Monthly Archives: May 2023

The Public Relations Writer’s Handbook

Pauline A. Howes, Ph.D.

The Public Relations Writer’s Handbook
Author: Whitney Lehmann, Ph.D., APR
Nova Southeastern University
Routledge, 2019 
ISBN: 978-1-3512-6192-0 
For access to instructor resources: Instructor Resources Download Hub.

Templates (ZIP 139.2KB)

The Public Relations Writer’s Handbook is an informative and practical guide on how to write the main types of materials used by PR practitioners. The book works well as a textbook for students, and as a resource for those new to the field. Lehmann and book contributors take a conversational approach that engages the reader by delivering detailed instruction while sharing real-world experiences. Thorough, yet concise, this book is packed with solid writing fundamentals and professional insights. Knowing what makes good PR writing and understanding the strategic use of different materials will continue to be essential in the emerging era of generative artificial intelligence tools, such as ChatGPT.

Structure and Organization 

The book is organized into six sections: What is Public Relations Writing, Media Relations, Storytelling, Writing for Digital Media, Business and Executive Communications, and Writing for Events. Chapters within the sections go into detail on writing related materials. The opening section, “What Is Public Relations Writing,” provides background and context by describing the role of and general guidelines for PR writing in an aptly titled chapter, “Purpose, Process, Style, Form and Tone.” Though definitions of public relations may be familiar to most PR students, the inclusion of different examples is a helpful reminder and sets the stage for discussing what PR writing is – and what it is not. Lehmann highlights how public relations and PR writing are different from marketing and advertising. This distinction is important for students to understand because it influences their overall approach and tone when writing PR materials. The section also lists the variety of documents PR people use, outlines the writing process, introduces the inverted pyramid concept and offers general tips for effective PR writing. 

What follows are five sections containing a total of 17 chapters, each focused on a particular document or aspect of PR writing. Chapters under the Media Relations section instruct on News Releases and Other Types of Releases, Media Pitches, Media Advisories/Alerts, Public Service Announcements and Media Kits. The Storytelling chapter covers Interviewing, Background Materials and Backgrounders, Fact Sheets, Bio Sketches, News Writing and Feature Writing. The Writing for Digital Media section has two chapters, “Email and Writing for the Web” and “Writing for Social Media.” Grouped under Business and Executive Communications are two chapters, “Letters and Memos” and “Speechwriting.” The section on Writing for Events includes two chapters, “Talking Points and Run of Show” and “Shot Lists and and Photo Captions.”

Chapters open with a brief explanation of the purpose of the document – how it is used and how it relates to other written tools in the practice of public relations. The authors then take a “hands on,” often step-by-step approach, to preparing and writing the respective PR tools. The use of examples (e.g., right and wrong punctuation for quotations) is an effective way to convey the details of PR writing.

Each chapter includes at least one exercise that can be used as a class assignment. Some exercises include taking information provided in the instructions (e.g., Exercise 2.1 – News Release). Others ask students to first gather and then use information from external sources (materials or interviews) to write the assigned piece (e.g., Exercise 8.1 – Crafting a Backgrounder). Several chapters also have an AP Style Skill Drill for students to identify and correct AP style errors in a sample document. Though AP style is covered in the first chapter, “Purpose, Process, Style, Form and Tone,” it’s always helpful to reinforce AP style points in various PR materials.

Throughout the text, public relations professionals offer insights that show how aspects of PR writing are applied in the “real world.” These brief essays, “Perspectives from the Pros,” are written in a personal, conversational style, often reflecting on the writer’s own experiences. Students, perhaps more than ever, want to know the “why” behind what they are asked to do. Discussing the use of PR materials in this way helps them see the bigger picture and understand why things are written the way they are.

Contributions to Public Relations Education

Presented as a handbook, as opposed to a traditional textbook, this book is designed and written to provide direct and detailed guidance on how to write a variety of materials used by PR practitioners. The book is ideal for use in PR classes taught with a sharp focus on the practical and professional aspects of writing for public relations. The content gets straight to the point of describing, giving instruction and offering examples of the different PR materials. Instructor resources, available on the publisher’s website (registration required), include digital versions of templates and answer keys for the AP style exercises. 

The author and contributors write in a conversational style that engages readers by talking “to them,” rather than “at them.” Their personal stories are relatable and add perspectives based on professional experience. Information and instructions are easy to follow through the use of both narrative and bullet-point formats. Subheads facilitate quick reference to specific details when working on an assignment. The provided examples and templates give students a framework for content and format.


A strength of this textbook is its sharp focus on the fundamentals of writing a wide range of PR materials, while still providing insights on the actual practice of public relations. The book also pays great attention to the details and nuances of good PR writing. Public relations professionals – and professors – may have personal preferences for writing and formatting; nonetheless, this book reflects commonly accepted practices for preparing PR documents. Most chapters open with a purpose section that concisely describes the specific PR document and explains how it is used in ways that are authentic to the practice of public relations. Detailed instructions and explanations are organized under headings, such as Format, Structure, Process and Template, that help guide the reader. Since much of PR writing is formulaic, the clear, straightforward examples and templates are helpful and adaptable to different applications.

One thing that stands out when reading this textbook is its highly personal tone and presentation of content. You get the sense that the authors are talking to students in a professional, yet approachable, way that keeps them engaged while teaching them about writing. Most chapters are written by Lehmann, but including other authors’ chapters and sidebar commentaries adds diversity in voice and allows for input by those with expertise in a particular type of writing.


Since 2019, when this book was published, digital communication and social media have evolved, expanded to new platforms and grown in usage by organizations. While the book content remains highly relevant, a future edition would benefit from updated guidance on writing for the web and social media. A separate chapter on general scriptwriting for video and audio could include public service announcements. Connecting similar types of writing that are used in different ways, such as writing photo captions and Instagram posts, may be an approach to consider. Though PR planning is discussed briefly in the opening section, a separate chapter on how to write a PR plan, including an example, is a possible addition. Finally, the overall layout of the book makes good use of headings, subheads, different fonts and design elements given the constraints of page size. However, a further enhancement, though likely a matter for the publisher not the author, would be using larger pages to better display the examples, templates and sidebars.

Lehmann and her contributors deftly combine their experiences as educators and PR professionals to create a practical guide for learning about writing for public relations. This book is a  “how to” in many respects; however, the informative chapters and by-lined sidebars broaden its usefulness. So much of learning to write well must come from practice, along with instruction. Effectively covering the essentials of writing a variety of PR materials in an informative, engaging way makes The Public Relations Writer’s Handbook a good option for PR writing classes.

© Copyright 2023 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Howes, Pauline A. (2023). The Public Relations Writer’s Handbook. [Review of the book The Public Relations Writer’s Handbook].  Journal of Public Relations Education, 9(1), 171-175.

You Need PR: An Approachable Guide to Public Relations for Early-Stage Companies

Lois Boynton, Ph.D., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

You Need PR: An Approachable Guide to Public Relations for Early-Stage Companies
Author: Jenna Guarneri
An Inc. Original, 2022
Routledge, 2019 
Print ISBN 978-1-63909-004-4 
eBook ISBN 978-1-63909-006-8

According to the Census Bureau, more than 5 million new businesses filed for IRS tax IDs in 2021, the highest number in 20 years and a 53% increase from 2019 pre-pandemic applications (Newman & Fikri, 2022). Despite these large numbers, the vast majority of start-ups fail, typically in the first five years. Among the reasons for these failures are misjudging demand, insufficient funds, stronger-than-expected competition, and – as Jenna Guarneri’s book You Need PR argues – ineffective marketing (“106  Must-Know,” 2022).  

Guarneri’s easy-to-read book is part of An Inc. Original’s leadership book series, the same organization that publishes Inc. magazine. She adeptly brings her professional expertise into the pages of the book, interspersing her entrepreneurial experiences creating a start-up agency seven years ago. As CEO of JMG Public Relations in New York City, Guarneri identifies herself as a publicist, a position under the broader public relations umbrella and generally related to media relations and events. Her firm received several recognitions in the last five years, including the 2021 Most Outstanding Startup-Focused PR Firm, awarded by digital B2B magazine publisher Corporate Vision. She also shares her expertise as a member of the Forbes Business Council and a Forbes magazine contributor. 

Structure and Organization

Guarneri breaks the 12-chapter book into four sections that mirror a business start-up process: Establish (chapters 1-3), Build (chapters 4-6), Launch (chapters 7-9), and Deliver (chapters 10-12). The book includes a brief glossary of terms, from advertorial to wire service, and a six-page index. Each chapter begins with a poignant quote to set the stage. For example, “The Competitor Landscape” (chapter 6) starts with, “A horse never runs so fast as when he has other horses to catch up and outpace” (p. 95). My favorite quote starts chapter 10, “Follow Through,” attributed to realtor-turned-sales and leadership coach Michelle Moore: “Not following up … is the same as filling up your bathtub without first putting the stopper in the drain” (p. 167). The author wraps up each chapter with an “Innovation Station” to summarize the main points and pose questions for the reader to consider based on their organization’s publicity needs. 

Guarneri kicks off the book discussing the significance of perceptions, focusing on the company’s core values and delving into brand differentiation. She employs simple descriptions without technical terms. The “Competitor Landscape” chapter describes what constitutes environmental scanning and issues management, for example. The PR Pitching Cycle (p. 212) synthesizes an effective process involving essential research, outreach, and follow-up,  and media catching options available from resources such as Help A Reporter Out, ProfNet, and Qwoted (p. 164). 

You Need PR also advocates for an oft-used strategy of third-party endorsements gained by media coverage, despite recent evidence that trust in news media continues to drop. According to a July 2022 Gallup poll, only 16% of Americans have considerable trust in newspapers, with a mere 11% holding trusting views in television news (Brenan, 2022). But the text is not behind the times; it also points to the value of creating connections and sharing media coverage via social media channels. 

Strengths and Weaknesses

The book effectively backs recommendations with campaign examples from the likes of Patagonia, FedEx, T-Mobile, Warby Parker, TED Talks, and Oreo. The publication also reinforces the why and how of its suggestions by interlacing research findings from prominent organizations such as Gallup, Edison Research and Catalyst, Pew Research Center, and University of Chicago. 

Today’s public relations and publicity also must have grounding in diversity, inclusion, and equity, issues not featured in You Need PR. These elements do not necessarily require a separate chapter, but could be reinforced if woven throughout the text. For example, the subsection “Types of Media Outlets” (p. 108-110) might refer to the value of scanning a wide range of diverse publications to learn points of interest and the potential to pitch relevant story ideas. In addition to a notable branding success story such as Patagonia’s Don’t Buy this Coat campaign (p. 26), the book might also feature the Starbucks UK (2020) campaign, “Every Name’s a Story,” which showcased the significance of a trans person hearing a barista say their chosen name. There’s also value in sharing teachable moments, such as Barnes and Noble’s 2020 Black History Month debacle, in which it recovered classic books with “new covers that reimagined protagonists as characters of color” (Cornish, 2020). 

Publicists and public relations practitioners must have a strong grasp of inclusive language, as well.  A link – perhaps in the chapters on storytelling, content, or brand materials – to a resource such as the Conscious Style Guide [] would provide readers guidance about how to refer to the breadth of diverse stakeholders – from race and ethnicity to age, disability, gender expression, religion, and socioeconomic status. These issues, plus reinforcing the profession’s ethical standards to eschew misinformation and potential conflicts of interest (Bortree, 2022), would provide essential context for students and novice practitioners. 

Contributions to Public Relations Education

Overall, You Need PR is an easy-to-read overview of the role publicists play in creating memorable, brand-focused media content, particularly, as the title reinforces, for start-up ventures. The book outlines the value of a number of tactics that professionals expect entry-level employees to have mastered (Edwards-Neff, 2020), such as media pitches, posts on popular social media platforms, news releases, blogs, and podcasts. The author also includes briefs about newsletters, press kits, fact sheets, bios, boilerplates, features, and media lists. As a result, a more-apt title might be You Need Publicity, to delineate media strategies from the additional keys to effective public relations when building relationships with other stakeholders: investors, employees, multicultural communities, and government organizations. 

Overall, some instructors may find this book useful for media relations classes or some public relations writing courses that focus primarily on writing for news media. Guarneri’s book also is a valid go-to resource to provide students, recent alumni, or other novices with a media relations primer or refresher, particularly when working with start-up organizations. 


106 must-know startup statistics for 2022. (2022, October 13). Embroker

Bortree, D. (2022, June 6). Ethics committee spotlight report for Commission on Public Relations Education.  

Brenan, M. (2022, July 18). Media confidence ratings at record lows. Gallup.

Cornish, A. (2020, February 6). Author L. L. McKinney: Barnes & Noble ‘diverse editions’ are ‘literary blackface.’ NPR. 

Newman, D., & Fikri, K. (2022, January 19). New startups break record in 2021: Unpacking the numbers. Economic Innovation Group. 

Starbucks UK. (2020, February 2). Starbucks LGBT+ Channel 4 Diversity Award 2019: Every name’s a story. [Video]. YouTube.  

Edwards-Neff, D. (2020, October 18). Writing work group report: Undergraduate writing preparation and skills for entry-level public relations professionals. Commission on Public Relations Education. 

© Copyright 2023 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Boynton, Lois. (2023). You Need PR: An Approachable Guide to Public Relations for Early-Stage Companies. [Review of the book You Need PR: An Approachable Guide to Public Relations for Early-Stage Companies].  Journal of Public Relations Education, 9(1), 166-170.

Inter-Institutional Service-Learning Collaborations in a Remote Environment: A Case Study

Editorial Record: Submitted May 25, 2022. Revised September 17, 2022. Accepted October 28, 2022. Published May 2023.


Michelle M. Maresh-Fuehrer, Ph.D.
Department Chair & Professor of Public Relations
Communication and Media
Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi
Texas, USA

Michelle Baum
CEO of Moxie + Mettle
Colorado, USA

With the purpose of giving students real-world experience in teamwork and remote project management pre-pandemic, two instructors taught their undergraduate crisis communication courses collaboratively for an entire semester. Students from comparable public 4-year Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) located in the south-central and southwestern regions of the United States worked together on a service-learning project requiring the development of a crisis communication plan for a client representing a nonprofit organization. The following themes emerged concerning lessons students learned: navigating cultural uncertainty, using tactful communication via technology, managing distance and adapting to challenges. The results correspond with reports by the National Association of Colleges and Employers and the Commission on Public Relations Education emphasizing the importance of preparing students for the challenges posed by a technological work environment. Along with anecdotes from the instructors’ observations and students’ evaluative comments, suggestions for future applications of this type of service-learning collaboration are provided.

Keywords: service-learning, crisis communication, inter-institutional collaboration, public relations, remote work

The COVID-19 global health pandemic accelerated organizations’ adoption of digital technologies, as many nonessential businesses were forced to embrace hybrid and remote work environments to sustain business activities. During the pandemic, nearly 70% of full-time employees in the U.S. worked from home (OWL Labs, 2020). As a result of the work-from-home (WFH) surge, organizations now rely heavily on technology to power connectedness among employees and processes in hybrid and remote work environments, and systems that were once manual are now digital and automated (Craig, 2021). 

College graduates face the reality that employers seek new hires with relevant work experience (Craig, 2021) which now includes navigating the plethora of professional technologies required to enable WFH settings. Adequate preparation has challenged college graduates for years and spurred the need for hands-on experiences and internships (Thompson, 2014). While Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2012) are referred to as “Zoomers” because they have grown up in a digital world and are hyperconnected, comfort with technology does not necessarily equate to professional prowess (Gentina & Parry, 2021). 

To help students overcome these challenges in preparation for today’s job market, educators need to consider modern career readiness competencies and strategies for incorporating opportunities to practice these skills in the classroom. In the context of public relations, scholars have argued that education must include collaboration and industry tools to support PR practices (Formentin & Auger, 2021), as well as “the need to help students learn about their digital presence” (Kim, 2022, p. 9). Furthermore, a roundtable workgroup sponsored by the Commission on Public Relations Education (CPRE) argued that “a significant element in public relations education is developing a student’s presence to effectively deliver content, lead groups, and engage in interpersonal dimensions online” (Kim, 2022, p. 11).

Service-learning is one high-impact practice (HIPS) shown to help students develop competencies while providing a service for the community that allows for hands-on experience in a real-world situation (Dapena et al., 2022). Through service-learning experiences, students may develop a sense of personal and social responsibility and work ethic, retention of course content, the ability to apply theory to practice, and leadership and communication skills (Jacoby, 2015). In fact, researchers have found that service-learning and collaborative learning approaches “can successfully bridge academic concepts and practice” (Maresh-Fuehrer, 2015, p. 187) by fostering an environment where students take personal initiative, become a better team member or emerge as a team leader, and feel connected to their community (Johnson, 2007; Maresh-Fuehrer, 2015).

While many researchers have studied the benefits of service-learning in singular classrooms and across academic departments and colleges, an exploration of inter-institutional collaborative versions of this teaching practice is lacking (Chang & Hannafin, 2015). Some researchers have found that inter-institutional collaborations result in unique benefits (Fraustino et al., 2015), so it is worthwhile to explore how such a collaboration addresses the need for exposing students to the technological practices required in today’s professional environment.

 Thus, the following case study reflects on a collaborative semester-long service-learning partnership led by two instructors at comparable, public 4-year Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) in different regions of the United States. Although this remote collaboration occurred pre-pandemic, the results provide important support for the CPRE recommendations for online pedagogy and guidance on how to improve such instruction. 

University and Student Comparisons

This service-learning project was implemented in senior-level crisis communication courses at two accredited universities located in the south-central and southwestern regions of the United States. Because of their geographic locations, the campuses are in two different time zones with a one-hour time difference. One institution is a comprehensive university located on a tri-institutional commuter campus with 95% of its students coming from in-state. The other institution is a research university that has both on-campus and commuter students, with 93% of its students coming from in-state. More than 40% of enrollment at both institutions is first-generation college students, and both are federally designated Hispanic Serving Institutions. However, the differences in geographic locations and student characteristics made this collaboration particularly appealing to the instructors. The class at the southwestern university was composed of 11 upper-division journalism and public relations majors. Each of the enrolled students had completed several courses in AP style and journalism-centric writing techniques. Conversely, the south-central university class featured 39 students from a variety of majors, many of them had limited or no experience in public relations or journalism writing but with backgrounds working in related industries such as emergency response. 

Service-Learning Project

Prior Applications

Prior to embarking on this collaboration, both instructors modeled their crisis communication courses to involve team projects and a semester-long service-learning experience where students develop crisis communication plans for community-based clients. As such, both instructors were familiar with choosing appropriate clients for service-learning projects and how to balance client needs with student learning outcomes. 

Curriculum Coordination

Curriculum coordination began approximately one year in advance of the project. Since students would be registering for the course at their home university, the instructors felt it was important to discuss the time zone difference and try to teach the courses at the same time to build in time for team teaching and collaboration. However, an unanticipated challenge arose when scheduling courses as both institutions use specific time blocks, none of which were shared between campuses. As a result, the instructors selected times when the classes could overlap for 30 minutes. In the class periods leading up to a major assignment deadline, students were expected to use the overlapping time to work together and submit a report to both instructors detailing their progress.

The next step required examining course syllabi and policies, discussion content and grading rubrics with the purpose of creating a unified voice between the classes. Each syllabus incorporated the same policies, resources, deadlines and expectations except for university-mandated statements. Both instructors shared lecture notes and determined the content to be taught but, recognizing that no two instructors share the same teaching style, allowed for individuality in selecting examples and instructional methods. All documents were shared with both classes in their independent Blackboard shells. Several class periods were scheduled via Zoom to provide the students with an opportunity to participate in lessons taught by both instructors. In these class periods, the instructor in charge of the lesson for that day broadcast their lecture live via Zoom, while the other instructor and their students were sitting together in their own classroom, attending via Zoom. 

New grading rubrics were also developed for each of the assignments. During the semester, the instructors graded each group assignment separately and then discussed and agreed upon scores before providing a unified grade to students. Little to no variation in the instructors’ individual scores occurred.

Technology and Collaboration

In addition to the Zoom class meetings, students used a variety of technology applications to communicate and collaborate outside the classroom, including the text messaging app, GroupMe. Students were encouraged to post questions and examples in a class group and create subgroups for discussions within their assigned teams. Students were also encouraged to participate in an optional Twitter discussion using a unique hashtag for the course. To encourage collaboration, students were prompted to share something interesting they learned in class or in the readings, an example of a course concept or commentary about a crisis that was not discussed in class. Fourteen students (28% of the class) contributed 119 posts with an average applause rate (likes) of 1.96. While the engagement rate is modest, it is worth noting that the students’ examples were referenced during class sessions to spark face-to-face discussion. Also of interest is the fact that many of the engagements were from persons who were not members of either class, thus evidencing increased visibility of the institutions and the PR profession among students’ networks.

The Assignments

The instructors used the crisis management plan (CMP) project developed by Maresh-Fuehrer (2013), which consists of four major assignments and a written/oral presentation to a client. Three of the assignments required students to work in different groups to collaborate, and one assignment allowed for individual work. Since group work can be daunting for students, the instructors assigned the most graded weight to the individual assignment. The instructors used a shared rubric to independently grade each team’s work and then briefly met to discuss and finalize scores and feedback before issuing grades to the teams. Students were told that their team assignments were being graded collaboratively by both instructors. However, for the individual assignments, instructors used a shared rubric but only graded the work of students enrolled in their class sections. Students were required to complete revisions of each assignment based on the feedback they received. The revisions were compiled into a Google document that students presented to the client at the end of the semester.


A component of service learning is reflecting on what has been learned and how it applies to a real-world project. The instructors’ observations of student communication coupled with comments from student reports of instruction (SRIs) suggested that students gained individual insights and exercised newly acquired skills from the challenges posed when collaborating with peers in another region to complete a major academic project for a real client. 

Navigating Cultural Uncertainty

The first learning experience for students emerged during the early weeks of the semester. While the instructors expected students to share their excitement about the collaboration, a different attitude was apparent. An “us versus them” mentality seemed to dominate students’ communication about their classmates and the project. Students at both institutions emphasized the difference in geographic regions by referring to the collaborating class as the “[State] class” or “[State] students,” rather than using inclusive language such as “our class” or “our group.” The tone was negative and competitive and became most obvious during a situation where a few teams submitted late assignments, despite the instructors’ shared policy on late work. The students tasked with submitting the assignments on behalf of the teams were all from the same campus, so the students from the collaborating campus expressed anger at the fact that the “[State] students” were negatively impacting their grades. Some students even used stereotyping to make sense of the experience, saying things like “You’d think people from [State] would be more laidback.”

This language and behavior seemed to signal the existence of implicit cultural bias among students, which was especially exposed due to the teams being geographically dispersed. However, this allowed the instructors to engage in a discussion with all of the students about recognizing how cultural differences may impact communication among the members of their teams, respecting those differences and knowing when personal accountability can be used to avoid conflict. After having this talk with the classes, the instructors observed an increase in communication between the groups and more individual students demonstrating accountability. One student shared, “This course really demonstrated ‘real world’ situations when working with groups of different backgrounds. Involved VERY tactful communications within the groups and individuals. Conflict resolution was tested to the extreme.” However, it is unclear whether the students ever fully escaped the “us versus them” mentality, as one student reflected, “There were times that working with [State] class was a little difficult, but we worked it out and made it happen – that proved to be a learning experience in itself.”

