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Shaping Tomorrow’s Industry Leaders by Incorporating Inclusivity into Campaign Planning Curriculum: Student Reactions to the SMART+IE Mindset in Strategic Communication Efforts

Editorial Record: Submitted May 29, 2022. Revised September 2, 2022. Revised October 28, 2022. Accepted October 28, 2022.


Richard D. Waters, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
School of Management
University of San Francisco
San Francisco, California
Email: rdwaters@usfca.edu

Tricia M. Farwell, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
School of Journalism and Strategic Media
Middle Tennessee State University
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Email: tricia.farwell@mtsu.edu

This paper combines a teaching activity that could be incorporated into a public relations management, campaign, ethics, or strategy course with qualitative research on student reactions and its goal of getting students to critically think about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in strategic communication campaigns. The activity is designed to give students the ability to explore the differences between diversity, equity, and inclusion while learning how to have difficult conversations with co-workers and employers. Using a hypothetical case of an organization’s promotional campaign that is criticized by social media influencers, the activity takes students through thinking about the campaign and working through responses to the company’s actions and considering organizational change. The case challenges students to explore the nuances of diversity, think beyond the knee-jerk reactions to outside forces and consider how to communicate diversity and be inclusive in the media. In addition to providing discussion questions and supplemental materials for the activity that can be used to engage students and assess their learning about DEI issues related to campaigns, the paper uses interviews with students to explore their reactions to DEI concepts and how campaigns can move beyond targeting specific audiences to authentic inclusion.

Keywords: public relations campaigns, public relations education, SMART+IE objectives, authenticity, diversity, equity, inclusion, DEI, organizational culture


The idea for the teaching activity introduced in this article was inspired by season 1, episode 6 of the television show American Auto on NBC. The episode, entitled “Commercial,” which originally aired on U.S. television on January 25, 2022, was a fictional representation of a company reacting to being called out on social media for online virtue signaling. The episode then took viewers through the pitfalls Payne Motors encountered when trying to create a commercial for the company that was more inclusive, authentic, and diverse.

While the episode was a fictional comedy, it highlights the problems that organizations encounter from social media and missteps that can be experienced when trying to incorporate diversity because of external forces. Despite the problems, social media influencers are key elements of many public relations campaigns. Agility PR, for example, reported that among marketers, 90% of respondents felt that influencer marketing was effective (Sharva, 2022). Additionally, Agility PR recommended that influencers be added to campaigns because they can become brand ambassadors and can expose an organization to a larger engaged audience.

Due to its ubiquitous nature, social media has also become a platform for conversations regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion and an outlet for organizations to show their support for specific causes. The increased show of support and conversations surrounding DEI have led to expanded research regarding DEI in strategic communication organizations and campaigns. Yet organizations implementing DEI struggled with training and having needed conversations around the topic (Carufel, 2021). In fact, an IPR survey revealed that 20 percent of respondents acknowledged they did not recognize a difference in meaning between the terms “diversity” and “inclusion” (Carufel, 2021). Additionally, another survey found that only 53% of respondents said that their organizations provided, but did not require, training on DEI topics (Haddad, 2022). Yet, despite this lack of required training, communication professionals find themselves as being the resource for DEI counsel and practices. 

Organizations such as the Public Relations Society of America , Public Relations Student Society of America , and Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication  have stepped up to provide training for their members through a variety of outlets, including webinars. Despite these efforts, academia and the industry are still struggling with DEI efforts at all levels (Brown & Laughlin, 2019; Bardhan & Gower, 2020). 

To help reduce the struggle with DEI, this article recommends using the definitions endorsed by the Institute of Public Relations when they released The Wakeman Agency’s (2021) survey on the language public relations leaders use when discussing DEI. Diversity is the mere presence of differences whether those are demographics (e.g., race, gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status among others) and psychographics (e.g., values, attitudes, personal background). Diversity encompasses the intersection of these traits and considers other characteristics, such as neurodiversity, special needs, disabilities, and physical attributes. Equity promotes justice, impartiality, and fairness while promoting proportionate access and opportunities based on people’s diverse characteristics. Inclusion focuses on the genuine incorporation of diverse people into an environment so that they feel welcomed and accepted throughout the organization, resulting in feelings of being heard, respected and valued.

This article introduces a classroom activity that is a step toward DEI training within the safety of a classroom setting, which answers the call by Bardhan & Gower (2020) to incorporate more diversity and inclusion activities in the classroom. Based on interviews with students who went through the activity, the article also recommends that educators embrace the mentorship role in regard to DEI topics as called for in the report by the Commission on Public Relations Education (Mundy et al., 2018). Encouraging and supporting students to explore ways to design more inclusive communication campaigns can help these future public relations leaders move from targeting audiences with persuasive messaging to engaging authentically with them.

Literature Review

Public Relations and DEI. Public relations has long been aware of its diversity problem. As expressed during an interview, one practitioner felt that “We ‘talk the diversity talk,’ but I’m not sure we ‘walk the walk’ as much as we could.” (Hon & Brunner, 2000, p. 320). Nearly 20 years later, the industry has started to take proactive efforts to address its diversity issues. In 2015, Steve Barrett, editor-in-chief of PR Week issued a challenge to the industry to reach a benchmark for the profession to have more diverse peoples in leadership positions (2020). Although progress has been made since that charge was issued, with the largest firms reporting approximately 20% diverse talent in 2021 (Diversity Action Alliance, 2021), there is still much work to be done. In order to make sure that the work toward a diverse profession does not stop, industry organizations and businesses are taking the lead by showcasing and sharing their efforts. Practitioners of strategic communication have acknowledged that although awareness of DEI issues has improved, there is still a long way to go to ensure that the profession is representative and communicates with its audiences in a truly inclusive way. 

So that their stance is clear, PRSA created a Diversity & Inclusion Committee with the goal of “building consciousness by increasing the visibility of D&I standards, resources and best practices for racial, ethnic, religious, sexual orientation and gender differences, as well as diverse skill sets, mindsets and cultures at all levels of the organization” and to equip practitioners with the tools necessary to be advocates and leaders in this area (Public Relations Society of America, n.d.). The Diversity Toolkit created by the organization provides information on being a D&I liaison to the organization, a mission statement, links to websites and the “Diverse Voices” book by the PRSA Foundation, “Do’s and Don’ts” for chapters, and a list of diversity and inclusion-focused awards and events sponsored by PRSA.

Firms and agencies focusing on strategic communication are also sharing their tips on how to be more inclusive and what they are doing to make sure they are doing their part to be more representative. These agencies recognize and acknowledge that diverse voices and practices are essential for their profession and their clients. PAN Communications, for example, suggests that ways to incorporate more diverse voices include: mentoring diverse interns, partnering with universities to identify diverse future professionals and connecting with professors, reading and implementing material on diversity provided by industry organizations, and holding panels on diversity (Magdovitz, n.d.).

Rodney Pruitt of Weber Shandwick St. Louis reminds readers that diversity, representation and acceptance are key factors when millennials are searching for their professional home (2018). These young professionals are looking to see that they are represented at all levels of the organization and often search for diverse mentors. In order to be able to recruit and mentor incoming professionals, Pruitt calls for the industry to be proactive and not reactive to their needs regarding representation and awareness of diverse voices.

The Wakeman Agency (2021) carried out the first of its kind research addressing how public relations leaders define and discuss diversity, equity, and inclusion in organizations. The research surveyed 393 public relations leaders and found some common trends. First, the language used by organizations reinforces the existing power dynamics in an organization and can derail an organization’s DEI efforts when they are not aligned. Similarly, despite the expressed commitment to DEI across the industry, there is a large gap in meaningful action and a narrow view of what constitutes diversity. Public relations leaders mostly viewed race (83% of practitioners), sex (77%) and ethnicity (75%) as a high or medium priority in industry initiatives. Diversity of thought, sexual orientation, neurodiversity, religion, and socioeconomic levels were largely viewed as a low priority. Reflecting the leaders’ failure to “walk the walk,” most of their DEI initiatives were carried out in human resources offices rather than being company-wide initiatives, and research has shown that organizational change cannot happen in departmental isolation in an organization. Its leadership must be active and ever present for cultures to shift, particularly with successful DEI implementation (Waters et al., 2023).

