Monthly Archives: May 2018

Competition and Public Relations Campaigns: Assessing the Impact of Competition on Quality of Projects, Partners, and Students

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted to the AEJMC-PRD Paper Competition by April 1, 2017. Selected as a Top Teaching Paper. Submitted to JPRE on July 21, 2017. Final revisions completed on May 5, 2018. First published online on May 21, 2018.


Chris McCollough

Christopher J. McCollough, Columbus State University


Scholars in public relations pedagogy have provided a strong body of research on the impact of service learning, community partnerships (Daugherty, 2003), and applied learning on campaigns, writing, and production courses common to the public relations curriculum (Wandel, 2005). Rarely explored, however, is the impact of competition among student groups within a public relations course on the quality of campaigns, student experience, client satisfaction, and achievement of learning outcomes (Rentner, 2012). This study presents a comparative analysis of campaign courses that employed competitive and non-competitive campaign course models to demonstrate the impact of incorporating competition within public relations courses.

Key Words: Competition, Service Learning, Public Relations, Community Outreach, Benefits

Competition and Public Relations Campaigns: Assessing the Impact of Competition on Quality of Projects, Partners, and Students

Contemporary public relations pedagogy consistently employs the use of service learning in the delivery of course content in the upper division and capstone courses pertaining to public relations management and campaigns. Research on the practice demonstrates social, professional, and educational benefits among students (Bourland-Davis & Fall, 1997; Eyler & Giles, 1999; McElhaney, 1997; Melchior & Bailis, 2002). One key reason behind the adoption of service learning relates to the need of students to develop professional practice with clients, as well as the need to cultivate a professional portfolio. Scholars are adapting the practice beyond the capstone course in professional writing courses (Wandel, 2005), introductory public relations courses (Wilson, 2012), and even as a philosophical approach for the entire public relations curriculum at institutions (Enos & Morton, 2003).

More broadly speaking, early scholarship in service learning and its effects on students clearly articulate benefits in a variety of areas (Bringle & Hatcher, 1995; Eyler & Giles, 1999; Kuban, O’Malley, & Florea, 2014). Service learning proponents indicate that service learning is a more effective application of core concepts and principles than if simply provided in a classic lecture model (Gray, 2005), it is an engine for strong professional development and civic development (Lewis, 2002), and it even is a natural extension of the philosophy of John Dewey (1933, 1938). Returning to the subject of public relations education, however, other elements of public relations practice remain largely unexplored. One of these elements, with the exception of one study (Rentner, 2012), is the added element of competition among teams within a public relations campaigns course.

This paper is a comparative analysis of four public relations campaigns courses. The first two course sections (2012 and 2013) made use of a traditional campaigns model, in which teams worked with different community partners, with mixed results. The second two courses (2014 and 2015) adopted a competitive model of service learning, in which student teams engaged in head-to-head bids for a win and the top score. We begin with a brief review of pertinent literature about service learning, public relations pedagogy, and competition.


Stated previously, service learning became a broadly accepted part of public relations education in the 1990s (Bourland-Davis & Fall, 1997; Daugherty, 2003). To set the context for a broader audience, we will begin by defining service learning before addressing some of its benefits to students and discussing the rarely explored concept of incorporating professional forms of competition in the classroom.

Service Learning Definitions, Practices, and Challenges

In its organic development, service learning has acquired several definitions that come back to consistent, essential practices. Bringle and Hatcher (1995) identify service learning as an educational experience involving organized service that meets community needs that includes reflection on the work to gain deeper content knowledge, to increase disciplinary understanding, and to enhance civic responsibility. Kolb’s (1984) core elements of service learning include concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. Gelmon, Holland, Driscoll, Spring, and Kerrigan (2001) explain service learning as an educational methodology that marries community service with academic learning objectives and reflection.

Service learning is a process of development or knowledge creation where students transform the information they receive from their experience and make sense of it within the theoretical framework of their academic course material (Kubin et al., 2014). Acker (2003) emphasizes active, participatory learning and developing students’ critical-thinking, analytical, and problem-solving skills. Service learning maintains a high level of academic integrity, combined with a means of experiencing the material in a way students come to see that the content of classroom lectures holds true problem-solving potential for societal problems (Bringle & Hatcher, 1995; Giroux, 2010; Twenge, 2013). Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (1999) simply identified service learning as a way to help people take control of their own learning.

Service learning is a demanding approach for instructors, as Wandel (2005) offered up several examples commonly discussed as instructors address challenges in delivering the approach in the classroom. She notes a pragmatic challenge of time management on an academic calendar, assisting students in clearly defining a community need with partners, helping the community partner in creating goals that will effectively help meet their need(s), effectively executing work that progresses towards a solution, and allowing for the reflection that students have to embrace to maximize experiential learning. With a sense of the practice, the paper will now discuss the relative value of service learning to all relevant parties.

Practical Value to Faculty, Students, and Community

Faculty members often receive student complaints that course content has little to do with real life and, thus, is devoid of any practical value. Service-learning components, when embedded into curriculum, can add the level of relevance that students perceive as missing from curriculum. Research suggests that incorporating service-learning components into the curriculum increases levels of faculty satisfaction not only with course content but also with student learning outcomes (Bringle & Hatcher, 1995; Kahne, Westheimer, & Rogers, 2000). Through the service-learning experiences, students identify with course concepts, find the course material relevant to real-life situations, and become more familiar with the theoretical course content and more confident in the application of that content in the classroom and beyond. The service-learning model also provides faculty with a means of going beyond the basic instruction that provides a skeleton concept of the work performed with the agency, but it also allows faculty and students the opportunity to engage in deeper learning as they explore alternative applications for applying course content outside of the classroom (Bringle & Hatcher, 1995).

From the student perspective, literature also offers strong examples of how service learning can help in cultivating stronger individuals. Fritz (2002) notes that active-learning strategies can promote metacognitive process in most college subjects and data show increased retention in the course and in college. Conrad and Hedin (1989) saw evidence of improved observation techniques, open-mindedness, and aid with insight and judgment skills (Conrad & Hedin, 1991), as well as improved problem analysis skills and creativity, while being exposed to opportunities to enter the service industry. Huckin (1997) found evidence of improved critical thinking and writing skills in adopting service learning. These findings address the perspective of scholars who identified a clear call from universities to cultivate problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, and effective decision-making in students (Acker, 2003; Bransford et al., 1999; Lynott, 1998; O’Leary, 2002; Page & Mukherjee, 2007).

Adopting a service-learning model can help meet real needs of community agencies that include expanded capacities – both human and resource – of local agencies (Basinger, 2015; Fletcher, Rousell, Worrell, McLean, & Baydala, 2012); mitigate the dearth of resources in rural and otherwise, underserved, populations (Auld, 2004; Basinger, 2015; Hall, Lasby, Ayer, & Gibbons, 2009; Miller, 1991); and build vital sustaining partnerships between faculty, students, university and the community (Fletcher, et al., 2012). Research suggests that reciprocity is one of the strongest predictors of successful partnerships resulting from service learning opportunities, where each stakeholder gains from the experience with an equitable exchange of resources (Cruz & Giles, 2000; Jacoby, 1996). As such, service learning provides community agencies with knowledge, skill, and human resources they need but could not afford. In turn, students view the community agency as experience and professional network providers – both of which can be helpful in the job search. Effective service-learning partnerships encourage mutuality, shared resources and accountabilities, where each service-learning stakeholder contributes resources to help the others (Basinger, 2015; Honadle & Kennealy, 2011). Additional research suggests that service learning helps build levels of confidence in content and practice (Basinger, 2015; Kahne et al., 2000).

When viewed as such, the service-learning experience and learning can be as rewarding for the faculty member as it is for the student. One of the many positive outcomes of service learning is that faculty members can incorporate these opportunities – that often come from their own personal involvement in the community – to help students experience first-hand how vital and relevant course content can be to meeting needs in the community (Bringle & Hatcher, 1995).

Faculty can draw upon a growing body of quantitative and qualitative research literature indicating increased content knowledge and levels of awareness and engagement result from service-learning components embedded into the course curriculum (Honadle & Kennealy, 2011; Kahne, et al., 2000; Kuban, et al., 2014). Furthermore, research suggests that service-learning experience “enhances the student’s academic development, life skill development and sense of civic responsibility” (Astin & Sax, 1998, p. 262). McEachern (2001) makes the point that service learning helps bridge the gap between theory and practice in matters of civic engagement. Having established a broader sense of the value of service learning to relevant parties, the paper will now focus on the benefit of service learning to public relations education.

Value of Service Learning to Public Relations Pedagogy

Scholarship on service learning integration in the teaching of public relations suggests some tangible benefits to the holistic and professional development of college students. Scholars note that the nature of the ever-changing media environment makes the ability to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information for decision-making essential for new professionals in public relations and journalism (Lloyd, Slater, & Robbs, 2000; Strohm & Baukus, 1995). The aforementioned literature on personal, professional, and civic development of students speaks directly to this.

Other scholars have looked at the benefit of service learning in the public relations context. Strohm and Baukus (1995) identified several benefits in the practice, including (1) flexibility to ambiguity, (2) strengthening professional adaptability, and (3) dealing with delineation using diagnostic thinking and evaluation. Daugherty (2003) explored the value California State University-Long Beach students enjoyed after the public relations program at their institution adopted service learning in not only the campaigns course but also in the internal communication, external communication, and the public relations publications course. She found that throughout the courses, students enjoyed healthy client relationships with community partners. For clients, the working experience with students was productive and beneficial to the organization, leaving them interested in future partnerships.

Bollinger (2004) detailed a small class’ work on cultivating a 5-year strategy on behalf of a local chamber of commerce. While the formal plan’s write-up fell to the instructor, students engaged in the research, data collection, and strategy sessions that generated the final document over the semester-long course. In addition to students expressing a strong sense of value in service learning, Bollinger also noted that students refined group, organizational, and interpersonal communication skills in the process of completing the project, as well as practicing public speaking skills as part of the formal presentation to the client at the end of the term.

Wandel (2005) assessed the value of using service learning in a public relations writing course to determine if the application of additional effort in course design and implementation elicited the kinds of benefits her students appreciated. In her results, she noted that the students expressed concerns over the additional work that come from collaborating with community partners. Traditionally strong performers in the class who assumed leadership roles expressed concerns over having to carry the load for the team, rather than being able to rely on the group. Students, however, found benefit in tangible portfolio materials and inspiration in working with the nonprofit organizations with which they worked. Wandel (2005) noted the one consistent element expressed by students was a desire for a stronger mechanism of individual evaluation in addition to the group project grade.

Wilson (2012) found value in service learning for public relations students’ critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. Through pre-test and post-test analysis, she found significant progression across a variety of skills, most significant of which was in identifying new information needed to solve a problem and creative thinking to support problem solving. She notes that while the skills refined in a service-learning course can be beneficial for all college students, the skills highlighted are of particular value to those interested in entering a dynamic, challenging field like public relations. Next, the paper will discuss the added value of competition in public relations courses that incorporate service learning.

The Value of Competition in Public Relations Courses

Recent scholarship on service learning in public relations education puts the focus on the value of other professional pressure, specifically competition. As a concept, competition has gone largely unaddressed in public relations and service-learning literature. Early scholarship on competition in the classroom explored it as a means for motivation (Clifford, 1972) and task accomplishment (Lowell, 1952), with little consensus on findings that demonstrate the value of incorporating competition in the classroom (Dowell, 1975). Rudow and Hautaluoma (1975) noted that competition could be a strong social motivator, with both positive and negative consequences.

Literature within public relations and communication pertaining to the impact of competition remains largely unexplored, with the exception of Rentner’s (2012) examination of campaign competition among classes at different institutions during the period of two semester-long courses working for one client: the Ohio Tobacco Prevention Foundation. Over the course of 2 years, Rentner explored student motivation to succeed, the quality of the work produced, and the pride expressed in a job well done through the critical analysis of student evaluations and service-learning journals produced by students. In terms of motivation to succeed, students all expressed a high motivation to succeed and did so by putting the focus on the client, deadlines, and the work of competition at other institutions, rather than their individual evaluation. Students expressed a high desire to produce quality work in light of the competition taking place with other institutions, routinely citing the products of the competition in contrast to their own when citing concerns over product. Finally, complaints about the time-consuming nature of campaign work were mitigated by acknowledging the pride they took in seeing finished project work and the final event they helped coordinate and run, as well as a sense of pride in their own university.

While Rentner’s (2012) work offers a model for a broader program among institutions that effectively implements service learning to the benefit of students in a public relations curriculum, what is lacking is additional scholarship reviewing the actual products of students and exploring the impact of competition within a public relations classroom in seeking the approval of a client. Moreover, no scholarship on pitching clients exists in the current public relations education literature. This paper answers Rentner’s (2012) call for exploration of the impact of competition on the work produced in a single public relations campaigns class employing a service-learning format.

Research Questions

Based on Rentner’s (2012) intercourse analysis as the model for testing the value of competition within a single public relations classroom, the researchers consider the following research questions:


RQ1: What is the quality of the product delivered to the client?

RQ2: What is the client perception of working with the student group(s) assigned?

In addition to Renter’s original focus, the researcher is also exploring the overall student       perception of the class, which prompts the following research question:

RQ3: What are the students’ evaluation of the public relations course with and without the competition element?


The study used a mixed-methods approach to analyze the products, client perceptions, and students’ assessments of the courses. To assess the quality of the products produced, the researcher revisited the campaign books produced in all four classes. There were three in the 2012 course, three in the 2013 course, six in the 2014 course, and six in the 2015 course. The research evaluated the design aesthetic of each project’s mock-ups, the quality of student writing, the public relations logic and application of principles of best practice, and the quality of the research employed.

To evaluate the client perception of working with the student groups, the instructor asked each client to provide frank assessments of each team at four separate points in the semester, as a means of evaluating client relations and meeting needs. The researcher reviewed each comment on this basis to assess the quality of each team’s effort to (1) find common ground with the client, and (2) produce work that meets client needs.

Finally, to evaluate the student perspective on the course, the researcher reviewed the student evaluations provided for each of the four course sections. First, students reviewed the 10 standard questions asked of students at the university regarding all instructors. Faculty evaluations at the institution are on a five-point Likert scale, with 5 being the strongest assessment and 1 being the weakest. Second, since the 10 questions posed in the institution’s final course evaluations lack depth of description and speak very little to the course projects, team dynamics, or the experience of working with a community partner, the instructor asked students in the free response sections to comment on specific elements that they enjoyed and disliked. The instructor reviewed all comments and identified key themes reflecting the strengths and weaknesses of the course design in the non-competitive and competitive models.

With the means of analysis established, the paper will now briefly discuss the design of the four course sections.

The Course Designs

The instructional presentation of content across all four sections of public relations campaigns held true. During the first 8 weeks of the course, students began with some light remediation about the principles of best practice in public relations, including a review of and thorough discussion of the application of RACE (Cutlip, Center, & Broom, 2006), ROPES (Kelly, 2001) and the four models of public relations communication (Grunig & Hunt, 1984). The instructor covered assignment-specific elements in research, campaign planning, campaign execution, evaluation, book production, and client pitching throughout the term as well. The instructor held lectures one day a week, with an in-class work session the second day, in which the instructor visited with each team and discussed the weekly progression of their projects.

The second half of the course moved to a more team-driven form of applied learning. Each team engaged in the campaign process and, rather than hold formal lectures, the professor had one mandatory team meeting each week, and the teams held a mandatory client meeting in lieu of a second lecture session each week.

The fundamental difference in the 2014 and 2015 course sections of public relations campaigns was the migration from a traditional team-client dynamic where the sole focus was production on deadline to a pitch competition. Whereas three student teams of 6-8 in a class size of 18-24 for three local nonprofit organizations was the framework for the 2012 and 2013 sections, the growth in popularity of the class to roughly 28-30 students enabled the instructor to adopt a competitive model of six student teams, consisting of 4-5 members. The instructor then identified three community partners and assigned two student teams to each client based on student team interest in working with each client.

In a move meant to minimize disparity in student skills and aptitude, and to enhance the parallel with a “real world” working environment, the instructor moved to assigning the student teams on day one of the course. Students were reminded that when they are hired by a public relations firm, the agency directors assign individuals to specific account teams based on their skills.

To control for concerns about one team member carrying all of the work (Wandel, 2005), individual team members had to provide two metrics of accountability. The first was a bi-weekly peer review of their peers on the team, which the instructor maintained as a weekly assignment and used to frame the team meetings each week. The second was an individual portfolio turned in at the end of the term, which contained a cover letter, resume, and 10 individual project items that were a part of the team project. Peer evaluations and the portfolio comprised 15% of the students’ overall grade. In essence, a good team performance would not be enough for team members who were not active, productive contributors on their teams.

At the end of the 15-week term, students submitted the team campaign books, and performed professional pitches for each of the three clients in head-to-head sessions, akin to standard practice for public relations, advertising, or marketing firms. To assist relatively inexperienced clients with determining the quality and long-term value of the student projects, the instructor invited a team of four local practitioners with experience in healthcare, nonprofit, corporate, and public sector public relations to provide insight on the overall quality of the materials produced and strategies proposed.

