Editorial Record: Original draft submitted November 24, 2020. Revisions submitted June 10, 2021, and September 27, 2021. Accepted September 27, 2021. Published March 2022.
Margaret Ritsch, Ph.D. Scholarly Assistant Professor Edward R. Murrow College of Communication Washington State University Pullman, WA Email: email@example.com
This teaching brief presents an experiential learning assignment that enables undergraduate students who work in a student firm to develop business literacy, soft skills and hard skills such as persuasive writing and cost estimating. The Commission on Public Relations Education reported agreement among employers that it is important for entry-level practitioners to have business acumen, and that such knowledge is lacking (Commission Report, 2018, p. 56). This entrepreneurial learning activity helps to address a gap between what the typical public relations curriculum offers and the business skills and knowledge that employers value, particularly in agencies.
Keywords: soft skills, public relations, advertising, entrepreneurship
Acknowledgements: Margaret Ritsch developed this teaching activity at Texas Christian University. She is now a Scholarly Assistant Professor at Washington State University. The author would like to acknowledge Michael Sherrod, Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Neeley School of Business at Texas Christian University, for some of the ideas contained in the learning activity.
In many student firms, students assume the responsibility for bringing in clients, both pro-bono and fee-for-service. Winning new client accounts is a daunting challenge for many students, and it offers a rich opportunity for learning how the agency industry operates, gaining basic financial knowledge and developing soft skills such as listening, teamwork, flexibility and being assertive.
The complex effort also helps students develop an entrepreneurial mindset, which may be helpful given that today’s students are graduating into a “gig” economy, a self-employment trend that appears to be accelerating in the U.S. and elsewhere (Alton, 2018). The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not offer current data on independent contractors, but a McKinsey Global Institute study found that between 20% to 30% of working-age adults in the U.S. and Europe engaged in some form of independent work (Manyika et al., 2016).
In an agency, developing new business requires identifying, researching and meeting with a potential client, asking good questions, listening carefully and probing to assess the client’s situation. It requires determining the services that can help the client achieve its business goals, developing a scope of work, estimating costs based on the time required to do the work (and outside costs), and writing a persuasive business proposal. Agency professionals must present the proposal, respond to the client’s feedback and persuade the client to hire the firm.
In one student firm, the instructor developed an ungraded assignment that would help students develop these skills as they worked to bring in new clients. For the assignment, students would need to develop cost estimates based on the number of hours that would be required to produce deliverables, plan events or post on social media throughout the semester, for example. Students were required to read several chapters of The Art of Client Service to deepen their understanding of pricing and billable time (Soloman, 2016). To lay the groundwork, the advisor introduced the concept of billable hours and presented the financial calculations that agencies use to determine an employee’s productivity. This information helped students understand agency operations and profitability, and to view the time they spent in the student firm as billable. The advisor also helped students understand their monetary value to agencies if they decided to intern or work at an agency after graduation.
As learning objectives, the instructor aimed for students to:
Understand the concept of billable time and see themselves as professionals whose skills and abilities contribute to an agency’s profitability.
Learn how to identify a new business opportunity, set up a business meeting and meet face-to-face with a potential client.
Learn to frame questions and listen carefully in a meeting to determine a client’s situation and business goals.
Define the specific strategic communication deliverables services that would help a client achieve its business goals, and the metrics for evaluating outcomes.
Develop a detailed scope of work for a client and assess the amount of time that will be required to produce the work. Estimate the cost-range for based on the time required or perceived value of the service.
Write a persuasive, two- to three-page proposal that includes cost estimates. (For pro bono clients, students were to present the cost estimates as donated).
Gain experience in presenting a proposal to a client in person, receive client feedback and revise accordingly.
Many employers value business literacy in their new hires, and for this reason the Commission on Public Relations Education has urged undergraduate programs to design curricula and experiential learning that help students understand business processes. In a 2013 survey of Arthur W. Page Society members, Ragas and Culp (2014) found that 85% of participants (n=112) indicated that it was “extremely important” for public relations and advertising professionals to have a strong grounding in business fundamentals as part of their education and training. They and the Commission on Public Relations Education have recommended adding business concepts to existing, required courses such as public relations management and campaigns, and developing new, stand-alone courses in business fundamentals. A student firm provides another opportunity to introduce business concepts and processes as an experiential, hands-on learning experience.
The Commission reported agreement among employers that it is important for entry-level practitioners to develop business acumen, but such knowledge is lacking (Commission on Public Relations Education, 2018). The report provides a vague definition of business acumen: “understanding how business works, to provide the contextual significance of public relations” (Commission on Public Relations Education, 2018, p. 28).
It is helpful to think about the concept of business acumen a bit differently, and to consider Merriam-Webster’s definition of acumen: “keenness and depth of perception, discernment or discrimination, especially in practical matters” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). This definition echoes some of the soft skills that researchers have found are important in the workplace.
DiStaso et al. (2009) found agreement among professionals and academics that entry-level public relations employees bring both hard and soft skills to the workplace, and the latter should include creativity, flexibility, initiative, interpersonal skills and the ability to take criticism. Employers across numerous industries have reported that they desire new graduates to be good listeners who are self-aware, adaptable, assertive and collaborative (Commission on Public Relations Education, 2018, p. 55). According to Windels et al. (2013), vital soft skills in the advertising field include critical thinking, persuasion, interpersonal, verbal communication and presentation ability.
For the training and development field, Gargiulo et al. (2006) wrote a practical guide to developing business acumen and described it as encompassing three critical areas: relational, communication and financial. Relational skills are needed to build and sustain professional, trusting relationships with peers, clients and customers. Communication skills needed for business acumen include writing memos, e-mails, white papers, proposals and presentations. Financial skills include developing budgets and cost estimates.
The proposal-writing assignment helps students develop these relational, communication and financial skills while learning a core business process in the agency industry. Students work in pairs to develop their proposals, engage with clients, and collaborate with teammates to estimate the time required to complete tasks. They must develop listening skills in order to assess a client’s situation, needs and concerns. They work on their persuasive communication skills, both verbal and written, that are important for entry-level jobs across industries. Writing a persuasive proposal is a sophisticated and challenging exercise, and students need as much writing experience as possible to be successful in the public relations field. Students learn to develop cost estimates and present basic financial information to clients, and this experience may set them apart from other entry-level practitioners in all types of work settings. By definition, the agency industry exists to serve clients, and clients come and go. The author of this article worked at two mid-sized agencies, and all employees were expected to be alert to new business opportunities and prepared to participate in new business pitches. This assignment helps to prepare students to be valuable members of an agency team right from the start.
The learning experience also helps prepare students for the vagaries of the “gig” economy and those difficult times when they may find themselves unemployed. They learn how to identify a potential client, put a price tag on the deliverables and services they can provide, and follow a formal business process to sell these services.
