Tag Archives: experiential learning

The Pandemic Pivot: How Teachable Moments in a Service-Learning Course Provided an Opportunity for Student Growth

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted on October 1, 2020. Manuscript accepted for publication March 9, 2021. First published online December 2021.


Lois Boynton, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Hussman School of Journalism and Media
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, NC
Email: lboynton@email.unc.edu

Marshéle Carter
Founder and Director 
Carolina Cause Communications
Chapel Hill, NC
Email: marshele@live.unc.edu


Research shows students gain considerable experience working with peers and interacting with clients in the real-world settings that service-learning classes provide. But, what happens when well-planned and well-structured service-learning opportunities are interrupted by social distancing, nonprofit closures, and quarantines? Although upfront planning and structure are essential for effective service-learning experiences, all players – students, clients, and instructors – must prepare for the unexpected. This article assesses undergraduate student reflection essays to ascertain their perceptions of the spring 2020 mid-semester shift to online learning for a public relations service-learning course. These results help identify strategies instructors may employ when university teaching requires significant online activity.  

Keywords: service learning, experiential learning, reflection


The most-recent Commission on Public Relations Education report (CPRE, 2018) continued the calls from the 1999 and 2006 reports for experiential learning, based in part on research showing potential employers identified the importance of hiring experienced practitioners. The report concluded that “supervised work experience or internship” is one of five core requirements “essential to an undergraduate program in public relations” (p. 60). 

While CPRE identified internships as the most-crucial experiential learning opportunities, the report also acknowledges service-learning courses are beneficial for undergraduates “to gain career-related experience and establish professional contacts” (CPRE, 2018, p. 63). Researchers have found that students gain considerable experience working with peers and interacting with clients in the real-world settings that service-learning classes, such as public relations writing and campaigns, can provide (Cox, 2013; Farmer et al., 2016; Gleason & Violette, 2012; Harrison & Bak, 2017; Witmer et al., 2008).

While there is considerable focus on structure and planning service-learning initiatives (e.g., Gleason & Violette, 2012; Lundy, 2008; McCorkindale et al., 2018), Harrison and Bak (2017) also acknowledge the necessity of “having a back-up plan” (p. 84) when assumptions such as easy and ongoing access to client representatives don’t play out as expected. Contingency planning may come into play because of day-to-day time management challenges. Nonprofit personnel often have to multitask, and some of these clients “simply ha[ve] too many other obligations to make us [service learning class] high on their priority list, resulting in communication breakdowns between the client and the team” (McCorkindale, et al., 2018, p. 85). 

Such is the situation in the COVID-19 era. What happens when well-planned and well-structured service-learning opportunities are interrupted by social distancing, business closures, and quarantines?

The purpose of this research is two-fold: (1) to assess undergraduate students’ perceptions of the mid-semester shift to online teaching and learning for a service-learning course in public relations writing, and (2) to help instructors teaching this service-learning course plan for subsequent semesters that may require significant online activity. One way to ascertain the service-learning effectiveness is to review reflection essays written by students and posted on their publicly accessible web portfolios as part of their final project.

Public Relations Writing is an applied writing skills laboratory and service-learning course. Students create major communication tools of the public relations trade for multiple platforms, including news releases for print and broadcast, content for digital media, feature pitches, speeches, fact sheets, media advisories, public service announcements, direct mail campaigns, and more. 

This course emphasizes that students learn professional writing skills best by doing, particularly through experiential, hands-on work in partnership with community nonprofit organizations.  In addition to applying public relations strategies and proper techniques to written content, they also create personal online portfolios that showcase deliverables they develop for their nonprofit community partners.  

Although the spring 2020 semester started off like any other, it quickly presented significant, unexpected challenges for faculty, students, and their community partners. The COVID-19 global pandemic resulted in sudden, stay-at-home orders by state and city governments; these initial announcements coincided with the university’s spring break. Everyone, including faculty, students, and community partners, had no choice but to move instruction and service-learning activities online.  The closures took place at a critical point in the course, when the momentum of student learning and community engagement typically peaks.  

The responses of community partners to these challenges varied widely. Most organizations did their best to survey and address the situation, successfully staying engaged with their student teams and service-learning projects through the end of the semester.  In other instances, students were not able to reach their organization supervisor, which created a predicament for those trying to meet course objectives.  

Literature Review
Service learning has a good track record as an effective strategy for public relations courses, including writing and campaigns (Cox, 2013; Daugherty, 2003; Farmer et al., 2016; Gleason & Violette, 2012; Harrison & Bak, 2017; Lundy, 2008; Werder & Strand, 2011).  These classes provide a win-win: nonprofit organizations gain extra expertise to meet their public relations goals in serving their stakeholders, and students expand their abilities and portfolios through pre-professional, hands-on activities (Harrison & Bak, 2017). In addition to this real-world experience, students are more likely to connect classroom concepts to their on-the-job experiences, and apply critical-thinking and problem-solving proficiencies to develop professional independence and collaborative skills (Daugherty, 2003; Gilchrist, 2007; Wigert, 2011). They also may develop “a greater sense of cross-cultural understanding” and a stronger commitment to civic responsibility and community service (“Universities and colleges,” n.d.). Wigert (2011) determined that students “who contributed more hours to their service-learning placement, and wrote more in-depth reflections on their experiences, gained more from the service-learning requirement” (p. 96). 

A crucial component of service learning is having students reflect formally on their experiences, which allows them to connect the relevance of their textbook learning with their on-the-job activities (Lahman, 2012; Wigert, 2011). As Dubinsky (2006) explains, “Students need opportunities to respond to their service intellectually and emotionally; to discuss problems and questions; and to come to understand if and, if so, how their service activities are helping them learn and apply the course goals” (p. 307). Such a formalized process can solidify and heighten learning now (Wigert, 2011), while also preparing students to make better decisions down the road. Introspection also shows how students may develop empathy toward those facing social problems and see the value of their continued community service (Gilchrist, 2007; Lundy, 2008; Rogers, 2001). These insights can help instructors understand their students’ experiences (Mahin & Kruggel, 2006) and then incorporate those viewpoints into their subsequent lessons. 

There are a number of ways students can reflect, including journaling, end-of-semester papers, and informal, in-class conversations (Lake, 2008; Lundy, 2008; Wigert, 2011). Written reflections, stress Cone and Harris (1996), can help students perfect their ability to think and write critically (see also Lundy, 2008). Lake recommends providing students with clear prompts to guide their responses. These prompts may ask students how their experiences connect to the course material, how they feel about their client’s situation, what recommendations they would make to their client, and, when applicable, how the team dynamic progressed (Lundy, 2008). Lahman (2012) added the question, ‘‘Of all the contributions you made, which one(s) do you value the most?’’ (p. 2). 

These foundations for service learning and reflections address expectations through the course of a regular semester. But, it is also important to ask how students perceive their service-learning experiences when a crisis – the COVID-19 pandemic –changes how they take classes, interact with their clients, and meet course objectives. 

Based on this literature and course background, the following research questions were posed:

RQ 1: How did undergraduate students in public relations classes perceive their service-learning experiences after the shift to online teaching and learning? 

RQ 2: How do their experiences inform service-learning course planning when it requires significant online activity?

A total of 44 reflection essays publicly accessible from students’ portfolio websites were analyzed qualitatively. Each essay is 1-2 pages in length, single-spaced, and addresses four prompts (aligning with Lake’s (2008) recommendations) that helped students articulate their service-learning experiences in general and in the context of the unprecedented shift to online learning:

  • How did this experience contribute to your education and preparation for the real world? 
  • What was the most-valuable part of your service-learning experience? Most challenging? Least-valuable? 
  • What recommendations would you make to the client regarding its public relations efforts? 
  • What recommendations would you make regarding continuing to work with this particular client as a future community partner?

Qualitative content analysis was used to analyze 44 essays that reflected students’ perceptions of their service-learning experiences. This “inductive process of searching for concepts, ideas, themes, and categories … help[s] the researcher to organize and interpret data” (Benaquisto, 2008, p. 86) in ways that show how student experiences have similarities and differences. 

The process began with open coding (Corbin & Strauss, 2008), which involved reading and re-reading the reflection essays to identify “categories of meaning” (Court et al., 2018, p. 61), guided by the first research question. In the axial coding step, the categories were revised, refined, and merged; the repetitive process helped show relationships among categories and explain the students’ experiences. In vivo coding – using the students’ words and phrases – was employed to ensure the students’ meaning was captured. Finally, in selective coding, category linkages were identified, themes were solidified, and the researchers revisited the literature to synthesize the results (Benaquisto, 2008; Corbin & Strauss, 2008; Julien, 2008). 

The themes emerging from the analysis reflected both positive and negative reactions the students had regarding the COVID-19 shift to online-only class and client interaction. Primarily, positive comments focused on learning how to adapt when plans go awry, optimism, seeing the significance of effective communication, and their ability to make a difference in their community. Negative comments reflected students’ frustrations with how the stay-at-home orders disrupted their routines and affected their ability to meet course requirements, paired with a feeling that they were in their client’s way. The analysis begins with the two themes reflecting students’ perceptions of the downsides of their experience.

“My Real-World Learning Opportunity Was Taken Away from Me”
Students definitely felt a loss when shifting from in-person and onsite classes to distance learning. They shared concerns that COVID-19 “definitely made it more difficult for me to learn” because “the whole dynamic of the course changed” and “we lost our direction.” They found it challenging, “to still be as present and attentive to our clients in this chaos. … [O]nce my world and all of my classes flipped upside down, it was hard to be as helpful as I was before we moved to online classes.”  As a result, they also felt distanced from the nonprofit organizations they served. 

One student found the changes untenable. “My real-world learning opportunity was taken away from me,” they wrote, adding: 

It is crazy how unfair the world can be sometimes. Here college students are trying to learn and prepare for their future and our full learning experience is stripped right from our hands because of a pandemic that came out of nowhere.

Other students focused on how the changes affected their ability to complete required assignments. “I feel like I lost out a bit in developing my portfolio,” one student wrote, “as my writing materials became based purely off of what I could salvage from the cluttered organization website.” Another perceived the reduced client interaction as the antithesis of effective public relations:  

Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was never able to visit the office or foster close relationships with the organization’s staff. This inability to foster relationships within [the organization] limited my understanding of the organization as a whole and proved to be the least valuable part of my experience.

“More of a Burden than an Asset”
Most students also recognized the impact that sheltering in place had on their clients, as the nonprofits “had to shift their focus” to “address more-pressing issues.” For example, “Once measures were put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the organization also had to cancel its largest fundraising event of the year,” one student wrote. Another student explained, “[Our organization] obviously had more on its plate than it would have anticipated when it agreed to take on a team of student volunteers, and we were no longer a top priority.”

While they wanted to assist their organizations, some students expressed concern about being “more of a burden than an asset since I could not actively aid in helping or providing solutions to [our client’s] main obstacles during this time.” Another wrote: 

I began to feel like we were in her way more than anything. It was difficult to balance the feeling of wanting to help and fulfill the requirements for the class without feeling like a bother, especially during the pandemic. We tried to take the stress off of our nonprofit by coming up with projects to work on by ourselves. This proved to be the most vulnerable part of the experience. I felt that we were out of line and wasting her time. Most of what we suggested she shot down.

Although students shared feelings about negative experiences and perceptions, many also wrote about positive experiences and opportunities to grow professionally. They applied classroom lessons and saw value in learning to adapt in ways that allowed them to make a difference for their clients and community.

“I Had to Learn to Quickly Adapt and Shift My Plans”
Despite the disruption and uncertainty of COVID-19 and the required shift to online, many students found ways to adjust to “the new normal,” and “think proactively and use strategic communications to highlight the hope in the current situation.” In fact, several saw change as an opportunity for personal growth. One student wrote about the need to adjust expectations: 

[I] learn[ed] to adapt to change in times of crisis, not panic and continue to persevere in my responsibilities. Seeing an organization have to adapt to a drastic change like this and keep their publics informed is something I will likely not see again in my lifetime.

Others said they learned how to pivot when the COVID-19 crisis disrupted their routines.  When “the events were cancelled and we weren’t able to achieve certain PR goals … we did not give up on the client just because the work became more difficult,” a student wrote.  “I’m proud we persisted and it was a valuable learning experience about how to handle external crises impeding planned PR work with clients.”

Motivated to be proactive, some students crafted messages and tactics their clients might employ in response to the crisis. As one student explained: 

[Our supervisor] expressed that COVID-19 was negatively affecting [the organization] and may cause them to have to shut down operations. The pandemic’s influence on the organization allowed us to come up with ideas for the company, such as making a case analysis to see what other nonprofits are doing during COVID-19 and make recommendations based on that information. 

Lack of client direction did not discourage some of these pre-professionals. “[S]ometimes we did not receive direct communication from our client about what services to deliver or what we should be working on,” wrote one student, adding: 

At those times, I had to think like a professional, and cultivate the right tone and subject matter to give the client work that perhaps they did not know they needed. For example, when writing a news release about the coronavirus, I had to consult past communications from the organization, as well as read the affirmation and mission statement over and over to nail down the tone and the messages that the organization would want to send to its publics.

While some nonprofit supervisors went dark, others took advantage of the teachable moments. A student explained: 

The challenges led to some of the most valuable parts of working with [the client],” said a student. “I learned a real-world scenario about how to implement crisis communication. Our team talked with [our supervisor] about the balance of protecting and promoting the [organization] while remaining sensitive to the issues surrounding COVID-19. 

Another student wrote, “In the real world, there will always be some level of crisis to manage, and by working with my client I was able to put into practice protecting and promoting the organization.” 

One supervisor kept the students abreast of the strategies required to shift gears: 

[Our supervisor] was transparent to our team about [the client’s] priorities and capabilities during that time. She informed me that [the organization] not only had to stop offering many of their community programs, but that they were also suffering from staff shortages. Rather than releasing a statement about the postponement of the fundraiser, she emphasized that the focus of the organization should be to provide updates to the community about their available services as well as provide information about available online resources.  Learning directly from [our supervisor] about how to adjust to a real-world crisis will definitely help me better evaluate potential difficulties I may face in future workplaces.

“Seeing the Good in Every Situation Is the Key to Success.”
It is understandable that students would be discouraged that their service-learning opportunity did not progress as they had hoped. Yet, many students still were willing to “change my perspective,” which, “helped me grow in ways that I believe will help me immensely in my career.”  

Another student explained: 
I got to experience a logistical nightmare and find ways to communicate on behalf of my client in a way that would reassure and inform the target publics. The coronavirus is impacting [sic] businesses and people all across the world, and no one had time to prepare for it, so having to completely reorganize plans and come up with a new strategy is something I might have to do one day as a PR professional.

They also saw themselves grow personally and professionally: “In the real world of public relations, nothing is ever perfect; nothing goes exactly to plan. This pandemic helped me learn to be more flexible, while also giving me insight into how organizations respond to crises and communicate with their publics in the face of adversity.” The students’ ability to find or create opportunities contributed to their success, as well: 

I was able to learn more and produce more work, and now have a strong example of the importance of proactive reputation-building PR when trying to advocate for my services to a non-profit client.…We were able to create and deliver some good work, if not as much as we would’ve liked, I hope that [the client] will use this work in the future, and I know that I will carry my experience with this type of crisis management to be more adaptive in nonprofit PR work in the future.… Above all of it, I learned the importance of turning trouble into opportunities.

The instructor, as the third participant in service learning, also played an important role in guiding students through the changes. As one student explained, “While at first this seemed like a major setback as many of the events and items my team planned to conquer were no longer feasible, [our instructor] always encouraged us to see each potential threat as an opportunity.” 

“I Realized Communication Is More Critical Now Than Ever.”
Being in “a tough situation” meant student-client interaction “dwindled off because of unforeseen circumstances.” Yet, many students “realized communication is more critical now than ever,” both with their clients and the clients’ stakeholders.  

The students’ initial concern was reaching their organization supervisors, many of whom “were busy with transitioning their practices to something more adaptable for their clients during quarantine.” As one student wrote, “I learned about the importance of effective communication as well as how to professionally navigate a frustrating situation without risking the relationship with my client.” Another noted, “Luckily, the staff was great about communicating over email to ensure that there were no misunderstandings throughout the semester.” 

That communication enabled students to modify their plans based on client needs. According to one student: 

During the transition, I had the opportunity to speak with a coordinator at [our organization] for an extensive period of time to create a game plan for the rest of the semester. After the transition, our group and client reestablished a solid communication channel and resumed work.

The result of reestablishing effective communication with supervisors “was an incredibly eye-opening experience” that allowed students to contribute their public relations expertise to support stakeholders. One student wrote:

The deliverables I created for [our client], specifically the ones pertaining to COVID-19, are extremely important to the organization right now. This experience of COVID-19 will go down in history, and I got to create a news release and fact sheet for an organization that needs those right now. They need to communicate with their publics and I was able to do some of that communicating. That opportunity is unmatched. 

 Another summed up the experience this way: “I am still grateful for the learning experience and opportunity to adapt to a challenge. [The client] taught me a lot about the importance of strong leadership and consistent communication. 

“Truly Make a Difference”
Students often identify that their reason for going into public relations and strategic communication is their ability to make a difference in their communities, country, and world. That theme was evident in these reflection essays, as well. “Fortunately (or unfortunately), the COVID-19 pandemic eventually gave our team a substantial problem/opportunity to work with,” wrote one student. “This allowed us to create some potential PR strategies to make sure [the organization] stayed afloat during the pandemic.”

Students also reflected a sense of pride in their hands-on roles in helping nonprofit clients during these difficult times. “After moving past our initial disappointment, my team shifted our outlook and dedicated our work to serving [our clients’] needs in the midst of COVID-19,” one student wrote. “We were able to practice our crisis communications skills and I believe, truly make a difference.” Another shared appreciation for the experience: “Watching [our organization] transform to online while continuing to support its [clients] is truly inspiring and I am so grateful that I got to be a part of that change.”

Overall, the positive comments outweighed the negative ones, showing that they were able to identify the value of their experiences despite the disruption. Any focus on assignments and grades was overshadowed by a sense of optimism and pride in accomplishments for the good of the organization, their stakeholders, and the community. 


As the results show, most students rose to the occasion, maintaining optimism, a can-do attitude, and a remarkable eagerness to apply course concepts to their clients’ needs in real time.   Only a few students went silent for a time, but resurfaced soon after the initial upheaval as they learned to navigate their new circumstances at home and at work.  Although some students ended the semester feeling pessimistic that their service-learning experiences didn’t go as planned, most regained their bearings and expressed optimism, describing lessons they gleaned from their experiences, many of which reinforce the four service-learning outcomes identified by Witmer et al. (2008). 

First, students related instances in which they were able to apply classroom learning to their real-world, service-learning experiences (Witmer et al., 2008). They identified examples of using their knowledge of crisis communication and relationship-building to strategize ways to help their clients as well as meet course objectives. Their real-world learning occasionally seemed harsh, particularly when their ideas were dismissed or their emails went unanswered. But, they also relayed success stories and feelings that they had contributed to their organization’s ability to weather the COVID-19 storm. Second, teamwork was evident as students conversed and collaborated to develop the most-effective ways to engage their clients despite the shutdowns. Although they expressed some disappointment and frustrations in their reflection essays, they also consistently referred to “we” and “our” more than “I” and “me.” 

Third, not all client interactions went as students had initially planned. Some found it challenging to connect with their nonprofit’s leadership, some felt as if they were an extra burden, and others applied a quarantine pivot to help their clients navigate the crisis. This finding supports Harrison and Bak’s (2017) contention that contingency planning is vital for students – and practitioners – to employ. While some students relied on instructor guidance or recommendations to jumpstart their efforts, others were proactive, sometimes employing trial-and-error approaches to find what was most effective. There is a tendency to expect upper-level students to take the initiative; however, it is also important to remember the high levels of stress and uncertainty these students experienced, which may have affected the speed with which they regrouped. Fourth, the students’ references to doing good for others was particularly noticeable, which aligns with Witmer et al.’s (2008) and Cox’s (2013) conclusions that civic responsibility can be nurtured in service-learning. Amid stress and uncertainty, there is a human tendency to focus inward on one’s own needs and feelings. Despite their angst, many students connected with their client communities that had lived experiences different from their own, which supports literature about the potential for civic engagement and social responsibility growth (Gilchrist, 2007; Lundy, 2008; Rogers, 2001). These students found their way outward to appreciate their ability to strengthen their communication skills for the betterment of nonprofit organizations. 

Additionally, the reflection essays provided a medium for students to share accomplishments, make recommendations, vent, and show what they learned. There is a degree of “self-discovery” that Blomstrom and Tam (2008) discerned in their assessment of reflection essays. This finding also supports Dubinsky’s (2006) contention that intellectual and emotional reflection helps students synthesize their experiences with course material, understand their own strengths and weaknesses, and help them prepare for post-graduation endeavors in public relations (see also Wigert, 2011).


There are three sets of players in the service-learning environment. Thus far, this research focused on two groups – the students, primarily, as well as the clients they served. The third group in this relationship is the instructors, who serve as coaches, leaders, and occasional confessors. As Harrison and Bak (2017) discussed in their article, instructors – like students – must also learn to pivot, whether realizing each semester’s clients and students are different or tackling monumental changes during a pandemic quarantine. In their assessment, Harrison and Bak documented how their teaching assumptions sometimes didn’t match the realities, which allowed them to do their own reflection on lessons learned and recommendations for subsequent classes.  So, too, the now-infamous “pandemic pivot” pushed faculty out of their own comfort zones. 

Instructor challenges

Amid the maelstrom of spring semester 2020, faculty – with their own stresses – embarked on a pedagogical journey in uncharted waters. A shift from in-class instruction to an online environment was fraught with technological trip-ups, but also opened time to refocus students on the opportunities ahead. The instructor, who occasionally added cheerleader to her repertoire, combined synchronous and asynchronous tactics to engage students in real-world discussions that moved from “What about my assignments?” to “What about the client’s new communication needs?” 