Using Tactful Communication via Technology

Students were overall receptive and comfortable using new technologies, such as GroupMe and Zoom to communicate with their classmates; however, they were faced with differing expectations for communicating on these platforms. For example, students experienced a great deal of conflict when communicating using GroupMe. A specific anecdote occurred early in the semester when students formed their initial groups for the organizational history assignment. Students from one campus were using the app for casual/social messaging, such as connecting with each other to identify their location (such as studying in the student union or eating lunch at a particular restaurant). This irritated some students who were not on the same campus, prompting them to post derogatory comments that sparked even more unrelated text exchanges that further created division among the classes. One student wrote, “The smaller chats worked better but still had problems, like people using it to find what room they should meet in. I think a training on how to use group chats would help these problems.”

Thus, when this issue arose, the instructors used class time to discuss professional text messaging conduct and provided a handout that offered tips for professional engagement. They also directly addressed concerns with select students and prompted the students to reflect on how they may have approached their text responses differently. As the semester continued, students adapted to the norms for professional technology use and realized that tactful communication was necessary on these platforms, especially to resolve misunderstandings. At the end of the semester, one student shared, “TIL [today I learned] collaboration can actually go smoothly across time zones when communication is respectful. Looking back, this project has taught me more than I thought…”

Managing Distance

For each assignment, students were randomly grouped with classmates from both campuses. During class, the students who shared a physical location would coordinate their schedules and select out-of-class meeting times to work together on their assignments. The ease of communicating with classmates that shared a physical location made it common for them to forget to reach out to the remote group members. This resulted in frustration when the classmates who were left out of the arrangements were unable to meet at the time their group chose to work on the assignment. When referring to this scenario, one student described, “Working with the…team was difficult because there were some instances where they were not willing to support team work. There were a few times where it was hard to communicate with them.”

This dynamic opened the pathway to discussing the differences between collaborating virtually and face-to-face. When the instructors learned of this, they quickly reminded the students of the importance of including everyone in conversations that impact the team or the project. They utilized an analogy of the students being stakeholders in the project and connected this to the core public relations principle of the need to inform stakeholders about matters that concern them (Center et al., 2012). The instructors expressed that the communication tools available–such as GroupMe–are meant for fostering collaboration, especially in these types of moments. 

Adapting to Challenges

When the instructors approached their classes about a lack of participation in team meetings, several students shared that they were uncomfortable in virtual meetings because they could see themselves while talking and became self-conscious. Sharing these challenges in the classroom helped students realize that others had the same feelings. The instructors shared tips for navigating this situation, such as hiding the self-view on Zoom. 

A second challenge that emerged was based on student characteristics (differing class sizes, majors and PR writing experience). The instructors observed several benefits and challenges students faced as a result of this mixed class configuration. The heterogeneous nature of the group contributed to the discovery of a robust set of potential risks (335 unique risk scenarios) that illustrated students’ specialized knowledge of the law, environmental science and other technical risks that may not have otherwise been considered in a class of only PR/journalism majors. At times, however, students in both courses approached the instructors with frustrations over the varying degrees of professional writing skills, AP style proficiency and personal worth ethic present among their classmates. Some students reported that they made extensive edits to their group’s work, while others expressed frustration that their individual contributions had been edited to a degree that changed the intended meaning of their content. These concerns led to the instructors discussing the nature of collaborative projects in the workplace, which included a discussion of French and Raven’s (1959) bases of power. The instructors emphasized that professionals often work with people from different departments and locations that may not share the same knowledge base. However, each person must be valued for the unique strengths that they contribute toward the success of a group. At the end of the semester, one of the students shared about the remote work experience, “Working with different individuals throughout the semester helped me jump out of my comfort zones.” Another student emphasized that the challenging nature of group work was “a real example of how life may work sometime.” Much to the instructors’ satisfaction, one student shared 

This class was a favorite of mine this semester! It was definitely a challenge every minute, but it taught me so much in just a short 4 months. I learned how to work with various individuals on a large project with a wonderful outcome.


As Kim (2022) describes in the Commission on Public Relations Education’s Spotlight Report, “online education should prepare students to develop their digital presence by providing opportunities to learn about, practice, and reflect on digital interaction” (p. 11). Since COVID-19, the professional world–including education–has seen a rise in the use of different modalities to collaborate with workgroups. Although the project described in this case study was a remote collaboration that only partially took place online, the lessons learned from this inter-institutional project show that this approach makes it possible for instructors to expose students to the “ways that remote and hybrid workplaces practice presence across teams and between managers and their teams” (Kim, 2022, p. 9).

The students’ experiences are consistent with previous research on the benefits of service-learning and inter-institutional collaborations as “mirroring the type of work PR professionals regularly perform” (Smallwood & Brunner, 2017, p. 450) and providing mutual benefit to the students and client (Maresh-Fuehrer, 2015); however, the added component of remote collaboration resulted in several added benefits. Students were suddenly thrust into an environment where communication deficiencies were realized. They had to learn to adapt to cultural uncertainty, differing skills and communication expectations, and challenges posed by geographic distance and their own insecurities. As Berger and Calabrese (1975) explain, people feel uncertainty about others that they do not know. Given the nature of the collaboration, students anticipated future interaction with one another, so their interest in reducing uncertainty was high. Unfortunately, the brief overlap between the two classes provided only limited opportunities for verbal and nonverbal warmth and self-disclosure among students. Additionally, moments of conflict–such as in the cases of the frustrated GroupMe messages or late assignment submissions–may have led to uncertainty remaining high, despite the collaborative environment. This challenge is important to overcome because a sense of closeness results in higher contributions from students (Gilmore & Warren, 2007).

Another advantage of the collaboration was the numerous teaching moments the instructors were able to have with students to help them navigate challenges, as described in the Results section. This corresponds with the CPRE’s recommendation to incorporate “topics such as leading a Zoom presentation, nonverbal communication through technology, and other elements that hold the potential to elevate or inhibit their future success” into online instruction (Kim, 2022, p. 11). This seems especially important as the instructors observed that, although both classes were mostly comprised of “digital natives” (Prensky, 2001), it became clear that students did not understand how professional technology use differs from personal use. Overcoming this issue is necessary, as “students’ efficacy with the technologies…may lead to…positive attitudes and performance expectations when using such technologies in future on-the-job environments” (O’Malley & Kelleher, 2002, p. 183).  

In many cases, diversity in skill sets were an asset in helping students avoid groupthink, which occurs when a homogenous group of people allow the desire for harmony in the group to result in poor decision-making (Janis, 1997). The instructors observed students gaining insight into their strengths that required them to recognize how they operate within a team (e.g., do they take on a leadership role or do they hold back their questions or concerns? Do they criticize others’ work, or do they help improve the end product?). Students arrived at these realizations by being asked to regularly reflect on their experiences throughout the class and during the instructors’ one-on-one or team conversations with them when concerns arose. These discoveries helped students understand how to be more effective team players and work through disagreements and miscommunication, regardless of the geolocation of their team members. More research is needed on the benefits and pitfalls associated with learning in remote inter-institutional service-learning activities, especially when students have varying levels of competency.

Another significant contribution of this project is the experience and benefits afforded to students while requiring few additional resources beyond what is normally required to manage a classroom. While O’Malley and Kelleher (2002) remarked that “the extra resources required to coordinate two distant university classes did not seem worthwhile…” (p. 183), the instructors of the CMP project did not arrive at the same conclusion. The primary resource required to formulate and run this class was time. The instructors developed their own syllabi to reflect university-specific language and classroom conduct expectations but collaborated on the development of each assignment, rubric, and grading structure, and determining audio and video technology requirements to sync classrooms. Each instructor also prepared lectures for joint classroom instruction, and the instructors graded some of the projects together to ensure consistency in evaluation. When student concerns arose, the instructors took time to turn them into teaching moments, but these lessons did not exceed what would normally occur as part of classroom management.

Recommendations for Future Applications

The areas where students struggled present opportunities to improve the design of a PR curriculum focused on providing students with real-world experiences. Based on their shared experience, the instructors offer the following recommendations for future applications of inter-institutional service-learning projects.

Schedule Time for Team Building. As evidenced by the exemplars provided in the Results section, students struggled with aspects of intercultural communication which, at times, contributed to a feeling of hostility among students. The intense course schedule necessary to cover the material allowed little room for team building exercises. The instructors agree with the need to integrate team-building exercises into the curriculum to build trust, develop team identity and promote information exchange to help improve virtual team dynamics (Jarvenpaa et al., 1998). Students would also benefit from a discussion of the similarities and differences among the institutions and student skill sets, as well as more specifications for assigning roles and deadlines and streamlining communication when working in groups.   

Discuss Professional Technology Use. Collaboration, especially in a virtual environment, requires guidance and some level of oversight by instructors. Initially, the instructors believed setting communication parameters, such as establishing a GroupMe text channel, offered sufficient room for students to successfully connect. However, instructors quickly found that students would have benefited from more information about what constitutes professional communication in mediated platforms. Additionally, students’ lack of comfort seeing themselves on Zoom also supports the notion of teaching them how to use technology. This finding is especially salient, as the CPRE report discusses the need to help students learn “how to do direct engagement with groups in virtual settings, how to leverage software…for successful group projects, and what effective Zoom engagement looks like in various professional settings” (Kim, 2022, p. 9).

Balance Class Sizes. Furthermore, the instructors would recommend considering comparable class sizes as a factor in selecting a cross-collaboration partner. A lack of balance in class size resulted in lopsided group representation. The natural in-person collaboration that occurred among students in the larger class meant the students in the smaller class often reported feeling out-of-sync with their teams. According to O’Leary and Cummings (2007), it is common for geographically dispersed teams to experience unequal distribution across locations. As the National Research Council (2015) explains, this results in a phenomenon called the “hub and spoke model,” where the “culture and communication style of the headquarters typically dominate, and the group members at remote locations may experience lower status and less power, while their needs and progress are invisible to others” (p. 154-155). In this case, the larger class seemed to be perceived as the main class or a centralized “hub,” where the smaller class’ students felt as though they were just the “spokes” feeding into the larger hub, though this was not the case.

Course Extensions. By fine-tuning aspects of communication and balancing the size of teams, an international inter-institutional course is possible. Such a course would enhance students’ exposure to different cultures, ethnicities, communication nuances, social norms and technologies in a way that extends what they are able to experience working with students in another region of the same country. According to Molleda (2009), gaining a broad understanding of the global economy and standards of communication practices in various regions of the world is increasingly important. This data is confirmed by the career readiness competencies outlined by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) in its job outlook report: career & self development, communication, critical thinking, equity & inclusion, leadership, professionalism, teamwork and technology (NACE, 2021). 

In sum, while data exists illustrating the benefits of service-learning, little information exists about the value of experiential learning in a remote inter-institutional environment. With globalization and the ability to telework expanding, it is imperative for students to learn how to work collaboratively and virtually and with people who are different from them (Kim, 2022; NACE, 2021). With structured facilitation of such projects, remote inter-institutional collaborations are a highly effective method for honing the interpersonal and technological skills required in today’s workforce. 


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© Copyright 2023 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Maresh-Fuehrer, M., and Baum, M. (2023). Inter-Institutional Service-Learning Collaborations in a Remote Environment: A Case Study. Journal of Public Relations Education, 9(1), 147-165.

Teaching Social Media Analytics in PR Classes: Focusing on the Python Program

Editorial Record: Submitted June 4, 2022. Revised October 21, 2022. Revised January 8, 2022. Accepted January 26, 2023. Published May 2023.


Kim, Seon-Woo
Ph.D. Candidate
Manship School of Mass Communication
Louisiana State University

Chon, Myoung-Gi, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
School of Communication and Journalism
Auburn University

The teaching brief introduces what to teach and how to teach social media analytics for PR educators in a university. It suggests a semester-long curriculum for an independent research method class for both graduates and undergraduates. First, we discuss why students can better learn programming languages over industrial platforms. In addition, we compare three different ways of data collection (crawling, API, and download) and discuss the pros and cons. Then, it presents (1) data collection through API, (2) text mining, and (3) network analysis with the shared Python code on GitHub and the step-by-step tutorial for PR educators who are unfamiliar with programming languages. This brief is expected to help to bridge the gap between the growing demands of programming-based analytics in PR practice and education.

Keywords: Social media analytics, Pedagogy, Python, API, Text mining, Network analysis

Social media has become integral to digital public relations (Ewing et al., 2018). PR companies perceive social media analytics (SMA) as a useful tool to identify who is a target public, understand the current environment around an organization, measure PR campaign outcomes, build relations with stakeholders and influencers, and many more (Kim, 2021). Responding to the growing demands of social media analytics in the PR industry, analytics curricula in PR programs need to be developed to educate PR students (Commission on Public Relations Education, 2018). 

However, public relations educators have faced challenges in learning and teaching social media analytics. Most PR instructors have not had an opportunity to learn computer programming knowledge for analytics during their academic careers, such as Python or R. Moreover, teaching analytics requires understanding new methodologies and data types, such as natural language processing, network theory, and deep learning. Given this background, the current analytics classes in PR programs mostly focus on conceptual knowledge and the use of other commercial tools. 

For example, students have learned how to use proprietary platforms, such as Brandwatch and Sprinklr, and interpret the results on those platforms. It is also common for instructors to ask students to get certificates in Google Analytics and Hootsuite as evidence of their analytics competence (Ewing et al., 2018). Despite the above efforts, PR professionals recommend that PR graduates have programming knowledge for PR work automation and tailored PR services to clients (Szalacsi, 2019; Trafalgar Strategy, 2022). Heavy reliance on industrial analytics platforms would limit students’ SMA competency within the platforms’ modality, thereby preventing them from developing advanced analytical abilities.   

To fill the gap, this teaching brief aims to provide a pedagogical foundation for utilizing Python as an SMA tool. Particularly, this teaching brief explains an SMA class material based on data collection, text mining, and network analysis. We provide Python codings that PR educators can use in classrooms to teach Python programming language. Python is the most frequently used programming language in data science (TIOBE, 2022; Woodie, 2021). The Python codes are designed as simplified as possible for a PR analytics introduction class. We provide step-by-step instructions about the Python codes to help readers understand and follow the programming function. This teaching brief is expected to encourage programming-based SMA classes in public relations classes.

Teaching Objectives

Table 1 summarizes the learning objectives of what this teaching brief delivers and required Python packages. This brief consists of three parts: data collection, text mining, and network analysis. First, students are expected to obtain knowledge about Tweet data collection through API. Because APIs tend to provide free versions and have similar ways of use across social media platforms (e.g., Facebook, Instagram), the practice of collecting tweets via API helps students equipped with social media data collection skills for various SNSs without cost. In addition to this, we introduce ways to find content published by influencers and popular tweets. Lastly, students can learn to save the collected data as a spreadsheet format (i.e., xlsx).

Table 1: The Overview of Learning Objectives

 Learning outcomesPython package
Python download 
Data collection– Learn how to apply for Twitter Academic Research Access
– Apply a Twitter access code to Python
– Create search query, including keyword and date
– Collect Tweets through the shared Python code
– Sort out tweets by the number of likes, retweets, and followers
– Save the collected data as the excel format on your local computer
– pandas
– twarc
– os
– requests
– time
Text mining– Load the collected Twitter data
– Text data cleaning
– Create Word cloud
– Calculate word frequency and visualize text mining results
– pandas
-nltk.corpus – re
Network analysis– Create data for network analysis from the collected Twitter data (i.e., mention relation and retweet relations)
– Network object generator
– Generate a network graph
– Export network data for visualization on Gephi
– Calculate various centrality scores
– pandas
– networkx

Next, students can apply text mining and network analysis to their own data collected by API. Through the text mining section, students learn to load and clean data, and create a word cloud and calculate word frequency with its visualization. The network analysis section introduces a simple conceptual understanding of network data, how to construct network data, how to calculate centrality scores, and visualization preparation through Gephi, a popular network visualization tool utilized in academia and industry. 

Teaching Preparation

To use the shared Python code for teaching, educators need to have some basic Python skills. Also, educators and students must install some Python applications and packages. Python code for this teaching brief is available on GitHub ( We assume that readers have already installed Python 3 ( and Jupyter notebook ( Python is a programming language, and Jupyter is a web-based interactive computational environment for Python programming. If not, we recommend installing Anaconda (Anaconda, n.d.), which includes Python 3 and Jupyter Notebook. After installation of Python 3 and Jupyter, launch Jupyter and open the shared code in a new notebook. 

Then, readers need to install the required Python packages, such as pandas and networkx, for each Lesson (see Table 1). 

When running the shared Python code without installing required packages on a computer, it will show the following message “ModuleNotFoundError:no module named ‘XXX’.” Module is synonymous for package in Python. 

To install a Python package on Mac, open Terminal application and type “pip3 install [package name]”. For example, below is the command for installing pandas (see Figure 1). 

Figure 1

On Windows, open Anaconda Prompt program and type “pip3 install [package name]” as below (see Figure 2). 

Figure 2

This short brief cannot cover every single Python code one by one. Instead, we focus on which codes should be edited to properly run the Python code and serve different learning objectives in classrooms. For example, some classes would focus more on organizational PR while others political PR. In this case, the code may require unique search keywords depending on the subject. 

PR educators should have some basic knowledge in Python (e.g., installation, running code, basic built-in functions) prior to giving students a demonstration of the shared Python coding and modifying the codes for class projects and activities. To develop this basic proficiency, we recommend Python books for beginners (e.g., Codeone Publishing, 2022; Matthes, 2019) and freely-available online resources from YouTube, such as Learn Python in 1 Hour (Programming with Mosh, 2020, September 16). Also, online Python bootcamp courses, such as DataCamp (, are valuable resources for PR educators and students as they provide interactive web environments of Python for beginners. PR educators may connect the online bootcamp course to a part of their SMA course curriculum as assignments or pre-class activities. 

Lesson 1. Data collection from Twitter through API

There is nothing to analyze without data. Data collection is the start of extracting valuable insight from analytics before moving to gather information by organizing the data. Thus, among many required skills, data collection is the foundation of SMA (Kent et al., 2011). Growing PR jobs require data collection skills from the web and social media (Meganck et al., 2020). Before digitized public relations, PR practitioners had to manually scan and gather the environment around an organization, such as news monitoring and clippings. However, today’s digital society creates a massive number of user-generated contents about organizations on the web and social media, which makes it nearly impossible for PR practitioners to collect them manually. 

There are three main ways to collect web data: crawling, API, and downloading from industrial platforms. Table 2 compares the data collection methods. Web crawling, or scraping, refers to a mechanical collection of web data (e.g., text, image, sound, and video). A web crawler automatically extracts data from a website based on programming. Technically, it is possible to crawl data using freely-available packages in Python for most web pages, such as social media, news media, and web communities. These packages can be implemented for news clipping and issue/crisis monitoring as a daily PR practice.

Table 2: Comparison of Data Collection Methods

Level of difficultyDifficultModerate – difficultEasy – moderate
PriceFreeFree or paidPricy
Data accessibilityPartialFull or partialFull or partial
VariablesLimited – SomeSomeMany but blackbox

Writing crawling programming requires advanced programming language and web structure knowledge such as HTML, HTTP, and CSS. Also, they should be updated whenever a website changes its layout and structure. In addition, social media companies present limited, personalized feeds and content to each account based on their algorithms and other variables (e.g., follower network, search history, location). Thus, a web crawler often cannot access the full-archived data because it can only collect data visible on the website, which may raise content representativeness issues. A crawler also cannot get invisible metadata and variables that a social media company provides to API and industrial platforms, such as user profiles (e.g., when an account was created) and metadata (e.g., the name of the app the user posted from). If necessary, you have to construct variables from crawled data. Crawling may face some legal issues if you do not get an agreement from a social media company prior to collecting the data.

Another way to collect data from social media is to use API (application programming interface). Many software companies provide API to let other third-party services and programmers use their service in a convenient way. For example, Apple and Google use weather API to provide weather services to customers without collecting weather data by themselves. Major social media platforms (e.g., Twitter, Meta) also provide API for users to collect data within the companies’ policy and authentication. Thus, it is relatively easier and safer to collect social media data compared to crawling because it is free of committing a violation of a website’s Policies and Terms of Service. 

Free version APIs usually have a basic data access level like a trial version, providing limited requests that you can make within a day and shorter historical data. There are paid API services with more or full-archived data access and functions. Major social media companies have opened their premium API for research and education purposes. For example, Twitter allows researchers to access the full tweet archive through Twitter’s Academic Research Access (Twitter Developer Platform, n.d.). After filling out an application and it being accepted, Twitter will provide an access code. Currently with API access, ten million tweets can be collected per month. Meta also runs CrowdTangle, where PR educators can access Facebook, Instagram, and Reddit data. APIs present some variables, such as message type (e.g., retweet, original), the number of engagements (e.g., likes, shares, comments), and geographic location.

Lastly, industrial platforms, such as Brandwatch ( and Sprinklr (, allow paid subscribers to download social media data from their platforms. Click-based user interfaces do not require programming. However, those platforms are pricey because their business model is B2B with governments, companies, and universities. Due to high prices, a few universities are not subscribing to those services for teaching and research purposes. If a department already subscribes to such a service, they are a good resource for PR analytics teaching. Like API, there are no legal issues in data collection and use within the companies’ policy and authentication, and many industrial platforms provide full historical archive access. Industrial platforms also provide a rich amount of metadata, such as users’ gender, sentiment, and users’ profession or organizations (e.g., journalists, politicians). However, it is not clearly known how the data resellers construct those variables for users (i.e., blackbox). Although some companies provide explanations about their variable construction, researchers typically cannot replicate the variables due to limited information.

Given the pros and cons of the three data collection methods mentioned above, this teaching brief introduces how to collect Twitter by using the Twitter Academic Research Access API. Because most major companies maintain Twitter accounts, and their contents are publicly available, a few researchers and PR practitioners choose Twitter for real-time issue monitoring and reputation management (e.g., Chon & Kim, 2022; Rust et al., 2021). In addition, data collection with API and Python is similar across social platforms. If educators and students understand the code for Twitter data collection, the code can be adjusted to get data from other platform APIs. 

Tutorial. Data collection

The teaching brief here shows how to collect Tweets by using Twitter API and Python. Twitter allows researchers to access the full tweet archive through Twitter Academic Research Access (Twitter Developer Platform, n.d.). After filling out applications, including research interest and affiliation, Twitter gives users access codes to collect ten million tweets per month. 

To run the Python code from the GitHub (Kim, 2022) that the author has created, you need to change the OAuth 2.0 Bearer Token (i.e., credential key or password for Twitter) and the query parameters (e.g., search keyword, date). The Bearer Token is given after achieving Twitter Academic API permission. In the below code line, the coder would insert their Bearer Token. The Bearer Token format is a long combination of alphabets and numbers (see Figure 3).

Figure 3

In query parameters, query indicates search keywords. Hashtags (i.e., #) and mentions (i.e., @) can be used as a search query (e.g., @PR, #PR). Tweet.fields indicates which variables are collected. The coding includes user numeric IDs (i.e., author_id), timestamp (i.e., created_at), and public metrics (i.e., retweet, reply, like, and quote). Also, data period should be set in start_time and end_time. If the code is run, tweets will be collected in excel data format (see Figure 4). 

Figure 4

We use this data for basic text mining and network analysis. There is a code for exporting the below data as an excel file (see Figure 5). 

