Tag Archives: public relations curriculum

Public Relations Curriculum: A Systematic Examination of Curricular Offerings in Social Media, Digital Media, and Analytics in Accredited Programs

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted June 6, 2020. Revisions submitted October 30, 2020. Manuscript accepted for publication December 19, 2020. First published online September 2021.


Regina Luttrell, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Public Relations & Social Media
Syracuse University
Syracuse, NY
Email: rmluttre@syr.edu

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

Christopher McCollough, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Jacksonville State University
Jacksonville, AL
Email: mccollough_christopher@columbusstate.edu

Jiyoung Lee, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Journalism & Creative Media
The University of Alabama
Tuscaloosa, AL
Email: jlee284@ua.edu


As public relations (PR) students prepare for life in the professional world, the educational experiences inside of the college classroom should reflect transformations within the profession. To that end, this study included a systematic analysis of all domestic Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC) and Certification in Education for Public Relations (CEPR) accredited graduate and undergraduate PR programs to understand how social media, digital media, and analytics courses have been incorporated into PR program curricula. The data was collected over the summer months of 2019 and the fall semester of 2019. The results included 94 schools that offer PR as a major. This comprehensive study was meant to provide a thorough examination of the current state of curricular offerings related to emerging technologies.

Keywords: public relations curriculum, social media curriculum, analytics, digital media, public relations education

Introduction and Purpose of this Study

As the lines between public relations (PR), advertising, and marketing continue to blur, further advances in data, analytics, digital media, and artificial intelligence (AI) lend an even greater influence on where the industry is heading. Platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and mediums like podcasts, have promoted new forms of participation for users by allowing them to generate messages as a creator and take collective actions, which relate to interactional empowerment (Shirky, 2011). To meet these industry demands, educators within higher education have developed digital and social media-related courses particularly for students majoring in PR (Ewing et al., 2018); however, the degree to which PR education is responding to shifts within digital spaces remains understudied.

This research, conducted over the summer months of 2019 and fall academic semester of 2019, carried out content analysis of all domestic Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC) and Certification in Education for Public Relations (CEPR) accredited graduate and undergraduate PR programs to understand how and where social media, digital media, and analytics courses have been incorporated into the PR curricula (Appendix A-C). Through manual coding, quantitative and qualitative analyses, this research provides a comprehensive look at the state of social and emerging media course offerings within accredited PR programs. Findings reveal gaps and opportunities that exist in social and emerging media education, and to what extent, the proliferation of these areas of study was being taught within the 21st Century PR curriculum in the United States. This research provides a snapshot of the classes offered and their course descriptions at ACEJMC and CEPR universities in the U.S during a specified time.

On the heels of the development of digital media tools including social media, educators seem to recognize the importance of adopting digital and social media. In Auxier’s (2020) study of 39 educators, when asked how important teaching their students content related to social media and tools associated with social media, 77.5% of them responded “very important” or “important,” with only 17.5% responded only ‘slightly to moderately important.’ Research has shown that teaching new media tools bring multiple benefits to students, including increased interactions with educators and peers, convenience of learning (Chugh & Ruhi, 2018), and developing their technical skills further (Larrondo Ureta & Peña Fernández, 2017), which can be useful in professional fields afterwards. They discovered that students who learned multimedia and social media tools developed not only teamwork or skills to interact with audiences but also technical skills including search engine optimization skills.

Despite these recent findings on the importance of teaching social media-related tools, the degree to which PR education is responding to these shifts within higher education remains unclear.

Review of the Literature: Evolution of Digital in Public Relations

Scholars offer some perspective on the importance of digital technology to PR over the course of the past decade, and how it relates to principles of best practice. Macnamara (2010) initially found support for the idea that practitioners were effectively exploiting social media for interactive, two-way communication by maintaining dialogic models of PR (Kent & Taylor, 2002), the Excellence Theory of PR (Grunig & Grunig, 1992), and Gini Dietrich’s PESO model (2014). Further, Moreno et al. (2015) investigated the relationship between practitioners’ personal and professional use of social media. Results show that practitioners with a high level of personal usage of social media give more importance to social media channels, influence of social media on internal and external stakeholders and relevance of key gatekeepers and stakeholders along with a better self-estimation of competencies.

Over the past decade, scholars examined this relationship through a variety of PR contexts, including corporate social responsibility (Cho et al., 2017), crisis communication (Romenti et al., 2014), nonprofit communication and fundraising (Carboni & Maxwell, 2015), government and political communication (DePaula & Dincelli, 2018), stakeholder dialogue (Elving & May Postma, 2017), cultivating credibility (Kim & Brown, 2015), relationship cultivation (Pang et al., 2018), strategic public identification and engagement (Watkins, 2017), and social presence (Men et al., 2018).

Sommerfeldt and Yang (2018) summarized the twenty-year body of study on digital communication in PR as “an indispensable part of public relations practice. It is clear from the state of research and practice in public relations that the question is no longer if, but how to best use digital communication technologies to build relationships with publics” (p. 60). The emphasis on social and digital media in terms of two-way communication is not new. A meta- analysis of the 20-year body of research on communication in social and digital media used in PR, of the 79 studies identified as relevant, 83% were concentrated on content analysis, 75% discussed practical applications, and only 25% presented theoretical implications (Wirtz & Zimbres, 2018). Examining big data on digital spaces has been found as a crucial strategy for researchers to explore dialogic communication, as Sommerfeldt and Yang (2018) identified the next opportunities for research in big data, where analytics have opened the door for new research opportunities in the discipline and to better understand the impact of this approach to social and digital media in PR. 

However, the growth of social media use in practice has yet to be successfully integrated into the PR curriculum. Auger and Cho (2016) conducted a comprehensive analysis of PR curricula and concluded that the current PR course offerings were not only meeting industry needs, but also providing foundational knowledge in ethics, law, research, and globalization in course content. Unfortunately, educators fell short on social and new media, which students articulated.

The gap of integrating social and digital media into PR education is a critical need to be addressed, partly because of emerging challenges that social and digital media pose to communication practitioners. The long-standing problems of fake news (Nelson & Taneja, 2018), bots (Woolley & Howard, 2016), and racial tensions on social media with brands (Novak & Richmond, 2019) are all areas in which PR educators are needing to address in the classroom. In a digital media ecology, scholars and practitioners need to prevent the amplification of these problems in those being trained to enter the industry. This makes having students understand and address the issues using what they have learned from classes a stated priority in ACEJMC and CEPR standards. Therefore, it is important for educators to develop students’ understanding of challenging issues in a digital media environment.

Current Status of Public Relations Curriculum

Scholars, educators, and practitioners set out to identify courses and competencies essential to graduates entering the modern workplace. According to the Commission on Public Relations Omnibus Survey findings (Commission on Public Relations Education [CPRE], 2018), educators reported that current required courses linked to technology were graphic design and social media, followed by courses that involve video production, digital media, and visual communication. Educators and practitioners both cited technology-based topics such as social media, analytics, web coding, and graphic design as important competencies for the workplace. Also noted was the importance of data literacy to modern practice for graduates. They need to not only know how to find available data but also to be able to pull out valuable information from it in order to make smarter decisions. 

The integration of digital technology is evident in the entry-level positions. Brunner et al. (2018) found that writing remains a priority for employers, but a healthy emphasis on social media writing (47%) and blogs (27%) were present in the postings. Social media was a clear priority for employers, with a general mention of social media aptitude (32%), or references to specific platforms like Facebook (14%), Twitter (12%), LinkedIn (7%), YouTube (7%), Instagram (2%), and Pinterest (2%). The authors’ findings suggest the importance of integrating social and digital media into production and writing courses in the PR curriculum. With some perspective on the growing emphasis on digital in PR work, the authors focus on a more effective definition for the digital PR curricula.

Research highlights the importance of teaching emerging communication platforms to students in PR degree programs, as technology does not ‘stand still’ (CPRE, 2018). Digital tools are changing the way we communicate and the way we understand current issues, so that the need for understanding technologies should be at the forefront in PR education. Duhé (2015) argues three pillars of PR education in the future: (a) fast-forward thinking, (b) interdisciplinary learning, and (c) analytical prowess. Of these, analytical prowess particularly refers to data gathering and analysis, which requires students to find, summarize and present information in an effective manner (Duhé, 2015). However, a disconnection between educators and practitioners in PR in terms of what should be developed further in the academic curriculum of PR programs persists. 

In addressing the issue that faces PR education, Wright and Flynn (2017) provide two reasons behind the disconnection between PR practitioners and educators: PR programs are mostly subsets of other disciplines (e.g., journalism, mass communication, business, etc.), and interaction between educators and practitioners on curriculum development is rare. Such limitations in current PR programs relate to the lack of developing technology-based courses that connect PR curriculum to recent trends in technology. To follow the current trends of media, courses not related to technology should also include activities connecting technology trends (CPRE, 2018). 

Previous Research Regarding Digital PR Curriculum

The literature illustrates that scholars are considering the impact of digital technology on the traditional teaching and learning of PR, as well as effective professional preparation of students in the classroom by consulting with industry professionals. Neill and Schauster (2015) made use of in-depth interviews with executives in advertising and PR agencies in the United States to identify the core competencies needed to have successful careers in the new media landscape. The findings indicated that while writing and presentation skills remain essential, employers identified math and data analysis commonly associated with social media listening and analytics as critical for new employees.

