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Who’s Teaching Future PR Professionals? Exploring Professional Credentials of Full-Time PR Faculty in Accredited Programs

Editorial Record: Submitted October 24, 2022. Revised January 3, 2023. Accepted January 26, 2023.


Kim Marks Malone, APR, Fellow PRSA
Associate Professor of Practice, Online Programs Coordinator
Journalism and Strategic Media
University of Memphis
Tennessee, USA
Email: ksmarks@memphis.edu

Being Accredited in Public Relations (APR) more closely links educators with practitioners and can help build additional credibility for both the faculty member and their academic unit. This study explores the professional credentials of full-time faculty teaching in AEJMC accredited and PRSA certified undergraduate public relations programs in the United States and seeks to better understand the types of programs and schools where accredited educators teach. This research concludes that most full-time faculty teaching in accredited/certified undergraduate PR programs are not professionally accredited and that PRSA certified programs have a higher percentage of full-time accredited faculty teaching in them than ACEJMC accredited programs. Additionally, Carnegie R2 and D/PU universities with accredited/certified undergraduate PR programs are more likely to have full-time accredited PR faculty than others and that there is a higher percentage of full-time accredited PR faculty members in private schools with accredited/certified programs than in public schools with accredited/certified programs.

Keywords: APR, public relations, public relations education, accreditation

Accreditation of public relations programs and the academic units in which they reside is widely discussed and the benefits of accreditation in the United States – whether by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC) or the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Certification in Education for Public Relations (CEPR) – are well known. What is less well-known and studied are the benefits of PR educators themselves being professionally accredited and it is unknown how prevalent APR, CMP and SCMP accreditation is in higher education PR faculty. 

Personal accreditation demonstrates professional competence and knowledge of progressive PR industry practices and high standards (Universal Accreditation Board, n.d.), but accreditation by full-time PR faculty can also link educators more closely with PR professionals and can help build additional credibility for both the faculty member and their academic unit.

Additionally, the process of becoming accredited opens opportunities for faculty to gain leadership roles in professional organizations – a recommendation for faculty development in the most recent Commission on Public Relations Education (CPRE) Report on Undergraduate Education (CPRE, 2018).

This research seeks to begin to explore the status of professionally accredited educators by looking at full-time PR faculty who teach in accredited/certified undergraduate public relations programs in the United States and then to profile the universities and colleges where these accredited full-time educators teach. This research informs broad pedagogical practices in public relations research specifically as it relates to who is teaching in accredited/certified undergraduate public relations programs.


Program accreditation

Accreditation of academic units and programs at most universities and colleges is voluntary and, in the United States, is often a decision point for students and parents when selecting a school or program (Council for Higher Education Accreditation, n.d.; Massé & Popovich, 2007; Pelligrini, 2017), as well as a reputation enhancement for the accredited academic unit (Blom, et al., 2012; Blom, et al., 2019). Additionally, the process of accreditation gives academic programs the opportunity to compare itself to other programs, reflect on the program’s strengths and, more importantly, weaknesses, and implement improvements that benefit the students (Blom, et al., 2012; Seamon, 2010).

Undergraduate PR programs in the U.S. can choose to seek accreditation through ACEJMC, certification through PRSA or both.

ACEJMC accreditation

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) recognizes ACEJMC for accrediting professional journalism and mass communication programs in the United States. ACEJMC has an emphasis on a balanced, liberal arts and science curriculum (ACEJMC, n.d. -a). Institutions interested in becoming accredited invite ACEJMC to examine its program and, once accredited, programs must apply for reaccreditation every six years. Programs receive ACEJMC accreditation after a thorough self-assessment and a peer review of the program’s academic quality that includes a site visit conducted by a team of educators and industry professionals who interview faculty, staff, and students, visit classes, review documentation and meet with university/college-level administrators. The self-assessment focuses on the extent to which the academic unit achieves its goals and the extent to which the academic unit complies with ACEJMC’s current nine accrediting standards: (1) Mission, Governance and Administration; (2) Curriculum and Instruction; (3) Diversity and Inclusiveness; (4) Full-Time and Part-Time Faculty; (5) Scholarship: Research, Creative and Professional Activity; (6) Student Services; (7) Resources, Facilities and Equipment; (8) Professional and Public Service; and (9) Assessment of Learning Outcomes. ACEJMC has shifted from a 9-point standard to an 8-point standard, beginning with the 2022-23 academic year, including a deeper critical consideration of DEI efforts and an institutionally grounded focus on liberal arts and sciences requirements. For this study, we will focus on institutions accredited on the previous 9-point standard applied through the 2021-22 academic year. Accredited units are required to maintain updated retention and graduation data on their websites. Units which do not meet this requirement by Aug. 15 each year are subject to being placed on probation until the data is updated or until Aug. 15 of the following year when, if the information has not been provided, the unit’s accreditation will be suspended. A suspended program will be reinstated when the data is published if ACEJMC dues are current (ACEJMC, n.d.-b).

