Category Archives: Volume Two

Improving Grease Disposal Behavior: Combining the Classroom, Real-World Experience and Service Learning in a Public Relations Practicum

Improving Grease Disposal Behavior: Combining the Classroom, Real-World Experience and Service Learning in a Public Relations Practicum

  • Robin Rothberg, The University of North Carolina at Charlotte
  • Sayde J. Brais, The University of North Carolina at Charlotte
  • Alan R. Freitag, The University of North Carolina at Charlotte

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In 2011, the North Carolina Urban Water Consortium approved a grant funding a communication planning project by University of North Carolina at Charlotte researchers aimed at addressing the problem of improper disposal of fats, oils and grease (FOG) by population segments in Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Raleigh, North Carolina. The research results, summarized in a 157-page report, led to additional funding to support initial implementation of elements of the strategic communication plan. Faculty in UNC Charlotte’s Communication Studies Department undertook this phase of the project and crafted a Public Relations Practicum course to support it. This paper describes the course structure and evaluates its effectiveness as measured by both student outcomes and client satisfaction. Results point to the academic and professional development value of a course that combines classroom structure, practical experience and service learning. Initial responses from clients suggest satisfaction with the quality of products and services as well.
Keywords: Experiential learning, practicum, service learning

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In its landmark 1999 report, the Commission on Public Relations Education (“Port of Entry”) called for PR programs in universities and colleges to develop curricula responsive to the dynamic needs of the profession. The report, an initiative of the Public Relations Society of America, noted the rapid growth and acceptance of public relations as a management and leadership function increasingly indispensable and valued, requiring commensurate improvements in higher education programs graduating new generations of entry-level practitioners. Among the Commission’s guidelines is the call for curricula to produce graduates “well-prepared in public relations theory and practice, tested not only in the classroom but in the field” (p. 1). Among the report’s recommendations regarding modes of instructional delivery, emphasis is placed on experiential learning, supervised work experience and service learning in addition to more traditional, classroom-based pedagogies. In a subsequent 2006 report (“The Professional Bond”), the Commission reported continued academic and professional support for experiential learning, noting “…public relations education should include an internship, practicum or other work experience in the field” (p.20).

The Certified in Education for Public Relations-certified undergraduate public relations program at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte is designed to be in compliance with “Port of Entry” and “The Professional Bond” guidelines and includes requirements for experiential learning along with a comprehensive agenda of public relations, communication and liberal arts courses. The university’s proximity to a large and rapidly growing metropolitan area makes it an internship-rich environment. Despite the large number of public relations undergraduate students, only about one-third of available internships can be filled each academic term, so abundant are the opportunities in the metropolitan region. Students are required to complete one internship and are encouraged to complete more if their schedules permit. Still, as valuable as internships are to a student’s professional development, the lack of direct and frequent faculty engagement in the internship experience introduces a level of uncertainty regarding the usefulness of each individual internship. Of course, each internship opportunity is carefully vetted and monitored, but the program still relinquishes a degree of control. The challenge is to craft additional opportunities that combine real-world experience with a higher degree of qualified faculty guidance and involvement. Two years ago, UNC Charlotte’s program benefitted from just such an opportunity.

In spring 2013, nine undergraduate public relations students at UNC Charlotte were competitively selected for a PR Practicum course offered as the third and tactical step in an ongoing, collaborative project involving the university and the North Carolina Urban Water Consortium (UWC). The overarching aim of the project was to address the problem of improper disposal of fats, oils and grease (FOG) by population segments in Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Raleigh, North Carolina. The UWC identified two groups for researchers to target: multifamily housing residents and Latinos, populations identified by the Consortium as potentially contributing disproportionately to problems caused by improper FOG disposal. Sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) often result from improper FOG disposal, incur significant corrective costs for water utilities (costs that must be passed on to customers) and pose potential public health issues. Consequently, reducing SSOs is in the interest of community members both as residents and utility rate payers. The aim of the project was to gauge levels of issue awareness among the target populations, identify constraints preventing desirable behavioral changes and craft a strategic communication plan to encourage proper FOG disposal. Thus, the first two project phases involved extensive research followed by the development of a comprehensive, strategic communication plan to address the issue. For a full description of the initial research and planning phases of the overall project, see Freitag, Rothberg and Brais (2014). This report addresses the third phase – initial, tactical implementation of the plan – and describes how this aspect was undertaken in the context of an undergraduate public relations elective course.


Two primary conceptual approaches to public relations education are at play in the context of this case: experiential learning and service learning. Of course, scholars nearly universally agree that effective programs successfully blend the theoretical with the applied. In fact, Motschall and Najor (2001) believe, “The orientation of an entire undergraduate public relations program or curriculum should reflect this same effort to blend theory with application” (p. 6). Most scholars agree that for a program to be successful, instruction must contribute to students’ application beyond the classroom, into the real world through the use of practical application in the form of service-learning activities, using the client-centered approach, and a response-oriented approach to experiential learning (Gleason & Violette, 2012; Motschall & Najor, 2001). It is through these approaches that teaching becomes “…more relevant, predictable and scalable” (Gleason & Violette, 2012, p. 281). UNC Charlotte’s goal was to introduce this applied element but within the framework of extensive faculty engagement to ensure participating students grasped the direct correlation between abstract theory and a real-world problem.
Experiential learning opportunities strengthen the connection between theory and application for greater student understanding. As Gleason and Violette (2012) note, “The study of Public Relations is not abstract or idealized, but rather is most effective when it takes place in the context of its real-world application” (p. 280).

Experiential learning allows for the blending of theory and application to take place through simulations, real-life experiences, client-based cases, and more. When applying to practical problems the principles they’ve learned in the classroom, students experience a shift in meaning, and they begin to tangibly recognize public relations as having importance and value in society because they see the function it serves (Motion & Burgess, 2014).

Experience is a crucial credential for any professional, but accumulating it early, even before completion of an entry-level degree, can be challenging. Accumulating experience requires opportunity, and that’s not always practical in many higher education settings. Gleason and Violette (2012) acknowledge the importance of scholarship but judge experience to be even more useful for practitioners aiming to provide wise counsel to clients. Thus, courses that provide students with experiential learning opportunities will benefit the student both academically and professionally.

The Experiential Learning Model, developed by Kolb (1984), provides a framework for the assessment of the association among education, work and personal development. Kolb maintains that the retention of abstract concepts is significantly enhanced when those concepts are presented and demonstrated in the context of real-world experience along with reflection and experimentation. Experiential learning, through the form of simulations or client-interaction, can help students gain professional knowledge, while also engaging students in active learning, defined as “anything that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing” (Bonwell & Eison, 1991, p. 2).

The “Client-Centered Approach” amplifies the concept of practical application through the use of simulations and classroom exercises and allows students the opportunity to develop materials for an often real-life client. The approach applies the knowledge and skills foundational to public relations to a real-world problem (Motschall & Najor, 2001). Often described as a service-learning approach (Gleason & Violette, 2012), working toward something tangible for an actual client provides for a re-conceptualization of “public relations as a communicative function that is deployed not only by corporations, but also by local community organizations and even by individuals” (Motion & Burgess, 2014, p. 530). Although this client-centered model may be advantageous, even preferable, it is not always a plausible option due to budget (unless the client can underwrite costs), class size (less feasible in large classes), or other constraints. In fact, Miller and McCain (2012) maintain that the biggest challenge faced by curriculum planners lies with lower enrollment cap requirements for these classes, creating budgetary pressures. Further, there is a sensitive dimension to working with real clients because of the need for the instructor to monitor carefully all interaction between multiple individuals and teams. Demands on client time can quickly become unmanageable, there may be breeches in customary business protocol by inexperienced students, and relationships can become strained. Overseeing these dynamics even on a modest scope can be trying, yet most courses are taught by a single instructor with no assistance (Motschall & Najor, 2001). In this case, the authors felt teaching a practicum course using the client-centered model, led by an instructor and aided by graduate assistants, provided the best model for students. Not only does it provide real-world practice, but in many cases it also provides students an opportunity to improve the community. Additionally, the use of real clients positively affects student perception of the instructor’s credibility (White, 2001). Further benefit accrues because students can exercise an assortment of real-life tasks and scholastic skills such as research, writing, speaking and team-work (Miller & McCain, 2012). In fact, these experiences “allow students to begin to develop an instinct for appropriate action based on ‘real-life’ situations” (Motschall & Najor, 2001, p. 7).

Benecke and Bezuidenhout (2011) consider experiential learning to be crucial for students’ career preparation, but lament that its use is not widely employed. Bringle and Hatcher (1996) felt so strongly about the value of experiential learning that they outlined the Comprehensive Action Plan for Service Learning (CAPSL), a guide for creating and implementing service learning programs on campuses, programs that focus on strategies to engage the institution, faculty, students and the community in a cooperative approach. Nearly two decades later, Hatcher and Studer (2015) assessed service learning as a process for developing “civic-minded graduates” (p. 12), finding service learning curricula to be of crucial value to students and communities. This was further confirmed by Novak, Markey and Allen (2007) in their meta-analysis of service learning literature. They found a positive relationship between service learning and development of students’ cognitive capacity, understanding of subject matter, skill acquisition, and “ability to apply knowledge and reframe complex issues” (p. 153).

Swords and Kiely (2010) provide a model for service learning aimed primarily at faculty, whom they see as pivotal to the service learning approach. They cite four key components of their model: pedagogy, institution/organizational learning, research, and community development. Further, they suggest such a model can lead to faculty becoming change agents, building and strengthening relationships between the institution and the community. This model is mirrored in the Kolb and Kolb (2011) observation that learning is best conceived as a process and that knowledge is gained through transformative experiences.

Based on this understanding of the value and framework for experiential and service learning, the authors saw in the FOG project an opportunity to develop a public relations practicum course that would allow students to work for an actual client and toward addressing a societal issue – in this case, an issue involving both public health and monetary costs. Student participation in such an act of “civic responsibility,” the literature suggests, helps to build mutually beneficial relationships with multiple stakeholders beyond that of the client themselves (Motion & Burgess, 2014). While challenges would remain, the confluence of opportunity and support compelled the authors to proceed.

To gauge the value of experiential and service-learning approaches for public relations curricula, the following research questions were posed:
RQ1: To what extent will students report that this PR practicum met their academic development expectations?
RQ2: To what extent will students report that this PR practicum met their professional development expectations?
RQ3: In what ways did the course meet those expectations?
Within the scope of these RQs, we were interested in learning whether students viewed favorably the structure of the course, such as its emphasis on laboratory time, the presence of two instructors and the participation of client representatives. We also wanted to determine if students believed the PR practicum improved their confidence and marketability as communication professionals, and we hoped to learn what important concepts and skills the students felt they acquired from the experience. We also sought to gauge the value of the practicum to the client:
RQ4: To what extent will utility representatives find materials created by UNC Charlotte students potentially useful for FOG-related communication?
RQ5: To what extent will utility representatives report they have employed and implemented materials and concepts developed by students in this PR practicum?


Fundamentally, this is a case study following the model employed by Wooddell (2009) called action research. This qualitative approach might be encompassed within the broader parameters of participant-observer research, but action research has, as Wooddell explains, several unique characteristics: the researcher is not merely observing but is actively engaged, the intent is to effect improvement of some condition, and there is attention paid to the learning cycle of the project under observation – the process of feedback and reflection. O’Brien’s (2001) definitive description of action research credits German researcher Kurt Lewin with introducing the method to social science during the late 1940s and says the process requires that “a group of people identify a problem, do something to resolve it, see how successful their efforts were, and if not satisfied, try again” (p. 2). O’Brien lists Education Action as one of four streams of action research and says advocates of this stream maintain that “professional educators should become involved in community problem-solving” (2001, p. 7). This project follows that admonition.

Within O’Brien’s (2001) concept of action research, however, the researchers also employed two surveys comprising closed-ended and open-ended items to collect and analyze quantitative data and additional qualitative data. Students involved in the class and representatives of municipal utility offices were separately surveyed via Survey Share 6 months following the final, in-class student presentations to utility clients. Survey instruments were simple: 10 items on the student survey and nine items on the utility representative survey. Each survey used 5-point Likert scales for valence items and nominal response options for others, but the instruments also sought narrative elaboration on selected items. All nine participating students completed their surveys, and 4 of 12 utility representatives responded. Although the overall response rate was perfect for students and marginally acceptable (roughly 33%) for utility representatives, the low census numbers preclude the use of measures of statistical strength or inferential statistical projections. We can report that all nine students in the class were female, upper-level undergraduate students following the public relations concentration within a broader communication major. The selection of all female participants in the class was not purposeful but rather reflects the gender imbalance typical of undergraduate public relations programs in the U.S. The small number of survey participants precluded collection of further demographic data because its collection would have diminished anonymity and, therefore, candid responses.

Survey items for utility representatives asked respondents to identify and prioritize their target publics, list their greatest needs in terms of FOG-prevention communication, suggest the degree to which student-designed collateral materials would contribute to FOG-prevention efforts, and identify those student-created materials they found the most promising. The survey also asked which materials and student recommendations had been implemented during the 6 months since the in-class presentations and asked for initial assessments of the effectiveness of those items and tactics. Survey items were derived from analytical and evaluative instruments used previously for similar projects by the Energy and Environmental Assistance Office (EEAO), an agency of the researchers’ home university. The EEAO was awarded the original grant for the FOG research project and engaged the authors’ academic department in carrying out the project.

The student survey’s 10 items asked students to list positive and negative factors about their experience in the class; how the class affected their aspirations for a career in public relations; their assessment of the value of small class size, client in-class participation, and the self-paced class structure; the degree to which the class experience improved their “marketability” as entry-level job seekers; self-assessment of the quality of class-generated products; and whether they would recommend a similar class to other students. The survey also asked each student if he or she had been offered and had accepted a full- or part-time position in public relations or a directly related field. Student survey items were adapted from standard student course evaluation instruments and tailored to the practicum setting. As with the utility representative survey, quantitative and qualitative survey responses were entered on Excel spreadsheets for analysis.

Planning the Class

The authors were actively engaged in the initial FOG research and planning project that had begun more than a year before this class started and recognized within it the opportunity to incorporate a service/experiential learning opportunity for advanced undergraduate public relations students. Two of the authors of this report were directly involved in developing and delivering the course and conducted the active research component of this report. The elective course the researchers designed was promoted as a “beyond books” opportunity to develop public relations materials for water utilities across North Carolina promoting proper disposal of FOG. Applications required qualified students to address several essay questions regarding their level of commitment, expectations and qualifications. Applicants were winnowed to result in a small group gifted in writing, editing, and graphic design/layout, along with qualities such as creativity, passion, detail orientation and leadership. The class was further aligned in three smaller teams. A portion of the grant from the UWC allowed the teams to create FOG-related materials for 12 of the largest UWC utilities as well as for up to 300 smaller utilities across the state. Funding support enabled access to professional-level stock photography, printing and other resources. Importantly, the grant also funded a graduate student to meet with each of the 12 primary utilities before the class began to ascertain unique expectations for materials students would create through Public Relations Practicum coursework.

One full-time lecturer and one graduate assistant led the class and guided student efforts. Graded items included: attendance, each student group’s calendar/plan for the term, two student-written critiques of their group’s progress, two peer grades extracted from the student-written critiques, the group’s final set of documents/materials, and the group’s client presentation.

To address research questions, students and utility representatives received online surveys via Survey Share 6 months after the students presented their work to utility representatives. Because all students in the practicum were graduating seniors, the survey also occurred roughly 6 months after completing their bachelor’s degrees. All students responded to their 10-question survey, while four utility representatives responded to their nine-question survey.

Conducting the Class

In their semester of work, students worked in teams of three to craft FOG education materials in English and Spanish including door hangers, brochures, instructional videos, bill stuffers, grocery store receipt advertisements, infographics, social media outreach concepts, T-shirt designs, PSA storyboards, and teacher lesson plans. Students also created display items for utilities’ in-person interaction with customers (often from a booth at county fair-type events) such as a clear plastic tube filled with glue substituting for FOG. A student-made cookbook offered recipes that replaced store-bought oils with a consumer’s own leftover cooking grease, and a student-designed website consolidated utilities’ disparate and fragmented FOG concepts into a single, statewide message. All materials and concepts followed strategies prescribed in the planning document that constituted the initial deliverable of the grant project and which led to the creation of the PR Practicum course.

Students met with utility representatives at the beginning and middle of the course for guidance. At the beginning of the course, the purpose of the meeting was to understand the utilities’ unique needs so students could customize materials for statewide use. The purpose of the mid-semester meeting was for students to show drafts of concepts. Most utility representatives drove – some for more than 2 hours each way – to meet with students in person, though Skype allowed for interaction with utility representatives who could not come to the computer lab where the class met. The class also collectively chose one student representative to present at the 15th Annual Water Resources Research Institute Conference in Raleigh, N.C., in March 2013, where she showcased a poster depicting work common to all groups.

At the end of the course, nearly all of the 12 major UWC utilities sent at least one representative to student team presentations of finished, professionally printed sets of materials. Those attending utility representatives said they planned to re-present all three teams’ concepts to utilities’ respective legal and corporate communications departments. Students had believed utilities were looking for one, coherent, statewide message regarding FOG. Surprisingly, though, many utilities said they planned to use materials from all three groups, despite the groups’ slightly different approaches, with one utility member noting: “I’ve been saying, ‘Don’t pour grease down the drain’ for 5 years – now I have three new ways to say it!” Utility representatives expressed plans to offer the cookbook to cooking shows on local and network TV stations, as well as to restaurants in Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design-certified buildings.

Although utilities have already used multiple student-created items in their outreach efforts, coursework for this class was designed both to educate students and to satisfy the needs of potential employers, as the principles underlying experiential and service learning would attest. So, a full estimation of this Public Relations Practicum requires a gauge of student satisfaction and learning outcomes from the practicum-delivery model. Additionally, a measure of utility satisfaction with student-created materials will help assess the value of this pedagogical approach.


The surveys yielded qualitative and quantitative data for each research question.
RQ1: To what extent will students report that this PR practicum met their academic development expectations?
RQ2: To what extent will students report that this PR practicum met their professional development expectations?
RQ3: In what ways did the course meet those expectations?

Six of the 9 students, surveyed 6 months following the course (and their own graduation) had been offered and accepted professional positions in public relations. All responding students agreed that the course resulted in improved professional portfolios. Seven of 9 said the course improved their presentation skills, and 8 of 9 reported improved self-confidence. Similarly, 8 of 9 students said they advanced their ability to work in teams and acquire other skills that helped in their job searches. Eight of 9 also said they had improved their client relation skills such as participating in meetings and processing feedback. Seven of 9 responding students said there were no negative aspects of the class. Only one student reported not having improved teamwork skills. Asked their strength of agreement with the statement, “PR Practicum was a worthwhile course that improved my confidence and marketability as a communication professional,” 7 of 9 students “strongly agreed” and 2 “agreed.”

Key qualitative findings among students revealed their impression that the unique benefit of the classroom setting and low student-faculty ratio was the students’ ability to discuss work in progress immediately with the lead instructor or graduate assistant. Sample survey responses include:

• “Having laboratory time twice a week with two professors was a huge plus. They were always there to oversee our work as well as answer our questions.”
• “[B]eing able to get individual time with teachers to help direct your work on a professional level is something students don’t get too often in undergrad, and that was extremely helpful!”
• “The ratio gave us a sense of one-on-one mentoring. The workshop style allowed us a ‘true’ PR professional atmosphere.”

Of note: Though two teams always met in the assigned classroom, one did not. In that regard, a former student praised the flexibility of class laboratory time, as her group was the one that used a few class sessions to work off-site to create a conceptual display model based on clear plastic tubes with “FOG” glue. Because it would be impractical to bring to a classroom tubes and glue that then had to set as the glue dried, the group crafted the items at a student’s off-campus apartment. Those students used the cameras on their smart phones to send course instructors real-time photos and videos of the production process. This allowed instructors to offer instant feedback, even though the students were not in the classroom.

To understand why students deemed the course successful in improving their confidence and marketability as a communication professional, it is necessary to understand how the items created affected the students’ professional aspirations, qualitatively and quantitatively. Qualitative results suggest this student satisfaction took the form of empowerment, as student responses to the open-ended survey question, “How did the FOG items you created in PR Practicum, individually or as part of a team, affect you as an aspiring professional communicator?” include:

• “Creating these materials allowed me to tap into a creative gene in me that I never knew existed.”
• “The FOG items I created helped me realize new skills such as graphic design and helped me realize the communication skills needed to go into such projects. It helped improve my confidence and hone my skills to make me a well-rounded employee.”
• “My group took a very modern approach to the course, with upbeat content and [visually] appealing design to cater more toward women. I think it’s safe to say we all left our presentation feeling confident in our campaign and our presentation.”

Empowerment isn’t useful without being underpinned by specific knowledge, skills and abilities, so Practicum students needed to be queried on this aspect of the class. In response to the open-ended question, “What important concepts did you take away from PR Practicum?” the students surveyed described how PR Practicum enhanced their knowledge, skills and abilities in areas such as time-management, group communication and collaboration, adaptation to client needs, speedy subject matter assimilation, and presentation skills. One student captured the sentiment of numerous responses: “In my current job, I make presentations, communicate with clients and create similar materials. Without the practice in PR Practicum, I would have had a really hard time. I started my job with a major advantage.”
Other responses frame this student satisfaction with the course in terms of career aspirations and encouragement to other students considering enrolling in a similar course:

• “The skills I developed and used in the PR Practicum are skills I now use every day in my [job]. I strongly encourage all students serious about landing a job right after graduation to enroll in this class.”
• “Because of the work experience I gained, and the professional-grade materials I created in PR Practicum, I was able to land a job before graduation at one of the top agencies in the U.S. I also started on a level above most college graduates.”

Another value a surveyed student reported was client feedback in the beginning, middle, and end stages of the class: “Having different clients with different needs and tastes was definitely a challenge, but it helped me to learn how to take one overall product and mold it to what everyone else wants.” One responding student noted the professional lesson inherent in client feedback: “The client time was extremely helpful.” The student also wrote:

It was hard hearing criticism, but it was probably the most important lesson learned in class. Real, constructive criticism is something you’re not exposed to normally in college, and it is definitely something you’ll be exposed to in a career. It helped because I was able to learn how to take such criticism and improve my work.

This client interaction leads to the research questions posed to the utility representatives.
RQ4: To what extent will utility representatives find materials created by UNC Charlotte students potentially useful for FOG-related communication?

The survey of municipal utility representatives began by asking them to identify the primary audience segments they hoped to influence with FOG materials and strategies developed by the student teams. Of course, this basic question was integral to research conducted at the outset of the multi-year project and refined by students in PR Practicum. The item was included in the survey to provide a region-specific benchmark for potential future research and to reinforce the core aim of the communication effort. Nominal responses included: “General Community,” 3 of 4 respondents; “Restaurants and Restaurant Owners,” 3 of 4 respondents; “Subsidized Housing/Apartments,” 3 of 4 respondents; and “Latinos” and “Local Schools,” 1 respondent each. Given the option, no respondents added any audience segments under the “Other” category. These results confirmed findings of the initial project research preceding the PR Practicum course.

To further frame the context for this research question, one of the survey items asked utility representatives to indicate their municipality’s most important needs in terms of FOG communication materials. From a nominal list of collateral materials, respondents reported needs for “bill inserts,” 3 of the 4 respondents; “fact sheets,” 3 of the 4 respondents; and “event displays,” 3 of the 4 respondents. Two of the 4 respondents reported a need for “post card/infographics” and “door hangers.” One in 4 respondents reported needs for “brochures,” “educational activities,” “fliers,” “potty pamphlets” (on what should properly be disposed of in a toilet) and “other” (without elaboration). None of the respondents selected from the nominal options “blog templates,” “cookbooks,” “contest layouts,” “PSA storyboards,” “receipt stamps,” or “T-shirt designs.”

To determine the degree to which respondents were satisfied that PR Practicum student teams had addressed their needs, the survey used two Likert-scale items. Of the 4 utility survey respondents, 3 “agreed” with the statement: “With the UNC Charlotte student materials, I feel my municipality is adequately prepared to reach out to its target audience(s).” None “strongly agreed,” and 1 checked “other” but did not elaborate. Two respondents agreed and 1 strongly agreed (the 4th indicated “undecided”) with the statement: “The materials the UNC Charlotte students created are useful for my municipality’s FOG communication.”

The respondents who “agreed” that materials were useful explained, “They created materials that we might not have the time to develop,” and “Obtaining a different perspective from the students’ creation of material helped in having new thoughts and ideas being brought to the FOG control issue. As regulators we sometimes lose sight of what residents and citizens know or think about FOG.” The respondent who “strongly agreed” with the usefulness of the materials said they “conveyed a given message with the benefit of ‘new eyes’ on the issue,” while even the undecided respondent reported, “The material helped us re-evaluate our current educational materials.”

RQ5: To what extent will utility representatives report they have employed and implemented materials and concepts developed by students in this PR practicum?

Two of 4 responding utility representatives indicated their agencies were using student-developed postcard/infographics, and 1 in 4 indicated they were using brochures, door hangers, fact sheets, fliers, the “potty pamphlet” and event displays based on concepts and designs developed by the student teams. One respondent expressed frustration in the municipality’s inability to use more of the student-created items:

Staffing levels do not facilitate the amount of time needed to implement more. We have used the postcards for small geographic areas (a condominium complex) that experienced a sewer overflow due to grease. Again, more materials would be integrated if we had the manpower to spread the word. We appreciated all their hard work!

For other utilities, red tape seemed to be a barrier: “We have included some of the educational approaches found in the materials, just have not been able to incorporate [the] town’s seal for official use. We have used the grease/debris pipe display for our events. Good visual.”


As measured by student satisfaction and learning outcomes, as well as utility/client satisfaction with student-created materials, this Public Relations Practicum appears to have been a useful course offering. Student responses to their survey favorably gauge the practical/applied aspects of the course, and the authors can attest to the theoretical dimensions they addressed in class in the form of principles and guidelines of practice. This fulfills the tenets of experiential learning as described in the literature review, and this PR Practicum addresses the challenge for public relations students of acquiring and refining relevant skills while still in their academic, pre-professional stage. The context of a real-world issue of consequence fits squarely with Kolb’s (1984) Experiential Learning Model and bridges theory and application. Thus, the course design appears to satisfy Gleason and Violette’s (2012) concern that limiting public relations education to traditional classroom curriculum designs risks restricting student understanding to abstract and idealized contexts. Additionally, the combination of close attention from the course instructor(s), experience in multiple client-involved discussions and presentations, and the development of professional-quality portfolio items serves Kolb’s (1984) standards of reflection and experimentation; for example, recall one student’s recognition that constructive criticism from the client was useful not only in the development of strategies and tactics but also in preparing the student to face and benefit from such feedback in future professional settings.

As students reported and PR Practicum instructors observed, the course contributed to student development in skill sets specifically cited in the 2006 report of the Commission on Public Relations Education (“The Professional Bond”): presentation skills (beyond the traditional assignment reports); audience segmentation; problem-solving and negotiation; and working with current issues. The authors acknowledge, of course, that the practicum approach would be difficult, even ill-advised, to duplicate in course settings such as Public Relations Writing or Public Relations Campaigns where students initially acquire fundamental craft skills. The practicum model, as applied in this case, requires that students enter the class with reasonable public relations skills nearly approaching professional entry-level standards.

