Note from the Editor-in-Chief: We are pleased to share Volume 6, Issue 1, which offers our readers three research articles, two teaching briefs and two book reviews. The articles cover a variety of topics: public diplomacy training around the world, a comparison of expectations for PR graduates made by practitioners at different levels in their careers, and suggestions for helping students increase their knowledge and confidence in using statistics. We believe you will gain both inspiration and guidance from the teaching briefs, as they explore multicultural training through writing assignments and building recognition of the connections within and across personal networks. Finally, the book reviews offer helpful insights into how these two books might fit into your classes.
The editorial team expanded in November 2019 to include Dr. Kelly Vibber. We are grateful to have her join us as Dr. Lucinda Austin transitions deeper into leadership within the AEJMC PR Division. Dr. Austin has been a great help these past 2 years and will be missed. I am thankful for this entire team, which invests countless hours into proofreading, formatting and preparing each issue. Their service to the field is greatly appreciated. I also want to express my gratitude to our reviewers who offer useful advice through the blind- review process and help us maintain a solid reputation. Thank you!
A publication of the Public Relations Division of AEJMC Copyright 2020 AEJMC Public Relations Division
The Journal of Public Relations Education (JPRE) is devoted to the presentation of research and commentary that advance the field of public relations education. JPRE invites submissions in the following three categories:
Learn more by visiting the About JPRE page and the Authors/Contributors page for submission guidelines. All submissions should follow the guidelines of the most recent edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA).
Editorial Record: Original manuscript submitted to JPRE June 2, 2019. Revision submitted September 12, 2019. Manuscript accepted for publication October 16, 2019. First published online January 21, 2020.
A special note of gratitude to Shepherd University’s Matthew J. Kushin, Ph.D. and Nancy White of Full Circle Associates for making their social network mapping classroom experiences and activities available to the public.
describes an in-class social network mapping activity that serves as an
overview of social identity and social objects—the building blocks of a social
network. Active learning techniques were used to introduce the concept of
personal networks, brand communities, and the role of public relations
professionals in fostering relationships. The social network mapping activity
illustrated the application of the following theories: Travers and Milgram’s
(1969) “the small world problem,” Tajfel’s social identity theory (see Tajfel
& Turner, 1979), and Granovetter’s (1973) “strength of weak ties.” It
prompted students to consider which individuals are in their networks and how
they are connected through unique social objects. Furthermore, they determined where
audiences overlap and weaker network ties reside and related these connections
to the development and nurturing of a brand community. Through active learning
exercises that included quick-writes and manual social networking mapping,
students visualized how various connections use social objects to create
communities. They ultimately learned that messages spread further and faster
when shared through weak ties that bridge otherwise unconnected communities.
Keywords: social network
mapping, social objects, social identity, interactive learning, active
learning, brand community, public relations coursework, undergraduate teaching
Implementation of Active Learning Techniques in an Undergraduate Public Relations Course: Comparing Individual Social Networks and Brand Communities
“Social networks are . . . full of unexpected strands linking
individuals seemingly far removed from one another in physical or social space”
(Travers & Milgram, 1969, p. 426).
Made popular by the “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” trivia game measuring the number of degrees of separation between any actor or actress and the actor Kevin Bacon (Fass et al., 1996), the theory commonly known as “six degrees of separation” posits that any two people on the planet are within six connections of each other (Witkop, 2019). The original study, “The Small World Problem” (Travers & Milgram, 1969), shows us the grand, complex interconnectedness in our society.
To expand this concept from a random, connect-the-dots game to an
analysis of the many ties that bind us and the communities formed around these
ties, the author conducted an in-class activity comparing an individual social
network to a brand community. Mapping and analyzing unique social networks
teaches people where and how we are connected with one another. Relationships
are an integral part of the public relations industry. When researchers and
students expand on the idea of the individual social network and consider the
broader social network of a brand or product, valuable insight is gained into
the publics a company seeks to reach.