But the challenges didn’t end when spring semester books closed. Faculty shifted their focus to an eye on how much of spring’s experiential learning approaches would continue into the fall semester. Although some classes began in hybrid or mask-to-mask formats, a shift back to all-online teaching and learning soon followed. Among the practices added or reinforced for fall:

  • Start building relationships with students early to establish foundations for their success. The online environment can make it difficult to participate in pre- and post-class exchanges that occur organically in face-to-face classrooms. These one-on-one interactions help the instructor gauge student abilities and challenges early and over the course of the semester.  
  • Consider how to “manufacture” interactions. For example, an instructor may text students during a synchronous class meeting and invite them to reply with a question or comment. In addition to finding out whether students are engaged in the day’s activities, it also opens the door for the instructor to respond individually and continue the conversations started in the first online, face-to-face introductions.
  • Regular encouragement can be accomplished through video or digital measures. For example, sending a weekly, detailed group message to students on Sunday afternoons can provide an overview of the coming week, reminders about assignments and deadlines, and generally encourage them and equip them for a better week. Mix it up with written documents and short videos. 
  • Identify ways to stimulate the natural conversations with students that occur in hallways and classrooms, such as extended office hours and other appointments. 
  • Encouraging team and client dialogue around relevant topics in online forums can facilitate participation and learning while also providing ongoing opportunities for student reflection. Although most posts come from an instructor’s prompts, over time, students may converse with one another. It is also important for the instructor to provide students with regular feedback to maintain the momentum.
  • There’s a balancing act for instructors to show compassion for the physical, emotional, and financial struggles students may face while also retaining a sense of discipline. 

Also consider the type of exchanges that will benefit the client partners. Typically, instructors meet or call the nonprofit leaders individually before the semester gets underway. With the limits imposed by the pandemic, these interactions typically occur online to solidify the partnerships and undergird the whole service-learning experience for students and instructor.  Once student teams are assigned, instructors are less involved in day-to-day communications, which ensures students gain first-hand experience in client relations. However, recognizing that clients may have their own set of pandemic-induced challenges, instructor check-ins may mitigate any problems before they get out of hand. 

Faculty at various universities have identified opportunities for service-learning engagement. For example, Susan Haarman (2020) with Loyola University Chicago’s Center for Experiential Learning, created a resource for reflecting on civic responsibilities during the pandemic. It includes reflection prompts such as:

  • “When you think of the individuals you met at your placement, are there certain factors that put them more at risk to outbreaks like COVID-19? Are there certain factors that uniquely give them an advantage?” (para. 3)
  • “How do you understand your obligations and responsibilities to others? Has this experience challenged or confirmed that?” (para. 8)
  • “What assumptions or implications does your coursework have about an individual’s role or obligations to their community?” (para. 8)
  • “Some students experienced having to be relocated unexpectedly due to larger issues outside of your control. Has this made you more aware of or thinking differently about issues of freedom of mobility?” (para. 5)

Research supports the value of service learning incorporated in public relations classes such writing and campaigns. Although upfront planning and structure are essential for effective experiences, all players – students, clients, and instructors – must prepare for the unexpected. Not all disruptions are at the level of a pandemic, but as these students reflected, practitioners must be prepared to pivot when the need arises. 

The analysis of student reflection essays provides valuable insights into how they processed the unprecedented experiences of a pandemic quarantine. The results of the 44 essays cannot be generalized, but do provide key measures to use in subsequent quantitative surveys.  Additional insights from the community partners will also contribute to better understanding of how community nonprofit organizations adjust to crises and their perceptions of how service-learning initiatives may help or hinder their progress. 


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Mahin, L., & Kruggel, T. G. (2006). Facilitation and assessment of student learning in business communication. Business Communication Quarterly 69(3), 323-327. https://doi.org/10.1177/108056990606900312

McCorkindale, T., Monteiro, C., Palenchar, M. J., & Fussell Sisco, H. (2018). Internships: Bringing public relations learning to life. In Fast forward: Foundations + future state. Educators + practitioners. The Commission on Public Relations Education 2017 report on undergraduate education (pp. 123-131). Commission on Public Relations Education. http://www.commissionpred.org/commission-reports/fast-forward-foundations-future-state-educators-practitioners/

Rogers, R. (2001). Reflection in higher education: A concept analysis. Innovative Higher Education, 26, 37-57. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1010986404527 

Universities and colleges with service learning programs (n.d.). eLearners. Retrieved November 16, 2021 from https://www.elearners.com/education-resources/strategies-for-online-students/degrees-for-do-gooders/

Werder, K. P., & Strand, K. (2011). Measuring student outcomes: An assessment of service-learning in the public relations campaigns course. Public Relations Review, 37(5), 478-484. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2011.09.014

Wigert, L. R. (2011). Engaging forensic students in service-learning and reflection: Integrating academic work and community service. National Forensic Journal, 29(1), 87-116.

Witmer, D. F., Silverman, D. A., & Gaschen, D. J. (2008, November 21-24). Working to learn and learning to work: A profile of service-learning courses in university public relations programs [Conference Presentation]. National Communication Association Annual Conference, San Diego, CA, United States.  

© Copyright 2021 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Boynton, L. & Carter, M. (2021). The pandemic pivot: How teachable moments in a service-learning course provided an opportunity for student growth. Journal of Public Relations Education, 7(3), 45-67. https://aejmc.us/jpre/?p=2722

Reflecting on Reflections: Debriefing in Public Relations Campaign Classes

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted to JPRE November 23, 2020. Manuscript accepted for publication February 9, 2021. First published online May 2021.


Tom Vizcarrondo
Assistant Professor
Kennesaw State University
Kennesaw, GA
Email: tvizcarr@kennesaw.edu


This brief argues for a different perspective when incorporating debriefing exercises in classes such as public relations campaign courses. Grounded in Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory (1984), this study views debriefing exercises as Kolb’s “concrete experience” stage, rather than the traditional approach of debriefings as “reflective observations.” Using examples from different campaign classes, the study shows how this change can lead to positive results for students. Additionally, recommendations are provided for implementing this approach.

Keywords: debriefing, experiential learning

In a successful experiential learning (EL) situation, students apply knowledge gained from traditional pedagogical methods to real-world situations, thereby expanding their skills through these experiences. Kolb’s (1984) Theory of Experiential Learning identifies four stages of EL. The concrete experience stage incorporates hands-on events where students apply previously learned principles and concepts. Students then review the experience (reflective observation stage), partly to identify any gaps between the student’s experience and their understanding of those previously learned concepts. In the conceptualization stage, students reconcile those gaps identified during the reflective observation stage by modifying existing concepts or identifying new ones. Finally, these new/modified principles are applied and tested as part of the active experimentation stage, which can lead to new concrete experiences.     

This teaching brief argues for a new approach to one widely-used reflection tool—the debriefing exercise. Debriefing allows participants to “reflect on recent experiences to prepare for subsequent tasks” (Eddy et al., 2013, p. 975). Initially developed as a military exercise, debriefing is now used in a variety of professions (Nicholson, 2013). Despite its wide use, debriefing exercises are not always effective. Potential problems with debriefings include not allocating enough time for the debrief and an imbalance of power between facilitator(s) and participants (Dennehy et al.,1998). These problems generally can be best addressed by the facilitator of the debrief, but other problems require the efforts of both the facilitator(s) and participants.  These include “too much focus on task work, telling—not discussing, inadequate focus, and no definitive look forward” (Reyes et al., 2018, p. 48-49). 

Additional challenges arise when introducing debriefing exercises to students, who generally have little experience with such exercises. This inexperience impacts students’ abilities to effectively contribute to a debrief. 

When I first introduced debriefing exercises to a public relations capstone class over seven years ago, I had three objectives for this exercise—students would reflect on the project, gain debriefing experience, and provide feedback about the overall class. While all three objectives might be appropriate, it became clear that it was unrealistic to accomplish them all during a session that may last as little as 20 minutes. As such, it was important to focus on one objective and develop the debriefing with that single objective in mind.  Given the students’ inexperience with debriefing meetings, I decided that the primary objective of these sessions should be learning, rather than reflecting.

This teaching brief, therefore, proposes that debriefing exercises still be used within the context of an EL class such as a public relations campaigns class, but instead as part of the concrete experience stage, rather than as a reflective observation. With this approach, the emphasis is not to have students reflect on what they have learned (reflective observation), but rather for students to learn how to effectively debrief (concrete experience). This brief recommends steps to take before, during, and after the restructured debriefing exercise (see appendix for a summary of these steps). The paper then provides observations and experiences from the new approach to the debriefing sessions.

Restructuring the Debriefing Session

Before the debrief 

Prior to any debriefing, students should receive an in-depth introduction to the concept of debriefing sessions and the “rules of the road.” This introduction starts with a lecture highlighting the value of debriefing both in a classroom setting as well as in a professional environment. This introduction stresses two key concepts: First, the debriefing is a “conversation among equals;” everyone’s “rank” and ego are left outside of the meeting.  As such, it is important that students understand they may direct the conversation as much as the facilitator.  They are encouraged to contribute their thoughts, but also to raise questions and issues they feel are important to examining the team’s progress.  Second, the introduction encourages students to think in terms of analyzing the team’s progression; this is not a meeting to focus on individual successes or limitations.   

To augment this explanation, I assign short readings and videos (e.g., Bourke, 2014; Rae, 2017; Sundheim, 2015; Womack, 2015) further explaining the concept. These assignments include both academic and professional perspectives, so students can also see the professional-world applications. I then quiz the students on the assigned materials. The quiz is not for a grade, but the students must pass the quiz in order to attend the debriefing meeting, which is for a grade (typically five percent or less of the student’s final grade).  Students can take the online quiz an unlimited number of times until they receive a passing grade.  In other words, the quiz is not the ultimate objective of this assignment, but it helps instill a sense of accountability among the students while helping them prepare for the debriefing exercise. In addition, if students do not fully understand the reading material, they can see this with their quiz score, and can go back to review the readings before taking the quiz again.

After passing the quiz, students are given questions that could arise during their particular debriefing session, so that they can begin the reflection process. I encourage students not to write out detailed answers to these questions. In previous classes, students prepared written responses to the questions prior to the debrief and used these answers as a script for the meeting. Doing so inhibits the interactive aspects of a successful debrief.  Instead, the purpose of providing questions in advance should be to encourage students to formulate their ideas, but not prepare scripted answers for the meeting. 

Questions used during a particular session are tailored to each group, reflecting the unique characteristics of each group’s project and experiences. The questions focus specifically on the project itself (e.g., what worked, what didn’t), rather than reflecting on what students have learned, which would be more appropriate in the reflective observation stage. Sample questions can be found in the appendix and other literature (see Sundheim, 2015). Since the debriefings may only be 20 or 30 minutes long, the questions should be designed to engage students and encourage discussion as quickly as possible. 

The Debriefing Meeting

I schedule each team’s debrief during one class period, and each team meets separately with me.  Therefore, the time spent with each team is only a fraction of the class period, typically 20 to 30 minutes. It is helpful to have a second facilitator in the meeting as this often provides a different perspective of the debriefing meeting

When possible, I schedule the meetings in a conference room rather than a classroom, leaving the classroom available for the other students to continue working in their teams during the other debriefings.  This also helps create a more professional setting, leading to a more realistic EL environment. 

Since this is a learning—not a reflection—assignment, the quality of a student’s reflections is less important to their grade than is their participation during the discussion.  One strict requirement which I impose—which students know in advance—is that they be on time for the meeting: Once the meeting begins, being late by even a few seconds results in a 10% deduction to the assignment grade. This reinforces the professional aspect of meeting and emphasizes the importance of being on time in such professional settings.

During the meeting, any prepared questions are just a guide; depending on the way students direct the conversation, unanticipated questions may be more meaningful once the debriefing is underway. The facilitator should be responsive to these dynamics and lead the direction of the discussion accordingly; if the students shift toward a different, but relevant topic, encourage continued discussion.  Conversely, if the students begin focusing on extraneous issues (e.g., the class, the curriculum), the facilitator should redirect the focus, most likely by introducing another previously prepared question.


During the first class after the debriefing, it is beneficial to spend time recapping the debriefing sessions. In essence, this recap incorporates the “reflective observation” stage of the EL cycle.  

Reflections of the debrief should start off by reinforcing the benefits of debriefings within the context of a professional environment. At this point, engage the students to get their thoughts on the debriefing itself.  Probing questions can include, “Do you feel that this meeting helped your team focus on the next set of milestones?  If so, how? If not, what could you/your team/the facilitator have done during the debrief that would have led to better results?”  The important distinction with this meeting (vs. the debriefing meeting) is that now, the students’ reflections are not about the capstone project, but rather specifically on the debriefing session. Another benefit to this discussion is that it allows the student to reflect on what they could have done differently as a participant and what they might do in a similar situation as a facilitator.  


The new approach to the debriefing sessions has been in effect for two years, and most of the sessions have included one facilitator and one outside observer. After the debriefings, the facilitator and observer have met to share their observations.  These observations—as discussed below—consistently reflect a greater level of student engagement and a shift in the students’ attitudes towards debriefing.  Overall, the facilitators/observers have found the “new” debriefings to be beneficial to the quality of students’ participation in the meetings. Unless otherwise stated, the discussion below reflects those observations that were noted by all observers.       

First, the students seem more engaged in terms of the time they spoke (vs. the facilitator), although all observers agreed there is still room for improvement in this area.  Additionally, during the debriefing session, students discussed the underlying project as if it had been a professional work project rather than as a school assignment. 

Some of the students have been more proactive in discussing their team dynamics and interaction.  In one instance, a student acknowledged she had not been able to attend many of the team meetings due to work commitments and was concerned that her teammates felt she had not contributed sufficiently.  The other team members unanimously disagreed, indicating that her contributions had been crucial to the success of the team’s final campaign plan.  Subsequently, the team’s implementation of the plan during the second half of the semester was also successful, and the group’s client commented on the enthusiasm and cohesiveness of the students throughout the project.  

Students have also demonstrated a greater appreciation for the debriefing process, as illustrated in another class.  As an example, students in one particular class participated in the first debriefing during the semester’s mid-term, which helped each team approach the final half of their project more cohesively and effectively.  As the semester-end neared, the students were given a choice:  They could each reflect on the semester by submitting a written, one-page reflection paper with their thoughts, or each team could meet for a longer debriefing session (one hour) at the end of the semester.  The choice, therefore, offered students an assignment that would require them to return to campus for an in-person group meeting, or to submit an individual assignment online, and avoid any on-campus meeting.  Despite the effort required to come to campus and meet for an hour, an overwhelming majority of the class opted for the debriefing session instead of the reflection paper.

During their end-of-semester meetings that the students opted for, I asked students why they preferred an assignment that required them to be on campus at a specific time during finals week, when they could have simply written a one-page reflection and submit it without having to appear in class.  Most students responded by focusing on the value gained from the debriefing experience.  Some acknowledged the team-building benefits to having this kind of meeting, and indicated they wanted yet another opportunity to get together with their semester-long teammates before ending the term.  Reflecting on the debriefing earlier in the term, some students saw the positive impact that the initial meeting had on their team’s cohesiveness and interpersonal relationships.  Others valued the additional insight from their team members, as indicated by one student who said, “Any chance I can get feedback from my peers or teachers I want to get it.”

These examples and observations point to a more successful debriefing experience when used as a learning exercise, rather than a reflection tool. Indeed, there is a reflection component to this EL exercise, but the reflection observation phase is not the debrief itself, so students view the debriefing experience as a learning experience. Students also seem to appreciate the value in debriefing in terms of the impact to the classroom experience (e.g., stronger team dynamics and more meaningful feedback).  As such, the new approach to treating the debriefing session primarily as a learning tool seems successful: students are gaining a better understanding and appreciation of the debriefing process, which should position them to be effective debriefing participants when in a post-collegiate, professional environment.

Indeed, some students have already benefited from the debriefing project in their own post-collegiate, professional experiences.  In one case, a recent graduate and former student in the capstone class took an initial job upon graduation at a manufacturing company that held debriefing meetings weekly.  Within a few weeks, her manager recognized her contributions and has asked her to participate in an initiative to evaluate the effectiveness of the debriefing meetings, and provide recommendations for improving the company’s debriefing processes.  It was a positive opportunity that enabled this graduate—a newly-hired employee—to establish solid credentials within her organization and specifically with management.

One challenge that all facilitators/observers noted in the debriefing meetings was the hesitancy for students to raise issues that may expose potential conflicts within the group. Some students have shown a willingness to address their own challenges during the project, but none have proactively raised problems involving other students’ performances or problems.  In at least two separate classes, teams dealt with significant intra-group challenges and conflicts, but none of the members of these teams raised these issues in any of the debriefing meetings. In fact, in one case, the issues weren’t raised at all until students wrote confidential peer assessments of their team members. It is obviously important for students to learn and practice successful techniques regarding raising sensitive issues within the team, so this is an area of the debriefing exercise to further refine.  


EL projects offer students the ability to reflect on their learning experiences while developing skills that can be crucial to success in their post-collegiate careers.  Debriefing allows for both—to reflect within the context of a situation while challenging students to develop skills that even well-seasoned executives struggle to master.  This brief has advocated for refocusing the debriefing from a reflection tool to a learning tool, and identified steps when creating a debriefing exercise that can accomplish this (See Appendix). By positioning the debrief first and foremost as a concrete learning experience, students become better contributors in the debriefing exercise, and ultimately more effective participants in future professional situations.  


Bourke, A. (2014, November 26). Debrief to improve team performance [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4c3k087IFU

Dennehy, R. F., Sims, R. R., & Collins, H. E. (1998). Debriefing experiential learning exercises: A theoretical and practical guide for success. Journal of Management Education, 22(1), 9–25. https://doi.org/10.1177/105256299802200102      

Eddy, E. R., Tannenbaum, S. I., & Mathieu, J. E. (2013). Helping teams to help themselves: Comparing two team-led debriefing methods. Personnel Psychology, 66(4), 975-1008. https://doi.org/10.1111/peps.12041

Guterman, J. (2002). The lost (or never learned) art of debriefing. Harvard Management Update, 7(3), 3. 

Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Prentice-Hall. 

Nicholson, S. (2013). Completing the experience: Debriefing in experiential educational games. Journal of Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics, 11(6), 27–31. http://www.iiisci.org/journal/CV$/sci/pdfs/iEB576TH.pdf

Rae, K. (2017, October 8). The ultimate debriefing process [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4IcRJugiUcY

Reyes, D. L., Tannenbaum, S. I., & Salas, E. (2018). Team development: The power of debriefing. People & Strategy, 41(2), 46-52.

Sundheim, D. (2015, July 2). Debriefing: A simple tool to help your team tackle tough problems. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2015/07/debriefing-a-simple-tool-to-help-your-team-tackle-tough-problems.

Womack, J. (2015). Debriefing sessions: I wish I knew then, what I think I know now. Personal Excellence, 20(10), 9.


Before the debriefing:

  • Adequately prepare students
    • In-class, explain the debriefing process and benefits.
    • In-class, explain the role of participants and facilitators.  Instill the idea that all are equals; there is no hierarchy in the debrief. 
    • Outside of class, assign additional resources. (e.g., Bourke, 2004; Guterman, 2002; Sundheim, 2015).
    • Create a sense of accountability with a quiz on the additional resources. The quiz is not the focus of the debrief, so it should not be overly difficult or punitive in nature.
  • Prepare questions
    • Questions should follow the nature of typical debriefing questions (e.g., Womack, 2015), but should be tailored to reflect specific dynamics of each team
      • What was your goal?  Did you achieve it?  What helped you achieve it? What stood in the way of success? What could the team have done to improve results? What should the team keep doing that worked?

During the debriefing:

  • Follow prepared questions, BUT…
  • Be flexible.  If the discussion leads the team to a different topic or issue that is relevant, be able to facilitate and manage the discussion accordingly.
  • Use questions to facilitate not to participate.
  • As facilitator, guide the process, not the content.

After the debriefing:

  • Use part of the first class after the debrief as a time for reflective observation.
  • Reinforce the value of the debriefing by noting a few positive outcomes or key points from the debrief meeting.
  • Engage students—Ask them their thoughts about the debriefing experience.
    • How does the debriefing meeting help your team going forward?
    • Do you feel differently about debriefing now that you have gone through it? If so, how?
    • How could your debriefing experience help you in the future (beyond the classroom)?
    • What will you do differently in the next debriefing meeting?

© Copyright 2021 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Vizcarrondo, T. (2021). Reflecting on reflections: Debriefing in public relations campaign classes. Journal of Public Relations Education, 7(1), 188-199. https://aejmc.us/jpre/?p=2439

Taking Experiential Learning to the Next Level with Student-Run Agencies

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted March 4, 2020. Revision submitted June 17, 2020. Manuscript accepted July 21, 2020. First published online May 2021.


Yeonsoo Kim, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
School of Communication Studies
James Madison University
Harrisonburg, VA
Email: Yskim.payne@gmail.com

Shana Meganck, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
School of Communication Studies
James Madison University
Harrisonburg, VA
Email: megancsl@jmu.edu

Lars Kristiansen, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
School of Communication Studies
James Madison University
Harrisonburg, VA
Email: kristilj@jmu.edu

Chang Wan Woo, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
School of Communication Studies
James Madison University
Harrisonburg, VA
Email: woocw@jmu.edu


This study examines the effectiveness of three different experiential learning approaches in public relations education (i.e., a student-run public relations firm approach vs. two variations of the traditional public relations capstone campaigns course) by measuring perceived student learning outcomes. Students participating in the study were enrolled in one of two variations of a traditional public relations capstone campaigns courses or in one student-run public relations firm course at a large southern university. The results suggest that working in a student-run public relations firm promotes students’ perceived learning outcomes more effectively than participating in the more traditional capstone experience. Findings also suggest that among the two variations of the traditional capstone courses, the course with a stronger emphasis on direct client contact and engagement was more effective in achieving learning outcomes than was the course with less direct client interaction.  

Keywords: competencies, perceived effectiveness, public relations campaign, public relations capstone, learning outcomes, experiential learning, student run agency


There is growing pedagogical debate over what should be taught in public relations courses. One frequently debated topic is how educators might bridge the sizeable gap between what professionals’ desire from public relations graduates and what new graduates are actually able to do (Commission on Public Relations Education [CPRE], 2018). To address this concern, and to better prepare students for work in the industry, public relations educators have sought to incorporate more active and experiential learning styles into their classrooms (Swanson, 2011; Werder & Strand, 2011). For example, public relations capstone courses often adopt a service-learning approach that allows students to work in teams, conduct research, develop strategic public relations plans, and also create a collection of tactical materials for clients to implement. Public relations educators hope that by integrating experiential learning into their curricula, and in so doing allowing for more realistic hands-on experience, public relations courses can provide students with an opportunity to synthesize and apply the skills amassed and the theories learned during their coursework (Benigni et al., 2004; Bush, 2009; Harrison & Bak, 2017). Several studies support the efficacy of such experiential learning in producing desirable learning outcomes (Reising et al., 2006). However, even public relations capstone courses that adopt a service-learning approach are still limited in providing rich experiential opportunities when it comes to actual implementation of public relations campaigns and their corollary strategies, tactics, and evaluations. In recent years, and for the reasons stipulated above, more than 100 public relations programs have started offering students an educational experience rooted in the public relations agency model (PRSSA, 2019).