Indeed, digital technologies are now seen as the norm for PR practitioners, as supported by Wolf and Archer’s (2018) research, which illustrates that the dialogic qualities of digital and social tools do not only support traditional PR capabilities but have become an essential part of it. Related, Fang et al. (2019) note that the continuing technological development of the advertising and PR (PR) industry and increasing transfer of marketing expenditures from traditional channels to emerging digital media have placed a heavy burden on advertising and PR education to train aspiring practitioners for strategic use of these technologies. Through a content analysis of 99 universities with advertising and PR programs, Fang et al. (2019) found that nearly a quarter of advertising and PR courses taught digital media, placing a greater emphasis on skills courses. 

To specifically understand how educators were integrating social and digital media analytics into PR courses, Ewing et al. (2018) examined pedagogical practices documented on students’ learning outcomes on course syllabi and Twitter chats between educators and industry professionals. Their findings suggest that developing concepts and skills, measuring results, contextualizing data, and learning how to use tools to engage in social listening were priorities in practice. Furthermore, some integration of industry-standard measurement platforms was needed. In 28% of the courses studied integrated social media platforms for course communication and activities as well as professional certifications programs.

Focusing more on social media education, other scholars interviewed 20 industry professionals to seek industry insights on the topics that should be covered in PR courses including social media, as well as what roles educators need to serve in these courses (Freberg & Kim, 2018). Industry professionals identified multi-platform content creation, marketing and PR principles, writing, analytics, and crisis communication. Importantly, the roles highlighted by industry professionals were liaisons between the academy and industry, experienced content builders, and role-models and mentors. Overall, these findings, which evaluated how social and digital media were reflected in PR-focused disciplines, altogether suggest that a gap between industry expectations and the academic courses should be mended.

In addition to examining professional skill-building, other scholars tested the effectiveness of social and digital media integration in PR classroom activities that reinforce theory and principles of practice. Fraustino et al. (2015) discovered that integrating case study discussions could create conditions for an experiential learning process, which allowed students to exchange theories and concepts with other peers. While another study was extended to examine teleworking and cross-institutional conditions (Madden et al., 2016).

However, integrating digital media presents challenges, although it is considered an essential adaptation in the teaching and learning of PR. Novakovich et al. (2017) found that introducing professional social media skills into the curriculum provoked a significant amount of resistance on the part of learners. Students lack a sense of agency on social networks and required guidance when articulating modes of online authenticity. The scholars also found an alarming gap between students’ everyday practices on social networks and professional practice. Research documents that other factors should be considered such as perceived usefulness, ease of use in platforms, or desirability to use platforms, to encourage students for their continued use of digital media for learning (Dalvi-Esfahani et al., 2020). With a discussion of studies exploring the digital PR curricula, in general, the focus shifts to digital PR as a required course in the curriculum.

Social Media, Digital Media, and Analytics as a Required Course in PR Curriculum

Grounded by the uses and gratifications theory (Katz & Blumler, 1974), college students frequently use digital and social media for diverse purposes, including interacting with friends or family or entertainment (Ezumah, 2013). Although students today are considered ‘digital natives,’ those born after the 1980s and exposed to these digital technologies at a very early stage of their lives (Prensky, 2001), more courses about digital media should be developed, as self-assessed digital skill does not always indicate that students have much expertise in digital media used in the professional world (Kumar et al., 2019). For example, a multigroup analysis demonstrated a clear pattern of differences in effect exists between digital natives and digital immigrants (individuals born before the 1980s), or before the existence of digital technology (Prensky, 2001) with respect to the sequential belief updating mechanism with regard to adoption and use of digital tools (Kesharwani, 2020). While the results are relatively stable over time, digital natives desire instructor guidance to build their familiarity with new technology. This improved pedagogy would further enhance their compatibility with the system being used by PR practitioners, as frequently, digital media are used for getting to know audiences and building relationships in a community through social media encourage meaningful and critical discussions (Moody, 2010). By learning how to use social media effectively, students can become active participants in conversations (Quinn-Allan, 2010). Students can understand the role of digital media platforms in connecting a community, and how they can use the medium to facilitate conversations with audiences, which are essential skills of communication professionals.

Additionally, incorporating social media into PR programs can enhance students’ abilities to produce and share information efficiently (Locker & Kienzler, 2013), which is related to data literacy or “knowing how to identify, collect, organize, analyze, summarize, and prioritize data,” and “how to develop hypotheses, identify problems, interpret the data, and determine, plan, implement, and monitor courses of action” (Mandinach & Gummer, 2013, p. 30). Given its importance, Ridsdale et al. (2015) offer several tips for data literacy education, including teaching the benefits of using data, relating workshops with practical experiences, module- and project-based learning that has real-world applicability, and using real-world data that can spur students’ interests. Relating digital PR courses to the real-world can make students prepare to be a communication expert. This educational approach should go beyond allowing students to become familiar with using technologies. 

On the basis of the stated literature, the researchers posed the following research questions:

RQ1: Where are social media, digital media, and analytics taught in accredited PR programs?

RQ2: How are social media, digital media, and analytics being taught in accredited PR programs?


The research team used a systematic approach to investigate where in the PR curricula social media, analytics, and digital media courses were being incorporated into undergraduate and graduate programs across domestically located ACEJMC and CEPR accredited schools (Appendix A). This research was not meant to compare courses offered at ACEJMC accredited universities to those offered at CEPR accredited schools; rather, it provides a descriptive compilation of curricular offerings. Using predetermined categories, the research team collected data from fully accredited ACEJMC and fully accredited CEPR universities. A comparable approach to the quantitative research that Langan et al. (2019) conducted was applied wherein they investigated AACSB accredited programs within marketing curricula to understand how digital marketing courses were incorporated into domestic marketing programs.

The entirety of the data collected represents programs that offer either bachelor’s or graduate degrees in PR, advertising, strategic communication, integrated marketing communication (IMC) and journalism. Of the institutions contributing to the dataset, a subset (n=94) of accredited institutions was examined; of which 74 held ACEJMC accreditation (Appendix B), 69 CEPR accreditation (Appendix C), and 52 holding both ACEJMC/CEPR accreditations (Appendix A). Figure 1 highlights this breakdown of program accreditations. 

Figure 1

Number of ACEJMC and CEPR Accredited Schools Total

Additionally, of the 94 institutions of interest, each school was more closely examined for degree availability, with programs offering both a bachelor’s and graduate degree in PR being of most interest. Figure 2 highlights eight ACEJMC, 12 CEPR, and a combined 27 ACEJMC/CEPR accredited programs offering a bachelor’s degree in PR, while Figure 3 indicates that there are four ACEJMC, two CEPR, and a combined 17 ACEJMC/CEPR accredited programs offering graduate PR programs.

Figure 2

Accredited Programs Offering Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Public Relations

Data Collection Procedure and Compilation

Qualitative and quantitative research methodologies were used to gather data to address the research questions. During the summer and fall of 2019, members of the research team collected and compiled data from 94 accredited colleges and universities. To ensure the accuracy of the data, specific research criteria were defined, guiding researchers with identifying the desired inputs for the broader dataset. The authors created a subset of the master list of relevant institutions and divided the list equally among members of the research team for the initial data collection, with each subset of data then undergoing a cross-validation from a different researcher for further validation.

Due to the inherent variability of the data of interest between institutions, intercoder reliability is important to ensure interpretation of latent content is consistent between coders. Common discrepancies between researchers and datasets tended to relate to the course naming conventions used by institutions and the associated coding, prompting additional discussions and exploration to determine if the course did, in fact, meet the defined research criteria. As the discrepancies were resolved, a refined search and documentation procedure was developed, allowing the larger list of remaining institutions of interest to be divided among researchers and investigated as part of the final dataset.

Table 1

Available Areas of Specialization Within Accredited Public Relations Programs of Study

To examine data, a thorough content analysis of course descriptions was conducted, which is discussed in detail below.

Data Criterion

Leveraging a thorough review of the literature, the researchers understand how social media, digital media, and analytics have been incorporated into current PR curricula, which informs our data collection and analysis. The research team visited university and college websites pulling information from course catalogs to collect data based on the following variables:

Public Relations Major: We define PR major as any institution that offers a bachelor’s or graduate degree in PR and that follows the accreditation standards for either ACEJMC or CEPR guidelines.

Required Courses: We recorded the names, course numbers, and descriptions of courses dedicated to curricula on social media, analytics, or digital media as requirements to graduate with a PR degree.

Elective Courses: The researchers recorded the names, course numbers, and descriptions of courses on social media, analytics, or digital media as electives offered within PR programs.

Tracks: The researchers recorded the number of institutions that offer a track in social media, analytics, and digital media.

Certificates: The researchers recorded the number of institutions that offer a university accredited certification specializing in social media, analytics, and digital media. Certifications offered through third party organizations such as Hootsuite or Google were not included in this analysis.

