who feel passionate about a specific cause, such as protecting the environment or economic justice, may find public relations positions in nonprofits and governments especially rewarding.

The work of public relations specialists typically revolves around: 

Media Relations Management

Public relations specialists help organizations gain credibility by building relationships with the media, influential people creating content in the digital world, and others who shape public opinion. By creating relationships with these contacts, public relations specialists can bring attention to their organization’s products, services, and good works. 

This improves brand awareness and allows organizations to better control the narratives circulating about who they are and what they do. Media relations management may involve writing press releases about new projects or product releases. Or it can involve keeping track of the media coverage of an organization. 

Additionally, public relations specialists may arrange for coaching of an organization’s spokespeople and setting up interviews between those spokespeople and the media. Public relations specialists also supply information to media outlets describing their organization’s activities and other issues of interest.

Crisis Communication

Organizations can run into public relations problems that threaten their good reputations. Sometimes these problems come unexpectedly and require damage control. As an example, employees may behave in ways that reflect poorly on an organization. If not handled carefully, these situations can erode trust in the organization and ultimately result in a loss of support. 

In 2018, for instance, a Starbucks employee called the police on two Black men, who were consequently arrested, simply for sitting in the establishment without ordering anything. In turn, an onslaught of negative publicity hit the company, with accusations of racism. Starbucks issued a swift apology along with a promise to conduct racial-bias training for its employees. 

Public relations specialists play instrumental roles in helping their organizations navigate such situations. They help de-escalate public relations crises through skillful communication with the public. They also work with teams across an organization to craft messages that respond to the concerns of the public and take actions that address mistakes made. 

Community Engagement

Community engagement allows organizations to increase recognition of their brands, build trust, and deepen relationships with their current customers. Public relations specialists strategize ways to help organizations connect with their targeted audiences in various ways. 

For example, they may develop programs sponsored by their organizations that take on civic responsibilities and aim to improve people’s lives. These may include urban renewal projects, scholarship programs, and sport team sponsorships. Such programs help establish good will and elevate an organization's image within communities. 

Public relations specialists also leverage social media platforms to connect with the audiences their organizations want to target. After analyzing audiences on different platforms, they develop strategies for creating customized content such as blogs and feature stories that draw positive attention to their organizations. They also seek ways to get endorsements from online influencers and others who can share their organization’s story. 

Steps to Becoming a Public Relations Specialist

Individuals interested in how to become a public relations specialist should keep in mind the educational and skills requirements needed for the job. The following steps can prove useful for launching a public relations career. 

Step One: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

Public relations specialists need a bachelor’s degree in marketing or in a related field such as business or communications. This gives them critical foundational knowledge of core business concepts, various forms of strategic communication, as well as consumer behavior.

Some undergraduate marketing degree programs have portfolio requirements. Creating a portfolio allows students to bring their classroom learning and field experience together in a collected body of work.  

Step Two: Gain Work Experience and Skills

Gaining work experience gives public relations specialists a chance to apply their classroom learning to real-world situations. Many employers prefer candidates with a portfolio of work that demonstrates their competency in the field.

After completing a degree program, public relations specialists can seek out internships that help them accumulate samples of work to show to prospective employers. During an internship with a public relations firm, individuals may have the opportunity to craft media pitches, draft press releases, and assist in speech writing. Public relations specialists may also choose to take entry-level positions in the field to build work experience.

Through work experience, public relations specialists have opportunities to develop and hone the following skills needed to advance their careers:

Writing Skills

Writing is core to public relations. Whether drafting press releases or speeches, public relations specialists need to tell compelling stories that draw audiences in and gain their trust. This takes great skill in crafting resonating messages that convey clear and inspiring ideas.

Organizational Skills

Public relations specials may need to juggle several events at once while also keeping tabs on the media’s coverage of their organization and public opinion on social media platforms. This requires excellent multitasking skills as well as an ability to thoughtfully plan and manage one’s time.

Interpersonal Skills

The success of public relations specialists often rests on their ability to form strong working relationships with others. For example, public relations specialists often pitch story ideas to journalists. Good relationship with those journalists makes it more likely the journalists will listen to these pitches and feature them in their publication or broadcast. It’s critical that public relations specialists listen well, ask thoughtful questions, and communicate in friendly and effective ways.

News Savviness

Public relations specialists need to stay current on news and trends. This gives them the awareness needed to align their public relations campaigns with trending topics relevant to their target audiences. It also helps public relations specialists have a clear read on what will resonate with the public and what will fall flat, so they can craft their messaging strategically.

Step Three: Advance in the Field

Public relations specialists who want to boost their earning potential and cultivate more expertise in the field often choose to pursue a graduate degree. A master’s in business administration offers public relations specialists a chance to sharpen their leadership skills. It also helps them build their knowledge of marketing management and consumer behavior.

Job Outlook and Salary for Public Relations Specialists

Public relations specialists had a median annual salary of $62,810 in May 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Those in the top 10% of earners made more than $118,210. Experience, education, and location can factor into earnings. Public relations specialists working for businesses as well as political and professional organizations tend to make the highest salaries.

Job growth in public relations looks promising. The BLS projects 11% growth for public relations specialist positions between 2020 and 2030, significantly faster than the 8% average job growth forecasted for all occupations.