Figure 5

[Figure 5 Should Be Here]

Next, because the data has variables such as the number of likes and retweets, it can figure out which tweets have the most engagement. Also, the number of tweets posted by user accounts indicates who are active and potentially stimulated publics on social media. Sorting users by the number of followers results in a list of influencers around a topic. 

The code below filters the top 10 most-retweeted tweets (see Figure 6). To get the most-liked tweets, a variable name in sort_value parameter should be changed (e.g., from ‘retweet_count’ to ‘like_count’). Additional codes filter users who wrote tweets the most about the issue and users with the highest number of followers. Depending on PR campaigns and activities, practitioners would edit to yield other valuable information. For example, combining these metrics with the time variable (i.e., created_at) may produce the best time/weekdays to post a social media posting. Practitioners may summarize weekly engagement with publics from social media campaigns by summing or averaging likes, shares, or the number of replies.

Figure 6

Lesson 2. Text mining 

Text mining (i.e., computational text analysis, natural language processing) is one of the most promising areas in public relations for listening to publics and stakeholders. Digitized communication environments continue to create an unlimited number of digital texts. Knowledge discovery from text data is recommended to increase an organization’s performance and efficiency beyond data retrieval. Excellence theory posits that listening to publics is more important than disseminating information (Grunig & Grunig, 2009). When PR practitioners instill publics and stakeholders’ voices into an organization, it can make effective strategic communication, which contributes to organizational success (Kim & Rhee, 2011). 

There are also many possible ways for text mining to assist public relations practices, such as topic discovery and opinion mining. For example, the topic analysis provides insights about the main topic, issue, and trend around an organization based on descriptive analysis (word frequency, co-occurrence) and algorithm (e.g., topic modeling). Opinion mining, or sentiment analysis, can be used to investigate reputations of an organization and a brand, issue, and crisis (Liu, 2011).

Text mining covers collection, preprocessing, analysis, and summary of text data based on mathematical algorithms. Analyzing a large amount of unstructured text requires different statistical methods and tools (Grimmer et al., 2021). For example, texts are unstructured, unlike traditional structured data (e.g., data in excel), so data cleaning is necessary to transform them into a structured format. Conventional statistical tools, such as SPSS and SAS, provide a limited text mining function, as originally designed to analyze structured data. Hence, programming skills in Python and R are preferred for text mining.

Tutorial. Text mining

In the shared Python code, text mining includes (a) loading the Tweet data, (b) text data cleaning (e.g., low transformation, stopwords removal), (c) word cloud, and (d) word frequency calculation and visualization. Also, this code can be used to analyze other text data from social media and other web pages if a data structure is the same (i.e., data with the same column names). Otherwise, the column names in other data should be edited. The first task for text mining is to load data (see Figure 7). For this example, the code imports the excel file collected through the Twitter API. Pandas is one of the best Python packages to load, preprocess, and analyze data. The pandas package is imported with the abbreviated name, pd, with the following code, “import pandas as pd” in the first code cell.

Figure 7

The next step is text cleaning, or preprocessing. Though any data needs some level of data cleaning before analysis, text data requires more effort in preprocessing due to the complexity of human language. User-generated content tends to include noise elements such as emojis, URLs, and stopwords. It is recommended to remove irrelevant elements for analysis purposes to improve computational efficiency and validity (Hickman et al., 2020; Welbers et al., 2017). Stopwords are functional words that have no substantial meaning, such as article (e.g., the, a, an), conjunctions (e.g., and, but), and prepositions (e.g., of, in) (see Figure 8).

Figure 8

Also, as computers are case-sensitive (e.g., computers cannot identify Computer and computer as having the same meaning like a human), text data are often converted to lowercase before analysis. Beyond the simple steps, there are different types of text cleaning methods, such as stemming/lemmatization, dimensionality reductions, bag-of-words, Word2vec, and so on. Text cleaning depends on which type of algorithms would be used and what the purpose is. The shared code removes URLs, emoticons, special characters (e.g., !, @), and stopwords. 

Next, a word cloud is created to visualize the contents. A word cloud is one of the most frequently used visualizations in text mining. It is similar to the descriptive analysis in statistics (e.g., mean, sd). A word cloud is often seen as a preliminary analysis in PR-published papers (e.g., Plessis, 2018; Macnamara, 2016). The size of word fonts is proportional to the word frequencies. The generated word cloud in the example shows that rt, new, year, happy, and prsaroadsafety are prominent in the text data (see Figure 9).

Figure 9

The next code calculates a word frequency and sorts the result in descending order by frequency. Word frequency generates insightful information, such as daily/weekly issues around an organization (see Figure 10). Also, a PR practitioner may evaluate a campaign’s performance by tracking the relevant hashtag frequency over time.

Figure 10

The last code is to make a word frequency visualization. If the index (e.g., from the current 0:20 to 0:50) is changed, the number of words in the graph will accordingly change (see Figure 11).

Figure 11

Lesson 3. Network analysis
Network analysis is gaining much popularity in public relations (Yang & Saffer, 2019). Network analysis deals with “structure and position” (Borgatti et al., 2013, p. 10). The network actor is an individual, group, organization, or inter-organizations. For example, companies have different types of relations (Borgatti et al., 2013), such as similarities (e.g., type of business), business relations (e.g., joint venture, alliance), interactions (e.g., trade), and flows (e.g., technology transfer). Network analysis has been applied to various PR topics such as organization-public/stakeholder relations, employee communication, crisis communication, and CSR (Yang & Saffer, 2019).

Centrality, the classical structural properties of a network, is one of the most commonly used concepts for network analysis and visualization (Freeman, 1978). A few PR studies have used centrality to investigate key publics/stakeholders (Hellsten et al., 2019; Himelboim & Golan, 2019), issues management (Sommerfeldt & Yang, 2017), agenda-setting (Guo, 2012), content diffusion network (Himelboim & Golan, 2019), and CSR performance (Jiang & Park, 2022). 

Also, network analysis can be combined with text mining to figure out how words occur together in text. Specifically, PR practitioners can illustrate brand images and salient issues of an organization by looking at co-occurrence results with the organization name (Gilpin, 2010). In addition, PR practitioners identify a community network (e.g., friends, followers) around influencers and target them to encourage them to pay attention to the PR campaign, which, in turn, may motivate the influencers to share the content (Zhang et al., 2016). Another possible application of network analysis for PR is to identify potential publics who show several advocacy activities with positive sentiments toward a relevant issue but not yet toward a client’s issue. Organizations target them to foster supportive postings on social media.

Tutorial. Network analysis

Loading data is the same in the text mining section. Because network analysis is based on relations, data should have relational information. Relations are expressed in many different ways. You may construct a relationship variable between organizations and/or publics from outside social media data, such as joint ventures, alliances, and NGO coalitions. You may also infer relationships from social media data. For example, follower-following relationships are a relationship example. If User A follows User B, you may use the relationship information for network analysis (e.g., User A → User B). Likewise, if User A mentions or retweets a User B’s tweet, you may set a tie from User A to User B. The tie direction could be reversed depending on your perspective. For example, some people think that the relation should be User B → User A when User A retweets User B’s tweet because User B’s information flows into User A. The example code shows how to make mention relations. “From” indicates users who mention a certain account, while “to” is a mentioned account by “from.” If you want retweet relationships, replace the red text in the first line (i.e., the regular expression) in the below code with r “RT @([A-Za-z]+[A-Za-z0-9-_]+)”. If so, the data indicates that users in the from column retweet posts generated by a user in the to column (see Figure 12).

Figure 12

The following screenshot shows two codes: network object generator (i.e., G) and its visualization in Python (see Figure 13). If there are more than a few nodes (i.e., actor) and edges (e.g., relation), Python network graphs are not visually attractive. Instead, a few researchers use other visualization tools such as Gephi (e.g., Raupp, 2019; Yang et al., 2017). The software is free to use on Windows and Mac (download and see in detail at

Figure 13

The code in Figure 14 transforms the network data into an excel for Gephi. To import the excel spreadsheet on Gephi, click file → import spreadsheet → open excel file (Gephi_df.xlsx) → import as “Edges table” in general excel options → finish.

Figure 14

Here, n indicates the number of the relations (i.e., how many times a source mentions a target on Twitter). Compared to a Python graph, Gephi generates visually attractive and easy-to-understand network graphics (see Figure 15).  

Figure 15

Centrality is one of the most frequently used metrics in network analysis. There are many different types of centrality, such as in-degree/out-degree centrality, betweenness centrality, eigenvector centrality, and so on. In the shared code, the NetworkX Python package provides different types of centrality calculations. See more network algorithm parameters at NetworkX (n.d.). For example, when “degree_centrality” in the below code is replaced with “betweenness_centrality,” it generates between-centrality scores for each node (see Figure 16).   

Figure 16

Suggested Curriculum

If an introductory level SMA course is provided within a semester of 16 weeks, it is possible to design the courses as in Table 3. It is critical for students to type and edit the shared codes rather than just read or see them in order to achieve the learning objectives in this teaching brief. The suggested curriculum, therefore, focuses on hands-on experience for PR SMA with Python. The first week introduces the course. Then, the next two weeks teach PR in the digital era, social media and its application in PR, and the SMA case study. After the conceptual understanding of SMA, two weeks would be required to teach each practical programming section: Python basic, data collection, text mining, and network analysis. Finally, the remaining weeks will be used for final projects and presentations. Considering students’ abilities and prerequisite courses, the curriculum would be adjusted to serve unique class demands.

Table 3: Example of PR SMA Course Curriculum

1Introduction– Introduction to Course and Python
– PR in the digital era
– Social media and its application in PR
– Understanding social media analytics
3-4Python programming– Installation and Setup of Python and Jupyter Notebook
– Installing Python packages
– Reading and writing data (e.g., XLXS, CSV)
– data types (e.g., list, dictionary, tuple, JSON)
– Pandas data structure
– Data cleaning (e.g., data selection, merge, recode)
– Basic functions (e.g., define, for, if-else, while)
5-6Data collection– See learning outcome in Table 1 for programming contents
– Three different ways of data collection: crawling, API, and industrial platform)
– Introduction to data collection with API
– Data collection assignment
7-8Text mining– See learning outcome in Table 1 for programming contents
– Conceptual understanding of text mining
– Text mining assignment
9-10Network analysis– See learning outcome in Table 1 for programming contents
– Conceptual understanding of network analysis
– Network analysis assignment
11-13Applications of social media analytics– SMA case study – Social media metrics and evaluations
– Social media campaigns based on SMA
14-15Final project– Final project introduction
– Group Work days
16Student presentation– Final project presentation

What if educators can’t offer a separate class focusing on social media analytics and PR? We suggest a short course in a PR research class. Generally, PR research classes should cover many topics, such as qualitative research and quantitative research. However, research methods in the digital age should teach how to use social media to solve PR problems. PR educators may suggest multiple research methods using qualitative skills (e.g., focus group interview), quantitative skills (e.g., survey), and social media analytics through Python (e.g., text mining and network analysis). Students will be allowed to analyze unstructured data by choosing between text mining and network analysis.   

Assessment of Student Learning

Simply put, students can be assessed via three assignments (15% each worth of final grade) and a final group project (45% worth of final grade) with the remaining 10% points (e.g., attendance) for a semester class. 

Regarding the data collection assignment, students are required to submit a Python code file edited to collect tweets via their search queries. If it works without error, they get full credit. Instructors would consider extra credit when students collect data from other social media or web crawling. The text mining assignment asks students to submit a text mining Python code to create a word cloud and word frequency visualization with the collected data through the data collection assignment. In addition, students would be required to submit a document file analyzing the text mining results, as editing a few codes is too easy of a task for 15% credit. If students conduct additional analysis, such as sentimental analysis and topic modeling, they can be given extra credit. Likewise, network analysis would require a Python code of edited network analysis and a report. Network analysis assignments get extra credit when students present network visualization through Gephi beyond the suggested code. 

Lastly, the final project is group work with a team of three members. Students select a big organization (e.g., S&P 500) so that students can collect large enough social media data. They are asked to conduct (1) traditional formative research, (2) data collection, (3) text mining, (4) network analysis, and (5) social media campaign plan. Table 4 presents an example of the final project rubric. 

Table 4: Final Project Rubric

CriteriaContentsWeight (%)
Traditional formative research– Organizational history & mission
– Industry background & trend
– Identification of stakeholder, public, and society
– Traditional news media analysis
– SWOT analysis
Data collection– Social media data collection (e.g., tweets, Facebook)
– Identification of popular social texts
– Identification of key individuals (e.g., influencers)
Text mining– Main topics about company, brand, or products
– Sentiment analysis
– Text mining visualization (e.g., word cloud)
Network analysis– Identification and network positions of key public and stakeholder
– Network visualization with Gephi
Social media campaign planning– Discussion of current PR-related problems from formative research and social media analytics.
– Making three social media assets/tactics with target audiences
– Presentation of expected outcomes and impact on stakeholders, public, and society and measurement plan of campaign success

This project allows students to have a chance to apply the skills and knowledge they learn from the suggested SMA class in practice. Through the final project, they would realize the necessities of SMA along with traditional PR formative research (e.g., media coverage). The final project would also be adjusted if students in the class did not take a PR strategy or campaign class.


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© Copyright 2023 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Kim, S. and Chon, M. (2023). Teaching Social Media Analytics in Public Relations Classes: Focusing on the Python Program. Journal of Public Relations Education, 9(1), 117-146.

Developing Business Literacy in the Classroom and the Workplace: A Delphi Study of Corporate Communication Leaders

Editorial Record: Submitted September 30, 2022. Revised January 11, 2023. Accepted January 27, 2023. 


Matthew Ragas, Ph.D.
Professor and Director, MA in Professional Communication program
College of Communication
DePaul University
Illinois, USA


Public relations graduates are increasingly expected to demonstrate business fluency. Based on a Delphi expert panel of chief communication officer (CCO) level leaders, this study systematically derived actionable recommendations for the teaching of business literacy in the classroom and the workplace. In addition, ways to infuse diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) into this subject were examined. The implications of these findings for leadership training and talent development are discussed, and future research pathways are provided. 

Keywords: business literacy, business acumen, chief communications officer, communication leadership, communication management, Delphi method, training and development, leadership development, corporate communication, DE&I, teaching business

Public relations and communication professionals are increasingly gaining the opportunity to have a “seat at the table” or at least to provide strategic counsel to those sitting at the leadership table (Bolton et al., 2018; Meng & Neill, 2021; Neill & Barnes, 2017). This evolution of the field into more of a strategic management function has significant implications for the training and development of PR and communication students and young professionals into emerging leaders (Berger, 2019; Berger & Meng, 2014; Commission on Public Relations Education, 2018; Meng, 2014; Meng & Neill, 2021; Penning & Bain, 2018, 2021). 

In essence, PR and communication graduates and young professionals now need to be more “T-shaped” (Essenmacher, 2022). The vertical portion of “the T” has always been taught in communication curriculum and in workplace training and development programs: PR and communication graduates are typically well versed in the art and science of communication. However, the evolution of the profession into the role of strategic counselor and advisor to organizations requires additional competencies. This is the horizontal portion of “the T.” To serve as problem solvers and add strategic value, communication professionals should have knowledge and capabilities that span across functions, including having at least an intermediate understanding of “the business of business.” Surveys of senior corporate communication professionals consistently show that business acumen is perceived as a critical competency for future communication leaders (Krishna et al., 2020; Ragas et al., 2015). 

While business acumen has been carefully defined by scholars in the context of corporate communication and public relations (Ragas, 2019; Ragas & Culp, 2021), there is little in the way of scholarship focused on how to effectively teach business literacy in the classroom and in the workplace. Corporate communication leaders, such as chief communication officers (CCO), have a unique vantage point into the training and development of PR and communication graduates and professionals, as well as the future directions and needs of the profession (Arthur W. Page Society, 2016, 2019; Neill & Barnes, 2017; Penning & Bain, 2021). 

The purpose of this study was to convene a group of senior corporate communication leaders to systematically derive actionable recommendations for the effective teaching of business literacy in the classroom and the workplace. PR educators should be concerned with supporting the “lifelong learning” of emerging leaders, from when they are students to post-graduation working in their jobs (Rutherford, 2021). Further, as diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) should be integrated into all aspects of the PR profession (Bardhan & Engstrom, 2021; Bardhan & Gower, 2020; Wallington, 2020; Wills, 2020), recommendations for infusing DE&I into business literacy training and development were also analyzed. More specifically, a Delphi panel technique (Dalkey, 1969; Dalkey & Helmer, 1963; Hsu & Sandford, 2007; Richards & Curran, 2002) was used to solicit opinions and to reach general consensus among a group of subject matter experts, in this case, senior corporate communication leaders, about effectively teaching business literacy to emerging leaders in the classroom and in the workplace. 

Literature Review

The argument for the need for business acumen among all professionals who desire to contribute to organizational strategy and help to advise organizational leaders is not a new one (Charan, 2017; Cope, 2012). The general lack of business education in mass communication curriculum has been viewed as a detriment by some in successfully preparing graduates for the workforce (Claussen, 2008; Neill & Schauster, 2015; Roush, 2006). Some public relations scholars have argued for more than 30 years that business management skills should be taught in PR and strategic communication programs (see Turk, 1989). For example, the classic Excellence studies determined that the best indicator of excellent public relations are teams with professionals who have the knowledge and skills needed to assume the role of communication managers (Dozier & Broom, 2006; J. Grunig, 2006; L. Grunig et al., 2002). 

Business Literacy Grows in Importance to the Profession 

However, what has changed in recent years is that top industry associations, centers, and institutes at the nexus of professional-educator collaboration have prioritized the need for greater business literacy among PR and strategic communication graduates. For example, the influential Commission on Public Relations Education (CPRE), which is made up of senior scholars and practitioners, has recommended the inclusion of business literacy education in both undergraduate and graduation curriculum (Commission on Public Relations Education, 2012, 2018). In its landmark 2018 report on the future of PR and communication undergraduate education, the CPRE recommended six minimum courses for undergraduate majors: introduction/principles, research methods, writing, campaigns/case studies, supervised work experience/internships, and ethics. In addition, the CPRE recommended five additional areas of study: business literacy, content creation, data analytics, digital technology, and measurement and evaluation. When it comes to business literacy, the CPRE (2018) argued that PR graduates should gain “a working knowledge of the fundamentals of corporate accounting and finance, economic thinking, capitalism, markets and financial communications” (p. 63). 

Similarly, scholars associated with The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, which is housed at The University of Alabama, have identified business knowledge and skills as core to preparing PR graduates and professionals to contribute as future strategic counselors and advisors (Berger, 2019; Berger & Meng, 2010, 2014; Meng, 2014; Meng & Neill, 2021). More specifically, The Plank Center’s model of integrated leadership in public relations is based on seven dimensions or categories of overall leadership competency (Berger, 2019; Meng, 2014). Six of these dimensions focus on the individual level: self-dynamics, team collaboration, ethical orientation, relationship building, strategic decision-making, and communication knowledge management. The seventh dimension is the organizational culture and structure in which the communication team and the professional operates. A comprehensive study of communication professionals across 15 countries found that strategic decision-making was rated the most important of these leadership dimensions (Berger & Meng, 2014). According to Berger (2019), for PR and communication professionals to effectively participate in strategic decision-making, they should seek training and development in business and financial essentials, critical thinking, cultural intelligence, strategic planning, and on power dynamics in organizations. 

Business Literacy Training and Development: The Classroom 

Recent research has explicated the concept of business acumen in the context of the PR and strategic communication profession (Ragas, 2019). Based on a Delphi panel of senior corporate communication leaders, business acumen and its knowledge areas are defined as: 

Business acumen means becoming knowledgeable about business functions, stakeholders and markets that are critical to the success of one’s organization or client; using this understanding to assess business matters through a communications lens; and then providing informed strategic recommendations and actions. As such, professionals should demonstrate a commitment to ongoing learning about a range of business subjects, including interpreting financial statements and information; strategy; operations; supply chain; organizational behavior, culture and structure; marketing and sales; human resources; technology, data and analytics; economics; legal, public policy and regulatory; stakeholder management; and corporate governance and social responsibility. (pp. 9-10)   

The senior communication leaders who participated in this same study also identified perceived professional, organizational, and societal benefits that accrue to corporate communication professionals that develop greater business acumen (Ragas, 2019). Ragas and Culp (2021) argue that business literacy is a necessary, but not sufficient condition of business acumen. According to Ragas and Culp (2021), “someone who is business literate has at least an intermediate level of proficiency in understanding, speaking, and translating the language and concepts of business,” while someone with business acumen not only has a more advanced level of proficiency, but “applies this knowledge and understanding through providing strategic counsel and advice that drives business actions” (p. 11). While it is important to define these concepts and the potential benefits, it is at least as important to also examine how to effectively teach business knowledge and skills to emerging communication leaders. 

Extending this prior line of work, the current study seeks to obtain actionable recommendations for PR and communication educators and managers to better develop the business literacy of those in the classroom and in the workplace. Senior corporate communication leaders have a unique vantage point into the training and development needs of the field, as they help hire, manage and mentor rising talent in the profession, as well as have personally acquired the competencies needed to rise to the highest levels of the profession. 

As such, the first research question is submitted: 

RQ1. What are the top recommendations of the senior communication leaders on developing the business literacy of students? 

Business Literacy Training and Development: In the Workplace

The emergence of the chief communications officer (CCO) as a member of the C-suite and an advisor to the senior leadership of organizations has elevated the roles and responsibilities of the corporate communication function (Bolton et al., 2018; Ragas et al., 2015). With this ascent has come the need for an expanded set of competencies for communication professionals, whether they serve on in-house communication teams or as external agency partners. Either way, they are helping to support CCOs and advance organizational strategic priorities. The Arthur W. Page Society, now often known simply as Page, has conducted extensive research into the future of the CCO and the communication function (Arthur W. Page Society, 2016, 2017, 2019). Page is a global membership organization comprised of senior PR and corporate communication executives with a mission of strengthening the enterprise leadership role of the CCO.

Page’s research (2017) into the needs of the C-suite finds that total business knowledge by the CCO and senior communication leaders is now seen as “table stakes” (p. 4). More specifically, this study, based on interviews with 20 CEOs of large corporations, into the roles and responsibilities of the CCO and the corporate communication department concludes that: 

In years past, CEOs have expressed hope that their CCO would know all about their enterprise’s business in order to more strategically apply communications to advance its goals. Now, many CEOs require their CCO to be knowledgeable about the business—from strategy to operations—so they are able to provide strategic input on issues that span business functions. This is especially true at enterprises with communications departments that are well established and have a broad mandate. (p. 4) 

Large-scale, industry-wide survey research conducted by Krishna and colleagues (2020) tells a similar story. Business acumen was rated in the top quartile by communication professionals out of an extensive list of skills/areas of expertise needed for future communicators. In rank order, the most important skills/areas were: 1) writing, 2) listening, 3) research/measurement skills, 4) creative thinking; ability to deal with online reputation crises; ability to communicate effectively in today’s environment of disinformation (all tied), 5) creativity, 6) ability to build a modern crisis response plan, 7) digital storytelling, and 8) possessing business acumen; social listening (tied). The surveyed top/senior communication professionals placed a greater importance on business literacy than the less senior practitioners. The authors suggest that “senior executives’ experience and broader worldview of the business world contributed to this difference” and conclude that “business literacy then needs to be built into basic curricula by public relations faculty so future generations are well-versed in the language of business, as recommended by senior managers” (Krishna et al., 2020, p. 50).   