PRSA Certification

The CEPR was established in 1989 by PRSA and is affiliated with the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA). The voluntary certification program is administered through PRSA’s Educational Affairs Committee and like ACEJMC accreditation, includes a self- assessment and a site visit that includes meetings with faculty, students, administrators, and key external stakeholders. The on-site review is conducted by two PRSA members — a full-time educator from a PRSA certified school and an APR-credentialed practicing professional.

Reviewers also contact the PR program’s internship providers, graduate employers and alumni to assess graduate preparedness to enter the workforce and former student’s educational experiences (PRSSA, 2021a). CEPR’s evolving standards are based on findings of the CPRE. The eight standards are (1) Public Relations Curriculum; (2) Public Relations Faculty; (3) Resources, Equipment and Facilities; (4) Public Relations Students; (5) Assessment; (6) Professional Affiliations; (7) Relationships with Total Unit and University; and (8) Diversity and Global Perspectives. The final decision and the conferring of the CEPR is decided by the PRSA Board and, once certified, programs must apply for recertification every six years. PR programs that distinguish themselves with the CEPR are determined to provide the faculty, curriculum and resources needed to prepare students to become PR professionals (PRSA, 2020a).

CEPR deals solely with PR programs and is dedicated to the advancement of PR (CPRE, 2006). Unlike ACEJMC accreditation, PRSA certification does not have the “unit” rule (only PR programs within journalism and mass communications programs can be accredited) meaning that PR programs housed in schools of business or other academic units that do not qualify for ACEJMC accreditation may meet CEPR standards (PRSA, 2020a).

Professional accreditation

Professional certification or accreditation is seen as one way to further the professionalism of public relations (Bernays, 1979; Brody, 1984, 1992). Public relations professionals in the United States have several options for professional accreditation – APR, administered by the Universal Accreditation Board (UAB) (PRSA, 2021), or Communication Management Professional (CMP) and Strategic Communication Management Professional (SCMP), both administered by the Global Communication Certification Council, an International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) initiative (IABC, 2021a). Military communication professionals have the option to earn the specialized APR+M (PRSA, 2021).

The CMP and SCMP replace the Accredited Business Communicator (ABC) designation that was administered by the IABC (IABC, 2021b).

Research has shown that accreditation makes a difference in both professional competencies and public relations work categories (Sha, 2011a), as well as other variables including years of experience and education levels (Sha, 2011b).


A candidate for APR must have a minimum of five years of professional experience and be a member of one of the UAB’s participating organizations that currently includes the Asociación de Relacionistas Profesionales de Puerto Rico, the California Association of Public Relations Officials, the Florida Public Relations Association, the Maine Public Relations Council, the National Association of Government Communicators, the National School Public Relations Association, PRSA, the Religion Communicators Council and the Southern Public Relations Federation (PRSA, 2021). The Accreditation process for APR is a three-step process. First the candidate completes an application that involves writing 14 essays that address the candidate’s professional experience. The candidate then participates in the Panel Presentation to discuss the essays and present a portfolio of work samples to a panel of accredited peers. Once approved, the final step is for the candidate to take a multiple-choice, computer-based examination (PRSA, 2020b). Accreditation must be renewed every three years and is achieved through documenting lifelong learning, participating in industry events, and service to PRSA (PRSA, 2020c).

