The Journal of Public Relations Education (JPRE) is devoted to the presentation of research and commentary that advance the field of public relations education. JPRE invites submissions in the following three categories.
Learn more by visiting the About JPRE page and the Authors / Contributors page for submission guidelines. All submissions should follow the guidelines of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA).
At a time when an increased amount of reputational issues pop on social media platforms, and organizations’ constituents are more willing to take them to task publicly, the window for public relations professionals between getting it right and getting it right now continues to narrow. For many professionals, this calls for a need to reset leadership and constituent expectations while rethinking their approach to issues and crisis planning and online engagement strategy, especially as the two areas continue to merge.
In the book Social Media and Crisis Communication, book editors Lucinda Austin, assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Yan Jin, associate professor at the University of Georgia, take a comprehensive look at the state of crisis communications research and the implications that the rise of social media has had on the field. This book couldn’t have come at a more important time as the quick and public nature of social media allows anyone with a handle to more easily challenge organizations, causing many public relations professionals to rethink their issues and crisis response strategies and approach to online reputation management.
This is the first book that explores the nexus of social media and crisis communications research and the new challenges that have emerged. For example, Chapter 2 author Timothy Coombs notes how social media has pushed many prevention and mitigation efforts by organizations in the traditionally private pre-crisis phrase into the public eye (p. 25). This public challenge by a stakeholder, organizational faux pas, or angry customer complaint is referred to as a paracrisis. In Chapter 4, Valentini et. al. note that “social media have become the milieu in which many crises are discussed, if not formed” (p. 57).
The book covers a large body of research and is divided into themed sections, including current and emerging issues of social media and crisis communication, overviews of dominant research streams, emerging theories and frameworks, areas for special consideration, future directions, and applications in specific areas of crisis. Additionally, the editors note that the book addresses some themes throughout different chapters, including the need for more dialogic approaches to crisis communication via social media and measurement of social media engagement in crisis communication response. These recurring ideas show a consistent need for implementation in public relations strategies and potential ideas for future crisis research.
The Dialogic Approach
Because of the interactivity and user-generated nature of social media, multiple chapter authors argue that crisis communication practices need to shift away from typical stakeholder-informing communications toward a more dialogic approach. For example, Valentini et al. say that little research currently exists, but it is needed to understand organizations’ potential use of dialogic communication with stakeholders via social media. They argue that two-way dialogic communication is an important step toward establishing credibility and trust and that stakeholder interactions can also be leveraged to add third-party voices to the mix.
The book also covers the shift over the past decade from organizational approaches to audience-oriented and public-centered approaches for crisis communications, focusing on dialogic communication and stakeholder engagement. In Chapter 19, Guidry and Messner acknowledge that social media opens up two-way communication opportunities, but many organizations have been hesitant to embrace the possibilities and continue to use the platforms ineffectively as a “one-way megaphone” (p. 270).
In Chapter 9, Fraustino and Liu surmise that in crisis scholarship and, to some extent, social media crisis scholarship, a focus on an audience’s perspective is on the rise, placing an emphasis on ethical communications. They add that some gaps remain as the scholarship shifts, including the need to consider publics and outcome measures that aren’t just focused on the organization’s short- and long-term survival, but more so on the social good—the audience response during a crisis as a whole. In Chapter 5, Hung-Baesecke and Bowen add that organizations need to consider the ethics of engaging with stakeholders on social media when planning crisis strategies, including the fact that being “authentic” helps organizations in the long-run (p. 74).
Measurement of Social Media Engagement in Crisis Communication Response
Along the theme of measurable goals, Austin and Jin suggest more research is needed to continue to assess the effectiveness of crisis communications messaging, especially on different social media platforms. In Chapter 3, Goodman, for example, explained that the quality of proactive issues management (monitoring for issues, building and maintaining relationships, and implementing an effective issues-response system) is “usually a direct result of how rigorously those efforts are measured” and how specific goals are defined, especially in the “issues mapping” process (p. 65). In other words, the more you can show the value, the more support organizational leadership will have for proactive prevention. Conversely, as evidenced by Fraustino and Liu, the value to the organization should not be the only consideration. Ethically, organizations should have a concern for the effectiveness of communications on directing audiences during a crisis, to create not only a good organizational image but also to benefit the public.
Social Media Crisis Communication Models
The book explores the development of different types of crisis communications models, including Coombs’ situational crisis communications theory (SCCT), Benoit’s image-repair theory, and Cameron and colleagues’ contingency theory of strategic conflict management, in conjunction with the role of social media in crisis communications. It also explores the only social-media specific crisis communications model, Austin and Jin’s social-mediated crisis communications (SMCC) model.
The authors did a nice job of explaining these models and showing examples of putting them into practice. Austin and Jin identify the need for a focus on developing better theories and frameworks specific to communicating a crisis on social media platforms, instead of attempting to adapt the existing theories. Austin and Jin suggest this approach for future research, citing the need for “prescribing strategic solutions and recommendations for crisis managers who look for science-based insights tailored for a relatively focused and specialized crisis communication arena” (p. 450).
Visual Elements and Social Media Crisis Communication
The book also addresses the visual nature of social media, including the potential benefits of integrating images and graphics into crisis responses. In Chapter 19, Guidry and Messner show how the more visually focused platform Pinterest contributes to pro- and anti-vaccination health communications. Janoske expands on the benefits of visuals in Chapter 22, writing about how natural disaster images help the public understand and emotionally cope in recovery. She shows how social media allows members of the public to form communities when sharing emergency information and photos during a crisis and how crisis communicators can use these online visual communities to better understand the situation and inform their communications strategies for the publics they serve.
Austin and Jin conclude the book by acknowledging new areas of research opportunities, noting the fact that social media technology is so rapidly changing calls for continued research as crisis communications adjusts to developing platforms.
This is an excellent, informative, and well-researched book with contributions from many well-established authors in both the crisis communications and social media research fields. The book gives a comprehensive overview of the current state of research and offers suggestions for the future as these two areas continue to overlap. It thoroughly covers the emergence of crisis communications theory and its increasingly common intersection with social media, and, I would argue, will serve as a bedrock resource for the next wave of research.
The book is valuable for academics and professional practitioners alike. The variety of examples of organizations and types of crises studied in the “application” section makes it a great tool for public relations practitioners, in particular. At 461 pages, this book is expansive, but its thoughtful organization and high-level approach lend it to easily be used as a textbook for a graduate course on the topic.
The novel Spin follows a crisis through the eyes of a fictional veteran crisis management expert named Jonathan Keaton as he is brought into BeeLine, an Apple-like technology company, when its CEO Bradford Sisley becomes embroiled in a sexual harassment complaint. Readers need only enjoy a compelling story and lively narrative to appreciate the book’s content. They should also appreciate punchy dialogue. The book is written in first-person, and the conversational style makes readers feel like confidants with Keaton throughout the duration of the crisis.
The first-person narrator spends quite a bit of time on his personal life, allowing the reader to identify with him. Indeed, as Spin opens, Keaton reflects on his decision to work for a client whom he knows to be problematic. We learn later that Keaton’s primary motivation is financial, and that he is typically paid handsomely for his work. If money is an indication, Keaton has a well-earned reputation as a crisis management expert.
It is evident early on that the author is a former senior public relations counselor. He weaves real-life individuals who were outed during the #MeToo movement (Bennett, 2017)—Bill Cosby (Bowley, 2018), Matt Lauer (Nark, 2017), and Harvey Weinstein (Cooney, 2017)—situating the fictional universe of Spin within the present socio-political environment. Moreover, mentions of the corporate crises of BP Amoco (Shogren, 2011) and Enron (Reber & Gower, 2006) suggest a shared history.
Organization of Book
Formatting each chapter to correspond with days of the week affords an easy-to-navigate narrative. The eight chapters of the book are laid out chronologically according to the roughly 10-day duration of the crisis. The narrative centers on three main characters: crisis management expert Jonathan Keaton, BeeLine CEO Bradford Sisley, and BeeLine vice president of public relations, Wendy Smith-Kenyon.
The book opens on a Thursday as Keaton arrives to meet Smith-Kenyon. As the chapter continues into BeeLine headquarters, the CEO explains to them that the woman who has accused him of sexual harassment has hired a media-savvy attorney—one with more than a passing resemblance to Gloria Allred (Tolentino, 2017) in passion and press appeal. Readers quickly learn how a hostile client can derail a plan, choosing a course of action that is not only unhelpful but also overtly harmful (e.g., Bruning & Ledingham, 2002). The CEO insists that (1) he is innocent, (2) he would never settle any lawsuit, and (3) he intends to be the voice of men who are falsely accused.
With their crisis management strategy in full swing, Keaton and Smith-Kenyon sync media lists, while he crafts a media statement and she begins planning a press conference. Readers get a front-seat view of carefully planned media interactions, “overhearing” one of the calls Keaton has with a long-time media contact about the pending story. As the story is picked up by news media, readers also witness real-time media monitoring as they analyze the content and tone of coverage to provide strategic counsel to the CEO (e.g., Veil, Buehner, & Palenchar, 2011; Wigley & Zhang, 2011).
As is typical of crises in the #MeToo era, this crisis gets worse before it gets better. On Tuesday, a disgruntled former employee impugns the CEO’s character on a morning talk show while late-night talk-show hosts use sharp-edged comedy to ridicule him about the harassment claim. Without revealing too much of the plot, suffice it to say that the CEO tries to manage his own media appearances with disastrous consequences. As expected, the story continues to gain traction, hitting national airwaves.
Wednesday is split into two chapters, with chapter four taking place in the morning. What begins as a strategy session with Keaton, Smith-Kenyon, and CEO Sisley, quickly devolves as the CEO continues to ignore their advice. Soon thereafter, the company is publicly outed by a BeeLine insider as a “poisonously hostile work environment” whose leadership is deemed “sexist, racist, homophobic, ageist, and dictatorial” (p. 126). Given that BeeLine is a public company, when the story hits the business news, its stock price takes a hit. We learn here just how interconnected public relations and investor relations are to a company’s industry status.
A member of the BeeLine internal communications team emerges on Wednesday afternoon. She holds particular prominence in the company because of her status as the daughter of the company co-founder, and she quickly asserts her power. From her, readers learn that employee morale has also taken a hit, adding internal communications to Keaton’s concerns. Here, the book casts a clear-eyed view of the inherent challenges of internal and external public relations teams working together, sometimes at cross-purposes (e.g., Cardwell, Williams, & Pyle, 2017).
The Thursday of the crisis is when the twist of the story occurs, articulating for the reader the true origins of the crisis. The “Final Days” cannot be shared without revealing a spoiler, but it is worth noting that the reader will come to understand why Keaton has been largely unable to control the media narrative surrounding the harassment complaint. Those seeking a happy ending can be assured that a perfectly worded statement about upcoming company changes could very well find its way to the media at precisely the right time.
Ideally, Spin would include information about the narrator’s educational background. Readers are left to assume whether his extensive experience includes a particular degree, professional practice, or a mixture of both. Too, the book only conveys the narrator’s expertise in the past tense. The reader learns about Keaton serving as a consultant for several other clients and companies, additionally, characters repeatedly reference his reputation as an industry expert.
Another area that seems out of place is the repeated references to the lead character’s physical attributes that sometimes distract from the story. Negative self-talk focuses extensive attention on his weight and propensity to overeat. However, the fact that his sardonic humor is reflected in characterizations of others suggests this is merely a personality quirk. More notable is the fact that his limited knowledge of digital media seems incompatible with his status as a crisis management expert.
