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PR in Higher Education: Opportunities and Advice

Published on March 20, 2023, at 4:35 p.m.
by Olivia Esquivel.

In order to become a public relations professional, the typical path is to attend a postsecondary school and receive at least a bachelor’s degree, potentially even a master’s degree. With such academic degrees, students gain valuable skills that they can take with them after they complete their education. Emerging PR professionals can then opt to remain in the education sector, utilizing their talents within the higher education system.

Defining PR in higher education

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Postsecondary institutions are businesses, and they therefore need the tools that public relations provides. PR serves a large variety of roles for these establishments that goes beyond simply attracting new customers (in this case, students). Universities require funding, whether that be from the government or private donors. PR professionals can assist in developing positive relationships with these essential publics.

A large part of higher education is creating a strong brand around the institution. “Constant Contact” defines branding on its communications blog as “the process of developing a single, coherent presentation for a product, service, or institution” and explains that “higher education branding is no different. Developing a clear brand for a university helps keep your message consistent on every platform.” PR professionals are well-equipped with the skillsets that universities require for their branding efforts, and they can apply them to anything from media relations to event planning on college campuses.

A variety of opportunities

Large universities sometimes have hundreds of PR practitioners on their payroll. Calyn Hoerner is a communication specialist at Boston University in its Campus Planning and Operations department. She described the plethora of PR jobs at universities and said that “pretty much every department has a team dedicated to communications and/or public relations” at large universities.

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For example, as of 2022, The University of Alabama had 55 employees in its Strategic Communications department alone. Additionally, each individual college and department contains its own team dedicated to PR-related activity.

There are also opportunities inside the classroom for PR professionals. Anna Claire Toxey teaches a PR writing course at The University of Alabama in addition to her responsibilities as the coordinator of external affairs for the College of Engineering. She was recently recognized as one of the “18 Under 31,” which is an award given to UA alumni who have made a “vital impact on their industry.” Her accomplishments demonstrate just how multifaceted a career in higher education PR can be.

The Public Relations Society of America defines PR as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” In higher education, the definition of “client” can vary greatly.

Toxey believes that “every single one of the target audiences represented by a university is important to that university,” meaning that the “client” in higher education encompasses all of its publics. Examples of these publics go beyond prospective and current students to include faculty, staff, donors, alumni and friends of the university. For individual departments, this list can be even more specialized to include specific audiences for their messaging.

The advantages of staying in an educational environment

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After spending years in higher education as a student, what are the advantages of staying after graduation? According to Toxey, there are many. She made the transition to becoming an employee at the same institution where she was a student. For her, it was a natural adjustment because she held a PR internship with the UA National Alumni Association during her undergraduate years.

“I felt confident pursuing a full-time role in it, knowing that it was something that that I was already very passionate about,” she said. Working at her alma mater has also allowed her to remain a part of the campus community, which is something that continues to be important to her.

A career in the educational sector can be more well-rounded than other PR positions. For Hoerner, working in higher education has been more rewarding than her previous jobs in agency settings. “I feel like you are able to have a greater impact when you’re working in higher ed, because you’re able to see your actions directly affect the lives of students,” Hoerner explained.

Through her experience at BU, Hoerner has grown more as a professional, she said. She attributes this growth to the collegiate setting and explained that “because it’s an environment of academics and academia, there is more of a focus on the development of the person.”

Advice for future PR professionals in higher education

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Due to the expansive nature of the educational PR industry, it can be difficult to decide what sector of the business to go into. Toxey and Hoerner both offered similar advice: Start exploring your options.

For college students, this exploration involves things like student organizations, internships and part-time jobs. Toxey emphasized how such participation “sets you up for success, because you’re given a glimpse of what a full-time role would look like in that industry.”

Hoerner said that she was able to avoid much of the “trial and error” that comes with working in the beginning of one’s career due to her exploration of her interests while in school. She believes that this sort of experience is invaluable, and the best way to learn is by “trying out different applications of communications to understand where you fit in this industry.”

Summing up the many opportunities for PR professionals in higher education, Hoerner noted, “You could do anything with communication.” Public relations is an expansive industry, and using a degree in the education sector offers professionals a chance to further grow their knowledge and experience in the field.

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