Simply put, firms, agencies, and industry organizations have called for the industry to make sure that diversity is one of the first things they think about regarding their workforce and work for clients, instead of an add-on at the end of the day or because of public outcry. But the day-to-day work has not yet reflected this concern, based on industry reports. Organizations that do not follow this mindset will find themselves dealing with avoidable claims and damage to their reputation of being oblivious and insensitive to the needs of the public. 

PRSA (Carroll, 2022) as well as industry blogs and publications (e.g., Strater, 2021) recognize that younger practitioners from Generation Z are in the best position to shape the industry’s approach to DEI because of their lifelong access to information. They are forcing conversations about inclusion and equity in the workplace and society at large. They’re also drawing attention to the need to expand typical depictions of diversity to include neurodiversity and one’s physical and mental capabilities. As optimistic as these industry pieces are about the future of the field, young and upcoming practitioners need to be encouraged to lead and make sure the industry shifts from a DEI casual stroll to a fast-paced walk toward progress. The public relations curriculum must include lessons that help them address those challenges and develop their confidence in the classroom before they take their first jobs.

Leadership. As cliché as it sounds, today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders. However, several studies have found that leadership development and education is lacking in journalism and mass communication programs (Mills et al, 2019; Blom & Davenport, 2012; Bronstein & Fitzpatrick, 2015). Specifically, Mills et al. found that approximately 39 of the 119 programs studied had no focused leadership course and in the approximately 79 programs that did have leadership courses, the leadership component was not the primary focus of the course. This lack of focus on leadership may be due to JMC programs focusing more on hands-on experience over leadership training (Bronstein & Fitzpatrick, 2015) or because leadership is not considered a core course for JMC program directors (Blom & Davenport, 2012). 

Given this lack of focus on leadership, JMC educators need to ensure that students have exposure to leadership practices or else they will enter the workforce unprepared for leadership tasks that they encounter. Though it may not be realized, students take leadership cues from educators who serve as role models and from in-class activities where they can explore different leadership approaches in a safe environment. Educators have an opportunity to create a playground for risk-taking, to explore new ideas and to cultivate best practices in their classrooms. Having the freedom to explore, and perhaps fail, in a safe classroom sets students up to be able to be accepting and encouraging of change. As future leaders in the communication field, students need to become the leaders who acknowledge, support and encourage change (Bardhan & Gower, 2020; Meng, 2015). These future leaders also need to engage with diversity and represent diversity (Bardhan & Gower, 2020). 

While there is no universal approach to being an effective leader, Sudkee (2021) found that key indicators of transformational leadership in undergraduate students are “intellectual stimulation” that “stimulate[s] their colleagues’ creativity,” “idealized influence” where peers are examples of “respectable and trusted leaders” and “individual consideration” where students “recognize other’s value and importance” (p. 102). Berger (2009) identified nine qualities essential in public relations leaders: being a leader by example, being effective and credible in decision making, having a strong ethical stance and professional standards, being able to communicate well, knowing the strengths and weaknesses of themselves and others, having a desire to lead, being transformational and inclusive, being passionate about the profession, and fostering change and a culture of communication. Students in JMC courses have the opportunity to build these skills and define what they believe makes for good leadership if they have in-class opportunities to explore the process of leadership and develop their concepts of an ideal leader. 

Higher education is the perfect setting to provide students with opportunities needed to explore and take risks. By allowing and encouraging risk and change, academia can create a new generation of informed citizens by refocusing and reinventing curricula and assignments to challenge students and develop leadership. Mills et al. (2019) called for JMC programs to “work to ensure the competencies [of leadership] are spread throughout the 4-year curriculum in a meaningful way” (p. 273). The advertising/public relations/strategic communication campaigns course is the ideal place to assess student leadership skills gathered throughout a JMC program while adding current relevant leadership due to the fact that this course often has a team project and often follows the structure of a real-world agency. Challenging students to think through difficult conversations like those involving DEI will better prepare them to be tomorrow’s leaders when they face those questions in the workplace.

Audience Segmentation or Stereotyping?  Through campaigns courses in the public relations curriculum, client-serving agencies, and campaign competitions like the Public Relations Society of America’s Bateman Case Study competition and the American Advertising Federation’s National Student Advertising Competition, students have the ability to gain leadership experience in developing and implementing campaigns. Strategic communication curriculum has outlined several approaches to campaign development, including the ROPES Process, RPIE, and RACE (Kelly, 2001; Smith, 2020; Universal Accreditation Board, 2018). Hardy and Waters (2012) reviewed 42– years of PRSA Silver Anvil-winning campaigns to determine how well they adhered to recommended campaign development approaches. They found that campaigns were successful in naming specific targeted audiences and increasing in their sophistication of developing objectives; however, evaluation largely consisted of basic publicity measures.

Communication campaigns regularly name specific audiences that they are trying to persuade; however, recent scholarship and industry groups have criticized that audience segmentation is based on stereotypes for most organizations and should be removed from practice (e.g., Tan et al., 2022). Segmentation breaks up a large target market into smaller, more homogeneous groups by grouping people together based on shared traits for more effective outreach. Research has found that using demographics to segment audiences is the most common practice in strategic communication (Müllensiefen et al., 2018); however, other approaches include geographic, psychographic, and behavior-based segmenting. Demography divides the target audience based on traits, such as age, gender, race, sexual orientation, income, and education while geographic segmentation is based on local, regional, national, or global markets. Psychographic segmentation is based on shared interests and lifestyle traits, and behavior-based segments are typically focused on loyalty or product/service usage (Goyat, 2011).

When segmentation is done correctly it can lead to successful identification of and communication with key audiences. However, segmentation must be driven by research data and not simply based on gut instincts (McKercher et al., 2022). Campaign planners cannot assume that someone they know personally typifies a stakeholder group. Data must be used to segment the audiences. Segmentation should not be oversimplified but be research-based. Technology, data tracking, and analytics have made it easier to pinpoint target audiences and create detailed brand personas, but campaign planners still need to make some generalizations about their audiences. It’s when those generalizations are pushed to the extreme that brands run into trouble.

However, the parameters for separating the segments cannot be too broad. Models based on demographic variables run this risk. For example, age-based segmentation frequently uses age to identify a generational cohort and not a segment within that generation. Similarly, brands that have created messaging for women or LGBTQ+ audiences have backfired because the messaging was deemed patronizing or offensive (Hoffman & Delahanty, 2021). Segmenting based solely on one or two demographic factors ignores the significant work that has been produced on intersectionality (Rosa-Salas & Sobande, 2022; Vardeman-Winter et al., 2013; Vardeman-Winter & Tindall, 2010). Work on intersectionality and multidimensional diversity is paving the way for a culture ready to embrace inclusivity.

Developing More Inclusive Campaigns. Advertising and public relations campaigns frequently divide the entirety of their stakeholders into smaller, more reachable audiences through segmentation. However, the language used to describe the process (e.g., targeting) and the groups that result from this process (e.g., target audiences) conjure up images of hunting down a particular group and capturing their attention. While segmentation may be necessary for campaigns to create and deliver more effective messaging, it also steers practitioners to think about those audiences in a non-inclusive manner. The audiences become groups to track and target rather than include in the campaign in a more engaging, meaningful way.

