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Public Relations Graduates’ Perceptions of Their Degrees and Careers: A Five-University Survey

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted January 10, 2020. Revised March 30, 2021 and May 20, 2021. Accepted June 7, 2021. Published March 2022.


Kenneth D. Plowman, Ph.D., APR
Associate Professor of Communications
School of Communications
Brigham Young University
Provo, UT
Email: kenneth_plowman@byu.edu

John E. Forde, Ph.D., APR
Professor, Communication
Mississippi State University
Starkville, MS
Email: jforde@comm.msstate.edu

Brad L. Rawlins, Ph.D.
Director, School of Media and Journalism, Arkansas State University
Jonesboro, AK
Email: brawlins@astate.edu

Gemma Puglisi
Assistant Professor
School of Communication
American University
Washington, DC
Email: puglisi@american.edu

Judy VanSlyke Turk (Deceased)
School of Media and Culture,
Virginia Commonweatlh University
Richmond, VA
Email: jvturk@vcu.edu

Special Editorial Note: 

The authors dedicate this paper to the memory of our amazing colleague, Judy VanSlyke Turk. Thank you, Judy, for your insight, talent, and collaboration. We will miss you.


The numbers of public relations majors and available positions in the field continue to rise. However, many public relations alumni continue to have challenges finding these positions in the field and some choose to leave the profession after working in the field. Findings from this public relations’ alumni survey explored the reasons why students major in public relations, the challenges to secure employment in the field upon graduation, and why they leave or stay in the profession. There were significant differences between gender in a variety of areas. Overall, just over one-third of respondents said they definitely or probably expected to spend their professional careers in public relations, but about three-fourths of those surveyed expressed satisfaction toward their degrees and the public relations profession. Educators and practitioners should work together more closely to train students who can successfully enter and remain in the public relations profession.

Keywords: perceptions of public relations degrees, curriculum, perceptions of public relations, perception of degrees, public relations alumni


Public relations has grown in virtually all facets in recent years, including opportunities in the profession and related fields, college degree programs, and numbers of classes. Many studies have been conducted on perceptions of the field by practitioners, educators, and students. However, few studies have specifically targeted alumni in public relations and focused on degree and career satisfaction and suggestions for curriculum improvements that could lead to enhancements for the profession. Many graduates of public relations programs never work in the public relations profession or leave the field. The major focus of this study is on public relations alumni perceptions of their education and professional experience, and this study includes responses from alumni in and out of the field to fill in some gaps in the research. This expansive survey research is based on a longitudinal study completed over the course of three years that initially started with focus groups and interviews.

Literature Review

Social Exchange and Identity Theories’ Application to PR Students and Alumni
Social exchange researchers have explored the connection between people’s motivation to obtain a reward in exchange for something of value (Homans, 1961), whether it be tangible or intangible. Additional studies have concluded that motivation of expected returns will impact an individual’s voluntary actions (Blau, 1964). Levine et al. (2010) stated that for the most part people are satisfied with their relationships when the rewards exceed the cost, and they continue in those relationships where investments lead to projected growth. In turn, what results is commitment forming between the exchange partners of employers and employees (Lawler et al., 2000).

Social exchange research expanded to real-world interactions including students and universities (Yucel-Aybat et al., 2018), as well as employer and employee exchanges (de Jong et al., 2009; Eisenberger et al., 1986). One study found that college students were motivated to choose a specific major based on factors they value most including personal value, interests, pay, interest, and ability to do the coursework, career activities, and job availability/location (Wright, 2018). Another study found that employees’ motivation stems from the opportunity to develop exchange relationships with organizations through organizational support and leader member exchange (Wayne et al., 1997). Eisenberger and colleagues (1986) argued that those perceptions correlate with employees’ commitment to the organizations for which they work.

Additionally, social identity researchers (Fiske & Ruscher, 1993) noted that social identity theory explicates that individuals categorize other individuals into in-groups and out-groups based on such criteria as ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, occupation, or the like and such organized groups provide individuals with meaning (Amiot et al., 2007) and a sense of belonging (Fiske & Taylor, 1991). Students and employees who study public relations belong to a group of individuals with a similar social identity, but as other studies (Cialdini et al., 1976; Crisp et al., 2007) established, self-categorization can decrease or increase motivation and emotion depending on the social group’s successes or failures.

Perceptions and Attitudes of Public Relations Students
Various studies have considered perceptions of public relations students, including their roles as leaders in the field and future professionals (Duffy et al., 2012; Gallicano et al., 2012; Quesenberry, 2016). In 2005, Sha and Toth stated at the time that “very little research” had analyzed students’ views on future careers (p. 94). They found that 62.6% of students in public relations thought they would be working in public relations 10 years after graduating. Many respondents also expressed a major interest in work-life balance, including flexible working hours. These authors emphasized the necessity to “demystify” the public relations workplace that is “even critical, to the survival of our field” (p. 99).

Other authors have studied student attitudes toward careers that indicated 60% expected to be promoted within a year of starting to work, and over half said they would counsel top management in their ideal jobs (Farmer & Waugh, 1999). Additional studies have reviewed student perceptions toward the profession in general before they entered the field (DeRosa & Wilcox, 1989; Morton, 1989). In a more recent related study (Fullerton & McKinnon, 2012), a nationwide survey of college students who are members of Public Relations Student Society of America chapters found a mix of attitudes and perceptions of the public relations industry. A large majority of students believed their college degrees had prepared them well for a career in public relations. Yet, many were still concerned about finding a job after graduation. A third-person effect was detected in that students believed that the negative media portrayals of the PR industry had more effect on others than it did on them.

Job Satisfaction in the Public Relations Field
Researchers have addressed job satisfaction of those working in public relations, regardless of educational background and time in the profession. Various scholars have analyzed overall career satisfaction, especially related to communication and commitment to careers (Duffy et al., 2012; Eisenberger et al., 1997; Pincus, 1986; Pincus et al., 1990; Wolniak & Pascarella, 2005).

Kang (2010) studied conflicts in public relations careers with a focus on ethics and found that ethical problems link directly to job dissatisfaction. Other studies have considered millennials working in public relations. Gallicano et al. (2012) found that these young workers were generally satisfied with their positions. Blum and Tremarco (2008) discovered a link between job satisfaction and employees’ perceptions of whether organizations were following their corporate values. These researchers emphasized the importance of employees feeling connected to the employer through shared values.

Multiple studies have examined job satisfaction differences between males and females working in public relations (Park, 2003; Serini et al., 1997, Wright et al., 1991). In the latest research above, Park (2003) conducted a survey of 40 questions focusing on self-perceptions. Regarding opportunity equity for different genders, the study found no occupational consensus between government and corporate practitioners. However, government practitioners emphasized gender equity more than corporate practitioners. In addition, women in corporate organizations were less satisfied with their salaries and opportunities for advancement than men, but there was no difference in this immediate aspect in government organizations.

Rupprecht (2011) examined work satisfaction of practitioners and developed focus areas of personal growth, recognition, community, trust, and respect. This was a qualitative and phenomenological study looking at composite textual and structural descriptions of phenomena. Rupprecht found that the leader of an organization sets the tone and had great impact on the happiness of employees. Participants also were happier if they felt they made a difference and they were respected and valued for their contributions. Participants also enjoyed feeling part of a team and had a sense of community in a workplace where people could connect to one another. They also thrived in an autonomous workplace where there was a spark to creativity, passion, and excitement as well as experiencing personal growth in the variety and types of work they were engaged in.

Satisfaction with the College Degree
Various studies have considered degree satisfaction of alumni. Pike (1993) found that satisfaction with college was positively correlated to later perceived learning. Pike (1994) later found that college satisfaction also was related to work experiences and career satisfaction. Still another related study concluded that alumni who were satisfied overall with their college experience expressed satisfaction with classroom experiences and social situations (Sanusi, 2007). Another group of researchers found a relationship between graduates’ perceptions of employment preparation and their degree satisfaction. This satisfaction may also positively impact later donations (Martin et al., 2000). Others expressed broadly that alumni surveys and input can provide very useful information for educators related to college experiences and preparation for work (Cabrera et al., 2005).