Recent research into elevating the performance of corporate communication teams has noted that training and development can play an important role in the success of communication professionals and departments (Jain & Bain, 2017; Penning & Bain, 2018, 2021). High-performing communication functions possess specific and appropriate levels of expertise gained, in part, through a focus on talent development (Penning & Bain, 2018). In the view of Jain and Bain (2017), professional development should “become a top priority and not an afterthought” for the managers of communication teams (p. 14). They argue there is “a dire need to develop business leaders, not just communicators” and “financial acumen, operational insight, and management/leadership skills are just a few of the critical competencies that now distinguish good communicators from trusted business advisors” (p. 14). 

While there is widespread recognition of the importance of business knowledge and skills to the success of future communication leaders, there is little in the way of senior leader-derived actionable recommendations on how to incorporate business literacy education into professional training and development programs. As such, the next research question is submitted: 

RQ2. What are the top recommendations of the senior communication leaders on developing the business literacy of professionals?  

Business Literacy and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion 

Due in part to stakeholder demands and the increasing diversity within society, more companies are making diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) a strategic priority (S. Spector & B. Spector, 2018). The public relations and strategic communication profession has responded by making lofty public statements and commitments about the importance of DE&I to business and society (Wills, 2020). Actual meaningful action has been more muted (Bardhan & Gower, 2020). While there has been progress made, the public relations and strategic communication field in the US remains largely homogenous: it is primarily white, dominated by white women at the lower and mid-levels of the profession, with white men still holding onto many of the top leadership positions (Diversity Action Alliance, 2021; Vardeman-Winter & Place, 2017). Being a person of color and/or LGBTQ+ in the communication field can feel isolating and is full of challenges (Wallington, 2020). While agencies and in-house departments have launched various programs and initiatives, research finds that minorities continue to face barriers to advancement (Bardhan & Engstrom, 2021; Brown et al., 2019). As explained by Wills (2020) “because white men still hold most of the executive positions in public relations, these inequalities should be explicitly addressed and discussed in this professional field” (p. 10). 

There is general agreement within the profession that moving more from words to action on DE&I means that DE&I should not be simply a series of standalone programs and initiatives (Bardhan & Gower, 2020; Wallington, 2020; Wills, 2020). Rather, a commitment to DE&I should be integrated into the day-to-day practices, decision-making, and counsel of communication leaders and the communication function as a whole (S. Spector & B. Spector, 2018). By extension, this includes areas such as education and talent development for rising professionals (Jain & Bain, 2017). Bardhan and Gower (2020) argue that, to turn this more inclusive vision into reality, requires more and closer collaboration between PR and communication scholars and practitioners on mutual areas of interest, including pedagogy. Specifically, Bardhan and Gower’s (2020) research into the school-to-industry continuum with PR and communication faculty/educators found that “industry leaders need to organize better for D&I, lead the conversation, keep in mind the greater social good, and hold themselves and each other accountable in genuine and measurable ways” (p. 135). 

Therefore, to help advance this important conversation and drive more action by practitioners and educators on this front, the third and final research question is submitted: 

RQ3. How do senior communication leaders feel about infusing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) into business literacy education? 


The Delphi method was used for conducting this study. First developed by the Rand Corporation as an interactive group problem solving and consensus building approach, the Delphi method brings together a panel of subject matter experts (Dalkey, 1967; Dalkey & Helmer, 1963). In Greek mythology, the Pythia, a high priestess, was known as the “Oracle of Delphi” (Avella, 2016). The Oracle would answer questions put to her by visitors about the future and serve as a guide. Core to the Delphi method is assembling a panel of subject matter experts, known as a Delphi panel, typically via multi-wave surveys, with the goal of reaching group consensus on matters of importance to a field. The Delphi method is regularly used in business and communication scholarship (e.g., O’Neil et al., 2018; Richards & Curran, 2002; Watson, 2008; White & Fitzpatrick, 2018).   

The Delphi method is often used when there is uncertainty and/or incomplete knowledge on an issue, topic or subject and for which expert judgements can be essential in filling such gaps (O’Neil et al., 2018). The Delphi method allows for dialogue rather than a traditional one-shot survey, in which respondents have no opportunity to see the opinions of other experts and to potentially reflect upon them. With a Delphi approach, the expert panelists can review and offer feedback at each round of data collection, which adds validity to the results (Hsu & Sandford, 2007). Alternate research methods involving a group of experts, such as focus groups and brainstorming sessions, can pose scheduling difficulties, can be difficult to conduct, and can introduce group think into the process (Avella, 2016).  

A Delphi study typically consists of a structured set of questions answered by a panel of recognized experts over at least two rounds, working toward the goal of obtaining an acceptable level of group consensus. Based on the level of agreement achieved across the research questions, the current study consisted of two rounds. So-called “Delphi consensus” is generally defined as achieving 55-100% agreement among a panel, with 70% or greater often seen as the desired goal (Avella, 2016). For the current study, the final round summary statements for the three research questions of interest received a group consensus level of 94-97%. 

Expert Panel

The expert panel for this study consisted of senior communication executives with significant experience helping to lead communication functions for organizations. The senior leaders for this panel were recruited from the professional network of the researcher. The panelists were typically members of the Page Society (now simply known as Page), an association for senior public relations and communication leaders. Many of these panelists serve or have served on the boards of the top professional associations and centers in the field, including Page, the Institute for Public Relations (IPR), the PRSA Foundation, The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, and The Page Center for Integrity in Public Communications. 

Fifty senior leaders were individually invited via email to consider participating on this panel. A total of 41 of these individuals agreed to participate, after reviewing the study expectations and time commitment. Thirty six of the 41 who agreed to participate then completed the first round of the online survey for an initial participation rate of 88%. A series of two reminder emails were sent to non-responders. Some drop-off is standard with multi-wave surveys. A total of 34 panelists participated in the second round (for a 94% participation rate).   

The ratio of panelists identifying as male or female was split 50/50 (n = 36). Nearly three out of ten panelists (28%) were Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). A strong majority (80%) of panelists had held the title of VP or above during their careers. The five most common titles were: chief communication officer (61%), executive vice president (25%), senior vice president (16.7%), president (11.1%), or other (11.1%). These other titles, which were written in and not listed, included, chief marketing and communication officer, executive director, staff officer, and global VP of corporate affairs. Almost all the panelists (94%) had at least 20 years or more of professional experience. A comfortable majority (64%) had 25 or more years of experience. 


This Delphi panel study was in the field for approximately a two-month period, specifically from mid-November 2021 through mid-January 2022. The panel was invited to participate in two waves of surveys. The online questionnaire for the first-round consisted of a mix of close-ended demographic questions and several open-ended questions about business literacy training and development. The survey instrument was purposely kept concise to accommodate the busy schedules of these senior executives and to help boost the participation rate. The open-ended questions of interest included: “Think about coaching your most junior team members over the years. If you were teaching communication students in a classroom setting, how would you go about developing their business literacy?” (RQ1) and “Based on your experiences, what has worked the best over the years in developing the business literacy of your team members in the workplace? (RQ2). Respondents were allowed to enter in up to three recommendations for each question. The final question of interest pertained to diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) and a free response box was provided: “There is growing recognition that DE&I should be incorporated into all aspects of corporate communication and PR. As such, do you have thoughts on how to help infuse DE&I into business literacy education?” 

In the first-round survey, participants were also asked to rate on a 5-point Likert-like scale, where ‘1’ is “not important at all” and ‘5’ is “extremely important,” the question: “in your opinion, how important is having business acumen to the overall success of corporate communication and PR professionals today?” The second-round survey then synthesized the open-ended responses from the first round into summary statements. The three original research questions along with the summary statement answers, as well as lists of the raw responses by all the respondents to each question, were then sent to the panel for careful review and comment. Panelists were asked to rate the summary statements using a 5-point Likert-like scale where ‘1’ is “strongly disagree” and ‘5’ is “strongly agree.” Response points ‘4’ and ‘5’ on the scale were summed into percentages to indicate the agreement levels achieved. If a respondent disagreed with a statement, they were encouraged to explain why in a text box. For the second Delphi round, the level of agreement for RQ1 was 94% (M = 4.41, SD = 0.81) and for RQ2 was 97% (M = 4.47, SD = 0.78). For RQ3, the level of agreement achieved was 94% (M = 4.38, SD = 0.80). 


Before examining the research questions, in the first Delphi round, the panelists were asked to rate the level of importance they ascribe business acumen to the overall success of corporate communication and public relations professionals today. The senior leaders placed sizable importance on mastering business acumen (M = 4.92, SD = 0.27 on a 5-point Likert-like scale where ‘1’ = “not at all important” and ‘5’ = “extremely important”). Specifically, more than nine out of ten respondents (92%) said that business acumen was “extremely important” to career success. The remainder (8%) said this competency was “very important.” The results generally mirror prior surveys of senior communication leaders, which typically say that training and development on business literacy is a critical area (Krishna et al., 2020; Neill & Schauster, 2015; Penning & Bain, 2018, 2020; Ragas, 2019; Ragas et al., 2015).  

RQ1: Business Literacy in the Classroom

In the first round (n = 36), the panel responded to an open-ended question which instructed them to think about coaching and developing their most junior team members over the years: If they were teaching communication students in a classroom setting, how would they go about developing their business literacy? Panelists were allowed to provide up to three teaching recommendations. An analysis of the open-ended responses of the senior leaders revealed that recommendations generally involved activities and assignments inside or outside of the classroom, defined as the formal course contact hours between the instructor and the students. Of course, some activities and assignments straddle both inside and outside the classroom, particularly as the physical walls of courses break down with virtual and hybrid learning. 

Starting inside the classroom, at a base level, the panel strongly recommended that students are assigned to regularly read top business news outlets and “develop lifelong learning habits.” Outlets that were specifically highlighted include The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Bloomberg News and Harvard Business Review. Respondents also recommended that courses incorporate business case studies, including group work where students “work through a real-world business challenge.” A respondent emphasized choosing case studies that
“show the impact (cost, cost prevention, revenue, profit and market capitalization) of communication on business outcomes.” The panel also recommended that students are assigned to read business and management books that “help explain the financial system and business operations.”

The panel strongly recommended that industry professionals of varying experience levels—from rising communication professionals up to chief communication officers (CCO) and chief marketing officers (CMOs)—with “deep understanding of the business-communication linkage” are invited into classes as guest speakers. Such speakers can help students understand “how businesses make money and lose money.” On a related note, one senior leader recommended inviting alumni to “share business literacy/career success stories.” Some panelists also recommended that students get to engage with C-suite level guest speakers, outside of the public relations and communication function, such as in finance, investor relations, strategy, and accounting. In the words of one respondent: “ask a CXO to share a sample of a weekly calendar and walk through the range of interests competing for CXO mindshare.” 

The panel also recommended that instructors introduce students to key annual business materials produced by organizations, particularly public companies. More specifically, the leaders recommend that students read annual reports, as well as the required major filings made by public companies with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (S.E.C.), such as the annual 10-K report, quarterly 10-Q reports, and the proxy statement. Such filings are freely available in the S.E.C.’s EDGAR database and by major business information providers. To gain familiarity with such materials from a corporate communication perspective, panelists recommended that students study business models/business plans of companies; watch analyst/investor day presentations; and review quarterly earnings, including earnings reports/releases, management earnings conference call recordings and/or transcripts of these calls. As one leader remarked: “make them listen to a recorded earnings call for a publicly traded company, including questions from financial analysts.” Advanced recommendations included assigning students to “do an ‘analyst day’ presentation on a company and its results” and to do a “mock earnings” assignment, in which students are asked to “prepare and deliver an earnings call with investors.” 

The panel also emphasized the importance of learning outside of the communication classroom in developing young professionals’ business literacy and associated skills. More specifically, the senior leaders recommended that students go on agency/company field trips and learning days; complete internships/co-op programs; take business school coursework; and get involved in the leadership of pre-professional student organizations on campus and beyond. In terms of coursework, one respondent argued that “finance and marketing should be mandatory” for communication students. When it comes to internships, another respondent contended that there is “no better teacher than actual experience” but, beyond doing the “blocking and tackling of public relations work” while working at a company, part of the internship “should be spent engaging with other functions.” When it comes to co-curricular involvement, one senior leader opined that students who join campus organizations for their chosen profession are often better prepared to “keep up with the latest trends and expectations for graduates to be job-ready.” 

Based on these responses, a summary figure (see Figure 1) was constructed to integrate the panelists’ opinions and attempt to reach a general consensus. Then, the original question, along with the figure, as well as all the raw responses by the panel, were sent back to the senior leaders for review and comment. The second-round responses (n = 34) revealed a very high level of agreement (94% ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’). As such, a third round was not necessary. 

Figure 1

Recommendations by senior leaders for teaching business literacy to students.

With a larger Delphi panel, perfect consensus is rarely feasible. While the panel strongly agreed overall with the second-round summary figure, several respondents expressed some reservations about agency/company field trips as they relate specifically to helping to develop business acumen. As one panelist said, “I’m not questioning the overall value, but am questioning the value as it relates to developing business literacy” and “the visits would have to be structured with that in mind.” Overall, the panel strongly endorsed experiential learning for communication students, saying that “hands-on, real-life experience is key” and “all of these are good as long as they are aligned with the students actually ‘doing’ versus ‘studying’.”

RQ2: Business Literacy in the Workplace

In the first round, the panel (n = 36) responded to an open-ended question, which asked them: Based on your experience, what has worked the best over the years in developing the business literacy of your team members in the workplace? As with RQ1, panelists were allowed to provide up to three training and development recommendations. An analysis of the open-ended responses indicated that recommendations generally were set in the workplace, as in during traditional office hours (whether onsite or remote) for a position, or outside of the workplace, defined as often occurring outside of the office hours associated with a position. 

For within the workplace, the panel recommended that rising communication professionals study internal materials on the “businesses of the business” (examples included reviewing quarterly earnings releases/reports, annual reports/meetings and public company S.E.C. filings); attend internal training and development sessions and programs (held by internal and external recognized speakers/trainers on key business subjects); join internal mentorship, sponsorship and/or coaching programs; network, shadow and/or embed with other business functions/units and gain more cross-functional experience beyond PR and communication; and go on “hands on” field visits outside of the office (examples included “ride-alongs” in the field, “walking the floor” of factories, and “voice of the customer” mystery shopping and customer service work). On this latter recommendation, a panelist said they have their communication team members visit the operations and the field “as often as possible,” as there is “nothing better than ‘walking the floor’ to learn how the company operates and makes its margin.” Several panelists noted that some large corporations provide “finance for non-finance professionals” training and workshops; communication pros should take advantage of such development opportunities. 

Incorporating several of the recommendations outlined above, one senior leader recommended the following “learning-by-doing” training for developing one’s business acumen: 

Mandating in annual performance evaluations for my senior team that they all actively participate in at least two corporate earnings cycles within our company, to include the creation of the quarterly narrative, the press release and investor presentation, the pre-call “murder board” with the CEO & CFO, the post call media availability, the quarterly all-hands employee call, and overall event wrap up & alignment meeting with all key functional stakeholders. 

For training and development outside the workplace, the panel provided a series of recommendations related to business literacy. Specifically, panelists recommended that rising communication professionals immerse themselves in business news, books, and reference guides; join business-oriented professional associations, including taking on leadership positions; completing external business-oriented seminars and courses, offered by professional associations, colleges and universities and other education providers; and earn a graduate business degree, such as a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA). A panelist noted that they have had “high potential team members get MBAs, which has greatly enhanced their effectiveness and potential for future success.” In terms of specific coursework, there was a recurring theme that rising leaders need to be able to read and interpret financial statements and become versed in financial management concepts. As one panelist explained, professionals should attend workshops that help them understand “core financial documents,” including the balance sheet, income statement and statement of change in financial position, and “often used business metrics (i.e., key ratios), marketing terms and financing instruments.”    

A summary figure was constructed to integrate the panelists’ opinions and work to reach a general consensus. The original question, the summary statement and all the first-round individual responses were then sent back to the panelists for review and comment. As with RQ1, the second-round responses (n = 34) indicated a very high level of agreement (97% “agreed” or “strongly agreed”) with the summary figure so a third round was not necessary. 

Figure 2

Recommendations by senior leaders for teaching business literacy to professionals.

A key takeaway from the panelists in their second-round responses was that for the business literacy development recommendations to be most effective, communication professionals must be willing to “raise their hands” and be self-motivated to learn. For example, one respondent remarked: “you often have to ASK to be included in prep sessions, meetings and calls, etc. Assert confidence in this area, which isn’t always the strongest for communicators as you raise your hand, volunteer, schedule a coffee with a business/financial SME” (Subject matter expert). Another panelist implored rising communicators to “ask to be invited” to non-communication meetings. Yet another respondent found that “shadowing and mentoring only works when people are curious and engaged and put time into getting knowledge of it.” Finally, a different senior leader observed that “these are all good” but “the student/employee has to be dedicated to learning it.” 

RQ3: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Business Literacy 

For the first round, the panel (n = 36) responded to an open-ended question, which asked them to consider: There is growing recognition that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) should be incorporated into all aspects of corporate communication and PR. As such, do you have any thoughts on how to help infuse DE&I into business literacy education? As with RQ1 and RQ2, panelists were allowed to provide up to three recommendations. 

In general, the panelists strongly indicated that DE&I should be integrated into all aspects of business and communication strategy. Some respondents further argued that the communication function has the opportunity to lead when it comes DE&I in organizations. Further, panelists suggested that more diverse voices on teams and an inclusive culture can contribute to business success. In the words of one senior leader, DE&I needs to be “front and center part of every conversation about communication strategy.” While another leader said that DE&I “should be incorporated as part of business strategy and approached similar to other key business priorities in communication.” Another panelist summed up the increasingly critical relationship between DE&I and communication and business strategy as: 

DE&I must be embedded into business strategy from internal and external perspectives. Therefore, any understanding of a company’s strategy, must include an understanding of its plans for DE&I. This includes the catalytic role that DE&I excellence can play in business and personal success. In addition, communicators must understand how to develop and enhance culture as business & reputation strategy. Again, DE&I leadership leads to a stronger culture. 

Many panelists also recommended that students and young professionals complete unconscious/implicit bias training. A respondent suggested that educators should “consider putting unconscious bias curriculum on the list for special topics courses for all comms majors to take as required or elective course work.” Some specific recommendations on integrating DE&I into business literacy training and development focused on using case studies that can be unpacked from several different points of view (and not just the dominant perspectives of corporate leaders or investors); visits from industry professionals from diverse backgrounds as guest speakers; and class exercises and activities that help students see how DE&I contributes to organizational success (including measurement and evaluation on DE&I). DE&I “needs to be part of the fabric of the organization and have established goals with execution and measurement similar to other areas of the business.” Young professionals were encouraged to join company employee resource groups (ERGs) and mentoring programs. Some panelists did not feel that DE&I was being considered enough yet in business literacy training. As one respondent said: “I’m not sure that DE&I is part of business literacy yet. Let’s hope it will be one day.” 

A summary statement was constructed to integrate the panelists’ opinions and work to form a consensus. The original question, the summary statement, and all the first-round responses were sent back to the panelists for review and comment. As with RQ1 and RQ2, the second-round responses (n = 34) indicated very strong agreement (94% “agreed” or “strongly agreed”) with the statement so a third round was not needed. The final statement is as follows: 

Consistent with the quantitative measure, the open-ended responses in the second Delphi round also indicated strong support for the above statement. As one senior leader wrote: “Agree. The entire corporate world has a long way to go here! Well written statement above.” An important theme that was in the first-round replies and then was reinforced in the second round was the rise in the importance of environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) performance to the C-suite and corporate boardrooms, and how DE&I is a critical component of ESG. This linkage is astutely summed up by the observation of a senior leader:

For the purpose of a business literacy course, there could be value in looking more broadly at ESG – which is playing more heavily into financial comms and IR – and then go deep into the “E”, “S” and “G.” Within the “S” – there could be a standalone session on DE&I – and the value of DE&I in creating sustainable workforces with contributions from a guest expert/lecturer who can speak about DE&I from a perspective that transcends business management and reputation management.


Public relations and communication professionals typically have a “way with words”; they are connoisseurs of the alphabet. Shifts in the expected competencies of practitioners mean that their skillset should resemble more the letter “T” when it comes to future leadership training and talent development (Essenmacher, 2022). Specifically, communicators are increasingly expected to not just be well versed in the vertical portion of “the T”—maintaining deep knowledge and skills in the art and science of communication—but the horizontal portion too, demonstrating fluency that spans “the business of business.” The results of this Delphi panel of senior leaders on business literacy has significant implications for pedagogy and practice.  

Teaching Business Literacy to Future Leaders 

Career success in public relations increasingly requires a commitment to “lifelong learning” that extends beyond the student’s time as a PR or communication major (Rutherford, 2021). When a student graduates, their learning journey is just beginning. As such, PR educators should be interested in the learning and development that is going on in the PR and communication workplace and look for ways to help support these efforts post-graduation. 

Fostering collaboration between educators and industry professionals is essential to fulfilling the recommendations of the senior leaders on teaching business literacy to PR and communication students. From industry guest lectures, case studies, and real-world projects in the classroom to going on agency/company field trips and providing internships outside of the classroom (see Figure 1), close ties between educators and professional networks are required. The results of this study reaffirm the call by Bardhan and Gower (2020) for a stronger bridge between education and industry to help accelerate actionable change in the profession. 

Educators should actively look for ways to get their scholarly insights and expertise into practitioner-friendly settings, such as by presenting at industry conferences and contributing to industry trade publications, as well as by serving on industry committees and boards alongside practitioners. Conversely, practitioners should invite educators (and their students) into their organizations for learning and networking opportunities, which can result in collaborative research, class projects, internships, entry-level jobs and more. Such educator-industry efforts ultimately will help better prepare the future leaders of our field—students and graduates. 

There may be a concern among some PR educators that they do not have sufficient training to teach business-oriented materials. This is yet another reason to collaborate with the industry professionals who have such knowledge and expertise. In a related vein, the Delphi panelists also recommended that PR majors try to take coursework in the business school. PR educators should encourage students to consider doing so, although at some colleges and universities, the business schools are resistant to having non-business majors in their courses. Further, there are advantages to developing business essentials courses and modules specifically tailored to the needs and knowledge levels of communication students (Duhé, 2022).   

The PR curriculum is already packed with required courses and recommended electives for students (CPRE, 2018). At some colleges and universities, business literacy content is being incorporated into existing required courses in the curriculum, such as PR Management and PR Campaigns. In other cases, educators are designing new courses on business fundamentals for PR students. Examples of universities doing the latter include DePaul University, Marquette University, New York University, University of Minnesota Twin Cities, and the University of Southern California (Ragas & Culp, 2021). Finally, institutions that have successfully fostered collaboration on coursework between the communication and business schools include Elon University and Syracuse University. 

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion 

A stronger bridge between education and industry could also accelerate the diversification of the talent pipeline in the public relations and communication industry (Bardhan & Gower, 2020). The field remains whiter and less diverse than the US population (Diversity Action Alliance, 2021), and continues to struggle with equity and inclusivity (Bardhan & Engstrom, 2021; Brown et al., 2019; Vardeman-Winter & Place, 2017; Wallington, 2020; Wills, 2020). Greater education-industry collaboration may sound straightforward on the surface, but it should be coupled with thoughtful intentionality around the building of such partnerships. 