Social media courses: The researchers adopted a broad definition of social media as our criterion when analyzing course content as there are multiple definitions available (McIntyre, 2014; Otieno & Matoke, 2014). To that end, social media “are web-based services that allow individuals, communities, and organizations to collaborate, connect, interact, and build community by enabling them to create, co-create, modify, share, and engage with user-generated content that is easily accessible” (McCay-Peet & Quan- Haase, 2017, p. 17). Based on this definition, social media in our analyses includes diverse platforms that feature two-way interactions, such as YouTube, podcasts, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Digital media courses: Courses that provide an infrastructure and tools used to produce and distribute content via digital channels were defined as digital media (Howard & Parks, 2012).

Content Analysis Method

Using the course descriptions collected, the research team performed content analysis (Berelson, 1952) of the presence of key curricular areas present in the available course descriptions (N=154) to assess what content is delivered as well as how the content is delivered. The researchers adopted content analysis because it offers an objective, systematic manifestation of the content of communication, enabling the research team to explore what is actively present in the courses analyzed within accredited PR programs by facilitating a rich, complex body of data. Krippendorf (1980) maintains that content analysis offers technical sophistication and scientific rigor.


Based on content analysis, data collected from the aforementioned 94 institutions of interest, having obtained either ACEJMC, CEPR, or both accreditations for their undergraduate and graduate PR programs, a closer examination was completed to understand how social media, analytics, and digital media courses have been incorporated into the PR program curricula. Of the 94 identified schools, 50% (n = 47) offer a bachelor’s degree, 24.5% (n = 23) offer a graduate degree and 17% (n = 16) offer a minor in PR. Of these institutions, we found that only 30 programs (31.9%) require students to take a course specifically related to social media, digital media, or analytics to fulfill either their undergraduate or graduate degree requirements. The remaining 68.1% (n = 64) of institutions did not require a social media, digital media, or analytics course within their PR curricula. Further, 15 of the identified institutions (15.9%) provided an option for students to take at least one social media, digital media, or analytics course as an elective within the curriculum. Of these same schools offering electives, only one program (6%) required a course within these domains, as well as offered an additional elective(s). Stated differently, only about one in three institutions possessing either ACEJMC, CEPR, or both accreditations require a social/digital media or analytics course within their core PR curriculum.

We recognize that programs offering undergraduate, graduate or minors in PR may also provide additional course offerings that are available to students with an interest beyond PR. This study specifically examined PR curricula. As noted earlier, at these 94 institutions of interest, social media, digital media, and analytics may also be available as either a certificate, track, or concentration.

Course Description Analysis

The content analysis of the 154 course descriptions found on university websites through their respective course catalogs demonstrates some intuitive understanding of the progression of the discipline to an integration of strategic communication sub-discipline, and the necessity for integration of technical and strategic aptitude with social media and digital media within the context of theory and principles of best practice. Figure 3 demonstrates a word cloud which is a visual representation of keyword frequency and relevance based on text data (Appendix D) from the course descriptions (Dubinko et al., 2006). The larger and bolder the word appears, the more often it is mentioned within a given text and the more important it is.

Figure 3

Word Cloud Containing Course Titles of the ACEJMC and CEPR Accredited Schools Examine

Implied Presence of Public Relations Models

In reviewing the content in the course descriptions, the integration of core principles of best practice associated with PR models and social media, digital media, and data analytics emerged. Research to maximize the impact of emerging technology saw 20 total references across the body of course descriptions. The strongest concentration of discussion centered around the strategic application of primary and secondary research aimed at understanding targeted digital audiences, as well as the problems and needs of clients, with 12 references across the course descriptions. While research saw a strong presence in the course descriptions, goal and objective setting for social media and digital media was largely absent from the conversation. Terms such as social media, viral campaign, and spreadable media strategy was mentioned 13 times among the course descriptions. Evaluation using data measurement and analysis had a healthy presence in the course description, though not as strong as others in the group associated with PR campaign modeling. As a larger grouping, evaluation was discussed 19 times. Looking at the focus of discussion of evaluation within the course descriptions, 15 focused on the relationship between evaluation and assessment and determining campaign outcomes.

Technician Work Over Managerial Mindset within Digital Media

In reviewing the course descriptions there is heavy emphasis on technical work, with minimal discussion of managerial focus across the social media courses available at accredited programs. An anticipated result is the abundant presence of a myriad social and digital media production skill set references (73) in course descriptions. Included among these references are content creation for social media and multimedia platforms (12), Web design (10), social media practice (9), graphic design (8), digital storytelling (7), search engine optimization including Google certification (5), mobile application design (5), music and audio engineering (5), video production (4), still photography (3), mobile communication (2), online interactive advertisement production (1), computing coding (1), and the use of drones for recording purposes (1). In addition to social media production skills, the researchers found a strong emphasis on writing within the social media course descriptions. Writing for media, news writing, and PR writing were referenced in 10 instances in the course descriptions. Specifically, relevant to strategic social media, audience engagement and interactivity is mentioned in 10 course descriptions. Associated with engagement and interactivity, audience or consumer behavior is discussed in three course descriptions, and user experience is mentioned in two course descriptions. There is clearly an emphasis on skill-building to accommodate one-stop shop work in social and emerging media. 

Contemporary and Traditional Conduits for Strategic Communication

There is a strong presence of social and digital media platforms among the course descriptions analyzed. Social media platforms are mentioned in 26 different course descriptions, whether by specific platform or in general. Strategic use of blogs is referenced in three specific course descriptions. Podcasting is referenced in two total courses, and really simple syndication (RSS) feeds are referenced in two course descriptions. AI and virtual reality, emerging platforms in PR and affiliated strategic communication sub fields, are referenced in one course description.

Strategic application of social and digital media platforms is present in 25 total courses. Discussion of strategic use of digital media, social media, new media, transmedia, and multimedia tactics are referenced in 10 total courses. Results revealed that the PESO model (Dietrich, 2014) is becoming a standard element within courses on social and digital media, reflecting its growth as a core component of PR industry practice. Macro-strategic applications of integrated, converged, and multimedia are mentioned in eight total courses. Consideration of the impact of emergent technologies in the discipline are present in 10 total course descriptions. The impact of emerging technology on strategic campaign design and development are present in five total courses. Additionally, the philosophical discussion of technological evolution, dynamism, and innovation is present in five total courses.

Data Analytics, Interpretation, and Visualization

Among the more dominant concepts in the analysis is an emphasis on the value of data analytics, data analysis, leveraging findings to maximum strategic effect, and articulating those findings in a meaningful way to strategic publics, clients, and organizational leadership. Analysis and interpretation are the strongest areas of emphasis, referenced in 32 total course descriptions. Specific concepts of discussion include analysis of data analytics in 16 courses, measurement and analysis of social media in 13 courses, data manipulation and interpretation in two courses, and keyword competitive analysis in one course.

The relationship between analytics and big data was discussed across 25 courses. In addition to the discussion of data analytics in 14 courses mentioned above, specific emphasis on social media analytics is present in 10 courses. Data insights, visualization, and presentation were also present in the review of course descriptions in 23 courses. Data visualization is present in 10 courses; data presentation is present in six courses; social listening, data insights, and Return on Investment are mentioned in one course apiece.

Certificates, Tracks or Concentrations

At the 94 educational institutions examined, social media, analytics, or digital media may also be available as either a university awarded certificate, track, or concentration. The analysis indicates that most schools with PR programs offer certificates (n = 24, 25.5%), concentrations (n = 10, 10.6%), or tracks (n = 13, 13.8%) in social media, analytics, or digital media.

Sociocultural and Professional Impact

Within the analysis of course descriptions, there is a strong presence of the intersection of media, culture, and society. Sociocultural considerations of the impact of emerging social and digital technologies are present in 24 course descriptions. Discussion about various forms of impact on social contexts are discussed in 17 course descriptions. Discussion of intercultural and global influence on strategic social media campaigns are present in three course descriptions.

Discussion of the sociological dimensions of online culture, network communication, online shaming, and the impact of social and digital media on celebrity culture are present in one course description each.

The impact of social media on the news industry, news consumption, and public information is a point of emphasis in 25 course descriptions. Discussion of the democratization of media content creation and co-created content is present in three course descriptions. A discussion of citizens’ diverse media diet and media consumption practices are present in four courses. Finally, the emergence of fake news and disinformation on social media has also begun to emerge in the social media curriculum, as three courses reference discussion and exploration of information credibility and defining truth.

Discussion about the impact and influence of technology and media are present in 25 course descriptions. Media effects research and discussion of the consequences associated with social media use are present in nine course descriptions. The impact of technology on the PR profession is present in eight course descriptions. Finally, the economic and financial impact of social media and emerging technology are discussed in eight course descriptions. Affiliated with the discussion of the influence of technology is a discussion of media history and past impact of emerging technology on society and communication practices, which is present in six course descriptions.