Student-run public relations agencies mimic professional public relations agencies “by providing students with a professional environment in which to work on real projects for real clients” (Bush & Miller, 2011, p. 485). This agency model is typically offered as either a replacement for, or supplement to, the traditional public relations capstone course and has shown strong potential in boosting student learning outcomes. Other benefits to students include improved leadership and managerial skills, better client communication skills, increased professional confidence, the learning of central business practices and processes, an increased prominence of the program within the community, as well as stronger and more sophisticated pre-professional preparation (Bush, 2009; Bush & Miller, 2011; Busch & Struthers, 2016; Kim, 2015). Although public relations educators and scholars generally recognize the value of student agencies, relatively little systematic research on perceived student learning outcomes exists when it comes to evaluating whether student-run agencies are effective in achieving common public relations learning objectives and outcomes (Swanson, 2011). To the best of our knowledge, no quantitative study exists that evaluates students’ perceived learning outcomes of student agencies as compared to the more traditional capstone experience. If research only examines students who have worked in student-run agencies, thereby omitting the educational experiences of students enrolled in a more traditional capstone course, then there are no grounds for comparison to provide compelling empirical evidence concerning the efficacy of student agencies as a pedagogical model. As Bush and Miller (2011) explain, “[t]he importance of understanding student-run agencies lies in the need to determine if and how communications curricula are falling short of preparing students for the profession and to examine how agencies might fill potential voids” (p. 485).

 This study seeks to fill the void in the literature on public relations education by evaluating a student-run public relations firm as an experiential learning model and assessing its effectiveness in producing desired student learning outcomes. In so doing, this study examines the perceived learning outcomes reported by students enrolled in a student-run public relations firm course by comparing them to the perceived learning outcomes reported by students enrolled in two variations of the more traditional public relations capstone course. Given the study’s exploratory nature, our aim is not to argue that the below findings about the perceived effectiveness of different experiential learning approaches in public relations education are applicable to all student-run public relations agencies and all capstone courses at every university. Instead, the current study seeks to provide an empirical baseline that will help open up the scholarly discussion about the effectiveness of different pedagogical approaches to the culminating experience in public relations education and to further allow for future research to not only test but also build upon the study’s central findings. 

Literature Review

Public Relations Program Learning Outcomes 

According to Turk (2006), a central goal of public relations education is to facilitate and encourage the “linking of public relations education and practice” (p. 5). That is, to train students in ways that enable them to meet, and hopefully surpass, rigorous academic standards while at the same time providing them with the requisite conceptual tools and practical skills necessary to succeed in the public relations industry. After all, the public relations students of today are the public relations professionals of tomorrow. Not only does such a focus help codify the conceptual and practical elements of public relations education and practice, it also helps to prescribe and describe the types of knowledge, values, and skills bourgeoning public relations practitioners should ideally adopt, embrace, and proficiently implement. Moreover, Turk’s (2006) call for linking education and industry stresses the importance of facilitating productive conversations that span the educational/professional divide, an approach that further allows for industry members to provide feedback concerning graduates’ relative preparedness for professional-level public relations work. 

The good news is that there is a great deal of overlap between educators’ and professionals’ beliefs and opinions concerning the types of skills and abilities students are expected to possess following their successful completion of a university-level public relations program. While the list has expanded slightly over the years to include technological and other societal changes affecting the industry, educators and practitioners alike nonetheless agree that students entering the public relations industry should have written and verbal communication skills, critical thinking and problem solving abilities, and planning skills (Auger & Cho, 2018;      Brunner et al, 2018; Lane & Johnston, 2017; Larsen & Len-Rios, 2006; Turk, 2006). A recent list with some of the technological and societal changes mentioned above is provided by Manley and Valin (2017) who, following an extensive content analysis of documents representing associations from around the world as well as feedback from association leaders, found that entry-level practitioners should have foundational skills and abilities in writing, oral and visual communication; critical listening, critical thinking and problem-solving skills; global and diversity awareness; technological and visual literacy; strategic planning skills; and flexibility with change.

Additionally, educators and practitioners also agree that public relations programs should include an internship, a practicum, or some other relevant hands-on experience in the field (Todd, 2009). The central goal of such an approach is for students to apply their knowledge and gain valuable experience in a low-stakes environment before they take on more substantial public relations tasks when they enter the profession following graduation. For an increasing number of university public relations programs, this involves providing students with the opportunity to work in student-run public relations agencies that service real clients. A positive side-effect of working with actual clients, as opposed to working through hypothetical scenarios in the classroom, is that students report feeling increasingly confident in their ability to do public relations work (e.g., Aldoory & Wrigley, 1999; Haley et al., 2016; Sallot, 1996).

While the goals of both educators and academics align, there is discrepancy, however, between what students are capable of doing and what employers would like for them to be able to do (CPRE, 2018; Neff et al., 1999). That is, “evidence suggests that new graduates do not always meet employer’s [sic] expectations” (Neff et al., 1999, p. 34). Indeed, “while practitioners and educators agree about what entry-level employees should know and do, graduates do not seem to meet these standards regularly” (Neff et al., 1999, p. 35). According to a 2018 Commission on Public Relations Education (CPRE) omnibus survey, practitioners and educators believe that entry-level practitioners lack the skills and abilities required for writing, research and analytics, media relations, ability to communicate, critical thinking, and problem solving that are required in order to succeed in professional settings. This, of course, is by no means a new or novel finding. As Todd (2009) suggests, although educators and practitioners agree that writing competence is a central skill for anyone wishing to make it in the public relations industry, “PR agency professionals reported that entry-level practitioners’ writing skills were ‘bad’ or ‘poor’” (p. 74). More concerning, perhaps, is Todd’s claim that “PRSSA professional advisors are not convinced that faculty are teaching the skills students need in industry” (p. 71). For public relations educators, and for employers looking to hire public relations graduates, these insights certainly are troubling.

In terms of what students need to know and what they should be able to do in order to not only secure but also succeed in entry-level public relations positions, Neff et al. (1999) provided a lengthy albeit useful list of educational outcomes that nicely subsume most of the observations outlined above. Even in light of more recent scholarship, the outcomes they identified have stood the proverbial test of time. For entry-level positions, budding public relations practitioners are expected, in addition to being broadly educated on a variety of topics and having a solid understanding of ethics, current and historical events, as well as social and political issues and controversies, to 1) possess writing skills, 2) display critical thinking and problem-solving skills, 3) have management skills, and 4) show an ability to communicate publicly. 

Neff et al. (1999) also detailed four categories of skills that more advanced practitioners should have. In addition to the above, more seasoned or sophisticated public relations practitioners are expected to have 1) solid research skills, 2) display an ability to engage with and handle journalists and media institutions in a professional and competent manner, 3) understand the organizational and the societal role of public relations, and 4) have a solid working knowledge of issues management. Both sets of skills can be improved by combining public relations education with practical application through internships, practicums, student-run agency work, and service-learning initiatives such as the traditional capstone model.  

Experiential Learning in Public Relations Education  

Experiential learning theory (ELT), which outlines the process by which learning takes place through experience, states that “knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience” (Kolb et al., 2000, p. 41). According to ELT, there is a four-stage learning cycle that includes concrete experience (the learner actively engages in a new experience), reflective observation (the learner reflects back on the experience), abstract conceptualization (reflection creates a new idea or revises an existing abstract one), and active experimentation (the learner tests the new idea by applying it to the world around them, which ultimately leads to a new experience) (Kolb et al., 2000). Concrete experience and abstract conceptualization are the two ways in which a learner can grasp experiences, whereas reflective observation and active experimentation are the two ways in which a learner can transform experiences (Kolb et al., 2000). While the beginning point of the stages is flexible and is typically chosen based on a combination of the learner’s preferred learning style and the present situation, the order of the stages is not flexible. Effective learning occurs when the learner cycles through all four phases (Fraustino et al., 2015; Healey & Jenkins, 2000). 

One of the reasons this approach is of interest to educators is because it can be applied to a variety of learning environments and contexts. Due to the practical nature of public relations, implementing experiential learning in the classroom is an ideal fit. It helps to break down theoretical concepts and further connect them with practical experiences (Fraustino et al., 2015). According to Toth (1999), a supervised and structured learning environment is important in the public relations capstone course; however, student autonomy and responsibility are essential pieces of experiential learning. Trying to balance these two things can be difficult but implementing a real-world capstone experience and/or leveraging a student-run firm creates an opportunity to do just that.

“While experiential learning is the concept of connecting an experience to learning, it often takes shape in the form of service-learning” (Kim, 2015, p. 58). Service-learning is a specific type of experiential learning that allows students to participate in an organized service activity while simultaneously meeting a community need. Students then reflect back on the service-learning activity in order to connect more with the course content, the overall discipline, and their own personal civic responsibility (Pelco et al., 2014). Service-learning has been advocated by many educators and has shown to have significant positive effects on students’ academic learning as well as their personal and social development (Bennett et al., 2003; Pelco et al., 2014; Simons & Cleary, 2006). Service-learning has also been shown to increase understanding and the ability to apply theoretical concepts (Simons & Cleary, 2006).

Researchers looking at service-learning in the public relations classroom have found that it encourages students’ ability to think creatively, solve real-world problems, and identify new information needed to reach useful conclusions (Wilson, 2012), as well as boost critical thinking and increase social responsibility (Benigni et al., 2004; Werder & Strand, 2011). Additionally, other service-learning studies have determined that public relations educators should consider it as an option for their classes because it helps students enhance skills that are important for the profession (Bennett et al., 2003; Pelco et al., 2014; Simons & Cleary, 2006). In other words, an experiential learning approach rooted in service-learning is a strong pedagogical tool for use in public relations education (Harrison & Bak, 2017). 

While both the traditional campaigns capstone course and the student-run agency model allow for students to move through all four stages in the ELT, we nonetheless propose that there are significant differences in perceived learning outcomes between students who work with clients in a student-run agency setting and students who work with clients in a more traditional capstone course format. To support this argument, we first review the profiles of each pedagogical approach (public relations campaign courses vs. student-run public relations agencies).

Public Relations Campaign Course

The public relations campaigns class is relatively well-established as the capstone experience in many public relations programs. While the course can be implemented in various ways, there are several components that most campaigns courses include (Benigni et al., 2007). Students enrolled in the traditional capstone PR campaigns course often work in teams and are tasked with conducting both secondary and primary research, developing a strategic communication plan, and producing tactical elements. The client may choose to implement the plan once the course reaches its conclusion (Werder & Strand, 2011). Depending on the instructor, multiple groups may compete for the approval of a single client or student groups may work with their own individual clients instead. In the former case, there is no guarantee that any group’s work, even if it is of high quality, ends up being chosen by the client. Regardless of the structure of the course, the focus of this traditional capstone course is mostly on providing students with an opportunity to utilize previously learned skills from other courses in the curriculum, including research methods, strategic planning, informative and persuasive writing, ethical decision making, public speaking, and audience segmentation (Worley, 2001). The professor typically takes on the role of facilitator but still reviews key concepts from previous classes and provides periodic deadlines in order to prevent procrastination (Benigni & Cameron, 1999; Benigni et al., 2004; 2007). 

This approach to teaching the capstone course has been shown to enhance student learning outcomes, such as increased practical skills, interpersonal skills, personal responsibility, and citizenship (Farmer et al., 2016; Werder & Strand, 2011). However, there are also some noted shortcomings to this pedagogical approach. For example, time constraints do not typically allow for campaign implementation (Benigni et al., 2004). Therefore, although students may interact with a real client to some degree, their communication and involvement with clients is oftentimes limited or sheltered. There is also a lack of accountability because timesheets and payments from clients are not required (Benigni & Cameron, 1999). Additionally, one of the consistently most difficult parts of a PR campaigns course is getting students to understand, develop, and maintain the team-client relationship, partially because the concept of client retention is missing (Benigni et al., 2004; Worley, 2001). Finally, students’ willingness to participate plays a large role in the effectiveness of real-world, client-based projects (Fitch, 2011; Harrison & Bak, 2017). 

Public Relations Campaign Capstone Course Profile

The public relations capstone course offered at the university where the study was conducted is a three-credit course with an enrollment cap of 33 students per section. Three sections of the capstone were offered during the semester of the study in conjunction with a student-run public relations agency. While all sections of the capstone course had the same learning outcomes and provided students with the opportunity to work with a real client by taking a service-learning approach, professors/instructors nonetheless had freedom to organize the course according to their preferences. For this study, students from three capstone courses taught by two different professors were surveyed, resulting in some important distinctions. We discuss those below. 

Public Relations Campaigns Capstone Course – Variation A

At the beginning of the semester, students were assigned to client teams consisting of five to six students. Following their formation, teams were prompted to choose their own clients from a prearranged list. There were several agency team positions – account executive, research director, client relations director/assistant research director, creative director, and programming director/assignment creative director. Students were given the option of selecting their top three team positions and the professor made the final decision. The student groups worked directly with clients and were all required to schedule regular meetings with those clients. All student groups conducted secondary and primary research and subsequently created a strategic communication plan for their chosen clients. A campaign presentation was made directly to the client during the final week of the semester. 

Public Relations Campaigns Capstone Course – Variation B 

Similar to Capstone A, students enrolled in Capstone B were assigned to client teams at the beginning of the semester and each student was given the option of indicating their top three agency team positions before the professor assigned the final positions. All student groups conducted secondary and primary research and created a strategic communication plan for their respective clients and presented directly to those clients during the final week of the semester. Unlike Capstone A, student groups were assigned clients rather than choosing them from a list. Additionally, the professor was partially responsible for client interactions and functioned as a go-between, thereby limiting students’ ability to directly interact with their clients beyond an initial meeting and the final campaign presentation. However, students were encouraged to check with clients and contact them when needed, while Course A required students to have various client interactions throughout the semester.      

Because the level of direct client interaction with students significantly differed in this study, capstone courses were divided into two categories: Capstone A with greater client contact and interaction, and Capstone B with a lesser degree of client contact and interaction. Given that direct client contact can provide an experiential opportunity for students to understand, develop, and maintain the team-client relationship (Benigni et al., 2004; Worley, 2001), it is plausible that students’ perceived learning outcomes differ between the two formats. 

Student-run PR Agency 

Student-run agencies are a newer approach to fulfilling the capstone experience with additional potential benefits to students. While all different and unique in their own ways, student-run agencies nonetheless have several characteristics in common: They operate continuously, are primarily funded through client fees and university funds, have written policy manuals, include a competitive application and selection process, and use a titled structure for the student employees. In student-run agencies, the students are the primary “decision makers” and typically manage the “planning, finances, client negotiation, client complaints, and new client development” (Maben & Whitson, 2013, p. 19). Additionally, it is becoming more common for these student-run agencies to have a dedicated office space. The idea, in short, is for student-run agencies to “mimic professional public relations and advertising agencies by providing students with a professional environment in which to work on real projects for real clients” (Bush & Miller, 2011, p. 485). 

This agency model is typically offered as either a replacement for or supplement to the traditional public relations campaigns course and has shown some real promise in boosting student learning outcomes by providing a number of educational benefits (Bush, 2009; Swanson, 2011). Most notable among these benefits, perhaps, is that the learning-by-doing approach gives students an opportunity to actually implement the campaigns they plan—not only does the agency model produce an educational experience that more closely mirrors the professional agency setting that a number of students seek out following graduation, it also produces an experiential depth and richness that the more traditional campaigns course simply is not configured to deliver. Rather than simply pitching a campaign plan that clients may or may not choose to adopt following the conclusion of the capstone course, agency students are tasked with not only researching and formulating campaign plans, they also have to work with clients in real-time as those plans are tweaked, fine-tuned, and implemented. This means that students work closely with clients over time as opposed to simply reaching out during the research phase to ask questions or seek clarification. 

The agency model also places an increased focus on client relations and managing client expectations (Benigni et al., 2004; Haygood et al., 2019; Bush et al., 2017; Swanson, 2011). As a result, the agency structure offers a more disciplined business setting and increases team communication skills more than other service-learning courses, including the PR campaigns course. Finally, the benefits of the student-run agency experience also include a rise in professional confidence and readiness (Ranta et al., 2019), the opportunity to learn about leadership and management (Haygood et al., 2019), a chance to practice client relationship maintenance in a low-stakes environment (Bush et al., 2017), and the opportunity to improve administrative skills (Bush, 2009; Kim, 2015; Swanson, 2011). Beyond student learning outcomes, student-run agencies also hold the promise of increasing the prominence and reputation of the academic programs they belong to within their respective communities (Kim, 2015).

However, in spite of the abovementioned benefits, the agency model also presents some unique challenges, including a greater faculty time commitment compared to teaching other courses; struggles with student motivation because other classes can sometimes take precedence; and lack of dedicated space, technology, and money to run the agency (Swanson, 2011). It is difficult to predict student dependability, which can lead to an imbalanced workload among students, with some students doing or taking on more work than others, which is a common issue in other team-based projects and courses as well (Gibson & Rowden, 1994). Client expectations can also be unreasonable as they do not fully understand what outcomes are possible, or even reasonable, and they may also expect students to know more than they do (Bush, 2009; Gruenwald & Shadinger, 2013; Swanson, 2011). Agency students may not find the agency setting effective at improving their soft skills (Swanson, 2019). This means that it may take a considerable amount of time and effort for faculty to manage the agency so that the agency can bring all of the potential educational benefits to life. 

Public Relations Agency Profile

The student-run public relations agency course at the university where the study was conducted is elective and is offered as a replacement for or as an addition to the university’s public relations capstone campaigns course. While students receive course credit for working at the agency, there is a competitive application process that students must navigate. The study was conducted during the agency’s first year and since the agency was still working on getting established, the difference between capstone students and agency students was smaller at that time than what is likely the case today. This particular agency has what Busch and Struthers (2016) consider “high levels of accountability” (p.56), meaning that students meet weekly as a “class” and also work regularly outside of class time with other members of their account teams. Additionally, the agency has a formal title structure, a set of concrete business protocols students are expected to follow and uphold, the ability to charge clients for completed work, and also a dedicated office space for students to work and even meet with clients whenever such meetings are deemed desirable or necessary. 

Student employees work directly with clients at every step from beginning to end. Therefore, the format very much mimics the real agency account format, except that there are workshops and active guidance from the faculty adviser throughout the process as plans and deliverables are tweaked, reworked, fine-tuned, and implemented. 

All of the agency students in the survey sample described below elected to use the student agency course as a replacement for the traditional public relations capstone campaigns course. Because the university where the study was conducted requires that students complete at least two research methods courses, two public relations writing courses, and a public relations cases/management course before enrolling in the capstone, all students were well-equipped to function as employees even without first completing the traditional capstone course when undergoing training for the agency. The faculty adviser for the student agency also taught the Capstone A variation during the semester that data collection took place. 

Perceived Student Learning Outcomes

When focusing on the students’ learning perspectives, student agencies can provide significant educational benefits as one of the most active experiential learning models in the public relations academic program. Previous studies on student-run agencies have surveyed agency advisors about agency characteristics (Maben & Whitson, 2013) and interviewed advisors on the pedagogical benefits and risks of student-run agencies (Bush, 2009; Maben & Whitson, 2014). Additionally, there have been several case studies that profile a specific firm and oftentimes provide anecdotal evidence of effectiveness (Gibson & Rowden, 1994; Gruenwald & Shadinger, 2013; Kim, 2015; Swanson, 2011; Ranta et al., 2019), as well as a qualitative study that interviewed current industry professionals about the perceived benefits of their student agency experience (Bush et al., 2017). 

However, prior to this study, little was known about whether student-run agencies can produce better perceived educational outcomes for students than the traditional public relations campaigns class. While a few of the aforementioned qualitative studies speculate about this topic, a quantitative comparison study that provides a basis for determining its effectiveness based on perceived student learning outcomes does not exist. The current study fills this gap in the literature and also extends previous research by examining how students perceive the pedagogical model of a student-run public relations agency differently from a traditional capstone course as it relates to achieving learning outcomes. 

Prior studies have proposed assessing perceived learning outcomes by using both relative and absolute learning assessments (e.g., Aldoory & Wrigley, 1999; Cohen & Kinsey, 1994). Relative assessments ask a more comparative assessment of learning benefits, compared to other learning opportunities (i.e., they were asked to evaluate whether the course they were in was effective at achieving a list of learning outcomes, relative to other public relations courses). Absolute assessment of learning can be defined as directly assessing whether specific projects or learning opportunities are helpful as a means for achieving desired learning outcomes (i.e., measuring students’ developed competency in the course). In addition to adapting the distinctions made by previous studies (Aldoory & Wrigley, 1999; Cohen & Kinsey, 1994), this study also attempts to evaluate students’ perceived learning outcomes across both relative assessments and absolute assessments. In other words, this study examines the effectiveness of different experiential learning approaches by measuring perceived student learning outcomes. 

Students’ perceptions of their development is one of the critical indicators of educational benefits used in prior studies (e.g., Astin et al., 2000; Blomstrom & Tam, 2008; Celio et al., 2011; Farmer et al., 2016; Toncar et al., 2006; Werder & Strand, 2011; Witmer et al., 2009). Although the specific concept used was slightly different across studies (e.g., students’ perceived proficiency, perceived ability, self-awarded strengths and gained confidence, evaluation of acquired strengths, understanding roles, change in perspectives, heightened awareness), the common thread is their use of students’ perceived competency to evaluate the benefits of an educational model, such as a service-learning approach. That means, while self-report measures are liable to suffer from conceptual inexactitude, they are nonetheless valuable and have seen extensive use in both psychology and education research. As Howard (1994) explains, “[w]hen employed within a sensible design, self-reports often represent a valuable and valid measurement strategy” (p. 403). Although one might speculate that students are ill-equipped to seriously evaluate their own aptitudes when asked to assess their ability to competently use and apply developing skillsets, there is ample evidence suggesting that self-perceptions of ability are reasonable predictors of actual ability (e.g., Silverthorn, et al., 2005; Van der Beek et al., 2017; Wood & Bandura, 1989). Research also suggests that successful performance of a given task is likely to increase one’s self-perception of ability to carry out the same or similar tasks in the future (Schmitt et al., 1986). As such, there is reason to believe that students’ self-perceptions of ability are not entirely detached from reality and that their assessments, while nonetheless likely to deviate from actual ability, still serve as a reasonable and valuable measure in its own right. 