Satisfaction with the Public Relations Degree
Very few scholars have investigated specifically the satisfaction of alumni with public relations degrees. Rybacki and Lattimore (1999) expressed that program assessment for public relations programs should definitely include alumni surveys and other related sources. Almost half of those included in this study said they used alumni surveys as part of their assessment programs. Richardson (1993) surveyed alumni from the University of Tennessee, which included some communication majors. Generally, they were satisfied with their educational experiences related to developing cultural understanding, verbal skills, and social skills. Todd (2012) studied the perspectives of millennial communication graduates based on their job skills and professionalism. Most of these respondents perceived themselves as above average or even outstanding. The annual survey of graduates from communication programs conducted by Becker et al. (2012) focused on job satisfaction, salary, and post-graduation employment. About two-thirds were glad they had chosen to major in journalism or communication, and about one-fourth regretted the choice of major. Approximately 60% felt adequately trained for the job market (including having updated professors and courses with appropriate skills taught), but just under 28% expressed regret on their career choice. This study provided some specific details on public relations graduates: almost three-fourths were employed full time and the median salary was $33,000.

Public Relations, Advertising, and Other Communication-related Education
One study conducted by DiStaso et al. (2009) highlighted that both the numbers of public relations jobs and the amounts of money spent on public relations functions were increasing. The stature of the field also was growing within organizations. The public relations profession itself was becoming a more strategic function and involved more counseling and involvement in decision-making processes. In addition, training and leadership roles of the field were showing an increase, including focus areas of research and ethics implementation. The authors questioned whether degree programs were keeping up with these trends.

Opinions as to how well colleges and universities prepare new graduates for the public relations field are often determined by educators’ understanding of the field in its current state. Studies indicate the vast majority of practitioners typically have earned a bachelor’s degree: 94.5% (Rentner & Bissland, 1990) and 99% (DiStaso et al., 2009). Statista (2014) found that almost 52,000 degrees were awarded in journalism and mass communication programs in 2012-2013, with approximately one-quarter of the majors in public relations, advertising, or closely related areas or combinations. However, Todd’s (2014) research showed that supervisors rate millennial students as having below average writing skills, with 38% of supervisors suggesting that students should be required to gain more writing practice prior to graduation. Again, this finding demonstrates the importance of educators understanding the knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary to prepare majors for potential success as they transition into the profession.

A general trend in communication education is toward specialized subfields within advertising and public relations education (Quesenberry, 2016). In fact, business leaders, educators, and students agree that specific knowledge is more important than being a generalist (Schelfhaudt & Crittenden, 2005). Neill and Schauster (2015) surveyed professionals in both advertising and public relations to discover what core skills are needed in practice and any gaps in education. They found the most common skills needed in the field are storytelling, business, strategic planning, presentations, math, and client relations. A common specialization for both fields is social listening and community management. Business skills for public relations and advertising students included statistics, financial documents, and budgeting as well as an understanding of business vocabulary and challenges. Regarding specialization, students need real-time technical training, strategic thinking, and problem-solving abilities through both theory and critical thinking courses. Technical skills in digital media were reinforced as a need in an earlier study by Kim (2012) that covered journalism, advertising, and public relations and characterized these broadly as digital media communications. This would now logically and obviously include the various uses of social media so prevalent in public relations practice.

From an advertising and business perspective, gender issues have also been a topic connected to education. McMillan (2016) found that women are most likely to be found in communication and least likely in business. This finding was confirmed in earlier research. Four different majors were investigated: advertising and public relations, marketing, English, and consumer sciences. Men were at their highest level at 62.5% in marketing and women were highest in consumer science at 81%. Women comprised 63.5% of undergraduate students in journalism and mass communication programs, which normally include public relations majors (Windels et al., 2010; Windels et al., 2013).

Many studies have been conducted focusing on educators’ and practitioners’ perspectives, but again few have been targeted toward graduates. Much research has been conducted on employers’ expectations of public relations graduates entering the workforce (Brody, 1988; Brody, 1990; Wakefield & Cottone, 1987) and specifically on whether alumni were educated well enough in specific areas, including writing (Cole et al, 2009; Hardin & Pompper, 2004). Other studies have provided an overview of educator and practitioner educational priorities and perspectives, often highlighting differences in desired focus areas (Sohodol, 2010; Sriramesh & Hornaman, 2006; Stacks et al., 1999). Todd (2009) added in another study that public relations professionals generally value hands-on learning more highly than educators.

The Commission on Public Relations Education (CPRE, 2006; 2017) reported that practitioners and educators often agree on many areas that should be included in public relations degree programs. These two reports included recommendations for specific study in oral communication, writing, critical thinking, individual initiative, and overall positive attitude development. They added that business skills, behavioral science, global understanding, public relations ethics, technology use, and diversity also should be taught. Ragas et al. (2015) found in a study of Arthur W. Page senior communicators that understanding of various business areas was highly valued by employers and contributed to higher salaries for these public relations practitioners.

Need for Research on Perceptions of Public Relations Graduates
Few scholars have targeted their research efforts toward public relations graduates’ perspectives on what should be included in degree programs. Gale and Bunton (2005) found that public relations and advertising alumni who completed ethics courses were more likely to consider ethical issues when they entered the workforce. In this study, 56% of those surveyed were working in communication, which was actually an increase from a previous study that showed 46.5% working in the field (Becker & Engleman, 1988).

Based on the literature reviews considering perceptions and attitudes of public relations students, job satisfaction in the public relations field, satisfaction with the college degree, and public relations education, the following research questions were developed. Gender differences were considered for all the research questions.

Research Questions:
RQ 1: What values of social exchange and social identity motivated alumni to complete a degree in public relations?

RQ 2: Where have public relations graduates worked since graduating and do they plan to continue their careers in the same field? If so, what successful social exchanges to include gender motivate them to stay in the practice?

RQ 3: For those who no longer work in public relations, why did they leave the practice, and would alumni recommend public relations degrees and careers to others who wish to identify personally and socially as a practitioner?

Five faculty members, all representing different universities, started with focus groups of interviews with alumni from their individual programs. The results of that research were incorporated into one survey concentrating on the perceptions of public relations graduates concerning their degrees and the field. Graduates from each location were targeted directly by faculty at each location through individual email lists and alumni associations when possible. In addition, social media channels (including LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter) were used to encourage broad participation in the study from targeted alumni. This was an online survey available to all alumni from any of the institutions through one link. The research started with interviews and focus groups in 2015 and extended to actual surveys after that — with final analysis of data in 2020. Multiple follow-up messages were sent by researchers to enhance feedback. The survey was completed through Qualtrics, and Institutional Review Board approval was obtained from all five universities.

Forced-choice questions with rankings were included as well as qualitative open-ended questions. Multiple questions were the result of previous related research from focus groups and interviews conducted by the same researchers. Participants were given the opportunity in many instances to add qualitative extended comments to closed-ended questions.

Overall, 659 respondents completed the survey from all of the universities included. Of those indicating gender (n = 647), almost two-thirds were female (n = 412, 63.7%) and just over one-third were male (n = 235, 36.3%).

Based on the 644 who indicated their age, younger alumni tended to respond in this study. Ages 21-40 were listed by 463 (71.8%), while ages 41 and over were listed by 182 (28.3%).

For the 655 indicating their university, responses were as follows: Mountain West private university (n = 346, 52.8%), Southern public university #1 (n = 174, 21.9%), Mid-Atlantic private university (n = 57, 8.7%), Mid-Atlantic public university (n = 41, 6.3%), and Southern public university #2 (n = 37, 5.6%).

