Tag Archives: analytics

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

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


Julie O’Neil, Ph.D.
Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Administration, Bob Schieffer College of Communication
Strategic Communication
Texas Christian University
Texas, USA
Email: j.oneil@tcu.edu

Emily S. Kinsky, Ph.D.
Professor of Media Communication
Department of Communication
West Texas A&M University
Texas, USA
Email: ekinsky@wtamu.edu

Michele E. Ewing, APR, Fellow PRSA
School of Media and Journalism
Kent State University
Ohio, USA
Email: meewing@kent.edu

Maria Russell, APR, Fellow PRSA
Professor Emerita, Public Relations
Newhouse School
Syracuse University
Email: mprussel@sry.edu

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Literature

How PR Practitioners are Using Data and Technology

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

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

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

Pedagogical Approaches to Teaching Data and Analytics

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

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

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

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

Feedback from Practitioners About Data Skills and Knowledge Needed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Knowledge Needed: Understanding PR Fundamentals and Business Functions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knowledge Needed: Research and Statistics

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

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

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

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

Hard Skills Needed: Data Visualization and Storytelling

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

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

Soft Skill Needed: Willingness to Learn

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

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

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

Soft Skill Needed: Embracing Change and Unexpectedness 

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

Soft Skill Needed: Creative and Critical Thinking Skills

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

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

RQ2: Software and Tools Used to Analyze Data 

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

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

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

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

RQ3: How Educators Can Improve Student Readiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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Table 1: Interview Participant Information

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

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

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

Table 3: Software and Tools that Students Should Learn

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

© Copyright 2023 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: O’Neil, J., Kinsky, E., Ewing, M., and Russell, M. (2023). “You don’t have to become a data scientist”: Practitioner Recommendations for Cultivating PR Student Data Competency. Journal of Public Relations Education, 9(1), 62-81. https://journalofpreducation.com/?p=3616

Analytics in PR Education: Desired Skills for Digital Communicators

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted November 11, 2020. Manuscript accepted for publication December 16, 2020. First published online September 2021.


Melissa B. Adams, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Public Department of Communication 
Appalachian State University
Boone, NC
Email: adamsmb2@appstate.edu 

Nicole M. Lee, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
School of Social and Behavioral Sciences
Arizona State University
Tempe, AZ
Email: nicole.lee.1@asu.edu


This exploratory study examined the analytics knowledge and skills agencies seek in new digital public relations hires and extends recent research on the topic of strategic communication analytics education. In-depth interviews were conducted with 14 senior managers at O’Dwyer’s 2019 Top Independent Agencies. These professionals identified the analytic training and tool knowledge most desired in new hires. Results show that basic education in analytic measurement and data analysis is necessary preparation for the digital job market and that communication managers seek new hires with strong critical thinking skills with the ability to gain insights from multiple data sources. Effective communication of analytic insights and awareness of their implications for the organization or business were also noted as highly-desirable skills.

Keywords: public relations, social media, analytics, evaluation

Public relations, as both practice and discipline, has been described as being in a state of reinvention due to the availability of digital data metrics and the rise of social media communication as strategic organizational communication (Daniels, 2018; DiStaso & Bortree, 2014). Consequently, public relations practitioners and researchers have discussed the need to include social media metrics and analytics education as part of public relations programs, to examine how it is being incorporated into classes, and to develop learning goals and pedagogy to support the process (Anderson & Swenson, 2013; Kent et al., 2011; Stansberry, 2016; Wiesenberg et al., 2017). Researchers recently proposed a concise list of learning outcomes for undergraduate courses (Ewing et al., 2018).

The dashboard reporting model adopted by marketers and advertisers is now the expected norm in public relations practice as is the use of common evaluation language of digital measurement (click-throughs, conversions, etc.) However, effectively communicating analytic insights using industry language is often a struggle for both practitioners and academics due to the unfamiliar terminology (Sanchis, 2019) and the fact that this technology is relatively new and constantly evolving (unlike traditional research methods). The advent of new digital measurement guidelines such as Barcelona 2.0 has also contributed to the urgency of the need for public relations curriculum to evolve and include analytics training as part of the new standard (Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communications [AMEC], 2015; Commission on Public Relations Education [CPRE], 2018). 

Therefore, public relations educators are challenged with the development of analytic skills and digital measurement knowledge in order to incorporate training into existing curricula. This scramble to “skill up” to meet the needs of students and demands of the job market means that there has been a great focus on attaining certifications, but little research has been done to determine if this training aligns with the actual needs and expectations of the profession. Although recent research has noted that the skill set of public relations instructors should be updated to address digital media skills and measurement, there are differences in opinion between academics and professionals on how and what should be learned to bridge this gap (Shen & Toth, 2013). In addition, because digital public relations evaluation includes multiple social media and content metrics, experience using basic analytics tools and social media research methods to develop holistic performance insights would provide students valuable training in critical thinking, and would help them understand how such measures contribute to better understanding organizational publics (Kent, et al., 2011; Stansberry, 2016; Waddington, 2017). 

More recently, public relations educators have called for an integration of analytics training at the programmatic and course levels to address this need. Analytics education should be incorporated into existing curriculum such as public relations campaigns capstones and not just taught as stand-alone courses or as part of social media courses only (Adams et al., 2019). Just as social media practice is now deeply integrated into public relations practice, analytic thinking and analysis are increasingly important and therefore, this training should be included in core courses as well as social media management courses (Adams et al., 2020). 

Considering the challenges of keeping up with the technology and the differing opinions on digital measurement training within academia, this exploratory study was designed to identify the analytics knowledge and skills that public relations agency managers expect and value most among new hires. The study also extends recent research (Ewing et al., 2018) that recommended analytics learning outcomes by comparing those outcomes to practitioner expectations in the current job market.

Specifically, this study attempted to answer the following research questions: What analytic skills and training are agency professionals seeking in new hires? What specific social media listening and analytics tools and certifications are most valued by agency managers? And, what emergent skills or training are becoming necessary in digital analytics?

Literature Review

Public Relations Measurement and Reinvention

 A number of evaluation frameworks have been promoted for public relations in the years preceding digital practice, including those that incorporated media effects metrics (awareness and intent for example), business measures such as “ROI” (return on investment), and the tabulation of various outputs (including AVEs or Advertising Value Equivalencies) (AMEC, 2016; Lindenmann, 2005; Michaelson & Stacks, 2011; Watson, 2012). So many measures and evaluative frameworks have been proposed in public relations scholarship that Lindenmann argued that there were ample measures available for use—the issue was instead for practitioners to do a better job of getting management to recognize and support public relations efforts (Lindenmann, 2005). However, as social media and “new media” became part of professional practice, practitioners were challenged with how best to measure and report their effectiveness, and academics have struggled to keep up with evolving digital communication platforms, terminology, and best practices (DiStaso & Bortree, 2014; Freberg & Kim, 2018; Sanchis, 2019; Zhang & Freberg, 2018).

In her overview of new media research in public relations, Sandra Duhé (2015) identified the theoretical applications and extensions that have been explored in academic research since the dawn of digital public relations practice. Theoretical contributions to crisis communication, two-way communication, and ethics have been published in public relations journals in numerous studies. However, Duhé’s exhaustive survey does not mention how digital public relations measurement has been studied or how these new measures have influenced recent research or theory-building. This is not an oversight; instead, this omission simply points to the need to reconceptualize public relations measurement as an integrated element in digital media  —measurement that is immediate, continuous, and easily accessible. 

Social media has forced academics as well as practitioners to rethink PR as a digital practice requiring new conceptualizations of public-organization communication (Daniels, 2018; DiStaso & Bortree, 2014; Stansberry & Strauss, 2015) and research and evaluation (Daniels, 2018; Kent, 2001; Macnamara, 2014a, 2014b, 2018; Macnamara & Gregory, 2018). 

The last decade has brought a host of new measurement frameworks, tools, and standards to support the evaluation of digital public relations campaigns. Perhaps most significantly is AMEC’s (International Association for Measurement and Evaluation of Communications) announcement of the Barcelona Principles in 2010. The result of an international collaboration, the seven principles address the affordances and challenges of social media communication and refocused evaluation on outcomes rather than simple outputs (AMEC, 2010). The principles note that social media efforts should be measured, and AVEs (Advertising Value Equivalencies) should be abandoned as they are not public relations (AMEC, 2010). 

Following the announcement of the Barcelona Principles, scholarship on the history of public relations measurement traced the progression of traditional measures (outputs such as counting media impressions) to the incorporation of business measures in the 1990s (such as KPIs or key performance indicators) and their integration into the more holistic, outcomes-focused, digital evaluation framework (Macnamara, 2014a; Watson, 2012). One problem noted was the fact that social media platforms and the tools designed to manage and measure social communications all used different types of measures (Marklein & Paine, 2012). This issue was acknowledged in discussions of valid metrics for social media during the 2012 Social Media Conclave and the development of social media standards for measurement proposed by the Digital Analytics Association in 2013 (Macnamera, 2014b). New evaluation models also included the holistic perspective afforded by the Barcelona Principles to include outcomes as well as outputs and consider qualitative measures and methods such as social listening (Macnamara, 2014a, Macnamera & Gregory, 2018). 

