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Called, Committed and Inspiring Activism: How Black PR guest speakers experienced the PR classroom during the COVID-19 and Racial Reckoning academic year of 2020/2021

Editorial Record: Submitted June 15, 2021. Revised December 3, 2021. Revised February 25, 2022. Accepted March 7, 2022.


David Brown
Associate Professor of Instruction and Diversity Advisor to the Dean at Klein College of Media and Communication
Department of Advertising and Public Relations
Temple University
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Email: davidwbrown@temple.edu

Teri Del Rosso, Ph.D.
Strategic Media department
University of Memphis
Memphis, Tennessee
Email: teri@teridelrosso.com


Through nine in-depth interviews with Black PR experts, this project explores how public relations professors can support and engage guest speakers from underrepresented communities during traumatic times; specifically the public health and racial violence pandemics during the 2020/2021 academic year. We suggest that by understanding the motivations and experiences of Black guest speakers, public relations professors can (better) implement an activist pedagogy practice.

Keywords: in-depth interviews, black pr experts, diversity, guest speakers, activist pedagogy


The spring and summer seasons of 2020 were an unexpected time of reckoning for many public relations professors. In March 2020, the coronavirus pandemic forced many educators and students to their home to work, lecture, study, and collaborate; and faculty were regrouping after teaching, researching, advising, and mentoring digitally for the last half of the spring semester. Although the summer brought a degree of uncertainty, there was a familiarity with the accelerated, often already online, summer courses and research agendas.

Unfortunately, along with the familiarity of a faculty summer work schedule was another tragically familiar story for too many in the U.S.: the police shootings and murders of Black Americans. In May 2020, leaked video footage documented the February 23 killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was gunned down by two White men while jogging in Brunswick, Ga. (Rojas et al., 2020). On May 11, 2020, Errin Haines (2020) reported on Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was shot and killed in Louisville, Ky. on March 13 after police executed a search warrant.

The murders of Arbery and Taylor drew considerable traditional and social media attention (Brown & Ray, 2020; Specter, 2020); but the country took to the streets for weeks after George Floyd was murdered on Memorial Day (May 25, 2020) in Minneapolis. Floyd was killed after now former police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes.

The public reckoning of these three murders, in addition to the public health crisis, brought a question and call-to-action to the forefront: “What role can, and should communication education scholarship play in this racial justice movement?” (Waymer, 2021, p. 114). Professors, especially faculty of color, have grappled with this question prior to and since May 2020. Overall, many seemed to take Waymer’s question as a call to increase diversity, and professors joined institutions in conversation about how they can incorporate diversity into their own public relations classrooms. 

The need to bring more diversity to the PR classroom is spurred by the lack of diversity among  PR professors, who overwhelmingly identify as white, so much so that the profession was described as “a lily-white field of women” (Vardeman-Winter & Place, 2017). Many of these summer 2020 discussions concluded that a path to decentering whiteness was through rethinking references and media; and professors were encouraged to be diligent in facilitating relationships among students, guest speakers, and mentors of color. Unfortunately, this often resulted in emotional, unpaid labor for guests, mentors, and panelists. 

This project explores how to engage more diverse guest speakers; and suggests that intentionally approaching this relationship can be a form of activist pedagogy. Using in-depth interviews, we spoke with nine Black public relations experts who spoke, taught, mentored, and supported public relations students during the 2020/2021 academic year. We focused on how they are processing the collective and individual trauma of 2020 and 2021, how they experienced the PR classroom, and how they felt PR professors can better support them and their students. These findings, which include templates and suggestions for outreach with guest speakers, will aid professors in creating a more activist-friendly space in the public relations classroom.

Literature Review

Although the inclusion of guest speakers in the classroom helps professors deliver professional world experiences to students (Craig et al., 2020; Davis, 1993), few studies in mass communication  explore this topic. This literature review will outline activism and the public relations classroom, our theoretical lens of activist pedagogy, and the research on guest speakers.

Activism in the Public Relations Classroom

A shift in public relations scholarship began in the early 2000s when researchers began to study the relationship between public relations and activism. Holtzhausen and Voto (2002) posit that a postmodern approach helps scholars understand practitioners as organizational activists and change agents. Activists often take-on public relations duties in their work as well (Smith & Ferguson, 2001) and must consider how to budget, communicate, and reach publics (Kovacs, 2001; Taylor et al., 2001).

The scholarship on the role activism plays in public relations and vice versa has influenced and reinforced a need to teach activism and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the classroom. Scholars have explored activism in the classroom through the teaching of activism scholarship (e.g., Pascual-Ferrá, 2019), campaigns (e.g., Luttrell & Wallace, 2021), and writing assignments (e.g., Flowers, 2020). These activities acknowledge a need to prepare students to talk about social issues, which includes diversity, equity, and inclusion. One way to implement these issues in the classroom is to develop an activist pedagogy.

Activist Pedagogy

The dual crises have continued to expose a violent tendency in the U.S. around the dehumanization of marginalized people. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire (2005) writes how dehumanization marks “those whose humanity has been stolen” (p. 44). Around the world, people witnessed activists taking to the streets in the summer of 2020 to fight for their humanity, which was being threatened by police brutality and white supremacy.

Alongside protests on the streets, educators can also approach the revolution in the classroom. For Freire, a humanistic approach to teaching and pedagogy was a solution to the dehumanizing violence. Freire (2005) notes that the way to “surmount the situation of oppression, people must first critically recognize its causes, so that through transforming action they can create a new situation, one which makes possible the pursuit of a fuller humanity” (p. 47). This idea, in many ways, serves as the foundation for activist pedagogy.

Activist pedagogy is the practice in which a professor “exposes, acknowledges and unpacks social injustices… and [commits] to personal and social change both inside and outside the classroom and academy” (Preston & Aslett, 2014, p. 514). This approach transforms the “classroom into a site for ‘doing’ as well as ‘thinking about doing’” (Preston & Aslett, 2014, p. 515). As we outlined in our introduction, scholars called on professors to imagine their classroom as a space to decenter privilege and promote the ideas and experiences related to BIPOC scholars and professionals. As the many workshops, webinars, and readings suggest, this is an active relearning and unlearning for many scholars and professors.

In their study to understand whether scholars and professors are decentering whiteness and promoting a more critical and nuanced understanding of (de)colonization, race, and diversity, Chakravartty and Jackson (2020) studied 25 syllabi and 16 curricula belonging to the top first-year communication and media studies doctoral programs in the United States. Of the 1,070 authors cited on first-year course syllabi, the 16 most assigned scholars were senior or emeritus scholars or had died. Of the top 16 most cited, only one was a woman and one scholar of color (Chakravartty & Jackson, 2020). In addition to these demographics (old, White male), most of these scholars were writing and theorizing on democracy without any attention paid to race or imperialism. This led Chakravartty and Jackson (2020) to conclude that there was a “communication theory whiteout” (p. 6).

         What is taught and prioritized in doctoral programs is important to note because these graduate students go on to become journalism, advertising, and public relations professors (Sadler, 2020). As Sadler (2020) notes, “decolonizing the curriculum is a vital step in giving students access to more scholars of color” and when professors do that, they encourage students to “critically assess the process of media strategy from the position of those it impacts [which] will better prepare [them] for the industry” (p. 60). Given mass communication and public relations’ role as culture creators, professors must seek “transformative pedagogical adaptations of course text, deliverables, and discussion” (Sadler, 2020, p. 63).  Embodying an activist pedagogy is embracing the classroom as a constant “work in progress” (Preston & Aslett, 2014, p. 515). Just as assignments and readings must be intentionally crafted, a guest speaker list has an equally important impact on students.

Guest speakers in Mass Communication

As we introduced, the literature on the use of guest speakers in mass communication is limited, although the practice is well implemented (Merle & Craig, 2017). Since Merle and Craig’s 2017 article, which originally stated that there are no empirical studies exploring the use of guest speakers in mass communication courses, a few studies have examined the relationship between the students and guest speakers.

Ji et al. (2021) concluded in their review of literature that guest speakers improve teaching outcomes and often lead to mutually beneficial relationships among students and professors (see also Zou et al., 2019). Professors recognize that building guest speakers into a classroom schedule can help bridge academics and industry, motivate students, provide information about positions, industries, and the field; and those guest speakers can go on to serve as mentors (Craig et al., 2020). 

Research suggests that strong, successful guest speakers need to wear many hats, and should be smart, committed, and credible (Eveleth & Baker-Eveleth, 2009; Farruggio, 2011). Effective guest speakers often develop their own teaching philosophy, which includes understanding their audience (students), presentation preparation, and strategies for engagement and motivation (Lee & Joung, 2017). In addition to demographics and pedagogy styles, Ji et al. (2021) discovered that overwhelmingly, students prefer alumni as guest speakers because these guests provide “imagined future professional selves” (Ji et al., 2021, p. 63). The authors noted that international guest speakers were increasingly valued by students due to globalization (Ji et al., 2021).

While the previous study did not explore student perception of guest speakers outside of age and gender, Craig et al. (2020) concluded there was a significant need for faculty to be strategic when selecting guest speakers based on diverse lived experiences. Just as alumni help students “imagine their future selves” through a shared university experience, students are also looking for guest speakers to embody other diverse identities (e.g., racial, gender, first generation) (Craig et al., 2020).