Qualifications to earn the CMP and SCMP are based on years of experience the candidate has in the industry. CMP is for those with six to eight years of experience in the communication field and the SCMP is for those with eight to 11 years of professional experience (IABC, 2021a). The application is the same for both the CMP and the SCMP with candidate’s completing an application that includes submitting documentation of professional experience, including a letter of reference for SCMP candidates, and taking a multiple-choice, computer-based examination.

Both the CMP and SCMP certification must be renewed annually by earning 40 qualifying continuing education and/or professional development points each year (GCCC, 2019).


To understand the professional accreditation status of faculty teaching in accredited undergraduate public relations programs in the United States, this study asks the following research questions:

RQ1A: What is the status of public relations accreditation in full-time PR faculty in undergraduate ACEJMC certified programs?

RQ1B: What is the status of public relations accreditation in full-time PR faculty in undergraduate CEPR certified PR programs?

RQ1C: What is the status of public relations accreditation in full-time PR faculty in undergraduate programs that are both ACEJMC accredited and CEPR certified?

To better understand the accredited undergraduate programs where accredited educators teach, this study asks:

RQ2: What are the characteristics of the universities and colleges that have accredited and/or certified undergraduate PR programs where accredited full-time PR educators teach?


To answer this study’s research questions, a content analysis was conducted using the faculty biographies and accreditation data for all undergraduate ACEJMC accredited units in the United States with PR programs (n = 73) and all undergraduate PRSA certified programs in the United States (n = 40). Although program accreditation and individual professional accreditation are not necessarily conjoined, the analysis of accredited programs has been used in other studies to narrow the sample including examining writing requirements in PR programs (Hardin & Pompper, 2004), determining best practices for leadership development in the next generation of PR leaders (Ewing et al., 2019), exploring how ethics is taught in PR classrooms (Del Rosso et. al., 2020) and investigating how social media, digital media and analytics are taught (Luttrell et al., 2021). 

Conceptualization & Operationalization

This study defines accredited undergraduate PR programs as programs housed in ACEJMC accredited academic units (ACEJMC, n.d.-a) and/or PRSA certified PR programs (PRSSA, 2021a) as of November 2021. Individuals who are APR were identified based on their faculty biography on their university websites. Public relations faculty were faculty who specifically mentioned PR in their biography, were listed as teaching PR courses or were listed as PR faculty on their university’s website and held an active full-time academic appointment. Accreditation status was cross-checked using the PRSA membership directory. Gender was identified based on the pronouns used in the faculty member’s biography and was sub-collapsed into male, female, and non-binary/other. Highest degree earned was determined from their publicly available faculty biography or curriculum vitae.


Carnegie status was determined through the Carnegie database (The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, n.d.). Universities and colleges were coded as either public or private as listed in the Carnegie database.


A list was compiled of all ACEJMC accredited units with undergraduate PR programs in the United States and all PRSA CEPR undergraduate PR programs in the United States. The data in this study represents a census of those programs as of November 2021.


Research Question 1 asked the status of public relations accreditation in full-time PR faculty in undergraduate PR programs in the United States that are ACEJMC accredited (A), PRSA certified (B), and programs that are both ACEJMC accredited and PRSA certified (C). Overall, full-time PR faculty (n = 469) in the 113 accredited/certified undergraduate PR programs are about two-thirds women (66.5%, n = 312) with the remaining being men (33.5%, n= 157); no faculty identified as nonbinary by their pronouns in their faculty biographies. A majority have earned a Ph.D. (68.9%, n = 323); 127 (27.1%) have earned a master’s degree; and 14 (3.0%) have earned a bachelor’s degree. Five (1.1%) have earned a different kind of doctoral degree such as an Ed.D. Most of these full-time PR faculty (83.2%, n = 309) are not accredited with only 79 (16.8%) earning professional accreditation. Considering these 79 accredited faculty members, 63 (13.4%) have earned the APR designation, 15 (3.2%) are PRSA Fellows, and one (0.2%) has an international accreditation from the Institute of Public Relations in Ghana. One’s (1.27%) highest degree earned was a bachelor’s degree, 29 (36.71%) hold a master’s degree, and 49 (62.03%) hold a Ph.D. or other doctoral degree.

