Monthly Archives: May 2017

From Divide and Conquer to Dynamic Teamwork: A New Approach to Teaching Public Relations Campaigns



  • Kristen Heflin, Kennesaw State University
  • Shana Meganck, Virginia Commonwealth University

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From Divide and Conquer to Dynamic Teamwork: A New Approach to Teaching Public Relations Campaigns

Approximately 80% of public relations programs offer a public relations campaigns course and the course is required for almost 90% of public relations majors (Benigni, Cheng, & Cameron, 2004). According to the most recent surveys of public relations campaigns teaching methods, 92% of instructors divide students into teams to handle the work and about 90% of classes operate using an “agency structure” with most instructors serving as an “adviser” or “coach” (Benigni, Cheng, & Cameron, 2004, p. 265). This “implies a pedagogical strategy that emphasizes student/team autonomy rather than a didactic approach directed by the professor” (Benigni & Cameron, 1999, p. 55).

While emphasizing student/team autonomy has the potential to improve critical thinking and strategic planning skills, the authors of this article also found that it can lead to a “divide and conquer problem” where students divide up parts of the campaign and work on sections alone. This approach frequently results in an unequal distribution of work, clunky writing, and campaigns that do not meet the needs of the client because they are either low quality, internally inconsistent, or repetitive. Another negative side effect of the divide-and-conquer phenomenon is that few students fully understand the strategic planning process.

To help public relations campaigns instructors address these problems, this article will start by reviewing the important literature on teaching public relations campaigns, active learning, and the benefits and challenges of teamwork in the classroom. It will then detail a step-by-step guide for implementing a new approach to teaching public relations campaigns that require students to actively participate in each step of the campaign-planning process. After discussing steps for implementing this new approach, the article will conclude with a discussion of how this approach solves the problems associated with the traditional approach to teaching public relations campaigns.


Teaching Public Relations Campaigns

The goal of public relations campaigns is for students to apply all of the skills they have learned in previous public relations courses, such as public relations writing, graphics, research, strategic planning, and public speaking. Because public relations campaigns gives students the opportunity to utilize these previously developed skills, it is often the capstone of a public relations curriculum (Benigni, Cheng, & Cameron, 2004; Worley, 2001). There are, however, two things that make the public relations campaigns course unique. First, students get the chance to build a campaign from research through evaluation. Second, it gives students the opportunity to build relationships with team members and clients. Worley (2001) echoes these points saying, “While research, writing and production, and familiarity with the basic structure of a campaign have been developed in earlier courses, the opportunity to apply these skills while working for an actual client is the essence of this course” (p. 48).

In addition to working with clients and building a campaign from start to finish, encouraging teamwork and emphasizing team autonomy are common pedagogical approaches for public relations campaign instructors because developing group work skills is imperative for professional contexts (Beccaria, Kek, Huijser, Rose, & Kimmins, 2014; Benigni & Cameron, 1999). According to Worley (2001), of the nine objectives that guide the structure and process of the public relations campaigns course, one is related to teamwork, suggesting students must “work as a team including delegating responsibilities, meeting deadlines, and coordinating activities” (p. 49). Worley (2001) goes on to say:

Probably the most difficult aspect of the learning process for students is . . . to overcome obstacles in effective communication within groups. . . . Students must understand the nature of such critical issues as interdependence, conflict management, decision-making in groups, and the nature and development of group roles and norms, among others. (p. 51)

Service learning is one way to develop these important teamwork skills in the public relations campaigns course. Through student work performed for real clients, students in the public relations capstone learn to build client trust and satisfaction, boost critical thinking, and increase social responsibility (Benigni, Cheng & Cameron, 2004; Werder & Strand, 2011).

Active Learning

The literature on teaching public relations concludes that public relations courses should include “real-world” situations, and because of the often didactic nature of introductory public relations courses, upper-level courses should foster “active learning” or other group work initiatives that encourage real-world learning opportunities (Benigini, Cheng & Cameron, 2004, p. 260). Active learning is defined as “anything that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing” (Bonwell & Eison, 1991, p. 2), and it includes several learning strategies, such as involving students in more than listening, encouraging skill development instead of just transmitting information, engaging students in activities, and giving students the opportunity to explore their own attitudes and values (Lubbers & Gorcyca, 1997).

Lubbers and Gorcyca (1997) emphasize the importance of active learning in public relations for increasing student involvement in the classroom through engaging students in class discussion and class presentations. This participatory learning/teaching allows students to not only practice, but also see and learn from the results of their practice (Lubbers & Gorcyca, 1997; McKeachie, 1994).

The public relations campaigns capstone promotes the principles of active learning by developing socialization skills through emphasizing teamwork, teaching students how to research and present detailed information, creating more independent learners, and providing a bridge between theory and practice (Lubbers & Gorcyca, 1997).

Benefits and Challenges of Teamwork

Pedagogical research has found that there are several benefits to teamwork, such as increased knowledge and retention, boosted motivation among participants, and improved attitudes toward learning (Chiriac, 2014; Johnson & Johnson, 1986). Additionally, group learning fosters socialization, promotes critical thinking, develops a better understanding of cultural backgrounds, and provides practice and preparation of important group work skills that are needed in the workplace (Beccaria, Kek, Huijser, Rose & Kimmins, 2014; Chiriac, 2014). According to Gillies and Boyle (2011), these benefits of group work are consistent regardless of age. However, while there are several benefits, teamwork also presents challenges, including perceptions of unfair distribution of workload, poor communication, conflict among group members, lack of formal leadership, and culturally different approaches to work (Becccaria, Kek, Huijser, Rose & Kimmins, 2014; Hassanien, 2006; McGraw & Tidwell, 2001). Specifically, Werder and Strand (2011) contended that “negative team dynamics, when present, can become the central focus of students and may impede the learning process” (p. 484). Silverman (2007) also concluded teamwork can create a free-rider problem where some students may not do their fair share of work, creating resentment among team members and potentially reducing the quality of the final product.


After experiencing several problems associated with the traditional approach to teaching public relations campaigns, the authors decided to completely redesign the way they implemented the course. To do so, the authors drew from the literature on teaching public relations campaigns, the value of active learning, and the benefits and challenges of teamwork. The new approach discussed below was implemented in 13 campaigns classes at two universities across six semesters.

Drawing from the findings in the literature on the benefits of teamwork (Beccaria, Kek, Huijser, Rose & Kimmins, 2014; Chiriac, 2014; Johnson & Johnson, 1986), teamwork remains an essential aspect of the course. However, instead of splitting students into static teams that work together the entire semester to develop their own distinct campaign, the authors have the entire class develop one campaign. At the end of the semester, the client receives one research report, one campaign book, and one comprehensive set of tactic prototypes. To do this, students serve on three different types of teams throughout the semester: a research team, a campaign book team, and a strategy team.

Research Teams

At the beginning of the semester each student serves on one of several research teams. Depending on the client’s research needs and the number of students in the class, the instructor creates two to four research teams that conduct primary and secondary research. For example, one research team may be responsible for conducting focus groups, and other teams may be responsible for conducting a survey, communication audit or competitive analysis. Each research team is then responsible for writing a section on their findings for the client research report and presenting their findings to the class. This ensures all students understand all research findings related to the client.

Campaign Book Teams

Once the research phase is complete, the research teams disband, and each student is assigned to one of five campaign book teams. Each campaign book team produces a portion of the campaign book and then presents it to the class for feedback. In developing this requirement, the authors drew from Russell (1998), Lubbers and Gorcyca (1997) and McKeachie (1994) who discussed student-led presentations as a way to capitalize on the benefits of active learning. Students who are not on the campaign book team responsible for a particular section are required to complete a brief related writing assignment. The idea to have related writing assignments was influenced by Writing Across the Curriculum scholarship, which contends that asking students to write about their ideas helps them “take more responsibility for their own education. Put them into situations where they must contribute to teaching themselves and others,” (Meyers & Jones, 1993, p. 13). These brief writing assignments, coupled with class presentations and feedback, ensure all students are aware of and involved in each phase of campaign development.

Strategy Teams

After the class develops the campaign goals and objectives, they brainstorm strategies to help the client accomplish these goals and objectives. The instructor then picks three to five of the most appropriate and effective strategies. The class is then divided into three to five strategy teams (one for each selected strategy) where students describe the strategy and develop tactics necessary for the client to effectively implement the strategy. For example, if students think a client needs to improve its social media engagement, increase media coverage and develop community partnerships, the instructor can then assign students to one of three teams: a social media team, a media relations team, or a community partnerships team. Each team would then produce tactic prototypes related to its strategy. The idea for splitting students into strategy teams is akin to Silverman’s (2007) recommendation that breaking students into “tactics-based teams,” instead of assigning them to competing teams, gives students a “unified sense of purpose – an esprit de corps – and enthusiasm about the class project” (p. 422).

Steps for Implementation

To implement this new dynamic teamwork approach, the authors recommend the following steps.

Weeks 1-4

  1. Divide the class into two to four research teams.
  2. Teams do assigned research and write their section of the client research report.
  3. Teams present their findings to the class.
  4. Students complete peer evaluations for research teams. Scholarship suggests that offering peer evaluations can help reduce issues related to the “free-rider problem” (Silverman, 2007, p. 422) and negative team dynamics (Benigni and Cameron, 1999, p. 57).
  5. Research teams disband. Weeks 5-8
  6. Divide class into five campaign book teams.
    • SWOT Team (4-6 students): Team responsibilities include: researching and writing the client background section, SWOT analysis and problem statement, presenting this information to class, and creating final presentation slides of the SWOT analysis and problem statement.
    • Message Team (2-4 students): Team responsibilities include: researching and writing sections that discuss the campaign’s key publics, goal, objectives, key message and tagline, presenting this information to class, and creating final presentation slides of this information.
    • Evaluation Team (2-3 students): Team responsibilities include: developing and writing the campaign evaluation section, presenting this information to the class, and creating final presentation slides of this information.
    • Finishers Team (4-6 students): Team responsibilities include: creating a client logo (if necessary), formatting and creating a PDF of the client research report, formatting the final presentation, writing the campaign’s executive summary, and formatting and creating a PDF of the final campaign book.
    • Editors Team (3-6 students): Team responsibilities include: copy editing the clientresearch report, campaign book, and final presentation.
  7. Editors and finishers teams finalize and deliver the client research report.
  8. Campaign book teams complete their assigned sections and present to the class. Students not on the campaign book team assigned to a particular section complete brief writing assignments and provide feedback to campaign book teams.
  9. Campaign book teams incorporate class suggestions and instructor revisions.Weeks 9-15
  10. Once goals and objectives are developed, the class brainstorms strategies to address these goals and objectives.
  11. The instructor identifies three to five strategies that best address the client’s needs.These strategies become the subject matter for each strategy team.
  12. The instructor divides students into three to five strategy teams where the number of students per team depends on the instructor’s understanding of the client’s needs (i.e., if the client has a lot of media relations needs, the media relations team will have more students). Students remain on both their campaign book teams and strategy teams until the end of the semester to complete their remaining tasks.
  13. Students complete strategy team work, which includes developing a section that discusses their strategy and its associated tactics, developing a budget and timeline for their strategy, and developing a set of tactic prototypes for their strategy. Class time moves from student presentations and instructor lectures to workshops.Week 16 to the End of Semester
  14. The finishers team develops final a presentation template.
  15. Campaign book teams and strategy teams develop and submit slides for the finalpresentation.
  16. Students finalize all campaign book and strategy team work.
  17. Students submit tactic prototypes to the instructor. The instructor reviews prototypes and recommends edits to be made.
  18. The editors team combines all sections into one campaign book document and edits the campaign book.
  19. The finishers team formats the revised campaign book and submits a file as PDF.
  20. Each strategy team submits three identical hard copies of their tactic prototype kit and provides digital files for all tactic prototypes. The instructor receives one prototype kit and the client receives two.
  21. The entire class presents one presentation to the client. Each campaign book and strategy team is responsible for presenting the content it developed. The instructor prints one copy of the campaign book for the client and makes a PDF of the campaign book available for students and the client. The instructor also makes all campaign files available to the client and students via Dropbox or creates a website.
  22. Students complete peer evaluations for campaign book and strategy teams.


After implementing this new approach in 13 campaigns courses at two universities across six semesters, the authors compared experiences and outcomes. Below is a discussion of the authors’ findings and the ways this new approach solved some of the problems associated with the traditional approach.

Problems and Solutions for the Students

Problem: Collaboration. With the traditional approach, students did not learn how to effectively collaborate or work as a team. Students typically divided up sections and worked in isolation on their assigned sections. This divide-and-conquer approach often led to an unequal distribution of work. Sometimes a few students would take over the project and ignore the contributions of others. Sometimes students would not volunteer to do work, do the minimum amount of work required, or not participate in group activities, issues commonly associated with the free-rider problems discussed by Silverman (2007) and Benigni and Cameron (1999). As a result of these issues, group dynamics often became strained.

Solution: Multiple Team Assignments. Through the new approach, students serve on multiple teams throughout the semester, and each team has multiple assignments that require students to regularly collaborate. For example, students are required to present content and contribute ideas through brief writing assignments, brainstorming sessions and workshops. Requiring students to serve on multiple teams and to participate continually in active learning means free-riders are unable to hide and strong personalities are less likely to dominate. Instead, students are held accountable by more members of the class because they are serving on multiple teams and are evaluated by more of their peers. As a result, it’s easier for teachers to identify and address issues that hinder collaboration. Requiring students to serve on multiple teams also forces students to adapt to new team dynamics, which is an important part of learning how to effectively collaborate. The outcome of this improved collaboration has been improved student collegiality and stronger campaigns for the client, as will be discussed below.