Just over a third had earned advanced degrees (n = 237, 36.0%). The top two graduate areas were identical in number of responses: master’s in a communication-related field (n = 54, 22.8%) and MBA (n = 54, 22.8%). These were followed by JD (n = 26, 11.0%) and MPA (n = 25, 10.5%). (Percentages here are based on the 237 who indicated they completed a graduate degree).

Specific explanations are included for each research question below and based on applicable survey questions. Because of numerous responses on open-ended questions and multiple responses by many alumni, theme or sub-theme totals will not equal the total number of overall responses for each question. In addition, qualitative summary figures are estimated as close as possible and could be skewed slightly based on uncommon abbreviations, misspelled words, or similar response irregularities from respondents. Each open-ended segment of all questions was reviewed thoroughly by analyzing all responses and placing them in similar categories. In addition, percentages are based on responses for each question as well as broader themes.

RQ 1: What values of social exchange and social identity motivated alumni to complete a degree in public relations?

The first question in the survey was an open-ended inquiry of why respondents first chose to study public relations. A thematic analysis of the 632 responses indicated that many of the alumni were attracted because of the skill sets in the profession, including writing (n = 153, 24.2%), strategizing and planning 8.9% (n = 56), applying creativity, (n = 40, 6.3%), oral communication 5.5% (n = 35) and design (n = 19, 3.0%). Additionally, other respondents commented specifically on the diversity of jobs in the field (n = 7, 1.1%).

Many graduates (n = 86, 13.6%) indicated choosing the field because they liked working with people, were good with people, were attracted to persuading others, or the field seemed to fit their personality. Many respondents indicated they changed their college major to public relations from other areas they perceived to be a less appropriate fit, such as business in general (n = 73, 11.6%), journalism/news reporting (67, n = 10.6%) marketing (n = 41, 6.5%), broadcasting (n = 28, 4.4%), English (n = 16, 2.5%), advertising, (n = 14, 2.2%), and law (n = 14, 2.2%).

Public relations graduates were asked on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 5 (definitely) what factors motivated them toward completing the public relations degree. Respondents indicated dominant motivating factors were, in order of ranking: writing skills gained, enjoyed the classes, the broad application of the major to other fields, problem solving opportunities, and the diversity of public relations career choices. (See Table 1.)

Females were more likely to rate numerous factors on degree completion higher than males overall. According to an independent sample t-test analysis, females rated the following factors higher: diversity of career, emphasis on relationships, enjoyed classes, layout and design knowledge, planning skills gained, positive role of public relations in society, and travel opportunities. Males only rated one factor higher, relationship of field to business, but it was not significantly higher. (See Table 1.)

RQ 2: Where have public relations graduates worked since graduating and do they plan to continue their careers in the same field? If so, what successful social exchanges to include gender motivate them to stay in the practice?

When asked to list the top five public relations jobs they hoped to gain after graduation, 74.5% identified corporate public relations and 73.7% identified agency/firm in their top five choices. Rounding out the top five choices were nonprofit/association (50.2%), special events (48.4%), and entertainment (39.4%). Working in government (n = 252, 38.2%) and university public relations (n = 248, 37.6%) were close behind. Several respondents did not intend to find a job in public relations: 93 selected this as their first option (14.1%), while 144 chose this option in their top five (21.8%). A t-test analysis found that males were more likely to prefer a starting job in corporations, t(447) = 3.43, p < .01, while females were more likely to prefer positions in fashion, t(132) = 1.98, p = .05, nonprofit, t(325) = 4.31, p <. 001, and special events organizations, t(176) = 4.71, p <. 001.

The first job after graduation was very often something not in public relations; 44.9% (n = 296) of respondents found jobs in other fields. For those whose first job was in public relations (n = 357), they were most likely in agencies/firms (n = 95, 32.1%), corporations (n = 63, 21.3%), or nonprofits/associations (n = 50, 16.9%). Another 8.4% of alumni went straight to graduate school (n = 25), and 12.5% (n = 37) identified an “other” position in public relations. Respondents selected job categories and the responses were cross tabulated by gender to identify differences. Because the data were categorical, a Chi-Square analysis was conducted and found that there were differences between where males and females found positions, χ2 (13, N = 646) = 37.39, p < .001. Specifically, males were more likely to find positions in corporations while females were more likely to find positions in government and nonprofit organizations.

Ultimately, 438 of the 659 respondents found employment in the field of public relations (66.5%). When the 93 respondents are subtracted who did not intend to look for a job in public relations, the percentage of those seeking jobs in public relations rises to 77.3%. The majority (n = 331) found a public relations position within a year (50.2% of all respondents, and 58.4% of those seeking public relations jobs). Another 56 (8.5% and 9.9% respectively) found a position by their second year, 38 (5.8%, 6.7%) between two and five years, and the remaining 13 (2.0%, 2.3%) after five years. At the same time, a majority of the respondents (n = 358, 63.9%) have held jobs other than public relations since graduation.

A minority of respondents in this study, 37.5% (n = 243), said they definitely or probably expect to spend their professional career in public relations. Of the 648 respondents to this question, 17.6% were unsure (n = 114), and 44.9% said they would probably not or definitely not spend their careers in public relations (n = 291). Females were significantly more likely to respond favorably about spending their careers in public relations, t(640) = 5.95, p < .001. More than 43% of females responded that they would definitely/probably continue their careers in public relations (n = 177), with 20% unsure (n = 82) and almost 37% responding definitely not or probably not (n = 150). Meanwhile, only 27% of males responded that they would definitely/probably continue their careers in public relations (n = 64), 13% were unsure (n = 30), and 60% indicated definitely not/probably not (n = 139).

The alumni remaining in the public relations field (n = 270) primarily stayed because it was an enjoyable career, gave them a flexible career path, and they found opportunities for advancement. Making a lot of money and traveling were not as high on the list for motivating factors to stay in the field. Females, however, were significantly more likely to indicate traveling as a motivating factor, t(253) = 2.35, p < .05. (See Table 2.) Under the “other” category, respondents listed additional reasons such as the possibility of making a difference, using creativity in the job, and connecting with people.

RQ 3: For those who no longer work in public relations, why did they leave the practice, and would alumni recommend public relations degrees and careers to others who wish to identify personally and socially as a practitioner?

The most prevalent reason indicated for leaving the public relations profession (n = 259) was that respondents found career choices that were more preferable or paid better, or they could not find a public relations position. Other less important factors were limitations on geography, impact of significant others’ career choices, boredom with the field, feminization of public relations, and being relieved of a position in public relations. (See Table 3.)

Within the “other” category of why they left the field, there were 102 responses. The most popular was to be at home more with the family or to start a family (n = 39, 38.2%). Pursuing a graduate degree (n = 10, 9.8%) was listed as another reason some left the field. Others indicated they became disillusioned with public relations practice because what they found in the “real world” did not coincide with what they learned in college.

There were several significant differences between males and females on why they chose to leave the practice. A t-test analysis showed that males were more likely to leave because of other career choices, better paying jobs, being bored with their public relations position and the feminization of the field. Females were more likely to leave the field because they could not find a position, geographic limitations and significant other’s career limited their opportunities. (See Table 3.)

When asked if they would recommend a degree in public relations to college students, a vast majority (n = 489, 75.3%) of the 649 respondents for this question said they would. A relatively small number (n = 74, 11.4%) indicated they would probably not recommend or definitely not recommend the public relations degree.

While a minority of respondents expect to continue careers in public relations, a sizable majority of the 650 respondents on a separate question recommend it as a career path. A total of 70.3% (n = 457) would definitely recommend or probably recommend a public relations career to others entering college, while 13.7% (n = 89) would probably not or would definitely not recommend the career. Females were significantly more likely to recommend a public relations degree, t(442) = 3.22, p < .001, and a career in public relations, t(456) = 4.03, p < .001, according to a t-test analysis.