Contribution to Public Relations Education
Although Spin is written for entertainment purposes, the novel does contribute to public relations education. As an educator whose research interests include media representations of public relations, I have facilitated robust classroom discussions about the differences between how Olivia Pope handles a crisis versus her real-world counterparts. Film-based public relations characters hold similar value as a teaching tool (Lambert, 2011). It would be difficult to overstate how much depictions of client relations and corporate communications in this book align with real-world issues public relations professionals encounter. Educators who are seeking a creative approach to teaching corporate or crisis communication could supplement coursework with this book. Also, discussing the morally ambiguous actions of some of the public relations characters in Spin could help students think critically about questions of ethics versus effectiveness in public relations. Finally, the public relations specialties showcased in Spin remind readers about the many sectors available to industry professionals. Students can only benefit from knowing about the variety of career opportunities in the field.
Bowen, S.A., & Heath, R.L. (2005). Issues management, systems, and rhetoric: exploring the distinction between ethical and legal guidelines at Enron. Journal of Public Affairs, 5(2), 84-98. doi: 10.1002/pa.l3
Bruning, S.D., & Ledingham, J.A. (2002). Identifying the communication, behaviors, and interaction patterns of agency-client relationships in development and decline. Journal of Promotion Management, 8(2), 21-34. doi: 10.1300/J057v08n02_03
Cardwell, L.A., Williams, S., & Pyle, A. (2017). Corporate public relations dynamics: Internal vs. external stakeholders and the role of the practitioner. Public Relations Review, 43(1), 155-162. doi: 10.1016/j.pubrev.2016.11.004
Veil, S. R., Buehner, T., & Palenchar, M. J. (2011). A work-in-process literature review: Incorporating social media in risk and crisis communication. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, 19(2), 110-122. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-5973.2011.00639.x
Fortune 500 corporations reportedly spend an excess of $15 billion a year on corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives, with that number expected to rise (O’Keefe, 2016). Still, much debate remains about the home of CSR and sustainability in the corporate hierarchy. Specifically, debate between the home of CSR as a human resources (HR) initiative or as a public relations (PR) effort remains stagnant with little directional movement toward either field.
Donnalyn Pompper, editor of the volume Corporate Social Responsibility, Sustainability, and Ethical Public Relations: Strengthening Synergies with Human Resources, says now is the time to re-examine the place of CSR and sustainability in their conflicting relationships with public relations and human resources (Pompper, 2017, p. 21). In the book, Pompper addresses the debate by arguing for HR-PR departmental cohesion in order to work as the “organizational conscience” of the company or nonprofit to further support CSR and sustainability efforts and thereby enhance the organization’s reputation (Pompper, 2017, p. 17). Throughout this collection, the authors provide a clear argument with evidence in the form of various case studies, interviews, and content analyses for the cooperation of the two departments.
Composition and Organization of this Book
The collection of work includes articles covering how CSR/sustainability measures can help with a wide range of business challenges, including those faced by HR departments. Several of the chapters mention how successful CSR initiatives can enhance hiring practices, particularly Chapter 4 by Heinrich, “Overcoming Regional Retention Issues: How Some Michigan Organizations Use CSR to Attract and Engage Top Talent” and Chapter 9 by Howes, “Hiring Programs for Military Veterans and Athletes Use HR and PR to Demonstrate Human Dimension of Corporate Social Responsibility.” Other chapters focus on how CSR already enhances the overall organization, including Chapter 5 by Wood, Berger, and Roberts, “Corporate Social Responsibility, Volunteerism, and Social Identity: A Case Study of Cotopaxi” and Chapter 7 by Oshin-Martin, “Corporate Social Responsibility: Johnson & Johnson Creating Community Relations and Value through Open Social Innovation and Partnership across Sub-Saharan Africa.”
In Chapter 2, “Organizations, HR, CSR, and Their Social Networks: ‘Sustainability’ on Twitter,” Lipschultz explores how these topics are discussed on Twitter to understand how employees can become advocates or brand ambassadors for their companies, while the authors of Chapter 6, Dusingize and Nyiransabimana, interviewed internal and external university publics for their project, “A Study of University Social Responsibility Practices at Rwanda’s Institut Catholique de Kabgayi,” to find the definition to the vague term “university social responsibility.” Recognizing the importance of engaging future potential employees, Chapter 3 by Bradford, “Nonprofit Social Responsibility and Sustainability: Engaging Urban Youth through Empowerment,” utilized a content analysis to provide evidence for how existing nonprofits empower youth through CSR.
The book even includes a case study wherein the failure to integrate CSR/sustainability and corporate values throughout the entire corporation led to disaster, which is discussed in Chapter 10 by Stokes, “Failure to Activate: EpiPen, Legitimacy Challenges, and the Importance of Employee CSR.” These in-depth studies of how specific organizations used CSR/sustainability within their organizations and how CSR/sustainability is discussed online provide the growing field of PR literature with key examples that may be useful for future theory development or for classroom instruction.
The chapters provide positive examples of companies whose CSR initiatives are cohesive from top to bottom including Cotopaxi (Chapter 5), Johnson & Johnson (Chapter 7), and MGM Resorts International (Chapter 11). While the inclusion of a variety of companies of differing size and business structure provides evidence for how this proposed mix of HR and PR works on various scales, the companies have one major ideal in common—they are led by their ethical integrity. Presumably, their internal communications and CSR/sustainability efforts are not led by only their HR or PR departments but by their organization as a whole.
Similarly, in Chapter 8, “Examining Public Relations’ Role in Shaping Organizational Culture, with Implications for PR, HR, and CSR/Sustainability,” Bourland-Davis and Graham provide a case study wherein findings indicate that “CSR/Sustainability can be an organizational value in and of itself, and that corporate culture can be strengthened with the coordination of PR and HR efforts” (Pompper, 2017, p. 214). Stating that the corporate culture will be strengthened by the coordinated efforts implies that the culture must be pre-established, further pointing to the need for direction from the top of the organization in order to develop a CSR/sustainability mission within the organization.
Pompper provides a well-developed collection of work that successfully points to the need for cooperation between HR and PR departments by examining CSR/sustainability from a wide variety of organization types and sizes. This book raises more questions than it answers, which matches the nature of a developing research field. Authors do not offer a CSR or sustainability theory, rather they utilize various theories, including excellence theory and social exchange theory, among others. Additionally, nearly every chapter mentions the difficulty in defining CSR and sustainability, but no chapter seeks to thoroughly define the two terms. The chapters primarily use the two terms interchangeably. For this reason, the book points to the need for a universally accepted definition of the two terms in order to provide corporations with information that may assist in their efforts to distinguish between those two programs internally.
This collection would also benefit from quantitative studies as a means of providing an example of the return on investment that organizations can expect from having these programs. Nearly every study included either a content analysis or a series of interviews, which are appropriate for the intended purpose of this collection; however, future research should develop measurements for these initiatives. Additionally, the book points to a need for suggestions for organizational structures that will encourage this type of synergy between departments, in addition to further research into how to build a clear framework for organizations to use in establishing CSR/sustainability practices throughout their businesses.
Who Would Benefit from Reading this Book?
This book offers a variety of practical and theoretical insights, and as such, it would be an appropriate text for a course that covers CSR and/or sustainability topics. Because the discussion situates itself between the business world (HR) and the communications world (PR), it would also be appropriate in a business school course, particularly within an HR or a marketing communications curriculum. Practically, the insights offered would be useful to organizational departments that have responsibility for corporate social responsibility or sustainability initiatives. This may be the traditional HR or PR department, but it could also be a sustainability department, a marketing department, or a public information office. The findings from the studies offer insights into how to more effectively integrate initiatives into the organization to maximize effectiveness, regardless of the initiative’s home. Of course, like Pompper’s other books on sustainability communication and CSR (e.g., Pompper, 2015), this is a must-read for anyone who researches this area. Overall, this is an interesting book that fills a need to explore how CSR and sustainability are managed within organizations and how different departments can uniquely contribute to their success.
Editorial Record: Submitted to AEJMC-PRD GIFT Competition by Feb. 22, 2019. A blind copy was peer reviewed by the PRD Teaching Committee, led by Chair Brigitta Brunner, and selected as a Top GIFT. First published online on August 17, 2019.
Hyun Ju Jeong, University of Kentucky
Studying real-world crisis episodes can help students expand their ability to speculate how real-life public relations incidents and planning operate and how decisions are made within PR practices. Particularly in the digital media landscape, as crises escalate at an unprecedented speed, often going beyond crisis scenarios, it is important to expose students to a variety of crisis cases in the learning environment.
In this teaching brief, I suggest a seemingly obvious but largely undiscovered teaching idea––give each student 5 minutes to explore a specific case and present it to the class. Born and raised as “digital natives,” today’s students have developed inherent interests in crises within their own digital territories (Prensky, 2001). Thus each semester, I request each of the students in my class to bring a case of their choice and present it. If there are 30 individual students in class, the class, as a whole, will learn their course topics based on at least 30 different recent crisis cases. This simple assignment can bring an exciting and critical-learning experience to the class, ultimately leading students to articulate their own findings through collaborative in-class discussion.
This assignment can benefit not only students but also instructors. The mini-cases brought by students can become teachers’ assets, helping them develop another novel and innovative teaching strategy for student engagement. The cases can be easily adopted as an interactive teaching tool through video notes and small-group discussions (Morris, 2018). If a student brings “Lady Doritos” (Bruner, 2018) and the teacher finds that they need more practice applying ethical standards to real-world scenarios, the teacher can plan the next class exercise about the PRSA ethical principles; if a case is about the John Schnatter/Papa John’s Pizza scandal (Aulbach, 2019), plan the next in-class activities for stakeholder mapping (see Evidence of Learning Outcomes and Appendix).
Student Learning Goals
The 5-minute case talk encourages students to examine a case critically and independently so they can learn how to utilize specific knowledge and skills when handling real crisis PR cases. Students are asked to look into diverse but interrelated cases and compare all of them under one single parameter of PR practices (e.g., employee crisis). They then explore relevant information for each case until they are able to identify the best case to present. To execute this assignment successfully, it is advisable for instructors to arrange the students’ presentation dates and check the appropriateness of each proposed case (e.g., two students could bring the same case), as well as the depth of student understanding regarding each case (e.g., requesting more studies about a case) ahead of time.
By setting the time limit to 5 minutes, students learn how to design a compelling presentation and condense core ideas of their cases into a short time span. Students also learn how to interact with the audience through good discussion questions and group dynamics. As the talk is usually presented for the first 5 minutes of each session, it is also the perfect opportunity to create rapport with an individual presenter, as well as with other students in the class, which is necessary to build a positive and comfortable learning environment (Buskist & Saville, 2001).
These learning outcomes are lined up with the Program-Level Learning Outcomes: “Students will demonstrate the ability to think critically and independently; Students will communicate effectively in written and visual formats appropriate to the ISC profession with an understanding of diverse audiences” (UK, 2017).
Connection to Public Relations Theory/Practice
The incorporation of casework in student learning materials enhances their overall learning through heightened engagement and interest. This assignment also asks students (and instructors) to be more familiar with “what’s new” and “what matters” within fields by closing the gap between the classroom and the real world. Given the fact that PR is a fast-growing profession and area of study, this teaching idea can be adapted for other PR courses (e.g., PR case studies, PR ethics), even though it is specifically encouraged for the crisis PR class in this brief.