Problem: Understanding the Entire Campaign. With the traditional approach, some students did not fully understand the entire campaign planning process. Because students divided up the sections instead of working together, they often failed to think through how one part of the campaign affected the next. As a result, some campaigns were internally inconsistent. For example, students sometimes developed strategies that did not meet the campaign objectives. Also, few students knew the contents of the entire campaign plan because they focused just on their assigned section.

Solution: Improved Collaboration. The improved collaboration discussed above produced a second positive outcome – improved student understanding of the strategic campaign planning process. Because students are involved in each step of the planning process, whether through brief writing assignments, teamwork or presentations, all students are exposed to every aspect of campaign development. Having these regularly occurring assignments also allowed the authors to work with students throughout the process to ensure an internally consistent campaign. As a result, students were more engaged in each step of the planning process and developed more cohesive creative campaigns.

Problem: Editing. With the traditional divide-and-conquer approach, reviewing and editing the work of others was rare. As a result, the variety of editing abilities and writing styles led to disjointed writing and grammatical errors throughout the plan.

Solution: More Feedback. The new approach solves this issue in two ways. First, students are required to turn in sections throughout the semester, so instructors have the ability to provide feedback not just on student ideas, but also on the quality of their writing. Students then have the opportunity to edit their work based on this feedback. The second solution is that this approach calls for the creation of an editorial team, which provides an additional layer of quality control.

Problem: Time for Quality. The traditional approach tended to focus on quantity over quality. The amount of work required by each team meant students were so busy producing content to meet the deadlines that they did not have the time or energy required to think critically or produce high-quality materials.

Solution: More Structure and Focus. With this new approach, the workload is still demanding, but it is also more structured and focused. Students serve on one research, one campaign book and one strategy team. As a result, students are able to focus the bulk of their energy and ideas on their assigned sections while still participating in each step of the campaign planning process. This increased focus led to more meticulous research, coherent campaign plans, creative strategies and high-quality tactic prototypes.

Problems and Solutions for the Client

Problem: Deficient Research. In the traditional approach to teaching campaigns, the research was deficient because each team conducted its own mixed methods research using the same methods. This was an issue because students were not able to focus on perfecting one method, target audiences were being overused, and the client was receiving multiple, repetitive research reports.

Solution: Several Research Teams. With the new approach, students work on one of several research teams. There is no overlap of research methods unless there is a strong reason for it, such as multiple focus groups being conducted with different target audiences.

This gives students a chance to focus on honing their skills in one method instead of superficially practicing several methods. It also allows students to focus on determining the best method to reach each target audience and, in most cases, to not reach out to the same target audience multiple times. This creates more well-rounded research and less repetition in the final research report and campaign book.

Problem: Duplicate Information. With the traditional approach there were multiple campaign books. Due to the nature of the assignment, these final campaign books were often similar because students were gathering and synthesizing information about the same client. As a result, the client received a large amount of duplicate information in the campaign books and presentations, and it was difficult to keep the client engaged throughout the final presentations.

Solution: One Book. With the new approach, students still work with one client, but each class produces one final campaign book and presentation. Having the students create one final campaign book and presentation solves the issue of repetitiveness, provides a much better final product for the client and improves client engagement with the final presentation.

Problem: Inconsistency. The campaign plan featured inconsistencies and was sometimes not internally coherent. The campaign plan was often disjointed because students did not work together to develop an internally consistent campaign. As a result, clients were sometimes presented with campaigns that did not fully address their needs.

Solution: Building on Previous Work. Because the content of each week builds on the previous week and students are constantly receiving feedback from the instructor and each other, the book is more likely to be internally consistent. The new approach also increases the overall quality of the final campaign book because the instructor and fellow students are reviewing the campaign along the way.

Problem: Few Deliverables. Students developed a small set of tactic prototypes, which was not enough to fully implement their recommended strategies. Since each group had five to six members who were each required to create a tactic prototype, smaller groups of students meant a smaller variety of prototypes for each campaign. Also, groups often produced similar prototypes, which cut down on the number of distinct deliverables for the client. For example, two teams might produce a similar press release, thus effectively reducing the number of useful prototypes for the client.

Solution: Strategy Teams. With the new approach, students are divided into distinct strategy teams, which helps avoid duplication of tactic prototypes because there were not multiple groups of students working on the same strategy. This allows for the creation of a wider variety of tactic prototypes to serve the client’s needs.


After implementing this new approach, both authors have noticed several positive outcomes, including an increase in student participation and collaboration, and stronger campaigns for our clients. After a semester of collaboration, brief writing assignments and peer-review sessions, students are encouraged to participate and to focus on what is important for the client. This ultimately leads to a more coherent, well-written campaign and a wider variety of tactic prototypes to serve the client’s needs. It also ensures students understand the entire campaign process from start to finish.


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Teaching Media Relationships: What’s in the Textbooks?



  • Justin E. Pettigrew, Kennesaw State University
  • Kristen Heflin, Kennesaw State University


This research examines how popular editions of public relations principles texts and public relations writing texts address media relations. The study consisted of a content analysis of six principles texts and six PR writing texts. One research question was posed, “How do public relations texts address media relations and the journalist/PR practitioner interaction?” and one hypothesis was posited, “When discussing media relations, PR textbooks focus on relationship building more than specific communication tactics. ”The study found that while most texts address media relations from a tactical standpoint, few texts go beyond that to address deeper relational issues, answering the research question and leading to the rejection of the authors’ hypothesis.

Keywords: media relations; public relations education; public relations writing texts; public relations principles texts; public relations introductory texts

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Teaching Media Relationships: What’s in the Textbooks?

“The changing role of traditional media requires public relations to build better and stronger relationships to compete for coverage” (McCormick, as cited in in Guth & Marsh, 2012, p. 22).

It has been more than 17 years since textbooks have been analyzed for public relations content (Byerly, 1993; Cline, 1982; Duffy, 2000; Pratt & Renther, 1989). At a time when public relations scholarship is increasingly concerned with dialogic approaches to maximizing relationships, how are contemporary textbooks in public relations addressing the topic of media relationships? This study provides an extensive examination of how popular PR writing and introductory textbooks address media relations. Because developing strong relationships with the media is central to the success of most public relations practitioners, and because PR textbooks provide a foundation for learning about the profession, it is important to understand what PR texts are presenting about media relations, especially in regard to relationships.


A theoretical shift has taken place in the existing public relations literature, moving from an emphasis on public relations as managing communications to public relations as a tool for negotiating relationships and engaging various publics. For example, Hon and Grunig (1999) highlighted the utility of relationships in public relations, arguing that “the most productive relationships…are those that benefit both parties in the relationship” (p. 11), and suggested that relationship maintenance requires access, positivity, openness, and network-building, along with other elements. In 2000, Grunig and Huang expanded on this argument, contending that the development and maintenance of relationships was the central goal of public relations.

In addition to the scholarship that focused on the importance of maintaining relationships, some also focused on relationship formation. According to Broom, Casey and Ritchey (2000), relationships form “when parties have perceptions and expectations of each other, when one or both parties need resources from the other, when one or both parties perceive mutual threats from an uncertain environment, or when there is either a legal or voluntary necessity to associate” (p. 17). Coombs (2001) added to this discussion, stating that the links that form relationships can be moral, economic, social, geographic or situational, but the common factor is that there is interdependence and interaction between the two parties because they need or want each other for some reason.

In light of the growing emphasis on relationships in public relations, dialogue has become a central focus in the creation of those relationships; however, “dialogue” and a “dialogic relationship” have been described in the public relations literature with little consistency in their usage (Grunig & White, 1992). Dialogue is sometimes used to describe a communication process and sometimes described as more of an abstract, rhetorical position. For example, Heath focuses on dialogue as more of a process that he calls “rhetorical dialogue,” which consists of “statement and counterstatement” (Heath, 2000, p. 72). Meanwhile, Kent and Taylor (1998) present dialogue as a goal, but describe more of an abstract orientation than a step-by-step course of action. They refer to dialogic communication as “any negotiated exchange of ideas or opinions” (p. 325). That is, for a dialogic relationship to exist, parties must view communicating with each other as the goal of a relationship (Kent & Taylor, 1998).

From a dialogic perspective, communication should not be a means to an end, but rather an end in itself in that it establishes and builds relationships (Kent & Taylor, 1998). In presenting their concept of a dialogic theory of public relations, they described dialogue as a “communicative orientation” (Kent & Taylor, 2002, p. 25). Similarly, Botan (1997) argues, “dialogue manifests itself more as a stance, orientation, or bearing in communication rather than a specific method, technique or format” (p. 202). Theunissen and Noordin (2012) state that, while dialogue and two-way communication principles have been treated as two sides of the same coin, they are, in fact, based on different underlying philosophies. They suggest that dialogue, as it stands, is not only deeply philosophical but also abstract in nature (Theunissen & Noordin, 2012). This study draws from the work of Kent and Taylor (1998, 2002), Botan (1997), and Theunissen and Noordin (2012), by conceiving of dialogue as an end in itself, an abstract orientation that values communication as central to relationship building.

Recent scholarship suggests the utility of a dialogic approach to understanding relationship building as it applies to media relations. For example, Bruning, Dials and Shirka (2008) argued that a relational approach, grounded in dialogic principles, requires that an organization tailor communication and organizational action to specific recipients based upon relational needs (Bruning et al., 2008). Thus, public relations practitioners should actively work to understand the needs of the media and develop communication materials and procedures to meet their needs. Schwab (2011) found that dialogic communication strategies may be equally effective in dealing with online citizen journalists or bloggers and argues that practitioners should develop dialogic relationships with appropriate bloggers before pitching them.

Given the focus on relationship building in public relations literature, it would be interesting to understand the degree to which relationship building is discussed in today’s PR textbooks. In other words, at a time when public relations theory is increasingly concerned with dialogic approaches to maximizing relationships, do contemporary textbooks in public relations address these issues? Are future public relations practitioners learning about dialogic approaches to relationship building? This study will address these questions by presenting a systematic analysis of the ways public relations textbooks discuss media relations, because media relations is one of the most common relationship building practices associated with public relations.

Analyses of PR Textbooks

Previous scholarship on the content of public relations texts is sparse, and almost all of it is outdated. In one of the earliest studies, Carolyn Cline (1982) compared public relations sections of introductory mass communication textbooks with discouraging results. Her study showed “a confusion about the relationship of advertising and public relations, a lack of historical backgrounding, and a fierce anti-public relations stance hardly offset by some grudging acknowledgment of the existence of PRSA, codes of ethics and a few honest practitioners” (p. 64). In 1989, Pratt and Renter examined how a selected sample of introductory PR texts addressed ethics. While all of the texts they examined contained the entire PRSA code of ethics, Pratt and Renter (1989) argued that such a heavy reliance on the PRSA code may have stunted the development of lively ethical debate in the texts.

In a subsequent analysis of public relations textbooks, Byerly (1993) found that the textbook authors generally agreed on the following characteristics of public relations: PR practices tend to be goal-oriented; PR involves the implementation of intentional, strategic processes; and PR is generally carried out in campaigns by organizations seeking to establish mutually beneficial relationships between themselves and their publics within a complex environment. Finally, in the most recent study, Duffy (2000) used a postmodern and deconstructive approach to analyze five leading PR texts and argued that Grunig and Hunt’s (1984) concept of symmetrical public relations is obsolete.

The current study contributes to this conversation on public relations education by providing an updated analysis of public relations textbooks. More specifically, this study focuses on the ways public relations textbooks discuss media relations with a particular emphasis on the extent to which these texts address relationship building.

Research Question and Hypothesis

Given the increased focus on relationship building in the public relations scholarship and because the everyday practice of public relations requires strong relationships, it could be argued that public relations textbooks should address the practice of media relations from a dialogic, relational perspective. As such, this study will focus on one research question and one hypothesis.

RQ: How do public relations texts address media relations and the journalist/PR practitioner interaction?

H: When discussing media relations, PR textbooks focus on relationship building more than specific communication tactics.


To answer the research question about PR textbook coverage of media relations and to test the hypothesis that PR textbooks will focus on relationship building more than specific tactics, a content analysis was conducted of six introductory public relations texts and six public relations writing texts. The decision to analyze introductory PR texts stemmed from the precedent set by Cline (1982), Byerly (1993), and Pratt and Renter’s (1989) examinations of introductory texts and the fact that their analyses yielded useful insights about the characterizations of public relations practice. The decision to analyze public relations writing texts was based on conversations with professors at three U.S. universities and a review of syllabi at the researchers’ home university, which indicated that a public relations writing course was the most likely class in which media relations instruction occurred.


Texts were identified on October 14, 2015 through an search using the search terms “Introduction to Public Relations textbook” and “Public Relations Writing textbook.” Texts were selected based on relevance to the search terms and popularity (best-selling), with only those texts with multiple editions chosen as part of the sample. The decision to analyze texts with more than one edition was made because these texts are more likely to be updated on a regular basis. The top six textbooks in each category were included in this study.

Content Analysis

Texts were content analyzed for how they approached media relations (with traditional and online news media) from both a strategic and tactical standpoint. Examining media relations from both standpoints enabled the researchers to assess the support for the hypothesis: When discussing media relations, PR textbooks focus on relationship building more than specific communication tactics. The coding sheet required the researchers to identify and record words, phrases, or concepts that addressed the relationship and interaction between reporters and PR practitioners. For example, the instrument required the researchers to determine whether media relations or working with journalists appeared in the index or table of contents. It also called for the researchers to assess whether the text provided tips for working with journalists, addressed the human dimensions of the PR/journalist interaction (i.e., caring for journalists’ needs and being self-aware) or discussed the importance of forming ongoing relationships with journalists. The instrument also assessed tactical approaches to media relations by asking the researchers to note discussions of ways to provide information to the media (i.e., news releases, photos, media tours, Facebook) and ways to build relationships with the media (i.e., learning the reporter’s “beat,” connecting on Twitter, developing mutual dependency).