The overarching goal for the study was to examine and understand where and how social media, digital media, and analytics were being taught in accredited PR programs as well as how these areas were being taught in accredited PR programs, given the growing importance of these fields to employers. The quantitative and qualitative analysis provides some encouraging details about the philosophical focus and emphasis of curriculum development associated with emerging technology and practices. There is a clear alignment of social and digital media courses to traditional models of best practice in strategic PR. That said, the current presence of only 30 programs among the 94 accredited degree programs examined demonstrates that while social and emerging media are present, improvement is essential to satisfy the need expressed by employers in the discipline. Our findings are aligned with the latest report out of the Institute for Public Relations. Their October 2020 Career Path of a Social Media Professional reported that of the 400 respondents, 80% had not taken a course in social media because none was offered at their university (DiStaso & McCordindale, 2020). Our research highlights that social and emerging media are woven throughout curricula; however, universities must be more proactive in developing specific courses, as well as considering complete majors or minors in these areas.

The emphasis on research, strategy and tactics, and evaluation in particular demonstrates a commitment, albeit incomplete, to going beyond technical training in the technology to helping aspiring professionals see how to integrate emerging technology into professional practice.

While limited in emphasis, it is clear that objective setting is also present in the current instruction on applying emerging technologies to the discipline. These findings certainly align with Sommerfeldt and Yang’s (2018) call for the discipline to go beyond looking at whether social and digital media are used in PR to an exploration of how it is applied strategically.

The authors are encouraged by the emphasis on establishing the value of quality writing within social and digital media used in strategic settings among the growing body of course offerings and programs available. This is in keeping with past literature that reinforces employers’ value of quality writing among aspiring professionals (Neill & Schauster, 2015), but the data also illustrates a concerted effort by educators to address the needs established by prospective employers in past literature.

Also encouraging is the emphasis on exploring the impact of these new technologies and practices on existing models of practice, sociocultural norms, and political communication  practice and engagement. Further, a clear discussion of the impact of these emerging media on public opinion, behavior, and how we interact in society are present in the course descriptions provided. An area of potential expansion may be putting further emphasis on the legal and ethical considerations and implications in the curriculum. While the authors acknowledge that these may be present in standing ethics and law courses, the latest Commission on Public Relations Education report (2018) calls for integration of ethical discussion in a central course as well as within individual courses. 

The authors also note the prevalence of emerging trends within the course descriptions that align with existing literature on the need for knowledge of data literacy and management (Ridsdale et al., 2015). Clearly, educators are putting emerging technology and applications at the forefront of their courses, which will require consistent examination and updates for the perpetual evolution of practices and integration into instruction. There is also a heavy emphasis on big data, analytics, interpretation of data, and data visualization. It is clear in the course descriptions that educators are making a clear effort to articulate the value of these new elements to strategic practices within the existing models of best practice. It is also clear that this emphasis will require effort on the part of educators to help instruct aspiring professionals on the importance of effective data management and processing for analysis, which does get some limited attention in the course descriptions. A better articulation of data management and analysis will better align with existing literature emphasizing the importance of data literacy (Mandinach & Gummer, 2013).

An element of concern is the balance of focus on emerging trends and practices being articulated purely from a technician’s role in the course descriptions. While the authors acknowledge that it is important for aspiring professionals to understand how to use technology and tools professionally (Kumar & Nanda, 2020), there needs to be an effort to ensure that aspiring professionals sustain a manager’s mindset and role when integrating these emerging tools and technologies in practice (Grunig & Grunig, 1992). While the authors acknowledge that it may be present in other areas of the curriculum, there is an incomplete articulation of a managerial perspective in the courses offered, or the descriptions.

Further, an area of growth and consideration for schools of communication would be to move beyond certificates, tracks, and concentrations. There is an opportunity for programs to create social media or emerging media majors, particularly within undergraduate curriculum. As the literature review revealed, the profession needs students who  are astute in emerging media technologies (Fang et al., 2019; Brunner et al., 2018; Elving & May Postma, 2017).


The authors note that there are certainly limitations within the qualitative aspects of this study worth acknowledging. One limitation is that we are only examining accredited PR programs of study, leaving the larger body of communication, mass communication, and their subfields yet to explore. This clearly merits a broader examination of the body of social media, data analytics, and digital media courses available across the discipline. The potential integration of this curriculum in advertising, integrated strategic communication, digital journalism, or communication with PR coursework is not lost on the researchers, and merits extension of this study to explore the other avenues identified. The authors also question that while the curriculum is integrated in disciplinary and technological focus, why key themes associated with disciplinary or technological integration are not coming through more consistently in the course descriptions at the class level.

This study focuses on the course descriptions available, which may not always reflect the depth of content offered in a course.  To overcome this limitation, future analysis should strive to examine course syllabi to get a more specific picture of the depth and focus of content beyond the themes articulated in course descriptions.

Future Research

Thinking beyond limitations, the authors also note some clear areas of examination that represent the next steps for study to develop a richer body of understanding about teaching and learning in PR education. Speaking to the discipline’s ability to meet the needs of the industry (Brunner et al., 2018), the authors note that further examination of current practices within the industry to better identify what areas of need further emphasis, addition, or revision in the content to better reflect needs. Integrating the perspective of employers, industry veterans, and entry-level professionals on essential skills, principles of best practice, and philosophical and ethical considerations will better help educators to develop, offer, and assess graduates’ proficiency in knowledge of skills, principles of practice, and theory that best meet the needs of the discipline and allow us to answer the call for better industry integration in the classroom (Krishna et al., 2020).

The authors also acknowledge the need for additional research on the integration of PR principles and managerial perspectives in PR in social and emerging media courses. The authors note that these elements are likely present in other courses throughout the curriculum. That said, the authors note the value of integrating managerial perspectives and principles of best practices to facilitate scaffolding of concepts in social and emerging media courses that ultimately facilitate stronger integration of practice in upper level and capstone courses of study.

The benefits of increased research surrounding PR curriculum are multitiered: to enhance the way students are learning; to augment traditional methods of teaching; and to advance the use of social media, analytics, and digital media technology beyond personal use to make connections to the classroom and the profession. Furthermore, as a greater number of universities adopt curriculums that incorporate these areas of study, the needs of Generation Z as learners will be more closely met. It is important to continue research within this field, particularly as it relates to educating students who are entering the PR and communications field because, as educators, we want the next generation of PR professionals to be better trained when they enter today’s technology driven workforce.


Ultimately, this research provides an initial picture of the current programs and courses related to social media, digital media, and analytics available among accredited PR programs. It is evident, based on the findings, that these areas of study represent a core component to ACEJMC and CEPR accredited universities. That educators are working to meet the needs of the industry through skills and research-based course offerings are unmistakable. We believe over the next few years that more universities will require additional courses in these areas, as well as, data, machine learning, natural language processing, network analysis, and AI, to ensure graduates are prepared to work in a social media and data driven environment. The important conclusions found within this research introduce new data highlighting a multitude of relevant benefits to incorporating emerging media within a PR curriculum.


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Appendix A

Schools both ACEJMC and CEPR accredited during study duration (2019).

Appendix B

Schools ACEJMC accredited during study duration (2019).

Appendix C

Schools CEPR accredited during study duration (2019).

Appendix D

Word / phase count frequency and relevance analysis of course descriptions.

© Copyright 2021 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Luttrell, R., Wallace, A.A., McCollough, C., & Lee, J. (2021). Public relations curriculum: A systematic examination of curricular offerings in social media, digital media, and analytics in accredited programs. Journal of Public Relations Education, 7(2), 1-43. https://aejmc.us/jpre/2021/09/01/public-relations-curriculum-a-systematic-examination-of-curricular-offerings-in-social-media-digital-media-and-analytics-in-accredited-programs/

Developing a New Generation of Public Relations Leaders: Best Practices of Public Relations Undergraduate Programs

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted to JPRE August 30, 2017. Revision went under review August 10, 2018. Manuscript accepted for publication October 1, 2018. Final edits completed January 20, 2019. First published online January 31, 2019.


Michele E. Ewing, Kent State University
David L. Remund, Drake University

Lauren Dargay, Kent State University (picture not available)


This qualitative study explored best practices for leadership development within U.S. accredited and/or certified undergraduate public relations programs. Researchers conducted a qualitative content analysis of website content regarding leadership development for 110 undergraduate programs offering a public relations major, which are accredited by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC) and/or hold Certification in Education for Public Relations (CEPR) by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). The second phase of the study involved semi-structured interviews (n = 19) with program directors and educators identified through website analysis as having the most information about fostering leadership development; additional programs were included in the sample, based on interviewees’ recommendations. The results suggested four components for undergraduate public relations programs to help develop the next generation of leaders.

Keywords: public relations, leadership, leadership development, public relations education, public relations curriculum

The authors thank The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations for grant funding to support this research.

Developing a New Generation of Public Relations Leaders: Best Practices of Public Relations Undergraduate Programs

Scholars have already established that leadership is essential to effective public relations practice (Berger & Meng, 2010; Meng, Berger, Gower, & Heyman, 2012). Subsequently, the Commission on Public Relations Education (2015) advocated for better integration of leadership development in public relations education. Further, this need to develop future communication leaders was conveyed in the largest global study of public relations leadership to date (Berger & Meng, 2014).