Evidence of Student Learning
Students have assessed this learning method with strong positivity in their course evaluations. The engaging learning experience provided through the 5-minute case talk has most frequently been commented on in positive course evaluations over the years (i.e., accounting for 40-42% of positive comments on courses). Listed below are selective comments about this assignment:
“I found that the most helpful parts of the course were 5-minute talks. This allowed us to take real-life scenarios and types of public relations practices and see how they were handled and learn what to do and what not to do in potential future situations.”
“It was helpful with regards to learning more about public relations. Our 5-minute talks were fun and interesting. Having plenty of examples that went with the topic we were discussing usually made the material easier to take in.”
“The case studies were very interesting and helped me understand the topic through example and experience.”
“The presentation of actual PR cases was interesting and helpful in learning to navigate the PR field.”
Listed below are examples of the 5-minute crisis presentation slides submitted by students based on the assignment instructions:
Appendix: Assignment Instructions for 5-Minute Case Talk (Individual Assignment)
We are never going to be able to eliminate the possibility of a crisis perfectly in the workplace and in real life, but many corporate crises are likely to be caused or worsened by the failure of organizations to anticipate and plan for them ahead of time. When a crisis is neither planned for nor managed properly, even major organizations have found themselves facing PR disasters. As a PR student, it is important to be familiar with real-world examples of crisis PR – whether they were successful or failures. In this assignment, you are asked to find one of the most recent crisis PR cases (between 2017 and 2019) and present it to the class.
You begin by finding a case from various news article providers (e.g., Google News: Business, PR Daily, PR Newswire) and PR trade publications (e.g., PR Week, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, MarketingSherpa, AdAge). Be sure that the case you select for this assignment is “totally new.” In other words, it hasn’t been introduced in class through any course requirement (e.g., the course textbook and reading materials, in-class exercises, previous 5-minute talks). Then, study the case. When completing this part, please use multiple resources to fully understand all aspects of the case. Do not rely on Wikipedia or individually owned blogs to grasp key information. Be sure to check multiple resources for fact-checking.
While you are responsible for finding a case for your talk, feel free to discuss the appropriateness of a case and confirm it with me ahead of time. Then, you need to present your case to the class for 5 minutes using a presentation slide, either PPT or PDF.
(1) Brief Summary (1 page): Summarize a case with when, what, who, how and/or why information.
(2) Identifications of Crisis and its Significance (1 page): Define a major crisis; identify clients and audiences in crisis communication; discuss why this crisis or crisis communication matters in PR; if possible, limit your discussion to a single PR practice to specify your argument, but do not forget to make your own discoveries.
(3) Pre-Crisis and Background (1 page): Find a proactive plan if any; identify internal and external risks or issues influenced by or influencing the crisis.
(4) Response (1-2 page): Identify and evaluate reactive strategies and tactics (e.g., response speed, key message, spokespeople, media relations, other crises following).
(5) Q&A (1 page): Generate two questions to activate the in-class discussion on the case.
The talk is limited to 5 minutes. While making the presentation slide, avoid plagiarism through proper citations. Include a bibliography. The grade of this assignment is based on the following distribution: 50% for the oral presentation; 30% of the Q&A; 20% of the presentation slides. You must upload your presentation slides directly to Canvas before 5 p.m. on the day before your presentation date. Your presentation schedule will be randomly decided by the instructor, but it is flexible. The first talk will be delivered after the first two weeks of the semester.
Editorial Record: Submitted to AEJMC-PRD GIFT Competition by Feb. 22, 2019. A blind copy was peer reviewed by the PRD Teaching Committee, led by Chair Brigitta Brunner, and selected as a Top GIFT. First published online on August 17, 2019.
Janis Teruggi Page, University of Illinois at Chicago
CSR communications have become an increasing responsibility for PR practitioners, as corporations have now recognized CSR as essential to their operations and their reputations. This lesson is designed to prepare students for this growing, essential practice in corporate public relations through analyzing industry research to find gaps between the “good works” companies perform and their “good works” reputation among the general population—gaps that can be filled through the use of strategic communication. According to the Reputation Institute:
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a highly important driver of reputation. Although companies are increasingly becoming more sustainable, the public often does not know or recognize a company’s CSR commitment. Consequently, a company’s actual and perceived CSR is frequently misaligned. Aligning CSR minimizes reputational risks and can improve reputation significantly. (Verheij, 2017, p. 1)
Student Learning Goals
By engaging in this assignment, students will understand that a strategic CSR program is only as strong as a company’s ability to communicate its strengths, values, and impacts to a wide array of internal and external stakeholders. They will diagnose the need for a CSR communication strategy by evaluating gaps between performance and reputation. They will also gain insight on excellence in CSR communication by evaluating communication tactics of high-performing companies with high-perceived reputations. Guided by this research process, they will recommend a strategic communication plan to support CSR engagement to close the reputation gap between public reception and reality.
Connection to Public Relations Theory
This lesson connects to relationship management theory. An organization’s survival depends on mutually beneficial relationships between the organization and its publics. According to Ledingham (2003), “Successful organization-public relationships develop around common interests and shared solutions to common problems” (p. 188). Among the relational factors is trust that the organization lives its values. Consumers consider CSR efforts when judging the reputation of a company, and CSR is a key public relations tool for communicating norms and gaining legitimacy (Aksak, Ferguson, & Duman, 2016). CSR engagement, when done correctly, is tied to the purpose and values of the corporation and should be communicated accordingly. Recognizing and addressing a misalignment of actual and perceived CSR is one means for corporations to build a sustained and authentic relationship with its publics.
Evidence of Learning Outcomes
This lesson has been successfully taught multiple times in an online graduate program using data from two respected industry sources: an annual ranking of U.S. corporations’ CSR activity conducted by Corporate Responsibility magazine (CR Magazine, 2019) and an annual ranking of U.S. corporations’ CSR reputation conducted by the Reputation Institute (2019). Positive achievement of outcomes has been measured by students’ engagement with industry data that reveals a company’s “gap”—and students’ subsequent written justifications for selecting a company in need of a CSR communications plan. Student analysis also has determined the company’s strongest CSR programs most worthy of better messaging. Finally, student communications plans are influenced by the strategy and tactics of companies ranking high in both performance and reputation, as well as by best practices in CSR communication.
Mining the Gap: Research to Guide CSR Communications Strategy
This lesson is designed to prepare you for a growing, essential practice in public relations: managing communication of corporate social responsibility (CSR) engagement. You will analyze industry research to find reality/perception gaps: Companies that are performing excellent CSR but are lacking the reputation they deserve. Through industry data, you will identify one company with a reality/perception gap and recommend how its reputation can be enhanced with a strategic communication plan.
Corporate Responsibility magazine annually recognizes companies that are good corporate citizens, excelling through their performance in multiple dimensions. Its 100 Best Corporate Citizens 2019 ranking is derived from the Russell 1000 stock market index, which measures the largest U.S.-based companies. It uses a database that tracks publicly available data in seven categories: environmental, climate change, human rights, employee relations, corporate governance, philanthropy, and financials. Beyond an overall company ranking, these categories are also ranked within each company.
The Reputation Institute annually recognizes companies perceived by the public as good corporate citizens due to their reputation. Its 2019 ranking, US RepTrak100,presents results from a survey based on more than 167,000 ratings from the general public of 390 eligible companies (the largest U.S.-based survey in this area). The survey quantifies the public’s perception of citizenship(supports good causes, positive societal influence, environmentally responsible), governance(open and transparent, behaves ethically, fair in the way it does business), and workplace(fair employee rewards, employee well-being, equal opportunities), as well as leadership, products/services, innovation, and performance.
Examples of the Gap
In Corporate Reputation magazine’s 100 Best Corporate Citizens 2019 ranking, companies that ranked relatively high in actual CSR engagement were ranked in the Reputation Institute’s 2019US RepTrak100 asrelatively low (or not at all) in CSR perception. Here are just a few examples:
100 Best Corporate Citizens ranking “CSR Engagement”
US RepTrak 100 ranking “CSR Perception”
Based on these two reports, explore and choose a company ranked high as a good corporate citizen but ranked low in reputation.
Justify your choice. What is the disparity between good citizenship and reputation?
In the 100 Best Corporate Citizens report, explore the detailed summary showing which type of CSR engagement ranks highest for that company.
On the company’s corporate website, find the CSR initiatives in the high-ranking category you identified in step 3. Choose one initiative for which you will recommend a communication plan. Provide a URL.
Explain your choice – why did you choose this initiative to help improve the company’s overall CSR perception and reputation?
To help inform your recommendations, identify companies ranking high in both performance and reputation, and then explore their CSR communication strategies.
Other considerations for your communications plan:
Beware empty boasting and greenwashing; focus on authenticity
Be transparent; simple, direct communication is more authentic
Know the audiences and the likely impact on each
Create an ongoing dialogue
Collaborate with friends and foes
Partner with an NGO for credibility
Focus on employee engagement and enhancing morale, image and loyalty
Be consistently credible
Based on completion of Part One, prepare a CSR communications plan that you will recommend to the company. Follow the steps in the “Key Elements of a Strategic Communications Plan” template provided below. For this deliverable, you will play the role of a consultant assigned to analyze the CSR initiative and make recommendations in a presentation to the chief executives of the company.
Deliver your plan (as if you were presenting and speaking to the executives) in a professional PowerPoint presentation with recorded voice narration. For guidance, search online for Microsoft’s instructions, “Record a slide show with narration and slide timings.” Your PPT should have no more than 12 slides and be approximately 5-7 minutes in length. Regarding slide appearance, use type no smaller than 30 points and incorporate good slide design: visually pleasing, clean, and concise (don’t put all your speaking points onto the slides).
Submit your plan as a voice-narrated PPT or export it to a video file (with the PPT opened, select File/Export/Create Video). If exported to a video, you may submit the video or upload it to a YouTube account and simply provide the URL.
You will be assessed based on the quality and depth of your analysis and recommendations as well as the overall quality of the presentation itself.
[Teaching note: This assignment was developed for an online class. As an alternative to a voice-narrated PPT, the plan can be presented in a classroom setting to fellow students acting as board members, providing follow-up questions for discussion. Also, as an alternative to a PPT, the assignment’s end deliverable could be a detailed memo to the CEO.]
Key Elements of a Strategic Communication Plan
Overview of the entire plan.
Succinct breakdown of the issue addressed by the plan (high performance, low reputation, need for CSR communications).
Concerned stakeholders addressed by the communications.
Overarching end purpose of your plan.
Building blocks to meet your goal: informational, attitudinal, behavioral.
Plan of action designed to achieve objectives.
Steps to be taken to achieve objectives.
Theme and Key Message(s)
Theme: Broad statement of the vision guiding all communication. Message(s): Concise and value based.
[Budget and Timeline are optional]
Methods to measure how effectively tactics met objectives.
The last slide in your presentation must display all of your sources.
Editorial Record: Submitted to AEJMC-PRD GIFT Competition by Feb. 22, 2019. A blind copy was peer reviewed by the PRD Teaching Committee, led by Chair Brigitta Brunner, and selected as a Top GIFT. First published online on August 17, 2019.