The practicum setting certainly appears to support Bonwell and Eison’s (1991) contention that active learning adds value to the curriculum, and it does so in ways a traditional internship cannot. A public relations internship site supervisor could not be expected to work with a student to the same degree or with the same intent as a seasoned faculty member. This practicum framework offered a number of advantages when compared to an internship: students reinforced each other’s learning experience through teamwork; students had daily access, if needed, to instructors; and students had immediate access to university amenities such as the library, computer laboratories, meeting rooms, media production facilities, etc. Still, the authors certainly agree with the Commission on Public Relations Education in maintaining that at least one professional internship should be required in the undergraduate public relations curriculum. Internships bring their own unique benefits: individual student responsibility for assigned tasks; exposure to a full range of organizational functions beyond public relations; engagement in the professional public relations community; and supervision by a full-time public relations practitioner. Although PR Practicum richly supplements experiential learning through internships, it should not be viewed as a substitute or replacement.

Considering Swords and Kiely’s (2010) model for service learning, this practicum course successfully positioned faculty and students as change agents and contributed to strengthened relationships between the university and the community. Through the active engagement between faculty and students on one hand and water utility representatives throughout the state on the other, the university’s identity as a contributor to community improvement has been reinforced. Utility representatives were clear in expressing their intention to employ student-generated materials and concepts in their ongoing quest to stem improper cooking grease disposal, and that bodes well for continuing engagement with the university in refining and reinforcing communication efforts. It is encouraging, too, that students would overwhelmingly gauge the experience to have been professionally beneficial, despite involving sewage. This further suggests that the course achieved Kolb and Kolb’s (2011) transformative criterion.

This practicum was made possible through a substantial multi-year grant that began with extensive research and planning for a state-wide project. The unpredictable nature of the grant application process means this model would be difficult to incorporate reliably into a set undergraduate public relations curriculum. However, the model does point to the merits of considering the inclusion of a practicum component in grant proposals. In many cases, the prospect of experiential learning, service learning and community engagement may well strengthen the competitiveness of a grant proposal. When funding is available, a Public Relations Practicum course, particularly one working in the public interest and thereby combining experiential learning with service learning, can be highly valuable on several levels. The students gain experience and confidence, the client/community receives professional-quality work with relatively minor investment in money and time, and the instructors gain credibility along with consultative experience.

Public relations pedagogy can benefit from PR practicum courses. The course belongs within a framework of skills and concept courses such as those recommended in the 1999 CPRE “Port of Entry Report.” PR Practicum blends tactical and strategic skills in an experiential and service learning context while it benefits students eager to expand their portfolios.

Limitations and Implications

The benefit of outside funding facilitated this course, but public relations faculty know the scarcity of such funding is a barrier to predictable inclusion of the PR Practicum in standard curricula. Pressures on class size as well as the cost of funding stock photography and professional printing could singularly or cumulatively constrain the possibility of offering such a course. Another limitation is client selection. The principles of service learning favor projects that meet a public need, and clients representing those needs often face the same financial constraints faced by college and university public relations programs. Of course, a single case study based on the happy confluence of several enabling circumstances is hardly representative, but perhaps it encourages faculty to seek similar opportunities more aggressively.


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Exploring Diversity and Client Work in Public Relations Education

Exploring Diversity and Client Work in Public Relations Education

  • Katie R. Place, Quinnipiac University
  • Antoaneta M. Vanc, Quinnipiac University

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This exploratory qualitative study examines public relations students’ notions of diversity and client work within the public relations curriculum. Drawing upon the literature regarding teaching diversity, client work, and public relations, two research questions guided the study asking, How do students make meaning of “diversity” in the context of public relations client work? and How does client work prepare students to address diversity as future public relations professionals? Findings indicate that students engaged with the concept of diversity introspectively through self-reflection of personal biases and through assumptions regarding technology. Students’ perceptions of client work as a bridge to an increasingly diverse public relations profession centered on notions of exposure, awareness, personal growth, and preparedness. Ultimately, this study fulfilled the need for more research regarding the understudied topic of diversity and public relations education. It confirmed that public relations students may struggle with notions of diversity, but they can benefit greatly from the preparedness and personal growth that client work with diverse publics can offer.

Keywords: Diversity, client work, public relations education, self-reflection, student perceptions

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The increasingly competitive and diverse job market of the twenty-first century demands practitioners who can demonstrate both “cultural competence and multicultural knowledge” (Biswas & Izard, 2009, p. 391) as well as understand and facilitate diversity in the public relations industry (Galloway, 2004). Despite these demands, public relations professionals rarely receive diversity education prior to entering the public relations field (Toth, 2011) as public relations courses may fail to engage with diversity or feature diverse faculty members (Pompper, 2005a, p. 306). Increased emphasis on diversity and cultural competency in public relations education is necessary, as students will ultimately become the next generation of public relations professionals to counsel clients, make strategic decisions (Pompper, 2005a), and communicate with diverse stakeholders on behalf of their organizations (Tsetsura, 2011, p. 531).

The benefits of fostering diversity in public relations are plentiful. Diversity helps position an organization as a welcoming environment, implement more effective customer relations, recruit and retain a more talented and diverse workforce (Hon & Brunner, 2000, pp. 328-330; Clemons, 2013; Hon & Brunner, 2000) and balance organizational and publics’ interests (Hon & Brunner, 2000, p. 336). However, viewing diversity as a tool to promote “organizational success” (Aldoory, 2005, p. 676) or a “means to an organizational end” (Grunig & Toth, 2006, p. 43) offer narrow understandings of the complexities of diversity for public relations. Diversity in public relations must instead be understood as socially constructed and tied to relations of power (Grunig & Toth, 2006). Moreover, hidden forms of diversity, such as “whiteness,” must be more critically explored, especially in terms of how they establish and maintain relationships (Aldoory, 2005, p. 676).

The relationship of diversity, curriculum and pedagogy as a means of preparing professionals to enter the public relations industry has been under-researched (Pompper, 2005a). Whereas much scholarship has focused on understanding public relations practitioners’ experiences regarding diversity in the profession, little research has explored public relations students’ meaning-making of diversity and public relations curriculum. Thus, this exploratory study of public relations students’ notions of diversity and client work within the public relations curriculum helps to resolve the dearth of research in this subject area, ultimately offering insights for improving public relations and diversity pedagogy and research.


“Diversity is a social construction that reflects the intersections among specific characteristics of individuals and groups and the resultant power differences” (L.A. Grunig, 2006, p. 27). It encompasses facets of identity involving race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, socio-economic status, education, geographic location, religion, citizenship status, political viewpoint, and culture, among many others. In regard to public relations, practitioners often view diversity as involving and providing opportunities for individuals of all races and cultures (Public Relations Coalition, 2005) and incorporating diverse ways of thinking through problems, ideas, products or markets (Brown, White, & Waymer, 2011). The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) advocates for a broad definition of diversity that reaches far beyond simple notions of gender or racial difference. The PRSA National Diversity Committee, for example, defined its role in regard to diversity:

To advance the objectives of and develop an inclusive Society by reaching and involving members who represent a broad spectrum of ethnic, racial and sexual-orientation groups, and by providing professional development, knowledge and support to professionals of diverse race, gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity to help them succeed in public relations.

Diversity can be further understood as a complex negotiation of individual characteristics based on personal identity, cultural membership, attitudes or past experiences. Citing Tracy (2002), Tsetsura (2011, p. 532) recommended considering diversity from two separate approaches. “Master identities” encompass elements of one’s race, ethnicity, gender, age or dominant culture, whereas “interactional identities” encompass more nuanced forms of identity such as family traditions, social status, where an individual grew up and how they were educated. Similarly, Sha (2006) recommended a dual approach to understanding diversity and cultural identity via “avowed” and “ascribed” identities (p. 52). Avowed cultural identities represent characteristics or group memberships that an individual actively declares or subscribes to whereas ascribed cultural identities are those assigned to an individual by another person or group – and may differ significantly from one’s avowed identities (Sha, p. 52). Ultimately, understandings of diversity are quite individual, perceptual and behavioral. Citing Bramlett-Solomon and Liebler (1999), Lasorsa (2002) explained that individuals selectively perceive messages based on personal attitudes or past experiences, which in turn, affect how individuals make assumptions about future experiences.

Diversity in Public Relations Education

The public relations classroom is important for its role as a “starting point” for career choices and for its impact on the diversity of the public relations industry (PR Coalition, 2005, p. 7). As such, communication programs are increasingly prioritizing diversity and integrating diversity issues into curriculum (Biswas & Izard, 2009; Brooks & Ward, 2007). Diversity and multiculturalism in public relations coursework is important for students as they learn how to identify, research, segment and communicate with publics (Sha, 2006). Additionally, diversity in the public relations curriculum prepares students to be sensitive to diversity, propose solutions to diversity-related issues, work in increasingly multicultural contexts (Biswas & Izard, 2009) and understand their roles as strategic communicators (Tsetsura, 2011).

Despite the benefits of integrating diversity into the public relations curriculum, the challenge for public relations educators is helping students understand key concepts associated with diversity and apply them to personal and professional contexts. Overcoming narrow conceptualizations of diversity is a primary challenge. Brooks and Ward (2007), for example, found that students perceived diversity to be a function of biological difference, rather than a social construction. White students had particular difficulty understanding their own colorblindness or examining their privileges associated with “whiteness” or masculinity (p. 249). Similarly, Valenzuela (1999) found that students viewed diversity narrowly as racial and ethnic difference, rather than more broadly encompassing factors such as income, sexual orientation, religion or class. On the other hand, an additional challenge occurs when programs lack faculty diversity and cannot effectively mentor or serve as role models for an increasingly diverse public relations student body. Minority public relations students have reported wanting to see educators and professionals who look like them (Brown, White, & Waymer, 2011; PR Coalition, 2005).

Public relations curriculum, therefore, may be lagging in its understanding of multiculturalism and still perpetuating Anglo or Eurocentric perspectives, which could marginalize or stereotype minorities (Pompper, 2005a). Tsetsura (2011) has advocated for increased multicultural and multidimensional approaches to diversity, arguing that such approaches can help students engage more thoughtfully in dialogue about diversity and help educators relate more effectively to students. Pompper (2005a) recommended that universities improve curriculum by hiring more faculty of color, holding workshops and training opportunities to help faculty better understand the concepts of diversity, brainstorming diversity solutions among faculty, and creating diverse advisory boards of public relations professionals and alumni.

Teaching Diversity in Public Relations

Integrating diversity into communications coursework is increasingly necessary – and is “as essential as technology” to teaching at the university level (Biswas & Izard, 2009, p. 391). Public relations courses, whether theory-based, writing-based, or campaign-based should include multiculturalism and diversity (Pompper, 2005a). Gallicano (2013), citing Munshi and Edwards (2011), recommended that educators must not treat diversity superficially, disconnect it from historical or social contexts, or frame it as a business advantage. Gallicano urged for substantive consideration of diversity in public relations courses that draws upon documented inequities experienced by multiple diverse publics, explanations of these inequities couched in historical context or statistics, and specific strategies for improving diversity. Several teaching tools, formats and guidelines have been proposed by scholars to facilitate such an integration of diversity that does not dislocate it from historical or social context. Brooks and Ward (2007), for example, recommended using a variety of pedagogies and teaching formats, such as videos and class discussions, to assist students in engaging with the concepts of diversity. In courses regarding gender, race and media, students gained a greater awareness of how mass media represent or reinforce particular social constructions of gender and race. In contrast, Tsetsura (2011) recommended guiding student discussions of diversity using a series of questions, such as “Think back to your first encounter with a person who was different from you in some way but who has made an impact in your life. What do you remember most about this person? In what ways has this person’s worldview affected yours?” (p. 534). Brown, White, and Waymer (2011) recommended addressing the culture not only within the classroom by engaging minority speakers and adjuncts, but within public relations student organizations such as Public Relations Student Society of America. They urge student organizations to consider diversity as a key attribute and work to actively recruit minority individuals into the organizations.

Service Learning and Client Work in Public Relations

One method through which public relations students can receive hands-on exposure to and interaction with diversity is through service learning and client work. Service learning is a method of teaching and learning that connects classroom lessons with meaningful service to the community (“What is service learning?”, p. 1). It can also be defined as “a form of experiential education in which students engage in activities that address human and community needs together with structured opportunities designed to promote student learning and development” (Jacoby, 1996, p. 5).

In the public relations curriculum, service-learning often involves students performing communications-related work for a client or organization, such as producing a strategic plan or communication plans book (Texter & Smith, 1999). Students engaged in service learning often understand it as a professional development activity that facilitates the application of public relations skills to professional contexts and clients, often involving civic engagement or volunteering (Muturi, An, & Mwangi, 2013). Public relations campaigns classes offer a typical environment for integrating client work. Such work often involves a client in class meetings through presentations, sharing of information, and inclusion in the grading process. Client meetings and overviews with students in class further motivate students (Benigni, Cheng, & Cameron, 2004). Students engaging with clients in the public relations curriculum are urged to keep in contact with the client, communicate politely and professionally, and confirm selection of strategies, audiences, and budget with the client early in the process (Aldoory & Wrigley, 2000). They may also benefit from reflection assignments that help students critically examine the learning experience and respond to questions that challenge their thinking (Lundy, 2008).

The benefits of service learning and client work in public relations are extensive. Public relations client work benefits students by supplementing coursework and offering career preparedness (Bush, 2009), helping students explore and apply the strategic planning process (Texter & Smith, 1999), and bridging public relations theory to professional contexts while encouraging students to work professionally with clients and classmates (Witmer, Silverman, & Gaschen, 2009). Similarly, Aldoory and Wrigley’s (2000) study of client work in public relations found that client work helped students learn how to work as a team, put together a written campaign plan, deal with unavailable or inaccessible clients, and improve interpersonal communication skills. The authors found integrating client work into the public relations curriculum helped students connect theory to practice, stay motivated and think creatively, learn and apply time management skills, and grow both personally and professionally as empathetic, flexible and polished communicators.

Client work benefits students with tangible and practical skills (Benigni, Cheng, & Cameron, 2004; Werder & Strand, 2011) that can be placed within real-world professional contexts of the public relations industry (Aldoory & Wrigley, 2000). Texter and Smith (1999), for example, found that service learning projects helped students learn the roles of strategist and technician. Participants in a study by Muturi, An and Mwangi (2013) explained that service learning helped students develop better client and personal interaction skills and develop useful public relations tactics.

Drawing upon the literature regarding diversity, client work and public relations, two research questions guide this study:

RQ1: How do students make meaning of “diversity” in the context of public relations client work?
RQ2: How does client work prepare students to address diversity as future public relations professionals?


Given the exploratory nature of this study regarding students’ meaning-making of public relations client work and diversity, a qualitative method was chosen. Qualitative research best enables scholars to examine, using a “naturalistic, interpretive approach . . . how social experience is created and given meaning” (Denzin & Lincoln, 2003, p. 13). Qualitative research is most appropriate for understanding a particular phenomenon, developing insights regarding it, and reporting those insights (Potter, 1996).


Twenty-two public relations students at three mid-sized universities—one private university from New England, one private university from the Midwest, and one public university from the West Coast—who had completed a public relations campaigns course, were interviewed for the study. A purposive sampling method was incorporated to recruit these students. They were recruited via an individualized email recruitment letter sent specifically to students at these three universities who had completed one of five public relations campaigns classes involving client work during the 2014 spring or fall semesters. Students in the classes had specifically worked within diverse communities or with clients on diversity-related public relations campaigns addressing target publics that ranged drastically in terms of race and ethnicity, as well as income, education, housing and employment status.

The resulting sample included six male students and sixteen female students, 18 of whom were Caucasian American, two of whom were African American, one of whom was Asian American, and one of whom was Hispanic American. The majority of the students were undergraduate students and between 21 to 23 years of age. Additionally, four graduate students who had taken the campaigns course at the New England university also participated and ranged in age from late twenties to early fifties. All participants have been assigned a pseudonym.


The researchers conducted semi-structured, in-depth interviews using an interview protocol featuring rapport-building, open-ended, and specific questions in a pre-determined order (Rubin & Rubin, 2005). Interviews were conducted with students after their campaigns class had been completed for the semester, via face-to-face and telephone, and ranged from 30 to 90 minutes. Students were eased into the interview process via rapport-building questions, such as “What did you like best about the public relations client work you did?” Then, other open-ended questions, such as “Tell me about working for a client with such diverse target publics,” “How did your own notion of diversity factor into the client work you did?” and “How has this client work prepared you to enter the public relations industry?” were used to explore students’ meaning-making of public relations client work and diversity. Probes and follow-up questions, such as “Why?” “Can you expand on that?” or “Can you please give me an example of…” were often utilized to gather more description or context from students’ initial answers to questions.

Data Analysis

A thematic analysis method was used to analyze each fully transcribed interview for patterns and themes (Boyatzis, 1998). Transcripts were read line by line several times to create a list of themes that emerged organically and inductively during the review process. Themes were then assigned corresponding codes applying to each research question. To be consistent, the researchers used the same interview guide, created themes and coding schemes together, and shared coded transcripts. Additionally, the researchers wrote and shared observer comments during the transcript typing and coding process, and engaged in reflexive dialogue to critically explore their personal biases and interpretations of the data.


Students’ meaning-making of diversity in the context of client work was varied and introspective, often invoking personal experiences or assumptions. Students’ perceptions of client work as a bridge to an increasingly diverse public relations profession centered on notions of exposure, awareness, personal growth and preparedness. Findings regarding each of the research questions are explored in depth below.

The first research question asked, “How do students make meaning of ‘diversity’ in the context of public relations client work?” Students engaged with the concept of diversity a) introspectively through self-reflection, b) as “different from me,” c) as an issue or problem, and d) through assumptions regarding technology or social media.


As participants engaged in focused questioning regarding their meaning-making of diversity, many of them turned to personal anecdotes regarding their own diverse experiences and avowed identities (Sha, 2006) invoking elements of ethnicity, religion, race, and age. For example, Alexis, a Caucasian-American student, defined diversity by reflecting upon her multiple identities in the context of how they differed from other individuals in her university community: “I kind of come from a diverse background. My mom is half and half and my dad’s family came off the boat from Italy, so I feel like I am diverse. But I am diverse in a different way. I feel like I can really apply that diversity—especially being Jewish—in this kind of place.” Similarly, Annie, an Asian-American student, explained diversity from a deeply personal standpoint as a racial minority member of her community: “To me it’s race, because I’m a minority [laughs]. Minority is everything. It’s differences in people. Race, language, male, female, different lifestyles, rich, poor.”

For some participants, meaning-making of diversity through self-reflection meant “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” in order to address their own and others’ understandings of diversity. Emma, for example, explained how she engaged in self-reflection in order to consider the identities of her client’s older target publics:

I felt like I was drawing influence from people that I know personally who are similar in their life routine at their time and age. You have to be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and see where they’re coming from and their day-to-day routine, which is obviously much different from ours at college.

Ron, an African-American student, shared how he reflected upon his standpoint as a member of his client’s minority target public to dispel a Caucasian-American classmate’s assumptions about African-American individuals:

The minority group we worked with was African-American males, so I definitely knew a lot about it. . . . There was one girl who for the first half of the semester, whenever we would talk about African-American males, she would talk about poor or dejected people. I knew subconsciously she would lump one group—race—with another. I had to inform her that that wasn’t the case. She would say, well they are African American, how can they afford that? I had to tell her that it wasn’t true.

“Different from Me”

As students engaged more fully with their personal definitions of diversity in the context of public relations client work, they drew heavily upon the assumption that diversity meant “different from me.” Students shared examples of feeling keenly aware of diversity when they encountered clients or publics who differed from them in terms of race, geography, class, income, housing status, or education. Most often, these realizations occurred when Caucasian-American students assumed that “different from me” actually meant “different from ‘white.’” For example, Kristen, a Caucasian-American student working on a campaign initiative involving an Asian-American target market noted, “You definitely have to angle . . . not angle, but go at communicating in a different direction than you would for your family . . . in my case, my white family . . . than the Asian community we were targeting.” Similarly, James, a Caucasian student shared:

I grew up in New York City, and I had friends that were very poor, and I was not. I got along with these folks like I would with my middle class friends that went to private school. I live in [Town] now, but there are very few diverse individuals here. The challenge is knowing that there are other people out here besides us white people and living that.

Whereas Kristen and James understood “different from me” quite matter-of-factly as racial difference, other students associated “different from me” with a sense of fearfulness regarding preconceived notions of class or geographic location. This fearfulness of diversity was especially pronounced among the upper- to middle-class Caucasian students who were assigned campaign clients and target publics in low-income or inner-city locations. Alexis, explained how that fearfulness kept her from driving into the city to meet with her client, and as a result, it prevented her from addressing her own assumptions regarding her client and their diverse target publics. Alexis said, “I am from [Town]. You know the area. It is nothing like that. Umm. I really don’t want to go into the bad part of [City] and drive through and get a first-hand experience. It kind of made it difficult because I couldn’t get out of my head about what I was thinking.” Similarly, Catherine was quick to recognize the benefits of diversity (low-income housing in this context) in some locales, but at the same time expressed a fearfulness of how low-income housing might disrupt the predominantly white, upper-middle class makeup of her hometown. She explained:

You do get a lot of things handed to you when your community is so diverse, like a lot of people will jump on board to build other things or you might get grants. I don’t know if you need it in my town. That is what people fight. But in a town like [City], it is an opportunity to bring in a lot of cultures into one spot. In terms of diversity, I was constantly being reminded of its benefits, because it was really hard for me to understand and get out of my bubble.

Diversity as an Issue

Students’ meaning-making of diversity as “different from me” often translated diversity as an “issue” or “problem” especially when faced with the task of segmenting diverse campaign publics. Sarah, for example, expressed frustration with the (perceived) lack of diversity among her target public (women) by saying, “It definitely was a challenge.” She explained how it would have been easier if the client had allowed her team to target students—a public with whom she was more familiar and could more easily segment. Similarly, Michelle explained how her team ignored her client’s diverse target publics in order to simplify creation of their campaign’s communication tactics. Her team focused solely on university students in order to maximize their personal knowledge of this particular target public. Michelle explained, “we just realized it was easiest to explain our ideas if we didn’t have to do different tactics for each group or demographic of individuals. We thought about it, but we just didn’t think it would be realistic to come up with all the ideas.” Other students invoked similar frustrations, but they ultimately recognized the inherent value of diversity and the need to segment audiences in a thorough and respectful manner. Emma said, for example, “I feel that a lot of people think of [diversity] as having a negative connotation, ‘we need more diversity.’ But just recognizing differences I think is our job as public relations professionals. So, if there is a more diverse segment, we want to recognize what makes each target segment different and then be able to cater that campaign to [them].”

In contrast to students’ issues with diversity when segmenting publics, other students identified personal prejudices they had with minority clients or called out classmates’ prejudices regarding diversity—even pointing out that some students had considered working on a different campaign due to the racial and political identities of certain clients. Catherine, was quick to separate herself from those students, but still invoked language such as “blockage” and “issue” to describe students’ meaning-making of diversity:

I never felt like there was a cultural blockage between me and my client or anything like that or like intimidation or any sort of issue there, but yeah. There were no racial blockage . . . As much as you don’t want to say it, there are definitely students here . . . where it might be an issue for them and it might cause them to do a different campaign.

More explicitly, Alexis confessed her frustration with the differences in education level of her client (many of whom did not have a high school education) and herself. She framed diversity through the lens of an “issue,” explaining:

The issue I had most was probably with education level, because it was really difficult to understand some of the visitors that we had come. [Client], she was trying to tell a story sitting down and she couldn’t do it. . . . I think that had a lot to do with her education versus my education. . . . You have to know how to express yourself and express yourself well enough to be able to sit down and tell a story . . . that is something that I really struggled with. It annoyed me.

Assumptions Regarding Social Media

Nearly all interview participants also associated diversity with social media, exposing a variety of assumptions and misconceptions regarding this technology. Among the most blatant misconceptions regarding diversity were students’ assumptions that social media offered a means for public relations professionals to reach everyone. Catherine shared, for example, “The one great thing about social media is that it can reach everyone. . . . I guess if things are about to become really diverse and people are going to be multiple cultures around the country . . . then I guess I would say [the client] should focus on reaching the masses. . . . I would think of doing that now through social media.” Other students were quick to identify their assumptions regarding social media and address them in the context of diversity. For example, Elizabeth shared how she questioned her assumptions regarding a client’s knowledge of social media and realized that more traditional media and face-to-face methods of communication might be a better fit:

‘Why don’t they use social media?’ But you go there and you learn they can’t! You assume that these things just happen these days, but . . . these people don’t have computers, or phones, or Internet access. Working with a diverse client, it helps you understand that maybe what you are doing in your everyday life isn’t what you should recommend to the client.

In addition to students’ misconceptions regarding social media as a tool to best reach a diverse audience, students also exposed certain assumptions regarding social media and diversity in terms of age. Most often, students perceived that non-Millennial generation publics would have a lack of understanding of social media. Sarah, for example, illustrated this generational assumption with a comment regarding her client’s website, which was targeted at middle-aged women:

Targeting students would be a little simpler for our generation because we use social media, and we use different things that can interact that way. But with older generations, they may not know how to use the online webinar or the website and the videos. Because [Client] website needed to be completely redone, so it would be hard for them to navigate it.

The second research question explored the question, “How does client work prepare students to address diversity as future public relations professionals?” Students felt that client work prepared them by a) exposing them to and rendering them aware of diversity, b) promoting personal growth or understanding of diversity, c) enabling them to address diversity issues in a low-risk environment, and d) ultimately gaining diverse workplace preparedness.

“Exposure to” Versus “Awareness of” Diversity

As participants engaged in vivid descriptions of their work during the campaign course, they became more aware of the lack of diversity surrounding them. Working with clients brought a sense of diversity to students who never considered it. For example, Layla shared,

We are at a school where I am in classes with all the same kids and I have to say I’ve never really thought about differences. Now, I know—everyone is different! It doesn’t matter whether it is income, race, or education, you have to accept that and not assume everyone has lived the life you have.

While reflecting on the homogeneity among students at their school, participants described how working with a “real” client gave students exposure to the diversity of the professional world. For example, Emily described how working with clients helped her see beyond the limited world she was used to:

You are stuck at a college that is not diverse. If you work with diverse clients you can see how diverse the world is. You will have to work with these clients. You are going to have a diverse clientele . . . starting as a student and working with clients, it will help. You are not a part of this small bubble anymore.

Exposure to diversity brought an acute sense of awareness regarding difference among participants. Participants not only recognized the need to be exposed to diverse experiences, but they also became aware of diversity in various professional situations. For example, Alexis viewed working for clients as an opportunity to

experience working with diversity or people with diverse backgrounds . . . see how it is, and how it works, and how to interact with other people who are sensitive about things . . . some people may think it’s okay to make jokes, but it is not.

On the other hand, working with clients helped participants view the difference between passive exposures to diversity versus active understanding of how diversity should be thought of when addressing diverse publics in public relations. For example, when describing her work for the client, Emma noted the necessity of being aware of the target client from the beginning of the campaign and recognized that thinking about target publics “like an afterthought [is] going to create a weakness to your campaign.” She explained:

I feel that awareness is the most important. A problem may come with a lack of awareness. If you are not aware that a public that you’re targeting has this diversity, then it’s going to create a problem when you’re going forward with the campaign creation process . . . obviously it’s not going to be like a handout like we had in class, but just looking from the very beginning how your subsets may be diverse from one another and having an understanding before going forward with all the other steps.