At the end of three one-hour sessions, the instructor announced the winners of each competition. The winning teams earned automatic A’s for the project, while the losing teams were subject to the instructor’s evaluation of the project. The projects comprised 55% of the overall student grade, so the competition carried a high incentive value for each student team. With the design of the course laid out, the paper next addresses each of the research questions.


Reviewing Student Products

Overall, the formal review of campaign books in 2012 and 2013 against the 2014 and 2015 campaign books yielded clear overall improvement in organization of the books, attention to detail, and adherence to public relations logic. In the 2012 and 2013 books, it was clear that in the effort to satisfy client needs, students let go of either a RACE or ROPES model of practice in favor of a client-specific text. Also apparent was the relative disorganization of some student team texts, even after careful instruction on campaign book organization. In the effort to do so, however, most of the books still lacked a coherent sense of organization that would enable the reader to review each section and clearly identifying its relationship to the larger book and project. Graphic design, media production, and attention to specific core elements of best practice in public relations were inconsistent among the six books presented. In fact, the two highest scoring teams in the 2012 and 2013 courses were the only teams that attended to these considerations.

There was a clear improvement in the 12 2014 and 2015 campaign books reviewed, at least in terms of design and book organization. Student teams delegated design work and public relations strategy more effectively among team members, which yielded a stronger product for students to submit to the client. Student teams made effective use of integrated media strategies, specifically the strategic application of video production, social and digital media messaging and distribution, and more precise event planning in support of the media production produced on behalf of the client partners. The general organization of the books was also largely much cleaner, with only two of the 12 books earning poor marks on organization.

Some elements did remain problematic, even with the application of competition to the campaigns course model. The quality of student writing was largely inconsistent with the exception of a few strong writers who took the editorial role on the campaign teams. Student research was more effective in employing secondary research sources but suffered when students had to adopt primary research in filling knowledge gaps about the clients and strategic publics or to engage in incremental or summative evaluation of the project work.

One interesting element that was largely inconsistent in both competitive and noncompetitive public relations campaigns models was the application of stewardship (Kelly, 2001) with the client and on behalf of the client with strategic publics essential to the campaign. In two instances, the critical attention to client and publics, specifically in terms of stewardship, made an essential difference in determining the winning bid in the competitive campaigns courses.

Client Reception of the Teams and Products

In reviewing the comments of each client over the four course sections, it is clear that the competitive model encouraged a larger body of student groups to engage in two-way dialog with the clients throughout the campaign process. In the 2012 and 2013 courses, the strongest teams adhered to Kelly’s (2001) argument for the value of stewardship in public relations. Specifically, the most successful teams maintained a minimum of one meeting a week, and often maintained frequent email communication with the client and among team members. That said, it was largely absent from most of the team projects. Of the six student projects reviewed, only two teams really adopted the core principle of stewardship and merited the comments from the client reflecting this. While the majority of community partners expressed a sense of appreciation for the assistance, one 2013 community partner offered this candid perspective on the work of the student team:

I could spend more time reviewing the group and its performance; however, I wanted to tie the final assessment back to the actual written agreement between Client and Consultant. With that said, along with other documentation of events throughout the course of the semester, my overall grade for group as a whole would have to be an F.  I truly hate to say that but, that is, in all honesty the grade I have to give them as a team.  The final straw with this particular grade is based on the fact that the group did not let me review their campaign book at all before submitting it and I do not feel confident that they were truthful in their report.

This report prompted the instructor to adopt direct competition, and the results in subsequent course sections validated this decision. In contrast, in the effort to win a competitive bid, a wide base of the 2014 and 2015 books adopted stronger stewardship and more consistent client communication throughout the process. One client’s comments offer a clear indication that attention to detail, stewardship, and addressing the needs of the community partner remained top of mind for each of the two teams collaborating with this 2015 partner:

Your students were an absolute pleasure to work with. Their final presentations reflected a great deal of work on their part as well as the excellent educational background received from you. Your guidance and leadership was certainly apparent in their final product. The experience and skills your students gained from this “real life” experience will have a great impact on them as they pursue their careers. The time spent with the staff from the Georgia Department of Economic Development Tourism Product Development Division was certainly a valuable experience as well.

The comments effectively reinforced the value of adopting competition in terms of helping students see the need for effectively addressing the needs of the client, either directly or by demonstrating the value of the strategic publics clients may or may not see. Even more indicative than the praise in the client comments is the fact that many of the 2014 and 2015 project materials are still in use by the client partners today.

An interesting component worth noting in this analysis is that student groups in the competitive model also demonstrated an ad hoc form of incremental self-evaluation and adaptation in strategies and tactics in their interactions with clients. In using the weekly client sessions to account for the client wants and needs, students had to confront the clients’ perceptions of the quality of the students’ work and to make necessary changes to project components that did not meet client expectations. The instructor encountered many more conversations with students who had to part with project elements they designed after a client meeting left them with an understanding that this would not meet needs. While not an intentional motivation for the migration to competitive course design, the instructor acknowledges the professional development value of having to let go of one’s ego when producing materials and strategy for clients who may have different aesthetics or opinions on strategic direction.

Students’ Assessment of the Courses

In reviewing the course evaluations across these four sections, there was slightly harsher criticism for the instructor from students in the 2015 course section, but not a potentially damaging assessment of the instructor in considering teaching effectiveness for factors like annual review and promotion and tenure. There was a slight decline in ratio from the 2012 (4.67) and 2013 (4.69) course evaluations against the 2015 (4.49) course evaluations; however, the first year of competition, 2014, yielded the strongest evaluations (4.92) to date. Even with one competitive course section trending lower in student evaluations, the overall evaluations provide strong evidence of the value of service learning among students as the instructor reviewed open student comments about the project work.

In review of the student comments, we see a strong emphasis on the value of service learning in providing exposure to real clients and acclimating students to client relations. Several students expressed appreciation for the practical experience that working with community partners yields. This perspective is in line with the work of scholars who identified student perceptions of benefit (Daugherty, 2003; Wilson, 2012). Students also expressed a strong affinity for the competition element, as well as the excitement behind developing a strategic pitch.

Negative comments about the course were limited, with only an occasional student over 4 years expressing a desire not to engage in service-learning because of the extra demand and pressure it put on them to effectively complete the task. Specifically, in three instances over four courses, individual students expressed frustration over the time commitment in working with community partners and requested that the instructor consider using hypothetical clients to facilitate more efficient project work. This coincides with Wandel’s (2005) timing challenges, specifically the rhythm of engaging in community outreach within the practical limits of an academic calendar.

Another area of student frustration in three instances was the instructor’s decision in 2015 to use assigned teams rather than to permit students to form their own student teams. The student comments suggested frustration over having to work with classmates whom they disliked. Other comments cited frustration with classmates’ relative unreliability, forcing one or two team members to carry the majority of the work. This prompted the instructor to revisit instruction on team dynamics and professional responsibility in task delegation, both from a manager’s and technician’s standpoint.


In reviewing the three research questions, the instructor found support for the application of competition in service-learning courses, specifically within the public relations curriculum. In response to the first research question, a review of the students’ campaign books demonstrated a general improvement in design, organization, and adherence to best practices in public relations when dealing with the competitive pressures in a service-learning course like campaigns. One point of interest was the relative struggles of students with industry standards of effective writing, reinforcing previous findings that indicated young practitioner struggles with writing proficiency in the contemporary workplace (Todd, 2014). Another was the disconnect between the value in primary and secondary research, regardless of the application of competition in the course. Both have prompted the instructor to invest time and energy in reviewing the connection between the writing and research curriculum and the senior-level public relations campaigns course. Overall, however, this is general support for an improvement in the quality of the product produced by the students.

The second research question called upon the clients to reflect on their experiences in assessing the quality of student work in the campaigns course. In general, the clients who encountered students in competition enjoyed a more attentive group of student teams who adopted the principles of stewardship (Kelly, 2001) and benefited from consistent dialog with the team on the overall quality of the product. Student teams had the added benefit of being able to better adapt the project and materials to the needs of the client and to help the clients better understand strategic publics that they may not have previously considered prior to the partnership. That said, further examination of specific teams’ failings in stewardship is a noteworthy area of inquiry for self-reflection and improvement of the class model.

With regard to the third research question, the instructor enjoyed generally strong student evaluations in all four course sections, but did see an increase in criticism in the final year of evaluation (2015), while enjoying the strongest evaluations in the first year of adopting competitive learning models (2014). Each of the 4 years of instruction demonstrated positive student feedback for service learning and for the adoption of competitive modeling.

The refined emphasis on strict scrutiny in the second year of using competitive learning models may have prompted a more critical response from student learners. Another possibility is that in adopting the approach in the first year, perhaps the instructor was more attentive to being specific and thorough in providing initial and subsequent reminders on course instruction that helped students with clarity of content and approaching deadlines. Nevertheless, even in adopting the competitive learning models, the instructor enjoyed a strong reception from students and was able to blend service with teaching. Further review of course articulation and evaluation will permit the instructor to refine the course model.

The instructor acknowledges that the data pool here is limited to one instructor’s course load over four semesters, and that the practice needs exploration across a larger sample, over time. This merits a broader analysis among instructors who have adopted a competitive model to determine student and client satisfaction. It is also of note to consider how differences among clients may also impact differences in the service-learning experience, which will have merit for future adoption of service learning in the realm of working collaboratively with partners before, during, and after the semester-long project (Wandel, 2005).

Acknowledging the merits demonstrated among institutions in Rentner’s (2012) study and what the instructor sees in his own courses, further examination of the value of the practice and the balance of competition’s impact on perception of the course and instructor is important in considering the holistic development of aspiring public relations practitioners (Page & Mukherjee, 2007; Wilson, 2012). More instructors adopting competitive-learning models should engage in scholarship on the subject to enable greater refinement in the discipline.

Those interested in adopting this approach should be mindful of a few elements. First, in the instructor’s experience, an emphasis on cultivating community partnerships and maintaining an instructor-level line of communication with each partner before, during, and after the process proved beneficial. The literature on service learning notes the time intensive necessity for partner cultivation (Eyler & Giles, 1999; Wandel, 2005), so prospective adopters must account for this in course planning. It not only enables a more fluid classroom application, but it facilitates future partnerships, as well.

Instructors should also be prepared to provide consultation with individual students on a wide variety of topics. A common topic for this instructor has been conflict resolution with team members and clients. Another commitment comes in remediation of core concepts with individual students who may have struggled in the introductory public relations, media production, design, or research courses that provide the intellectual foundation for a strong performance in public relations campaigns.


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Score! How Collegiate Athletic Departments Are Training Student-Athletes About Effective Social Media Use

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted to JPRE on March 27, 2017. Revision went under review in July 2017. Manuscript accepted for publication in September 2017. Final revisions completed on May 8, 2018. First published online on May 21, 2018.


Stephanie A. Smith, Assistant Professor of Public Relations, Department of Communication
Stephanie A. Smith, Virginia Tech
Brandi Watkins
Brandi A. Watkins, Virginia Tech






The primary responsibility of student-athletes is to represent their institution on the field, but because of social media, that role has evolved so that now student-athletes are considered representatives of the institution to a larger public. As such, athletic departments have implemented social media policies and/or training programs to guide student-athletes’ online activity. Drawing on digital literacy, this study investigates motivations behind the development of social media policies, how student athletes are trained about effective social media use, and how social media policies for student athletes are enforced from the perspective of the institution. In-depth interviews (N = 17) with representatives from collegiate athletic departments in the U.S. revealed social media policies were designed primarily to educate, rather than punish, and that training about the policy helps reduce social media violations. Theoretical and practical implications of this research are discussed.

Keywords: Digital literacy; social media; college athletes; organizational communication

Score! How Collegiate Athletic Departments Are Training Student-Athletes About Effective Social Media Use

DJ Gardner, Mississippi State University basketball player. Ray-Ray Armstrong, University of Miami football player. Ryan Spadola, Lehigh University football player. Marlon Williams, Texas Tech University football player. Each one of these aforementioned athletes suffered serious consequences due to their posts on social media, including loss of scholarships, suspension, and in some instances, even being kicked out of their university (Sarkisova & Parham, 2013). One momentary lapse in judgement, one statement of fewer than 140 characters, and the trajectory of college athletes can change entirely. Skills relating to the proper use of social media can be taught both within and outside of the classroom, and, had these students learned about effective social media use, their futures might not have been so negatively affected.

The primary responsibility of student-athletes is to represent their institution on the field, but, because of social media, that role has evolved to the extent that now college athletes are considered representatives of the institution to a larger public. This has presented a new set of challenges not only for the student-athlete but also for the athletic department and university administration. Student-athletes are expected to maintain standards set in place by their team, athletic department, the institution, and the governing body for student athletes (e.g., NCAA, NAIA). Failure to comply with these standards can result in negative consequences including game suspensions, dismissal from the team, removal of scholarships, and loss of eligibility (Sanderson, Snyder, Hull, & Gramlick, 2015b). It is imperative to teach all college students, not only college athletes, about the importance of social media etiquette to avoid serious consequences and also to help cultivate responsible, professional post-graduate citizens. Hence, many organizations, including athletic departments, create social media policies that students are required to follow.

Hopkins, Hopkins, and Whelton (2013) suggest student-athletes face more direct consequences (e.g., loss of eligibility, loss of scholarships or funding, and suspensions) for social media indiscretions than their professional counterparts. Likewise, Snyder (2014) cites concerns for athletic departments, including “privacy and liability concerns involving drugs and alcohol use, legal responsibility, freedom of speech, challenges in regulating posted information, and campus social disruption” (p. 134). Hopkins et al. (2013) suggest athletic departments can benefit from the development and enforcement of a social media policy including but not limited to reducing the likelihood of violations, enhancing the institution and athletic department’s brand, and reducing liability related to student-athlete social media activity. In addition to developing social media policies, athletic department officials must enforce such policies, which often requires extensive resources. Sanderson et al. (2015b) report that half of sports information directors at the university level have removed a social media post by a coach or student-athlete.

Researchers have examined social media policies developed by university athletic departments, as well as student-athletes’ perceptions of and attitudes towards such policies (see Sanderson, 2011; Sanderson & Browning, 2013; Sanderson, Browning, & Schmittel, 2015a; Sanderson et al., 2015b, Snyder, 2014). These studies provide insights into the rules and regulations outlined in the policies; however, to the authors’ knowledge, previous studies have not investigated the intent or motivations of athletic department officials for the creation and enforcement of social media. Therefore, the purpose of this study is to interview the people responsible for creating and implementing social media policies for college athletes to better understand how and why these policies are (not) developed, how the policies are taught to students, and how the policies are enforced. A better understanding of the organizational perspective related to the development of social media policy will provide much-needed insights for the development of future educational programs related to social media.


Student-Athletes and Social Media

It is undeniable that social media use is prevalent among college students, including student-athletes (Syme, 2014). In fact, DeShazo (2016), in a study for Fieldhouse Media, reports that 97% of the student-athletes surveyed used Facebook, with a large majority also using Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat. The statistics of student-athlete social media use are a breakdown of the larger audience of social media, which includes usage by 80% of Americans (Greenwood, Perrin, & Duggan, 2016). College-age users of social media produce even higher engagement with platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (Greenwood et al., 2016).

The greater usage of social media creates both benefits and consequences for users. Some potential benefits include increased relational closeness, relationship maintenance, networking, and personal branding. However, potential consequences include decreased privacy, threats to safety, and sometimes loss of employment, criminal charges, or both. Often college students report posting content they know can be viewed as controversial, but continue to do so following what they believe to be the common social norm regardless of its impact on their future (Miller, Parsons, & Lifer, 2010). Employers frequently use social media as a way to vet potential interns and employees (Peluchette & Karl, 2008; Sanderson et al., 2015b). Hopkins et al. (2013) report that 80% of college admissions officers consider a prospective student’s social media account when determining admission. College students have been suspended for posting inappropriate content on social media (Peluchette & Karl, 2008). Therefore, all students should be cognizant of the potential impact social media activity can have on their future, including potential job prospects.

Perhaps more so than their peers, student-athletes should be vigilant about how they present themselves on social media. Student-athletes, especially those who participate in high-profile sports, are likely to have thousands more followers than their peers, thus increasing the scrutiny of student-athlete social media activity (Sanderson et al.,2015a). Student-athletes frequently find themselves in the spotlight for their accomplishments, and the increased attention comes with the possibility of a student-athlete finding himself or herself at the center of a public relations crisis (Sanderson, 2011). As such, student-athletes are more likely to be susceptible to the negative effects of social media than other users (Mayer, 2012). One problematic social media post can result in severe implications for the student-athlete, including loss of eligibility and scholarships, removal from the team, and possible team sanctions from the NCAA (Browning & Sanderson, 2012; Sanderson & Browning, 2013; Sanderson et al., 2015b).