Intercoder reliability was established using two coders, the authors of this work. Each coded two of the same text. Items that could be treated as nominal were run in SPSS to calculate a Cohen’s Kappa. Initial agreement was .44 and .46 with 58 items. After discussion and clarification, the same two textbooks were re-coded and an additional text was coded with a Cohen’s Kappa of .85 and .94, and .92.


Addressing Media Relations in PR Texts

The content analysis of public relations writing texts and introductory public relations texts revealed a variety of ways both kinds of texts addressed media relations. Some books devoted chapters to the subject, and some did not address working with members of the media at all. The next sections will examine differences and similarities in more detail.

Media Relations in PR Introduction Texts

The analysis of PR introduction textbooks revealed that discussions of media relations vary widely. Some introductory textbooks allotted entire chapters to media relations, while others only mention media relations briefly. Discussions of media relations appear in a variety of contexts with some books referring to the practice in chapters on ethics, corporate communication, or public affairs.

Four of the introductory texts had complete chapters dedicated to media relations (Broom & Sha, 2013; Lattimore, Baskin, Heiman & Toth, 2012; Seitel, 2014; Wilcox, Cameron & Reber, 2015), two briefly discussed the ethics of working with the media in chapters on ethics (Newsom, Turk & Kruckeberg, 2013; Wilcox et al, 2015), two included media relations as part of the discussion of public relations tactics (Guth & Marsh, 2011; Newsom et al., 2013), one briefly mentioned media relations in a chapter on crisis management (Seitel, 2014), one had a short discussion of the importance of media relations in a chapter on corporate communication (Wilcox et al., 2015), and one devoted a significant section of a chapter on government and public affairs to media relations (Broom & Sha, 2013). The four chapters on media relations were titled, “External Media and Media Relations,” (Broom & Sha, 2013), “Social Media and Traditional Media Relations,” (Lattimore et al., 2012), “Media,” (Seitel, 2014), and “Preparing Materials for Mass Media” (Wilcox et al., 2015). Media relations was also discussed in sections of chapters titled: “Facilitating Media Relations,” (Broom & Sha, 2013), “Controlled vs. uncontrolled media,” (Guth & Marsh, 2011), “Dealing with the Media,” (Seitel, 2014), “Publicity Through the Mass Media,” “Preparing to Work with the Media,” “On the Job with Media People,” “Reciprocal Trust,” (Newsom et al., 2013), “Ethical Dealings with the News Media,” “The Art of Pitching a Story,” and even one titled “On the Job Insights: Media Relations: How to Get a Date with a Reporter,” (Wilcox et al., 2015).

Though the depth of and context surrounding the discussion of media relations varied in these texts, it should be noted that a discussion of media relations was present in all of the introductory PR texts. “Media relations” or terms related to media relations were listed in the indexes for all introduction texts. While “media relations” was the most frequently used term in these indexes to characterize this content, other terms such as, “third party endorsement,” (Guth & Marsh, 2011), “Media, responding to,” (Newsom et al., 2013), and “Ethical issues, news media relations,” (Wilcox et al., 2015) were also used. Media relations was also present in four of the introductory texts’ table of contents, listed as “External Media and Media Relations,” (Broom & Sha, 2013), “Media,” (Seitel, 2014), “Media Relations,” “Ethical Dealings with the News Media,” “On the Job Insights: Media Relations: How to Get a Date with a Reporter,” (Wilcox et al., 2015), and “Social and Traditional Media Relations,” (Lattimore et al., 2012). Four introductory texts referred to the media as an audience or public, two used “gatekeepers” when describing journalists, one referred to journalists as “clients,” and one portrayed them as “partners.”

Media Relations in PR Writing Texts

The content analysis of public relations writing texts revealed that, like the introductory textbooks, media relations was addressed in a variety of ways. Some books devoted entire chapters to the subject, some contained a thread of media relations through most of the book, and two did not include any reference to media relations.

Two of the writing texts allocated entire chapters to media relations and/or working with journalists. The two chapters on media relations were titled “Media Relations and Placement” (Bivins, 2014), and “Working with Journalists and Bloggers” (Wilcox & Reber, 2013). Each chapter provided a detailed checklist of guidelines for dealing with the media and guidelines for correcting errors in a reporter’s story.

Two books included a chapter on media relations in the table of contents (Bivins, 2014; Wilcox & Reber, 2013). One book included media pitches in a chapter covering a broader range of topics including media kits, backgrounders, and columns (Stovall, 2015). Another text listed the media as a “public” in a section titled “Strategic Foundations for Public Relations Writing,” (Treadwell & Treadwell, 2005, pp. 20–21). Media relations appeared in the index of three of the writing texts, listed as “media relations,” (Bivins, 2014; Newsom & Haynes, 2016; Wilcox & Reber, 2013), “media professionals,” (Bivins, 2014), “media relations and placement” (Bivins, 2014), “working with journalists,” (Wilcox & Reber, 2013), “working with bloggers,” (Wilcox & Reber, 2013), “media pitches,” (Newsom & Haynes, 2016), and “pitchmaking,” (Wilcox & Reber, 2013). Three writing texts used the terms “audience” or “public” to describe the press, while one used the term “partners” in addition to audience.

Some texts contained a thread of dealing with the media throughout the book. Newsom and Haynes (2016) addressed dealing with the media during crises, in online press rooms, and at special events. Treadwell and Treadwell (2005) listed numerous tactics for reaching the press in different chapters of their text.

Media Relations Tactics in PR Introduction Texts

Table 1 provides an overview of the media relations tactics discussed in the introductory textbooks. Based on these findings, the most frequently discussed media relations tactics were news/press releases (with 5 books discussing this tactic), followed by press kits, photos, interviews, press conferences, Facebook and Twitter (with 4 books discussing these tactics). The tactics that were discussed the least were press parties, VNRs, satellite media tours, and using a resource like ProfNet or HARO.

Media Relations Table 1

Media Relations Tactics in PR Writing Texts

Table 1 also provides an overview of the media relations tactics discussed in the writing textbooks. Based on these findings, the most frequently discussed media relations tactics were news/press releases (with 6 books discussing this tactic), followed by online newsrooms and VNRs (with 5 books discussing these tactics). Press kits, e-press kits, email pitches, media alerts, photos and Twitter were discussed as tactics in four of the texts. The tactics that were discussed the least were satellite media tours, press parties, and using a resource like ProfNet or HARO.

When considering both PR writing texts and PR introductory texts, press releases are the most frequently discussed media relations tactic overall (with 11 out of 12 books discussing this tactic), followed by press kits, photos, online newsrooms, and Twitter (with 8 books discussing these tactics). The tactics that were discussed the least in both PR writing and PR introduction texts were press parties, satellite media tours and using a resource like ProfNet or HARO.

Addressing Practitioner/Journalist Relationships in Introductory Texts

All of the introductory texts discussed the PR practitioner/journalist relationship to some degree. Moreover, they all argued that having a strong relationship with the media was crucial for an organization to receive news coverage. For example, Broom and Sha said, “Ultimately, the relationship between practitioners and journalists has an impact on the quality of news coverage about organizations”(2013, p. 228). Guth and Marsh (2011) argued this same point, using a quote from Gary McCormick, director of partnership marketing for HGTV: “. . . the changing role of traditional media requires public relations to build better and stronger relationships to compete for coverage” (p. 23). Lattimore et al. (2012) echoed this sentiment more than once, saying, “Practitioners know that they must facilitate the work of journalists if they expect their organizations to get covered” (p. 183), and “When public relations practitioners take the time and make the effort to establish good personal relations with journalists, they are much more likely to attract positive news coverage for their organizations. Good public relations begins with good personal relations” (p. 180).

In a similar vein, Seitel (2014) provided the following tip: “Relationships are the name of the game. The better you know a reporter, the more understanding and accommodating to your organization he or she will be” (p. 189). Newsom et al. (2013) made a comparable argument, stating “The secret of success in placing publicity is to develop a good working relationship by knowing and anticipating the needs of the media” (p. 271). An analogous statement in Wilcox et al. (2015) added further support to this idea: “Establish a relationship. As one reporter said, ‘The best e-mails come from people I know; I delete e-mails from PR people or agencies I don’t recognize’” (p. 379). The fact that each introductory textbook discusses the importance of developing these relationships echoes the shift in PR scholarship toward an emphasis on relationship building.

In addition to highlighting the importance of building relationships with the media, all of the introductory textbooks also provided tips and tactics for relationship building. Generally speaking, the texts offered advice for developing positive social interactions and advice for meeting the technical and professional demands of journalists.

In terms of developing positive social interactions, one text suggested public relations practitioners should form a relationship with a journalist before pitching a story:

Call a journalist with whom you know you will be working. Introduce yourself.

Suggest a time to come to the newsroom and talk about some newsworthy story ideas. Reach out through your Facebook pages and Twitter accounts to include journalists in your networks – and follow them on their blogs and Tweets and status updates. (Lattimore et al., 2012, p. 184)

Wilcox et al. (2015) expanded on this notion, arguing that public relations practitioners should cultivate relationships with journalists over time, equating the process of relationship building with courtship:

Don’t expect to get everything you want on the first date. If it’s the first time you’re talking to a journalist, don’t expect them to write about the story the first time. . . Just like dating . . . invest the time and energy in building your relationships and you’ll get more out of it. (p. 380)

In a similar vein, two texts emphasized the need to behave in a way that was respectful of journalists and their needs. Seitel (2014) plainly stated, “Treat the reporter as a client,” (p. 188), while Lattimore et al. (2012) stressed professionalism and living up to expectations, as well as not asking reporters for favors.

While the examples above offer advice for social interactions with journalists, the texts also offered advice on how to handle technical aspects of the relationship. One common tip was that practitioners should get to know the professional routines and practical needs of journalists. For example, Newsom et al. (2013) stated “A good PR practitioner knows newspeople’s [sic] jobs almost as well as the newspeople do” (p. 285). They also contended that, “Whatever the circumstances, you have to be sensitive to media schedules” (Newsom et al., 2013, p. 276). Broom and Sha (2013) expanded on this advice: “Knowing about the media – knowing how to work with each medium, create content for each, address each medium’s audiences, adhere to specific style requirements, and meet the deadlines of each – is a major part of many practitioners’ jobs” (p. 226).

Some texts suggested that public relations practitioners move beyond simply knowing journalistic routines and preferences toward acting like a reporter.

In gathering information for a release, a publicity writer must act the way a reporter would with the same access. Start with secondary sources, finding out if the company files contain anything written about the subject – any research or sales reports, any memos. Then seek out the primary sources, interviewing people to learn everything they know and are willing to share. (Newsom, Turk & Kruckeberg, 2013, p. 275)

Finally, one text offered a piece of advice for improving both social interactions and practical outcomes, arguing that the key to building relationships with journalists was for PR practitioners to tell the truth. According to Lattimore et al. (2012), “Nothing will destroy a relationship faster or more completely than an affront to the truth. Accuracy, integrity, openness, and completeness are the basis for trust bestowed by journalists. Once trust is broken, it can rarely be regained” (p. 185). While the quotes above provide an in- depth look at the relationship building tips provided in these texts, Table 2 provides an overview of the specific tips provided.

Addressing Practitioner/Journalist Relationships in Writing Texts

Five writing texts discussed the importance of the PR practitioner-journalist relationship; one did not. However, only three writing texts provided a detailed discussion of this relationship. One text referred to the “symbiotic” relationship between public relations professionals and reporters, which is based on mutual respect for the other’s work (Wilcox & Reber, 2013, p. 92). Wilcox and Reber (2013) stated, “one definition of public relations is that it is the building of relationships between the organization and its various publics, including journalists” (p. 92). That same text provided a detailed list of tips for pitching.

Media Relations Table 2

Another text cited the importance of getting to know journalists, explaining:

The media are a powerful force, and they can do a lot for you – or against you. The determining factor may well be how much you know about the media professionals and how well you get to know them as people. (Bivins, 2014, p. 69)

While only three writing texts discussed the PR practitioner-journalist relationship in-depth, four writing texts discussed specific tactics for building relationships. Table 2 gives a complete breakdown of the specific tactics suggested in the introduction to PR and PR writing texts for building relationships.

Bivins (2014) also placed the responsibility for relationships with the media squarely in the laps of PR practitioners. Bivins (2014) said, “Journalists have a tough life – I know – so do you. Most journalists, however, haven’t experienced public relations work firsthand. Thus, it is often up to you to make the relationship work” (p. 69). He suggests that “If you’re new to your job, the first step is to get out there and introduce yourself. Call or e-mail first” (p. 70). Bivins (2014) also included “Guidelines for Dealing with the Media,” with detailed instruction on negotiating relationships (pp. 70-71). Treadwell and Treadwell (2005) also emphasized the importance of developing “close and mutually respectful relationships with the media” explaining that such relationships “help to ensure that your organization is always treated fairly by the media, especially in circumstances where you have no control” (p. 227). However, while Treadwell and Treadwell address the concept of forming ongoing relationships with key contacts in the press, unfortunately the text stops short of explaining how to form those good working relationships, other than mentioning trust and the importance of close and mutually respectful relationships. The authors did acknowledge that, “There are times when even the best relationships in the world are not going to get your release published” (Treadwell & Treadwell, 2005, p. 229).


This study sought to answer the question: How do public relations texts address media relations and the journalist/PR practitioner interaction? As the section above details, the majority of writing texts and the majority of introductory texts addressed the importance of relationships in the PR practitioner/journalist exchange. Wilcox and Reber (2013) referred to the relationship as “symbiotic” (p. 92), Treadwell and Treadwell (2005) called it “mutually respectful” (p. 227), and most other PR introductory or writing texts gave some credence to the idea that both parties need each other to do their jobs. The finding that the majority of these introductory and writing texts at least mention media relations is comforting considering PR professionals reported that they spend anywhere from 30% to 90% of their workweek devoted to media relations (Pettigrew, 2013).