Public relations literature has recently encouraged practitioners beyond the targeting approach with its campaigns through the introduction of SMART+IE objectives (Waters et al., 2021). The SMART+IE approach traces its origins to broad organizational management to ensure that organizations check for disparate impact along identity and power lines and ultimately minimize that impact for everyone. The addition of inclusion and equity to the traditional SMART goal challenges organizations to promote these aspects in their work. While some goals may not appear to have an inclusion and equity component to them, organizations are challenged to think how they can promote these elements in the organization’s work. 

As an example, in wake of the June, 2022, United States’ Supreme Court’s reversal of the Roe v. Wade decision, nonprofits on the pro-life (e.g., March for Life) and pro-choice (e.g., Planned Parenthood) sides of the discussion could have simply created awareness campaigns to highlight the issue and argue for their positions. This work easily could have incorporated SMART criteria (specificity, measurement, audience-focused, realistic, and timebound) into its design, but it becomes significantly more meaningful when inclusion and equity components are added to awareness building. This can be done by adding specific actions that reach out to diverse populations and meaningfully engage with them. For this example, the pro-life and pro-choice positions might decide to “increase the number of African-American/Black church leaders’ voices in policy discussions and propositions” or “develop coalitions with women’s health clinics in Hispanic communities,” respectively, to their awareness campaigns. 

The Management Center (2021) recommends adding inclusion and equity to SMART goals to address systemic issues that perpetuate inequity and social injustices. For public relations, moving beyond traditional SMART criteria for campaign objectives to include elements of inclusivity and equity challenges the industry to be more socially responsible and engage its audiences in more respectful and meaningful ways–not simply target them. Incorporating SMART+IE objectives into campaigns indicates that inclusion and equity are additional components that require extra consideration. Practitioners should not simply work to target an audience with messaging; rather, socially responsible practitioners carefully consider the communities they serve and reflect on how they can be brought into the organization and campaign without merely tallying the diversity that they have targeted (Farwell et al., 2022).

Inclusion and equity must be intentional in strategic communication campaign efforts. For example, a corporation that is recruiting employees for a new endeavor it is pursuing may have a communication objective to “Recruit a team of 50 new entry-level employees from the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex for Project XYZ by August 31, 2022.”  This objective meets the SMART criteria by having a specific outcome (employee recruitment), being measurable (50 new entry-level employees), naming an audience (Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex residents), being realistic given the company’s resources and schedule, and being timebound (completed by August 31, 2022). With this objective, planners could go into the community and target specific neighborhoods for recruitment and completely overlook other stakeholder groups. 

To add the inclusion and equity components and make this a SMART+IE objective, campaign planners need to pause and reflect on these concepts and how they can intentionally bring them into the organization. A revised SMART+IE version of the objective might read: Recruit a team of 50 new entry-level employees from the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex for Project XYZ, using feedback from internal BIPOC and LGBTQ+ employee resource groups, by August 31, 2022. Using this revised SMART+IE objective, campaign planners acknowledge that perspectives from employee resource groups may be helpful in creating a more inclusive team rather than leaving the hiring decision in the hands of a small group of administrators.

Younger public relations practitioners have repeatedly told researchers that they want more than a career; they want to have big impacts on topics such as social justice and systematic change (Gallicano et al., 2012; Pompper, 2015). Educators can help students accelerate that change by challenging them to confront difficult issues, such as DEI, in course work. By incorporating assignments that emphasize inclusion and equity over targeting a named audience, students are on the fast track to become industry leaders with gained confidence from classroom discussions and experiences with their own campaign planning in capstone courses. 

SMART+IE objectives can transform publicity and awareness building campaigns into ones that embrace marginalized communities. Throughout the year, corporations, nonprofits, and government agencies embrace heritage/history and awareness months with messaging saying they celebrate different communities or encourage audiences to donate to select causes. These performative messages embrace the marginalized audience briefly but fail to demonstrate how – or, if – the organization has genuinely reached out to the community for greater involvement. 

Incorporating the SMART+IE mindset into communication campaigns requires embracing inclusion and equity as part of the organization’s culture. Bringing inclusivity and equity into strategic communication campaigns challenges planners to bring traditionally excluded groups into processes, activities, and decision-making in a way that shares power (Mor Barak, 2022). It moves beyond incorporating the Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism’s Diversity Style Guide (Kangiel, 2019) into messaging to removing social systems and structural barriers that prevent all of an organization’s stakeholders from having the same opportunities to participate and benefit from the organization’s offerings, whether they be community sponsorships, employment, discounts, or simply access to programs and services. Being diverse merely is a tally of what demographic or sociographic representatives are involved. Being inclusive moves beyond tallying up who was involved to thinking about ways that perspectives and ideas are heard and acted upon, and legitimate partnerships are created to uplift stakeholders so that equitable outcomes are available for all individuals. 

Given the relationship between mentoring students and training them to be leaders, this research explores how a classroom exercise challenges students to think about diversity, equity, and inclusion in communication campaigns and gauges their reactions to SMART+IE objectives. Based on the previous research and other practitioner-literature reviewed prior to creating the classroom activity, the following research questions were created to guide the student interviews:

RQ1:  How do students view public relations’ connection to diversity, equity, and inclusion?

RQ2:  How did students perceive the classroom activity?

RQ3:  How did students react to SMART+IE objectives in the activity?


Early in the Spring, 2022, semester, an episode of “American Auto” featured a plot where a Payne Motors’ commercial was being reshot to highlight the company’s inclusivity after a series of events portrayed the company negatively. Though written in a humorous tone, the episode introduced important lessons about authenticity and being committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion. The researchers designed an activity reflecting the overall nature of the episode, but introducing a broader range of diversity than the episode presented and adding social media responses to leaked behind-the-scenes footage from a commercial shoot. 

The Assignment. The complete “Our Family is Your Family” assignment details are presented in the Appendices.   Supporting materials include a basic scene description featured in the commercial series developed by the strategic communication agency hired by the company, an internal memo from a communication team specialist expressing concerns about the scenes, a series of emails and text message exchanges sent throughout the planning and filming of the commercials as well as examples of social media response the campaign generated.

The Research. To answer the study’s three research questions, in-depth interviews were conducted with 22 students who participated in the exercise in two separate classes taught by the researchers, one undergraduate “Issues in Advertising” class (43 students enrolled) and one graduate “Strategic Communications Management” course (18 students enrolled) at the researchers’ institutions. Nine of the students interviewed were graduate students while 13 were undergraduates. Students at both the undergraduate and graduate level were asked to participate in the interviews to gauge how students from both the Millennial Generation and Generation Z viewed the exercise and reflected on its utility.

After receiving expedited approval from the institutional review board, students were recruited to participate when the researchers sent emails asking for students’ comments and reflections on the exercise during one-on-one interviews; more than one-third of students participated in interviews (36.1%) even though the semester had ended. The majority of students who participated identified as female (68.1%) while males (31.8%) represented a smaller proportion of participants. Three individuals (13.6%) used they/them pronouns in addition to she/her and he/him pronouns.

Prior to the interviews, students were reminded about the goals of the research and encouraged to be open about the exercise. The informed consent documents promised confidentiality to the participants, and modifiers are used in place of participants’ names in the results section that follows. Interviews were conducted after final course grades were calculated and submitted to the schools so that could be eliminated as an influence on participants’ answers. Most interviews (n=17) were recorded with Zoom (Archibald et al., 2019); however, detailed notes were taken during in-person interviews, which ranged from 19 to 35 minutes, to capture quotations and sentiments. Two students provided email responses due to work constraints.

The interviews opened by asking students to reflect on their perceptions about diversity, equity, and inclusion as it pertains to strategic communication. Questions then shifted to focus on their reactions to the planned Creekside Tires campaign, experiences with the classroom activity, and their thoughts about SMART+IE objectives generally and specifically to the exercise. 