Social media provides many advantages for student-athletes, including displaying their personality off the field, connecting with fans, networking with prospective employers, developing a professional brand, and keeping in touch with family and friends from home (Browning & Sanderson, 2012; Sanderson et al., 2015b). Most athletes are provided with media training to help them handle interviews with members of the media, but the continued rise in social media use has led to the need for additional social media training and education (Sanderson, 2011). However, research on these policies has found that student-athletes are often provided with conflicting messages about ownership of social media content (Sanderson et al., 2015b). Student-athletes are considered to be representatives of the university and their respective athletic departments; thus, content they create, even on their personal social media accounts, also reflects on the athletic department and university at large. Therefore, student-athletes should expect to have their social media activity monitored by the athletic department, sometimes in addition to the university (Sanderson et al., 2015b).

Social Media Policy and Training in Collegiate Athletics

The use of social media has infiltrated every aspect of life in both professional and personal contexts. Thus, it is essential for organizations to have social media policies, including universities and athletic departments. The University of Kansas, for example, suspended the employment of a professor because of one post he made on Twitter. After that incident, the university created a social media policy for employees and informed them of the policy through a university memo (Hacker Daniels, 2015). Neill and Moody (2015) noted that social media policies for employees are useful, and Elefant (2011) recommended that policies cover issues such as social media use during and outside of work. However, studies lack an explanation of how employees are trained and informed about appropriate social media use. Vaast and Kaganer (2013) did note that guidelines included examples of what not to post and did not include examples of appropriate posts. This indicates that the creation of policies is primarily to mitigate risk, rather than to promote value (Vaast & Kaganer, 2013). In light of this, it is important to consider how future professionals (e.g., college students) are educated about proper social media use before entering the workforce.

In response to the increasing scrutiny of social media in professional settings,  measures have been taken to educate students about responsible uses of social media. In 2014, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed a bill requiring all public schools in the state to educate students about social media literacy (Syme, 2014).  Relevant to student-athletes, university athletic departments have started developing and implementing social media policies and training programs for student-athletes (Sanderson, 2011). A survey conducted by the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA) found that of the 450 institutions surveyed, 33% had a written social media policy for student-athletes (CoSIDA, 2013). Sanderson (2011) found 64% of Division I athletic departments with an online handbook for student-athletes have a social media policy.

Athletic departments and student-athletes alike must deal with mounting pressure from the NCAA to meet all compliance standards, including social media activity (Sanderson, 2011). The NCAA has monitored the social media activity of student-athletes from participating institutions for instances of misconduct (Mandel, 2010; Sanderson, 2011). A notable example of NCAA involvement with athletic departments and social media is the case of UNC-Chapel Hill. In 2011, the NCAA charged the institution with inadequately monitoring social media activity that revealed potential violations (Hopkins et al., 2013).

It is important to note that the NCAA has not yet implemented a formal policy related to social media use or monitoring. According to Truman, Cottingham, Bogle-Jubinville, and Lynch (2014), actual NCAA policies related to social media are more oriented toward recruiting violations rather than social media use by student-athletes. Hopkins et al. (2013) noted, “The NCAA has made it clear that member institutions must monitor social media to some extent in order to protect against possible NCAA sanctions” (p. 18). The authors go on to note that “NCAA member institutions have not been provided with clear rules regarding social media” (Hopkins et al., 2013, p. 18).

Research Examining Social Media Policy

Sanderson (2011) suggests many social media policies enacted by athletic departments are consistent with traditional media policies. For example, student-athletes are prohibited from making critical comments about the school, team, or coaches and are asked to refrain from creating social media content that can result in embarrassment for the athlete or the university. Similarly, Sanderson et al. (2015b) found that social media content produced by student-athletes must conform to “university lifestyle, expectations, community standards, NCAA rules and regulations, and federal and state law” (p. 62). Fuduric and Mandelli (2014) argue regulating social media content like traditional media is ineffective; rather, the focus should be on education and training, supplemented with social media policies. Still Sanderson and Browning (2013) assert that athletic departments appear to be more interested in monitoring social media activity rather than educating student-athletes.

Sanderson (2011) examined the social media policies in the student-athlete handbooks of 159 NCAA Division I schools and found that most of these policies consisted primarily of restrictions related to social media use. A follow-up study by Sanderson et al. (2015b) corroborated these findings by examining social media policies from schools participating in Division I, II, and III athletics. Sanderson (2011) concluded that while student-athletes were free to use social media, the policy enacted by their athletic department implied “they were duty bound to use it responsibly, given their visibility in the community and obligation to students, faculty, alumni, teammates, and other stakeholders” (p. 506). Sanderson et al. (2015a) interviewed student-athletes and found they perceived their school’s social media policy to be primarily about compliance and punishment for negative uses of social media.

Furthermore, studies have revealed that student-athletes perceived social media policies developed by the athletic department to be vague and to be lacking effective follow-up from the administration (Sanderson & Browning, 2013; Sanderson et al., 2015a). Sanderson and Browning (2013) attribute the vagueness and ambiguity in social media policy as an effort on the part of the athletic department to maintain a sense of control. By not clearly defining inappropriate social media content, the administrators have more leverage in determining when a violation of the policy has occurred (Sanderson & Browning, 2013).

Snyder (2014) surveyed student-athletes to assess their perceptions of athletic department social media policies. Results showed that student-athletes found social media monitoring by their coach, athletic department, athletic director, or team captain to be an acceptable policy. Student-athletes did not believe a ban on social media use or monitoring by anyone outside of the athletic department was acceptable. Mayer (2012) echoes this sentiment, arguing that “allowing students to roam free using Twitter is too lenient of a policy, but not allowing them to use Twitter at all with a complete ban is too strict” (p. 475). Instead, athletic departments should focus on educating student-athletes about appropriate uses of social media (Mayer, 2012; Sanderson et al., 2015; Snyder, 2014), which, as Browning and Sanderson (2012) suggest, will help student-athletes better understand what constitutes problematic social media activity and how to correct it. Some student-athletes report only learning of violations of social media policy after a violation has occurred (Sanderson & Browning, 2013). Further, Sanderson et al. (2015a) found student-athletes want social media education and training but often found existing training to be “forgettable” (p. 103).

In order to reconcile the apparent disconnect between the content of the policy and student perception of the policies, it is necessary to add a third perspective – that of the policymaker. As such, this study is among the first to investigate the intent and motivations behind the development of social media policies for student-athletes from the organizational perspective. The organizational perspective is an important viewpoint to examine because organizations have different motives, strategies, and goals than individuals. Also, because coaches, athletic directors, and compliance officers are not traditional or trained educators, their creation and enforcement of social media policies may vary in effectiveness with their target audience of student athletes. This is an important area of study because proper training can help student-athletes develop a social media presence, respond to negative comments on social media, abide by NCAA rules, and avoid possible public relations crises for themselves, their teams, and their institutions. Therefore, the following research question is posed:

RQ 1: What is the guiding philosophy of athletic departments behind developing social media training programs for student-athletes?

Media and Digital Literacy

Media literacy is commonly defined as “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and create messages across a variety of contexts” (Livingstone, 2004, p. 3). The addition of Internet and digital communications require users to have a set of skills beyond those required of traditional definitions of media literacy (Eshet-Alkali & Amichai-Hamburger, 2004). This has led to the development of other skill-based literacies, including digital literacy. As such, digital literacy is defined as “an ability to read and understand hypertextual and multimedia texts” (Bawden, 2001, p. 24). Martin (2006) provides a more elaborate definition:

Digital literacy is the awareness, attitude, and ability of individuals to appropriately use digital tools and facilities to identify, access, manage, integrate, evaluate, analyze and synthesize digital resources, construct new knowledge, create media expressions, and communicate with others, in the context of specific life situations, in order to enable constructive social action; and to reflect upon this process. (p. 19, also cited in Koltay, 2011, p. 216)

According to Ng (2012), digital literacy builds on existing literacies; thus, a digitally literate person should be able to adapt to new technologies quickly and efficiently.

Digital literacy expands on media literacy by going beyond just examining text-based messages to include sounds and images (Bawden, 2001). Eshet-Alkali and Amichai-Hamburger (2004) suggest digital literacy should include five digital skills: photo-visual skills, reproduction skills, branching skills, information skills, and socio-emotional skills. Scholars have purported media and digital literacy as necessary tools for participating in civic life. According to Kellner and Share (2005), media literacy education empowers individuals to better understand and intelligently use media. Hobbs (2011) suggests media and digital literacy allows audiences, especially younger audiences, to seek out information on relevant issues, to evaluate the quality of information available, and to engage in dialogue with others to form coalitions” (Hobbs, 2011, p. 421-422). In a meta-analysis of research on media literacy interventions, Jeong, Cho, and Hwang (2012) found that these interventions were generally considered to be effective in achieving outcomes.

Media and Digital Literacy Education

According to Kellner and Share (2005), literacy is inextricably linked with education, and it is through literacy that people learn to communicate effectively within a system. Ashley (2015) found that 83% of instructors who teach introductory mass communication classes include media literacy as a component of the course. Schmidt (2013) reported that on average, secondary education faculty teach media literacy competencies in their courses, although the extent to which this is achieved varies widely. Furthermore, Schmidt (2015) found that students benefited from media-focused lessons, even if that focus is a marginal aspect of the class. Traditionally, the concept of media literacy was focused primarily on developing interventions and education programs related to traditional media, but as technology evolves, so should the application of media literacy interventions. Kellner and Share (2005) argued that literacy must be extended to include new and digital media. Therefore, given the prevalence of social media, especially among younger audiences, the importance of teaching social media literacy is paramount.

College students live and work in an integrated media environment, which includes print, audiovisual, and digital media (Livingstone, 2004); therefore, media and digital literacy are an important component of the overall educational experience of students (Rodriguez, 2011). The growing importance and prevalence of media and communication skills means that media literacy training is essential for college graduates (Schmidt, 2015). According to Rodriguez (2011), social media can empower students to take more control over their learning experience. Additionally, scholars have suggested that educational institutions have a responsibility to prepare students for life after graduation (Duffy & Burns, 2006; Rodriguez, 2011). Given the unique position of student-athletes within the university, the athletic department is best positioned to help student-athletes navigate the new terrain of social media use.

Research has indicated that a more balanced, comprehensive approach to social media training would be more effective than the more restrictive policies (Sanderson et al., 2015a). Browning and Sanderson (2012) reiterated the need to help students understand why certain social media activities are considered inappropriate and unacceptable. Relevant to this study, scholars have called on athletic departments to incorporate positive uses of social media into their media training for student-athletes (Sanderson, 2011; Sanderson et al., 2015b; Snyder, 2014). To that end, this study not only looks at the intent behind the development of a social media policy, but also considers how students are educated about social media use and how the policies are enforced. The following research questions are proposed:

RQ 2: How is social media training taught among college athletes?

RQ 3: To what extent is the athletic department and/or university social media policy enforced among college athletes?


Recruitment and Sample

After securing approval from the university IRB, recruitment of potential interviewees began. In order to recruit a purposive sample with maximum variation, a preliminary list of compliance officers (CO) and athletic directors (AD) at various NCAA DI, DII, and DIII schools was created and each person was contacted via email. For this first round of recruitment, 127 people were contacted, and recruitment only continued with those who responded to the email and expressed their interest in participating. Then, a snowball sampling method was used to contact additional participants. To be eligible for the study, participants had to be currently employed with a college athletic department and have access to, and an understanding of, the school/athletic department’s social media policy for student-athletes. Variation within the sample was maximized because participants had a range of experience and tenure levels and worked in different NCAA division schools. The total sample size for this study was 17. A further descriptive breakdown can be found in Table 1.

Table 1

Demographic Characteristics

N %
Male 12 71
Female 5 29
I 9 53
II 5 29
III 3 18
Respondent’s Job Titles
Athletic Directors/Compliance Officers 14 82
Marketing Director of Athletic Communication 1 6
Director of Digital Strategy for Athletics 1 6
Director of Athletic Communications 1 6



Upon recruiting the sample of various compliance officers and athletic directors, semi-structured interviews were conducted with each participant. A structured interview guide (see Appendix A) was used to ensure that every participant was asked the same questions and had a similar interview experience to the other participants (Lindlof & Taylor, 2011). The interviews were conducted over the phone and began with a review of the confidentiality of the study and a verbal agreement from the participant to continue, understanding that they could choose to stop the interview at any time or decline to answer any question asked. Each interview was scheduled at a time most convenient for the participant to reduce distractions and enhance the quality of the interview responses (Rubin & Rubin, 2011). Each interview was completed in about 30 minutes, with a mean interview time of 24 minutes. The interviews were recorded for accuracy and to create verbatim transcripts for data analysis. 


Throughout the interviewing process and data analysis, many steps to ensure the trustworthiness of the data were taken, and an overview of those steps can be found in Table 2. Data analysis occurred in four stages. First, an electronic, verbatim transcript of each interview was made. A verbatim copy of the interviews provided a sufficient level of detail required for analysis, such as preserving exact language, noting pauses, and capturing how things were said (Bailey, 2008). The transcripts were independently reviewed by both researchers to increase familiarity with the data (Lindlof & Taylor, 2011). After reviewing the transcripts, stage two of data analysis, open coding, started. Open coding occurs when “the researchers examine the text . . . for salient categories of information supported by the text” (Creswell, 2007, p. 160). The unit of analysis for this study was a complete thought within the interview, where a clear beginning, middle, and end can be identified. During open coding, labels were assigned to the data, but the data were not categorized. Categorization began in the third phase, axial coding.

During the axial coding stage, data were explored through grouping, deleting, editing, and merging open codes. This stage helped to identify themes present in the data to answer the research questions. Owen’s (1984) guidelines of recurrence, repetition, and forcefulness were also used to help determine themes. Following the recommendations of Strauss and Corbin (1998), axial coding continued until theoretical saturation occurred and no new themes emerged consistently from the text. Thus, when observable patterns and sub-themes did not result in any new categories, the axial coding stage concluded and the final stage of interpretation began. The interpretation stage is where data are transformed to create new meaning (Coffey & Atkinson, 1996). Media literacy theory was used in this stage to help theoretically interpret the data to further explain patterns.

Table 2

Trustworthiness Criteria

Trustworthiness Criteria Description of Criteria Methods to Meet Criteria
Credibility Truth value in interpretations are established Implementation of previously used methods (interviews)
Transferability Interpretations are able to be transferred to other similar cases Thick description, and linking findings to previous research and theory (Digital and Media Literacy)
Confirmability Findings are observable to others outside of the locale Detailed data management and recording, unit of analysis checks
Dependability Consistency between researcher/researched Audit trail and participant confidentiality protection, member checks of data

Lincoln, Y., & Guba, E. (1985). Naturalistic Inquiry. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.


Media literacy and the components of digital literacy were used to help interpret the findings. Our findings indicate that awareness can be used to understand the guiding philosophy behind developing social media policies for student-athletes (RQ 1); that social media training helps create a positive attitude toward social media use by student-athletes (RQ 2); and that the enforcement of the social media policies, particularly when followed by training, gives student-athletes the ability to use social media responsibly (RQ 3).

Social Media Awareness as a Guiding Philosophy for Social Media Policy Creation

Throughout the study and across all interviews, participants mentioned that social media use has become a part of life and made note of the prevalence of social media and the multiple platforms available. It is for this reason that many institutions created social media policies. A Division I participant said:

It became clear that much more time was being spent by student-athletes and coaches and staff on social platforms. It’s become a normal way of conversing; it’s just part of the general way that people communicate now. It’s no longer an accessory, and so we said that before we have a problem, let’s make sure that everyone is on the same page with how we want to handle these platforms and what our expectations are for student-athletes.

A handful of other institutions said that in addition to the prevalence of social media, seeing student-athletes get in trouble because of social media caused them to put together a policy. A Division II athletic director explained: “We had seen a couple of things just in the media, and I know there was one thing that happened out at [institution withheld] with a football player that kind of made us think we should get ahead of this.”

Another major reason noted for creating and enacting a social media policy for student-athletes was to reduce social media violations. Several athletic directors discussed how having a policy to refer back to, which clearly outlines what constitutes inappropriate online behavior, can help reduce the actual number of violations and the potential for future violations. A Division III athletic director stated: “We outline what is and is not acceptable and make them sign a contract stating they understand. We’ve noticed this helps the students realize why certain things are not allowed, and we have very few violations.” Collectively, the prevalence of social media use among college student-athletes creates awareness among athletic leadership, which guides the creation of social media policies.

Social Media Training as Attitude Cultivation for Student-Athletes

Although some participants did not have a formal social media policy (n = 4), every participating athletic department engaged in some type of social media training. Social media trainings ranged from team-level training to general training with all student-athletes at the beginning of the school year. Regardless of the format, every participating institution discussed how they included examples of positive and negative social media examples in their training sessions. A Division I marketing director for athletics said:

Our athletics director brings everyone together at the beginning of the year for a convocation. He does a slideshow and . . . if there are any student-athletes who put something that’s inappropriate on social media [from the previous year], he will put that up on the video board and showcase it in front of all of their peers–[around] 500 student-athletes. [This is] kind of the threat that if you do make a poor decision it will be featured next year. We also show student-athletes who are doing a great job using social media, too.

Within every interview, participants stressed how their trainings were meant to educate student-athletes on appropriate social media use. A Division III athletic director stated:

We want them to be engaged on social media, we want them to understand how to use it properly and use it. I always tell our kids, “This is your brand. This is the one thing you can control.” So we do have a policy in place.