Zifei Fay Chen, University of San Francisco
As an important step in the ROPES (Research Objectives Programming Evaluation Stewardship) process, evaluation is crucial for the success of public relations campaigns. However, although progress has been made both in academia and the profession, evaluation is still a step that is often times glossed over in practice, even in many award-winning cases (Schriner, Swenson, & Gilkerson, 2017). This in-class activity is an integral part of instruction on the evaluation of public relations campaigns/programs for an introductory level class. It provides an interactive and active learning environment where students collaboratively apply industry evaluation standards from the Barcelona Principles 2.0 (AMEC, 2015) through critiques of an award-winning campaign’s evaluation section in class. It sets up the standards of excellence as students continue their public relations education and prepare for a career in the industry.
Student Learning Goals
Upon completion of this in-class activity, students will be able to:
Demonstrate understanding of the industry standards in public relations evaluation;
Critically analyze the evaluation section of award-winning public relations cases following the guidance from the Barcelona Principles 2.0;
Effectively apply industry standards to the evaluation of public relations campaigns and programs in the final case study project.
Connection to Public Relations Theory and Practice
This in-class activity provides students with an active learning experience to understand and apply the Barcelona Principles (2.0) to the evaluation of public relations campaigns and programs. Furthermore, by critically analyzing the evaluation part of an award-winning campaign, it allows students to identify the current gap in public relations measurement and evaluation and to reflect on how they may improve the practice of public relations evaluation in their upcoming advanced-level courses (e.g., public relations campaigns) and career.
Evidence of Learning Outcomes
Learning outcomes may be assessed via the in-class activity and in students’ subsequent analyses of a public relations campaign case for their final project. In the in-class activity, the same prompts were asked twice—at the beginning of the class and after the lecture on the Barcelona Principles 2.0 (with an additional question at the end; see the Appendix for the specific prompts). First, students’ learning outcomes were demonstrated in the contrast between their answers to the prompts before and after the lecture. As shown in previous activities, students were likely to be primed with the halo effect of the award-winning cases and tended to emphasize what the campaign did well, instead of providing critiques when they first attempted to answer the prompts, even after they had completed the readings prior to the class. As they obtained more in-depth understanding of each principle via the lecture and further discussions, they felt more comfortable using the principles to critique the case and propose ideas of their own.
Subsequently, students were asked to apply the Barcelona Principles (2.0) to their final projects, where they were asked to provide in-depth analysis following the ROPES process for a public relations campaign case of their choice. The learning outcomes then may be assessed again by their analysis of the evaluation part. Students were able to provide critiques on campaign evaluation and propose revised measurement and evaluation plans following the industry standards. In the course feedback, students have indicated that this in-class activity prepared them well for the final case analysis paper.
Prior to the class, students are assigned to read a Public Relations Society of America Silver Anvil Award case. The case may be changed from year to year to reflect the most recent practices. As the class starts, the instructor may remind students about the case via visual presentation, such as pictures and videos of the campaign materials.
After presenting and reviewing the case, the instructor could provide the students with a handout detailing the prompts. The following prompts can be printed on each side of the handout and answered at the beginning of the class and then again after the lecture on public relations campaign evaluation and the Barcelona Principles:
If you were an executive at (client organization), what questions would you ask the public relations team when you are presented with this campaign evaluation report?
Do you think this is a good evaluation report? Why or why not?
Note on instruction: Have students form into groups of three or four depending on class size after reviewing the case. Provide them with time to work on the prompts individually first and then discuss them as a group. Students should write down their answers on the front page of the handout. Following the activity, the instructor may ask students to keep the questions in mind and deliver a lecture explaining public relations evaluation and the Barcelona Principles (2.0). After the lecture, ask students to discuss the same prompts again and write down their answers on the back page of the handout.
During the discussion after the lecture, the instructor may walk around to facilitate students’ discussions by pointing them to certain principles. For example, after pointing out the differences between outputs and outcomes (Principle 2 “measuring communication outcomes is recommended versus only measuring outputs”), students may start to question what “coverage” and “impression” would entail. They may also start making connections between the campaign results and business performance (Principle 3 “the effect on organizational performance can and should be measured where possible”). After pointing out the importance of transparent reporting and validity of measurement (Principle 7 “measurement and evaluation should be transparent, consistent and valid”), students may start questioning what the metrics (e.g., “impression,” “sentiment,” “engagement”) mean and how they were obtained. After discussions, the instructor may bring the questions up to the whole class for the groups to bounce off each other’s insights. The instructor could then write each group’s answers on the white board to compare and contrast.
Finally, the following prompt can be provided after the second round of discussion:
Based on what we learned from the Barcelona Principles (2.0) and previous discussions, how would you improve the evaluation plan of this campaign?
Note on instruction: Depending on class size and time, the instructor may assign each group a specific principle to apply as they brainstorm ideas to improve the evaluation plan. Provide time for groups to discuss and walk around to facilitate discussion. After individual group discussion, bring the question to the whole class and write answers on the white board. Summarize and revisit the key learning points to conclude the class and indicate their application to the final case analysis project (if applicable) and future practice.
Editorial Record: Submitted to AEJMC-PRD GIFT Competition by Feb. 22, 2019. A blind copy was peer reviewed by the PRD Teaching Committee, led by Chair Brigitta Brunner, and selected as a Top GIFT. First published online on August 17, 2019.
Cessna C. Winslow, Tarleton State University
Public relations instruction does not need to be limited to classroom dialogue and textbook lectures, such as discussing theory or case studies. Adding service learning to the curriculum allows students to apply a meaningful experience to their education. By combining service learning with disaster-relief work, students are able to see a direct connection to the definition of public relations and how building good relationships benefits society. This experience is even more powerful when the disaster hits close to home.
Student Learning Goals
The service-learning project contributed to the following course goals noted in the syllabus:
Understand the processes involved with crisis communication.
Understand the roles the media, relief agencies, and first responders play in crisis situations.
Understand effective communication techniques.
Employ critical-thinking skills to crisis communication.
Use teamwork skills to assist in disaster relief.
Use storytelling skills to share experiences.
Develop materials suitable for inclusion in portfolios.
Connection to Public Relations Practice and Theory
This service-learning project supports the theory that the public relations profession “involves a combination of practical experience and expertise, balanced with a solid grounding in the history of the practice and the social science that informs it” (Gleason & Violette, 2012, p. 281.) By assisting disaster survivors and meeting with community leaders who employ PR methods to address a crisis, students are able to connect history and information to application. The requirement that students produce a publishable artifact provides tangible evidence of their ability to create a product used in the practice of public relations.
Evidence of Student Learning Outcomes
Students write a reflection paper and produce a publishable artifact that shares highlights from their service learning experience. The artifact projects are presented at a showcase and reception open to the university community, public, and local media. The media reported on the service-learning experience both years, thus helping the students see how positive public relations efforts can enhance goodwill. Additionally, the 2018 team was featured in the university magazine and presented at the President’s State of the University address. In his showcase presentation, one student summarized it well:
For me, the trip was absolutely life changing. It gave me a new perspective on how I should appreciate things I previously took for granted: Electricity, fresh water, sewage, and shelter to name a few. Listening to the mayor and the survivors’ stories shows me just how amazing humanity can be when we come together to help those in need.
Sample projects students have presented (shared with permission):
Fink, S. (2013). Crisis communications: The definitive guide to managing the message. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.
Gleason, J., & Violette, J. (2012). Integrating service learning into public relations coursework: Applications, implications, challenges, and rewards. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education,24(2), 280-285. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ996274.pdf
Description and Assessment
As part of a hybrid crisis communication course, a team of students and faculty members spent their spring break in Rockport, Texas, assisting in the ongoing rebuilding efforts following Hurricane Harvey. During the day the team partnered with a disaster-relief agency to help rebuild homes. In the evening, they met with survivors, community leaders, first responders, and disaster-relief workers and learned about their experiences. Leading up to the service-learning project, students studied crisis communication strategies and public relations theory and practices. After they returned, they shared what they learned from serving in a disaster region and applied it to the class discussions, readings, and projects. When the idea for a course on crisis communication was being developed, Hurricane Harvey had hit the Texas Coast—not far from where some of the students call home. This course (specifically the service-learning project) has created a positive response to a tragedy while enhancing the learning environment.
Prior to the Service-Learning Experience
For the first seven weeks of the semester, the class met face-to-face once a week. During that time, students read and discussed Crisis Communication: The Definitive Guide to Managing the Message, which served as the course textbook. They also assessed case studies on public relations strategies and participated in team-building activities and assignments. This grounding helped prepare them for the disaster-relief service-learning experience.
Over spring break, the class traveled to Rockport, Texas, where we helped survivors of Hurricane Harvey clean up and fix their homes. For this, we partnered with Samaritan’s Purse—a relief agency that assists with rebuilding efforts following natural disasters. Samaritan’s Purse has a volunteer application process that takes four to six months to complete, so the paperwork had to be started the September prior to spring break.
During the Service-Learning Experience
After volunteer teams are approved and assigned a site to work, Samaritan’s Purse provides meals, lodging, construction materials, resources, training, and supervision. The students’ cost for the week-long service-learning project was minimal, as volunteers are only responsible for transportation and personal necessities. The fact that students can spend spring break doing something productive and educational without spending a lot of money adds to the popularity of this course and the appeal of the service-learning project.
While volunteering, the team painted, caulked, landscaped, and removed and installed doors, windows, siding, drywall, cabinets, and countertops for residents whose homes were being rebuilt by Samaritan’s Purse. When we returned from the worksites, we had dinner with the Samaritan’s Purse staff and fellow volunteers. After showering and eating, the students were encouraged to tour the area and visit with residents, business owners, and others affected by the hurricane to find content for their showcase project and reflection paper assignments. Additionally, while in Rockport, we had the privilege of visiting with local mayors, first responders, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Long-Term Recovery Team. Not only did the students learn from these meetings, but the meetings also allowed the speakers to personally express their gratitude for the volunteers who helped rebuild their community—a PR gesture that was not lost on the students.
Post Service-Learning Experience
After the students returned, they met online discussing what they learned while working on their reflection paper and project. At the end of the semester, they presented their projects at a showcase where they were evaluated by outside professionals. The students have used photography, video, and essays to share their experiences. They are free to choose the medium and topic, but their projects must be approved before the showcase. Projects have focused on survivors, businesses, pets, and the service-learning experience, along with the role disaster-relief agencies play in the recovery efforts and the ongoing need for volunteers.
Participation in the service-learning experience accounts for 30% of the course grade. The reflection paper and showcase project count for 20% each. Other assignments and an exam make up the remaining 30%.
For this assignment you are to find two news stories about recent hurricanes or another natural disaster. For each article, provide the link, briefly summarize it, and reflect on it. Is it enlightening? Does it provide adequate information? Does this story benefit survivors? Is there any PR value? Post each article as a separate discussion so that you have two entries.
For this discussion you are to share what you are doing for your showcase project. Make sure you include the following information in your post:
What you are doing. Is it a solo or partnered effort?
Why you chose that project.
Any assistance or guidance you need from me.
What technology or display items will you need to present your project?
Service-Learning Experience Grading Rubric
_____/10 You showed up!
You get points for being there!
_____/20 You worked hard!
Did you put your heart and soul into the work? Did you whine? Did you go above and beyond?
_____/10 You’re a team player!
This score assesses your ability to follow directions and work as a team.
_____/10 Your engagement showed!
This score assesses how well you engaged guest speakers and sought information for your project.
Reflection Paper Instructions and Prompts
Reflection Paper Instructions
You are to reflect on the service learning experience and summarize/share your experiences. This paper needs to be reflective and worthy of inclusion in your portfolio.
Please respect the following directions:
Use the Reflection Paper Prompts document as your writing guide.
