Your Guide to Careers in Public Relations with an Online Degree in Organizational Leadership

Written by Scott Wilson

public relations careers

There’s a greater need than ever for trustworthy voices in public relations.

The epidemic of fake news that roiled media starting in 2016 has only gotten worse. While communications consulting firm Deloitte found in 2021 that almost three quarters of Americans who follow the news believe that false stories are a big problem today, engagement with dubiously sourced information only grew, roughly doubling from 2019 to 2020.

With AI-driven deepfake videos hitting the scene and new machine learning options pushing out more credible sounding, but equally false, news stories all the time, trust in media and corporations has plummeted. Forty-four percent of news consumers overall, and more than half of millennials, simply don’t trust information they receive from traditional sources anymore.

That’s a huge problem for corporate America, and for public relations departments in particular. The ability to communicate with customers, potential customers, and regulators rests on credibility. Without it, no statement or press release can make a difference.

Finding ways to restore trust in both public and private organizations rests on solid public relations leadership.

PR leaders need more than just the ability to weave their communications magic with the public and press. They still need all that communication knowledge and expertise, but in order to really get ahead of the curve, they also need:

It can take decades of on-the-job experience to build those kind of decisive leadership skills in PR. Or you could do the smart thing and pursue a degree in organizational leadership for public relations professionals.

Why Leadership Skills Are Already Part of the Standard PR Toolkit

giving speechPublic speakers are often perceived as leaders regardless of their role. Think of the White House press secretary, or corporate spokespeople—just being seen as the voice of the organization gives you a bully pulpit that most leaders would kill for.

The ability to be that articulate and to reach out to so many people is a skill that both PR work and leadership have in common. With leadership degrees, you’ll learn not only the vital tools for public speaking, but the even more important understanding of how to do so strategically—using your communications to support the overall vision and goals of the organization.

It’s also true that one of the core skills identified in the world of organizational leadership happens to be the entire reason for the existence of public relations. That’s strategic communications: the concept of crafting and delivering information in a way that best supports your organizations strategic goals.

PR departments are all about shaping the information sphere to enable organizational success.

Because their role is strategic communication, PR professionals are exercising one of the common functions of the organizational leader just by getting out of bed in the morning.

That by itself isn’t enough to achieve true PR leadership, however. To make all the connections, a full slate of leadership skills is required. And that’s where degree and certificate programs that blend leadership and public relations come into the picture.

Degrees To Consider To Boost Your Public Relations Leadership Skills

public relations degreesThere’s broad recognition in the academic world of the ties between public relations and leadership skills, so you won’t find any shortage of degrees available that offer training in both.

You’ll find these degrees coming at the problem from either direction, both those that place the primary emphasis on organizational leadership with a side of PR, and those that are mostly concerned with PR but add on a chunk of OL training.

Either choice can be appropriate for a public relations leadership career depending on your personal preferences, background, and plans.

Many public relations leaders also pursue degrees in the larger field of communications. Communications is actually a good choice for leaders since they will be engaging in a lot of comms work that isn’t strictly PR just as a normal part of their senior positions. But the specializations available in all these programs give you the opportunity to fine tune your training for exactly the skillset you want to develop.

Different Levels of Studies Cater To Different Stages of a Public Relations Career

full classroomYou’ll also have to decide what level you want to take your education to in order to see those plans come to life.

For many PR professionals, a bachelor’s degree is really all that is needed to get started. These standard four-year programs can cost anywhere from $9,375 per year at public universities to $32,825 at private schools according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). They come loaded with a lot more than just PR and leadership training, however. You’ll also study many required general knowledge and liberal arts courses to hone your critical thinking and basic business and life skills.

A typical degree for anyone starting off with a goal of getting into PR leadership would be a Bachelor of Arts/Sciences in Organizational Leadership (BAOL/BSOL) and Public Relations, or a BSOL with a Public Relations Specialization.

You can fine-tune your studies with even more specific degrees that are available, however, like a Bachelor of Arts in Communication with a Business Leadership minor, or a BSOL in Healthcare Communication. These get you on the fast-track to PR careers in very specific fields or industries.

If you’re serious about getting into senior leadership roles in public relations, and even beyond, then you are probably going to be looking at continuing on to a master’s degree program.

Master’s degrees in this area typically take a year or two to complete, and can cost from $12,410 yearly at public schools to $26,597 at private colleges. They set aside the more general studies coursework in favor of more in-depth, and usually more focused, studies that are very specific to your career path.

presenting to groupAnd you’ll find a wide range of master’s programs that develop those skills, like the broad-based Master of Communication with Leadership specialization or a Master of Arts in Professional Communication and Leadership. You’ll also find many master’s degree that focus on even more targeted areas in public relations and communications, like the Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership – Global Business Leadership and Communication, the Master of Arts in Strategic Communication and Leadership, or a Master of Arts in Public Relations and Reputation Management, Leadership emphasis.