Additionally, each athletic department approached their social media policies with a proactive attitude to demonstrate to the student-athletes that they were trying to provide education about more positive, responsible social media usage. A Division I institution participant explained:

We bring in a personal branding coach every year, and she is a professional not affiliated with our school or our department. She just explains how important using social media can be for your future. We also do other trainings, too, like especially for seniors looking for jobs.

This demonstrates that the social media trainings and approaches being used across athletic divisions help cultivate a practical and appropriate attitude toward social media use among student-athletes.

Social Media Enforcement to Enhance Social Media Abilities of Student-Athletes

Every participating athletic department monitors the social media activities of its student-athletes slightly differently. However, the enforcement of the policy when a violation occurs is generally the same across participating departments. As established during social media training sessions, no one wanted to police the social media use of student-athletes. All participants felt confident that, for the most part, their student-athletes were capable of using social media responsibly, in part due to the training provided. A Division I athletic director explained:

Our policy revolves around education and not around a bullet-pointed document where there are steps that you have to follow . . . . We are lucky that we have student-athletes that for the most part are law-abiding citizens. They’re smart. They understand the realm in which they are living in that anything on the internet is public.

This demonstrates that athletic departments believe in the ability of their student-athletes to make good choices online.

Participants also noted how they relied upon their student-athletes to help execute their branding and promote their teams and institutions. A Division II compliance officer explained: “We know how many followers our student-athletes have, and we want them to promote our programs. We will tag them when they do cool things, and we expect the same in return.” Using a strategy like this recognizes the power and abilities of student-athletes online. This simultaneously makes it easier to periodically check-in on student-athletes’ social media usage. It also makes it easier to see if student-athletes have unexpectedly changed their social media usage, which could be a red flag. A Division III athletic director stated:

I keep tabs on them by putting things out there I know they will like and respond to. But some of our upperclassmen will change their profile name. They think they’ve fooled me by changing their name, but I can still click on their profile and see who it is, so I keep tabs.

Although athletic departments take steps to increase the social media abilities of their student-athletes, violations still occur. When a violation occurs, each participating institution explained that their first step would be a conversation with the student-athlete to figure out what happened and explain why their behavior was inappropriate. Then, the violation would either be over, or escalated to their coach, the school’s administration, or the NCAA, depending on the situation. The main priority is to first let students know why their behavior online was inappropriate and then to make sure they understand the violation and will not make that choice again. None of the participants had clear sanctions outlined within their policies, so each violation is handled on a case-by-case basis. This helps illustrate that the social media policies for student-athletes are designed to educate, rather than punish. Taking an educational approach to overcoming violations also increases the abilities of student-athletes to make better choices moving forward.


In sum, findings from the interviews indicated that, through the development of a social media policy or training program, awareness for the importance of being digitally literate is emphasized for students. Additionally, the educational focus and objective of many of these policies and training programs is to help cultivate a positive attitude toward the use of social media for student-athletes. Finally, through enforcement of the policy and continued education, students master the ability to use social media responsibly and effectively. Each of these components – awareness, attitude, and ability – is critical to developing digital literacy competency and has great implications for public relations educators. The findings from this study help inform classroom education about social media strategy.

According to our interviews, several participants cited the ubiquity of social media as the impetus for the development of social media policies and training for student-athletes. They also considered the implementation of a policy or training program as a preventative measure against future problems that could occur as a result of improper social media use by student-athletes. Furthermore, participants described the policies as being primarily focused on education rather than policing students’ social media accounts for violations. This demonstrates that although social media policies may be purposefully vague, it is not with the intention of being able to punish for anything found on social media, as previously indicated (Sanderson & Browning, 2013; Sanderson et. al., 2015a). Instead, these findings explain that the vagueness within the policies allows them to be flexible to a variety of platforms and instill responsible decision-making among the students without stifling social media use.

The actual policies and training formats varied from institution to institution, but a consistent theme among participants was that the social media policies and training programs were developed with the intent to educate student-athletes about responsible social media use, rather than to reprimand students for negative or inappropriate social media usage (Sanderson et. al., 2015a). This aligns with calls from previous researchers who suggest social media policies should focus on educating students about the positive and negative consequences of using social media (Mayer, 2012; Sanderson, 2011; Sanderson, 2015b; Snyder, 2014). Media and digital literacy scholars echo this sentiment as they frequently cite education as a way to develop critical-thinking skills (Hobbs, 2011; Kellner & Share, 2005). Education, rather than restrictive policies, is more likely to be effective in terms of helping student-athletes to identify problematic social media habits and how to correct those habits (Browning & Sanderson, 2012; Sanderson & Browning, 2013).

Our findings highlight the fact that the monitoring of student-athlete social media activity is unpredictable and sporadic. This further illustrates that institutions want to enact and train students with the intent of educating them about effective social media use, rather than penalize them after the fact, when a student, team, or institution’s reputation can simultaneously suffer.

Social media policies and training sessions that are restrictive in nature, meaning they focus more on what is not permitted rather than what is permitted, are considered by participants as less effective than educational-based policies. Furthermore, students are not as receptive to these programs (Snyder, 2014). Sanderson (2015a) and Snyder (2014) found that student-athletes are generally favorable to the idea of social media training and to an extent even monitoring by the athletic department officials or coaches. The training that was described within the findings of this study demonstrates that the call to action about showing positive and negative examples of social media use has been answered and implemented (Sanderson, 2011; Sanderson et al., 2015b; Snyder, 2014). This helps to explain why many of our interviewees noted positive feedback from student-athletes related to the training programs.

Several participants indicated that having student-athletes on social media was beneficial for the athletic department’s brand in that they could further act as brand ambassadors for the team and the university. Sanderson (2015a) reiterates this point by suggesting that training programs should help student-athletes create social media content that furthers their personal brand. Similarly, Snyder (2014) suggests that the athletic department should integrate the student’s personal brand with the athletic department brand. Participants in this study noted that they would often share relevant information from the student athlete’s account or include the student athlete’s social media handle in athletic department content as a way to reward positive social media behavior. This practice, in turn, also allows the athletic department to hold students accountable to content posted on social media. Of importance to note, this process was typically used in tandem with training on personal branding via social media channels.

Based on the findings of this study, it can be concluded that athletic departments generally view the role of the social media policy to be an educational tool that guides student-athletes to use social media in a positive and responsible manner. Through teaching proper use of social media, athletic departments are encouraging student-athletes to take control of their presence on social media. Empowering digital media users to create their own messages is an essential tenet of digital literacy (Jeong et al., 2012) and provides students with more control over their learning experience (Rodriguez, 2011). The education-based model of social media training and policy development can be replicated across a variety of organizational contexts.

Practical Implications and Suggestions

Related to digital literacy, the approach to social media policy and training by the athletic department representatives interviewed in this study focused more on creating a practical and positive attitude toward social media use. The proactive implementation of policies and training indicates recognition of the importance and commitment to educating student-athletes on positive social media approaches. These findings are especially important to educators in the classroom. Educators can begin the conversation about responsible and effective social media use with their students to underscore the implementation of broader social media policies, like those set forth by universities, and to prepare students for future employment where a social media policy will likely be enforced. Focusing on the educational value that a social media policy or training session can have for its members can provide mutually beneficial relationships for the organization and its members. The findings of this study also suggest that there are fewer social media violations by student-athletes when they are already informed about effective social media use from their classroom experience.

Media and digital literacy includes empowering the audience to create its own messages (Jeong et al., 2012), which is an essential feature of social media and Web 2.0 technologies. Hobbs (2011) goes on to add, “generated by the rise of social media and other digital tools that enable anyone to be an author, there is an explosion of interest in media literacy as a tool for empowerment” (p. 422). Athletic departments are empowering student-athletes to control their online presence through enacting policies that encourage, rather than discourage, social media use in a way that is mutually beneficial. In the classroom, this conversation can be centered around the power of social media for personal branding. Educators should consider discussing the positive impact that social media can have on creating opportunities for students and how students can use social media to control their online presence.

Media and digital literacy training provides users with a foundation for more effective media use. For example, Martens (2010) explains that by having the ability to access and analyze media messages, one can better identify programming that meets their needs. Likewise, this knowledge can help a person identify potential risks inherent in media messages and identify useful media (Schmidt, 2015). This skill is especially important for young social media users who are often inundated with messages and need guidance to better understand how to interpret such messages, an area where more attention could be paid in the classroom. Furthermore, student-athletes can use their knowledge and social media training to enhance future job opportunities beyond collegiate athletics. Expanding their professional network is an often-cited benefit of using social media for all students, including student-athletes (Sanderson, 2011).

Teaching Implications

The findings from this study focus on three main areas within media and digital literacy: awareness, attitude, and ability. These findings help provide suggestions for social media educators. Firstly, like the athletic departments noted, social media is a part of every student’s life. Therefore, acceptance of the prevalence of social media, as well as education about appropriate usage, is vital for success. Educators should not ignore social media in their classrooms, rather, like the participants of this study have done, they should use social media as an opportunity to advance conversations and education. For example, discussing how to use social media as a networking-building platform can be invaluable to students as they prepare to search for jobs or internships. PR educators can encourage students to make LinkedIn profiles, help students brainstorm potential connections, and discuss how social media can be used to break the ice with potential employers. Rather than tell students to lock down their social media and use all the privacy settings available to them, education should be focused around creating a professional and responsible personal brand.

Secondly, through education, positive and responsible attitudes about social media use can be cultivated. In classrooms, showing examples of positive and negative social media posts can be useful, as well as educating students on how social media can be used for personal branding. However, while some athletic departments in this study noted showing negative examples of current athletes, this should be avoided in the classroom. What could be stronger, is showing examples of students who created national headlines for their positive and negative social media actions. Also, examples abound from employees who have lost their jobs due to poor social media use (e.g., Applebee’s, Uber). These examples can be effective in the classroom to demonstrate responsible social media use.

The difference between athletic departments using humiliation tactics and PR educators using humiliation tactics to teach effective social media use is important to understand. Firstly, athletic departments usually operate with a social media contract between the department and the student-athlete. Within the contract, there is verbiage noting that anything student athletes post is also related to the institutional athletic brand. In the classroom, contracts like this do not exist. Secondly, student athletes understand through contracts and training that the athletic department and university at-large could be monitoring their social media profiles at any time. This understanding does not exist between educators and students, and social media monitoring by instructors could be seen as intrusive and inappropriate. Finally, while the humiliation strategy may work in a tight-knit setting such as among student-athletes, it is inappropriate for the classroom where grades and evaluation are at stake. The role of athletic departments and coaches is not the same as the role professors play in the lives of students. Instead, educators should rely on mainstream examples in the classroom and follow up with tips for students to clean up and avoid social media embarrassments.

Finally, educators should trust the abilities of their students to responsibly use social media and educate them accordingly. Instead of telling students what not to do online, explain that social media gives them the potential to creatively express themselves and create awareness about their unique skills and voices. It is paramount that educators continue to integrate lessons about social media use into their teaching to help establish a bridge between study and practice. Although the findings of this study are centralized to college athletics, the implications across organizations are detectable. Organizations are looking to leverage the classroom education of their employees to create better ambassadors, as exemplified through the findings of this study. Therefore, it is necessary that PR educators continue to teach responsible and effective social media use in the classroom.

Limitations and Future Research

As with all studies, this one is not without limitations. One limitation is the fact that we did not actually analyze the policies. Instead, we relied upon our participants to inform us of their policies, which may not have provided an entirely comprehensive understanding of the policies. However, given the fact that we were focused on the reasoning for creating the policy, the training surrounding the policy, and the policy enforcement, this limitation is also an opportunity for future research. Another limitation is that we did not speak to individual team coaches who, based on the accounts of our participants, do have the right to enforce a stricter social media policy within their own teams and during the season. This provides another opportunity for future research.

The findings of this study provide insight into the administrative decision-making related to the development of social media policy. There is undoubtedly a power dynamic at play between institutions and athletes, which provides an opportunity for future research to understand how the policy comes together, who is involved in the creation, the approval process, and how much influence a governing association has in policy creation. It is possible that these policies also serve the interests of the schools as much as or perhaps more than each athlete.

Critics could also argue that allowing and encouraging athletes to use social media could lead to exploitation, which could create ethical concerns. For example, a future study examining the ethics behind using positive and negative examples of responsible social media use within trainings could have valuable insight and implications for PR education. On the other hand, individual athletes may find greater personal benefit from social media than the institution. Previous research in this area does reveal that there is apparent disconnect between the intent of the athletic department and the perception of the policy by the student-athletes. For example, Sanderson (2015a) interviewed student-athletes and found that students tended to find the social media policy restrictive and did not find educational value in the policy; whereas, results of this study indicated that athletic departments work to emphasize the educational value of such programs. Reconciling these differences is beyond the scope of the current study but should be investigated in future studies to determine the effectiveness of such programs.


Findings from this study provide insight into the organization’s perspective when it comes to developing, implementing, and enforcing social media policies for student-athletes. This study presents a perspective of an increasingly important issue that has not yet been examined through research. Representatives from athletic departments reported developing policies that are designed to be more educational than punitive. Through these policies, athletic departments aim to empower student-athletes to take control of their social media presence to prepare them for a future beyond athletics.


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Interview Guide

How long have you been in your position?
Where were you working previously?
Tell me about your sports management background.
Tell me about your social media policy for collegiate athletes.
When was it developed?
Why was it developed?
Who developed it?
Has it been revised? Why?
How do you inform and educate your college athletes on the policy?
How do you establish whether or not the students have read and understand the policy?
How is the policy enforced?
What happens if the policy is violated?
Are there variations in the policy or the enforcement based on sport? If so, explain.
What type of student feedback have you gotten about your policy?
How much input do the students have in crafting and/or enforcing the policy?
What do you think are the strengths of your policy?
How do you encourage positive social media use among student-athletes (i.e. brand building and networking)?
What about weaknesses or areas for improvement/clarification?
How do you monitor trends in social media and subsequently keep your policy current?
To what extent do you monitor the social media activities at other schools?

Media Relations Instruction and Theory Development: A Relational Dialectical Approach

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted to the AEJMC-PRD Paper Competition by April 1, 2017. Selected as a Top Teaching Paper. Submitted to JPRE on August 22, 2017. Final revisions completed on April 25, 2018. First published online on May 21, 2018.


Justin Pettigrew

Justin E. Pettigrew, Kennesaw State University


There has been almost no research in the area of media relations instruction in the public relations literature. This study seeks to fill a gap in theory-building in the area of media relations and examines the state of media relations instruction in today’s public relations curriculum through a survey of public relations professors. The author suggests relational dialectical theory as a way to better understand the relationship between public relations practitioners and journalists, and proposes a relational dialectical approach to theory-building and in teaching media relations in today’s changing landscape.

Keywords: public relations; media relations education; dialogue in public relations; public relations instruction; teaching media relations

Media Relations Instruction and Theory Development: A Relational Dialectical Approach

Media relations is a core practice of public relations. Today’s practitioners are dealing with journalists who have less time, less support, and less patience. Practitioners are now fighting for space in an increasingly crowded media landscape. Media relations is changing. To better prepare students for practice in today’s environment, the state of media relations education needs to be addressed.

The debate over what a good public relations program of study looks like in colleges continues (Auger & Cho, 2016). Based on the 2017 report from the Commission on Public Relations Education (2018), it seems that there is growing consensus between educators and practitioners on writing as a key component of any public relations curriculum, as well as speed and research capabilities. While there is a need for universities and colleges to turn out well-prepared students ready for work, there is also a need to provide students with the intellectual underpinnings of PR practice to encourage critical thinking about the field. Media relations is an important part of a student’s learning experience, both from a practical and an intellectual standpoint.

Contrary to scholars who have relegated media relations to a purely tactical role (Shaw & White, 2004), media relations is, in fact, a strategic function (also see Pettigrew & Hutchins, 2017). Despite continued discussions about closing the gap between the academy and practice, virtually no research has been conducted in the area of media relations education. Indeed, PR agencies are clamoring for entry-level employees who can develop strategic messages and pitch stories couched in those messages, tailored to specific media outlets (Pettigrew & Hutchins, 2017).

Even more important for practitioners is building and maintaining relationships with journalists and writers. Social media is having an impact on practice, as research suggests (Bransford, 2002; Kent, 2013; Rybalko & Seltzer, 2010; Sweetser, 2010; Taylor & Kent, 2010; Valentini, 2015). However, few, if any, studies examine how social media is impacting media relations. From a theoretical perspective, a different viewpoint can help us better understand how practitioners and media build and maintain relationships, both in the short- and long-term.

This work builds on previous work using a relational dialectical approach as defined by Baxter and Montgomery (1996). It also continues the work of Pettigrew and Heflin (2017) to better understand how media relations is being addressed in textbooks and in the classroom. A survey of public relations professors was conducted about their views of media relationships and the dialogic process, and whether their views on these topics are reflected in what they teach in the classroom. Implications are addressed with regard to the use of relational dialectics to teach students about engaging with and maintaining relationships with the media.