The need for diverse guest speakers. When organizations embrace diversity, it signals to its stakeholders a set of values (Edwards, 2011; Muturi & Zhu, 2019). The 2017 Commission on Public Relations Education (CPRE) report notes that educators are a crucial voice in making diversity central (CPRE, 2018). Professors and lessons must reflect diversity in content and teaching due to the fact there is still a diversity challenge within the field. Public relations professors have a unique responsibility to diversity, given it’s a central standard for the two primary accrediting bodies: ACEJMC and PRSA’s Certificate in Education for Public Relations (CEPR). The report notes, “to deepen students’ understanding and appreciation of diversity, educators can invite speakers from backgrounds that differ in terms of ethnicity, religion, and other demographic and psychographic dimensions” (CPRE, 2018, p. 53).

One of the key recommendations regarding diversity is for professors to find ways to support underrepresented groups. This project takes a unique look at this call by interviewing Black public relations experts about how professors can create an encouraging and nurturing environment for invited guests. This way of support complements and reinforces other CPRE recommendations such as student retention, teaching diversity and multicultural perspectives, and building and developing thought leaders.

As we outlined in this literature review, the scholarship on guest speakers explores how to best use guest speakers (see Haley & Blakeman, 2008; Spiller et al., 2011) and student perception (see Craig et al., 2020; Ji et al., 2021; Merle & Craig, 2017), but few studies explore the relationship from the guest speaker perspective. Additionally, many of the above cited studies collected quantitative data, which although helpful, lacks a deep, in-depth understanding of experience.

This project has two goals. The first goal explores the guest speaker experience in the public relations classroom during the 2020/2021 academic year and how they feel public relations professors can best support them. Our second goal centers around how these findings can be explicated to help public relations professors create and foster an activist pedagogy practice.

RQ1: How did Black public relations experts experience the 2020/2021 academic year as invited guests in the classroom?

RQ2: How do they feel PR professors can better support them in the classroom?

These research questions will help guide our discussion, which explores how understanding the experiences and motivations of Black PR experts can be viewed as a contribution to an activist pedagogy.


To understand more about the experiences of our interviewees and how professors can better support Black PR experts and guest speakers, we conducted nine in-depth interviews over Zoom. At first, we wanted to speak with any guest speakers who identified with a marginalized group (e.g., gender, race, and/or sexual minority), but after realizing the weight of the dual crises (COVID and racial violence) in 2020/2021, we opted to interview Black PR experts to learn more about their specific experiences. The interview allowed us to understand more about the individual experiences in the PR classroom as they are lived and perceived by our participants (Englander, 2012).

Sample and recruitment tactics  

After we received IRB approval to conduct in-depth interviews, we used a purposive and convenience sample to recruit our nine interview participants. Given our Broom Center for Professional Development for Public Relations grant, we sent an interview pitch to the Broom Center Speaker Bureau list and recruited from our networks. Participants were asked to fill out a form which focused on demographics (age range, pronouns, region) and guest speaker logistics (e.g., how many invitations, presentations, topics). Twenty emails were sent out and we received 16 interest forms. Taking into consideration gender, age, invites/presentations, and region; we extended the invitation to 10 participants. Of our original 10, we were able to schedule and conduct seven interviews, which we then increased to nine after another round of purposive recruitment via personal networks to increase our gender and age diversity. To maintain confidentiality, all participants were given a pseudonym. In addition to their pseudonym, each participant was situated within a region and age range, but we did use their provided pronouns (Appendix A). 

Procedure and Analysis

We conducted semi-structured interviews, with most lasting approximately 60-minutes. Given that we were talking to working professionals, often during lunch hours or right after the workday, sticking to the hour was very important for both researchers. Every interview was conducted over Zoom with both authors joining for the call.

After we recruited and scheduled the interviews, each participant was emailed the consent form and the list of interview questions. We opted to share the interview questions to build trust and provide the interviewee with the opportunity to reflect on their year before the interview.

The first researcher facilitated the outreach, scheduling, and rapport building portion of the interview. She told the interviewee the goals of the interview and went over key takeaways from the consent form. After the short introduction, she turned off her audio and proceeded to take notes and ask the occasional follow-up question, while the second researcher conducted the interview.

Early in the project conceptualization, we both had an open conversation with our own identities and privileges. The two authors work as public relations professors at two large universities in urban areas, and one identifies as a White woman and the other identifies as a Black man. It was important for us to have the Black researcher conduct the interview with the White researcher observing and taking notes. In addition to building trust, the openness, transparency, and intentionality facilitated a more collaborative space to share stories, experiences, and exchange sentiments of solidarity, empathy, and concern (Holstein & Gobrium, 2003). We recognized that the interview would not have been the same if the White researcher was the one asking the questions.

We recorded each interview and used the Otter.ai app to transcribe the interview in real time. We met after every interview to compare notes and start to develop the list of themes. From there, transcripts were read closely, and we developed more abstract codes and built connections across the conversations (Lindlof & Taylor, 2011).     


Through our interviews we discovered  many opportunities for public relations professors to support Black PR experts invited into the classroom. We found that understanding why a guest speaker takes speaking engagements is crucial to understanding the logistics around support. Guest speakers identified a few key areas for professors, including clear instructions and connections to the course’s outcomes and goals, in-depth background on the students’ interests and personalities, the opportunity to bring one’s authentic self, and approaches to compensation. In addition to these findings, we provided tangible materials for PR professors when working with guest speakers (see Appendix B-D).

“It’s been a year”

Three weeks before the interviews began on May 18, 2021; Derek Chauvin was convicted of the murder of George Floyd (Levenson & Cooper, 2021). The anxiety around the possible not guilty verdict—and the following mixed feelings around realizing that Chauvin would be held accountable—was short lived when news broke that Columbus, Ohio, police shot and killed 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant that same day (Ludlow et al., 2021).  Many guest speakers were still reeling from the aftermath of that, in addition to other personal and collective traumas around the dual crises. To make space for that, the first question posed was, “How are you?” Most guest speakers quipped, “Well… it’s been a year.”

Danielle launched into the unrelenting events that encapsulated her 2020 and 2021. In addition to COVID and racial violence, Danielle was overwhelmed with the natural disasters and personal challenges so much so that she joked, “I’m waiting for locusts, frogs, and other plagues from the Old Testament to come. We’ve been through so much; it’s just been overwhelming.”

Marvin didn’t hold back, “Simply put… it mostly sucked.” Marvin hit a lot of personal and professional roadblocks in 2020/2021 and it took a toll on his mental health. As part of his reflection of 2020/2021, he did acknowledge that what was keeping him afloat was some of his work with students and universities. Marvin told us, “That would kind of be the highlight of my day even if I was really struggling or had to think about putting on a brave smile and face that day.”

For others, 2020/2021 existed in more of a gray area. Ena told us, “I think I’m doing OK.” Professionally, she acknowledged that it’s “a weird space to be in.” She continued:

As a comms professional, where you’re advising leadership to make statements or to take certain action, and then, you know, represent yourself as yourself. There’s some tension there and it can be difficult to reconcile. Especially in our job where we’re trying to influence and move the needle… you hit a wall with that.

Two of our more senior position interviewees, Wayne and Connie, took a more positive look at the events of the last year. Both held doctorates and worked professionally in leadership positions at their organizations. When asking them, “How are you?” Wayne and Connie talked about what they had done rather than the emotional assessment of the year. Wayne, who received his doctorate while working full time during the pandemic, spoke of that great accomplishment. He told us, “I’m balanced. It’s been good. You know, I’m the optimist so my glass is always half full.” Wayne did acknowledge that it’s not perfect, but overall “it’s probably been one of the most rewarding years in my career.”

In addition to understanding the experiences facing Black PR experts in 2020 and 2021, we were curious to learn more about their motivations and how they felt PR professors could make the classroom experience more transformative. A few major themes arose regarding how to better support: (1) understanding why Black PR experts go into the classroom, (2) the preparation around “the ask,” (3) an acknowledgment of compensation, and (4) the ability to bring one’s authentic self.

The Why: Representation Matters

Overall, the Black public relations experts interviewed went into the public relations classroom because they felt they were called, committed, and inspired to do so. This commitment was not to the professor, but rather they felt it was a calling to “be represented and be counted.” April told us when she goes into the classroom, “It’s not lost on me that representation does matter. That just my presence, just being there and… having the type of career experience that I’ve had… the profound impact that has on students of color.” April continued:

When you don’t have proper representation, especially in the public relations field, how are our students going to be able to know what jobs are available? So, I think just being in the room… I think says a lot without saying anything.

Jas echoed April’s thoughts about the power of being in the classroom and having that influence, “I don’t take it lightly the ability to impact someone’s life in their trajectory… it’s an honor and privilege to be able to help shape opinions and thoughts.” Marvin agreed, “It’s about making a difference and that’s really the whole reason why I got into this profession.”

Wayne specifically talked about his experience as a Black man:

Quite simply my motivation was this: I have worked in the field of communications and marketing for the better part of 30 years, and I’ve always wondered, ‘Where are the people who look like me and in particular, where are the Black men?’