Social Identity and Social Objects
An individual’s sense of self relies on the other individuals in
his/her circle. One’s desire to create and foster personal connections
and to “belong to a particular community, and behave according to the
established norms and values” (Martínez-López et al., 2015, p. 173) is at the
core of social identification. The faintest
sense of social connectedness, even with people that we classify as strangers,
influences the adoption of others’ interests and goals as our own (Walton et
The central tenet of Tajfel’s social identity theory is that groups
are “a collection of individuals who perceive themselves to be members of the
same social category” (Tajfel & Turner, 1979, p. 40). Social identity
theory further suggests that individuals create ties that form social networks
(communities) when they are similarly enthusiastic about something beyond
themselves. The “social category membership” described by Tajfel is a
community, inspired through conversation and sharing of some object, creating a
human connection between two people. This “social object” (McCleod, 2008) can
be anything—from archery to zombies—and is the reason we become part of any
Social Networks and Social Network Mapping
A “network” is by definition a “structured pattern of relationships
typified by reciprocal patterns of communication and exchange” (Stephenson,
1999, p. 7-41). To that end, a “social network” is a set of actors (or nodes)
that may have relationships (or ties) with one another (Hanneman & Riddle,
Zhao et al. (2012) explored communities based upon the social objects
that link their members. The results of their study suggest that the stronger
the tie, the more commonalities there will be to connect the nodes with the
ties. An individual and his best friend, therefore, likely share more common
bonds than he and his manager.
Mapping social networks serves to visualize the seemingly invisible
network of our relationships (Chan & Liebowitz, 2006) and illustrates the
structure of our culture (Stephenson, 1999). How one relates and
interacts with their diverse network of communities affects the way the member
identifies with any single community (Heere et al., 2011). This social phenomenon can be defined through an individual and
his/her personal network or, on a larger scale, an organization and the
employees making up various departments and a brand and the communities
interested in its product(s). A form of network mapping called “knowledge
mapping” (Chan & Liebowitz, 2006) is used in organizations to enhance
collaborative learning outcomes or to match an individual with a department
where his/her knowledge is most relevant.
Just as individuals are driven by social objects to form a social network, members interact via social objects to develop brand communities (Zaglia, 2013). Seemingly disparate communities can emerge around an identical brand. According to Muniz and O’Guinn (2001), awareness of the “structured set of social relations” (p. 412) among members of a brand community expedites an organization’s ability to develop and cultivate deep consumer relationships.
Members participate in brand communities in a manner akin to
participation in social networks, as the goal in both cases is to find people
with similar interests and skills, to foster emotional support and
encouragement, or, perhaps, to solve a problem. It can be argued that a social
object or a brand that brings members together is at least as important as the
link itself (Zhao et al., 2012) and that networks are strongest when everyone
is playing a valuable role (Fournier & Lee, 2009).
The Strength of Weak Ties
From Austin’s theory of sovereignty to Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point, we are conditioned to
believe that we are lemmings, following a hierarchy centered on a single person
of tremendous influence (Dewey, 1894; Gladwell, 2000). Indeed, extant studies
suggest it is not necessarily the nodes within a network that help disseminate
the most information at the greatest speed; rather, it is the properties of the
network as a whole that make the difference (Granovetter, 1973; Watts, 2011).
In his book, Everything is Obvious*,
Watts (2011) posited, “when influence is spread via some contagious process,
the outcome depends far more on the overall structure of the network than on
the properties of the individuals who trigger it” (p. 96).
More than four decades ago, Granovetter (1973) suggested that “strong
ties” are “positive and symmetric,” meaning that the relationship is supported
by a combination of time, intimacy, and reciprocation of knowledge (p. 1,361).
This conceptualization prompts us to consider those to whom we are “weakly
tied” as members of social circles other than ours, although we are somewhat
connected to these individuals through network overlaps. The bridges between
individuals in different social circles (the “weak ties”) are the key to the
spread of information because they have access to information different from
that being disseminated in our immediate network and thus provide new social
objects with which to connect.
Communication professionals tend to focus on leveraging strong ties;
however, research shows that individuals linked via weak ties make up more
cohesive communities that can spread a common message with greater speed, ease,
and influence (Granovetter, 1973; Muniz & O’Guinn, 2001; Watts, 2011; Wu et
Understanding where our friendship circles overlap and being aware of
our extended network—i.e., individuals with whom we have weaker ties—can help
generate new ideas and disseminate more knowledge. In the words of
Walker Smith (2012), “Weak ties are not bad; they’re just weak” (para. 17).