Personal Growth

As participants described their experience while working for clients, they expressed a sense of personal accomplishment that reflected a new mindset toward diversity. They described how the fear of unknown transformed into a learning experience, which allowed students to broaden their views. For example, Alexis exclaimed:

I liked that this project was so diverse. At first I was nervous about it, ‘I don’t know what’s going on! It’s going to be terrifying!’ But at the end, I was really happy because I felt like I grew as a person—and I’m still growing and I’m learning and I’m still learning how to deal with things that I don’t agree with in a professional way.

Similarly, Catherine explained how working with an actual client taught students to view diversity through a professional lens and in a broader social context, which sometimes was different than their personal preferences. She said,

I have only heard one side and I truly grew up thinking that affordable housing is bad. And so it was kind of great for me personally because I got to put my own personal preferences aside and see it from the other side. I learned a ton from a sociological perspective. Personally, it was great.

Low-Risk Environment

Participants felt that the classroom environment also played a major role in how they learned about diversity. The classroom posed a risk-free, worry-free, casual atmosphere in which students were not only able to learn the material but also learned to interact with different people. For example, Layla described working with the client as a positive experience:

We could talk to the client and it was more casual, I would assume, than what my real job will be, so it helped us to really talk to the client and learn from them in a low-risk environment . . . this is a cool experience to get to know different people

The classroom also provided a low-risk environment in which participants were able to apply their knowledge, while being sheltered from possible consequences in case of inevitable mistakes. For example, Catherine described working with a client as the “best starting point” to a professional career, “Because people understood you were a student, so they didn’t expect as much but they did expect a lot. If you did make a mistake, they were understanding and it was helpful.” Similarly, Stephanie said,

Working with a client is more like a life lesson. There is only so much you can tell us, until we apply that to a real client. That’s how you’re going to learn, working with different clients, different people and face your mistakes.

Know What to Expect/Preparedness

In addition to students’ sense of accomplishment and personal growth while working with clients, participants also described feeling prepared and knowing what to expect from the professional world. Kristen, for example, described how working with clients can help students “be prepared for anything.” She explained, “When you work with such a group of diverse people, and you know that it’s going to happen again it teaches you to expect the unexpected.” In a similar way, Ron described working with clients as a way to equip students with exposure to many different things:

Exposure, which leads to preparedness: Client work helps with exposure! You can go into the industry and say, ‘I’ve seen that. It may not work . . . Or why don’t we ask more questions!’ It equips you with exposure to many different things.

More specifically, students described feeling prepared to face diverse personalities, backgrounds and opinions within a team. For example, both Kristen and Christine referred to the diversity within the group in which they were working. On one hand, Christine noted how diversity in a team can bring success to a campaign: “Your team can be from anywhere, your client can be from anywhere, and just having a diverse set of ideas and perspectives can really make it a more successful campaign.” On the other hand, Kristen observed that it is not only the diversity of opinions that matter, but the way in which a team achieves the best results: “It’s helpful to remember that everyone is going to have a different opinion, but it’s the way that you go about that that can bring the best results.”

As a corollary of client work, participants view its benefits in terms of exposure to different value sets and preparedness to the work world. For example, Christine described how diversity brought into the classroom by clients and students helped her team broaden the scope of their campaign for the client:

In the campaign class you’re working with a client that might think differently or have different value sets than you, and you have to find a common ground for dealing with a client. And then you have the aspect of diversity within the team. Like my whole group, we didn’t exactly think the same, but that’s actually what makes it interesting, where we all have different perspectives. So, I think it is good to work with different people. People coming from different places or who have different backgrounds, I think that definitely adds a lot to how you approach the campaign and make it something that is broader and more people can find it interesting.


This exploratory study of 22 public relations students’ meaning-making of diversity and client work illustrated students’ varied perceptions of diversity while exposing both subtle and blatant assumptions regarding race, class, age and technological ability. Nonetheless, public relations client work appears to enrich students’ understandings of diversity in vital ways by promoting diversity awareness, personal growth, and preparedness to meet the challenges of an ever-evolving public relations industry.

When considering diversity in the context of client work, students appear to reference their own diverse identities first, then engage in meaning-making of diversity as they consider individuals and the world around them. Avowed identities (Sha, 2006), which individuals declare or subscribe to themselves, were much more salient to students than ascribed identities. Though not articulated explicitly, participants appeared to understand for the most part that “diversity” was more complex than racial or ethnic diversity, as they often identified elements of religious, cultural, racial, class, or ethnic diversity that they associated with themselves. This finding seems to contrast with those of Brooks and Ward (2007) and Valenzuela (1999), who found that students often default to notions of race or ethnicity when defining diversity.

In contrast, however, student comments in this study reflected previous findings of Brooks and Ward (2007) who found that students have difficulty identifying or understanding whiteness or privilege. This was especially evidenced by Cassie, a Caucasian-American student who touted the multicultural benefits of low-income housing for a large neighboring city, but eschewed the idea of having low-income housing in her hometown, a primarily Caucasian, upper-middle-class bedroom community. Indeed, students’ meaning-making of diversity also exposed subtle and blatant forms of racism, classism, and ageism. Evidence of this was especially apparent among student comments reflecting diversity as “different from me,” “different from white” or a “problem.” Especially concerning was the overriding sense that students associated diversity in the context of public relations client work with a negative connotation through use of terms such as “issue,” “problem,” “blockage,” “challenge,” “fight,” “struggle,” and “annoy.” These all present challenges for public relations educators who strive to help students address their personal and professional biases and teach students to effectively research, identify, and communicate to a broad array of individuals (and identities) with sensitivity, empathy and respect. Moreover, educators themselves must critically reflect upon their own biases and assumptions and how they may affect students’ perceptions of public relations practice, client work, and segmentation of publics.

Findings expose important implications regarding how public relations campaigns are taught and implemented. Students’ tendencies to simplify—or even ignore—diverse target publics, strategies and tactics in order to achieve a more streamlined campaign call for more critical reflection on diversity and publics. Furthermore, student assumptions regarding social media call for public relations educators to be vigilant in dispelling notions of social media (and mobile technology) as a communication panacea or means to communicate to everyone when indeed they remain quite inaccessible to publics of diverse income statuses, levels of education, or physical/mental abilities. Integration of critical race theory (CRT) (e.g., Delgado & Stefancic, 2012; Ladson-Billings, 1998; Pompper, 2005b) and intersectionality theory (e.g., Crenshaw, 1989, 1991; Vardeman-Winter, 2011; Vardeman-Winter & Tindall, 2010) into public relations pedagogy and course content may help students to critically reflect upon their own personal identities and biases, understand diversity as socially-constructed and historically rooted in power differences, and more sensitively respect and prioritize multiple, diverse publics while engaging in client work.

In regard to public relations client work as a means to prepare students to address diversity as future public relations professionals, client work appears to serve as a vital means through which students are exposed to diversity, become more acutely aware of diversity, and then experience a change of mindset regarding diversity. Interestingly, participant comments exposed an overriding sense of fear associated with conducting public relations client work for diverse clients whose identities or backgrounds differed significantly from students’ own backgrounds—even to the point that some students considered not taking on particular clients. Students also feared making mistakes or upsetting a client during public relations client work, potentially exposing a culture fueled by a terror of error. Despite these fears, the public relations classroom serves as an ideal place for students to make mistakes, learn about diversity, and ultimately gain a comfort level with conducting client work in diverse contexts prior to entering the real world. Participants also perceived that public relations client work helped them to gain and improve interpersonal and group-work skills, which complemented previous findings (e.g., Aldoory & Wrigley, 2000; Muturi, An, & Mwangi, 2013).

Public relations students, as this study illustrated, often have difficulty identifying or addressing their personal biases, assumptions, or stereotypes regarding diversity, which holds serious implications for how students, as future public relations professionals, might carry over those biases or assumptions into the workplace. In order to facilitate students’ understanding of diversity as quite broad, complex, socially constructed (L.A. Grunig, 2006) and multicultural (Tsetsura, 2011), educators should integrate a diverse range of teaching tools into the public relations classroom, such as videos, guest speakers, and reflection assignments or questions. Building upon Tsetsura’s (2011) recommendation that educators guide diversity discussion by integrating reflection questions, we recommend that public relations educators develop reflection questions specifically geared toward addressing notions of diversity in client work contexts. Some sample questions could include:

• How does my identity compare or contrast to that of my client and their publics?
• How does my personal upbringing or background play a role in how I treat my client and its publics?
• How might my personal assumptions or biases affect the public relations strategies or tactics I choose?
• How might my personal assumptions or biases affect how I identify or segment publics?
• How easy or difficult is it for me listen or understand a client who is not like me?
• How do I feel working in a diverse group?
• How do I feel working for a client whose identity/background is different from my own?

Participants in this study shared that diverse client-based service-learning activities offered them a glimpse into industry practices and values. Although limited by a small sample, implications of these findings reach beyond the confines of public relations education in the United States. For example, while exploring cultural competence in public relations education in two universities in Australia and Singapore, Fitch and Desai (2012) identified a number of recommendations made by industry professionals. In particular, participants touted “the importance of authentic and complex learning activities and real-client and real-world projects” because “they exposed me to a situation that I was not used to” (p. 72). Similarly, in the United States, the 2015 Commission on Public Relations Education (CPRE) report noted recommendations made by industry leaders regarding entry-level public relations practitioners’ desired characteristics, skills, and knowledge. Among these, the report lists the importance of being “sensitive to individual and cultural differences” (p. 7) and having knowledge of “cross-cultural and global communication” (p. 8). Industry leaders also noted “the importance of ‘real world’ experience” (CPRE, 2015, p. 8).

Particularly important are the findings on students’ personal growth that went beyond their personal comfort zone while interacting with a client and team members. This is encouraging because, in an early assessment of the impact of globalization on U.S. public relations, Fitzpatrick and Whillock (1993) questioned “the preparedness of U.S. professionals to negotiate the business, social, cultural, economic, and political complexities” inherent to diverse global societies (p. 315). Encouraging students’ understanding of new diverse situations before entering the workforce could encourage more sophisticated public relations professionals who are more attuned to the continuous changes in the current fabric of society and more considerate of local diversity and identity.

This study shows that service-learning can be transformative (Felten & Clayton, 2011) or at least potentially improve students’ attitudes (Butler, 2013), as it introduces students to a world beyond their personal bubble and helps them adapt to different demands and communicate across a range of diverse contexts. Such professional knowledge and experience built into public relations education can develop an intellectually rich foundation for future practitioners before they enter the workforce.

Ultimately, this exploratory study of diversity and client work fulfilled the need for more research examining this understudied topic regarding public relations education. It confirmed that public relations students may struggle with notions of diversity but can benefit greatly from the exposure to diversity, preparedness and personal growth that client work with diverse publics can offer. Although limitations of this study include a small sample size and inconsistent interview settings and lengths, it offered rich descriptions of students’ own meaning-making of diversity and public relations work. Future research should continue to uncover students’ assumptions, biases, or varied definitions of diversity and client work in order to better understand the cultural, societal or professional underpinnings and associated implications for public relations practice.


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The State of Social Media Curriculum: Exploring Professional Expectations of Pedagogy and Practices to Equip the Next Generation of Professionals

The State of Social Media Curriculum: Exploring Professional Expectations of Pedagogy and Practices to Equip the Next Generation of Professionals

  • Carolyn Kim, Biola University
  • Karen Freberg, University of Louisville

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With the rise of social media, university programs are searching for effective ways to prepare students to use social media (Fratti, 2013). This challenge is mirrored by professionals who are also seeking to better equip themselves (Brown, 2014). This study explored key elements that should be included in social media education through interviews with over 20 social media industry leaders. Findings provide extensive guidance for faculty who teach social media courses.

Keywords: Social media, social media pedagogy, public relations education

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Menu: Abstract | PDF | Introduction | Literature Review | Method | Results | Discussion & Conclusions | References


University programs have fully embraced using social media across different departments and capacities, but one challenge is still eluding them, which is how to best prepare students to use social media strategically (Fratti, 2013). Along these lines, practitioners feel they may be the best ones to help prepare and educate the future generation of professionals entering the field (Brown, 2014). While both the academy and industry seek to equip people with the appropriate training and expertise, there seems to be a growing gap between the two in working toward this common goal. In fact, a recent study from the IBM Institute for Business Value found that 60% of academic and industry leaders believe that higher education fails to meet the needs of the industry (King, 2015). This is particularly true in the context of social media, which is constantly growing and evolving. As the technology continues to evolve and requires greater expertise to leverage it effectively, there will be an increasing need to design appropriate education processes for those wishing to engage professionally in the digital world. Finding a curriculum that is both fluid and reactive to the changes in the social media landscape, yet also based on fundamental principles and practices, is a growing challenge for the academy. In light of this, it seems reasonable to look to the industry as the litmus test for what social media curricula should contain.

While there are many suggestions and approaches for optimizing social media preparation, there has yet to be a single study that proposes a unified model for social media education. One recent study (Kinsky, Freberg, Kim, Kushin, & Ward, 2016) explored the use of Hootsuite University as a tool that can be implemented within social media courses. While this study contributed to understanding the benefits of training with a social media management tool, it did not explore the full scope of a social media curriculum. The current research is designed to address this gap in the literature by examining professional and academic beliefs about the core components of a social media curriculum.


The Rise of Social Media in Organizational Life
Organizations of all shapes and sizes have been impacted by the rise of social media. As a result, there has been a rise in public relations scholarship that addresses the implications of this digital influence (Wright & Hinson, 2014). One significant feature contributing to the rise of digital influence is that, through social media, messages can be amplified like never before. Thus, an organization’s reach, impact and influence have the potential to expand. But this only can happen when the organization successfully identifies and builds authentic conversations with key influencers within social media (Freberg, Graham, McGaughey, & Freberg, 2011).

Professional Resources for Social Media
To equip professionals for the influx of social media expertise required in today’s landscape, many resources have been developed. For example, Breakenridge (2012) provided guidance for public relations professionals wishing to understand how social media provide a unique platform for enhancing relationships with key publics. Another example is Kerpen (2011), who explored the relationships between the use of social media and being a truly likable organization that listens and develops two-way dialogue. A driving concept in most of these resources is that the power of social media rests in the ability to identify what publics are interested in and then to join that conversation, rather than trying to approach social media as a publicity platform (Macnamara, 2010).

Social Media in Higher Education
With classrooms filling with digital natives, the implications for social media within education have been felt for many years now. Tess (2013) pointed out that the “potential role for social media as a facilitator and enhancer of learning is worth investigating,” when he introduced a comprehensive analysis of the current role of social media in higher education classrooms by examining scholarship and through empirical investigations (p. A60). Tess concluded that the potential for educational impact through social media in college campuses is yet to be fully explored, citing several variables including the affordance of social media platforms and using social networking sites and course management systems.

The proliferation of social media in higher education within the established curriculum and the examination of it as a pedagogical tool has resulted in numerous studies. Marketing scholars, for example, have explored how marketing educators have been incorporating social media (Atwong, 2015; Muñoz & Wood, 2015; Neier & Zayer, 2015). In addition, many studies focus not just on a specific platform, but on student competencies required to use social technology in professional settings after college. For example, Anderson, Swenson, and Kinsella (2014) used social media to help conduct a crisis simulation within their course, allowing students to practice engaging in real time with crisis information over social media channels, develop decision-making capabilities and learn to effectively respond in a digital environment. These skills are needed by most entry-level digital marketing or communication professionals. One of the key findings from this experiment was the reaction of students. They reported that not only did they learn how to handle crisis situations better, but also that a learning environment where social media was implemented was particularly effective in boosting their comprehension of the competencies they were learning in the course.

In addition to exploring the ways social media help prepare students for professional competencies and skillsets, many scholars have also examined the ways college students use social media and the implications of these patterns of use for the higher education environment (e.g., Hosterman, 2011; Junco, Heibergert, & Loken, 2010; Kassens-Noor, 2012). For example, Pempek, Yermolayeva, and Calvert (2009) explored the experience of college students who use Facebook for networking. Other examples include a study by Anderson and Swenson (2013) that explored ways to equip students for the professional expertise they will need using Twitter. What comes to light when examining this literature is that there are two seemingly large categories of scholarship dealing with higher education and social media. The first deals with social media platforms and real-world applications, such as a crisis-simulation experiment. The second deals with social media platforms used to create classroom learning environment and cultures.

Real-World Application and Classroom Culture. Of the two larger sections of social media research focusing on higher education, research involving real-world applications of social media and learning competencies for students is somewhat less developed. This may be due to scholars’ emphasis on the implications of social media for higher education rather than on the competencies gained by students who engage in social media assignments. However, studies that have opted to focus on the real-world application of technology have reported significant findings for student learning. For example, Anderson et al. (2014) immersed their students in a crisis simulation that not only forced students to learn about crisis management, but to use social media as the tool with which they could respond and assess crisis communication in the digital environment. This approach mirrors what they will be expected to do in the real world and thus builds not only crisis competencies but also tools to enhance their effectiveness.

The other vein of research into social media and higher education focuses not on application but on learning environments that are created through technology. Carpenter and Krutka (2014), for example, explored the way educators are using Twitter, a micro-blogging platform, to build a community. Rather than focusing on students using the tool as a way to illustrate their competencies, this research explores the creation of an environment that is dynamic, responsive and inclusive for students and educators. Gant and Hadley (2014) examined microblogging’s potential to create heightened engagement, to encourage transactional learning and to help with retention of class content. Whether focusing on social media applications or the environment the media can create, educators have also identified the need to explore the impact on credibility based on the use of social media in a college environment.

Faculty Credibility and Social Media. With a long body of research supporting the connection between faculty credibility and student learning, it is no surprise that professors are concerned about the potential impact of technology on perceptions of their expertise (Martin, Chesebro, & Mottet, 1997). Teven and McCroskey (1997) reported that faculty credibility is based on three main dimensions: competence or expertise, trustworthiness, and care for students. Educators are still exploring the practices and pedagogy approaches that best display those three dimensions via social media. That may be why the Pearson Learning Report (Pearson Learning Solutions, 2013) found that professors have “concerns about privacy, both for themselves and for their students, and about maintaining the class as a private space for free and open discussion,” when integrating social media into courses (p. 3). DeGroot, Young, and VanSlette (2015) tackled the issue of faculty credibility related to Twitter use. They found that a professor’s profile and Twitter content did influence students’ perception of the faculty member’s credibility and evaluations of the course. However, they noted that a potential mediating factor could be the fact that the “student’s perception of an instructor on Twitter may be indicative of his or her differences in preferred learning and teaching philosophies” (p. 15). While there is still much to learn about how to integrate social media in applications and to create culture in courses as well as the impact to a faculty member’s credibility, many institutions have begun offering classes either entirely dedicated to social media, or courses with large portions focused on social media. Thus, a final area to review is the development of social media curriculum.

Current Standards of Social Media Education
Due to the ubiquitous nature of social media use among students and within education, it is to be expected that research has been growing on the topic. Davis, Deil-Amen, Rios-Aguilar, and González (2012) explored the role of social media in higher education by looking at the type of technology available, the impact of technology perils of social media, and implications of the platforms. They predicted that future research with social media would need to explore the impact of technology on student learning and ways to accurately assess information (pp. 23-24). Taking a larger perspective on the general competencies required, Lipschultz (2015) provided insight into how educators can equip students to understand important components of social media such as key concepts and theories and applications to professions such as journalism and public relations. A number of scholars have explored specific components related to social media and digital technology instruction such as writing (Carroll, 2014) and ethics (Drushel & German, 2011). Even with the growing body of research, no study has proposed a unified model for a social media curriculum, in spite of the fact that social media courses are strongly recommended (Brodock, 2012). In light of this gap in research, the current study was designed to explore the following questions:
RQ1: What key concepts do professionals believe should be taught in an undergraduate social media course?
RQ2: How can social media courses prepare students to be leaders within the social media environment?
RQ3: What is the value of a social media mentor for professionals entering into the field?


To address these questions, 20 industry professionals were interviewed. Social media as an industry is largely led by professional needs and changes, which are often then reflected in the academy. Because this sector is led and influenced by practice and not existing curricula, which often lag in reflecting the current state and needs of the industry, it was determined that professionals would be the best group of individuals to speak to current needs within the industry and the educational expectations of those they plan to hire.

Purposive sampling was used to identify individuals who had strong experience within social media in a professional setting, often serving in a managerial or senior position. These professionals represented a variety of sectors including agency, corporate and nonprofit organizations. A mix of face-to-face, phone and in-person interviews were conducted based upon availability and geographic limitations. In the event of phone or in-person interviews, transcripts were made for later analysis. Participants were all 18 years or older and resided in the United States. While most of the participants consented to be identified, some asked to remain anonymous in the final manuscript and will be identified as Participant A, B, etc.

Participants were recruited based on their interaction with social media at a variety of levels within an organization. The breadth of experience of these participants provided rich content from which to draw conclusions. Participants included individuals such as Michael Brito, author and speaker on social media; Michael Stelzner, from Social Media Examiner; Melissa Agnes, crisis communications specialist; Deirdre Breakenridge, social media expert and author; Dennis Yu, from Blitzmetrics; Whitney Drake, from General Motors; Seth Grugle, from Ogilvy PR; Samantha Hughey, from Team USA; and Amy Gerber, from the American Red Cross. A wide range of professionals from a variety of organizations were purposefully selected in order to have represented voice within this study. The researchers interviewed nine women and 11 men who participated in this research. Five are employed at agencies, three at nonprofit organizations, three own their own consulting businesses, and nine work at large organizations or  corporations. Everyone who was interviewed has a role or responsibility working in social media.

The researchers used semi-structured interviews to be able to expand or follow up on any areas with participants worthy of further exploration (Rubin & Rubin, 2005). The interview protocol began with a discussion of what should be included within social media education and continued into questions involving leadership, mentoring and the role of faculty.

To analyze the interviews, two researchers read through the transcripts and independently, qualitatively coded the transcripts for the emergence of themes. This was done using the Glaser and Strauss (1967) constant comparison method. Using a qualitative, grounded theory approach is particularly appropriate for this study due to the limited research that currently exists involving perceptions of industry professionals toward social media curricula. After discussing the initial themes, the researchers again independently reviewed the transcripts. Considering the research questions, the researchers established and refined the initial themes based on evidence from the transcripts in the form of quotes using an open-coding procedure (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002). Finally, the researchers discussed the coding and any inconsistencies that arose in order to ensure the validity and reliability of the category coding. From this discussion, a coding scheme was created and the researchers revisited the data to ensure consistent coding of the transcripts. Lastly, the researchers reconvened to confirm findings.


Based on the interviews conducted among the 20 social media professionals for this study, several themes emerged from the research questions.

Key Concepts for Students to Have

Business principles in social media. Michael Brito stated, from his role as both a professor and practitioner, that students “know how to use the tools, personally. What I try to do is show them this is how it is important from a business perspective.” Dennis Yu, a data analyst for Blizmetrics who works with clients like Facebook, Golden State Warriors, and Rosetta Stone, reiterated this point and noted that students (and professors) need to look at the company picture of how social media is used as a business practice:

When people talk about social media, they are thinking about blogging or Twitter as opposed to as a process of integrating across different functions within the company. It’s almost like putting the chicken before the egg. The companies don’t know how to define it, and the programs do not know what to offer. You look at all of these programs out there and there is no way to define this monstrous beast.

Other professionals noted that there were specific areas of business that needed to be emphasized even more. Samantha Hughey, Audience Engagement Editor for Team USA, said:

I think a lot of students are missing out on the fundamentals of marketing and advertising. While many believe that traditional marketing is dead – that people are no longer taking out ads in magazines and instead are turning to social media, which is the case, however, the general concepts and ideology behind the creation of great plans still resonates from those core courses.

Social creativity. Another area that was discussed among the professionals was this notion of having social media classes focusing on the art (creativity) as well as the science (analytics). Hughey emphasized strategic thinking:

Students need to be aware of this and need to hone other crafts that will make them assets in those people’s eyes. Whether that be graphic design, research, video production, photography – have something (and something amazing) that you can also bring to the table. Also, students need to understand that if they are going into the field of social media it has to be for more than just because they love Instagram. A lot of what I am currently doing is the strategic thought process behind things – I don’t Instagram very often. Had I gone into this field thinking that’s all I would be doing I would be bummed.

Seth Grugle, a public relations professional at Ogilvy PR in NYC, agreed that the point is to be creative not only with the content that is being produced, but to be creative by looking outside of the PR field itself. Grugle stated:

I still believe, and this may be because of my background in PR, but the strongest social media campaigns start outside of social media. The first thing is to not just start on Twitter, you want to start with the end result. Always think of your sphere.

Professionals noted the importance of both creativity and writing. Carly Visbal (Giving Children Hope) emphasized that writing is both necessary and sometimes challenging to do when it comes to social media. According to Visbal, “Learning to write in a concise yet in a persuasive way is different than other writing practices taught traditionally. A challenge to working in social media is maintaining creativity while balancing time management of a fast pace profession.”

Analytic and paid media capabilities. The links between return on investment and analytics are also important elements to consider in the classroom. Shonali Burke, a public relations practitioner and consultant, emphasized the importance of understanding measurement and the power of analytics in social media. When teaching key metrics and analytics, the professionals discussed different approaches. Michael Brito, who is a social media strategist and adjunct professor, discussed how he approaches his classes when covering paid media and analytics:

I talk heavily about paid media, and going to the back end of the Twitter ads and Facebook ads and show them. They are actually responsible for finding a local business and manage their content over the course of the semester. A lot of it is instructional up front, and practical for the last two and a half months of school, and it is coaching.

Writing capacities. Like public relations courses, writing is a key skill needed for success in social media. Michael Stelzner stated that it’s not only about writing in general, but writing in different ways and on different platforms for different purposes: “Every student should write different kinds of updates: to entertain, sell, share others’ content. I would want them to get experience in different content for different purposes.” Dan Natsika of Discovery Cube LA/OC made a similar conclusion:

I think it all comes down to writing. It’s kind of like when you’re in advertising and you have to make a billboard: if you can make a clear ad and a clear call to action, then you generally start with that for everything else. I kind of view it the same way. It’s a clear message and call to action. I would say writing is always a big part of social media.

As reiterated by other professionals, writing content for multiple platforms and for emerging platforms that are currently being used by industry professionals is important to address in classes. In addition to traditional writing assignments in class, such as maintaining a personal blog, Burke recommended delving into writing for multimedia platforms and participating in Twitter chats to get hands-on experience with the platforms: “Doing a Periscope or going on to Blab. I think it is important to get their hands dirty.”

Benefits of Having a Social Media Class for Students

Hands-on experience. Whitney Drake, who works at General Motors in the Social Care division, discussed how having hands-on experience is essential if you want to have a position working in the field. However, having the ability and willingness to continue to learn is another element that is important. Drake said:

From a practitioner’s perspective, it is evolving and we do not want people to join our team who are not constant learners. Because you can’t sit on your laurels and be like, oh, I learned social media in school and I am done! It’s not going to stop. I think it is important to communicate these messages loud and clear and say – what I am telling you now may not be the same in five days, and it is up to you to continue to learn that.