Zoom’s automated transcripts were reviewed and cleaned by the researchers. Transcripts along with notes taken during the interviews were read and compared against each other while looking for similarities. As documents were read, researchers used an evolving process to evaluate thoughts expressed by students that began as positive/negative and then grew to represent specific thoughts or themes presented in the results. Those with shared commonalities are grouped together by category to reflect the similar ideas (Lindlof, 1995). During the analysis, validity checks were conducted by asking students whether quotations and their thoughts were captured correctly (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). These member checks were conducted within 14 days of completing the full analysis.


Research Question #1. The study’s first research question sought to explore how students view the industry’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Overall, the students felt that they were experiencing a change in industry practices. One female undergraduate said, “I love the increase in diversity in recent years. For far too long, there was a strong focus on white, heteronormative messaging” for all of an organization’s stakeholders. Another undergraduate female made an observation that “a lot more diverse people are going into advertising and public relations” based on her internship experiences, and the influx of a more diverse workforce “will be reflected in the campaigns they launch.”

While students generally expressed positive sentiments about the diversity of the field, one undergraduate female expressed that “while I am happy with [the growing diversity of the industry], there are still fundamental issues that companies are getting wrong. One graduate female student agreed, noting that “HR is regularly recognized for its recruiting efforts for diverse talents at my agency, but that’s all that’s being done.” A male graduate student felt that public relations developed campaigns for specific communities “but it never goes beyond social media posts celebrating Pride or a donation to a community center.” Students hoped to see more genuine inclusivity with both internal and external stakeholders in the future.

One female undergraduate felt that specific agencies and corporations were unlikely to become inclusive. She said, “although I don’t agree with it, I don’t think companies will take the risk of creating an environment where everyone has their voice heard.” A male undergraduate noted that while companies needed to show they were listening, “they don’t really want to hear suggestions and feedback, so they put on a show listening to [marginalized voices] even though decisions have already been made.”  

A portion of students do not fully understand the challenges faced by others as one male graduate student questioned why it had become a trend. He commented that “I just don’t get the big focus on DEI. Everyone’s encouraged to participate in team meetings and strategy sessions. It’s like that at all the agencies I know people at.” A female graduate student with a decade of professional experience also questioned the strong emphasis on inclusion but came around to recognize that “some concerns that are brought up in meetings aren’t really paid attention to.”

When asked about equity in the industry, most students acknowledged that the industry was “not even in the ballpark’s parking lot” as one female graduate student put it. Another female undergraduate confessed that “I don’t really know the difference between inclusion and equity. They’re always grouped together.” While the response may not have been what we were looking for after the activity, it shed light on the need for more discussion about inclusion and equity in the public relations curriculum.

Research Question #2. The second research question asked how students perceived the classroom activity and ultimately how it reflects the industry. Students understood that the classroom activity highlighted the challenges organizations could face if they were not fully committed to diversity at all levels of the organization. The exercise demonstrated how complex diversity, equity, and inclusion can be for organizations that lack an inclusive culture. One undergraduate female student said it opened her eyes to how organizations connect to different stakeholders, noting “I don’t want to say [Creekside Tires is] going about it the right way, but I understand why they operate in that way.” Her comments were echoed by a male graduate student who said, “If you don’t include everyone in a message, then you’re going to face the woke army. But, if you make it obvious that everyone’s included, you also face the fire.”  

The activity caused a female graduate student to realize issues faced from being inclusive; she noted, “Even for companies that support DEI, your commercials can be taken the wrong way. You’re always going to be criticized for not doing enough because you can’t put everything into a 30 second spot.” She added, “Companies that get it still have to worry about their bottom line. Ideally, they would have a chance to include someone from a marginalized community. But these days one side will accuse them of courting that group and the other side slams them for wanting that community’s business.” A female undergraduate student said, “this [activity] made me realize how important the parts of a campaign are that you don’t see on TV, the web, or social media.” Other students also reflected on how important genuine outreach to marginalized communities isnecessary but wondered “if [Creekside] worked with LGBT or disabled groups with scholarships or something, how do they get people to notice that?”

While some students wondered about how to demonstrate inclusivity to mass audiences, there were also students who identified as strong supporters of DEI who questioned how they would handle the situation in the case study if they were in the same situation. A female graduate student said, “It seems wrong but some of the stereotypes are true. I’m a lesbian, and I dress a certain way. Why can’t you use language or visuals that cue us into the commercial? GLAAD or some other group may complain about that, but it’s true for many of us.” 

The exercise generated meaningful discussion in the classroom, and students reflected on this during the interviews. “I’m glad we talked about this after it. My group was scared to talk about how we would handle [the Creekside Tires situation] because we thought we’d be judged,” said one undergraduate male. A female undergraduate added, “I felt comfortable talking about it in class cause we all seem on board with DEI, but I don’t know if I would have said anything at my internship.” As discussions about the exercises drifted from the classroom to the workplace, students became less confident though one female graduate student said:

This example helped me think through how I’d bring it up at work. We talk about diversity but it’s fake like the commercials. We have programs that we present to different groups, and the [Executive Director] is proud of [our diversity outreach] but we didn’t involve them. We just presented to them.

Finally, students expect they will see significant changes in communication campaigns as they enter the workforce. “That commercial idea seems so 2000s, but all you gotta do is watch advertising for an hour to see it’s still everywhere. It’s ridiculous,” said one female undergraduate. One male undergraduate said that companies seem to get diversity, but it’s going to take “understanding how to really include people of all walks of life into campaigns to become respectable.” Through the various discussion questions, students began to see the difference between diversity, equity, and inclusion. One undergraduate female felt “inclusion will continue to expand because my generation are profound supporters of it, and we’ll make change whether they want to move on from diversity or not.” SMART+IE objectives helped clarify the distinction but the participants struggled with how to achieve inclusion and equity in campaign planning.

Research Question 3. Students’ reactions to their initial exposure to SMART+IE objectives were collected for the final research question, and there were a few skeptical voices. One student questioned, “couldn’t the inclusion part be part of the action in a SMART objective?” while another pointed out that “the [weekly course reading] showed objectives weren’t following SMART fully, so will they really add the IE?”  

Other responses were more positive though they found the SMART+IE objectives challenging. “I wish we had these in our strategy class because it forces you to think beyond publicity,” one female undergraduate said. A male undergraduate said, “I didn’t get the difference between DE&I until I had to use SMART+IE. Targeting is really easy to accomplish diversity, but it’s a lot tougher to get people included in an equal way.” A female undergraduate offered that “I kept thinking my inclusion component was superficial. It’s tough to write about such an important part in an objective. It’s going to take practice to get it right.” Another female undergraduate noted that SMART+IE objectives were tough because “I don’t see how these would work with the work I do at my internship, but maybe they make more sense when you manage accounts.”  

She added “I want to show this to my [internship] supervisor because we’ve talked about the SMART ones but never these. It could really change how they do their campaigns.” The female undergraduate was not the only one who was taking a lead in bringing SMART+IE objectives to the industry. A female graduate student with a six-year career in the nonprofit sector said, “I’m going to use these with our community outreach program and talk about them with program staff.” Other students felt that SMART+IE objectives “should replace SMART objectives because that makes us think about inclusion and equity,” said one female undergraduate. If the traditional SMART objectives continue to be used in campaign planning, “they’ll only focus on inclusion and equity if someone in the room brings it up,” one female graduate student said, “but starting with SMART+IE puts it on the table for discussion from the very beginning.”

Although students sometimes struggled with writing SMART+IE objectives, they were optimistic about the future of their profession. One male graduate student asked, “why aren’t these objectives in our textbook? They’re going to lead to deeper campaigns that have more important outcomes than increased sales or views.”  After an interview with a female graduate student, one of the researchers received an email in which the student said:

Thank you for introducing SMART+IE objectives in class this semester. I’ve not used them at work yet, but I plan to. Talking about them during the interview yesterday got me excited to talk about them at work. I’ve already set up a meeting with my manager to show it to her.