While an ungraded assignment, students received feedback on the first draft of their proposals. The advisor evaluated the proposals for writing style, in particular clarity and persuasiveness; conventions such as grammar and punctuation; professional formatting; thoroughness in the scope-of-work description; and accuracy for cost estimating.
Several students remarked that the assignment was the most valuable and exciting learning activity of the semester. Many displayed a sense of exhilaration, even joy, when they succeeded in bringing in a new client. The revenue from fee-for-service accounts helped to pay for perks such as student stipends, pizza days and an awards program, and students understood that their entrepreneurial efforts made these benefits possible.
Some students began freelancing while in college, and others developed business cards and websites for freelancing after graduation. The author reached out via LinkedIn to several former students to learn what they may have gained from the experience. One 2017 graduate responded in this way: “I learned to anticipate needs in advance as well [as] develop solutions to meet those needs. It was also a great experience learning business processes at this stage of schooling (introduced me to some real-world learning experiences).” A 2016 graduate who works at a global PR firm wrote:
That exercise was my first foray into thinking about pricing a service. Goods tend to have an obvious value. Services tend to have a relative value. A lot of what we end up needing to do in pitches is to justify our estimates and the rates we quote our labor at. The [student firm name withheld] exercise got the gears turning in my head.
This proposal-writing activity is ideally suited to a student firm where students get to work directly with external clients and develop new business. Important relational and interpersonal communication skills are gained from meeting with potential clients and determining their problems and specific needs for strategic communication services. Pitching and presenting the proposals in a business setting caps off the learning experience, as students receive feedback from an actual client (not just the instructor).
Nevertheless, a modified version of the activity could be used in a PR writing or campaigns class with a mock client. One approach could be to present students with a brief that outlines a client problem in detail. Students could then work in teams to develop a persuasive business proposal that addresses the problem and includes cost estimates based on the estimated amount of time required to do the work. Students could role-play the initial meeting with clients, and later the pitch.
Faculty members with agency experience are uniquely qualified to lead the learning activity. Alternatively, an agency professional could be invited in to meet with students, introduce the concept of billable hours and describe the process for new business development.
Whether for an actual or mock client, the proposal-writing activity helps students gain an understanding of business processes as well as develop professional writing skills. It is the type of experiential learning activity that follows recommendations by the Commission on Public Relations Education that the undergraduate curriculum help students gain business acumen before they graduate.
DiStaso, M. W., Stacks, D. W., & Botan, C. H. (2009). State of public relations education in the United States: 2006 report on a national study of executives and academics. Public Relations Review, 35(3), 254-269. https://doi.org/10.1016/jpubrev.2009.03.006
Gargiulo, T. L., Pangarkar, A., Kirkwood, T., & Bunzel, T. (2006). Building business acumen for trainers: Skills to empower the learning function. John Wiley & Sons.
Soloman, R. (2016). The art of client service: The classic guide. Wiley.
Windels, K., Mallia, K. L., & Broyles, S. J. (2013). Soft skills: The difference between leading and leaving the advertising industry? Journal of Advertising Education, 17(2), 17-27.
Go Get It! New Business Proposals
Working in pairs, develop a two- to three-page professional proposal after meeting with a potential client.
You and your partners will:
Talk among yourselves. Determine: What’s your passion? What are you into? What’s a local business or nonprofit that you like or that you’ve always wanted to learn about?
Try to hone in on a business or nonprofit that you believe would benefit from our services and that you think would be a good fit for a student agency. Other ideas about how to find clients:
Find companies whose external communications appear to be weak
Find companies that are growing rapidly or that are opening
Use your personal network and the firm’s existing clients
Research the business or nonprofit. Read the mission statement. Study the website. Learn as much as you can.
The first few minutes you research a company are when your best ideas will flow. Write them down. Your first impressions are important.
You must contact the potential client this week to set up a meeting next week, or no later than the following week. Aim to meet with a decision-maker (owner, manager, marketing director, etc.)
When you meet, learn the WHY. In other words, why they started the business, or why the organization exists.
Connect our values with the client’s values. Our values: relationships, ambition, challenge, collaboration, learning. Are we a good fit?
Ask good questions.
Be encouraging. The more they talk, the more you learn.
Tell them about the student firm.
Find out what challenges or opportunities they face (so that you can determine whether they would benefit from our services, and which services they really need).
The essential question for you to understand before you start drafting the proposal is: “What challenges and opportunities does this business face?” If you can find out the answer to this question, your imagination and creativity will take off. As a team, you can then brainstorm and determine the answer to the next essential question: “What services can we provide that will help this business/nonprofit take advantage of these opportunities and achieve its business objectives?”
Jointly write a proposal. Your proposal should be written in a compelling, conversational, straightforward manner using AP Style. Read pp. 11-121 in The Art of Client Service for guidance. Specify the costs for each element, activity or deliverable that we can provide to help the business/nonprofit achieve its goals.
Consult with all the appropriate staff members to get a ballpark estimate of how much time it will take for each person to do his/her particular piece of the project.
Include in your proposal any outside costs, such as printing, postage and packaging, and digital or print advertising. If outside costs are impossible to procure or estimate, then include a line that says something like “Outside costs such as printing, digital advertising, web hosting, etc. are not included in the estimate.”
Your pricing should be based on the amount of time that a project will realistically take, using the rate of $50/hour or $25 for project management. Pricing can also factor in the perceived value of the service or deliverable. For example, a client might be willing to spend much more on a website redesign than on an annual report, even though the projects may require the same amount of time. Be sure to include time for the AE’s “project management.” This is the time required for weekly phone calls, setting up meetings, problem-solving, delegating work, etc. Project management can be billed at $25/hour.
Your estimate should include a brief description of the firm and a convincing “why hire us” statement. You can find good, succinct language on our website.
Include your goals for the client project, a detailed description of the scope of work and all the deliverables to be included, cost estimates for each element and total cost, and the estimated timeline for completion. The proposal should end with a thank you and signature line for you and the client to sign and date. It should be concise, written in short paragraphs with headers or sub-heads. Bullets are ok.
Write in plain English. A conversational tone is warmer and more inviting.
Use professional letter format with the firm’s logo, date, client contact’s name, title, company name, complete mailing address.
On making phone calls to prospects to set up meetings:
Try to make it a “warm” call rather than a cold call. Warm: “So and so suggested I call you.” Make it short. Leverage being a student. Have an elevator pitch ready: “We’d really like to do some work for you. We noticed …. Can we meet … it won’t take more than 15 minutes of your time.”
The elevator pitch:
Prepare a one-minute pitch that says: This is who I am, this is who the student firm is. This is why I’m here. This is how we can help you. Sound intelligent. Bring solutions. Be prepared to use this on the phone or in a meeting (or maybe on the elevator!).