Upon completing all of the required elements, provide a word count at the bottom of your paper.
Since this should be a portfolio artifact, you need to have it reviewed by the Writing Center. Please plan accordingly to allow time for that requirement.
Follow the syllabus guidelines regarding font and spacing requirements. Attached is the grading rubric to help you assess your work.
Make this a valuable experience and find joy in reflecting. I look forward to reading these and learning from your reflections.
Reflection Paper Prompts
For your Applied Learning Experience reflection paper, address and respond to each of the areas noted below. Please label each section of your paper accordingly.
Description and dates of your service-learning experience
Rationale for choosing your service-learning experience
SECTION 1 – Application of College Courses
What skills did you learn in this course and/or other college courses that helped you on this learning experience?
In 3-4 paragraphs be descriptive as you analyze the knowledge and skills you acquired in your college courses that you utilized in this experience.
SECTION 2 – Student Involvement and Life Experience Skills
What skills did you learn in your student organizations or other college employment that helped you with this service learning experience?
In 1-2 paragraphs be descriptive as you analyze the essential knowledge and skills acquired in experiences outside the classroom that were utilized in this experience. Provide specific examples.
SECTION 3 – Global Awareness
Share how this service-learning experience impacted your view of cultures and society.
In 1-2 paragraphs analyze and describe how this experience enhanced your awareness of the diverse world and society around you.
SECTION 4 – Implications
Share how this service-learning experience impacted your view of crisis communications and disaster relief efforts.
In 2-4 paragraphs be descriptive as you analyze the impact this service-learning project had on understanding of public relations and the role disaster relief agencies play in assisting disaster victims.
SECTION 5 – Putting It All Together
Drawing on your responses to the above prompts, share your service-learning experience story.
This section needs to be 5-10 paragraphs and demonstrate reflection and application.
Showcase Project Grading Rubric and Examples
Showcase Project Grading Rubric
This score assesses the depth of your project and presentation. Do you demonstrate passion and interest in your project?
_____/30 Clarity and Professional
This score assesses the clarity of your project and your presentation professionalism. Can we understand your objective? Are you professional?
_____/30 Creative and Interesting
This score assesses your creativity and presentation skills. Is it creative? Interesting?
_____/10 Proofing skills
This score assesses your grammar and how well you proofed your presentation.
Editorial Record: Submitted to AEJMC-PRD GIFT Competition by Feb. 22, 2019. A blind copy was peer reviewed by the PRD Teaching Committee, led by Chair Brigitta Brunner, and selected as a Top GIFT. First published online on August 17, 2019.
Nicole H. O’Donnell, Ph.D., Virginia Commonwealth University
Public relations students at Virginia Commonwealth University plan an advocacy campaign for a client in their service-learning capstone class. Students develop their campaigns following the ROPES PR model (research, objectives, programming, evaluation, and stewardship). This two-word challenge is assigned during the campaign programming stage. I use this assignment to promote creativity and to help students understand how their client’s mission can inform campaign messaging. Students work in teams to create a series of two-word messages using Photoshop. Based on available class time, students are given 30-45 minutes for content creation. Then, the client judges and provides feedback on the final messages.
The client is invited to class for a mid-semester check-in and students are informed that the meeting will involve a competition. In class, students are separated into small teams and they are tasked with the two-word challenge. The class structure is as follows:
Analyze past two-word campaigns, including REI’s Opt Outside, Apple’s Think Different, and Emerald Nuts’ Yes Good
Review theoretical concepts from the elaboration likelihood model (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986)
Provide evidence for why simple, repetitive messaging enhances information recall
Discuss the client’s mission statement and use it to brainstorm two-word messages
Work in teams to create a series of three messages in Photoshop
Pitch the messages to the client and receive feedback
This is an interactive assignment that gives students an opportunity to receive feedback on their campaign ideas before refining their strategies and tactics. Additionally, students in service learning classes benefit from a mid-semester client meeting.
Student Learning Goals
Students will (1) enhance their teamwork and client communication skills in a fast-paced, deadline-driven environment, (2) recognize the importance of consistency in expressing a client’s visual identity, and (3) demonstrate their abilities to use Adobe Photoshop to create digital content.
Connection to Public Relations Practice
Working with community partners is demanding and the greatest successes from this assignment come when clients challenge students’ ideas. For instance, one team used emotional appeals to create two-word messages for their client, the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance (Figure 1). After the students shared their messages, the client stated they prefer messages that communicate hope rather than despair. The students welcomed this feedback and they changed their message strategies moving forward (Figure 2).
Figure 1: Initial two-word messages created by students for Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance
Figure 2: Modified message strategy based on client feedback
Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1986). Communication and persuasion: Central and peripheral routes to attitude change. New York, NY: Springer Publishing.
Design a series of three messages that each contain only two words. These messages should aim to exemplify your client’s mission and communicate their visual identity.
Step 1: Write down the client’s mission statement and underline all words that you deem important, powerful, and action-oriented. List associated words and phrases using the word storm technique (Kolowich, 2019).
Step 2: Determine which word combinations you plan to use in your messages.
Step 3: Choose photos from the client’s website or select royalty free images from https://unsplash.com.
Step 4: Create a Photoshop template with a consistent font (typeface, color, size) and photo filter. Remember to use the transformation controls to avoid distorting your pictures when placing them in the template.
Step 5: Export your messages to your Google Drive as .png and .psd files.
Step 6: Upload the .png files to the shared Google Slide for presentation.
Step 7: Designate one member of your group to present your messages to the client.
Step 8: Take note of the client’s feedback and, if necessary, revise the messages by next class.
Student Learning Goals
Enhance your teamwork and client communication skills in a fast-paced, deadline-driven environment
Demonstrate your ability to use Adobe Photoshop to create digital content
Recognize the importance of consistency in expressing your client’s visual identity
The client and I will give you feedback based on the following questions:
Do these messages clearly communicate the client’s mission?
Is the visual design aesthetically pleasing, professional, and consistent between messages?
Does the team clearly communicate their campaign ideas to the client?
Class Time Allocation
Students can use Canva as a substitute for Photoshop if the class is taught in a room without access to Adobe Photoshop.
Client: Orchard House School
Mission: Orchard House School educates and inspires middle school girls in a responsive, academically engaging community that fosters each girl’s intellectual curiosity, social responsibility, emotional integrity, and physical well-being.
Figure 3: Example messages for the Orchard House School
Client: Backyard Harvest
Mission: Backyard Harvest works in partnership with our community to connect those with extra fresh produce and those who need it most.
Figure 4: Example messages for Backyard Harvest
Client: Kade & Vos
Mission: At Kade & Vos, we actively participate in advocacy for equality and inclusive sizing in the fashion industry.Women of all sizes deserve a comfortable, luxurious, versatile, and sustainable cotton underwear that they can wear all day every day, no matter their size.
Editorial Record: Original draft submitted to JPRE July 16, 2018. Revision submitted April 10, 2019. Manuscript accepted for publication May 13, 2019. First published online August 17, 2019.
Stephanie Madden, Pennsylvania State University
Katie Brown, University of Maryland
Sifan Xu, University of Tennessee
Although academics have worked to integrate postmodernism and public relations scholarship, little research has been conducted into how to bring postmodern principles into the undergraduate public relations classroom. This study analyzed how public relations educators integrated postmodern concepts into a large, introductory undergraduate public relations class through a lecture and in-class activity for student groups to design a postmodern organization. Results of this study indicated that this lesson forced students to question—many for the first time—their underlying assumptions about organizational structures and to begin to deconstruct public relations metanarratives. Students gained a deeper appreciation for the complexity of public relations and opportunities for organizational activism. Findings indicated that these types of alternative perspectives should be integrated throughout undergraduate public relations programs.
Keywords: postmodernism, organizational activism, public relations, power, undergraduate education
Empowering the Future Practitioner: Postmodernism in the Undergraduate Public Relations Classroom
Although academics, such as Holtzhausen (2000, 2002, 2012),
Mickey (1997), Radford (2012), and Tyler (2005), have worked to bring
postmodern approaches to public relations scholarship, little has been
published on how postmodern principles may enhance students’ learning in the
undergraduate public relations classroom. While postmodernism is decidedly
complex, it offers students a way to deconstruct the assumptions made about
public relations and to reimagine public relations roles and structures. Public
relations pedagogy should not only impart technical skills, but it should also
empower future public relations practitioners to consider the consequences of
power and ideology in public relations theory and practice.
To that end, we introduced
postmodernism to a large, introductory-level public relations class at a
mid-Atlantic public university through a lecture on the basic tenets of
postmodernism and an in-class activity for student groups to design a
postmodern organization. Through a thematic analysis of instructor interviews,
reflexive teaching memos, and students’ reflections on the lecture and
activity, we found four primary themes around understandings of postmodernism:
(1) emphasizing values and ethics, (2) questioning underlying assumptions, (3)
adapting to change, and (4) challenging existing theory. Challenges to this
pedagogical approach also existed, including the need to integrate concepts
throughout the semester, provide tangible examples, and focus on specific
aspects of postmodernism. This new perspective, however, empowered students to
question fundamental assumptions about organizational structure and public
relations practice. This study provides insight for public relations educators
around the challenges and opportunities for integrating postmodern concepts
into an undergraduate class.
This literature review begins with an overview of foundational concepts of postmodernism and its distinction from modernism. Next, it focuses on postmodernism within public relations research. Finally, this review concludes with a discussion of postmodern insights into public relations pedagogy.
Modernism, Postmodernism, and
Discussion of postmodernism is best
understood when contrasted with modernism. Both perspectives are concerned with
the ways that knowledge is created and justified, which formulates
epistemological debates and inquiries about the creation, dissemination, and
constitution of knowledge (Pritchard, 2009). According to Mumby (1997), four
discursive positions encapsulate modernist and postmodernist approaches: (1)
positivist modernism, (2) interpretive modernism, (3) critical modernism, and
(4) postmodernism. Positive modernism focuses on the objectivity of knowledge,
namely, the separation of the truth and the subject; interpretive modernism
focuses on the consensus of truth, a socially constructive process where
knowledge creation exists in matters of tensions; critical modernism raises
suspicion about the assumptions of “a particular mode of rationality (such as
capitalism) that has come to dominate the modernist project” (Mumby, 1997, p.
10); and postmodernism contextualizes knowledge in indeterminacy and paradoxes
ubiquitous to human discourses (Cooper & Burrell, 1988).
Even though the boundaries between
critical modernism and postmodernism may be blurry, it is important to note the
differences before moving forward. Modernism is rooted in the Enlightenment
Project, which is primarily concerned with reason and rationality (Cooper &
Burrell, 1988). In this sense, critical modernism challenges and exposes
assumptions about the societal structure and systems that “limit the
possibilities for the realization of a genuinely democratic society” (Mumby,
1997, p. 9), but it preserves the connection to the Enlightenment Project
through its emphasis on emancipation and freedom. In other words, critical
modernism is not a radical overhaul of the fundamental debates about reason and
rationality but rather a question of the legitimacy of an overarching approach
to achieving outcomes related to equality, democracy, and freedom.
Postmodernism encompasses too many
perspectives to have a simple and united definition, and finding a unified
definition is antithetical to postmodernism in the first place (Rosenau, 1992).
Therefore, postmodern tenets identified by Mumby (1997) are summarized here to
explain its major differences from modernist approaches. First, the
understanding of a knowing subject is decentered and deconstructed. This tenet
is intricately connected to the question of who the knowing subjects are and
what represents knowledge. Second, postmodernism emphasizes that knowledge and
power are inseparable concepts. The interrelation between knowledge and power
is termed as the power-knowledge regime by Foucault (1980), where knowledge is
the epistemological container of power and the very representation of power.