Due to the rapid evolution of digital media platforms and the adoption of social media in professional communication, the Barcelona Principles were expanded in 2015 to focus more on “what to do” rather than “what not to do,” according to David Rockland of Ketchum and AMEC working group member (Rockland, 2015). He explains Barcelona 2.0 as more holistic overall to account for all of professional communication (not just public relations) and to include qualitative methods in recognition of the need to understand context and color in social media conversations (Rockland, 2015). “Barcelona 2.0” retained the original emphasis on impacts and outcomes of communication campaigns and recognized the further integration of public relations, advertising, and marketing functions within organizations (AMEC, 2015; USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations, 2017). 

The processes of reinventing public relations evaluation are still in evolution  (Schriner et al., 2017). This study of Silver Anvil Award winners discovered that many of the campaigns still placed less emphasis on outcomes and more on outputs and some still included AVEs as a measure. The authors argued for the further incorporation of more holistic and robust measures, especially regarding social media evaluation that should account for online conversations and community engagement (AMEC, 2015; Schriner et al., 2017).

Digital Public Relations Education

Considering this evolution of the profession, the need for new best practices and the demand to measure efficacy, digital public relations education research has understandably focused on teaching social media tool knowledge, professional certifications (Freberg & Kim, 2018; Kinsky, et al., 2016; Stansberry & Strauss, 2015), and the expansion of professional ethics to address the realities of digital communication (Bowen, 2013; DiStaso & Bortree, 2014; Neill & Schauster, 2015). However, recent studies and industry experts have also pointed to the need for public relations education to focus on core public relations skills training such as writing and strategic thinking as social media and its digital measures continue to develop to account for interactivity, engagement, and conversational contexts (Anderson & Swenson, 2013; Neill & Schauster, 2015; Tam & Kim, 2019). This call to retain focus on core public relations skills in the age of social media practice reinforces findings from Paskin’s (2013) survey of 113 communication professionals. According to Paskin, interview results showed that: 

“…skills such as writing, communication and strategic thinking over more novel skills, since these new skills depend on mastery of the basics. In essence, the results can be interpreted as showing that public relations professionals surveyed still expect, above anything, that graduating students receive a solid education of the basics skills before moving on to newer technical skills.” (p. 252)

According to the most recent Commission on Public Relations Education report, research and analytics was one of the top four needed skills for entry-level hires according to both practitioners and educators (2018). Research and analytics, data analytics, and measurement and evaluation were also the three most desired areas of knowledge as noted (CPRE, 2018). Therefore both analytics and digital measurement skills training and knowledge acquisition were at the top of the list of needs for public relations education according to the study. 

Krishna et al.’s survey of public relations practitioners also confirmed that writing is still generally acknowledged as the most essential skill for new hires, but research and measurement skills were also noted as very important, especially among early career respondents. This study’s findings support those of the most recent CPRE report and underscore the continued importance of writing skills, yet they also indicate that employers desire new hires with creative, critical, and analytical thinking abilities, as well as problem-solving and measurement experience (CPRE, 2018; Krishna et al., 2020). 

Clearly, professional communicators are seeking a blend of skills in new public relations hires—both traditional skills such as writing and strategic thinking—with the addition of some experience in analytics and data analysis (Freberg & Kim, 2018; Kim & Freberg, 2016). According to a PRWeek report by Daniels (2018), industry professionals  mostly looked for analytic thinking ability in new hires as well as the ability to write well and produce digital content. Considering the industry desire for a blend of traditional skills and digital analytics experience, it has become clear that there is an increasing need to incorporate analytics and data analysis into the public relations curriculum. 

Analytics in Public Relations Education

Although basic skills are still highly regarded as the necessary “core” of public relations training by industry, the need for understanding analytic measures and expanding strategic thinking has been called for by both scholars and the industry. Indeed, building from Barcelona 2.0 and the changing profession, researchers argue that there is a strong need for analytics and data analysis to be introduced into the public relations curriculum (Chung & Taneja, 2016; Kent et al., 2011; Kim & Freberg, 2016; Stansberry, 2016). 

Many traditional measures and evaluation frameworks are still useful, but others are troublesome in digital public relations contexts. For example, AVEs are still appearing in award-winning campaigns or as revamped new media measures (Schriner et al., 2017; Waddington, 2017) when more holistic analytic measures that account for context and social media communication between publics and organizations are available for digital campaign components (Ewing et al., 2018; Kent et al., 2011; Schriner et al., 2017). Despite Lindenmann’s 2005 argument that there are ample tools to use to measure public relations efforts, the evolution of digital platforms continues to spur the development of new digital tools and measures.

Additionally, as practitioners have had to expand their basic skills to be able to evaluate social media efforts and communicate digital insights to management, digital analytics have increasingly become a key component of industry training and the public relations curriculum. Analytics ,which is the method of logical analysis according to Merriam-Webster, is (in the simplest terms) the analysis of aggregate data. Analytics is the practice of considering multiple points of data or metrics (outputs) to arrive at insights and recommendations for reaching business goals or in the case of public relations, desired communication and relational outcomes.

Social media and web analytic tools such as Google Analytics have user-friendly interfaces that support both interpretation and communication of metrics and insights by novice as well as experienced communicators (Tam & Kim, 2019). Analytic data is especially helpful in social media listening (research) and evaluation as organizational digital platforms support real-time data collection, and insights can be gained quickly (Tam & Kim, 2019). This insight into audience social behavior is critical to digital public relations practice as it allows messages to be adapted or revised to address immediate needs as well as changing trends (Chung & Taneja, 2016; Wright & Hinson, 2017) and captures the impacts of online conversation on organization-controlled media such as the company website (Kent, et al., 2011). However, academics often struggle with how to approach analytics and digital evaluation pedagogically as many of the reporting tools and analytic platforms are proprietary, allowing only paid access, and social media sites continue their rapid evolution, making it difficult to keep up with the latest developments (Ewing et al., 2018; Freberg & Kim, 2018; Zhang & Freberg, 2018). 

Methods for teaching digital public relations were investigated by an early proponent of analytic research and analysis (Kent, 2001), with the utilization of data from the internet taking center stage. Ethical issues such as tracking customer’s buying habits and personal preferences were the focus, and assignments for a curriculum were proposed (Kent, 2001). This initial inquiry has expanded as the need for strategic and analytical thinking in practice has grown in alignment with the use of digital marketing and communications management suites such as Marketo and social media management and measurement tools like Hootsuite. Competency in analytics and such tools as evidenced by certification has been incorporated into public relations, advertising and marketing courses as studies have noted that this training provides young professionals with an advantage on the job market as employers seek evidence of social media and content management skills (Kent at al., 2011; Kinsky, et al. 2016; Freberg & Kim, 2018). 

However, only recently have scholars begun to examine how digital analytics have been included in public relations courses. Ewing et al.’s 2018 study examined public relations course syllabi and the results of a Twitter chat on the topic to consider the skills and concepts included in these classes, as well as what learning outcomes (related to analytics) and what social media methods and certifications were included. The authors found that despite the critical need for positive student learning outcomes for analytics training, few of the syllabi they examined contained clear competencies (based on their wording). 

“With the growing efforts to measure and evaluate digital activities, analytic competencies were a natural focus for social media and communication courses. Thus, it was expected that courses would have clearly identified learning outcomes for students related to digital analytics. However, few courses had outcomes specifically mentioning analytics. While educators embedded analytic concepts and training within their courses, the wording of their learning outcomes did not reflect the focus on digital analytic competencies.” (Ewing, et al., p. 70) 

Based on their study findings, ten analytics learning outcomes were proposed for educators to consider including in their syllabi and incorporating into future courses including using analytics tools and technologies to capture data, generate reports and glean insights and obtaining Hootsuite and/or Google Analytics certifications (Ewing, et al., 2018).   

Recent research on the topic has also illustrated that students who had passed the Google Analytics certificate tests were highly interested in learning more about analytics (Meng et al., 2019). Additionally, Brunner et al., (2018) examined public relations job advertisements to identify skills and knowledge desired in new hires and found that most listed managerial skills such as project management. These researchers noted that knowledge of measurement and social media strategies and analytics would fall into the category of desired “managerial skills” listed in some job postings. Similarly, other recent studies have confirmed that professional public relations managers want to hire individuals with digital analytics and management training (Bajalia, 2020) as well as strong writing, critical thinking skills, and basic business acumen (Krishna, et al., 2020; Meng et al., 2019; Ragas, 2019).

The current research project builds on this previous study in an effort to identify which (if any) specific analytics skills and training industry professionals were seeking in new hires. Three research questions were developed to expand Ewing et al.’s initial investigation into analytic training incorporated into communication courses, while taking into consideration recent arguments for the need for both traditional skills and expanded strategic thinking and digital analytics training in public relations curriculum. Specifically:

RQ1: What digital analytics skills and training are agency professionals seeking in new hires? 