Wayne realized that this was due to access and representation, and that Black men weren’t taught about strategic communication. Because of this, “I feel a bit of a calling, if you will, to share with anybody who will listen and is interested, but in particular students of color, what this field is all about.” Wayne continued, “I think it’s important for folks to know that there are men of color—Black men—who work in the field.” April mentioned a similar thing and noted that digital and virtual experiences can help, “There’s an exposure gap with students of color and through online engagement you can do panels—you can get them [diverse guest speakers] all in the room.”

The Ask

One of the most important things that public relations professors can do before their guest speaker arrives in the classroom is give them direction on how to best support the curriculum and information about the students. Overwhelmingly guest speakers shuddered at the “do/talk about whatever you want” approach. In addition to guidance around the professor’s agenda, guest speakers want to know more about the students’ interests, goals, and the personality of the classroom.

Understanding the course. For Jas it was “imperative that guest speakers support the curriculum.” When invited in, she wants to know “how can I support what you guys are working on? Are there any gaps you think I could fill?” Jas sees her role not rooted in personal thoughts, beliefs, or opinions, but rather “I’m here to make sure you are learning [and] that we are meeting the curriculum.”    

When organizing and scheduling, Wayne wants to know how the professor conceptualizes success. Wayne went as far as purchasing the textbook so he could situate his discussion. Wayne told us, “That’s what’s always inspiring me anytime I can get in front of young students and say, ‘your textbook says this and let me help you bring it to life.’”

Marvin, who took over 10 speaking engagements during the 2020-2021 academic year, said:

There’s a lot of ways I can talk about my career… [what is] most important for me, if I want to keep doing this, is to add an understanding of what the class already knows. If you really want me to talk about how I can be helpful and supportive to the bigger picture, what you want your class to get out of talking to me.

An understanding of what was being covered and how she could best supplement that material was crucial to April, who saw her role as one that can bridge the academy and the industry, especially when it comes to trends and professional development (e.g., salary negotiation and asking for flex schedules). April told us, “There’s a lot of disruption happening. It may not be in the syllabus or the curriculum, but it’s probably helpful to ask these guest speakers their thoughts on these things.” For Connie, knowing what and whom the students have been exposed to is helpful, especially as a Black woman who feels she surprises the students when her video joins the virtual classroom.

Understanding students. April talked about how professors tend to be too broad when it comes to explaining who their students are. Even if a request is coming early in the semester, April encourages professors to learn about the students, “If you know what your students’ interests are, that’s a really great time to inform a speaker so they can really read the room and speak to the things that are actually relevant and of interest to the students.” In all of April’s classroom experiences, missing this step is a lost opportunity and does not make things easier; “Making it generic is making it harder.”

Wayne first makes sure that he understands what the professor is looking for when he’s invited into the classroom and then his next step is for the professor “to tell me about your students, you know, the makeup of your class, what are they interested in, what are they not interested in. What are they particularly focused on with this class… help me understand the audience.”

If the class size and schedule allow for it, Ena prefers to hear from the students themselves: “If the group is small enough to hear who the students are, where they’re from, particularly what their interest is, why are you a PR major, where are you from… I always like that.” Knowing where the students are coming from helps Ena pick and choose what types of examples and stories to tell. For example, if she learns a student is into sports, she knows to tell her sports story.


Overwhelming, guest speakers come into the classroom to give back to students and to be the person who inspired them (if they had exposure) or to fill a gap (if they weren’t exposed to a Black PR expert yet). A lot of the senior experts balked at the idea of being financially compensated for their time in the classroom. Danielle told us about the time she was asked to speak on a panel about compensation. Danielle laughed, “I was like, I can’t be on this! I don’t ask for money for most of my speaking engagements, I’m a horrible person to have on this panel—I need to be in the audience listening!”

Many of our Gen. Z and young Millennial professionals did bring up some degree of transaction for speaking engagements, with a few participants addressing financial compensation explicitly. Sam was very clear in that compensation (or lack thereof) should be addressed within the initial pitch; “My first question right out the gate is: “what is your budget?” This is all dependent on the work and the labor that you’re expecting me to do.” Sam likened the practice of not paying speakers to not paying interns.

Alex agreed that “it’s a very important question and something I’ve had to think a little more explicitly about.” Alex serves in a leadership role with PRSA which requires that they take engagements within a volunteer capacity. Alex noted, “I think my biggest thing about compensation is being mindful of the time.” This means taking inventory of what is the overall ask. Is this person being invited to a small class or is this an event with all the students from the major joining?

Sam had ideas around how to compensate in what they termed “relationship compensation.” Relationship compensation is the professor’s ability to show up for guest speakers outside of the classroom. This could be recommending the guest speaker for paid speaking engagements or trading lectures, goods, or services. For example, Sam was invited to an unpaid panel with an event photographer. Sam negotiated five new headshots for their portfolio in lieu of financial compensation for moderating.

Marvin agreed that if a professor can pay a guest speaker that it’s the ideal way to compensate them for labor. He did recommend quite a few tangible things professors could do if they couldn’t financially compensate for his time, such as writing a testimony or recommendation for his LinkedIn or website, and requiring students to complete feedback forms, which help him develop benchmarks and goals.

Bringing their authentic selves

Marvin recognized quickly into his guest speaking career that the key to a successful speaking engagement is his ability to bring his authentic self. He notes that Gen Z are hyper focused on opportunities that allow them to be their full selves. He said, “Gen Z. really appreciates that people are not sanitized and not being what you think that they should be… telling things like it is and being present with what you have.” Sam, who multiple times referenced themselves as an “unapologetically Black, queer nonbinary Southerner,” spoke at length about how they couldn’t in good faith take on opportunities that didn’t embrace who they are.

The topic of authenticity was a theme in our conversation with Alex, too. Bringing their authentic self into the classroom was a way for Alex to disrupt a conditioned urge to not be authentic. Alex told us:

There are definitely challenges [in bringing one’s authentic self to the classroom] and I think that comes for any number of reasons. A lot of times it’s just the extent to which you’ve been conditioned to not be authentic, from elementary school, middle school, high school and at the start of college.

Alex acknowledges that because of this conditioning, for many marginalized identities, bringing one’s authentic self into the workplace often results in people leaving or losing their jobs. That said, coming to the classroom wholly and complexly is part of their brand.

To build trust and acknowledge the nuances around bringing one’s authentic self, Alex’s approach to creating this empowering space is to be upfront:

I tend to preface and practice those sorts of things as I am carving this space out for myself. Your professor or instructor invited me here, but you know, I’m not just reading the bullet points they gave me… I am bringing my experience to that.

         For Danielle, keeping her authentic self-intact during 2020/2021 was difficult. Her roles and responsibilities had her handling a lot of administrative tasks and she was “putting out fires 85% of the day.” At this point of her career, Danielle could be picky about speaking engagements; and as a leader in her organization, she often recommends others for those opportunities.

         Wayne wants to know the parameters of the class and he is not afraid to decline invitations if he feels certain important topics, such as race, are off the table: I’m at this age… stage… where there are some things that I’m not going to compromise on, and I’m doing the students a disservice if I did. If we can’t, for the most part, have free and open dialogue and conversation…, I’m doing them a disservice.


By critically examining Black PR professionals’ experiences as guest lecturers and asking them how professors might best support them in these educational endeavors, we provide insight for PR educators interested in implementing an activist pedagogy. As indicated above, the emergent themes of authentic self and representation are critical to informing our understanding and practice of an activist pedagogy. This discussion explores how our findings contribute to activist pedagogy scholarship

In an academy that is largely white, it’s important for public relations professionals to continue to not fall into the trap of reacting to seasonal and situational DEI efforts. Professors must promote and advocate for a diversity of experiences in the classroom. This is crucial to the health of the profession. To see the industry embrace diversity, it first must be intentionally centered in the public relations classroom (Bardhan & Gower, 2020; Brown et al., 2019). Students and faculty alike recognize the importance of guest speaker diversity, and there are considerable efforts to bring public relations faculty and educators together to talk about how to better support faculty and students of color (Bardhan & Gower, 2020; Race in the PR classroom, n.d.).

Our research questions about classroom experience and relationships with professors suggest that the 2020/2021 academic year was complicated for our participants. Many referenced the weight of the public health crisis, in addition to the racial violence, and how those dual crises affected their mental health. That said, the participants also spoke about the importance of meeting with young professionals and sharing their talents. Interviewees spoke about how representation matters and acknowledged the importance of students being able to see intersectional identities in the profession. The nine public relations professionals told us if professors wanted to better facilitate this classroom experience, they should be explicit in their ask (e.g., clearly outline course objectives, student body characteristics), create a safe space for them to be vulnerable and authentic, and consider compensation.      

This discussion section explores how public relations professors can use this information to implement an activist pedagogy.

Decentering Privilege

From our conversations with Black PR experts, we concluded that one way to build an activist pedagogy is for the professor to decenter their own professorial and personal privileges. This includes demographics such as race, gender, and sexual orientation, but also includes institutional biases around pathways to expertise and approaches to education.

Freire (2005) critiques how many people come to understand “real” knowledge. This objectification of knowledge privileges institutions and the powerful (i.e., professors). Freire centered critical thinking, emotions, reflection, and experience as important ways of knowing, not just degrees. For public relations professors looking to adopt a more activist pedagogy, providing space for guests to speak authentically about their lived experiences can facilitate this type of humanistic learning. 