For example, many C-suite leaders went to flagship public universities or to elite private colleges and universities (Crist Kolder Associates, 2022). In turn, these may be the institutions of higher learning where these business executives have existing ties and may be the most inclined to support. Communication professionals are encouraged to make an intentional effort to work more with administrators, faculty, and students at institutions with a focus on educating first-generation college students and students from diverse backgrounds. This includes partnering with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs), and Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving institutions (AANAPISIs).   

The results of the Delphi panel for the DE&I research question seem somewhat self-explanatory. Of course, emerging leaders should complete unconscious and implicit bias training. An interpretation of these findings is that DE&I remains in the early-to-intermediate stages at many organizations, including when it comes to a subject such as the integration of DE&I into the business literacy development of team members. As one senior leader on the panel remarked: “I’m not sure that DE&I is part of business literacy yet. Let’s hope it will be one day. In the meantime, communications professionals should be studying DE&I to the same extent that it is taught to human resources, psychology, and/or organization behavior students.”

Leadership Training and Development 

The findings of this study support prior research, which generally finds that senior communication leaders believe that business acumen is critical to their career success (Krishna et al., 2020; Neill & Schauster, 2015; Ragas et al., 2015) and that developing the business literacy of their team members is a priority (Penning & Bain, 2018, 2021). The senior leaders recommended that emerging leaders participate not just in internal training and development programs, but also in external programs, including attending conferences, workshops, completing certificates and even earning graduate business degrees (see Figure 2). Pursuing these professional development opportunities takes a commitment of time, effort, and resources not just by the emerging leader, but by their employer, their supervisor(s) and their colleagues. 

Survey research by Jain and Bain (2017) suggests that in-house senior communication leaders say that training and development is important but, after staffing costs and agency/consultancy fees, there is little remaining budget for professional development and program measurement. In light of these findings, Jain and Bain (2017) argue that “talent and performance should become a top priority and not an afterthought” (p. 14). In the context of the current study, if senior leaders are serious about improving the business fluency of their teams and bringing their recommendations to life, then a stronger commitment must be shown to training and development budgets. Such a commitment may not only enhance the strategic value and performance of communication teams (Berger, 2019), but could assist in attracting and retaining rising talent in a desirable job market for employees (Penning & Bain, 2021). 

Limitations and Future Research

As with any study, there are limitations that should be acknowledged and discussed. Such limitations also provide pathways for future research. While the Delphi panel method has its previously discussed strengths, it also has its potential weaknesses (Avella, 2016; Hsu & Sandford, 2007; O’Neil et al., 2018; Ragas, 2019). For example, the anonymity afforded by this approach should have uncovered the opinions of the panelists (and not allowed one respondent to dominate), but it may have also suppressed the spirited debate that might be found in a focus group (Watson, 2008). It is also worth considering the potential influence of the researcher on the group’s opinions, as well as potential recruitment bias. For example, the Page membership leans heavily toward corporate rather than nonprofit organizations. Further, to encourage the continued participation by busy executives in a multi-round process, agreement and feedback was solicited for the overall summary statements, rather than for individual items within statements. Finally, the results of a Delphi panel are not necessarily generalizable. As such, future quantitative research using probability sampling could be valuable in advancing this work. There is also the need for cross-national and cross-cultural comparative research on this subject. 

The senior leaders who served on this Delphi panel have a wealth of professional experience and unique vantage points on managing and developing talent in the workplace (Arthur W. Page Society, 2016, 2019; Bolton et al., 2018). While they may serve as class guest speakers and student mentors, they are generally not college or university instructors of record. As such, this should be kept in mind when interpreting their recommendations on teaching business literacy to communication students and graduates. Therefore, future research is needed that specifically gathers and analyzes the experiences of public relations and strategic communication educators who have taught business literacy and communication management in the classroom. In a related vein, while the perspectives of senior leaders are invaluable, there is also value in triangulating the current study’s findings against the perspectives of emerging and rising communication leaders regarding developing greater business fluency. Such a future research program would provide a more holistic view of professional development on business literacy through various career stages (Berger & Meng, 2014; Krishna et al., 2020). 


For decades, educators and practitioners have argued that the public relations and communication profession can be most effective when it has a “seat at the table” or at least advises those in the “room where it happens” (Grunig, 2006; Turk, 1989; Ragas & Culp, 2021). The rise of environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) performance and a stakeholder capitalism approach to business on the corporate boardroom agenda is notable for the field. To serve as trusted advisors and counselors on these domains means that the expected competencies of the PR and communication graduate and emerging leader is changing and expanding (Jain & Bain, 2017). More specifically, communicators with business acumen are needed by the corner office (Neill & Schauster, 2015; Ragas et al., 2015; Roush, 2006). It is hoped that pedagogy-focused studies such as this one will help to accelerate the training and development of the next generation of PR and communication professionals prepared to lead. 


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© Copyright 2023 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Ragas, Matthew. (2023). Developing Business Literacy in the Classroom and the Workplace: A Delphi Study of Corporate Communication Leaders. Journal of Public Relations Education, 9(1), 82-116.

Who’s Teaching Future PR Professionals? Exploring Professional Credentials of Full-Time PR Faculty in Accredited Programs

Editorial Record: Submitted October 24, 2022. Revised January 3, 2023. Accepted January 26, 2023.


Kim Marks Malone, APR, Fellow PRSA
Associate Professor of Practice, Online Programs Coordinator
Journalism and Strategic Media
University of Memphis
Tennessee, USA

Being Accredited in Public Relations (APR) more closely links educators with practitioners and can help build additional credibility for both the faculty member and their academic unit. This study explores the professional credentials of full-time faculty teaching in AEJMC accredited and PRSA certified undergraduate public relations programs in the United States and seeks to better understand the types of programs and schools where accredited educators teach. This research concludes that most full-time faculty teaching in accredited/certified undergraduate PR programs are not professionally accredited and that PRSA certified programs have a higher percentage of full-time accredited faculty teaching in them than ACEJMC accredited programs. Additionally, Carnegie R2 and D/PU universities with accredited/certified undergraduate PR programs are more likely to have full-time accredited PR faculty than others and that there is a higher percentage of full-time accredited PR faculty members in private schools with accredited/certified programs than in public schools with accredited/certified programs.

Keywords: APR, public relations, public relations education, accreditation

Accreditation of public relations programs and the academic units in which they reside is widely discussed and the benefits of accreditation in the United States – whether by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC) or the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Certification in Education for Public Relations (CEPR) – are well known. What is less well-known and studied are the benefits of PR educators themselves being professionally accredited and it is unknown how prevalent APR, CMP and SCMP accreditation is in higher education PR faculty. 

Personal accreditation demonstrates professional competence and knowledge of progressive PR industry practices and high standards (Universal Accreditation Board, n.d.), but accreditation by full-time PR faculty can also link educators more closely with PR professionals and can help build additional credibility for both the faculty member and their academic unit.

Additionally, the process of becoming accredited opens opportunities for faculty to gain leadership roles in professional organizations – a recommendation for faculty development in the most recent Commission on Public Relations Education (CPRE) Report on Undergraduate Education (CPRE, 2018).

This research seeks to begin to explore the status of professionally accredited educators by looking at full-time PR faculty who teach in accredited/certified undergraduate public relations programs in the United States and then to profile the universities and colleges where these accredited full-time educators teach. This research informs broad pedagogical practices in public relations research specifically as it relates to who is teaching in accredited/certified undergraduate public relations programs.


Program accreditation

Accreditation of academic units and programs at most universities and colleges is voluntary and, in the United States, is often a decision point for students and parents when selecting a school or program (Council for Higher Education Accreditation, n.d.; Massé & Popovich, 2007; Pelligrini, 2017), as well as a reputation enhancement for the accredited academic unit (Blom, et al., 2012; Blom, et al., 2019). Additionally, the process of accreditation gives academic programs the opportunity to compare itself to other programs, reflect on the program’s strengths and, more importantly, weaknesses, and implement improvements that benefit the students (Blom, et al., 2012; Seamon, 2010).

Undergraduate PR programs in the U.S. can choose to seek accreditation through ACEJMC, certification through PRSA or both.

ACEJMC accreditation

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) recognizes ACEJMC for accrediting professional journalism and mass communication programs in the United States. ACEJMC has an emphasis on a balanced, liberal arts and science curriculum (ACEJMC, n.d. -a). Institutions interested in becoming accredited invite ACEJMC to examine its program and, once accredited, programs must apply for reaccreditation every six years. Programs receive ACEJMC accreditation after a thorough self-assessment and a peer review of the program’s academic quality that includes a site visit conducted by a team of educators and industry professionals who interview faculty, staff, and students, visit classes, review documentation and meet with university/college-level administrators. The self-assessment focuses on the extent to which the academic unit achieves its goals and the extent to which the academic unit complies with ACEJMC’s current nine accrediting standards: (1) Mission, Governance and Administration; (2) Curriculum and Instruction; (3) Diversity and Inclusiveness; (4) Full-Time and Part-Time Faculty; (5) Scholarship: Research, Creative and Professional Activity; (6) Student Services; (7) Resources, Facilities and Equipment; (8) Professional and Public Service; and (9) Assessment of Learning Outcomes. ACEJMC has shifted from a 9-point standard to an 8-point standard, beginning with the 2022-23 academic year, including a deeper critical consideration of DEI efforts and an institutionally grounded focus on liberal arts and sciences requirements. For this study, we will focus on institutions accredited on the previous 9-point standard applied through the 2021-22 academic year. Accredited units are required to maintain updated retention and graduation data on their websites. Units which do not meet this requirement by Aug. 15 each year are subject to being placed on probation until the data is updated or until Aug. 15 of the following year when, if the information has not been provided, the unit’s accreditation will be suspended. A suspended program will be reinstated when the data is published if ACEJMC dues are current (ACEJMC, n.d.-b).

PRSA Certification

The CEPR was established in 1989 by PRSA and is affiliated with the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA). The voluntary certification program is administered through PRSA’s Educational Affairs Committee and like ACEJMC accreditation, includes a self- assessment and a site visit that includes meetings with faculty, students, administrators, and key external stakeholders. The on-site review is conducted by two PRSA members — a full-time educator from a PRSA certified school and an APR-credentialed practicing professional.

Reviewers also contact the PR program’s internship providers, graduate employers and alumni to assess graduate preparedness to enter the workforce and former student’s educational experiences (PRSSA, 2021a). CEPR’s evolving standards are based on findings of the CPRE. The eight standards are (1) Public Relations Curriculum; (2) Public Relations Faculty; (3) Resources, Equipment and Facilities; (4) Public Relations Students; (5) Assessment; (6) Professional Affiliations; (7) Relationships with Total Unit and University; and (8) Diversity and Global Perspectives. The final decision and the conferring of the CEPR is decided by the PRSA Board and, once certified, programs must apply for recertification every six years. PR programs that distinguish themselves with the CEPR are determined to provide the faculty, curriculum and resources needed to prepare students to become PR professionals (PRSA, 2020a).

CEPR deals solely with PR programs and is dedicated to the advancement of PR (CPRE, 2006). Unlike ACEJMC accreditation, PRSA certification does not have the “unit” rule (only PR programs within journalism and mass communications programs can be accredited) meaning that PR programs housed in schools of business or other academic units that do not qualify for ACEJMC accreditation may meet CEPR standards (PRSA, 2020a).

Professional accreditation

Professional certification or accreditation is seen as one way to further the professionalism of public relations (Bernays, 1979; Brody, 1984, 1992). Public relations professionals in the United States have several options for professional accreditation – APR, administered by the Universal Accreditation Board (UAB) (PRSA, 2021), or Communication Management Professional (CMP) and Strategic Communication Management Professional (SCMP), both administered by the Global Communication Certification Council, an International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) initiative (IABC, 2021a). Military communication professionals have the option to earn the specialized APR+M (PRSA, 2021).

The CMP and SCMP replace the Accredited Business Communicator (ABC) designation that was administered by the IABC (IABC, 2021b).

Research has shown that accreditation makes a difference in both professional competencies and public relations work categories (Sha, 2011a), as well as other variables including years of experience and education levels (Sha, 2011b).


A candidate for APR must have a minimum of five years of professional experience and be a member of one of the UAB’s participating organizations that currently includes the Asociación de Relacionistas Profesionales de Puerto Rico, the California Association of Public Relations Officials, the Florida Public Relations Association, the Maine Public Relations Council, the National Association of Government Communicators, the National School Public Relations Association, PRSA, the Religion Communicators Council and the Southern Public Relations Federation (PRSA, 2021). The Accreditation process for APR is a three-step process. First the candidate completes an application that involves writing 14 essays that address the candidate’s professional experience. The candidate then participates in the Panel Presentation to discuss the essays and present a portfolio of work samples to a panel of accredited peers. Once approved, the final step is for the candidate to take a multiple-choice, computer-based examination (PRSA, 2020b). Accreditation must be renewed every three years and is achieved through documenting lifelong learning, participating in industry events, and service to PRSA (PRSA, 2020c).

Qualifications to earn the CMP and SCMP are based on years of experience the candidate has in the industry. CMP is for those with six to eight years of experience in the communication field and the SCMP is for those with eight to 11 years of professional experience (IABC, 2021a). The application is the same for both the CMP and the SCMP with candidate’s completing an application that includes submitting documentation of professional experience, including a letter of reference for SCMP candidates, and taking a multiple-choice, computer-based examination.

Both the CMP and SCMP certification must be renewed annually by earning 40 qualifying continuing education and/or professional development points each year (GCCC, 2019).


To understand the professional accreditation status of faculty teaching in accredited undergraduate public relations programs in the United States, this study asks the following research questions:

RQ1A: What is the status of public relations accreditation in full-time PR faculty in undergraduate ACEJMC certified programs?

RQ1B: What is the status of public relations accreditation in full-time PR faculty in undergraduate CEPR certified PR programs?

RQ1C: What is the status of public relations accreditation in full-time PR faculty in undergraduate programs that are both ACEJMC accredited and CEPR certified?

To better understand the accredited undergraduate programs where accredited educators teach, this study asks:

RQ2: What are the characteristics of the universities and colleges that have accredited and/or certified undergraduate PR programs where accredited full-time PR educators teach?


To answer this study’s research questions, a content analysis was conducted using the faculty biographies and accreditation data for all undergraduate ACEJMC accredited units in the United States with PR programs (n = 73) and all undergraduate PRSA certified programs in the United States (n = 40). Although program accreditation and individual professional accreditation are not necessarily conjoined, the analysis of accredited programs has been used in other studies to narrow the sample including examining writing requirements in PR programs (Hardin & Pompper, 2004), determining best practices for leadership development in the next generation of PR leaders (Ewing et al., 2019), exploring how ethics is taught in PR classrooms (Del Rosso et. al., 2020) and investigating how social media, digital media and analytics are taught (Luttrell et al., 2021). 

Conceptualization & Operationalization

This study defines accredited undergraduate PR programs as programs housed in ACEJMC accredited academic units (ACEJMC, n.d.-a) and/or PRSA certified PR programs (PRSSA, 2021a) as of November 2021. Individuals who are APR were identified based on their faculty biography on their university websites. Public relations faculty were faculty who specifically mentioned PR in their biography, were listed as teaching PR courses or were listed as PR faculty on their university’s website and held an active full-time academic appointment. Accreditation status was cross-checked using the PRSA membership directory. Gender was identified based on the pronouns used in the faculty member’s biography and was sub-collapsed into male, female, and non-binary/other. Highest degree earned was determined from their publicly available faculty biography or curriculum vitae.


Carnegie status was determined through the Carnegie database (The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, n.d.). Universities and colleges were coded as either public or private as listed in the Carnegie database.


A list was compiled of all ACEJMC accredited units with undergraduate PR programs in the United States and all PRSA CEPR undergraduate PR programs in the United States. The data in this study represents a census of those programs as of November 2021.


Research Question 1 asked the status of public relations accreditation in full-time PR faculty in undergraduate PR programs in the United States that are ACEJMC accredited (A), PRSA certified (B), and programs that are both ACEJMC accredited and PRSA certified (C). Overall, full-time PR faculty (n = 469) in the 113 accredited/certified undergraduate PR programs are about two-thirds women (66.5%, n = 312) with the remaining being men (33.5%, n= 157); no faculty identified as nonbinary by their pronouns in their faculty biographies. A majority have earned a Ph.D. (68.9%, n = 323); 127 (27.1%) have earned a master’s degree; and 14 (3.0%) have earned a bachelor’s degree. Five (1.1%) have earned a different kind of doctoral degree such as an Ed.D. Most of these full-time PR faculty (83.2%, n = 309) are not accredited with only 79 (16.8%) earning professional accreditation. Considering these 79 accredited faculty members, 63 (13.4%) have earned the APR designation, 15 (3.2%) are PRSA Fellows, and one (0.2%) has an international accreditation from the Institute of Public Relations in Ghana. One’s (1.27%) highest degree earned was a bachelor’s degree, 29 (36.71%) hold a master’s degree, and 49 (62.03%) hold a Ph.D. or other doctoral degree.

Of the 469 full-time PR faculty teaching in accredited/certified undergraduate PR programs, 58.0% (n = 272) teach in units that are accredited only by ACEJMC, 18.8% (n = 88) teach in units that are only PRSA certified, and 23.2% (n = 109) are in units that are both ACEJMC accredited and PRSA certified. The vast majority work at public schools (81.2%, n = 381) while 18.8% (n = 88) are at private institutions. Most of these public relations faculty also work at Doctoral Universities – Very high research activity (Carnegie R1) (53.1%, n = 249); 21.1% (n = 99) are at Doctoral Universities – High research activity (Carnegie R2); 10.2% (n = 48) teach at Doctoral/Professional Universities (Carnegie D/PU); and 12.6% (n = 59) are at Master’s Colleges and Universities – Larger programs (Carnegie M1). Fourteen (2.9%) are at schools classified as Master’s Colleges and Universities – Medium programs (Carnegie M2), Master’s Colleges and Universities – Smaller programs (Carnegie M3), or Baccalaureate Colleges.

RQ1A: ACEJMC accredited programs

Looking specifically at the 56 units that are only ACEJMC accredited, 67.2% (n = 183) of the full-time PR faculty are women and 32.7% (n = 89) are men. Most (67.6%, n = 185) have earned a Ph.D.; 26.4% (n = 72) have earned a master’s degree; and 4.0% (n = 11) have earned a bachelor’s degree. Four faculty members (1.5%) have earned a different kind of doctoral degree. A little more than 9 out of 10 faculty members (90.8%, n = 247) are not professionally accredited. Of these 272 full-time PR faculty members, 25 (9.1%) are accredited with 19 (6.9%) having their APR and 6 (2.2%) being PRSA Fellows. The majority work at public universities (83.4%, n = 227), and 16.5% (n = 45) teach at private universities. Most of these PR faculty members (59.9%, n = 163) are teaching in units housed in Carnegie R1 (Doctoral Universities – Very high research activity) schools; 44 (16.1%) teach in units housed in Carnegie R2 (Doctoral Universities – high research activity) schools; 29 (10.7%) teach in units that are Carnegie M1 (Master’s Colleges and Universities – Larger programs); 27 (10%) of these faculty teach in units housed in Carnegie D/PU (Doctoral/Professional) Universities; six (0.2%) teach in units located in Carnegie M2 (Master’s College and Universities – Medium) programs and three (0.1%) teach in units located in Carnegie M3 (Master’s College and Universities – Small) programs. RQ1B: 

PRSA certified PR programs

Looking specifically at the 23 units that are only PRSA certified, 70.4% (n = 62) are women and 29.5% (n = 26) are men. Most PR faculty members (77.3%, n = 68) have earned a Ph.D. and 22.7% (n = 20) have earned a master’s degree. The majority (68.1%, n= 60) are not accredited. Considering the 28 (31.8%) accredited faculty members teaching at these units, 24 (27.2%) have earned APR and four (4.5%) are PRSA Fellows. Most of these faculty members are teaching at public universities (73.8%, n = 65) with 23 (26.1%) teaching at private universities. More of these PR faculty members (34.1%, n = 30) are teaching in units housed in Carnegie R2 (Doctoral Universities – high research activity) schools. Twenty-three (26.1%) of these faculty teach in units housed in Carnegie R1 (Doctoral Universities – Very high research activity) schools while 17 (19.3%) teach in units housed in Carnegie D/PU (Doctoral/Professional) Universities. Thirteen (14.7%) teach in units that are Carnegie M1 (Master’s Colleges and Universities – Larger) programs, three teach in Carnegie M2 (Master’s College and Universities – Medium) programs and two teach in units located in Baccalaureate Colleges.

RQ1C: Programs that are both ACEJMC accredited and PRSA certified

Looking at the 17 units that are both ACEJMC accredited and PRSA certified, 61.4% (n = 67) of the full-time PR faculty are women and 38.5% (n = 42) are men. Most (64.2%, n = 70) have earned a Ph.D.; 32.1% (n = 35) have earned a master’s degree; 2.7% (n = 3) have earned a bachelor’s degree; and one (0.9%) has earned a different kind of doctoral degree. The majority (76.1%, n = 83) are not professionally accredited. Of the 26 (23.8%) who are accredited, 20 (18.3%) are APRs, five (4.5%) are PRSA Fellows and one (0.9%) is internationally accredited. Most of these faculty members are teaching at public schools (81.6%, n = 89) with only 20 (18.3%) teaching at private schools. More than half of these PR faculty members (57.8%, n = 63) are teaching in units housed in Carnegie R1 (Doctoral Universities – Very high research activity) schools. Twenty-five (22.9%) teach in units housed in Carnegie R2 (Doctoral Universities – high research activity) schools. Four (0.4%) teach in units that are in Carnegie D/PU (Doctoral/Professional) Universities and 17 (15.5%) teach in units that are Carnegie M1 (Master’s Colleges and Universities – Larger) programs.

RQ2: University/college characteristics

Research Question 2 asked about the characteristics of the universities and colleges that have accredited/certified undergraduate PR programs where accredited full-time PR educators teach. A chi-square test of independence was performed to examine the relationships between full-time accredited PR faculty and the characteristics discussed in RQ1A, B, and C. The relationships between three of these variables were significant. First, undergraduate PR programs that are PRSA certified have a higher percentage of full-time accredited PR faculty teaching in them than ACEJMC accredited programs, X2 (1, N = 469) = 27.08, p = < .001; for this statistic, programs with both ACEJMC accreditation and PRSA certification were counted in both.

Second, there is a higher percentage of full-time accredited PR faculty members in private schools with accredited/certified programs than in public schools with accredited/certified programs, X2 (1, N = 469) = 6.68, p = .010. And, finally, Carnegie R2 and D/PU universities with accredited/certified undergraduate PR programs are more likely to have full-time accredited PR faculty than the others, X2 (3, N = 469) = 9.01, p = .029.


This study found that an overwhelming majority of full-time PR faculty in accredited/certified undergraduate PR programs are not professionally accredited. This data supports the CPRE’s 2018 Fast Forward report’s finding that even though PR professionals believe that educators should earn professional accreditations and executives from large public relations firms relate that their best new employees come from universities with professionally experienced and credentialed faculty, educators do not value them. These findings also fly in the face of previous research that found students prefer professors with a practitioner focus who are more involved with the day-to-day practice of public relations (Tindall & Waters, 2017) — qualities that earning an APR can help to develop and foster — and that students value professors more based on their professional, non-academic experience (Martin et al., 2005; Wilkerson, 1999).