Finally, at the most advanced level, you’ll find some doctoral degrees in the field of PR leadership. These programs can take anywhere from four to seven years to complete, based on your personalized focus and the field, and are charged at the same graduate tuition rates as master’s degrees. A degree like a PhD in Leadership Communication develops strong research and academic skills but isn’t usually a requirement for corporate PR jobs.

Another option is to check out certificate programs in PR leadership. With only a few months required to complete, and a handful of classes, you’re not going to find the same depth of training in a Professional Communication and Leadership Certificate or a Certificate in Public Relations, Leadership and Ethics as you would with a full degree. But you will commit to a lot less time and money, and find studies that may be more highly focused on your specific needs.

Certificates are available at the baccalaureate and higher levels, such as a Public Relations Leadership Graduate Certificate.

Dual Majors Offer the Best of Both Worlds in Leadership and Public Relations

Despite the variety of degrees that are available that mix and match PR and leadership training, you might decide you don’t want to split your studies that way. Maybe your ambitions need the full bore load of PR training you get in a dedicated degree, with a no-holds-barred education in organizational leadership stacked on top.

These are the circumstances that dual degrees are made for!

A double major in PR and organizational leadership is no cake walk, but it’s not as tough as earning the degrees separately. All the general studies courses that apply toward your degree only need to be taken once. It’s only the major-specific studies you’ll have to double up on.

You can also choose to dedicate your undergraduate studies to one major and your graduate program to the other; this is pretty common in cases where you start out without realizing leadership is where you want to end up.

PR Leadership Degrees Offer a Curriculum To Develop Skills in OL and PR

Most of your coursework in any of these degree programs will revolve around the typical subjects of the major… for PR, writing and editing, PR campaigns, and comm law, while for OL, organizational theory, strategic planning, and change management.

But in any kind of crossover program between PR and leadership studies, you’ll find a specific set of courses that mash the two fields together. That will happen in classes with titles like:

Leadership Theory

Through case studies, lectures in behavioral and organizational psychology, and an understanding of modern theory and research into leadership practices, you’ll learn exactly what modern organizational leadership is built on. These classes equip you with the specific training and knowledge in leadership theory you’ll need to build your own style and techniques as a leader.

Principles of Communications

All organizational leadership programs get a heavy helping of communications coursework, but PR-focused OL degrees take it up a notch. You will learn not just about the elements of strategic communication that every leader has to embrace, but also the rhetorical theory, the interpersonal communication skills, and the essential language and styles that you need to develop to communicate clearly and effectively with any audience.

Media Literacy and Relations

For most PR professionals, the primary audience for your communications will be the media. But organizational leaders in every field need to have the skills to consume, interpret, and influence media coverage. These classes cover the history of media as well as the current state of American and sometimes global media. You’ll learn a bit about how journalists work and are trained, as well as the market influences that sway media coverage in certain ways. And you’ll learn how to deal with the resulting pressures and biases of that system to maximize the benefits to your organization.

Organizational Communication

While most PR coursework tends to focus on communication with outside agencies and groups, leaders have to be just as concerned with making their point and communicating strategically within their organization. This coursework gives you the perspective and the skills to keep your own team informed and motivated.

Communication Ethics

There are a lot of ethical pitfalls to deal with in strategic and media communications, so both PR pros and leaders need formal training in the philosophy and practice of ethical communications. Part of maintaining your authority as both a leader and a PR source relies on your ethical behavior, so this is one class you’re going to want to stay awake in. You’ll go into the roots of ethics as well as best practices in the field today.

Almost all PR-related degrees also come with either the option or the requirement to participate in an internship. These short-term positions give you a shot at doing actual PR work for an active organization, and observing first-hand how professional leadership deals with real-world PR problems. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to put your newly learned skills into play, as well as learn new tips and tricks for leaders with decades of experience.

Using Elective Courses To Fine-tune Your Public Relations Leadership Training

staying connected using phonesRunning public relations for a political campaign takes a very different set of knowledge and skills than doing PR for a major multinational chemical company. Likewise, specific types of PR work, like social media relations, can be vastly different than traditional press office operations.

So you can expect to find a wide range of elective classes to come with most organizational leadership for PR degrees. Some of them include:

On top of the broad spectrum of electives, you can also find degrees in communication leadership that have their own sub-specialization areas, including:

Each of these is designed to hone your skillset in one specific aspect of PR leadership, giving you even more expertise in your chosen career path.