Therefore, consensus is inherently problematic because coercion is unavoidable
in this process. However, postmodernism considers power as “part of everyday
life” (Hatch, 2006, p. 275) and not inherently positive or negative. Third,
postmodernism posits that meaning emerges not only from the interactions of
individuals and texts but also different discourses. More specifically, “meaning
is never fully present in a text but rather is the product of a system of
difference that is constantly deferred” (Mumby, 1997, p. 15).
These tenets can be helpful to make
a distinction of postmodernism from critical modernism (and as an extension,
critical theories). Critical theories are mostly concerned with assumptions
made regarding various institutional discourses and power dynamics created by
systems and social structures (e.g., Berger, 2005; Rakow & Nastasia, 2009),
with the goal of creating knowledge that is liberating and emancipatory. They
still abide by the fundamental principles of the Enlightenment Project. In
comparison, postmodernism problematizes and deconstructs the ways knowledge is
represented and created, how discourses and structures are volatile, and how
meaning can be only derived by relative references to other discourses.
The power of postmodernism lies in
its focus on rupturing current knowledge systems. Knowledge is
institutionalized in a way to make salient certain group’s knowledge and
silence others. Postmodernism highlights that the very production of knowledge
is political and value-laden (Holtzhausen, 2012). The postmodern deconstruction
process exposes implicit power relations in the knowledge structure and seeks
alternatives. The value of postmodernism to public relations education lies in
its ability to not only question assumptions taken for granted, as many
critical theories do, but also encourage a learner of this perspective to be
more conscientious about the very knowledge that is attached to structures and
systems. In fact, many lessons in the undergraduate curriculum focus on
institutionalized knowledge (Liinason, 2010). The purpose of engaging
postmodernism in both research and education is to challenge the very existence
of the field by pointing out its service to power, clarifying the subjective
nature of the practice, demythologizing the representative “Truth” (Bardhan,
2003) and offering alternative representations and articulations.
Postmodernism and Public Relations
A postmodern approach to public
relations challenges the powerful discourses that shape dominant ways of
understanding, studying, and practicing public relations. As Radford (2012)
explained, “a postmodern perspective allows one to
consider PR as a narrative, a way of talking about the world, the people in
that world, and PR’s relationship with those people” (p. 50). Postmodernism in
public relations sheds light on where to position empowerment in the
intersection of research, praxis, society, and organizations (e.g., Edwards,
2006; Holtzhausen, 2000; L’Etang, 2009).
Postmodern public relations scholars
have pushed back against the acceptance of a functionalist approach to public
relations that is rooted in capitalism (Radford, 2012). For example, Weaver
(2001) challenged the assumption that public relations should only be examined
as a tool of capitalism when public relations can and is used by those seeking
to resist, disrupt, and dismantle capitalism and other systems of oppression.
Furthermore, Bardhan (2003) critiqued the practice of universalizing Western
public relations principles and theories and the application of them to
Although public relations can
create, maintain, and reproduce powerful governing discourses, Holtzhausen
(2000, 2002, 2012) argued that public relations can also resist and disrupt
such discourses. As public relations practitioners are themselves subjected to
exploitations from top-down capitalist organizational structures, these two
dimensions of connection position the practitioners on two vectors that
sometimes impose disturbance and inconsistency on their public relations
practice. Through her work on postmodernism in public relations, Holtzhausen
(2000) primarily focused on (1) postmodernism’s interpretation of power and how
it opens paths to dealing with a reality of public relations in society; (2)
postmodernism’s guidance on how to conceptualize institutional public relations
practitioners (or public relations professionals in general) as activists; (3)
how public relations practitioners are activists themselves in organizations;
(4) postmodernism’s guidance on why and how we deconstruct the construction of
knowledge in the public relations discipline; and (5) postmodernism’s insights
on how to embrace diversity and dissidence, especially its implications on
real-life public relations practice.
Public relations education needs to
consider the impact of engaging postmodernism in the undergraduate public
relations curricula, as explained by Holtzhausen (2000):
The only obstacle in the way of public relations practitioners operating as activists is located in the classroom. The field’s case studies, texts, and research give preference to public relations as a management function of capitalist organizations, including state organizations. Even non-profit organizations, an important area of study in public relations, function on the close liaison between themselves and the corporations that fund them. Few have yet explored the possibility of studying the role, or the potential role, of public relations in activism, even while the knowledge and skills of public relations practitioners make them particularly suitable to become activist leaders in communities. This might mean that public relations practitioners line up on opposite sides of the trenches, but so do legal practitioners, marketing experts, and many other professionals every day. (p. 100)
Therefore, it is worth investigating how postmodernism might
assist students’ learning of public relations from a pedagogical
Postmodern Insights Into Public Relations Pedagogy
Despite the call to integrate the postmodern perspective into public relations theory and practice by many scholars (e.g., Holtzhausen, 2002; L’Etang & Pieczka, 2006), little attention has been paid to public relations pedagogy within this growing body of research (Duffy, 2000). Scholarship in general has taken the turn to recognizing the value of postmodernism (e.g., Marsh, 2008), but in the classroom, these same calls seem to be abandoned for more traditional, pragmatic, and functionalist approaches (DiStaso, Stacks, & Botan, 2009; Stacks, Botan, & Turk, 1999; Stokes & Waymer, 2011). The idea of offering students practical applications of postmodern theory might seem counterintuitive (Toth, 2002). This, to a certain degree, reflects the fact that both critical and postmodern scholars have difficulties defending their positions as not contributing to the “cash value” of corporations (Mumby, 1997, p. 23). As Boyd and VanSlette (2009) wrote, “a purely postmodern approach to almost anything is inconceivable” (p. 329). However, the ability to expose and challenge assumptions rooted in knowledge and social structures is paramount to a person’s educational experience (Rieckmann, 2012; Stokes & Waymer, 2011).
Deconstruction refers to a method
that “not only exposes the limitations or inconsistencies of any particular set
of conceptual oppositions and priorities in a text, but also shows how the
text’s attempt to maintain this system undermines the very principles of its
own operation” (Caplan, 1989, p. 267). Through engaging with deconstruction,
Duffy (2000) showed that major public relations textbooks present a simple
progression from the press agentry model, which is heavily focused on publicity,
to the two-way symmetrical model, which argues for mutual understanding between
an organization and its publics (see Grunig & Hunt, 1984). In addition,
public relations textbooks “offer a totalizing metanarrative of harmony and
organizational success using instrumental communication and an evolving and
ever-improving body of public relations knowledge and practices” (Duffy, 2000,
p. 296). Duffy’s deconstruction of public relations textbooks illustrated that
the knowledge construction of public relations follows the implicit notion of
natural progression and glorification. Public relations is portrayed as ethical
and socially responsible, based on the normalized
conceptualization of public relations as two-way symmetrical communication. In
the meantime, the emphasis on stability and maintaining status quo conforms to
the interests of corporations that benefit from a stable environment (Duffy,
2000). When undergraduate textbooks are constructed in such a way that
downplays or completely ignores the possible detrimental effects of public
relations, it is not hard to imagine that students will take knowledge as it is
presented in the textbooks without any reflection, impressed by the very power
of public relations, but without realizing the potential perils of such power.
Educators must encourage students to
carefully and critically assimilate knowledge. The postmodern deconstructionist
approach to delivering knowledge encourages students to have a more complete
understanding of public relations. This also equips them with the necessary
knowledge to make informed decisions about the impact of their actions in the
future. In fact, Holtzhausen’s (2012, 2015) idea of public relations as
activism and practitioners as activists hinges on the awareness of power and
control and the ability of practitioners to find their own voice. Presenting
the knowledge as a determined fact without exposing the hidden tensions and
assumptions aggravates the ethical crisis that has plagued the industry since
its formation. Students in today’s classrooms have the power to influence
discourses that affect meaning making in society. Preconditioning students to
postmodernism’s fundamental idea of challenging and deconstructing
metanarratives is not only our responsibility for a student’s intellectual growth
but also a moral obligation.
To truly position public relations
as a contributive force to a democratic society, it is imperative to integrate
postmodern thinking into public relations pedagogy. As Duffy (2000) argued,
“the challenge is to encourage students to question their assumptions, to
become self-reflexive, and to challenge the totalizing statements of their
textbooks and teachers” (p. 312). Engaging postmodern thoughts into public
relations classrooms helps educators rise to that challenge. With this in mind,
we posed two central research questions:
RQ1: How, if at all, does
introducing postmodern theory in the introductory public relations course
encourage students to think critically about public relations practice?
RQ2: What, if any, challenges exist
to introducing postmodern theory in the introductory public relations
Researchers designed a lecture and corresponding assignment to be implemented in an introductory public relations class at a flagship mid-Atlantic public research university. This assignment allowed students to apply postmodern concepts to public relations by having them deconstruct basic assumptions about public relations theory and practice and imagine new ways to define the role of public relations. The lesson comprised three major components: (1) giving a lecture that provided an overview of modernism and postmodernism and their relevance to public relations; (2) having students design an organization grounded in postmodernist principles; and (3) allowing students to ruminate on the experience through an optional brief, written reflection.
The two instructors (both of whom
are also researchers) worked together to design a 50-minute lecture that
consisted of an overview of modernism and postmodernism, as well as a
discussion of the intersections of public relations, postmodernism, and
modernism. Instructors emphasized the utility of postmodernism in public
relations in the context of organizational theory and structure, public
relations roles, different understandings of strategy and strategic planning,
and leadership styles.
This introductory-level public
relations class was structured in such a way that students met for 50-minute
lectures twice per week. They also met in smaller lab sections once a week for
50 minutes. This postmodern activity was completed during the lab section
immediately following the previous session’s lecture. Students were divided
into small groups of three to four students and asked to design an organization
grounded in postmodern principles, articulating public relations’ role within
the organization, an overview of public relations structure and roles,
strategic planning approaches, and leadership styles. They were given full
creative license to develop the organization’s name and mission statement.
Groups were given approximately 20 minutes to complete this exercise; then,
they briefly presented their organization to the class. Finally, the instructor
led a 10-minute debriefing session on the challenges of designing postmodern
organizations. This study received IRB approval and the full details of the
activity can be found in Appendix A.
Data collected for this study included written student reflections, teaching reflections from each instructor, and two in-depth, open-ended interviews with the instructors.
Written student reflections. Instructors gave students one week to complete an optional written reflection about their experiences with the postmodernism lesson for extra credit. Students who chose to participate uploaded their reflections to the course digital space. Instructors provided questions to prompt the students in their reflections that revolved around their understanding of postmodernism in the context of public relations and experience with designing a postmodern organization through the activity. The full list of questions can be found in Appendix A. In total, 51 out of 110 students submitted reflections to the instructors.
Teaching reflections. Both instructors memoed about their experience with designing the lecture, facilitating the lab activity, and assisting students in understanding postmodern concepts and applying them to a public relations context. The non-instructor researcher on the team recorded field notes from observing the lecture but did not attend the lab sessions.
Interviews. The non-instructor researcher conducted in-depth, open-ended interviews with both instructors. Questions asked included, “What were students’ responses to the postmodernism lecture? What were students’ responses to the assignment to create an organization? What would you change or improve about this assignment?” Interviews lasted for approximately 30 minutes and took place at a coffee shop on campus where the researcher audio recorded the interviews for accuracy. The non-instructor researcher then listened to and transcribed the interviews.