Despite mentioning media relations, few of these texts went further to talk about the human aspect of the reporter/practitioner interaction, which lends support for rejecting the hypothesis: When discussing media relations, PR textbooks focus on relationship building more than specific communication tactics. While all of the introductory texts and three writing texts discussed the importance of developing relationships with the media, these texts were still primarily tactical in their approaches to media relations. Few texts provided suggestions for forming and maintaining those relationships beyond basic fundamental instruction on “getting the word out” to journalists. There was no reference to the nuances of relationship building like offering exclusives, providing news tips not related to a practitioner’s client or company, or recognizing the value of an occasional e-mail just to “check in” with a reporter, providing further support for rejecting the hypothesis.


This analysis updated the work of Cline (1982), in that today’s editions of texts do address the functions and duties of public relations practitioners, at least in regard to media relations. Although this study did not examine ethical matters as addressed in public relations texts, Pratt and Renter’s 1989 study may require updating, as there was an emphasis on practicing media relations in an ethical manner in many of the texts.

This study also reveals that there is certainly room for improvement in how textbooks address media relations. First, because there is an increased focus on relationship building in public relations scholarship, PR textbooks should incorporate the findings presented in this scholarship. In other words, at a time when public relations theory is increasingly concerned with dialogic approaches to maximizing relationships, contemporary public relations textbooks should address these issues. Second, if public relations practitioners are spending anywhere from 30 to 90% of their time on media relations (Pettigrew, 2013), then public relations texts should devote at least a full chapter to discussing the nuances of relationship building as well as media relations tactics. This may be an unrealistic stance, considering the constraints of space and the scope of information covered in these texts; however, if the goal is to prepare students to be successful PR practitioners, it seems a reasonable suggestion.

While textbooks provide a foundation for instruction in the classroom, they are just one part of a student’s educational experience. While educators may rely on the text for exercises, examples, activities, and assignments, they can also elaborate or expand on the text to fill in any perceived gaps. Because the texts analyzed in this study typically did not focus much attention on the relationship building practices associated with media relations, it is up to PR educators to discuss the importance of these practices as well as offer guidance for developing mutually beneficial relationships with journalists. One way for educators to provide this information could be to create experiential learning exercises to help students get more hands-on experience in how media relations is practiced. Another option would be to get students out of the classroom whenever possible to visit news stations or newspapers. If time does not permit outside activities, then perhaps bringing in bloggers or journalists is a good alternative (whether in person or via Skype). The point here is to increase students’ exposure to the people with whom they need to build relationships— members of the media.


Given the constraints of space and the scope of information covered in an introduction to PR or a PR writing class, it is difficult for an introductory or writing text to provide detailed information about every topic. As such, it is understandable that many of these texts fell short in delivering detailed, nuanced guidance for developing relationships with the media. It should also be noted that this study did not analyze all introductory PR or PR writing textbooks. Therefore, it would be impossible to generalize these findings across all introductory PR or PR writing texts. However, because our sample was comprised of the top selling texts with multiple editions, this study does provide a strong a sense of how introductory PR texts and PR writing texts address media relations.

The coding instrument for this study examined only specific topics and items. Thus, a more holistic, thematic analysis of these texts could lend more insight into certain themes and patterns that might be present. Additionally, what professors actually teach about media relations is beyond the scope of this study.


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Broom, G. M., & Sha, B. L. (2013). Cutlip & Center’s effective public relations (11th ed.). New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Bruning, S. D., Dials, M., & Shirka, A. (2008). Using dialogue to build organization-public relationships, engage publics and positively affect organizational outcomes. Public Relations Review, 34, 25-31.

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Newsom, D., & Haynes, J. (2016). Public relations writing: Form and style (10th Ed.). Boston, MA: Wadsworth.

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Preparing Students for the Global Workplace: Current Practices and Future Directions in International Public Relations Education

Preparing Students for the Global Workplace: Current Practices and Future Directions in International Public Relations Education


  • Rajul Jain, DePaul University


This study examines the various ways in which international public relations courses are being taught at academic institutions in the U.S. Course curricula from over 300 universities that have a Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) chapter were analyzed to identify international public relations focused courses. Subsequently, 26 course syllabi from 23 educators were examined to understand the approaches, means, and methods that they employ to prepare future practitioners for cross-cultural and global assignments. The findings show that international public relations courses are still missing from curricula. However, existing courses cover a range of topics demonstrating varying levels of adoption of professional and scholarly recommendations. Examples of current practices and future directions in international public relations education are provided.

Keywords: International public relations education; Culture; Global context; Course syllabi


Contemporary public relations is undeniably “a global profession in an increasingly-connected world where mutual understanding and harmony are more important than ever” (Commission, 2006, p. 6). While the term “public relations” itself was first coined in the U.S., the profession has developed and formalized in several parts of the world (Curtin & Gaither, 2007).

Even traditionally underdeveloped and largely ignored countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East have become lucrative markets for practicing public relations (Sriramesh & Verčič, 2001). The fluidity of and access to communication platforms have also leveled the playfield, enabling even smaller organizations to compete globally. Public relations practitioners are uniquely positioned to serve this growing need for global integration through communication, because the value of the profession is in cultivating relationships between organizations and publics (Tench & Deflagbe, 2008).

Relationships between organizations and publics are often complicated by the social, cultural, political, economic, and other contexts in which relational exchanges take place in the globally interconnected and interdependent world. As a result, public relations practitioners are expected to perform the role of cultural intermediaries responsible for communicating across national, social, and cultural boundaries. In other words, for public relations practitioners to add value to their organizations, they must demonstrate cultural sensitivity and an awareness of the global community (Hatzios & Lariscy, 2008; Taylor, 2001). The more public relations practitioners know, the greater help they will be when building intercultural bridges and filling ethnocentric gaps between organizations and key stakeholders. For many future professionals, this understanding will begin in the classroom.

Evidently, the virtually homogenized world, with its blurred boundaries, has made public relations an attractive career choice for students who want to serve the industry in both domestic and international roles (Culbertson & Chen, 1996). However, previous research has found that only a few institutions offer international public relations courses (Culbertson & Chen, 1996). Hence, it becomes imperative to conceive effective ways in which academic institutions and educators can impart knowledge that can prepare future practitioners for cross-cultural and global assignments.

Recognizing the importance of global issues and contexts in public relations, The Commission on Public Relations Education (CPRE) has time and again released guidelines for curriculum development with an emphasis on global competence (Commission, 2006). And yet, public relations pedagogy has often been criticized for its U.S. bias and exclusion of experiences and perspectives from other countries (Sriramesh, 2002; Toth & Aldoory, 2010). What is even more problematic is that the discipline lacks a comprehensive understanding of the current status of public relations education and the extent to which it integrates global perspectives. While a few studies have examined public relations pedagogy in the U.S. as well as other countries, these studies did not specifically focus on the global aspect of teaching public relations (Gonçalves, Spinola, & Padamo, 2013; L’Etang 1999; Toth & Aldoory, 2010).

Therefore, the purpose of this study is to bridge the gap in the body of knowledge by examining how international public relations courses are being taught at academic institutions in the U.S. Using the recommendations from CPRE and other scholars as a benchmark, this study analyzes the public relations curricula and course syllabi from U.S.-based universities that have a Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) chapter to identify and describe the various approaches and methods being used to prepare future practitioners for their role in the global workplace. This study contributes to our understanding of whether or not public relations education is responding to the growing demands and challenges of globalization. The study also identifies future directions and provides recommendations contributing to the ongoing development of scholarly and practical knowledge in teaching international public relations.


Public Relations in the Global Context

Culbertson (1996) defined international public relations as the practice of public relations internationally and in a cross-cultural context by governments, multinational corporations, and international non-government organizations, among other international players. Similarly, Curtin and Gaither (2007) defined it as the practice of public relations across national boundaries and cultures.

While writing for the Institute for Public Relations’ Essential Knowledge Project, Molleda (2009) defined global public relations as “strategic communications and actions carried out by private, government, or nonprofit organizations to build and maintain relationships with publics in socioeconomic and political environments outside their home location” (para. 10). This implies that international public relations is practiced by organizations that intend to communicate and cultivate relationships with publics outside their country of origin (Wakefield, 2008). Along these lines, Molleda (2009) argued that global public relations is simultaneous strategic communication and action initiated by organizations in relation to home, host, and transnational publics.

Over the past few years, the practice of international public relations has experienced significant growth. According to the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), the global public relations industry is a multibillion-dollar enterprise employing over 60,000 people (“Industry facts & figures,” 2012). The field has also gradually developed its knowledge base with the contribution of scholars from various parts of the world. These scholars examine the practice in various contexts, describe the challenges and opportunities, and identify avenues for future research. In recent years, several books covering international and intercultural public relations have been published (e.g., Curtin & Gaither, 2007; Freitag & Stokes, 2009; Parkinson & Ekachai, 2006; Sriramesh & Verčič, 2009, 2012).

Given this momentum in international public relations practice and research, and as well as the growing global recognition of our discipline, it is critical to evaluate the various ways in which university education is preparing students for the challenges of communicating across countries and cultures. These sentiments have also been echoed by leading scholars (Sriramesh & Verčič, 2001; Tench & Deflagbe, 2008; Toth & Aldoory, 2010) and professional organizations (Commission, 2006) in our field, and they emphasize how public relations curriculum should integrate courses that raise students’ international/ global and cross-cultural intelligence.

Public Relations Education and the U.S. Bias

Education and training are key pillars of a discipline and are crucial in defining and establishing it as a profession (Cutlip, Center, & Broom, 2005; Ehling, 1992; Grunig & Hunt, 1984; Tench & Deflagbe, 2008). Undeniably, any established profession is recognized by a dynamic body of knowledge that is transmitted to the professionals through education. In public relations, education is considered a, “primary means for providing the necessary knowledge and skills needed to fulfill the tasks and responsibilities of any public relations activity,” (Ehling, 1992, p.439), which could also include communicating to publics outside of one’s home country.

Public relations pedagogy is often criticized for its U.S. bias and exclusion of experiences and perspectives from other countries (L’Etang & Pieczka, 2006; Sriramesh, 2002). Scholars believe that this is primarily because public relations education started in the U.S. long before such courses were introduced in other countries, which parallels the late development of the profession in other parts of the world (Tench & Deflagbe, 2008). The vibrant body of knowledge in public relations has remained dominated by U.S.-centric studies, particularly from a theory development perspective. Between 2006 and 2011, only about 200 articles with an international/global focus were published in top tier journals in the field, of which, only 62 contributed to theory development (Jain, De Moya, & Molleda, 2014).

Other scholars have also pointed out this inadequacy in public relations scholarship (Sriramesh & Verčič, 2001). While there has been a significant influx of articles recently contributing international perspectives, these articles have mostly evaluated public relations practice using the models and theories developed in the U.S. Therefore, they have not truly enhanced our understanding of how country and culture-specific influences permeate and define the practice of public relations. For instance, in their examination of articles regarding public relations research, Jain, De Moya, and Molleda (2014) found over half primarily used U.S. literature, while only about 20% of the studies included literature primarily from other countries.

This American bias in our field’s scholarship implies that educators have limited resources or at least, limited materials for teaching the subject. Such impediments can influence the ability of educators to adequately prepare students for multicultural assignments and performance in global workplaces (Sriramesh, 2002). Even when public relations in other countries, to some extent, was modeled after the U.S. to some extent, each country has institutionalized the practice in its own manner reflecting its unique context, needs, and stakeholders’ expectations. For example, in Latin America, public relations practitioners are expected to perform the role of agents of social change and development (Molleda & Moreno, 2008), whereas in Europe, the concept of the “public sphere” is emphasized in the way public relations is conceived (L’Etang, 2004 p. 6).

Therefore, two pertinent and timely questions are whether or not such diverse perspectives regarding our profession are transmitted to students, and how educators and academic institutions integrate international public relations knowledge in their curriculum and/or course syllabi.

Previous Research on State of International Public Relations Education

While there hasn’t been any attempt to comprehensively evaluate the current status of international public relations education in the U.S., a few studies have examined public relations education in general, ranging from a country-specific assessment (Azarova, 2003; Ferrari, 2009; Ferreira & Verwey, 2004; Gorpe, 2009; L’Etang, 1999; Pirozek & Heskova, 2003; Sriramesh, 2002; Zhang, 2009; Zlateva, 2003) or regional evaluation (Cotton & Tench, 2009) to a more global inspection (Tench & Deflagbe, 2008; Toth & Aldoory, 2010). For the purpose of this investigation, four of these studies provide valuable insights regarding the prevalent pedagogical approaches in public relations that could serve as a good reference point.

In 2008, the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management initiated a multi-year research study of public relations curricula around the world and released two reports based on an extensive literature review, website analysis, and in-depth interviews. The first study by Tench and Deflagbe (2008) provided an extensive background on public relations education and its relationship to professionalism while detailing the development of the practice in different countries. It also discussed the different schools of thought in public relations education and the main approaches to public relations theory (e.g., systems, rhetoric, relationship, critical, political economy).

The study found that there is no consensus in the way public relations itself is defined, which could negatively impact our profession and, “allow other fields to appropriate PR concepts and functions” (Tench & Deflagbe, 2008, p. 23). These differences not only stem from the different origins and historical development of public relations in other parts of the world, but also reflect the influence of cultural understanding on our practice. As a result, there is a tension in our field between those who desire uniformity in curriculum and teaching practices and those who advocate against it on the grounds of marginalizing diversity and variety. The study found that while, in general, the discipline advocates for shared concepts, “uniformity is not necessary for the creation of global PR and may limit the conceptualization of the field” (Tench & Deflagbe, 2008, p. 24). The study also cautioned against the pervasive dominance of U.S. public relations education on other countries’ understanding of the profession.