Of the 469 full-time PR faculty teaching in accredited/certified undergraduate PR programs, 58.0% (n = 272) teach in units that are accredited only by ACEJMC, 18.8% (n = 88) teach in units that are only PRSA certified, and 23.2% (n = 109) are in units that are both ACEJMC accredited and PRSA certified. The vast majority work at public schools (81.2%, n = 381) while 18.8% (n = 88) are at private institutions. Most of these public relations faculty also work at Doctoral Universities – Very high research activity (Carnegie R1) (53.1%, n = 249); 21.1% (n = 99) are at Doctoral Universities – High research activity (Carnegie R2); 10.2% (n = 48) teach at Doctoral/Professional Universities (Carnegie D/PU); and 12.6% (n = 59) are at Master’s Colleges and Universities – Larger programs (Carnegie M1). Fourteen (2.9%) are at schools classified as Master’s Colleges and Universities – Medium programs (Carnegie M2), Master’s Colleges and Universities – Smaller programs (Carnegie M3), or Baccalaureate Colleges.

RQ1A: ACEJMC accredited programs

Looking specifically at the 56 units that are only ACEJMC accredited, 67.2% (n = 183) of the full-time PR faculty are women and 32.7% (n = 89) are men. Most (67.6%, n = 185) have earned a Ph.D.; 26.4% (n = 72) have earned a master’s degree; and 4.0% (n = 11) have earned a bachelor’s degree. Four faculty members (1.5%) have earned a different kind of doctoral degree. A little more than 9 out of 10 faculty members (90.8%, n = 247) are not professionally accredited. Of these 272 full-time PR faculty members, 25 (9.1%) are accredited with 19 (6.9%) having their APR and 6 (2.2%) being PRSA Fellows. The majority work at public universities (83.4%, n = 227), and 16.5% (n = 45) teach at private universities. Most of these PR faculty members (59.9%, n = 163) are teaching in units housed in Carnegie R1 (Doctoral Universities – Very high research activity) schools; 44 (16.1%) teach in units housed in Carnegie R2 (Doctoral Universities – high research activity) schools; 29 (10.7%) teach in units that are Carnegie M1 (Master’s Colleges and Universities – Larger programs); 27 (10%) of these faculty teach in units housed in Carnegie D/PU (Doctoral/Professional) Universities; six (0.2%) teach in units located in Carnegie M2 (Master’s College and Universities – Medium) programs and three (0.1%) teach in units located in Carnegie M3 (Master’s College and Universities – Small) programs. RQ1B: 

PRSA certified PR programs

Looking specifically at the 23 units that are only PRSA certified, 70.4% (n = 62) are women and 29.5% (n = 26) are men. Most PR faculty members (77.3%, n = 68) have earned a Ph.D. and 22.7% (n = 20) have earned a master’s degree. The majority (68.1%, n= 60) are not accredited. Considering the 28 (31.8%) accredited faculty members teaching at these units, 24 (27.2%) have earned APR and four (4.5%) are PRSA Fellows. Most of these faculty members are teaching at public universities (73.8%, n = 65) with 23 (26.1%) teaching at private universities. More of these PR faculty members (34.1%, n = 30) are teaching in units housed in Carnegie R2 (Doctoral Universities – high research activity) schools. Twenty-three (26.1%) of these faculty teach in units housed in Carnegie R1 (Doctoral Universities – Very high research activity) schools while 17 (19.3%) teach in units housed in Carnegie D/PU (Doctoral/Professional) Universities. Thirteen (14.7%) teach in units that are Carnegie M1 (Master’s Colleges and Universities – Larger) programs, three teach in Carnegie M2 (Master’s College and Universities – Medium) programs and two teach in units located in Baccalaureate Colleges.