While students had some hesitations when they first began using SMART+IE objectives, the Creekside Tires case study activity and subsequent discussion helped them see SMART+IE’s value to campaign planning and ultimately the future of the profession.

Post hoc commentary. Although not the primary focus of the study, the researchers asked each other questions about their experiences with the assignment once the results had been analyzed and they were able to reflect on it. One author noted that “the best part was after class when students would come to my office to discuss DEI and how they could be prepared for when they graduate so that they could make a change.”  Even though only 36% of students enrolled in the two classes participated in interviews, there was a clear interest in inclusivity from many others in the classroom. The same author received an email after the interview was completed that thanked him/her/them for doing this exercise in class and evaluating reactions to it because it was the first time the student had this type of discussion in a course in their field of study. One author had a similar reflection noting that “By incorporating DEI activities in the classroom, we are telling our students that we are open and willing to have these discussions with them. We are setting the example for how they can have these discussions with others in the workplace.” 

“This assignment really challenged me to proactively think about how I can create a safe space for students since I didn’t know how the exercise would go,” said one author. Similar to the results of The Wakeman Agency report, one author said, “I’m still learning too. I don’t have all the answers, and it’s helpful to have working students bring their experiences into the classroom. At times, they’re teaching me as much as I’m teaching them.” That co-teaching effort is helping them develop their confidence to become leaders who address these situations moving forward. One author said, “It is clear our students really wanted to be leaders in DEI activities and that they were looking for resources. They are looking for people who they can emulate in terms of leading the DEI discussion.”


Public relations has long been aware of its diversity problems (Hon & Brunner, 2000) and the benefits of correcting its lack of inclusion and equity among practitioners and stakeholders (Edwards, 2011). Tsetsura (2011) discusses how faculty can present diversity in a multidimensional manner in the classroom so that students understand how complex addressing issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion can be, but also appreciate how rich the industry could be if practitioners are able to move past narrowly targeting and manipulating audiences to embracing them as vital components of campaigns and not just static message recipients.

The classroom activity presented as part of this research sought to do just that. In presenting Creekside Tires’ plans for the “Our Family is Your Family” campaign, the case and supporting evidence highlights how broad diversity is at the practical, campaign-planning level and challenges students to think about the audiences using multiple dimensions of diversity. But the activity moves beyond simple representations of diversity in a commercial to challenge students to develop a culture of inclusivity and equity in an organization. Interview findings showed that students embraced the DEI concepts but struggled to devise clear strategies for how they would implement that in either the workplace or a communication campaign. 

As educators, it is our responsibility to challenge our students with difficult questions and help them in their struggles to answer them. Having awkward or difficult conversations in the classroom prepares students for career opportunities where they can build inclusive, equitable teams and ultimately be the change agents needed to create an organizational culture that embraces inclusion and equity. Educators are in the perfect position to be a mentor to students to help them devise strategies to incorporate a more enlightened approach to communication campaigns beyond targeting and manipulating audiences or presenting idealized depictions.

One of the first lessons educators must stress to students is that organizations must quit communicating a commitment to DEI without having credible evidence or demonstration of progress. Many organizations felt compelled to share their DEI commitment during the social movements that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, little communication followed the statements posted to their websites or social media accounts. This was also reflected in Creekside Tires’ desire to combat COVID-19 isolation by reinvigorating its “Our Family is Your Family” tagline. Although its proposed new campaign was designed to be more reflective of its stakeholders, there was no evidence beyond commercial visuals to demonstrate a commitment to DEI. Through classroom activities and conversations with students, educators must stress that organizations and industries cannot be committed to DEI unless there is ongoing measurement of that work (Kirton & Greene, 2021). As soon as that commitment has been expressed, stakeholders–whether they are employees or social media influencers like Serenity in our case study–will begin to look for examples or measures of that progress

That measurement, however, cannot simply be increased percentages of women, people of color, or LGBTQ+ shown in marketing collateral or hired to work for an organization. The goal of inclusivity is one where stakeholders genuinely feel included because of the organization’s or industry’s culture that respects and supports all stakeholders (Dover et al., 2020). When organization’s measurement of their DEI efforts transitions from simply tallying diversity numbers to true measures of belonging and inclusivity, stakeholders have an active role in shaping the culture, not simply being a token representation. Based on descriptions in the case study, Creekside Tires had a diverse workforce; however, ignoring Jai Lee’s commercial concerns and comments made in emails and text message exchanges reveal that the organization may present diversity but it is not genuine.

Another mistake that educators can stress to students is to avoid messaging that does not reflect what is being said by management. When organizations promote DEI as Creekside Tires did in its campaign, its public and private conversations must also reflect that message. The case study highlights an organization that presents diversity and the idea that “Our Family is Your Family,” but comments made among company representatives hardly support that. 

Creekside Tires was preparing commercials to target marginalized groups with visuals that show they are part of the family, but those same voices were not heard within the organization. Jai Lee was ignored and dismissed because of her age. The initial response to the social media influencer included language that was far from inclusive when the CEO demands the agency “make her stop” and tells his internal communication team they need to “find a way to muzzle” the “snot-nosed little brat.” While it is understandable that the company would be upset over the social media crisis, comments made during heated moments often reveal how management views its DEI efforts (Mikkelsen & Wåhlin, 2020). Having students experience these scenarios in a classroom setting will help them develop their skills for if they see these views or similar in their careers. Preparing students to address these types of conversations openly in an organization helps them develop as potential leaders. Having students maneuver the situation in a hypothetical setting gives them the confidence and skills to communicate the issue and challenges to management. Having classroom activities such as the one in this study gives educators the opportunity to prepare and mentor students for these situations and conversations. 

Organizational leaders must be an active part of the DEI culture in their organization, and they have more than a profit-margin rationale to do so. A successful DEI culture cannot thrive in a pure top-down environment (Thibeaux et al., 2006). In the Creekside Tires situation, inclusivity concerns from a communication staffer were ignored while the approach taken was from an order from the company’s executive. When management is not fully engaged in DEI efforts, they will inevitably fail. Managers may stay silent when they see unsupported actions as a result of being concerned about saying the wrong thing. That silence, however, provides false safety and sends the wrong message. Leaders must be willing to address DEI situations that arise in the workplace and advocate for cultural and systematic changes that advance marginalized voices. 

Finally, DEI practices must move beyond one-way communication channels. Public relations often advocates for two-way communication with stakeholders. Kent and Lane (2021) argue that two-way communication rarely produces genuine dialogue because of the difficulties of engaging with audiences; yet relying on one-way campaigns to convey an organization’s DEI efforts simply will not work. Inclusion and equity require leaders work to understand audiences which, in turn, requires asking questions and active listening. Practitioners should learn how to demonstrate empathy with stakeholders and become comfortable addressing sensitive topics. 

Educators stress engagement and interactivity in discussions about strategic communication campaign planning, and we must use this same approach when mentoring our students about DEI. Sharing our own positive and negative experiences can be a bridge to understanding how to successfully create an inclusive campaign.


As the industry struggles with moving beyond diversity to incorporate inclusivity and equity in its efforts, educators might use their own challenges with understanding and incorporating DEI into their professional lives to mentor students (Brown, 2018). We can pass along lessons that we have learned to our students so that they can build on our experiences and develop initiatives to improve the strategic communication industry’s approach to DEI.

When students graduate and enter the workforce, they will encounter situations where they may be asked to lead DEI discussions or even be expected to be the lead structural change for their organizations or the future of the profession. Providing DEI mentorship in class gives students a foundation to draw upon in future professional settings. Students who are mentored will have a long-lasting relationship with their professors and a valuable resource when they encounter difficult situations. This will provide students with the opportunity to continue to foster the mentor-mentee relationship while also keeping the educator aware of potential trends and changes in the industry.