Editorial Record: Original draft submitted October 18, 2019. Revision submitted January 17, 2020. Manuscript accepted for publication March 9, 2020. First published online May 2021.
Hong Ji, Ph.D. Assistant Professor School of Visual & Communication Arts Avila University Kansas City, MO Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Parul Jain, Ph.D. Associate Professor E. W. Scripps School of Journalism Ohio University Athens, OH Email: email@example.com
Catherine Axinn, Ph.D. Retired Professor College of Business Ohio University Athens, OH Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Using linkage beliefs theory, focus group and survey methods, we conducted a systematic investigation to understand students’ perceptions of having guest speakers in strategic communication courses. Our findings suggest that students prefer relatable speakers from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, and alumni and recent graduates are two of the most preferred types of guest speakers. Students prefer to hear about networking tips, career advice and speaker’s professional background and journeys. Course-tied topics are less preferable than career-related topics. Visual aids are preferred in guest presentations. Career-related benefits are perceived to have more value than academic and classroom learning benefits. The preferred number of guest speakers in a semester is three.
Keywords: public relations, advertising, strategic communication, guest speakers
In many college classrooms, across many disciplines, guest speakers have become a familiar figure and teaching tool. Past research shows that if utilized correctly, they can be a valuable educational asset, particularly in disciplines that emphasize practical experience and hands-on skills. But that outcome is by no means guaranteed, depending upon the quality of guest talks.
The idea that such speakers are a welcome addition to a class is well documented. Students view speakers as someone who can teach them more about “real life” experience in the field of their choice and serve as a potentially valuable professional connection who can help them succeed in that field (Byrd et al., 1989; Kamoun & Selim, 2007; Merle & Craig, 2017; Metrejean et al., 2002; Wortman, 1992; Zou et al., 2019). A recent review of 18 studies across 13 disciplines suggests that having guest speakers enhances pedagogy by improving teaching outcomes and leads to a mutually beneficial relationship for the students, professors, and speakers (Zou et al., 2019). In some cases, the speakers themselves may view their appearance in the classroom as a potentially valuable recruiting trip to scout for young talent who could be an asset to their firms. Instructors see the speakers as bringing perspectives and knowledge to the subject that the instructor may not have, and perhaps on a less lofty note, as a way to fill valuable class time and provide a needed break (McCleary & Weaver, 2008). However, the mere presence of such a speaker in the class does not guarantee a successful or valuable educational experience, particularly if there has not been adequate communication between the instructor and speaker, sufficient integration of the speaker’s appearance into the course curriculum, or a clear assessment of student needs and interests, including the desired topics and preferred formats (Kamoun & Selim, 2007; Laist, 2015; Lang, 2008; Metrejean et al., 2002).
Previous studies suggest that a good guest speaker is knowledgeable, dedicated, and credible (Eveleth & Baker-Eveleth, 2009; Farruggio, 2011). Also, a good guest speaker is an excellent communicator who understands students’ needs, prepares well, and knows how to engage and motivate students in the classroom (Lee & Joung, 2017).
There are only a few empirical studies that focus on the use of guest speakers in communication and journalism courses, in addition to some anecdotal essays that offer tips on having guest speakers in the classroom. Given the potential value of the classroom speaker to the learning experience, we believe it is important to supplement anecdotal evidence with new empirical data on how to ensure a positive experience. Using focus group interview and survey approaches, this study examines what makes a successful guest talk in strategic communication courses and how students perceive guest speakers. This research takes an important step in that direction by learning and conveying what students want, expect, and respond to when a guest speaker enters their classroom.
In this conceptualization, we relate linkage beliefs theory to guest speakers and review literature regarding guest speakers.
Linkage Beliefs Theory Based on associationist theory with a presumption that attitude is derived from linked beliefs, Culbertson and his colleagues proposed the linkage beliefs theory and further developed and tested the theory by conducting a series of studies (Culbertson, 1992; Culbertson et al., 1993; Culbertson & Stempel, 1985; Denbow & Culbertson, 1985). The theory proposes that a person’s attitude is connected to the linkage between the attitude object and a person’s beliefs and goals. In their survey study of patient perceptions of the image of a medical center, Denbow and Culbertson (1985) found that salient positive beliefs, including the patient’s feeling that “physicians care about their patients,” “up-to-date care is associated with teaching function,” and “people who answer the phone at the center are usually informed and helpful,” positively affect the patients’ perceptions of the center’s image.
In addition to applying the linkage beliefs theory to the patient relations from the attitude impact perspective, Culbertson (1992) tested the theory in alumni relations but from the behavioral impact perspective. He found that the similarity-based linkage, ego-involvement linkage, and instrumental linkage contributed to the intent to join an alumni chapter.
These studies developed and tested the linkage beliefs theory in public relations settings. The linkage beliefs theory connects the audience and public relations practitioners and is useful in audience segmentation. The practical value of the linkage beliefs theory is that it can help a practitioner identify salient linkages, strengthen existing positive linkages, build new useful linkages, and strategically link the target audience’s goals, needs, and values to the organization’s goals via persuasive messages. As such, the public relations strategies and tactics, such as creating clear, creative, and appealing message content and selecting appropriate communication channels, mirror the efforts for effective linkage (Culbertson, 1992; Denbow & Culbertson, 1985).
In a pedagogical setting with strategic communication elements, the linkage beliefs theory connects the target audience (i.e., students) and instructors. In the case of a guest speaker event, the theory guides an instructor to identify the salient positive links between the student beliefs/needs and teaching-learning goals, and further devise strategies of planning an effective guest talk, such as the choice of a guest speaker and the topic and format for the guest talk.
Guest Speaker Studies Previous studies have discussed various aspects of the use of guest speakers, specifically planning details, types of guest speakers, topics of guest talks, formats for guest talks, guest talk tests and assignments, benefits for guest speakers, and guest talks in an online setting. This research is reviewed below.
Planning and Implementing a Guest Speaker Event in Classes Designing and implementing a guest speaker event requires the instructor’s efforts before, during, and after the event. Before the event, the instructor should set appropriate expectations for the guest talk that tie to the course objectives, share the necessary course materials with the speaker, ask for the guest speaker’s biographical information, and communicate with the speaker about the logistic issues and do’s and don’ts in the classroom as needed (Cloud & Sweeney, 1988; Henderson & Streed, 2013; McClearly & Weaver, 2008; Metrejean et al, 2002; Payne et al., 2003). Also, the instructor should prepare students for the guest talk by informing them of the guest speaker’s visit, providing the speaker’s information, and asking students to prepare questions (Cloud & Sweeney, 1988; McClearly & Weaver, 2008; Metrejean et al, 2002; Payne et al., 2003). During the event, the instructor should make sure the guest speaker talks about their professional background and includes a Q&A session (McClearly & Weaver, 2008; Metrejean et al., 2002; Payne et al., 2003). After the event, the instructor sends the speaker a thank-you letter and obtains feedback from both the speaker and students to help improve the future guest speaker events (McClearly & Weaver, 2008; Metrejean et al., 2002; Payne et al., 2003).
