Tag Archives: COVID-19

Pivot now! Lessons Learned from moving Public Relations Campaigns Classes Online During the Pandemic in Spring 2020

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted October 6, 2020. Manuscript accepted for publication March 9, 2021. First published online December 2021.


Melanie Formentin, Ph.D.
Email: mformentinphd@gmail.com

Giselle A. Auger, Ph.D.
Associate Professor & Chair
Department of Communication
Rhode Island College
Providence, RI
Email: giselleauger@yahoo.com


This exploratory study examined how public relations professors adapted their PR campaigns courses to facilitate online learning in Spring 2020. Emphasis was placed on exploring the distinct or consistent challenges related to modifying coursework, managing student groups, and maintaining client relationships. The study also examined positive outcomes of moving online. Faculty teaching PR campaigns (N = 63) participated in a closed- and open-ended question survey exploring their experiences teaching the course. Results suggest that faculty felt compelled to change class components and experienced challenges related to individual student engagement (particularly in groups) and modifying specific components of students’ campaigns projects, but had fewer problems managing client relationships. Student access to technology and resources was the biggest barrier to success in campaigns courses. While faculty are embracing lessons learned through the quick shift online, the ability to successfully deliver PR campaigns courses online hinges on bridging digital divides.

Keywords: survey, COVID-19, online teaching, public relations campaigns

The best organizations are those that can adapt to the changing needs of their stakeholders. The same holds true when considering public relations education. However, few were prepared for the global challenges the emergent COVID-19 pandemic would create in early 2020.

In late January, 2020, the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) declared a global health emergency as thousands of COVID-19 cases began to spread through Asia (Taylor, 2021). By mid-February cases began to rise across Europe, particularly in Italy; by Feb. 29, the first death in the United States was reported. However, the United States was widely criticized for its response to the growing pandemic (Lewis, 2021). In addition to downplaying the severity of the virus, the Trump Administration leaned on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to develop tests it was ill-equipped to produce and distribute. Even as testing availability expanded, the U.S. dealt with poor tracing and isolation procedures, quarantine and mask-wearing policies, and a decentralized response that placed the power for handling the crisis into the hands of state and local officials. By March 15, the CDC recommended that there be no gatherings of more than 50 people in the U.S. (Taylor, 2021), but by then state governors and local officials had already started exploring regional guidelines for slowing the virus’ spread. On March 19, California was the first state to issue stay-at-home orders, followed by dozens of additional states in the coming weeks (Wu et al., 2020).

As the crisis unfolded, educational institutions implemented contingency plans while waiting for guidance from federal and state officials. More than 1,300 colleges and universities across the U.S. shut down, canceling classes and moving instruction online (Smalley, 2021), often with less than two weeks’ notice. This created significant interruptions for students related to campus housing and dining, access to technology, resources for travel, and financial aid. In the midst of this upheaval, educators had to adapt in-progress courses for remote delivery. The move to online learning raised concerns about the quality of these courses, the uncertainty of the evolving situation, and the ability for students and faculty to manage the stress associated with the pandemic. For example, Gen Z adults (ages 18-23) were reported as experiencing significantly more stress than other age groups (American Psychological Association, 2020).

While faculty and students generally experienced the same challenges related to the quickly evolving pandemic, anecdotal evidence suggested that faculty teaching public relations campaigns (or similar capstone) courses seemed to experience different challenges than their academic counterparts. For example, specialized challenges appeared to emerge in these classes as students generally engage in collaborative, client-based or service-learning work. Both faculty and students had to be nimble while making decisions about continuing client relationships, identifying whether it was safe to conduct research, confirming whether students had access to the technology and programs needed to complete class assignments, and more. Based on this anecdotal evidence, the purpose of this study was to explore how professors adapted their courses, to identify unique or consistent challenges to that adaptation, and to identify potentially positive curricula changes that emerged from the experience.

Literature Review

Public relations campaigns courses provide distinct experiential learning opportunities designed to prepare students for internships and jobs. These classes are commonly taught in PR programs and often emphasize team-based and service- or client-driven learning opportunities. Because of the approaches normally used to teach campaigns courses, they are often taught as face-to-face classes. As such, the shift to online learning in spring 2020 meant faculty quickly converted their classes into remote delivery, but in a shorter time period than typically needed to develop quality online courses. The history and values of PR campaigns courses are evaluated before pedagogical approaches to group work and online learning are explored for context.

Public Relations Campaigns Course

The PR campaigns course has a long-standing history as part of excellent PR education. Even prior to Grunig and Hunt’s (1984) Managing Public Relations seminal publication, which defined PR as a management function, scholars discussed the importance of the campaigns course. For example, Rings (1983) discussed a theory-based, team-centered course at Boston University that promoted PR as a management function rather than a mere technical function. More recently, Auger and Cho (2016) found that 56% of nearly 250 PR programs included the course, and 22% provided a similar practicum course. 

The function of PR campaigns courses is often to prepare students for industry. Scholars have noted “because it is considered the capstone course of PR education, the campaigns class has a multi-faceted obligation to its students” (Benigni et al., 2004, p. 259). Benefits of the campaigns course, which traditionally uses a team-based approach to building a communication campaign for real clients, includes experiential learning outcomes such as managing group dynamics; professional decorum and presentation; establishing goals, objectives and strategies based on research; and determining appropriate tactics and evaluative criteria. Students find value in this learning format, particularly by placing classroom material in context and providing depth of understanding to the concepts of audiences and tactics (Aldoory & Wrigley, 2000). However, challenges related to group-based dynamics suggest that students do not always find the experience of working with clients helpful to “learning about compromise, tolerance, or problem solving” (p. 56). 

Outside of PR-specific courses, scholars have examined the concept of the campaigns course from the integrated marketing communication (Moody, 2012), health communication (Neuberger, 2017), and strategic communication perspectives (Anderson, 2018); notably, most of these retain the key characteristics of PR campaigns courses. This includes the use of real clients for whom students identify, research, and analyze a real issue or situation. To do this, they conduct secondary and primary research; create, outline, or execute a plan; then evaluate or indicate evaluative measures for that plan. While some programs use case studies rather than clients, using clients provides students with real-world experience not found through case analysis; arguably, “… students are not properly prepared unless they are thrust into a situation filled with problems and opportunities” (Benigni et al., 2004, p. 262). For example, results from a health communication campaigns class showed that students successfully translated classroom learning to practical application: “Many students could not even identify or define a health campaign at the start of the term. Yet, they end the semester with valuable knowledge and experience” (Neuberger, 2017, p. 147). 

Further, client perspectives show the benefits of campaigns classes. Rogers and Andrews (2016) found that nonprofit partners often lacked PR background, arguing that the need to educate community partners about PR expectations directly addresses the definition of best PR practices creating opportunities for mutual benefit (Public Relations Society of America, 2020). This creates a multi-faceted approach to strengthening student experiences while highlighting the need to privilege client perspectives. Further, Kinnick (1999) highlighted that a key benefit to client organizations came in the form of saved expenditure and staff time. Still others have indicated the value of the campaign plan itself to the organization (Benigni et al., 2004) and the value of opportunities to reflect on and analyze their own programs (Aldoory & Wrigley, 2000). Moreover, while clients are infrequently part of the grading process, studies show that clients are generally satisfied with their partnerships, many returning as a client for subsequent semesters or offering internships and other opportunities to students (Benigni et al., 2004).

Fostering Experiential Groupwork 

  The benefits of teaching PR campaigns courses include creating an environment to practice professional, team-based strategies. In the mid-90s, Blumenfeld et al. (1996) described the power and shortcomings of peer learning, arguing that “results can be positive when close attention is paid to norms, tasks, the mix of participants and their skills, and methods to ensure accountability” (p. 40). Group norms require collaboration and the ability to discuss and compromise on issues; but cooperation is not guaranteed, and evidence suggests that “students often do not behave prosocially” (p. 38). This includes issues related to contributing to the workload and decision making and issues related to interpersonal relationship behaviors. To deter such group dynamics, Blumenfeld et al. (1996) recommend developing meaningful tasks, teaching the art of giving and seeking help, and creating opportunities for accountability. Here, collaboration is a key component of groupwork in the classroom, offering opportunities to build communal knowledge by sharing resources, skills, and insights. However, technological supports must be in place to facilitate this type of learning. 

Although the large body of literature exploring the values of collaboration is not explored in depth here, it is worth noting how collaborative learning shapes and informs PR campaigns courses. Kayes et al. (2005) recognized the growing prevalence of teamwork in education and professional work environments and argued that negative team-based experiences can be overcome “when a team intentionally focuses on learning” (p. 331). This involves clearly identifying group characteristics related to purpose, membership, roles, context, process, and action taking (p. 330). Laal and Ghodsi (2012) also illustrated the social, psychological, and academic benefits of collaborative learning. In PR, scholars have examined the influence of groupwork and collaboration in the context of student-run agencies, highlighting the benefits of experiential learning and gaining professional skills (Bush, 2009; Bush et al., 2016; Bush & Miller, 2011). Here, the ability to work in teams is a key skill required in industry, and students in agency-style groups believed they gained numerous professional skills, including soft skills related to people, organizations, and communication (Bush et al., 2016). 

The Art of Distance Learning

Understanding the challenges faculty faced during the switch to online learning in Spring 2020 means appreciating the need for and significant effort that normally goes into preparing online courses. Faculty must consider student engagement and course design strategies when adjusting courses for online delivery. And, as Moore (2014) discussed:

An understanding of effective instruction in online PR courses is necessary as the rising amount of non-resident “distance” students, the economic downturn, and university focus on decreasing costs, increasing revenues, and improving student access have led to an increase in online undergraduate courses offered online. (p. 283)

To begin, existing research highlights the need to consider different opportunities for student engagement. Student engagement occurs at cognitive, emotional, and behavioral levels (Jones, 2008) and is defined as “the student’s psychological investment in and effort directed toward learning, understanding, or mastering the knowledge, skills, or crafts that academic work is intended to promote” (Newmann et al., 1992, as cited in Bolliger & Halupa, 2018, p. 3). Further, research suggests that students perceive online learning positively when there are high levels of engagement and low levels of transactional distance (Bolliger & Halupa, 2018). And while synchronous teaching strategies can lower perceptions of transactional distances, specific learner-to-learner, learner-to-instructor, and learner-to-content strategies can be used to increase engagement (Martin & Bolliger, 2018). Such strategies can include the use of icebreakers and collaborative work (learner-to-learner); regular communication and clear assignment instructions (learner-to-instructor); and structured discussion and “real-world projects” (Martin & Bollinger, 2018). 

Despite these positive findings, research suggests that the time needed to design and teach online courses is often a barrier to converting face-to-face courses online (Keengwe & Kidd, 2010). Faculty must re-develop courses to bridge instructional design and course organization needs. They must set curriculum, create diverse content delivery and activities, build scaffolded learning opportunities and timelines for group work, and establish netiquette rules (Anderson, 2001). Moreover, scholars recognize that online teaching requires adopting new practices that may be difficult for some faculty members to embrace (Keengwe & Kidd, 2010). Significant responsibility is placed on faculty to learn about new modalities, balance pedagogy and technology, adjust teaching styles, increase communication with students, and recognize benefits and challenges of online learning (Keengwe & Kidd, 2010). 

Distance Learning in Public Relations. Prior to the pandemic there was already a need to respond to the “changing PR teaching environment” (Moore, 2014, p. 283); the pandemic seemingly forced this change on educators across disciplines. Understanding the benefits and challenges of online learning as studied in PR, and recognizing best practices in the context of online learning in general, provides insight into the situation faculty faced in Spring 2020. Moreover, it is worth considering the distinct challenges of converting experiential, group-based courses (such as PR campaigns) to online formats.

