Aspiring and current public relations professionals have options ranging from free online courses to online degrees.
There are many ways to study PR online at no cost. (Westend61/Getty Images)
For aspiring public relations professionals, online learning may be the educational path that provides the greatest flexibility. But there are various types of online credentials to consider.
Iowa resident Meg Harper, a communications associate for the Sioux City Community School District, works full time. To achieve her goal of working in an upper-management PR position, Harper who studied communications with a PR emphasis for her bachelor’s degree decided to earn a master’s degree in the discipline.
She learned that the nearest university where she could take night classes would require a two-hour commute. So she turned to the online master’s program at Southern New Hampshire University, which allows her to complete coursework around her other obligations from wherever she wants.
“Instead of waiting to get assignments, I’m able to see all my coursework for the term,” the 22-year-old says. “And I’m allowed to work ahead, plan out my schedule and ensure that I’m completing my coursework while still maintaining the focus I need to be successful at my full-time job as well.”
Harper chose to earn a degree – as opposed to a graduate certificate, for example in part because the in-depth curriculum and coursework would better demonstrate her strong knowledge of PR, especially to potential employers, she says.
With the advent of online learning, working adults have more options to study various fields including public relations than ever before.
One could describe PR as the communications function that involves working with stakeholders, says Marcia DiStaso, professor and chair of the department of public relations at the University of Florida, which offers online PR degrees.
These may include internal stakeholders such as the employees of an organization or external stakeholders such as customers.
“There’s a lot of different elements to public relations, so it depends on what your interests are and what you could do with your degree,” DiStaso says.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that public relations specialists made a median annual wage of $58,020 in 2016.
The highest-paid 10 percent of PR professionals earned approximately $110,560, whereas the bottom 10 percent earned about $32,090. Most PR specialists have a bachelor’s degree with a major in communications, public relations, journalism or a related field.
Here are four ways to study PR online.
Free online courses. There are many ways to study PR online at no cost. Doing so, experts say, is often a good route for lifelong learners and those interested in either gaining an introductory knowledge of the discipline or learning more about a specific topic or skill related to the field.
Websites such as Coursera, edX, Lynda, Udemy and Alison offer a range of free online course options. On Coursera, for instance, one can enroll in classes created in collaboration with universities ranging from Introduction to Public Relations to Social Media in Public Relations.
On many of these websites, students may audit courses at no charge but can also pay to earn certificates of completion and gain access to additional features including graded assignments and instructor feedback. On edX, for example, certificates usually cost between $50 to $300.
In addition, the Public Relations Society of America, a trade association for professionals in the field, offers around 75 online classes that are free to members, says Laura Kane, the association’s chief communications officer.
Personalized support from university staff can help online students reach their academic and career goals.
Online PR courses that cost money. Those looking to showcase to employers a foundational knowledge of PR or a deeper understanding of a specific related topic may consider paying for a course and potentially receive a credential like a certificate.
MediaBistro, for instance, has an online class examining PR fundamentals that costs $99. PR courses on a range of topics are also available on LinkedIn Learning, with a monthly subscription costing about $30 a month and an annual subscription costing about $25 a month after a one-month free trial.
PRSA offers different online courses both for those who are early in their career and more experienced professionals, Kane says. Courses may explore subjects such as writing for public relations campaigns as well as relevant topics in other fields such as integrated marketing communications.
“Public relations is merging with content marketing, marketing, advertising, digital communications all those lines are blurring,” Kane says. “You have to be able to know how to manage the reputation of your company or organization across multiple platforms.”
PRSA’s Definitive Guide to PR Writing online course consists of four modules, each costing $199 for members and $249 for nonmembers; the full course has discounted prices of $699 and $799, respectively.
The association also offers certificates in subjects such as performance management and content marketing, both of which consist of six modules.
Additionally, PRSA has a 13-lesson online course for those interested in earning a Certificate in Principles of Public Relations, which requires students to pass an exam and is offered at many colleges and universities.
The certificate one of a few credentials administered by the Universal Accreditation Board, which is comprised of nine PR professional organizations is geared toward college students and recent graduates who majored in public relations or a related field.
Undergraduate and graduate university certificates. Those who desire a credential can also earn a certificate from an accredited higher education institution.
These certificates may focus on specific areas within PR or explore the field more generally.
The University of Virginia School of Continuing and Professional Studies has an online, eight-course, noncredit certificate option costing about $3,960 that can be completed in a year, for instance. It’s designed to provide public relations practitioners, small business owners and those entering the field with the skills and information they need for PR success, says Nammy Lee, senior program director and assistant professor for business and professional studies at the school.
Compared with degrees, certificates usually take less time to earn and have fewer course requirements.
“Most of our students they already have bachelor’s or master’s degrees,” Lee says. A graduate certificate, she says, can help students fill in knowledge gaps without spending the time and money on an additional degree.
Public relations online degrees. A bachelor’s or master’s degree focusing specifically on public relations isn’t required to enter the field. But a PR degree could be a good option for some, and there are schools that offer it online.
Experts say compared with certificates, degrees go into greater depth about the field yet typically take longer to earn, are more expensive and often have general education requirements in other subjects.
“Typically when we talk about public relations at the undergraduate level, we talk about preparing them to do entry-level positions in public relations,” DiStaso says. “When we think about it at the master’s level, we’re typically preparing them to manage the function, to manage the people who are doing the entry level.”
While job experience is generally what’s most important for a PR career boost, DiStaso says, those who earn a master’s in PR right after a bachelor’s in the discipline often see their careers accelerate more quickly.
For Orlando, Florida, resident Alex Russell, a current online student in the University of Florida’s PR master’s degree program, online education simply made sense as she continues to work.
The 25-year-old guest liaison for player, talent and tour relations at NBC’s Golf Channel wants to learn more about public relations after a career grounded primarily in television.
“Now I’m just either looking to grow within the NBC family,” she says, “or potentially completely switching career paths, getting out of television and working for an agency in New York City something along those lines.”
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