Matt Kelly, who is a PR and social media specialist at Golin, shared his experiences getting hands-on experience in student agencies and how these experiences have translated to the current landscape:

While at Eastern Illinois University and Ball State University, I participated in the student-run firms. This was a great experience, because it allowed me to serve real clients. Luckily, we didn’t encounter many difficult situations or crises. But what if we did? Instead of a high-level crisis like a product recall or negative story going viral, what are some situations an entry-level person might find themselves in more regularly? A measurement report went out, and the client found a mistake. What do you do? You posted errantly from your personal account to a client account. What now? Weekly problem-solving workshops from real-world examples might help students prepare for what they’ll surely experience in the field.

Professionals who were interviewed discussed the power and great learning experience that is involved with working with real clients for class and providing insights, research, and creative proposals for them as part of the overall learning experience. Jeff Kallin, who is in charge of the Clemson Athletics Digital and Social Media team, discussed his continued involvement with higher education classes:

We do not lose sight because we are an institution of higher learning. The fact we have our students who are closely working with us, it’s been very empowering and it’s so integral to us. We are able to do the training and content creating ourselves, and work with our students and be able to mentor them . . . is huge. Having your content market create your content is golden.

Exceptional content creators and storytellers. Students need to have the opportunity to not only be tested on the key trends, terms, and concepts related to social media, but according to the professionals interviewed, they need to be exceptional storytellers and content creators across different platforms and channels.

As Breakenridge discussed in her interview, this could be the deciding factor between candidates for a job:

The students who stand out are the ones who can easily build blogs, create different social media visuals (memes, infographics, etc.), know how to write for Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. They are storytellers through different media. I also look for students who are active on social media because this shows their knowledge/proficiency, as well as the breadth and depth of their own digital footprint. I may also give an assignment to test a candidate’s level of EQ (Emotional Quotient) in handling sensitive situations on the company blog or in social media communities. It is important to test different situations and how they would handle customers and other stakeholders.

Stelzner, founder of Social Media Examiner, reiterated this point by stating:

Thought leaders will always be content creators. They will be the podcasters, bloggers, and video people. They will be creating content and that’s one thing that most people have no clue how to do. If you can create content, then you can very rapidly become a thought leader.

Along with creating content, discussing the application of how content creation can benefit from understanding key theoretical frameworks and how they could be applied strategically are other factors that came to mind among the professionals.

Amy Gerber of the American Red Cross noted:

I think it would be helpful to flesh out best practices with real-life case studies— transition the academic into application. Given that information and situations move so quickly in the social realm, it’s important that students develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills that will help them be more nimble when they find themselves managing official brand channels.

In addition, Jeff Kallin said that having the opportunity to work with classes to help create content and stories has been greatly beneficial for both his team and for the students. In fact, one of the tests his team does when interviewing students to be part of the Clemson Athletics social and digital team is to create a story:

One of the ways we audition students is to ask them to create. If we have three students to work with us in video, we have to say—you three go shoot and tell a story of this event and then submit. We can tell what they do and how their work flow is. You are going to have to create content. About social media in general, I think some of it is framed in an intimidating way and it is important to empower them to create so many opportunities and content on a daily basis. Take advantage of it. Get a website and get on Adobe’s Creative Cloud services and mobile platforms. You have so many tools at your disposal and the war is in content. People are trying different ways to connect with consumers. How are people going to find you with your content?

Melissa Agnes, a social media and crisis communications keynote speaker and consultant, also supported this perspective and stressed the importance of taking a leading role in creating and sharing content with others:

The ones who are using it well are the ones who truly, truly understand its purpose. If you look at the leaders out there who are leading the way with their organizations and utilizing social media in brilliant ways, they understand the purpose. That it is a means to an end. When I look at crisis communication, what differentiates these people from the herds or people who are just using it . . . the difference between leaders and followers is looking beyond the tool and platform and seeing the purpose behind it and the opportunities it presents.

Trend forecasting and strategic thinking. Professionals repeatedly emphasized the strategic thinking component in social media, incorporating the idea of trend forecasting. Agnes, for example, explained:

We share with students about great ways to use social media but we’re not teaching them that in every step of the process we should ask “what is the worst that could come of this” so we can mitigate the risk. Employers want to have professionals who understand the consequence of actions prior to finding themselves in uncomfortable situations. At the same time, strategic thinking is more than just avoiding threats. It is also about taking advantage of opportunities.

Luke Cheng, a social media strategist at OMD Entertainment, emphasized the importance of knowing nuances so that practitioners can take advantage of the creative potential on platforms: “We need to have an understanding of what we are actually doing and what we are doing that no one else can do.” Professionals look for strategic thinking and trends forecasting in individuals who seem to manifest these qualities in their personal social media habits. Natsika pointed out: “One of the things I would say is important is to be in the know and be progressive in what is happening across the board and in different platforms.” Kristi Torrington, a social media professional working at WestLIVING, also said students can illustrate strategic thinking through experiential learning in courses that integrate a real-world client.

The Value of the Mentor for Students in Social Media

Mentorship. Among the professionals interviewed, many discussed the growing emphasis of mentorship not only for the future generation of professionals, but also a willingness to take advice and mentoring from those coming up in the ranks. Matt Kelly of Golin pointed out that these relationships are “mutually beneficial for students and professionals. Students learn the nuances of working in their prospective fields. Professionals gain knowledge of millennial behaviors and platforms, and a new perspective.” Even at large, global corporations such as General Motors, mentorship is an important skill for both professionals and students. Drake mentioned how you have to “make yourself available” and how this practice is being implemented not only in the course she teaches, but also how she approaches her team at GM.

Industry Experience and Social Connectors. Other professionals mentioned the benefit of having a professor in the social media course serve as a social connector, bridging both practice and research into the class by bringing in guest speakers. These guest speakers, as Hughey discussed, allow students to get a real-world sense of the field as well as provide a window into networking. Some of these connections come with industry experience, which is a key attribute for a professor teaching social media. Being able to bridge the gap of knowledge and making connections in the classroom has an impact on the mentorship opportunities available for students. Kelly agrees: “Professors should either have practical experience themselves in corporate/agency settings, bring in professionals, or both. A professor teaching social media should be a connector, bridging the gap between students and professionals.”


The current state of social media education is in a point of transition. Students are facing constantly changing expectations and ever-demanding skillsets in order to excel and meet the needs of corporations, agencies, and practitioner needs.

State of Social Media Education

Public relations education and programs have been routinely evaluated and researched over the past several decades (e.g., Commission on Public Relations Education Professional Bond Report, 2006). Expectations for what needs to be taught in social media classes should be fluid and evolving as new platforms, tools, programs, and needs are in demand. Some of the skills such as paid media, business acumen, and marketing are all traditional concentrations in public relations programs.

The growing expectations for content creation, storytelling, and analytics are areas that need to be further developed and enhanced relative to social media courses. Research has explored the use of certain assignments in social media classes like certification programs provided by Hootsuite University (Kinsky et al., 2016), infographics (Gallicano, Ekachai, & Freberg, 2014), Twitter chats (Fraustino, Briones, & Janoske, 2015), and blogs to name a few. However, exploring and experimenting with new assignments in social media classes that tie into these skills and specific areas within social media could be beneficial for the educator and professional community.

Another theme that arose from this study is the fact that some practitioners in this research study discussed not only the possibility but also the willingness to collaborate and be part of social media classes. This participation ranges from being clients for proposal projects and campaigns to actually co-teaching the course. Future research could explore the different ways in which educators can create more of a fluid approach to the curriculum to address growing needs and expectations from practice while staying true and aligned with the program’s and college’s learning objectives.

Along with expectations for what should be covered in a social media class, certain assignments and exercises were also recommended. The highest priority mentioned by the practitioners was the importance of hands-on experience. This hands-on experience can range from having guest speakers come to class, speak through a video conference call system like Skype, Blab, or Google+, or serve as a client or judge for a social media client proposal project. These guest speakers can provide insight as well as be a connection for the students to reach out to during and after the class for guidance and advice on projects and internship possibilities. Agencies, small businesses, and large athletic teams are waiting for the opportunity to work with students and allow them to get hands-on experience in social media. Educators could further explore individual assignments through research to determine the effectiveness of each assignment, application of learning objectives, and overall application of the experience from classroom to the workplace.

Mentoring and being connected with the industry were two apparent themes that emerged from the data among the practitioners. Mentoring was mentioned frequently by the professionals in this study. Having educators who help guide students not only in the class, but help them make established connections with the industry are becoming a necessity in social media classes. Professors are not only expected to mentor in the traditional sense, but also to take on the role as a social connector for students and the professional community online as well.

State of the Perception of the Professor Teaching Social Media

One of the conclusions from this research is the growing emphasis on the role of the social media professor. Few studies have explored the role of the professor in a social media classroom. The respondents in this study discussed how the professor needs to have real-world experiences and to be connected with the social media community. In response to growing expectations and new demands, professors today may feel overwhelmed.

Future research could potentially explore the different characteristics, skills, attributes, and experiences professors of social media need to have in order to be successful. In addition, there is a growing trend of adjunct professors teaching these courses who are a bridge between research and the practice that brings a new dynamic of the hybrid professor.

Higher education is facing challenges because of the emergence of social media as a pedagogical tool, the development of new technologies, and greater expectations from the industry. These particular challenges are also opportunities to explore new approaches to ensure that students entering the workplace in public relations and social media are fully prepared, not only in the tools, skills, and knowledge within social media, but also in the behavior of becoming lifelong learners who strive to take the initiative to become the best they can be.


The dynamics of social media education are evolving and ever changing. Social media education is a rising discipline and specialization within public relations research and a growing interest among brands, practitioners, and agencies that wish to recruit the best talent into their own communities. The constant push and discussion of new emerging tools, platforms, and skills might result in a constant fear of missing out (or FOMO) for programs, departments, and professors. This study hopes to contribute to a clear direction for where higher education and social media courses need to go in the future, how to best prepare students for the workplace, and how to create a stronger bridge between educators and practitioners in public relations.

Finally, this study highlights the value of encouraging social media educators to share their best practices and strategies for education (Weede, 2016). While there seem to be many reports that indicate social media education is lagging and missing key competencies, it is more important than ever for educators to continue to share resources and pedagogy in order to improve all of higher education in the area of social media.

There were several limitations to this research study. First, the professionals who were interviewed for the study ranged across different industries, and they were all highly invested in social media practice or consulting. This study did not interview professors who teach social media courses. Further research should reach out to professors who are currently teaching social media courses at the university level. Interviews were only conducted to gauge what practitioners would consider to be a strong social media curriculum as well as what skills and areas needed to be added to the current curriculum program at respective universities, but there were no actual syllabi or examples shown to the professionals in this case. With this in mind, future research could explore a content analysis looking into common themes in established social media classes to determine which assignments, topics, skills, learning objectives, and outcomes align with the expectations from educators and practitioners in this area.


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Who Teaches Public Relations Writing? An Analysis of Faculty Status of Public Relations Writing Instructors

Who Teaches Public Relations Writing? An Analysis of Faculty Status of Public Relations Writing Instructors


  • Douglas F. Cannon, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
  • Damion Waymer, University of Cincinnati

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This exploratory study captures a snapshot of who—by basic faculty classification—taught public relations writing courses during the 2012-2013 academic year. Results provide evidence that faculty category might be a constraint that, according to management theory, needs attention from program administrators. Non-tenure-track faculty members handled two of every three writing courses on the overall schedule. Differences were greater at Carnegie doctoral universities; non-tenure faculty members taught three writing classes for every one taught by a tenured or tenure-track instructor. Results add specifics to the body of knowledge about public relations education and establish basic benchmarks for future study.

Keywords: Public relations, writing, instructors, management theory, faculty classification

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Menu: Abstract | PDF | Introduction | Literature Review | Method | Results | Discussion & Conclusions | References


Preparing students for the work world is an important part of public relations education. For decades, practitioners and scholars have said in trade journals, textbooks, and other publications that writing was the most important skill that applicants needed for entry-level public relations jobs (e.g., Berry & Cole, 2012; Ellis, 2015). The Encyclopedia of Public Relations says unequivocally that “writing tops the list” of tasks that practitioners perform (Carden, 2005, p. 903). Since at least 2010, Public Relations Tactics, a monthly Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) publication, has devoted its February issue to articles about improving public relations writing.

In 2006, the Commission on Public Relations Education listed writing as the first of five core competencies that 21st century public relations graduates should demonstrate. The commission recommended that a public relations writing and production course be one of five requirements in a public relations curriculum (Turk, 2006). Before a school can receive a Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) chapter charter, it must offer the five core courses—including public relations writing and production—recommended by the commission (Public Relations Student Society of America, n.d.).

Despite both the professional and academic emphasis on writing skills, Cole, Hembroff, and Corner (2009) and Berry, Cole, and Hembroff (2011) found significant dissatisfaction among public relations employers with the writing abilities of entry-level employees. Supervisors in the United States and Canada gave recent graduates poor grades on grammar, spelling, and punctuation; following style guidelines; and organizing ideas. Employers said new employees were poorly prepared to write fundraising appeals, project proposals, business letters, and memos. As a result, many supervisors in both countries had lowered their expectations of what college graduates should be able to do.

In light of the professional emphasis on writing skills—and dissatisfaction with abilities of public relations graduates—this study looks at one component of how public relations programs at schools with PRSSA chapters match faculty resources to writing courses. That component is the faculty category of those who teach the primary skill that employers say they want in public relations graduates. While faculty status may play no role in the quality of instruction, the category of faculty member does relate to resource management. Management theory (Moss, 2005) suggests that the way academic administrators choose to staff public relations writing classes may indicate how they prioritize writing instruction and could be one reason that students do not appear to meet entry-level standards.


This literature review considers three topics: (a) development of public relations programs at U.S. universities, (b) management theory in relation to public relations, and (c) theory of constraints in project-management thinking.

Public Relations Programs

Formal public relations instruction in the United States began during the 1920s in journalism programs at colleges and universities. Josef F. Wright taught the first course, titled Publicity Methods, at the University of Illinois in 1920. Wright, a former newspaperman who had become the school’s publicity director, trained students in ways that honest publicity men “dished out news” (Cutlip, 1994, p. 220). Frank R. Elliott, publicity director at the University of Indiana, taught a course titled Publicity on the Bloomington campus in 1922. Edward L. Bernays, author of Crystallizing Public Opinion, taught the first course titled Public Relations during 1923 and 1924 in the Department of Journalism at New York University (Cutlip, 1994; Hallahan, 2005; Wright, 2011). Courses in publicity and press relations soon followed at American University, Stanford University, University of Minnesota, University of Oregon, University of Texas, University of Washington, and Wayne State University (Hallahan, 2005). While Bernays said he was interested in “theory and an abstract approach to the subject,” other pioneer instructors appeared more focused on getting stories into newspapers (Cutlip, 1994, p. 220). Although historical sources do not make specific course content clear, these journalism courses dealt with practical topics and could be assumed to have involved writing.

After World War II, more U.S. universities, such as Boston, Georgia, Northern Illinois, Ohio State, and Syracuse, added public relations courses. With the exception of those at Boston, all early courses were taught in departments, schools, or colleges of journalism, where writing and reporting were fundamental skills. The majority of U.S. public relations programs today are still part of journalism and mass communication units. That academic home continues to affect how educators think about public relations skills courses, such as writing (Fedler, Counts, Carey, & Santana, 1998; Wright, 2011).

In the 1970s, speech departments (later renamed communication or communication studies departments) began adding public relations courses as well (Wright, 2011). By 1999, almost half of the nation’s public relations programs were housed in departments or schools of communication. These units traced their academic roots to rhetorical studies, interpersonal communication, and persuasion, not journalism and mass communication (Turk, 2006). As a result, these programs may not prioritize writing as much as journalism-based programs, but no scholars appear to have investigated that possibility.

Concerns about instructional standards at colleges and universities prompted PRSA in 1975 to form the Commission on Public Relations Education. It was initially composed of eight educators and practitioners. They recommended that universities offer a four-course sequence (12 semester hours) in public relations for majors. One of those courses was writing. In 1987, the Commission, now up to 25 members from eight communication industry or educational organizations, recommended a five-course sequence (15 semester hours) for majors. The list again included writing. The commission reaffirmed the five-course recommendation in 1999 and 2006 (A Port of Entry, 1999; Turk, 2006).

Enrollments in U.S. journalism and mass communication programs have been slowly declining since 2011, the Annual Survey of Journalism and Mass Communication Enrollments shows (Becker, Vlad, & Kalpen, 2012; Becker, Vlad, & Simpson, 2013; Becker, Vlad, & Simpson, 2014; Vlad, Becker, & Kazragis, 2011). The 2013 report said:

The vast majority—seven out of ten—of students who are enrolled in journalism and mass communication programs around the country today are not there to study journalism but to study something else, most prominently advertising and public relations, and that has been the case for at least twenty-five years. (Becker, Vlad, & Simpson, 2013, p. 319)

Undergraduate public relations enrollment in 2012 increased by 13.2% nationwide from 2011 while the overall enrollment in journalism and mass communication programs declined 2.9% (Becker, Vlad, & Simpson, 2013). Growing public relations enrollments should increase demand for public relations writing classes.

Faculty hiring in journalism and mass communication programs has increased annually since 2010 (Becker, Vlad, & Kalpen, 2012; Becker, Vlad, & Simpson, 2013; Becker, Vlad, & Simpson, 2014; Vlad, Becker, & Kazragis, 2011). Communication programs reported making major curriculum changes between 2009 and 2013 to respond to industry changes, especially Web-based communication. More than one-third of administrators who responded to the annual enrollment surveys said they had hired permanent faculty members (35.6% in 2010 and 37.8% in 2011) to teach digital media skills. More than half of administrators had hired adjunct faculty members (55.8% in 2010 and 62.1% in 2011) to teach basic skills courses. The digital skills course taught most often in journalism and mass communication programs in 2011 was writing for the Web. It was offered in 92.3% of programs responding to the survey (Becker, Vlad, & Kalpen, 2012; Vlad, Becker, & Kazragis, 2011).

Masse and Popovich (2007) learned that full-time faculty members who taught mass media writing were uncomfortable teaching writing skills for public relations, advertising, broadcasting, and online writing. In addition, Masse and Popovich uncovered evidence of systematic resistance to writing curriculum reforms at both accredited and unaccredited mass communication programs. Writing teachers did not want to learn new technologies or retrofit their skills to fit emerging communication channels.

Fedler, Counts, Carey, and Santana (1998) found that instructors who taught reporting/editing and public relations/advertising had lower percentages of doctorates (66%) than their faculty colleagues. Furthermore, faculty members who taught writing/editing conducted less research than those who taught other courses. Nevertheless, these writing instructors rose through academic ranks at slightly higher rates than other faculty members.

The Commission on Public Relations Education has repeatedly maintained that public relations educators should have terminal degrees (Port of Entry, 1999; Turk, 2006). In 2006, the commission said:

A successful academic career increasingly will require a record of scholarly publication and national and international recognition in the scholarly community. Without faculty who fit this model, public relations programs won’t be valued because their faculty will be considered “second-tier.” Thus, while the Commission believes there is a place in the academy for former practitioners with substantial and significant experience, those practitioners may be expected to earn their terminal degrees, i.e., their Ph.D.s, as a credential for becoming full-time faculty. (Turk, 2006, p. 74)

Wright (2011) said that the Commission’s viewpoint had clearly dominated thinking in many public relations units. Nevertheless, executives at major U.S. public relations agencies have said that many of their best new practitioners graduated from programs in which faculty members had both academic credentials and professional experience.

Other research indicates, however, that lack of practical experience among faculty members is not a major problem. Fedler, Counts, Carey, and Santana (1998), for example, showed that more than half the faculty members (53%) who taught journalism skills courses (including writing) had 11 or more years of professional experience. All instructors who taught writing listed some professional experience. Masse and Popovich (2007) found that writing instructors with doctorates averaged about 10 years of professional media-writing experience.

Nevertheless, Pardun, McKeever, Pressgrove, and McKeever (2015) discovered that senior mass communication faculty members with doctorates thought that having a terminal degree was more important for journalism faculty members than having significant work experience in news. Pardun et al. said schools around the country needed to consider the relative value of academic and practical experience as they prepared the next generation of journalism and mass communication graduates.

The authors of this article conducted an analysis and found that the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication website carried 70 ads from January through September 2015 for faculty openings in public relations or strategic communication. Fifty-four were for tenure-track positions. Forty-three of these tenure-track openings (79.6%) required applicants to have a doctorate before being hired. Ten required a master’s degree, and one did not include an education requirement. Only 15 of those tenure-track ads (27.8%) specified that candidates needed the ability to teach writing. Ten of the 15 ads that mentioned writing required candidates to have a doctorate. None of the 16 advertised non-tenure positions required a doctorate. Ten of the 16 ads (62.5%) said that candidates should be able to teach writing. This limited sample gives evidence that public relations administrators may expect non-tenure faculty members to teach public relations writing more often than tenured or tenure-track instructors.

Waymer (2014) discovered that non-tenure instructors accounted for only 24% of full-time public relations faculty members at Carnegie doctoral universities. At those institutions non-tenure faculty members taught three public relations writing courses to every one taught by a tenured or tenure-track faculty member.

The 2013-14 American Association of University Professors (AAUP) salary survey documented that colleges and universities paid tenured and tenure-track faculty members more than non-tenured faculty members. The mean salary for tenured and tenure-track faculty members (assistant, associate, and full professors) in 2013 was $90,370. The mean salary for non-tenured faculty members (instructors, lecturers, and those with no rank) was $57,158 (Curtus & Thornton, 2014). The AAUP website reports that “contingent faculty” members (full- and part-time non-tenured instructors) now fill 76% of all instructional appointments at American colleges and universities (American Association of University Professors, n.d.). AAUP does not provide data by discipline.

Lingwall and Kuehn (2013) discovered in a September 2012 study of 860 communication students from 13 schools that nearly half expressed a need for some remedial help with writing. In a follow-up study, Kuehn and Lingwall (2015) concluded that many faculty members appeared to be ignorant about the extent of students’ skills deficits. Kuehn and Lingwall (2015) proposed three steps to improve writing instruction: (a) extensive one-on-one help from instructors, (b) focused feedback to show students how to improve, and (c) intensive work on basic spelling, grammar, punctuation, and other writing mechanics.

Management Theory

Management theory includes a range of concepts that describe and predict how administrators run organizations. Systematic management thinking dates from the late 19th century. Theories emerged as large industrial organizations called for structures and policies that enabled effective operations. As public relations matured during the 20th century and joined the dominant coalition of many organizations, the discipline drew upon assumptions and processes rooted in management theory. Managerial thinking guided not only administration of the public relations function but also contributions by public relations executives to strategic organizational decision-making (Moss, 2005; White & Dozier, 1992). Today 18% of items on the Examination for Accreditation in Public Relations (APR)—the second largest area of concentration—ask about knowledge, skills, and abilities related to leading and managing the public relations function. Decisions about what to assess on the test were based on industry-wide analyses of public relations practice done in 2000, 2010, and 2015 (Cannon, 2016).

Frederick Winslow Taylor (1911) helped lay the foundation for management theory with his principles of scientific management. These principles, based on time and motion studies during the 1880s and 1890s, were designed to (a) replace habit and common sense with systematic study of work to determine the most efficient way to perform specific tasks, (b) match workers to their jobs in light of individual capabilities and motivations and then train people to work at maximum efficiency, (c) monitor worker performance to ensure that employees are using the most efficient work process, and (d) allocate work so that managers spend time planning and training workers to work efficiently (Taylor, 1911).

One of Taylor’s disciples, Henry L. Gantt, developed a graphic method (Gantt Chart) to display project schedules and control workflow (Gantt, 1910/1974). Many public relations practitioners have adopted the technique from project-management literature to plan and coordinate public relations workflow (Wilson & Ogden, 2015). Practitioners preparing for the APR Examination learn that Gantt Charts are “useful for tracking deadlines and monitoring a project’s progress as well as for planning and scheduling tasks” (Cannon, 2016, p. 59).

Another of Taylor’s students, Henri Fayol, proposed one of the first general theories of management in 1917. That theory included six primary management functions and 14 management principles. The functions were forecasting, planning, organizing, commanding, coordinating, and controlling. The principles were division of work, authority and responsibility, discipline, unity of command, unity of direction, subordination, remuneration, centralization, scalar chain, order, equity, stability, initiative, and esprit de corps (Fayol, 1949).

The project-management body of knowledge builds on the foundation laid by Taylor, Gantt, and Fayol. Project-management thinking says administrators must identify and decide how to complete each task necessary for reaching an organization’s objectives. According to this logic, a critical task for academic administrators would be educating students. In professional disciplines like public relations, administrators might determine that training students for industry would be another required task. Project managers—in addition to deciding what must be done to complete each task—simultaneously control three elements: resources (people, equipment, and materials), time (production duration and path), and money (costs, contingencies, and profits). Goals are to turn out a product that meets customers’ needs and that costs as little as possible to produce (Cicmil & Hodgson, 2006; Cunningham, 2012; Koskela & Howell, 2002; Project Management Institute Standards Committee, 2013). For public relations programs, the corresponding goals are to prepare graduates for entry-level jobs as cost-effectively as possible.

A 2013 survey of senior public relations executives showed they valued business acumen and believed public relations educators should put greater emphasis on business thinking in public relations classes (Ragas, Uysal, & Culp, 2015). These executives would probably expect to see public relations program administrators use a business approach to academic management as well. But the literature appears to lack clear evidence of any dialogue between senior executives and university administrators about how public relations programs are run. Wright (2011) said educators rarely have meaningful dialogue with practitioners.

Theory of Constraints

The theory of constraints, a systems-management approach developed in the 1980s, is one project-management theory (Goldratt, 1990). It offers one way to analyze the educational process. This theory assumes that every system, no matter how well it performs, has at least one bottleneck. Informed by the adage that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, the theory directs managers to identify and correct that constraint. Managers follow a three-step process: Identify the constraint, manage the constraint, and evaluate the resulting performance. Constraints may be physical (inadequate equipment, people, or space), policy-based (standing operating procedures, ways of working, union contracts, or overtime rules), paradigm-based (beliefs about how things should work), or market-based (supply and demand). Because a system can have only one “weakest link,” a process can have only one constraint at a time. Once the constraint is eliminated, another factor will become the weakest link and demand attention. By addressing each constraint, managers constantly improve their operations (Goldratt, 1990; Goldratt & Cox, 2004).

Recent enrollment, curriculum, and faculty-employment trends have presented potential constraints that may influence how public relations program administrators manage resource allocations for public relations writing. Constraints regarding writing could include students poorly prepared for public relations writing (Kuehn & Lingwall, 2015; Lingwall & Kuehn, 2013); inadequate classroom space or number of instructors to meet enrollment demands; faculty members unprepared or unwilling to teach public relations writing (Masse & Popovich, 2007); limits on faculty teaching loads; inflexible curriculum requirements; competing priorities for faculty time; or changing writing demands in the public relations marketplace.

In light of the foregoing trends in public relations education and business thinking about resource allocation, this study examines if the faculty category of public relations writing instructors at schools with PRSSA chapters is a constraint that affects how students are taught to write. This examination explored three research questions:

RQ1: How does the number of public relations writing classes taught by tenured and tenure-track faculty members at schools with PRSSA chapters compare to those taught by non-tenured faculty members (instructors, lecturers, and those with no rank, such as adjuncts and graduate students)?
RQ2: How do faculty assignments to public relations writing classes at PRSSA schools differ by Carnegie classification of the college or university?
RQ3: Does school location influence faculty assignments to public relations writing classes?