Most of the full-time faculty in this study who are accredited have a Ph.D. or other doctoral degree and may add to Sha’s (2011a) discussion about whether experience can be used as a substitute for accreditation.

Conrad (2020) notes that there is ongoing tension between PR theory and practice, the academy and industry. This plays out in the findings of this study. The majority of full-time PR faculty in this study work in PR programs located in academic units that are ACEJMC accredited at public Carnegie R1 universities where the focus is on “very high research activity.” However, full-time faculty teaching in undergraduate programs that are only PRSA certified tend to teach in public Carnegie R2 and D/PU schools where there is less focus on research output and a higher percentage of accredited full-time faculty members teach at R2 and D/PU schools. Could this difference be because of the emphasis on research output placed on institutions and programs to maintain R1 status and the professional focus of programs that are only PRSA certified? Additionally, there is a higher percentage of full-time accredited PR faculty members teaching in private schools with accredited/certified programs than in public schools with accredited/certified programs. It stands to reason that this could be an indication of the flexibility and resources afforded a program at a private university versus programs in publicly funded institutions.


As far back as the founding of the Commission of Public Relations Education in 1973 there has been debate about the qualifications that PR educators should have and the relationship between PR practice and the academy. From arguing that PR educators should have a Ph.D. because PR is a research-academic discipline (CPRE, 1999) to observations that those who teach PR courses in undergraduate programs should have practitioner experience (CPRE, 2006) to the realization that the best-prepared PR graduates come from programs that are taught by both Ph.Ds. and practitioners (CPRE, 2018), the debate continues. Yet, through it all, there is little data that paints a picture of both the educational and professional qualifications of those who are teaching the next generation of PR pros. This study lays the groundwork for additional research into the professional accreditation of full-time PR educators and indicates that if, as research shows, accreditation matters, then the UAB, PRSA and other professional associations need to better communicate the benefits of and process for earning professional accreditation to the academy.

Implications for the profession

This study has supplied insights into the professional accreditation of full-time PR faculty in accredited/certified undergraduate PR programs, an area that has not been explored much to date. These findings also contribute to the continuing emphasis by the CPRE on who is teaching future PR professionals and could aid the UAB, PRSA and other professional associations in understanding professional accreditation of educators and possibly creating an accreditation designed specifically for full-time educators, like the APR+M for military practitioners.


This study only examined full-time educators teaching in the ACEJMC accredited and PRSA certified undergraduate PR programs in the United States. A clearer picture of professionally accredited full-time PR educators could be gleaned by looking at full-time educators in PR programs without accreditation or certification.

Suggestions for future research

PRSSA currently has more than 300 chapters in the United States (PRSSA, 2021b). An examination of full-time educators in PR programs where these PRSSA chapters exist might provide additional insights into PR faculty, as well as the status of PRSSA chapter advisers.

Another area that warrants examination is the accreditation status of adjunct PR faculty.

More than 50% of faculty teaching in four-year schools are estimated to be adjunct or part-time professors (AAUP, 2018) and as highlighted in the CPRE 2018 report, little information is available on these part-time PR faculty members. Toth (2021) looked at teaching interests, needs, and professional experience of PR adjunct faculty but did not specifically address their professional accreditation status. Further exploration of this important group of PR educators is warranted.


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© Copyright 2023 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Marks Malone, Kim. (2023). Who’s Teaching Future PR Professionals? Exploring Professional Credentials of Full-Time PR Faculty in Accredited Programs. Journal of Public Relations Education, 9(1), 62-81.

“Unapologetically Original”: Building Creative Self-Confidence in the Public Relations Curriculum

Editorial Record: Submitted June 3, 2022. Revised October 13, 2022. Accepted December 5, 2022. Published May 2023.


Geah Pressgrove, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Reed College of Media
West Virginia University

Emily S. Kinsky, Ph.D.
Professor of Media Communication
Department of Communication
West Texas A&M University
Texas, USA

Visual design has become an important skill for public relations students to develop before entering the field. This study used a quasi-experimental design to examine college students’ creative self-efficacy (CSE) and visual design confidence before and after using a template-based design program in public-relations-related classes. Findings indicate that students enrolled in these courses have high pre-existing levels of CSE, but low levels of visual design confidence; however, these design programs significantly improve both visual confidence and some aspects of creative self-efficacy. With limitations on adding courses to the curriculum and a lack of deep design knowledge by public relations faculty members, this study’s authors also share ideas for how to incorporate visual content creation opportunities across the curriculum by using free, template-based programs online.

Keywords: Visual confidence, Creative Self-Efficacy, Design

From slide decks to social media graphics, and data visualizations to event invitations, public relations practitioners are increasingly being called to create materials for their organizations and clients. However, a gap between pedagogy and practice is present according to a study conducted by the Commission on Public Relations Education [CPRE, (2018)]; public relations professionals expect entry-level practitioners to have visual design skills more often than they actually demonstrate that skill. Further, according to the CPRE (2018) report, content creation was listed as an essential topic to be covered in public relations courses (see p. 20), and both educators and professionals recommended graphic design as a compulsory course for students (see p. 85). The report emphasized that “public relations practitioners are expected to create a variety of content to go along with written messages, from photos to video to graphics, and new programs and apps constantly emerge to help practitioners and educators with these tasks” (p. 90). Despite these calls from the field, most students studying public relations across the U.S. likely have only one design-related course required before they graduate (if any), which is not enough to master visual content creation skills. 

Recent research, in addition to the CPRE study, also suggests a greater need for public relations education focused on visual design competency for the current social and data-driven environment (e.g., Sisson & Martensen, 2017). Thus, this study seeks to better understand the role that free, easy-to-use template-based programs (e.g., Canva, Spark/Express) which have emerged over the last decade might play in helping reduce the gap between professional expectations for visual content creation skills and classroom pedagogy. Specifically, this study uses a quasi-experimental design to examine the impact of incorporating these free tools for design projects in public relations-related classes (e.g., campaigns, research methods, event planning). Through pre/post surveys of students at two universities across two semesters, the authors examine how using these tools for visual content creation assignments might relate to students’ creative self-efficacy and impact students’ visual design confidence. In addition, recommendations are made for incorporating free template-based content creation programs into a variety of public-relations-related courses.

Literature Review

According to Garrett (2020), “Visuals have never been more important in the public relations field than they are today” (para. 18). Further, Tanner (2019) points out “the importance of design in business” where design is now seen “as a meaningful differentiator” (p. 1). Public relations practice “has always needed to be nimble to adapt to the ever-changing business landscape and its audience” (Golovatenko, 2021, para. 1), and that is especially the case as businesses and organizations try to meet their current and potential audiences through social media. To illustrate, research shows that employing both visual and text-based content drives engagement and can lead to stronger relationships (Brubaker & Wilson, 2018). However, graphic design is a specialized field wherein an entire core curriculum is necessary to teach the theoretical and technical skills needed for practice (Sickman, 2015). The question then becomes, how do we best prepare public relations students for careers that are marked by a need for visual content and increased competition for differentiation across digital channels? One way to heed the call may be to answer the demand with a blend of creativity and competency. 

Because content can lose relevance or become inappropriate due to current events, “successful social media management today sees brands shifting from far-in-advance planning to a more flexible model with content created only for the near future” (Gardner, 2020, para. 4). According to Guinness (2022), “Social media posts have a very short lifecycle, so you don’t want to spend hours creating them” (para. 6). Thus, public relations practitioners need to be able to create content quickly—especially for short turnaround times and temporary use —which means they likely need to create the content themselves to keep up with the frequency and volume required to compete. In sum, creativity and visual content creation competence are now essential to the industry (Garrett, 2020; O’Leary, 2020), thus new training and tools must be presented to public relations students, and students need to be given the chance to apply those skills while still in school.

As Garrett (2020) posits, with “the demand for visuals to accompany all of the content being created, public relations pros who understand visual communication have a leg up in any industry” (para. 18). Further reinforcing the importance of nurturing skill and confidence in creative expression, some reports project that artificial intelligence, automation, machine learning algorithms and robots may eliminate 39 to 73 million jobs in the U.S. by 2030 (Manyika et al., 2017); however, researchers also believe that expressions of human creativity will never be replaced by machines (Oleinik, 2019). In fact, AI tools like Adobe Sensei and PowerPoint Designer currently assist designers working within the Adobe Creative Cloud or Microsoft PowerPoint, respectively, making some design tasks easier and faster as “the design tool offers suggestions for how to improve the design” (Tanner, 2019, p. 4). However, the human eye is still essential as the user makes the final decisions. To this end, it behooves public relations professors to prepare our students with training in visual content creation basics and some easy-to-use tools that improve both their capacity for creative expression and confidence on visual design tasks. 

The Visual Design Challenge in Public Relations Classrooms

Although public relations practitioners may not be asked to create an organization’s new logo or brand, they will likely be asked to make design decisions or create content. For example, they may be asked to hire an external designer, draft mock-ups, create a data visualization to clarify complex information, develop social media content, or communicate client design needs to an in-house artist; in any of these cases, the foundational need for an understanding of visual content creation is present. Comcowich (2018) agrees with the need for visual creation knowledge: “Linguistic skills are no longer enough in PR. The profession increasingly is image-focused,” (para 8). Further, as some scholars propose, “teaching design to non-designers is a popular way to drive innovative and creative thinking” (Royalty, 2018, p. 137). 

Despite the inherent value of learning visual content creation skills, mastering technical proficiency with prominent design programs leads to several challenges in the public relations curriculum. First, requirements for program certification and accreditation from entities like the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC) outline extensive requirements for students’ education. These include important competencies related to history, law, diversity, research, statistical proficiencies, theory, and ethics (CPRE, 2019). These foundational learning outcomes necessitate a core curriculum that is robust and may leave little room for adding compulsory design courses focused on technical proficiencies. Further, the cost associated with purchasing the industry-standard design programs (even with a student discount) is oftentimes prohibitive. Finally, many public relations faculty may feel ill-equipped to teach the technical skills needed to develop design proficiency in commonly used industry software (e.g., Adobe CC). To this end, we need to seek alternative pathways to educate our students across existing courses in a manner that does not exacerbate the financial burden of higher education. With some planning, assignments across a variety of public relations classes can be used to spark student creativity, improve design proficiency, and enhance student portfolios. One such pathway is to employ free template-based programs such as Adobe Express and Canva that have a “low barrier to entry, their resulting professional-looking design, their manageable set of tools, and their support of direct manipulation are all principles of good novice design tools” (Tanner, 2019, p. 22). 

While departments face the challenge of adding design to the curriculum, public relations students may face the challenge of intimidation. Waxman (2020) talks about a “bone-chilling fear of an empty screen” (para. 7) as he tries to gin up something creative and new, and the authors propose a similar fear haunts our public relations students when asked to develop a creative execution. With the need for quick content—and loads of it—for social media, public relations students need coping skills to quickly get beyond that fear. As Orland (2019) put it, “The act of starting is more important and courageous than anything” (para. 11). According to O’Donovan et al., (2015), “unfortunately, creating designs can be difficult, particularly for novices, who often wish to create simple posters, cards, or social media designs. Starting from a blank canvas can be overwhelming, and exploring alternatives is time-consuming” (para. 1). One traditional point of inspiration has been to look at others’ work. As Ferguson (2012) stated, “everything is a remix,” and he explained that creativity starts by copying, transforming, and combining ideas in a new form. Ramsey (2017) applied Ferguson’s idea to video templates and made the bold statement that “templates can actually help boost your creativity” (para. 3). Guinness (2022) agreed: 

That’s why graphic design apps are crucial: instead of starting from scratch each time, you’ll have a range of great templates and design resources (like stock images, icons, shapes, and text styles) ready to go. Then, all you have to do is mix and match things with your own brand elements to have something unique and powerful. (para. 6) 

 With free user-friendly, template-based programs like Adobe Spark/Express and Canva, others’ ideas are easy to scroll through because they are built into the platform as design templates for every format imaginable allowing students to jump quickly from a blank screen to their own remix. While some professional designers pan the use of template-based programs because of their potential “cookie-cutter feel” (Tanner, 2019, p. 3), according to designer and podcaster Colleen Gratzer, “I’ve heard from some designers that they get inspiration from looking at the Canva templates” (2022, para. 50). Gratzer also mentioned a designer who said she found the limited features in Canva actually forced her to be more creative than in Photoshop. 

Creative Self-Efficacy & Visual Design Confidence

As Beghetto (2006) posits, while creative ability is indispensable for creativity, this ability alone is not sufficient for the production of innovative outcomes. Instead, he indicates that self-judgments play into the capacity to produce creative outcomes. Thus, two important factors in students’ expectations regarding content creation mastery are creative self-efficacy and visual design confidence. To this end, the current study seeks to better understand how these perceptions of ability and skill may be impacted when the blank screen and technical design proficiency are reduced through the use of user-friendly, free design programs in public relations-related classes.

The literature defines self-efficacy as a personal judgment or set of beliefs about one’s capacity to execute a plan of action based on the skills they have (Bandura, 2007). According to Akama (2006), self-efficacy plays a significant role in students’ decision making associated with their time, effort, and persistence when addressing challenges in a creative manner. Further, research has shown that students must possess high levels of self-efficacy in order to effectively perform, progress, and create (e.g., Cheng & Chiou, 2010; Tierney & Farmer, 2011). As scholars have noted, the difficulty of creative work is compounded by factors such as the inherent risk and potential for critique (Schrage, 1999), making high self-efficacy a key factor in creative work (Dow et al., 2010). Tanner (2019), who had similar questions about self-efficacy and the use of simpler design platforms, was convinced that “User-steered, generative design tools can increase a novice designer’s perceived creativity and lead to unique, high-quality designs without sacrificing ease of use” (p. 8). Numerous studies have demonstrated that creative self-efficacy (CSE), or the “belief one has the ability to produce creative outcomes,” (Tierney & Farmer, 2002, p. 1138) is critical for creative achievement (e.g., Che     n, 2013; Lim & Choi, 2009; Yu, 2013). In fact, research has shown CSE to be a strong positive correlate of creativity (Tierney & Farmer, 2002) as it reflects students’ core beliefs related to their imagination and ability to come up with good ideas (Alotaibi, 2016). 

As demonstrated in this review of the literature, CSE is more than just idea generation (Beghetto, 2006); it is also composed of cognitive style and working style/persistence (Tan et al., 2007; Tan et al., 2008; Tan & Majid, 2011). Building on this work that has produced reliable results in other study contexts, the authors explore all three dimensions of CSE. In terms of idea generation, Beghetto (2006) opines that an imagination and a belief in one’s ability to have a lot of ideas is a necessary dimension of CSE. As it relates to cognitive style, Tan et al. (2008) indicate it is also necessary not only for one to believe they can come up with original ideas, but must also possess an ability to pause and reflect, as well as an ability to combine ideas. Finally, as it relates to persistence, Tan and Majid (2011) indicate a need to possess the drive to keep going even when things are difficult, a willingness to master creative tasks and a strong will to improve. Because prior work has found that students with high-levels of CSE tend to seek out opportunities to enhance this type of self-evaluation (Chang & Yang, 2012), the authors anticipate that most students enrolled in public relations courses will have high levels of CSE reflecting their desire to pursue a career in a creative-focused industry. The question, then becomes: 

RQ1: Does the use of free, user-friendly design programs impact students’ creative self-efficacy (e.g., idea generation, cognitive style, working style/persistence) in public relations-related courses?

While CSE reflects a student’s judgments about their creative mental processes, visual design confidence or perceptions of technical competence reflect another domain that could influence students’ abilities to develop visual content. As Alotaibi (2016) indicates, “confidence in creative ability represents the core of creative thinking and performance, which in return enables people to deal effectively and efficiently with challenges” (p. 903). One factor leading to confidence is experience with a process. As extant research demonstrates, experience predicates creative success (Amabile, 1983), and this experience over time increases familiarity necessary for creative work (Weisberg, 1999). As previously discussed, a deep focus on technical graphic design skills is likely beyond the realm of what most public relations degree-granting institutions are currently providing to students, thus the authors posit that task familiarity in visual content creation could be achieved through the incorporation of free, easy-to-use design tools across the curriculum. 

In the context of this study, the authors propose that confidence in creative ability is, in part, impacted by visual design confidence (e.g., ability to present information in a visual format). Given the circumstances outlined in this literature review, we do not believe students will have high-levels of visual design confidence coming into public-relations-related courses and wish to understand:

RQ2: Does the use of free, user-friendly design programs impact students’ visual design confidence in completing a project in public-relations-related courses?


This study sought to understand if the use of free, easy-to-use design tools impacted students’ CSE and visual design confidence in public-relations-related courses. As participants were not randomly assigned to conditions for ethical reasons, this research is considered a quasi-experimental design with a purposive sample of students intended to reflect the educational experiences of students enrolled in public-relations-related courses at two accredited institutions. The study was IRB approved at the researchers’ institutions prior to launch. Pre- and post-test questionnaires were used to assess the variables of interest. Both quantitative and qualitative data were collected to better understand student learning and study variables. Unless otherwise indicated, all study measures were assessed on a five-point scale with one indicating strong disagreement and five indicating strong agreement.

Pre-test data were collected prior to when design-focused assignments were presented to students. Post-test data were collected following the completion of the design-focused assignments such as the creation of social media content (capstone), data visualizations (research methods), event/meeting promotions (PRSSA), and presentations (new media). Data were collected over two semesters in 2020 and 2021 at two different universities. To assure results reflect different learning environments, study participants included varying classification-levels, as well as students in core courses (e.g., introduction to public relations, research methods, capstone, internship experience), elective courses (e.g., event planning, student-run agency), and Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) members. Assignments varied based on context, but all required the development of a creative execution for a specific audience and strategic outcome (e.g., data visualization, social media graphic, event poster, website).


After removing speeders, incomplete responses, and participants who      did not pass the attention check, the pre-test had 223 participants and the post-test included 119 participants. Study participants were asked to respond to a series of demographic questions in the post-test. Based on this data, participants were primarily seniors (42%, n = 53), followed by juniors (25%, n = 32), sophomores (15%, n = 19), and freshmen (12%, n = 15). The mean age of study participants was 21 (SD = 4.59), with a range of 18 to 43 years of age. Of those providing a response, 70% (n = 88) of participants identified as female and 23% (n = 29) male, reflecting an approximate typical gender distribution for public relations programs (Meng et al., 2019). All students were voluntary participants whose anonymity was maintained to the extent possible by the researchers. Identifying data were collected via a separate form, when necessary for extra credit, and never merged with the primary dataset. 

Overall, participants indicated low levels of expertise with popular design programs that require technical proficiency, including Adobe Photoshop (M = 2.88, SD = 1.08), Premiere (M = 2.49, SD = 1.24), Illustrator (M = 2.47, SD = 1.05), and InDesign (M = 2.13, SD = 1.08). For the assignments, most students used either Adobe Spark/Express (68%, n = 44) or Canva (23%, n = 15), with the remainder of study participants using other free template-based data visualization programs (e.g., Piktochart, Visme). 


Items used to measure CSE and visual design confidence in the pre- and post-test questionnaire were derived from scales found in the extant literature and adapted for the current study context. Internal consistency is reported below with a description of the measures. Open-ended questions were also included to add nuanced understanding of the students’ self-perceptions and visual design skills.

Creative Self-Efficacy. In order to measure perceptions of CSE, the questionnaire included measures for idea generation, cognitive style, and working style/persistence. All items were presented in the same format during both the pre- and post-test. For each dimension of CSE, students were asked to assess how well the statements described them. Perceptions of ability to generate ideas included three items adapted from Beghetto (2006) and included, “I am good at coming up with new ideas,” and “I have a lot of good ideas” (a = .74). Cognitive style and persistence items were adapted from the work of Tan et al. (2008) and Tan and Majid (2011). Cognitive style included four items such as “I can reach the goal of coming up with original ideas or things,” and “I can delay judgment when coming up with ideas (in other words, pause and reflect before making a decision)” (a = .74). Working style/persistence included six items such as, “I am willing to master the knowledge I need for creative tasks,” and “I continue doing my task even if I face difficulty coming up with a good idea” (a = .86).

Visual Design Confidence. In order to assess perceptions of visual design confidence, items for the measure were adapted from Newell et al. (2017) and Tierney and Farmer (2002). In the pre-test and post-test, students were asked to rate their confidence level related to the visual design components of the assignment on six items including, “I am confident I can/could design the items needed for this assignment,” “I am confident that I can/could create the visual components of this assignment,” and “I have the design skills needed to complete the assignment (again)” (a = .97).

Open-Ended Responses. In both the pre- and post-tests, students were also asked a series of open-ended questions to provide deeper insight into the quantitative findings. For example, in the pre-test, students were asked if they thought they had the design skills needed to complete the assignment, and why or why not. In the post-test, participants were asked to provide their reflections on the benefits and disadvantages of the design program they used, as well as the features of the program that they both liked and disliked.

Findings In order to answer the study’s two research questions, independent sample t-tests were used to assess the significance of the mean difference from pre-test to post-test. For RQ1, which focused on three forms of CSE, findings indicate students had high pre-existing levels of CSE. In terms of idea generation and work style/persistence, there was not a significant change in CSE from pre-test to post-test; however, cognitive style did produce a significant increase when using these free, easy-to-use programs (t = -2.94; p < .05). The second research question (RQ2) related to visual design confidence and also resulted in a significant increase from pre-test to post-test (t = -25.739; p < .001). Table 1 provides a comprehensive review of the analysis.

Table 1: Pre- and Post-test T-Test for CSE

 Pre-Test MeanPost-Test MeantSig
CSE: Idea Generation4.05 (SD = .82)4.08 (SD = .75)-.358.720
CSE: Cognitive Style3.97 (SD = .63)4.15 (SD = .52)-2.94.004
CSE: Work Style/Persistence4.23 (SD = .63)4.25 (SD = .54)-2.85.776
Visual Confidence2.13 (SD = .88)4.35 (SD = .69)-25.739< .001
NOTE: All items measured on a five-point scale. Items in bold demonstrate a significant difference.

Pre-Test Perceptions

To add nuance to our understanding of these findings, the authors also analyzed qualitative data collected through open-ended questions in the pre-test and post-test. As expected, in the pre-test, many study participants indicated they believed themselves to be creative, with representative comments indicating, “I am very creative and love to create new things.” However, common responses also included: “I believe I have the creativity needed to complete the assignment, although I am unsure of my design skills,” and “I am not sure that I have the basic fundamental skills; however, I love to utilize my creative side. Therefore, based on skills, no, I do not but based on willpower, yes, I do.”  Confirming the lack of training but presence of desire, many students indicated thoughts such as “I have not taken many design courses, but I am very eager to learn and enhance those skills. I love the idea of marketing/advertising products and events and would like to use this to apply to my job in the near future.” Other students pointed to the lack of experience hindering them: “I have very limited experience with designing so I believe I do not have the design skills to complete assignments that deserve A’s.” As another study participant said, “Well as of right now, no I don’t. I know nothing of design or media design. That could change once taught and I’m open to learn, but as of right now no I don’t believe I have the skills. Time will tell.”