     Additionally, having a successful mentoring experience connected to DEI while in a classroom setting encourages young professionals to step up and become successful mentors and leaders for others in their profession. Having practiced leadership and DEI challenges in the classroom gives students the confidence in their ability to start, lead, or shape the difficult discussions that often need to happen around DEI in organizations.

     Most important, however, is the fact that students emerging from successful mentoring experiences have a stronger sense of identity and feel more connected to their chosen profession. This cultivates passion and the desire to change their profession to be more inclusive. Mentoring, in essence, prepares our students to be more effective mentors and leaders for future generations.

Limitations. Every research project has limitations, and this one is not an exception. Given the size of the classes that were asked to participate, the sample size of interview participants was relatively small although saturation was reached. The saturation point may have been reached, however, because of the sensitivity of the topic. Students may not have wanted to reveal their thoughts on DEI, especially to an instructor whoheld a SMART+IE-focused activity in the classroom. Additionally, given the modern “cancel culture” some students might have not felt comfortable discussing DEI for fear of saying something that might offend. Even though the interviews were conducted after the semester’s final grades were submitted, students might have felt that saying something “wrong” might jeopardize the relationship they had with the teacher, who might be needed for job or college recommendations or might even be a colleague.

Although the interviewed students were asked about their gender identity (e.g., what gender they identified with and what pronouns they preferred), the researchers also acknowledge that students were not asked about other demographics due to administrative oversight of the project. Though generational differences did not emerge in these results, further examinations of SMART+IE objectives in public relations should also take racial/ethnic identities into consideration.

Future Research. Given the triple focus of the special issue with mentorships, leadership, and DEI, there are plenty of opportunities to build on this project and grow public relations awareness and understanding of how to cultivate a DEI culture. Spinning off of the ideas presented in this paper, research could examine the faculty-student mentoring relationships to determine what successful matches look like and what purpose they serve for both sides of the relationship. Additionally, research could be carried out either qualitatively or quantitatively to determine how students view themselves as DEI leaders both before and after working through classroom activities where difficult concepts are introduced. Students might also be asked to evaluate the impact of these classroom activities on their confidence in navigating similar challenges in the workforce. 

But, the leading topic of interest of this special issue and the industry is diversity, equity, and inclusion. Regarding education, a review of strategic communication curriculum or the entire journalism and mass communication curriculum to see how DEI is woven into coursework would be appropriate, especially if faculty are looking to develop students into leaders who are capable of changing existing organizational structures and cultures in the future. A coorientation method study would be helpful to compare and contrast the perceptions of DEI of current students with practitioners to see just how close or far apart the contemporary and future practitioners are with their views toward diversity, equity, and inclusion.

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Appendix A:  The Assignment

Learning Objectives. Overall, this assignment encourages students to think critically and inclusively about DEI in a communication campaign. It is designed for them to see the struggles, both internal to the organization and external to the organization, that might be faced when organizations try to improve their diversity without authenticity.

This activity is designed for students to meet the following learning objectives:

  • Students will acknowledge that diversity is a nuanced term that needs to be well defined.
  • Students will understand the importance of DEI as an initial and ongoing consideration for communication campaigns.
  • Students will evaluate, analyze, and incorporate SMART+IE objectives into campaign planning in ways that consider DEI concerns.
  • Students will gain practice addressing difficult situations to prepare them for holding difficult conversations with colleagues and employers regarding DEI practices. 

The Case:  A Diversity-Focused Promotional Campaign. Creekside Tires is a family-run company started by Johnny Creekside in 1945. The business began as a tire manufacturer, but branched out to include service stations, after becoming a household name. Although it is a family-run business, the company has expanded to be a multi-national powerhouse with 1,750 service stations in the United States and 575 stations internationally.  Their annual revenue is $2.6 billion.  The organization employs approximately 34,125 employees world-wide.

Creekside’s management understands the value of strategic communication and has      made sure its campaigns are initiated in and controlled by headquarters. They believe this centralized approach helps them develop consistent branding. Since 1945, the company’s tagline has been “Our Family is Your Family.” Over the years, campaigns under this tagline have had multiple touchpoints including mailers to specific zip codes, service station window wraps, and print advertisements. Mailers and advertisements always included the tagline and featured one family in different scenes. Previous storylines referenced a father working a 9-to-5 job and facing the grind of a daily commute, a mother running errands and getting their 8-year-old daughter to soccer practice, and a teenage son nervously practicing driving for the first time. By only featuring one family in their storytelling, the campaigns unintentionally used imagery of a White family alongside the tagline “Our Family is Your Family.”  

Recently, the company decided to add television advertising and social media, particularly incorporating influencers, to their strategic communication mix. To manage the communication expansion, Creekside Tires hired CorpComm, a full-service strategic communication agency to handle their campaigns. After strategy sessions, CorpComm recommended a new tagline, “Driving Forward Together,” to break from the past and demonstrate the company’s commitment to diversity, but Johnny Creekside II insisted on using the “Our Family is Your Family” tagline to reignite the brand. CorpComm felt that the existing tagline could be used in light of how alienated people have felt during and after COVID. 

In addition to the brand boost, the campaign is designed to remind consumers it would be a good time to have their tires checked to keep their family safe. As part of the campaign, CorpComm presented a key scene pitch of the commercials to Creekside employees (Appendix B). CorpComm identified key influencers and sent them a packet containing a contract offer, past campaign collateral, and suggested content and hashtags for future posts. In exchange for a predetermined payment based on the number of posts shared and the influencer’s popularity, influencers agreed to post content highlighting Creekside Tires on a mutually-agreed to schedule over the next six months. Influencers could use content prepared by CorpComm or create their own content, as long as specified hashtags were used. 

When the campaign idea was presented to employees, it was mostly received well. Jai Lee, a communication      specialist, detailed her concerns in a memo (Appendix C) which was sent to the Chief Executive Officer, Chief Information Officer, and Director of Marketing; it was also carbon copied to the CorpComm account team. Lee never received a response to their memo, but there was an email exchange between the CEO and CorpComm (Appendix D). To provide influencer partners with the opportunity to create their own content for the campaign, Creekside Tires flew them to watch the first day of filming the commercial scenes. One of their essential influencers, Serenity Cervantes, a 24-year-old micro influencer, accepted the offer and signed a contract that paid $20,000 in exchange for 10 positive posts over a six-month period and that included a nondisclosure agreement about the contract and details of the commercial shoot.  While on the set, she created a TikTok critical of the campaign by pointing out that her Latino family was not depicted in the campaign. She went after the Creekside Tires brand and their slogan by starting using the hashtag #NotMyFamily to mock the “Our Family is Your Family” tagline. Her post started a movement that spread across social media (Appendix E). 

Johnny Creekside sent emails to CorpComm and Creekside Tires’ internal communication team complaining about the influencer breaking her contract to post positive messages for the company and the non-disclosure agreement by posting behind-the-scenes footage of the commercial shoot. He demanded something be done to reverse the attacks the company was receiving online. Various members of the CorpComm account team (Appendix F) and Creekside Tires’ communication team (Appendix G) communicated over email about strategies to correct the company’s diversity problem.

The Activity.  The supporting materials end with the communication teams discussing ways to demonstrate that Creekside’s “Our Family” is diverse.  At this point, students are tasked with taking the lead in directing the Creekside Tires communication team and the CorpComm account team on where missteps occurred and make recommendations of the next steps the company should take. Students may decide to pursue the current “Our Family is Your Family” advertising concept, or they may take an entirely different approach using outreach to create community partnerships.  Students should use the SMART+IE method to devise objectives and strategies that:

  1. Help the company revise their campaign to be more genuinely inclusive 
  2. Help the company develop and maintain a culture of DEI 
  3. Help the company set DEI benchmarks for the next 3 and 5 years.