The first question was intended to explore whether significant differences in faculty assignments existed and could qualify as a constraint. The second question was designed to see if faculty resource allocation might be a constraint at some schools but not others. Carnegie doctoral universities, for example, could have more rigid research-focused tenure requirements than master’s colleges and universities or baccalaureate colleges. Those requirements might come into play in identifying constraints. The third research question sought to see if the availability of practitioners who might teach writing part time influenced faculty resource allocations. Cities would likely have more public relations practitioners than rural areas. Hence, the pool of part-time labor available to teach public relations writing might be greater for universities in or near urban areas than for others and could change the constraint calculation.


To gather data for exploring these three research questions, one author analyzed online course schedules during the 2012-2013 academic year at schools with active PRSSA chapters (N = 332) (Public Relations Student Society of America, n.d.a) and recorded results on an Excel spreadsheet. To be eligible for a chapter charter, each school needed to (a) be a nationally or regionally accredited four-year institution that offered baccalaureate degrees and (b) offer five public relations courses that follow Commission on Public Relations Education recommendations (and include public relations writing) (Public Relations Student Society of America, n.d.c). Therefore, all schools should teach public relations writing at least once during the academic year.

The two authors consulted on how to identify courses but did not independently code the online course schedules of the 332 schools. To be included in the analysis, a course needed to meet the following criteria: (a) be part of the public relations curriculum, (b) have both “public relations” and “writing” in the course title, or (c) fulfill a writing requirement for a public relations degree. For example, Sam Houston State University in Texas had both Writing for PR and Advertising and Advanced Writing for PR and Advertising on its schedule. Both courses were included in the analysis. Baylor University allowed students to meet public relations writing requirements by taking either of two journalism courses: Beginning Reporting and Writing or Writing for Media Markets. Both were included.

Coding included school name, location, number of public relations writing sections scheduled, faculty status of each instructor (tenured/tenure-track or non-tenured), and Carnegie classification for the institution. Three general Carnegie groups were used in this analysis: (a) doctoral universities, (b) master’s colleges and universities, and (c) baccalaureate colleges (The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, n.d.). Campuses within 20 miles of a city with a population of 100,000 or more were considered urban. The distance was determined by average U.S. commuting times (McKenzie & Rapino, 2011). Coded data were imported from Excel into Statistical Package for the Social Sciences to allow t-tests and analysis of variance of means in categories examined for each research question.

To determine each instructor’s faculty status, the same author who identified courses matched teacher names to online faculty directories. When instructor names or ranks did not appear on official directories, the author checked other online sources, such as LinkedIn, for clues to faculty status.

Schools with more than one incomplete data category were excluded from final analysis. For example, some schools listed public relations writing courses online without instructor names. Others listed no courses with public relations writing in the title. Forty-one of the 332 schools lacked complete information and were excluded.


The review of online 2012-2013 fall and spring semester schedules generated complete data for public relations writing courses at 291 of the 332 schools with PRSSA chapters (121 doctoral universities, 150 master’s colleges and universities, and 20 baccalaureate colleges). The total number of writing sections was 889. Of the 332 institutions in the analysis, 159 were in urban areas. Another 132 were in rural areas. Not all public relations programs at schools with PRSSA chapters were in journalism or mass communication units. Some were related to business, communication studies, or English departments.

RQ1: Faculty Category

Research question one asked how the number of public relations writing classes taught by tenured and tenure-track faculty members compare to those taught by non-tenured faculty members. Results were expected to help determine if the faculty category of public relations writing instructors was a constraint that affected how students at schools with PRSSA chapters were taught to write. Table 1 shows the mean for courses taught by tenured/tenure-track and non-tenured faculty members. Differences were significant and do support the idea that faculty category could be a constraint.


Non-tenured faculty members taught two writing courses on average (M = 1.9) for every one taught by tenured or tenure-track faculty members (M = 1.1) at schools with PRSSA chapters during the 2012-13 academic year. That difference is statistically significant (p < .001). The d effect size is approximately .4, which is medium, according to Cohen (1988), and is typical in social science research. Tenured or tenure-track faculty members were listed as teaching 36% (321) of the 889 writing sections. Non-tenure-track individuals were listed as instructors of 64% (568) of the sections. The number of sections at each school taught by tenured or tenure-track faculty members ranged from 0 to 9. The number of sections at each school taught by non-tenured faculty members ranged from 0 to 33.

This first test indicates that non-tenured instructors not only taught more writing sections than tenured and tenure-track faculty members but that the difference was also not the result of chance. The significant difference in assignments appears to reflect specific management decisions about faculty resource allocation. While this finding is far from conclusive, it provides evidence these faculty allocations could be considered a constraint.

RQ2: Carnegie Classification

Research question two considered how a university’s Carnegie classification related to the number of writing sections taught by tenured/tenure-track and non-tenured faculty members. Table 2 shows the mean number of public relations writing courses taught by tenured/tenure-track and non-tenured faculty members at schools in each Carnegie category. These results, while still showing evidence that faculty status could be a constraint, complicate the interpretation. The management issue appears to differ by Carnegie classification.


A one-way ANOVA found a significant difference in the mean number of public relations writing sections taught by non-tenure faculty members compared to tenured and tenure-track instructors, F(2, 288) = 18.810, p = .000. The Levene’s test of homogeneity indicated that variance was unequal between the master’s-level and baccalaureate-level groups. Therefore, a Games-Howell post hoc test was done to assess effect size. Results showed larger than typical effects, according to Cohen (1988), for differences between doctoral universities and master’s colleges and universities (p = .000, d = .84) and between master’s colleges and universities and baccalaureate colleges (p = .000, d = .71).

Results from this second test indicate differences in how institutions in each Carnegie classification assign public relations writing instructors. At doctoral universities, non-tenured faculty members teach three public relations writing classes (M = 3.1) for every one taught by a tenured or tenure-track instructor (M = 1.0). That result is higher than the overall difference (1.9 vs. 1.1) identified in Table 1. The comparison of means is nearly even at master’s-level institutions. At baccalaureate colleges, tenured and tenure-track instructors are more likely (M = 1.1) than non-tenure faculty members (M = .85) to teach public relations writing.

This second test suggests that the Carnegie classification of an institution may relate to whether the faculty category of public relations writing instructors is a constraint that needs management attention. Doctoral universities appear to require more writing instructors than current tenured/tenure-track faculty members can meet. Master’s-level institutions meet half their demand for writing instructions with tenured and tenure-track faulty members. Baccalaureate colleges, on the other hand, cover most of their writing-course requirements with tenured and tenure-track instructors. The need for contingent faculty members at baccalaureate colleges does not appear to be as strong as at doctoral and master’s-level institutions.

RQ3: Location

Research question three examined how urban or rural locations related to whether tenured and tenure-track faculty members taught public relations writing courses. An independent-sample t-test found no differences at the p < .05 level for the two faculty groups at rural or urban schools in any Carnegie classification.


This exploratory study captures a snapshot of who taught public relations writing during the 2012-13 academic year. Results provide evidence that faculty category could be a constraint on writing instruction at schools with PRSSA chapters—especially doctoral universities. Non-tenured faculty members taught two of every three public relations writing courses on the overall 2012-2013 schedule. At doctoral universities the difference was greater; non-tenured faculty members taught three public relations writing classes for every one taught by a tenured or tenure-track instructor.

The limited scope of the research could not show whether the 2012-2013 academic year was an anomaly or part of a trend. The numbers in this study were consistent, however, with reports in recent journalism and mass communication enrollment surveys (Becker, Vlad, & Kalpen, 2012; Becker, Vlad, & Simpson, 2013; Becker, Vlad, & Simpson, 2014; Vlad, Becker, & Kazragis, 2011) and job announcements. More than half the administrators in 2011 and 2012 enrollment reports said they had hired adjunct faculty members to teach basic digital skills courses. Faculty job announcements for non-tenure openings specified the ability to teach writing more often than calls for tenure-track positions did. But the percentage of non-tenured public relations writing instructors was below the overall percentage (76%) of contingent faculty appointments that AAUP reports at American universities (American Association of University Professors, n.d.). More research, including a more longitudinal view, is needed to analyze the situation in public relations programs. Nevertheless, the results in this study could prompt public relations program administrators—especially at master’s colleges and universities and doctoral universities—to consider whether the type of instructor assigned to writing classes is a constraint that needs to be managed.

The analysis of data in this research used a management lens. This project was intentionally designed to see if public relations programs were following constraint theory to match faculty resources to demands of the field (Goldratt, 1990; Goldratt & Cox, 2004; Moss, 2005; Project Management Institute Standards Committee, 2013). We could have used other theoretical approaches from higher education or industrial training. We chose the management approach because senior executives who hire public relations graduates say they want them to have business acumen (Ragas, Uysal, & Culp, 2015; Wright, 2011). The APR Examination, grounded in practice analyses done in 2000, 2010, and 2015, lists business literacy and management aptitude as the second-most important area of knowledge, skills, and abilities that practitioners should master (Cannon, 2016). Scholars have for many years called public relations a boundary-spanning discipline (Grunig, 1992). Therefore, we concluded that practitioners who hire public relations graduates might expect college and university administrators to reflect management thinking as they determined the best way to educate public relations majors. We wanted to investigate whether schools with PRSSA chapters would meet that expectation.

The project management body of knowledge provides clear standards for assessing management decisions. Project managers must decide what has to be done to complete a task and then control the resources, time, and money used to reach that end. Goals are to turn out a product that meets customers’ needs and that costs as little as possible to produce (Cicmil & Hodgson, 2006; Cunningham, 2012; Koskela & Howell, 2002; Project Management Institute Standards Committee, 2013). While public relations educators are not running factories, they are metaphorically producing products: graduates who fill entry-level jobs in public relations agencies and corporate communication departments. Therefore, according to project-management thinking, public relations program administrators could be expected to make the desires of potential employers a high priority in the educational process. The way administrators choose to staff public relations writing classes is one indicator of how they prioritize writing instruction.

Feedback from both employers and graduates indicates that they do not think public relations educators are producing adequately prepared public relations writers now. For decades, practitioners have said writing was the top skill applicants needed for entry-level public relations jobs. Previous research (Berry, Cole, & Hembroff, 2011; Cole, Hembroff, & Conner, 2009) identified significant dissatisfaction among public relations employers with the writing abilities of entry-level employees. Lingwall and Kuehn (2013) showed that communication students themselves expressed a need for remedial help with writing. Kuehn and Lingwall (2015) found that many faculty members did not recognize how poor student writing skills were. Project-management literature suggests that public relations program administrators would identify and address these shortcomings as a constraint. Administrators should then put systems into place that would prepare graduates who meet employer expectations as cost-effectively as possible and evaluate outcomes (Project Management Institute Standards Committee, 2013).

The theory of constraints guided the approach in this research to identifying shortcomings in the educational process. Earlier scholarship had looked at the educational level and practical experience of faculty members who taught writing (Fedler, Counts, Carey, & Santana, 1998; Masse & Popovich, 2007; Wright, 2011). But no research appeared to consider how faculty resources were allocated to writing instruction. Ads for faculty openings indicated that ability to teach writing was not a top consideration for tenure-track positions. Therefore, this project attempted to determine if the faculty status of those who taught writing qualified as a constraint that needed attention. If writing were indeed the top priority of potential employers, management theory would predict that educational administrators would (a) focus on addressing the issue and (b) assign the best-qualified instructors to those courses. We assumed that those instructors would be tenured or tenure-track because AAUP surveys show that schools invest the most money in those faculty members.

Results of this exploratory study did not support our starting assumption and showed it was too simplistic. Instead, findings identified another constraint: personnel costs. AAUP figures (Curtus & Thornton, 2014) show that non-tenured instructors make on average 63% less than tenured and tenure-track faculty members. Using less expensive instructors for public relations writing courses, particularly if demand is growing with enrollment, could be seen as wise management—especially in the short term. If non-tenured instructors could adequately teach public relations writing, they would be more cost efficient than tenured and tenure/track instructors. That cost-efficiency would be consistent with the project management body of knowledge and address the constraint. This study was not designed to assess that constraint. Results simply gave evidence that many programs did rely on non-tenure instructors to teach public relations writing. A continuing management issue, however, was that many employers were not satisfied with the writing ability of the public relations graduates they were hiring. This feedback signaled another constraint that now needed attention.

Would assigning higher-paid faculty resources to writing classes be a better way to meet employer demands and counter current negative perceptions of graduates? Earlier research (Fedler, Counts, Carey, & Santana, 1998) showed that senior faculty members were present and qualified to teach writing skills courses. Were they unwilling to upgrade their skills to match changing writing demands in the field (Masse & Popovich, 2007)? More research is needed to determine why senior instructors are not more frequently assigned to public relations writing courses.

The resource-allocation question appears especially important at Carnegie doctoral universities. Waymer (2014) discovered that non-tenured instructors accounted for only 24% of full-time public relations faculty members at Carnegie doctoral universities. This study showed that non-tenured faculty members at doctoral universities taught three public relations writing courses to every one taught by a tenured or tenure-track faculty member. If three-quarters of public relations faculty members are in tenured or tenure-track positions, should more of those human resources be allocated to helping students hone the top skill that employers want? Future research should explore this question.

Expectations about what candidates for tenure-track public relations faculty positions should be expected to do could be another constraint. Most ads for tenure-track candidates in 2015 did not specify that candidates needed the ability to teach writing, but most ads for non-tenured candidates did. Do public relations program administrators need to identify and manage this expectation under the theory of constraints as the weakest link in faculty resource allocations? More research is needed to answer this question.

Data from this study give evidence that Carnegie master’s colleges and universities and baccalaureate colleges assign non-tenured instructors to writing classes differently from doctoral universities. That finding complicates the analysis of management thinking about constraints. The average number of writing courses taught by tenured and tenure-track instructors at master’s colleges and universities (M = 1.2) is almost the same as the number taught by non-tenure faculty members (M = 1.1). At baccalaureate colleges, the mean number of courses taught by tenured/tenure-track faculty members is higher than for non-tenured instructors (M = 1.05 for tenured/tenure track and M = .85 for non-tenured). Both findings could be products of differences in program size, scope, and instructional demands. Master’s-level institutions do not have doctoral-level graduate students who might teach classes. Therefore, these schools might not have as many non-tenured resources available as doctoral universities to teach writing classes. Baccalaureate colleges are generally small and do not have graduate programs. These programs not only lack graduate students who might teach writing, but they also might not have many non-tenured faculty positions or budgets for hiring adjunct instructors. Data in this study could not address those possibilities. Future research will need to probe faculty-allocation differences at master’s and baccalaureate Carnegie institutions.

Learning that schools with PRSSA chapters rely heavily on non-tenured instructors to teach most public relations writing classes does not imply any value judgments about the quality of instruction. This study looked solely at resource allocation by faculty category. The analysis did not explore how faculty members in each category approached writing instruction or check for differences in student outcomes. Future research might interview instructors or compare syllabuses of courses taught by tenured or tenure-track and non-tenured faculty members to see if their methods or expectations varied. Analysis of course assessment data might reveal if the faculty status of the instructor was related to student outcomes.

Some might say that results from this study were not surprising. The authors agree. Nevertheless, these findings do document the reality for the first time. We have heard many explanations for the current paradigm:

(a) Writing courses take lots of time to teach and grade. Tenured and tenure-track faculty members need to use that time for research, a higher priority.
(b) Using higher-paid senior faculty members to teach basic skills courses, especially at doctoral universities, is too expensive. Tenured and tenure-track faculty members are needed more for high-level courses than for skills courses.
(c) Tenured and tenure-track faculty members may not have as much practical writing experience as non-tenured instructors, who have often worked in public relations positions for many years. Therefore, tenured and tenure-track faculty members may not be as qualified to teach writing as non-tenured instructors, or the skills of tenured and tenure-track instructors might be out of date.

All or none of these explanations may be correct. More research is needed to determine why public relations program administrators are managing their writing courses the way this study has found. That information may help confirm if faculty resources are indeed a constraint that needs to be managed in the process of preparing competent writers for public relations work.

This study was very limited. It simply took the first step in what could become a long, complicated analysis of management in public relations education. The examination of faculty status did not consider faculty rank among tenured and tenure-track instructors or how many non-tenured instructors were full-time, adjunct, or graduate students. The study gathered no information on management or operational considerations that might influence decisions at each institution about who should teach public relations writing. For example, this analysis did not try to determine if public relations programs outside mass communication units approached faculty allocations for writing courses differently from journalism-based programs. Future research should explore faculty rank, gather data on backgrounds of writing instructors, and include feedback from program administrators on how they assign people to teach writing courses. Such information could give a more nuanced picture and provide more helpful information for management decisions.


Public relations practitioners and educators have long maintained that writing is an essential skill for public relations work. The Commission on Public Relations Education recommends a writing course as one of five requirements in every public relations curriculum. Nevertheless, public relations employers have complained for years that public relations graduates do not come to entry-level jobs with adequate writing abilities.

This exploratory study looked at one small part of the writing education process: who is teaching the courses. Findings add specifics to the body of knowledge about public relations education and establish basic benchmarks for future study. Data on personnel resources used to teach this essential course should help educators better manage the situation, address complaints from potential employers, and prepare more qualified graduates for work in public relations.


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Hootsuite University: Equipping Academics and Future PR Professionals for Social Media Success

Hootsuite University: Equipping Academics and Future PR Professionals for Social Media Success


  • Emily S. Kinsky, West Texas A&M University
  • Karen Freberg, University of Louisville
  • Carolyn Kim, Biola University
  • Matt Kushin, Shepherd University
  • William Ward, Syracuse University

ekinsky-250x350px    Freberg-250x350px    CarolynKim-250x350px    MKushin--250x350pxa    Ward--250x350px


Public relations educators are challenged with developing practical approaches to teaching social media. This study explores the use of Hootsuite University, a social media education and certification program that has reached more than 20,000 students. The impact of the training is examined through three angles. First, the study explores the value to students who participate in Hootsuite University within a classroom setting. Researchers at five universities used a pre-/post-test survey with students in their social-media-related courses in the spring, summer and fall semesters of 2014 and conducted in-depth interviews with former students who had completed Hootsuite Certification. Second, through in-depth interviews with employers who hire for digital positions, the study highlights the impact of Hootsuite University training on professionals who hire recent graduates. Finally, the study examines the partnership between professors and the Hootsuite organization. Researchers conducted in-depth interviews with Hootsuite staff and analyzed the results of Hootsuiteís annual professor survey conducted in fall 2014.

Keywords: Social media education; social media certification; Hootsuite University

Kinsky, E. S., Freberg, K., Kim, C., Kushin, M., & Ward, W. (2016). Hootsuite University: Equipping Academics and Future PR Professionals for Social Media Success, Journal of Public Relations Education 2(1), 1-18.

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Menu: Abstract | PDF | Introduction | Literature Review | Method | Results | Discussion & Conclusions | References


Professional organizations grapple with maintaining strong social media engagement, adjusting to changing social platforms, and continually training and preparing employees for social media crisis and engagement (Brown, 2014). In today’s social environment, organizations experience real-time consequences for their employees’ actions. These consequences carry strong implications for the public relations efforts of these organizations. For example, Krispy Kreme received intense backlash over its “Krispy Kreme Klub” promoted via Facebook with the acronym “KKK” (Healy, 2015). On the other hand, The Salvation Army leveraged a social media viral conversation to engage communities around the issue of domestic violence (Tan, 2015). The question is no longer whether brands will need to engage in the ever-changing landscape of social media, but how to best prepare employees to monitor and manage those conversations well. The connection between social media and public relations is clear. In a study by Altimeter Group’s Brian Solis et al. (2013), 66% of their respondents said that their corporate communication/public relations department contained staff dedicated to social media. According to the 2014 Generally Accepted Practices Study (known as GAP VIII), Swerling et al. noted an increase in public relations practitioners using social media techniques above traditional media relations. The top four media techniques used by the 347 senior communicators who responded to the 2014 GAP survey were (in order): “content created to be spread by social media,” Twitter, online video production, and Facebook (Swerling et al., para. 6).

Researchers have explored how public relations practitioners have increased their use of social media (Wright & Hinson, 2014), and educators are challenged with developing practical pedagogical approaches to teaching social media in the shifting digital world (Fratti, 2013). The rapidly changing digital environment has paved the way for many academic and popular texts on the topic of successfully leveraging social media (e.g., DiStaso & Bortree, 2014; Kerpen, 2011; Shih, 2011). Yet, an important but understudied component in how brands can prepare for social media success is how university programs can equip students to enter the professional world with robust social media acumen.

To address this gap, the current study explores social media education certification programs as a tool for enhancing professional social media education in the college classroom. Specifically, we examine Hootsuite University, a social media and Hootsuite dashboard education program that has reached more than 20,000 students (K. Jung, personal communication, March 27, 2015). Our purpose is to identify the impact of Hootsuite University training on U.S. communication majors. Data related to the perceived value of the program was gathered through surveys and interviews of professionals, current and former students, and professors. Future implications and directions for social media pedagogy in public relations classes are also discussed.

Literature Review

Public Relations & Social Media

The goal of public relations is to build mutually beneficial relationships (Public Relations Society of America, n.d.). With the advent of social media, public relations practitioners have learned to use social media to effectively build relationships in the digital world. Breakenridge (2012), for example, argues that social media are tools that public relations professionals should be engaging with to enhance relationships. This is often accomplished by identifying key influencers in the social sphere and developing conversations that will then reach a larger social community (Freberg, Graham, McGaughey & Freberg, 2011). The growing focus on public relations and social media led to Smith (2010) proposing the social model of interaction, which looks at user initiation as a key facet in the relationship-building dimension of social media. In other words, public relations in the social media world rests on an understanding that conversations, activities and dialogue are driven by publics and not organizations (Macnamara, 2010). This audience-focused approach requires public relations professionals to be skilled with social media tools in order to be effective in the digital landscape.

Social Media in Universities

Due to the growing demand to utilize social media and the need to equip students to effectively engage in the digital world, the use of social media within higher education is a rapidly growing area of research. To date, various aspects of social media use in the classroom have been studied, including research focused on Facebook (e.g., McCorkindale, DiStaso, & Fussell Sisco, 2013; Pempek, Yermolayeva, & Calvert, 2009), Twitter (e.g., Anderson & Swenson, 2013; Forgie, Duff & Ross, 2013; Hosterman, 2011; Junco, Heibergert & Loken, 2010; Kassens-Noor, 2012; Rankin, 2009), and social media in the curriculum in general (e.g., Davis III, Deil-Amen, Rios-Aguilar, & Gonz·lez CanchÈ, 2012; Lenhart, Purcell, Smith & Zickuhr, 2010; Santovec, 2006; Seaman & Tinti-Kane, 2013). However, no published academic research has focused specifically on social media software certification programs, such as Hootsuite University, in the university classroom.

Student Perceptions of Social Media

With the penetration of social media into seemingly all facets of life, scholarly interest has sought to explore how college students use social media in a variety of ways (Cheung, Chiu, & Lee, 2011; Joy & Katherine, 2008; Kushin & Yamamoto, 2010). Along these lines is growing scholarly examination into the perceptions of students who use social media in higher education (Roblyer, McDaniel, Webb, Herman & Witty, 2010; So & Brush, 2008). Yet, scholarly research has not examined student perceptions regarding the professional application of social media and its role in communication careers. Meanwhile, popular publications have highlighted the growing need for students to be trained in the professional uses of social media (e.g., Brodock, 2012). Despite evidence of the growing need for students to understand professional social media standards, formal research is lacking as to how students, professors and professionals perceive social media education and its role in preparing students for success in communication careers.

Certification Programs for Public Relations Students

Just as Merriam-Webster explains, certifying someone says they have, “met the official requirements that are needed to do [a] particular type of work” (“Certified,” 2015). For many years, higher education institutions have used certifications as a component of information technology learning outcomes (Randall & Zirkle, 2005; Rob & Roy, 2013). The popularity of these certification programs may be due to the perception that such certifications will assist in employment for students (McGill & Dixon, 2007). Indeed, Rob and Roy (2013) found that current students and alumni believe that certifications will help build a better career trajectory. Some of the certifications offered regarding information technologies, in addition to Hootsuite Universityís Certificate (Hootsuite, 2015), include Codecademy (Codecademy, 2015), Google Analytics (Google, 2015); Hubspot (Hubspot, 2015); and Cision (Cision, 2015). Building on this research, the present study investigates the use of the Hootsuite University certification program in college communication classes to uncover perceptions of its value in educating students in the professional use of social media.

Hootsuite launched “Hootsuite University” in 2011 to help people understand how to use social media better for business and how to use Hootsuiteís dashboard to maintain social media feeds. According to Hootsuite (2015), that program has trained more than 50,000 people. In 2012, Hootsuite established its Higher Education Program to help educators and their students. Since Jan. 1, 2013, this program has been used by 20,600 students and been implemented into 790 classes (K. Jang, personal communication, March 27, 2015). Through the program, Hootsuite provides professors free access to tools to effectively teach social media while also empowering students with training that helps close the digital skills gap within the current workforce. This tool allows faculty a resource to incorporate into their courses, which is particularly beneficial in a public relations industry that is so rapidly changing. The fast-paced developments can be one of the tension points faculty face when tasked with effectively teaching social media in a university setting.

Social Media Professions for PR students

As previously mentioned, the rapidly growing world of social media garners attention from the professional and academic worlds. Within the PR industry, there is an increased focus on the ability of organizations to properly prepare, monitor and evaluate social media efforts (Breakenridge, 2012; Kerns, 2014; Treadaway & Smith, 2010). However, organizations are not simply looking to mechanize social interactionóthey recognize that the value of social media is two-way communication with real-time audiences (Kerns, 2014). Instead, organizations desire to customize digital conversations into compelling dialogues that engage unique audiences and industry partners (Brito, 2014; Scott, 2011; Swann, 2014). These desires directly relate to the perception hiring managers have of students entering the digital profession (Aders, 2014; Mitchell, 2015).

Recognizing the industry need for qualified professionals, the growing body of research in the academy on how to prepare students with digital expertise, and the lack of research currently available on the impact of Hootsuite University and other certification programs for public relations students, this study will explore the following research questions:
RQ1: Will students feel more confident with social media after completing Hootsuite training?
RQ2: How does Hootsuite certification impact students’ job readiness?
RQ3: Will students’ recognition of the importance of social media education increase after completing Hootsuite training?
RQ4: What aspects of Hootsuite training are the most valuable to students?
RQ5: How do communication students think social media will impact their careers?
RQ6: What type of social media education do students still feel they need after Hootsuite training?
RQ 7: What are the perceptions of Hootsuite Certification among industry professionals who make hiring decisions?
RQ 8: What thoughts do professors who have used Hootsuite University have about the program?


To address the research questions, interviews and online surveys were employed.


First, a mix of email, phone, and face-to-face interviews were conducted as was appropriate to the time or distance restraints or the stated preference of the interviewee. In the event of phone or face-to-face interviews, text-transcripts were taken during the interview. Purposive sampling was employed to identify students who had completed the Hootsuite University program and employers familiar with Hootsuite University.

In regard to student interviews, the researchers conducted in-depth interviews with persons who had completed new-media-related communication classes taught by one of the researchers between 2012 and 2014. Each interviewee was 18 years or older, resided in the United States, and had completed the Hootsuite University program as part of the course curriculum. All participants were given the opportunity to opt into having their name used in the study. Those who opted out were given pseudonyms.