When discussing self-report measures, we should also be careful not to assume that students are unwitting victims of the Dunning-Kruger effect. That is, that they are incapable of reasonable and rational self-analysis:

“Developing a self-concept requires the metacognitive ability of evaluating one’s performance, which requires the same expertise that is necessary to perform well. The Dunning–Kruger effect thus predicts that low performers are less able to accurately judge their own performance and may overestimate themselves, whereas high performers are better at judging their performance… This view predicts that the relation between achievement and self-concept becomes stronger with increasing ability” (Van der Beek et al., 2017, p. 480-481)

Therefore, to assess the effectiveness of student-run agencies in public relations programs versus public relations capstone courses by measuring perceived student learning outcomes, the following hypotheses were proposed. 

H1a-b: Student agency students will report a higher relative assessment of the pedagogical approach compared to students in public relations capstone courses A and B. 

H2a-d: Student agency students will perceive the agency as more effective in achieving entry-level competencies than students in public relations capstone course A across the following categories: (a) writing skills, (b) critical thinking/problem-solving skills, (c) management skills, (d) ability to communicate publicly and initiative. 

H3a-d: Student agency students will perceive the agency as more effective in achieving entry-level competencies than public relations capstone course B across the following categories: (a) writing skills, (b) critical thinking/problem-solving skills, (c) management skills, (d) ability to communicate publicly and initiative. 

H4a-d: Student agency students will perceive the agency as more effective in achieving entry-level competencies than public relations capstone course A across the following categories: (a) research skills, (b) ability to handle the media professionally, (c) knowledge of the role of public relations, (d) knowledge of issue management. 

H5a-d: Student agency students will perceive the agency as more effective in achieving entry-level competencies than public relations capstone course B across the following categories: (a) research skills, (b) ability to handle the media professionally, (c) knowledge of the role of public relations, (d) knowledge of issue management. 

As discussed earlier, given that direct client contact can provide an experiential opportunity for students to understand, develop, and maintain the team-client relationship (Benigni et al., 2004; Worley, 2001), it is plausible that students’ perceived effectiveness differs between the two formats. Therefore, we proposed the following research question below: 

RQ: How do students perceive the educational effectiveness of Capstone A versus Capstone B? 


To examine the proposed hypotheses and research question, this study used an online survey methodology. The participants in this study were recruited from public relations capstone courses as well as a student-run public relations agency course at a large, southern public university. 


All students enrolled in the two capstone course variations and the student public relations agency course were asked to participate in the survey. A total of 100 students participated in the online survey and the response rate was approximately 98%. Out of 100 participants, 17 (17%) were from the student-run PR agency and 83 students (83%) were from three sections of public relations campaign courses. Among the capstone courses a total of 33 (40%) students were enrolled in Capstone A, the course with greater client interaction, and 50 (60%) were enrolled in two sections of Capstone B, the course with less client interaction. Of the sampled students, 85% (n=85) self-identified as female.


Students were invited to take an online survey. After reading an informed consent form, students were then asked to answer a series of questions focusing on relative assessment and absolute assessment across entry- and advanced level competencies. 

Survey Instrument

By adapting the categories proposed by Cohen and Kinsey (1994) and Aldoory and Wrigley (1999), the survey items in this study included relative assessment items and absolute assessment items. The absolute items asked students to assess how much they perceived a specific course to be helpful to them in achieving entry- and advanced-level competencies, while the relative assessment items asked how students perceived their learning outcomes in the course compared to other public relations courses. 

Relative Assessment. Relative assessment was examined using five items on a 7-point Likert scale (1=strongly disagree, 7=strongly agree); “the client projects of this class were more useful for placing classroom material in context,” “the client projects of this class were a more effective learning exercise,” “I was more motivated to work on the client project of this class,” “the client projects in this class were more helpful in understanding the relationship between the course and the real world,” and “learning about public relations took place more in the client projects of this class.” The relative assessment items were adapted from prior studies (Aldoory & Wrigley, 1999; Cohen & Kinsey, 1994) and the wording was slightly modified to fit the context of the study. For example, instead of asking “relative to other assignments,” participants were asked to answer the above items “relative to other public relations courses.” 

Absolute Assessment. To measure perceived educational benefits of different pedagogical approaches, an instrument was developed by adapting items from prior studies and modified to fit the purpose of the study (CPRE, 2018; Neff et al., 1999; Simons & Cleary, 2006; Turk, 2006; Werder & Strand, 2011). Most notably, the survey instrument was designed to align with the suggestions by the      2018 Commission on Public Relations Education (CPRE) report. Detailed discussion on the public relations program learning outcomes can be found in the earlier section. The absolute assessment items included two categories: entry-level and advanced-level competencies. Entry-level competencies include: 1) writing skills, 2) critical thinking and problem-solving skills, 3) management skills, and 4) an ability to communicate publicly. Advanced level competencies include: 1) research skills, 2) an ability to engage with and handle journalists and media institutions in a professional and competent manner, 3) a knowledge of the organizational and societal role of public relations, and 4) a knowledge of issues management. A more detailed breakdown of the specific measurements included in each category and reliability scores can be found in Table 1.      – Insert Table 1 here – 


Relative Assessment 

H1 proposed that students’ relative assessment of the student-run agency would be higher than the traditional public relations campaign capstone courses. A one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) was employed to examine whether significant mean differences exist, and the findings suggest statistically significant differences among the three groups (F (1, 99) = 6.86, p < .005, ηp2 =.12). Students in the student-run agency course reported the highest level of relative assessment (M = 6.95, SD = 0.11), followed by Capstone A with greater client interaction (M=6.33, SD =.75), followed by Capstone B (M=5.94, SD=1.24). A Tukey post hoc test revealed that significant mean differences exist between the student run agency and Capstone B. While student agency students reported higher scores than students in Capstone A, the difference was not statistically significant. Therefore, H1 (a) was not supported, while H1(b) was supported.     

Perceived Entry Level Competency

H2a-d and H3a-d propose that students’ assessment of the agency course at achieving entry level competency was significantly higher than those of the capstone course A and B courses across four categories; (a) writing skills, (b) critical thinking/problem-solving skills, (c) management skills, and (d) ability to communicate publicly. 

Students’ assessment of the agency at improving their writing skills was higher than students’ assessment of both capstone courses (Agency; M=6.56, SD=.60, Capstone A; M=5.62, SD=.87; Capstone B; M=5.42, SD=1.36). A one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) test showed that the mean differences were statistically significant (F (2, 99) =6.76, p <.005, ηp2 =.12). A Tukey post hoc test suggested that students enrolled in the student agency showed significantly greater confidence as to the course’s effectiveness at improving their writing skills compared to students enrolled in the traditional capstone courses. Therefore, H2a and H3a were supported. 

Students’ assessments of the agency at improving their critical thinking and problem-solving skills were higher than the two traditional capstone courses (Agency; M=6.88, SD=.23, Capstone A; M=6.3, SD=.58; Capstone B; M=5.99, SD=1.16). A one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) test showed that the mean differences were statistically significant (F (2, 99) = 6.49, p <.005, ηp2 =.12). A Tukey post hoc test suggested that students enrolled in the student agency showed significantly greater confidence regarding the agency course’s effectiveness at improving their critical thinking and problem-solving skills compared to Capstone B. Therefore, H3b was supported. Due to the lack of a significant difference between the agency model and Capstone A, H2b was not supported. 

Students enrolled in the agency reported greater confidence that the course helped them to have better management skills, compared to the traditional capstone courses (Agency; M=6.90, SD=.21, Capstone A; M=6.36, SD=.45; Capstone B; M=5.75, SD=1.25). A one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) test showed that the mean differences were statistically significant (F (2, 99) = 11.07, p <.001, ηp2 =.19). A Tukey post hoc test suggested that students enrolled in the student agency showed significantly greater confidence in the course’s effectiveness at improving their management skills compared to the Capstone B course. Therefore, H3c was supported. The mean difference between the agency model and the Capstone A course was not statically significant, and therefore H2c was not supported. 

Students enrolled in the agency reported that greater confidence in the course has helped them to improve their public communication ability, compared to the traditional capstone courses (Agency; M=6.88, SD=.23, Capstone A; M=6.30, SD=.58; Capstone B; M=5.98, SD=1.16). A one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) test showed that the mean differences were statistically significant (F (2, 99) = 6.49, p <.005, ηp2 =.19). A Tukey post hoc test suggested that students enrolled in the student agency showed significantly greater confidence in the pedagogical approach’s effectiveness at improving their public communication abilities compared to the Capstone B course. Therefore, H3d was supported. The mean difference between the agency model and the Capstone A course was not statistically significant, and therefore H2d was not supported (see Figure 1 and Table 2).   – Insert Figure 1 and Table 2 here – 

Perceived Advanced Level Competency

H4 and H5 posit that students’ perceived effectiveness of a course at achieving advanced competencies would be greater among students enrolled in the student PR agency course compared to those in the traditional capstone courses across four categories: (a) research skills, (b) ability to handle the media professionally, (c) knowledge of the role of public relations, and (d) knowledge of issue management.  

Agency students rated their research skills more highly than students of the two traditional capstone courses (Agency: M=6.35, SD=.94; Capstone A: M=6.42, SD=.43; Capstone B: M=5.60, SD=1.51). A one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) test showed that the mean differences were statistically significant (F (2, 99) = 5.93, p <.005, ηp2 =.11). A Tukey post hoc test suggested that students enrolled in the student agency showed significantly greater confidence in the agency course’s effectiveness at improving their research skills, compared to the Capstone B course. Therefore, H5a was supported. Due to the lack of a significant difference between the agency model versus the Capstone A course, H4a was not supported. 

Agency students rated their ability to handle the media professionally significantly higher than students of the two traditional capstone courses (Agency; M=6.56, SD=.77, Capstone A; M=5.34, SD=1.19; Capstone B; M=5.39, SD=1.59). A one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) test showed that the mean differences were statistically significant (F (2, 99) = 5.35, p <.01, ηp2 =.10). A Tukey post hoc test suggested that students enrolled in the student agency showed significantly greater confidence in the agency course’s effectiveness at improving their media-relations skills compared to the Capstone A and Capstone B courses. Therefore, H4b and H5b were supported.   

Agency students rated their understanding of the role of public relations more highly than students of the two traditional capstone courses (Agency; M=6.85, SD=.25, Capstone A; M=6.14, SD=.59; Capstone B; M=5.62, SD=1.56). A one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) test showed that the mean differences were statistically significant (F (2, 99) = 7.54, p <.005, ηp2 =.14). A Tukey post hoc test suggested that students enrolled in the student agency showed significantly greater confidence in the agency course’s effectiveness at improving their understanding of the role of public relations compared to the Capstone B course. Therefore, H5c was supported while H4c was not. 

Agency students rated their understanding of issue management more highly than students of the two traditional capstone courses (Agency; M=6.91, SD=.18, Capstone A; M=6.14, SD=.54; Capstone B; M=5.8, SD=1.23). A one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) test showed that the mean differences were statistically significant (F (2, 99) = 5.35, p <.01, ηp2 =.10). A Tukey post hoc test suggested that students enrolled in the student agency showed significantly greater confidence in the agency course’s effectiveness at improving their issue management skills, compared to the Capstone A and B courses. Therefore, H4d and H5d were supported (see Figure 2 and Table 3).     

Capstone A versus Capstone B 

The research question asked whether and how perceived educational benefits differ between capstone courses A and B. Multiple t-tests were conducted to determine the mean differences between the two traditional courses across relative and absolute assessments (i.e., entry level competencies; writing skills, critical thinking/problem-solving skills, management skills and ability to communicate publicly, advanced level competences; research skills, ability to handle the media professionally, knowledge of the role of public relations, and knowledge of issue management). As to relative assessment, students from Capstone A reported higher scores than Capstone B (M=6.33 vs. M=5.94), but the mean difference was not statistically significant. Regarding entry level competency, students’ assessment of Capstone A at achieving the entry level competency was significantly higher than Capstone B across two categories: critical thinking/problem-solving skills (M=6.48 vs. 5.92; t(81)=2.91, p <.01) and management skills (M=6.36 vs. 5.75; t(81)=2.70, p <.01). As to advanced level competencies, students assessed the Capstone A course significantly higher than the Capstone B course across two categories – research skills (M=5.62 vs. 5.42; t (81) =3.10, p <.005) and understanding public relations roles (M=6.48 vs. 5.92; t (81) =2.86, p <.05).


This study examined the effectiveness of different experiential learning approaches in public relations courses by measuring perceived student learning outcomes. We surveyed all students enrolled in three public relations campaign capstone courses as well as students enrolled in the student-run public relations agency course at a large southern university over the course of a single semester. 

The results show that the public relations agency model was perceived by students as much more effective in achieving learning outcomes relative to other public relations courses. Agency students perceived the pedagogical format as more effective in placing the course materials in context, that the client projects proved to be a more effective learning exercise, that they were more motivated to work on the client projects, that the client projects were more helpful in understanding the relationship between the course and the real world, and that learning about public relations took place more with the client projects in the student-run public relations agency than in the traditional capstone setting. Although students working for the agency reported a greater relative assessment of the pedagogical model, this finding does not necessarily mean that students in the traditional capstone courses felt that their courses were not effective at achieving learning outcomes. The average scores of relative assessments among students in the traditional courses were 6.33 out of 7 (Capstone A), and 5.99 out of 7 (Capstone B). Although students’ relative assessment of capstone courses was high, agency students’ relative assessment was even higher (6.95 out of 7). That means the agency model, which attempts to provide experiential depth and richness that the more traditional campaign courses cannot, provided students with even greater perceived educational benefits relative to capstone courses, which were already rated high. 

When it comes to achieving entry-level competencies, the findings suggested that the student agency showed superior results across all of the tested categories (e.g., writing skills, critical thinking and problem-solving skills, management skills, and public communication abilities) compared to the public relations campaigns course B. Compared to Capstone A, the agency was perceived as more effective at improving writing skills, but students’ perceived competencies in other areas were relatively similar between the agency and the Capstone A course as evidenced by H2’s test results. This finding implies that limiting students’ direct interactions with their clients, as was the case in Capstone B (the professor was responsible for client interactions and functioned as a go-between), significantly restricts the course’s perceived educational effectiveness. While the student agency showed superior results regarding writing skills compared to the Capstone A course, Capstone A students still showed great confidence in the course format when it came to improving their entry-level skill sets across critical thinking and problem-solving skills, management skills, and public communication abilities. This indicates the importance of more direct experiential learning opportunities through client interactions; when the public relations campaign was structured to ensure greater client interaction (i.e., Capstone A) throughout the semester (including client initial interview, consistent communications while completing secondary and primary research, and developing a strategic campaign plan), the capstone course was perceived as much more effective to the point that the course was generally perceived as effective as the public relations agency model at achieving various entry-level skill sets, except for writing skills. At the student agency, students were not only developing a strategic plan for their client but were also implementing proposed communication plans, which required various styles of writing that were tweaked, fine-tuned, and implemented. Actual implementation of communication tactics could have improved the writing skills of agency students more effectively than any traditional capstone courses. This is important in that writing competence is one of the central skills for anyone wishing to make it in the public relations industry. 

In evaluating the effectiveness of achieving advanced-level competencies, the differences among the three pedagogical approaches were more apparent. The findings suggest that across numerous areas of advanced competencies, a public relations agency promotes student learning outcomes more effectively than both capstone courses. Agency students reported greater competency across all tested areas compared to the Capstone B course. Specifically, they reported that the agency improved their research skills, media relations skills, advanced knowledge on the role of public relations, and issue management abilities. Compared to the Capstone A course, agency students reported greater competency in media relations and issue management. These results are fairly consistent with previous studies. The agency structure presents a more disciplined business setting and increases team communication skills more than other service-learning courses, including PR campaigns courses. Therefore, agency students got a chance to learn about client relations and managing client expectations, among other things (Benigni et al., 2004; Swanson, 2011). The benefits of the student-run agency experience also included a rise in professional confidence and readiness, the chance to understand leadership and management, practice with client relationship maintenance, and the opportunity to improve administrative skills (Bush, 2009; Bush et al., 2017; Haygood et al., 2019; Kim, 2015; Ranta et al., 2019; Swanson, 2011).  

Overall, agency students reported the highest perceived effectiveness and superior development of skill sets across numerous areas, followed by students in the Capstone A course. The Capstone A course, with more emphasis on direct client communication and engagement, was found to be more effective at achieving learning outcomes than Capstone B across critical thinking and problem-solving skills (entry-level), relationship management skills (entry-level), research skills (advanced-level), and knowledge of the role of public relations (advanced-level). The findings demonstrated that actively employing a hands-on experiential and pedagogical approach can be significantly more effective, even within traditional public relations campaign courses.  


Although public relations educators generally support the value of student agencies, little research on perceived student learning outcomes exists – especially on whether student agencies are effective at achieving public relations learning outcomes (Swanson, 2011). There are no quantitative studies that evaluate student learning outcomes of student agencies compared to traditional capstone courses. This study attempted to explore a topic that had not been clearly studied with the intention of providing basic foundational knowledge for future pedagogical studies focusing on student agencies. This study provides useful insights for academics and educators. A student-run agency that adopts an experiential learning approach can be highly effective at achieving learning outcomes where traditional courses may fall short, including the enhancement of writing skills, media relations skills, issue management skills, and more. 

According to a 2018 CPRE omnibus survey, practitioners and educators believed that entry-level practitioners lack skills and ability in the areas of research, writing, analytics, media relations, communication, critical thinking, and problem solving, which are required in order to succeed in a professional setting. As the study findings showed, a course with more emphasis on the experiential learning approach can achieve more effective learning outcomes, most notably the student-run agency approach. The findings of this study demonstrated the usefulness of the experiential learning theory (ELT) framework in exploring perceived student learning outcomes of different courses. The process of learning through experience appears to be critical in preparing students for the profession because the knowledge earned from “the combination of grasping and transforming experience” can fill knowledge/skill discrepancies (Kolb et al., 2000, p. 41). 

Limitations and Directions for Future Study 

Despite the useful insights provided by the study, we acknowledge its limitations. First, this study is exploratory and therefore focuses more on providing useful foundational knowledge for future research to build upon. Because the study was carried out at a single university, future research should expand the population to test the generalizability of the study findings. Also, each school may have different formats for the student agency and public relations campaign course. In other words, with more than 100 public relations programs offering students an educational experience rooted in the public relations agency model and even more offering a public relations campaign course, it is important to note that these experiences are structured differently and we should be careful about making broad generalizations from one exploratory study. Therefore, the current study’s findings should be interpreted with caution. In the case of this study, a student-run agency featured the most active experiential learning model followed by Capstone A and Capstone B. The latter course provided a limited form of service-learning in that students worked to meet a real client’s public relations needs with very limited direct interaction. Other university courses may have different formats such that the findings here should be adapted with caution. 

Second, despite the significant perceived educational benefits of a student-run agency, the format can also propose significant challenges, as discussed earlier (e.g., greater faculty time commitment, lack of dedicated space, technology, and money to run the agency, difficulty in predicting dependability, and unreasonable client expectations). It may take a considerable amount of time and effort for faculty to manage the agency model such that the agency can generate all of the potential educational benefits. Therefore, educators who consider student agencies should look not only at the significant educational benefits but also the realistic challenges it can entail. Future research may also explore the difficulties and needs associated with the experiential learning model rather than just its perceived educational benefits. 

Third, the student employees participating in this study went through an application process to be selected to serve as employees, which means that student employees might be high performing students to begin with. Additionally, applying for something is a determined action that also might be associated with high performing students. It is for these reasons that it is important to measure not only absolute learning outcomes but also relative learning outcomes. Future studies may even consider a longitudinal study to more accurately evaluate whether students who worked in a student run public relations agency are better equipped to competently carry out professional public relations tasks than students who enrolled in a traditional capstone course.  


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To cite this article: Kim, Y., Meganck, S.,Kristiansen, L., & Woo, C.W. (2021). Taking experiential learning to the next level with student-run agencies. Journal of Public Relations Education, 7(1), 80-121. https://aejmc.us/jpre/2021/05/28/taking-experiential-learning-to-the-next-level-with-student-run-agencies/(opens in a new tab)

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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University of Florida. (n.d.-b). Public relations. Retrieved on June 5, 2020, from https://catalog.ufl.edu/UGRD/courses/public_relations/ 

University of Memphis. (n.d.). Academic catalog. University of Memphis – Acalog ACMS™. Retrieved on June 5, 2020, from https://catalog.memphis.edu/content.php?filter%5B27%5D=JOUR 

University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. (n.d.). Course catalog. Retrieved on June 5, 2020, from https://web-tw1p.uwosh.edu/psp/TWguest/EMPLOYEE/SA/c/COMMUNITY_ACCESS.SSS_BROWSE_CATLG.GBL?PORTALPARAM_PTCNAV=HC_SSS_BROWSE_CATLG_GBL4 

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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/

A Simulation as a Pedagogical Tool for Teaching Professional Competencies in Public Relations Education

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted to JPRE October 2, 2019. R&R decision November 30, 2019. Revision submitted January 11, 2020. Manuscript accepted (with changes) for publication April 10, 2020. Changes received June 11, 2020. Final changes received July 17, 2020. First published online August 15, 2020.


Aoife O’Donnell 
Faculty of Media Communications 
Griffith College
Dublin, Ireland
Email: aoife@vitalcommunications.ie


Research indicates there are common competencies that are required by the public relations industry, such as business acumen, communication skills, and critical thinking. This study examined how the use of a simulation exercise could assist students in developing these competencies. The simulation exercise was blended with other pedagogical tools to assist in teaching crisis communications to a group of post-graduate public relations students in Ireland. A mixed methods methodology was used. Situational judgment tests were exclusively designed for this research, in consultation with a team of public relations professionals. These tests were used for the quantitative analysis while a focus group and reflection were used for the qualitative analysis. The exercise was found to have a positive effect on the development of competencies in students. The findings are useful for establishing competency standards for entry-level preparation and for identifying pedagogical approaches that may assist students in preparing for careers in the industry.