While the importance of guest speakers has been well documented in various disciplines (e.g., Zou et al., 2019), the studies on the use of guest speakers in communication and journalism courses are rare, other than some anecdotal essays. Envisioning the guest speaker as a supplement to the instructor, Roush (2013) suggested best practices in terms of using guest speakers in mass communication and journalism courses, such as “Don’t overuse guest speakers” and “find guest speakers who have personalities” (p. 15). In a PRSA article, Henderson and Streed (2013) offered guidelines for a successful guest speaker event in a public relations course. They emphasized guest speakers should respect students and professors, and “collaboration between the professor and the guest speaker, mutual preparation and clear expectations are essential to a successful classroom experience for everyone” (para. 22).
Only one empirical study was found that assessed students’ perceptions of guest speakers in communication courses. Merle and Craig (2017) surveyed journalism and mass communication students from a variety of communication classes at two institutions on their perception of guest speakers, including preferred topics, types of speakers and presentation formats, and perceived effectiveness and benefits. Their study analyzed student perceptions of guest speakers in mass communication and journalism curriculum overall as opposed to any specific sub-field, such as public relations and advertising, which was encouraged by the authors as a topic for future research and is one of the factors driving the present study.
We started by asking the first question about students’ experiences with guest speakers in strategic communication courses (RQ1), which was a topic largely missing from the literature.
RQ1: What experiences did students have with guest speakers in strategic communication courses?
Types of Guest Speakers
A variety of guest speakers can be invited to the classroom. Past studies in other disciplines offered some guidance, including inviting a mix of professionals, faculty members, and even graduate students (Lang, 2008; McClearly & Weaver, 2008; Metrejean et al., 2002; Payne et al., 2003; Soiferman, 2019). In mass communication courses, Cloud and Sweeney (1987) suggested using recent graduates and avoiding people who are out of the loop. Instead of aiming for recent graduates, Roush (2013) suggested professors “shoot for the moon with guest speakers” (p. 15) by inviting high-profile professionals to journalism and mass communication courses. In their survey of journalism and mass communication students’ perception of guest speakers, Merle and Craig (2017) found that students like guest speakers from the industry better than professors.
The diverse and even seemingly contradictory advice that emerges from the literature makes an opportunity to further examine students’ preferred types of guest speakers, particularly in strategic communication courses. Thus, the following two research questions are presented:
RQ2: What types of guest speakers do students prefer in strategic communication courses?
RQ3: What types of organizations that guest speakers are associated with do students prefer in strategic communication courses?
Topics of Guest Talks
Previous studies indicated that students like to hear about the guest speaker’s personal experiences and professional journey (McCleary & Weaver, 2008; Soiferman, 2019), particularly “when a guest speaker can use industry experiences to illustrate how to apply (or not to apply) a theory, concept, or idea that incorporates the learning objectives of the course” (McCleary & Weaver, 2008, p. 406). Career-oriented advice is also a popular topic of guest talks (Kamoun & Selim, 2007; Metrejean et al., 2002).
In journalism and mass communication courses, Merle and Craig (2017) found that students prefer to have a guest lecture that is professionally oriented. Course-related guest talks seem not to be as preferable as career-related topics. They found that less than 16% of participants like the topics of theoretical frameworks or methodological issues in guest talks. With a focus on guest talks in strategic communication courses, this study proposes the following research question:
RQ4: What topics do students want guest speakers to cover in strategic communication courses?
Format for Guest Talks
Previous research suggested that guest talks should have visual aids (Payne et. al, 2003), but reading from notes should be avoided (Metrejean et al, 2002). In journalism and mass communication courses, students tend to prefer an active presentation style from guest speakers that includes components such as providing examples and an interactive Q&A section (Merle & Craig, 2017). With a focus on guest talks in strategic communication courses, this study proposes the following research question:
RQ5: What format for the guest talk in strategic communication courses do students prefer?
Being Tested and Having an Assignment Based on Guest Talks
Should students be tested and have an assignment based on guest talks? Very few empirical studies have addressed this topic. In their experimental study on the role of test-expectancy on student learning and evaluations of guest speakers, Hite et al. (1985) found students in marketing courses do not want to be tested over guest talk content, but they also found if students know they are going to be tested, a more positive learning experience occurs. The scarcity of research prompts the research question below:
RQ6: How do students perceive being tested and having an assignment based on guest speaker content in strategic communication courses?
Benefits of Guest Speakers
Guest speakers enrich students’ learning experiences by helping them gain first-hand knowledge from practitioners, as well as networking opportunities (Byrd et al., 1989; Wortman, 1992). Metrejean et al. (2002) found that accounting students consider guest talks helpful in “alleviating students’ fears about career choices,” offering “encouragement,” giving “some insight that will expand on what they are studying or give them information they would not get directly from the course material” (p. 360), helping “to focus more on the future” and providing “insights into what employers want in an accountant” (p. 357).
Merle and Craig (2017) found that journalism and mass communication students tended to believe guest talks can enhance their learning experience, are effective in the classroom, and add overall value to the class content. To explore student perceptions of the guest speaker benefits in strategic communication, a sub-field of mass communication, a research question is posited:
RQ7: What benefits of guest speakers do students perceive in strategic communication courses?
Guest Talks in an Online Setting
With the increasing use of online teaching, the use of guest speakers in an online setting can be both beneficial and challenging. Using an example in an online social work course, Sage (2013) asserted that technical assistance will be needed for guest speakers, and that students should be encouraged not to post distracting notes during the session. Privacy and copyright issues need to be taken into consideration as well.
The effectiveness of using virtual guest speakers is mixed. Henderson et al. (2018) found that MBA students evaluated using a guest speaker in a face-to-face setting as a more effective teaching method than the online setting. L. Hemphill and H. Hemphill (2007) found that guest speakers can be used “sparingly in online discussions while still maintaining the quality of the online discussion and frequent, meaningful interactions among students” (p. 287).
In a 2012 PRSA article, some public relations professors emphasized the importance of having guest speakers face the challenges of teaching millennials public relations in the fast-changing technology environment. The tactics they shared included inviting guest speakers to speak in both classes and PRSSA clubs, and inviting them to speak in person or via video conferencing (Jacques, 2012). Thus, the last research question explores online guests:
RQ8: How do students perceive having guest speakers in online strategic communication courses?
Methods and Results
This study had two phases. In Phase 1, we conducted two focus groups to explore student perceptions of guest speakers in strategic communication courses. In Phase 2, we further examined the research questions via a survey to confirm and add to the findings from a larger sample.
