What to Expect as a Public Relations Major: Q&A with Dean Mundy

Trying to decide on your major at the University of Oregon? One of the most popular schools on campus is the School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC), which offers four majors for undergraduates to choose from, including public relations (PR).

This series of questions with Associate Professor Dean Mundy is designed to help you evaluate if a degree in public relations is a good fit for you and if PR is something you would enjoy doing as a career. As the director of the public relations program, Mundy has a passion for PR and a personal understanding of what makes it a great career choice. He also shares some keen insight into the students who enjoy the major the most and what makes the SOJC’s public relations program so exceptional.

Watch the full video Q&A with Dean Mundy

What is public relations?

The official definition of public relations as stated by the Public Relations Society of America is that public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and publics. Publics is just another term for stakeholders or audiences. What the definition really boils down to is the word relationship.

Public relations is the strategic communication function within an organization that is responsible for thinking holistically about the relationship between the organization and the various stakeholders. You might have one campaign or initiative that's targeting high school boys, but it's PR's responsibility to think of all the people connected to that audience. For example, you could get questions from the media about the campaign, questions from parents, investors, additional audiences such as high school girls who want to know what is available to them, etc.

The PR team has to think holistically, and all of the communication has to be about maintaining that relationship with all the stakeholders at all times, because different stakeholders have different expectations in terms of what they want to know about the organization at different points.

How do you get a job in public relations?

People get into public relations a variety of ways. Predominantly it's being a major in public relations and getting a degree, like the one at University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication.

A lot of journalists end up going into public relations because writing is important for both disciplines.

In my own example, I switched to public relations mid-career. I started in a different strategic communication role and realized that wasn’t for me. I was in marketing, but I saw what the PR team was doing and was really excited about it and so completely changed my career path.

Many students go the agency route, where you work for a company that provides PR services to various clients. The other way of going about it is to work as part of an in-house team for a company. It could be in an industry you’re interested in or a company or organization you’re passionate about. And, of course, you also see hybrid models where there’s an in-house team plus an agency team.

What kind of personalities are well suited to public relations? 

The more I teach in public relations, the more I see similar types of students come through the public relations program, and they are reflective of most of the public relations professionals I know. A typical public relations person is somebody who likes to think strategically but is also able to focus on the details and make things happen. PR people are creative through problem solving. They are thinking, “How can we be strategic about this? How can we be proactive?” What are these relationships going to look like not just six months down the road, but six years down the road?

The public relations curriculum for the School of Journalism and Communication actually mirrors that. For example, we teach public relations in steps that build on each other, much like you would build a public relations campaign.

One of the things I always emphasize in classes is there's probably a 60/40 split in terms of extrovert versus introvert, with 60% being the introverts. I'm a huge introvert myself, which basically just means I get energy by being by myself or with just a few people versus an extrovert, where you get your energy by being with a ton of people. For example, as an introvert I can teach a class of 300 and love it, but I have to spend time by myself to build up my energy and recover my energy after that. I think that goes along with the planning aspect of sitting down behind the scenes. As the public relations team, I would say 80% of PR is done behind the scenes.

Why would you want to go to school for public relations, and is a public relations degree worth it?

One of the things I love about public relations is how transferable it is. Public relations is important to every type of organization. Every industry needs to have that person or team that is always focused on relationships with internal and external stakeholders. That's what PR does.

Beyond explicit public relations jobs, though, a PR degree can teach you things you can apply in different careers, even if you decide not to go into public relations. We're seeing an uptick in students who want to go into law because they like the strategic thinking, the proactive step-by-step planning and organizing how things work. I've had a lot of students who have ended up in different strategic communication roles who have come back and said, “Listen, just knowing this PR process has really helped me be able to apply it in a lot of different situations.”

What skills does a public relations degree teach that would take a long time to learn in the real world?

A public relations degree teaches you how to be strategic, how to plan and how to set effective benchmarks.

One of our public relations courses is a planning course. Students must proactively plan and ask questions: How can we solve the business problem or opportunity this organization has through communication?

How do you write a strong objective so that the plans you come up with move your audiences from awareness about your organization to attitude toward your organization, toward action? Because audiences got to be aware of your organization before they do anything with it. A lot of companies or organizations think their audiences are just going to be ready to act. But you have to be strategic and planned and thought out. And sometimes that means you go back to them and say, “This is going to take three years, not three months.”

On a more technical level, we have done survey after survey, generation after generation, asking professionals, “What is the number-one skill that a PR professional should have when they graduate from college?” The number-one thing that comes back every single time is writing. You have to be a strong writer who knows AP style, which is knowing how to write like a journalist and how to spell people’s names, because correctly spelling proper nouns is very important for public relations.

How important is networking to getting a job?

One of the things we emphasize across all public relations classes is that you cannot get a job without networking. I think some recent research has shown that 85-90% of jobs people get are because of their network. Also, 85-90% of jobs are never even posted. You have to rely on your network to see those opportunities.

One of the things we did with the PR major was create a LinkedIn group for the PR major for University of Oregon and SOJC alums. That has become a huge source of networking for our current students and for our alums who are looking to switch jobs. They post jobs constantly in the chat. I've had a lot of students get internships because of that one group on LinkedIn, which has seen sort of a renaissance since the pandemic as well.