Keywords: public relations, pedagogy, competencies, situational judgment tests, experiential learning, blended learning

A Simulation as a Pedagogical Tool for Teaching Professional Competencies in Public Relations Education 

Higher education institutions are grappling with the challenges of meeting the modern learning needs of students and the ever-evolving demands of industry. Research indicates there are competencies needed within the public relations industry such as critical thinking and communication skills (Barnes & Tallent, 2015; Commission on Public Relations Education, 2018; Flynn, 2014; Madigan, 2017).  The purpose of this study was to explore if specific pedagogical techniques, including a simulation exercise, could assist students in developing these competencies. To achieve this aim, a research study was designed based on Picciano’s (2009) multimodal model of blended learning and Kolb’s (2015) experiential learning cycle. A simulation exercise was blended with other face-to-face and online pedagogical tools and used to assist in teaching students to manage media communications in a crisis situation. 

The study was conducted with post-graduate public relations students, using a concurrent mixed methods methodology. To assess the efficacy on the development of the competencies in students, situational judgment tests were designed specifically for this study, in consultation with a team of public relations professionals. A focus group and a reflection formed the qualitative analysis. The findings of the research are of benefit to the public relations industry in that they could help with the testing of competencies required at entry-level into the profession and in the identification of pedagogical approaches that have the potential to assist public relations students in preparing for careers in the industry. 

Competencies Required by the Public Relations Industry

The higher education sector has been in a period of significant transition over the last two decades as a result of the evolution of technology, widespread participation in education, and changing competency demands from the industry regarding entry-level preparation (Price Waterhouse Coopers, 2018; Strategy Group, 2011). Flynn (2014) postulated that 21st century public relations practitioners are required to have a “different skill set and competencies [than] their counterparts” who practiced before them (p. 363). In its 2018 report on the Workforce of the Future, Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) stated: “We are living through a fundamental transformation in the way we work. Automation and ‘thinking machines’ are replacing human tasks and jobs and changing the skills that organisations are looking for in their people” ( p. 3). In a survey of academic and industry leaders, the IBM Institute for Business Value found that 71% of industry recruiters had difficulty finding applicants with sufficient practical experience (King, 2015). The IBM study also revealed that the skills leaders required in the industry were the very skills graduates lacked: problem solving, collaboration and teamwork, business-context communication and flexibility, agility, and adaptability. In its most recent report on the needs within the PR industry, the Commission on Public Relations Education (2018) echoed those desires for problem solving—“the most desired abilities are creative thinking, problem solving, and critical thinking” (p. 15). Alongside problem solving, other communication skills are requirements for senior public relations professionals, whose role is ultimately to communicate on behalf of an organization in a written or oral manner. 

The essential skill of critical thinking is defined by the Foundation for Critical Thinking (n.d.) as:

That mode of thinking—about any subject, content, or problem—in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it. . . . Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. . . . It entails effective communication and problem-solving abilities. (para. 2) 

A study by Barnes and Tallent (2015) focused specifically on teaching critical thinking skills to Millennials (people born between 1981 and 2000) in public relations classes. They referred to an ability to think critically as vital in public relations professionals and recommended that it should be taught in communication courses.

Communication skills are clearly foundational in public relations, as can be seen in this definition of the field: “the art and social science of analyzing trends, predicting their consequences, counseling organization leaders and implementing planned programs of action which will serve both the organization’s and the public interest” (Theaker, 2016, p. 5). These “planned programs of action” can be interpreted as strategies that assist an organization in communicating its messages with its publics, including through the media. Thus, in addition to general oral and written communication skills, an ability to communicate specifically with the media is a vital skill required by all public relations professionals.

In addition to skills such as writing, content creation, and problem solving, the Commission on Public Relations Education’s (2018) latest report lists items entry-level PR practitioners need to know, including business acumen. The CPRE report defines the term business acumen as “understanding how business works, to provide the contextual significance of public relations” (p. 28). Following the Oxford Dictionary of English’s (n.d.) definition of acumen, competency in business acumen would indicate an ability to make good judgments and quick decisions that are appropriate in business. Business acumen has also been explained as a “good appreciation of business, business strategy, and business intelligence” (Gregory, 2008, p. 220). Flynn (2014) proffers that business acumen is a competency that has been widely reported in the literature and by industry professionals as important to public relations practice.  In their article published on the Institute of Public Relations’ (IPR) website titled “Public Relations and Business Acumen: Closing the Gap,” Ragas and Culp (2014) stated, “As the public relations industry evolves, the need for greater business acumen among professionals working in all levels of the field . . . has never been more important” (para. 1). They added that “to be a strategic partner to clients requires an intimate understanding of business, and how your counsel can advance organization goals and objectives” (Ragas & Culp, 2014, para. 1). 

Blended Learning and Learning Theory

While the industry is demanding graduates with more specific skills, higher education institutions are grappling with larger class sizes and a more diverse student population comprising a range of ages, genders, nationalities, and academic abilities (Strategy Group, 2011). To address the increased diversity of the student population, higher education is required to be more creative in its curricula design and in its teaching methods. As the Irish Strategy Group led by Dr. Colin Hunt stated, “we need new structures that better reflect the diverse learning requirements of our students” (p. 4). At an institutional level, this has resulted in a move away from the traditional didactic approach of teaching toward a more student-centered approach, involving a more interactive style of learning (Kember, 2009). This has translated to curriculum design that encourages active learning and employs pedagogical techniques that can assist in the development of what the Strategy Group refers to as the “high-order knowledge-based skills” (p. 4).  

Blended learning is an educational approach that combines traditional and contemporary teaching and learning methods. Cost effectiveness, access, flexibility, and an ability to address diverse student needs are cited among its benefits (Bonk & Graham, 2006). “Blended learning” is a term that has evolved in tandem with the evolution of technology over the last 20 years and although it has many definitions, it is most commonly used to describe a program or module where face-to-face and online teaching methods are combined (Partridge et al., 2011). 

There are many models of blended learning available, one of which is the multimodal model of blended learning (Picciano, 2009). This model offers clear direction on basic pedagogical objectives and approaches that can be employed to assist the instructor in achieving the required outcomes. This model recognizes the role of blended learning in addressing the varying learning needs in a group of learners. Picciano (2009) states that this model caters to the diverse needs of a modern classroom that may include different personalities, generations, and learning styles. In the multimodal model, six basic pedagogical objectives are recommended when designing a blended learning program, including content, social and emotional factors, dialectic/questioning, synthesis/evaluation (assignments/assessment), collaboration/student-generated content, and reflection. Picciano recommends teaching approaches to assist the learners and the teachers in meeting these objectives, including content management systems (CMS), multi-user virtual environments (MUVE), discussion boards, presentations, assessments, e-portfolios, wikis, blogs, and journals.

Blended learning is a style that is rooted in constructivist teaching and learning theory. According to Schunk (2012), “Constructivism requires that we structure teaching and learning experiences to challenge students’ thinking so that they will be able to construct new knowledge” (p. 274). Within the constructivist learning philosophy, several teaching and learning strategies have been proposed, with one of the most influential contemporary models being Kolb’s (2015) experiential learning cycle. The experiential learning cycle identifies four modes of learning the learner needs to transition through to develop a deep understanding of a topic. The modes are defined as concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. Concrete experience involves the dissemination of information, for example, through a lecture or another means of content delivery. Abstract conceptualization refers to the development of the learner’s own thoughts. Reflective observation allows the learner to learn through reflecting on the information acquired, and during the active experimentation phase, the learner puts the learning into practice.

Public Relations Education 

The Commission on Public Relations Education (2018) made recommendations for designing and structuring higher education undergraduate public relations programs. It stated PR educational curricula should cover six essential topics, including introduction to or principles of public relations, research methods, writing, campaigns and case studies, supervised work experience or internships, and ethics. A course that has work experience incorporated into its curriculum would be ideally placed to provide students with the best opportunity to learn in the areas of campaigns and case studies, work experience/internships, and ethics, as they are topics that are more practical in nature. Many public relations courses offer a combination of theoretical content and work experience, presumably to prepare the students for industry by equipping them with both theoretical and practical knowledge. The question is then, what are the most appropriate pedagogical methods to use to equip students with this practical knowledge? 

Present research supports the use of creative teaching methods in the classroom to teach practical skills, such as simulations and what Barnes and Tallent (2015) referred to as “constructivist thinking tools” (p. 437). Their study offered examples of exercises, such as group work, discussions, reflective writing, and mind-maps in which students are encouraged to visualize information, group related items together, and identify problems and solutions as a result.

The word “simulation” can be used to define the “imitation of a situation or process” or “the production of a computer model of something, especially for the purpose of study” (Oxford Dictionary of English, n.d.). Evidence of the use of simulations in PR pedagogy as an “imitation of a situation or process” (Oxford Dictionary of English, n.d.) is more common. In an Australia-based study, Sutherland and Ward (2018) conducted research on the efficacy of using an immersive simulation as a pedagogical tool to provide students with practical experience of a media conference. In the study, they combined simulation tools such as role-play and immersive technology in which scenes from PR scenarios were projected onto the walls. They found that students enjoyed the experience, and it enhanced their learning and analytical skills. The students recommended the use of the pedagogical tools in the future. Similarly, Veil (2010) simulated a press conference held in response to a crisis. Role-based scenario simulations were the main simulation tool used in the study, which was conducted with communication students. Students reported finding the exercise beneficial to their learning, although some did report reservations about the spontaneous nature of the activity.  Another study in the U.S. found that crisis simulation can significantly increase students’ crisis management competencies. The author recommends simulation-based training could be used in other areas of public relations and should become part of the “pedagogical toolbox” (Wang, 2017, p. 107).

When assessing the specific competencies required by the PR industry, more interactive tools than the common written assignments might be required. For example, Bartam (2004) links competencies to performance and identifies workplace assessments and simulations as appropriate measurement tools. An example of an assessment format that has been used in the medical profession to measure non-academic attributes in medical graduates is the situational judgment test (SJT) (Patterson et al., 2016). Specific competencies the SJT can test include reasoning, problem solving, and decision making. An SJT comprises a hypothetical scenario (presented in written or video format) that medical graduates are likely to encounter in the workplace. Candidates are asked to identify the appropriateness or effectiveness of various response options from a predefined list. Patterson et al. (2016) recommend that response instructions for SJTs should fall into one or two categories: knowledge-based (what is the best option?/what should you do?) and behavior (what would you be most likely to do?). To ensure validity, the response options and scoring mechanism should be agreed upon in advance by industry experts. 

This study set out to explore the use of a simulation as a pedagogical tool and its ability to assist students of public relations in developing competencies required by the public relations industry. A constructivist pedagogical approach that used a specifically designed blended learning model, comprising a practical simulation at its core, was designed for this research and to assist students in developing the competencies identified. A situational judgment test was specifically designed for this study and used to assess the development of these competencies in students alongside a focus group and a reflective exercise. 


This study sought to examine if the use of a simulation as a pedagogical tool could assist students of public relations in developing competencies required by the public relations industry. The research involved the use of a concurrent mixed methods methodology involving qualitative and quantitative techniques. The quantitative analysis was conducted through a situational judgment test (SJT) specifically designed to measure the competencies identified as required by the PR industry. The SJTs were designed to ultimately assess students for the competencies of critical thinking and media communication skills, and the questions were therefore centered around the development and communication of effective arguments in response to difficult questions. Qualitative methods included a focus group and a reflective exercise, which were used to analyze the students’ learning experiences and the development of the competencies of critical thinking, business acumen, and communication skills. The design of the research strategy was rooted in constructivist teaching and learning philosophy through the use of Kolb’s (2015) experiential learning cycle and Picciano’s (2009) multimodal model of blended learning.


The research was conducted over a two-month period as part of the standard curriculum delivery in a PR module. Sixteen full-time post-graduate students of public relations in Ireland volunteered to participate in the study. The group was approximately split 50% between male and female students, and all participants were within the 21-30 age bracket with limited to no relevant work experience. The participants were students of the researcher’s in the final semester of a one-year post-graduate module in public relations. The course is registered as a Level 9 course on the National Framework of Qualifications Grid as set by the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland (2020). As the lecturer for these students was also the conductor of the research, there may have been a potential for bias. However, to conduct the simulation, a facilitator was required who had the specific knowledge of and skills in the practice of public relations, and it was deemed that this requirement would outweigh any potential for bias. It was submitted to the Ethics Committee at Griffith College Dublin, and all participants indicated their understanding and agreement to participate by signing a consent form. Participants were offered the opportunity to revoke their consent at any stage during the process. All information provided by the participants was treated in the strictest of confidence. Data collected from the questionnaires was anonymized, and the data were not identifiable during the research process or in the findings presented. 

Research Design

The study was developed around the teaching of crisis management. A blended learning model was designed to ensure the simulation could be combined into the course in a manner that enabled the pedagogical objectives and learning outcomes of the public relations curriculum to be achieved. The program was designed using the pedagogical objectives and approaches outlined in the multimodal model of blended learning. These were then mapped against Kolb’s (2015) experiential learning cycle to direct the learning stages and approaches and ensure the model was rooted in learning theory. This process is illustrated and explained in Figure 1.  

Figure 1

Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle and the Multimodal Model of Blended Learning

In Picciano’s (2009) multimodal model of blended learning, six basic pedagogical objectives are recommended when designing a blended learning program, including content, social and emotional, dialectic/questioning, synthesis/evaluation (assignments/assessment), collaboration/student-generated content and reflection. Picciano proposes teaching approaches to assist the learners and the teachers in meeting these objectives, including CMS, MUVE, discussion boards, presentations, assessments, e-portfolios, wikis, blogs, and journals.

The process outlined above explains how this model was mapped against the four modes of learning identified in Kolb’s (2015) experiential learning cycle to produce a program of face-to-face and online pedagogical activity that could meet the learning objectives. The process can be broken down by examining each mode of the experiential learning cycle individually. For example, in this instance, the theory and relevant information delivered by the lecturer on the management of media relations in the event of a crisis provided the “concrete experience.” Figure 1 demonstrates the lecture and content that was made available on Moodle during these exercises also fulfilled two of the multimodal model’s pedagogical objectives of “content” and “social and emotional factors.” The multimodal model views “content” as “the primary driver of instruction” and states that it can be delivered and presented via numerous means (Picciano, 2009, p. 14). In this program, the content was delivered by using a lecture and PowerPoint slides and by making case studies and articles available on the course management software system. The delivery of the content through an in-class lecture also fulfills the “social and emotional” pedagogical objective of the multimodal model. The model stipulates that “social and emotional development is an important part of anyone’s education” and that even students on advanced graduate courses require “someone with whom to speak, whether for understanding a complex concept or providing advice” (Picciano, 2009, p. 14). Therefore, the diagram demonstrates that the delivery of the content using these face-to-face and online approaches meets the “content” and “social and emotional” pedagogical objectives of the multimodal model and falls under the “concrete experience” learning mode of Kolb’s experiential learning cycle. Figure 1 can continue to be followed in the same manner to examine each of the modes of experiential learning and the associated pedagogical objectives, as well as the learning approaches used to achieve them. 

To explain the timeline of the study, at the outset, students were presented with content on crisis management through a PowerPoint lecture. The lecture provided students with information about crisis management and steps as to how to communicate with the media on behalf of an organization in a time of crisis. Students were presented with a case study involving a data breach by an internationally renowned technology company. They watched a video relating to this crisis, followed by a Socratic discussion led by the lecturer. As identified in a study by Parkinson and Ekachai (2002), the leader of the Socratic discussion is required to have a knowledge of the subject, in addition to an understanding of how to conduct a Socratic discussion. The aim of this discussion was to assist the students in developing an understanding of the principles and concepts involved in representing an organization in the media in response to a crisis. Following the completion of the Socratic discussion, students were directed to work in groups to develop their media strategies to respond to the crisis.  Each group then worked together outside of the classroom and online in a collaborative forum where the groups posted their strategies to enable feedback from their peers and from the lecturer. 

An immersive simulation exercise then took place in which students assumed the role of the spokesperson for the organization in crisis in an interview with a professional news journalist. A camera was set up and operated by a professional camera technician. Microphones and lighting were connected to simulate a real-life television news interview situation. The students were split into two groups of eight. Each individual group member was then immersed in the experience as they were interviewed individually by the journalist and asked to put their learning into practice by responding to the crisis in a simulated live media interview. The journalist asked challenging questions, such as “When did you learn about this issue?,” “Why did it take so long to communicate with your customers?,” “How do you plan to prevent this from happening again?” Students were required to think quickly and revert to their key messages and their preparation to respond. Students had been given 24 hours’ notice to prepare their key message to simulate a real-life situation in which a spokesperson would often be given very short notice before a media interview. Each student was recorded on camera and observed and assessed as the interview took place. On completion of all eight interviews, a selection of excerpts from videos were played back for discussion and formative feedback. The process was repeated with the second group. Students were assessed on their performance and the mark/grade represented a percentage of their overall grade for the module.


The methods used in this research were evaluated using bespoke scenario-based multiple-choice questionnaires (situational judgment tests, known as SJTs), a focus group, and a reflective exercise. At the commencement of the study, prior to the first lecture and again on completion of the study, students were directed online to complete the SJT. An SJT template was designed for the purpose of this research by a team of senior PR professionals who were assembled to consult on the scenarios, questions and answers, and scoring method for each test (see Appendix A). Scenarios were drafted and questions were formulated around these scenarios. Critical thinking and media communications skills were the core competencies that were measured in the SJTs. The questions were designed to demonstrate an ability to make effective arguments to support the key messages that the students were attempting to communicate. In line with best practice as identified in the literature review on SJTs, the questions were set into the two categories of knowledge (what is the best option?/what should you do?) and behavior (what would you be most likely to do?). Answers were proposed for each question, and the expert team reached a consensus on the most appropriate answers for each question. A scoring key was then developed for each test in order to group student responses into the categories of excellent, good, satisfactory, and poor. Students’ answers were analyzed and counted on completion of the first test, and responses were compared to those of the second test on completion of the entire study to provide a quantitative analysis on the development of each of the predefined competencies. The process of designing the SJT in consultation with industry experts ensured the validity of these tests in their use for the first time as tests to measure competencies in PR students. Examples of the tests and scoring key are available in Appendix A.

Following completion of the simulation and the second SJT, students were afforded the opportunity to reflect on their performance and the learning experience in an online exercise. All participants watched their performance through a secure video link on their own time and in privacy. Students then completed an online reflection, the objective of which was to inform the research as to the development of the competencies of critical thinking, business acumen, and communication skills. The reflection also served as a learning exercise for the students to encourage a deeper learning experience. The reflection consisted of a question asking the students to provide their opinions, in no more than 500 words, on the simulation exercise. 

Finally, on completion of the study, students participated in a focus group to discuss their perceptions of the learning experience and the impact they felt it had on the development of the competencies identified (see Appendix B). According to Daymon and Halloway (2011), the purpose of a focus group is “to concentrate on one or two clear issues or objects and discuss them in depth” (p. 241). In addition to offering insight as to students’ perceptions, the focus group was a useful exercise in itself for students in using and developing critical thinking skills. Eight students participated in the focus group, which was facilitated, recorded, and transcribed by the lecturer.  


The overall objective of this study was to ascertain if the use of a simulation could assist students in developing the competencies required by the public relations industry. Overall, the results show that the questions in the situational judgment test that were most focused on critical thinking and media communication skills showed slight improvements. The development of business acumen was not evidenced in the SJTs specifically; however, the development of this competency was inferred from the results of the qualitative analysis. 

In an effort to quantify any change in student performance from SJT I to SJT II, it was necessary to develop a standardization that was not sensitive to the different number of students in each. Direct comparison is not possible with two different student totals and the small data sets. Thus, each student who received a “poor” score was given one point, two points were given for each “satisfactory,” three for “good,” and four for excellent. The point total was then divided by the total number of students (16 for SJT I; 13 for SJT II) to determine the dimension’s mean score. Since the mean scores are a measure of the overall performance on the SJT and are not sensitive to different response totals, they allow for direct comparison. 

Figure 2 shows a comparison of the means between SJT I and SJT II for each of the six dimensions, while Table 1 presents the numerical scores for each measure of student performance. The number of students receiving that score for each of the six dimensions is reported. Using the scale described in the previous paragraph, a point total for the student performance for that SJT is attained and a mean score is calculated.  The final column gives the difference in the mean scores for SJT I and SJT II. The mean score differences for five of the six dimensions were positive, indicating improved student performance. The greatest increase in student performance was for Dimension 2: Key Messages. Only one dimension, Aftermath, showed a negative difference, demonstrating lower mean scores on the second SJT. 

Table 1

SJT I and II Scores and Standardized Mean Scores

Figure 2

Overall Means for SJT 1 and SJT 2

The first question asked in the SJTs was centered around research. The question asked participants to explain how they would approach the fact-gathering exercise involved in crisis communication management. There was an improvement of one participant achieving an excellent result in this question between the first and second questionnaires. The second question was focused on the development of key messages and asked students to identify the three most important key messages. In this question, there was an improvement of six people in those achieving an excellent result in the second questionnaire. Question three in each SJT asked participants to explain how they would approach the media. This question was the most difficult for participants with limited experience in media communication, and the results are perhaps indicative of this with five fewer students achieving an excellent result. However, five more students received a good result in SJT II in this question. Questions four and five were centered around the media response and the arguments to make within the media. In both these questions, there were slight improvements of three and two participants, respectively, in those achieving an excellent result. Finally, in question six, participants were asked to explain how they would manage communications in the aftermath of the crisis. The majority of participants in both SJTs achieved a satisfactory to excellent result with two fewer participants in the poor category in SJT II.  


Critical Thinking

Two questions within the SJTs were specifically focused on critical thinking (questions 4 and 5).  These questions centered around the response to and the making of effective arguments in the media. In the first of these questions, three more participants in question 4 and two more participants in question 5 achieved an “excellent” result in the second test. 

The next of these questions related to the construction of arguments. In this question, two more students received an “excellent” result in SJT II compared to the same style of questions in SJT I. The content of these questions is detailed in Appendix A. 