In a summary open-ended question, numerous alumni (n = 171) responded as to why they would or would not recommend public relations as a degree or career. Many alumni (n = 61, 35.7%) indicated in this open forum that they enjoyed their degrees and felt very prepared for work and related later activities. Many mentioned again the broadness of the degrees in public relations and the application to many other fields. Within these responses, some indicated the value of writing, speaking, strategic thinking, and other specific skills. This sentiment was especially true among respondents who were no longer working in public relations, as evidenced by these specific quotes:

“While I am not still working in Public Relations, I still hold my degree and what I learned to be extremely valuable. It has allowed me to better understand the customer experience and to have valuable skills, especially writing skills, and I have been able to utilize that knowledge throughout my career.”

“Many of us majored in PR not because we wanted to be PR professionals (I never did), but because it was a good broadly applicable field of study that could serve as a springboard to a wide variety of grad programs or other careers.”

“As a wife and mother who worked as a newspaper editor for 10 years right out of college, then stayed home to run the family business, I found that Public Relations gave me a broad experience base that I have used for volunteer work and to support my husband’s business. I have served on boards and committees in the community and have organized community-wide events which I am not paid for. My degree has been used constantly and consistently through the years. I understand the connection between people and tasks and how to manage the media. I am so glad that I majored in PR! I have developed and managed relationships and friendships with ethics and integrity. I believe that if I chose to work outside my home, I would have little problem getting a job. I have so many skills and understanding of how business and the community work.”

Additional respondents (n = 23, 13.5%) indicated that business, marketing, or other related areas should be emphasized more in public relations curricula. Of those replying, many said they had ended up working in positions that were blended or included more specific business areas with public relations. This quote is representative of this sentiment: “I believe there is too much distinction between PR and other Comms/Ad/Branding/Marketing disciplines. Same goal . . . slightly different tools. I work, live and breathe in the space shared by ALL the MarCom fields . . . but don’t consider myself working in PR.”

Another segment of respondents (n = 19, 11.1%) stated that they were frustrated with their degrees, felt unprepared for work, or did not feel their educational backgrounds painted an accurate career picture. Many of these replies indicated that some of their perceived inadequacies were not understood until they entered the field. They expressed it would have been much better to know these challenges while still in school. Some of these respondents who expressed various frustrations still liked their degree programs overall.

Throughout the study in various questions, alumni indicated they would have liked more training and emphasis on social media. In fact, many of their titles listed (which is beyond the scope of this article) indicated social media or similar terms in their titles. However, many did express that social media was not in existence when they were in school. Additionally, dozens of alumni stated they learned the realities of public relations through internships, which often either cemented their major decisions or motivated them to pursue other areas. Others expressed that they either needed more internships while in school to understand the field or they needed more help from faculty and others locating appropriate internships.

Three major themes emerged over the five-year period of the study and will be discussed more in-depth: why practitioners stay in the field, why they leave, and what directions this study suggests for public relations curricula. The three areas are obviously intertwined.

Why They Stay
The broadness of the public relations curriculum encourages some to stay in the field and others to leave. The study indicates that public relations may be perceived as a new general liberal arts program in many colleges. Educators and practitioners should determine if this broadness is positive or negative. Many alumni seem to be using the degree to hone writing, speaking, strategic planning, research, technology and other skills and knowledge that they then apply in other career fields. Many college students are simply striving to graduate and then decide what specific careers to pursue. Educators should consider that many of their students likely do not plan to pursue public relations careers at all, but they plan to use the knowledge, skills, and abilities gained in the degree to work in other fields. Practitioners should consider if it matters that that many of their current and future colleagues probably plan to work in other professions eventually, many of which are very related to public relations (but not specifically in the field).

Since many respondents seemed to enjoy the specific work in public relations positions overall, and others indicated job flexibility as a major advantage, employers should emphasize these elements when possible in recruiting and hiring for public relations positions. Within reason, practitioners should emphasize the enjoyment and impact of the work. In addition, employers providing flexible hours and more telecommuting might attract and keep quality practitioners who have other career options. However, the reality of often long hours and hard work should be explained as well to provide an accurate picture of the profession to reduce misperceptions as graduates enter the field.

Another major factor for those staying in the public relations field or planning to stay was that many alumni felt they could advance in the field. This perception should be emphasized more by employers to indicate that new employees will not be stuck in entry-level positions if they produce quality work. If there is hope for quick and important advancement, perhaps younger practitioners would stay in the field. Increased pay and potential broader supervisory roles incorporating public relations also could be emphasized.

Why They Leave
At first consideration, it would seem negative that many in this study did not plan to stay in public relations. Just 37.5% said they either definitely or probably would stay in the field. However, over 75% of respondents said they would definitely or probably recommend the public relations degree, and over 70% of alumni in this study said they would definitely or probably recommend working in the field. Apparently, most do not feel negatively toward the degree or the field; they apply the knowledge, skills, and abilities gained in public relations education and practice often to much broader career aspirations.

Naturally, challenges arise for practitioners and educators when many public relations graduates who have majored in public relations (and value the degree and career overall) leave for other opportunities they perceive will provide more advancement opportunities or enjoyment. Lawler and Yoon (1996; 1998) researched social exchange theory and concluded that frequent positive experiences have a long-term impact on creating feelings of relational cohesion and commitment. These social exchange experiences and feelings of cohesiveness, in turn, may influence a graduate’s decision to remain with their current employer rather than pursue more profitable employment opportunities elsewhere. To decrease the number of alumni who leave the field, employers, educators, and entities creating public relations practitioner networks must find ways to strengthen favorable perceptions by public relations alumni of their social identity within the public relations sphere. Additionally, they must offer social exchange opportunities that will increase graduates’ understanding of their role’s relevance, the valuable contributions they make, and their sense of belonging within the public relations industry. Since just over one-third of the survey’s respondents expressed a desire to stay in the field, public relations leaders and employers need to determine whether or not the actual human capital drain of losing talented practitioners is significant enough to be worth addressing.

Also, the disconnect between the large numbers of majors and the number of available positions in public relations should be considered by educators and practitioners. Public relations continues to be an academic growth area – because of all the tuition revenue it generates – but there should be enough jobs in public relations or closely related fields for graduates. Torossian (2011) cited public relations as the fastest growing communications segment. Another related challenge is that some of the jobs in public relations are being filled by those who did not study public relations. Educators need to work more closely with practitioners to better prepare exemplary public relations majors to be the prime candidates for these positions. Employers could also enhance professional development and growth to develop future leaders and address attrition.

Many alumni also indicated that public relations offers graduates the opportunity to enter the field, then “stop out” (especially to raise a family), and then possibly return to public relations employment. Some of these respondents indicated they planned to eventually return to the working world, possibly in public relations or a related field. This stop-and-start option could be viewed by educators and employers as a positive opportunity for certain types of employees, although the frequent turnover in positions potentially makes management much more complicated.

Differences Between Male and Female Alumni Responses
Overall, females were more enthusiastic about studying public relations and staying in the field. This result may not be too surprising considering the higher percentage of females studying and practicing public relations. Females rated several reasons at a higher rate for studying public relations than their male counterparts and were significantly more likely to stay in public relations as a career and were more likely to recommend studying public relations and public relations as a career choice.
The reasons for choosing to leave the practice suggest that males choose to leave for better pay, other career choices, and because they were no longer interested in the field. These reasons are consistent with other research on gender differences, particularly the trend to seek more money and more competitive jobs (Andsager & Hust, 2005). Females were more likely to respond that they left because they could not find the right position, geographic limitations, or because of the career of their significant other. The findings suggest that males often make the decision to leave based on their choices for careers and females are more influenced by other factors that are more outside their control. This finding could use more research to dig deeper into these preliminary results.