RQ2: What specific social media listening and analytics tools and certifications are most valued by agency professionals? 

RQ3: What emergent skills or training are becoming necessary in digital analytics?


To answer these research questions, a series of respondent interviews with digital public relations and communication managers at leading agencies was conducted in February and March of 2020. The 2019 O’Dwyer’s listing of the top independent agencies was used as the sampling frame. Researchers contacted public relations, digital media, and analytics professionals at the top fifty agencies of the O’Dwyer’s list via direct email and LinkedIn direct messages with focus placed on practitioners who did analytics work and hired or supervised entry-level professionals engaging in analytics work. A total of 14 respondents participated in telephone interviews with the two primary researchers. Their job titles included Chief Analytics Officer, Senior Digital Strategist, Senior Vice President of Social and Digital Media, Senior Advisor, and Digital Account Executive. 

After Institutional Review Board review and approval, researchers conducted the interviews using a standard interview guide (see appendix) that included questions regarding the respondent’s role at their agency, skills they most want to see in new hires, and any emergent skills or training they believe are becoming necessary to the profession of digital public relations and campaign measurement.

With the participant’s permission, all interviews were audio-recorded. Interviews averaged 24 minutes in length and totaled over five hours of recorded data. After each interview, the recording was transcribed verbatim resulting in 96 pages of single-spaced text. 

Coding and Analysis

Following transcription, both researchers analyzed the interview data to identify themes related to the three research questions. This thematic analysis, which followed Smith’s (1995) five-step process, was both inductive and deductive in its approach. It included specifically identifying responses corresponding to analytics education outcomes from previous research (Ewing, et al., 2018) but also allowed for emergent themes. The researchers independently read all transcripts multiple times. The transcripts were first read through without taking notes; upon the second reading, researchers highlighted sections relevant to the research questions and listed topics or codes relevant to the research questions. The researchers worked together to collapse these codes into broader themes or categories. Finally, researchers reread the transcripts to identify exemplar quotes that demonstrated the themes.


Results indicate that the analytic skills and training most valuable to these professionals are not tool-specific certifications, but rather critical thinking and general measurement or analytics knowledge. Respondents also noted the need for new hires to have a general understanding of how analytic measures and metrics relate to business and organizational goals. This extends to having the mindset to consider public relations outcomes as both results and potential opportunities that organizations might leverage. 

Even though some certifications were noted by professionals, few felt it was important for new hires to know how to use specific tools. Instead, they noted that it was more important to understand the measurement concepts behind them. Although there was little consistency among respondents regarding preferred analytics tools, most professionals reported that Google Analytics was valued more than other platform experience or certifications. When asked about emergent skills, professionals noted that a basic understanding of digital marketing measures and influencer marketing is valuable in today’s digital agencies where integrated campaigns are generally the norm (USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations, 2017). Respondents also noted the emergence of more holistic measures for earned media such as story “trending” and “resonance” or pull-through.

Each of these study findings is discussed in more detail in the following section, arranged by theme in relation to the specific research question addressed. Anonymous respondent quotes are included for illustrative purposes.

RQ1. What analytic skills and training are agency professionals seeking for new hires to have in regard to analytics?

Four common themes emerged from the interviews to address this research question: critical thinking, general measurement knowledge, general business knowledge, and effective communication of data insights. 

Critical Thinking

One of the most consistent themes to arise during the interviews was the perspective that critical thinking and problem-solving skills are more important than skills or experience using any specific analytics platform. All study participants commented in some way to underscore the importance of critical thinking in digital public relations and the need to provide students with integrated learning opportunities as part of their preparation for the job market. According to one respondent:

Kind of what I look for is… are they thinking about best practices, but also, can they? Do they think in terms of, “Our clickthrough rate was up this month compared to last month—what does that mean?” You know, are they thinking about, “How do we track compared to sort of generic benchmark rates, or how are we looking compared to the same time last year? What does that mean for them?”

Another interviewee similarly noted:

It starts with being a good information consumer and a sort of literacy—we have no shortage of data! It’s a matter of can these individuals look at data and understand what it says and maybe what it doesn’t say (or) what we might be able to determine from it…

General Measurement/Analytics Knowledge 

This theme is related to critical thinking but many professionals commented on the need to have a general understanding of research and measurement that is not necessarily tied to specific online metrics or tools. Several interview respondents pointed out that it is just as important for digital communicators to understand what tools or specific metrics can’t tell you as much as what they can tell you, such as being able to gauge engagement more holistically via content or website analytics versus relying on simple social media metrics. This finding aligns with critical thinking skills as they relate to the development of analytic skills and the ability to develop actionable insights from data. One participant described this as well as the need for knowing what questions to ask of the data:

It’s really about understanding what the metrics mean. So, yes, we need to understand, especially if it’s an issue of understanding digital what sessions are, you know, where traffic is coming from, time on site, engagement, impressions, all of that. It’s really important for people to understand …”What does that mean?” So, you could say our site traffic went down this month, but the client doesn’t necessarily share that (understanding). OK, why? What does that mean? What can you tell me from that? What if we do that differently? Being able to take those tools, read them, and yes, pull the numbers — but then understand what that means, and what we should be doing about it. 

Several of the professionals specifically noted the need for new hires to have a general understanding of how analytics relate to specific business goals and be able to communicate this effectively with clients and managers. For example, one respondent noted this as understanding what metrics should be used to illustrate public relations impacts, “A lot of what is really important for us is making sure that we’re communicating with clients the right metrics, but also the appropriate ones (for) PR.” Another respondent described this ability as synthesis: 

We really want to make sure that, you know, any new hires are able to synthesize sort of the business objectives that we see from our clients—be able to convert those—and kind of translate those into a holistic sort of tracking and analytics approach. So, for us, a lot of times that means incorporating everything from social media to Google Analytics …

Effective Communication of Data Insights

  Another common theme was the importance of professionals being able to effectively communicate the data they gather using analytics tools. Specifically, the need to explain findings to clients and answer client questions was mentioned by multiple professionals. This ability to derive and effectively communicate insights and make data-driven recommendations to clients and management emerged at some point in all of the 14 interviews conducted for the survey. As one study respondent argued:

At a minimum, I would expect people coming out of college to understand that there is context so that you’ve got to understand how to get/pull it out of the numbers and then analyze them, not just spit out a bunch of numbers.

A second interviewee elaborated further, noting the need for contextual understanding of metrics:

Know that context is important…. at the minimum because I think a lot of times what I’ll see from younger people or less experienced people, I should say, don’t come in and spit out a bunch of numbers and reports and it’s completely meaningless. You know, especially, our clients will look at a 12-page report and go, I don’t know what the hell any of this means. Give me twelve pages of numbers and expect me to be impressed. You know, I would rather have one page of insight. And even if the numbers are bad, tell me that. Tell me what you’re going to do to fix that and tell me what they need. 

RQ2. What specific social media listening and analytics tools and certifications are most valued by agency professionals?

Two dominant themes arose from the interviews concerning the second research question: general knowledge of native platform analytics and social media management and listening tools. As previously mentioned, many professionals did not feel that it was important to know how to use specific tools, but rather to understand the concepts behind them and to be able to learn on the job. Once again, interviewees noted that it was the ability to draw actionable insights from the analytics drawn from various platforms was the most important thing they desired to see in early career professionals. 

Interview respondents were asked to evaluate the usefulness of certification in various widely-used social media measurement, web analytics, and native platforms analytic tools on a five-point Likert-type scale where 1 was less important and 5 was the most important. Although most of our analysis was qualitative, this quantitative portion allowed us to directly compare different tools. Results showed that Google Analytics certifications were highly valued (M = 4.08, SD = 1.00) as was Hootsuite and other social media management certifications (M = 4.25, SD = 0.75) as were evidence of Facebook and Twitter training (M = 4.33, SD = 1.15 and M = 4.00, SD = 1.35). 

However, Instagram training (M = 3.75, SD = 1.29) was perceived as less valuable than Facebook and Twitter certifications due to these platforms’ more developed analytics and reporting capabilities.

Proprietary platforms such as Brandwatch’s Consumer Research (formerly Crimson Hexagon) and Meltwater were perceived as “nice to have” but not as important as Google Analytics training (M = 3.42, SD = 1.44).

General Knowledge of Native Platform Analytics

  Most professionals felt it important for students to understand the basic reporting or insights offered by each platform but didn’t feel knowledge beyond basic familiarity with the back end of social media platforms was needed. As one professional described:

We really want someone to know how to use a media tool …how to use Google Analytics to analyze how your page search is running, know how to use a tool that Facebook has to make sure that your program is running… We (are) technologically agnostic. So, we don’t necessarily just use HubSpot, or just use Marketo. We like to cross-platform…. So, again, it’s not one specific tool, but it’s an understanding of how tools work and how to take those tools (and using critical thinking) to say what they mean—what can I get from some of these analytics?