The second study by Toth and Aldoory (2008) evaluated 218 institutional websites in 39 countries, followed by in-depth interviews with public relations educators in 20 of these countries. It ; it also reported a moderate American and European bias in the educational standards of other countries. The findings showed that educators regard public relations as a strategic management function responsible for relationship cultivation, and consider it important for undergraduate programs in preparing future practitioners for the challenges of the workplace. The study also found that while curricula follow the five-course standard prescribed by CPRE rather closely (Commission, 2006), cultural nuances are also incorporated within programs to increase students’ cultural awareness and sensitivity.

A 2009 study profiled both undergraduate and graduate public relations programs offered mainly in Europe (Cotton & Tench, 2009). The study conducted an online survey of the members of The European Public Relations Education and Research Association (EUPRERA) and other public relations educators. The survey gathered 80 responses on both external and internal aspects with the aim of presenting the various approaches to public relations education and program placement (whether or not to use “public relations” as the label; focus on theory or practice; program location; definition of public relations, etc.). The study provided educators with an opportunity to be involved in a constructive conversation around curricula and pedagogical experiences, share best practices, share literature, and discuss the impact of new media technologies in and outside the classroom.

The study found that a majority of educators relied on textbooks and syllabi as study materials rather than articles, case studies, e-tools, team projects, and practical experience. Respondents suggested that they would like to incorporate a balance of theory and practice in public relations education and should offer classes that increase students’ knowledge of international affairs, and national and international organizations (Cotton & Tench, 2009).

Another study pertinent to this research was conducted by Stacks, Botan, and Turk (1999) who collected responses from 258 educators and practitioners regarding their general impressions about the status of public relations education, desired educational outcomes, assessment of students’ learning, elements of public relations curricula, and teaching practices. For both educators and practitioners participating in the study, knowledge of cultural background and other languages were desired skills to excel in public relations. In addition, international public relations was ranked one of the specializations that should be integrated into public relations curriculum.

Finally, Hatzios and Lariscy (2008) conducted in-depth interviews with 21 participants – nine practitioners and 12 educators – to understand their views on the importance of international public relations courses, how these courses are being taught, and the challenges and opportunities in this area of public relations education. The study found that while the respondents strongly agreed with the importance of international public relations curriculum, such classes are not as prevalent in most U.S. public relations programs.

The other studies in this area have mostly profiled public relations education from a country-specific focus and, while valuable, do not offer much insight into how American college education is preparing future public relations practitioners to take on the global challenges and opportunities that our field faces today. Overall, these studies points out the growing need to include international/multicultural focus in public relations curricula.

Recommendations on International Public Relations Education

Recommendations regarding public relations education focused on international and multicultural issues have emerged from both scholarly and professional sources (e.g., Botan, 1992; Commission, 2006; Cotton & Tench, 2009; Kruckeberg, 1998; Taylor, 2001; Tench & Deflagbe, 2008; Toth & Aldoory, 2010; Sriramesh, 2002; Sriramesh & Verčič, 2001).

Making a case for building a multicultural curriculum, Sriramesh (2002) advocated that more international content should be introduced in public relations programs by making international public relations a required class at the undergraduate and graduate level, rather than offering this important course as an elective. Sriramesh also suggested that students could benefit even more if such a course is co-taught by instructors from different countries coming together as collaborators who could rely on virtual technology as a medium of instruction.

Tench and Deflagbe (2008) also provided similar guidelines for developing a global public relations curriculum with emphasis on diverse perspectives. Their study argued that despite its country-specific variations and differences, there is a possibility of creating a global curriculum. However, such a curriculum should reflect an appreciation for multiculturalism, diversity versus uniformity of concepts and program elements, and should be developed in close collaboration with industry practitioners. More specifically, Tench and Deflagbe provided concrete recommendations including: “(1) Educators were urged to integrate cultural awareness into curricula; (2) member associations were encouraged to debate tensions between unity and diversity of curricula; (3) curricula should be designed to reflect the range of theoretical approaches to public relations” (as cited by Toth & Aldoory, 2010, p. 7-8).

Other scholars have also provided feedback, such as building a “global teaching tool kit…that simultaneously offers some global perspectives and understandings of today’s public relations, but also allows for local, cultural distinctions for teaching in the discipline” (Toth & Aldoory, 2010, p. 18). The authors recommended that educators should not rely too heavily on U.S.-derived case studies and examples, in order to impart global knowledge.

For the purpose of operationalizing the factors of inquiry for this study, three specific recommendations are relevant that are essentially a synthesis of the other suggestions described earlier in this section. First, The Professional Bond, issued by CPRE in 2006, prescribed including global implications as one of the foundational pillars for public relations curriculum development. Further, the report discussed seven levels of analysis to evaluate public relations education: “cultural values and beliefs; laws and public policies; external groups, organizations and associations; institutional factors in the academic setting; international exchange programs; inter-personal factors within an institution; and intra-personal factors among students and educators” (p. 4).

Sriramesh and Verčič (2001) suggested a second set of factors. Despite the authors’ recommendations being in the context of research and scholarly activities, they have value for public relations education as they provide the framework to study public relations in each country. These three environmental variables include infrastructure (economic, political, legal, and activism), culture (determinants of culture such as technology, social structure, ideology, and personality; dimensions of culture such as power-distance, collectivism, masculinity/femininity, uncertainty avoidance, and Confucian dynamism; corporate culture), and media (control, outreach, and access).

Along similar lines, Taylor (2001) recommended five competencies that an international public relations course should include: “Cultural Variation in Interpersonal and Organizational Communication, The Impact of Societal Factors on Public Relations, Ethics in International Contexts, Professional Development of International Practitioners, and Geography and Current Events” (p. 75). To evaluate progress along these five skills, she proposed a range of evaluation tools including quizzes to test knowledge of current events and geography, essay tests to monitor students’ understanding of cultural, societal, and ethical considerations, and application papers that challenge students with real-world scenarios involving international communication planning and execution. Taylor also proposed that in addition to a stand- alone international public relations course, instructors and institutions should consider internationalizing their curriculum by infusing global perspectives in their core classes.

Admittedly, there could be many more dimensions and factors that should be included in a curriculum that is truly multicultural and international in its focus. However, these recommendations provide an adequate guide to initiate an examination of the current status of international public relations education in the U.S. with hopes to discover more insights to add to this line of inquiry.

The research questions that drive this exploration are:

RQ 1: How do U.S. academic institutions incorporate international public relations courses in the curriculum?

RQ 2: To what extent do international public relations courses reflect the recommendations of scholars and practitioners with regard to integrating global implications in public relations education?

RQ 3: What pedagogical approaches, methods, and means are educators using to impart international public relations knowledge and skills?


Data Collection Procedure

The study was conducted in two phases. In the first phase, curriculum from 344 academic institutions that have a PRSSA chapter was accessed on their websites and analyzed. These schools were specifically selected because they have been recognized as demonstrating the highest standards in public relations education by following the PRSSA guidelines based on the CPRE curricula recommendations (Waymer, 2014). In this manner, the study was able to capture insights from not only the colleges that are part of journalism or mass communication schools or departments but also those listed under communication, English, or business, making it a more inclusive sample.

During the first phase, course catalogs available on college or university websites were accessed and closely examined to identify any courses relevant to international public relations. Considering that institutions might not offer such courses on a regular basis or offer them under a different title, course descriptions from the online course catalogs were examined to assess their relevance to international public relations. All relevant course titles and descriptions were recorded for further examination. Whenever offered, the corresponding contact information was also noted for the second phase of the study. This exercise was employed to identify the extent to which international public relations courses are embedded in undergraduate and graduate curriculum and the format in which they are integrated (required versus elective).

After eliminating schools that did not seem to offer any relevant international public relations courses, the second phase comprised of reaching out to 278 colleges or departments with a request to share sample syllabi for international public relations courses, if they offered such a class at either undergraduate or graduate levels. The first email was sent on February 24, 2015, followed by a reminder request sent one week later on March 3, 2015. To increase the response rate and to encourage institutional participation, the researchers also called the contact phone number reported on the college or departmental websites. During this phase, responses from 60 schools were received yielding a 22% response rate.

Coding Process and Data Analysis

The syllabi collected during the second phase were examined using the frameworks suggested under the global implications section of The Professional Bond (Commission, 2006) and the environmental variables described by Sriramesh and Verčič (2001), as well as the competencies put forth by Taylor (2001). All the content in the course syllabi, including course objectives, teaching approach, course structure, textbooks and other reading materials, assessment of student outcomes and learning, and other course deliverables, were assessed.

The study used a standard codebook consisting of three major sections with each section divided into more comprehensive sub-categories. The first section coded the title of the course, the name and contact information of the instructor, and the textbooks used for instruction. In the second section, topics covered in the course were recorded. For this purpose, both emergent and a priori coding schemes were used. Using the recommendation offered by Sriramesh and Verčič (2001), Taylor (2001), and the global implications suggested in The Professional Bond (2006), six core topics were identified: integration of cultural awareness through theoretical perspectives and case studies (cultural influences and structural comparisons); theories and cases demonstrating public relations practice in other parts of the world (country or region-specific public relations); international/global public relations definition and challenges; international/global public relations theory, models, and research; explanation of environmental and contextual variables that influence the practice of public relations (international/global public relations contexts such as social, cultural, economic, political, regulatory, etc.); ethical and legal issues in international/global public relations; and the evolution of public relations in the U.S. and in other countries or regions. Any topics that emerged in the syllabi and were not in the original list were then added as a new category. When a core topic (e.g., culture and structural comparisons) was found on a syllabus, the coders also recorded the subtopics (e.g., Hofstede’s cultural dimensions) covered under that category.

Finally, in the third section, all the readings (required and supplementary) were examined to identify their focus and context classified into U.S.- specific, national (other than the U.S.), regional (e.g., Europe, Asia, or Latin America), or global. For national and regional categories, specific country or region was also recorded. The articles that described global issues in public relations and/or public relations of supranational organizations (e.g., United Nations or World Health Organization) and issues related to them were classified under the global public relations category. Finally, the coders also recorded whether or not a reading was a case study. Each of these categories was kept mutually exclusive with a nominal measurement (absent or present).

To examine the goals, objectives, and/learning outcomes of each course, Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956) was adopted. According to Bloom’s hierarchical classification, there are six layers of teaching goals and objectives with each layer leading students to a higher level of learning and thinking. The lowest levels are knowledge/remembering, comprehension/ understanding, and application, while the higher levels are analysis, synthesis, and evaluation/creation. Essentially, students who have mastered the highest level can not only remember the information but can also understand, apply, analyze, and evaluate it, and finally, can use the knowledge to create new patterns or structures. Ideally, courses should incorporate each of the six levels to ensure students gain a full spectrum of understanding of the topics (Mak & Hutton, 2014).

A graduate student was trained to assist the researcher during the coding process. The unit of analysis was the entire syllabus. A pretest was conducted with a subsample of data to define categories and diffuse disagreements and concerns. As recommended by scholars (e.g., Kaid & Wadsworth, 1989; Lacy & Riffe, 1996), a 20% sample (n = 5) was analyzed to assess intercoder reliability. The intercoder reliability using Holsti was .95 and Cohen’s Kappa was .89. These values represented good agreement between coders beyond chance (Fleiss, 1981). Data was entered into and analyzed with IBM® SPSS® Statistics Data analysis comprised of descriptive statistics including frequencies and percentages.

With this framework in mind, both the coders noted common themes that were further synthesized, expanded or collapsed during multiple rounds of discussions and debriefings. Together with the researchers’ reflections and narratives, these themesare discussed below, uncovering valuable insights as to whether or not public relations education in the U.S. is addressing the challenges of globalization.


Below is a summary of the key findings and themes that emerged during our analysis of 344 academic curricula and 26 international public relations course syllabi. For each finding, further evidence and explanation is provided using specific examples and, in some cases, tables.

International Public Relations Courses are Still Missing from Curricula

During the first phase of the study, it became apparent that international public relations courses are still absent from public relations curricula. While communication colleges and departments seem to understand the value of multiculturalism and diversity, as evident by the wide variety of classes being offered on these topics on a regular basis, relevant international public relations classes are still taught on an ad-hoc basis. In fact, only 74 (21%) course catalogs showed an international or global public relations class under that title. This finding was also confirmed during the second phase in which 39 of the 60 colleges (65%) reported that they do not offer any international public relations or related courses.

The analysis of the course catalogs showed that several communication classes are being offered with an aim to increase students’ cultural awareness. These topics include: inter/multicultural communication, communication in the global age, issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and diversity in communication, global/international media, communication in global/international/multicultural workplaces, communication in a specific country or region, and critical approaches to intercultural/international communication. These categories, with a few sample courses gathered from the catalogs, are shown in Table 1.


Educators Possess International Experiences

During the second phase, 24 educators from 15 academic institutions shared their course syllabi, with some sharing more than one from the different classes that they teach on this topic. For instance, one instructor teaches international public relations in the U.S. as well as a study abroad class in London. Similarly, two instructors shared their syllabus from undergraduate and graduate classes. Because these classes serve different purposes, all syllabi were included in the sample. One syllabus titled “International Communication and Negotiation” was found to be unrelated to international public relations and hence, was not included in the final sample. Therefore, the final sample included 26 course syllabi. Each of the 26 courses was offered as an elective.

The academic and professional profiles of each educator were examined by reviewing information on their faculty page, LinkedIn profiles, as well as curriculum vitae in instances where they were available. In terms of academic background, 21 instructors held a Ph.D., one held a bachelor’s degree, and one a master’s in communication or a related discipline. All of the educators received their highest degree in the U.S., except for one who received it from Scotland. There were 10 female educators and 13 male educators in the mix. Additionally, each instructor’s profile was examined to see whether or not they had any form of international experience (personal, academic and/or professional). Such understanding can prove to be a great asset for educators teaching international public relations courses because it allows instructors to draw from these experiences in the classroom. All of the educators had some form of academic or professional experience internationally in locations such as China, India, South Korea, UK, Europe, Sudan, Africa, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and the Philippines. Several educators also conducted research in this area in the form of books and journal articles, contributing international perspectives to the public relations body of knowledge.