How to best go about developing the public relations leaders of tomorrow, however, remains a difficult question to answer. Researchers have looked at the degree to which educators integrate leadership development within existing public relations courses (Erzikova & Berger, 2012); how perceptions of leadership differ between college students and established practitioners (Meng, 2013); and even the specific competencies that aspiring public relations leaders need (Jin, 2010). A study among U.S. students, young professionals, and senior professionals supported the need for undergraduate curricula to include courses with leadership/management principles (Remund & Ewing, 2015). Further, this study indicates that young people in public relations want to step into leadership responsibilities to gradually acclimate to the demands.

This qualitative study builds upon existing scholarly knowledge while filling a gap. The study was designed to identify and analyze best practices for leadership development within undergraduate public relations programs in the United States.


Leadership development has gained traction as an issue in public relations practice and as a focus for scholarly research. The Plank Center for Leadership’s global study emphasized the need for leadership development to be better integrated in educational curricula (Berger & Meng, 2014). However, while researchers have acknowledged the growing importance of developing leaders within the public relations profession, the scholarly examination of best practices for leadership development is comparatively thin, particularly as it relates to how such practices actually come to life in undergraduate education.

To better emphasize leadership development and improve public relations curriculum, Berger and Meng (2010) recommended educators must first determine how leadership is taught in undergraduate courses and to what extent it is taught and incorporated into existing courses. They need to pinpoint where the gaps in education exist, and find effective ways to teach leadership to students. This study begins to help answer these important questions.

Leadership in Public Relations

Prior studies have explored how public relations roles are defined, how the communication function is structured within corporations and other organizations, and the competencies and cognitive qualities that communication leaders must possess in order to be effective (Algren & Eichhorn, 2006; Berger, 2005, 2009; DeSanto & Moss 2004; Dozier & Broom, 2006; Lee & Evatt, 2005). Additionally, J. Choi and Y. Choi (2009) identified seven dimensions of public relations leadership. They determined that leadership in public relations includes “upward influence, coordinating, internal monitoring, networking, representing, providing vision, and acting as a change agent” (p. 292). These aspects indicate that leadership in public relations is multidimensional and involves a variety of skills (Choi & Choi, 2009).

Still, the concept of leadership is difficult to define (Gaddis & Foster, 2015). A variety of attributes are involved in leading and leadership roles, and some individuals may consider certain aspects of leadership to be more important or valuable than others. Additionally, previous research suggests that public relations professionals consider leadership in their field to be different from leadership in other fields (Berger & Meng, 2010). Therefore, Berger and Meng (2010) developed a definition of leadership in public relations as “a dynamic process that encompasses a complex mix of individual skills and personal attributes, values, and behaviors that consistently produce ethical and effective communication practice” (Berger & Meng, 2010, p. 427; see also Meng et al., 2012, p. 24). This definition takes into account that leadership is an ever-evolving process that consists of skills, characteristics, values, and actions. Berger (2012) asked participants in his study to rank 12 leadership-development approaches according to importance. The highest-rated leadership-development approach was “strengthen change management capabilities,” followed by “improve the listening skills of professionals” and “enhance conflict management skills” (Berger, 2012, p. 18).

The Need for Expertise in Leadership

In public relations, good leadership has the potential to strengthen the entire field and to increase organizational effectiveness (Petersone & Erzikova, 2016). Additionally, good leadership benefits both organizations and employees. Meng (2014) found that “organizational culture generates a direct, positive effect on the achievement of excellent leadership in public relations. More importantly, excellent leadership in public relations also influences organizational culture by reshaping it in a favorable way to support public relations efforts in the organization” (p. 363). Developing communication leaders who can navigate issues and respond effectively is critical, as organizations become more dynamic and change rapidly (Meng, 2015).

Gender may play an important role. Women have dominated the public relations field during the past two decades and female enrollment in many undergraduate public relations programs has exceeded 80% (Daughtery, 2014). However, some scholars argued that feminization of the public relations field has resulted in lower pay (Aldoory & Toth, 2002; Grunig, Toth, & Hon, 2001), less power (O’Neil, 2003) and slower advancement to leadership (Grunig et. al, 2001). In turn, a 2012 study indicated that manager role enactment and participation in management decision-making were among the factors contributing to the pay inequity between male and female public relations professionals (Dozier, Sha, & Shen, 2013).

Gender poses unique challenges at work, making leadership development particularly vital for women. It is essential that public relations students, young professionals, and experienced practitioners be trained in leadership skills and informed about best practices to develop strong leadership. A nationwide study involving interviews with senior public relations practitioners, recent graduates, and students nationwide showed young professionals and students want to be mentored and have actual leadership responsibilities, need to take risks without the fear of failure, and know that hard work is important (Remund & Ewing, 2015). This interest in leadership among young public relations professionals and students, as well as the need to focus on leadership development, provides an opportunity to break down barriers for future female leaders.

Although the demand for strong leaders in public relations is high, leadership training is inconsistent. Berger (2015) concluded that “a lack of leadership development programs,” and “incredibly high expectations for future leaders in the field” exist (p. 50). Consequently, teaching and mentoring students and professionals how to be good leaders is essential in helping them succeed in the field. The literature documents limited leadership-specific development and training for students and professionals, but not much is being done to address this problem. Based on the Plank Center for Leadership’s study among public relations professionals in 10 countries, Berger (2015) concluded that there is no sense of urgency to address the need for leadership development programs within companies or schools. Meng (2015) noted, “Although the profession has advocated for leveraging the roles of public relations to a managerial and strategic level, the actual effort in building up the pipeline of future leaders in the profession is delayed” (p. 31).

Best Practices for Developing a New Generation of Leaders

While the literature has conveyed the need for leadership expertise in public relations, limited research focused on best practices for developing the next generation of public relations leaders has been conducted. Earlier research suggests that university programs need to focus specifically on leadership skills. Bronstein and Fitzpatrick (2015) stated, “To truly groom a generation of leaders for the future will require intentional leadership training” (p. 77). Some scholars argue that leadership training should occur both in and outside of the classroom. Shin, Heath, and Lee (2011) explain that contact with professionals and professional organizations will prepare students to become public relations leaders. A study conducted by Erzikova and Berger (2012) indicates that PR educators advocated “a holistic approach to teaching that includes more specialized leadership content, greater access to PR leaders and role models, and increased opportunities for related experiences outside of the classroom” (p. 3).

Integrating leadership development into curriculum. Some scholars contend that students learn about leadership as they progress through the program (Berger, 2015). However, many scholars believe students need more leadership-specific training and education. Bronstein and Fitzpatrick (2015) argued that undergraduate public relations programs do not focus enough on leadership. “In higher education, there is a remarkable scarcity in designing, integrating, and delivering leadership in public relations teaching and education” (Meng, 2015, p. 31), which has a negative impact on future generations of leaders. The lack of curricular integration of leadership development slows the development of future public relations leaders (Meng, 2015). Even when leadership development is integrated, concerns linger about how to teach it. Several researchers argue the curriculum requires a better balance of abstract concepts and real-world experience (Benjamin & O’Reilly, 2011). These authors noted, “Our challenge is to ensure that our curricula not only provide abstract concepts and frameworks but are also grounded in the real problems that our students will have to navigate” (Benjamin & O’Reilly, 2011, p. 468). Leadership is an abstract concept that requires contextualization and application to take meaningful root with students.

Scholars have made recommendations for how to integrate leadership development into curriculum in public relations programs. After comparing public relations students’ and professionals’ perceptions of leadership skills, leadership in public relations, and leadership development, Meng (2013) suggested six ways to incorporate the findings of her study into education: use the findings as a training checklist to discuss how to apply leadership principles in real-world situations; as an assessment tool administered before or after a public relations course; as the basis for a research project or a role play assignment involving strategic planning, an ethics scenario, or a crisis; and as a platform for discussions about issues in leadership or as assessment metrics to help students monitor and revise their ideas about leadership through internships or group projects.

Bronstein and Fitzpatrick (2015) argued formal leadership training in the curriculum would prepare students to become thought leaders, corporate leaders, and team leaders. They determined that students need a “leadership mindset, or a purposefully cultivated understanding of oneself as capable of exercising leadership in daily contexts” (Bronstein & Fitzpatrick, 2015, p. 78). Cooley, Walton, and Conrad (2014) explained that students need more exposure to leadership theory in their courses. They concluded, “PR professors do an adequate job of teaching students good management skills, but, generally speaking, the PR curricula needs more focus on theoretical understanding, development, and application” (Cooley et al., 2014, p. 444). Educators advocated that case studies, group discussions, and student-led projects are the most effective approaches to teach leadership content and concepts (Erzikova & Berger, 2012).

One challenge to integrating leadership development into the curriculum, though, is that schools focus on skills needed in first jobs rather than leadership skills (Bronstein & Fitzpatrick, 2015). According to Cooley et al. (2014), students must be prepared for their first jobs; consequently, skills training should take precedence. Practical skills and knowledge are necessary for students to be hired, so more focus is placed on those rather than on leadership skills. Further, a lack of leadership training and teaching experience among educators may create obstacles for leadership education (Erzikova & Berger, 2012).

As the literature review reveals, existing research on public relations education generally suggests that not enough is being done to address leadership development within undergraduate education, and there are mixed recommendations about how to hone leadership among public relations students. To that end, the first research question is:

RQ1: What are U.S. undergraduate public relations programs doing in the realm of leadership development?