In total, 28 interviews were conducted with students/graduates from five universities, which will be referred to as University A, B, C, D and E: six from University A, three from University B, eight from University C, seven from University D, and four from University E.

Researchers recruited potential student interviewees directly. While 28 is a small sample when compared to the 20,600 students who have completed the program (K. Jang, personal communication, March 27, 2015), these interviews represent a variety of students from different backgrounds, socio-economic statuses, prior social media knowledge and experience, academic standings, degree majors, as well as various geographic locations across the United States.

In addition, interviews were conducted with employers who hire for digital positions, including current or former employers of students who had completed Hootsuite Certification. Employer interviewees were recruited via the researchersí prior knowledge of an employer who had hired a Hootsuite Certified student or who had expressed interest in Hootsuite University. The employers interviewed included the CEO of a small public relations firm, the managing editor of a university magazine, the president of a full-service marketing firm, the director of student affairs marketing at a university, the broadcasting director for a Junior A Tier II hockey team, and a university web communication manager. In total, six employer interviews were conducted. While there were many students to pull from, there were far fewer employers available to interview. There are a few reasons for this: only some students who have completed Hootsuite have positions that directly utilize social media; sometimes the person who hired the student is no longer with the organization; some employers were nonresponsive perhaps due to busy schedules; and some students chose not to provide employer contact information.

Semi-structured interviews were used enabling the interviewer to be flexible and ask follow-up questions to further explore interviewee responses (Rubin & Rubin, 2005). The interview protocol with students began with a broad question about how the Hootsuite University training impacted the intervieweeís life and/or work. The interviewer also asked what parts of the training program seemed most and least helpful. Lastly, the interviewer asked what suggestions the interviewee had for students taking the Hootsuite training in the future.

Using the semi-structured interview approach, interviews with employers of students who had completed Hootsuite University training adhered to the following protocol. The employer interviewees were asked how Hootsuite University training in the college classroom impacted a student who interned or worked for the employer. The interviewee was also asked what portions of the studentís Hootsuite University training seemed most helpful to the studentís employment. The interviewer then asked if, and in what way, a student candidateís certification status with Hootsuite impacts the employerís impression of the candidate.

Semi-structured interviews were also used to gather data on employers who hire for digital positions, but who have not yet hired a Hootsuite Certified student. These interviews enabled the researchers to examine the wider understanding of Hootsuite Certification among the industry. These employers were asked about their familiarity with Hootsuite University, their perceptions of the program, and how an applicantís certification might impact hiring decisions.

Applying the Glaser and Strauss (1967) constant comparison method, researchers qualitatively coded interview transcripts to allow for the emergence of themes. Due to lack of scholarly research into perceptions of the Hootsuite University program, a qualitative, grounded theory approach is appropriate for in-depth exploration of perceptions of its utility in social media education.

To analyze the interviews, two researchers independently read all student transcripts and two researchers read all employer transcripts to establish familiarity with the content and to allow themes to emerge. Second, through repeated analysis and refinement, and in consideration of the research questions, each coder individually established initial themes and evidence in the form of quotes, through an open-coding procedure (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002). Third, the researchers compared the completed individual analyses to identify categories and discuss category dimensions. The researchers discussed any inconsistent initial coding to reach a consensus on data coding procedures and ensure validity and reliability of category coding. From this discussion, a coding scheme was created and the researchers revisited the data to ensure consistent coding of the transcripts. Lastly, the researchers reconvened to confirm findings.


In addition, surveys with a mix of quantitative and qualitative questions were conducted with students who had completed Hootsuite University, as well as professors who had used Hootsuite University with their students. A pre-certification survey was administered in the beginning weeks of the semester to students enrolled in a new media course that was going to participate in the Hootsuite University program. Once students had completed the Hootsuite University training, a second, post-certification survey was administered. In total, 164 students responded to the pre-certification survey between Feb. 7 and Nov. 5, 2014, and 129 students responded to the post-certification survey between March 24 and Dec. 3, 2014.

To attain professors’ perceptions of Hootsuite University, the researchers also examined results from a survey performed by the Higher Education program within Hootsuite. The survey was launched online in September 2014 and targeted professors who had or were currently using Hootsuite University in their classes. The Hootsuite personnel shared the results with the researchers of this project. In total, 45 professors from varying universities responded to the survey. Text responses from both student and professor surveys were analyzed using the same constant comparison approach (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) as applied to the interviews described above. As a result of the analyses, the research team arrived at the following results. Descriptive statistics were performed using Qualtrics to offer additional insight into the research questions.


This research gathered feedback from students, professionals and professors regarding the use of Hootsuite University training in undergraduate communication classes. The responses and emergent themes are shared below in reference to the research questions posed.

Research Question 1: Social Media Confidence

Regarding the first research question, a comparison was made between the pre-certification survey and the post-certification survey for the question: “What is your comfort level on social media?” On the pre-certification test given to current students in a course using Hootsuite University, students self-reported an average comfort level of 3.94 (on a scale of 1 to 5). Of the 157 students who responded to that question, 38 were very comfortable, 81 were comfortable, 30 were neutral, 7 were uncomfortable and 1 was very uncomfortable prior to completing their certification. The post-certification survey showed an increased average comfort level of 4.06 (n = 124). Of the 124 participants who responded to this question on the post-test survey, 42 said they were very comfortable, 62 said they were comfortable, 12 were neutral, 1 was uncomfortable, and 7 were very uncomfortable.

From the in-depth interviews with students who earned Hootsuite Certification in previous semesters, a theme emerged that these students had a better understanding of the professional application of social media tools, concepts, and strategies. Sub-themes included better understanding of personal social media use and a feeling of empowerment.

Professional social media understanding. Alex Ptanchick, a graduate of University E and currently working with USA Todayís social media team, described her experience with Hootsuite University: “one day you’re learning about the importance of keywords and tagging and the next you are finding out how important it is to have a professional, engaging bio” (personal communication, February 9, 2015). Ptanchick said, “There’s really nothing quite like Hootsuite University in the sense that someone is actually telling you what to do, how to do it and why itís important that itís done.”

Adelyn Biendenbach, the social media coordinator for the Florida Panthers hockey team and another graduate of University E, discussed how she uses Hootsuite in her job:

I use it for social listening to see every tweet from and about our players and prospects. The season at a pro-sports team really is year-round with long hours and crazy busy days, I was able to so quickly jump into and adapt to this atmosphere because of the extensive training I already had in the Hootsuite software. (personal communication, February 2, 2015)

Rebecca from University D interns at a non-profit and a small business. She said her experience with Hootsuite University gave her the tools to demonstrate ìwhat I can do for them, how I can prove results, and how I will stay organized, ahead, and proactive. For the most part, I use [Hootsuite] to schedule messages, report metrics, and search for key wordsî (personal communication, May 4, 2015).

Personal social media understanding. Besides professional understanding of social media, students felt that Hootsuite University served as a tool for growth and development of personal social media literacy, skills, and understanding. Some of the students had not heard of Hootsuite before taking their social media class.

Nicole Gabriel from University B (personal communication, September 14, 2014) shared:

I had never heard of … “social media management” before hearing about Hootsuite. When I heard one of our assignments for the course was to become Hootsuite Certified I actually panicked. When I dove into Hootsuite and found out I could look at my Facebook wall and Twitter feed I got pretty excited.

“Clark,” a student from University D, felt that the program allowed students to explore all of the possibilities of social media and how they could use it not just for their professional career, but personal as well (personal communication, June 1, 2014). There were specific lessons within Hootsuite University that struck a chord with students. University D student “Thomas” pointed out that, “On the personal end, the sections of the program regarding etiquette and ways to use social media have left more of an impression for me” (personal communication, June 14, 2014).

Empowerment. Knowing the strategic applications and tools allowed students to feel emboldened and ahead of the game. Students felt that Hootsuite enabled them to have a positive impact on their organizationís social media presence or strategy.

Leadership. In one vein, students felt the knowledge they gained enabled them to stand out to their employers. They said the certification helped them feel confident in their ability to engender change within the organization. Emily Maher, a graduate of University E and a reporter for Hearst Television, mentioned that “[Within] the first 6-8 months I was there, they started using Hootsuite at work. Everyone else had a learning curve, so I was already ahead of the game” (personal communication, Feb. 5, 2015).

In one vein, students felt the knowledge they gained enabled them to stand out to their employers. They said the certification helped them feel confident in their ability to engender change within the organization. Emily Maher, a graduate of University E and a reporter for Hearst Television, mentioned that ì[Within] the first 6-8 months I was there, they started using Hootsuite at work. Everyone else had a learning curve, so I was already ahead of the gameî (personal communication, Feb. 5, 2015).

Gisselle Kohoyda, social media coordinator for SwimSwam and University B student, talked about how she became a leader in social media and felt empowered to help her employer:

Most people are afraid to pass off such a large portion of their company to a 23-year-old kid with an Instagram account, but after I elaborate my formal training and my experience, they are almost relieved to be passing off a piece of their business, especially to someone who actually knows what they are doing and has a very concise plan on scheduling that will benefit them (personal communication, January 27, 2015).

University B student Nicole Gabriel (personal communication, September 14, 2014) talked about how she became a social media leader within her nonprofit organization. Gabriel said, “Before I came into the picture, all . . . staff members were posting on our Facebook and Twitter page. This made for a confusing wall and newsfeed that didnít mesh well together.” Because of her training, she was able to shift social media management to Hootsuite.

Confidence. Similarly, students gained confidence in their abilities. This confidence had an impact in the studentsí outputs. For example, Laura Decorte from University C said, “It also made me more confident when working with social media platforms for my job. I understood better what helps companies increase their visibility online, and how to use hashtags and keywords to really improve engagement” (personal communication, June 18, 2014).

Robin Karber, a graduate of University A and now director of marketing for a credit union, said, “While in school, it did help me feel more comfortable and hirable, as if I was better rounding off my skill set” (personal communication, January 26, 2015).

University C student Amber Amaya said, “Practical training exercises helped me become more confident when using Hootsuite. Learning how to utilize geo-codes and geo-searches helped me tailor my clientís Twitter posts to best interact with the local audience” (personal communication, June 9, 2014).

Cassandra Acosta, also a student from University C, discussed how she was able to use Hootsuite for her work with a non-profit organization and how she has recommended the program to other non-profits. Acosta said:

I feel confident explaining what Hootsuite is and how organizations can best use the program. My Hootsuite certification also has helped me in my current job . . . because I am able to show the non-profitís director how Hootsuite would be beneficial to use in order to save time and to reach a more specific local audience (personal communication, May 19, 2014).

Rachel Snyder, also from University C, said, “After the training, I was more confident in my ability to schedule posts, and I even scheduled tweets for the month-long January term we have” (personal communication, Jan. 15, 2015).

Research Question 2: Hootsuite Certification and Job Readiness

In addition to the question of confidence levels after Hootsuite training, this research looked at certified individualsí job preparedness. Eighty-two percent of the students who responded to the post-certification survey indicated they thought the social media education they received through Hootsuite University would aid them in their job search.

Through the open coding of the in-depth interviews of Hootsuite-certified former students, several themes were found related to job readiness. In addition to improved confidence, other themes involved developing a social media skillset, understanding the professional application of social media, and the ability to find internships and jobs. For example, “Clark” said, “In the case of jobs, it does look good to have knowledge in Hootsuite. A lot [of] employers and businesses especially in marketing and public relations require applicants to have prior knowledge of all social media” (personal communication, June 1, 2104). Another student commented, “Because of our Hootsuite training in class, I have been able to explore a whole new career field as I prepare to graduate and enter the workforce” (C. Acosta, personal communication, May 19, 2014).

Laura Decorte (personal communication, June 18, 2014) said, “I am currently employed with a marketing company, and I think [Hootsuite University] provided my resume and experience with an edge because I already understood this social media aggregate and understood how to make it work.” George Lozano, graduate of University A, also talked about the value of Hootsuite Certification being on his resume: “It’s on there …. I can say, I know social media. I can keep up with trends. It prepared me to know what’s important, what they’re looking for” (personal communication, January 26, 2015). Nicole Gabriel (personal communication, September 14, 2014) said, “it looks great to employers (especially if you’re looking in the field I’m in) to be Hootsuite certified.”

Maggie Cunningham of University B, a copywriter and social media coordinator for CafePress, agreed: “Even just having the Hootsuite Certification owl emblem embedded onto my resume and LinkedIn accounts set me apart’ (personal communication, January 26, 2015).

Cunningham added, “It was a talking point in interviews, and a metaphorical gold star that really helped me stand out and show employers I was ahead of the game.” Caitlin Tye, a graduate of University A, said Hootsuite University training “makes a communication degree more marketable whether you’re selling a product or working with an organization” (personal communication, March 4, 2015).

Lori, a graduate of University E, said, “When I was hired, Hootsuite was very instrumental. . . itís the same tool we used at work to monitor our clients” accountî (personal communication, February 23, 2015). In the job interview, “Lori” said she “was able to confidently say I was Hootsuite certified.” She said, “They were pleased to know that I already had experience. It definitely earned me some brownie points.”

Research Question 3: Student Recognition of the Importance of Social Media Education

In a pre/post-certification survey, students were asked how important social media education was to them. The recognition of social media educationís importance did not increase after Hootsuite University training. Ninety percent of the participants responded that social media education was important to them in the pre-test, and 83 percent said it was important to them in the post-test.

In addition, on the post-certification survey, students were asked how likely they were to recommend Hootsuite University to a friend, which also speaks to their valuation of social media education. On a scale of 0 (not at all) to 10 (extremely likely), the average response was 6.62 with a mode of 8.

From the interviews, students expressed there were many opportunities available to them to apply what they had learned from the Hootsuite University program. Joshua Dominguez, a student from University C, said the training he received from Hootsuite University helped him with his job search “particularly because it has a certificate associated with the education process that can be produced for employers. The certificate helps me show employers that I am willing to go out and learn the necessary tools and skills needed” (personal communication, April 28, 2014).

There are even opportunities for creating a new role within an organization or brand if it does not have a social media presence yet. By having the strategic understanding and applied practice of Hootsuite, students felt this was a wonderful opportunity to capitalize on. Kohoyda said, “Even further, going to a business that doesn’t have specific SM platforms and mission statements directed towards social media provides a skill that will give you the edge over your competition, the edge that says ‘You need me to work for you, I am an invaluable resource'” (personal communication, January 27, 2015).

Research Question 4: Hootsuite Training Aspects Most Valuable to Students

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being very little and 10 being very much, current university students who had just completed their Hootsuite Certification were asked to rate certain aspects of Hootsuite University. The elements are listed here with their average scores: Hootsuite Certification (M = 7.29), social media course-ware (M = 6.63), Hootsuite dashboard courseware (M = 6.43), certified professionals directory (M = 5.91), and lecture series webinars (M = 5.44).

When asked on the post-certification survey what particular lessons were most helpful, students responded with a variety of opinions. Answers were open-coded to reveal themes. One of the most common topics was the Hootsuite dashboard itself. One student responded, “At first the ones that showed me how to maneuver around Hootsuite.” Students also appreciated the opportunity to learn about the differences and strengths of specific platforms, including Google+ and LinkedIn. One student said, “The lesson that I found helpful to me was the lesson that dealt with all different kinds of social media. It really showed me things about some social media tools that I had no idea of how to do.” Another student replied, “I like the videos that were specific to different social networks so it was easier to see what different content to post on each.î Another popular response was the topic of professionalism and ìthe doís and doníts of social media etiquette.” Many students also mentioned the topic of monitoring or listening. One student said the most helpful videos were those “on the importance of why we monitor and how to monitor to listen to users.”

Other areas mentioned repeatedly included “learning how to create posts and scheduling them to several platformsî and ìtracking for keywords.”

Geolocation was another repeated topic. One student explained, “The lessons on location services inside of Hootsuite . . . I think that finding what people are talking about in my area will be very useful in my future.”

Research Question 5: How Students Think Social Media Will Impact Careers

In the post-certification survey, students were asked an open-ended question about how they thought social media could impact their careers. All responses were open-coded to search for emergent themes. The overarching categories that emerged were related to how social media impact getting a job and doing a job.

Landing a job. Certain students saw social media knowledge as a key element on their resume. One participant said, “I believe social is the only way our job market is heading. Knowledge in this will increase your potential for job searches and strength in your job.” Besides the importance of social media knowledge, some students recognized that even the location for job searches has changed. One student said, “I think social media can benefit the job search because nowadays many companies/organizations are posting job information online.” In addition to knowing about social media and searching for jobs via social media, students recognized the ability to connect with others on social media.

Networking. One student said, “Social media can give you opportunities to meet new and important people.” Another student commented, “In terms of getting a job, social media can impact the way I connect with people.”

Skillset. Students pointed to social media skills as beneficial to their future careers. One explained that the current economy “creates the need for people with the skill set and knowledge in social media.” Another respondent said, “If I am well rounded, it may give me an upper hand in the hiring spectrum. The more skills you have the better!” One student said, “I definitely think that having sufficiency in all platforms would be a great idea for all people entering into the job market. It will become vital in people graduating.” Similarly, one student pointed to the benefit of that skillset: “Can give me an advantage against other people applying for the same job.”

Appearance. For some, they noted the importance of not just social media skills, but the appearance of one’s social media profiles: “I think it’s a huge deciding factor on whether or not you will get a job. Most employers look on your social media accounts before hiring.” Another student agreed: “I think that all employers look at every social media outlet that you have. So in that way, what I post can influence if I get a job or not.” Closely connected to appearance was the reference to personal branding.

Self-Branding. One student said, “It can help create ‘My brand.'” Another student replied, “If done right, social media can help share your personal brand and show future employers that you can help publicize their brand.” One participant said, “I think that social media has the power to impact your image and brand on a broader level. You can show your personality and also your professionalism on one profile or even post.” Another respondent said, “Social media can help us brand ourselves, and being educated in it can help us to be more marketable for future jobs.”

In addition to the positive possibilities in personal branding, other students pointed to the caution needed. One said, “You have to be careful what you post and how you brand yourself.” Another student agreed: “Employers will search you on various platforms. It’s important to have a good online persona.” Another participant explained, you “never know when an employer may choose to look up [your] profile on Facebook. I believe that if you present yourself well not only in person, but also in social media you are more likely to get a job.”

On the job. Many of the students noted how social media will not only help them get a job, but it will be part of those careers. One student indicated the widespread need of social media knowledge: “Social media is becoming so important for companies. Every company or brand needs a social media presence and social media teams for these companies are growing.” Another respondent discussed the uses for social media within business in general: “Social media can impact the way we gain customer perceived value, data information, and build a relationship with our customers.” Similarly, another student said, “Social media allows for customers to feel heard, valued, and listened to when used correctly with business.” One student expressed the usefulness of social media within the non-profit realm: “I hope to go into the non-profit sector, so social media (as a free and prominent resource) will be a huge part of reaching out to our audiences. We have to meet them where they already are.”

Reputation. While many students mentioned the importance of watching what they post as they get ready to search for a job, one student suggested the need for continual vigilance: “If not wise when posting, it could end your career.”

Networking. In addition to using social media to network to find a job, students mentioned networking within their jobs. One student said, “I use LinkedIn to help network with co-workers and potential clients.” Another said, I can use social media to “connect with prospective clients/connect with consumers/get information to the public/promote.” One respondent said, “It can impact [my career] by expanding contacts and networking, while promoting the non profit organization I hope to work for.”

Expected in field. Some students pointed to the expectation of social media use in public relations. One student said:

Being in the public relations field, social media will have a huge impact in my career. Social media is a great tool for directly communicating with the public to further understand their wants as well as their opinions on given subjects.

Another student said, “It is my career, honestly.”

Research Question 6: Type of Training Still Needed

The survey also asked respondents what type of social media training they thought they still needed after earning their certification. Respondents were encouraged to select all choices that applied to them. The majority selected measuring social media analytics (64%) and education on social media for business (54%). Other choices were education on specific social networks (29%) and social media etiquette and responsibility (14%). They were asked a similar question on the pre-certification survey to see what areas of social media education they thought they needed. Eighty percent of the respondents wanted education on social media for business; 61% on measuring social media analytics; 57% on specific social networks; and 47% on social media etiquette and responsibility. Most of the percentages were dramatically lower on the post-test survey, which suggests some of their educational needs were satisfied through the Hootsuite University training.

Research Question 7: Perceptions of Hootsuite Certification Among Industry Professionals

Through open coding of employer interviews, several themes emerged. First, having Hootsuite certification apparently gains students more credibility in the eyes of decision makers who are looking for social media interns/employees. Assistant Director of Brand Messaging and Content Strategy at University C, Brett McCracken, said, “A student’s certification status definitely makes me feel more confident in their skills” (personal communication, February 16, 2015). According to Kim May, president of Nobox Creative, if she saw Hootsuite Certification on a resume, “I would at least want to interview this person. I wouldn’t make the hiring decision based on it, but it would help” (personal communication, March 4, 2015).

Second, according to the professionals interviewed, Hootsuite University training provides verification that students have basic social media acumen. McCracken (personal communication, February 16, 2015) said, “It is a big plus to know that an applicant to a social media job has taken the time to develop their skills and familiarity with things like Hootsuite.” When asked about seeing Hootsuite Certification on a resume, Web Communication Manager Trey Roach said, “If it were for a social media job, I would almost expect it. If it were for a web/marketing job, it would be a huge plus” (personal communication, March 6, 2015). Denis J. Puska, director of broadcasting/media relations for a local hockey team, said, “Having an intern come in with prior experience makes a huge difference and puts us ahead of the game right away, and it takes the stress off our staff” (personal communication, March 16, 2015).

Third, the Hootsuite Certification reportedly grabs employers’ attention. May said it “would at least take my interest” (personal communication, March 4, 2015). Sandy Sponaugle, CEO of Platinum PR, said Hootsuite experience serves as a “conversation starter” in a job interview, and she discovered after hiring a Hootsuite Certified student that it “proved to be a value because it didn’t require any training on my part. I could ask them to complete the task and then walk away from it” (personal communication, Jan. 22, 2015). Sponaugle said the certification also “immediately elevated them in an interview . . . because it is something that I don’t have.”

A fourth theme that emerged from the employer interviews was how Hootsuite Certification sent the message of being willing to learn. Employers suggested that those who have Hootsuite Certification illustrate they not only have social media proficiency but that they are driven to learn more. Finally, a theme emerged that employers do not know much of what the training entails, but they are impressed by the certification. For example, Puska said, “I don’t know much about Hootsuite, but the fact that she is certified is huge” (personal communication, March 16, 2015).

Research Question 8: Perceptions from Professors

Forty-five professors who have used Hootsuite University in their classes responded to a survey launched by Hootsuite in September 2014. Thirty-seven of them were currently using Hootsuite University in class, and the other eight had used Hootsuite University the previous semester. These professors were asked how likely they were to recommend the program to other professors. On a scale of 1 to 10, the average response was 9.18, with 26 of the professors indicating a 10 (extremely likely). The survey then asked the respondents to select the best response for why they chose the score they selected. Choices included: learning opportunity for students (selected by 16 respondents), the opportunity for students to earn Hootsuite Certification (13), recognized in the industry (7), and high quality educational materials (7). The survey also asked whether providing the opportunity for Hootsuite Certification was an important factor in the faculty memberís choice to participate in Hootsuite University. Forty-one respondents said it was an important or very important factor, while three said it was neither important or unimportant, and one said it was an unimportant factor.

Discussion & Conclusion

Several lessons can be taken away from this study of social media education. Overall, students felt that having a social media education program as part of class was important. While understanding the technical tools and tactics was essential, students also recognized the management-level opportunities that come with having this type of knowledge.

One particular result from the student surveys was surprising. Some students were more confident prior to certification than afterward. This response suggested Hootsuite University was a humbling experience for them as digital natives. In essence, students were facing somewhat of a “social media paradox” – students are considered to be digital natives, but they were perhaps uncomfortable in the realization of how much they did not know.

While some students felt overwhelmed and uncomfortable, others felt the training they received from Hootsuite University not only empowered them, but gave them the confidence needed to become a leader within their organization. Students not only felt they knew what the social media tools were, but also how to apply them strategically, which empowered them with confidence in knowing they were ahead of the game. Specifically, students felt the activities and lessons provided in the program allowed them to develop their social media skills and opened the door to understanding how this is applied in the professional field, as well as using these tools to help them find jobs and internships.

Empowerment and leadership benefits from social media education can also be applied for professors as well. Providing a tool and experience for students that is not only useful, but respected by professionals in the field, can help professors gain more acceptance in their respective departments, programs, and universities. Indeed, more programs across the nation have integrated social media into their curricula. Based on a 2013 survey by Seaman and Tinti-Kane, 41% of professors now use social media as a teaching tool compared to 34% the year before. With Hootsuite University being implemented in more universities and programs, this number will likely continue to rise.

Knowledge in social media is indeed power in today’s business environment, allowing students to apply what they have learned in the program to help make changes in the culture, business practices, and communication structure on social media for their respective internships and jobs. In a time where job competition is high, a rise in confidence in knowing new applications, strategies, and tools can be the difference for students between unemployment and becoming a rising star. Based on the post-certification surveys, students pointed to valuable training received through Hootsuite University, including the explanation of various platforms, professionalism, and monitoring/listening.

Limitations. Because of the anonymous survey method used and thus, an inability to have matched pairs, the pre-certification and post-certification data could not be tested for statistical significance. In addition, a larger sample size would be preferable to help generalizability, although the recruitment of students from five universities spread across the country should help. Finally, as with all interview and survey research, there is a chance of response bias. An attempt was made to mitigate that by offering anonymity on the surveys and using objectively worded questions in the interviews.

Future studies. Future studies could examine social media education over the long term, exploring what students judge as most helpful down the road. Other certification programs could also be studied (e.g., Google Analytics) and how they are implemented in the classroom.

In summary, professors must continue exploring the benefits and challenges within social media education for not only their students, but also among practitioners. Understanding the gaps in understanding and application of social media tools is going to continue to be a challenge for professors in social media classes; however, embracing sustainable education programs like Hootsuite University can provide public relations professors a current and beneficial tool to incorporate into their classes. Professors need to serve as a guide in social media education to help students know not only the personal use of social media, but the benefits of using these tools to accomplish their own future goals in the public relations field.



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The Best of Both Worlds: Student Perspectives on Student-Run Advertising and Public Relations Agencies

The Best of Both Worlds: Student Perspectives on Student-Run Advertising and Public Relations Agencies

  • Joyce Haley, Abilene Christian University
  • Margaret Ritsch, Texas Christian University
  • Jessica Smith, Abilene Christian University

Haley--250x350px   Ritsch-250x350px   Smith-250x350px


Student-led advertising and/or public relations agencies have increasingly become an educational component of university ad/PR programs. Previous research has established the value that advisers see in the agencies, and this study reports student perceptions of agency involvement. The survey (N = 210) found that participants rated the opportunity to work with real clients, the importance of their universities having agencies, and the increase in their own job marketability as the most positive aspects of the agency experience. Participants said that the most highly rated skills that agency participation built were the ability to work with clients, working in a team structure, and interpersonal skills.

Keywords: Student-led agencies, public relations, advertising, skills

Haley, J., Ritsch, M, & Smith, J. (2016). The Best of Both Worlds: Student Perspectives on Student-Run Advertising and Public Relations Agencies, Journal of Public Relations Education 2(1), 19-33.