Studies related to public relations instruction focus on niche areas such as writing (e.g., Lane & Johnston, 2017), motivating students to study theoretical modules in public relations (e.g., AlSaqer, 2016), students’ perceptions of public relations (e.g., Bowen, 2009), and the gap between public relations education and public relations practice (e.g, Bowen, 2009). Cutlip and Bateman (1973) “criticized the unsatisfactory and disparate state of public relations education in USA colleges and universities” (p. 1). They argued:

The need for qualified, competent, professional assistance in this field was never greater than it is today. Yet the heavy hand of the past – its publicity genesis – still dominates public relations practice today when our divided society cries out for communication, conciliation and community. Call it “public relations,” “public affairs,” “corporate communications,” or whatever you will, the need for trained persons in this area is likely to increase in coming decades, as our society becomes even more complex.

Yet, we have already witnessed and are witnessing today a dearth of professional public relations practitioners capable of operating at the higher executive levels in all institutions – public and private – where their counsel is needed. The number of qualified people in public relations is incapable of meeting the demand for competent practitioners. Generally speaking, most of those in public relations work today were not specifically educated for this type of career. They are “retreads” from other fields of communication. (Cutlip & Bateman, 1973, pp. 1-2)

Wright (2011) argued that even 35-plus years later, not much has changed in how we educate public relations students in the U.S. He stated that “even though the need for qualified public relations practitioners is greater than ever and counsel of qualified public relations experts remains essential at the executive level, in the most successful organizations there continues to be problems” (p. 237). At an Edelman symposium in 2007, professor Frank B. Kalupa suggested “the standard model of public relations education in the U.S. is seriously flawed and does not work anymore” (Watson, 2017, p. 53). Wright (2011) also noted, “CEOs of major U.S.-based agencies and their human resources officers continuously indicate that some of the best future practitioners are graduates of university-based public relations degree programs that have a faculty with a combination of academic and professional credentials” (p. 245).

Pettigrew and Heflin (2017) conducted a content analysis of public relations texts used in PR writing and introductory courses in PR and found that discussions of media relations vary considerably, ranging from chapters about media relations to only mentioning the subject. Furthermore, these discussions were found in various locations (e.g., a chapter about ethics, a chapter about corporate communication, and a chapter about public affairs).

Shaw and White (2004) examined whether academic programs in journalism and public relations might not be helping to change the stereotypes and may even be reinforcing the negative perceptions of both professions. Juxtaposing this is the fact that, in practice, journalists and public relations professionals are increasingly dependent on each other. Both journalism and public relations educators acknowledged that “journalists depend on public relations-oriented material due to inadequate staffing levels in most newspapers” (Shaw & White, 2004, p. 499).

Dialogic theory, as presented by Kent and Taylor (1998, 2002), focuses on a “communicative orientation” (2002, p. 5) and is characterized “by a sense that participants are committed to each other and care about each other” (p. 5). While this holds true for certain communication efforts, it does not encompass the complexity of the relationships between public relations practitioners and journalists, which, at times, is fraught with competing agendas and a sense of bias. While their examination of the concept of “dialogic engagement” (Kent & Taylor, 1998) places engagement within their framework of propinquity as a principle of the dialogic exchange, rarely does media relations involve “interactants [who] are willing to give their whole selves to encounters” (p. 387).

By recognizing media relations as a strategic function (Pettigrew & Hutchins, 2017), it is important for educators to teach students the importance of developing and maintaining relationships with journalists and bloggers alike. A relational dialectical approach goes deeper than simply examining best practices to address the fluidity and evolving nature of media relationships.

Relational Dialectics

While much of the work in dialogue and dialectics has examined the relationship between couples (Baxter, 2004), it can be expanded to professional relationships, such as the PR practitioner/journalist relationship. In relational dialectics, “multiple points of view maintain their voices as they play with and off of one another” (Baxter & Montgomery, 1996, p. 46). Dialectics shift the focus of scholars from the idea of “shared meanings” to the examination of multiple opposing perspectives (Baxter & Montgomery, 1996, p. 46). This is not to say that dialogue tries to work toward a compromise among the parties involved. Instead, it is designed to focus on “the messier, less logical, and more inconsistent unfolding practices of the moment” (Baxter & Montgomery, 1996, p. 46). Communication is always a process, it is always “becoming” something, it never really “is” (Baxter & Montgomery, 1996, p. 47). There are “no ideal goals, no ultimate endings, no elegant end-states of balance” (Baxter & Montgomery, 1996, p. 47).  Indeed, balance can be considered a state of non-dialogue. In dialogue, the pendulum swings back and forth between parties, never achieving a final resting place.

For public relations, this view lends itself well when applied to creating and negotiating long-lasting relationships with reporters. While all interaction may not involve face-to-face dialogue, practitioners are still relating to another human being, each with their own needs, desires, and goals. Each party in the relationship has a job to do, and each party brings a voice to the interaction. To help explain this point, Holtzhausen and Zerfass say this about media relations as a dialectical process:

The media are and can be used to shape social and cultural realities. Thus, instead of only viewing media as channels of communication and audiences as the receivers of messages, strategic communicators need to consider how meaning is shaped in the interaction process involving stakeholders and media practitioners. (2015, pp. 8-9)

Baxter and Montgomery (1996) further examine the idea of relational dialectics by positing that there are four key assumptions of relational dialectics: contradiction, change, praxis, and totality.

Contradiction. The concept of contradiction holds a technical meaning in dialectical theory and refers to the “dynamic interplay between unified oppositions” (Baxter & Montgomery, 1996, p. 8). Central to the idea of relational dialectics is that “communication plays a primary role in the ongoing experience of contradictions” (Baxter & Montgomery, 1996, p. 8). Dialectics posits that contradiction is a “dynamic and fluid process in which the struggle at one point in time sets in motion the nature of the struggle at a subsequent point in time” (Baxter & Montgomery, 1996, p. 8).

Change. Relationships are processes of change produced by the clash of opposing tendencies. The basic oppositions or tensions that exist constitute the basis of change in and development of the relationship. The concept of “change” in the relational dialectics literature can be linked to the concept of commitment in Kent and Taylor’s (2002) assumptions. Dialogue between parties may not last forever, just long enough to make a change (Bohm, 1996). This does not mean that the parties themselves necessarily separate, although they may; however, the dialogic instance needs only to last long enough to shift the parties toward a different stance than before the dialogue occurred. These last two points are important for students of public relations to understand. While dialogic exchanges may begin and end, the ongoing dialogue of a relationship is never really finished (Pettigrew & Heflin, 2017).

Praxis. In this assumption, “People function as proactive actors who make communicative choices in how to function in their social world” (Baxter & Montgomery, 1996, p. 13). At the same time, however, “they are reactive objects, because their actions become reified in a variety of normative and institutional practices that establish the boundaries of subsequent communicative moves” (p. 13). Here we see Kent and Taylor’s (2002) concept of propinquity, in that parties must be willing and able to articulate demands of the other.

Totality. From a dialectal perspective, totality “is a way to think about the world as a process of relations or interdependencies” (Baxter & Montgomery, 1996, p. 15). Dialectical tensions are played out in relation to other tensions that exist in everyday life. Dialectical tension is “jointly owned by the relationship parties by the very fact of their union” (Baxter & Montgomery, 1996, p. 15). There may be little commonality between participating individuals’ experiences of contradictions in a relationship (Baxter & Montgomery, 1996).

Baxter (2004) presents a view of relational dialectics that focuses on not just the dyadic communication that takes place between two parties but also the way those dyadic relationships exist in the social order that surrounds them. This approach can assist in examinations of the sometimes-tense PR practitioner-journalist relationship because it focuses on ways people are communicating with others about what the nature of a relationship should be. Dialectics can be complicated, as “interpersonal dialectical processes involve the overt display of oppositional dynamics between people in a relationship” (Altman, 2009, p.27). Openness/closedness, predictability/novelty, stability/change, and other dynamics occur between participants in any exchange.

Relational dialectics fits well within the body of research that exists on PR/constituent relationships. Pearson (1989) concluded that dialogic exchanges “produce an intersubjectivity that blends shared and opposing views on key issues. Although consensus might not result on every issue, sufficient agreement, or concurrence, allows parties to continue dialogue” (p. 44). Conflict or disagreement gives motive and rationale for such exchanges to test areas in which both parties can come to some kind of shared meaning (Pearson, 1989).

As we move toward a relational approach to public relations, dialogue becomes a crucial element in forming and maintaining those relationships (Pettigrew & Heflin, 2017).  While some theoretical perspectives suggest that relationships develop symmetrically (Grunig, 1992), this is not always the case (Pettigrew & Reber, 2010). As Botan (1997) notes, “Dialogue manifests itself more as a stance, orientation, or bearing in communication rather than a specific method, technique or format” (p. 202). To that end, this work poses five hypotheses to address how professors view the relationship between PR practitioners and members of the media, and how they teach their students about that relationship:

H1:      Public relations professors view the reporter/PR practitioner interaction as a dialogic process.

H2:      Public relations professors’ attitudes about reporter/PR relationships are reflected in what they teach in the classroom.

H3:      Public relations professors’ attitudes about dialogue are reflected in what they teach in the classroom.

H4:      A majority of public relations professors will agree with teaching media relations through a dialogic lens.

H5:      Public relations professors will agree that persuasion is a part of the dialogic exchange between PR practitioners and journalists.


Participants for this survey consisted of a purposive sample of public relations professors listed in the 2012 AEJMC directory and professors who were current members of PRSA. The survey was sent to 670 professors at schools with various enrollments, but all schools had some type of public relations concentration or offered several courses in public relations.

The survey consisted of 33 questions. Two of those questions pertained to the classes professors taught and in which classes they addressed media relations. The next eight questions addressed the relationship between public relations practitioners and journalists. Professors were asked to rate their responses to these questions on a five-point Likert scale from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.”

Participants were also asked if they addressed working with journalists in their classes, as well as the use of textbooks in their classes. Professors were then presented with five questions pertaining to their teaching methods regarding media relations. Five questions asked about the nature of the relationship between practitioners and journalists and the nature of conflict in the relationship. Participants were asked in what school or department they taught and about their view of persuasion in the PR practitioner/journalist relationship. The remainder of the questions were demographic.

Qualtrics was used to deliver the survey. Cover letter emails were sent to the survey sample, including a link to the survey. The recipients had the choice to either refuse or agree to take the survey. The consent form of the survey was presented as part of the invitation letter in the initial email. There were two follow-up reminders sent to professors in the sample, and the results were analyzed after the survey had been active for four weeks.

Public Relations Professor Survey Participants’ Demographics

The survey of public relations professors resulted in 93 usable responses. The response rate for the survey was 14%. Fifteen professors provided incomplete surveys, which were not included in the results. Ninety-eight professors “completed” the survey, but five professors chose to click through the survey without providing responses. Eight e-mail addresses failed to reach respondents due to technical problems, such as respondents’ out-of-office reply. Another two public relations professors responded that they did not have time to take the survey for various reasons.

Descriptive analyses of the demographic data were performed to provide information about the respondents’ age, the number of years of professional experience of the professor, the title of their current position, the number of years they had been teaching, and the number of years they had been at their current school (see Table 1).

Table 1

Profile of Survey Respondents

Age 30-39                          17 (19.3%)

40-49                          21 (22.8%)

50-59                          25 (26.9%)

60 and over               25 (26.9%)

no answer                5 (5.4%)

Highest Degree Bachelor’s                 2 (2.2%)

Master’s                     20 (21.5%)

Ph.D.                        64 (68.8%)

other                           7 (7.6%)

Years of Professional Experience

in Public Relations

1-5                            23 (24.8%)

6-10                            20 (22.6%)

11-15                        10 (13.1%)

16-20                          15 (16.2%)

21-35                          22 (23.9%)

no answer                 2 (2.2%)

Years Teaching 1-5                              11 (14.9%)

6-10                            26 (28.1%)

11-15                          15 (16.1%)

16-20                          9 (9.7%)

21-25                          11 (11.9%)

26-30                          6 (6.5%)

31-45                          10 (11.0%)

Years at Current Institution 1 (or first year)             7 (7.5%)

2-5                                 24 (29.2%)

6-10                               19 (20.4%)

11-15                           16 (17.4%

16-20                              3 (3.3%)

21-25                           11 (12.0%)


In response to what classes they taught most often (they could choose more than one), 64 professors indicated public relations writing or communication, 64 said introduction to public relations, 56 said public relations campaigns, 21 said public relations administration or management, 13 said introduction to mass communication, and 35 said public relations cases.

When asked about the classes in which they address media relations, 57 said public relations writing or communication, 50 said introduction to public relations, 36 addressed the topic in campaigns, 28 said PR cases, 12 covered media relations in PR administration/management, 5 said introduction to mass communication, and 14 said they addressed media relations in other classes, including a class on media relations (n = 3), crisis communication (n = 2), PR strategies and tactics (n = 1), and public relations and social media (n = 1).

The “composite public relations professor” from the demographic data was a 52-year-old with a Ph.D., 6-8 years of professional experience, and 12-13 years of teaching experience. This person had worked at the same institution for about 10 years and taught primarily public relations writing or communication or introduction to public relations.

Statistical Analysis for Hypotheses

An exploratory factor analysis separated concepts of “interaction” from concepts of “dialogue” in the questions on the public relations survey. The factor analysis did not reveal two distinct factors, possibly because the concepts are seen as intertwined. Indices were then developed based on conceptualizations and question wording. Cronbach’s alpha tests confirmed the reliability of the indices, at .73 (interaction) and .78 (dialogue). Through this process, valid measures for these concepts were developed.

Regarding H1, (public relations professors view the reporter/PR practitioner interaction as a dialogic process) survey results showed 72 public relations professors either agreeing or strongly agreeing that the relationship between journalists and public relations practitioners does consist of ongoing communication between the two parties (N = 92, M = 3.90, SD = .89).

Results of the survey supported H2 (Professors’ attitudes about relationships are reflected in what they teach in the classroom). Correlation coefficients were computed based on questions in the survey regarding attitudes about relationships versus what the professor taught students about relationships. The results of the correlational analysis presented in Table 2 showed positive correlations between the professors viewing the relationship as one of “give-and-take” and teaching that view of the relationship to their students.

Professors who agreed that the reporter/PR practitioner relationship is one of give-and-take also communicated that concept in their classes (r = .424). Professors who taught the importance of relationships between journalists and PR practitioners also taught that the relationship was one of give-and-take (r = .220). Additionally, professors who believed relationships were as important as outcomes also believed that the relationship was one of a give-and-take nature (r = .398).

Table 2

Correlations Between Beliefs About Relationships and Teaching About Relationships for PR Professors

Relationship exists Teach importance of relationships Relationships as important as outcomes Relationship is give-and-take Teach relationship is give-and-take

Relationship exists

.349 .184 .422** .110

Teach importance of relationships

.099 .530** .277** .220**

Relationships as important as outcomes

.184 .392** .362** .191

Relationship is give-and-take

.422** .308** .398** .424**

Teach relationship is give-and-take

.011 .220* .191 .424**

** Correlation is significant at the .01 level (2-tailed).
* Correlation is significant at the .05 level (2-tailed).

The results suggest that public relations professors do, in fact, teach what they believe about relationships between journalists and PR practitioners.

Correlation coefficients were then computed to find support for H3 (Professors’ attitudes about dialogue are reflected in what they teach in the classroom). The results of the analysis of the items that measured attitudes about dialogue and teaching about dialogue were significant at .53, p < .01.

Support for H4 (A majority of public relations professors will agree with teaching media relations through a dialogic lens) was found by calculating the frequency of survey respondents who agreed with the statement “I believe in, and teach students, that media relations should involve dialogue between a journalist and a PR professional.” Ninety-one professors (M = 4.47, SD = .60) either agreed or strongly agreed with the questionnaire item.

To test the final hypothesis in the study (H5), frequencies were calculated for the two groups of survey participants for the questions that addressed persuasion. Public relations professors (N = 90, M = 3.87, SD = .965) either agreed or strongly agreed that persuasion by the public relations professional is part of the journalist-practitioner relationship.

Additional Analysis

While beyond the scope of the hypotheses and research questions posed by this work, additional statistical analysis was conducted to see if there were differences in opinions based on age and years of teaching experience about dialogue and teaching students about dialogue. A one-way analysis of variance was conducted to compare professors’ age and their attitudes about dialogue. The test was not significant, F(36,21) = .308, p = 1.0. There was also no significance in the number of years the professors had been teaching and their attitudes about dialogue F(34,53) = .889, p = .64.

One-way analyses of variance were also conducted to see whether the classes that the professors taught most often had an impact on how they viewed dialogue. Those tests did not reveal significant results, as attitudes about dialogue were similar regardless of which class the professor taught most often.

Summary of Findings

H1: Public relations professors view the reporter/PR practitioner interaction as a dialogic process. (Supported).

H2: Public relations professors’ attitudes about relationships are reflected in what they teach in the classroom (Supported).

H3: Public relations professors’ attitudes about dialogue are reflected in what they teach in the classroom. (Supported).

H4: A majority of public relations professors will agree with teaching media relations through a dialogic lens. (Supported).

H5: Public relations professors will agree that persuasion is a part of the dialogic exchange between PR practitioners and journalists. (Supported).