Developing leadership skills outside of the classroom. Students can develop leadership skills through means other than coursework. Aside from more specialized leadership content in classes, educators say that more access to public relations leaders, mentors, and role models, as well as more opportunities for experiences outside of the classroom, will improve leadership development (Erzikova & Berger, 2012). Benjamin and O’Reilly (2011) determined that leadership should be taught through building procedural and declarative knowledge in a course, as well as through hands-on opportunities in which students can apply that knowledge. Mentorships and interactivity between students and professionals can also be beneficial in leadership development. Contact between students and professional public relations associations may help better prepare future leaders, as well as educate them on how leadership is viewed around the world (Shin et al., 2011). Finally, leadership skills can be developed and improved through extracurricular activities and involvement outside of the classroom. Haber, Allen, Facca, and Shankman (2012) found that individuals involved in student organizations self-reported higher emotionally intelligent leadership behaviors than students who were not involved, which suggests that the more involved an individual is in student organizations, the more that individual will practice emotionally intelligent leadership behaviors.

These prior studies make a consistent argument that leadership development should stretch beyond classroom instruction. With that position in mind, the second research question is:

RQ2: What are the recommendations among educators from U.S. undergraduate public relations programs for developing the next generation of industry leaders?


The study began with a qualitative content analysis of website content regarding leadership development for all 110 undergraduate programs offering a public relations major (Appendix A) that are accredited by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC), hold Certification in Education for Public Relations (CEPR) by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), or have both distinctions. This decision was based on the premise that these programs meet similar national standards. A second phase of the study included interviews with a sample of program leaders and/or educators to further explore leadership development best practices inside and outside of the classroom for public relations majors. The sample for the interviews was drawn from the full list of 110 programs and determined based on an analysis of these programs’ websites, as well as using a snowball sampling method (Stacks, 2016).

As part of the qualitative content analysis, the researchers conducted thematic analysis of website content for 110 U.S. programs offering an undergraduate public relations major to identify the extent to which leadership development is being addressed. This process, common in qualitative research, involved determining the essential information to know about each program and developing a guide to identifying, recording, and ultimately comparing such information (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002). Based upon the literature review, the researchers determined essential information for recruitment purposes, including whether the program’s website mentions leadership development in the undergraduate PR program description; mentions leadership in any of the PR course descriptions; offers a specific course on PR leadership/management, and whether that course is optional or required for PR students; whether the program has a PRSSA chapter; and whether leadership development is mentioned as a focus of that PRSSA chapter.

A thorough qualitative content analysis generally involves more than one researcher reviewing an entire data set and looking at each dimension in question, then drawing thematic conclusions based upon that comprehensive investigation (Boyatzis, 1998; Braun & Clarke, 2006; Guba & Lincoln, 1989). The researchers worked independently at first, with each person reviewing all of the programs’ websites and recording notes for each program, specific to the dimensions of essential information outlined above. The researchers subsequently compiled all of their notes into a cohesive spreadsheet for comparison, resolving or discarding any areas of substantive disagreement.

The qualitative analysis of website content helped form the essential foundation of knowledge from which an interview guide was developed. To choose programs for the interview phase, the researchers identified the programs that conveyed the most information about leadership development on their websites. As a whole, 18 U.S. programs were identified that explicitly emphasized leadership development in their curricular descriptions online; two of these programs were eliminated from the interview phase to minimize potential author bias in the study. An additional program was included in the interview process based on recommendations of primary interviewees; this purposive snowball process helped ensure a rich set of interviews. As Table 1 shows, the 19 interview subjects represented 17 U.S. universities, representing both public and private institutions, as well as those with large and small enrollments.

The second phase of the study involved semi-structured interviews (n = 19) with directors of the programs having the most robust information about leadership development on their websites, based on the qualitative content analysis of website content for all undergraduate public relations programs across the United States. An interview guide (Appendix B), based on literature findings and the website content analysis, ensured consistency in topics being discussed with participants.

Table 1

Table 1 Interview Subjects’ Experience (years)
University* Professional Teaching
Ball State University 19 6
Boston University** 14 14
Brigham Young University 15 22
Drake University 6 10
Illinois State University 16 13
Loyola University 3 28
Louisiana State University 25 26
Ohio Northern University 5 9
Ohio Northern University 8 16
Penn State University 10+ 9
San Diego State University 21 10
Syracuse University 7 21
Temple University 12 14
University of Florida 7 19
University of Florida 4 4
University of Georgia 15 15
University of Maryland 8 34
University of Oklahoma 23 16
Virginia Commonwealth University 5 5

*University of Alabama and Kent State University were excluded to minimize bias in the study.
**The inclusion of Boston University was recommended by interview participants.

Notably, the interview subjects possessed extensive experience in the professional industry and the classroom, as well as with managing academic programs. Participants, on average, had 14 years of teaching experience (range = 4 to 34 years), with seven years as PR sequence director (range = 1 to 30 years). In addition, participants had, on average, 11 years of professional experience (range = 3 to 25 years), largely in agency or corporate settings. Some also had worked in health care, government, military, and other sectors.

All 19 phone interviews were recorded and fully transcribed, representing 10 hours of interviews. The researchers used open coding when reviewing transcripts to identify major themes (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). They initially worked independently and then worked collaboratively to refine their examples that illustrate the major themes.


The study identified best practices for developing the next generation of leaders, including leadership training, curriculum revision, and more experiential learning opportunities.

Defining Leadership

When asked to define what leadership is today in PR, participants most often said leadership means having a vision of how to help move an organization or industry forward, thinking strategically and providing counsel. One respondent said, “Leadership means making decisions for our company and really being able to influence the strategy for different organizations.” Another respondent said: “It’s about defining a vision and setting an example.” One respondent noted:

It means to have a clear vision about the role of public relations as a strategic function of management; to take the responsibility of this important advising role; to be on top of your game in terms of time management, supporting your team, working as a team leader, and accomplishing your tasks according to the expectations of your supervisors.

The participants considered leadership to involve motivating staff members and helping them grow, especially by providing a professional and ethical example of what it means to lead.

Finally, participants talked about leadership in terms of simply managing a team or project and collaborating to get the necessary work accomplished. A respondent explained:

Leadership falls into the traditional realm of leadership in terms of managing employees, managing people. But I think in public relations it takes on a slightly other track as well, and that would be taking leadership on particular projects with multiple audiences simultaneously.

Developing Leadership Skills

Consistent with Berger’s (2012) findings, program leaders agreed that students and practitioners must develop change management, listening, and conflict management skills. Overall, the interviewees agreed with these findings and most often discussed change management. They noted that it is fundamental for both students and practitioners to understand and manage change because the world is transforming at such a fast pace; change is inevitable. As one respondent said: “PR people can be a catalyst for change. They’re the only ones—and I teach this—PR people are the only ones who are prepared or trained to be environmental scanners both internally and externally to an organization.” Another respondent said:

We will continue facing transformations of audiences, issues, and realities, especially socioeconomic and political reality. So definitely knowing how to understand and approach change, it will be fundamental…Change is going to also bring conflict, and we see those conflicts playing out right now in the political realm.

Some interview participants raised the point that change management, listening, and conflict management skills are related because listening helps manage change, and effective change-management skills will help minimize and resolve conflicts. One respondent explained:

To communicate with our various stakeholders in public relations, you have to listen. That is the way by which we get feedback, which then enables us to go back and modify, reinforce, or even keep things the way they are.

Best Practices for Cultivating Leadership

The results suggested four components for undergraduate public relations programs to help develop the next generation of leaders: train faculty about leadership, infuse leadership principles in every class, encourage students to pursue leadership opportunities, and provide accessible leadership opportunities through PRSSA, a student agency and experiential learning.

Train faculty about leadership. Interviewees emphasized the value of focusing faculty training and professional development on leadership. The more that faculty are familiar with leadership concepts, the more likely they seem to be able to intentionally integrate leadership development into courses. One respondent explained:

We need to get outside of our comfort zone…discover what are our leadership styles. What are our unconscious biases? We have to learn those things ourselves…because we can’t expect our students to do things that we ourselves haven’t attempted to do, learn, or understand.

Another respondent advocated a need for training:

I don’t think we’re doing a good job of teaching leadership. I’m sure there maybe are faculty who have either had more professional experience to complement their graduate work or who have more of a business-academic background…they have more development in leadership…. I’ve never had any leadership training formally.

Interview participants also recommended talking to faculty and exploring other undergraduate public relations programs to obtain ideas for leadership development. The educators suggested sharing leadership-related assignments, assessment methods, and coaching and mentoring activities for PRSSA and student agencies. Finally, participants recommended reading recent research on leadership and looking critically at faculty experience in leadership.