As we’ve outlined, participants spoke at length about the value in their ability to bring their true, authentic self into the classroom and students should do the same. To allow a guest to bring their unique experiences to the students is for the professor to come to terms with their own limitations and the privilege associated with imparting knowledge and skills. To cede expertise and provide a space for speakers to talk candidly about their experiences (if they wish), public relations professors can decenter themselves and encourage these dialogues. Additionally, providing guest speakers with the detailed information about the students’ lived experiences, acknowledges that this relationship is often about building knowledge and meaning making together.

Authentic selves in the classroom. Freire (2005) calls on educators to blend practice with theory; and intersectionality can serve as a guiding theoretical lens for how and why it is crucial to provide a safe space for marginalized guest speakers to bring their authentic selves and experiences into the classroom. Just as Crenshaw (1991) and Collins (1990) proposed a both/and approach to identities, public relations professors must embrace that guest speakers from underrepresented communities cannot divorce their lived experiences and identities from their profession.

For example, activist pedagogy seeks to transform the classroom by exposing, acknowledging, and dismantling inequalities. The professionals we interviewed addressed how important it was to be clear with the students about what it meant to be both Black and a PR expert at this time in history. As many participants pointed out, going into the classroom under this spatial and temporal context (Vardeman-Winter et al., 2013), these identities shift given what is going on in the world (e.g., pandemics) and when it’s happening (e.g., during an election year, while the students are virtual learning).

         Professors as allies. As professors decenter themselves, they can more easily move into the role of ally. When this practice happens, students are exposed to new ideas, which can ignite their drive and activism (i.e., helps them see themselves in these roles) and facilitate a growth mindset. Diversity of experiences and approaches can help students inform their ideologies and help build their stories. In this way, DEI can serve as an ethical compass for professors seeking to center authentic lived experiences. This results in the intersection of theory and practice, which is crucial to activist pedagogy.

Tangible Tactics

Freire (2005) writes about how the oppressed struggled between freedom and authenticity; and that without freedom, the oppressed cannot live authentic lives. Freire notes that the tension around authenticity lies in the fact that an authentic human life is one that is created and nurtured through oppression systems and ideologies. As Freire states, “the oppressed have adapted to the structure of the domination in which they are immersed” (p. 47). When professors decenter their privilege and recognize the humanity of themselves, their students, and the guest speakers, it creates a space for oppressive systems, implicit and explicit, to be challenged and disrupted. 

As our findings outlined, there are considerable efforts made by Black PR professionals to provide diverse stories, frameworks, and opportunities for public relations students. For many Black PR experts, there is no divide between the politics of the classroom and what’s happening in society. Black PR experts are still facing racism and racial violence as they come into the classroom to talk about, for example, media relations. For public relations professors looking to authentically engage with an activist pedagogy, they must consider the emotional, physical, and mental labor taken on by Black PR guest speakers.

Paying for labor. One way to do this in a very concrete and actionable way is to pay guests for their labor. We make a call on leaders and administrators to support activist pedagogy through systemic change at the department, college, school, and university level, and encourage leaders to take statements of solidarity and put those words into actions. Developing funds and resources for professors to offer financial compensation for guest speakers is a start, in addition to making sure that all courses and educators are prioritizing DEI initiatives, not just the social issue classes. This work often already falls on the shoulders of faculty identifying from underrepresented communities (Madden & Del Rosso, 2021), so there should be incentives and/or consequences to support a department-wide commitment to DEI and activist pedagogical approaches.

In addition to the actionable suggestions provided by our participants that provide direct support to invited guests (Appendix B), professors should see their classroom as a transformative site for justice, which will facilitate the opportunity for more authentic engagement (Preston & Aslett, 2014). In other words, it’s not enough to bring in a few underrepresented guest speakers. Professors must radically change what is taught and prioritized, including the required texts, assignments, and the facilitation of discussions and lectures to support guest speakers (Sadler, 2020).  

Future studies. In March 2021, after we conceptualized the scope of this study, Asian and Asian American communities experienced a horrific hate crime in Atlanta, which took the lives of six women and two men working at three spas and massage parlors. According to Stop AAPI Hate, a national database and resource website collecting data on Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) hate crimes, Asian Americans found the increased hate and racism to be more stressful than the COVID-19 pandemic (Saw et al., 2021). Future studies could look at how Asian and Asian American public relations experts are navigating that dual crises, in addition to adding more intersectional identities into the conversation such as disabled practitioners, LGBTQIA+, international, first generation, and/or undocumented.


If faculty are nervous to ask professionals, especially professionals from underrepresented groups, to come into the classroom, April puts that concern to rest, “I think professionals don’t feel like we’re asked enough. People don’t ask us enough, they’re scared that they were too busy or, you know like, it’s a burden.” For April, this was a great opportunity to reflect on her own journey and pay it forward.

Overall, the 2020/2021 academic year “was a year” for Black PR experts who were invited into the classroom. Many of our participants were working through the joys and challenges cropping up in their professional, academic, and personal lives as they were joining classrooms, and networking and mentoring students. Adopting an activist pedagogy approach can equip professors to transform their classrooms to be an open, welcoming, and productive space for guest speakers. Providing detailed background on the class agenda and students, being upfront about compensation, and allowing guest speakers to bring their true authentic selves into the classroom, helps to humanize and will ultimately better the profession overall.


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© Copyright 2022 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Brown, D. and Del Rosso, T. (2022). Called, committed and inspiring activism: How black PR guest speakers experienced the PR classroom during the COVID-19 and racial reckoning academic year of 2020/2021. Journal of Public Relations Education, 8(2), 42-77. https://aejmc.us/jpre/?p=3068

Student Perceptions of Guest Speakers in Strategic Communication Courses

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted October 18, 2019. Revision submitted January 17, 2020. Manuscript accepted for publication March 9, 2020. First published online May 2021.


Hong Ji, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
School of Visual & Communication Arts
Avila University
Kansas City, MO
Email: hong.ji@avila.edu

Parul Jain, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
E. W. Scripps School of Journalism
Ohio University
Athens, OH
Email: jainp1@ohio.edu

Catherine Axinn, Ph.D.
Retired Professor
College of Business
Ohio University
Athens, OH
Email: axinn@ohio.edu


Using linkage beliefs theory, focus group and survey methods, we conducted a systematic investigation to understand students’ perceptions of having guest speakers in strategic communication courses. Our findings suggest that students prefer relatable speakers from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, and alumni and recent graduates are two of the most preferred types of guest speakers. Students prefer to hear about networking tips, career advice and speaker’s professional background and journeys. Course-tied topics are less preferable than career-related topics. Visual aids are preferred in guest presentations. Career-related benefits are perceived to have more value than academic and classroom learning benefits. The preferred number of guest speakers in a semester is three. 

Keywords: public relations, advertising, strategic communication, guest speakers

In many college classrooms, across many disciplines, guest speakers have become a familiar figure and teaching tool. Past research shows that if utilized correctly, they can be a valuable educational asset, particularly in disciplines that emphasize practical experience and hands-on skills. But that outcome is by no means guaranteed, depending upon the quality of guest talks.

The idea that such speakers are a welcome addition to a class is well documented. Students view speakers as someone who can teach them more about “real life” experience in the field of their choice and serve as a potentially valuable professional connection who can help them succeed in that field (Byrd et al., 1989; Kamoun & Selim, 2007; Merle & Craig, 2017; Metrejean et al., 2002; Wortman, 1992; Zou et al., 2019). A recent review of 18 studies across 13 disciplines suggests that having guest speakers enhances pedagogy by improving teaching outcomes and leads to a mutually beneficial relationship for the students, professors, and speakers (Zou et al., 2019). In some cases, the speakers themselves may view their appearance in the classroom as a potentially valuable recruiting trip to scout for young talent who could be an asset to their firms. Instructors see the speakers as bringing perspectives and knowledge to the subject that the instructor may not have, and perhaps on a less lofty note, as a way to fill valuable class time and provide a needed break (McCleary & Weaver, 2008). However, the mere presence of such a speaker in the class does not guarantee a successful or valuable educational experience, particularly if there has not been adequate communication between the instructor and speaker, sufficient integration of the speaker’s appearance into the course curriculum, or a clear assessment of student needs and interests, including the desired topics and preferred formats (Kamoun & Selim, 2007; Laist, 2015; Lang, 2008; Metrejean et al., 2002). 

Previous studies suggest that a good guest speaker is knowledgeable, dedicated, and credible (Eveleth & Baker-Eveleth, 2009; Farruggio, 2011). Also, a good guest speaker is an excellent communicator who understands students’ needs, prepares well, and knows how to engage and motivate students in the classroom (Lee & Joung, 2017).

 There are only a few empirical studies that focus on the use of guest speakers in communication and journalism courses, in addition to some anecdotal essays that offer tips on having guest speakers in the classroom. Given the potential value of the classroom speaker to the learning experience, we believe it is important to supplement anecdotal evidence with new empirical data on how to ensure a positive experience. Using focus group interview and survey approaches, this study examines what makes a successful guest talk in strategic communication courses and how students perceive guest speakers. This research takes an important step in that direction by learning and conveying what students want, expect, and respond to when a guest speaker enters their classroom.

Literature Review

In this conceptualization, we relate linkage beliefs theory to guest speakers and review literature regarding guest speakers. 