Moore (2014) provided one of the first studies examining the success of online courses in PR programs. Specifically, she found that student-student communication significantly impacted student success in courses more than student-instructor communication and interaction. As campaigns classes rely on groupwork, this suggests an important aspect of online learning that must be considered when developing such courses. Similarly, Smallwood and Brunner (2017) found that teams working collaboratively on scaffolded, realistic projects experienced better engagement and group success. Increased “interactions and engagement with course material, other students, instructors, and technology” (Smallwood & Brunner, 2017, p. 453) led to more positive student perceptions and outcomes. However, although students are often considered digital natives, that did not ensure comfort with using technology for classwork and class-based communication (Smallwood & Brunner, 2017). Such findings suggest opportunities to successfully convert campaigns classes online, but also highlight the need to consider barriers to student success. 

The onset of the pandemic stressed the boundaries of typical student and faculty experiences. While many instructors experienced this shift to online teaching in a two-week period, many students were adapting to online learning for the first time. However, PR education seems to naturally employ best engagement practices as students are often required to collaborate in groups, follow specific strategies to complete work (such as using the planning process to develop campaign plans), and produce projects that emphasize practical outcomes. In the context of the pandemic—and without the usual time needed to meet best online teaching practices—converting campaigns courses arguably provided a distinct challenge for PR faculty.

Research Questions

PR campaigns courses often emphasize experiential learning opportunities designed to build and support client-focused relationships while students work in teams, mimicking professional experiences. And as quality online courses generally require significant preparation, combined with the challenges of converting group-based experiential learning to an online format, this study aimed to explore the distinct challenges that faculty teaching campaigns-style courses may have faced during the switch to online learning. Based on the reviewed literature, this led to the following research questions:

RQ1: What consistent challenges did professors teaching PR campaigns courses face converting their classes to an online format?

RQ2: What consistent student group challenges were identified by PR professors because of the switch to online learning?

RQ3: How were relationships with PR campaigns clients impacted by the unexpected changes brought on by the pandemic?

RQ4: What positive course-related changes emerged from the experience of switching PR campaigns courses online?


To answer the research questions and explore faculty experiences teaching PR campaigns courses at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, a 45-question survey was distributed using Qualtrics. The survey was available from June 16-July 1, 2020 to ensure that faculty would have their spring 2020 semester experiences top-of-mind. 

Participant Recruitment

Participants were recruited using convenience and snowball sampling, which primarily occurred via social media channels for PR groups of major conferences including the AEJMC, ICA, and NCA PR divisions. Participants were encouraged to share the survey with colleagues who also taught campaigns-style courses in spring. Of 74 survey responses, N = 63 usable responses were retained for analysis. Two participants did not meet the screening requirement of having taught a campaigns PR course in Spring 2020, while n = 9 responses were removed because the survey was aborted at launch. Of the retained responses, n = 14 were partially completed with completion rates ranging from 24% (n = 1) to 69% (n = 3); 10 participants (15.87%) completed between 49-69% of the survey.

Survey Design

The researchers launched this study because of their experiences teaching campaigns courses. As such, this exploratory survey was designed based on a mix of personal experience and knowledge about best practices in PR pedagogy. To understand faculty experiences, closed- and open-ended questions were designed to understand previous and current experiences teaching campaigns classes, adjustments made because of the pandemic, and outcomes of those adjustments. Participants were also asked about the number and types of classes taught and basic demographic information.

First, faculty were asked about adjustments made to their courses due to the pandemic. This included questions related to previous experience teaching online or hybrid courses, time available to convert classes online, strategies used to determine best formats for the class, and which platforms and tools were used to deliver the course online.

Next, respondents were asked to reflect on the nature and quality of their client relationships and how those may have changed because of the pandemic. This included understanding whether relationships changed and how, and what client-based factors may have influenced changes to the partnerships.

Because the switch to online learning was quite sudden, questions explored what course component adjustments faculty may have made to facilitate learning. This included exploring whether changes were made (a) to their classes in general, and (b) to the client-based projects, specifically.

As campaigns courses often emphasize groupwork, the need for flexibility, and a guide-on-the-side approach to teaching, faculty may have faced specific challenges related to converting their classes online. As such, questions explored challenges faced in the course, content-related issues, and group-related issues. Course-related challenges focused on understanding whether faculty experienced issues such as delivering course material, engaging with students, and communicating with clients. Content-related issues focused on specific challenges related to the campaigns projects such as conducting research, creating tactics, and delivering presentations. Finally, the switch to online courses may have influenced group dynamics, so items were designed to explore issues such as group-based communication, collaboration, conflict resolution, and social loafing.

Despite the emphasis on challenges, faculty may have had positive outcomes and identified strategies they would continue using in the future. As such, items were designed to explore positive changes related to course delivery styles, use of technology, and opportunities to connect with clients.

Participant Demographics and Experiences

Participants ranged from 31 to 73 years old (M = 47.85, SD = 10.96), and were primarily female (n = 35, 55.6%) and white (n = 42, 66.7%). Most participants were assistant or associate professors (n = 31, 49.2%), and taught at public universities (n = 34, 54%) with 30,000 students or less (n = 37, 75.5%). Additionally, participants primarily identified themselves as teaching at institutions with a balanced emphasis on research and teaching (n = 27, 42.9%). Table 1 provides a full picture of participant demographics.

Table 1

Participant Demographics

Prefer not to Identify34.8%
RaceAsian or Pacific Islander34.8%
Black or African American00.0%
Hispanic or Latino23.2%
Prefer not to Identify34.6%
Academic RankLecturer or Instructor914.3%
Assistant Professor2133.3%
Associate Professor1015.9%
Full Professor711.1%
Prefer not to Identify11.6%
Institution TypePrivate1625.4%
Number of Students Enrolled0-5,000914.3%
Institution EmphasisResearch812,7%

Faculty were also asked how many courses they taught, particularly during Spring 2020. Respondents taught between 1-4 sections of campaigns (M = 1.17, SD = 0.53) and between 1-7 total courses (M = 2.76, SD = 1.21) during the semester. Most participants (n = 11, 87.3%) taught one campaigns section in spring, and generally taught 3 (n = 25, 39.7%) or fewer classes overall. Additionally, per semester, participants taught between 1-5 courses (M = 2.75, SD = .92) on average, with most teaching 3 courses (n = 28, 44.5%). Almost all participants had previously taught campaigns prior to the pandemic (n = 56, 88.9%), but had varying prior experience teaching classes in different formats. More than half of participants had previously taught fully online classes (n = 34, 54%) and hybrid classes (n = 32, 50.8%); fewer participants had previously taught flipped classes (n = 25, 39.7%). 


This survey was designed to understand the specific challenges instructors faced while teaching campaigns courses during a pandemic. As this study is exploratory, we begin by outlining general findings, then answer the guiding research questions.

Course Adjustments

Because faculty were required to make changes on short notice, there was interest in understanding how much lead time instructors had to make the shift online. Table 2 shows how much advance notice faculty had to prepare for online delivery, how much time they had to prepare, and how much time students had to prepare. Although the number of days advance notice they received from their universities varied, most participants (n = 39, 61.9%) and their students (n = 41, 65.1%) had 7 or more days to prepare for online delivery. This may be attributed to the timing of university closings, which often coincided with spring breaks.

As course adjustments had to be made quickly, it seemed valuable to understand how faculty sought advice about online course formats. Participants somewhat agreed that they sought advice from colleagues (M = 5.21, SD = 1.72) and their department (M = 4.78, SD = 1.76) and were less likely to work with on-campus faculty development groups (M = 3.54, SD = 2.18) or get feedback from students (M = 3.29, SD = 2.18). Ultimately, faculty used a blend of asynchronous and synchronous delivery (n = 45, 71.4%) for their campaigns courses.

Table 2

Time to Convert

Advance notice university gave to provide online deliveryTime faculty had to prepare for online deliveryTime students had to prepare for online delivery
0-2 daysn = 4, 6.3%n = 5, 7.9%n = 2, 3.2%
3-4 daysn = 15, 23.8%n = 9, 14.3%n = 13, 20.6%
5-6 daysn = 9, 14.3%n = 10, 15.9%n = 7, 11.1%
7-8 daysn = 17, 27%n = 17, 27%n = 19, 30.2%
9+ daysn = 18, 28.6%n = 22, 34.9%n = 22, 34.9%

Correlation analysis was used to explore the relationship between course-preparation experiences. Notably, a weak but significant relationship showed that faculty who had no choice about which format to use were less likely to survey students (p < .001, r = -.446) or seek advice from colleagues (p = .007, r = -.336) about course formats. This suggests that when faculty had a choice regarding how to deliver their courses, they were more likely to seek feedback and advice; when they did not have course delivery options, they simply moved forward as best as they could considering the circumstances.

Open-ended results showed that instructors relied on multiple platforms and tools to deliver course content. Most participants used a combination of their university learning management system (e.g., Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle, Sakai), third-party video-conferencing platforms (e.g., Zoom, Google Classroom, GotoMeeting, WebEx), and additional tools (e.g., GroupMe, Google Drive, Kaptura, Keynote, Panopto, Slack, social media groups, VoiceThread) to deliver course content, manage group work, and communicate with clients.

RQ1: Specific Challenges Faced by Professors

As the pandemic created the need to adapt quickly, it was important to understand what challenges professors faced when converting their courses online. The survey explored two areas of potential challenges faced by professors: 1. The need to change specific class components, and 2. Challenges faced delivering courses.

Changing Class Components. Course components were split into two areas of interest including final project components and specific course content that may have been adjusted to accommodate student learning. Table 3 highlights which course components and project components were changed, and which were most challenging to adjust. Results suggest that in addition to changing student presentations (n = 42, 66.7%), instructors primarily changed assignments (n = 34, 54%), project components (n = 30, 47.6%) and lectures (n = 25, 39.7%). These were also considered the most challenging course components to adjust. Additionally, there was interest in understanding which project components were modified. Results suggest that practice and client presentations (each n = 34, 54%) and tactics (n = 29, 46%) were the most frequently changed project components. These were also considered the project components that were most challenging to adjust.

Notably, the timing of the pandemic—approximately midway through the semester—meant that many students had collected data for their clients or were able to collect at least some data remotely. Additionally, as planning and evaluation can be based on secondary research, this may account for there being fewer issues with these phases.

Table 3

Adjusted Course Components

Components Removed or ChangedComponents Most Challenging to Adjust or Adapt
Course ComponentsAssignmentsn = 34, 54%n = 22, 34.9%
Lecturesn = 25, 39.7%n = 26, 41.3%
Exams/Quizzesn = 17, 27%n = 9, 14.3%
Project Componentsn = 30, 47.6%n = 32, 50.8%
Student Presentationsn = 42, 66.7%n = 37, 58.7%
Othern = 8, 12.7%n = 6, 9.5%
Project ComponentsData Collectionn = 15, 23.8%n = 16, 25.4%
Planning Phasen = 5, 7.9%n = 7, 11.1%
Producing Tacticsn = 29, 46%n = 25, 39.7%
Evaluation Strategyn = 15, 23.8%n = 14, 22.2%
Practice Presentationsn = 34, 54%%n = 24, 38.1%
Client Presentationsn = 34, 54%%n = 25, 39.7%
Othern = 4, 6.3%n = 4, 6.3%

*Project Component data is replicated in the second study described in the method.