Phase 1: Focus Groups
A qualitative focus group approach was employed in this study, and the method details and findings are reported as follows.
Focus Group Interview Methods
Considering the scarcity of empirical studies on how students perceive guest speakers in strategic communication courses, initial focus groups were an appropriate research method to explore insights from students and to provide a foundation for a follow-up survey.
Two focus groups were conducted in September 2017. The target participants were students who enrolled in strategic communication courses in fall 2017 in a journalism school at a public Midwestern university that offers strategic communication courses, including introductory, writing, creative concepts, research, and capstone topics.
After the research protocol was approved by the university’s Institutional Review Board, the recruitment process started. A recruitment flier was posted on the Blackboard sites of three strategic communication classes. These were undergraduate courses with a few seats available for graduate students. The study was also announced in classes. Each participant received one percentage point of extra credit in exchange of their time/effort. Pizza was provided during each focus group session.
Seven students participated in the focus group on Sept. 25, 2017. The participants included one male student and six female students; the breakdown in educational level was one master’s student and six undergraduate students. Eight students participated in the focus group on Sept. 27, 2017. The participants included one male student and seven female students. All participants were undergraduate students.
Each session lasted about 45 minutes. Both sessions were audio recorded and took place in a conference room. In both sessions, one of the authors who was not the instructor of the participants served as a moderator. A research assistant served as a note taker. Letters were assigned to participants in place of their names for the sake of their privacy. The focus group discussions started after participants signed the consent form.
The focus group discussions were semi-structured, including the topics of students’ preferences of the types of guest speakers, preferences of the content and format for the guest talk, and benefits of having guest speakers.
The recordings of the two focus groups were transcribed after the focus group sessions were completed. The research proposal, transcripts, field notes, and the three authors’ reflections were used to analyze the data. Each of the three authors independently read these study-related documents carefully, and identified the emergent themes, points with supporting evidence, and quotes. Then the three authors met and discussed their findings and came to a consensus.
Focus Group Results
All the participants in both focus groups reported they have had experience with guest speakers in their various courses. The first research question explored their experiences with guest speakers.
Likes and Dislikes.Most participants stated that relevance and fit were particularly important to them. If the guest speaker did not fit in with their interests or the overall theme of the course, they did not seem to care much about them. Furthermore, students felt a need to have their voice heard by having some agency in choosing guest speakers by participating in a poll early in the semester.
Students also acknowledged having a variety of speakers was informative and eye opening and at times, resulted in a change in career paths. For example, one participant stated: “I had a speaker come in my freshman year in my first semester. I came in as a strat. comm. major…she completely…changed everything that I wanna do, and she’s been an inspiration to me since.”
The participants did not like speakers who put an excessive focus on themselves, did not leave ample time for questions and answers, did not have aesthetically pleasing visual aids, had too much material on visual aids, read off the PowerPoint slides, or reiterated course material. For example, one participant complained of a speaker who “kind of talked at us, not with us.” Another participant criticized a guest speaker who “talked a little bit too much about herself.” One student lamented a speaker who “followed her PowerPoint [too much], I don’t know, she…read directly from her PowerPoint…that’s almost insulting, I could read it just as well as you could.”
Participants also seemed to suggest that smaller classes are more conducive to having guest speakers than larger class sizes as the former provide an environment that fosters connections by engaging in a more intimate interaction with the guest speakers. In smaller classes, students preferred spending more time and engaging with guest speakers; in larger classes, students seem to emphasize a more general introductory approach and some way to network with the speakers.
The majority of the participants stated that the opportunity to network was one of the primary advantages of having guest speakers in class. Furthermore, participants liked when the instructor or the guest speaker themselves provided the students an opportunity to connect with them either through social platforms such as LinkedIn or via email.
Participants stated they did not particularly like it if they were expected to know the content from the guest speaker’s presentation for an exam, but also said it was a good motivator to attend the presentation. One student stated that she did not have guest speakers in the online class she took and really missed that aspect of class.
Types of Guest Speakers. In terms of the types of guest speakers, most participants preferred to have working professionals (compared to academics), alumni, and a mix of early career and senior-level executives. For example, one participant stated:
I think both [recent graduates and senior-level professionals] are very, very, very valuable ‘cause the recent grads are the ones that [we] can most connect with, and they have been in your shoes most recently. But the higher-level-up professionals may be the ones that get you your internship or your job. So again, from a networking standpoint, they are both important.
Due to the global nature of the field of strategic communication, most participants expressed a desire to have more international guest speakers in their classes. The following quote from a participant illustrates this sentiment clearly: “I think [they] give you a whole new perspective, especially [in] our field . . . it’s a global field now. So it’s important to have that.”
There were no differences expressed in preference based on gender. In both focus groups, none of the participants cared if a guest speaker was a male or a female.
Types of Organizations. In the same vein, none of the participants were particularly concerned about the organizations that guest speakers were associated with. The participants did not care if the guest speakers worked in government, for-profit, or not-for-profit organizations. However, participants did appreciate hearing the differences between agency work and working with a particular organization and suggestions about how they themselves might apply the knowledge once they start working.
Topic Preference. None of the participants suggested a desire to have guest speakers cover course content. Overwhelmingly, the participants were interested in hearing about each guest speaker’s journey. All the participants echoed a desire to learn about the speakers’ personal narratives, their experiences, day-to-day working conditions, and the challenges that they faced and how they solved them. In addition, most participants liked to hear about things that would advance their career, including job hunting and personal growth tips. The following quote further illustrates this point:
I think novelty is very important. When people . . . give their backstory . . . I think that’s super important. Just kind of understand and kind of humanize them a little bit, makes you more comfortable with listening to them. So it is not just some adult talking at you.
Format Preference. Both groups suggested that guest speakers should adopt a conversational tone, should be interactive, engaging, interested in answering students’ questions, and show warmth and respect for students. Some students mentioned that having an activity such as discussing a case study that emulates real-world problems could also be an interesting way to engage students. As mentioned previously, students preferred a visual aid, and they did not like speakers reading off the slides.
In sum, our focus group interview findings suggest that students prefer speakers from a variety of backgrounds and experiences with whom they could relate and prefer to hear about tips related to networking, job search, and career advancement. The focus groups served as a precursor or pilot for a larger follow-up survey, to answer further research questions.
Phase 2: Survey
A quantitative survey approach was employed, and the method details and survey results are reported below.
Procedure. The target survey participants were students enrolled in strategic communication courses in spring 2018 in the same journalism school where the focus group sample was formed. While we only recruited 15 focus group participants from three strategic communication courses to help explore students’ perceptions of guest speakers as a foundation for the follow-up survey, we tried to recruit survey participants more broadly from all strategic communication courses offered in that semester in order to further examine student perceptions of guest speakers with a larger sample size. The strategic communication courses offered during that semester were taught by eight instructors, including two of the authors. The researchers reached out to the six other instructors, asking them to help distribute the survey to their students. All instructors agreed and helped.