Infuse leadership principles into every class. Less than half of the programs offer a class specifically in public relations leadership or management. Indeed, based on both the analysis of website content and interviews, most of the programs included in the interview process cannot or do not offer specialized classes in leadership, which is consistent with Berger’s (2015) conclusions. When it comes to leadership development, the message from interview participants was loud and clear: Infuse these concepts in every class and get the core curriculum right because adding specialized classes in leadership isn’t easy or even necessarily more effective. Of the 110 universities included in the website analysis process, fewer than half of the programs offer a public relations management and/or leadership class, but all make a concerted effort to address leadership in the core public relations courses, particularly writing, case studies, research methods, and campaigns/capstone. One respondent explained, “We start in the classroom because that’s where we can have, I think, the greatest and most immediate impact on teaching leadership skills.” The best advice for administrators and educators is simply to build from the foundation they have in place. Nearly all suggested infusing leadership development within existing classes, rather than creating standalone courses focused on leadership. Part of the reason is simply because of accreditation and the associated credit-hour constraints.

They use service learning and/or group projects as teaching methods but provide coaching on leadership first. One respondent noted:

One easy way (to teach about leadership) is the group assignments we have in all of our classes at all the levels so that students learn how to work together. And, we often—not always, it sort of depends on the assignment—will ask the students to pay attention to their group dynamics so that we can discuss how it is that certain things happen in their groups, including leadership emergence, but especially group dynamics.

On the leadership development front, the programs have students conduct personality self-assessments, assign case studies for reading and discussion, and require students to interview and write about industry leaders. Some programs also provide PR-specific labs for certain required courses so that students can apply their talents and grow in a controlled, focused environment.   

Based on interviews, the assigned literature for leadership development heavily incorporates books, articles, and online resources, which describe an argument on the most important habits and skills an effective leader needs to possess, as well as personal growth. These pieces are written by journalists, business professionals, government officials, and scholars who have vast leadership experience or connections and stories to tell about others who exhibited good leadership skills. These books also give students tips on how to polish their communication skills. Other required books focused on the principles and theories of public relations, or professors encouraged students to stay current through news and business publications. These texts were often used in conjunction with another. Recurring authors included Heath Brothers, Jim Collins, Charles Duhigg, Peter Northouse, Tom Rath, and Peter Smudde.

Some educators used resources from the Institute of Public Relations, Page Center, Plank Center, and PRSA to facilitate leadership discussions. Multicultural case studies were often mentioned as reading materials for students to learn about diversity and inclusion within the public relations practice. These case studies were compiled from texts, professional trade journals, online resources, and the PRSA Silver Anvil competition.

Help students overcome fear of failure. Educators discussed the importance of coaching students to step up to take on leadership opportunities without fear of failure, which aligns with prior research (Remund & Ewing, 2015) indicating senior public relations practitioners supported the value of young practitioners and students taking risks and learning from mistakes. Experience builds confidence and leadership. One respondent said: “Help students stand up and have a voice and to take risks and occasionally fail. This generation hasn’t really been allowed to do that. It’s a much different student than even 10 years ago.” Another respondent further explained:

We don’t spend time developing them [students] as humans and a lot of times we push that off to the Career Center, which I don’t think is as capable as we are at developing them and getting them to apply those concepts back to the work they’ll be doing in the disciplines.

The educators interviewed for this study considered their vibrant PRSSA chapters as essential to grooming young leaders, which is consistent with Haber et al.’s (2012) findings. A respondent said, “Giving students the opportunity to operate in that environment where the stakes are a little bit higher than a grade and they can exercise leadership… that’s a huge part of the way forward.” Another respondent noted, “We also provide students with plenty of opportunities I will say nowadays to engage with the practice, both here at the college and in internships, and also in professional conferences and activities.”

The respondents also emphasized how rich their curricula are with group projects and service-learning opportunities, exemplified by capstone campaign courses that involve working with real clients on complex issues. One respondent noted: “Here are teachable moments about leadership, especially when things don’t go well, especially with a service-learning client.” Another respondent agreed, “Service learning is always really helpful. Many of our classes work with real clients. It helps students develop a sense of initiative. Any kind of real-world experience is helpful because it creates opportunities to require students to lead.”

Likewise, respondents mentioned that their student agencies are a tremendous incubator for fostering leadership, especially when the firm is guided by a faculty member with strong professional experience. One respondent noted:

The agency fosters the opportunity for students to grow into leaders…For example, [the agency was helpful for] one student who is smart and capable but lacked confidence in herself. It was great to watch that she started to believe in herself and see the growth.

Finally, the participants expressed that their internship programs are exceptional in terms of longevity and scope, often involving corporations, agencies, and other partners in out-of-state markets, including some of the biggest cities in the United States.

Assessing student growth in soft skills remains a challenge. Leadership is an abstract concept and is often not explicit in term of learning outcomes. To that end, many participants discussed challenges with evaluation and assessment. Most suggested incorporating peer reviews, conducting interviews with students, and/or assigning reflections, either as an individual writing project or group discussion. Several participants reiterated the importance of quality grading by instructors. Some participants discussed the use of exit interviews with senior students about their proficiency in a number of topics, including leadership. One respondent shared:

We have a series of questions that we personally answer about the students…we look at their resume and their portfolio, not only are we looking at what kind of experiences they have but one of the questions directly asks about what leadership experiences they had while they were in school. It doesn’t necessarily ask them to judge them or for us to qualify them, but at least we look to see where they have had leadership positions at any point in their college career, not just within the PR-related organizations.


 The first research question for this study centered on what U.S. undergraduate programs are doing in the area of leadership development. All of the programs participating in the interviews emphasize leadership in their core public relations classes, namely writing, case studies, research methods, and campaigns/capstone. Philosophically, this finding suggests that leadership development is more than simply traits or skills, but rather competencies that must be honed over time and through various experiences. That sense of acquired adaptability is also consistent with the notion of change management as an essential leadership skill needed in the future, according to Berger (2012). On the other hand, a specific course in leadership would undoubtedly offer significantly greater opportunities for students to learn about the various models of leadership, which models apply best to their individual personalities and strengths, and how to determine which method of leadership would work best in a given situation. That kind of comprehension and application certainly could not be possible in the context of a core course such as writing or research methods.

The second research question centered around recommendations that educators would offer for developing the next generation of leaders. Educators and program directors emphasized the importance of recruiting faculty with leadership experience and/or providing training opportunities for faculty to learn more about leadership development. Educators need to be informed about and comfortable with leadership so they can guide students to become effective leaders. One respondent noted, “The best bet is to infuse it (leadership principles), but unless… the faculty member has some expertise in it, they don’t usually teach it.” Participants suggested that faculty infuse leadership in every class and encourage students to participate in PRSSA and/or a student agency, as a de facto learning lab for leadership development. Educators felt it important that leadership be covered in all core courses and that students seek extracurricular ways to put leadership concepts into action. This notion of experiential learning is certainly consistent with the model of U.S. undergraduate public relations education. However, the onus is put squarely on the student to figure out what being a leader really entails, in an applied circumstance such as the PRSSA chapter or student agency. Faculty supervision, if any, would be minimal, and even less so would be in-the-moment coaching from a faculty advisor. Educators emphasized the importance of presenting leadership opportunities for students and encouraging students to lead inside and outside the classroom. One respondent said:

We really emphasize with students that you need to be on top of your game. You need to develop your own voice. You need to be self-directed. You need to be self-driven. You need to seek opportunities and take advantage of opportunities.

Ultimately, one is left to question just how consistently students can learn about leadership, given the time constraints of core courses and the freedom of a student-run PRSSA chapter or agency. Indeed, participants nearly unanimously agreed that assessment and evaluation are difficult at best when it comes to teaching leadership development. These findings underscore prior findings that suggest leadership development is lacking in public relations education and that greater training in leadership is crucial (Bronstein & Fitzpatrick, 2015; Meng, 2015).

This qualitative study sheds important light on the fact that greater leadership development is sorely needed in public relations. One respondent advocated this need:

We have to teach them how to be good managers of people; how to give feedback; how to understand how non-verbal communication might translate; how to be sensitive; and how to be good listeners. All those real basic things…but they’re not so basic. We (educators) just haven’t done a good job in our public relations curriculum. And as much as we want to say: “Oh, that’s what the business school teaches; we cannot wait and rely on business schools.”

Another respondent noted: “I’m glad you all are doing this study …. I’ve done a little bit of digging around and maybe there are some new courses, but I don’t think we’re doing a good job of teaching leadership.”

Though there are no silver bullets or straightforward solutions, one thing is clear from these findings: programs find a common strength in building upon their core courses and their primary extracurricular programs, such as PRSSA and student-run agencies. Adding specialized classes and additional experiences may not be necessary or even desirable; the most directly applicable learning may come in the most familiar of places: the classroom and the PRSSA chapter or client meeting. This study reinforced the need for leadership development to support the success of public relations graduates and public relations. One respondent noted:

Leadership in PR—in spite of the Plank Center and a few academics—is underserved and hasn’t been developed as much…we need to develop the field more, and we’ll graduate better students able to take leadership roles in the field. If we can help create talent, you know, leadership talent and people who can think for themselves, we’ll do the field a great service.


Qualitative research is appropriate to employ when exploring areas of inquiry that have not been studied to a substantial extent yet. To that end, this mixed-methods study employs qualitative research in an appropriate way, yielding new insights that had not previously been discovered through other means of scholarly research. However, findings from qualitative research cannot be generalized to a broader universe, and, therefore, their meaning holds true only within the context of the studied population. That depth of insight, both rich and substantive, speaks strictly to the subjects under analysis; a statistically sound quantitative study would be necessary to extrapolate these findings. In that spirit, a forced-response survey of a representative sample of all U.S. program directors would yield generalizable findings.