Course Challenges. Items were developed to understand specific challenges instructors faced in their courses. Results suggest that instructors had fewer challenges when it came to finding time to meet student groups (M = 2.94, SD = 2.08) and had the most difficulty engaging individual students (M = 5.05, SD = 1.99). In general, however, faculty neither agreed nor disagreed that they experienced challenges. Even so, the relatively large standard deviations on these items are noteworthy, as they suggest that instructors had widely varying experiences in their classes. To that end, reliability analysis (α = .852) led to the development of an 8-item course challenges scale (M = 3.95, SD = 1.39). Table 4 highlights challenges faced in the course.

Table 4

Challenges in the Course

Delivering course material.543.851.89
Conveying project expectations.553.981.99
Engaging individual students.555.051.99
Engaging specific student groups.544.352.09
Finding time to meet student groups.542.942.08
Communicating with client.533.301.74
Student professionalism.543.911.96
Student communication with clients.533.921.82

*This table is replicated in the second study described in the method.

Next, items were designed to explore specific content-related issues instructors faced, particularly regarding final client projects. Results suggest mixed perceptions existed regarding the client projects, as most respondents neither agreed nor disagreed with the presented scenarios. Aligning with additional results, instructors had the most issues preparing for presentations (M = 4.87, SD = 1.60). But again, relatively high standard deviations suggest varying experiences across the sample. To build on these findings, reliability analysis (α = .825) led to the development of a 7-item content issues scale (M = 3.98, SD = 1.34). Table 5 shows content-related issues instructors faced in their courses.

Table 5

Content-Related Issues

Conducting research.533.402.15
Establishing goals and objectives.533.041.91
Creating tactics.534.212.13
Developing evaluative criteria.533.871.96
Designing planbooks.534.041.83
Designing presentations.534.471.69
Preparing for presentations.534.871.59

Correlation analysis suggests a relationship between course challenges and content issues. Specifically, instructors who faced course challenges were significantly more likely to experience content issues (p < .001, r = .748). 

Additionally, exploratory one-way ANOVA was used to explore whether the amount of preparation time faculty had impacted course challenges (p = .292) or content issues (p = .321), but there was not a significant relationship between these variables.

Of course, challenges extended beyond the basic execution of the course and client projects. Although open-ended responses generally confirmed the quantitative results, they also highlighted multifaceted challenges participants faced converting their courses online. For example, multiple participants reported a sense of dejection among students whose work was no longer usable. Many reported that students and clients alike were “disappointed that they were not able to get F2F feedback from the clients,” while others acknowledged that students experienced significant outside stressors impacting their ability to complete course components as originally intended. For example, significant technical issues related to not having WiFi, hardware, or software needed to complete specific tasks were routinely reported, leading to course and content changes. Ultimately, student engagement emerged as the most prominent issue for faculty who lamented missed opportunities to read body language, walk between and talk with groups, and create connections with clients. Mental health and stress-related issues were routinely acknowledged as impacting student engagement. The primary solution was to cancel team presentations, modify assignment expectations, and modify scheduling expectations.

Despite these challenges, some faculty (n = 6) reported having few issues converting their classes online. One participant suggested “their skills from all of the PR training made this pretty easy… it was frustrating, but we got through it.” Another suggested the switch to online was easy, but the challenges were primarily student-centered (such as health and technology needs). The few faculty who reported no challenges emphasized that classes continued to meet online, data collection had already been completed, lectures were recorded, and students were notified of the online conversion in advance. One participant even reported that they “took their client presentation events online” and tapped into a national audience, attracting 115-170+ practitioners.

RQ2: Specific Student Group Challenges

As PR campaigns courses often require significant groupwork, items were designed to explore the degree to which instructors experienced group-based issues. Results suggest that instructors somewhat agreed that group-based issues existed, particularly in regard to collaboration (M = 4.87, SD = 1.93), group-based communication (M = 4.87, SD = 1.79), problem-solving (M = 4.89, SD = 1.72), and social loafing (M = 5.02, SD = 1.79). To strengthen analysis of results, reliability analysis (α = .943) led to the development of a 9-item group dynamics scale (M = 4.43, SD = 1.55). Table 6 highlights group-based issues faced by instructors.

Table 6

Group-Based Issues

Group-based communication.524.871.79
General problem-solving.534.891.72
In-group collaboration.534.871.93
Compromising on campaign direction.524.252.03
Developing a cohesive strategy.534.381.83
Conflict resolution.534.191.97
Understanding project direction and goals.533.661.92
Agreeing on project direction and goals.533.721.88
Rise in “social loafing.”525.021.79

Correlation analysis suggests a relationship between course challenges, content issues, and group dynamics. Instructors who faced student group issues were significantly more likely to experience course challenges (p < .001, r = .762) and somewhat more likely to experience content issues (p < .001, r = .658). 

Qualitative results suggest that group-related issues often stemmed from a lack of engagement and outside influences related to the pandemic. As group work shifted online, the dynamic of faculty supporting groups individually changed as “the instructor at the table was not able to happen in the same way.” Accountability among group members was a noted issue, as was the ability to “keep students on track.” Students also faced issues regarding lack of resources and technology at home or new, unpredictable scheduling conflicts that prevented them from routinely meeting with their teams and faculty members. Participants also noted that the shift online meant “underperforming teams” and individual students could “hide,” or that it was harder to “check in with teams and make sure they were working together well and finishing project elements.” Overall, engagement was the key indicator of group successes or challenges.

RQ3: Adjusting Client Relationships

As many PR campaigns classes focus on experiential learning, part of the challenge of moving online involved managing and adjusting client-related work. Participants in the study served between 0 and 10 clients (M = 2.02, SD = 1.73) in Spring 2020. Most classes served 1 client (n = 27, 42.9%), or 3 clients (n = 9, 14.3%). Generally, participants (n = 58) found that client relationships remained relatively stable (see Table 7). However, participants only somewhat agreed that client(s) maintained the same level of engagement with their classes (M = 4.79, SD = 1.99) and neither agreed nor disagreed that client(s) had to adjust their involvement with the class because of the pandemic (M = 4.08, SD = 2.11). 

Table 7

Client Relationships

I was able to continue my client relationships.5.611.57
I communicated with my client(s) about the switch to online.5.981.62
My client(s) was interested in continuing their relationship with my class5.811.53
My client(s) maintained the same level of engagement with the class.4.791.99
My client(s) had to back out of their partnership with my class.1.831.50
My client(s) had to adjust their involvement with my class because their business was impacted by the pandemic.4.082.11

Overall, participants kept lines of communication open with their clients. Participants generally agreed or strongly agreed that they were able to continue their client relationships (n = 40, 63.5%), and n = 44 participants (71.5%) agreed or strongly agreed they communicated with their clients about the move online. Although clients were interested in continuing their class relationships (M = 5.81, SD = 1.53), there was less consistency in the degree of engagement maintained with those classes. For example, 34% (n = 22) of participants said they strongly disagreed to neither agreed nor disagreed that clients maintained the same level of engagement. Even so, clients did not completely back out of their partnerships. Only n = 3 (4.8%) participants agreed or strongly agreed that clients had to back out of their classes; rather, clients seemingly adjusted their involvement because of the pandemic. Overall, n = 31 (49.2%) participants at least somewhat agreed that their clients adjusted their involvement. This suggests that while changes were made to the client relationships, the clients still wanted to continue their partnerships.

To further explore the impact of client relationship experiences, reliability analysis (α = .817) led to the development of a 5-item client relationships scale (M = 5.68, SD = 1.24). Initial reliability analysis suggested the need to reverse-code items exploring whether clients had to back out of their partnerships and whether clients had to adjust their class involvement because they were impacted by the pandemic. The latter item was removed to strengthen Cronbach’s α from .774 to α = .817. Building on RQ1, a weak but significant relationship existed between general course challenges and client relationships. Specifically, the more clients remained involved in the project, the less instructors faced course challenges (p = .024, r = -.307) and content issues (p = .002, r = -.317). Although these relationships are relatively weak, they still suggest that degrees of client involvement may have informed issues faced by participants.

Open-ended results support this finding. In addition to considering the tools used to communicate with clients, participants also reflected on what they communicated and the nature of communication. Qualitative results suggested that the primary point of concern involved updating clients on project-based changes. For example, circumstances required one participant “to shift to a social media campaign since social distancing would not allow for face-to-face tactics.” Another participant found their campaign no longer plausible because target audiences could not be reached in person, so the partners “mutually ended” the client-agency relationship. Generally, however, most participants reported that they simply informed clients of minor changes, such as the need to move presentations online. 

Overall, most client relationships continued, but few appeared to continue without adjustments. As expected, clients faced their own challenges as they modified their business practices and needs; they had to close their businesses, were laid off or furloughed, or in general “were struggling with the reality of COVID-19 and running their organizations.” In some cases, clients did not have video-conferencing tools or other software, became geographically dispersed from colleagues, or were balancing personal issues such as childcare. Some clients were impacted by shifting workloads and making their own rapid changes. This sometimes resulted in lags in responsiveness, but also led clients to “sometimes [give] us the autonomy to make decisions without review or collaboration.” The most noted change in client engagement, however, were changes to the final presentation. Multiple participants reported either canceling presentations altogether, providing recorded presentations, or switching presentations online. In many cases, this removed an opportunity for client evaluation and feedback, but ultimately did not significantly impact the overall client relationship.

RQ4: Positive Curricular Changes

Although there may be a tendency to focus on the negatives of the pandemic, this study sought to explore potentially positive outcomes. Specifically, by being forced to move classes online, many instructors may have discovered strategies or tools that could be adopted in future iterations of campaigns classes. 

Overall, participants neither agreed nor disagreed with moving presentations online (M = 4.30, SD = 1.95) or the idea of changing the overall course format. However, participants somewhat agreed that they would consider having more online course meetings (M = 5.26, SD = 1.54), would deliver various course content online (see Table 8), and would teach students how to conduct group work remotely (M = 5.6, SD = 1.13). Additionally, they agreed that they would connect with teams online (M = 5.86, SD = 1.32). This suggests that while there are still barriers to putting campaigns courses online, the pandemic revealed opportunities to better facilitate course delivery online. Table 8 highlights these changes.

Table 8

Positive Outcomes for Future Use

Have more online course meetings.505.261.54
Teach students how to conduct group work remotely.505.601.13
Deliver lecture-based material online.505.441.36
Deliver project expectation instructions online.505.381.32
Flip my class.494.351.69
Teach my class as a hybrid.494.822.02
Connect with teams online.495.861.32
Connect with client online.495.651.35
Conduct client research fully online.494.271.71
Move general student presentations online.504.401.92
Move client presentations online.504.301.95

To further explore the impact of positive changes, reliability analysis (α = .792) led to the development of an 11-item positive outcomes scale (M = 5.02, SD = 0.90). The relationship between client relationships and positive outcomes was explored, but regression analysis suggests that quality of client relationships did not influence beliefs about positive outcomes related to the switch to online learning, F(1, 47) = 3.185, p = .081, R2 = .044. This builds on previous results suggesting that while the quality of client relationships may have influenced specific course-related issues, the overall positive benefits of moving online were more strongly related to the course itself, its participants, and accessibility to technologies. This is supported in the open-ended findings.

First, participants reported additional benefits to teaching online such as increased access to course materials that students could “access anytime, anywhere.” Some student groups adapted well to online learning, getting better about time- and group-management and participating in more one-on-one meetings with faculty. One participant started a private Facebook group that provided opportunities to ask questions and host Facebook live sessions. In general, participants experiencing positive outcomes felt going online provided “real-world skill when it comes to online calls” and remote working. Additionally, the lack of commute time provided more time to complete tasks such as course preparation and grading. 