Curricular Updates
More than ever, public relations educators must understand what is necessary to prepare their graduates for gainful employment in public relations and related fields. Based on this study’s findings, educators should think more broadly about career fields for which they can prepare students. Many public relations graduates will never work in or will leave the field, either by choice or accident; however, overall they value their education and feel prepared for numerous other careers because of their public relations degree.

Because many alumni eventually work in business-related fields (either as part of their public relations duties or in other positions), it is evident that business courses should be part of the public relations curriculum, either as requirements or electives. Marketing and management are two of the most obvious and often mentioned specific areas needed, but an understanding of finance, economics, and accounting has become necessary as public relations functions (especially at the highest levels) integrate with organizational business roles.

This study also suggests strongly that more curricular attention should be paid to emerging technologies, including social media, which from a communication management perspective should be led in organizations by public relations professionals with expertise in communication channel selection and analysis. Public relations educators must determine whether social media elements should be embedded throughout current classes, if these tools should be taught in separate classes, or if a blended approach should be implemented. In any case, overall technological and social media expertise for graduates must be made a high priority lest another field take the leadership role in managing organizations’ social media programs.

Alumni stressed that writing still should be emphasized in public relations education. A love or enjoyment of writing encouraged many to enter the field, and they say the ability to write well in various formats often determines career success.
Alumni overwhelmingly emphasized that students should complete internships. Typically, those who interned were glad they did and said they should have done more, and those who did not intern wished they would have. Not only do internships provide work experience, portfolio materials, and potential job references, but these experiences also offer students a realistic view of the public relations workplace. Many respondents alluded to not knowing what the professional environment was like in certain types of organizations (such as firms/agencies or corporations) before entering the profession. Completing more internships in diverse areas of public relations practice would provide a more realistic view of where graduates feel they would best fit. In many cases, the work in the field is similar but the different venues impact career satisfaction greatly. For example, there is very often a different “vibe” or workplace culture at a health care institution versus a resort. The related overall stress levels are also often disparate in different industries.

Although there were many respondents in this study, these only indicate perceptions of alumni from these five institutions. These programs all have well-developed sequences of required public relations classes and related student organizations. Characteristics may vary with a wider selection of colleges and different types of programs.
Even though some in the research team distributed the survey link via their university alumni association, there was still no viable method to reach all alumni from the five institutions. Any respondents were typically on an email list or connected to one of the professors (or other alumni) through social media. Additionally, the sample was skewed towards one university since almost half of the sample were from alumni of one of the universities.

Future Research
Another interesting follow-up study would be to determine if most professionals with public relations degrees who are not working in the field never intended to do so but have chosen another career field because they perceive there are few opportunities in public relations. Did they feel they could not have successful careers working specifically in public relations? Additional studies also could compare perceptions of alumni based on various detailed demographic factors, including gender, race/ethnicity, and different types of colleges. Researchers also might further explore work-life balance issues overall and how these benefits are addressed in workplace employee recruiting packages to specifically influence public relations practitioners’ job satisfaction and longevity.

Perceptions of other professional groups concerning public relations should continue to be ascertained. In addition, additional study could be explored concerning those working in public relations, especially at the highest levels, who have no educational background and little direct professional experience in the field.

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To cite this article: Plowman, K., Forde, F., Rawlins, B., Puglisi, G. & VanSlyke, J. (2022). Public Relations Graduates’ Perceptions of Their Degrees and Careers: A Five-University Survey. Journal of Public Relations Education, 8(1), 7-42. https://aejmc.us/jpre/?p=2863

Accreditation, Curriculum, and Ethics: Exploring the Public Relations Education Landscape

Editorial Record: Special issue deadline June 15, 2020. Revision submitted October 7, 2020. First published online December 22, 2020.


Teri Del Rosso, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Journalism and Strategic Media
University of Memphis
Memphis, TN
Email: t.l.d@memphis.edu

Matthew J. Haught, Ph.D.
Assistant Chair, Associate Professor
Journalism and Strategic Media
University of Memphis
Email: mjhaught@memphis.edu

Kimberly S. Marks Malone, APR, Fellow PRSA
Instructor, Online Coordinator
Journalism and Strategic Media
University of Memphis
Email: ksmarks@memphis.edu


The Commission for Public Relations Education issued a report in 2018 recommending that public relations ethics be a required course, in addition to the incorporation of ethics into all public relations courses. To understand the implications of this recommendation, this study explores the nature of public relations ethics education in 15 PR programs accredited by Accrediting Council for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications and certified by Public Relations Society of America via the Certification in Education for Public Relations  program. Through an analysis of 2020 academic catalogs, findings suggest that although programs have general ethics courses (e.g., media ethics or law and ethics), few programs offer—and fewer require—public relations ethics courses. The research concludes that in conjunction with previous research on ethics in the classroom, programs implement an experiential learning approach to ethics instruction. 

Keywords: ethics, curriculum, accreditation

More and more, public relations professionals are finding that ethics in PR go beyond communication. Stakeholders and publics want companies to not only post on social media, but also to allocate resources, diversify leadership, and donate to social justice causes (Meyers, 2020; Mull, 2020). As PR professionals navigate these issues for their organizations, the need for ethics training is evident. A Commission on Public Relations Education (CPRE) report found that employers rate knowledge regarding ethical issues as one of the top three skills they seek in hiring employees (CPRE, 2018). The report recommended that a course focusing specifically on public relations ethics be required for undergraduate PR students (Bortree et al., 2018). In 2019, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) prescribed a PR Ethics course for all programs seeking certification in its Certification in Education for Public Relations (CEPR) program. This coalescence of factors means that public relations programs need to revisit the ethical training they provide and explore a new path forward. This need was laid out in the CPRE report where it was recommended that all PR courses incorporate ethics into the curriculum and lessons center on “moral philosophy, case studies, and simulations” (Bortree et al., 2018, p. 68). 

Ethics training is not new to journalism and mass communication programs, where public relations programs are often housed. The Accrediting Council for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC) positions ethics training as one of its professional values and competencies that programs must teach students, writing that students must “demonstrate an understanding of professional ethical principles and work ethically in pursuit of truth, accuracy, fairness and diversity” (ACEJMC, n.d.-b, para. 18). However, training in most programs tends to be broad and built on the ethics of journalism. As public relations operates differently than journalism, more specific ethics training for public relations is needed. 

The purpose of this study is to explore how public relations programs both accredited by ACEJMC and certified by PRSA through the CEPR program address ethics in their curricula. Given the renewed emphasis on ethics education (CPRE, 2018), this research seeks to understand the state of ethics teaching in this specific subset of programs. As ACEJMC and CEPR represent some of the highest expectations and standards for teaching in journalism, mass communication, and public relations, schools that subject themselves to both reviews should reasonably be expected to have higher standards for ethical education.

Literature Review

Public Relations Ethics: Industry Perspectives

Most definitions and conceptualizations of ethics involve “systematic analysis, distinguishing right from wrong, and determining what should be valued” (Bowen, 2007, para. 2). In public relations, that manifests into a practice of valuing “honesty, openness, fair-mindedness, respect, integrity, and forthright communication” (Bowen, 2007, para. 2). Historically, PR was viewed as void of ethics and as a profession that put too much energy into spinning and sensationalizing stories and not focusing on truth and relationship building (Bowen, 2007).

As the profession further embraces its role in the corporate suite, many PR professionals are serving as ethical compasses for their organization’s leadership (Bowen, 2007). The PRSA Code of Ethics guides members and the profession as a whole on the ethical responsibilities of public relations professionals. The core professional values of advocacy, honesty, expertise, independence, loyalty, and fairness help PR professionals serve the public good and achieve “excellence with powerful standards of performance, professionalism, and ethical conduct” (PRSA, n.d., para. 3). 