RQ1C: Programs that are both ACEJMC accredited and PRSA certified

Looking at the 17 units that are both ACEJMC accredited and PRSA certified, 61.4% (n = 67) of the full-time PR faculty are women and 38.5% (n = 42) are men. Most (64.2%, n = 70) have earned a Ph.D.; 32.1% (n = 35) have earned a master’s degree; 2.7% (n = 3) have earned a bachelor’s degree; and one (0.9%) has earned a different kind of doctoral degree. The majority (76.1%, n = 83) are not professionally accredited. Of the 26 (23.8%) who are accredited, 20 (18.3%) are APRs, five (4.5%) are PRSA Fellows and one (0.9%) is internationally accredited. Most of these faculty members are teaching at public schools (81.6%, n = 89) with only 20 (18.3%) teaching at private schools. More than half of these PR faculty members (57.8%, n = 63) are teaching in units housed in Carnegie R1 (Doctoral Universities – Very high research activity) schools. Twenty-five (22.9%) teach in units housed in Carnegie R2 (Doctoral Universities – high research activity) schools. Four (0.4%) teach in units that are in Carnegie D/PU (Doctoral/Professional) Universities and 17 (15.5%) teach in units that are Carnegie M1 (Master’s Colleges and Universities – Larger) programs.

RQ2: University/college characteristics

Research Question 2 asked about the characteristics of the universities and colleges that have accredited/certified undergraduate PR programs where accredited full-time PR educators teach. A chi-square test of independence was performed to examine the relationships between full-time accredited PR faculty and the characteristics discussed in RQ1A, B, and C. The relationships between three of these variables were significant. First, undergraduate PR programs that are PRSA certified have a higher percentage of full-time accredited PR faculty teaching in them than ACEJMC accredited programs, X2 (1, N = 469) = 27.08, p = < .001; for this statistic, programs with both ACEJMC accreditation and PRSA certification were counted in both.

Second, there is a higher percentage of full-time accredited PR faculty members in private schools with accredited/certified programs than in public schools with accredited/certified programs, X2 (1, N = 469) = 6.68, p = .010. And, finally, Carnegie R2 and D/PU universities with accredited/certified undergraduate PR programs are more likely to have full-time accredited PR faculty than the others, X2 (3, N = 469) = 9.01, p = .029.


This study found that an overwhelming majority of full-time PR faculty in accredited/certified undergraduate PR programs are not professionally accredited. This data supports the CPRE’s 2018 Fast Forward report’s finding that even though PR professionals believe that educators should earn professional accreditations and executives from large public relations firms relate that their best new employees come from universities with professionally experienced and credentialed faculty, educators do not value them. These findings also fly in the face of previous research that found students prefer professors with a practitioner focus who are more involved with the day-to-day practice of public relations (Tindall & Waters, 2017) — qualities that earning an APR can help to develop and foster — and that students value professors more based on their professional, non-academic experience (Martin et al., 2005; Wilkerson, 1999).

Most of the full-time faculty in this study who are accredited have a Ph.D. or other doctoral degree and may add to Sha’s (2011a) discussion about whether experience can be used as a substitute for accreditation.

Conrad (2020) notes that there is ongoing tension between PR theory and practice, the academy and industry. This plays out in the findings of this study. The majority of full-time PR faculty in this study work in PR programs located in academic units that are ACEJMC accredited at public Carnegie R1 universities where the focus is on “very high research activity.” However, full-time faculty teaching in undergraduate programs that are only PRSA certified tend to teach in public Carnegie R2 and D/PU schools where there is less focus on research output and a higher percentage of accredited full-time faculty members teach at R2 and D/PU schools. Could this difference be because of the emphasis on research output placed on institutions and programs to maintain R1 status and the professional focus of programs that are only PRSA certified? Additionally, there is a higher percentage of full-time accredited PR faculty members teaching in private schools with accredited/certified programs than in public schools with accredited/certified programs. It stands to reason that this could be an indication of the flexibility and resources afforded a program at a private university versus programs in publicly funded institutions.


As far back as the founding of the Commission of Public Relations Education in 1973 there has been debate about the qualifications that PR educators should have and the relationship between PR practice and the academy. From arguing that PR educators should have a Ph.D. because PR is a research-academic discipline (CPRE, 1999) to observations that those who teach PR courses in undergraduate programs should have practitioner experience (CPRE, 2006) to the realization that the best-prepared PR graduates come from programs that are taught by both Ph.Ds. and practitioners (CPRE, 2018), the debate continues. Yet, through it all, there is little data that paints a picture of both the educational and professional qualifications of those who are teaching the next generation of PR pros. This study lays the groundwork for additional research into the professional accreditation of full-time PR educators and indicates that if, as research shows, accreditation matters, then the UAB, PRSA and other professional associations need to better communicate the benefits of and process for earning professional accreditation to the academy.