Because of these outcomes, at least some participants identified strategies they might change based on their experience teaching campaigns online. Faculty felt there were more opportunities to organize and articulate campaign components, offer flipped-class solutions to give students more time to work in class, and give students autonomy to work on their own time. By having content online, participants see opportunities to provide more resources and clearer descriptions of course expectations that students can review on their own time. Multiple participants also planned to embrace opportunities to spend more time guiding students rather than delivering content—a popular solution appears to be through the implementation of hybrid or flipped models. One participant suggested, “I enjoyed the flipped model with lectures online and using class time – either in person or via video conferencing – to be a guide on the side.” Finally, numerous participants plan to embrace opportunities to reduce in-class time. By seeing that students worked well independently, multiple participants felt moving components online provides an opportunity to practice remote work strategies and move past “antiquated needs to ALWAYS meet in person.” Solutions included giving “groups more opportunities to work independently outside of class with clear expectations for checking in.”

Despite these optimistic approaches to the benefits of and potential strategies for teaching online, multiple participants simply saw no positive outcomes from the switch online. When prompted to reflect on benefits experienced when moving online, n = 8 participants indicated there were no “notable benefits” and that they simply “prefer not to teach the Campaigns class online.” Faculty in this position recognized strategies they can use to create engagement and teach campaigns online, but still felt this was not something they wanted to embrace unless forced to. Ultimately, this suggests that while tools and resources may be available to make positive course changes, there are still outside factors that influence the degree to which faculty want to adopt these changes moving forward.


This exploratory study aimed to examine how PR professors adapted to teaching campaigns courses online at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in Spring 2020. Campaigns courses are routinely taught in public relations programs (Auger & Cho, 2016), and often include opportunities for students to produce full or proposed campaigns for real clients (Aldoory & Wrigley, 2000). Results of this study demonstrated that the emphasis on group work and experiential learning coupled with the rapid switch to online course delivery created distinct challenges for teaching the PR campaigns course compared to those teaching other types of courses. Faculty teaching PR campaigns experienced consistent challenges related to the switch to online learning, but these challenges were not directly related to student groups or client relationship issues as much as they reflected the inability to ensure that students had the technological resources needed to successfully complete their courses. Arguably, student- and client-related issues stemmed from a lack of or inconsistent access to resources among all parties involved. And while the sudden switch to online learning revealed potential opportunities to evolve the structure of future campaigns classes, the perceived potential success of those efforts rests on the ability for faculty to guarantee equal access to tools and resources needed to complete large-scale client projects.

Access to Resources and the Technological Gap

Overall, analysis of results indicates that the degrees of success experienced converting campaigns courses online were a direct result of whether students had access to resources and technology.  For example, when evaluating the final campaign components, client presentations and campaign tactics were most frequently changed or eliminated altogether. A deeper analysis of the data suggests that changes were not made because of an inability to deliver content online but because circumstances required such adaptations. For example, students who had not collected data prior to the shift online were often left with limited options for reaching target audiences. This made it more difficult to produce campaign tactics and materials based on primary data. 

Further, qualitative results suggest the most reported challenge to course delivery involved reaching students who had inconsistent internet access or lacked the hardware and software necessary to produce campaign components. Digital access has been widely reported as a significant predictor of student success at all educational levels, particularly during the pandemic (Sparks, 2020). Such divides appear to have impacted campaigns instructors; Although instructors had less difficulty meeting with groups, they had significant difficulty engaging individuals. Arguably, individual students without consistent internet access or using mobile devices such as phones and tablets were simply unable to participate fully, thus increasing a sense of disengagement. This even extended to clients, as those who lacked resources were most likely to reduce their involvement in student projects. And the more that faculty experienced diminishing engagement from students and clients, the more they faced course challenges and content issues.

The notion that these issues are resource-driven can, in part, be attributed to the findings that faculty seemed undeterred by issues related to short turnover time, the ability to convert course content, and the ability to modify project expectations. Moreover, faculty expressed few problems with delivering materials, conveying course expectations, meeting with students, and maintaining client relationships. So, despite the prevailing notion that converting courses online requires significant time and effort (Keengwe & Kidd, 2010), and even though most faculty had between 3-8 days to convert their courses, they seemed to be nimble in their approaches. Often seeking advice from colleagues, they clearly used readily available and known tools, and relied on multiple, diverse platforms to deliver content. 

Ultimately, the time faculty had to prepare their courses did not influence challenges they faced. However, it seems glib to suggest that no amount of technological know-how and confidence as an instructor can overcome the issues that emerge when students do not have consistent access to the tools being employed to meet best practices for online teaching. This suggests that emergent issues had little to do with instructor ability and more to do with resource and technology access issues.

Moving Forward

In response to the pandemic, Brownlee (2020) identified three opportunities to “[ensure] your institution is best positioned to support its students in the COVID-era of higher education” (para. 2). This included bridging the gaps on digital divide, experiential learning, and campus community. Arguably, PR campaigns courses are uniquely positioned to bridge these specific gaps, and findings suggest that campaigns instructors see this opportunity. Despite the outlined challenges, technology and pedagogical evolution appear to be at the heart of perceived opportunities to learn from and adapt to pandemic-driven teaching experiences. Many instructors felt that being forced online highlighted opportunities to streamline campaigns courses by reducing the number of in-person meetings and delivering lecture-based content in a flipped modality. As the industry was already shifting toward virtual workspaces prior to the pandemic, faculty acknowledged the shift online provided an opportunity to give students real-world virtual teamwork experiences.

Additionally, results suggest opportunities to strengthen learner-to-learner, learner-to-instructor, and learner-to-content opportunities. As faculty appeared to have an easier time communicating with groups, but had more difficulty engaging individual students, the use of groups may provide an opportunity for faculty to reach individual students. Learner-to-learner engagement can be enhanced through guided icebreaker or team-building activities (Martin & Bolliger, 2018), which could lead to increased trust and engagement among group members. This could create an additional line of communication with individual students who may be more difficult to reach. Next, PR faculty can increase learner-to-instructor and learner-to-content opportunities by maintaining a consistent mix of synchronous and asynchronous communication with students about course and assignment expectations. Combining synchronous weekly meetings with regular announcements can foster a collaborative environment while simultaneously providing students the autonomy to work asynchronously. This approach also mimics the PR agency experience, wherein practitioners often work in teams but use meetings to track progress on projects and identify which tasks will be completed independently. 

Moreover, the shift to online learning provides opportunities to strengthen student-client relationships. As a means of engagement, faculty may seek on-campus clients that resonate with students, helping build a sense of personal interest in the campaign projects. Additionally, moving the traditional client discovery meeting online can ensure that the usual interactions between students and clients are maintained. By meeting virtually, it also may be possible for clients to meet more frequently with classes, such as during key points of the project. If that type of increased interaction is unmanageable for the client, it could be supplemented by inviting other professionals to attend important student presentations as an opportunity to gain outside feedback on the work being produced.   

Finally, for faculty, by connecting with teams and clients online, there appear to be opportunities to emphasize giving students the autonomy to work independently as faculty act as guides-on-the-side and reclaim time needed for course preparation and grading. For some instructors, the pandemic led to a paradigm shift that questions the need for in-person engagement when so much of what happens in practice is virtual. Still, not everyone was as optimistic about the future of online campaigns courses. While some acknowledged they could teach this way but simply preferred not to, others felt strongly that campaigns courses require more consistent engagement between students and instructors. Essentially, the outside influencing factors—such as access to resources and lack of technology—seemed like hurdles too big to overcome. 

In short, faculty who had more positive experiences seemingly had the least number of issues with student resource and technology access. And, while there is truth to the arguments that in practice PR professionals should be able to conduct business remotely and in quickly morphing situations, one must consider that students taking these classes are not yet professionals, nor do higher education institutions readily provide the tools necessary to complete their work remotely, as might be the case in professional settings. 

This suggests that, as we consider how campaigns classes will evolve, we must also consider how to create equitable circumstances through which our students can learn. The sudden shift online means that higher education institutions have had to reimagine their technology infrastructures, and faculty and students alike have had to contend with digital divides and changing perceptions about the quality of online learning opportunities (Govindarajan & Srivastava, 2020). Without the technology-based tools necessary to complete projects of the scale generally expected in campaigns courses, it may remain difficult to encourage buy-in from the students and faculty participating in these courses as they continue to face stressors that limit the potential of these courses.

Limitations and Directions for Future Research

A primary limitation of this study is the sample size and its representativeness. A mix of convenience and snowball sampling was used to recruit participants, yielding a non-representative and potentially homogenous group of participants. Although there was balanced representation regarding gender, academic rank, and institutional factors, participants lacked racial diversity. Future studies should consider a more robust sampling strategy that includes the experiences of faculty at more diverse institutions. 

Further, future studies should consider whether students’ socioeconomic factors and shared mental health experiences influence the experiences faculty have converting their campaigns courses online. Early evidence suggests that parent education may be a stronger indicator of potential student success, as those with higher levels of education were more likely to remain employed, have access to home computers and internet, and have access to schools with stronger levels of student support (Sparks, 2020). More troubling, however, is the emergent mental health impacts on both students and faculty. Ongoing research suggests that the pandemic arrived during “a mental health crisis that had been unraveling on college campuses for years” (Lumpkin, 2021, para. 4). And while students experienced decreased well-being related to stress, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation (Anderson, 2020), so too did faculty. Within the first year of the pandemic, reports continued to emerge regarding faculty burnout (McMurtrie, 2020) and chronic stress (Flaherty, 2020). In a widely shared research brief by The Chronicle of Higher Education (2021), more than a third of respondents indicated they had considered changing careers or retiring. Undoubtedly, the effects of these experiences are likely to continue playing a role in the perceived success of delivering classes—particularly intensive capstone courses such as PR campaigns—in online or multi-modality formats.

Other limitations of the study include its exploratory nature and timing, although both can be considered starting points for future research examining faculty experiences teaching mixed-modality campaigns courses. Although survey items were evaluated in the context of best practices, the changing nature of the pandemic meant that many factors were not captured quantitatively. Additionally, this study was specifically designed to capture faculty experiences at the start of the pandemic. As many universities have switched to hybrid and HyFlex teaching models, and as the pandemic continues to extend beyond initial expectations, there exist opportunities to understand whether faculty experiences have evolved. 

Finally, future studies may examine specific technology access issues, the degree to which faculty become more comfortable teaching online, and whether students become more accustomed to working remotely. They may also explore whether opportunities to strengthen classes were implemented and the results of those changes. For example, the pandemic circumstances may have led to opportunities to close the technology gaps experienced during the initial stages of the pandemic. In short, like the practitioners they are grooming, PR faculty are nimble and will continue to pivot to meet student needs and produce quality campaigns experiences.


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© Copyright 2021 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Formentin, M. & Giselle, A.A. (2021). Pivot now! Lessons learned from moving public relations campaigns classes online during the pandemic in Spring 2020. Journal of Public Relations Education, 7(3), 7-44. https://aejmc.us/jpre/?p=2709

PRSSA During COVID-19: Examining the Challenges and Best Practices of Student Organization Management in an Online World

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted October 2, 2020. Revisions submitted April 12, 2021 & July 7, 2021. Accepted July 20, 2021. Published December 2021.