Researchers used the six-phase
thematic analysis process detailed by Braun and Clarke (2006) to identify
patterns and themes within the data. The first phase of analysis involved
familiarizing ourselves with the data by reading through the same five student
reflections, the teaching reflections, and both interview transcripts. The
second phase involved generating initial codes from the data and meeting for
peer debriefing. After discussing the initial codes and interpretations of the
data, we divided the remaining student reflections evenly between the group for
analysis. The third phase involved collapsing initial codes into broader themes
and finding representative quotes. We organized this in a shared Google Drive
spreadsheet. Furthermore, we kept memos throughout the process and engaged in
extensive peer debriefing throughout the data analysis process in person and
through email. The team then reviewed the themes and met to define and name the
final themes, which are recorded in the following results section.
Critically Evaluating Public
Relations Practice Through Postmodernism
We identified four key themes for
how students critically evaluated public relations practice through
postmodernism, which were a focus on value
and ethics, a need to question
underlying assumptions, the necessity of adapting to change, and challenging
existing PR theories.
and ethics. Students
felt that postmodernism offered a way to integrate discussions of value and
ethics into public relations. One student wrote, “There are many aspects that
need to be fixed in PR in the value and ethic portion,” and postmodernism was
seen as a way to “change the way people believe and think about a situation.”
For example, because of postmodernism’s focus on deconstructing current
systems, students brought in the example of gender-neutral bathrooms as
challenging the way people think about current practices. In the same way,
postmodernism in public relations is about understanding what systems are
keeping people out and how to align public relations values and ethics with
this focus on inclusion. Another student reflected that “the majority of
structures in the workforce do not promote equality, gender fairness, and a
non-hierarchy [sic] system.”
Students also understood the idea of
value and ethics within the context of organizational activism. To students,
“being an organization activist means having a strong understanding of ethical
decision-making and a resistance to dominant power.” The idea of ethical
decision-making included “fighting for the rights of both the employees and
customers of a company.” Therefore, students embraced postmodernism as a way
that organizations can maintain fair and ethical practices. Because of the
focus on organizational activism, there was a missed opportunity for students
to be more self-reflexive about their own positions related to power and
privilege. Students were only seeing dominant power structures as something to
be resisted rather than something they may contribute to and actively benefit
from within an organization.
Through this lesson, students learned to question the underlying assumptions of
how society operates. One student noted, “The whole idea and concept of
postmodernism made me question a lot of things in today’s society, and why they
are the way they are.” Several students noted that this activity took them out
of their “comfort zones” as it made them “question everything.” Students
recognized how ingrained modernism was in their worldview because it was
challenging to think of another way of creating organizational structures,
developing organizational roles, or implementing different leadership
practices. One student wrote, “Trying to divert from these preconceived notions
of organizational structure in order to form a postmodern organization was
difficult. Yet, it was also the best part of the assignment.” Others recognized
that the assignment was difficult for them because thinking against the
modernist training they had received required them to unlearn a lifetime of
cultural knowledge. Students also recognized that postmodernism was not just
about pointing out these underlying assumptions, but to “challenge and change
to change. Students
took away from this lesson that “postmodernism is all about change; it argues
that there is no absolute truth.” This idea of embracing and adapting to change
was “the aspect that has the greatest use in the PR world.” In addition to
adapting to change, public relations practitioners can be agents for change.
One student recognized how “societal and organizational structures can be
reinvented,” and the role that public relations can play in that. Another
student noted, “Public relations practitioners have to work with the company
and the public as well as from managers to employees to relay certain messages
to implement the changes.” In recognizing the need to adapt to change, students
also recognized the utility in postmodernism to help organizations and public
relations practitioners deal with unpredictability. This was most commonly
articulated as the unpredictability presented by crisis situations. For
example, one student reflected, “By incorporating postmodern principles you are
preparing your organization or company’s public relations team to know how to
deal with a crisis that was not a predicted outcome.”
existing PR theories. Given
that postmodernism was presented in an introductory public relations course,
many students had just begun learning about public relations theories rooted in
systems theory and other modernist principles. Therefore, introducing a
completely different paradigm from what they had previously been learning in
the class was jarring. One student noted, “The utility postmodern principles
have on public relations is that it questions and challenges PR theories, which
allow us to discover different forms of PR in each setting.” Interestingly,
although not explicitly taught, the instructors for the class noted that
students inherently thought that postmodernism principles were antithetical to
profit making. Students interpreted the previous theories taught in the course
as corporate and profit-driven. One instructor noted that the organizations
that students designed as postmodern were all nonprofit:
When we were talking about postmodernism, we didn’t say that postmodernism is nonprofit. Or postmodernism is not about profit. But at the end, after the activity, basically all the organizations are nonprofit. They didn’t come up with any for-profit organizations. So, I’m thinking they might see a fundamental contradiction between for-profits and postmodernism.
Challenges to Introducing
Postmodernism to Undergraduate Students
Given the abstract nature of postmodernism, especially to an undergraduate audience, it can be difficult to conceptualize where to even start with integrating basic postmodern principles. Three primary challenges emerged, which were the need to integrate concepts throughout the semester, provide tangible examples, and focus on specific aspects of postmodernism.
concepts throughout the semester. One of the main challenges for instructors in integrating
postmodern principles into an introductory public relations class was that it
felt disconnected from previous content. Students need to first have a grasp of
modernism before they can even begin to comprehend postmodernism. As one of the
instructors said, “The first thing is that we need to ask students to think
about the modern assumptions. They have to understand what the modern
assumptions are.” Helping students understand the dominant paradigm in public
relations as modernism through the semester can make the transition to talking
about postmodernism smoother.
Rather than focusing on
postmodernism in only one 50-minute lecture and then following up with an
activity during the discussion lab, instructors felt it would have been
beneficial to integrate concepts throughout the semester. Taking a more
critical bent in an introductory public relations class would encourage
students to consider their underlying assumptions about public relations
earlier in the semester. One of the participating instructors noted
incorporating deconstruction principles into a news report assignment
throughout the semester. For this instructor, integrating postmodern principles
served a larger purpose in the classroom:
I think it should be, we give lip service to this whole diversity, this and that, this is what it’s actually about. Actually trying to understand people and why they are offended by this or why this becomes a crisis. Or why it becomes an issue. Or why somebody is going to like this. And the whole idea of corporate responsibility. All of that we get at in these news reports, and I think that should be integrated throughout the semester.
tangible examples. Even
before talking about the application of postmodernism to public relations, it
was helpful to give students examples of modernistic practices in their
everyday lives. For example, one instructor had students deconstruct principles
of modern architecture to understand why buildings followed a certain design,
such as having a blueprint and room number. This example helped students to
understand that “modern assumptions are about efficiency; they’re about this
idea of regulation or organizing.” In the lecture on postmodernism, the
instructor also used the actual class structure to get students to think about
how certain organizational structures can limit the free flow of information
and disempower certain people. In the large lecture course, students have to
work through the two course teaching assistants to get their questions answered
and have limited interaction with the professor. However, for a class of 120
students, this type of format makes it easier for an instructor to manage.
In addition to providing tangible
examples of modernism in practice, instructors also offered alternative perspectives
on public relations practice to help students think outside of the box. For
example, in the lecture on postmodernism, the instructor discussed how one
single person can be an organization. The example used was of a public
relations practitioner who depended on her networks to set up her own business
to consult organizations. A student group generated the example of a co-op
structure as operating under postmodern principles.
Focus on specific aspects of postmodernism. Given the complexity of postmodernism, it is important to choose specific areas to focus on in the undergraduate public relations classroom. For this activity, one instructor noted, “We were overly ambitious in asking them to look at structure, leadership styles, and practitioner as activist.” Rather than trying to cover all these different aspects, the instructor explained that “if we had just focused on structure, we would have had a better time of really getting them to think in depth on the ways in which structure affects you.” Structure and roles were discussed as the potentially most important topics to cover in an undergraduate public relations course. Other topics, such as leadership style and practitioner as activist, may be more appropriate in subsequent public relations courses after students have a firmer grasp on the foundational concepts of the discipline.
One of the main aims of this project was to empower the future practitioner by giving students the tools to become critical consumers and producers of public relations knowledge and practice. Despite the challenges faced in implementing this lesson for the first time, students walked away with a newfound postmodern orientation towards public relations. Repeatedly, students articulated that the “most important thing they learned” was, as one student put it, “to not accept things just because they have always been that way. Society is the way it is because of social constructs; it is not the absolute truth.” This is an encouraging result, given the focus on a modernist and functionalist perspective on public relations in public relations pedagogy (DiStaso, Stacks, & Botan, 2009; Stacks, Botan, & Turk, 1999; Stokes & Waymer, 2011) and the difficulty scholars have faced in integrating the critical perspective in undergraduate public relations classrooms (Duffy, 2000; Hodges, 2013).
The goal of this project was not to
diminish or deny the importance of technical training in undergraduate public
relations pedagogy but rather to caution against the consequences of building
public relations education solely around these approaches. It is important to
relentlessly reflect on the current state of public relations education and
devote time and effort to developing public relations pedagogy that better
prepares students for future challenges. Integrating postmodernism into public
relations education can add much needed nuance to the classroom experience and
enrich the training and coursework already in place. Pushing students to
identify and then to go beyond the underlying assumptions of dominant
understandings of the practice of public relations and its role in society
opens up incredible possibilities for the intellectual and professional growth
of the student. As we foster this sort of growth in students, we are working to
equip the public relations workforce with those same skills, which can have a
profound impact on the practice of public relations itself.
Students who do not develop critical
skills are less able to understand and meaningfully contribute to important
social, political, and economic conversations (McKie & Munshi, 2009).
Integrating a postmodern perspective throughout public relations education
better enables students to understand how organizational culture and structure
benefit some individuals and groups while marginalizing others. To overcome the
realities of a flawed system and to change the system itself, public relations
practitioners must be equipped with the ability to identify and locate
injustice and the skills necessary to reimagine the practice of public
relations in ways that overcome these issues. Lessons like the ones highlighted
in this essay have the potential to build that sort of practitioner. A
postmodern perspective provides students with valuable insight and skill
necessary to not only effectively deal with change but to also become
instruments of organizational change.
In that vein, another aim of the
project was to introduce students to the possibilities of public relations in
the context of activism, and the public relations practitioner as
organizational activist. This was a less successful endeavor for several
reasons. Instructors struggled with fitting the entire lesson into the allotted
time, which led to certain topics getting shortchanged. Future iterations of
this activity should designate more time to introduce students to Holtzhausen’s
(2012) conceptualization of public relations practitioner as activist and to public
relations in the context of activism and social change. In addition to
providing them with critical skills, increasing the visibility of public
relations jobs that fall outside of the corporate realm is an important part of
providing a well-rounded public relations education.
A postmodernist approach in the
classroom also allows for students and educators to confront the complexities
of public relations practice (Boyd & VanSlette, 2009). This makes for
practitioners who, put simply, can do their jobs better. Instructors encouraged
students to question underlying assumptions and metanarratives of public
relations to better understand their audiences and publics, design more
effective materials and campaigns, and facilitate more meaningful and just relationships.
Students repeatedly articulated ways in which postmodernist ideals could help
them as public relations practitioners in ensuring a focus on values and
ethics, as well as adapting to change.