Linkage Beliefs Theory
Based on associationist theory with a presumption that attitude is derived from linked beliefs, Culbertson and his colleagues proposed the linkage beliefs theory and further developed and tested the theory by conducting a series of studies (Culbertson, 1992; Culbertson et al., 1993; Culbertson & Stempel, 1985; Denbow & Culbertson, 1985). The theory proposes that a person’s attitude is connected to the linkage between the attitude object and a person’s beliefs and goals. In their survey study of patient perceptions of the image of a medical center, Denbow and Culbertson (1985) found that salient positive beliefs, including the patient’s feeling that “physicians care about their patients,” “up-to-date care is associated with teaching function,” and “people who answer the phone at the center are usually informed and helpful,” positively affect the patients’ perceptions of the center’s image. 

In addition to applying the linkage beliefs theory to the patient relations from the attitude impact perspective, Culbertson (1992) tested the theory in alumni relations but from the behavioral impact perspective. He found that the similarity-based linkage, ego-involvement linkage, and instrumental linkage contributed to the intent to join an alumni chapter.

These studies developed and tested the linkage beliefs theory in public relations settings. The linkage beliefs theory connects the audience and public relations practitioners and is useful in audience segmentation. The practical value of the linkage beliefs theory is that it can help a practitioner identify salient linkages, strengthen existing positive linkages, build new useful linkages, and strategically link the target audience’s goals, needs, and values to the organization’s goals via persuasive messages. As such, the public relations strategies and tactics, such as creating clear, creative, and appealing message content and selecting appropriate communication channels, mirror the efforts for effective linkage (Culbertson, 1992; Denbow & Culbertson, 1985).

In a pedagogical setting with strategic communication elements, the linkage beliefs theory connects the target audience (i.e., students) and instructors. In the case of a guest speaker event, the theory guides an instructor to identify the salient positive links between the student beliefs/needs and teaching-learning goals, and further devise strategies of planning an effective guest talk, such as the choice of a guest speaker and the topic and format for the guest talk.

Guest Speaker Studies
Previous studies have discussed various aspects of the use of guest speakers, specifically planning details, types of guest speakers, topics of guest talks, formats for guest talks, guest talk tests and assignments, benefits for guest speakers, and guest talks in an online setting. This research is reviewed below. 

Planning and Implementing a Guest Speaker Event in Classes
Designing and implementing a guest speaker event requires the instructor’s efforts before, during, and after the event. Before the event, the instructor should set appropriate expectations for the guest talk that tie to the course objectives, share the necessary course materials with the speaker, ask for the guest speaker’s biographical information, and communicate with the speaker about the logistic issues and do’s and don’ts in the classroom as needed (Cloud & Sweeney, 1988; Henderson & Streed, 2013; McClearly & Weaver, 2008; Metrejean et al, 2002; Payne et al., 2003). Also, the instructor should prepare students for the guest talk by informing them of the guest speaker’s visit, providing the speaker’s information, and asking students to prepare questions (Cloud & Sweeney, 1988; McClearly & Weaver, 2008; Metrejean et al, 2002; Payne et al., 2003). During the event, the instructor should make sure the guest speaker talks about their professional background and includes a Q&A session (McClearly & Weaver, 2008; Metrejean et al., 2002; Payne et al., 2003). After the event, the instructor sends the speaker a thank-you letter and obtains feedback from both the speaker and students to help improve the future guest speaker events (McClearly & Weaver, 2008; Metrejean et al., 2002; Payne et al., 2003). 

While the importance of guest speakers has been well documented in various disciplines (e.g., Zou et al., 2019), the studies on the use of guest speakers in communication and journalism courses are rare, other than some anecdotal essays. Envisioning the guest speaker as a supplement to the instructor, Roush (2013) suggested best practices in terms of using guest speakers in mass communication and journalism courses, such as “Don’t overuse guest speakers” and “find guest speakers who have personalities” (p. 15). In a PRSA article, Henderson and Streed (2013) offered guidelines for a successful guest speaker event in a public relations course. They emphasized guest speakers should respect students and professors, and “collaboration between the professor and the guest speaker, mutual preparation and clear expectations are essential to a successful classroom experience for everyone” (para. 22). 

Only one empirical study was found that assessed students’ perceptions of guest speakers in communication courses. Merle and Craig (2017) surveyed journalism and mass communication students from a variety of communication classes at two institutions on their perception of guest speakers, including preferred topics, types of speakers and presentation formats, and perceived effectiveness and benefits. Their study analyzed student perceptions of guest speakers in mass communication and journalism curriculum overall as opposed to any specific sub-field, such as public relations and advertising, which was encouraged by the authors as a topic for future research and is one of the factors driving the present study.

We started by asking the first question about students’ experiences with guest speakers in strategic communication courses (RQ1), which was a topic largely missing from the literature. 

RQ1: What experiences did students have with guest speakers in strategic communication courses?

Types of Guest Speakers

A variety of guest speakers can be invited to the classroom. Past studies in other disciplines offered some guidance, including inviting a mix of professionals, faculty members, and even graduate students (Lang, 2008; McClearly & Weaver, 2008; Metrejean et al., 2002; Payne et al., 2003; Soiferman, 2019). In mass communication courses, Cloud and Sweeney (1987) suggested using recent graduates and avoiding people who are out of the loop. Instead of aiming for recent graduates, Roush (2013) suggested professors “shoot for the moon with guest speakers” (p. 15) by inviting high-profile professionals to journalism and mass communication courses. In their survey of journalism and mass communication students’ perception of guest speakers, Merle and Craig (2017) found that students like guest speakers from the industry better than professors.

The diverse and even seemingly contradictory advice that emerges from the literature makes an opportunity to further examine students’ preferred types of guest speakers, particularly in strategic communication courses. Thus, the following two research questions are presented: 

RQ2: What types of guest speakers do students prefer in strategic communication courses?

RQ3: What types of organizations that guest speakers are associated with do students prefer in strategic communication courses?

Topics of Guest Talks

Previous studies indicated that students like to hear about the guest speaker’s personal experiences and professional journey (McCleary & Weaver, 2008; Soiferman, 2019), particularly “when a guest speaker can use industry experiences to illustrate how to apply (or not to apply) a theory, concept, or idea that incorporates the learning objectives of the course” (McCleary & Weaver, 2008, p. 406). Career-oriented advice is also a popular topic of guest talks (Kamoun & Selim, 2007; Metrejean et al., 2002).

In journalism and mass communication courses, Merle and Craig (2017) found that students prefer to have a guest lecture that is professionally oriented. Course-related guest talks seem not to be as preferable as career-related topics. They found that less than 16% of participants like the topics of theoretical frameworks or methodological issues in guest talks. With a focus on guest talks in strategic communication courses, this study proposes the following research question: 

 RQ4: What topics do students want guest speakers to cover in strategic communication courses?

Format for Guest Talks

Previous research suggested that guest talks should have visual aids (Payne et. al, 2003), but reading from notes should be avoided (Metrejean et al, 2002). In journalism and mass communication courses, students tend to prefer an active presentation style from guest speakers that includes components such as providing examples and an interactive Q&A section (Merle & Craig, 2017). With a focus on guest talks in strategic communication courses, this study proposes the following research question: 

RQ5: What format for the guest talk in strategic communication courses do students prefer?

Being Tested and Having an Assignment Based on Guest Talks

Should students be tested and have an assignment based on guest talks? Very few empirical studies have addressed this topic. In their experimental study on the role of test-expectancy on student learning and evaluations of guest speakers, Hite et al. (1985) found students in marketing courses do not want to be tested over guest talk content, but they also found if students know they are going to be tested, a more positive learning experience occurs. The scarcity of research prompts the research question below: 

RQ6: How do students perceive being tested and having an assignment based on guest speaker content in strategic communication courses?

Benefits of Guest Speakers

Guest speakers enrich students’ learning experiences by helping them gain first-hand knowledge from practitioners, as well as networking opportunities (Byrd et al., 1989; Wortman, 1992). Metrejean et al. (2002) found that accounting students consider guest talks helpful in “alleviating students’ fears about career choices,” offering “encouragement,” giving “some insight that will expand on what they are studying or give them information they would not get directly from the course material” (p. 360), helping “to focus more on the future” and providing “insights into what employers want in an accountant” (p. 357). 

Merle and Craig (2017) found that journalism and mass communication students tended to believe guest talks can enhance their learning experience, are effective in the classroom, and add overall value to the class content. To explore student perceptions of the guest speaker benefits in strategic communication, a sub-field of mass communication, a research question is posited: 

RQ7: What benefits of guest speakers do students perceive in strategic communication courses?

Guest Talks in an Online Setting

With the increasing use of online teaching, the use of guest speakers in an online setting can be both beneficial and challenging. Using an example in an online social work course, Sage (2013) asserted that technical assistance will be needed for guest speakers, and that students should be encouraged not to post distracting notes during the session. Privacy and copyright issues need to be taken into consideration as well. 

The effectiveness of using virtual guest speakers is mixed. Henderson et al. (2018) found that MBA students evaluated using a guest speaker in a face-to-face setting as a more effective teaching method than the online setting. L. Hemphill and H. Hemphill (2007) found that guest speakers can be used “sparingly in online discussions while still maintaining the quality of the online discussion and frequent, meaningful interactions among students” (p. 287).