The increase in the number of students achieving good and excellent scores in the second test for both these questions could indicate that the exercise had a positive impact on the participants’ ability to think critically. In addition, in the qualitative analysis through the reflection and the focus group, students pointed to critical thinking as one of the learning achievements from the exercises. For example, when asked what they learned from the experience, one student said, “being creative in thought—creative mentally,” while another mentioned “on-the-spot critical thinking.” The observations of the students indicate the immersive nature of the simulation exercise impacted their critical thinking skills.  For example, a student cited a key learning takeaway from the activity was “applying your skills in the outside world.” 

Business Acumen

In this study, business acumen was largely demonstrated through the students’ conveyed understanding of the challenges that businesses face in the event of a crisis and in communicating with the public through the media as a result. One student said, “It was an eye-opener to find solutions to problems other companies are facing. It was practical.” Another stated, “If I were working in a massive organization that had this crisis and I’m approached by the media, even without them informing me in time, I would have something to say. It was of immense benefit for me.” These comments indicate students developed a better understanding of how a situation like this might affect a business and how it could protect its reputation in the media as a result.  

Communications Skills

The effect of the exercise on media communication skills can be seen in the responses to this question on key message development. The results for this question in SJT II indicated an increase of six people in those selecting all three most appropriate key messages (or an “excellent” result). The content of this question is detailed in Appendix A. Students also referenced the importance of key messages several times within their feedback during the focus group and reflections. For example, one student said, “I learned how important it is to have key messages that you can refer to when answering tricky questions,” while another said: “I was pleased with how I communicated my message. I thought that I reverted back to the key messages when in a difficult corner.” 

In addition to media communication skills, the qualitative analysis offered insight into the impact of the exercise on students’ verbal and non-verbal communication skills. Verbal communications were assessed through the students’ ability to make effective arguments during the simulation and to effectively express their key messages they had prepared in advance. Non-verbal communication consisted of tone of voice, hand gestures, body language, and facial expressions. The majority of students referenced communication skills as a key takeaway and focused heavily on this in their reflections and the focus group. Students discussed the importance of content, such as communicating their top-line and three key messages, and they addressed style, such as speaking clearly and slowly in concise sentences. One student commented, “I sometimes talked more than needed, so going forward I could stop sooner when I was happy with my answer.”

The analysis also reveals that there was a tendency for students to be self-critical of their non-verbal communication skills, more so than their verbal communication skills. This is evidenced in the following comments: “I think that at times my facial expressions during the questioning were a little bit distracting, so I would try and keep a less expressive face next time” and “I assumed my body language was OK but I realized there were some mistakes after I watched the video.”


The higher education sector worldwide is endeavoring to meet the learning requirements of a technologically savvy and increasingly diverse student demographic. Simultaneously, the sector is challenged with ensuring higher education graduates can bring modern relevant competencies required by industry with them into entry-level positions upon graduation. There is evidence to suggest the industry is actively seeking competencies in new entrants to the PR profession that can also be difficult to teach such as business acumen, communication skills, and critical thinking.  The objective of this research was to ascertain if a simulation could assist students in developing these competencies that are required by the public relations industry. 

To investigate this, a blended learning model was designed that was based on the multimodal model of blended learning and mapped against Kolb’s (2015) experiential learning cycle. In this model, a simulation exercise was blended with other face-to-face and online pedagogical tools to teach students how to manage media communication in the event of a crisis. To analyze the efficacy of this model in assisting in developing these competencies, a concurrent mixed methodology was employed using both quantitative and qualitative data collection methods.  Qualitative methods included a reflection and a focus group. The quantitative method implemented in the research was an SJT. To ensure its validity for use in this research, the test was designed exclusively in consultation with a team of public relations professionals to test for competencies required at the entry level in the public relations profession.

Limitations and Future Research

This study was limited by the size of the sample group and the duration of the study. A more detailed study using a larger group, including a control group over a longer period of time would offer further insight into the efficacy of the methods used in this study on the development of competencies required in the PR industry. The results of the exercises, however, indicated the activity had a positive impact on the development of key competencies in students. The qualitative analysis, which included the student reflections and focus groups, offered an indication the students themselves felt the exercises had an impact on their learning experience and assisted them in developing their business acumen, critical thinking, and communication skills. 

Although the students indicated they sensed an impact, the SJTs did not show an impact on the development of business acumen among participants. Future investigation would be required to ascertain the most appropriate measurement tool to analyze the development of this competency. The tests did demonstrate slight improvements in the competencies of critical thinking and media communication skills. These tests could be developed further for use as an assessment tool within a public relations curriculum to teach students to consider how they would respond to difficult questions in media interviews or in crisis situations. The tests require students to think of solutions or arguments to difficult scenarios quickly and, combined with a simulation exercise, this pedagogical approach may be particularly useful in teaching students how to manage common practical problems faced by public relations practitioners. It is worth noting that the comments from participants in the reflections indicated the students tended to be self-critical of their body language; future studies should encourage educators to guide students in order for them to recognize the importance of nonverbal communication, but help them not to focus on it to the exclusion of other elements of their message delivery.

In addition to the pedagogical benefits, the SJTs may also contribute positively to the PR industry in that they could be used by employers to test interviewees for competencies in specific areas. A standardized SJT could contribute positively to the PR industry and increase employability of students. They could be designed to complement CPRE’s list of competencies as tests for employers when interviewing new entrants to the industry and as class assignments for more practical subjects such as crisis communications and medical skills.

Another example of simulation as “the production of a computer model of something” can be seen in the emerging technologies of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), which could be the topic of future research. VR allows users, through the use of a headset, to immerse themselves completely in an alternative reality. AR allows the user to bring elements of the artificial world into the real world. Both technologies are being used in education in the STEM disciplines, but there is little evidence cataloging their use in the teaching of public relations. Research in this area of PR education could offer insight as to whether simulations of this nature could be beneficial in teaching media communication skills and critical thinking by enabling learners to immerse themselves in computer- or video-generated common scenarios, such as press conferences or media events.

The results of this research benefit the public relations industry and public relations education.  In relation to experiential and blended learning, this research offers an insight as to how simulations and situational judgment tests can be used as a form of active experimentation and assessment. In terms of public relations education, the findings offer insight to educators as to the most appropriate pedagogical and assessment approaches that can be implemented to assist students in developing competencies required by the public relations industry and thus assist in increasing students’ employability. Further research at an industry level would help define the competencies and qualifications required, and additional research at an educational level could help set standards in best practice in public relations pedagogy. 


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Appendix A

Situational Judgement Tests

The National Vegan Association has launched a national campaign to raise awareness on animal rights and promote veganism. The campaign includes high-visibility outdoor advertising activity that uses a range of emotive posters to encourage people to cease meat and dairy consumption and to convert to veganism.

The organisation’s spokesperson has been in the media (radio, TV, print and online) discussing the new ad campaign and the rationale behind it. The organisation’s central argument is that the widespread consumption of animal products is having a catastrophic effect on the environment. The source of the Vegan group’s funding is unclear. 

You are the public relations officer/consultant for the National Farmers’ Association, who view this as a potential crisis situation. The Farmers’ Association is concerned that the Vegan Association is communicating information that could be harmful to the business of its members.

Please outline your PR strategy in response to this crisis by responding to the following questions.

Please answer all questions with a view to what the best course of action should be and do not base your answers on your own personal beliefs. For example, if you yourself agree with the vegans or the meat-eaters, it is of no relevance to this test.

  1. Research

The first step in managing a crisis is to gather the facts. Rank the actions you would take in order of priority below. (1 = most effective, 2 = very effective, 3 = quite effective, 4 = slightly effective and 5 = least effective).

A: Check media (including social media) and analyse coverage.
B: Find out what the best practice is in your organisation and check if there is a precedent for this activity in other countries.
C: Pull together a crisis management team consisting of the most informed people in the organisation on this topic, brief them on the situation and acquire their feedback.
D: Contact a journalist for an “off-the-record” chat on the topic. Investigate the potential of running a negative story about the vegan group.
E: Contact the vegan group, away from media view, to discuss and try and silence the conversation.
  1. Key Messages

Your key messages should aim to present the organisation’s business objectives and protect the reputation of your organisation and its members.

Choose the THREE most appropriate key messages that you think would be most effective in your communication with the media (all three choices are equal in importance).

A: There are many benefits to eating meat and dairy.
B: Vegans are prone to various health issues.
C: The source of the vegan group’s funding is not clear.
D: The importance of farming and agriculture to the economy.
E: A list of top ten healthy meat and dairy recipes.
  1. Media Strategy

As part of its campaign, the vegan group has also cited a report stating that the public’s consumption of meat and dairy is harming the environment.

Please rank the most appropriate media approaches below (1 = most appropriate, 5 = least appropriate).

A: Host a press conference to announce your response to the ad campaign and state your case. Invite all media to attend.
B: Contact a select number of trusted journalists and arrange to set up feature interviews with them in which you set out your key messages and evidence-based arguments.
C: Contact a prime-time current affairs show and request a live debate between the heads of the two organisations.
D: Issue a press statement to all media criticising the vegan campaign and dismissing its arguments.
E: No comment.
  1. Response to Media

There has been some discussion in the media regarding the sources of funding for the vegan group’s campaign. The vegan group has not disclosed its sources.

During an interview, a journalist cites a recently published report in which it states that meat consumption must decrease significantly to avert a climate catastrophe. The journalist has asked you, as the representative for the Farmers’ Association, for your response to this report.

Choose the THREE most appropriate responses below:

A: Highlight the lack of transparency in the vegan group’s finances.
B: You agree that sustainable farming is important, but this country has one of the most sustainable records in the world.
C: Question the accuracy of the vegan group’s research.
D: Agree with the seriousness of some of the issues presented in the report, but outline the health benefits of meat and dairy consumption.
E: Present research and studies supporting meat and dairy consumption.
  1. Arguments

Your arguments should assist the interviewer and the listener/reader in understanding your key messages. Choose the THREE most appropriate arguments to support your key messages below:

A: An emeritus professor of agricultural policy at Trinity College Dublin has said that Ireland’s agriculture is mostly grassland-based and there is no need for a reduction of 90% in meat consumption.
B: A renowned economist from the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs, an organisation funded by the tobacco industry said that the potent combination of nanny state campaigners, militant vegetarians and environmental activists poses a real and present danger to a free society.
C: Prior to the release of the findings of this report, the Irish Prime Minister had said that he was cutting down on his meat consumption and increasing his intake of vegetables.
D: The Minister for the Environment, said it’s really important that agriculture has a long-term strategy as to how it can contribute to decarbonisation and be competitive in an environment when people’s choices and expectations may be different.
E: A report published by a renowned environmental group has outlined a clear strategy for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in this sector in Ireland.
  1. Aftermath

The immediate crisis is over and media attention has been diverted to another issue. Rank the most appropriate course of action for your organisation now (1= most appropriate, 5 = least appropriate).

A: Correct a journalist on one radio interview in which on one occasion, they used an incorrect name for one of your representatives.
B: Assess and analyse the media coverage and the reaction of your stakeholders/audiences.
C: Immediately launch a high visibility campaign informing people of the benefits of consuming meat and dairy.
D: Seek corrections in any significant inaccuracies in the media coverage.
E: Conduct research to support your arguments and launch a campaign promoting the benefits of consuming meat and dairy products.

Situational Judgement Test II

You are the public relations manager/communications officer for an international technology company and leading producer of smartphones.

One of your phone products, which is already on the market, has been found to have a defect in the batteries. The company has already sold over two million devices, but there have been reports of fires breaking out with some. As a result, all the phones now have to be recalled at a cost of over $5 million.

Please respond to the questions below to explain how you would manage this crisis.

Please answer all questions with a view to what the best course of action should be and do not base your answers on your own personal beliefs.

  1.  Research

The first step in managing a crisis is to gather the facts. Rank the first steps you would take to manage this crisis in order of priority below. (1 = most effective, 2= very effective, 3 = quite effective, 4 = slightly effective and 5 = least effective).

A: Check media (including social media) and analyse coverage.
B: Find out what the best practice is in your organisation and check if there is a precedent for this activity here or in other countries.
C: Pull together a crisis management team consisting of the most informed people in the organisation on this topic, brief them on the situation and acquire their feedback.
D: Contact a journalist for an “off-the-record” chat on the topic.
E: Contact the people who have been affected, away from the eyes of the media.
  1. Key Messages

Your key messages should aim to present the organisation’s business objectives.

Choose the THREE most appropriate key messages that you think would be most effective in your communication with the media (all three choices should be equal in importance).

A: We are conducting an investigation, which will result in the development of even better and safer phones.
B: Our phones aren’t the only ones on the market with safety concerns. There are some safety issues that we are aware of with competitor phones.
C: We have launched an investigation into the problem.
D: We can assure customers that there are no other phones or products at risk.
E: A list of the top five safety features of this product.
  1.  Media Strategy

You have conducted an extensive investigation into the issue and are now ready to release the results. Please rank the most appropriate media approaches below (1 = most appropriate, 5 = least appropriate).

A: Announce a press conference and invite all media to attend.
B: Contact a select number of trusted journalists and arrange to set up interviews with them in which you set out your key messages and evidence-based arguments.
C: Contact a prime-time current affairs show and request a live interview on the topic.
D: Issue a press statement to all media highlighting safety issues with competitor phones.
E: No comment.
  1.  Response to Media

In an interview about phone safety, a journalist has thrown you a curve-ball. The journalist has decided to ask you for your views on a recently published report from a reputable medical organisation into mobile phone usage. The report warns parents to limit screen-time for children due to health risks. The journalist has asked you, as the representative of a leading manufacturer of mobile devices, for your response to this report.

Choose the THREE most appropriate responses below:

A: Dismiss the findings of this report.
B: You agree that monitoring children’s phone usage is important.
C: Question the accuracy of this research.
D: Encourage responsible usage of phones amongst children.
E: Highlight some of the benefits of phone use for children, once usage is controlled by guardians.
  1.  Arguments

Choose the THREE most appropriate arguments to support your messages:

A: The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health recommended time-limits and a curfew on “screen-time,” but said parents need not worry that using the devices is harmful.
B: Experts say that looking at screens such as phones, tablets or computers in the hour before bed can disrupt sleep and impact children’s health and wellbeing. Spending long periods on the gadgets is also associated with unhealthy eating and a lack of exercise.
C: Parents are often told that gadgets can pose a risk to their children, but they can in fact be a valuable tool for children to explore the world. Nevertheless, screen time should not replace healthy activities such as exercising, sleeping and spending time with family.
D: A review published by the British Medical Journal found “considerable evidence” of an association between obesity and depression and higher levels of screen time.
E: Although there is growing evidence for the impact of phone usage on some health issues such as obesity, evidence on the impact of screen-time on other health issues is largely weak or absent.
  1.  Aftermath

The immediate crisis is over and media attention has been diverted to another issue. Rank the most appropriate course of action for your organisation now (1= most appropriate, 5 = least appropriate).

A: Correct a journalist on one radio interview in which on one occasion, they used an incorrect name for one of you representatives.
B: Assess and analyse the media coverage and the reaction of your stakeholders/audiences.
C:  Immediately launch a high visibility campaign informing people of the safety features of your phones.
D: Seek corrections in any significant inaccuracies in the media coverage.
E: Analyse the findings of the investigation and launch a campaign to communicate the findings and the new safety measures in place as a result.

Appendix B

Focus Group Questions

  1. Do you think you were well prepared for the interview simulation exercise? 
  2. Did you enjoy the interview simulation exercise?  
  3. What did you like most about it?  
  4. What did you like least about it? 
  5. Do you think you learnt from the exercise?
  6. What is the key thing that you think that you learnt from this experience and that you will take into the future when you graduate?  Give an example.
  7. Rate the experience from 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent) in terms of your enjoyment of the learning experience.
  8. Rate the experience from 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent) in terms of the learning you think you achieved.

© Copyright 2020 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: O’Donnell , A. (2020). A simulation as a pedagogical tool for teaching professional competencies in  public relations education. Journal of Public Relations Education, 6(2), 66-101. http://aejmc.us/jpre/2020/08/13/a-simulation-as-a-pedagogical-tool-for-teaching-professional-competencies-in-public-relations-education/

Training International Public Relations Teams: Active Learning in a Multinational Context

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted to JPRE January 17, 2019. Revision submitted April 25, 2019. Manuscript accepted for publication June 14, 2019. First published online January 21, 2020.


Bond Benton
Associate Professor of Public Relations
Montclair State University
Montclair, NJ
Email: bentonb@montclair.edu


From 2004-2014, the State Department conducted a series of trainings for local, non-United States staff tasked with public diplomacy projects. These projects focused on activities that would better tell the U.S. story to international audiences and highlight attractive aspects of U.S. culture to external constituencies. Given the applied nature of these projects, training organizers elected to use an active and applied learning approach for training design. Non-U.S. staff worked directly on real world public diplomacy projects as the primary focus of each training session. Training groups’ composition included both homogeneous groups (with participants all from the same country) and heterogeneous groups (with participants coming from multiple countries). Measured training outcomes demonstrated the effectiveness of applied learning in this context and improved outcomes for heterogeneous groups. Implications for teaching public relations, public diplomacy, and training pedagogy are considered.

Keywords: State Department, strategic communication, experiential learning, training and development, public diplomacy, diversity

Training International Public Relations Teams: Active Learning in a Multinational Context

Strategically communicating with an international constituency presents a challenge under the most ideal circumstances. Reaching an international audience primed to believe the message is imperialistic, hostile, dangerous, hateful, and untrustworthy (Sardar & Davis, 2002) presents a considerably more substantial obstacle. That, however, is the exact obstacle the United States State Department took on in efforts to improve U.S. perceptions in the world through improved public diplomacy. Public diplomacy relies on a multidisciplinary approach that integrates ideas from marketing, public relations, international relations, and cultural studies (Botan, 1997). Turning this approach into an actionable strategy necessarily relies on trained teams with knowledge of both the state they are representing and the constituencies they are addressing. In this case, the State Department was tasked with training teams to deliver key messages at consular and diplomatic posts throughout the world from 2004-2014. As this message would need local partners to navigate and adapt the approach to the conditions on the ground, teams were composed of non-U.S. citizens who work for the U.S. State Department. The unique focus of this training, coupled with the opportunity to study the impact of multinational training groups focused on public relations, provides an important contextual opportunity for research that has implications for both educators and public relations practitioners.


Public Diplomacy and the U.S. State Department

Public diplomacy is based on the idea that states have fundamentally attractive dimensions that can be leveraged in the creation of improved relationships with a variety of international stakeholders (Sevin et al., 2019). An improved national image can lead to greater trade opportunities, more tourism, better positioning in international negotiations, and a decrease in international acrimony, potentially resulting in improved security and more favorable economic conditions. The public relations element of public diplomacy has been well-established. Dating back to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, states have regularly attempted to win over the publics of other nations by highlighting cultural and political characteristics that might be viewed as attractive to an international audience. While writing about the public relations dimension of public diplomacy, Sun (2008) argues that “American soft power has great influence worldwide from Hollywood stars to Harvard education, and through Microsoft applications” (p. 167).

The positive association with the economic and cultural dimensions of a country, if nourished through a program of public diplomacy, can “maintain and enhance long-term political relationships at a profit for society, so that the objectives of the individual political actors and organizations involved are met” (Sun, 2008, p. 168). Positive perceptions of a state can then serve as a buttress against negative attitudes directed against that state (Nye, 2004). A corporate social responsibility corollary is the investment that companies make “in areas like cause-related marketing to improve their reputation and create goodwill among consumers in the host country” (Choi et al., 2016, p. 82). In fact, Signitzer and Coombs (1992) argue that “public relations and public diplomacy seek similar objectives and use similar tools” (p. 137). The challenge, however, of public diplomacy mirrors the challenges faced in international public relations, which are well documented by both practitioners and researchers. As Taylor and Brodowsky (2012) note:

For the past three decades, increasing numbers of firms, at an increasing rate, have adopted a global mindset. Growth, if not survival, depends upon making the right decisions with respect to the international environment. (p. 149)

Taylor and Brodowsky (2012) further explain “there is widespread acceptance of the fallacy that IMR [international marketing research] can use the same approaches, theories, methods, and scales in different worldwide locations“ (p. 150). The idea that a successful messaging approach in one location will work equally well in another has been regularly shown to be a dubious thesis (Cheon et al., 2007). To remedy the dangers of an insular and homogeneous perspective in international messaging, the State Department regularly draws upon the perspectives of non-U.S. citizens employed by the organization when conducting public diplomacy. Non-U.S. citizens working at State Department posts comprise the bulk of the 42,000 staff members who work at more than 250 U.S. embassies and consulates worldwide. The term used in State Department literature describes them as the “glue” that holds U.S. diplomatic posts together (Bureau of Human Resources, 2007). As the “glue” of the organization, these international employees offer logistical bridges between the diplomatic post and region as many U.S. staff do not have the local cultural or language experience to create functioning programs in their posted countries (Asthana, 2006). Officials from the United States are assigned to a post for three years or less (and often for a much shorter duration than that). The job of U.S. diplomats posted overseas mirrors the expectations that many organizations face when operating internationally. They need to be sensitive to the needs of the local population, while ensuring the policies they enact match the overall vision Washington has for diplomacy. This need for adaptation to stakeholder needs while maintaining message consistency is echoed in literature defining the linkages between public diplomacy and public relations. In Vanc and Fitzpatrick’s (2016) analysis of public relations scholarship on the subject of public diplomacy from 1990 to 2014, they note that “studies examining the strategic aspects of public diplomacy, including works on media and messaging, revealed both commonalities in the two fields” (p. 436).