Relational Dialectics and Dialogue as a Basis for a Theory of Media Relations

If professors are teaching students a dialogic approach to media relations, then it makes sense to continue a theoretical discussion of relational dialectics as a way to ground media relations in theory. As relational dialectics suggests, “dialogue is a flow of meaning between people” (Baxter & Montgomery, 1996, p. 11). The ideas of contradiction and change are central to relationships with media, maybe more so than any other group public relations professionals deal with on a regular basis. If dialogue involves “shifting their views on particular issues or problems as dialogue occurs” (Baxter & Montgomery, 1996, p. 12), then the idea fits nicely with the idea of “mutually beneficial relationships,” which is part of PRSA’s proposed definition of public relations (Corbett, 2012). Both public relations practitioners and journalists have to engage in give and take in order to have mutually beneficial relationships. It is important for students to learn that media relations should be an ongoing process. While media relations can be done in an isolated exchange, students should learn how to take that isolated exchange and attempt to build a relationship using dialogue.

Relational dialectics also explain the “coming together and drawing apart” nature of media relations today. If, as the survey here suggests, relationships are as important as outcomes, the outcome, instead of being the primary focus, now truly does become grounded in the exchange. Here again, we see contradictions with previous research by Wright (2011).

In the classroom, this could involve teaching modules that have students interacting with actual journalists on story ideas with an end goal of story “creation” rather than straight story “pitching.” Another example of this concept in practice is to have several journalists come to class to discuss the idea of dialectics as a way to interact with public relations professionals.

Professors’ Proclivities: Dialogue 

Professors have a lot to communicate over the course of a semester in any class.  In public relations classes, particularly public relations writing, it is quite the task to get students to write a coherent press release, much less all of the other materials they need to learn to write. Adding a good grounding of media relations on top of that is challenging. However, professors are doing it, which is important because professionals spend 30% to 90% of their time on media relations (Pettigrew & Hutchins, 2017). Appropriately, this survey also supported that professors are teaching media relations as a dialogic process in their classes, which is an update to arguments made by Kalupa (as cited by Watson, 2017), who suggested that public relations education is still focused on one-way communication. Professors are acknowledging that public relations is, in fact, rooted in an exchange of thoughts, ideas, and information with various publics. In terms of media relations, students are learning that it is more than just sending media materials to appropriate media outlets and following up. They are learning that a relationship with members of the media is an ongoing, fluid, and ever-changing process.

The points made by Wright (2011) may also need to be examined further, specifically his suggestions that curricula focus more on outputs than on outcomes. This work clearly indicates that professors are teaching relationships and dialogue as central to the reporter/PR practitioner relationship. As this study shows, professors possess a wealth of professional experience that they bring to the classroom, as all of them had some practical experience in the field, and the degrees the professors have are reflective of a high level of scholarship.

The results of H2 (Professors’ attitudes about relationships are reflected in what they teach in the classroom) and H3 (Professors’ attitudes about dialogue are reflected in what they teach in the classroom) are helpful in understanding that professors may be going beyond “best practices” in teaching students about media relations, which is where most PR textbooks end the discussion. Regardless of how texts treat the subject, many professors are supplementing texts with fodder for classroom discussion through their own views about dialogue and relationships (Pettigrew, 2013). By sharing examples from their professional careers, professors are giving real-world examples of building relationships and creating dialogue with reporters.

Support for H4 (A majority of public relations professors will agree with teaching media relations through a dialogic lens) indicates that professors are teaching students the importance of dialogue with the media. In learning how to practice media relations in preparation for internships or entry-level jobs, it is also important that educators provide ways for students to practice media message development and pitching before they are placed in a position of having to do so for a client or employer. Many educators have indicated that they are doing this (Pettigrew, 2013), but for others, time constraints become an issue. This author proposes that a media relations class become a part of a PR program’s curriculum, at least as an elective.

Limitations and Future Research

As with any survey, there was the issue of self-reporting bias and self-selection in survey participation. The population for the survey was small, and the the percentage of respondents was smaller still. What was desired for this work was a “snapshot” of how professors view and teach media relations in their classes to advance theory and suggest potential ways to improve media relations instruction. This researcher is not suggesting that the results of this survey can be used to draw more general assumptions about the state of media relations education in the United States today.

There is also much to be done in theory development in public relations. There is benefit in more exploration of incorporating relational dialectics as a basis for theory, particularly as it relates to media relations to encompass the notions of tension, conflict, and a focus on the process rather than the outcome. It would be beneficial to revise and re-administer this survey in 5 years to see if technology and the changing nature of PR and media relations has changed the attitudes of educators.


The subject of public relations education is rich with unmined areas for research. It is hoped that continued work in this area will help to fill the gap that exists between PR practice, education, and research. This study demonstrated that, contrary to previous research, public relations professors are committed to quality teaching in the area of media relations. In addition, this study also suggests relational dialectics as a starting point for understanding the give-and-take relationship between media professionals and public relations practitioners. Instructors should consider how a relational dialectic approach in their classrooms can help students understand the realities and expectations of today’s public relations workplace, as well as using relational dialectics to foster intellectual thought about the media relations process. Moreover, the closer we examine how we teach students how to practice, the more we may learn about practice itself. As today’s media marketplace continues to change and adapt to new technologies, so are public relations practitioners and professors adjusting their relationships with media professionals.


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Public Relations Ethics, “Alternative Facts,” and Critical Thinking, with a Side of Tuna

Top GIFT from AEJMC-PRD 2017

Editorial Record: Submitted to AEJMC-PRD GIFT Competition by Feb. 1, 2017. A blind copy was peer reviewed by the PRD Teaching Committee, led by Chair Lucinda Austin. First published online on May 21, 2018.


Jacqueline Lambiase

Jacqueline Lambiase, Texas Christian University

Public Relations Ethics, “Alternative Facts,” and Critical Thinking, with a Side of Tuna


This is a flipped classroom, high-impact, active-learning exercise that takes an entire class period for a public relations case studies course or a public relations ethics course. It starts with a reading that could be assigned before class. First, students read and reflect individually. Next, they work in small groups to analyze and then diagram on poster paper the actions of several organizations and companies related to promoting tuna consumption and its safety for children and pregnant women.

Many articles could be used for this critical thinking activity, especially those in which many voices and organizations are debating scientific or health-related findings. The sample article used for this exercise may be found at (Burros, 2007).


Students need practice in differentiating facts and truth from unethical marketing and lies. They also need practice reading with a critical lens. In many upper-level public relations classes, students are asked to dissect real-world events based on news coverage and other documents containing narratives. Before completing final projects, students need to learn how to dissect and find the gaps in narrative accounts by using close reading, reflection, discussion, clear labels, and diagramming to gain clarity on the entities involved, their actions, and possible motives for those actions. This assignment gives students a road map for how to investigate stories and events, enabling them to perform better when writing their own final case studies or ethical analyses. What is true, based on science? What is an “astroturf” organization? What sources should we trust more than others? How are public relations strategies involved in clarifying these debates? How is the profession involved in prolonging or muddying these debates?

Student Learning Goals

These learning goals are based in part on guidelines from the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (2017), as well as learning goals for a case studies or ethics course in a public relations curriculum. Through this exercise, students will acquire the following abilities:

  • “Work ethically in pursuit of truth, accuracy, fairness and diversity;
  • Think critically, creatively and independently” (ACEJMC, 2017, p. 45);
  • Understand strategic communication processes and ethics through case studies;
  • Understand management strategies in dealing with communication cases; and
  • “Conduct research and evaluate information by methods appropriate to the communications professions” in which they will work (ACEJMC, 2017, p. 45).

Connection to Public Relations Theory or Practice

Organizations’ spokespeople are quoted in the article about the appropriateness of marketing a toxic product to pregnant women and children, and a large PR agency, Burson Marsteller, represents one of the organizations involved. For a case studies course, conflicting information about tuna is hard to sort precisely because of the intentional communication strategies and tactics used by groups to confuse consumers for financial gain. Yet this example is similar to the tasks students must tackle in order to figure out precisely what is going on in other case analyses and narratives. For an ethics course, this case shows clearly the necessity of ends-based and means-based ethical theories, an aid in the discussions of organizational values and reputation management.

Evidence of Student Learning Outcomes

For final projects in case studies or ethics, students are required to label the organizational actions contained in their own analyses, thereby showing a 30,000-foot understanding of any incident or narrative, without getting caught in the weeds or details. In classes where this exercise is deployed, students are immersed quickly into the mindset of critical reading and thinking. Later in the semester, they will be better able to demonstrate that skill and mindset in their case analyses, ethical projects, and original case studies.

The Assignment

PART I: Personal reflection

Please read the following news article about tuna consumption and health. First read it through all at once; then, perform a close second reading, during which you underline key information for your personal analysis. Make marginal notes about your observations and questions. Underline the groups, organizations, individuals, and companies that are named in the article. Spend at least 10-15 minutes for this part of the assignment before moving to Part II.

PART II: Small group discussion

Assign someone to be the timekeeper, who will keep you on task. Spend at least 10 minutes overall discussing each person’s observations; your timekeeper should allow each group member about two minutes to share observations and questions. After this sharing, please discuss the key questions and assertions that your group can agree are the most important regarding the events related in this article.

Part III: Small group work and more discussion

Assign someone to be a scribe and another group member to be your information designer/presenter.

The scribe will begin to build a list of all of the groups, organizations, individuals, and companies that are named in the article based on group members’ input. Then, your group will create a sorted collection of all of these entities, via your scribe’s work, placing entities together that go together in terms of working toward the same ends. What groups are clearly working together for the same purpose? In general, what are these entities’ purposes? How could the groups be labeled? Which group or groups do you trust most? Least? Why? Find consensus, work on the best labels and groupings, and then help your information designer/presenter depict how you would diagram the activities described in this article. Use the large poster paper and markers to diagram and explain your thinking. Allow about 15 minutes for this work and discussion.

Part IV: Group presentations

The instructor has been listening to your discussions so far and will be asking several groups to present all or part of their diagrams, labels, groupings, and trust information. Help your presenter be ready to make your case clearly to your classmates.


Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. (2017). Journalism and Mass Communications Accreditation, 2017-2018. Retrieved from

Burros, M. (2007, October 17). Industry money fans debated on fish. The New York Times, F5. Retrieved from

Public Relations and the Corporate Persona: The Rise of the Affinitive Organization

Editorial Record: Submitted to the editor-in-chief by the associate editor of reviews on March 2, 2018. First published online on May 21, 2018.


Christie Kleinmann

Christie M. Kleinmann, Belmont University

Public Relations and the Corporate Persona: The Rise of the Affinitive Organization

Author: Burton St. John III, Professor, Old Dominion University, USA
London, UK: Routledge, 2017
176 pages
Hardback, ISBN-13: 978-1138945012, $160.00
E-book, ISBN-13: 9781315671635, $55.00

A trusted companion, a fellow traveler, and a sage guide, perhaps not the top distinguishing characteristics of American corporations in the 21st century, but, based on recent scholarship, these three corporate personas define much of American business in the last 90 years. In Public Relations and the Corporate Persona: The Rise of the Affinitive Organization, communication scholar Burton St. John III asserts that businesses emulate a corporate persona, such as the trusted companion, fellow traveler, or sage guide, that reinforces the mutuality of business and citizens and joins them on the shared path of self-actualization. Using a critical lens, St. John presents four perspectives of the corporate person: the legal perspective, the marketing perspective, the constructivist perspective, and the storytelling perspective. These perspectives are deconstructed through the public relations materials of five corporate entities: the National Association of Manufacturers, PR News, Norfolk and Western Railroad, Standard Oil of California (SOCA), and the reality television show Undercover Boss. St. John also includes a chapter on social media and its role in the storytelling perspective.

Corporate Persona of Trusted Companion

The economic crash in 1929 eroded public trust in American business, leading to an increased desire for government to ensure economic stability. To restore trust in business, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) used public relations strategies and tactics to present a persona that shared the goals and values of American citizens. Specifically, NAM conveyed three key messages: that it shared values common to Americans, that it was a beneficent fellow actor in society, and that turning to planned economy would interfere with the mutually beneficial relations between the individual and private business (p. 45). Through these public relations efforts, St. John concludes that the persona of the caring fellow American was effective in establishing mutual benefit and encouraging fellow citizens in protecting free enterprise. Norfolk and Western Railroad illustrate a similar use of corporate persona in public relations. Using its organizational newsletter Norfolk and Western Magazine, Norfolk and Western developed the persona of defender and fellow advocate in the preservation of American free enterprise.

St. John continues to illustrate the corporate persona of trusted companion with SOCA and its publication, Standard Oiler. Through this public relations tactic, SOCA maintained the preservation of the free enterprise message illustrated by NAM and the Norfolk and Western Magazine but from a Foucauldian perspective of self-governance. Using this persona, SOCA often used the first-person “we” to portray the mutuality of interests between the corporation and the individual as self-reliant and capable, in comparison to an inefficient and intrusive federal government (p. 99). This corporate persona of trusted companion directed citizens to the already-existing affinity between the individual and corporation through shared corporate-individual worldviews and goals.

Corporate Persona of Fellow Traveler

Public Relations and the Corporate Persona also considers the role of public relations in corporate persona by reviewing the weekly editions of PR News from 1950-1952. Through this analysis, St. John found that PR News believed public relations “had the responsibility to help organizations tell their fellow citizens about the importance of the free enterprise system” and positioned public relations as a “mentor and teacher” (p. 61). In doing so, PR News characterized business as a fellow traveler on a shared journey of free enterprise, a journey that would bring mutual benefit to the individual and the corporation. St. John carefully articulates the role of public relations in this process, noting that the shared journey is not one created or sustained by public relations. Rather, public relations offered an organization’s persona the “place” to identify shared values and destinations. Public relations was a “courtship of re-affirmation” that confirmed the affinitive organization and citizens (p. 102).

Corporate Persona of Sage Guide

From the reality show Undercover Boss, St. John illustrates a sage guide persona in the fast food industry. In Undercover Boss, a top executive assumes the position of a lower-level employee to learn about the organization. By doing so, the executive is often personified as a “powerful persona descending into the world of the common person, taking on that lifestyle so as to learn large lessons about humility and empathy” (p. 109). However, when the executive reveals his identity, s/he is portrayed as a sage guide who instructs, rewards, and encourages employees. This sage guide personifies the common American values of self-reliance and self-advancement and becomes a source of encouragement for those acting on those values (p. 120). As a result of this persona, employees can reflect on the “wise counsel of the corporation” and take steps toward achieving self-actualization (p. 120).

In Public Relations and the Corporate Persona, St. John concludes that through corporate persona, organizations create a shared sense of identity with citizens that allow organizations to influence and even direct political, economic, and social structures. As such, this text is a timely examination of corporate persona in American business. With declining public trust in business, St. John offers an important examination of previous efforts to restore public trust in business and free enterprise. Further, Public Relations and the Corporate Persona offers a largely unexplored critical examination of corporate persona and public relations’ role in shaping our perceptions and shared perceptions.

The text concludes with a critical analysis of business today, noting that “the American public sees precious few recent examples of a corporate personality that asserts a common good with the individual” (p. 162). Rather St. John encourages organizations and public relations professionals to move beyond the product-driven associations prevalent today and resonate shared American values. He also encourages future research in social media and corporate persona and how corporate persona may be perceived online.

Public Relations and the Corporate Persona is a valuable read for upper-level undergraduate or graduate students in public relations, corporate communication, or strategic communication programs. The text’s rich case studies and quantitative analyses offer both breadth and depth on the issue of corporate persona, and the book raises pertinent questions on the role of public relations in this process. Further, critical studies would benefit from this text as it challenges existing public relations practices and poses important areas for future research.

Improving PR Campaigns with a Roll of the Dice: Assuming New Identities to Strengthen Diversity and Inclusion

Top GIFT from AEJMC-PRD 2017

Editorial Record: Submitted to AEJMC-PRD GIFT Competition by Feb. 1, 2017. A blind copy was peer reviewed by the PRD Teaching Committee, led by Chair Lucinda Austin. First published online on May 21, 2018.


Kelly Bruhn

Dr. Kelly B. Bruhn, Drake University

Improving PR Campaigns With a Roll of the Dice: Assuming New Identities to Strengthen Diversity and Inclusion

Professional communicators have an obligation to create campaigns and materials that represent and build engagement with the audiences they serve. According to the U.S. Census, more than 36% of the U.S. population identify as non-white (U.S. Census Bureau, 2016), while a PR Week/Bloom, Gross & Associates Salary Survey (2016) reported that only 11% of public relations professionals identify as non-white. In addition, the 2010 U.S. Census found that more than 58% of public relations professionals were female (U.S. Census Bureau, 2016). These gaps require educators to work diligently to equip public relations students with skills to seek out and celebrate difference in their communications campaigns. Professors at Drake University designed the “Roll the Dice” exercise to facilitate this learning in a fun, inviting way.