Globally, the International Public Relations Association (IPRA) adopted the Code of Athens in 1965, which was amended in 1968 and again in 2009 (IPRA, 2009). The code’s ethical recommendations to public relations professionals around the world encourage PR practitioners to work in three ethical realms: endeavoring, undertaking, and refraining. These codes center the need to establish and circulate the free flow of information, uphold human dignity, center the truth, avoid manipulation, and balance the concerns of publics and organizations (IPRA, 2009). Similarly, the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management (GA) offers a code of ethics that includes a declaration of principles and resources for ethics education and enforcement. GA argues in favor of working in the public interest; obeying laws and respecting diversity of local customs; freedom of speech; freedom of assembly; freedom of media; honesty, truth, and fact-based communication; integrity; transparency and disclosure; and privacy (GA, 2018).

Public Relations Ethics: Classroom Perspectives

Before public relations professionals enter the industry, their understanding of ethics often comes from their experiences within higher education. At the 2019 PRSA International Conference in San Diego, Elizabeth Toth moderated a conversation with public relations educators at the Educators Academy about how programs can begin to implement the CPRE’s recommendations for ethics education. This presentation explored research around ethics, common ethical issues, core ethical competencies, implementation models, trends in ethics syllabi, creating a PR-specific ethics course, and increasing ethical lessons across the curriculum (Toth et al., 2019).


Administrators and professors often struggle with finding the right balance between skills-based courses, theory and conceptual classes, course requirements, electives, minors, and supplementary classes outside of the major or department (Blom et al., 2012). If a unit opts to seek accreditation for its program, that decision often brings more considerations and requirements with how schools present the course catalog and descriptions to its students. Although the process of accrediting a program can limit and direct how a school builds its programs (e.g., the amount of credits a student can take within the major, see Blom et al., 2012), as of June 2020, 118 programs have earned accreditation by ACEJMC (ACEJMC, n.d.-a). Seamon (2010) argued that the limits imposed by accreditation make a broader curriculum more difficult, and highlighted a study noting that international public relations courses were stymied by accreditation limits (Hatzios & Lariscy, 2008). However, it should be noted that ACEJMC requirements have changed significantly since Seamon’s work to be more open to curricular change, thus, an examination of how ethics training has been implemented in light of those changes is appropriate. Becoming an accredited program provides administrators and professors the opportunity to reflect on the program’s successes and failures, compare itself to other programs, and assess whether its students are prepared for industry work (Blom et al., 2012). In addition to the internal evaluation, a school or department’s accreditation status may influence students’ decisions when they weigh options that include rankings, athletics, and extracurricular activities (Blom et al., 2012; Pellegrini, 2017). These internal and external opportunities provide an incentive for schools and departments with public relations programs to pursue the accreditation with ACEJMC or certification through PRSA. 


Although ACEJMC does not define exactly how units design their programs, the organization outlines nine core standards for accreditation: 1. Mission, governance, and administration; 2. Curriculum and instruction; 3. Diversity and inclusiveness; 4. Full-time and part-time faculty; 5. Scholarship, which includes research, creative, and professional service; 6. Student services; 7. Resources, facilities, and equipment; 8. Professional and public service; 9. Assessment of learning outcomes (ACEJMC, n.d.-b). With each standard there is a basic principle and an outline of key indicators and evidence. These standards provide the rubric for how the programs are evaluated during the accreditation process. The process of accreditation happens every six years and programs complete a self-study before an accreditation team conducts a site visit. After the self-study and site visit, the national accrediting committee reviews the materials and votes, and then the national accrediting council takes final action (ACEJMC, n.d.-c). 

PRSA Certification in Education for Public Relations (CEPR) 

In 1989, the Public Relations Society of America established a certification for public relations programs through its educational affairs committee (PRSSA, 2020). Similar to the ACEJMC process, the CEPR requires programs to submit a self-assessment, followed by a site visit with two PRSA members. CEPR identifies eight standards, which include an analysis of the curriculum; faculty; resources, equipment, and facilities; students; assessment; professional affiliations; relationship with the unit and university; and perspectives on diversity and global public relations (PRSSA, 2020). 

Value of Accreditation 

Research suggests that most journalism and mass communication programs see accreditation as a path to reputation enhancement (Blom et al., 2012). There is no evidence to suggest that accredited schools are “better” than unaccredited schools, especially when it comes to social justice issues (e.g., human rights) (Blom et al., 2012; Reilly, 2018; Seamon, 2010). However, ethics is a key component attributed to professional and public service (ACEJMC) and curriculum and diversity and global perspectives (CEPR). 

Pedagogy and Curricula

The previous standards review and research into accreditation suggests that incorporating ethics more robustly will be initiated by the professor or the school. In 1999, in one of the earliest PR pedagogy articles, Coombs and Rybacki synthesized survey results and conversations that emerged from a pedagogy task force team at the National Communication Association (NCA) summer conference on public relations education. Coombs and Rybacki (1999) concluded the public relations pedagogy was “steeped in active learning” (p. 55). At the time, PR professors placed an emphasis on bridging theory and practice through dynamic assignments, lessons, and outside-of-the-classroom opportunities (Coombs & Rybacki, 1999). Since this trailblazing article on public relations pedagogy, scholars have explored pedagogy through the lens of writing (e.g., Hardin & Pompper, 2004; Waymer, 2014), social media (e.g., Kim & Freberg, 2016), and international perspectives (e.g., Thompson, 2018).

Public Relations Curricula 

Public relations scholars who study PR curriculum note that there has been a transition toward a more skills-based, professional focus (Auger & Cho, 2016). For some, the shift to a more professionally minded profession can erode what some believe is the purpose of higher education, which is to pursue knowledge for the sake of pursuing knowledge (Auger & Cho, 2016; Brint et al., 2005). Attempting to focus on skills-based lessons can result in the exclusion of topics such as race, globalization, and interdisciplinary perspectives (Auger & Cho, 2016). 

A powerful indicator of curricula decisions and priorities can result from the organization in which a public relations program is housed. Public relations programs are sometimes housed in journalism and mass communication schools but are found equally in speech, liberal arts, and business departments and schools (Kruckeberg, 1998). In their study of 234 public relations programs, Auger and Cho (2016) found that more than half (57%) of PR programs were affiliated with the liberal arts and humanities and almost one-third (38%) were housed in communication and journalism schools.

For course offerings, Auger and Cho (2016) found that the liberal arts (53%) and journalism schools (57%) were more likely to offer ethics courses than the public relations programs housed in business schools (31%). The most common type of classes across the curricula were principles/introductory classes, mass communication theory, law, writing, campaigns, and research (Auger & Cho, 2016). Only 51% of programs offered a media ethics class in their curricula, while only 3% offered a specific public relations ethics course (Auger & Cho, 2016). 

Public Relations Skills

As previously discussed, public relations curricula programs are often labeled as a practical field, meaning students can expect to encounter applicable hard and soft skills that they can transfer to their internships and professional careers. As McCleneghan (2006) suggests, “No other profession requires greater knowledge of ‘how to’ communicate than public relations” (p. 42). Almost every year some think-piece pitches a list of the most important skills PR students need to know once they graduate. For example, in 2013, The Guardian listed those skills as communication, research, writing, international mindset, and creativity (Turner, 2013). Seven years later in 2020, the media monitoring and social listening platform Meltwater identified the top 10 skills as: social media, copyrighting, management, multimedia and new media skills, analytics, visual branding, writing, virtual team management, and influencer collaboration (Garrett, 2020).

Public relations scholars have explored the topics of how relevant skills translate from the classroom into the professional world. For example, in 2014, Todd surveyed PRSA members on 24 quantitative categories divided into two subgroups, job skills and professional characteristics, to determine how prepared entry-level workers were for the workforce. The goal of this survey was to determine how Millennial (born between 1982-2002), entry-level workers rate themselves compared to their supervisors, and the survey’s 165 participants were asked to rank themselves or their entry-level employees on the following skills: writing, technology, research, social media, computer, job task preparation, and overall quality of work and performance (Todd, 2014). In addition to these practical skills, Todd (2014) identified professional characteristics (i.e., soft skills) that were key performance indicators in the public relations profession (e.g., awareness of ethics, creativity, cooperation, and time management). The “pressure to teach students the most relevant knowledge and skills to be industry-ready” is one that educators are familiar with, and assessments like these can illuminate how recent graduates are performing  (Todd, 2014, p. 790).