What we are proposing here is not
simply the introduction of one or two isolated lessons on postmodernism into
public relations classes, although that is certainly a place to start.
Activities like this one can serve as an introduction to this sort of thinking
about public relations, with more advanced classes offering additional critical
training. The students who participated in this exercise walked away from an
introductory public relations course with basic critical skills and an
intellectual curiosity about public relations that should continue to be nurtured
throughout their education. We are advocating for a commitment to integrating
alternative perspectives as part of students’ critical training throughout
undergraduate public relations programs. One way to do this is to rely less
heavily on textbooks in introductory public relations courses. Duffy (2000)
demonstrated how textbooks contribute to public relations metanarratives and
obscure the diversity of thought happening within public relations scholarship
and practice. Reviewing the syllabi for introductory public relations courses
is a practical place to start. Are all the readings for the course chapters
from one textbook? If so, how can
different readings and media supplement or even replace the textbook chapter
materials? Instructors should include blog posts, podcasts, and even videos
that center non-Western, non-white, and non-male perspectives in an effort to
confront public relations metanarratives. This type of content not only engages
students but also provides a richer overview of public relations practice.
LIMITATIONS AND FUTURE RESEARCH
There were several limitations of
this study. First, the written reflection was not a required exercise, which
may have skewed the data to overrepresent or underrepresent certain
perspectives. Second, we acknowledge a heavy reliance on the work of
Holtzhausen (2012) as the basis for both the lecture and activity, which is
only one perspective on postmodernism within public relations. Finally, time
constraints forced instructors to trim the lesson, giving students less time to
absorb the material, design the organization, and debrief the activity.
Continuing with this project, we
intend to teach this lesson again within another introductory public relations
class with additional time allotted. We will again ask students to produce
in-class and written reflections but will also conduct follow-up interviews and
focus groups with students to better understand how students experienced this
activity and examine whether or not they met our learning outcomes. Future research
should adapt this lesson to study it in the context of other public relations
courses at other colleges and universities. It is our hope that public
relations scholars will continue to design lessons and activities that
integrate postmodernism and critical theory into public relations undergraduate
programs. The impact of these exercises on public relations students should be
further studied. A longitudinal study could also be conducted with students who
had postmodern principles integrated into their public relations courses to see
if and how this may influence the way they practice public relations.
As the educators of future generations of public relations practitioners, we must reflect on the assumptions that govern our own teaching. We must find ways to meaningfully disrupt pedagogical processes that limit our students in public relations theory and practice. As such, we must help our students deconstruct public relations metanarratives by questioning the underlying assumptions and seeking out alternative articulations. In these alternatives lie the great power to reimagine and expand the role of public relations in society.
Bardhan, N. (2003). Rupturing public relations metanarratives: The example of India. Journal of Public Relations Research, 15(3), 225-248. doi: 10.1207/S1532754XJPRR1503_2
Berger, B. K. (2005). Power over, power with, and power to relations: Critical reflections on public relations, the dominant coalition, and activism. Journal of Public Relations Research, 17(1), 5-28. doi: 10.1207/s1532754xjprr1701_3
Boyd, J., & VanSlette, S. H.
(2009). Outlaw discourse as postmodern public relations. In R. L. Heath, E. L. Toth,
& D. Waymer (Eds.), Rhetorical and
critical approaches to public relations II (pp. 328- 342). New York, NY:
Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3(2), 77-101. doi: 10.1191/1478088706qp063oa
Caplan, J. (1989). Postmodernism, poststructuralism, and deconstruction: Notes for historians. Central European History, 22(3/4), 260-278. doi: 10.1017/S0008938900020483
Cooper, R., & Burrell, G. (1988). Modernism, postmodernism and organizational analysis: An introduction. Organization Studies, 9(1), 91-112. doi: 10.1177/017084068800900112
DiStaso, M. W., Stacks, D. W., & Botan, C. H. (2009). State of public relations education in the United States: 2006 report on a national survey of executives and academics. Public Relations Review, 35(3), 254-269. doi: 10.1016/j.pubrev.2009.03.006
Duffy, M. E. (2000). There’s no two‐way symmetric about it: A postmodern examination of public relations textbooks. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 17(3), 294-315. doi: 10.1080/15295030009388397
Foucault, M. (1980). Power/knowledge: Selected interviews and
other writings, 1972-1977. New York, NY: Pantheon.
Grunig, J. E., & Hunt, T.
(1984). Managing public relations.
Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Hatch, M. J. (2006). Organization theory: Modern, symbolic, and
postmodern perspectives. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Hodges, C. E. (2013). Cultural imagination in public relations education. Public Relations Inquiry, 2(1), 27-50. doi: 10.1177/2046147X12459988
Holtzhausen, D. R. (2000). Postmodern values in public relations. Journal of Public Relations Research, 12(1), 93-114. doi: 10.1207/S1532754XJPRR1201_6
Holtzhausen, D. R. (2002). Towards a postmodern research agenda for public relations. Public Relations Review, 28(3), 251-264. doi: 10.1016/S0363-8111(02)00131-5
Holtzhausen, D. R. (2012). Public relations as activism: Postmodern
approaches to theory and practice. New York, NY: Routledge.
Holtzhausen, D. R. (2015). The unethical consequences of professional communication codes of ethics: A postmodern analysis of ethical decision-making in communication practice. Public Relations Review, 41(5), 769-776. doi: 10.1016/j.pubrev.2015.06.008
L’Etang, J., & Pieczka, M.
(2006). Public relations education. In J. L’Etang & M. Pieczka (Eds.), Public relations: Critical debates and
contemporary practice (pp. 433-442). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Liinason, M. (2010). Institutionalized knowledge: Notes on the processes of inclusion and exclusion in gender studies in Sweden. NORA—Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research, 18(1), 38-47. doi: 10.1080/08038741003626973
Marsh, C. (2008). Postmodernism, symmetry, and cash value: An Isocratean model for practitioners. Public Relations Review, 34(3), 237-243. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2008.04.006
McKie, D., & Munshi, D. (2009).
A partial A to Z of missing critical thought in public relations. In R. L.
Heath, E. L. Toth, & D. Waymer (Eds.), Rhetorical
and critical approaches to public relations II (pp. 61-75). New York, NY:
Mickey, T. J. (1997). A postmodern view of public relations: Sign and reality. Public Relations Review, 23(3), 271-284. doi: 10.1016/S0363-8111(97)90036-9
Mumby, D. K. (1997). Modernism, postmodernism, and communication studies: A rereading of an ongoing debate. Communication Theory, 7(1), 1-28. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2885.1997.tb00140.x
Pritchard, D. (2009). Knowledge,
understanding and epistemic value. In A. O’Hear (Ed.), Epistemology (pp. 19-44). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University
Radford, G. P. (2012). Public relations in a postmodern world. Public Relations Inquiry, 1(1), 49-67. doi: 10.1177/2046147X11422143
Rakow, L. F., & Nastasia, D. I.
(2009). On feminist theory of public relations: An example from Dorothy E.
Smith. In Ø. Ihlen, B. van Ruler, & M. Fredriksson (Eds.), Public relations and social theory: Key
figures and concepts (pp. 252-277). New York, NY: Routledge.
Rieckmann, M. (2012). Future-oriented higher education: Which key competencies should be fostered through university teaching and learning? Futures, 44(2), 127-135. doi: 10.1016/j.futures.2011.09.005
Rosenau, P. M. (1992). Postmodernism and the social sciences.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Stacks, D. W., Botan, C., & Turk, J. V. (1999). Perceptions of public relations education. Public Relations Review, 25(1), 9-28. doi: 10.1016/j.pubrev.2009.03.006
Stokes, A. Q., & Waymer, D. (2011). The good organization communicating well: Teaching rhetoric in the public relations classroom. Public Relations Review, 37(5), 441-449. doi: 10.1016/j.pubrev.2011.09.018
Toth, E. L. (2002). Postmodernism for modernist public relations: The cash value and application of critical research in public relations. Public Relations Review, 28(3), 243-250. doi: 10.1016/S0363-8111(02)00130-3
Tyler, L. (2005). Toward a postmodern understanding of crisis communication. Public Relations Review, 31(4), 566-571. doi: 10.1016/j.pubrev.2005.08.017
Weaver, C. K. (2001). Dressing for battle in the new global economy: Putting power, identity, and discourse into public relations theory. Management Communication Quarterly, 15(2), 279-288. doi: 10.1177/0893318901152007
Appendix A: Postmodernism in the Introductory PR Class Activity Description
lesson is designed to provide students in an introductory public relations
course with an alternative perspective on public relations theory. We suggest
these issues be brought into the classroom midway through the semester after
students are familiar with the basic theoretical approaches of public
relations. Although not required, we suggest assigning students part or all of
chapter 5 from Holtzhausen’s (2012) work Public
Relations as Activism: Postmodern Approaches to Theory and Practice to
read for the day of this lesson. This chapter details the postmodern turn in
organizational theory as it relates to public relations.
recommend devoting at least one full class period to lecturing on the basic
tenets worked of modernism and postmodernism, which is adaptable to a 50- or
75-minute class format. It is important to emphasize the utility of
postmodernism in public relations within the context of organizational theory
and structure, public relations roles, different understandings of strategy and
strategic planning, and leadership styles. Instructors should focus on the
differences between the modern and postmodern perspectives on these issues. For
example, modernist approaches focus on strategy from a top-down perspective
while postmodern approaches focus on a bottom-up emergent strategy. One
tangible example for students that worked well was to use the class structure
to encourage students’ reflection on how certain organizational structures can
limit the free flow of information and disempower certain people. In a large
lecture course, students must often work through course TAs to get their
questions answered and have limited interaction with the professor. But, for a
class of 120 students, this type of format makes it easier for an instructor to
manage, highlighting modernist assumptions of efficiency and control.
the next class (or lab) period, briefly review the main ideas about modernism
and postmodernism that were articulated during the previous session. After
this, you can have students form groups of 3-4 to design a postmodern
organization for 30-40 minutes. Students are instructed to focus on
deconstructing underlying assumptions of organizational structure, public
relation’s role within an organization, strategic approaches, and leadership
styles. Students will develop their own organization grounded in postmodern
principles. Students should be given creative license to develop a name for
their organization, as well as a mission and vision statement. After completing
the exercise, student groups should briefly present their organization to the
after the activity is one of the key components of this lesson and should be
allocated for at least 10 minutes. This debrief should focus on the challenges
of designing a purely postmodern organization. Was this even possible for your
students? What aspects were hardest to conceptualize through a postmodern lens?
What balance should postmodern approaches strike with modernism? What tools can
either perspective offer to future practitioners when faced with workplace
challenges? How can the postmodern perspective help to facilitate organizational
change? What does it mean to be an agent of organizational change? Why is it
often find it difficult to start this activity as modernist assumptions are so
ingrained in our ways of thinking. Once students start to brainstorm, though,
ideas such as a worker-owned coop and gender-neutral bathrooms emerged.
Students also thought that a postmodern organization would be one that fought
for the rights of employees and customers of a company.
also suggest assigning a short written reflection due a week after the activity
so that students can further consider their experiences with the postmodern
lesson. Reflection questions revolved around their understanding of
postmodernism in the context of public relations and experience with designing
a postmodern organization through the activity. The four questions asked were:
(1) What aspects of the activity were hardest to conceptualize through a
postmodern lens?; (2) What, if any, utility do you think postmodern principles
have in public relations?; (3) What is the most important lesson you learned
from this activity?; and (4) What does being an organizational activist mean to