Amanda J. Weed, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Digital and Emerging Media 
School of Communication & Media
Kennesaw State University
Kennesaw, GA
Email: aweed2@kennesaw.edu

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

Madison Griffin
Graduate Student
School of Communication & Media
Kennesaw State University
Kennesaw, GA
Email: mgrif133@students.kennesaw.edu

Karen Freberg

Karen Freberg, Ph.D.
Professor, Strategic Communication
Department of Communication
University of Louisville
Louisville, KY
Email: karen.freberg@louisville.edu


In the spring of 2020, much of the U.S. implemented a nationwide shutdown in response to the global pandemic COVID-19 that had a ripple effect on universities to close campuses. In the hard shift to online learning, many student organizations were left with little input about how to make their own transition to the digital realm. Through the lens of Self-Determination Theory, the following study surveyed current and recent PRSSA executive board members (n = 208) to gain insights about online chapter programming practices in the spring and fall terms of 2020, key concerns about online chapter management, and what online program training and resources are needed. Research-based best practices for online chapter management offer practical guidance for PRSSA chapters and support organizations to improve chapter leaders’ confidence and proficiency in producing online programming during COVID-19 and beyond.

Keywords: online organization, student organizations, zoom, online learning, self-determination theory, covid-19, PRSSA, Public Relations Student Society of America


In the spring of 2020, much of the United States (U.S). implemented a nationwide shutdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Such drastic nationwide actions had not been taken since the Spanish Flu outbreak more than 100 years ago. As U.S. states issued stay-at-home orders, that had a ripple effect on universities to close campuses and send students home, often with little notice to students, faculty, and staff. While classes remained in session through online modalities, the robust campus life experience waned. In the hard shift to online learning, many student organizations were left with little input about how to make their own transition to the digital realm.

This study examined how one such student organization, the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA), fared with online programming during COVID-19 in the spring and fall terms of 2020. A nationwide questionnaire was distributed to PRSSA executive board (e-board) members to determine what programming strategies and communication tools were used by chapters, which individuals and organizations provided guidance with online programming planning, key concerns of e-board members, and what types of training they desired to effectively manage their chapters in the online environment. This research is the third paper in a trio of PRSSA and pedagogical-related papers that uses Self-Determination Theory (SDT) as a basis for study to serve as a practical guide for PRSSA chapters and support organizations in developing innovative chapter management solutions and collaborative partnerships that will build a thriving community during COVID-19 and beyond.

Literature Review

PRSSA in a Pre-COVID World
To study the effects of the pandemic on student organizations, the pre-pandemic structure of student organizations has to be established. Todd’s (2009) study of PRSSA, in particular, uncovered that professional advisers felt the organization would best serve students by acting as a bridge toward the professional world. That connection included having current PR practitioners assess student capstone projects, focusing on essential writing and web design skills. A look at the difference between universities with and without a PRSSA chapter illuminated the benefits of the organization even further. Previous research noted that faculty advisers considered PRSSA a “critical component” to the undergraduate experience and felt the organization had a responsibility to facilitate leadership development, provide aid in finding internships, and emulate real work practice before entering the field (Weed et al., 2020; Rogers, 2014). Apart from the applicability of the organization’s activities, students also joined and stayed in student organizations through self-determined motivations that stemmed from their needs being met (Filak & Pritchard, 2007). That implies students join PRSSA not only for the professional connections, but to build upon their personal goals as well.

Organization Issues in an Online World During COVID-19
In spring of 2020 universities were tested by the COVID-19 pandemic, driving PRSSA chapters to navigate a disrupted world in an attempt to #FlattenTheCurve (Merritt, 2020). Graduations were canceled. Classes were rushed into an online modality. Businesses also learned to navigate a 100% virtual work environment forcing students to “make the most of a summer without a traditional internship” (Charron, 2020, para. 1). Likewise, university extracurricular activities were also in unfamiliar territory. In April 2020, the PRSSA National Leadership Assembly was relegated to a virtual town hall with officer elections moved online (PRSA, 2020), Star Chapter requirements were reduced and amended to remove the high school outreach component, and for the first time in PRSSA history, the international conference took place online (PRSSA, 2020). PRSSA members and faculty advisers were attempting to navigate change and preparing for a “new normal” during a tumultuous time on campuses across the nation. This subsequently presented new challenges and opportunities to organizations run by volunteer students and faculty. 

Higher Education Issues
Very little was known pre-COVID-19 regarding how students, required to move to an online learning environment from an in-class learning environment, might react during a widespread emergency. Post COVID-19 the literature is starting to emerge concerning general online teaching and learning perspectives during COVID-19 suggesting lessons learned in updating online pedagogy to meet the needs of students (Coman et al., 2020; Hofer et al., 2021; Pokhrel & Chhetri, 2021; Rippé et al., 2021). Luckily, much attention has been paid in recent years toward student and faculty use of technology in the public relations classroom, in building community (Curtin & Witherspoon, 2000; Fraustino et al., 2015; Janoske et al., 2019; Kinsky et al., 2016; Kruger-Ross & Waters, 2013; McKeever, 2019; Moore, 2014; Tatone et al., 2017; Weed et al., 2018;) and to online teaching and learning in general (Martin, Stamper et al., 2020     ; Martin, Sun et al., 2020; Nilson & Goodson, 2018) to supplement as the body of knowledge continues to grow post-COVID-19; however, the literature does more to point out the flaws in the online learning system than the solutions (Albrahim, 2020; Morreale et al., 2021; Richardson et al., 2020). The teaching of faculty on how to transition online seems to be one of those missteps as sometimes faculty are left to figure out how to teach online completely on their own (Callo & Yazon, 2020; Lowenthal et al., 2019; Paul & Jefferson, 2019). 

Organizational Issues
COVID-19 presented numerous communication challenges to organizations as the traditional in-person workplace moved to remote work. In times of crises, subordinates turn to leaders for information, which heightens demands for effective communication of critical decisions (van der Meer et al., 2017; van Zoonen & van der Meer, 2015) much like PRSSA advisers and members might look to PRSSA National for solutions. Organizational issues pre-COVID-19 are only exacerbated during COVID-19. Thus, engaging now in thoughtful deconstruction of pre-COVID-19 practices can create deliberate and practical organizational improvement, even whilst forced through severe ecological conditions which present as “crisis” or misfortune. There may be hope that these online tools can contribute to organizational engagement in times of uncertainty. When looking at natural disasters that result in a shift to online learning, one study showed that a university became more resilient in its online education after a crisis event (Ayebi-Arthur, 2017). However, proper tools including bandwidth, internet equity, and access to digital devices are key components in guaranteeing that students do not miss educational opportunities during such a crisis (Dhawan, 2020). Ensuring proper equity toward online learning can be important for not only the students involved but the health of the overall learning organization. According to Coombs and Holladay (1996), effectively communicating to an organization’s public is crucial to the reputational and financial health of any organization, regardless of industry. In this instance, ensuring that effective communication is maintained between all educational participants is crucial in sustaining an online learning environment. 

Self-Determination Theory and Organization Management
When broken down to its basic ideology, Self-Determination Theory (SDT) looks at the psychological pull of an individual toward personal growth and the effect external forces have on the motivation toward that growth (Deci, 1975; Ryan & Deci, 2000). Motivation is important to examine as it is the catalyst to get work done (Ryan & Deci, 2000). SDT considers motivation based on a person’s motivation at any given time, as opposed to adopting motivation as a unitary concept in people (Deci, 1975). As PRSSA is a student-run organization, organizational leaders do not have the common motivating factor of financial-based compensation for their work and must find their intrinsic motivations for participation. Filak and Pritchard (2007) established the application of SDT in the context of PRSSA in a study of chapter advisers and members, and found that when the needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness were met through support from the faculty adviser, student members will more positively rate their chapter and adviser, and experience greater self-motivation to participate in the organization.  

White (1959) and deCharms (1968) proposed that motivating behavior is based on competence and autonomy. That the link between the basic needs of people and their motivations is based on intrinsic and extrinsic motivations (Pritchard et al., 1977). Findings from Jang (2008) show the role that externally-provided rationales can play in helping students generate the motivation they need to engage in, and learn from, uninteresting but personally important material. That is critical to teaching and professional development in order to promote student motivation by promoting the value of the task, discover the experience’s hidden value, and communicate why it is personally useful to the participant. “Simply put, motivation is tantamount to a student’s ability to engage with the course information” (Ewing et al., 2019, p. 105). SDT research has been applied in pedagogy research to examine how needs are satisfied in face-to-face teaching and learning in relation to student motivation (Ahn et al., 2021; Davidson & Beck, 2019; Goldman et al., 2017; Lietaert et al., 2015; Pritchard et al., 1977; Roorda et al., 2011). 

Competence, Autonomy, and Relatedness
Ryan and Deci (2000) proposed three psychological needs that are required for individual psychological health and well-being: a) competence (seek to control the outcome of a task and experience task mastery), b) autonomy (the desire to be causal agents of one’s own life and act in harmony with one’s integrated self), and c) relatedness (the will to interact with, be connected to, and experience caring) (Deci, 1975). If competence is defined as self-efficacy, then the basic need for competence is the need of feeling knowledgeable about the environment in which one exists (White, 1959). In a structured organization, the need for competence is fostered by offering constructive feedback and showing organized progress through activities or projects (Martin et al., 2018). Autonomy can be viewed as the psychological need to experience the ownership of one’s actions (Chirkov, 2009). Therefore, true autonomy exists only when there is no control over individual actions in a given environment. Although true autonomy is not often possible in academic or work settings, autonomy support was shown more conducive to continued learning and personal success (Vansteenkiste et al., 2005), as well as self-determined motivation (Filak & Pritchard, 2007). Meaning, the more control that is put upon an individual in an environment, the less the need for autonomy is being met. When translated to an educational environment, autonomy can be supported through a self-paced environment with limited reward contingencies for participating (Martin et al., 2018). Relatedness directly corresponds with the need to feel like a part of one’s environment which relates to the innate human need for survival with others (van den Broeck et al., 2016). However, that need of relatedness does not require others to be physically present to be fulfilled and support motivation (Martin et al., 2018). Encouragement to participate or acknowledgement of involvement, even after the fact, can fulfill the need of relatedness.

The lack of fulfillment of those three basic psychological needs—competence, autonomy, and relatedness—will result in a decrease in the overall well-being of the individual (Ryan & Deci, 2000) and reduce the likelihood of further participation in the organization (Filak & Pritchard, 2007; Fisher et al., 2020). Alternatively, when an organization aids in fulfillment of these basic needs, participants tend to see an increase in well-being that is then reflected in increased motivations to succeed and continue personal growth (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Ryan & Deci (2000) found that conditions which enhanced perceptions of autonomy, competence, and relatedness positively affected self-determined motivation and sense of competence (Ryan & Deci, 2000; Deci et al., 1994). That is of significance for individuals who seek to motivate others in a way that gives way to vested interest, commitment, effort, and high-quality performance, much like pre-professional organizations would do (Deci et al., 2017). SDT argues that needs are innate but can be developed in a social context, much in the way student organizations integrate peer mentoring in a social context (Fisher et al., 2020).

Some people develop stronger needs than others, creating individual differences (Ryan & Deci, 2000). However, individual differences within the theory focus on concepts resulting from the degree to which needs have been satisfied or not satisfied (Pritchard et al., 1977). When participants experience growth, so does the organization. When the needs of the participants are fulfilled, the organization can then consider its own needs. Finally, of chief concern to SDT is the well-being of the individuals within the systems in which they participate. If the context in which participants are engaged in/with are responsive to those needs and provide the appropriate organizational structure in which participants can ascend without excessive control. Motivation and enhanced performance are what SDT would predict as participant engagement that can be sustained as a result (Kohn, 1990; Ryan & Deci, 2000). 