Social Media Management and Listening Tools

Unsurprisingly, there was little consistency among respondents regarding specific tools —they reported valuing what they used at their agencies (as illustrated in the simple frequencies reported). However, during their interviews, professionals repeatedly returned back to note that that Google Analytics was valued more than any other platform knowledge or certification due to their opinion that this training and experience is highly-transferable toother platforms and digital measurement in general. One respondent explained:

So, whether it’s, you know, Google Analytics certification or Google ad certification…as long as they had some level of looking at the numbers … the platforms. I mean, they have their own quirks. But being able to look at a table of numbers that are being reported out from something and think about that is a skill that translates well across platforms. If you kind of get it for one, you can it’s easy for you to get it for others. 

Another professional used an example from a recent hiring process to describe their thinking:

(One) of the branches of my team is hiring for a junior right now. And we were doing a resume review a week ago. There are a few folks that have Google Analytics on their certification section and we definitely pull them out for a second look because it was two things. You can use that certification for the team at large. But it also speaks to a candidate’s interest in sort of broadening their expertise so that they can speak, not about (not just) having experience (with) something, but actually credentialed experience. Hootsuite certifications I think are nice, but don’t really move me much in terms of giving someone a second consideration for an interview, (but) Google Analytics—absolutely. 

Other Certifications

Google Data Studio (and the introductory certification) was mentioned by several professionals due to its ability to integrate with Google Analytics and Google 360 platforms. Professionals noted it as a useful tool and because the need to produce visualizations for reporting is an increasingly important skill for young professionals to master. 

I would take Google Data Studio (training). It’s really important because it lets you analyze a bunch of data layered on top of other data. You get a little bit more insight. No one ever talks about that is so important.

RQ3. What emergent skills or training are becoming necessary in digital analytics?

Finally, study respondents discussed some of the emergent skills that are needed for new professionals. Of those mentioned, new earned media measures such as “resonance” and a desire for new hires to have basic knowledge of integrated marketing and measurement including influencer marketing emerged as the most prevalent themes in the interviews. We also asked about the importance of storytelling skills specifically regarding storytelling with data (visually) and a few respondents noted that as a desired skill (but not as critical as being able to understand and communicate data-driven insights). 

Influencer Marketing and Integrated Marketing Measures

In terms of emergent skills or what they see as becoming important in the industry related to analytics, several participants brought up influencer marketing and the need to evaluate the success of such partnerships. One of those individuals explained:

I would say that influencer work has become and continues to become incredibly important. That’s something that I wish I would have learned more when I was in school or maybe during internships. It was one of the areas that I really didn’t have a whole lot of experience with when I entered the job force. And so, a lot of people think like, “Oh, you’re putting together an influencer program, like you can find a certain type of influencer that has like five hundred thousand followers and they’ll benefit a brand!” 

But they don’t necessarily understand that they might have five hundred thousand followers but the percentage of how many followers the person has that are actually real people might be significantly lower, their engagement rate might be incredibly low. So, learning how (to do) influencer work…(has) been a main focus (recently). It’s something that I think is pretty important.

Message Pull-Through or Resonance 

Rather than just look at media placements, one professional spoke at length about his agency’s work to help understand how earned media messages are resonating with their publics—basically, what impacts were discoverable beyond simple conversation or tabulation of media placements. This professional argued:

With the amount of noise content data out there and with a lot of the sameness that’s happening (and I’m speaking specifically to B2B enterprise techs that I work with) there needs to be something that helps a brand stand out and that’s where the traditional comms work of narrative development comes in. So how do you create something that’s compelling, that people are going to remember that they’re going to be drawn to? And so, it’s if you can include that in a metrics analytics standpoint, of message pull-through. Where is it resonating? What’s resonating? And if it is—is it resonating with your key audience? I think the larger kind of context in terms of … really looking at integrated campaigns and understanding how you can take the results from earned media, repurpose those into other types of channels in terms of owned content, in terms of your owned media and paid media—to then be able to retrieve the level of measurability that kind of earned media lacks. Right. So, I think that more and more we’re going to be looking at earned media as part of a more holistic view.

Storytelling with Data

Several respondents noted that rather than just reporting numbers, having a deep understanding of how to use that data to “tell the story” in a manner that both management and clients can understand is highly valued. Respondents were not just referring to visuals (such as Google Data Studio) but the ability to effectively communicate insights based on the data itself. As one explained, data storytelling is not synonymous with visual storytelling:

I think that it’s important to be able to tell a story with the data—like using data to support a point of view or argument or to disprove a point of view or argument. In terms of the graphics that you use, I generally feel like that’s definitely secondary. I mean it certainly helps…. But I think the most important thing is being able to tell the story with that data, because if you’re having a good presentation meeting with the client, they’re not looking in the slides anymore, they’re looking and talking to YOU. 


In summary, study findings supported several of the recently recommended outcomes for public relations analytics education made in recent years, specifically, training students on basic measurement, and analytic reporting and analysis (CPRE, 2018; Brunner, et al., 2018; Ewing, et al., 2018; Freberg & Kim, 2018; Kent et al., 2011; Krishna, et al., 2020; Stansberry, 2016). Results also support the need for increased focus on teaching critical thinking, possibly via activities interpreting and communicating analytic insights using “live” analytics data (Meng, et al., 2019), as well as the integration of analytics training into existing courses (Adams et. al, 2020; Adams, et. al, 2019). This may be accomplished by working with a class client or nonprofit partner who is willing to provide access to their analytics account, or by simply using demonstration databases made available for such training (such as the Google Analytics Merchandise data). 

Additionally, arguments for the continued focus on other core public relations skills (effective communication and writing) were also supported as these competencies are just as required in digital practice as they ever were (Anderson & Swenson, 2013; Brunner, et al., 2018; Daniels, 2018; Paskin, 2013). Continued evolution toward more holistic measures of public relations and digital communication using analytics was discussed by all 14 of the study respondents, and AVEs were used by two respondents as a specific measure that should not be taught (or used) in digital campaigns following Barcelona 2.0. These findings echo recent calls by researchers that the process of public relations evaluation is evolving and that digital professionals have abandoned this earned media measure (Schriner et al., 2017; Waddington, 2017). 

Specifically drawing from and building on the 2018 study by Ewing et al., results from this study further validate the following proposed learning objectives for public relations and communication analytics courses: 

1) to identify the importance of online data in strategic planning and validating ROI; 

2) to use analytics tools and technologies to capture data, generate reports and glean insights; 

3) to articulate definitions and measurements of social media engagement and website traffic; 

4) to apply basic numerical and statistical concepts to evaluate, plan, and implement strategic digital tactics; 

5) to apply concepts and theories in presenting findings and in creating visualizations to share with management/client and; 

6) to become Google Analytics certified.

Other elements of the authors’ recommended outcomes were supported by the results of this study, just not as strongly or consistently. For example, although Hootsuite certification was certainly a desirable skill for most of the professionals interviewed, evidence of training in any other social media management platform (HubSpot, etc.) was also mentioned as just as favorable. However, when discussing management platforms at length, respondents repeated noted that Google Analytics training produced the most transferable knowledge and skills in their estimation.  

These results reinforce the call for analytics and basic digital measurement training to be incorporated into the public relations curriculum (AMEC, 2015; CPRE, 2018; Kent et al., 2011) as well as basic social media research methodology (Stansberry, 2016); however considering these results, special emphasis should be placed on critical/analytic thinking exercises using real data and not tool-specific knowledge. In addition, our results support recent calls for public relations students to gain knowledge in business and financial basics so that they can better understand how their efforts impact their organization’s bottom line and support their work with other managerial functions (Ragas, 2019).

Limitations and Future Research

The current study was limited by the number of interview respondents. Although all 50 of the O’Dwyer’s top agencies in the sample were solicited for participation, only 15 professionals had responded positively before the early March 2020 onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic and therefore only 14 interviews were completed before major disruptions occurred prohibiting further participation during the study’s timeframe. 

Future research on the topic of analytics training in communication and public relations courses might consider how critical thinking and data analysis are actually being taught and how these activities or lessons relate to Ewing et al.’s (2018) proposed learning outcomes. Considering that this study’s findings also support the scholarly argument for use of real data in such training (Kent et al., 2011; Stansberry, 2016), certifications obtained by watching videos and taking quizzes must not be the main pedagogical approach to meet course learning objectives that require analytic and critical thinking. 