Implications for the profession

This study has supplied insights into the professional accreditation of full-time PR faculty in accredited/certified undergraduate PR programs, an area that has not been explored much to date. These findings also contribute to the continuing emphasis by the CPRE on who is teaching future PR professionals and could aid the UAB, PRSA and other professional associations in understanding professional accreditation of educators and possibly creating an accreditation designed specifically for full-time educators, like the APR+M for military practitioners.


This study only examined full-time educators teaching in the ACEJMC accredited and PRSA certified undergraduate PR programs in the United States. A clearer picture of professionally accredited full-time PR educators could be gleaned by looking at full-time educators in PR programs without accreditation or certification.

Suggestions for future research

PRSSA currently has more than 300 chapters in the United States (PRSSA, 2021b). An examination of full-time educators in PR programs where these PRSSA chapters exist might provide additional insights into PR faculty, as well as the status of PRSSA chapter advisers.

Another area that warrants examination is the accreditation status of adjunct PR faculty.

More than 50% of faculty teaching in four-year schools are estimated to be adjunct or part-time professors (AAUP, 2018) and as highlighted in the CPRE 2018 report, little information is available on these part-time PR faculty members. Toth (2021) looked at teaching interests, needs, and professional experience of PR adjunct faculty but did not specifically address their professional accreditation status. Further exploration of this important group of PR educators is warranted.


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© Copyright 2023 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Marks Malone, Kim. (2023). Who’s Teaching Future PR Professionals? Exploring Professional Credentials of Full-Time PR Faculty in Accredited Programs. Journal of Public Relations Education, 9(1), 62-81. https://journalofpreducation.com/?p=3577

Eco-Tourism Campaigns as a Framework for Global PR Course

Editorial Record: Submitted May 25, 2022. Revised September 17, 2022. Accepted October 28, 2022. 


Nandini Bhalla, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Public Relations
School of Journalism and Mass Communication
Texas State University
San Marcos, Texas, US
Email: nandinib@txstate.edu

Arien Rozelle, APR
Assistant Professor
Department of Media and Communication
St. John Fisher University 
Rochester, New York
Email: arozelle@sjf.edu

As an understanding of international diversity has become more vital than ever before, PR educators are responsible for the mammoth task of imparting cultural sensitivity and equality in undergraduate classrooms. This teaching brief provides an opportunity for PR educators to help students understand cultural and structural differences among different countries. It also asks undergraduate students to think in an environmentally-friendly way in an international context. This teaching brief provides individual and group assignments along with samples to help instructors facilitate thought-provoking conversations in the classroom, and enhance student learning on international diversity issues in public relations.

Keywords: eco-tourism, diversity, race, public relations education, international PR, global PR

The recent rise of social and political unrest on a global scale has underscored the need for communicators with global and cultural competencies. While public relations educators are tasked with imparting cultural awareness in undergraduate classrooms, the field of public relations itself has been slow to make advancements in diversity, equity and inclusion. “Despite numerous calls and initiatives for change for over three decades, the industry’s D&I needle has barely moved” (Bardhan & Gower, 2020, p. 103).

Public relations educators play a major role in moving the needle. As Pompper (2005) notes, “The status of public relations practice is directly linked to public relations education” (p. 299).  And, “Diversity must start at the classroom level in order for emerging practitioners to embrace diversity at the professional level” (Brown et al., 2019, p. 19). 

Today’s public relations students are tomorrow’s practitioners, and educators have the ability to positively impact the pipeline from the classroom to the boardroom through exposure to courses and coursework that bring topics of global communication, diversity, equity and inclusion to the forefront. Globalization and a growing environment of inter-linked economies and multinational companies create a heightened demand for public relations students and practitioners to achieve intercultural competence (Ju & Kang, 2021). 