While the body of knowledge in public relations pedagogy addresses unique challenges and innovations in online learning, that research does not address the complexity of a student organization such as PRSSA. PRSSA is more than a supplement to classroom learning. It is an experiential learning lab that provides student leaders with valuable organizational management skills at the university, regional, and international levels. This study adds to the existing literature by exploring issues of online organization management, through the lens of SDT, by exploring the following questions:

RQ1: What were the common chapter management practices of PRSSA chapters during COVID-19?

RQ2a: How do the common concerns of PRSSA e-board members regarding online programming affect perceptions of competency in chapter management?

RQ2b: What resources or tools are desired by PRSSA e-board members to facilitate perceptions of autonomy in chapter management? 

RQ2c: What resources or tools are desired by PRSSA e-board members to foster relatedness with other organizations?

This study used an online questionnaire distributed to PRSSA executive board members who served in the spring semester of the 2019-2020 and Fall semester of the 2020-2021 academic years. Surveys have been previously used to study the perceptions of PRSSA members in realms of public relations curricula (Sparks & Conwell, 1998; Todd, 2009) and self-efficacy in public relations practice (Ranta et al., 2020). The timeline of this study began in the last half of August and ended in late September of 2020. Questions were asked in a way to capture data from respondents’ actual and anticipated policies regarding online classes and management of PRSSA chapters. The questionnaire was developed using Qualtrics software and distributed via a) emails to PRSSA faculty advisers and chapter presidents, b) private Facebook groups where faculty advisers were likely to be members, and c) social media posts that were directed to faculty advisers and PRSSA e-board members. Questionnaire protocols were approved by the respective institutional review boards of the authors. 

Study Population
The authors initially made a request with the PRSSA national office for a contact list of current PRSSA board members, but the request was denied due to proprietary rights. Next, the authors reviewed the PRSSA national chapter directory, which is publicly available through the PRSSA national website. Individual chapters are responsible for maintaining their directory listing, though it was unknown whether the contact information was current and accurate as no information was included with the chapter listing that indicated when it was last updated. While the PRSSA National Chapter Handbook (PRSSA, 2019) recommends a minimum of six executive board positions — president, vice president, secretary, treasurer, public relations director, and historian — the individual listing for PRSSA chapters from the national chapter directory often did not include contact information for all students who held those roles. In addition, it is unknown whether all PRSSA chapter e-boards included all positions recommended by the PRSSA national chapter handbook or if individual chapters had more e-board positions than were recommended.

Due to the above limitations, the authors developed an internal contact database of faculty advisers and chapter presidents, which were commonly included in the national directory listings for individual chapters. When faculty adviser and/or chapter president information was not available in the PRSSA chapter directory, the authors searched PRSSA chapter websites, chapter social media channels, and direct phone calls were made to university schools/departments that hosted PRSSA chapters. In total, 381 faculty advisers and 302 chapter presidents were identified at 370 U.S. university PRSSA chapters. Participants were recruited for the questionnaire through four distinct recruitment tactics implemented in August and September of 2020. First, the researchers sent two rounds of email invitations to PRSSA faculty advisers to share with their Spring 2020 and Fall 2020 e-board members. Second, the researchers sent an email invitation to PRSSA chapter presidents to share with their e-boards. Third, questionnaire invitations were posted on private Facebook groups such as PRSA Educators Academy, Student-Run Agency Advisers, and Faculty Advisers for PRSSA Chapters. In addition, researchers used directed tweets to promote the survey using the hashtag #PRSSA and tags for the accounts of PRSSA National, PRSA Educators Academy, and the AEJMC Public Relations Division. Finally, an email invitation was sent by the PRSSA national office to chapter presidents, and study promotion tweets were shared by the @PRSSANational account.

A qualifying question at the beginning of the questionnaire asked participants if they were an e-board member of their local PRSSA chapter in Spring 2020 or Fall 2020. In total, 208 respondents indicated they were a PRSSA e-board member. Those board members represented at least 69 PRSSA chapters located in all U.S. districts of PRSSA, for a response rate of 18.6% within chapters. As the authors were unable to access information that could determine the actual size of e-boards for all 370 U.S. university PRSSA chapters, an accurate response rate for the total population of e-board members could not be calculated.

Questionnaire Design 
The questionnaire included 40 items that measured five categories of information: a) general chapter information, b) completed and anticipated chapter programming practices for Spring and Fall 2020, c) areas of concern for PRSSA online programming, and d) resources used or desired for effective management of PRSSA online programming. Questions were developed with input from PRSSA faculty advisers who shared chapter management challenges that developed after many university campuses went to an online-only format during the Spring 2020 semester. No identifying information was collected, though respondents could opt-in for a $50 Amazon gift card drawing through a separate link using their university email addresses.

Online PRSSA Programming During COVID-19
Multiple-choice questions covered topics related to PRSSA chapter programming for Spring and Fall 2020 terms including: a) the quantity of Spring 2020 programming compared to Fall 2019, b) types of PRSSA online programming completed in Spring 2020 and planned to produce for Fall 2020. In addition, a unique question was added for the Spring 2020 e-board members to reflect on their PRSSA chapter’s effectiveness of online programming by providing a letter grade assessment.

Areas of Concern for Online PRSSA Programming
Participants identified up to 10 chapter management areas in which the respondent would want more resources and/or training. Three Likert scale questions asked the respondent’s level of confidence in meeting common chapter goals. Eight open-ended questions gained further insights about the respondent’s perception of how online programming would impact various aspects of PRSSA chapter management. Open-ended questions were surveyed for recurring key terms that were ranked by frequency of use.

Desired Resources for PRSSA Online Programming
Five Likert-scale questions assessed respondents’ level of agreement with statements related to how specific individuals or organizations—faculty adviser, university offices, school or department offices, PRSSA national leadership, and the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) sponsor chapter—understood what their PRSSA chapter needed to successfully implement online programs. Three open-ended questions asked what support services the respondent’s PRSSA chapter needed from a) their university, b) their faculty and professional advisers, and c) PRSSA national leadership. Open-ended questions were surveyed for recurring related key terms that were ranked by frequency of use. For example, the key term “Zoom burnout” also included “Zoom fatigue,” which was classified under the umbrella term of “Zoom burnout.” 


Respondent Demographics
The vast majority of the study population identified as female at 80.3% (n = 171), 8.0% (n = 17) identified as male, and the remaining 11.7% (n = 25) declined to answer. Of the respondents, 128 identified as e-board members in Spring 2020 and 156 in Fall 2020. Respondents represented Spring 2020 and Fall 2020 e-board positions which were noted as required in the PRSSA Chapter Handbook (PRSSA, 2020) including presidents at 33.8% (n = 96), vice presidents at 13.0% (n = 37), secretaries at 3.9% (n = 11), treasurers at 5.3% (n = 22), PR directors at 8.5% (n = 24), and one historian. The remaining respondents represented other board positions that were unique to individual chapters but included leadership roles related to membership, events, and communication. Twenty-three respondents declined to provide their e-board position for Spring 2020, and 42 respondents declined for Fall 2020. Respondents included recent graduates and e-board members whose roles might have changed from Spring to Fall of 2020.

At the chapter level, 184 respondents identified the size of their PRSSA chapter, with 22.8% (n = 42) representing micro-chapters of one to nine members, 48.4% (n = 89) for small chapters of 10 to 49 members, 15.8% (n = 29) for mid-size chapters of 50-99 members and the remaining 13.0% (n = 24) represented large chapters of more than 100 members. Respondents represented all ten (PRSA U.S. districts (PRSA, n.d.) (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

Respondents by PRSA District 

PRSSA Online Programming Trends During COVID-19

Adoption of Online Modality
Among PRSSA e-board members for Spring 2020 (n = 128), 92.2% (n = 11) indicated that their university moved to an online-only format, 7.8% (n = 10) remained with a face-to-face campus. Among PRSSA e-board members in Fall 2020 (n = 156), 39.8% (n = 62) indicated that their university classes were, or were scheduled to be, online-only for some of the fall term, while 30.2% (n = 47) would be face-to-face for all the fall term, and 23.7% (n = 37) would be online-only for all of the fall term. In a twist, 3.8% (n = 6) began the fall term as face-to-face but had to shift to online-only due to COVID surges in their geographic region after the term began. Fifty respondents (32.0%) declined to answer the question, which might be related to the uncertainty of campus openings at the time the survey was administered (see Figure 2).

The modality of university classes did not mirror an alignment with PRSSA chapter modality. While survey responses indicated a reduction of online-only campuses from Spring to Fall 2020, the quantity of respondents who indicated their PRSSA chapter would be online-only increased from 59.3% in spring to 70.0% in fall. Respondents who indicated their chapter would host only face-to-face meetings remained consistently small at less than 2.0% of responses. There was a dramatic increase in a combination of online and face-to-face programming from less than 1.0% in Spring 2020 to 23.7% in Fall 2020. 

Figure 2

Modality of PRSSA Chapter Management between Spring and Fall 2020 Terms

Chapter Programming

Content. When comparing the frequency of meetings for chapters that moved online in Spring 2020 to the previous fall semester, 91.4% (n = 57) of respondents indicated the chapter had less programming, with 40.0% (n = 28) reporting significantly less programs in Spring 2020 over fall 2019. For respondents whose chapters produced online programs in Spring 2020, chapter updates were most frequent (n = 40), followed by industry guest speakers (n = 29), and member presentations (n = 25). In Fall 2020, respondents indicated their chapter was likely to produce a variety of programming including industry guest speakers (n = 129), chapter updates (n = 91), skills training (n = 88), networking events (n = 86), member-led presentations (n = 82), faculty guest speakers (n = 69), and social events (n = 68). Thirteen respondents (8.3%) indicated other types of programming including collaborative events with other PRSSA chapters (n = 4), podcasts (n = 2), fundraising events (n = 2), and client projects (n = 2). Ten respondents (6.4%) did not know what types of online programming their chapter was planning (see Figure 3).

Figure 3

Comparison of PRSSA Online Programming Between Spring 2020 and Fall 2020

Communication applications. By far, the most common online application used for PRSSA online programming in both Spring and Fall 2020 was Zoom. In Fall 2020, responses indicated an increased use of other communication applications including GroupMe, Slack, Instagram video, and Twitter chats (see Figure 4).  

Figure 4

Online Communication Applications Used by PRSSA Chapters Between Spring and Fall 2020

Perceived Competency in PRSSA Online Chapter Management
Respondents whose chapters continued to meet after their university went to an online-only format in Spring 2020 (n = 72) were asked what letter grade they would give their chapter’s online programming. The greatest percentage of respondents gave their chapter a “C” (n = 26), followed by a “B” (n = 24). “A” (n = 18), “D,” (n = 4) and “F,” and 7.1% (n = 1) (see Figure 5).

Figure 5

What grade would you give your PRSSA chapter for its online programs in Spring 2020? 

Production of Online Programming
Moving to Fall 2020, respondents answered a Likert scale item that indicated their level of confidence (from 1 = very unconfident to 5 = very confident) in producing PRSSA online programming. Respondents expressed confidence (M = 4.21, SD = .963) in producing online programming, which was further supported by the reports that their PRSSA chapters were planning a wider variety of programs for the Fall 2020 than in the previous spring. Yet, responses to additional questions about Fall 2020 PRSSA chapter management revealed common concerns.