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INTERVIEW PROTOCOL – Analytics Education in PR 

  1. Can you tell me (in general) about the analytics skills and training you look for new hires to have who come to you from college public relations or strategic communications programs? 
  2. (Category-Measuring results) Building from that, what types of metrics do you think are most important for new PR professionals to understand? (Feel free to use any terms specific to reporting or tools.)
  3. (Category-Measuring results) Do you think it is important to differentiate between volume metrics (# of retweets) and engagement metrics (sharing, commenting)? 
  4. (Category-Understanding context/critical thinking) How important is it for new hires to understand the context of analytic data and critical thinking? For example – is this something you expect them to learn “on the job” through experience or do you expect them to be able to interpret analytic data from the beginning?
  5. (Category-Using tools and listening) What social media monitoring and analytic tools do you believe are most important to learn? (I’ll list some for you, on a scale from 1 to 5 with 5 being absolutely essential, give me a number of how important you feel that tool is for students to learn.) 
    1. Google Analytics _______________
    2. Google Adwords _______________
    3. Hootsuite _______________
    4. Facebook analytics _______________
    5. Twitter analytics _______________
    6. Instagram analytics _______________
    7. Crimson Hexagon _______________
    8. Meltwater _______________
    9. Other (interviewer to note) _______________
  6. (Category-Storytelling) How important is it for new PR hires to be experienced in storytelling skills (ie. Visualize data in meaningful ways or using data in digital storytelling/writing)? 
  7. (Category-Emergent Skills) Are there any other analytics or digital reporting skills or certifications that you SPECIFICALLY look for in new hires? Please describe if so. 
  8. (Category-Outcomes) Considering your most recent hires that graduated from a public relations or strategic communication program, were there any skills or training lacking from their experience? If so, can you describe? 
  9. (Category-Emergent Skills) Finally, are there any other skills or knowledge related to analytics that you feel are becoming necessary in professional practice?

© Copyright 2021 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Adams, M. & Lee, N.M. (2021). Analytics in PR education: Desired skills for digital communicators. Journal of Public Relations Education, 7(2), 44-76. https://aejmc.us/jpre/2021/08/31/analytics-in-pr-education-desired-skills-for-digital-communicators/

Public Relations Curriculum: A Systematic Examination of Curricular Offerings in Social Media, Digital Media, and Analytics in Accredited Programs

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted June 6, 2020. Revisions submitted October 30, 2020. Manuscript accepted for publication December 19, 2020. First published online September 2021.


Regina Luttrell, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Public Relations & Social Media
Syracuse University
Syracuse, NY
Email: rmluttre@syr.edu

Adrienne A. Wallace, Ph.D
Associate Professor
School of Communications
Grand Valley State University 
Allendale, MI
Email: wallacad@gvsu.edu 

Christopher McCollough, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Jacksonville State University
Jacksonville, AL
Email: mccollough_christopher@columbusstate.edu

Jiyoung Lee, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Journalism & Creative Media
The University of Alabama
Tuscaloosa, AL
Email: jlee284@ua.edu


As public relations (PR) students prepare for life in the professional world, the educational experiences inside of the college classroom should reflect transformations within the profession. To that end, this study included a systematic analysis of all domestic Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC) and Certification in Education for Public Relations (CEPR) accredited graduate and undergraduate PR programs to understand how social media, digital media, and analytics courses have been incorporated into PR program curricula. The data was collected over the summer months of 2019 and the fall semester of 2019. The results included 94 schools that offer PR as a major. This comprehensive study was meant to provide a thorough examination of the current state of curricular offerings related to emerging technologies.

Keywords: public relations curriculum, social media curriculum, analytics, digital media, public relations education

Introduction and Purpose of this Study

As the lines between public relations (PR), advertising, and marketing continue to blur, further advances in data, analytics, digital media, and artificial intelligence (AI) lend an even greater influence on where the industry is heading. Platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and mediums like podcasts, have promoted new forms of participation for users by allowing them to generate messages as a creator and take collective actions, which relate to interactional empowerment (Shirky, 2011). To meet these industry demands, educators within higher education have developed digital and social media-related courses particularly for students majoring in PR (Ewing et al., 2018); however, the degree to which PR education is responding to shifts within digital spaces remains understudied.

This research, conducted over the summer months of 2019 and fall academic semester of 2019, carried out content analysis of all domestic Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC) and Certification in Education for Public Relations (CEPR) accredited graduate and undergraduate PR programs to understand how and where social media, digital media, and analytics courses have been incorporated into the PR curricula (Appendix A-C). Through manual coding, quantitative and qualitative analyses, this research provides a comprehensive look at the state of social and emerging media course offerings within accredited PR programs. Findings reveal gaps and opportunities that exist in social and emerging media education, and to what extent, the proliferation of these areas of study was being taught within the 21st Century PR curriculum in the United States. This research provides a snapshot of the classes offered and their course descriptions at ACEJMC and CEPR universities in the U.S during a specified time.

On the heels of the development of digital media tools including social media, educators seem to recognize the importance of adopting digital and social media. In Auxier’s (2020) study of 39 educators, when asked how important teaching their students content related to social media and tools associated with social media, 77.5% of them responded “very important” or “important,” with only 17.5% responded only ‘slightly to moderately important.’ Research has shown that teaching new media tools bring multiple benefits to students, including increased interactions with educators and peers, convenience of learning (Chugh & Ruhi, 2018), and developing their technical skills further (Larrondo Ureta & Peña Fernández, 2017), which can be useful in professional fields afterwards. They discovered that students who learned multimedia and social media tools developed not only teamwork or skills to interact with audiences but also technical skills including search engine optimization skills.

Despite these recent findings on the importance of teaching social media-related tools, the degree to which PR education is responding to these shifts within higher education remains unclear.

Review of the Literature: Evolution of Digital in Public Relations

Scholars offer some perspective on the importance of digital technology to PR over the course of the past decade, and how it relates to principles of best practice. Macnamara (2010) initially found support for the idea that practitioners were effectively exploiting social media for interactive, two-way communication by maintaining dialogic models of PR (Kent & Taylor, 2002), the Excellence Theory of PR (Grunig & Grunig, 1992), and Gini Dietrich’s PESO model (2014). Further, Moreno et al. (2015) investigated the relationship between practitioners’ personal and professional use of social media. Results show that practitioners with a high level of personal usage of social media give more importance to social media channels, influence of social media on internal and external stakeholders and relevance of key gatekeepers and stakeholders along with a better self-estimation of competencies.

Over the past decade, scholars examined this relationship through a variety of PR contexts, including corporate social responsibility (Cho et al., 2017), crisis communication (Romenti et al., 2014), nonprofit communication and fundraising (Carboni & Maxwell, 2015), government and political communication (DePaula & Dincelli, 2018), stakeholder dialogue (Elving & May Postma, 2017), cultivating credibility (Kim & Brown, 2015), relationship cultivation (Pang et al., 2018), strategic public identification and engagement (Watkins, 2017), and social presence (Men et al., 2018).

Sommerfeldt and Yang (2018) summarized the twenty-year body of study on digital communication in PR as “an indispensable part of public relations practice. It is clear from the state of research and practice in public relations that the question is no longer if, but how to best use digital communication technologies to build relationships with publics” (p. 60). The emphasis on social and digital media in terms of two-way communication is not new. A meta- analysis of the 20-year body of research on communication in social and digital media used in PR, of the 79 studies identified as relevant, 83% were concentrated on content analysis, 75% discussed practical applications, and only 25% presented theoretical implications (Wirtz & Zimbres, 2018). Examining big data on digital spaces has been found as a crucial strategy for researchers to explore dialogic communication, as Sommerfeldt and Yang (2018) identified the next opportunities for research in big data, where analytics have opened the door for new research opportunities in the discipline and to better understand the impact of this approach to social and digital media in PR. 

However, the growth of social media use in practice has yet to be successfully integrated into the PR curriculum. Auger and Cho (2016) conducted a comprehensive analysis of PR curricula and concluded that the current PR course offerings were not only meeting industry needs, but also providing foundational knowledge in ethics, law, research, and globalization in course content. Unfortunately, educators fell short on social and new media, which students articulated.

The gap of integrating social and digital media into PR education is a critical need to be addressed, partly because of emerging challenges that social and digital media pose to communication practitioners. The long-standing problems of fake news (Nelson & Taneja, 2018), bots (Woolley & Howard, 2016), and racial tensions on social media with brands (Novak & Richmond, 2019) are all areas in which PR educators are needing to address in the classroom. In a digital media ecology, scholars and practitioners need to prevent the amplification of these problems in those being trained to enter the industry. This makes having students understand and address the issues using what they have learned from classes a stated priority in ACEJMC and CEPR standards. Therefore, it is important for educators to develop students’ understanding of challenging issues in a digital media environment.

Current Status of Public Relations Curriculum

Scholars, educators, and practitioners set out to identify courses and competencies essential to graduates entering the modern workplace. According to the Commission on Public Relations Omnibus Survey findings (Commission on Public Relations Education [CPRE], 2018), educators reported that current required courses linked to technology were graphic design and social media, followed by courses that involve video production, digital media, and visual communication. Educators and practitioners both cited technology-based topics such as social media, analytics, web coding, and graphic design as important competencies for the workplace. Also noted was the importance of data literacy to modern practice for graduates. They need to not only know how to find available data but also to be able to pull out valuable information from it in order to make smarter decisions. 

The integration of digital technology is evident in the entry-level positions. Brunner et al. (2018) found that writing remains a priority for employers, but a healthy emphasis on social media writing (47%) and blogs (27%) were present in the postings. Social media was a clear priority for employers, with a general mention of social media aptitude (32%), or references to specific platforms like Facebook (14%), Twitter (12%), LinkedIn (7%), YouTube (7%), Instagram (2%), and Pinterest (2%). The authors’ findings suggest the importance of integrating social and digital media into production and writing courses in the PR curriculum. With some perspective on the growing emphasis on digital in PR work, the authors focus on a more effective definition for the digital PR curricula.