In terms of public diplomacy, the United States’ agenda is broadly to win the “hearts and minds” of people throughout the world. This became an acutely difficult objective to achieve in the early 2000s when worldwide public opinion against the United States was sharply negative in the context of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The extent of those negative attitudes was crystallized in a study issued by the U.S. State Department, which was delivered to the House Appropriations Committee in 2003:

The bottom has indeed fallen out of support for the United States. In Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, only 15 percent view the United States favorably, compared with 61 percent in early 2002. In Saudi Arabia, according to a Gallup poll, only 7 percent had a “very favorable” view of the U.S. while 49 percent had a “very unfavorable” view. In Turkey, a secular Muslim, non-Arab democracy that is a stalwart member of NATO and a longtime supporter of America, favorable opinion toward the U.S. dropped from 52 percent three years ago to 15 percent in the spring of 2003, according to the Pew Research Center. The problem is not limited to the Arab and Muslim world. In Spain, an early ally in the war in Iraq, 3 percent had a very favorable view of the United States while 39 percent had a very unfavorable view. (Djerejian, 2003, p. 19)

The longevity of these negative feelings was further validated in both academic and popular research. For example, Bellamy and Weinberg (2008) noted that over a five-year span in the 2000s, the percentage of people with a favorable image of the United States decreased 11% in Japan, 18% in Argentina, 30% in Germany, and only reached 51% in the U.K. (Bellamy & Weinberg, 2008, p. 55). Such low numbers represented a diplomatic liability extreme enough that popular sentiment against the United States could be a hindrance in conducting foreign policy. Thus, the call to speak to the needs of key global stakeholders in appropriate language and substance was paramount. The leveraging of opportunities created by the U.S. State Department’s sizable non-U.S. citizen workforce would necessarily need to be a key component of any such initiative. With this in mind, the State Department issued an open solicitation to create a training program for its staff of non-U.S. citizens in 2004. This multi-year training program would focus on developing strategies for localized programs and presentations that highlight attractive aspects of United States culture to key international publics.

In this context, the key role of non-U.S. staff would be that of an enabler and intercessory. Their primary approach to communicating U.S. messages to local populations must be consistent with Washington’s goals but adapted to match the needs of local targets. Managing messages and evaluating locally appropriate channels are the key components of their work. The term “engagement“ has gained much traction as a public relations concept as the idea that “stakeholders challenge the discourse of organizational primacy and organizations prioritize the need for authentic stakeholder involvement” (Johnston, 2014, p. 381). This emphasis on dialogue, where the motivations of local constituencies are reciprocal in messaging, mirrors much of the literature about the goals governmental organizations have when initiating public diplomacy (Leonard et al., 2002; Nye, 1990, 2002b, 2002a, 2004, 2008, 2009). While such activities may appear insignificant in something as massive as a state’s foreign policy program, the relationships built with publics in foreign countries can have a significant overall effect on the perceptions of that country. International staff working for the U.S. State Department can improve local constituency access in a number of ways. These include access to the local media channels, links to relevant programs and publics in the community, an understanding of local and regional government processes, and the skills to conduct research in a culturally appropriate and effective way.  These international partners also have credibility in helping to share the American messages in a way more likely to be accepted in the region.

While the opportunities provided by local resources are clear in any public relations strategy, efforts at effective public diplomacy have been sharply criticized for their failure to adapt to the needs of various international constituencies. Undoubtedly, some of the shortcomings are circumstantial. U.S. foreign policy decisions are frequently not well received by a number of publics worldwide. As the old saying goes, you can’t PR your way out of a product people hate. Echoing this sentiment, an internal study commissioned by the State Department (Djerejian, 2003) argued:

We must underscore the common ground in both our values and policies. We have failed to listen and failed to persuade. We have not taken the time to understand our audience, and we have not bothered to help them understand us. We cannot afford such shortcomings. (p. 24)

Given the constraints of the short posting periods for U.S. officials, it is not feasible for them to form the partnerships essential to key public relations tasks. As such, the bulk of stakeholder relationship building is contingent on the work of local, non-U.S. staff.  This creates organizational tension, as message creation is clearly under the domain of U.S. State Department employees, but adaptation and delivery of the message is sourced to local teams.  This tendency has been identified in the Ethnocentric, Polycentric, Regiocentric, and Geocentric (E.P.R.G.) schema, which demonstrates that organizations engaging with international constituencies will typically have a reflexive tendency to contextualize the processes of the country they are operating in with the processes of their home country (Mahmoud, 1975). Wind et al. (1973) describe this as the “ethnocentric phase“ (p. 14) of international messaging. Moving beyond this phase is particularly challenging, as Molleda et al. (2015) note that “organizations with operations in more than one country are confronted with differences in geography, culture, politics, economy, communication, and demands for transparency that make finding an appropriate balance difficult” (p. 335).

While many modern international operations have moved beyond this phase, State Department culture tends to be considerably more traditional and remains grounded in U.S. organizational preferences.  The State Department is hardly alone in this tendency as multinationals regularly emphasize their home countries’ cultures. As Samaha et al. (2014) indicate, “Despite the increase in international relationships, managers and academics have little guidance regarding whether or how strategies should be adapted in different countries“ (p. 78). This is reflected in substantial public relations literature that suggests the field remains quite homogeneous despite the increasing need for messaging to diverse audiences (Vardeman-Winter & Place, 2017). U.S. models and preferences still dominate public relations practice even in a global context (Freitag & Stokes, 2009). Diversification of the perspectives of public relations should be embedded in education and training, but shortcomings in this area remain. As Sriramesh (2002) succinctly states:

Public relations (PR) education has not kept pace with the rapid globalization . . . . The existing PR body of knowledge, and PR curricula around the world, have a US bias. In order to prepare PR students in various parts of the world to become effective multicultural professionals it is essential for experiences and perspectives from other continents to be integrated into PR education. (p. 54) 

For the State Department, some of this inward focus is institutional, but much of it is structural as well. The focus of the organization is ensuring that its staff remains on message in terms of mandates coming from a central leadership. At the same time, however, for messages to gain currency with targeted stakeholders, the message must be localized by teams of people who are not from the United States. Verčič et al. (2015) argue for improved training for international public relations teams by companies, which:

have to establish international training initiatives for communicators as well as an international selection process for communication staff, encourage international exchange of best practices and creative approaches, in corporate communications between countries, regions, as well as divisions and functions, and establish a visible international communication performance within the company. (p. 791)

Adult Learning and Public Relations Training

Active and experiential learning in public relations, marketing, and strategic communication training has been recognized as fundamental for successful outcomes (Alam, 2014; Bove & Davies, 2009; Craciun & Corrigan, 2010; Laverie et al., 2008). This need is seen in trainees at all levels but appears to be particularly salient in the case of adult learners. Specifically, prior research on adult learners has shown a preference for immediacy and the opportunity to have training sessions directly inform work in which they are currently engaged (Merriam & Caffarella, 1991). While learners in traditional college classrooms might be more willing to see learning as exploratory towards an eventual professional outcome, most professionals in a training session do not have the luxury of time. Additionally, adult learners typically bring professional experience to the training environment and look to utilize existing skills and prior knowledge in learning activities (Luke, 1971). While courses geared to university students frequently emphasize making challenging concepts accessible, the accessibility of adult learning frequently comes from contextualizing new knowledge with previous experience. Content ownership is important in training working adults, as participants want to feel a sense of authorship in the material that emerges from the training session (American Management Association, 1993). While periods of extended reflection and reinforcement are features of the university classroom, adult learners generally prefer action items they can immediately apply and refine through implementation in professional activities. The importance of this approach for a population engaged in international public relations practice becomes clear when considering many of the key challenges of the field.

Consistently, the most pedagogically sound way to navigate these challenges has been through active engagement and application activities on the part of training participants (American Management Association, 1993; Knowles et al., 1998; Luke, 1971). Contextual reflection and differentiation appear to be the most successful approaches to encouraging learners to consider different ideas related to international climates and the corresponding challenges related to culture that may emerge. While important theoretical lessons might be imparted through traditional lectures, the decision-making required to apply those principles requires dialogue, reflection, application, and activity (Hollensen, 2011). In a global context, diversity would appear to support these sorts of active learning outcomes. Multinational learning groups have been found to stimulate curiosity and foster a creative climate of collaboration among participants (Boehm et al., 2010; Fine-Davis & Faas, 2014). Specifically, culturally heterogeneous groups appear to have advantages over homogeneous groups in that they tend to foster less insular thinking and encourage consideration of new perspectives (Jacobi, 2018; Tyran, 2017). Diversity in training groups is seen as a particularly salient need for public relations (Verčič et al., 2015).

Given the State Department’s need for effective public diplomacy training and the specific needs of adult learners, the following research question emerged:

RQ1: What is the effect of active and experiential public relations training among non-U.S. citizens working for the U.S. State Department?

As cultural diversity would seem to support effective active and experiential learning, investigating diversity in training group composition begs the following research question:

RQ2: What are the differences in training outcomes between culturally homogeneous groups and culturally heterogeneous groups of non-U.S. citizens engaged in public relations training for the U.S. State Department?


Case Context

The situation the State Department faced in terms of global attitudes toward the United States presented an obstacle with non-U.S. staff serving as an opportunity for shifting the worldwide narrative toward attractive aspects of U.S. culture. As an organization, tensions existed between the necessity for message consistency and the need for localization of communication. Navigation of that tension to ensure the preferences of different global publics were respected was the responsibility of non-U.S. staff working within the institution. Moving the needle in terms of worldwide opinion of the United States was a key objective that would require creative, compelling, and well-researched communication tactics. To ensure that non-U.S. staff would be empowered to develop those tactics, effective staff training was a crucial component of this initiative.

Training Approach

With world attitudes towards the United States being an important focal point of the institution, the U.S. State Department made improving the communication skills of its international staff an area of emphasis. With that in mind, the 2004 solicitation issued by the State Department focused on skills-based training that would improve the ability of non-U.S. staff to define the attributes of local stakeholders and tailor the messages to appeal to local preferences. These local staff were tasked with creating a positive image of the United States in their countries in the hopes of accruing a range of public diplomacy benefits. As public diplomacy is intrinsically connected to public relations (Corman et al., 2008), consideration of effective public relations teaching methods was top of mind when constructing the training program for the local staff. Training these teams to ensure they could deliver a consistent message with appropriate localization was clearly a key component of this initiative. Given the distinct population associated with these trainings and the outcomes sought, a unique context for teaching public relations emerged.

In reviewing the mandates and circumstances outlined in the solicitation, it was clear that an approach emphasizing active and applied learning would be crucial for successfully training this population. In response to these exigencies, an approach focused on application-based learning of public relations principles served as a foundational direction in the proposal. The State Department found this approach to be most salient, and the proposal was accepted. As such, this case presented opportunities to test the viability of an applied experiential approach to public relations training in an international context.

Training Structure

Based on both the existing research and the needs of this specific group of adult learners, the training structure emphasized application-based active learning that leveraged the participants’ experience. This approach was operationalized in the proposal in several key ways. First, project-based scenarios tailored to the learners’ immediate needs would be built. Rather than teaching general theories and concepts related to public relations, participants would be tasked with assessing the values, interests, needs, and preferences of the countries in which they were working. They would also need to identify their organization’s overall objectives in the region and begin preliminary work on a strategy and set of tactics that would best meet those objectives. The character of the training would then turn those ideas into direct action plans with ideas for implementation. Thus, the training sessions would move away from lectures and speeches and would take on the character of a workshop. Participants would solve their own problems and collaborate with one another, with the facilitator offering guidance based on research related to public relations.

The Regional Program Office headquartered in Vienna, Austria, directed this training project. Upon acceptance of the proposal, training organizers immediately scheduled a series of fact-finding sessions focused on identifying State Department needs and outcomes sought.  The role that improved public relations could have in achieving key objectives was also considered. These sessions proved immensely helpful as much was discovered about the circumstances of local staff tasked with communicating on behalf of the United States. Many of the unique challenges they face also came to light. As noted, short duration postings for officials from the United States frequently made international staff the public face of the organization for their community and, by extension, the U.S. government.

Having identified key challenges and opportunities that would be the focus of the training, developing specific training structures followed. The structure of each session was based directly on best practices related to active and experiential learning of public relations. Robust scholarship supports this approach, particularly Kolb’s (1984) frequently utilized work on the subject (cited in Herz & Merz, 1998). This approach emphasizes learning by doing and is increasingly a staple of pedagogic methodologies in a range of public relations courses at universities:

Experiential learning exercises help students to confront problems; make decisions; understand conflict resolution; evaluate feedback; understand negotiation and bargaining and recognize, and perhaps change their attitudes . . . this offers an opportunity to interact with the real business world bringing relevance and currency. (Alam, 2014, p. 117)

This is particularly important for an audience of working adults because the emphasis on utilizing experience and providing content for immediate application is crucial to meeting their needs (American Management Association, 1993; Knowles et al., 1998; Luke, 1971). To ensure the training sessions met this standard and served the needs of participants, a pre-seminar questionnaire was distributed to all attendees. This survey requested that participants evaluate the specific needs of the community they would be attempting to reach, along with an assessment of the outcomes that were being sought in terms of reaching key stakeholders. From this, participants were tasked with coming up with an overall strategy and possible tactics that would be part of that strategy. While participant proposals would be refined in training sessions, the pre-seminar questionnaire required developed answers and research related to the following questions:

  • What goals does your post have for specific communities in the area that you serve?
  • Looking at the goals, what do people in those communities like about the United States? (NOTE: It could be anything from music to clothes to movies to brands).
  • What sorts of events and activities could your post do to showcase those areas of interest to people in the targeted community?
  • How would these activities reinforce the positive feelings that the community has towards certain aspects of U.S. culture?

Seminar sessions were organized according to each area with creative participation among diverse practitioners framing the text of the training, as prescribed by Verčič et al. (2015). Sessions focused on the first “goals” bullet point would include an overview of the importance of establishing goals and objectives from the facilitator. The bulk of the session, however, would be collaborative sharing from participants about the outcomes they have been tasked with achieving by their post. The “what do people like about the United States” item opens the door for sessions on audience analysis and the importance of understanding the attitudes and beliefs of a targeted public. Again, collaboration on this point is immensely important as seeing the distinctions between various publics is foundational for adaptation. The “events and activities” item would lead to sessions on the importance of tactics as instrumental activities that support goals and objectives. In this session, participant brainstorming about tactics in a safe space allows for creativity from multiple perspectives. The seminar was designed as an application-based endeavor with participants working with one another to develop, refine, and improve these plans with the guidance and direction of a facilitator, rather than a prescriber.

While this research represents an investigation into learner experience in a public relations training project, it could also be more broadly contextualized as an investigation into a specific case. As staff training was an essential component of U.S. State Department public diplomacy efforts, exploring that training from a case perspective provides heuristic value (Yin, 2013). Moreover, case studies have been recommended as a necessity in understanding the interplay between the activities of individuals within an organization and the effects of those activities on institutional outcomes (Lawrence et al., 2009). Training serves directive and creative functions in explaining individual activities within an organization, with organizational initiatives being better understood as an amalgamation of individual actions (Thompson, 2018). Thus, exploring public diplomacy training in the U.S. State Department functionally serves as an investigation of public relations pedagogy while providing a richer understanding of public diplomacy efforts overall. Assessment of outcomes is based on survey responses related to training effectiveness, coupled with qualitative inclusion of narrative statements from participants detailing their experiences. As training sessions occurred in multiple contexts, results are compared based on group composition. Culturally homogeneous group results are compared with culturally mixed, heterogeneous group results.

Population and Assessment Survey

All training sessions consisted entirely of international staff employed by the U.S. State Department. These staff members were engaged in public relations and communication related activities on behalf of the United States. As the State Department mandated consistency, the structure of each course was standardized, meaning that, insofar as possible, the experience of each participant in each context would be reasonably similar to all other participants. Upon completing the course, participants were required to complete a survey that measured their overall experience and also an evaluation of how learning would allow them to meet key outcomes related to public relations. These measures were constructed by the State Department and were required for use in the course evaluation. This survey was developed by the State Department to ensure the investment in training produced a return in terms of participant outcomes. These State Department measures offer meaningful insights into the perceived outcomes learners experienced.

Participants responded to a four point, Likert scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree). Assessed items on the scale included understandability, interest stimulated in course content, active participation, and the overall benefit sessions offered for future public diplomacy projects. Space was also provided for narrative responses where participants could directly share experiences in the training sessions.

Follow-up with participants and external observation of courses have consistently shown the survey to be useful for training outcome assessment (B. Pressler, personal communication, July 10, 2010). Performance assessment, external observation, narrative responses, and review of the training sessions further validated the outcomes identified by participants in the questionnaire.

Group Composition Comparison

The training sessions’ organization would also allow for an analysis of the effectiveness of public relations training in culturally heterogeneous versus culturally homogeneous groups. Specifically, several of the training sessions were slated to occur at a regional training office in Vienna. Participants for these sessions came from all over the world and collaborated on their respective projects together. Other sessions, however, occurred onsite in specific countries. The participants in these sessions all came from the same country. The opportunity to investigate the effectiveness of public relations training by comparing the outcomes of mixed, heterogeneous versus homogeneous groups was particularly compelling. It also offered the chance to evaluate how active and experiential learning strategies might be affected by group composition. This project provided a unique opportunity to explore how multinational groups of adult learners navigate public relations challenges in the training context.

There were two distinct contexts in which these courses were delivered with seven total sessions for this project. All sessions occurred from 2004 to 2014. Four of these sessions were delivered to participants at a regional training center in Vienna. The 48 trainees at these sessions came from different nations, as described in Table 1.

Table 1

Nationalities: Training Site Participants who Came to Vienna

The other three sessions occurred at American Embassies in the following nations: Baku, Azerbaijan; Vienna, Austria; and Yerevan, Armenia. The 37 trainees in these sessions were all citizens of the respective country in which the training took place. 


In investigating the research question “What is the effect of active and experiential public relations training among non-U.S. citizens working for the U.S. State Department?”, it was expected that course participants would report general satisfaction with training outcomes.  Research suggested the use of active, experiential, and applied pedagogy would be especially beneficial for this group of learners, and participant response supports such an approach. The mean scores from both groups on all assessed areas suggest general acceptance and appreciation for the training format. With a 4 indicating strong agreement with the perceived success of each area, the fact that the mean score of all participants approached 4 suggests the training was successful in fostering understandability, stimulation towards course content, active participation, and overall benefit for public diplomacy projects (see Table 2).

Table 2

Group Means

Several open-ended responses from participants reflect appreciation for the active and experiential approach of the training:

“I liked how we worked directly on items that I’m dealing with at my post. I can see how this will help when I return to work right away.”

“This was great! We had so much freedom and the facilitator really worked with us to figure out solutions to the problems we’d been having.”

“This wasn’t a lecture or a class, which I appreciated. They listened to me and let us work with each other.”

Based on the literature that strongly supports active and experiential learning (especially considering the needs of adult learners focused on public relations), training outcomes should show that greater diversity in group composition would foster improved course satisfaction overall. To investigate the research question “What are the differences in training outcomes between culturally homogeneous groups and mixed, heterogeneous groups of non-U.S. citizens engaged in public relations training for U.S. State Department?”, the difference between the means of mixed, heterogeneous groups versus homogeneous groups was calculated, as shown in Table 3.

Table 3

Evaluation Differences in Mixed vs. Homogeneous Groups: Mean Comparison

The “understandability” item was the only assessed area where the mixed nationality group did not clearly report higher outcomes than their homogeneous group counterparts. There are many viable explanations for this, including the fact that both groups scored quite high on this assessed item. Understandability also deals primarily with comprehension, rather than other measures that deal with creativity and development. In contrast, the area of greatest difference was in the stimulation offered by the content of the course. Those in the heterogeneous groups rated the stimulation received from the training at a 3.98 on a 4-point scale, while those in the homogeneous groups rated stimulation at 3.59. Experiential learning in public relations courses “requires that students draw on their direct experiences to reflect, test, and create new ideas“ (Munoz & Huser, 2008, p. 215) and group diversity appears to enhance these areas. At an intuitive level, a group with more diversity would naturally have more rewarding and diverse experiences to share. The creative dimension of experiential learning also appeared to be enhanced by having a range of unique and differing perspectives present. Participant-reported training outcomes appear to have benefited by the presence of diversity in the training group. Narrative comments from participants in heterogeneous groups also reflect this:

I learned so much from my colleagues from all over the world. It was great to hear they are facing many of the same issues as us.”

“Meeting people from all over was my favorite part of the course. They do some different things and we will totally look into trying them at our post.”

“I love my colleagues from around the globe!!!!”

“This was such a wonderful training and I will for sure be staying in contact with the people I met here. Great friends and we get so much from talking to each other.”

An example of an outcome produced by these activities emerged from German training participants tasked with youth outreach by the U.S. embassy in Berlin. Leaders at the embassy had also expressed interest in improving relationships with the large Turkish diaspora in the country. From the pre-seminar survey, the participants suggested programming that would appeal to both German and Turkish youth.  Working on this approach at the seminar, participants identified research that showed German and Turkish youth had a particular interest in American hip-hop music. During seminar sessions, the German participants were able to build a series of events featuring American, German, and Turkish hip-hop artists who would appeal to the targeted demographic.  Lauded by State Department officials, the approach was seen positively as mirroring Cold War era public diplomacy:

The State Department’s program is modeled on the jazz diplomacy that the U.S. government conducted during the Cold War by sending integrated bands led by Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman to Africa, Asia, and the Middle East to counter Soviet propaganda and instead promote “the American way of life.” (Aidi, 2014)

Such examples offer insight into the focus of the training sessions, where the bulk of the course was guided by management of tangible, real world public relations challenges, rather than lectures and directives from the facilitator.


Diversity and Active Learning

The results broadly support the effectiveness of experiential and active learning strategies. Initially, this reinforces the rationale for such an approach for groups working on projects related to international messaging. In this instance, the application-based structure seemed ideal to a staff of non-U.S. citizens tasked with public relations initiatives by the U.S. State Department. The role they play in public diplomacy programs for the U.S. State Department has been well-established, and training outcomes like these speak to strategies on improving the training and preparation that goes into such initiatives. The creation of groups that were diverse in terms of nationality did not, in any way, compromise the overall effectiveness of active learning (Chang, 2009) and likely offered unique benefits that made the applied piece of the training more effective. This suggests an approach to international public relations teams’ composition should likely attempt to ensure diversity of cultural backgrounds for such teams. As indicated, an organization that truly embraces international opportunities will integrate the perspectives of constituents from throughout the world and create a vision for successful communication that transcends the limited perspective of a single group (Mahmoud, 1975; Wind et al., 1973). The composition of groups tasked with international public relations projects and the corresponding training they receive is an important element of this optimization.

The results of this project also reinforce the importance of facilitating diversity in the public relations classroom. As public relations, like all fields, continues to globalize its scope, educators would do well to create spaces of international engagement in their courses. Doing so supports the professional development of students who will be practitioners in a multinational environment. The feedback from this particular case would suggest that learning overall would be enhanced when public relations students learn through engagement with diversity.