PRSSA e-board members in Fall 2020 expressed multiple concerns about online chapter management. Respondents (n = 148) were asked to rate their level of confidence (from 1 = very unconfident to 5 = very confident) in their chapter’s ability to renew existing dues-paid members and recruit new dues-paid members. Respondents expressed the least confidence in recruiting new PRSSA members in Fall 2020 (M = 3.33, SD = 1.227) but slightly increased confidence in renewing existing members (M = 3.54, SD = 1.128). A one-way ANOVA found no significant difference between the size of the respondent’s PRSSA chapter and level of confidence in recruiting new or renewing existing members. 

A small positive correlation was found between chapter size and the respondent’s confidence level in producing online programs, r(147) = .199, p < .05, as well as the ability to renew existing dues-paid members, r(147) = .175, p < .05. A large positive correlation was found between the respondent’s confidence in their chapter’s ability to produce online programs and recruiting new members, r(147) = .565, p < .001, and renewing existing members, r(147) = .599, p < .001 (see Table 1).

Table 1

Correlations between Chapter Size, Confidence in Producing Online Programming, and Ability to Recruit/Renew Members

** Correlation is significant at the .01 level

*   Correlation is significant at the .05 level

Perception of how Online Programming Helps or Hurts PRSSA Chapters
A series of open-ended questions asked respondents who were Fall 2020 PRSSA e-board members whether they felt online programming would only help, only hurt, or a combination of help and hurt, their chapter in: a) new member recruitment, b) member retention, c) chapter engagement, and d) scheduling of guest speakers.

Membership. Regarding recruiting new members, of the total respondents (n = 150) most (n = 84) felt that online programming would only hurt recruitment of new members. In terms of retaining existing PRSSA members, respondents (n = 116) were nearly split between those who felt that online programming would help membership retention (n = 52) and those who felt online programming would only hurt retention (n = 48). Convenience of attending online programming was the most identified benefit to help retention (n = 12) and “Zoom burnout” was the most identified limitation to hurt retention (n = 9). 

Dues Value. Of respondents (n = 134) who answered an open-ended question that addressed whether they believed online programming would affect the perception of dues value, more than two-thirds indicated a negative impact of the perceived value of the dues cost among PRSSA members, even though 12.7% (n = 17) of respondents noted their chapter members would receive a dues discount either for PRSSA national dues and/or local chapter dues. Common issues respondents noted that would negatively impact the perception of dues values were the lack of in-person programming (n = 31) and unique financial hardships students experienced due to COVID-19 (n = 5). 

Meeting Attendance. Respondents (n = 151) answered an open-ended question about whether they felt online programming would help or hurt meeting attendance. Of the total respondents (n = 151) to the open-ended question, the greatest number (n = 62) felt online programming would only help meeting attendance, but others (n = 45) only felt online programming would hurt. As with dues value, respondents most commonly noted convenience as a benefit for online meeting attendance (n = 34) along with the ability to record meetings for asynchronous viewing (n = 18). “Zoom burnout” was also repeated as a limitation that could hurt meeting attendance (n = 18). 

Scheduling Guest Speakers. Of the respondents (n = 145) who answered an open-ended question about whether online programming would help or hurt scheduling guest speakers, more than three-quarters of respondents (n = 111) felt it would help, with lack of travel requirements for speakers being the greatest benefit (n = 66). Only a handful of respondents (n = 9) indicated that online programming would hurt their chapter’s ability to schedule guest speakers (see Figure 6).

Figure 6

Perceptions of Whether Online Programming Helps or Hurts PRSSA Chapter Management

What Online Programming Resources Do PRSSA Chapters Need to Achieve Autonomy?
Respondents were asked to identify specific online programming training or resources they wanted. Respondents (n = 149) most commonly identified membership recruitment and retention resources (n = 110), followed by collaboration with other PRSSA chapters (n = 81), and fundraising (n = 70) (see Figure 7).

Figure 7

Online Training or Resources that PRSSA E-board Members Want

A one-way ANOVA found a significant difference between chapter size and the need for training or resources related to scheduling guest speakers [F(6,148) = 2.442, p = .029]. Among the various chapter sizes, 36.8% (n = 50) of respondents from chapters with less than 100 members (n = 138) indicated they desired that training, while only 10.5% (n = 2) of respondents from chapters with 100 or more members (n = 19) requested the same. It is important to note that respondents of chapters with 10-19 members (n = 30) expressed the greatest need for that training at 53.3% (n = 16). No significant difference was found between the board position respondents held and the type of online training or resources which were desired.

There was a moderate negative correlation between chapter size and the need for assistance in scheduling guest speakers, r(154) = -.183, p < .001. Further analysis was conducted to determine if receiving assistance from specific individuals or organizations correlated with a desire for specific types of training or resources. Positive correlations were found between the chapter receiving online programming assistance from the faculty adviser, r(148) = .197, p < .05, professional adviser, r(148) = .224, p < .001, and desire for more information about membership recruitment/retention. Assistance from PRSSA chapters at different universities was positively correlated with the desire for more information about membership recruitment/retention, r(148) = .186, p < .05, communication with chapter members, r(148) = .166, p < .05, and service projects, r(148) = .181, p < .05. Assistance from university offices was positively correlated with the desire for more information about collaborating with PRSSA chapters at different universities, r(148) = .169, p < .05.

Open-ended questions continued the explorations of what online training or resources respondents wanted. Three questions asked what support services respondents needed to successfully produce online chapter programming from a) their university, b) PRSSA national leadership, and c) their faculty and/or professional advisers. From the university, respondents (n = 132) most needed a) the promotion of their chapter and its events (n = 22), b) technical support such as accessing online meeting tools or “stronger wifi access” (n = 25), and c) general support such as communication student organization offices, how to collaborate with other organizations, and encouragement from faculty (n = 39). From PRSSA national leadership, respondents (n = 122) most needed a) meeting planning support such as a content library and national speakers directory (n = 13), b) training for online chapter management such as webinars and best practices from other chapters (n = 36), c) communication such as individual chapter check-ins, a calendar of upcoming national events, and general chapter information (n = 39). From faculty and/or professional advisers, respondents (n = 122) most commonly indicated that they were satisfied with their adviser’s support (n = 35), but others identified specific items such as general support like encouragement and advocating for the chapter (n = 31), assistance with scheduling guest speakers (n = 28), and tips for building member engagement in an online environment (n = 7).

Relatedness with Chapter Support Resources
When examining which organizations or individuals that respondents identified as a chapter resource for online programming in Spring (n = 137) and Fall 2020 (n = 141), faculty advisers were the most identified resource. While many chapters lacked guidance from other university resources such as university offices (student affairs, student government, or student organization offices) or school/department offices in Spring 2020, there were small improvements in those resources providing guidance to PRSSA chapters in Fall 2020. Organizational resources such as professional advisors, PRSSA national leadership, and PRSA sponsor chapters were identified by slightly more respondents for Fall 2020, but those remained unidentified by at least two-thirds of respondents. One organizational resource that gained a considerable increase in recognition was other PRSSA chapters, which grew from a resource identified by only 4.3% of respondents for Spring 2020, to 23.5% of respondents for Fall 2020 (see Figure 8). 

Figure 8

Comparison of Individuals/Organizations that Provided Online Program Guidance Between Spring 2020 and Fall 2020

Respondents were asked a series of Likert scale questions to indicate their level of agreement (1 = strongly disagree to 5 = strongly agree) with statements related to how specific individuals or organizations understood their chapter’s needs in developing online programming. Respondents most strongly agreed that their faculty adviser understood the chapter’s needs (M = 4.48, SD = 1.125), followed by PRSSA national leadership (M = 3.90, SD = 1.267), school or department offices (M = 3.72, SD = 1.262), PRSA sponsor chapters (M = 3.53, SD = 1.308), and university offices (M = 3.30, SD = 1.328). The large standard deviations indicated a mixed experience among respondents, which was further explored. A one-way MANOVA found no significant difference between the respondent’s chapter size and the level of agreement that specific individuals or organizations understood their chapter’s online programming needs. An additional one-way MANOVA found no significant difference between respondents’ Fall 2020 e-board position and the level of agreement that specific individuals or organizations understood their chapter’s online programming needs. There was a moderate correlation between respondents receiving assistance from their faculty adviser and their level of agreement that the adviser understood their chapter needs, r(148) = .395, p <. 001, but weaker correlations were found for university offices, r(148) = .257, p < .001, PRSSA national leadership, r(148) = .203, p < .05, and the PRSA sponsor chapter, r(148) = .178, p < .05. There was no correlation for the school/department. There were also moderate positive correlations between respondent’s level of agreement that their faculty adviser understood what their chapter needed to successfully implement online programming and other organizations understanding the same needs (see Table 2). 

Table 2

Correlations between Perceptions the Faculty Adviser and Other Resource Organizations Understood What the PRSSA Chapter Needs to Successfully Implement Online Programming

** Correlation is significant at the .01 level

A small positive correlation was found between chapter size and receiving online programming assistance from the school/department, r(147) = .302, p < .001, but no other correlations existed between chapter size and receiving assistance from other individuals or organizations.


Moving from Reactive to Proactive Online Programming Practices
The results of this study found that most PRSSA chapters were ill-equipped to handle the quick transition to an online-only modality. More than one-third of respondents noted their chapter did not meet after the university moved to an online-only modality. Of those chapters that did make a transition to online programming, more than 90% shared that they produced less programming in Spring 2020 in comparison to the previous Fall, and that programming was most often in the form of chapter news and updates rather than content related to the three pillars of PRSSA—enhancing education, building networks, and launching careers.

While the integration of online programming was initiated by most PRSSA chapters as a response to universities transitioning to online-only campuses during the COVID-19 pandemic, these practices hold long-term value to create more inclusive programming and identify new strategies that enhance member recruitment. The traditional tactics of in-person PRSSA chapter programming and membership recruitment tactics limit outreach opportunities to students who fit a non-traditional mold such as online learners, continuing education students, commuters, and graduate students.

Through the application of Self-Determination Theory, which was previously applied to PRSSA management by Filak & Pritchard (2007), the authors identified how competence, autonomy, and relatedness are urgent needs that need to be addressed to support PRSSA e-board members through the uncharted territory of online program management. The following recommendations address the current needs of PRSSA chapters and provide a blueprint to elevate chapter practices that address the evolving nature of higher education and the public relations industry.

Enhance Competency
Respondents’ self-assessment of their chapter’s online programming for Spring 2020 revealed that more than two-thirds of respondents gave their chapter either a “C” (34.3%) or “B” (28.6%). Membership recruitment and retention were, by far, the most pressing concern of PRSSA e-board members. There was a concern regarding the recruitment of new members especially when student outreach opportunities, such as student fairs, were limited. Though slightly greater confidence was expressed in retaining existing members, qualitative responses indicated concerns about the lack of personal connection with members and fighting “Zoom fatigue.”  As a respondent shared,

I think that in general, online programs will hurt recruiting and retaining of chapter members for students to really learn with a human touch face-to-face. Coming from my own experience, being at the chapter’s events helped me network and talk with guest professionals to learn more of the secrets of the trade. I think with having online programs, the motivation from members won’t be as enthusiastic about, says a Microsoft Teams meeting with an industry professional to attend.

In addition, respondents were also concerned about the dues cost, even when considering a limited-time 25% discount on national dues and some chapters reducing or eliminating their local dues. Another respondent stated,

I think it’s great that Nationals dropped the price, however, $41 is still a lot of money for a college student. That could pay for two weeks of groceries. So, with programs being all online and most other clubs waiving fees, I think it will be much more difficult to convince members that they will get their money’s worth.