 In a 2012 PRSA article, some public relations professors emphasized the importance of having guest speakers face the challenges of teaching millennials public relations in the fast-changing technology environment. The tactics they shared included inviting guest speakers to speak in both classes and PRSSA clubs, and inviting them to speak in person or via video conferencing (Jacques, 2012). Thus, the last research question explores online guests: 

RQ8: How do students perceive having guest speakers in online strategic communication courses?   

Methods and Results

This study had two phases. In Phase 1, we conducted two focus groups to explore student perceptions of guest speakers in strategic communication courses. In Phase 2, we further examined the research questions via a survey to confirm and add to the findings from a larger sample.

Phase 1: Focus Groups 

 A qualitative focus group approach was employed in this study, and the method details and findings are reported as follows. 

Focus Group Interview Methods

Considering the scarcity of empirical studies on how students perceive guest speakers in strategic communication courses, initial focus groups were an appropriate research method to explore insights from students and to provide a foundation for a follow-up survey. 

Two focus groups were conducted in September 2017. The target participants were students who enrolled in strategic communication courses in fall 2017 in a journalism school at a public Midwestern university that offers strategic communication courses, including introductory, writing, creative concepts, research, and capstone topics.

After the research protocol was approved by the university’s Institutional Review Board, the recruitment process started. A recruitment flier was posted on the Blackboard sites of three strategic communication classes. These were undergraduate courses with a few seats available for graduate students. The study was also announced in classes. Each participant received one percentage point of extra credit in exchange of their time/effort. Pizza was provided during each focus group session.

Seven students participated in the focus group on Sept. 25, 2017. The participants included one male student and six female students; the breakdown in educational level was one master’s student and six undergraduate students. Eight students participated in the focus group on Sept. 27, 2017. The participants included one male student and seven female students. All participants were undergraduate students.

Each session lasted about 45 minutes. Both sessions were audio recorded and took place in a conference room. In both sessions, one of the authors who was not the instructor of the participants served as a moderator. A research assistant served as a note taker. Letters were assigned to participants in place of their names for the sake of their privacy. The focus group discussions started after participants signed the consent form.

The focus group discussions were semi-structured, including the topics of students’ preferences of the types of guest speakers, preferences of the content and format for the guest talk, and benefits of having guest speakers.

The recordings of the two focus groups were transcribed after the focus group sessions were completed. The research proposal, transcripts, field notes, and the three authors’ reflections were used to analyze the data. Each of the three authors independently read these study-related documents carefully, and identified the emergent themes, points with supporting evidence, and quotes. Then the three authors met and discussed their findings and came to a consensus.

Focus Group Results       

All the participants in both focus groups reported they have had experience with guest speakers in their various courses. The first research question explored their experiences with guest speakers.

Likes and Dislikes. Most participants stated that relevance and fit were particularly important to them. If the guest speaker did not fit in with their interests or the overall theme of the course, they did not seem to care much about them. Furthermore, students felt a need to have their voice heard by having some agency in choosing guest speakers by participating in a poll early in the semester.

Students also acknowledged having a variety of speakers was informative and eye opening and at times, resulted in a change in career paths. For example, one participant stated: “I had a speaker come in my freshman year in my first semester. I came in as a strat. comm. major…she completely…changed everything that I wanna do, and she’s been an inspiration to me since.”

The participants did not like speakers who put an excessive focus on themselves, did not leave ample time for questions and answers, did not have aesthetically pleasing visual aids, had too much material on visual aids, read off the PowerPoint slides, or reiterated course material. For example, one participant complained of a speaker who “kind of talked at us, not with us.” Another participant criticized a guest speaker who “talked a little bit too much about herself.” One student lamented a speaker who “followed her PowerPoint [too much], I don’t know, she…read directly from her PowerPoint…that’s almost insulting, I could read it just as well as you could.”

Participants also seemed to suggest that smaller classes are more conducive to having guest speakers than larger class sizes as the former provide an environment that fosters connections by engaging in a more intimate interaction with the guest speakers. In smaller classes, students preferred spending more time and engaging with guest speakers; in larger classes, students seem to emphasize a more general introductory approach and some way to network with the speakers.

The majority of the participants stated that the opportunity to network was one of the primary advantages of having guest speakers in class. Furthermore, participants liked when the instructor or the guest speaker themselves provided the students an opportunity to connect with them either through social platforms such as LinkedIn or via email.

Participants stated they did not particularly like it if they were expected to know the content from the guest speaker’s presentation for an exam, but also said it was a good motivator to attend the presentation. One student stated that she did not have guest speakers in the online class she took and really missed that aspect of class.

Types of Guest Speakers.  In terms of the types of guest speakers, most participants preferred to have working professionals (compared to academics), alumni, and a mix of early career and senior-level executives. For example, one participant stated:

I think both [recent graduates and senior-level professionals] are very, very, very valuable ‘cause the recent grads are the ones that [we] can most connect with, and they have been in your shoes most recently. But the higher-level-up professionals may be the ones that get you your internship or your job. So again, from a networking standpoint, they are both important.

Due to the global nature of the field of strategic communication, most participants expressed a desire to have more international guest speakers in their classes. The following quote from a participant illustrates this sentiment clearly: “I think [they] give you a whole new perspective, especially [in] our field . . . it’s a global field now. So it’s important to have that.”

There were no differences expressed in preference based on gender. In both focus groups, none of the participants cared if a guest speaker was a male or a female.

Types of Organizations.   In the same vein, none of the participants were particularly concerned about the organizations that guest speakers were associated with. The participants did not care if the guest speakers worked in government, for-profit, or not-for-profit organizations. However, participants did appreciate hearing the differences between agency work and working with a particular organization and suggestions about how they themselves might apply the knowledge once they start working.

Topic Preference.  None of the participants suggested a desire to have guest speakers cover course content. Overwhelmingly, the participants were interested in hearing about each guest speaker’s journey. All the participants echoed a desire to learn about the speakers’ personal narratives, their experiences, day-to-day working conditions, and the challenges that they faced and how they solved them. In addition, most participants liked to hear about things that would advance their career, including job hunting and personal growth tips. The following quote further illustrates this point:

 I think novelty is very important. When people . . . give their backstory . . . I think that’s super important. Just kind of understand and kind of humanize them a little bit, makes you more comfortable with listening to them. So it is not just some adult talking at you.

Format Preference.  Both groups suggested that guest speakers should adopt a conversational tone, should be interactive, engaging, interested in answering students’ questions, and show warmth and respect for students. Some students mentioned that having an activity such as discussing a case study that emulates real-world problems could also be an interesting way to engage students. As mentioned previously, students preferred a visual aid, and they did not like speakers reading off the slides.

In sum, our focus group interview findings suggest that students prefer speakers from a variety of backgrounds and experiences with whom they could relate and prefer to hear about tips related to networking, job search, and career advancement. The focus groups served as a precursor or pilot for a larger follow-up survey, to answer further research questions.

Phase 2: Survey

A quantitative survey approach was employed, and the method details and survey results are reported below. 

Survey Methods

Procedure. The target survey participants were students enrolled in strategic communication courses in spring 2018 in the same journalism school where the focus group sample was formed. While we only recruited 15 focus group participants from three strategic communication courses to help explore students’ perceptions of guest speakers as a foundation for the follow-up survey, we tried to recruit survey participants more broadly from all strategic communication courses offered in that semester in order to further examine student perceptions of guest speakers with a larger sample size. The strategic communication courses offered during that semester were taught by eight instructors, including two of the authors. The researchers reached out to the six other instructors, asking them to help distribute the survey to their students. All instructors agreed and helped.

After the survey protocol was approved by IRB, the survey instrument was developed for online delivery and data gathering via Qualtrics. On April 2, 2018, an invitation letter including a survey link was sent via email to those instructors who agreed to help. The students were asked to answer the questions about their perceptions of guest speakers in strategic communication courses.

On April 10, a reminder was sent to participating instructors except for one author, who sent this reminder email, asking the participating instructors to encourage their students to take the survey as soon as possible. The survey was closed at 1:40 p.m. EST on April 24, 2018. One hundred and seven students completed the survey. Unfortunately, it was not possible to calculate the response rate because one student may take several strategic communication courses.

Some participating instructors offered one percentage extra course credit in exchange for the students’ time/effort, and some did not. The consent form appeared after the survey introduction page. The questionnaire was devised to be completed within 15-30 minutes.

Participants. Of the 107 respondents, 79.4% were female, 15.9% were male, and 4.7% did not provide their gender information; the vast majority were white (80.4%), 5.6% were black, 2.8% had Hispanic/Latino/Spanish origin, 2.8% were Asian, and 8.4% had other ethnicity background or did not provide their ethnicity information. Of the 102 students who provided their information on age, year in college, and major, their average age was 20 years old; 32.4% were sophomores, followed by 28.4% juniors, 25.5% freshmen, 12.7% seniors, and 1.0% graduate students; 53.9% were majoring in journalism (n = 55), among which 72.7% were in the strategic communication track (n = 40); 23.5% were non-journalism communication majors (n = 24), such as communication studies and commercial photography; and 22.5% were in other majors, including marketing, and retail merchandising and fashion product development (n = 23).

In all, 93.5% of the 107 respondents had heard guest speakers in their strategic communication courses before. The students’ guest speaker experiences were largely in traditional classrooms. Only three students said they had guest speakers in their online strategic communication courses.