Discussion Questions. There is room for expansion in this project if there is time available in class, such as asking students to develop tactics for their strategies and a plan for implementation. After the activity is completed, the following discussion questions can assist students in reflecting on the challenges and benefits of implementing DEI in an organization and its communication campaign. 

  1. How do you define diversity, equity, and inclusion? How would you explain the differences to someone who      said those three terms mean the same thing? 
  2. In a survey by Muck Rack, 78% of public relations professionals said that race and ethnicity were the highest DEI priority while only 42% said people with disabilities were the highest DEI priority. What does diversity look like in a campaign? How would you set organizational DEI priorities considering the wide range of demographic and sociographic identifiers? 
  3. What are ways that communication campaigns can involve audiences other than showing them messaging?  How can we create opportunities for meaningful involvement with different brands?
  4. What factors should you consider when deciding to include social media influencers in a campaign?  How do you respond when they change the campaign’s narrative?
  5. How difficult was it to write SMART+IE objectives?  What made it easy/difficult to develop them?
  6. What suggestions do you have for an organizational leader to start the conversation about DEI topics? What would you suggest to create an inclusive and equitable culture in an organization?

Appendix B:  TV Pitch

Creekside Tires is a foundation of the automobile tire industry, and we at CorpComm have created the ideal campaign to remind consumers that “Our Family is Your Family.” In addition to upholding the brand messaging Creekside Tires is known for, we recommend updating the commercial approach by incorporating multiple families into various scenes to keep up with the changes in today’s culture.  Featuring different families will give different communities a reason to see that they are part of the Creekside Tires family.  We propose using the key scenes below for the commercial series. Script and voiceover dialogue will be provided at least two weeks before the commercial shoot. We are providing general descriptions of the scene so that final versions can evolve based on feedback from Creekside Tires and the chemistry between the production team, director, and actors.

Commercial Scene DescriptionDialogue and Voiceover Description
A White mother, father, teenage son, and tween daughter are packing up the minivan for a vacation. Their golden retriever eagerly runs around excited for the tripDialogue will focus on the mother worrying about the safety of going on a road trip. She is concerned about being stranded on the road. The father puts her concerns at ease by telling her he had the tires checked at Creekside Tires and got their seal of approval. “Our Family is Your Family” is shown over a close-up of the family driving away.
A Black woman is driving in an SUV. Children are in the backseat wearing seatbelts. She is driving with grocery bags visible in the back of the SUV. The dashboard tire light comes on, and she says she doesn’t have time for it. Dialogue will focus on women needing to take care of everything from feeding their children to making sure their cars are safe. A voiceover provides details on safety check services and Creekside Tires’ new service of performing safety checks at work or wherever one needs it.
An Asian man and a Black man are in a sedan as part of a carpool to work. It is the morning commute, so traffic is picking up. A second Asian man and a White man are sitting in the backseat. The White man has his eyes closed.The White man is complaining about the stop-and-go traffic and worrying that they won’t arrive at work safely. The driver lets him know that he just had the car checked out at Creekside over the weekend.
The first-scene family arrives at a beachside lot and unpacks the minivan.  After closing the hatchback, the family and dog walk toward the beach. Visual becomes a still with the Creekside Tires logo and tagline underneath.Voiceover: Remember at Creekside Tires, our family is your family. Whether in traffic or driving to vacation, we pride ourselves at making sure our family is safe on the road. Schedule your tire checkup at w-w-w dot creekside tires dot com. 

Appendix C:  Internal Memo

To:Johnny Creekside II, chief executive officerValentina Martinez, chief information officerDonnie Paige, director of marketing
From:Jai Lee, communication      specialist
CC:Creekside Tires account team at CorpComm
Re: Television Commercial

We need to revisit the television commercial series concept. I applaud the concept of including diversity in our advertisements because that’s something that we haven’t done in the past. But I’m concerned that the scene and dialogue descriptions have some potential problems.  Here are just a few problems I saw in the initial pitch:

  • The “Our Family is Your Family” tagline is only used in commercials where the White family is featured.  It’s shown at the end of the first commercial and spoken in the last commercial.  None of the other commercials include this messaging.  Does this mean BIPOC and other marginalized communities are not our family?
  • The man in the White family is the one who “knows all about cars” while the woman is overly concerned about safety. This perpetuates unhealthy stereotypes.
  • A Black woman with kids? Seriously? This is perpetuating the Black single mom stereotype. Why can’t people of color have a traditional family? Why must the men always be portrayed as absent? 
  • An Asian and Black man are driving the carpool while the White man is sitting in the backseat? I can’t even believe I have to bring this up. Let’s have the Black man cater to the White man’s every need while we are at it. The dialogue “explaining” things doesn’t “fix” this image of servitude that you are glorifying.
  • Closing scene: This references that only White families are welcome at Creekside Tire. Is this really the brand image you want for the organization?

I’m sure there’s more that could be addressed, but I was so shocked at hearing the pitch that I couldn’t process everything fast enough. Yes, we need diversity in our advertising, but we also need to be inclusive and not reinforce negative stereotypes. I’d be happy to meet with you all to discuss this in greater detail so that Creekside Tires won’t have a crisis to deal with after the commercials air.

Appendix D:  Internal Emails about Jai Lee Memo 

To: Kris Bufonte, CorpComm

From: Johnny Creekside, Creekside Tires

Subject: Memo

Date: 04/06/2022


Just ignore that memo from Jai. These young kids think they know everything about how to run a business and that those of us in management are “Boomers” who don’t know anything. I’ve been running this company for years and look where we are now. We’ll take care of Jai’s issues. 

Johnny Creekside, President

Creekside Tire
1957 Buick Drive
Fontana, WI 53125
(414) 275-5555


To:  Johnny Creekside II, Creekside Tires

From: Kris Bufonte, CorpComm

Subject:  Re: Memo

Date:  04/06/2022


Your team definitely knows business, but don’t hold anything against Jai. It’s better to hear her reactions now than wait to hear how the audience perceives them. As discussed over the phone with you before sending the entire team the scene descriptions, some of our ideas were misinterpreted based on how we described them. We need to take that into consideration.  

In scene two, we meant for the Black mother to be seen as a lesbian mother. Do we have the budget to hire another actor to play her spouse?  I hadn’t thought about it reinforcing a Black single mother stereotype. Let’s make it a lesbian couple to bring in the LGBTQ community.

If we don’t have the extra budget, we can lose the 4th coworker in the carpooling scene. I had an idea that we could make the White guy disabled. Maybe we could put him in sunglasses rather than have his eyes closed? If it’s the morning commute, the audience may think he’s sleeping.

I’ll get our team working on how to incorporate the “Our Family is Your Family” tagline into all of the commercials and not just those featuring the vacationing family.

Kris Bufonte, Account Director

1993 Water Street
Milwaukee, WI 53202
(414) 555-8445


To: Kris Bufonte, CorpComm

From: Johnny Creekside, Creekside Tires

Subject: Re: Memo

Date: 04/06/2022


Good points about the memo. Let’s try to keep the budget down and replace the fourth coworker with a second lesbian. The blind guy can even use my sunglasses instead of sleeping in the backseat. Oh, maybe instead of an Asian man, we hire someone who resembles Jai. If we get an older White guy to play the blind guy, we can show we’re not ageist.

Johnny Creekside, President

Creekside Tire
1957 Buick Drive
Fontana, WI 53125
(414) 275-5555

Appendix E:  Initial TikTok Post made by Serenity on the set of Commercial Shoot and examples of various social media posts made in response to her #NotMyFamily hashtag

Appendix F:  Internal Emails about Serenity Cervantes’ TikTok Post

To: Kris Bufonte, CorpComm

From: Johnny Creekside, Creekside Tires

Subject: TikTok

Date: 05/16/2022


Why is this 24-year-old influencer saying such horrible things about us on TikTok? We paid for her trip to watch the commercials being filmed. We put her up in the nicest hotel. She signed a contract, and the nondisclosure agreement! This is how she thanks us? Reach out to her and make her stop and take down all that she has posted so far. 