Research highlights the importance of teaching emerging communication platforms to students in PR degree programs, as technology does not ‘stand still’ (CPRE, 2018). Digital tools are changing the way we communicate and the way we understand current issues, so that the need for understanding technologies should be at the forefront in PR education. Duhé (2015) argues three pillars of PR education in the future: (a) fast-forward thinking, (b) interdisciplinary learning, and (c) analytical prowess. Of these, analytical prowess particularly refers to data gathering and analysis, which requires students to find, summarize and present information in an effective manner (Duhé, 2015). However, a disconnection between educators and practitioners in PR in terms of what should be developed further in the academic curriculum of PR programs persists. 

In addressing the issue that faces PR education, Wright and Flynn (2017) provide two reasons behind the disconnection between PR practitioners and educators: PR programs are mostly subsets of other disciplines (e.g., journalism, mass communication, business, etc.), and interaction between educators and practitioners on curriculum development is rare. Such limitations in current PR programs relate to the lack of developing technology-based courses that connect PR curriculum to recent trends in technology. To follow the current trends of media, courses not related to technology should also include activities connecting technology trends (CPRE, 2018). 

Previous Research Regarding Digital PR Curriculum

The literature illustrates that scholars are considering the impact of digital technology on the traditional teaching and learning of PR, as well as effective professional preparation of students in the classroom by consulting with industry professionals. Neill and Schauster (2015) made use of in-depth interviews with executives in advertising and PR agencies in the United States to identify the core competencies needed to have successful careers in the new media landscape. The findings indicated that while writing and presentation skills remain essential, employers identified math and data analysis commonly associated with social media listening and analytics as critical for new employees.

Indeed, digital technologies are now seen as the norm for PR practitioners, as supported by Wolf and Archer’s (2018) research, which illustrates that the dialogic qualities of digital and social tools do not only support traditional PR capabilities but have become an essential part of it. Related, Fang et al. (2019) note that the continuing technological development of the advertising and PR (PR) industry and increasing transfer of marketing expenditures from traditional channels to emerging digital media have placed a heavy burden on advertising and PR education to train aspiring practitioners for strategic use of these technologies. Through a content analysis of 99 universities with advertising and PR programs, Fang et al. (2019) found that nearly a quarter of advertising and PR courses taught digital media, placing a greater emphasis on skills courses. 

To specifically understand how educators were integrating social and digital media analytics into PR courses, Ewing et al. (2018) examined pedagogical practices documented on students’ learning outcomes on course syllabi and Twitter chats between educators and industry professionals. Their findings suggest that developing concepts and skills, measuring results, contextualizing data, and learning how to use tools to engage in social listening were priorities in practice. Furthermore, some integration of industry-standard measurement platforms was needed. In 28% of the courses studied integrated social media platforms for course communication and activities as well as professional certifications programs.

Focusing more on social media education, other scholars interviewed 20 industry professionals to seek industry insights on the topics that should be covered in PR courses including social media, as well as what roles educators need to serve in these courses (Freberg & Kim, 2018). Industry professionals identified multi-platform content creation, marketing and PR principles, writing, analytics, and crisis communication. Importantly, the roles highlighted by industry professionals were liaisons between the academy and industry, experienced content builders, and role-models and mentors. Overall, these findings, which evaluated how social and digital media were reflected in PR-focused disciplines, altogether suggest that a gap between industry expectations and the academic courses should be mended.

In addition to examining professional skill-building, other scholars tested the effectiveness of social and digital media integration in PR classroom activities that reinforce theory and principles of practice. Fraustino et al. (2015) discovered that integrating case study discussions could create conditions for an experiential learning process, which allowed students to exchange theories and concepts with other peers. While another study was extended to examine teleworking and cross-institutional conditions (Madden et al., 2016).

However, integrating digital media presents challenges, although it is considered an essential adaptation in the teaching and learning of PR. Novakovich et al. (2017) found that introducing professional social media skills into the curriculum provoked a significant amount of resistance on the part of learners. Students lack a sense of agency on social networks and required guidance when articulating modes of online authenticity. The scholars also found an alarming gap between students’ everyday practices on social networks and professional practice. Research documents that other factors should be considered such as perceived usefulness, ease of use in platforms, or desirability to use platforms, to encourage students for their continued use of digital media for learning (Dalvi-Esfahani et al., 2020). With a discussion of studies exploring the digital PR curricula, in general, the focus shifts to digital PR as a required course in the curriculum.

Social Media, Digital Media, and Analytics as a Required Course in PR Curriculum

Grounded by the uses and gratifications theory (Katz & Blumler, 1974), college students frequently use digital and social media for diverse purposes, including interacting with friends or family or entertainment (Ezumah, 2013). Although students today are considered ‘digital natives,’ those born after the 1980s and exposed to these digital technologies at a very early stage of their lives (Prensky, 2001), more courses about digital media should be developed, as self-assessed digital skill does not always indicate that students have much expertise in digital media used in the professional world (Kumar et al., 2019). For example, a multigroup analysis demonstrated a clear pattern of differences in effect exists between digital natives and digital immigrants (individuals born before the 1980s), or before the existence of digital technology (Prensky, 2001) with respect to the sequential belief updating mechanism with regard to adoption and use of digital tools (Kesharwani, 2020). While the results are relatively stable over time, digital natives desire instructor guidance to build their familiarity with new technology. This improved pedagogy would further enhance their compatibility with the system being used by PR practitioners, as frequently, digital media are used for getting to know audiences and building relationships in a community through social media encourage meaningful and critical discussions (Moody, 2010). By learning how to use social media effectively, students can become active participants in conversations (Quinn-Allan, 2010). Students can understand the role of digital media platforms in connecting a community, and how they can use the medium to facilitate conversations with audiences, which are essential skills of communication professionals.

Additionally, incorporating social media into PR programs can enhance students’ abilities to produce and share information efficiently (Locker & Kienzler, 2013), which is related to data literacy or “knowing how to identify, collect, organize, analyze, summarize, and prioritize data,” and “how to develop hypotheses, identify problems, interpret the data, and determine, plan, implement, and monitor courses of action” (Mandinach & Gummer, 2013, p. 30). Given its importance, Ridsdale et al. (2015) offer several tips for data literacy education, including teaching the benefits of using data, relating workshops with practical experiences, module- and project-based learning that has real-world applicability, and using real-world data that can spur students’ interests. Relating digital PR courses to the real-world can make students prepare to be a communication expert. This educational approach should go beyond allowing students to become familiar with using technologies. 

On the basis of the stated literature, the researchers posed the following research questions:

RQ1: Where are social media, digital media, and analytics taught in accredited PR programs?

RQ2: How are social media, digital media, and analytics being taught in accredited PR programs?


The research team used a systematic approach to investigate where in the PR curricula social media, analytics, and digital media courses were being incorporated into undergraduate and graduate programs across domestically located ACEJMC and CEPR accredited schools (Appendix A). This research was not meant to compare courses offered at ACEJMC accredited universities to those offered at CEPR accredited schools; rather, it provides a descriptive compilation of curricular offerings. Using predetermined categories, the research team collected data from fully accredited ACEJMC and fully accredited CEPR universities. A comparable approach to the quantitative research that Langan et al. (2019) conducted was applied wherein they investigated AACSB accredited programs within marketing curricula to understand how digital marketing courses were incorporated into domestic marketing programs.

The entirety of the data collected represents programs that offer either bachelor’s or graduate degrees in PR, advertising, strategic communication, integrated marketing communication (IMC) and journalism. Of the institutions contributing to the dataset, a subset (n=94) of accredited institutions was examined; of which 74 held ACEJMC accreditation (Appendix B), 69 CEPR accreditation (Appendix C), and 52 holding both ACEJMC/CEPR accreditations (Appendix A). Figure 1 highlights this breakdown of program accreditations. 

Figure 1

Number of ACEJMC and CEPR Accredited Schools Total

Additionally, of the 94 institutions of interest, each school was more closely examined for degree availability, with programs offering both a bachelor’s and graduate degree in PR being of most interest. Figure 2 highlights eight ACEJMC, 12 CEPR, and a combined 27 ACEJMC/CEPR accredited programs offering a bachelor’s degree in PR, while Figure 3 indicates that there are four ACEJMC, two CEPR, and a combined 17 ACEJMC/CEPR accredited programs offering graduate PR programs.

Figure 2

Accredited Programs Offering Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Public Relations

Data Collection Procedure and Compilation

Qualitative and quantitative research methodologies were used to gather data to address the research questions. During the summer and fall of 2019, members of the research team collected and compiled data from 94 accredited colleges and universities. To ensure the accuracy of the data, specific research criteria were defined, guiding researchers with identifying the desired inputs for the broader dataset. The authors created a subset of the master list of relevant institutions and divided the list equally among members of the research team for the initial data collection, with each subset of data then undergoing a cross-validation from a different researcher for further validation.