Measurement. Guided by our focus group findings and related studies, the measurement of key variables was developed and explained as follows.

Experience of Having Guest Speakers. Respondents were asked to rate their level of satisfaction with their guest speaker experiences in strategic communication courses on a 5- point scale ranging from 1 (highly satisfied) to 5 (highly dissatisfied).

Types of Guest Speakers. Eight statements were evaluated by respondents using a 5- point scale ranging from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree) to assess the preferred types of guest speakers. These statements included “I would really like to have faculty members as guest speakers in my strategic communication courses.” And “faculty members” was replaced by “junior-level professionals,” “senior-level professionals,” “recent graduates,” “alumni,” “men,” “women” in the other six statements respectively. We also included a statement “I would really like to have international guest speakers in my strategic communication courses.” These eight statements had a Cronbach’s Alpha of 0.82.

Types of Organizations. Four statements were rated by respondents using a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree) to assess the preference for the guest speaker’s organization. One statement was “Guest speakers in strategic communication courses should come from corporations and industry.” In the other three statements, “corporations and industry” were replaced by “advertising and PR agencies specially,” “nonprofit organizations specially,” and “government departments and agencies,” respectively (Cronbach’s Alpha = 0.85).

Topics of Guest Talks. Participants were also asked to indicate their level of agreement with five statements on hearing the topics of “career advice,” “network tips and opportunities,” “personal backgrounds, experiences, and back stories of the guest speaker’s professional journeys,” “industry trends,” and “a specific topic tied closely to the course” on a 5-point scale, ranging from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree). The five statements measuring topic preference had a Cronbach’s Alpha of 0.90.

 Format for Guest Talks. Similarly, participants were asked to indicate their preferences  on “a conversational format” and “use visual aids,” by using a 5-point scale from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree). Participants were asked to indicate the importance of having a Q&A session in guest talks on a 5-point scale, ranging from 1 (extremely important) to 5 (not important at all). Also, participants were asked to indicate what percentage of time should be saved for Q&A.

Being Tested and Having an Assignment Based on Guest Talks. Participants were asked to indicate their level of agreement on a 5-point scale with the statement that “Students should be tested on guest speaker content,” ranging from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree). They were also asked to rate the helpfulness of having an assignment based on guest talk content, ranging from 1 (extremely helpful) to 5 (not helpful at all).

Benefits of Guest Speakers. Based on Merle & Craig (2017) and our focus group study, participants were asked to indicate their level of agreement on a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree) with eight statements regarding benefits of  having guest speakers, including “giving me an opportunity to network with the guest speaker,” “so I can feel more confident in strategic communication career decisions,” “so I can be more aware of strategic communication career opportunities,” “to help understand the industry at large,” “to help enrich the curriculum,” “to help improve my attention in class,” “to help me take a break from the same instructor,” and “to help enhance my learning experience” (Cronbach’s Alpha = 0.88).

Having Online Guest Speakers. Participants were asked to evaluate the importance of having guest speakers in online strategic communication courses, using a 5-point scale from 1 (extremely important) to 5 (not important at all). They were also asked to rate their level of agreement with two statements: “Guest speakers should be invited to participate in online strategic communication courses,” and “Advances in technology (e.g., Skype or FaceTime) can enable guest speakers’ participation in online strategic communication courses.”

Participants were asked to indicate their level of agreement with the statement “Instructors should have students participate in a survey early in the semester to help choose topics for guest speaker talks” on a 5-point scale from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree). Participants were asked how many guest speakers they would like to have in their strategic communication courses in a given semester. Participants were also asked to provide their age, major, year in college, and ethnicity.

Survey Results

The 107 responses received from our survey generated some informative data that allowed us to answer the research questions using descriptive statistics. In tables, certain items have fewer than 107 responses due to missing data.

RQ1: What experiences did students have with guest speakers in strategic communication courses?

Eighty two percent of respondents were highly satisfied or satisfied with their guest speaker experience, and only 5% were dissatisfied or highly dissatisfied (M = 2.07, SD = 0.74, n = 100).

RQ2: What types of guest speakers do students prefer in strategic communication courses?

As Table 1 shows, alumni were the most preferred guest speakers in strategic communication courses (M = 1.81), and 82.5% of the respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that they would like to have alumni as guest speakers. Recent graduates were perceived as the second most preferred type of guest speakers (M = 1.83) with 81.7% of the respondents either agreeing or strongly agreeing that they would like to have recent graduates as guest speakers.

Similar to what was found in our focus groups, respondents tended not to care much about the guest speakers’ gender. Less than half of the respondents preferred either male (32.7%) or female guest speakers (48.1%). More students preferred senior-level professionals (77.9%) than junior-level professionals (68.9%).

Unlike the focus groups findings, which suggested that students tended to prefer working professionals to academics, the survey data revealed that there were not many differences in preference between senior-level professionals (77.9%), faculty members (68%) and junior-level professionals (68.9%). Focus group data suggested strong support for having international guest speakers. The survey data confirmed the majority of the respondents would like to have international guest speakers (69.2%).

RQ3: What types of organizations that guest speakers are associated with do students prefer in strategic communication courses?

Our focus group data suggested that students were not concerned about the guest speaker’s organization, but the survey results tell a different story. Descriptive data in Table 2 indicated 75.7% of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that guest speakers should come from advertising and PR agencies specially, and only a little more than half of the respondents (56.3%) agreed or strongly agreed that guest speakers should come from government departments and agencies. About six out of ten of the respondents preferred guest speakers coming from corporations and industry (62.1%) and from nonprofits (66.0%).

RQ4: What topics do students want guest speakers to cover in strategic communication courses?

The survey data were somewhat in line with the focus groups’ findings in terms of preferred topics. In focus groups, none of the participants appreciated course content being covered by guest speakers; instead, guest speakers’ personal journeys were the overwhelmingly preferred topic. Our survey results (see Table 3) indicated that nearly nine out of ten respondents would like to hear career advice (88.3%), networking tips and opportunities (86.4%), and professional backgrounds, experiences, and backstories of the guest speaker’s professional journeys (85.4%). Comparatively, hearing about a specific topic tied closely to the course was lower (72.5%) in preference, though still appreciated by a majority of the students.

RQ5: What format for the guest talk do students prefer in strategic communication courses?

Table 4 shows that the vast majority of the respondents (87.4%) preferred that guest speakers use visual aids (M = 1.65)     . Most respondents (65.0%) preferred that guest speakers employ a conversational format (M = 2.24)      . Our focus group study also suggested that a conversational format and visual aids were the preferred methods of presentation.

When asked about the importance of the Q&A session in a guest talk, 36.9% of the respondents said it is extremely important, and 34% said very important; no respondent said not important at all (M = 1.96, SD = 0.89, n = 103). They were also asked their opinion about what amount of time as a percentage of the presentation should be saved for Q&A in a guest talk. Forty-six point six percent of respondents said 11 to 20% of time should be saved for Q&A, 30.1% of the respondents said 1 to 10%, 13.6% of the respondents said 21 to 30%, and 9.7% of the respondents said more than 30% of time for Q&A.

RQ6: How do students perceive being tested and having an assignment based on guest speaker content in strategic communication courses?

The survey results were in line with the focus groups’ findings that students did not like having an exam based on the guest talk, but they can see it as motivation for attending class. In fact, more than half of the participants did not like the idea of being tested on guest speaker content (57.4% disagree or strongly disagree) (M = 3.68, SD = 0.99, n = 101). Also, nearly half of the students who responded considered having an assignment based on guest speaker content to be slightly helpful or not helpful at all (46.6%). Only a handful of the respondents (2.9%, n = 3) said having an assignment based on guest speaker content was extremely helpful, and 13.6% of the respondents said very helpful (M = 3.52, SD = 1.10, n = 103).

RQ7: What benefits of guest speakers do students perceive in strategic communication courses?

In focus groups, the majority of the participants stated that networking was the primary advantage of having guest speakers in class. The survey results show richer data on the benefits of guest speakers. Table 5 shows about eight out of ten respondents perceived the benefits of guest speakers to be career-related, including providing an opportunity to network with the guest speaker (87.1%), being more aware of strategic communication career opportunities (84.3%), feeling more confident in strategic communication career decisions (79.4%), and helping to understand the industry at large (78.4%). Although 85.3% of the respondents perceived the benefit of guest speakers as enhancing the learning experience, the pedagogical benefits were not perceived as greater than career-related benefits including helping improve attention in class (53.9%), enriching the curriculum (69%), and helping take a break from the same instructor (72.5%).

RQ8: How do students perceive having guest speakers in online strategic communication courses?

About two thirds (67.6%) of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that guest speakers should be invited to participate in online strategic communication courses (see Table 6). And overwhelmingly, 91.4% of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that advances in technology (e.g., Skype or FaceTime) can enable guest speakers’ participation in online strategic communication courses.

Our study also revealed some interesting findings regarding students’ perceptions of their involvement in choosing topics for guest talks. Involvement in choosing a guest speaker and getting their voice heard was one of the “likes” expressed by most of the focus group participants. In the survey, when asked about the degree to which they agree or disagree with the statement of “Instructors should have students participate in a survey early in the semester to help choose topics for guest speaker talks,” 73.5% of the respondents said they agreed or strongly agreed with this statement (M = 1.98, SD = 0.88, n = 102).