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Student-run public relations agencies have existed for nearly 40 years. Self-identifying as the nationís oldest student-run public relations agency, PRLab at Boston University was founded in 1978. By 1989, eight student-run advertising agencies had been established in such places as the University of Oregon and the University of Illinois (Avery & Marra, 1992). By 2010, a study of student-run public relations agencies identified 119 such firms (Maben, 2010).

In the past decade, the student-led agency has increasingly become a component of university public relations and advertising programs. Bush and Miller (2011) found that nearly 60% of participating agencies had existed for fewer than 6 years and almost 15% of agencies had existed less than a year. Further, Busch (2013) reported that 55% were established after 2007.
Likewise, research about student agencies is also a relatively unexplored frontier. The available research examines the pedagogical value of the agency from the adviser or educator perspective. Many of the studies are qualitative. This study adds the student perspective of the learning experience to the existing literature.

In this survey, students and alumni report that the student agency provides an experiential learning opportunity that gives students the chance to apply the knowledge gleaned from the classroom to client work, performed in a professional environment with faculty adviser guidance. Participants reported their perceptions of how agency experience helped them develop skills required for employment in strategic communication fields.

Survey results indicate that campus-based advertising and public relations agencies can offer a powerful learning environment in higher education. The experience enables the development of skills that are important to employers: teamwork, written and oral communication, and interpersonal skills, as well as reliability and problem-solving ability (Battle, Morimito & Reber, 2007; Commission Report, 2006; Paskin, 2013; Todd, 2009). This paper begins with a review of literature that has examined education in strategic communication, the value of experiential learning, and the growth and performance of student agencies. It continues by describing the survey methodology employed, sharing results, and discussing implications of the findings.

Literature Review

Strategic communication educators periodically receive input from industry professionals regarding skills requirements for entry-level practitioners. The Commission on Public Relations Education issued a report in 2006 (an update of an earlier report issued in 1999) titled The Professional Bond: Public Relations Education for the 21st Century. In both the 1999 and 2006 reports, the commission identified gaps between what public relations majors were able to do upon graduation and what PR professionals required of entry-level employees. Among the most desired attributes were writing, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. Professionals deemed graduates lacking in all of these areas. The commission called on faculty to balance the teaching of writing skills with instruction in “higher order knowledge” like strategic thinking and management skills. Gaining practical experience was highly recommended and was named a key factor in students obtaining entry-level positions (Commission Report, 2006).

Several recent studies indicate that this gap continues to exist. Todd (2009) reported that PRSSA professional advisers thought skills taught in classes and skills needed in industry were mismatched. Todd said professional advisers placed higher value on “a curriculum that emphasizes practical experience in new media, internships, preparing students for their first job, and ëhands-on experience” (Todd, 2009).

There is a wide divide between how recent graduates employed in entry-level public relations positions view their job skills and how their supervisors rate them, according to Todd (2014). Practitioners who had been working in the field for 2 years or less believed their performance to be average to above average on skills and professional characteristics. Supervisors rated them significantly poorer on all but two skills, social media and computers. The greatest disparity in technical skills was in the evaluation of writing ability, followed by oral and research skills. Of the 16 professional characteristics measured, the largest divide occurred in critical thinking, dependability, attention to detail, following instructions, time management and accepting responsibility.

Industry supervisors placed “real life industry experience in the classroom” as their top suggestion to improve professional performance (Todd, 2014). Entry-level personnel ranked that suggestion second after business etiquette courses. Obtaining multiple internships ranked as second for industry supervisors and third for entry-level personnel. Supervisors also suggested increasing opportunities for writing with constructive criticism and requiring students to gain more writing practice.

The professional expectations of integrated marketing communications practitioners mirror those required of dedicated public relations professionals. Students entering IMC fields should have strong communication skills, strategic and conceptual thinking, interpersonal skills and professionalism (Battle et al., 2007; Beachboard & Weidman, 2013).

Professional application of new media tools has become essential to the practice of advertising and public relations. But, when asked to compare the importance of new media skills to traditional skills, professionals said a foundation of basic skills like writing, communication and strategic thinking should take precedence. Teaching traditional skills within the context of new media applications was considered to be ideal (Paskin, 2013).

Experiential Learning in the Curriculum

Kolb (2014) focuses on experiential learning and suggests that most disciplines would be well served to go beyond imparting factual information to helping students place the information in a conceptual framework so they can use it in varied settings. Experiential learning is “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (Kolb, 1984, p. 41). In this approach, learning is a process of relearning that requires learners to adapt as they interact with their environments. Experiential learning connects learning, thinking, and doing in a continuous loop.

Experiential learning activities have long been available for journalism majors through working on a school newspaper or yearbook. This applied learning experience increases the likelihood that students entering the journalism field truly understand the discipline and secure a job immediately upon graduation, according to Feldman (1995).

Within the public relations and advertising curriculum, experiential learning is typically facilitated through the capstone campaigns course, internships, and service learning. Students rated a campaigns course as highly effective in helping them develop the professional skills of writing and editing, strategic planning, teamwork, research, client relations and managerial skills. They also ranked service-learning high for its ability to deliver an opportunity to apply course knowledge to the real world and to build confidence and leadership (Werder & Strand, 2011). Yet, the campaigns course generally provides minimal client contact. According to Benigni, Cheng and Cameron (2004) more than half of professors report having client contact only one to three times per semester. The class also tends to have short-term technical tasks that must be repeated rather than focusing on “evolved management function” (p. 270).

Muturi, An, and Mwangi (2013) write that students report a high level of motivation from service learning projects, viewing them as an opportunity to “learn about the real world outside the classroom” (p. 401). A key motivating factor could be the “desire to move away from hypothetical classroom situations and into a real-world setting as the site for education” (p. 400), suggesting they would have a positive attitude toward any project that would meet these needs.

Professionals ranked having an internship/practicum or work-study program among the top five out of 88 areas of public relations content (DiStaso, Stacks & Botan, 2009). But internships may be more task- than process-oriented, thus not facilitating higher-level knowledge (Neff, 2002). The student agency delivers a form of experiential learning that facilitates a “cycle of learning” where the learner “touches all the bases – experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting” (Kolb & Kolb, 2009, p. 298).

Growth in the Number and Size of Student Firms

An analysis of undergraduate student-run public relations firms on U.S. college campuses in 2010 identified 119 agencies (Maben, 2010). Advisers representing 55 of these agencies responded to the online survey, reporting an average agency age of 9.36 years, with 22 having been in operation for 4 years or fewer. Thirteen had existed over 15 years, and the oldest was 37 years. Bush and Miller (2011) found that nearly 60% of advisers worked with agencies that had existed fewer than 6 years. Almost 15% of respondents advised firms that were less than a year old.

Busch (2013) analyzed the online presence of advertising and public relations agencies and found that only 19% of the analyzed agencies were established before 2000. More than half began after 2007. Busch found that agencies get larger over time. Seventy-five percent of small agencies (fewer than 25 members) were founded after 2007. All of the large agencies (more than 50 members) were founded before 2007. Taken together, these studies indicate that student-run agencies are a relatively recent trend.

Structure of Student-Run Agencies

Bush and Miller (2011) found that advisers of 51% of student-run firms described them as focused on integrated communications, followed by about a third primarily focused on public relations, and 9% focused on advertising. Agencies were evenly split between schools offering credit for participation and those that did not. Just over half operated out of journalism/mass communication programs, and 40% were student organizations, most commonly affiliated with a professional organization such as PRSSA. Just over a third had a dedicated workspace. The service most frequently provided for clients was social media (89.6%), followed by event planning (87.5%), and campus posters (85.4%). Full campaigns were implemented by 83% of firms.

Of business processes, the most common practices were weekly meetings (89.6%) and client contracts and staff orientation (at 77.1% each). Less than half used planning briefs or time sheets, and only 32.6% tracked billable hours. A majority of student agencies have implemented standard industry business practices such as job descriptions, approval and reporting hierarchies, an application and interview process, and client billing (Bush & Miller, 2011). These findings were supported by Maben (2010). Bush and Miller (2011) found that nearly 90% of agencies provide leadership opportunities for students. Fewer than half have creative teams or media directors. Nearly 60% invoice clients for their services (Bush & Miller, 2011). Maben (2010) indicated that nearly half of agencies charge clients for services.

Prior to 2009, publications about student agencies focused on case studies of individual firms (Swanson, 2011). Bush (2009) evaluated pedagogical benefits and suggested agency structures (or types) that were best prepared to deliver these benefits. Another focus of the study explored features that appeared to enhance agency sustainability. To provide a consistent platform for teaching and learning, student agencies need stability. More than 20% of the sample agencies in the Bush and Miller (2011) study had gone out of existence and revived, a few more than once. Bush (2009) suggested that agencies with the greatest likelihood of longevity had well-established structures with teams and job titles, and used business procedures including job applications and performance assessments. Additionally, clients were charged for services and the firm had a dedicated office space. Academic course credit and set meeting times provided accountability for student performance. Some students were paid. Faculty advisers were compensated, generally through a course release or overtime pay. Services provided to clients required both task and process-oriented skills.

Agencies that are operated through journalism/mass communication programs reported having more of the variables that contribute to sustainability than those run as student organizations (Bush, 2009). Those connected to JMC programs were significantly more likely to have an office that included technology and to charge clients for their services. Advisers of these programs report spending more time in their advising roles.

Among the significant challenges to stability and consistency were funding and university support. Bush and Miller (2011) found that nearly two-thirds of agencies received no university funding. Only 2% received funding at levels consistent with other student media. Seventy-five percent of agencies in Maben (2010) reported receiving no university funding.

Bush and Miller (2011) found that almost 40% of advisers described their advising as more time-consuming than teaching other courses, and about 20% reported spending the same amount of time. Eighty percent did not receive a course release or overload pay, and their advising did not count as service for tenure and promotion. Those who received compensation generally spent more time than advisers who took on the role as faculty service (Bush, 2009).

Agencies identified by Bush (2009) as having the greatest risk of dissolving had little student accountability, were volunteer-based with no application process, operated with few business protocols, and had no dedicated office space. These less stable student agencies functioned entirely as a student organization or club, and the quality of student leadership varied from year to year. Few of the 55 agencies Maben (2010) studied were this type of agency.

The importance of a dedicated office space to sustainability is unclear. Firms in existence the longest were less likely to have dedicated office space, according to Maben (2010). Only 38% of agencies in the Bush and Miller (2011) study were housed in a dedicated space.

At one university, an agency model provides an example of an approach that may circumvent the sustainability and university support issues. The university established a PR firm and integrated it with a required senior-level capstone course. In this way, faculty involvement is included in a regular course load (Swanson, 2011).

Adviser Perceptions of the Educational Value of Student-Run Firms

Previous research indicates that advisers of student-run agencies believe in the educational value of the agency model. Two-thirds said they believe student agencies are “extremely beneficial to student learning” (Bush & Miller, 2011, p. 488). They are viewed to be “highly beneficial to public relations pedagogy in the two areas that are most difficult to teach: Process-oriented experiential learning and professional skills,” according to Bush (2009, p. 35). The advisers articulated another benefit: the facilitation of career choice and opportunities.

Among the professional skills learned, the top benefit cited was the experience of working directly with clients (Bush & Miller, 2011). Learning to manage client relationships, anticipate issues, and deal with clients who change direction were commonly defined benefits (Maben, 2010). A majority of advisers said the agency experience benefited students by giving them the chance to apply their classroom learning to immediate client challenges, and to practice business processes within the context of a professional environment. (Bush & Miller, 2011). Advisers report that applied learning occurs with research, writing, strategic planning, event planning, media pitching and other client services (Maben, 2010).

Students participating in agencies were observed to grow in gaining confidence, taking on responsibility, solving problems, providing leadership that inspires others to follow, working effectively in teams, and managing deadlines (Bush, 2009; Maben, 2010). Maben said it provided a place where students “gain confidence in their ability to think independently and to take on new challenges” (p. 87). Students learned the skills of negotiating with others and of giving and accepting constructive feedback. Advisers said that the experience helped students believe they could succeed in professional agencies.

One important aspect of learning was leadership. Bush (2009) reported that “most questions for advisers are management questions – team membership, client relationships and how to deal with employees” (Bush, 2009, p. 32). The student agency structure typically gives students experience with more disciplined business practices than are offered in other experiential courses like the campaigns course, Bush found. Students have an opportunity to learn to apply a process approach and critical thinking within the professional environment. (Bush, 2009).

Agency experience on a resume can open doors to internships and employment. Bush and Miller (2011) found that half of advisers report that students often receive job or internship opportunities based upon having the agency experience. Another 42% report that students sometimes are afforded these opportunities. Maben (2010) reported that seeing a student-run agency listed on applicantsí resumes automatically earned interviews. Students with agency experience were able to more quickly obtain top internships and secure jobs, sometimes above entry-level (Bush, 2009). Maben (2010) said that “the whole experience sets them apart from students who have no practical experience” (p. 89).

Adviser time commitment was positively correlated with advisersí perceptions of studentsí skill development (in areas such as writing press releases and graphic design) and of the agencyís overall benefit to student learning (Bush & Miller, 2011; Bush, 2009). Having dedicated office space enhanced learning outcomes in skills application, understanding business processes, and developing professional skills (Bush & Miller, 2011).

Adviser responses were overwhelmingly positive regarding the agency experience, with a few reporting that their firms were too young to predict outcomes or that they believed the effects to be neutral (Maben, 2010). Challenges cited include keeping students motivated and managing client expectations. Advisers reported that “client expectations were often either too high or too low” (Bush, 2009, p. 33).

Research Questions

The literature provides a solid view of the value advisers see in student-run ad/PR agencies, so this study will focus on the perspective of student participants. Three research questions guide the paper.

RQ 1. What were studentsí experience in agency participation?
RQ 2. How did agency experience affect student skills?
RQ 3. How did agency participation affect opinions about university structure for agencies?


An online survey targeted people (current university students and graduates within the previous 2 years) who have worked in a student ad/PR agency. The survey had 28 items. Participants reported gender, major and year of graduation. Participants rated their level of agreement with nine items about their agency experience:

  • I feel better prepared for the professional expectations of the workplace.
  • The experience allowed me to learn at a deeper level the concepts covered in previous coursework.
  • I feel more confident in my abilities.
  • It is/was important for my learning to work directly for real clients.
  • The experience has enhanced my “marketability” as a job candidate.
  • Being in a responsible, dedicated job role is/was one of the most valuable things about the experience.
  • It is important for my college or university to have a student agency for ad/PR.
  • I have gained a greater sensitivity for people who are different from me (a difference such as racial or ethnic background, sexual orientation, disability).
  • Participants also rated the effect of agency work on their development of 10 types of skills:
  • Working within a team structure
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Problem-solving
  • Leadership
  • Writing
  • Working with clients
  • Understanding new media
  • Strategic planning
  • Production skills like graphic or web design
  • Business practices like budgeting, timekeeping, billing

Participants reported their level of agreement with the need for a student agency to have a dedicated space (instead of a classroom) and a faculty adviser who is readily available to students when they need guidance. They reported whether they received academic credit, a stipend and/or pay for participating in the student agency. They also reported how many hours per week on average they worked in the student agency.

A Qualtrics survey link was emailed to faculty advisers of student advertising and/or public relations agencies at 61 U.S. colleges and universities. The list included student agencies at both public and private colleges and universities, geographically dispersed across the U.S. To compile the list, the authors drew from PRSSAís roster of affiliated student agencies and the list of schools accredited by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. From the combined list, the authors searched for current adviser contacts. Three online searches were conducted to obtain faculty adviser names, first on student agency websites, secondly on the host university website, and finally a general search engine query using the agency name and the term “faculty adviser.”

The 61 faculty advisers were asked to distribute the survey link to the students who worked at the student agency either currently or in the previous 2 years.
Table 1


Out of 227 responses, 210 people provided informed consent and are considered participants. Not all participants answered every question. Participants were primarily female (n = 164, 80%), and two-thirds of participants were advertising or public relations majors in college (see Table 1).

Nearly three-quarters of participants were currently working at a student-run agency (n = 153, 74.3%), and the rest had worked at an agency in the past. Participants reported whether they received academic credit, pay, neither, or both for their agency service. Academic credit was the most popular response (n = 114, 55.1%), followed by neither academic credit nor pay (31.4%, n = 65), both academic credit and pay for their agency participation (9.2%, n = 19), and pay for their agency participation (4.3%, n = 9). Slightly more than half of participants spent 6 hours or fewer per week in their agency roles (see Table 2).

Table 2

Research Question 1

Nine questions measured various aspects of studentsí agency experiences. Mean responses above 4.25 on all items except one indicated high levels of agreement with the statements (see Table 3).

Table 3Agreement was particularly high among participants that it was important for colleges or universities to have a student-run agency and that it was important for their learning to work directly with real clients. The only item to receive moderate agreement was the statement that participants gained greater sensitivity for people who were different from them. There were no statistically significant differences by gender on any item.

Participants who were currently working for a student-run agency had a higher estimation of how the experience would enhance their marketability as a job candidate (M = 4.56, SD = .67) than participants who had worked for agencies in the past (M = 4.21, SD = 1.03). This difference was statistically significant, t(204)= -2.82, p < .01.

The number of hours worked per week affected participants’ judgment of two experience variables. The item “The experience allowed me to learn at a deeper level the concepts covered in previous coursework” showed a significant difference, F(2, 205) = 4.24, p = .02. Participants who worked 15 or more hours per week rated their conceptual learning higher (M = 4.77, SD = .50) than participants who worked 1-6 hours per week (M = 4.28, SD = .83) and students who worked 7-14 hours per week (M = 4.39, SD = .89). These are statistically different means according to Games-Howell post-hoc tests. Students who worked 1-6 hours per week did not differ significantly from students who worked 7-14 hours per week.

The item “I feel more confident in my abilities” also showed a significant difference, F(2, 205) = 4.29, p = .02. A Games-Howell post-hoc test showed that participants who worked 15 hours or more per week rated their confidence higher (M = 4.60, SD = .62) than participants who worked 1-6 hours per week (M = 4.15, SD = .75). Participants who reported working 7-14 hours per week were not significantly different from either of the other groups.

Research Question 2

Students evaluated the effect that agency work had on 10 types of skills (see Table 4). Working with clients was the skill that had the highest mean rating (M = 4.45, SD = .76), and production skills was the item that was lowest (M=3.34, SD = 1.04). Skill development did not vary by gender or whether participants were currently engaged in agency work or had been in the past.

Table 4Participants who had graduated were more likely to say that agency participation had helped their production skills (M = 3.52, SD = .92) than current students did (M = 3.18, SD = 1.19), t(198) = 2.23, p = .03.

The number of hours worked per week at the agency affected six of the skills variables. Students who reported working 15 or more hours per week rated the effect on their ability to work within a team structure higher (M = 4.63, SD = .49) than students who worked 1-6 hours per week (M = 4.25, SD = .71), a significant difference according to a Tukey post-hoc test on the omnibus F(2, 199)= 3.79, p = .02. The students who worked 7-14 hours per week (M = 4.44, SD = .77) did not differ significantly from the other groups.

A one-way ANOVA examining problem-solving skills by hours worked per week was significant, F(2, 197) = 4.02, p = .02. Post-hoc tests using Tukey HSD showed that students who reported working 15 or more hours per week rated the effect on their problem-solving skills higher (M = 4.59, SD = .50) than students who worked 1-6 hours per week (M = 4.10, SD = .82). The students who worked 7-14 hours per week (M = 4.20, SD = .91) did not differ significantly from the other groups.

A one-way ANOVA examining leadership skills by hours worked per week was significant, F(2, 197) = 5.54, p < .01. Post-hoc tests using Tukey HSD showed that students who reported working 15 or more hours per week rated the effect on their leadership skills higher (M = 4.62, SD = .56) than students who worked 1-6 hours per week (M = 4.07, SD = .84). The students who worked 7-14 hours per week (M = 4.33, SD = .91) did not differ significantly from the other groups.

A one-way ANOVA examining skills working with clients by hours worked per week was significant, F(2, 197) = 7.64, p = .001. Games-Howell post-hoc tests showed that students who reported working 15 or more hours per week rated the effect on their client skills higher (M = 4.83, SD = .38) than students who worked 1-6 hours per week (M = 4.27, SD = .79). Students who reported working 7-14 hours per week rated the effect on their client skills higher (M = 4.56, SD = .77) than students who worked 1-6 hours per week but did not differ significantly from students working 15 or more hours per week.

A one-way ANOVA examining new media skills by hours worked per week was significant, F(2, 196) = 6.39, p < .01. Tukey HSD post-hoc tests showed that students who reported working 15 or more hours per week rated the effect on their new media skills higher (M = 4.41, SD = .68) than students who worked 1-6 hours per week (M = 3.83, SD = .91) and students who reported working 7-14 hours per week (M = 3.69, SD = 1.04). There was no significant difference between students working 1-6 hours per week and students working 7-14 hours per week.

A one-way ANOVA examining production skills by hours worked per week was significant, F(2, 197) = 4.82, p < .01. Games-Howell post-hoc tests showed that students who reported working 15 or more hours per week rated the effect on their production skills higher (M = 3.90, SD = .86) than students who worked 1-6 hours per week (M = 3.21, SD = 1.07) and students who reported working 7-14 hours per week (M = 3.29, SD = 1.13). There was no significant difference between students working 1-6 hours per week and students working 7-14 hours per week.

Research Question 3

Participants indicated moderate support for the need for exclusive resources. The mean response indicated that it is moderately important for the student agency to have a dedicated space instead of a classroom (M = 3.51, SD = .65). The mean response for need for a faculty adviser who is readily available to students was 3.74 (SD = .50). There were no significant differences by gender or current or past affiliation with an agency, and the need for an adviser also had no significant differences by hours worked. Agency alumni thought it was more important (M = 3.62, SD = .55) than current students did (M = 3.42, SD = .72) for the agency to have a dedicated space, t(202) = 2.08. p = .04.

The more hours participants spent working at the agency, the higher their average rating of the importance of a dedicated space, F(2, 201) = 11.79, p < .001. Students who worked 1-6 hours a week rated this 3.31 (SD = .71) and were significantly different from students who worked 7-14 hours a week (M=3.66, SD = .56), and 15 or more hours a week (M = 3.86, SD = .35), according to Games-Howell post-hoc tests. Students working 7-14 hours per week and students working 15 or more hours per week were not significantly different.

Participant Comments

Participants responded to an open-ended question: “Why did you choose to participate in your college or universityís student agency?”

A total of 214 responses revealed a range of reasons, most commonly stated as “experience.” The word ìexperienceî appeared in 68% (n = 146) of the responses in a variety of contexts, ranging from “real-world,” “real life,” and “professional” experience to “the experience of being in charge and making decisions rather than [being] a powerless intern.”

One participant’s response reveals this common theme:

The experience would be more hands-on than learning about strategy from books, in lectures, case studies and projects – working with real clients to solve their marketing problems and see proposed strategies come to fruition was extremely motivating and more gratifying than an “A” on a test.

Some of the students defined their motivation for joining a campus agency in terms of what they believed the experience would not be. “It would not be another class, you get to work with real clients,” wrote one. “I wanted the guarantee of receiving real world work experience versus the possibility of making copies or getting someone coffee,” wrote another.

The quote above reflects a related theme: a desire for a “real” professional experience. Students used the word “real” in 19% (n = 42) of the open-ended responses, with ìreal worldî the most frequent way the term was used, appearing 23 times. Students wrote that they wanted to work with “real clients” and to gain “real-life,” “real job,” “real agency,” and “real work” experience. Another student wrote: “The real-life experience can not be duplicated anywhere else. At the same time, it ís a controlled environment. It’s the best of both worlds.”


Previous research shows that faculty advisers believe in the pedagogical benefits of student-run ad/PR agencies (Bush, 2009; Bush & Miller, 2011; Maben 2010). Advisers who have championed this teaching tool, often giving their time to it without compensation (Bush & Miller, 2011), should be encouraged to know that this survey indicates students and alumni highly value the student agency experience. They join advisers in observing that agencies are able to facilitate process-oriented learning and develop professional skills (Bush, 2009; Bush & Miller, 2011; Maben 2010). On most measures of skills and professional characteristics, participants rated the agencies’ effects on their skills above 4 on a 5-point scale.

For decades, the public relations profession has charged academia with delivering instruction in “higher order knowledge” like strategic thinking and management skills (Commission Report, 2006; Neff, Walker, Smith, & Creedon, 1999). These skills are also considered to be important in the broader IMC field (Battle, et al., 2007; Beachboard & Weidman, 2013 ). Quite recently, supervisors in the public relations field found that their entry-level hires underperform in critical thinking, dependability, attention to detail, following instructions, time management and accepting responsibility (Todd, 2014). Student and alumni participants in this study gave the student agency experience high marks for developing their capacity for strategic thinking, problem solving, and leadership. Advisers report that the student firm facilitates “learning things you can’t learn in a classroom” (Bush, 2009; Maben, 2010).

The capacity to collaborate successfully is a professional characteristic developed by the student firm experience (Bush, 2009; Maben, 2010). Students placed the ability to work with others at the top of the list of skills enhanced by agency participation. The three most highly rated skills were proficiency in working with clients, ability to work within a team structure, and growth in interpersonal skills.

Professionals recommend that students gain practical and hands-on experience. They further recommend that curriculum be designed to deliver some of these opportunities (Commission Report, 2006). One key area where the student firm delivers practical experience is in working directly with real clients. In this study, participants said this was the most important experience gained and the area in which they grew more than any other. Advisers also cited the client interface as the top benefit (Bush & Miller, 2011). Traditionally the campaigns course has encapsulated hands-on learning, but the campaigns course generally provides minimal client contact (Benigni, et al., 2004).

Advisers rate the application of classroom learning as the tertiary benefit (at 85%) after client contact and portfolio building (Bush & Miller, 2011). This survey showed that students who invested more time in working at the firm (15 or more hours per week) rated the experience more highly for allowing them to learn at a deeper level the concepts covered in previous coursework than did students who spent 6 or fewer hours. This finding suggests that students should be encouraged to invest 15 or more hours per week to learn and benefit the most from the experience.

Professionals point to practical experience as a key factor in students obtaining entry-level positions (Commission Report, 2006; Todd, 2009). Participants reported that they are well prepared to meet the requirements of the profession and that their marketability as job candidates had increased. Advisers also believe that the agency experience on a rÈsumÈ enhances job opportunities (Bush, 2009; Bush & Miller, 2011; Maben, 2010).

Results suggest that although student firms provide above-average experiential learning in writing, production, new media and businesses practices, these are the lowest-rated areas for skill development. Agency advisers would do well to explore ways to enhance the learning in these areas.

Participants agreed strongly that colleges and universities should have a student-run agency for advertising and public relations. They rated as moderately important the university-provided resources of a dedicated office space and an adviser who is readily available. According to Bush and Miller (2011), fewer than 40% of agencies have a dedicated space. This survey didnít ask whether participants worked in agencies with dedicated space, but the presence of a facility could have affected participantsí judgments of this factor. Perhaps the role of the adviser is only moderately valued because students may be unaware of the foundational support required to obtain clients, facilitate the staffing and training process, ensure that equipment and supplies are available and other behind-the-scenes work. Additionally, some agencies have both a staff director and a faculty adviser. In these cases, the staff director ís day-to-day role may meet the “readily available” need.