After the survey protocol was approved by IRB, the survey instrument was developed for online delivery and data gathering via Qualtrics. On April 2, 2018, an invitation letter including a survey link was sent via email to those instructors who agreed to help. The students were asked to answer the questions about their perceptions of guest speakers in strategic communication courses.
On April 10, a reminder was sent to participating instructors except for one author, who sent this reminder email, asking the participating instructors to encourage their students to take the survey as soon as possible. The survey was closed at 1:40 p.m. EST on April 24, 2018. One hundred and seven students completed the survey. Unfortunately, it was not possible to calculate the response rate because one student may take several strategic communication courses.
Some participating instructors offered one percentage extra course credit in exchange for the students’ time/effort, and some did not. The consent form appeared after the survey introduction page. The questionnaire was devised to be completed within 15-30 minutes.
Participants. Of the 107 respondents, 79.4% were female, 15.9% were male, and 4.7% did not provide their gender information; the vast majority were white (80.4%), 5.6% were black, 2.8% had Hispanic/Latino/Spanish origin, 2.8% were Asian, and 8.4% had other ethnicity background or did not provide their ethnicity information. Of the 102 students who provided their information on age, year in college, and major, their average age was 20 years old; 32.4% were sophomores, followed by 28.4% juniors, 25.5% freshmen, 12.7% seniors, and 1.0% graduate students; 53.9% were majoring in journalism (n = 55), among which 72.7% were in the strategic communication track (n = 40); 23.5% were non-journalism communication majors (n = 24), such as communication studies and commercial photography; and 22.5% were in other majors, including marketing, and retail merchandising and fashion product development (n = 23).
In all, 93.5% of the 107 respondents had heard guest speakers in their strategic communication courses before. The students’ guest speaker experiences were largely in traditional classrooms. Only three students said they had guest speakers in their online strategic communication courses.
Measurement. Guided by our focus group findings and related studies, the measurement of key variables was developed and explained as follows.
Experience of Having Guest Speakers. Respondents were asked to rate their level of satisfaction with their guest speaker experiences in strategic communication courses on a 5- point scale ranging from 1 (highly satisfied) to 5 (highly dissatisfied).
Types of Guest Speakers. Eight statements were evaluated by respondents using a 5- point scale ranging from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree) to assess the preferred types of guest speakers. These statements included “I would really like to have faculty members as guest speakers in my strategic communication courses.” And “faculty members” was replaced by “junior-level professionals,” “senior-level professionals,” “recent graduates,” “alumni,” “men,” “women” in the other six statements respectively. We also included a statement “I would really like to have international guest speakers in my strategic communication courses.” These eight statements had a Cronbach’s Alpha of 0.82.
Types of Organizations. Four statements were rated by respondents using a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree) to assess the preference for the guest speaker’s organization. One statement was “Guest speakers in strategic communication courses should come from corporations and industry.” In the other three statements, “corporations and industry” were replaced by “advertising and PR agencies specially,” “nonprofit organizations specially,” and “government departments and agencies,” respectively (Cronbach’s Alpha = 0.85).
Topics of Guest Talks. Participants were also asked to indicate their level of agreement with five statements on hearing the topics of “career advice,” “network tips and opportunities,” “personal backgrounds, experiences, and back stories of the guest speaker’s professional journeys,” “industry trends,” and “a specific topic tied closely to the course” on a 5-point scale, ranging from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree). The five statements measuring topic preference had a Cronbach’s Alpha of 0.90.
Format for Guest Talks. Similarly, participants were asked to indicate their preferences on “a conversational format” and “use visual aids,” by using a 5-point scale from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree). Participants were asked to indicate the importance of having a Q&A session in guest talks on a 5-point scale, ranging from 1 (extremely important) to 5 (not important at all). Also, participants were asked to indicate what percentage of time should be saved for Q&A.
Being Tested and Having an Assignment Based on Guest Talks. Participants were asked to indicate their level of agreement on a 5-point scale with the statement that “Students should be tested on guest speaker content,” ranging from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree). They were also asked to rate the helpfulness of having an assignment based on guest talk content, ranging from 1 (extremely helpful) to 5 (not helpful at all).
Benefits of Guest Speakers. Based on Merle & Craig (2017) and our focus group study, participants were asked to indicate their level of agreement on a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree) with eight statements regarding benefits of having guest speakers, including “giving me an opportunity to network with the guest speaker,” “so I can feel more confident in strategic communication career decisions,” “so I can be more aware of strategic communication career opportunities,” “to help understand the industry at large,” “to help enrich the curriculum,” “to help improve my attention in class,” “to help me take a break from the same instructor,” and “to help enhance my learning experience” (Cronbach’s Alpha = 0.88).
Having Online Guest Speakers. Participants were asked to evaluate the importance of having guest speakers in online strategic communication courses, using a 5-point scale from 1 (extremely important) to 5 (not important at all). They were also asked to rate their level of agreement with two statements: “Guest speakers should be invited to participate in online strategic communication courses,” and “Advances in technology (e.g., Skype or FaceTime) can enable guest speakers’ participation in online strategic communication courses.”
Participants were asked to indicate their level of agreement with the statement “Instructors should have students participate in a survey early in the semester to help choose topics for guest speaker talks” on a 5-point scale from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree). Participants were asked how many guest speakers they would like to have in their strategic communication courses in a given semester. Participants were also asked to provide their age, major, year in college, and ethnicity.
The 107 responses received from our survey generated some informative data that allowed us to answer the research questions using descriptive statistics. In tables, certain items have fewer than 107 responses due to missing data.
RQ1: What experiences did students have with guest speakers in strategic communication courses?
Eighty two percent of respondents were highly satisfied or satisfied with their guest speaker experience, and only 5% were dissatisfied or highly dissatisfied (M = 2.07, SD = 0.74, n = 100).
RQ2: What types of guest speakers do students prefer in strategic communication courses?
As Table 1 shows, alumni were the most preferred guest speakers in strategic communication courses (M = 1.81), and 82.5% of the respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that they would like to have alumni as guest speakers. Recent graduates were perceived as the second most preferred type of guest speakers (M = 1.83) with 81.7% of the respondents either agreeing or strongly agreeing that they would like to have recent graduates as guest speakers.
Similar to what was found in our focus groups, respondents tended not to care much about the guest speakers’ gender. Less than half of the respondents preferred either male (32.7%) or female guest speakers (48.1%). More students preferred senior-level professionals (77.9%) than junior-level professionals (68.9%).
Unlike the focus groups findings, which suggested that students tended to prefer working professionals to academics, the survey data revealed that there were not many differences in preference between senior-level professionals (77.9%), faculty members (68%) and junior-level professionals (68.9%). Focus group data suggested strong support for having international guest speakers. The survey data confirmed the majority of the respondents would like to have international guest speakers (69.2%).