The Commission on Public Relations Education (2018) found that writing is a core skill for future public relations professionals and should be included in every public relations class. In addition to writing, the report suggests that research remains a foundational skill with particular attention paid to data, analytics, and big data (CPRE, 2018). Finally, technology is seen as a “triple threat challenge” (i.e., educators must teach it, study it, and do it) (CPRE, 2018, p. 14). Along with these tangible skills, the report also stressed the need for the incorporation of ethics (CPRE, 2018).

Ethics as a Skill 

Research suggests that educators, professionals, mentors, and advisers agree that ethics is a key skill for graduates (Eschenfelder, 2011). In public relations programs, ethics is often covered in principles, writing, campaigns, and case studies in the classroom and in textbooks (Hutchinson, 2002). These more traditional, static forms of learning ethics, however, might contribute to entry-level public relations professionals overestimating their ability to practice and understand ethical principles and their decision-making skills (Eschenfelder, 2011). Conway and Groshek (2009) suggest that students might gain more from interactive experiences through student media and internships, and Curtin et al. (2011) found that mentors (e.g., PRSA industry advisers and PRSSA faculty advisers) can influence younger workers as they consider ethical dilemmas (also see Todd, 2009). Furthermore, ethics competency is a skill that employers seek from new hires and one that educators feel compelled to teach (DiStaso et al., 2009). Unfortunately, employers rated their employees low on ethics skills (Todd, 2014). These studies suggest that the key to students gaining these skills outside of the classroom in meaningful ways is through dynamic coursework, such as service and project-based learning (e.g., McCollough, 2018), student-run agencies (e.g., Haley et al., 2016), and internships. According to experiential learning theory, this type of learning environment is vital for students as they understand and process experiences into knowledge. 

Experiential Learning Theory

According to Dewey (1938) and other scholars of experiential learning theory (ELT), the theory is best understood as a “theory of experience” (Kolb & Kolb, 2005, p. 193). This work draws on learning as the “process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” and learning is the result of “grasping and transforming experience” (Kolb, 1984, p. 41). ELT focuses on the process rather than the outcome, and scholars of experiential learning theory identify six pillars that facilitate experience as a key component to human learning and development. These pillars can be summarized as: learning as a holistic process that creates knowledge; learning as relearning; and learning as a process that involves transactions between a person and their environment, which are primarily driven by finding solutions for conflict, difference, and disagreements (Kolb, 1984; Kolb & Kolb, 2005).  Using ELT as a foundation in understanding knowledge acquisition, students can grasp experiences through concrete experience (apprehension) and abstract conceptualization (comprehension) and can transform through reflective observation (intension) and active experimentation (extension) (Baker et al., 2002; Fraustino et al., 2015; Kolb, 1984). These tactics work together and provide students with the experience of process: they can engage, internalize, observe and analyze, and then experiment with conclusions (Fraustino et al., 2015).

ELT and the Strategic Communication Classroom 

Scholarship suggests that public relations professors and instructors are looking to incorporate ELT-driven lessons, assignments, and projects into the public relations classroom. For example, Fraustino et al. (2015) studied the relationship between Twitter chats and digital case studies (i.e., using the now defunct app Storify) and whether students apply public relations concepts to those practices. Other scholars have explored how students engage in teleworking in a cross-institutional setting (Madden et al., 2016), service learning and empathy (Everhart et al., 2016), public relations writing (Meganck & Smith, 2019), and learning about journalism storytelling through Instagram Stories (Byrd & Denney, 2018). 

Research Questions

To understand the present state of ethics education at ACEJMC-accredited and CEPR-certified schools, the present study examines the following research questions:

RQ1: How do programs following both the ACEJMC and CEPR guidelines address ethics writ large in their curricula?

RQ2: How are ethics addressed in public-relations-specific courses in ACEJMC and CEPR accredited programs?


To answer the research questions, we compiled a list of ACEJMC accredited programs (n = 112), PRSA CEPR programs (n = 40), and determined which programs were listed in both (n = 15). After we identified the 15 schools with ACEJMC accreditation and PRSA CEPR certification, we analyzed the 2020 programs of study and course catalogs to determine what kind of public relations program each school offered (e.g., major, concentration, or emphasis area), number of credit hours required inside and outside of the unit, if there were ethics-specific courses available and/or required, if there was a PR-ethics-specific course available and/or required, and which courses specifically mentioned ethics in their course descriptions. To achieve internal validity, the research team first coded three universities collectively and then each of the three researchers individually coded the four remaining schools.

The method of content analysis was chosen for multiple reasons. First, it provided an evidence-based analysis of the offerings and requirements of the programs. While previous studies regarding public relations education used a survey approach (DiStaso et al., 2009; Neill, 2017; Silverman et al., 2014), curriculum studies from other disciplines in mass communication found course descriptions to be a fruitful avenue for analysis (Spillman et al., 2017; Tanner et al., 2012). Second, as course names and descriptions are used as indicators of course content and catalogs as indicators of program requirements, their use here is congruent. Finally, content analysis proved to be an expeditious way to collect data, as some previous studies saw low response rates and used content analysis to supplement their data (e.g., Tanner et al., 2012).


To address RQ1, we examined the listings of required courses for the public relations programs at each school. Of the 15 schools, 10 offered public relations as a major, two as an emphasis area, two as a concentration, and one as a specialization. Most schools required students to complete 34-48 credit hours (with three schools requiring 48, and six schools requiring 36-39 credit hours) in public relations and related classes. Programs required as few as three and as many as 27 credit hours be taken outside of the major (e.g., business or statistics classes). Six schools required zero credit hours outside of the program.

Most schools taught elective ethics overall in the form of mass communication ethics, ethics and law, and/or media ethics courses (87%). Thirteen of the 15 schools offered one of these courses—tending to approach ethics similar to the University of Florida (n.d.-a), which described them as a cross-disciplinary introduction to study and practice. Fewer schools required students to take a general mass communication ethics class (67%). Thus, it is possible for a third of these public relations students to graduate without any department ethics training. Furthermore, 13% of students appeared to have no or limited access to ethics training within their major.

To answer RQ2, we analyzed the course descriptions for each of the programs. Only five universities offered an elective in PR-specific ethics (33%) and fewer schools required a public-relations-specific ethics course (20%). Drake University (n.d.-a) had an elective course called Cases in Ethical PR Practice that prepared students through “instruction and practice to execute professional-level thinking, analysis, writing and presentation skills needed for successful public relations campaign management” (Drake University, n.d.-b, para. 1). The University of Florida (n.d.-b) offered an Ethics and Professional Responsibility in Public Relations course, which focused on “ethical responsibilities of the public relations professional” (para. 1). This course provided knowledge and skills for study to “reach and justify ethical decisions,” which elicits “a sense of personal and professional responsibility” (para. 1).

The findings suggest that most students receive their ethics training through interdisciplinary study, focusing on the intersection of law, ethics, and mass communication professions (e.g., journalism, advertising, media studies). Public relations ethics, on the other hand, are more likely to be a learning objective or talking point in courses such as principles of/introduction to public relations, campaigns, and some case studies courses. Five programs addressed ethics in the course description for their Principles of Public Relations classes. These classes indicated topics will cover “ethics and social responsibility” (Syracuse University, n.d., para. 1) or “persuasion, media relations, crisis communication, reputation management, and ethics” (Indiana University, n.d., para. 2), many of which explored different ethical approaches and introduced students to codes of ethics (e.g., PRSA). This positioning indicates that schools recognize the need to introduce ethics early.