Weak ties exist with acquaintances with whom we can potentially network.
Among the 11 participants in the activity described in this work are four male and seven female junior- and senior-level college students enrolled in a face-to-face 300-level communications course taught over a six-week summer session at a large public university in Washington State. they were able to apply at this school thanks to the student loans they were able to get from using this student loan calculator.
About the Course
The Integrated Strategic Communication program at Washington State
University emphasizes writing, research, and management principles throughout
the course of study. This class, Public Relations Principles and Practices,
focuses on the theory and practice of public relations, its function in
organizations, and its role in society. The course mirrors the communication
industry in that students are required to be creative, empathetic,
collaborative and persuasive in their delivery of written and oral information.
Student Learning Outcomes
This activity is based on the curriculum shared by Nancy White (2010)
of Full Circle Associates in KS Toolkit and is tailored similarly to a
classroom activity taught by Dr. Matt Kushin (2015) in an undergraduate social
media course at Shepherd University. We focus specifically on learning about
community on both an individual and organizational level and visualize how
links found within areas where audiences overlap are where the richest
information is disseminated most rapidly. Through a simple individual social
network mapping exercise, students can see how their various connections create
communities centered around social objects and apply that concept to a brand
and its brand community. Understanding brand audiences, brand communities, and
the properties of these networks, along with considering how different
communities overlap, helps students
learn how to create audience-centric messages that improve consumer
relationships and increase public relations task effectiveness.
Class Period One
On Day One, the class learned about social identity and social objects
through the discussion of Tajfel’s (1979) social identity theory and the
concept of “social objects” as described by MacLeod (2017). Then students
participated in an exercise where they mapped their own social networks based
upon the last 10 individuals with whom they had contact. These individuals
could include a parent, spouse, teacher, or even a barista at a coffee stand
they drove through that morning. The contact can be either physical or virtual.
We began the lesson with a brief discussion about how we are regularly exposed to the “six degrees” phenomenon (Witkop, 2019). For example, “I’m in a book club with Friend A who went to college with Friend B. How strange that they didn’t know one another back then, but met after Friend A married Friend C, who came across Friend B at a wine tasting event. What a small world.” Then, students were instructed to write “ME” in the center of a sheet of paper and distribute their ten individual contacts in a circle around them. Next, students used lines to connect themselves to each person, as well as people that know one another. Then students were asked to include the social objects that connect each pair of individuals (Figure 1).
1. Example of one student’s social network
Finally, three volunteers transcribed their networks to the whiteboard
next to one another and drew lines to connect the individuals in different
communities that knew one another (Figure 2). This allowed the class to
visualize how communities overlap, prompting the discussion on the “small
world” phenomenon (Travers & Milgram, 1969). It quickly becomes apparent
that we are not living in silos; rather, our community is linked both directly
and indirectly with other communities. Furthermore, these links can serve as
windows into our relationships within the focal community, teaching us why we
identify with the focal community.
Figure 2. Example of comparative social network maps created by students.
Class Period Two
At the start of Day Two, students were asked to produce a
“quick-write” statement, reflecting on the mapping activity from Day 1, and
share what they have written with the class. “Quick writes,” usually followed
by sharing content orally, is an instructional tool that serves as a basis for
more collaborative learning activities (Shen, n.d.; Yost, 2019).
After discussing personal experiences regarding the social mapping
exercise, the class explored the definition of public relations as published by
the Public Relations Society of America (n.d.), which states that “public
relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other”
(para. 2), followed by a review of the function of public relations as a part
of the broader concept of integrated strategic communication. In this
particular case, the conversation focused on the industry, its sub-functions,
and the general idea that PR professionals build relationships between an
organization and its key audiences through their actions and communication.
A second quick-write followed, serving to book-end the conversation,
with time to reflect and think critically about the content covered. The prompt
for this two-minute reflection was, “What did exploring your social network
teach you about public relations?” In their submissions, students shared their
observations, which included statements such as, “I hadn’t considered the
connections I have with so many people and the different things we connect
around,” and “I can compare myself to a brand because I have more than one
social network like a brand can have multiple communities.” In other words,
most students made the connection between themselves and a brand, social
objects, and products, while linking their individual networks to brand
communities. After completing the exercise, a number of students felt compelled
to reach out to some of their more distant social media acquaintances and
venture out of their immediate social networks.