I’m also going to reach out to our communication team and get them to think of ways to fix this so it doesn’t ruin everything we’ve invested in the “Our Family” message over the years.


Johnny Creekside, President

Creekside Tire
1957 Buick Drive
Fontana, WI 53125
(414) 275-5555


To:  Johnny Creekside II, Creekside Tires

From: Kris Bufonte, CorpComm

Subject:  Re: Memo

Date:  05/16/2022


We’ll reach out to Serenity to let her know this is a breach of contract and her nondisclosure agreement. Hopefully, she’ll pull the post down voluntarily, but it may be too late. I see #NotMyFamily is trending on Twitter, and our team found the hashtag being used on Instagram too.

We can reshoot the commercials to make them more inclusive if you’ve got the budget for it.

Kris Bufonte, Account Director

1993 Water Street
Milwaukee, WI 53202
(414) 555-8445

Appendix G:  Internal Emails about Serenity Cervantes’ TikTok

To: Creekside Tire Communication

From:  Johnny Creekside, Creekside Tires

Subject: Fix the Commercial!

Date: 05/18/2022

As you already know, that snot-nosed little brat is trying to destroy my family business. We have to figure out how to put a stop to #NotMyFamily. We’re going to have to reshoot the commercials. Figure out how to design different scenes so that they make everyone happy, especially Serenity Cervantes. We have to find a way to muzzle her. We are not a racist company that excludes Latinos. Our CIO is a Latina for crying out loud. Do something to make this right!


Johnny Creekside, President

Creekside Tire
1957 Buick Drive
Fontana, WI 53125
(414) 275-5555


To: Johnny Creekside, Creekside Tire Communication     

From: Donnie Paige

Subject: Re: Fix the Commercial!

Date: 05/18/2022

Ok team! Let’s start with trying to fix the commercial. We need something that SINGS diversity and showcases the Creekside “Our Family” beliefs. Anyone have any suggestions?

Donnie Paige
Director or Marketing

Creekside Tire
1957 Buick Drive
Fontana, WI 53125
(414) 275-5562


To: Donnie Paige, Creekside Tire Communication     

From: Jenny de la Bloque

Subject: Re: Fix the Commercial!

Date: 05/18/2022

From what I can tell, Serenity’s big issue is that there’s no Latino representation in the commercial. If we add a Latino/Latina somewhere, does this whole problem go away? We could make one of the coworkers Latino, or maybe add a Latina to the commercial with the mother and kids. We could make it a lesbian couple, or if we’re not ready to cross that barrier we could have a Latina mother in the family commercials. What do you think?

Jenny de la Bloque
Social Media Manager

Creekside Tire
1957 Buick Drive
Fontana, WI 53125
(414) 275-5563


To: Jenny de la Bloque, Creekside Tire Communications

From: Todd Hunter

Subject: Re: Fix the Commercial!

Date: 05/18/2022

Okay, before we go too far, we know Johnny’s not going for hiring any more actors for the reshoot. We have the one person we can move around depending on which scene they’re in.      We don’t need 4 employees in the carpool spot. We can move that 4th person into the Black mom scene. Let’s recommend hiring a Latina to be her partner and do the LGBT thing.

Todd Hunter

Public Relations Specialist

Creekside Tire
1957 Buick Drive
Fontana, WI 53125
(414) 275-5565


To: Todd Hunter, Creekside Tire Communication     

From:  Jai Lee

Subject: Re: Fix the Commercial!

Date: 05/18/2022

I like the idea about including the LGBTQIA+ community (not just LGBT!), but how would we know that a Black and Latina woman sitting in an SUV with kids are lesbians? They could just be single mothers or best friends on the way back from the grocery store. And before anyone else says it, we are not putting them in flannel shirts.

Jai Lee
Communication Specialist

Creekside Tire
1957 Buick Drive
Fontana, WI 53125
(414) 275-5567


To: Jai Lee, Creekside Tire Communication     

From: Franklin Conner

Subject: Re: Fix the Commercial!

Date: 05/18/2022

Jai, could we just have a rainbow flag sticker visible on the SUV? That way we’re not shouting out that they’re lesbians, but people who see the sticker and know what it means will get it. 

We don’t have anyone over the age of 60 in any of the advertisements. I’ve been working here for nearly 30 years and not one single advertisement has ever included that age. They’re all centered around middle-aged families.  

Franklin Conner

Legislative Liaison

Creekside Tire
1957 Buick Drive
Fontana, WI 53125
(414) 275-5569


To: Franklin Conner, Creekside Tire Communication     

From: Donnie Paige

Subject: Re: Fix the Commercial!

Date: 05/18/2022

Alright, let me try to recap our suggested changes:

Scene 1:  Mother, Father, teenager, tween, dog

Scene 2:  Black and Latina lesbian couple with kids with rainbow flag on SUV

Scene 3:  3 co-workers but not with the White man driving

Scene 4:  Scene 1 family again

Donnie Paige
Director or Marketing

Creekside Tire
1957 Buick Drive
Fontana, WI 53125
(414) 275-5562


To: Donnie Paige, Creekside Tire Communication     

From: Jai Lee

Subject: Re: Fix the Commercial!

Date: 05/18/2022


Could we have the White man driving the carpool so that a member of the BIPOC community doesn’t appear to be working for the White man? #PresentationMatters

Jai Lee
Communication Specialist

Creekside Tire
1957 Buick Drive
Fontana, WI 53125
(414) 275-5567


To: Jai Lee, Creekside Tire Communication     

From: Johnny Creekside, Creekside Tires

Subject: Re: Fix the Commercial!

Date: 05/18/2022

Hey team,

Remember that the guy in the backseat of the carpool commercial is supposed to be blind. He can’t drive. Things look pretty good otherwise with the suggestions. We’ll talk about them with CorpComm during a Zoom call tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. I want everyone there so we get this fixed! If you have other ideas, please share them tonight via email or Creekside Slack channel.


Johnny Creekside, President

Creekside Tire
1957 Buick Drive
Fontana, WI 53125
(414) 275-5555

© Copyright 2023 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Waters, R.D. and Farwell, T.M. (2023). Shaping
tomorrow’s industry leaders by incorporating inclusivity into campaign planning
curriculum: Student reactions to the SMART+IE mindset in strategic communication
 Journal of Public Relations Education, 8(4),
91-197.  https://journalofpreducation.com/2023/02/24/shaping-tomorrows-industry-leaders-by-incorporating-inclusivity-into-campaign-planning-curriculum-student-reactions-to-the-smartie-mindset-in-strategic-communication-efforts/

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Literature Review

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

Public Relations Campaigns Course

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

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

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

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

Fostering Experiential Groupwork 

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

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

The Art of Distance Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Research Questions

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

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

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

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

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


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

Participant Recruitment

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

Survey Design

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

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

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

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

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

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

Participant Demographics and Experiences

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

Table 1

Participant Demographics

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

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


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

Course Adjustments

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

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

Table 2

Time to Convert

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

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

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

RQ1: Specific Challenges Faced by Professors

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

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

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

Table 3

Adjusted Course Components

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

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

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

Table 4

Challenges in the Course

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

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

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

Table 5

Content-Related Issues

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

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

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

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

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

RQ2: Specific Student Group Challenges

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

Table 6

Group-Based Issues

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

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

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

RQ3: Adjusting Client Relationships

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

Table 7

Client Relationships

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

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

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

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

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

RQ4: Positive Curricular Changes

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

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

Table 8

Positive Outcomes for Future Use

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

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

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

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

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


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

Access to Resources and the Technological Gap

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

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

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

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

Moving Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

Limitations and Directions for Future Research

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

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

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

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


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