The number of questions included in this survey was limited. The one previous attempt on record (Maben, 2010) to gather the views of students who had worked at student firms resulted in only five responses. In an effort to greatly increase the number of respondents, this study launched a survey that could be completed quickly. The questions provide a first look at student experiences. The area can certainly use further research. The study also used current faculty advisers to contact current and former agency participants. The authors could not confirm that all advisers sent the survey out, nor did the survey ask participants to identify the school they attended. Future research would do well to collect data from a group that could be confirmed to be representative.

The survey was designed to produce results that allowed comparison of participants’ experiences with previous research examining advisers’ views, therefore some questions about need for university support, faculty advisers, and office space may not be salient for many student respondents.


Participation in a student-run advertising and public relations firm, if designed well, can allow students to learn at a deeper level the concepts covered in their coursework. The experience can enable students to feel better prepared for the professional expectations of the workplace. They are likely to graduate with more confidence in their abilities, including problem-solving, interpersonal, and teamwork skills and the ability to work directly with clients. This study suggests that students who participate in a student-run agency strongly believe in the value of the experience and believe every campus should offer it. In general, the more time students spend working in a campus agency, the higher they rate their learning.

Undergraduate advertising and public relations programs that do not offer a student agency can learn much from this study, combined with related literature, as they consider creating such an experiential learning opportunity for their students. Programs that already have student firms will find data that may guide efforts to refine and improve the educational impact of the student-run advertising and public relations agency.

Future research might seek the perspectives of employers who have hired students with campus agency experience. Employers may be able to shed light on whether the experience helped a student land the job, and whether they believe it provided a good foundation for recent graduatesí current responsibilities and prospects within the organization.


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Considering Certification? An Analysis of Universities’ Communication Certificates and Feedback from Public Relations Professionals

Considering Certification? An Analysis of Universities’ Communication Certificates and Feedback from Public Relations Professionals

  • Julie O’Neil, Texas Christian University
  • Jacqueline Lambiase, Texas Christian University

julie-o'neil-250x350px   jacqueline-lambiase-250x350px


Working professionals may need post-baccalaureate education, but finding time and resources to do so may be difficult. An analysis of 75 university master’s programs in public relations found 22 related programs offering communication certificates. A web audit of these programs, plus a survey and in-depth interviews, indicated professionals are interested in earning certificates, particularly in social and digital media strategy and measurement. Professionals want to attend certificate programs that combine online and face-to-face instruction.

Keywords: certification, public relations, communication certificates

O’Neil, J., Lambiase, J. (2016). Considering Certification? An Analysis of Universities’ Communication Certificates and Feedback from Public Relations Professionals, 2(1), 34-46.

PDF Download Link: Considering Certification?: An Analysis of Universitiesí Communication Certificates and Feedback from Public Relations Professionals (Link opens in a new window.)

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U.S. News & World Report (2014) named public relations as one of the top 100 careers of 2014. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted that from 2010 to 2012, job growth for public relations specialists would increase by 12% (2012a) and that growth for public relations management positions would increase by 21% (2012b). This growing number of public relations practitioners must keep up with technology and industry trends and demands occurring in public relations.

There is no shortage of options for ongoing training and learning in public relations, as noted by the Commission on Public Relations Education 2012 report. Professional associations, commercial enterprises and trade publications offer a plethora of webinars, face-to-face seminars, and publications to educate and train public relations practitioners. Some public relations practitioners take advantage of these training and learning opportunities, while others invest the time and money to pursue a graduate degree in public relations or a tangential field such as business. However, in addition to the offerings provided by professional entities and the in-depth masterís degree, there is yet another way for public relations professionals to learn and grow: earn a certificate from a university. To date, scant research exists on communication certificates offered by universities. This study seeks to address this gap, by (1) analyzing through a website audit the types and structures of communication certificates offered by U.S. colleges and universities that also offer masterís degrees in public relations, and (2) examining public relations professionalsí preferences for certificates through an online survey and in-depth interviews.

Literature Review

Public Relations Graduate Education

Graduate education is growing particularly fast in public relations, fueled by the explosion of social and digital media and the accompanying job opportunities. Another driver of the growth of graduate programs in public relations is the need for universities to offset declining enrollments in journalism programs and budget cuts from state budgets (Commission on PR Education, 2012). Since 2000, the number of masterís degree programs in public relations has increased from 26 to 75 (Commission on PR Education, 2012; Shen & Toth, 2013).

In its website audit of 75 graduate programs in public relations, the Commission on PR Education (2012) noted a lack of uniformity among masterís degree programs in public relations in terms of program titles, admission standards, required credit hours, and curriculum. Follow-up research by public relations scholars Briones and Toth (2013) found a lack of conformity among the programs in terms of adhering to recommended content areas provided by the Commission on PR Education 2012 report. Briones and Toth attributed the lack of uniformity among programs in part to the widely different graduate models in existence at universities. While the majority of programs offer a professional graduate degree in public relations, some offer an academic degree designed to prepare students for a Ph.D., while others provide a more interdisciplinary graduate degree.

The Commission on PR Education (2012) also reviewed the delivery methods of public relations graduate programs. Roughly 82% of programs offer traditional courses, which rely on face-to-face meetings and instruction. Approximately 10% of public relations programs use online delivery, and about 8% use a hybrid/blended delivery that includes online and in-person instruction. Despite the small number of programs offering online programs, the Commission on PR Education predicts that the number of online and hybrid graduate programs in public relations will increase. According to journalism educator and researcher Casteneda (2011), some journalism programs are partnering with outside vendors to develop certificates and online degrees using a shared-revenue agreement.

Professional perceptions of education delivery methods is mixed. For example, research indicates that public relations educators and practitioners view traditional programs more positively compared to online programs (Commission on PR Education, 2012; Toth, Shen, & Briones, 2012). However outside of public relations, evaluation of online programs tends to be more positive. One evaluation of an online masterís program revealed that students listed improving themselves, advancing in their career, personal reasons and securing new job opportunities as the top reasons for their need of an online program (Tokmak, Baturay & Fadde, 2013). Online courses can better accommodate working professionals who may be balancing family commitments (Wyland, Lester, Mone, & Winkel, 2013), and they enable people to take courses from universities located around the world (Gold & Jose, 2012).

Graduate programs can integrate in-person meetings with online sessions to create a hybrid program that combines benefits of both methods while still remaining flexible for students. In an 18-month Internet-Based Masterís in Educational Technology (iMet) program, students learn collaborative problem solving through teamwork assignments in a classroom and online platform (Cowan, 2012). Students of the iMet program “meet 25% face-to-face and 75% online” (p. 13). At the University of Nevada at Reno, a hybrid masterís degree program allowed the journalism school to create variety in its curriculum that accommodated studentsí preferences without needing additional staff or resources (Coulson & Linn, 1995).

Certificate Programs

For students who desire to earn new skills, but require a more cost-effective and/or more accessible program than what is afforded through a masterís program, a certificate program is a viable option. Universities are increasingly offering students the ability to complete courses to earn a post-baccalaureate certificate. Bosworth (2010) of Complete College America defines a certificate as a technical diploma comprised of “credentials issued by educational institutions that indicate completion of a discrete program of study or series of courses” (p. i). Certificate programs provide credentialing for new skill sets in a shorter amount of time than a typical masterís degree. In the 2010-2011 academic year, public and private universities in the United States conferred more than 1.20 million certificates (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2013). The knowledge and skills gained from a certificate program allow students to easily transfer what they learn to the workplace (National Center for Education Statistic, 2012). By teaching students more practical knowledge, the coursework included in a certificate program is typically more applicable for career advancement.

The demand for certificates is steadily increasing. Since 2000, conferred certificates have increased 64% (U.S. Department of Education, 2013). The increase in certificates demonstrates both a desire from students and a need for universities to provide these types of learning and training programs. Certificate programs range significantly in structure in terms of the amount of time and coursework needed for completion. However, compared to certificates completed in shorter periods of time, certificate programs lasting more than one year are linked with higher salaries (Bosworth, 2010). Public institutions award more one-year certificates compared to private universities, which account for only 5% of all certificate programs (Bosworth).

Certificate course delivery ranges from traditional and online methods to hybrid approaches that combine the two. In a study conducted about an online library media certificate, researchers found that a strictly online education provided working adults access to specialized knowledge needed to prepare them to maintain and grow within their current positions (Meyer, Bruwelheide & Poulin, 2009). In a study conducted by professors from Northern Illinois University, they recommended that certificate programs of all types should target more interdisciplinary approaches to courses (McFadden, Chen, Munroe, Natfzger, & Selinger, 2011). By providing overlap, students can learn how to address core subject areas more dynamically. Universities that can provide course crossover are better positioned to equip their students to think critically about their subject area.

In 2013, the Public Relations Society of America began offering the Certificate in Public Relations Principles for university students majoring in public relations in their final year of school (PR accreditation, 2013). This certificate program is currently offered at 13 participating colleges and universities. The Universal Accreditation Board administers the certification exam (PR accreditation).

In summary, in response to the growth in the public relations field and professionalsí need for ongoing training and learning, masterís degree programs in public relations also continue to increase in number. Certificate programs in multiple disciplines are also increasing. Other than the 2013 PRSA certificate program, less is known, however, about the ways universities are offering certificate programs related to communication professions, how those programs meet the specialized training and learning needs of public relations professionals, and whether public relations professionals see value in pursuing a certificate. This mixed-methods study therefore seeks to answer:

RQ1: What types of communication-related certificates do universities offer?
RQ2: Do public relations professionals value post-baccalaureate certificates, and if yes, what certificate features are most attractive?


In the first phase of the project, researchers conducted a website audit of communication-related certificates offered at universities in the United States. The sampling frame included the 75 universities identified by the Commission on Public Relations Education (2012) as offering a masterís degree in public relations. Researchers first visited the websites at those 75 universities to determine if the university offered a certificate program in a communication-related field. Only post-baccalaureate certificates, not undergraduate ones, were systematically analyzed. Twenty-two of the 75 universities offer post-baccalaureate certificate programs, with four university programs offering two types of certificates, for a total of 26 certificate programs to be analyzed. Researchers then systematically analyzed the offerings for certificate title, program costs, delivery method, and the ratio of courses and credits earned.

The second phase of the research included an online survey and in-depth interviews with public relations professionals. The survey instrument was created in Qualtrics and included questions about communication professionals’ ongoing training and learning needs and their interest in and preference for certificates, including content and delivery method.

Researchers secured approval from their university’s Institutional Review Board prior to data collection.

The researchers used purposive and snowball sampling to recruit practitioners for their online survey. Researchers emailed 30 presidents of local chapters of professional communication associations such as the Public Relations Society of America, Social Media Club, and the International Business Communicators Association to ask them to forward the survey invitation to their respective members. The researchers also recruited participants via social media and personal contacts. One hundred and twelve participants completed the survey in February 2014. Participants live and work across the United States.

As part of the survey, participants were asked if they would be willing to be interviewed by the researchers. In this third phase of research, more than 20 participants were contacted after volunteering, and the researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 13 communication professionals. Each participant responded to nine open-ended questions that were related to their career and educational goals and professional development needs. Their responses were transcribed and analyzed by the researchers through an iterative reading process used to discover common themes and to produce descriptive summaries of participants’ ideas and suggestions. In this qualitative part of the overall study, participants created meaning with the researchers.


Audit of Existing Certificate Programs

Table 1 displays the information about the communication certificates offered by the 22 programs. Eighteen of those programs offer a single certificate program, with four offering two certificate programs; the following descriptive findings, then, are based on these 26 separate certificate programs. Seven programs use the term “marketing” in their titles, as in “Strategic Marketing” or “Integrated Marketing.” Five programs include the word “digital” in their titles, with three of those titles using “Digital Marketing.” The other two programs using this term were called “Digital Storytelling” and “Digital Media Skills.   Five programs include the term “public relations” in their titles, while four programs use the term strategic in their title, as in “Strategic Communication” or “Strategic Marketing.” Nine programs positioned themselves through terms related to new/social media or technology. The single or double appearances of these following terms indicate more focused programs on this list: “nonprofit,” “global,” “storytelling,” “ethics,” and “diversity.”

As indicated by Table 1, the majority of the graduate programs included in this website audit offer a certificate completion in one year or less. That is, out of 22 schools examined, 12 offer certificate completion within 1 year, with the leading minimum being a 3-months’ completion at the University of the Pacific, followed by a 9-monthsí completion at Seton Hall University and Lasell College. Out of the remaining 10 schools, eight offer certificate completion between a 1-year minimum and 2-year maximum. Factors playing into completion within this timeframe depend on a studentís course load and availability of requisite courses. For example, Northwesternís certificate in Strategic Marketing requires a completion of five courses, which may be taken in just 2 semesters or across 2 years. Similarly, the certificate programs at West Virginia University require 1-year minimums and 8-year maximums to complete, on a kind of “as you go” basis. Two other schools, the universities of Denver and Oregon, require a 2-year minimum for program completion and certificate attainment.


The ratio of number of courses to credit hours varied but most programs followed credit-hour protocols borrowed from graduate programs (i.e., one course equals three credit hours). Six programs offered 5 courses/15 credits for their certification, and six programs offered 6 courses/18 credits for certification. Six other programs were based on three courses, with varied credit hours. The outliers in this study were a 2-course program at Seton Hall for 12 credits and a 7-course program at the University of Oregon for 28 credits. These differences account for some of the variety of costs of these programs. Two universities, California State University-Fullerton and Georgetown University, offer Continuing Education Units (CEU) rather than credit hours. Twelve CEUs can be earned at California State University-Fullerton for completion of 6 courses and 10.8 CEUs at Georgetown for 6 courses.

While the majority of these graduate certificate programs cost between $10,000 and $15,000, five of the 22 programs cost less than $5,500. Of these five, the most affordable program is the University of the Pacific’s certificate in Social Media Business, offered at $495 and in a completion time of 3 months. Second to this program is that of California State University-Fullerton, offering a Digital Marketing certificate between $2,700 and $3,600 depending on in-state or out-of-state tuition, and obtained in a 10-month period of time. Six programs cost between $7,000 and $9,900, beginning with Rowan University at $7,019 for a certificate in Public Relations, and ending with Lasell College for a 9-month-long certificate obtainment priced at $9,825. Programs at 10 schools cost between $10,000 and $15,000, depending on students’ in-state or out-of-state classification and other factors. Moving on to those programs in the $20,000 bracket, the University of Oregon’s non-resident certificate cost of $22,198 begins the category, and is closely followed by George Washington University’s $23,674 Public Relations certificate program cost and Northwestern’s $24,330 Strategic Marketing certificate program cost. Standing as the most expensive certificate programs are those offered by Farleigh Dickson University at $33,507 for a six-course completion in Public Relations Administration, and $56,208 to obtain a Communication certificate from Auburn University in just two semesters.

The delivery models of the 22 university certificate programs varied as well. Eleven programs were online only and seven programs were classroom only, with four programs using a blended model.


One hundred and twelve professionals responded to the survey, although only 85 people fully completed it. Seventy-four percent of respondents are female; 26% are male. Fifty-nine percent are 30 or younger, 24% are between the ages of 31 and 45, and 17% are older than age 45. Eighty-six percent of participants have an undergraduate degree, mostly in the areas of public relations, strategic communication, and journalism. Fourteen percent of respondents have a masterís degree. In terms of current position, 25% of respondents indicated they are working in public relations, 18% in advertising, 14% in digital media, 4% in journalism, and 35% in “other,” which includes fields such as event planning, sustainability, fundraising, marketing, corporate communication, and human resources. Five percent of respondents said they were not currently working. Thirty-six percent of respondents work for an agency, 31% for a corporation, 13% for a nonprofit organization, 9% for government, 4% are self-employed, and 8% said “other.” The self-reported income levels included 6% less than $25,000, 16% between $25,000 and $35,000, 34% between $35,001 and $50,000, 24% between $50,001 and $75,000, 10% between $75,001 and $100,000, and 11% more than $100,000.

Survey participants were first asked to indicate their level of interest in taking leadership and training programs at a university on a variety of topics by indicating whether they were interested, uninterested, or unsure of interest. As indicated by Table 2, the topic that received the greatest interest included effective storytelling across multiple platforms (traditional and online) followed by social media and digital media strategy, and then measuring and evaluating communication effectiveness. The topic that received the least amount of interest was design fundamentals and multimedia, although roughly 50% of respondents still indicated interest in that topic alone.


When asked to indicate their level of interest in earning a post-baccalaureate certificate in a communication-related area, 28% said they were “definitely interested,” 29% said “probably interested,” 29% indicated they “might be interested,” 10% said “probably not interested,” and 3% said “definitely not interested.” There were no statistically significant differences among people of different ages regarding their interest in certificates (x2 = 25.54; df = 32; p = .78), between men or women (x2 = 4.19; df = 4; p = .38), nor between people working at different types of organizations (x2 = 19.15; df = 20; p = .51).

Participants were next asked what type of learning environment they would prefer for certificate coursework. Sixty percent said they would prefer one-day weekend, in-person seminars coupled with 5- to 10-week online assignments and discussions; 22% said in-person weekend seminars only; and 18% said online learning delivery that consists solely of online assignments and discussions. Sixty-seven percent of respondents then said they typically prefer to learn and keep up with professional development with a community of people; 33% said they prefer to do so by themselves.

Fifteen percent of participants said they had already earned a professional certificate. Participants indicated they had earned certificates in new media, human resources, management, fundraising, teaching, training, graphic design, leadership and communication, including both APR (Accredited in Public Relations, offered through the Public Relations Society of America) and ABC (Accredited Business Communicator, offered through the International Association of Business Communicators).

The last survey question asked respondents for other suggestions related to their professional development and learning needs. In this open-ended survey question, some participants expressed the need for program flexibility and course options that accommodated professionals working full time. A few participants said programs need to have a strong focus on contemporary digital and social media tools and strategy. One participant lamented that “I’m pretty skeptical of any structured program’s ability to keep up with the pace of real-world trends in communication.” Another participant mentioned “connectivity to top-level executives for networking and job placement,” and another said the program must be “engaging.” Finally, one participant wrote that s/he “would love more info on how pay increases and how it can help with getting better job opportunities as well as figuring out your specific interests so that you can decide which program you want to go into.”

In-Depth Interviews

The in-depth interviews with 13 professionals included 10 women and 3 men ranging in age from mid-20s to early 60s. Nine of those interviewed are between the ages of 30 and 50, during a time of life when many professionals are seeking graduate-level educational opportunities (“Digest,” 2012; Mullen, Goyette & Soares, 2003); 4 participants had earned master’s degrees. These professionals work in varied environments. Four are employed by corporations, four work for nonprofits or universities, three work in sole-proprietor communication businesses, and two are employed by marketing or public relations agencies.

Participants were evenly split in response to whether they were actively thinking about pursuing a masterís degree, with five saying “yes” and five saying “no” (but three of the “no” answers were from professionals who already had masterís degrees). Three participants responded with “maybe,” and even the “yes” answers were filled with caveats. Cost and/or time was mentioned by six participants as reasons why pursuing a masterís degree would be difficult for them; two women and two men specifically mentioned family considerations as probable barriers. One of the male participants said “the lawn still has to be mowed,” another said he “was the primary breadwinner of my family,” and two female participants mentioned the ages of their children as factors for delaying consideration of or being hesitant to pursue graduate studies. Two participants specifically said shorter programs of 1 year or 18 months would be attractive to them.

These considerations of family and current career responsibilities also informed participant descriptions of a “dream” post-baccalaureate experience. Five professionals used the words “blended,” “mixture,” or “flexible” when describing a program that would be both in-person and online. This flexible program would help them manage learning while they worked and cared for family members. One participant who was interested in earning a masterís degree said, “Right now, we are all hands on deck, and I don’t leave here most nights before 7 p.m.” Nine of 13 participants expressed their preferences for a mixture of online and in-person course work for other reasons, too. One participant said he would want to meet in person “to connect and network,” while another wants to hear “what others are doing.” Another said she wants “a think-tank format (where discussion) is part of the learning.” One female professional said, “I never did want to do the APR thing (through PRSA), since it’s a lot of studying by yourself.” Finally, one participant said that while he realized some of the instruction would probably be online because many people required flexibility, he realized “I do better in person, not online – there’s a level of accountability in a group setting.”

An ideal curriculum for post-baccalaureate programs would include new social media communication strategies and new digital tools for analytics, according to almost all participants. “I need help with strategy,” said one participant, “to know what an orderly process is for doing the research or finding information, and then making a plan.” Blogging and digital influence were listed as components of needed new media tactics and strategies. Another participant asked for interdisciplinary curriculum that included “the spectrum of PR, marketing, business, advertising, social media.” Next on the list for many participants was curriculum that addressed business management or entrepreneurship. “If you want to move up, you must understand business,” said one, who mentioned a university which offered a business boot camp for non-business graduate students. Two respondents talked about their dreams of entrepreneurship and mentioned that disciplinary area as important to them. Two others mentioned diversity and cross-cultural communication as important to their professional needs.

Eight of 13 people said they would be interested in earning a professional certificate from a university, with one respondent saying “maybe.” Two of the “no” answers came from professionals who had already earned master’s degrees. This question prompted fewer caveats than those listed for masterís programs, with participants seeming to make underlying assumptions that certificate programs were both well focused and completed more quickly than graduate degrees. One participant “loved” the idea of a certificate program “without the commitment of a master’s degree.” Another one of the eight professionals who expressed interest in a certificate program said he “saw value in [it], when people see initials after a name, and know that there’s an expertise level associated with that.” This participant said the masterís/certificate conversation does not have to be an “either/or kind of thing,” but “maybe they could be done at the same time, or one could lead to the other.” Another said she would be interested in a certificate program as long as it was not “just studying to the test.” Curriculum preferences expressed for graduate-level certificate programs included business and marketing strategies, leadership and management, employee engagement, overcoming challenges and handling crisis, ethics, social media, channel and segmentation planning, and digital metrics and methodologies.


Just as Briones and Toth (2013) discovered a lack of coherence in master’s education in public relations, this present research found certificate programs offered by the 22 universities in this study to lack uniformity; certainly, these certificate programs respond to different educational goals and marketing demands than traditional master’s education. However, many certificate programs offered programs of similar credit-hour requirements, with 12 of the programs offering certificates that included five or six courses, for 15-18 credit hours total. There was a split in delivery method, with 11 programs online only, and 11 programs using classroom only delivery or a blended model of classroom and online instruction.

In general, these certificate programs could be said to be following models B and C of the 2006 Commission on Public Relations Education report for masterís degrees in public relations, with B-type certificate programs providing public relations and business-related instruction to meet the advanced career goals of seasoned professionals and C-type certificate programs providing more focused instruction on a specific part of the communications field, such as ethics. Beyond curriculum, the largest differences among these certificate programs were the costs, which ranged from $495 to more than $50,000 for programs of widely ranging requirements.

The desires of practitioners in the in-depth interviews seem to support this certificate program variety, and this variety is supported by responses to an open-ended question in the survey as well. Flexibility was a key to participants’ abilities to earn either a master’s degree or certificate, especially in terms of the timing of classes and/or the delivery model. However, in the interviews many practitioners expressed their desire for building relationships with other students and for in-classroom discussion, where they believed real learning took place. Several practitioners expressed reservations about studying alone or earning a certificate that was a ìstudy to the testî type of experience.

Certainly, programs designing certificate programs must balance all of these concerns and desires carefully, with perhaps the most challenging decision to be that of whether to offer a broad program that serves the demands of seasoned professionals or a specific program designed to “catch up” professionals on new trends in the industry.

Findings from the survey and interviews indicate that public relations professionals are generally interested in earning a certificate. Nearly 60% of survey respondents indicated that they were either “definitely interested” or “probably interested” in earning a certificate, and another 29% said they “might be interested.” More people in the interviews said they would be interested in a university certificate program than in a master’s degree program. Perceived advantages of certificate programs included the shorter time commitment and more specific curriculum content.

Despite the fact that public relations educators and some professionals generally don’t view online programs as positively as traditional programs (Commission on PR Education, 2012), respondents in this research indicated a preference for a hybrid delivery, one that combines online and face-to-face learning. In the survey, only 1 in 5 respondents preferred to earn a certificate program that consisted of face-to-face instruction only. The interviews also indicated that participants would value masterís degree programs that contained both online and in-person components, with flexible meeting times. Although the majority of professionals prefer a hybrid delivery, only 18% of certificate programs analyzed used a hybrid approach, while half provided online-only course experiences.

Although public relations practitioners can certainly learn a great deal by reading blogs and trade publications, the majority of respondents in this research indicated that they prefer to learn with a community of people. One of the strengths of master’s and certificate programs is that they bring together a community of people to learn.

Participants want a graduate curriculum that includes the newest digital tools and strategies for communication careers, with business management and marketing expertise rated highly, too. Participants indicate a preference for multiple topics for a certificate, with the greater number of people saying they would like a class on storytelling, digital and social media strategy, and measuring communication effectiveness.

One overall finding of this mixed-methods research is that universities and colleges have an opportunity to respond to professional demand for certificates and other ongoing training. Only 29 percent of universities that offer a graduate degree in public relations also provide a communication-centric certificate. Although certificates will never completely replace the relevance or need for an in-depth master’s program in public relations, a certificate may be the best educational choice for professionals who want to learn a specialized skill or process without the time commitment and cost of a master’s degree. Certificates may also become more desirable if more people strive to earn “badges” as an informal way to showcase expertise to prospective employers (Goligoski, 2012).

The findings of this research are limited by the use of a convenience and snowball sample. Moreover, the types of people who were motivated to complete the survey likely have a higher interest in graduate education and certificates compared to other professionals. Participation in the in-depth interviews was self-selected.

Future research could analyze the differences in university certificate and for-profit certification programs, and the differences among programs offered by universities, broad professional organizations, and specific trade groups. Depth interviews could be conducted with certificate program coordinators to explore the challenges and opportunities in coordinating these programs. Finally, additional research could delve into professional attitudes and likely behavior of potential students toward universities which offered “laddered” approaches to graduate work, allowing students to begin with a certificate program that would give credit toward a future master’s degree program. As this research demonstrates, certificate programs offer opportunities for both communication professionals and universities interested in being part of their ongoing learning.


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Meyer, K., Bruwelheide, J. & Poulin, R. (2009). Why they stayed: Near-perfect retention in an online certification program in library media. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 13(3), 129-145.

Mullen, A. L., Goyette, K. A., & Soares, J. A. (2003) Who goes to graduate school? Social and academic correlates of educational continuation after college. Sociology of Education, 76 (2), pp. 143-169.

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Tokmak, H., Baturay, H. & Fadde, P. (2013). Applying the context, input, process, product evaluation model for evaluation, research, and redesign of an online masterís program. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 14(3), 273-292.

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Wyland, R. L., Lester, S. W., Mone, M. A., & Winkel, D. E. (2013). Work and school at the same time? A conflict perspective of the work-school interface. Journal of Leadership & Organization Studies, 20(3), 346-357.

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Who wants to be a manager? Applying the attraction-selection-attrition framework to public relations education

Who wants to be a manager?: Applying the attraction-selection-attrition framework to public relations education

  • Christopher Wilson, Brigham Young University


Wilson, C. (2016). Who wants to be a manager? Applying the attraction-selection-attrition framework to public relations education, Journal of Public Relations Education 2(1), 47-55.

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