Post-Test Perceptions

In their qualitative feedback in the post-test, students overwhelmingly extolled the virtues of the platform they used as “free,” “easy to use,” “simple to learn,” “easy to navigate,” and they appreciated the “access to templates.” Many students felt the use of the program was a valuable learning exercise that improved their ability to produce creative communication materials. For example, one student said, “It was very flexible and allowed me to create content that looked professional.” Another example focused on how pleased the student was with the outcome and how they appreciated “the freedom of it and being able to be unapologetically original.” Others felt their content creation skills improved with representative comments indicating, “It provided templates so that I could have an idea of where I wanted to go with the assignment and do it in a timely manner,” and “I learned a lot about what a good design should look like.” While most students indicated they did not see any disadvantages, some students indicated frustration with a lack of fonts and icons, and the requirement for paid upgrades to access some templates, content, and tools. These limitations made some students feel they had a “lack of freedom” or a feeling that they were “creatively restricted.” 


Not surprisingly the results of this work indicate students in public relations programs possess creative self-efficacy. This manifested as a pre-existing belief in their ability to generate ideas and a work style/persistence to complete creative tasks. The field of public relations needs out-of-the-box thinking (e.g., Fitzgerald, 2021) and new approaches to build and cultivate relationships (e.g., Brubaker & Wilson, 2018; Marschlich & Ingenhoff, 2021; Pressgrove & McKeever, 2016; Storie, 2017). This need to creatively break through the clutter has likely been a siren call for many students entering programs in pursuit of such career opportunities. While these two dimensions of CSE paint a partial portrait of students’ belief sets, we see less efficacy when it relates to cognitive style, or their mode of problem solving and thinking, prior to being introduced to a user-friendly tool to help conquer their fears of inadequacy. 

Perhaps of most noteworthiness, findings indicate low levels of visual confidence across all student groups, regardless of course or year. These findings point to a serious need to close the gap between beliefs (as represented here by measures of CSE) and ability (as represented here by visual confidence). Findings further indicate that free, template-based, easy-to-use design and data visualization tools (e.g., Canva, Piktochart, Spark/Express) may provide a path forward. As Cohen (2020) suggests, introducing students to template-based programs gives them an “entry point,” and to those who would argue against using template-based programs, he insists, “It’s not lowering the bar, it’s elevating the floor and getting people up to a level” (n.p.). Cohen (2020) further explains how template-based programs can support creativity by removing the hurdles: “It’s important to just build those skills — that creativity lens through visual and verbal communication… you don’t have to have 35 hours of training in professional software” (n.p.). As Cohen suggested, our findings show the use of these programs in multiple courses across two semesters consistently demonstrated a significant improvement in visual confidence. Qualitative insights indicate this change is a function of improved skill and understanding, as well as pride in professional outcomes and the empowering impact of reducing technical requirements to focus on visual content creation success.

Given these insights, support and findings, the pursuit then becomes how to adapt existing courses to incorporate more visual content creation to ignite students’ creativity and boost their visual design confidence. The first step may be to reduce faculty concerns about limited technical skill. To this end, the authors propose that faculty members could familiarize themselves with some of these tools in either a collaborative or independent setting. For example, a department/college could provide a short workshop during a faculty meeting to teach their colleagues how to use one of the free programs (see Appendix) and then have faculty members each create a promotional graphic for an elective course that might need an enrollment boost or to promote recruitment for the major/department. Alternatively, faculty members could use Adobe Express Video to create an introductory video about themselves to their students (Gallicano & Kinsky, 2022) or for use internally among department colleagues to get to know each other better or to share recent updates. Similarly, faculty members could create an infographic about themselves (see Adobe for Education, 2022). 

Once faculty increase their confidence in the ability to support student success, the opportunity to incorporate these tools across the public relations curriculum is limitless. To facilitate experimentation, the authors offer recommendations of project ideas to help strengthen public relations programs, courses, and student learning outcomes (see Table 2).

Table 2: Application Ideas for Design Assignments in PR-Related Courses

CourseProject for Students
InternshipUse Express Page to document the learning journey and share the link within digital portfolios and/or LinkedIn profiles.
Intro to MCOMDevelop a graphic that allows students to introduce themselves to the class (see Adobe for Education, 2022).   Create an assignment where students offer advice to their younger self based on what they learned during their first year. Designs can be a department/college contest where the top graphics are shared as an Instagram Story.
Media History/PR HistoryConstruct a social media graphic spotlighting a little-known historical figure from the field or develop a web page with text, visuals and hyperlinks back to sources using Adobe Express.
Media LawUse visual communication (graphic, web page, video) to explain a law or how to avoid getting in trouble when posting content online.
New MediaDesign an infographic or video giving highlights from the development of a new platform/tool or to explain that tool’s benefits compared to others.
PRSSAHost a meeting where members create social media graphics to recruit new members or to keep members informed of upcoming events.   Create an Adobe Express web page as a landing page for event registration or as a microsite for event details.
PR CampaignsDevelop graphics for the class client with versions formatted for each platform used in the campaign.   Create a slideshow to showcase the campaign plan to the client. Then, after a class critique, ask students to recreate their presentation using the templates available in one of the recommended design programs.
PR CasesCreate a graphic relevant to the case study from the required readings (e.g, an infographic timeline to explain what happened).

Develop a two-minute summary of a case using Adobe Express Video.
PR WritingProduce a social media graphic related to PR writing (e.g., Top 3 AP Style Mistakes Students Make; Top 5 Ways to Grab Your Reader; Top 7 Ways to Start a Lede).
Research/ Data AnalyticsCreate a data visualization that explains a complex topic and simplifies it for the reader/viewer.   Craft an infographic that reports key findings from data collection and analysis.
Student-Run AgencyCreate a graphic or short video for recruitment of future student staff or clients.

Craft an infographic for the agency website related to the history of the firm, the staff hierarchy, or services offered.


This study aimed to explore the utility of free, easy-to-use design programs in public-relations-related courses. In doing so, the authors acknowledge the call from CPRE to meet the industry demands for students with content-creation ability (CPRE, 2018), while also acknowledging the limitations imposed by costly design programs and faculty without formal software training. Across myriad course types ranging from research methods to the capstone and event planning class to the student agency experience and PRSSA, findings point to the promise of incorporating these tools across the curriculum. The low learning curve for faculty and students alike, as well as the template-based formatting, offer a simplified path to overcoming limited technical expertise and the fear of the blank page. Further, these free tools offer an equitable opportunity for students who are not seeking design-focused careers and who are not able to invest in costly technology, but rather who will need to quickly create content (e.g., social media content, data visualization) for their employer. 

Limitations and Future Research

While this study points to numerous opportunities for integrating visual storytelling across the public relations curriculum, limitations persist, and future research is needed. First, a key aim of this study was to better understand the student experience. For this reason, we did not consult the faculty who teach in these programs beyond anecdotal insights from our own spheres of reference. To this end, there is an opportunity to survey or interview faculty who teach in these programs around the world to more deeply explore challenges and opportunities. Further, a content analysis of the syllabi for courses in public relations curricula from myriad program sizes could shine a light on what is currently being offered both in terms of dedicated courses, as well as expose further opportunities for integration of visual content creation education across the curriculum. Finally, future research could investigate practitioner views of free, template-based programs across sectors to better understand if there are careers in public relations that necessitate training in more technically sophisticated design programs.


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Appendix: Template Based and Free Design Tools
The following list of design tools includes free template-based programs as well as those that offer free trials. Some programs may require an upgrade for enhanced tools and templates.

Adobe Fresco

Adobe Express

Data Visualization
Google Maps
Mind the Graph
Tableau Public

Photography & Photo Editing
Photoshop Express
Capture CC

Video & Video Editing
Adobe Express
Premiere Rush

Free Image Sites
Wikimedia Commons
Stock Exchange
Morgue File
Open Photo
Flickr Commons
The Met Collection Open Access
Getty Images Embed Site

© Copyright 2023 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Pressgrove, G., Kinsky, E. (2023). “Unapologetically Original”: Building Creative Self-Confidence in the Public Relations Curriculum. Journal of Public Relations Education, 9(1), 35-61.

“You don’t have to become a data scientist”: Practitioner Recommendations for Cultivating PR Student Data Competency

Editorial Record: Submitted August 1, 2022. Accepted October 4, 2022. Published May 2023.


Julie O’Neil, Ph.D.
Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Administration, Bob Schieffer College of Communication
Strategic Communication
Texas Christian University
Texas, USA

Emily S. Kinsky, Ph.D.
Professor of Media Communication
Department of Communication
West Texas A&M University
Texas, USA

Michele E. Ewing, APR, Fellow PRSA
School of Media and Journalism
Kent State University
Ohio, USA

Maria Russell, APR, Fellow PRSA
Professor Emerita, Public Relations
Newhouse School
Syracuse University

The growing need for data competency among entry-level PR practitioners underscores why it is imperative that PR educators evaluate how they are teaching data and data analytics to students. Researchers interviewed 28 high-level PR practitioners with significant data and analytics experience to examine how educators can best prepare students to curate, analyze, and discern actionable insight from data. Practitioners said students must understand PR fundamentals, basic research and statistics concepts, and the ability to succinctly and persuasively tell a story using data visualization. Participants also discussed the importance of soft skills, including a willingness to learn, adaptability, and critical thinking. Implications and teaching suggestions for educators are provided.

Keywords: data, analytics, competency, pedagogy, public relations

The communication industry is transforming into a data-driven field (Fitzpatrick & Weissman, 2021; Weiner, 2021). People around the world consume and share information as they play, work, learn, engage, and advocate in digital spaces. Public relations practitioners must accordingly upscale their abilities and efforts to use technology to work in the digital world. As part of this digital revolution, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Big Data are becoming integrated into contemporary public relations practice (Wiencierz & Röttger, 2019; Wiesenberg et al., 2017). Sommerfeldt and Yang (2018) opined: “The question is no longer if, but how to best use digital communication technologies to build relationships with publics” (p. 60).

Despite the vast opportunities afforded by data and technology, many public relations practitioners are behind on the learning curve (Virmani & Gregory, 2021). According to the 2020-2021 North American Communication Monitor (Meng et al., 2021), 40% of PR practitioners lack data competency; 29% are under-skilled, while 11% are critically under-skilled.

Educators know the importance of embedding data and technology competency into public relations curriculum. Five of the 12 professional values and competencies promoted by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (ACEJMC) relate to digital analytics (Ewing et al., 2018). In the most recent Commission on Public Relations Education (CPRE) report (2018), educators and practitioners indicated “research and analytics” was the fourth-most desirable skill—out of 13—for entry-level PR practitioners.

The growing need for data confidence and proficiency among entry-level practitioners underscores why it is imperative that public relations educators evaluate how they are teaching data and data analytics to students. Researchers interviewed 28 high-level PR practitioners with significant data and analytics experience to examine how educators can best prepare students to curate, analyze, and discern actionable insight from data.

Review of Literature

How PR Practitioners are Using Data and Technology

According to a McKinsey report, companies’ adoption of digital technologies “sped up by three to seven years in a span of months” in 2020 (Galvin et al., 2021, para. 3). In 2021, the pandemic accelerated companies’ adoptions’ of digital technologies, and according to McKinsey, the future belongs to organizations that fully embrace digital technology, skills, and leadership (Galvin et al,. 2021). Public relations practitioners are responding and leaning into this digital transformation as their usage of digital approaches and technologies increases (Wright & Hinson, 2017). Data infuses the entire PR process, and communication professionals can examine data from social platforms, email, websites, mobile apps, internal platforms, business data streams, and more to inform strategic and tactical decisions. Communicators can examine and analyze data for environmental scanning, issues management (Kent & Saffer, 2014; Triantafillidou & Yannas, 2014), crisis communication, combatting disinformation and misinformation (Weiner, 2021), audience identification and segmentation (Stansberry, 2016), influencer and journalistic outreach (Galloway & Swiatek, 2018; Wiencierz & Röttger, 2019) and campaign evaluation (Weiner, 2021).

The Arthur W. Page Society developed a communication approach called “Comm Tech,” which is designed to help chief communication officers (CCOs) apply data and analytics to create campaigns that are hyper-targeted and optimized to drive business outcomes (CommTech Quickstart Guide, 2020). According to Page members Samson and O’Leary (2020), CCOs must help their communication teams evolve from a proactive to predictive function, transform how they understand and engage stakeholders, and improve their digital skills and agility among team members so they can respond to complex problems and opportunities using real-time data.

A commonly referred-to term is Big Data, which is “advanced technology that allows large volumes of data to drive more fully integrated decision-making” (Weiner & Kochhar, 2016, p. 4). Big Data is often defined by four V’s: volume, velocity, variety, and value, and consists of many small structured and unstructured data streams, including PR data derived from news coverage, internal communication, and social media (Weiner & Kochar, 2016). PR practitioners can collaborate with other organizational units to examine Big Data to make decisions regarding product or service demand, competition, and community trends (Weiner, 2021, p. 24). Communicators are also starting to use AI to enhance their capabilities (Virmani & Gregory, 2021). Defined as the “ability of machines to perform tasks that typically require human-like understanding” (Knowledge@Wharton, 2018, para. 1), AI is being used for tasks such as responding to consumer questions, monitoring social media, conducting journalistic and influencer outreach (Galloway & Swiatek, 2018), and engaging employees (O’Neil et al., 2021).

Pedagogical Approaches to Teaching Data and Analytics

Educators and practitioners alike agree upon the importance of including data and analytics in the public relations curriculum. When asked about the future of PR education, Duhé (2016) said educators should focus on three pillars: fast-forward thinking, interdisciplinary learning, and analytical reasoning. The latter relates to students’ ability to curate, analyze, and effectively describe disparate forms of data. In the 2018 CPRE report, educators and practitioners rated the skill of working with research and analytics a 4.16 (on a scale from 1-5) in importance, yet scored entry-level practitioners only a 3.11 in terms of having that skill (on a scale from 1-5). Relatedly, educators and practitioners rated critical thinking as a 4.45 in importance, and scored entry-level practitioners a 3.07 in terms of having those skills. In addition to the importance of data skills emphasized by CPRE, five of the ACEJMC (2022) professional values and competencies relate to research, data, and technology. Recommended competencies include presenting information; thinking critically, creatively, and independently; conducting research and evaluation; applying basic numerical and statistical concepts; and applying tools and technologies.

In addition to the CPRE (2018) report, Krishna et al.’s (2020) survey of public relations practitioners and Brunner at al’s (2018) analysis of PR job announcements both indicated the importance of research and measurement skills for entry-level practitioners. Based upon a content analysis of university websites and job advertisements, Auger and Cho (2016) concluded that PR curricula were overall aligned with the needs of practice, except for social media and technology. O’Neil and Pham (2020) analyzed 101 full-time communication and research job positions that were posted on Glassdoor in late 2019. The advertisements most commonly required the following knowledge and skills: SEO (search engine optimization), SEM (search engine marketing), OTT (over-the-top), traffic metrics, A/B testing, data analytics, data visualization, presentation, and teamwork.

Other recent pedagogical work has examined how public relations educators are teaching data and analytics, which students have indicated they desire (Meng et al., 2019; Waymer et al., 2018). Ewing et al. (2018) researched how PR faculty are teaching social media analytics by analyzing course syllabi and conducting a Twitter chat with 56 educators and practitioners. Participants (mostly educators) suggested students know how to measure social media results, understand the context of social media, engage in social media listening, and conduct digital storytelling. The researchers’ analysis of syllabi revealed very few included learning outcomes related to analytics in general or required certifications with an analytic underpinning. Fang et al. (2019) also examined digital media content in 4,800 courses offered in 99 advertising and public relations programs. Approximately one in four universities offer digital media courses, and there is a greater emphasis overall on skills than concepts in courses. 

Lutrell et al. (2021) investigated how social media, digital media, and analytics courses have been incorporated into the public relations curriculum in programs accredited by either ACEJMC and/or Certificate for Education in Public Relations (CEPR). Only 32% of 94 programs require either an undergraduate or graduate course in social media, digital media, or analytics; 16% of programs offer these courses as electives. McCollough et al. (2021) examined 154 syllabi to see how programs are teaching new media. Their study indicated 21% of courses offered content related to analytics and interpretation; only a few mentioned “social listening, data insights, or return on investment” (p. 41). Importantly, these two studies indicate only one of three accredited programs—or one out of five when considering syllabi—are teaching data and analytics. 

Feedback from Practitioners About Data Skills and Knowledge Needed

Research has also focused on feedback from practitioners on how to best prepare students for the public relations field. According to communication executives in the United States and China, PR education is not adequately preparing students for emerging media and technology (Xie et al., 2018). The executives named digital and social media as one of the six primary skills needed to succeed and said students should be trained to be “digital thinkers” (Xie et al., 2018, p. 10). “Critical thinking, continuous learning, emotional intelligence, and curiosity” (Xie et al., p. 301) were ranked as the most important soft skills for entry-level practitioners.

Communication practitioners have repeatedly said students do not need to be trained to be digital scientists (Neill & Schauster, 2015; Wiesenberg et al., 2017). Yet, students must embrace numbers, math, business, and statistics (Neill & Schauster, 2015; Wiencierz & Röttger, 2019; Xie et al., 2018). Other suggestions include teaching students how to conduct data analysis, evaluate a campaign’s impact (Freberg & Kim, 2017), engage in social media listening (Neill & Schauster, 2015), and manage a measurement budget (Xie et al., 2018).

Lee and Meng (2021) interviewed South Korean executives for their perceptions of data competency needed among communication practitioners. According to these practitioners, having the right mindset is more important than having the skills to work with data and tools. Lee and Meng (2021) posited that data competency can be fostered by building cognitive analytics, data management, technology literacy, sensemaking skills for data transformation, and crisis management digital skills.

         Fourteen managers from public relations agencies described what analytics-related knowledge and skills are needed for entry-level practitioners (Adams & Lee, 2021). They said educators should focus less on the tools and more on content. The agency practitioners recommended critical thinking, general measurement approaches, communicating data insight, social media listening tools, influencer marketing, message resonance, and data storytelling.

         In summary, this review of literature has indicated the growing need for data and analytics competency among entry-level PR practitioners. Educators are seeking to enhance how they teach data and analytics, but research suggests there is room for improvement. Scholars have noted the need for more feedback from industry professionals about teaching data competency (Ewing et al., 2018; Fang et al., 2019; Luttrell et al., 2021). This study builds upon Adams and Lee’s (2021) research by expanding the sample from agency employees to communicators working in a wide range of industries. Moreover, the focus of this project is on data, in general, and is not limited to analytics. The study seeks to answer the following questions:

RQ1: What knowledge and skills do students need related to data and public relations?  

RQ2: What basic software/tools are organizations using to analyze data and digital analytics and which of these tools should students learn?  

RQ3: What can educators do to improve student readiness in these areas? 


Researchers recruited 28 public relations professionals with data and analytics experience using purposive and snowball sampling. Researchers recruited from their professional networks, many of whom are members of either the Institute for Public Relations Measurement Commission or the International Association for Measurement and Evaluation of Communication (AMEC) and have decades of experience in public relations, research, and analytics. As indicated by Table 1, most participants work for either corporations or agencies, but some work at nonprofit organizations and consultancies; industries represented included air transportation, communication/information, consumer packaged goods, education, entertainment/sports, finance/insurance, government, and healthcare. More than 50% had more than 20 years of experience.

Researchers conducted the interviews via Zoom between November 2021 and January 2022. Interviews, lasting approximately 60 minutes, were recorded and transcribed verbatim for analysis. Participant names were removed from transcripts to protect identities and were replaced with numbers (see Table 1). These numbers appear with responses in the results section. In some examples, a participant’s role is mentioned to provide context. 

Researchers analyzed the interviews using the three processes of data reduction, data display, and conclusion drawing and verification (Miles & Huberman, 1994). Researchers analyzed transcripts line-by-line to generate categories and created broad categories based upon the conceptual framework and variables under investigation. Researchers worked together to identify the major patterns and themes suggested by the coding categories. Next researchers reread the transcripts to code the material according to the emerging categories and to identify frequency of responses and representative quotes and stories. 


RQ1: Knowledge and Skills Students Need Related to Data and Digital Analytics 

Several patterns emerged from the interviews related to the knowledge and skills public relations students need related to data. Before students can analyze data, participants said students must have an understanding of PR fundamentals and basic research and statistics concepts. From a hard skills perspective, students must explain data accurately and clearly through solid storytelling and data visualization. Finally, participants discussed the importance of soft skills, including a willingness to learn, adaptability, and critical thinking. Participants said they could teach employees about tools; however, it was challenging to teach soft skills. 

Knowledge Needed: Understanding PR Fundamentals and Business Functions

In order to conduct effective data analysis for an organization, participants pointed to the foundational need for students to understand fundamentals first, especially how public relations connects to other business functions. According to one communication manager, it is important for students to grasp “the rationale behind public relations,” which means core PR classes “are really important for this [digital analytics] role, getting that domain expertise in the communications and PR area‬” (2). Another participant agreed that knowledge of PR skills, such as writing, reporting, and pitching, is essential for data storytelling. 

Having knowledge of the organization beyond the PR department is crucial. Students need to know enough to communicate with others outside their area. Interview participants encouraged students to learn business basics so they would be able to guide communication efforts that would help meet organization goals. One CEO explained, “if you can’t make it relevant to a business leader because you don’t know very much about business, you’ve got a problem” (17). He said students should learn “all of the contextual pieces” of the organization, from finance to human resources—not to become an expert in every area but to “learn enough” to understand the context—“You don’t have to become a data scientist, but you do have to understand what the fundamentals are so that when you sit down and actually do some of this work or even pose some of these questions, you will have a background” that allows you to proceed effectively (17). ‬A vice president for social and content marketing emphasized the importance of understanding the bigger picture; PR is “one driver, but how do we fit in with the rest of the channels and that consumer experience?” (13). A communication consultancy CEO also recommended students learn every aspect of the organization they work for:

For students to be successful and to deliver value to their organization in the future, I think it’s very important to think broadly to understand how does value happen in an organization. Go out with the sales reps on the road and work in different parts of the organization and learn how people view the customer, the processes internally, the data that results from both of those, and of course, the management structure and layers and ways of getting things done.‬ (21)

Connecting to organizational strategy/objectives. Many of the participants’ responses focused on goals, objectives, and what to measure, which means students need to understand the purposes behind data analysis. One participant said students need to know “how communications data can work in a business—why it’s important, why it’s something that we need to be doing‬” (1). Several participants pointed to the problem of opening an analytics tool without understanding the “why” first. One participant offered the example of someone going into Google Analytics and looking at site visitors and referral sources but not first considering “Why do we care about that?” (14). One CEO said students need to understand that “it’s the questions that come first and then the analytics, and then the analytics tell you whether or not you’re measuring the stuff you need to be measuring” (17). An EVP of analytics agreed, “We really try to first make sure everybody starts with business goals, communications objectives, and audience alignment, and that’s something that is still very confusing to a lot of clients, and even a lot of our junior staff still has a hard time” (7). She encouraged: 

[M]aking sure a goal is a quantifiable goal, so it has a who, what, by when, by how much, whatever, in my opinion, if they get used to doing that, it almost becomes obvious, “Well, do I know enough about my audience to know that this is the right goal? Do I know enough about the culture or the landscape to know if this is something I can do?” If I do, great. Then what are my benchmarks, so I know if I’ve achieved that goal? And it forces that quantified goal to become a way to make sure analytics is part of planning, a part of optimizing, and a part of then the measurement at the end.‬ (7)

Strategy. If faculty have used the ROSTIR (Research, Objectives, Strategy, Tactics, Implementation, Reporting) model in introductory classes, students have learned the importance of objectives being in place before strategies are developed and that students should define their strategy before considering tactics (Luttrell & Capizzo, 2022); students need to grasp how these steps are connected to digital analytics, as well. A CMO said:

Remind students that strategy is timeless…. It’s a very natural tendency on the part of students and practitioners to get caught up in the tactics. But say, “Okay, how are we tying this back to the brand here? . . . How is this tied to the overall approach? How is this supporting this larger goal?‬” (23)

One participant pointed to how vital it is for students to understand strategy before ever using an analytics tool. “A lot of the analytics tools are dependent on you understanding what a strategy is and understanding how you can take your goals and turn them into key performance indicators, your KPIs, and then how you can build reports from that‬” (14). Students must comprehend strategy to be able to select the appropriate analytics.