Within the first two weeks of the semester in a Public Relations Principles course, students are asked to approach the front of the room, roll three colored dice (one red, one white, and one blue), and record the score from each die. The instructor then reveals the “new you,” assigning different genders, races, able-bodiedness, religions, and socioeconomic statuses based upon the number rolled on each die. Students are asked to keep a handwritten or electronic journal for 10 days, assuming the “new you” as they react to media, communication pieces, websites, social media engagements, movies, books, and music—everything they encounter during those 10 days. Students turn in their journals—which are only read by the student and the instructor to encourage honesty and open dialogue—and any related materials collected and analyzed during the 10-day period. The final journal entry includes a personal reflection about what they learned during the project, especially about the representations they encountered. They then reflect on their preconceived notions of their “new you,” and they explore how those biases were challenged during the assignment.

This assignment is well suited for freshmen and sophomores beginning their public relations curriculum, as they are challenged to analyze the implications of public relations campaigns in an increasingly connected multicultural/global society, analyze industry-specific public relations campaigns, assess their roles in influencing and engaging people, and evaluate their readiness for working in public relations—all learning outcomes described in the course syllabus. Perhaps most importantly, this assignment forces students to seek out various news sources, communications tools and popular culture events to critically examine how groups are represented and how companies and organizations engage with various audiences. Many journal entries report students’ growth as individuals from the assignment and its importance in forcing them out of their “upper-middle-class, white, suburban bubble” (PR Principles student, personal communication, January 19, 2016). And, during strategic planning sessions or tactics preparation for community partners, students often recall their “Roll the Dice” exercises when advocating to adjust images, content, and delivery for a wide variety of audiences.


PR Week/Bloom, Gross & Associates (2016). 2016 Salary Survey. Retrieved from

U.S. Census Bureau (2016). 2010 Census Demographic Profiles. Retrieved from


Sample Assignment

Red                             White                         Blue

Roll the Dice
JMC 085: Public Relations Principles
Journal Assignment – Worth 100 points or 10% of final grade

You may keep a handwritten journal or you can record your findings electronically, then print them out to hand in at the end of the project. Either way, be sure to include photos, news clippings, and links—any supporting material appropriate for the specific examples you collect.

  1. In class, you’ll discover the makeup of the “new you,” and for 10 days (yes, on the weekend, too) you will immerse yourself in media of all kinds as the “new you.” (Some of the combinations may be difficult to match. Do your best to apply as many of the traits as you can in your search, BUT not necessarily all at the same time.)
  2. During the project, you should be accessing news daily, but also looking at other communications pieces (magazines, radio, TV, movies, billboards, websites, advertising, social media sites, etc.). Your goal is to experience the news and other communications as the “new you.” Are your needs being met? Do you see yourself in the verbiage and photos? Are you being represented fairly? What do you find when you search Google images for the “new you?”
  3. Your first journal entry must be your reflection on the “new you.” Write down your new demographics, how those differ from the “real you,” and what you expect to find during this exercise. What are your preconceived notions/biases about the “new you?” These journals are confidential. I will be your only reader, so be honest and thoughtful in your responses.
  4. You must make daily journal entries during this project. Your journal must include specific details of what you see, hear and experience. (You must provide enough detail – source of article, reporter’s name, headline, web address, etc. – so I could locate the information online). Each entry needs to not only explain what you’ve seen/heard, but how you react to it as the “new you” and how it might inform/misinform the rest of the community. Each day should include at least two examples. Overall, your journal must contain a wide variety of sources.
  5. Here are some media sources you might consider, but you are encouraged to expand to other outlets. The key is to look to a variety of sources, including those you’ve never turned to before.
  • Print newspapers: The Des Moines Register, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The New York Times are all available for free on campus.
  • Online sources for news include,,,,,,,,,, and loads of others. (Do you encounter a paywall? How does the “new you” react to that?)
  • Spend some time listening to television news like Fox, MSNBC, CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, etc. Choose a variety, not just a single outlet.
  • News should be part of your daily experience, but I will also be looking for other types of communication pieces throughout your journal, including magazines, TV programs, movies, books, websites, social media, etc.
  1. One entry should give details about at least two niche news sources you’ve discovered that specifically serve the “new you.”
  2. The final entry in your journal must be a personal reflection about what you learned during the project, especially about media and communications representation of different groups. Be sure to return to your first entry, where you reflected on your preconceived notions of this “new you.” How were those ideas challenged during this project?


“Roll the Dice” Rubric

Total value: 100 points or 10% of final grade

Low End


High End




Daily entries (at least 2) that include thoughtful reflection Skipping days or clearly pulling together the entire 10-day project on the final day Entries that show engagement with the project and showcase a variety of examples from different media 35
Good variety of sources. More credit if you review outlets you have never searched before


All examples coming from The New York Times and CNN Lots of sources, including newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, books, movies, websites, social media, advertising, etc. 15
Specifics from the sources you reference (news/media source, author, title, summary, web address) so I can understand your reaction Links only or vague references to source without specifics, including what the article was about/ how it was presented/where it was published


Enough information that I believe you actually read/ listened to and understood the media you cite 15
Discovery of niche media sources that serve the “new you” specifically Didn’t do it, or didn’t give any specifics about the sources (CNN is not a niche publication)


Specifics about at least two sources that serve the new you 15
First entry = Explain the new you and reflect on what you expect to discover

Last entry = Reflection about what you learned during the assignment

Lack of specifics Good specifics and examples that help explain your thoughts 20



Sample Powerpoint Slides– Announcing Assignment/“New You”

Slide One:     Roll the Dice

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust

So, what do those numbers mean?

Slide Two:     Step One

Select a gender with which you don’t currently identify.

Slide Three:   Red = Race/Culture*

1. Southeast Asian
2. Black
3. Latino
4. Middle Eastern
5. Native American/American Indian
6. Caucasian

Slide Four:     White = Age*

1. 18 years or younger
2. 19-30
3. 31-45
4. 46-60
5. 61-75
6. 76 years or older

Slide Five:     Blue = Religion/Sexuality/Ability/Class*

1. Low Income
2. Jewish
4. Muslim
5. Physically Disabled
6. Homeless

*Consider customizing these lists by using U.S. Census data from your area or characteristics of your community partner’s/client’s target audiences.

Developing a Blueprint for Social Media Pedagogy: Trials, Tribulations, and Best Practices

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted to the AEJMC-PRD Paper Competition by April 1, 2017. Selected as a Top Teaching Paper. Submitted to JPRE on August 18, 2017. Final revisions completed on May 12, 2018. First published online on May 21, 2018.


Ai Zhang, Stockton University

Karen Freberg, University of Louisville

Social media research, and particularly social media pedagogy, has increased substantially as a domain in public relations research. Yet, along with this increased focus on social media pedagogy, educators and other higher education professionals are under pressure from industry, professional communities, and university administrations to keep their classes updated and relevant for their students. To better understand the current state and rising expectations facing educators teaching social media, we interviewed 31 social media professors to explore the trials and tribulations of their journey and to identify best practices for social media as a pedagogical tool. The study also suggests a blueprint for implementing social media pedagogy in the classroom. Future implications for both research and practice are discussed.

Keywords: Social Media, Social Media Pedagogy, Educators, Public Relations

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Developing a Blueprint for Social Media Pedagogy: Trials, Tribulations, and Best Practices

Social media research, along with social pedagogy, has increased substantially as a domain in public relations research (Duhé, 2015). Along with this increased focus on social media pedagogy, educators and other higher education professionals teaching social media classes struggle to keep up with the latest trends, tools, and practices to incorporate relevant digital tools into their classes.

In addition, most of the research on social media pedagogy has focused on specific social media assignments (Anderson, Swenson, & Kinsella, 2014; Anderson & Swenson, 2013; Gallicano, Ekachai, & Freberg, 2014; Kinsky, Freberg, Kim, Kushin, & Ward, 2016), opportunities for experiential learning (Fraustino, Briones, & Janoske, 2015; Madden, Winkler, Fraustino, & Janoske, 2016), addressing students’ perceptions of professors who use social media in their classes as pedagogical tools (Johnson, 2011; Merle & Freberg, 2016), or what qualities are needed to teach social media (Kim & Freberg, 2016). There has been little research exploring the roles, stories, and practices of educators themselves. To fill this void, the present study examines in greater detail the background of these educators, their trials and tribulations in teaching social media and adopting social media pedagogy, and best practices to implement social media pedagogy in the classroom. Future research and implications for social media pedagogy are discussed.


Fundamentals in Teaching Social Media

Universities nationwide are offering an increasing number of social media classes. Educators are also adding more components of social media into class assignments and lectures. An important reason behind this curricular focus on social media is that the current student body is comprised of active social media users. They use social media platforms extensively to communicate with their peer and family networks (Alt, 2015). Likewise, industry professionals are increasingly utilizing social media as a key strategic tool to cultivate relationships and communicate their key messages with target audiences (Carpenter & Lertpratchya, 2016). Within this context, it is important that students develop the necessary skill sets to succeed in today’s digitized workplace.

In response to professional demand for social media literacy and skills, educators have taken a number of initiatives to bridge the gap between practice and higher education (Lipschultz, 2015). One way is embracing the role of “social connector,” which requires an educator to be “active on social media networks, both professionally and personally” (Remund & Freberg, 2013, p. 3). Remund and Freberg (2013) believe that being a social connector on social media for students requires establishing a new mindset that involves strong leadership, a sense of community, patience, and persistence in curating and creating relevant professional-focused course content. Indeed, there are professors who are actively using social and digital platforms to promote their research and scholarly work and to cultivate their own academic identities online (Veletsianos & Kimmons, 2016).

Another way to connect academia and industry is through innovative pedagogical approaches to teaching and learning, such as social media pedagogy. Over the past several years, social media pedagogy research has grown substantially. Some researchers in social media pedagogy have focused primarily on a specific area within social media, like writing (Carroll, 2014), while others have focused on specific tactics that are created and used in the field, like crisis communication simulations on social media (Anderson et al., 2014), blogging opportunities (Anderson & Swenson, 2013), creation of visual images and infographics (Gallicano et al., 2014), and participating in established professional certification programs in social media (Kinsky et al., 2016). Platforms like Twitter (Anderson & Swenson, 2013; DeGroot, Young, & VanSlette, 2015; Fraustino et al., 2015) and Facebook (McCorkindale, DiStaso, & Fussell Sisco, 2013) have historically been the most frequently used social media pedagogical platforms. LinkedIn has also been used (Edministon, 2014; Peterson & Dover, 2014) for the purpose of teaching students professional business communication and etiquette.

Besides this specific tool-focused stream of research, partnering with practicing professionals or institutions for class projects is another method for educators to connect theory and practice in the classroom (Childers & Levenshus, 2016; Melton & Hicks, 2011). For example, several professors have taken advantage of the power of Twitter to connect students from multiple institutions. One group of professors developed a cross-institutional Twitter chat to expose students to remote learning and collaborations with students that they had never met in person (Fraustino et al., 2015; Madden et al., 2016). This activity helped students develop necessary skills before heading to the workplace (Madden et al., 2016). Another group of scholars illustrated how cross-institutional Twitter activities can be used to create authentic learning communities for undergraduate public relations students (Zhang & Yoo, 2016). In essence, social media has benefits to both students and professors, which raises the need for more exploration and discussion on the overall impact that social media pedagogy has on professors and students.

A Unified Theory of Social Media Pedagogy

Unfortunately, outside of the aforementioned examinations of specific tools or use-cases, the biggest challenge for social media usage in the classroom is that, compared to the public relations curricula as outlined by the Commission on Public Relations Education, there is no unified model for how to teach social media or what to expect from a professor teaching social media (Brodock, 2012). Educators must be able to determine which aspects of social media, if any, need to be incorporated in all public relations classes versus topic-specific classes (Merle & Freberg, 2016). Kim and Freberg (2016) conducted an initial investigation on what an ideal social media curriculum would look like. However, one shortcoming of their study was that it did not include the voices of full-time, tenure-track professors teaching social media. Exploring how educators perceive their roles as social media professors is one of the fundamental questions for the current study.

Challenges for Professors Teaching Social Media

Professors face challenges when implementing social media as a pedagogical tool. They must have sufficient motivation, self-efficacy, experience, and familiarity with these tools to address the growing knowledge gap between practice and education sectors (Correa, 2016). Educators must also be able to balance current constraints from students and administrations with the desire to use emerging technology platforms in the classroom (Fryer & Bovee, 2016). For example, Manca and Ranieri (2016) found that faculty members felt social media did not fit within “pre-existing instructional practices” and if it were to be integrated into the classroom, it would take extra time and investment on behalf of the professor when they could be spending this time on research and other professionally established opportunities valued by their academic institutions.

Another challenge educators face when implementing social media into their classes is how they are perceived by their students and whether this impacts their credibility. DeGroot et al. (2015) addressed in their Twitter study that the professor’s use did impact the students’ perception of the professor (DeGroot et al., 2015). Essentially, students who gained information from the professor (e.g., links to articles), along with personal interaction with the professor, viewed them as more credible on social media (Johnson, 2011).

To date, little research has examined the best activities educators can undertake to enhance their teaching of social media (Veletsianos & Kimmons, 2016), especially when it comes to interacting with students and gaining institutional support. Most of the social media pedagogy research until now has explored student attitudes towards social media assignments and specific applications of social media in and out of the classroom. More research is needed to explore professors’ perspectives on teaching and incorporating social media in their classes. Within this context, this study hopes to answer the following questions:

RQ1: How do professors perceive their role in teaching social media compared to other courses?

RQ2: How do professors effectively implement social media pedagogy in the classroom?


To address these research questions, the researchers conducted 31 in-depth interviews with professors who are incorporating social media platforms as pedagogical tools. The research participants represented a wide range of academic institutions, including tenured, tenure-track, and adjunct professors from public relations, marketing, and communications programs, with ages ranging from 30 to 50 years old. The researchers stopped recruiting participants when they achieved a saturation point. All the participants were from the U.S. The study was IRB approved and no real names were used in the transcript or analysis to protect the identity of the participants.

All the interviews were conducted over the phone and via Google+ Hangouts based on each participant’s availability and geographic location. The researchers used a semi-structured interview protocol that covered questions about the educator’s social media journey, challenges and benefits of teaching social media, and specific pedagogical practices such as assignments, social media platforms, books, and resources that they used for their classes. Each interview lasted one to two hours. All the interviews were transcribed by the researchers.

Once all of the interviews were conducted and transcribed, the researchers independently coded the transcripts to identify prominent themes and used the constant comparitive method recommended by Glaser and Strauss (1967), an approach used for research that has limited existing constructs. Next, researchers used an open-coding procedure to refine the initial themes and verify support for the themes based on quotes from the transcripts (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002). Finally, the researchers discussed any inconsistencies in the coding to ensure validity and reliability of the categories, finishing with a coding scheme.


According to the interview results with the 31 leading social media professors, several themes emerged based on the two proposed research questions.

RQ1: How do professors perceive their role in teaching social media compared to other courses?

The most labor-intensive and rewarding course to teach. Participants agreed that social media is the most labor-intensive and most rewarding course to teach. The most labor-intensive part highlights the ever-changing nature of social media. It challenges and requires professors to stay updated with the latest trends and tools in the industry in order to identify the most effective ways to integrate them into the classroom as pedagogical tools. For example, one senior professor shared, “I’ve taught 8 to 12 classes in my field now. Social media is by far the most time consuming one in terms of prep work. It doubles the amount of prep time of a traditional lecture class.”

In addition, grading and returning students’ social media assignments in a timely manner is another major undertaking for social media professors. Participants felt overwhelmed by the amount of time it takes to grade and to keep up with tweets, blogs, pictures, snaps, etc. As a result, some professors had to reduce the frequency of tweets, for example, that they required their students to do to make grading more manageable. As one professor shared, “Instead of requiring my students to tweet throughout the semester, I now ask them to tweet only for the duration of four to five weeks.” Otherwise, as one professor noted, “grading that amount would be a nightmare.”

Nevertheless, in spite of the challenges and difficulties involved in teaching social media, participants all agreed that it was the most rewarding course to teach. Professors said it was rewarding because they could immediately see the results of students applying what they learned in the classroom. As one senior professor shared, “I truly feel that the extra time that I spend preparing for class … all gets paid back when I hear from students who are getting jobs and internships based on their experience in the class.” It is not uncommon to hear that students receive jobs or internships “from things they posted or through people they have met through their social media class on Twitter,” as one professor shared.

Resistance from students. To integrate social media as a pedagogical tool, participants encountered various degrees of resistance from students, manifested at two levels. First, students resisted using social media platforms to do professional- and business-oriented activities and assignments. Based on the interviews, several professors mentioned that their students resisted when they were asked to conduct professional activities and demonstrate professional demeanors on these platforms. For example, one professor shared how he failed at requiring students to build their personal brands on various social channels. “Students refused to do the assignment,” the professor stated. This professor reasoned that, “Asking students to present in a professional manner on social media violates their personal space and use of the platforms.” Similarly, another professor shared, “When I told my students that they had to participate in Twitter chats and use a class hashtag, they got frustrated. And they lose points for not spelling the class hashtag correctly, which irritates them.”