Limitations and Future Research

The results of this research are promising, yet key limitations should be acknowledged in the context of discussing this project’s broader significance. Initially, the group being investigated was relatively small in size and highly specialized in terms of their needs. Non-U.S. citizens working for the U.S. State Department are distinct and tasked with a very specific form of public relations. Making more general assumptions about a larger population could prove problematic when thinking about the specialized nature of this group. While the training was intense and direct in its focus on applied experiential learning, the courses themselves were quite short (lasting only a matter of days). Whether or not this approach could be applied to sustained training and development done by an organization is something that needs additional investigation. Similarly, university public relations courses and programs with durations lasting semesters and years may face challenges when using a primarily experiential approach. Comparing this to previous research on experiential learning done in undergraduate courses is worthwhile, though the comparison likely would not be a direct one.

Beyond items related to generalizability, there are broader issues with using this case to make assessments of experiential learning for adults in a training context. The population studied here was composed of many nationalities, yet it should be noted that these participants shared an important commonality: they all chose to work for the U.S. government. The decision made to seek employment at a U.S. institution is indicative of potential distinction from other citizens in the country in which one resides. Categorization of people from the same country as “homogeneous” is also potentially problematic, as subcultures within a state can indicate profound areas of difference despite shared nationality (Hofstede et al., 2010).

Nevertheless, in this study, satisfaction still appeared to be enhanced in groups composed of different nationalities. It appears, at least in this context, that internationalization of a training group led to better outcomes in terms of active experiential learning. Whatever similarities may exist in the people who participated in these sessions, it remains clear that there were tangible benefits based on the cultural diversity of the groups. When thinking about both the teaching of international messaging and the practice of public relations, the results suggest that heterogeneity can be the basis for higher levels of creativity and collaboration. 

Finally, favorable post-training self-assessments suggest but fail to confirm positive training outcomes. Participant reporting is notoriously tricky when evaluating the success of any teaching or training initiative. People participating in a course may feel that they have learned a great deal only to ignore what they learned when that information is applied to field projects. It is also possible that, despite what they have learned, the reality of the situation they face on the job may not match the content explored in a course. While it is heartening that participants viewed the training as understandable, stimulating, engaging, and beneficial, any declaration of the training’s long-term success would involve a more longitudinal evaluation that assesses not only the direct outcomes of the training, but the direct outcomes of the lessons learned from the training, as well.


The results explored show promise for the use of experiential learning as an approach for public relations training and validate the importance of building international teams with an eye towards cultural diversity in terms of composition. This alone, however, does not fully speak to the experiences members had in the training context. A participant from the Dominican Republic discussed ways in which the embassy’s substantial library resources could be more effectively utilized by nearby schools. A participant from Belarus focused on programs that could make democratic ideals attractive to the population under the constraints of an autocratic regime. Another participant from Turkey worked on promotional materials for a series of American film screenings that the embassy would sponsor in a country that remains fascinated by U.S. culture.  By working on these projects directly in the training, participants were given the opportunity to receive immediate feedback. Rather than receiving lectures that they might be able to apply to their work, the content of the seminar functionally became their work. This is the sort of application-based learning that employees engaging in training prefer.

Application to Other Public Relations Instruction Contexts

Broadly considering public relations instruction overall, a learning-by-doing orientation appears to be more effective in meeting learner needs. Of particular note in this case, it appears that these projects were served by the diversity of the participants who were present. International messaging involves the building of complex relationships across a matrix of cultural influences (Samaha et al., 2014). The ability to adapt cannot be facilitated in a vacuum. The presence of a culturally diverse group enhances the ability of that group to manage cultural variables in public relations practice.

More broadly, the effectiveness of such programs in meeting U.S. State Department goals for moderating the opinions and actions of global constituencies is less clear. Well-intentioned programs may attract interest from prospective stakeholders, but sustaining that interest and leveraging it into action is a considerably more difficult proposition. There is also the unique space of public relations that public diplomacy occupies. Intrinsically, public diplomacy is a public relations proposition (Sun, 2008). However, when the strategic element of public diplomacy is transparent to the individuals targeted, its effectiveness risks being compromised. As Schneider (2006) notes, “This should be a process of building bridges, not a one-way street. Developing respect for others and their way of thinking—this is what cultural diplomacy does” (p. 192).

Challenges like these are not easily navigated, and platitudes about public relations will do little in helping practitioners overcome them. Based on this research, the most productive approach would be transitioning from abstraction to action and ensuring that those tasked with speaking to global audiences have a correspondingly global team.


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Building a Social Learning Flock: Using Twitter Chats to Enhance Experiential Learning Across Universities

Top GIFT from AEJMC-PRD 2018

Editorial Record: Submitted to AEJMC-PRD GIFT Competition by Feb. 5, 2018. A blind copy was peer reviewed by the PRD Teaching Committee, led by Chair Katie Place, and selected as a Top GIFT. First published online on August 17, 2018.


Amanda Weed Headshot

Amanda J. Weed, Ohio

Karen Freberg

Karen Freberg, Louisville

Emily Kinsky

Emily S. Kinsky, West Texas A&M University

Amber Hutchins Headshot

Amber L. Hutchins, Kennesaw State University

Building a Social Learning Flock: Using Twitter Chats to Enhance Experiential Learning Across Universities


A monthly Twitter chat focused on social media was created to engage students and professionals across the country, and assignments were created to use the chat content with various classes across PR programs. The chat created an online learning community in the same vein of industry chats such as #HootChat, #TwitterSmarter and #AdobeChat. The purpose was to supplement students’ classroom learning by offering themed conversations about relevant topics in social media. By featuring industry guest panelists, students were able to gain professional perspectives and ask questions to further their understanding. In addition, students were able to share the knowledge they gained through classroom learning with an outside audience, which may increase self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997) and development of professional networks to increase internship and job prospects.


Chat participation offered an alternative to the traditional online discussion board, which is only available to members of a single class. Each monthly chat was dedicated to a different social media topic, which meant multiple learning goals could be achieved. As students shared class-based knowledge during the chat, faculty could assess student learning goals against a diverse landscape of courses across universities to address strengths and areas for improvement. In addition, students experienced professional development benefits that can come from engaging with influencers, industry practitioners, and brands. By engaging in proactive conversations, giving praise and acknowledgements, and integrating their own points of view, students learned the real-world benefits of social media networking and had the potential to serve as a strong advocate and social connector with their own community.


Twitter chats are commonly used in the public relations industry to facilitate knowledge-sharing and networking among practitioners. By building an audience that included classes at multiple universities, the chats allowed students to form positive habits that will foster continuing education to support their advancement in the public relations industry. The chats also allowed students to extend their education beyond their own class or institution. By expanding the audience to include panelists who were experts in the chat topic, students had an opportunity to make online connections with them, which widened students’ networks and their knowledge of the field—not just for that day but for as long as they follow those professionals on into the future. Participating in the chats also gave students the chance to impress these professionals with thoughtful questions and insightful responses.

Using the Twitter chats as source material provided experience for students to create various forms of assignments that may be applied to learning outcomes of different classes (see attached assignment guides). Content creation and measurement are two important areas within public relations that are highly valued, and these chats gave students the chance to do both. Through participation and follow-up assignments, students better understood best practices and results of a particular social media initiative with set key performance indicators.


With 303 participants and 2,180 total tweets (7.19 tweets/contributor) across the four chats, participation and engagement were high. Evidence of learning was demonstrated through the various products created, including graphics of favorite quotes from the chat, tweets posted, and summary paragraphs designed to be blogged. In the context of Bloom’s taxonomy, assignments addressed multiple levels of learning. Chat participation assessed comprehension by allowing students to demonstrate their understanding of topics through response to question prompts. Post-chat assignments integrated higher levels of learning taxonomy (application, synthesis, evaluation) through analysis of chat content and content creation that facilitated creativity and critical thinking.


Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W H Freeman/Times Books/Henry Holt & Co.

Appendix A

General Assignments

Assignment #1

Chat Participation

Twitter chats are IRT (in real time) conversations that center around a unique topic. To participate in a Twitter chat, you will follow the conversation by following the chat hashtag. When viewing the chat, make sure you are using the “Latest” tab to view the tweets in real time. 

Chat questions are typically labeled as Q1, Q2, and so on. To respond to a question, begin your tweet with A1, A2, and so on to match that particular question. You may also retweet the question and add your response as a comment. Always include the chat hashtag in your tweet to ensure your response will be viewed by Twitter chat participants.

To receive credit for your chat responses, you will need to include your class hashtag in your chat tweets.

Assignment #2

Create a Twitter Moment

Twitter Moments allow users to curate content to share with their audience. For the assignment, you will create a “highlights reel” of the Twitter chat that features the most valuable insights that you gained from participant responses. Share your Moment on Twitter so your followers can also benefit from those insights. For an example of a Twitter Moment, see https://twitter.com/i/moments/958726169309958144

For guidance in creating a Twitter Moment, visit https://help.twitter.com/en/using-twitter/how-to-create-a-twitter-moment.

Twitter Moment Requirements

  • Cover Image
  • Title (5-9 words)
  • Description (30-50 words)
    • Write a paragraph-style description that includes the following information:
      • Date of Twitter chat
      • Featured guests
      • Chat topic
      • Hashtag the audience may search to view full chat
  • Chat Highlights
    • Add each chat question
      • Tip: Search the chat hashtag + Q1 (or Q2, Q3, and so on)
    • Add a minimum of three responses after each chat question that reflect the most valuable insights you gained
      • Tip: Search the chat hashtag + A1 (or A2, A3, and so on)
  • Publish your Moment
  • Tweet your Moment

Appendix B

Analysis/Measurement Assignments

Assignment #1

Social Media Listening

In this assignment, you will be asked to evaluate the Twitter chat by using a social media listening tool. The options are listed below:

  • Tweetdeck
  • Hootsuite
  • Buffer
  • Keyhole
  • TweetBinder
  • Hashtagify
  • Tagboard
  • Other

Provide an overview of the listening tool you will be using. Describe the tool’s features. What are its main advantages and disadvantages? What is the timeline when you will be conducting this listening procedure?

Discuss the key performance indicators (KPIs) from the chat. Make sure to report and discuss the following metrics from the Twitter chat:

  • Twitter Reach
  • Twitter Reach – Mention Type
  • Twitter Reach – Engagement Type
  • Twitter Reach – Authority Type
  • Sentiment
  • Mentions
  • Most Retweeted
  • Most Engaged Users
  • Top trending keywords that are being used in addition to the hashtag
  • Make sure to note the sentiment, mentions, users, and communities on Twitter for your analysis.
  • Additional findings worth noting

Recommendations + Strategic Insights

  • What are the main findings from the analysis of the Twitter chat?
  • What insights can you use to determine from this Twitter chat? What are three takeaways?
  • What are some recommendations for future Twitter chats?
  • Provide three resources (ex. guides, professionals, articles, etc.) on Twitter chats for how to evaluate and measure future chats.

Analysis/Measurement Assignments

Assignment #2

Chat Performance Executive Summary

Directions: You will monitor the hashtagged conversation from the Twitter chat, analyze the results, and produce an executive summary of the results for the chat sponsor.

Step 1: Collect data from Twitter.

  • You can use the Twitter.com search function to find posts using the chat hashtag. You are welcome to use other applications like Hootsuite or Meltwater, but keep in mind that even some top organizations monitor “by hand.”
  • Examine the posts. Take note of keywords and themes used by participants.  Are there other hashtags being used along with the main hashtag (other class hashtags, etc.)?
  • Count and categorize the data. Focus on one or two themes or topics.  

Step 2: Create a visual representation of your findings.

  • It’s up to you how you want to represent the data you found—pie chart, graph, etc., but make it easy for readers to understand the prominent topics, themes and sentiment from the chat. Use generators like Easel.ly, Excel to create pie graphs, or inserted photos of hand-drawn charts. It’s not necessary to be a graphics expert, just focus on providing a graphic of your results.

Step 3: Write a 3-paragraph executive summary to explain your results. 

Write your summary using concise, direct language. 

  • Para 1: Report your results.  Make sure to indicate the sample size (number of tweets you analyzed) in the key to the graphic.
  • Para 2: Interpret and analyze the results. What do the results mean? Go beyond positive and negative mentions and report on topics/themes, keyword mentions, or other data that can be useful.
  • Para 3: Make recommendations for future chats. What would you recommend to the chat sponsor in order to improve participation and engagement?

Appendix C

Design Assignments

Assignment #1

Create a Quote Illustration

Scan through the chat and find a “quotable quote” to illustrate using Canva or Spark. Be sure to cite the person who said the quote with both his/her full name and Twitter handle. Once it is illustrated, we will give peer feedback in class, make needed adjustments, and then each student will share his/her quote via Twitter, along with a sentence explaining why it was chosen. Tag the person who said it and use the chat hashtag to reach a wider audience.



Design Assignments

Assignment #2

Create an Infographic

Infographics are used to present data in a visually appealing way that makes a concept easier to understand at a glance. For this assignment, you will collect data and identify five unique statistics about the Twitter chat, such as the following statistics:

  • # of participants
  • # of likes, retweets
  • Most responses to a single chat question
  • Use of pictures/GIFs
  • # of tags
  • Top 5 tweets by likes
  • Top 5 tweets by RT

Once you have tabulated the statistics (by hand or with a program like Meltwater), create your infographic. You may use platforms like Infogr.amEasel.ly, Piktochart, Visme, or Canva.

Infographic Requirements

  • Headline
  • A brief description of the Twitter chat
  • Visual design that reflects the Twitter chat topic
  • 5 statistics: Include an “explainer” (description) for each statistic that provides additional detail
  • Provide a source credit (including hyperlink) at the bottom of the infographic that directs readers to the full Twitter chat source

Appendix D

Writing Assignments

Assignment #1

LinkedIn Article

One way to increase your LinkedIn connections is to start publishing articles through your account that can be read by the LinkedIn community. For additional information about LinkedIn publishing, visit  https://www.linkedin.com/learning/publishing-on-linkedin-for-college-students-and-young-professionals/publishing-best-practices

For this assignment, write a 200-300 word article about the three key insights you gained from the Twitter chat.  

To create an effective LinkedIn article, you should include the following elements, in addition to your writing:

  • Headline (5-9 words)
  • One header image
  • One embedded picture or video in the article
  • At least three hyperlinks to outside articles related to your key insights
    • Tip: Integrate hyperlinks into your article, not as add-ons at the end
  • At least two hashtags that make your article searchable on LinkedIn
    • Tip:  Integrate hashtags into your article, not as add-ons at the end
  • Optional: Tag relevant people in your article
    • Tip: Tag guest panelists from the Twitter chat or people you have quoted in the article

Additional Tips:

  • Include visual/multimedia elements (embed example tweets, relevant videos, etc.), in addition to the visual representation of the data.  
  • Embed your hyperlinks in the text; don’t simply paste a URL in the text. Test your links to make sure they work.
  • Separate into sections and label each section (you can create your own titles for each section). Each section should be approximately one short paragraph (two max). 
  • Give your blog post a title. This is different from a headline or an essay title. Use the title to highlight important findings from your report. For example: “#SMStudentChat Shows Growing Interest in Blogs for Professional Development.”
  • Make sure that the background does not obscure the text. 
  • Use a clean, professional theme/format.  
  • Be informative and professional, but use a conversational tone (natural human speech).  Avoid slang.
  • Use multimedia and line spaces to break up text.

Assignment #2

Promotional Post

Write a short promotional post for Twitter or LinkedIn with one teaser tip you learned from the Twitter chat. Direct your audience to read your article for more tips and insights. Include a hyperlink to the article, your class hashtag, and tag the chat sponsor.

Who Will Get Chopped?: Mystery Basket PR Challenge


         Emily Kinsky

• Mary E. Brooks, West Texas A&M University

• Emily S. Kinsky, West Texas A&M University

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Who Will Get Chopped?: Mystery Basket PR Challenge

Who Will Get Chopped?: Mystery Basket PR Challenge

Based off Food Network’s Chopped challenge, the Mystery Basket PR Challenge is a competition that focuses on creativity, speed, and skill in which students are given a box of mystery “ingredients” (e.g., brand, crisis, strategy, channel, speaker, audience) they have to use to complete an assigned task (e.g., a tweet, an official statement, a headline). For example, a box might have a brand name, a particular crisis, a group of people affected and a celebrity, and the task would be to write a headline for a news release, keeping in mind which crisis response strategy from Benoit (1997) or Coombs (2007) might be most appropriate. Students open the box and have a limited time in their groups to complete the task, which they then pitch to the judges (faculty and local professionals). This requires teamwork and application of lessons learned in class as the student groups compete against each other.

The purpose of the Mystery Basket PR Challenge is for students to apply PR strategies to handle unexpected situations and solve problems collaboratively under a deadline. This challenge can also help prepare students to clearly and quickly articulate ideas.

Per Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning theory, learning through experience focuses on the process at hand and not necessarily the outcome of the project. By formatting the classroom into a simulated work environment, students will have greater success in their future careers when faced with similar challenges (Ambrose, Bridges, DePietro, Lovett & Norman, 2010; Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014). The challenge covers the five elements that are crucial to an experiential learning activity: the use of real-world situations; complexity (more than one answer may suffice); industry-specific concepts; student-led activity; and finally, feedback and reflection (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014). The benefits to students are numerous, especially in relation to the PR industry where strategy, creativity, spontaneous thinking, collaboration, and articulate wording are all pivotal to being successful.

This pedagogical teaching tool is applicable to a variety of courses within the PR discipline (e.g., writing, campaigns, cases, ethics, social media) or other strategic communication classes.

During fall 2016, a version of this challenge was successfully implemented in an advertising writing class as a final project. Student feedback was positive. For example, one student said, “the ‘Chopped’ final was also very intriguing! Having an interactive final that brings in industry professionals to critique our work will greatly help” students continuing in the field.

Assignment Instructions

The Mystery Basket PR Challenge includes three rounds. Each round consists of four mystery public relations components that groups of students must incorporate to produce a public relations solution for a specific organization. Students will work in small groups to produce the solution in a short amount of time for a variety of situations, organizations and media platforms. Student groups will compete against each other. Working in a collaborative environment is essential in PR. Learning to meet deadlines is also pertinent, especially in the public relations industry where clients expect work at a pre-set time. Further, PR practitioners must learn to handle unexpected crises in a timely situation.


The rules for each round include using all of the mystery basket components, creating the designated assignment within the time allotted, and making a persuasive pitch to the judges. In addition, students will have a public relations pantry they can turn to for help. The pantry would consist of their textbooks, Internet access, cell phones and laptops/tablets. This is similar to Chopped where contestants have access to a modified grocery store in order to enhance a dish. Students are given one class period to practice prior to the real competition class period with different ingredients than what will be used in the competition.


Each group has a basket of mystery components during each round. The round assignments can change based on the class topic (see Appendix A for examples). For an introductory course, Round 1 could be the event planning round; Round 2 could be the social media round; and Round 3 could be the news release round. Just like Chopped, the time for each round will increase as each round increases in difficulty. During Round 1 for a social media class, the students will have 10 minutes to create a calendar-related promotion; during Round 2, students will have 20 minutes to create a hashtag campaign; and during Round 3, the students will have 30 minutes to write a blog post.

Professional Feedback

The student groups will be given live feedback on their work from industry professionals (see Appendix B for a sample judging rubric). The benefits of including public relations industry professionals in this challenge are many. Students have a chance to demonstrate their creative and innovative ideas, their presentation abilities, and their quick thinking skills to the professionals. In addition, students and professionals will begin to formulate relationships. This is important for potential future employment and/or mentorship.

When the time for each round expires, one person from each group must present the team’s final idea to the judges for one minute (or longer, depending on the challenge). The judges will deliberate and deliver their individual comments to each group. The judges will also choose a winner for every round. The class enrollment size and the division of groups will determine how many winning groups per round. The winners from each round will be named the Mystery Basket PR Challenge champions.

Appendix A

Assignment Examples

The Mystery Basket PR Challenge can be modified for different PR courses (e.g., crisis, campaigns, writing, social media). Like Chopped, each round allows students more time (e.g., 10, 20 and 30 minutes). Some “ingredients,” like the brands, will be assigned, while others can be selected strategically by the students (e.g., which channel makes the most sense in this situation?).

Crisis Communication 

  • Round 1: Official statement
  • Component #1: Brand/Organization (this would be assigned to the group)
  • Component #2: An image restoration strategy from Benoit or Coombs
  • Component #3: Crisis (a type of crisis would be assigned to the group)
  • Component #4: Speaker (choose the title of the person who would share the statement)
  • Round 2: Social media post
  • Component #1: Brand/Organization
  • Component #2: An image restoration strategy
  • Component #3: Crisis
  • Component #4: Channel (assign or let them choose)
  • Round 3: News release
  • Component #1: Brand/Organization
  • Component #2: Crisis
  • Component #3: Audience
  • Component #4: A quote to include

Social Media

  • Round 1: Calendar promotion
  • Component #1: National ____ Day (choose a day that fits the brand/org; for example, if the students were given Bayer Aspirin as the brand, they might choose July 9 Rock ‘n’ Roll Day as the specific national day for a tied-in promotional post)
  • Component #2: Brand (company/organization assigned to the group)
  • Component #3: Social media site (choose the most appropriate site)
  • Component #4: Post (write copy, decide when it would be posted, sketch image)
  • Round 2: Hashtag campaign
  • Component #1: Organization
  • Component #2: Event
  • Component #3: Goal
  • Component #4: Social media platform
  • Round 3: Blog post
  • Component #1: Organization
  • Component #2: Audience
  • Component #3: Keywords
  • Component #4: Links

Appendix B

Judging Rubric Example 

Division A Judge Name:

Round 2: Social Media Post


Please circle which group in Division A is being judged:

Group 1                                           Group 2                                           Group 3



Please rate from 1-10 (with 10 being the best) the creativity of the social media post based on the components provided in the basket.       1    2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9    10



Please rate from 1-10 (with 10 being the best) the overall idea of the social media post based on the components provided in the basket.      1    2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9    10



Please rate the quality of presentation from 1-10 (with 10 being the best).

1    2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9    10



Please provide comments concerning the overall social media post results, the presentation, and/or anything regarding how the challenge was managed (both positive feedback and suggestions for improvement).


 Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Benoit, W. L. (1997). Image repair discourse and crisis communication. Public Relations Review, 23(2), 177-186.

Coombs, W. T. (2007). Protecting organization reputations during a crisis: The development and application of situational crisis communication theory. Corporate Reputation Review, 10(3), 163–176.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Svinicki, M. & McKeachie, W. (2014). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategy, research and theory for college and university teachers. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.