Due to the inherent variability of the data of interest between institutions, intercoder reliability is important to ensure interpretation of latent content is consistent between coders. Common discrepancies between researchers and datasets tended to relate to the course naming conventions used by institutions and the associated coding, prompting additional discussions and exploration to determine if the course did, in fact, meet the defined research criteria. As the discrepancies were resolved, a refined search and documentation procedure was developed, allowing the larger list of remaining institutions of interest to be divided among researchers and investigated as part of the final dataset.

Table 1

Available Areas of Specialization Within Accredited Public Relations Programs of Study

To examine data, a thorough content analysis of course descriptions was conducted, which is discussed in detail below.

Data Criterion

Leveraging a thorough review of the literature, the researchers understand how social media, digital media, and analytics have been incorporated into current PR curricula, which informs our data collection and analysis. The research team visited university and college websites pulling information from course catalogs to collect data based on the following variables:

Public Relations Major: We define PR major as any institution that offers a bachelor’s or graduate degree in PR and that follows the accreditation standards for either ACEJMC or CEPR guidelines.

Required Courses: We recorded the names, course numbers, and descriptions of courses dedicated to curricula on social media, analytics, or digital media as requirements to graduate with a PR degree.

Elective Courses: The researchers recorded the names, course numbers, and descriptions of courses on social media, analytics, or digital media as electives offered within PR programs.

Tracks: The researchers recorded the number of institutions that offer a track in social media, analytics, and digital media.

Certificates: The researchers recorded the number of institutions that offer a university accredited certification specializing in social media, analytics, and digital media. Certifications offered through third party organizations such as Hootsuite or Google were not included in this analysis.

Social media courses: The researchers adopted a broad definition of social media as our criterion when analyzing course content as there are multiple definitions available (McIntyre, 2014; Otieno & Matoke, 2014). To that end, social media “are web-based services that allow individuals, communities, and organizations to collaborate, connect, interact, and build community by enabling them to create, co-create, modify, share, and engage with user-generated content that is easily accessible” (McCay-Peet & Quan- Haase, 2017, p. 17). Based on this definition, social media in our analyses includes diverse platforms that feature two-way interactions, such as YouTube, podcasts, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Digital media courses: Courses that provide an infrastructure and tools used to produce and distribute content via digital channels were defined as digital media (Howard & Parks, 2012).

Content Analysis Method

Using the course descriptions collected, the research team performed content analysis (Berelson, 1952) of the presence of key curricular areas present in the available course descriptions (N=154) to assess what content is delivered as well as how the content is delivered. The researchers adopted content analysis because it offers an objective, systematic manifestation of the content of communication, enabling the research team to explore what is actively present in the courses analyzed within accredited PR programs by facilitating a rich, complex body of data. Krippendorf (1980) maintains that content analysis offers technical sophistication and scientific rigor.


Based on content analysis, data collected from the aforementioned 94 institutions of interest, having obtained either ACEJMC, CEPR, or both accreditations for their undergraduate and graduate PR programs, a closer examination was completed to understand how social media, analytics, and digital media courses have been incorporated into the PR program curricula. Of the 94 identified schools, 50% (n = 47) offer a bachelor’s degree, 24.5% (n = 23) offer a graduate degree and 17% (n = 16) offer a minor in PR. Of these institutions, we found that only 30 programs (31.9%) require students to take a course specifically related to social media, digital media, or analytics to fulfill either their undergraduate or graduate degree requirements. The remaining 68.1% (n = 64) of institutions did not require a social media, digital media, or analytics course within their PR curricula. Further, 15 of the identified institutions (15.9%) provided an option for students to take at least one social media, digital media, or analytics course as an elective within the curriculum. Of these same schools offering electives, only one program (6%) required a course within these domains, as well as offered an additional elective(s). Stated differently, only about one in three institutions possessing either ACEJMC, CEPR, or both accreditations require a social/digital media or analytics course within their core PR curriculum.

We recognize that programs offering undergraduate, graduate or minors in PR may also provide additional course offerings that are available to students with an interest beyond PR. This study specifically examined PR curricula. As noted earlier, at these 94 institutions of interest, social media, digital media, and analytics may also be available as either a certificate, track, or concentration.

Course Description Analysis

The content analysis of the 154 course descriptions found on university websites through their respective course catalogs demonstrates some intuitive understanding of the progression of the discipline to an integration of strategic communication sub-discipline, and the necessity for integration of technical and strategic aptitude with social media and digital media within the context of theory and principles of best practice. Figure 3 demonstrates a word cloud which is a visual representation of keyword frequency and relevance based on text data (Appendix D) from the course descriptions (Dubinko et al., 2006). The larger and bolder the word appears, the more often it is mentioned within a given text and the more important it is.

Figure 3

Word Cloud Containing Course Titles of the ACEJMC and CEPR Accredited Schools Examine

Implied Presence of Public Relations Models

In reviewing the content in the course descriptions, the integration of core principles of best practice associated with PR models and social media, digital media, and data analytics emerged. Research to maximize the impact of emerging technology saw 20 total references across the body of course descriptions. The strongest concentration of discussion centered around the strategic application of primary and secondary research aimed at understanding targeted digital audiences, as well as the problems and needs of clients, with 12 references across the course descriptions. While research saw a strong presence in the course descriptions, goal and objective setting for social media and digital media was largely absent from the conversation. Terms such as social media, viral campaign, and spreadable media strategy was mentioned 13 times among the course descriptions. Evaluation using data measurement and analysis had a healthy presence in the course description, though not as strong as others in the group associated with PR campaign modeling. As a larger grouping, evaluation was discussed 19 times. Looking at the focus of discussion of evaluation within the course descriptions, 15 focused on the relationship between evaluation and assessment and determining campaign outcomes.

Technician Work Over Managerial Mindset within Digital Media

In reviewing the course descriptions there is heavy emphasis on technical work, with minimal discussion of managerial focus across the social media courses available at accredited programs. An anticipated result is the abundant presence of a myriad social and digital media production skill set references (73) in course descriptions. Included among these references are content creation for social media and multimedia platforms (12), Web design (10), social media practice (9), graphic design (8), digital storytelling (7), search engine optimization including Google certification (5), mobile application design (5), music and audio engineering (5), video production (4), still photography (3), mobile communication (2), online interactive advertisement production (1), computing coding (1), and the use of drones for recording purposes (1). In addition to social media production skills, the researchers found a strong emphasis on writing within the social media course descriptions. Writing for media, news writing, and PR writing were referenced in 10 instances in the course descriptions. Specifically, relevant to strategic social media, audience engagement and interactivity is mentioned in 10 course descriptions. Associated with engagement and interactivity, audience or consumer behavior is discussed in three course descriptions, and user experience is mentioned in two course descriptions. There is clearly an emphasis on skill-building to accommodate one-stop shop work in social and emerging media. 

Contemporary and Traditional Conduits for Strategic Communication

There is a strong presence of social and digital media platforms among the course descriptions analyzed. Social media platforms are mentioned in 26 different course descriptions, whether by specific platform or in general. Strategic use of blogs is referenced in three specific course descriptions. Podcasting is referenced in two total courses, and really simple syndication (RSS) feeds are referenced in two course descriptions. AI and virtual reality, emerging platforms in PR and affiliated strategic communication sub fields, are referenced in one course description.

Strategic application of social and digital media platforms is present in 25 total courses. Discussion of strategic use of digital media, social media, new media, transmedia, and multimedia tactics are referenced in 10 total courses. Results revealed that the PESO model (Dietrich, 2014) is becoming a standard element within courses on social and digital media, reflecting its growth as a core component of PR industry practice. Macro-strategic applications of integrated, converged, and multimedia are mentioned in eight total courses. Consideration of the impact of emergent technologies in the discipline are present in 10 total course descriptions. The impact of emerging technology on strategic campaign design and development are present in five total courses. Additionally, the philosophical discussion of technological evolution, dynamism, and innovation is present in five total courses.

Data Analytics, Interpretation, and Visualization

Among the more dominant concepts in the analysis is an emphasis on the value of data analytics, data analysis, leveraging findings to maximum strategic effect, and articulating those findings in a meaningful way to strategic publics, clients, and organizational leadership. Analysis and interpretation are the strongest areas of emphasis, referenced in 32 total course descriptions. Specific concepts of discussion include analysis of data analytics in 16 courses, measurement and analysis of social media in 13 courses, data manipulation and interpretation in two courses, and keyword competitive analysis in one course.

The relationship between analytics and big data was discussed across 25 courses. In addition to the discussion of data analytics in 14 courses mentioned above, specific emphasis on social media analytics is present in 10 courses. Data insights, visualization, and presentation were also present in the review of course descriptions in 23 courses. Data visualization is present in 10 courses; data presentation is present in six courses; social listening, data insights, and Return on Investment are mentioned in one course apiece.

Certificates, Tracks or Concentrations

At the 94 educational institutions examined, social media, analytics, or digital media may also be available as either a university awarded certificate, track, or concentration. The analysis indicates that most schools with PR programs offer certificates (n = 24, 25.5%), concentrations (n = 10, 10.6%), or tracks (n = 13, 13.8%) in social media, analytics, or digital media.