Second, there were students who feel reluctant to share personal opinions in public via social media. Some, in one professor’s terms, were “anti-social media.” Given that Twitter is a frequently used pedagogical tool, almost all of the participants had students in their classes who refused to use Twitter, either because they didn’t have a Twitter account or had a private account. As one professor noted, “nearly 60% to 70% of the class didn’t do the weekly tweets. They just don’t do it. They have opinions but don’t want to share. They don’t feel comfortable tweeting.” A main reason that students didn’t want to share their opinions with the public is because they fear that their writing and opinions are not good enough. As one professor commented, “They don’t even want to share their blogs with friends and family. They don’t want their friends and family [to] know that they have a blog. They don’t think it’s good enough.”

Lack of real-life opportunities that align well with class goals and objectives. Professors are constantly searching for real-life opportunities for students to practice what they learn in the classroom and to gain hands-on experience with some of the necessary digital skills that are hard to learn from books. Unfortunately, there are not always such hands-on opportunities. This lack of real-life context is especially problematic for professors at smaller institutions where they “don’t have access to the financial resources or relationships or reputation that larger programs” have to attract industry partners, as one professor commented.

In addition, when professors collaborate with local organizations to offer their students service-learning experiences, it is difficult for them to find clients that meet class goals and objectives. One professor shared that many of his local organizations have such a basic understanding of social media that the collaboration is not likely to be mutually beneficial from the student perspective. As he shared, “It is hard to find that middle ground of an organization that our class can partner with and feel like we are helping the organization to learn and be creating content and analyzing their content for them.”

Lack of peer and institutional support. Although a few professors mentioned that their social media endeavors are well supported by their peers, departments, and institutions, the majority experienced much less supportive environments. For example, one professor shared how she created a Twitter handle for professors at her department, but the university rejected it because the department needed to seek permission first and the handle’s content needed to be monitored and regulated. Likewise, another professor shared how she encountered pushback from her school when she was trying to do consulting in public relations and social media. As she shared:

[M]any universities, mine included, don’t encourage consulting by professors. It is not encouraged. It is discouraged. You have to ask for permission. You have to apply for the right to do it. A great portion of my academic development – more than 50% – needs to be professional networking, professional engagement, and consulting helps me immensely. For me to say, gosh, can I please beg my university to do this? Why don’t they encourage me? If they see all these positive outcomes, I don’t understand why it is not encouraged across the board by many universities.

Unfortunately, professional endeavors were not deemed as reputable and as impactful as traditional research. That is why, as one professor pinpointed, “Many professors out there are independent of the professional network… they see a scholarly interaction as more important than a professional interaction.” Sometimes, the curriculum also reflects this lack of buy-in from administrations. An adjunct professor stated that he was shocked to see how many educators were not active users of social media for professional reasons. He attributed this inactive state of professors on social media to the lack of support from the administration and leadership team at universities. As he shared:

Universities, in my opinion, do not take social networking seriously. That’s where I think education is failing as far as really teaching social networks. They view it as “students will learn it in this or that class.” No, they are not. At my current university, they were not planning to teach social networking until they brought me on board. I pitched them social media analytics. They weren’t going to do it. That’s scary to me, especially at a major university. But if you are not teaching it, how do we really expect our students to understand it?

Parallel to the aforementioned lack of institutional support, participants expressed frustrations over the lack of peer support, especially among colleagues. One senior professor pointed out, “I had some colleagues saying that social is just a trend versus a main thing. They don’t see the true value or the fundamental changes that social media has brought to the area of communication.” Participants agreed that this perception is problematic and hinders what they teach in the classroom. As the senior professor further noted:

I can talk about social media and preach it all day long in my class but when students go to another class and we’re told that Twitter is going to go away or just be a trend. That makes what I talk about in my class very difficult in terms of getting buy-in from students.

Having experienced a lot of what the professor described above, another seasoned professional and adjunct professor bluntly stated, “You know who really needs social media education? The professors. They need lots of help.”

Professor-student divide. The majority of the interviewed professors believed sharing their personal lives via social media has helped personalize who they are as professors and has brought them closer to their students. For example, one professor shared how he made himself accessible by sharing his phone number, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter information with his students. As he noted, “social media is the most efficient way to communicate with my students, the 18 to 24 demographic, because they pay more attention to these social media platforms than to emails.” This closer relationship has also shrunk the power distance between professors and students. As he further stated:

When I speak their language [social media and emojis], the students think, “this professor gets us.” When I let them follow me on Instagram and Twitter, they… look up my prior content. They see my personality, and that trust and rapport-building, and the power gap is shortened.

On the other hand, some professors shared that crossing the teacher-student divide has brought them unexpected and negative consequences. One professor shared how tweeting out messages related to politics and her baby during her maternity leave affected her teaching evaluations. As her students wrote in the evaluations, “We didn’t appreciate you talking about democratic politics. We didn’t appreciate you talking so much about your kids. It was boring.” She concluded, unfortunately, that “students don’t want to know that you have a life,” but instead “they’d like to pretend that your world stops when they stop seeing you or interacting with you. They don’t want to see us as a three-dimensional human being, but as teaching robots.”

The myth that digital natives are digitally savvy. One of the biggest assumptions that social media professors encountered on a daily basis was that digital natives are digitally savvy. Students, the so-called digital natives, assumed that they were the experts on social media and they knew everything about social media. However, this was far from true, in the participants’ opinions. As one professor stated, “just because they are digital natives, it doesn’t mean that they are digital experts.” As the participants unanimously pointed out, there was a big difference between using social media for personal reasons as opposed to professional and business purposes. As one professor argued, “Students know how to use social media for fun,” but they “have no clue how to use these tools as professionals would use them for clients.”

RQ2: How do professors effectively implement social media pedagogy in the classroom?

Lead by example. Participants shared that the most effective way to implement social media pedagogy was professors’ active presence on and usage of the platforms that they were incorporating into the class. An important question grounding this perspective is: Can professors teach social media or apply social media pedagogy effectively without being on these platforms themselves?

The answer seems to be no based on the participants’ responses. The biggest problem was a “credibility gap” if professors were not on these platforms. As one adjunct argued:

If we [professors] are incorporating certain platforms and channels into the classroom, we absolutely have to be there, to be full, to be knowledgeable, and to be interacting with the students and professionals. Otherwise, there will be “credibility gaps” or you are going to have a bunch of students saying, “That’s not fair. We all have to be here and we all have to do this. Where are you?”

Many participants agreed that when it comes to teaching social media and applying social media pedagogy, nothing is more important than “practicing what we preach.” As one adjunct shared, “Unless we as educators embrace digital platforms, we are not going to influence our students.” As a result, when professors were actively engaging on social media sites such as Twitter or Instagram, it showed that “professors have basic competencies on these platforms, which will make students listen and believe us more,” circling back to the issue of credibility. One professor shared how she was learning Google Analytics with her students. As she stated, “to create buy-in from students, I am doing it with my students… This is to show students that you are learning along with them. They appreciate that.”

On the other hand, on certain platforms with which professors did not have personal experience, especially with some newer apps like Snapchat, they felt a lack of confidence in incorporating these tools into the classroom. As one professor shared:

My lack of use of Snapchat has put me in a disadvantage. I have to rely on my students to make sure that I am well acquainted with the culture of the platform and with what we are doing, whereas [with] the other social media platforms, like blogs and Twitter, I consider myself to be pretty versed on all of them.

In situations where teachers don’t feel comfortable consulting their students regarding the dos and don’ts of certain platforms, they choose to not incorporate them as pedagogical tools at all.

Incentivize social-media related assignments. Participants shared several examples students lacking the motivation to complete social media assignments when these assignments were given as optional, especially on platforms that they were not personally fond of or active users of, such as Twitter. Class hashtags on Twitter were a common pedagogical tool mentioned by many professors that didn’t result in broad participation without incentives.

However, when incentives were given, students were more likely to participate in and complete the tasks. As one professor noted based on experience, if social media sites were to be employed as pedagogical tools, they had to “be tied to some evaluative component, an assignment that they will be graded on and assessed in some way.” To address this challenge, professors shared several creative ways to engage students on Twitter via class hashtags. For example, one professor developed quiz questions based on the articles that students posted to Twitter, while another professor used Twitter chats to conduct exam reviews. Participants reported that students responded extremely well to these activities, as one professor noted, “Even students who don’t use Twitter for their personal purposes typically signed up and created an account so that they can review the review sessions.”

Furthermore, some professors had success with some newer platforms like Snapchat and Instagram. One professor developed a Snapchat scavenger hunt assignment for her students to participate in, and another professor asked her graduating class to take pictures of their campus that would resonate the most with them by using a common hashtag.

Use social media to bridge the gap between classroom learning and industry practice. Participants shared a number of examples of how they used social media as a pedagogical tool to connect students to the outside world, including being in charge of the department’s social media accounts; following local businesses on social media, interacting with them (one class ended up getting free pizza from Dominos), and identifying strengths and weaknesses of these businesses’ social presence (one student got hired as a result); and following influencers on social media in specific fields of interest to the students.

Besides social media activities, requiring students to earn certifications was another way to bridge the two worlds. Certifications such as Hootsuite Platform Certification, HubSpot’s Inbound Certification, and Google Analytics were popular recommendations. One professor shared how one of his students got an internship because of the skills he mastered through these certifications.

Professors as social connectors. An essential aspect to using social media as a bridge was that professors themselves served as a bridge as well. According to participants, professors needed to become social connectors themselves, interlinking education and practice and sharing resources. One professor shared how her role as a social connector had benefited her teaching. As she said:

I see professors as connectors. Our job is to connect our students from the academic world to the professional world. We are going to be the bridge from academic to professional. If you don’t have professional connections and if you don’t reach out to the professional community, and make sure that they trust you as an educator, and they trust you to send them smart students who know how to use these digital and social media tools, then I don’t know if you would be a good teacher.

For professors who did not have an extensive professional background, they believed that having an active online presence or personal brand helped them achieve similar results as social connectors. One professor who had a strong personal brand via blogging shared how his digital presence had helped him serve as “conduit,” connecting the two sides:

My blog is primarily talking to educators. It helps me establish credibility by showing what I am doing and showing that I am halfway between student and professional world, kind of see myself as a conduit. My online presence has opened doors to get guest speakers and so forth. Organizations and companies contact me saying, “We heard about the things that you are doing with your students. Would you be interested in taking on our nonprofit org as a client?” Being online and interacting and engaging has a ripple effect because people see your presence as credible and keep you salient in their mind.

Furthermore, a natural byproduct of professors serving as social connectors was that they were creating a class community. Participants shared that social media pedagogy was an effective way to build relationships and to create such a community. One professor noted, “Interacting with [my students] helps me build relationships with [them]. It is rewarding to have this kind of relationship with students.” In participants’ opinions, this could be accomplished on any social media platform. As another experienced professional and adjunct shared:

Social media allows you to have emotional connection with your students. You can use social media to build your own community and voice together and feel comfortable as a community. When that happens, the learning increases. Collaboration is increasing. Students are also innovating.

Mentorship. As participants expressed, having mentors who were relatively more experienced with social media pedagogy was critical to anyone embarking on this journey. Although everyone expressed a need for mentors regardless of their levels, participants suggested that mentorship was particularly valuable for two groups of people. One group includes those who do not have any professional background. Therefore, being mentored by other professors who were experienced in teaching social media and adopting social media pedagogy was crucial. For example, one professor who had no professional experience shared that, “I really have a couple of people who were a little bit ahead of me to thank for the initial introduction to social media pedagogy.”

The second group of people that benefited from mentorship included junior faculty members who had just joined the workforce. As one junior faculty member mentioned, “My social media pedagogy success has a lot to do with the outstanding connections that I have who are colleagues and research partners – the mentorship and guidance of people who are graduate colleagues and friends.”


Research findings of the present study revealed how professors perceived their role as social media educators. The following section discusses the findings in more detail and suggests a blueprint for implementing social media pedagogy in the classroom.

Teaching Social Media: Trials and Tribulations.

Many of the challenges in teaching social media suggested in the literature occurred throughout the present study, such as the need to possess sufficient self-efficacy, motivation, familiarity of the social media tools, and balancing constraints from students and administrators. Participants shared that many of their peers still treat social media dismissively, as “a trend” or “a fad.” Generally, participants felt that they lacked support and recognition from leaders in their administrations and departments with respect to the time and effort, often doubled, that they invested in teaching social media classes. This is especially concerning for junior faculty members who are pursuing tenure and promotion. Just as there is no unified method to teach social media (Brodock, 2012), there are no clear standards guiding how social media activities and pedagogical innovations contribute to professors’ career development. While most schools have the end goal of preparing students for jobs, they have not sufficiently aligned the necessary resources to achieve that goal. As one professor argued, “Goals without resources are failures.”

Another salient point that emerged was an apparent paradigm shift in the student-teacher relationship when teaching social media classes. Participants frequently mentioned that the old model of learning and teaching no longer works in today’s digitized classroom environment. It is time to move away from information dissemination to a co-creation paradigm where the relationship between professors and students is fluid and dynamic. Unfortunately, many professors, as one participant critiqued, “are used to their old teaching philosophy. They are stuck in their same old way to teach things. Maybe they are tenured, no incentives to innovate.”

Best Practices of Social Media Pedagogy: A Blueprint.

The importance of buy-in from professors, students, professionals, and institutions emerged as indispensable factors to successfully implementing social media pedagogy in the classroom. Among all, professors may hold the ultimate influence to create buy-in from students. When professors are using social media effectively and strategically to build their personal brands, bridge the gap between classroom learning, and open professional networking opportunities, they are perceived by students as being more credible, trustworthy, and relatable. As Manca and Ranieri’s (2016) recent study suggested, professors in general are most likely to use social media for personal use. Likewise, students are also accustomed to using social media as personal and entertainment tools, as the present study has suggested. Within this context, unless educators make a conscious effort to change their perceptions and use of social media, they will not gain the necessary buy-in from students to practice social media as strategic communication tools. Classroom learning is the last stop before students graduate. Thus, teachers’ guidance and training are essential to help students obtain and internalize the necessary social media skills. When students have professors who are active and excited about social media and share stories about how it has benefited themselves professionally, students resonate with that strongly and learning increases substantially.

However, educators’ efforts alone are not sufficient to successfully implement social media pedagogy. Additional support from both professionals and institutions is crucial. The following graph (Figure 1) attempts to paint a blueprint for implementing social media pedagogy in the classroom, capturing the insights gained from RQ1 and RQ2.

Figure 1

A blueprint for implementing social media pedagogy in the classroom.


The solid lines on the figure describe existing relationships, whereas dotted lines indicate non-existing ones. Double-direction arrows refer to two-way relationships and one-way arrows refer to one-way relationships. There are four solid lines numbered as 1, 2, 3, and 4, and five dotted lines numbered as 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. Specifically, the first solid two-way arrow (Number 1) describes the fluid relationship and power dynamic between professors and students, as well as a co-creation process of class content and the learning experience. The solid two-way arrow between professionals and professors (Number 2) reiterates the role that professors play as social connectors, interlinking education and practice. The solid two-way arrow (Number 3) between professionals and students highlights an important responsibility that practicing professionals hold in terms of giving back to the academic community and sharing with the students the latest tools and skills that industry demands. The solid two-way arrow (Number 4) describes ongoing communication between professors and administrators to inform each other of the latest updates and challenges so that those higher-up can offer educators the necessary support and recognition they deserve, and educators can train competent students to boost employment rates.

In terms of the dotted lines, the dotted one-way arrows of Numbers 5, 6, and 7 on top of the figure call for a co-advocacy partnership between professionals and professors to collaborate and advocate for themselves and to communicate to the administrators about the positive impact that they have created in the class as a result of their social media class and digital pedagogy. The dotted two-way arrow (Number 8) indicates the possibility of collaborations between professionals and administrators to share resources. For example, some participants in the study shared that their schools hired professionals from the industry to offer summer workshops to teach professors the ins and outs of social media. Professors benefited substantially from these workshops not just in terms of learning how to use specific platforms, but also thinking more strategically about integrating social media into the classroom as well. The last dotted two-way arrow (Number 9) indicates a missing link between students and administrators. Participants in the present study reiterated times that universities need to communicate to students that social media is irreplaceable in today’s business world, and it is important for them to have at least basic digital skills. In general, these dotted lines reveal missing links in our existing social media pedagogy in public relations classes.


This study suggests several areas for future research. First, future scholars can examine to what extent and in what aspects professors’ self-disclosure via social media is conducive to classroom teaching and learning. Whereas the majority of the participants shared that social media interactions with students brought them closer to their students and broke down the teacher-student hierarchy, others experienced negative consequences as a result of being personal online.

Second, future studies can examine students’ and professionals’ perceptions of professors’ credibility between those who have an active online presence and those who do not, and what social cues can make professors more credible to students and professionals. The present study suggested the importance of leading by example and argued that professors need to be active, or at least moderate, users of the social media platforms that they incorporate into the classroom. Otherwise, there will be credibility gaps.

Third, research on social media pedagogy can start to examine the applications and ramifications of some of the newer social platforms as pedagogical tools such as Snapchat and Instagram, as well as channels that have been under-utilized such as Reddit, BuzzFeed, and Facebook Live.

Lastly, scholars can conduct longitudinal studies to investigate to what extent and in what aspects taking a social media class will help students continue many of the social media behaviors they did in the class, such as building a personal brand, participating in Twitter chats, and interacting with professionals in the industry. Will they continue to use these platforms after the semester is over?


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