Still, learning and leadership development are organic and dynamic processes; the perspectives of the varied participants in this study affirm that fact. Quantitative research would yield generalizable data, yet such findings would simply serve as an underpinning and framework. Program directors and educators at all ranks would benefit, as well, from further qualitative and mixed-methods research, particularly related to pedagogical methods and student outcomes. Digging deep is what public relations educators need from future leadership development research – and it is what their students deserve in order to thrive in an increasingly complex world.


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Appendix A: ACEJMC-Accredited and/or CEPR-Certified Programs Included in Website Audit

Name of Institution Name of the College/School Housing PR Program
Abilene Christian University Journalism and Mass Communication Department
American University School of Communication and Journalism
Arkansas State University Department of Communication
Auburn University School of Communication and Journalism
Ball State University Department of Journalism
Baylor University Journalism, Public Relations and New Media
Bowling Green StateDepartment of Journalism and Public Relations
Brigham Young University School of Communications
Buffalo State University Communication Department
California State University, Chico Department of Journalism and Public Relations
California State University, Fullerton College of Communications
California State University, Long Beach Department of Journalism and Mass Communication
California State University, Northridge Mike Curb College or Arts, Media, and Communication
Central Michigan University College of Communication and Fine Arts
Drake University School of Journalism and Mass Communication
Eastern Illinois University Department of Journalism
Eastern Kentucky University College of Business and Technology
Elon University School of Communications
Ferris State University College of Business
Florida A&M University Division of Journalism
Florida International University Journalism and Mass Communication
Grambling State University Department of Mass Communication
Hampton University Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications
Hofstra University Department of Journalism, Media Studies and Public Relations
Howard University School of Communications
Illinois State University School of Communication
Indiana University, Bloomington The Media School
Iona College Department of Mass Communication
Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication
Jacksonville State University Department of Communication
Kansas State University AQ Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications
Kent State University School of Journalism and Mass Communication
Lee University Communication Arts
Louisiana State University Manship School of Mass Communication
Loyola University, New Orleans School of Mass Communication
Marquette University Diederich College of Communication
Marshall University W. Page Pitt School of Journalism and Mass Communications
Middle Tennessee State University College of Media and Entertainment
Monmouth University Department of Communication
Murray State University Journalism and Mass Communication
Nicholls State University Department of Mass Communication
Norfolk State University Department of Mass Communications and Journalism
North Carolina A and T State University Journalism and Mass Communication
Ohio Northern University Communication and Media Studies
Ohio University E.W. Scripps School of Journalism
Oklahoma State University School of Media and Strategic Communications
Penn State College of Communications
Radford University College of Humanities and Behavioral Sciences
Rowan University College of Communication and Creative Arts
San Diego State University School of Journalism & Media Studies
San Jose State University Journalism and Mass Communications Department
Savannah State University Department of Journalism and Mass Communications
Seton Hall University College of Communication and the Arts
Shippensburg University Department of Communication/Journalism
South Dakota State University Journalism and Mass Communication
Southeast Missouri State University Department of Mass Media
Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville Department of Mass Communications
Southern University Department of Mass Communication
St. Cloud State University Communication Studies
Syracuse University Newhouse School of Public Communications
Temple University School of Media and Communication
Texas Christian University Bob Schieffer College of Communication
Texas State University School of Journalism and Mass Communication
Union University Communication Arts Department
University of Cincinnati College of Arts and Sciences
University of Alabama College of Communication and Information Sciences
University of Alabama, Birmingham Department of Communication Studies
University of Alaska Department of Journalism and Communication. Note: Strategic Communication Concentration and the major Journalism and Public Communication
University of Arkansas Walter J. Lemke Department of Journalism
University of Central Missouri Department of Economics, Finance and Marketing
University of Colorado, Boulder College of Media, Communication and Information
University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications
University of Georgia Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications
University of Idaho Department of Journalism and Mass Media
University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign College of Media. Note: College offers a certificate in PR, no degree
University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication
University of Kansas William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications
University of Kentucky College of Communication and Information
University of Louisiana, Lafayette Department of Communication
University of Maryland at College Park Department of Communication
University of Memphis Department of Journalism
University of Minnesota Journalism and Mass Communication
University of Mississippi The Meek School of Journalism and New Media
University of Missouri School of Journalism
University of Nebraska, Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications
University of Nevada, Reno The Reynolds School
University of New Mexico Department of Communication and Journalism
Note: Called Strategic Communication
University of North Alabama Department of Communications
University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism
University of North Carolina, Charlotte Department of Communication Studies
University of North Texas Frank W and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism
University of Oklahoma Gaylord College
University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication
University of South Carolina College of Information and Communications
University of South Dakota Department of Media and Journalism
University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
University of Southern Mississippi School of Mass Communication and Journalism
University of Tennessee Communications Department
University of Tennessee, Chattanooga Communication
University of Tennessee, Knoxville College of Communication and Information
University of Washington Department of Communication
University of Wisconsin, Eau-Claire Department of Communication and Journalism. Note: Called Integrated Strategic Communications, PR Emphasis
University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh Department of Journalism
Virginia Commonwealth University Richard Robertson School of Media and Culture
Virginia Polytechnic University College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences
Washington and Lee University Department of Journalism and Mass Communications
Wayne State University Department of Communication
West Virginia University Reed College of Media
Western Kentucky University School of Journalism and Broadcasting
Winthrop University Department of Mass Communication

Appendix B: Semi-Structured Interview Guide

Thank you, again, for volunteering to participate in this research project. Today’s interview should take no more than 30 minutes.

As you know from our email exchange, we are studying leadership development and inclusiveness within public relations curricula. We are talking with PR sequence directors and PR instructors. Our intent is to identify best practices and provide recommendations to the academy about how we can all help better develop the next generation of public relations leaders.

I’d like to remind you that your participation in this study is voluntary. You may now refuse to participate, or if you choose to participate as intended, you may stop today’s interview for any reason and at any point in the process.

Your responses will remain strictly confidential, unless you provide approval now, or at the end of today’s interview, for us to identify you with all or some of your replies. Otherwise, your input will simply be included in aggregate themes within the final report. Would you like to provide approval now, or shall we discuss this again at the end of the interview?

Finally, I’d like to remind you that research on human volunteers is reviewed by a committee that works to protect your rights and welfare. If you have questions or concerns about your rights as a research subject you may contact, anonymously if you wish, the University of Oregon Institutional Review Board (IRB) at 541-346-2510 or by e-mail to ResearchCompliance@uoregon.edu. If you contact the IRB, please refer to study number #16-146. 

At this time, I would like to confirm your participation in this research. Please say “yes” now, if you are willing to be interviewed. This will serve as your consent.

Do I have your permission to record this interview? The only use of the recording is for data collection and analysis. Do you have any questions or concerns before the interview begins?

  1. Let’s begin. I would first like to confirm a few details, simply for statistical purposes.
    • Tell me how many years you have served as PR sequence director (if applicable).
    • How many years have you been teaching public relations courses?
    • Did you work in the industry before joining the academy? If so, for what type of organization: corporation/business, agency/consulting firm, nonprofit organization, government, or other (please specify)?
  2. In your own words, tell me what you believe leadership means today in public relations.
  3. And how about inclusiveness in public relations?
  4. What do you feel would be the best way to develop the next generation of inclusive public relations leaders?
  5. A global research survey of thousands of practitioners worldwide identified the most pressing leadership needs as change management skills/capabilities, listening skills, and conflict management skills. How do you feel about this assessment? Why?
  6. What is your program doing well when it comes to fostering leadership development and/or inclusiveness? Please share a few examples.

For specific programs identified:
6a. Tell me about (name of course/program). Is this a requirement for PR students? Other students? What are the learning objectives?
6b. What is the structure and methods used to teach?
6c. Describe the core content. Is it possible to obtain a copy of the syllabus?
6d. Are diversity and inclusiveness covered within the course/program? If so, please briefly explain. If not, how and where is diversity addressed in the PR curriculum?
6e. What textbook(s) or other educational materials/resources are used?
6f. How is student learning evaluated?

  1. Are there other examples of leadership development and/or inclusiveness that come to mind within your own teaching? What teaching methods, assignments or other techniques do you use to foster leadership development and/or inclusiveness, beyond those already described? Please share a few examples.
  2. What advice would you give to a school that’s just starting a public relations program, or to someone new to teaching public relations, with regard to fostering leadership development and/or inclusiveness?
  3. When it comes to excellence in public relations education, what programs immediately come to your mind? Why?
  4. We are nearing the end of this interview. What haven’t we touched on today about leadership development and inclusiveness in public relations education that is important to include in this study?

NOTE: If subject did not provide approval for identity disclosure earlier, read the following:

As a reminder, your responses will remain strictly confidential, unless you provide approval for us to identify you with all or some of your replies. Otherwise, your input will simply be included in aggregate themes within the final report. Would you like to provide approval for us to disclose your identity? If so, for all replies or only some of them? If only some of them, which replies?

Thank you very much for your time.