Some schools engaged with ethics instruction and scholarship through journalism, multimedia, or advertising classes. The University of Memphis (n.d.), for example, offered an elective class for public relations students in multimedia storytelling in which students could expect to learn and understand “legal and ethical issues in photography” (para. 1). The University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh (n.d.) offered a course in Special Topics in Writing/Editing, which addressed several topics, including media ethics. 

These findings indicate that although ethics is an important part of a public relations student’s curricula, there is an opportunity to expand this offering of public-relations-specific ethics courses.


After analyzing the programs at 15 ACEJMC and PRSA CEPR schools, this study’s findings suggest there is room for growth regarding public relations ethics education. Through our analysis of selected public relations programs, we have concluded that public relations programs need to revisit their PR ethics requirements. Given ACEJMC accredited and PRSA certified schools have chosen to hold themselves to higher standards, they must be leaders in adopting the CPRE and PRSA recommendations for PR ethics training. Based on their accreditation and certification and the standards of both, the 15 programs in our study should be leading the way on teaching ethics and providing students with the dynamic opportunities to engage the subject matter. The fact that 80% of students might graduate without a PR ethics course and a third of students can graduate without an ethics course at all, sets students up for difficulty in the industry upon graduation. As employers expect ethical knowledge in their hires, universities need to respond by providing ethics training to students.

Experiential Learning Theory in the Ethics Classroom 

The CPRE (2018) report outlines a new course proposal summary for faculty and administrators wishing to build a new PR ethics class based on the recommendations from the undergraduate education report. The report outlines key outcomes and assessment metrics, which include written assignments, class discussions, quizzes, exams, presentations, and projects (Bortree et al., 2019). The provided catalog descriptions focus on students engaging in “discussions and case studies” and being able to “apply learning from the course to an original case study paper” (Bortree et al., 2019, p. 3). In addition, courses should “bridge cultural applications and offer practical insights on how communicators . . . might develop communication strategies that uphold ethical principles” (Bortree et al., 2019, p. 3). 

The active language used in these course and catalog descriptions and the proposed assignments suggest that an experiential learning approach would be best suited for the instruction of PR ethics. Research suggests that lectures on ethics are not as valuable as case studies (Canary, 2007; Todd, 2009), and many students are receiving their ethical training through internships and mentors (Conway & Groshek, 2009; Curtin et al., 2011; Todd, 2014). Although internships and real-world opportunities are wonderful learning tools for students, there is little guarantee that ethics will be practiced in a consistent manner, which makes these environments a challenge.  

For many internships and mentor-driven relationships, the outcome might outweigh the process. Given that experiential learning is process-driven and, as Kolb and Kolb (2005) describe, “a theory of experience” (p. 193), students must be exposed to ethics through a number of different processes and experiences. Our findings indicate that most conversations around ethics are happening in siloed spaces, such as in relationships with the law or as a dedicated week during an introduction to a public relations class. For students to grasp and transform experiences around ethical dilemmas and cases, approaching the subject manner in a way that lets them work together and experience the process is key for entry-level public relations professionals developing the critical thinking needed for this important skill (Eschenfelder, 2011). A standalone ethics course would be a major step toward resolving these issues and would answer the call for greater ethics education from previous research (DiStaso et al., 2009; Neill, 2017; Silverman et al., 2014). 


Based on the previous research presented in this study and our own findings, we recommend that public relations programs implement and require a case-study-based public relations ethics course for their advanced-level students. This class should be completed at a level greater than foundational public relations courses and should draw on real work to provide students with the opportunity to grasp and transform the experience of an ethical situation. In this course, students can process the dilemma, engage, internalize, observe and analyze, and experiment with different conclusions (see Fraustino et al., 2015). 

In addition to a case study class, professors and administrators should consider including the word ethics in course descriptions for experiential learning courses, client work, and capstone classes (e.g., internships, student-run agencies, research, and campaigns). Addressing ethics in all facets of a student’s education and creating a specific public-relations-centered ethics course would help students graduate with a more robust understanding of what it means to be an ethical public relations professional. 

The present study is limited in its scope by only examining ACEJMC and CEPR programs. Although the population of universities utilized in this study makes sense for examining those at the highest standards, further investigation across both review bodies would present a clearer picture of the state of public relations education. Future studies should examine these schools as well as public relations programs without certification or accreditation. 


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Public Relations Society of America. (2019). PR program certification. Retrieved on June 5, 2020, from https://prssa.prsa.org/chapter-firm-resources/start-a-prssa-chapter/pr-program-certification/

PRSSA. (2020). 2020 CEPR guidelines. Retrieved on June 5, 2020, from https://prssa.prsa.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/CEPRguidelines-2021.pdf

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© Copyright 2020 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Del Rosso, T., Haught, M.J., & Malone, K.S. (2020). Accreditation, curriculum, and ethics: Exploring the public relations education landscape. Journal of Public Relations Education, 6(3), 4-28. http://aejmc.us/jpre/2020/12/22/accreditation-curriculum-and-ethics-exploring-the-public-relations-education-landscape/

Journal of Public Relations Education, Volume 6, Issue 1

Note from the Editor-in-Chief:
We are pleased to share Volume 6, Issue 1, which offers our readers three research articles,
two teaching briefs and two book reviews. The articles cover a variety of topics: public
diplomacy training around the world, a comparison of expectations for PR graduates made
by practitioners at different levels in their careers, and suggestions for helping students
increase their knowledge and confidence in using statistics. We believe you will gain both
inspiration and guidance from the teaching briefs, as they explore multicultural training
through writing assignments and building recognition of the connections within and across
personal networks. Finally, the book reviews offer helpful insights into how these two books
might fit into your classes.

The editorial team expanded in November 2019 to include Dr. Kelly Vibber. We are grateful
to have her join us as Dr. Lucinda Austin transitions deeper into leadership within the
AEJMC PR Division. Dr. Austin has been a great help these past 2 years and will be missed.
I am thankful for this entire team, which invests countless hours into proofreading,
formatting and preparing each issue. Their service to the field is greatly appreciated. I also want to express my gratitude to our reviewers who offer useful advice through the blind-
review process and help us maintain a solid reputation. Thank you!

Emily S. Kinsky

Current Issue

Research Articles

Training International Public Relations Teams: Active Learning in a Multinational Context
by Bond Benton, Montclair State University

Curriculum Rebuilding in Public Relations: Understanding what Early Career, Mid-Career, and Senior PR/Communications Professionals Expect from PR Graduates
by Arunima Krishna, Donald K. Wright, & Raymond L. Kotcher, Boston University

Demystifying Data: A Constructivist Approach to Teaching Statistical Concepts Using SPSS
by Lauren Bayliss, Georgia Southern University

Teaching Briefs

Learning about Diversity Worldwide: How a Social Media Writing Assignment Provides Students with Multicultural Perspectives
by Arhlene A. Flowers, Ithaca College

Implementation of Active Learning Techniques in an Undergraduate Public Relations Course: Comparing Individual Social Networks and Brand Communities
by Corrie A. Wilder, Washington State University

Book Reviews

Public Relations Campaigns: An Integrated Approach
Reviewed by Brandi Watkins, Virginia Tech University

Teach Social Media: A Plan for Creating a Course Your Students Will Love
Reviewed by Natalie T. J. Tindall, Lamar University

Read the full issue here:

A publication of the Public Relations Division of AEJMC Copyright 2020 AEJMC Public Relations Division

The Journal of Public Relations Education (JPRE) is devoted to the presentation of research and commentary that advance the field of public relations education. JPRE invites submissions in the following three categories:

  • Research Articles
  • Teaching Briefs
  • Book/Software Reviews

Learn more by visiting the About JPRE page and the Authors/Contributors page for submission guidelines. All submissions should follow the guidelines of the most recent edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA).

Questions? Contact the Editorial Staff.