Concern was expressed that prospective members would not see the return on investment of their dues cost because many programs that were selling points of the organization—face-to-face networking, agency tours, attending national and/or regional events—were not an option for Fall 2020.

A negative perception of online programming was evident among respondents, especially in regard to new member recruitment and engagement. More than 56% of respondents felt that online programming would hurt new member recruitment, even though nearly 90% of respondents expressed confidence in their chapter’s ability to produce online programming. Martin, Sun, & Westine (2020) suggest that perception might be linked to existing attitudes related to participation in online courses or feelings of anxiety related to uncertainty working within a new communication modality (Hilliard et al., 2020). A respondent shared, 

Online programs, in my experience so far, split a group into attentive vs uninterested members. The members who didn’t pay as much attention or didn’t get as involved as others are dropping away and the members who were working hard are continuing to grow. I’d say that this online format is really showing who is serious about PRSSA and their profession.

PRSSA e-board members noted concern about limited opportunities to promote their chapters in an online environment. As opportunities for face-to-face connections—student organization fairs, “tabling,” in-class presentations, or casual conversations—were noted by respondents as being reduced, or eliminated, it is crucial that PRSSA chapters receive assistance from faculty and administration to advocate for the organization with prospective students. As the results of this study found that there was a negative correlation between chapter size and whether the chapter received assistance from its school or department, it is essential that smaller chapters receive outreach assistance to promote PRSSA, especially among underclassmen. These results were reflected in a respondent’s comment,

In order to successfully produce online programs for my PRSSA chapter, we will need support services such as technology services, faculty help, and help from our school to reach out to as many students as possible.

Based on the feedback provided by PRSSA e-board members in this study, the authors make two recommendations to build competence in online chapter management. First, enhanced training is needed to address unique issues identified by respondents including a) member recruitment, b) fundraising, and c) service projects. Training initiatives can be made available as live webinars to solicit real-time questions from chapter leaders, but also should be recorded for on-demand viewing as needed. Primarily, training sessions should be produced by PRSSA national leadership as they are in the best position to understand the unique challenges and needs of chapters. Initiatives should be produced with the assistance and guidance of PRSA to ensure comprehensive and best practices are disseminated to PRSSA chapter leaders.

Second, PRSSA national leadership should engage in strategic partnerships with organizations that offer specialized training in online communication to make those resources available to chapter leaders. Organizational programs such as the HubSpot Education Partner Program (HubSpot, n.d.), Hootsuite Student Program (Hootsuite, n.d.), and Facebook Educators Portal (Facebook, n.d.) already produce student-oriented training modules and/support services related to online communication. Those resources could be linked on the PRSSA national website and promoted through chapter communication. Access to the resources provided by those organizations will provide resources for chapters to effectively plan, implement, and evaluate diverse online communication tactics that follow best practice standards.

Empower Autonomy
Self-Determination Theory defines autonomy as the psychological need to experience the ownership of one’s actions (Chirkov, 2009). By providing access to additional tools and resources, PRSSA e-board members can take ownership of developing their own skills related to online program management, identifying relevant subject-matter experts in the field of public relations, and integrating pre-packaged content that best serves the members’ educational and professional development needs.

PRSSA e-board members recognized the benefits of online programming in regard to meeting attendance. Respondents noted that online programming could help meeting attendance by offering a level of convenience for members who could participate live from home or watch meetings on their own schedule when the meetings are recorded, as a respondent shared,

I hope that they increase the meeting attendance. Prior to going to an online format, I spoke to various members to find out what I can do to increase meeting attendance. A large majority of our dues paying members are commuter students who would not travel to school for the sole purpose of the meeting. I think the online programs will help with attendance along with the new format I plan to implement at meetings.

One concern was “Zoom fatigue” members might experience, especially when classes are taught solely in the online modality. This points to a greater need for training resources that will teach PRSSA board members about the best practices of online event planning that facilitate strong audience engagement.

Respondents were most enthusiastic about the opportunity to schedule guest speakers. Many noted the convenience for guests since they did not need to travel to campus and expressed optimism for improving their chapter’s ability to schedule speakers in comparison to in-person meetings. Respondents were especially excited at the prospect of scheduling guest speakers from across the U.S. instead of focusing on recruiting guests who were within physical proximity to their university campus.

We have had no problem scheduling speakers and have even had an easier time as we have been able to bring more speakers in from all over the industry as well as the country. The flexibility has increased speakers’ willingness to agree to speak as well as the ease of simply hopping onto a Zoom call rather than necessarily having to travel to the school.

A small number of respondents did express concern with scheduling guest speakers because they would be too busy. 

PRSSA national leadership should coordinate with PRSA to develop a nationwide PRSSA speakers directory that is available on a password-protected page of the PRSSA national website. Through collaboration with the PRSA national office, members may indicate their interest in new membership or renewal documentation as to whether they would like to be included in a PRSSA speakers directory. The directory can be a valuable resource for smaller PRSSA chapters, or chapters in rural locations, that might have difficulty with identifying appropriate guest speakers. If a PRSA member indicates interest in being added to a PRSSA speaker directory, a follow-up questionnaire can be distributed to collect additional information such as: a) what company the speaker works for, b) how long they have worked in the PR industry, c) what industry do they specialize in (i.e. healthcare, nonprofit, food/beverage), d) areas of expertise (i.e. crisis communication, media relations, diversity & inclusion), e) how the speaker would like to meet with chapters (i.e. online or in-person), and f) demographic questions to ensure a diverse representation of speakers. The speaker directory can be updated through an opt-in selection in the PRSA new member or membership renewal process.

In addition to assistance with scheduling guest speakers, PRSSA chapters, especially small chapters, need access to other programming content for member meetings. Pre-packaged content developed specifically for PRSSA members, such as interviews with industry professionals and skills training learning modules should be available on-demand in a digital library that is available on the PRSSA website. That will not only provide content for chapters that are struggling during COVID-19 but serve chapters well into the future to increase the perceived value of dues and, in turn, increase membership.     

Foster Relatedness
Faculty advisers were consistent sources of guidance to PRSSA e-board members, as identified by nearly 83% of respondents for Spring 2020. In contrast, other organizations were far less consistent in providing support services to guide chapter leadership in developing online programs. University offices were identified by 27% of respondents and PRSSA national leadership trailed far further at less than 13%. A respondent shared,

I’ve been in PRSSA for seven semesters now. I was also the National Committee Liaison. I felt in all of the roles I’ve been in a lack of support from PRSSA National. Other than the national conference, we don’t get opportunities to interact with National other than when we are constantly reaching out ourselves. I think the biggest way national can support us is getting in touch with us first and setting up monthly (if not weekly) check-ins.

This lack of organizational communication, from the university and PRSSA, likely limited access to valuable information and resources that would have allowed PRSSA chapter leaders to effectively and efficiently transition to an online format. PRSSA chapter e-board members also indicated a need for general support from their universities and PRSSA national leadership including: a) more information related to managing their chapter in an online format and b) regular check-ins by university faculty/staff and PRSSA national leadership to address any emerging needs and to provide much-needed encouragement.

PRSSA e-board members noted concern about limited opportunities to promote their chapters to the campus community in an online environment. During COVID-19, respondents commonly noted traditional means of new member outreach — student organization fairs, “tabling,” in-class presentations, or casual conversations — as being reduced, or eliminated. As the results of this study found that there was a negative correlation between chapter size and whether the chapter received online programming assistance from its school or department, it is essential that smaller chapters receive online outreach assistance, especially among nontraditional or commuter students who might not be able to attend in-person events. That type of assistance holds potential to not only benefit increased membership in PRSSA, but to recruit prospective majors to the school or department.

Since more than 95% of respondents indicated their PRSSA chapter would continue with online programming in Fall 2020, it is critical that chapters receive consistent and comprehensive training resources to guide their program planning. Small improvements have been made by university offices and the PRSSA organization to enhance communication and training related to online programming for Fall 2020, but research results point to a continued need for stronger efforts from both organizations. At the time of this survey in the early part of the Fall 2020 term, only 43% of respondents stated they were receiving guidance from university offices, and PRSSA national leadership lagged further behind by only providing guidance to less than 30% of respondents. At the same time, the number of respondents who received guidance from other PRSSA chapters grew dramatically from 4.3% in Spring to 23.5% in Fall 2020, suggesting that chapter leaders were turning to each other as peer support for information and solutions when communication lacked from university and organization resources.

More than 50% of respondents indicated a desire to collaborate with PRSSA chapters at other universities, and nearly 25% had already reached out to other chapters during the Fall 2020 semester. Those respondents indicate a growing desire for inter-chapter networking and/or cross-chapter collaborations. Such initiatives build a productive network to share the load of programming and create a greater sense of community. Examples of those collaborations include PRSSA Reimagined, a partnership of six PRSSA chapters across the U.S. Each chapter committed to producing one event during Fall 2020 that was open to all PRSSA members. The Georgia PRSSA E-board Meetup, hosted by Kennesaw State University, invited chapter leaders to network and collaborate on finding solutions to common chapter issues related to online programming. Other PRSSA chapters, such as Ohio University, West Virginia University, and SUNY Oswego, opened guest speaker events to all PRSSA members. To further facilitate inter-chapter collaborations, PRSSA national leadership needs to ensure that the PRSSA chapter directory, available on the PRSSA national website, is up to date with current leaders and chapter contact information. As part of this study, the authors attempted to access PRSSA chapter e-board leaders through the chapter directory and discovered more than 30% of chapter listings were either outdated or incomplete. By educating chapter leaders and faculty advisers on how to update their chapter’s directory listing, they can ensure their chapter information is current, correct, and complete. PRSSA chapters could indicate in their chapter directory listing whether they would like to collaborate with other PRSSA chapters.

Limitations and Directions for Future Study
This study provides a detailed snapshot of current PRSSA chapter management issues during COVID-19, but the situation remains in a state of flux and the long-term effects are yet to be known. While the authors were able to examine actual practices of online programs for the Spring 2020 term, only anticipated programming practices were collected for Fall 2020. In addition, there was a large percentage of female participants in this study. No demographic information could be found about the ratio of male, female, or nonbinary PRSSA executive board members to determine if the study sample was representative of the total population, though gender representation does appear to be reflective of the public relations industry (Dubrowski et al., 2019). To provide a broader picture of study results, future research will pursue a longitudinal perspective by conducting follow-up surveys of PRSSA e-board members as COVID-19 continues to impact universities to determine if current findings remain stable over time.

While the vision of a more collaborative PRSSA is aspirational, it is by no means impractical. The new strategies and tactics related to online programming that result from this study hold promise to strengthen the technological business aptitude of students, allow for increased networking and mentorship access to professionals from across the globe, and improve chapter recruitment and retention outcomes through diverse communication modalities and strategies.

During times of uncertainty, organizational management practices are put to the test. The cracks and flaws that have gone unnoticed in times of smooth sailing can no longer be ignored when navigating stormy seas. The research findings provide evidence that PRSSA national leadership, the PRSA organization, and university departments can seize the opportunities to address organizational challenges highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic response to pursue new training and support initiatives for PRSSA chapters. By embracing innovations, PRSSA chapters will emerge from the storm stronger and more resilient.     


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To cite this article: Weed, A.J., Wallace, A.A., Griffin, M., & Freberg, K. (2021). Student organization management in an online world. Journal of Public Relations Education, 7(3), 100-143. https://aejmc.us/jpre/2021/12/27/prssa-during-covid-19-examining-the-challenges-and-best-practices-of-student-organization-management-in-an-online-world/