Networking is so important, and we teach students how to do that professionally — how to send an email, how to introduce yourself, what an informational interview is. We extend that into LinkedIn, where we make those connections either for them or send introduction emails. Some classes even create assignments where students are required to use our network to conduct informational interviews and to start building their network.

What makes a good public relations program?

A good public relations program, in my mind, has several different components:

  • It should have a very good faculty. I love our faculty here at University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication. Our PR faculty really get along. We brainstorm, we're collaborative, but we also have completely different areas of expertise. We have people who know crisis communication, people who know corporate social responsibility, diversity and inclusion, nonprofit communication, media relations, and we pull from that expertise. It's important to have a deep bench to connect students with those fundamental areas.
  • It's also important to speak to students’ passions. We have a special topics class that changes topics every term. For students interested in the sports industry, we have a sports communication class or sports PR class. We have social media strategy classes, special topics for students who really want to build their digital skills.
  • Another thing to look for in a public relations degree program is inclusivity. How can you build an inclusive major so the students feel like they have a cohort and aren’t doing it on their own? The cohort style keeps students from feeling like they’re in a vacuum and gives them people to rely on for help, and they help each other. We see by the time they graduate, they've become really close. Building that camaraderie is important.

What makes the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication public relations program excellent or special?

What makes our program special — and I'll extend this to the whole SOJC — is that we’re a startup with a legacy. We're still a small program, but we are a national program. We still have the ability to think creatively and change up things when we need to. We can question things when we need to, and I think there's a benefit in that.

I come from the East Coast, and there's definitely an East Coast bias now that I'm on the West Coast. I think there are a lot of programs that get talked about, and we're increasingly becoming part of that national conversation, which is a lot of fun, and we're right there. But I do think we're still the startup. We have a legacy and we've got the chops. We have the students, the faculty, the resources, and the facilities.

What should students look for in a public relations program?

If I were a student right now looking for a public relations program, the things I would want to look for would be:

  • Diversity in the expertise of the faculty.
  • The right size major. You don't want it to be so small that you're not going to be able to have opportunities, but you also don’t want it to be so big that you're going to be lost in the crowd. You want it large enough so you can find your people, but small enough that you won’t be invisible in the program.
  • Hands-on learning opportunities where you can expand your experience. Is there study abroad where you can meet people and build your network? We had our first study-abroad trip to London in summer 2022, and we're hoping to add one to Sweden in a couple of years. Is there a student-run PR agency where students can plan campaigns for real-world clients? A public relations program should also provide and foster internship opportunities.
  • Is the program accredited? The University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication is an accredited program through the Public Relations Society of America. That means you have expertise among the faculty; you are learning important messages of ethics, diversity, and inclusion in your curriculum; and the curriculum includes specific types of classes. For example, a foundational course in public relations is a PR writing course where you learn AP style and reaffirm grammar and spelling. You also want a strategic planning class and a campaigns class.

Look for where alums have landed and have conversations with them. We're really proud of what our alums are accomplishing right now, especially in the last 5 or 10 years. That will tell you a lot in terms of whether you will be able to hit the ground running when you graduate.

What role does ethics play in PR?

When students graduate from our program, I want them to remember that a lot of times the PR team is the last set of eyes to see something before it leaves an organization. Whether you're communicating to investors, to media, to customers, whoever your stakeholders are, you're typically the last set of eyes before it’s sent. That means you have to speak truth to power.

A lot of times the public relations team is younger, especially right now, because it's such a growing field. And a lot of times you find yourself as a 25-year-old talking to the CEO, saying, “I'm sorry, that's not really what we should be putting out there.” It's your job as a PR person to raise your hand and to say, “I don't think that's the ethical thing. I don't think that's the right choice.” Sometimes they won't listen to you, but it's your job to at least put it on the table.

That’s exciting because you're asked to do that from day one. It’s not just an executive-level responsibility. As a public relations professional, you have to be thinking three to five years down the road for your clients, or for your company if you're in-house. The goal is to learn to look at any situation objectively and think, “OK, yes, this might be a good short-term answer, but if we look at this relationship, what does that mean for the relationship three to five years down the road?”

What do you value in a relationship? What you value in a relationship interpersonally with your friends and family is the same thing you expect with organizations. At the core of that is trust. We teach the importance of trust.

How does PR fit into the bigger picture of storytelling?

One of the biggest challenges with public relations is that if you're doing it right, you don't notice it. That's the way PR works when it’s done right. It's a double-edged sword because when it's done wrong, it's in the media. And that's the only time you hear about people who work in PR. That’s one of the reasons it has a reputation for being about “spin.” But most of the time, if everything is going well, you don't hear about public relations.

That takes me back to the long-term goal of relationships. If you are maintaining good relationships, having conversations with your stakeholders, listening to them, responding to them, adjusting over time, then you're going to be just fine. And that's the end goal: knowing that your organization is a good citizen and that people know they're a good citizen.

A lot of the most recent research in public relations is focused on corporate activism and corporate advocacy. And we're seeing a lot more students who are interested in this. Thankfully, companies are increasingly listening to people on social, what they're saying about them. They want the companies and organizations that they frequent to be good citizens. And they're not going to buy your goods and services, use your products if you're not a good citizen, or if they don't perceive you as a good citizen.