Choosing a School To Cultivate Both Leadership and Public Relations Expertise

students in tv studioOnce you nail down the type of degree you plan to pursue in organizational leadership for public relations, you are going to have to decide on the school where you want to pursue it.

This is a big choice, and can impact not only your immediate education, but also your long-term prospects in PR. Making the right connections and having the right university’s name on your resume can make all the difference in what doors are open for you after graduation.

Quality wins out in all these areas. The best schools have the brightest reputations for a good reason—they deliver top-notch training and graduates who are ready to step up to the plate. You can narrow down your choices by checking out the elements that make schools great, including:

In some cases, you can get a shortcut on doing all this research yourself by checking into whether or not eligible schools have earned accreditation from a specialty accrediting organization. For PR and communications work, that often means degrees offered by departments of journalism or communications, which are accredited by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC).

But other excellent leadership programs are offered by business schools, which may be accredited by one of these three associations:

  • AACSB (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business)
  • IACBE (International Accreditation Council for Business Education)
  • ACBSP (Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs)

With close ties in both the business and academic worlds, they have the ability to assess schools on all the characteristics you will care about as a future PR leader.

Of course, many great leadership degrees aren’t necessarily offered by either of those types of college, and may not be eligible for specialty accreditation. You’ll just have to do your own homework in those cases!

Taking Advantage of Modern Communication Technology for Public Relations Leadership Degrees Through Online Studies

Public relations professionals have to be at the cutting edge of modern media and communication technologies. Maybe that’s why so many great programs covering public relations leadership skills have opted to offer online degrees as well as traditional studies.

No matter what stage of your career you are tackling, an online degree can make a lot of sense.

First off, remote studies mean you can open up the full catalog of options in PR leadership degrees to find the best fit for your personal goals and interests. You won’t have to relocate halfway across the country to get the kind of education that suits you best—just fire up your web browser and you are in business.

Second, most online programs are also asynchronous, which means you attend not just from wherever is convenient, but also whenever. Find the parts of your day that offer the most free time and take care of your coursework then, whether it’s in the morning before the kids get up or late at night after you’ve gotten all the dishes done.

This offers huge benefits to anyone juggling family and a career with getting an education in leadership skills. And, of course, not having to relocate can help keep all those personal and professional obligations on track without missing a beat.

Public Relations Leadership Skills Open up Both Communications and Executive Positions

meeting in conference roomThe crossover between great PR skills and good organizational leadership training means that you can take the skillset you learn from a degree in this field in many different directions.

Of course, the most obvious angle is going to be work in public relations and communications. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tracks these jobs in the categories of Public Relations and Fundraising Managers. These are positions that generally oversee teams of PR and comms staff to coordinate media relations, craft public messaging campaigns, and respond and react to negative stories or setbacks for the brand’s public image.

The leadership skills you will have built up with a degree in organizational leadership can take you a lot further than the podium at a press conference, however. Senior PR and comms staff also have a shot at the big table in many organizations, with senior executive roles with far wider responsibilities.

BLS lumps all these jobs into the category of Top Executives, which can cover everything from chief operating officers to senior VPs for communications.

Most of these types of jobs are available in just about every industry, government agency, or non-profit organization. The day-to-day functions of all of those jobs can be very different, but all of them will find good use for your leadership training and people-handling skills.

Making Top Dollar With Leadership Training as a Public Relations Professional

Senior positions mean senior salaries in all those jobs. While there is obviously just as much variance in pay scales as there is in job responsibilities from industry to industry, you can get a reasonable ballpark from looking at the BLS salary stats for the position.

Public Relations and Fundraising Managers made a median wage of $119,860 per year in 2021.

If that sounds pretty good, keep in mind that’s just the average, available to anyone with the average qualifications in the field. With an organizational leadership degree behind you, you should expect more—the top ten percent of the field pulled in more than $204,430, instead.

Of course, the figures keep getting higher the further you climb the corporate ladder. If you do make it into senior management as a Top Executive, the top ten percent of those positions actually max out the BLS data. That means, at a minimum, they make more than $208,000 per year. BLS basically just stops counting at that point.

So not only are mid-six figures typical, but you can expect bonuses, stock options, and all the other goodies that come to those at the top table.

No one in PR, let alone PR leadership, will ever tell you it’s easy. Just dealing with public and press are jobs that come with immense pressure and require strong interpersonal and communication skills. And naturally, the pressure and skills required only ratchet higher as you ascend to more senior positions.

But with a degree that gives you the right combination of PR and leadership skills in your back pocket, you are going to be well-equipped to handle them. And you will be well worth the high salary you pull down in the process.

2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Public Relations and Fundraising Managers and Top Executives reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed February 2023.