Courses Cover a Wide Range of Topics

In each syllabus, the researchers examined the course description, goals and objectives, method of instruction, evaluation metrics, readings, and other content to identify the strategies and approaches that these educators used within and outside the classroom. “International Public Relations” was the most commonly used course title followed by “Global Public Relations,” and “International and Intercultural Communication.” One course was titled “Communication in Global Contexts.”

Table 2 shows a list of topics that were covered in these courses. Each course addressed a variety of areas. The most popular areas included: being cultural influences and structural comparisons; country or region-specific public relations practice; definition of international/global public relations; international/global public relations theories, models, and research; and environmental/contextual variables that influence public relations practice in other countries (e.g., social, political, economic, regulatory, and media).


Others (theories of signs-languages, symbiotic interaction, structuration, convergence; non-verbal interaction- action, sound, and silence; coordination and control; 11 job opportunities; role of technology; activism; and global audiences).

Under cultural factors, a wide range of issues were being taught including Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, differences between high and low context cultures, customs, traditions, and norms, circuit of culture model, and other cultural dimensions and their impact on international public relations. Structural comparisons are mostly focused on media, legal, ethical, and other contextual environments in which international public relations is practiced. Educators also emphasize introducing students to the practice of public relations outside of the U.S. This topic included the evolution of public relations in a specific country or region, current trends and best practices, and any specific variations or nuances that uniquely define the profession in that context.

Most of the discussion on theories, research, and models of public relations tended to be U.S. focused. This topic included how well current public relations concepts and theories, such as relationship management or excellence theory/symmetrical communication, apply to other national contexts. Research originating from a particular country or region was less commonly included in the syllabi examined in this study.

Finally, educators also commonly included at least one class session on societal factors such a legal/regulatory framework, media systems, economic development, level of activism, and political ideology, and their impact on public relations.

Readings Reflect a Variety of International Perspectives

While educators used an eclectic mix of supplementary readings, the most commonly used textbooks were International Public Relations by Curtin and Gaither (2007), Global Public Relations by Freitag and Stokes (2009), and The Global Public Relations Handbook by Sriramesh and Verčič (2009). Five educators did not use any textbooks but rather prescribed supplementary weekly readings.

In addition to the required textbook, 315 distinct readings (required and supplementary) were recorded across the 26 course syllabi. Each article was reviewed to determine its context and focus. Only about 9% (n = 28) of these articles were U.S.- specific, while the others either described public relations in a country than the U.S. (n = 88; 28%), a specific region, such as Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, or Latin America (n = 104; 33%), or discussed global issues, such as culture, technology, public diplomacy, or nation building (n = 95; 30%). Additionally, a small percentage of the readings were case studies evaluating organizational public relations efforts in an international context (n = 36; 11%).

Within the regional readings, Europe (n = 30; 29%) was the most frequently discussed region, followed by Africa (n = 20; 19%), Asia (n = 19,;18%), and the Middle East (n = 19; 18%). Overall, instructors had the least number of readings in the context of Latin America (n = 16,;15%). In terms of country-specific readings, Japan (n = 7; 8%) was the most prominently discussed country in international public relations courses followed by India (n = 6; 7%), the UK (n = 5; 6%), Mexico (n = 5; 6%), China (n = 5; 6%), Australia (n = 5; 6%), and Russia (n = 5; 6%).

Educators Incorporate Different Outcomes and Tools

Each educator focused on different learning goals and key objectives regarding what they wanted the course to achieve and students to learn about public relations in an international setting. Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956) was used to examine and classify the various objectives and learning outcomes incorporated in international public relations syllabi examined in the study.

Findings showed that instructors most commonly included the first two levels of thinking skills: knowledge and comprehension. International public relations courses are designed to introduce students to the fact that public relations in the globalized world is as heterogeneous and diverse as the world itself and that it is deeply influenced by the social, political, cultural, and other contextual factors that affect the practice as well as the practitioner. All of the syllabi (n = 26, 100%) contained some form of these objectives that are mostly related to the provision of information and knowledge during the course. Objectives under these levels frequently used keywords such as understand, recognize, and explain. An example of such an objective was: “Students will be able to understand how culture and power shape public relations practice.”

The next levels – application, analysis, and synthesis – can be characterized by goals and objectives related to what students will be able to do as a result of the information that they would receive in the course. These goals fundamentally describe the application of the knowledge to acquire competencies, such as being able to analyze and contrast public relations in other countries and contexts, develop international public relations plans and strategies, describe the contextual influences that define public relations in other parts of the world, and evaluate international public relations programs. These three levels were not as often integrated in the courses as the first two levels. In fact, only 17 syllabi (65%) contained language reflecting these levels of learning.

Finally, the level that was least commonly integrated in international public relations syllabi was evaluation/creation, reflecting the most superior form of course learning by demonstrating international/global acumen in practice. An example would be developing (and/or implementing) a campaign for an organization engaging in cross- cultural or international communication. Only five syllabi (19%) were found to address this level.

Educators used a wide range of assessment tools to evaluate students’ learning and performance (Table 3). Case studies, exams, and country profiles were the most common, with at least half of the syllabi using these tools. Other methods included quizzes, class presentations, reflection papers, and in-class activities.


This study examined the various ways in which international public relations courses are being taught at academic institutions in the U.S. Using a curriculum audit of 344 academic institutions that have a PRSSA chapter followed by a content analysis of 26 course syllabi, the study identified common approaches, means, and methods that educators use to develop global and cross-cultural understanding in students. The key findings of this study are: (1) international public relations courses are still missing from curricula, (2) educators offering such a course possess international experiences, (3) courses cover a wide range of topics demonstrating varying levels of adoption of professional and scholarly recommendations, (4) educators incorporate readings that reflect international perspectives, and (5) courses contain different levels of learning outcomes and assessment tools.

Despite the growing recognition that public relations today is a global profession that demands cultural sensitivity and an awareness of the global community (Hatzios & Lariscy, 2008; Sriramesh & Verčič, 2001; Taylor, 2001; Tench & Deflagbe, 2008), only about 20% of the course catalogs carried an international/global public relations class under that title. Strikingly, during the second phase of the study, 65% of the colleges reported that they do not offer any international public relations or related courses. In instances where an international public relations course is offered, it is categorized as an elective. Admittedly, institutions offer a range of other classes that cover topics such a multicultural communication, global/international media, and communication in a specific country or region, but these are not taught from a public relations perspective. A class grounded in public relations can provide future practitioners with a broader framework of how cross- cultural and international contexts influence the practice by exposing them to relevant theories, models, and practical examples that better prepare them for future assignments and roles (Culbertson & Chen, 1996; Hatzios & Lariscy, 2008).

With regard to content, educators seem to take an approach that is aligned with the recommendations made under The Professional Bond (Commission, 2006) as well as those put forth by Sriramesh and Verčič (2001) and Taylor (2001), oriented primarily with introducing students to the cultural, societal, and other contextual aspects of the practice. However, each syllabus addresses a different subset of the topics recommended under the guidelines. A discussion on culture and cultural influences was one of the most commonly integrated topics in the course syllabi. Other topics included public relations practice in other parts of the world, explanation of environmental and contextual variables (e.g., media infrastructure and control, regulatory environment, cultural dimensions) that influence the practice of public relations, international public relations definition and challenges, and description of U.S.-based public relations theories and models as they apply to other countries and regions.

Further, there is great variation in the way these topics are being taught. For instance, while culture is a topic covered in almost all of the syllabi examined in the study, each educator approaches the topic in a different manner. From a discussion of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, low versus high context cultures, to the circuit of culture model, there is a wide range of indictors and dimensions that are covered under this topic.

Similarly, educators have established a variety of goals and learning outcomes in these courses. Most commonly the learning outcomes relate to the transmission of knowledge centered on international complexities of the profession. Goals and objectives related to the application of the knowledge acquired through the course were less commonly integrated in the syllabi. These include demonstrating international acumen by applying classroom knowledge to real-world situations, problems, and campaigns in international environments. As a result, educators also seem to use a wide range of assessment tools to evaluate success against these learning outcomes including case studies, exams, country profiles, papers, class activities, and presentations.

A majority of the educators use one or more required textbooks with International Public Relations by Curtin and Gaither (2007), Global Public Relations by Freitag and Stokes (2009), and The Global Public Relations Handbook by Sriramesh and Vercic (2009) being the most commonly prescribed. Five educators did not use any textbooks but rather prescribed supplementary weekly readings. It is worth noting even the most recent editions of these commonly used textbooks were published in 2009. This is a concern considering the fast pace at which public relations practice is evolving in response to emerging trends in communication, technology, and other societal developments. In order to provide future practitioners with the most cutting-edge skills, tools, and knowledge, international/ global public relations textbooks should be updated. This also presents an opportunity for academics and practitioners to collaborate on book projects in the future, or publishing case studies that could supplement these texts.

All of the educators in the study also commonly supplemented these textbooks with a variety of readings that reflect international perspectives. Only a small percentage of the readings were found to be focused on the U.S., while a majority discussed public relations practice in a country or region, or reviewed global issues that impact the profession. In the content analyzed syllabi, about a third of the readings focused on Europe, with about a fifth discussing public relations in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. However, less than 10% of the readings were in the context of Latin America. This could be a result of the fact that Latin America is also one of the least researched areas in public relations scholarship, as concluded by Jain, De Moya, and Molleda (2014) in their examination of research articles published in top 12 public relations academic journals from 2006 to 2011.

Along similar lines, only a few nations were prominent in the syllabi, including India, the U.K., Mexico, China, Australia, and Russia. While it can be argued that these are probably the countries where public relations has advanced the most (and hence, are most relevant for future practitioners in terms of opportunities), there is definitely a need to introduce other developing economies into international public relations courses. Educators who do not cite these areas are missing out on important components of international public relations practices, including how public relations is perceived and the role practitioners are expected to perform in these countries. A holistic approach should be adopted that provides equal attention to these non-traditional hubs.

While inclusion of other countries outside of the U.S. in course syllabi is an encouraging sign considering public relations pedagogy has often been criticized for its bias and exclusion of experiences and perspectives from other countries (Sriramesh,2002; Toth & Aldoory, 2010), an in-depth analysis of the topics and readings showed that the focus is still on how U.S.-based theories and models apply to international contexts. Educators are encouraged to incorporate more readings originating outside of the U.S. to provide students with a comprehensive understanding of the practices abroad using native concepts, theories, and cases.

Implications for Public Relations Pedagogy

The present study is among the first to examine and document the state of international public relations education in the U.S. using a curriculum audit and content analysis of course syllabi. The findings provide a snapshot of the range of topics, methods, approaches, and assessments that are currently being used by educators to prepare future practitioners for the global workplace.

Overall, while there are common themes that were discovered across the 26 course syllabi, each instructor approached international public relations courses in a distinct manner. It appeared that educators were basing their course content on previous experiences and what they deemed interesting or important. This system has a potential drawback when an educator’s experiences are outdated or their perceptions are misguided.

This situation calls for a larger discussion surrounding the need to develop a universal international public relations course based on a core set of cross-cultural and international competencies, the accruement of which would create more successful, global practitioners in the future. It could be beneficial to start a discussion among educators who already teach in this area to share experiences, best practices, and recommendations. This discussion could reflect on CPRE’s guidelines as well as other scholarly recommendations. summarized in this article to develop a template based on common goals and outcomes. Discussions with professional organizations and industry leaders could further strengthen this conversation and provide a clearer vision on what skills and competencies future practitioners should acquire to be successful in international/global roles. Education and training are key pillars of a discipline and are crucial in defining and establishing it as a profession (Cutlip, Center, & Broom, 2005; Ehling, 1992; Grunig & Hunt, 1984; Tench & Deflagbe, 2008).

Future practitioners are increasingly being expected to demonstrate global sensitivity and cultural awareness. Instead of enforcing a narrow set of requirements and expectations on educators, perhaps developing a cohesive set of guidelines can benefit educators and students alike in obtaining these desired learning outcomes.

To this end, this study provides the following guidelines regarding what an international public relations class could look like based on the literature review and findings of this study. These guidelines could help instructors, especially those who are just starting to set up an international public relations class, by providing them with a set of best practices in this area.

Instructors should:

  1. Incorporate these six core topics: integration of cultural awareness through theoretical perspectives and case studies, theories and cases demonstrating public relations practice in other parts of the world, international/global public relations definition and challenges, international/global public relations theory, models, and research, explanation of environmental and contextual variables that influence the practice ofpublic relations, ethical and legal issues in international/global public relations, and evolution of the profession in the U.S. and other countries or regions (see Appendix 1 for a sample weekly list of topics).
  2. Include a discussion about public relations in developing nations. This could be implemented as a collective topic (global perspective) or divided into a series of lectures describing the profession in specific countries (national perspective) or regions (regional perspective).
  3. Incorporate supplementary readings originating from outside the U.S. to expose students to theories and models of public relations in other parts of the world. This could be accomplished by referring to readings in journals such as Public Relations Review, Journal of Public Relations Research, International Journal of Strategic Communication, Journal of Communication, Journal of Public Relations Education, and Journal of Communication Management. Other valuable resources are the research databases provided by the Institute for Public Relations, Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, Public Relations Society of America, and Chartered Institute for Public Relations.
  4. Include all the six levels of learning outcomes mentioned under Bloom’s Taxonomy to provide students with the opportunity to remember, understand, apply, analyze, and create knowledge gained throughout the course (see Appendix 2 for examples).
  5. Rely on a range of assessment tools and not just exams or quizzes to coordinate withthe five levels of learning outcomes mentioned above (see Appendix 2 for examples).
  6. Invite guest speakers with experience in international public relations. These guest speakers can provide first-hand experiences and expertise but also can provide career guidance to students making them understand the long-term impact of the knowledge they are gaining through the course.