What to Measure. An analytics manager with 15 years of experience said students need to learn to measure outcomes rather than just outputs. She explained outcomes are “really hard to measure,” but it is ideal if students understand the importance of business outcomes (1). Her advice connects to both the second and third iterations of the Barcelona Principles. According to Barcelona Principle No. 2, “Measurement and evaluation should identify outputs, outcomes, and potential impact” (AMEC, 2020). Barcelona Principle No. 3 says, “Outcomes and impact should be identified for stakeholders, society, and the organization” (AMEC, 2020).

Knowledge Needed: Research and Statistics

A communication manager with more than 16 years of experience said, in addition to a “domain expertise about media,” public relations students need an interest “in numbers and understanding of just the basic analytics principles and what it means to explore data” (2). To work in PR now necessitates “an understanding of statistics of some sort” (22). A participant who heads the analytics team for a large agency said, “this is no longer nice to have. You don’t have to be a data person, but you do need to have a base understanding of how to read a chart‬” (7). Another agency executive pointed to the need for students to know how to write a survey, and an agency founder said all communicators need to complete at least one statistics class that allows students to practice with “a wider range of datasets‬” (19).

A director of data science said students should not run away from statistics. “Statistics is not math; it literally is not math. You don’t have to do any calculations in statistics. You have to understand how to apply something and when to press the right buttons; there’s no math‬” (20). A founder of a communication analytics-focused company with more than 25 years of experience agreed students need to move beyond fear of statistics if they want to work in professional communication: 

A lot of people go into PR or comms or even marketing because at some level they say, ‘Wow, I really did not like math in college or high school, and this looks like something that is math-free.’      That would be a huge mistake to believe that today. Nothing is math-free, numbers-free, technology-free. If you had a real problem with STEM, science, technology, math in school, you definitely should not go into marketing and communications in the future. (17)

Participants suggested students learn about database systems, spreadsheets, Boolean syntax, data literacy, and dashboards. In fact, one source said, “Get really good Boolean operating codes, then that’s your bread and butter” (16). In addition to Boolean syntax, another source suggested learning the programming language SQL: “A foundational skill for analytics is SQL and being able to query, investigate, and understand large datasets” (26). While one source said seeing R and Python on a resume would catch her attention, other participants argued there’s no need for students to learn R and Python because companies can hire a data scientist; instead, PR employees need to be able to work with data scientists and to discern the insight that has relevance for business outcomes and PR programming. A participant with 30 years of experience said, “They don’t need to be data scientists. They need to have an understanding of it… ask questions. . . . be good probers of the data” (18). Students must recognize “what’s an important number and what’s not” (22) and to “be curious about where things came from” (24). More than any particular tool or ability, participants said students need to be comfortable with data: “how to structure it, how to blend it, how to analyze it, and how to communicate about it” (19). 

Hard Skills Needed: Data Visualization and Storytelling

Participants repeatedly said public relations students do not need the same expertise as a data scientist. They need to be able to take complex information and convert it “into simple-to-understand information” (20). Participants spoke of “data-driven storytelling” (6) and simply “being able to explain” (7), which includes presentation skills to “tell your story” (2). One source indicated data visualization is a growth area within their organization, and they will “be hiring big on next year” (7).

Data visualization tools were frequently mentioned by participants, including Tableau and Alteryx; however, one participant warned that tools that create an automatic visual for users might be dangerous: “I’m not a huge fan of data analysis using visualization tools purely because I think it is ripe for the potential of misrepresenting the data” (19). She recommended teaching students basic visualization within communication classes, including the importance of labeling information correctly and providing data sources. Other participants mentioned the frequent need to create their own graphs and other visualization pieces at work, despite the existence of automated tools, so a basic knowledge of good design is helpful.

Soft Skill Needed: Willingness to Learn

While demonstrating curiosity and a commitment to life-long learning is essential in public relations, participants pointed out “genuine curiosity” (8) is critical when it comes to mining and analyzing data and determining insights for communication strategy. Ten of the 28 participants emphasized the importance of curiosity. For example, a corporate communication professional said, “A digital analytics practitioner must have curiosity and strong communication skills” because that interest “will keep them asking why, keep them digging, which will uncover a deeper understanding in their analyses” (26). Another participant said “I try to hire people who are curious” and those with “an aptitude for understanding the bigger story and the strategy” (6).

The participants advised educators to help students and young professionals understand the value of recognizing there’s always going to be more to learn, showing a willingness to learn, and being comfortable with asking questions. A communication executive at a not-for-profit healthcare organization said, “Be willing to say, ‘I’m not an expert at it, but I want to increase my level of understanding,’ because that’s just what it’s going to take for them to be successful” (24).

An executive at a communication consultancy (27) said people with “inquisitive minds” and “a point of view” are more successful working with data and digital analytics. Another executive working for a company specializing in artificial intelligence (14) discussed the value of “being open to trying something” and “digging into the numbers” to discern patterns and insights. According to a participant who directs analytics at a large agency, “Being a person who always wants to know more, wants to understand more, wants to learn more” will lead to both personal and professional success (7).

Soft Skill Needed: Embracing Change and Unexpectedness 

Participants discussed how evolving digital platforms and tools create challenges with data access and analysis, which can be frustrating and time consuming. Students need to learn to deal with these challenges and be open to using different approaches to capture and analyze data. In the words of one seasoned practitioner: “Just encourage [students] to get creative and to try things and to not get upset when things get broken” (23). A corporate communication executive explained: “The number-one quality we look for in candidates is adaptability” because “analytics is a science and, as such, it is always on a journey of discovery” (26).

Soft Skill Needed: Creative and Critical Thinking Skills

Overwhelmingly, the research findings demonstrated the value of creative and critical thinking skills to effectively work with data and digital analytics. Participants described digital analytics as an art and science and how public relations students and professionals need to be both creative and analytical when accessing and reviewing data. A corporate communication manager (2) emphasized the importance of “being comfortable with ambiguity” and “pushing back” to dig deeper into the data to determine relevant insights. Another participant (21) explained: “There’s a creative leap in interpreting data and its application” and students must not accept “what the data may appear to say at face value.” 

To help students develop critical thinking skills, several participants discussed the value of educators encouraging students to ask thoughtful questions. For example, educators can present a problem, share some data, and direct students to probe in a way that leads to insights connected to business and communication goals. This approach for teaching insight creation is practiced in the workplace. An executive for a global agency (7) explained they conduct training sessions to teach employees how to connect the data back to the communication problem and how to use data to lead to actionable insights. 

RQ2: Software and Tools Used to Analyze Data 

When asked about software and tools used for data analysis, participants described almost 80 software tools and programs, including those they use either in house or in collaboration with external partners. Eight tools were mentioned by five or more participants: Google Analytics, Tableau, Excel, Adobe Analytics, Talkwalker, Brandwatch, Salesforce, and Sprinklr (see Table 2).  Google Analytics was mentioned the most. Related to recent tool trends, one participant indicated “the tool conversation, the PR AdTech, MarTech, data tech stack conversation is one where we’re spending an awful lot of time” (3).

Participants explained the excitement and challenge of this explosion of tools. While practitioners may now choose from a wide range of tools, no single program is capable of accomplishing the myriad tasks needed, which means data must be coordinated from multiple sources, and practitioners frequently combine tools or create their own tools to meet their needs. 

When asked which of these tools they recommend for students to learn, 53 different tools/programs were named and of these, only three were mentioned by five or more participants: Google Analytics, Excel, and Tableau (see Table 3). Participants repeatedly emphasized that educators should not worry about teaching the latest data analytics tool because tools change, and employers can teach the tools. Instead, participants suggested educators help students become more comfortable with the meaning of numbers and research in general. 

Although many of the interview participants encouraged professors to be “platform agnostic” — focusing on concepts more than specific platforms, two tools were repeatedly mentioned as critical: Google Analytics and Excel. Google Analytics was often referred to as “table stakes” or “low-hanging fruit” (1), “a must” (23), “a good place to start” (15), and that the platform training “gives you a framework for not only thinking about digital analytics, but a framework for thinking about how users move around the web and interact with digital channels” (9) and “if you understand the terms per Google, you’ll understand about 80% of everything else that you might look at . . . because that’s the terminology that just about every other platform uses, so I would say that’s the starting point” (11). Similarly, sources said “start with Excel” (19). “Microsoft Excel is a good way to understand and learn how to organize data, how to use formulas to manipulate data within Excel. You can create charts and graphs and pie charts and all of those different types of things, so I would definitely look for competency at a bare minimum of Excel” (15). Specifically, sources recommended students learn how to run pivot tables, make charts, and pull graphs out of Excel to put into PowerPoint. In addition to placing emphasis on Google Analytics and Excel, a few sources suggested exposing students to as many tools as possible because “you don’t necessarily know what that company or agency is using” (19).

RQ3: How Educators Can Improve Student Readiness

Participants shared suggestions to help educators prepare students for data and analytics competency. To conquer students’ fear of analytics, some practitioners recommended educators embed data and analytics in multiple courses, with one participant (19) explaining: “You have to socialize them to it and maybe spoon feed in little baby steps, but all along from the beginning.”

Some participants said educators should dig into the context. For example, if students are analyzing social media conversations on Brandwatch, they should also analyze media coverage and competitor information to understand the nuances of micro changes in those conversations. Respondents recommended that PR educators partner with other academic units on campus, such as business or data science, or with industry professionals or agencies, to team-teach data competency to students.

Participants suggested educators use real clients and datasets to deepen learning, something also recommended in the interviews conducted by Adams and Lee (2021). One manager at a global agency (4) said educators should incorporate open-ended assignments that encourage students to ask questions, inspire motivation, and figure out solutions on their own. Respondents also provided a number of assignment suggestions, including:

  • Use AMEC research award entries to write case studies. Students could interview the professionals who submitted an entry to discern best practices and write the study (18).
  • Have students assume the role of a junior executive in a communication agency, and in a 48-hour timeframe, create a client report with insights and infographics (5).
  • Encourage students to participate and learn in online conversations about PR data and analytics on platforms such as Reddit, Slack, and LinkedIn (28).
  • Have students develop weekly reports to examine different sources of data to consider societal factors that may be driving change (18).
  • Give students a large data file on the first day of class. Teach them how to clean the data and how to gain insights in steps across the semester (20). 
  • Require students to attend a dissertation defense presentation from another department to gain practice taking complex ideas and data from outside their field and communicating key takeaways in a way that is understandable to a lay person. They could summarize the highlights in an executive summary or pitch the newsworthy findings in a news release (20).
  • Develop a data integrity assignment that requires students to write and explain their data

          source, including any possible biases and/or limitations (18).

  • Analyze social conversations on Brandwatch and connect the analysis to what’s happening in the news and from a Google search. Connect the analysis to both theory and conceptual frameworks when looking for insight and making recommendations (5).
  • Examine where social media fits within the consumer journey for a business and how it impacts outcomes relative to other channels (13).
  • Use a client or university website to understand how to improve campaigns and readership using data from Google Analytics (24).

One participant encouraged educators not to feel pressured to teach students everything about data analytics: “I think there’s a naive belief that a university can train everything. It can’t, it absolutely can’t and it shouldn’t” (20). He also shared an encouraging message for graduating seniors:

the company is going to invest money and time into training you, but they have a base level of knowledge that they want you to have. And I think there’s this little fear that I should know how to do everything when I walk in the door, and that’s crap, you’re never going to know everything when you walk in the door. We’re going to teach you the things that we think you don’t know, and you should ask questions along the way. (20)

The resulting focus should be for students to learn as much as they can in and out of school, to be ready to continue to learn during the rest of their career as tools change, and ask questions as confusion arises.


In this study, seasoned communication professionals from a wide range of industries shared recommendations on how public relations educators can best prepare students to succeed in our increasingly digitized world. According to participants, students need a range of knowledge and hard and soft skills to work effectively with data and analytics. Most importantly, students must understand PR fundamentals, including how PR connects to other organizational functions and goals (Adams & Lee, 2021; Brunner et al., 2018; Ewing et al., 2018; Krishna et al., 2020).  Practitioners explained that knowing business basics and knowing one’s own industry are critical for asking the right questions, considering the nuances and context, and discerning actionable insight. Understanding how data aligns with or drives organizational objectives overshadows knowledge of any one digital tool or metric. While practitioners explained students do not need to be a data scientist (Neill & Schauster, 2015; Wiesenberg et al., 2017) nor know a programming language, they must have a strong grounding in research and statistics (Brunner et al., 2018; Krishna et al, 2020). Students must understand statistics and research in order to know how to examine frequency distributions, correlations, regression analysis, A/B testing, and more when examining data. Qualitative research skills are also needed for examining digital conversations and discerning meaning in data. Finally, students must also know how to succinctly and compellingly tell a story using data visualization for a wide range of audiences. Students must learn how to filter unnecessary data points to construct a simple story.

Much of the feedback from practitioners relates to soft skills, which employers often weigh more heavily than hard skills when making hiring decisions (Lee & Meng, 2021; Xie et al., 2018). The soft skills mentioned by participants included a willingness to learn, adaptability, and critical thinking, all of which align with the cognitive analytics and sensemaking skills recommended for data competency by Lee and Meng (2021) and Xie et al’s (2018) research. PR educators, mentors, and internship supervisors can all help to cultivate these necessary soft skills. Study practitioners suggested assignments that could foster critical thinking and adaptability, such as requiring students to wade through data dumps, thinking about data biases when cleaning and sorting data, and figuring out how the data provides solutions to specific problems.

Given constantly changing technology, a plethora of programs, and the high price tag of many tools, it is daunting to decide which digital tools to teach to PR students. However, participants explained data competency relates more to the approach than the tool. Encouragingly, the tool most widely recommended by participants was Google Analytics, one that provides free training and certification. Excel was another basic and cost-effective tool recommended frequently and vehemently by practitioners. According to participants, students must know how to create and analyze a pivot table and create graphs using Excel; therefore, educators may want to require Excel certification. For faculty who want to learn new tools or software, the key is to start and keep it simple. Educators can tap into resources, like Matt Kushin’s Social Media Syllabus blog and Karen Freberg’s Social Media Professors Facebook Community Group.

While this study builds upon other research touting the necessity for PR students to learn to work with data, the question remains whether educators should create a stand-alone course and/or to integrate data analytics into existing courses. Given increasingly tight resources and crowded curriculum requirements, a separate course might not be possible; therefore, educators should consider spoon feeding data and analytics training across the curriculum, including introductory public relations, campaigns, research, and social media courses. Educators could introduce data and common terminology and metrics in introductory classes and later require students to use and analyze data in more advanced courses (Kent et al., 2011). Educators should continue to foster connections with industry professionals to serve as guest speakers, mentors, and project partners and to use real data and clients (Adams & Lee, 2021; Meng et al., 2019). Finally, students must take some responsibility for their own learning about how to work with data. Students can invest in their own learning by earning certifications, reading blogs and posts related to data analytics, attending brown bags and webinars, and completing internships. 

While this study sheds much-needed insight into how to teach data and analytics, the findings are limited to a sample of 28 communication professionals. Future researchers might implement a survey with a larger sample of communicators to ask about data competency and tools needed. Future research could also compare the efficacy of various pedagogical approaches used by educators to teach data and analytics. Another possibility is to examine and describe data and social media labs housed in communication academic programs.

In conclusion, this research has indicated that while educators have many new tools and ways to teach data competency to public relations students, the basics have not changed. To succeed, students need foundational knowledge in PR concepts and models, strategy, business acumen, and research; skills in analyzing data and connecting to strategy and storytelling; and soft skills in critical thinking, adaptability, and a desire to learn. Educators should focus less on the tools and more on the knowledge outcomes and skills identified in this study. By investing small amounts of time in professional development and focusing on the basics (e.g., Google Analytics and Excel), educators can cultivate data competency among themselves and their students.


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Table 1: Interview Participant Information

ParticipantCurrent Job TitleIndustryYears of Experience
1Manager, Analytics & InsightAir Transportation15
2Communications Manager,
Measurement & Insight
3Managing Director,
Analytics-Based Strategy
Global Health Innovation Agency25+
4Associate Manager,
Digital Analytics
Public Relations Agency5
5Data ConsultantData Consultancy20+
6Director of Communication
7EVP, Head of US AnalyticsPublic Relations Agency12
8Assistant Athletic Director for
Digital Strategy and Analytics
9Digital Communication AgencyDigital Communication Agency10
10Founder & Chair; CEO; ChairData Science & Communication Agency20+
11Chief Visionary Officer and FounderDigital Communication Agency25+
12Partner / Senior Vice President,
social media
Advertising & Public Relations Agency19+
13VP, Social and
Content Marketing Lead
Finance and Insurance15
14Chief Growth OfficerMarketing AI Agency28
15Audience Development DirectorCommunications Agency20+
16Head, Media AnalysisGovernment13+
17Founder and CEOCommunications Agency25
18CEOCommunication Industry Association30
19Founder & Chief Strategy OfficerCommunication Agency
(Oil & Gas focused)
20Director of Data ScienceSports & Entertainment Consultancy7
21CEOCommunications Consultancy30
22FounderPublic Relations Consultancy42
23Chief Marketing OfficerArts & Entertainment15
24EVP and Chief Marketing &
Communications Officer
Health Care30+
25Chief Marketing and
Communications Officer
Finance and Insurance22
26Senior Vice President and Chief Communications OfficerConsumer Packaged Goods31
27DirectorPR & Strategic Communications Agency10
28Founder and CEOCommunications Agency22

Table 2: Software and Tools Most Frequently Used to Analyze Data and Data Analytics

Program/ToolFrequencyParticipant Quote about its Use
Google Analytics16“measuring engagement, share of voice, reach, landing, just all of that”
Tableau14data visualization; “Google Analytics overwhelmingly is where we get a lot of our data, but we’re using Tableau to present it.”
Excel12“99.9% of your job in analytics is using Excel” to manipulate data, figure out what’s important and to generate reports for clients
Adobe Analytics7“very similar to Google Analytics, but that’s a paid tool”
Talkwalker6social listening tool; “we have Talkwalker, which we’re huge, huge, huge fans of”
Brandwatch5“I really like Brandwatch from a listening perspective”
Sprinklr5“We also use Sprinklr for our social media monitoring, as well as our social media listening, as well as social media publishing.”
Salesforce5“Salesforce is a CMS system. And so that allows us to analyze things like our electronic newsletters, the open rates, the read rates, as well as social media data.”
Cision4“We use Cision, which is our media monitoring tool. That’s the tool that we distribute most of our news content through. And what I mean by that is reaching out to reporters and distributing our press releases. It’s our media monitoring and our distribution.”
Meltwater4“On the social front, we’re able to look at things like engagement rate through some platforms that we use, including Meltwater”

Table 3: Software and Tools that Students Should Learn

 Program/Tool Frequency  Participant Quote about its Use
  Google Analytics  15  “Google Analytics and any of those social media analytics I think that are more of the low hanging fruit. That’s the table stakes, in my opinion” (and related to certification: “Google web analytics certified. Cool. That’s a marker. When we see a student who’s taken the effort, even outside of the program to go and do that, great.”)
Excel9“you need to be a fricking Excel power user. There’s no getting around that”; “a base Excel knowledge, I think is critical”
Tableau5“Ultimately, you’re looking for any trends or patterns that you can see. So really being able to visualize the data in some way, I think Tableau is great for that”
Brandwatch4“We use Brandwatch a lot for social media. And so, familiarizing yourself with those tools, I think, is very important”
Cision4“We use Cision a lot”
Sprinklr4“So for instance, Sprinklr, all the social media listening tools, basically just get the Twitter Firehose and then you drill down by keyword type of thing.”

© Copyright 2023 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: O’Neil, J., Kinsky, E., Ewing, M., and Russell, M. (2023). “You don’t have to become a data scientist”: Practitioner Recommendations for Cultivating PR Student Data Competency. Journal of Public Relations Education, 9(1), 62-81.

Journal of Public Relations Education, Vol. 9, Issue 1

Note from the Editor:

JPRE Editor

Dr. Pamela G. Bourland-Davis
Department of Communication Arts
Georgia Southern University
Editor in Chief, Journal of Public Relations Education
Immediate Past President, SSCA

Issue 9-1 features articles related to those who have vested interests in our programs: the students, the professors and practitioners. You’ll find two of the top three teaching research papers from the AEJMC Public Relations Division’s conference line up – one discussing the faculty of PR programs (Marks Malone), and the other looking at business literacy based on practitioner viewpoints (Ragas). 

And if you’re like me, facing multiple options of programs and data analytics in the classroom, you’ll find helpful the articles on developing data competency (O’Neil, Kinsky, Ewing & Russell), graphic design options for building self-confidence (Pressgrove & Kinsky), and Python as an option for social media analytics (Kim & Chon). Managing service-learning collaborations builds on the experience of the professors and students, and includes consideration of technology as part of the process (Maresh-Fuehrer & Baum).

Table of Contents


“You don’t have to become a data scientist”: Practitioner Recommendations for Cultivating PR Student Data Competency
Julie O’Neil, Emily S. Kinsky, Michele E. Ewing, and Maria Russell

Unapologetically Original: Building Creative Self-Confidence in the Public Relations Curriculum
Geah Pressgrove and Emily S. Kinsky

Top PRD Papers

Who’s Teaching Future PR Professionals? Exploring Professional Credentials of Full-Time Faculty in Accredited Programs
Kim Marks Malone

Developing Business Literacy in the Classroom and the Workplace: A Delphi Study of Corporate Communication Leaders
Matthew Ragas

Teaching Briefs

Teaching Social Media Analytics in PR Classes: Focusing on the Python Program
Seon-Woo Kim & Myoung-Gi Chon

Inter-Institutional Service-Learning Collaborations in a Remote Environment: A Case Study
Michelle M. Maresh-Fuehrer and Michelle Baum

Book Reviews

You Need PR: An Approachable Guide to Public Relations for Early-Stage Companies
Reviewed by Lois Boynton

The Public Relations Writer’s Handbook
Reviewed by Pauline A. Howes

Read the full issue here:

publication of the Public Relations Division of AEJMC
© 2023 AEJMC Public Relations Division

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:

  • Research Articles
  • Teaching Briefs
  • Book/Software Reviews

Learn more by visiting the About JPRE page and the Authors/Contributors page for submission guidelines. All submissions should follow the guidelines of the most recent edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA).

Questions? Contact the Editorial Staff