RQ3: What types of organizations that guest speakers are associated with do students prefer in strategic communication courses?
Our focus group data suggested that students were not concerned about the guest speaker’s organization, but the survey results tell a different story. Descriptive data in Table 2 indicated 75.7% of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that guest speakers should come from advertising and PR agencies specially, and only a little more than half of the respondents (56.3%) agreed or strongly agreed that guest speakers should come from government departments and agencies. About six out of ten of the respondents preferred guest speakers coming from corporations and industry (62.1%) and from nonprofits (66.0%).
RQ4: What topics do students want guest speakers to cover in strategic communication courses?
The survey data were somewhat in line with the focus groups’ findings in terms of preferred topics. In focus groups, none of the participants appreciated course content being covered by guest speakers; instead, guest speakers’ personal journeys were the overwhelmingly preferred topic. Our survey results (see Table 3) indicated that nearly nine out of ten respondents would like to hear career advice (88.3%), networking tips and opportunities (86.4%), and professional backgrounds, experiences, and backstories of the guest speaker’s professional journeys (85.4%). Comparatively, hearing about a specific topic tied closely to the course was lower (72.5%) in preference, though still appreciated by a majority of the students.
RQ5: What format for the guest talk do students prefer in strategic communication courses?
Table 4 shows that the vast majority of the respondents (87.4%) preferred that guest speakers use visual aids (M = 1.65) . Most respondents (65.0%) preferred that guest speakers employ a conversational format (M = 2.24) . Our focus group study also suggested that a conversational format and visual aids were the preferred methods of presentation.
When asked about the importance of the Q&A session in a guest talk, 36.9% of the respondents said it is extremely important, and 34% said very important; no respondent said not important at all (M = 1.96, SD = 0.89, n = 103). They were also asked their opinion about what amount of time as a percentage of the presentation should be saved for Q&A in a guest talk. Forty-six point six percent of respondents said 11 to 20% of time should be saved for Q&A, 30.1% of the respondents said 1 to 10%, 13.6% of the respondents said 21 to 30%, and 9.7% of the respondents said more than 30% of time for Q&A.
RQ6: How do students perceive being tested and having an assignment based on guest speaker content in strategic communication courses?
The survey results were in line with the focus groups’ findings that students did not like having an exam based on the guest talk, but they can see it as motivation for attending class. In fact, more than half of the participants did not like the idea of being tested on guest speaker content (57.4% disagree or strongly disagree) (M = 3.68, SD = 0.99, n = 101). Also, nearly half of the students who responded considered having an assignment based on guest speaker content to be slightly helpful or not helpful at all (46.6%). Only a handful of the respondents (2.9%, n = 3) said having an assignment based on guest speaker content was extremely helpful, and 13.6% of the respondents said very helpful (M = 3.52, SD = 1.10, n = 103).
RQ7: What benefits of guest speakers do students perceive in strategic communication courses?
In focus groups, the majority of the participants stated that networking was the primary advantage of having guest speakers in class. The survey results show richer data on the benefits of guest speakers. Table 5 shows about eight out of ten respondents perceived the benefits of guest speakers to be career-related, including providing an opportunity to network with the guest speaker (87.1%), being more aware of strategic communication career opportunities (84.3%), feeling more confident in strategic communication career decisions (79.4%), and helping to understand the industry at large (78.4%). Although 85.3% of the respondents perceived the benefit of guest speakers as enhancing the learning experience, the pedagogical benefits were not perceived as greater than career-related benefits including helping improve attention in class (53.9%), enriching the curriculum (69%), and helping take a break from the same instructor (72.5%).
RQ8: How do students perceive having guest speakers in online strategic communication courses?
About two thirds (67.6%) of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that guest speakers should be invited to participate in online strategic communication courses (see Table 6). And overwhelmingly, 91.4% of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that advances in technology (e.g., Skype or FaceTime) can enable guest speakers’ participation in online strategic communication courses.
Our study also revealed some interesting findings regarding students’ perceptions of their involvement in choosing topics for guest talks. Involvement in choosing a guest speaker and getting their voice heard was one of the “likes” expressed by most of the focus group participants. In the survey, when asked about the degree to which they agree or disagree with the statement of “Instructors should have students participate in a survey early in the semester to help choose topics for guest speaker talks,” 73.5% of the respondents said they agreed or strongly agreed with this statement (M = 1.98, SD = 0.88, n = 102).
Also, we found three guest speakers in strategic communication courses in a given semester was the number preferred by the respondents (49%), followed by two guest speakers (18.6%), four guest speakers (16.7%), at least five guest speakers (10.8%), and one guest speaker (2.9%). Only two of the respondents preferred having no guest speakers.
Discussion and Conclusion
The results of our study support the linkage beliefs tenets. With mostly satisfactory guest speaker experiences, students’ salient beliefs on the benefit of the guest talks and preferences on the types of guest speakers, topics, and formats of the guest talks suggest what the positive links are and what areas instructors can work on to strengthen the connections between students’ beliefs and the effective teaching- learning outcome by using guest talks. On the other hand, the breadth of the preferred types of guest speakers and preferred topics of guest talks also suggest the complexity of the links. Our study suggests instructors need to understand the complexity of the links while mapping out the contributing factors to a successful outcome for a guest talk. Our findings are also in line with previous research from Zou et al. (2019) who conducted a review of studies on guest speakers across various disciplines and proposed a “Trilateral Model” delineating benefits of having guest speakers in courses. Our findings have also provided pedagogical implications in using guest speakers in strategic communication courses.
Types of Guest Speakers
It appears students find alumni and recent graduates, two types of most preferred guest speakers, to be a valuable link between their life as a student and their imagined future professional selves, due to the perceptions of similarity (Culbertson, 1992). The finding of recent graduates as preferred guest speakers is in line with Cloud and Sweeney’s (1988) suggestion that having recent graduates as guest speakers could be advantageous because students can relate to them and establish a rapport. Instructors can build their own list of potential guest speakers by attending existing alumni events to network with alumni.
It is not surprising that students prefer a good mix of senior-level and junior-level professionals as preferred guest speakers. Obviously, the junior level position would be a starting point for students, but the greater attractiveness of the senior level professionals might be due to their capacity to arrange internships and even job placement. Planning to invite a mix of senior-level and junior-level professionals to serve as guest speakers in a semester would be advisable to benefit students in different ways.
Given the increasing globalization of the strategic communication field, preferring international guest speakers is only natural. For an international public relations course, having an international guest speaker would be ideal. As instructors in the U.S., we are not always mindful of bringing in international speakers. We suggest instructors make contact with their university’s international scholar services, which could be a starting point to learn more about international scholars on campus and to identify people who might fit in with their courses. Also, technology could be employed to have guest speakers address the class from remote locations so that the students could hear from a diverse range of speakers.