Limitations and Future Research

This study was conducted with a small sample size and should be expanded to include more instructors and course syllabi in the future. Further, in addition to the content analysis, future researchers should conduct interviews with educators to better understand their approaches to the course as well as the challenges and limitations that they have faced. Another area for future research is examining study abroad programs that are offered to students to increase their cultural awareness and sensitivity to international issues. Public relations students often benefit immensely from these opportunities of cultural immersion. Despite its shortcomings, this study provides a useful analysis of international public relations courses being taught around the U.S. and can serve as a benchmark for studies in the future.


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I Love Tweeting in Class, But…. A Qualitative Study of Student Perceptions of the Impact of Twitter in Large Lecture Classes



  • Jenny Tatone, University of Oregon
  • Tiffany Derville Gallicano, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
  • Alec Tefertiller, University of Oregon


This is perhaps the first in-depth qualitative study that shares insights about the perceived role of Twitter on the learning experience and the sense of classroom community from students’ perspectives in a large lecture class. We conducted four focus groups with a cumulative total of 27 students from a class of 269 students. Based on our data, we propose ways that Twitter might contribute to the sense of classroom community, which could be tested through quantitative research. We also identify ways that Twitter helps and undermines students’ learning experience. In addition, we found a surprising theme about Twitter fostering a sense of competition in the class when projected on the wall. This study concludes with recommendations for integrating Twitter in the large lecture class.

Keywords: Public relations, Twitter, classroom exercises

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I Love Tweeting in Class, But…. A Qualitative Study of Student Perceptions of the Impact of Twitter in Large Lecture Classes

Millennials are known as digital natives–they grew up using digital media and are accustomed to using it throughout the day (Porter Novelli, 2008; Válek & Sládek, 2012). According to a Pew study, 90% of Americans ages 18-29 use social media and 86% of them own a smartphone (Perrin, 2015). Smartphones and social media have become so essential to the everyday lives of today’s young adults that some of them believe that they would feel invisible without them (Boyd, 2014; Tatone, 2016). The publicly networked spaces that digital media afford play a central role in shaping the ways young adults perceive their life experiences––personally, socially, and culturally (Ito et al., 2009; Tatone, 2016). Educators in various disciplines are exploring the potential of social media to play a powerful role in another area of young adults’ experiences––their education (e.g., Cole, Hibbert, & Kehoe, 2013; D’Angelo & Woosley, 2007; Tyma, 2011).

All of the studies we found about Twitter in the context of large lecture classes used surveys, experiments, or content analysis as a method, with the exception of Tyma’s (2011) study, and her qualitative data resulted from one large class discussion, as opposed to in-depth focus groups or interviews. The studies using quantitative methods have provided insight into the potential of Twitter to contribute to learning (e.g., Cole, Hibbert, & Kehoe, 2013; Junco, Heibergert, & Loken, 2011; Kim et al., 2015) and to be a source of distraction (e.g., Varadajan, 2011). Qualitative research can play a key role by helping educators understand students’ in-depth explanations of how Twitter can help with learning, interfere with learning, or do both, as well as discovering students’ recommendations for how to integrate it into the large lecture classroom based on their experiences. We thought our class would be an interesting context for this qualitative research because we tried out various implementation strategies in response to student feedback with regard to the timing of class tweets and projecting the Twitter feed on the wall. We also saw an opportunity to explore any ways that Twitter might influence perceptions of the sense of classroom community, particularly given the lack of research about it in a large lecture context.


Strategies for Integrating Twitter

Instructors are discovering strategies to improve the use of Twitter in large lecture classes. Despite the likelihood that most students have had some experience with Twitter, the literature suggests that a tutorial about how to use Twitter effectively is helpful to students (e.g., Junco et al., 2011; Tyma, 2011; Varadarajan, 2011). In addition, instructors have found that students need reminders on occasion to keep tweets relevant to the class lecture (e.g., Cole et al., 2013; Pollard, 2014). Some students want their instructors to send these reminders, so they do not have to see the distracting content or call out their classmates who are tweeting irrelevant content (Tyma, 2011). A teaching assistant can handle these reminders during the lecture when seeing off-topic tweets. Another issue is whether the live tweets with the class hashtag should be projected onto the classroom wall. Elavsky, Kumanyika, and Mislan (2011) noticed that participation on the class hashtag increased when the Twitter feed was projected onto the wall in their large lecture media and democracy class.

An additional consideration is whether Twitter can be used to sustain students’ attention during class. We found a study that recommended restricting Twitter use to designated Twitter intervals (Cole, Hibbert, & Kehoe, 2013) to help students focus on the lecture content. In another study, Kim et al. (2015) used a game approach to sustaining students’ attention by presenting surprise Twitter questions on lecture slides and awarding points to a limited number of students who correctly answered the questions on Twitter using the class hashtag. Through a survey, participant observation, and exam scores from a comparison of class sections in which Twitter was used and not used, the research team concluded that their approach to integrating Twitter in the large lecture classroom helped students stay focused during class and learn the material.

Junco, Heibergert, and Loken (2011) studied the related topic of class engagement and produced a significantly higher engagement score in their class section in which Twitter was used, as compared to their class section in which Twitter was not used. Thus, their strategies for integrating Twitter into the large lecture classroom have credibility. They applied the following principles for undergraduate education by Chickering and Gamson (1987):

  1. Student/faculty contact (by adding Twitter as a communication channel)
  2. Cooperation among students (by encouraging students to use Twitter to ask each other questions, collaborate on a project, and offer one another emotional support)
  3. Active learning (by asking students to use Twitter to connect the class material to their own experiences)
  4. Prompt feedback (by responding quickly to students’ tweets)
  5. Emphasizing time on task (by expanding class discussions past class meeting days through the Twitter channel)
  6. Communicating high expectations (by using Twitter to promote high quality work)
  7. Respecting diversity (by discussing diversity through the Twitter feed)

Junco applied Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) principles in a later study with his colleagues when investigating the difference of requiring Twitter in class, as opposed to making it optional (Junco, Elavsky, & Heibergert, 2013). His research team concluded that large lecture classes should require Twitter use because his optional Twitter class section had lower class engagement and learning scores than his required Twitter class section, as measured by comparing student surveys and scores from each section.

In a related study, Pollard (2014) did not require Twitter use and found that the majority of students in her history course of 370 students did not participate on the class hashtag. Nevertheless, the majority of her students found Twitter in the classroom to be somewhat valuable, with 18% reporting that it was incredibly useful. Her findings suggest that the student behavior of lurking on the Twitter channel by observing without tweeting to it could have at least some value, which might not be visible through a content analysis of participation.

The Sense of Classroom Community

Students who believe their class has a strong sense of classroom community have a sense of belonging to a class, believe that classmates care about one another, perceive that all of the students have a mutual responsibility to one another, and experience shared expectations about meeting common goals as students in the same class (Rovai & Lucking, 2000; Rovai, 2002). The sense of classroom community can make a difference to learning (Rovai, 2002; Wighting, 2006).

We did not see any studies about Twitter’s contribution to the sense of classroom community in the context of large lecture classes, so we thought this would be a particularly interesting area to explore. A study with some relevance to the role of Twitter in enhancing a sense of classroom community in a large lecture class was C. M. Elvasky et al.’s (2013) study. These researchers found that 81.1% of the 260 participants in their media and democracy class thought that in-class tweets made the class feel smaller and more interconnected. In a tangentially related study about online discussion boards, which could be similar to Twitter, 59% of 341 students believed that the required discussion boards contributed to their sense of social connection with their peers in their large lecture course (Stoerger & Kreiger, 2016).

Research Questions

As noted in the introduction, we could not find any in-depth qualitative studies that involved hearing students’ perspectives about Twitter in a large lecture class. To explore how Twitter might affect students’ learning experience and the sense of classroom community from their perspectives, we investigated the following research questions:

RQ 1: In what ways do students think the use of Twitter as a pedagogical tool in the large college classroom affected their learning experience (if it had any effect)?

RQ 2: How do students think the use of Twitter as a pedagogical tool in the large lecture classroom affected their sense of class community (if it had any impact)?


Class Context and Professor Interaction

This study reports data from an entry-level course with 269 students that introduced students to public relations, advertising, journalism, and communication studies. A public relations professor taught the class and discussed the public relations angles of most of the topics the class explored. A tweet was required during every class meeting that did not have an exam. Students were required to use their real names in either their Twitter handle or profile. An alternative option in this section for students choosing to not tweet was to write a handwritten comment each time a tweet was required and submit it to their assigned teaching assistant. The professor discussed the basics of Twitter and emphasized the professional advantages of Twitter, as well as recommendations for using it in a professional context. The course ended at 5:20 p.m., and in the evenings of the class meetings, the professor spent one to three hours reading, retweeting, and responding to tweets on the course hashtag.

Despite a study’s recommendation to stop class lectures to have a designated period for a Twitter interval (Cole et al., 2013), we chose initially to invite the class to tweet at any point during the class due to several of our colleagues’ anecdotal experiences with using this unrestrained Twitter approach. We received complaints from students about this unrestrained Twitter approach, so after the first two weeks of tweeting throughout class, we switched to designated Twitter intervals. During these intervals, the lecture stopped, and students were instructed to take a moment to focus on writing a tweet based on a prompt delivered in class, and they were reminded of the alternative of writing a reflection of similar length. We encouraged students to take a moment to read each other’s tweets and consider favoriting any they liked. They were then asked to put their phones away, although the auditorium was so large that it was difficult to enforce this policy.

Sampling for Focus Groups and Participants

All students were invited to participate in a focus group in exchange for extra credit. Due to the class size, we had planned to give all of the students who signed up for a focus group spot extra credit, regardless of whether we ended up including them in the focus groups; however, only 20 students registered for the focus groups. We recruited another 10 students, three of whom did not show up. We believe that the low rate of volunteering might have been due to the timing of the focus groups on a Saturday morning, combined with a heavy homework time (with just two weeks remaining of class), and a major competing campus event that attracted hundreds of students. The four focus groups had a cumulative total of 27 students. We did not conduct additional focus groups because we reached saturation with the data (see Glaser & Strauss, 1967).

We wanted to group similar people together, in line with the homogenous sampling strategy for focus groups (Miles & Huberman, 1994; Patton, 1990). Consequently, we organized the focus groups by the grades students were earning at the time of the course (without revealing this information to the students). We used purposive sampling by sending individual solicitations to people who stood out through their substantive tweets and by identifying people who could fill in the spaces we had in the grade groups. Although we tried to have 10 students per group, ultimately, we had a group of nine A students, plus a C student who showed up to the wrong group; a group of eight B students; a group of seven C students; and a group of three students in a combined D/F group. The focus group participants had name cards in front of them to facilitate interaction, and cupcakes were served. Regarding demographics, there were 11 Caucasian students (including 5 females and 6 males); 10 Asian students (all females); 2 Hispanic students (both females); 2 Caucasian-Middle Eastern students (1 male and 1 female); and 1 Caucasian-Asian male student. Students ranged in age from 18-27. The median age was 20.

Focus Group Approach and Protocol

We used a semi-structured approach, which allowed for a naturally flowing conversation wherein students elaborated frequently on other students’ comments, which often helped to shape the conversation’s direction more than our focus group protocol (see Appendix). This semi-structured approach also gave us the opportunity to ask follow-up questions on what the conversation’s natural unfolding revealed, giving us greater insight (Krueger, 1988). By asking open-ended questions and allowing focus group conversations to follow their own course, we believe we reduced the power difference with our students (see Lindlof & Taylor, 2002; Madriz, 2000) and positioned participants as experts rather than as subjects of a research study (Lee, 1993). Additionally, the focus group setting enabled participants to further explore their initial reactions to questions by interacting with one another, thus enhancing the quality of the results (see Madriz, 2000). Each focus group lasted an average of 54 minutes.

A potential drawback of the focus groups was that students might have felt influenced to say what they thought other students and the focus group moderator wanted to hear. In each group, the focus group moderator was either the professor or one of the graduate teaching fellows who had guest lectured a few times and worked with students closely. In an attempt to offset these potential drawbacks, we reminded students that honest feedback was of the utmost importance because the purpose of the focus groups was to learn from them. We told students we wanted to learn about the educational value, or lack thereof, with regard to incorporating Twitter into future curricula. In this way, we followed Krueger’s (1988) guideline to tell focus groups what the researchers want to discover from them. Furthermore, we told students that feedback from our previous classes had helped to shape the present course, so this was a good opportunity to continue the goodwill toward future classes by being honest and constructive. We responded in a supportive manner to all opinions and welcomed all viewpoints throughout the discussions.

Data Analysis

We performed a thematic analysis on the transcripts by seeking common patterns while noting the wide variety of responses we received (see Miles & Huberman, 1994). We used our research questions as a lens for reducing the data; next, we coded the relevant content by phrase, sentence, or paragraph, depending on the length of the relevant chunk of text (see Miles & Huberman, 1994). We used emic codes (i.e., the participants’ phrases) when possible and otherwise used etic codes (i.e., our words) when participants’ phrases were too long or did not summarize the content (see Lindlof & Taylor, 2002).


RQ 1: In what ways do students think the use of Twitter as a pedagogical tool in the large college classroom affected their learning experience (if it had any effect)?

Students commented on various advantages and disadvantages of Twitter as a tool for their learning experience. Many students valued the ability to express various viewpoints and learn from one another, although for some students, this marketplace of ideas via Twitter was more idealistic than what had actually occurred. Furthermore, students noted a major drawback of the potential for Twitter use in the college classroom to lead them down a rabbit hole into the use of social media unrelated to class. In addition, some students brought up that they disliked having their speech limited to the 140-character tweet limit. Nevertheless, the same students recognized that having to do this developed their skills. Details are included below.

