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The fictional portrayal of public relations workers can be unflattering, and is rarely accurate; the Nick Naylors and CJ Creggs of the real world aren't Machiavellian manipulators or cynical schemers, but rather dedicated professionals on par with their media counterparts. In the political sphere, these jobs can take the form of representing elected officials, non-partisan ministries, or even NGOs, all in the name of facilitating greater understanding and ensuring that the public is aware and informed.


Increasingly, specialized PR programs have begun appearing at post-secondary institutions, ranging from the University of Regina's professional certificate to Mt. St. Vincent's bachelors and masters degrees. Anne Skelding, a graduate of York University's theatre program and a student of Ryerson University's certificate in public relations, says that the value of additional academic preparation is crucial. If you had no experience in [the field] you weren't going to get a job, she explains, adding, Or if you were going to get a job, you weren't going to be able to move up without some extra training.


Whereas the public relations workers of the last few decades have come to the trade from diverse and sometimes indirectly related academic backgrounds and work experiences, the increased reliance on social media and the sheer variety of tactics has made specialized programs that much more appealing ' and needed. Recognize that the profession's only about 60 years-old, says Karen Dalton, executive director of the Canadian Public Relations Society, [And] there was no PR training until, really, the early 1980s; so prior to that, everyone came from journalism, or human resources, or some other sector, [but] in the last 20 years there are now about 44 [accredited] programs. Key to the success and value of these programs is an emphasis on versatile skill-sets and broad instruction, as well as opportunities for students to build their experience through internships and co-op placements. The students that come to us and the students that leave us are vastly different, confirms Barbara Emodi, a professor at MSVU with extensive experience in both the public and private sectors of communication and media relations. They enter the job market with the resume of someone who works in that area, she adds. Interested students who've majored in social sciences and liberal arts should take heart, as the strongest asset for public relations is having exceptional writing ability and creativity, explains Emodi, a sentiment echoed by other professionals in the field.


Two such professionals are Mike Storeshaw and Jesse Brady, who have each earned successful positions in PR despite distinctly contrasting backgrounds. Storeshaw earned a marketing degree from the University of Calgary, Brady has a Masters of English Literature; Brady has worked in media with the likes of the National Post and CBC, Storeshaw went straight from school into the office of the OLO (Office of Loyal Opposition) under Stockwell Day; Brady is press secretary of the NDP federal caucus while Storeshaw transitioned from serving as Jim Flaherty's communications director to being an executive counsel for Ottawa-based PR firm Delta Media.


For all their differences of political alignment and career path, the two agree on a number of tips for grads aspiring to follow in their footsteps. Direct experience [] is quite valuable, says Brady, mentioning his own volunteer work with various campaigns, something Storeshaw also emphasizes as being unmatched in terms of networking and hands-on experience. Both agree that it's a tough and competitive field, with high stakes and little margin for error, using phrases such as crisis communications and whim of the electorate. Brady also stresses that an understanding of the limitations and expectations of the media is invaluable for those working opposite them; academic understanding is one thing, but a shared experience helps staff create more effective messages and also offers a more accessible career path than strictly PR-related work. Sincere belief in your employer's ideological points is helpful, if not strictly necessary, but it's important not to burn too many bridges in the course of your career due to the close-knit nature of the political scene.


There's no disagreement, from student to professor to professional ' it's a tough field. PR workers need to anticipate new threats and come up with innovative strategies, and to be prepared for public blame while remaining an anonymous member of a behind-the-scenes team. It's a stressful job with a steep learning curve, but the consensus is clear: The worst day in political PR, summarizes Storeshaw, echoing a similarly-phrased sentiment by both Brady and Emodi, is better than the worst day in the private sector. jp