Also, we found three guest speakers in strategic communication courses in a given semester was the number preferred by the respondents (49%), followed by two guest speakers (18.6%), four guest speakers (16.7%), at least five guest speakers (10.8%), and one guest speaker (2.9%). Only two of the respondents preferred having no guest speakers.

Discussion and Conclusion

The results of our study support the linkage beliefs tenets. With mostly satisfactory guest speaker experiences, students’ salient beliefs on the benefit of the guest talks and preferences on the types of guest speakers, topics, and formats of the guest talks suggest what the positive links are and what areas instructors can work on to strengthen the connections between students’ beliefs and the effective teaching- learning outcome by using guest talks. On the other hand, the breadth of the preferred types of guest speakers and preferred topics of guest talks also suggest the complexity of the links. Our study suggests instructors need to understand the complexity of the links      while mapping out the contributing factors to a successful outcome for a guest talk. Our findings are also in line with previous research from Zou et al. (2019) who conducted a review of studies on guest speakers across various disciplines and proposed a “Trilateral Model” delineating benefits of having guest speakers in courses. Our findings have also provided pedagogical implications in using guest speakers in strategic communication courses.

Types of Guest Speakers 

It appears students find alumni and recent graduates, two types of most preferred guest speakers,  to be a valuable link between their life as a student and their imagined future professional selves, due to the perceptions of similarity (Culbertson, 1992). The finding of recent graduates as preferred guest speakers is in line with Cloud and Sweeney’s (1988) suggestion that having recent graduates as guest speakers could be advantageous because students can relate to them and establish a rapport. Instructors can build their own list of potential guest speakers by attending existing alumni events to network with alumni.

It is not surprising that students prefer a good mix of senior-level and junior-level professionals as preferred guest speakers. Obviously, the junior level position would be a starting point for students, but the greater attractiveness of the senior level professionals might be due to their capacity to arrange internships and even job placement. Planning to invite a mix of senior-level and junior-level professionals to serve as guest speakers in a semester would be advisable to benefit students in different ways.

Given the increasing globalization of the strategic communication field, preferring international guest speakers is only natural. For an international public relations course, having an international guest speaker would be ideal. As instructors in the U.S., we are not always mindful of bringing in international speakers. We suggest instructors make contact with their university’s international scholar services, which could be a starting point to learn more about international scholars on campus and to identify people who might fit in with their courses. Also, technology could be employed to have guest speakers address the class from remote locations so that the students could hear from a diverse range of speakers.

Guest Talk Topics and Formats

In line with Merle and Craig’s (2017) findings, the preferred topics of guest talks were around career advice, networking tips, professional backgrounds, and journeys. Career advice was perceived as the top topic, which suggests students in strategic communication are eager to learn professional advice and practical tips. It is also understandable that the personal journeys of speakers were among the highly preferred topics, as a guest speaker’s personal story sharing can enhance students’ engagement (Soiferman, 2019).

Should the topic of the guest talk be tied closely to the course? The answer is probably yes. Soiferman (2019) asserted that both declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge are important for students. In practice, guest speakers don’t want to stray too far from the course content. The instructor and guest speakers may want to work together to maximize the effectiveness of guest talks by discussing course content before the guest talk.

Our research suggested that ideally, conversational style talks, plus visual aids would be best. Also, it would be wise to present the idea of a Q&A session to guest speakers in advance. These findings are in line with Merle and Craig’s (2017) findings. The class dynamics may affect the duration and effectiveness of a Q&A session. An instructor can facilitate the session by asking some general but personal questions such as what you enjoy most about your job and what is the most challenging part of your job.

Survey data also indicated that only about half of the students would like to be tested or have an assignment on guest content, which is somewhat in line with Hite et al.’s (1985) findings that students didn’t want to be tested over the guest speaker content. However, as they suggested a more positive learning experience occurred when students are told they would be tested over guest talks, perhaps giving students an assignment or test based on guest content would be a good idea to enhance the learning outcome.

Experience of Having Guest Talks and Benefits of Guest Talks

Our research suggests it would be wise to have guest talks as a teaching tool. It is interesting to see career-related benefits were perceived as higher than academic and particular classroom learning benefits. This may be related to the practical nature of the strategic communication courses. The pedagogical benefits were recognized, although they were not appreciated as much. In order to maximize the benefits of guest speakers, instructors may want to consider the nature of the course and students’ year in college and work with the guest speaker to devise the focus of the talk and the timetable. For example, in an upper-level public relations campaign/capstone course, instructors may want to ask the guest speaker to talk about networking tips and opportunities and career advice and leave some time to allow students who are mainly juniors and seniors to network with the guest speaker.

Online Guest Speakers

Although online courses have been implemented in many schools, students’ experience with online strategic communication courses is limited, and having guest speakers in online strategic communication courses is rare as well, at least in our sample. Even with such limited experience, students expressed the desire to have guest speakers online. This calls for further empirical studies on the effectiveness of online guest speakers, particularly given the mixed findings on this subject (Henderson et al., 2018; Hemphill & Hemphill, 2007). Instructors could experiment in incorporating guest speakers in an online format with the help of technology, such as incorporating Skype, Google Hangouts, or FaceTime, which can enable participatory behavior in online sections.

Students’ Voice and Number of Guest Speakers

Students tended to like playing a role in choosing the topics of guest talks. Previous research suggests when students perceive their voice is being heard and they have agency in their own educational process, that leads to better learning outcomes (Cook-Sather, 2006). Thus, circulating a poll a week or two before the semester starts and inviting students to provide their input on selecting guest speakers based on their interests may help set the right tone for the course and may result in a more enjoyable semester, for both the students and faculty.

Having three guest speakers in a given semester was the most preferred option, which is in line with the tips offered by Roush (2013), who suggested not overusing guest speakers and no more than three or four guest speakers during a class. Indeed, too many guest speakers may affect the course content an instructor may want to cover, and it may also be difficult to manage.

While the students’ perceptions of guest speakers will help instructors understand the needs and wants, it is worth noting that that students do not always know what’s best for them, and instructors may react to students’ perceptions differently according to their knowledge about their students and their experience of hosting guest talks. On the other hand, a successful guest talk cannot be separated from the efforts of a guest speaker. We recommend that guest speakers work closely with the instructors before the talk to learn about the instructor’s expectations, understand students’ needs, and present the talk in an engaging manner.

Limitations and Future Research

The samples for focus groups and survey research were convenience and purposive in nature. Researchers should be cautious when generalizing the findings of this study to a larger population. Another limitation lies in the sample size. Future research should conduct more focus group discussions to enrich the data. Our survey sample size was also small and limited to one campus. Future research can use large-scale survey research to derive findings based on representative samples that could be generalized to a larger population in various contexts.

Focus group participants were not excluded from the survey, which may affect their survey responses due to their previous exposure to the focus group discussion. Also, a student could take the survey multiple times. Although our data did not suggest that happened, we should have taken a precaution when designing the online survey.

Although the results from our survey research provide useful information, it remains descriptive in nature. Due to the smaller sample size, the present study focuses on the student perception of guest speakers as a group. However, basic statistics show some noticeable and interesting differences in preferences of guest speakers by major, which provides useful information for educators. For example, journalism majors tended to prefer junior-level professionals and senior-level professionals much more than non-journalism majors (see Table 1a) and prefer the industry topics much more than non-journalism majors (see Table 3a). Also, journalism majors tended to prefer the following benefits more than non-journalism majors–opportunity to network with the guest speaker, feeling more confident in strategic communication career decisions, being more aware of strategic communication career opportunities, helping understand the industry at large, and helping enrich the curriculum (see Table 5a). As for the differences in perceptions by year in college, it is worth noting that underclassmen tended to prefer faculty members more than upperclassmen, and prefer recent graduates less than upperclassmen (see Table 1b). Underclassmen tended to prefer the benefits of having an opportunity to network with guest speakers, being aware of strategic communication career opportunities, and taking a break from the same instructor more than upperclassmen (see Table 5b). With a bigger sample size, advanced statistical analysis could be employed to examine statistical difference and generate more information.

Some issues are worth further investigation. For example, students tend to dislike being tested on a guest speaker. What alternative testing tools to examine the guest talk effectiveness exist? Students tended to want to have a say in choosing the topics of guest talks. How should this take place? Collecting more data can offer more robust findings and analyses. In addition, future studies could examine how the type of public relations course might affect student perceptions of guest speakers.

In conclusion, the key things we learned from our research suggest an overwhelming preference for guest speakers from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, who share their personal journey, career advice, and networking tips. This allows students to learn from the guest speakers’ personal experiences, so they may apply the knowledge of the speakers’ job searching and networking to advance their own careers. Our findings have important practical implications and suggest that diversity and variety of guest speakers and topics create an enriching pedagogical experience. While an instructor plays a key role in planning and facilitating a guest talk, the outcome of a guest talk would also involve the guest speaker’s effort and audience’s engagement.


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To cite this article: Ji, H., Jain, P., & Axinn,C. (2021). Student perceptions of guest speakers in strategic communications courses. Journal of Public Relations Education, 7(1), 40-79. https://aejmc.us/jpre/2021/05/25/student-perceptions-of-guest-speakers-in-strategic-communication-courses/