Many participants agreed that the hashtag provided a place to share and learn from multiple points of view:

This is why Twitter’s really cool—you can have your own opinion and at that same time you can share what you think is correct without degrading that other person’s opinion. It’s a very open way of making sure that everyone’s voice is heard and to make sure that no voice is completely stamped out… no voice is elevated to the highest pedestal. (Student from the A group)

Some students recognized Twitter’s potential for enabling a marketplace of ideas––fitting their expectation of what college was meant to offer––while noting that it did not reach this ideal:

The entire point of college … [is] to not be around like-minded people…. Twitter… in a class college setting, embodies that in that you can see other people’s opinions and, if you feel so inclined, you’re able to argue your point, and…arguing in an academic sense is where the greatest ideas come from. …In its most ideal sense, Twitter would lead to… an argument of conviction, but sometimes it’s not that … most of the time, it’s not that. (Student from the A group)

Nevertheless, some students shared evidence of intellectual debate on the course hashtag. For example, the class studied the circuit of culture in the context of the public relations battle between the producers of the movie Ridiculous Six and Native American protestors. A student who rarely talked in class noted, “A lot of people were saying, ‘It’s by Adam Sandler. You shouldn’t take it seriously,’ and I was just one by one knocking out why representation is really important and it feels good [to recall that experience].” When asked about student reactions to her tweets, she noted that she received some comments and a lot of favorites “from people spectating the little showdowns.” Twitter gave several students increased agency for expressing their views in class. A student from the D group commented, “I feel like what’s cool about Twitter is if you do talk about these topics, it’s a cool, more informal, more comfortable way of expressing my opinion.”

A downside of Twitter was the potential for distraction. The switch to Twitter intervals (in which Twitter was only projected on the wall during designated Twitter periods after the second week of class) helped some students with regard to the distracting aspects of Twitter. “When we first started, I thought it was a really big distraction to have it on the wall because people kept staring at that and not paying attention, but once you started doing the intervals, it was good” (Student from the A group). A student from the B group commented,

Twitter in the classroom…has its perks and its downfalls. I love seeing different perspectives from other students, because obviously I don’t know what everyone’s thinking, so seeing their thoughts is really interesting – some things I’d never really thought about…. I guess lately the downfall is I get distracted. I start to focus on the J201 hashtag, and I’m not really paying attention as much as I could on the lecture.

For other students, even the use of Twitter intervals continued to be problematic: “It’s distracting because when I look on the phone, there’s so many other things on it, so it’s like you just see that little edge… [of] another app; it’s like, ‘Ah, you want to touch it so bad’” (Student from the C group).

Students brought up the issue of the 140-character limit with regard to the educational value of Twitter: “I don’t understand why I would download something that limits what I can say … I just never really saw the point” (Student from the A group). A student from the B group noted, “I almost have to sacrifice what I think ‘cause it doesn’t fit in the 140 characters, so that’s problematic. But it’s almost like a skill…something that you learn how to do over time.” A student from the A group said, “Eventually, I realized tweets are an easy way for me to make concise comparisons that were easy to remember. So I began appreciating the tweets.” Thus, some students disliked the character limit while acknowledging that learning how to fit their thoughts into a tweet had value. The results of the qualitative study suggest that for many (but not all) students, Twitter helped students exchange views and be exposed to different viewpoints. On the downside, many students reported struggles with getting distracted on their phones after visiting the hashtag.

RQ 2: How do students think the use of Twitter as a pedagogical tool in the large lecture classroom affected their sense of class community (if it had any impact)?

Twitter impacted most of the participants’ perceptions of the classroom community; however, it did so in different ways. Although there were some students for whom Twitter had no impact on the sense of community, for many others, it tended to increase the sense of community while also infusing it with a spirit of competition. This spirit of competition seemed focused on entertaining each other, to the detriment of the educational value. Details are presented below.

For many students, Twitter increased the sense of community. One way that Twitter increased the sense of community was by helping students bond through seeing one another’s similar reactions. A student from the D group commented,

When we were talking about copyright issues and stuff recently, the whole time, when she was going over the rules for it, and I had no idea about the rules for copyright stuff before that, I was thinking like, ‘What?’, like, ‘copyright should last forever.’And then I was just thinking that I was probably alone in that thought. But then I saw that people had tweeted, ‘No, it should last forever.’ And then I was like, ‘Yeah, like, that’s what I think’ (laughs). Hearing the different views, when it’s something that the teacher is supposed to be unbiased or chooses to be unbiased about when she is providing information, it’s interesting, helpful, I think.

Twitter also increased the sense of community by helping the class know additional student thought leaders who were reluctant to speak in a classroom auditorium setting. It also gave thought leaders an online opportunity to continue their conversations outside of the class lecture. For example, in the grade A focus group, there was a student who stood out for passionately asserting her opinions frequently on Twitter; she was also a compelling writer. Despite her large share of classroom voice on Twitter, she only spoke in the classroom once and this was after significant encouragement by her professor toward the end of the course: “Without Twitter, I wouldn’t feel welcome to participate. I wouldn’t feel comfortable speaking and having you repeat what I’m saying over the microphone.” Another thought leader in this woman’s focus group recognized her from Twitter: “[Lauren] and I had never met but we communicate on Twitter a lot.” [Lauren] concurred: “We talk so much on Twitter.” Finally, the sense of community was also enhanced by students responding to each other’s questions pertaining to matters such as where to find an assignment description.

For many participants, Twitter amplified the sense of competition in the classroom community by producing pressure to come up with tweets that would “one-up” other tweets or garner positive feedback through a favorited tweet. Students explained that these tweets were designed primarily to entertain each other rather than enrich the educational experience. Students explained that projecting the Twitter feed on the classroom wall contributed to the sense of competition: “Once you’ve broadcasted on the wall and people see a physical reaction to what they’re saying, it stops becoming about learning. It starts becoming about––how can I get the most laughs; how can I make sure I’m the coolest” (Student from the A group). As another student from the A group recalled, “I see a meme and I’m like, ‘Oh, I want to make a funnier one.’” Another student from the group added, “I’m like, ‘I’m going to post something that’s going to knock it out of the park.’” The tweets were related to the class content but arguably had more entertainment value than educational value.


The growing prominence of social media in the lives of many of today’s college students is challenging our values and norms surrounding education. Educators and scholars are seeking to understand how to best adapt to the pace with which digital technologies are advancing, blurring lines between education and entertainment, virtual and real, public and private, affecting the way students feel, think, and relate, both inside and outside of the classroom (Ito et al., 2009). Our study provides a needed contribution to the literature by perhaps being the first qualitative study that involved an in-depth approach that achieved qualitative saturation with regard to exploring students’ stories and views with regard to the integration of Twitter in a large lecture setting. As a qualitative study, the findings are not generalizable; however, they can still provide insight in the context of one university class involving the strategies we used.

The Sense of Classroom Community

Through our qualitative research, we found that a sense of community in the classroom through Twitter might be influenced by the following variables:

  • Helping students bond through seeing one another’s similar reactions;
  • Helping students feel like they belong when their tweets are favorited or retweeted;
  • Helping students develop relationships with one another by helping each other out with basic questions about the course, such as the location of assignment instructions;
  • Enabling the rise of additional class thought leaders who provided excellent content using the course hashtag but felt reluctant to speak in a classroom auditorium setting; and
  • Fostering additional discussion on the course hashtag, as compared to the amount of verbal discussion in the classroom.

These applications of Twitter to the sense of classroom community fit well with Rovai and Lucking’s (2000) conceptualization of the concept, particularly with regard to feeling a sense of belonging, feeling like members care for one another, perceptions of shared responsibilities to one another, and perceptions of shared learning goals.

Sense of Competition

A new theme we had not read about in the literature that surprised us was the theme of competition on the course hashtag. Our qualitative data suggested that projecting tweets on a classroom wall could increase a sense of competition among students, which can devolve into attempts to entertain one another rather than share knowledge. Research is needed to discover whether there are ways to productively harness this competition toward educational goals (and if so, what those ways are) and whether a sense of competition among students should even be promoted, particularly with regard to how a sense of competition might intrude on the sense of classroom community (as conceptualized by Rovai & Lucking, 2000). Thus, this study introduces a question with regard to Elavsky et al.’s (2011) finding that participation on the class hashtag jumped when the Twitter feed was projected on the wall. Does the overall quality of the tweets change when the tweets are projected, and if so, how? Initial insight from this study, based on students’ accounts, suggests that projecting tweets might detract from the tweets’ intellectual rigor. There is a temptation to send entertaining but educationally shallow tweets to create ripples of appreciation throughout an auditorium.

Guidance for Tweets

In addition, this study goes further than the recommendation in the literature about reminding students from time to time to keep their tweets relevant (e.g., Cole et al., 2013; Pollard, 2014). Based on our study, we suggest that instructors (who choose to use Twitter) provide significant guidance in helping students to understand the type of tweets that add to the educational value of the hashtagged discussion and the types of tweets that are not worthy of points.

The strategies of providing reminders to increase the intellectual quality of tweets and rigorously grading the quality of tweets could be steps in the right direction. Anecdotally speaking, we used these strategies in a subsequent version of the class, and the intellectual rigor of tweets from the students who tended to entertain rather than educate eventually increased when they noticed that they were not receiving points for their vacuous tweets and followed up with us to learn why. The quality of tweets also increased in a subsequent class in which we did not award points for vanity tweets that merely expressed enthusiasm for the professor or topic without adding value to the conversation.

We want to note that the rigorous grading strategy required much more time than the simplistic grading strategy did due to emails and direct message tweets from many individual students who asked questions about why they were not receiving points for their tweets and how their tweets could improve (even though we had already addressed these topics during the lecture). During the subsequent class, we also noticed that we had additional opportunities to correct students on their understanding of the class content or provide information to help students formulate better arguments, perhaps because there was more intellectual content for our responses than there appeared to be earlier. Formal research can explore these anecdotal insights with greater credibility than these casual observations can provide.

Frequency of Tweets

A clear recommendation from our research was that for most of our participants, the invitation to tweet throughout class was too much of a distraction to justify this approach. With some vocal exceptions, there was a consensus in the focus groups that following the hashtag, tweeting, and listening to a lecture was overwhelming and even stressful. Thus, this research provides strong endorsement for designated Twitter intervals, as recommended by Cole et al. (2013).

The Learning Experience

In addition, our qualitative data suggested ways in which Twitter both helps and undermines the learning experience, which can be tested through future research. Students who viewed Twitter as valuable for their education praised it as a platform for exposing themselves to different views they had not considered. Some students recognized that having to condense their thoughts into tweets was a good skill to develop, as exasperating as it was to confine their speech.

The major way focus group participants saw Twitter undermining their learning experience was its ability to distract them from class, particularly due to the temptation to open other apps on their phones before tuning back in to the lecture. As we noted in the literature review, several studies have concluded that Twitter has the potential to contribute to students’ learning experience (e.g., Cole, Hibbert, & Kehoe, 2013; Junco, Heibergert, & Loken, 2011; Kim et al., 2015); however, in another study, students emphasized the distracting nature of Twitter and did not think it should be used in large lecture classes (see Varadarajan, 2011). We believe that Varadajan’s differing results might be due to the lack of using Twitter intervals based on the difference the intervals made to our students’ experiences.


Understanding the adoption of Twitter in the classroom from students’ perspectives in an open-ended question format provided rich data from their perspectives. We believe part of the value of this study lies in recommendations about how Twitter should be integrated into the large lecture classroom with regard to frequency of tweets, guidelines for insisting on intellectual tweets (reinforced via scoring), and potential effects of projecting tweets onto the classroom wall––for those instructors choosing to integrate it. With these recommendations also comes caution about students’ temptation to continue using their phones in classroom auditoriums following Twitter intervals for non-class activity and the significant investment of instructor and teaching assistant time, at least with the approach we took. As additional studies are conducted, we will continue to learn more about the pedagogical use of this resource.


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Appendix: Focus Group Protocol

IRB forms, name tags, demographic forms, and snacks. Check the recorder. Why we’re doing this study:

  • Help us in our teaching.
  • Help other university professors who are considering tech options in large lecture classes.
  • Part of our job is research.Ground rules:
  • Try not to interrupt or talk over anyone.
  • Different opinions are welcome.
  • Please be completely honest with your feedback.
  • Concrete examples and stories are especially helpful.

Questions (Note: for space considerations only the major questions were provided here.

Probes are not included)

  1. How long ago did you join Twitter and why did you join it?
  2. For those of you who used Twitter prior to J201, what were your experiences with using Twitter?
  3. What were your initial thoughts and feelings upon finding out that you would beasked to tweet to a class hashtag during our class?
  4. What was it like during the first couple of weeks when you were tweeting throughoutclass?
  5. How did you feel about having the live Twitter feed projected on the wall?
  6. Can you describe the experience you had when you posted your first tweets to the#UOJ201 hashtag?
  7. What are your thoughts about when [Tiffany/I] shifted from having you tweet throughout class to having designated intervals for tweeting during class?
  8. What are your thoughts about the tweets on our class hashtag?
  9. Can anyone talk about interacting with others on the hashtag and what that experience was like?
  10. How do you decide what to tweet?
  11. Can you describe the ways in which using Twitter as part of the large classroom experience engaged, distracted or, in some other way, affected you?
  12. Do you think cell phones should be used in large lecture classes? Why or why not?
  13. Can you talk about your thoughts on the ideal college classroom experience in a large lecture class – what student technology, if any, works best for you – including not just Twitter but any social media and any classroom response technology, such as Top Hat or the iClicker.
  14. Time pending: Have you talked to others about your use of Twitter in the classroom and, if so, in what ways did you describe the experience to them?
  15. Time pending: What are some of the general thoughts and feelings you have toward class use of Twitter and other social media, both in and out of the classroom?
  16. Is there anything you would like to add?