Sociocultural and Professional Impact

Within the analysis of course descriptions, there is a strong presence of the intersection of media, culture, and society. Sociocultural considerations of the impact of emerging social and digital technologies are present in 24 course descriptions. Discussion about various forms of impact on social contexts are discussed in 17 course descriptions. Discussion of intercultural and global influence on strategic social media campaigns are present in three course descriptions.

Discussion of the sociological dimensions of online culture, network communication, online shaming, and the impact of social and digital media on celebrity culture are present in one course description each.

The impact of social media on the news industry, news consumption, and public information is a point of emphasis in 25 course descriptions. Discussion of the democratization of media content creation and co-created content is present in three course descriptions. A discussion of citizens’ diverse media diet and media consumption practices are present in four courses. Finally, the emergence of fake news and disinformation on social media has also begun to emerge in the social media curriculum, as three courses reference discussion and exploration of information credibility and defining truth.

Discussion about the impact and influence of technology and media are present in 25 course descriptions. Media effects research and discussion of the consequences associated with social media use are present in nine course descriptions. The impact of technology on the PR profession is present in eight course descriptions. Finally, the economic and financial impact of social media and emerging technology are discussed in eight course descriptions. Affiliated with the discussion of the influence of technology is a discussion of media history and past impact of emerging technology on society and communication practices, which is present in six course descriptions.


The overarching goal for the study was to examine and understand where and how social media, digital media, and analytics were being taught in accredited PR programs as well as how these areas were being taught in accredited PR programs, given the growing importance of these fields to employers. The quantitative and qualitative analysis provides some encouraging details about the philosophical focus and emphasis of curriculum development associated with emerging technology and practices. There is a clear alignment of social and digital media courses to traditional models of best practice in strategic PR. That said, the current presence of only 30 programs among the 94 accredited degree programs examined demonstrates that while social and emerging media are present, improvement is essential to satisfy the need expressed by employers in the discipline. Our findings are aligned with the latest report out of the Institute for Public Relations. Their October 2020 Career Path of a Social Media Professional reported that of the 400 respondents, 80% had not taken a course in social media because none was offered at their university (DiStaso & McCordindale, 2020). Our research highlights that social and emerging media are woven throughout curricula; however, universities must be more proactive in developing specific courses, as well as considering complete majors or minors in these areas.

The emphasis on research, strategy and tactics, and evaluation in particular demonstrates a commitment, albeit incomplete, to going beyond technical training in the technology to helping aspiring professionals see how to integrate emerging technology into professional practice.

While limited in emphasis, it is clear that objective setting is also present in the current instruction on applying emerging technologies to the discipline. These findings certainly align with Sommerfeldt and Yang’s (2018) call for the discipline to go beyond looking at whether social and digital media are used in PR to an exploration of how it is applied strategically.

The authors are encouraged by the emphasis on establishing the value of quality writing within social and digital media used in strategic settings among the growing body of course offerings and programs available. This is in keeping with past literature that reinforces employers’ value of quality writing among aspiring professionals (Neill & Schauster, 2015), but the data also illustrates a concerted effort by educators to address the needs established by prospective employers in past literature.

Also encouraging is the emphasis on exploring the impact of these new technologies and practices on existing models of practice, sociocultural norms, and political communication  practice and engagement. Further, a clear discussion of the impact of these emerging media on public opinion, behavior, and how we interact in society are present in the course descriptions provided. An area of potential expansion may be putting further emphasis on the legal and ethical considerations and implications in the curriculum. While the authors acknowledge that these may be present in standing ethics and law courses, the latest Commission on Public Relations Education report (2018) calls for integration of ethical discussion in a central course as well as within individual courses. 

The authors also note the prevalence of emerging trends within the course descriptions that align with existing literature on the need for knowledge of data literacy and management (Ridsdale et al., 2015). Clearly, educators are putting emerging technology and applications at the forefront of their courses, which will require consistent examination and updates for the perpetual evolution of practices and integration into instruction. There is also a heavy emphasis on big data, analytics, interpretation of data, and data visualization. It is clear in the course descriptions that educators are making a clear effort to articulate the value of these new elements to strategic practices within the existing models of best practice. It is also clear that this emphasis will require effort on the part of educators to help instruct aspiring professionals on the importance of effective data management and processing for analysis, which does get some limited attention in the course descriptions. A better articulation of data management and analysis will better align with existing literature emphasizing the importance of data literacy (Mandinach & Gummer, 2013).

An element of concern is the balance of focus on emerging trends and practices being articulated purely from a technician’s role in the course descriptions. While the authors acknowledge that it is important for aspiring professionals to understand how to use technology and tools professionally (Kumar & Nanda, 2020), there needs to be an effort to ensure that aspiring professionals sustain a manager’s mindset and role when integrating these emerging tools and technologies in practice (Grunig & Grunig, 1992). While the authors acknowledge that it may be present in other areas of the curriculum, there is an incomplete articulation of a managerial perspective in the courses offered, or the descriptions.

Further, an area of growth and consideration for schools of communication would be to move beyond certificates, tracks, and concentrations. There is an opportunity for programs to create social media or emerging media majors, particularly within undergraduate curriculum. As the literature review revealed, the profession needs students who  are astute in emerging media technologies (Fang et al., 2019; Brunner et al., 2018; Elving & May Postma, 2017).


The authors note that there are certainly limitations within the qualitative aspects of this study worth acknowledging. One limitation is that we are only examining accredited PR programs of study, leaving the larger body of communication, mass communication, and their subfields yet to explore. This clearly merits a broader examination of the body of social media, data analytics, and digital media courses available across the discipline. The potential integration of this curriculum in advertising, integrated strategic communication, digital journalism, or communication with PR coursework is not lost on the researchers, and merits extension of this study to explore the other avenues identified. The authors also question that while the curriculum is integrated in disciplinary and technological focus, why key themes associated with disciplinary or technological integration are not coming through more consistently in the course descriptions at the class level.

This study focuses on the course descriptions available, which may not always reflect the depth of content offered in a course.  To overcome this limitation, future analysis should strive to examine course syllabi to get a more specific picture of the depth and focus of content beyond the themes articulated in course descriptions.

Future Research

Thinking beyond limitations, the authors also note some clear areas of examination that represent the next steps for study to develop a richer body of understanding about teaching and learning in PR education. Speaking to the discipline’s ability to meet the needs of the industry (Brunner et al., 2018), the authors note that further examination of current practices within the industry to better identify what areas of need further emphasis, addition, or revision in the content to better reflect needs. Integrating the perspective of employers, industry veterans, and entry-level professionals on essential skills, principles of best practice, and philosophical and ethical considerations will better help educators to develop, offer, and assess graduates’ proficiency in knowledge of skills, principles of practice, and theory that best meet the needs of the discipline and allow us to answer the call for better industry integration in the classroom (Krishna et al., 2020).

The authors also acknowledge the need for additional research on the integration of PR principles and managerial perspectives in PR in social and emerging media courses. The authors note that these elements are likely present in other courses throughout the curriculum. That said, the authors note the value of integrating managerial perspectives and principles of best practices to facilitate scaffolding of concepts in social and emerging media courses that ultimately facilitate stronger integration of practice in upper level and capstone courses of study.

The benefits of increased research surrounding PR curriculum are multitiered: to enhance the way students are learning; to augment traditional methods of teaching; and to advance the use of social media, analytics, and digital media technology beyond personal use to make connections to the classroom and the profession. Furthermore, as a greater number of universities adopt curriculums that incorporate these areas of study, the needs of Generation Z as learners will be more closely met. It is important to continue research within this field, particularly as it relates to educating students who are entering the PR and communications field because, as educators, we want the next generation of PR professionals to be better trained when they enter today’s technology driven workforce.


Ultimately, this research provides an initial picture of the current programs and courses related to social media, digital media, and analytics available among accredited PR programs. It is evident, based on the findings, that these areas of study represent a core component to ACEJMC and CEPR accredited universities. That educators are working to meet the needs of the industry through skills and research-based course offerings are unmistakable. We believe over the next few years that more universities will require additional courses in these areas, as well as, data, machine learning, natural language processing, network analysis, and AI, to ensure graduates are prepared to work in a social media and data driven environment. The important conclusions found within this research introduce new data highlighting a multitude of relevant benefits to incorporating emerging media within a PR curriculum.


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Appendix A

Schools both ACEJMC and CEPR accredited during study duration (2019).

Appendix B

Schools ACEJMC accredited during study duration (2019).

Appendix C

Schools CEPR accredited during study duration (2019).

Appendix D

Word / phase count frequency and relevance analysis of course descriptions.

© Copyright 2021 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Luttrell, R., Wallace, A.A., McCollough, C., & Lee, J. (2021). Public relations curriculum: A systematic examination of curricular offerings in social media, digital media, and analytics in accredited programs. Journal of Public Relations Education, 7(2), 1-43. https://aejmc.us/jpre/2021/09/01/public-relations-curriculum-a-systematic-examination-of-curricular-offerings-in-social-media-digital-media-and-analytics-in-accredited-programs/