Guest Talk Topics and Formats
In line with Merle and Craig’s (2017) findings, the preferred topics of guest talks were around career advice, networking tips, professional backgrounds, and journeys. Career advice was perceived as the top topic, which suggests students in strategic communication are eager to learn professional advice and practical tips. It is also understandable that the personal journeys of speakers were among the highly preferred topics, as a guest speaker’s personal story sharing can enhance students’ engagement (Soiferman, 2019).
Should the topic of the guest talk be tied closely to the course? The answer is probably yes. Soiferman (2019) asserted that both declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge are important for students. In practice, guest speakers don’t want to stray too far from the course content. The instructor and guest speakers may want to work together to maximize the effectiveness of guest talks by discussing course content before the guest talk.
Our research suggested that ideally, conversational style talks, plus visual aids would be best. Also, it would be wise to present the idea of a Q&A session to guest speakers in advance. These findings are in line with Merle and Craig’s (2017) findings. The class dynamics may affect the duration and effectiveness of a Q&A session. An instructor can facilitate the session by asking some general but personal questions such as what you enjoy most about your job and what is the most challenging part of your job.
Survey data also indicated that only about half of the students would like to be tested or have an assignment on guest content, which is somewhat in line with Hite et al.’s (1985) findings that students didn’t want to be tested over the guest speaker content. However, as they suggested a more positive learning experience occurred when students are told they would be tested over guest talks, perhaps giving students an assignment or test based on guest content would be a good idea to enhance the learning outcome.
Experience of Having Guest Talks and Benefits of Guest Talks
Our research suggests it would be wise to have guest talks as a teaching tool. It is interesting to see career-related benefits were perceived as higher than academic and particular classroom learning benefits. This may be related to the practical nature of the strategic communication courses. The pedagogical benefits were recognized, although they were not appreciated as much. In order to maximize the benefits of guest speakers, instructors may want to consider the nature of the course and students’ year in college and work with the guest speaker to devise the focus of the talk and the timetable. For example, in an upper-level public relations campaign/capstone course, instructors may want to ask the guest speaker to talk about networking tips and opportunities and career advice and leave some time to allow students who are mainly juniors and seniors to network with the guest speaker.
Online Guest Speakers
Although online courses have been implemented in many schools, students’ experience with online strategic communication courses is limited, and having guest speakers in online strategic communication courses is rare as well, at least in our sample. Even with such limited experience, students expressed the desire to have guest speakers online. This calls for further empirical studies on the effectiveness of online guest speakers, particularly given the mixed findings on this subject (Henderson et al., 2018; Hemphill & Hemphill, 2007). Instructors could experiment in incorporating guest speakers in an online format with the help of technology, such as incorporating Skype, Google Hangouts, or FaceTime, which can enable participatory behavior in online sections.
Students’ Voice and Number of Guest Speakers
Students tended to like playing a role in choosing the topics of guest talks. Previous research suggests when students perceive their voice is being heard and they have agency in their own educational process, that leads to better learning outcomes (Cook-Sather, 2006). Thus, circulating a poll a week or two before the semester starts and inviting students to provide their input on selecting guest speakers based on their interests may help set the right tone for the course and may result in a more enjoyable semester, for both the students and faculty.
Having three guest speakers in a given semester was the most preferred option, which is in line with the tips offered by Roush (2013), who suggested not overusing guest speakers and no more than three or four guest speakers during a class. Indeed, too many guest speakers may affect the course content an instructor may want to cover, and it may also be difficult to manage.
While the students’ perceptions of guest speakers will help instructors understand the needs and wants, it is worth noting that that students do not always know what’s best for them, and instructors may react to students’ perceptions differently according to their knowledge about their students and their experience of hosting guest talks. On the other hand, a successful guest talk cannot be separated from the efforts of a guest speaker. We recommend that guest speakers work closely with the instructors before the talk to learn about the instructor’s expectations, understand students’ needs, and present the talk in an engaging manner.
Limitations and Future Research
The samples for focus groups and survey research were convenience and purposive in nature. Researchers should be cautious when generalizing the findings of this study to a larger population. Another limitation lies in the sample size. Future research should conduct more focus group discussions to enrich the data. Our survey sample size was also small and limited to one campus. Future research can use large-scale survey research to derive findings based on representative samples that could be generalized to a larger population in various contexts.
Focus group participants were not excluded from the survey, which may affect their survey responses due to their previous exposure to the focus group discussion. Also, a student could take the survey multiple times. Although our data did not suggest that happened, we should have taken a precaution when designing the online survey.
Although the results from our survey research provide useful information, it remains descriptive in nature. Due to the smaller sample size, the present study focuses on the student perception of guest speakers as a group. However, basic statistics show some noticeable and interesting differences in preferences of guest speakers by major, which provides useful information for educators. For example, journalism majors tended to prefer junior-level professionals and senior-level professionals much more than non-journalism majors (see Table 1a) and prefer the industry topics much more than non-journalism majors (see Table 3a). Also, journalism majors tended to prefer the following benefits more than non-journalism majors–opportunity to network with the guest speaker, feeling more confident in strategic communication career decisions, being more aware of strategic communication career opportunities, helping understand the industry at large, and helping enrich the curriculum (see Table 5a). As for the differences in perceptions by year in college, it is worth noting that underclassmen tended to prefer faculty members more than upperclassmen, and prefer recent graduates less than upperclassmen (see Table 1b). Underclassmen tended to prefer the benefits of having an opportunity to network with guest speakers, being aware of strategic communication career opportunities, and taking a break from the same instructor more than upperclassmen (see Table 5b). With a bigger sample size, advanced statistical analysis could be employed to examine statistical difference and generate more information.
Some issues are worth further investigation. For example, students tend to dislike being tested on a guest speaker. What alternative testing tools to examine the guest talk effectiveness exist? Students tended to want to have a say in choosing the topics of guest talks. How should this take place? Collecting more data can offer more robust findings and analyses. In addition, future studies could examine how the type of public relations course might affect student perceptions of guest speakers.
In conclusion, the key things we learned from our research suggest an overwhelming preference for guest speakers from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, who share their personal journey, career advice, and networking tips. This allows students to learn from the guest speakers’ personal experiences, so they may apply the knowledge of the speakers’ job searching and networking to advance their own careers. Our findings have important practical implications and suggest that diversity and variety of guest speakers and topics create an enriching pedagogical experience. While an instructor plays a key role in planning and facilitating a guest talk, the outcome of a guest talk would also involve the guest speaker’s effort and audience’s engagement.
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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
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.
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.
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).
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
Working with clients
Understanding new media
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.
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).
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).
Agreement 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.
Participants 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.
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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