Although it may be counterintuitive, information shared with a distant
acquaintance will likely spread more effectively than if we shared it with our
best friend. We forge the strongest ties with individuals with whom we have the
most in common, which generates redundancies within our networks when
information is shared. Consequently, reaching out to social media users with
whom we have weak ties will be a much more effective means of spreading
information among multiple networks (Grannoveter, 1973). This process is analogous
to the relationships between brands and brand communities, as by reaching out
to members who are on the periphery of a target audience, or by finding a
bridge to a new audience through a current community with which strong ties are
already formed, a brand can introduce a message to a new community of potential
This classroom activity explored the connection between interpersonal
social networks and the formation of brand communities. Exploring the
individual social network and the connections forged via social objects was a
good way to introduce the concept of “brand community,” suggesting that
individuals within brand communities are also connected by social objects.
Brands will look to their communities to disseminate information and, by
analyzing their weak ties, they can nurture their network, foster new
communities, and spread a message further and faster.
Interactive teaching experiences are often more rewarding for students
as well as teachers. Active engagement not only enhances learning but also
makes education more interesting and allows for a much-needed break from
traditional classroom lectures (Lumpkin et al., 2015). Rather than being the
“sage-on-the-stage,” the instructor can take on the role of “instructional
designer,” striving to create a course experience for students that promotes
greater knowledge retention and transfer. The learning objectives of this brand
community exercise are well-suited for inclusion into student-centered, active
Understanding that we all have social networks with both strong and
weak ties can help students appreciate the benefits of nurturing those
relationships outside of their immediate community. New ideas are potentially
just a bridge away, and analyzing our own social network maps can uncover many
opportunities, allowing us to identify our strongest resources and showing us
where best to send a message. Similarly, when a brand invests in broad consumer
relationships, it increases the value of the brand community and fuels business
growth and sustainability.
An alternative version of this assignment is presented below, followed by a discussion of ways to expand the assignment to other groups and how to adapt the assignment to a large lecture class.
Suggestions for Additional Content
Rather than mapping a network based on their most recent interactions,
it might be more beneficial for students to map multiple networks, considering
groups like “family,” “work,” “gym,” and “book club.” This exercise would allow
them to see how and where their own communities overlap and where available
bridges reside, while helping them visualize opportunities for personal and
To further increase direct applicability to public relations
functions, a social network mapping activity that focuses on a specific brand
can be conducted during a second class period. Integrating a social network map
into a client’s integrated strategic communications plan can uncover mutually
beneficial relationships that can be exploited to achieve maximum communication
Working in groups, students create a social network map for a selected
brand, initially through identification of the brand’s community influencers.
From there, students expand the map with bridges between the influencers and
the brand’s target audiences. When students identify the community influencers
(strong ties) within a brand community network and explore the influencer connections
(weak ties) to others in diverse audience segments, the resulting network map
reinforces Grannoveter’s (1973) “strength of weak ties” theory. The lesson
emphasizes that a brand community and an individual community are similar in
form and function. Similar to the relationships students discovered through
their network maps on Day One, when brands reach out to weaker ties, they have
the potential to spread their message further and more rapidly than by solely
nurturing the existing influencers.
For larger class sizes, the activities discussed in this paper may be
scaled by forming small groups, and asking group members to share their
quick-writes, compare their networks, and find links within their groups.
Chan, K., & Liebowitz, J. (2006). The synergy of social network
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Hanneman, R. A., & Riddle, M. (2005). Introduction to social network methods. University of California,
Heere, B., Walker, M., Yoshida, M., Ko, Y. J., Jordan, J. S., &
James, J. D. (2011). Brand community development through associated
communities: Grounding community measurement within social identity
theory. Journal of Marketing Theory
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Zhao, Z., Feng, S., Wang, Q., Huang, J. Z., Williams, G. J., & Fan, J. (2012). Topic oriented community detection through social objects and link analysis in social networks. Knowledge-Based Systems, 26, 164-173. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.knosys.2011.07.017
Correspondence concerning this
article should be addressed to Corrie A. Wilder,
Washington State University Everett, 915 N. Broadway, Everett WA 98012.