Flowers (2020) noted that a number of scholars in the discipline have emphasized the need to teach global perspectives, as well as multicultural, intercultural, and international skills to the public relations students in U.S. classrooms (Bardhan, 2003; Creedon & Al-Khaja, 2005; Holbert, & Waymer, 2022; Taylor, 2001; Tsetsura, 2011; Waymer & Brown, 2018; Waymer & Dyson, 2011). In addition, the 2018 Commission on Public Relations Education’s report on undergraduate PR education, Foundations + Future State. Educators + Practitioners, notes “Efforts to improve D&I knowledge must start at the academic level. We recommend educators place focus on how diversity and multicultural perspectives are taught in the classroom, and commit to integrating D&I focused topics and discussions into the curriculum” (p. 139). 

The concept of ecotourism presents a way to integrate global perspectives into the public relations classroom. Conservationists, professional organizations, and/or academicians have defined ecotourism in multiple ways based on their study area of tourist behavior (Sirakaya et al., 1999). The first known formal definition of ecotourism is written by Ceballos-Lascuráin (1987) as “Travelling to relatively undisturbed or uncontaminated natural areas with the specific objective of studying, admiring, and enjoying the scenery and its wild plants and animals, as well as any existing cultural manifestations (both past and present) found in these areas” (p. 14). In 1994, Andersen defined ecotourism as “a tourism experience infused with the spirit of conservation and cultural change that results in a net positive effect for the environment and local economy…” (p.32). In a more recent article, Khanra and colleagues conducted a bibliometric analysis and literature review of ecotourism and argued that the four critical thematic areas of ecotourism are the ecological preservation of the tourist destination, the carbon footprint from tourist mobility, the protection of residents’ interests in tourist destinations, and tourists’ attitudes and behavior toward sustainability, respectively.

This assignment helps students think about all four areas of ecotourism by conducting a deep analysis of a place (a country) and creating sustainable strategies to enhance tourism. 

A visit to a safari park such as the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania or Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan (India) are examples of ecotourism as they allow tourists to experience animals in their natural habitat and learn about them firsthand, rather than through documentaries or movies (Verma, 2022).


This semester-long project, which can be deployed in a face-to-face or online course, provides an opportunity to integrate topics of DEI and global perspectives into a class through a hands-on project. This project was deployed in a Global PR course, but could easily be integrated into a variety of PR courses including PR Writing. 

Students are given an objective: research the political, economic, and cultural aspects of a country other than the U.S. and Canada, in order to develop an ecotourism campaign in that country for 18-25-year-old American citizens. 

There are two parts of this campaign assignment:

  1. Country analysis: students pick a country other than the U.S. and Canada and conduct comprehensive research to understand PR practice in that country. 
  2. Ecotourism campaign (team-based project): The final assignment asks students to create an ecotourism campaign based on the research conducted in the first part of this assignment. This assignment provides an opportunity for students to work according to the key PR and structural variables of that country, using diverse American residents as the target audience. 

This project gives students an opportunity to research, write collaboratively and individually, and peer edit. Throughout the process, students not only develop and refine PR skills but also develop empathy toward other cultures and teamwork skills through open conversations in the class as well as in small groups. The lectures and discussions in the class will allow students to share their intercultural experiences and observations, which also help them to respect other views and backgrounds and develop an effective global PR campaign. 


  • Understand and evaluate information about global public relations
  • Identify key global publics and analyze their characteristics
  • Plan and conduct global public relations strategies and tactics
  • Learn principles to be an effective public relations professional in a global setting
  • Create a global public relations campaign


Note: One of the authors taught this course twice at a small liberal arts university with four and fourteen students respectively. Evidence of SLOs is limited but authors will continue collecting data in the future. 

All students (100%) indicated “agree” or “strongly agree” on “I am more competent in this area after having taken this course.” 

Qualitative feedback from course evaluations includes:

  • “[The professor] provided us with many case studies and background information that was very helpful in learning about Global Public Relations.”
  • “I very much enjoyed the report I got to give on Germany. While my grandmother was a German immigrant, I freely admit that I did not have much knowledge of the country’s economic, political, or cultural systems until conducting additional research.”
  • “Your examples, those offered by students, and those you requested I find, all helped me remember both the principles themselves and the realistic applications for them on the global stage.”
“She brought in speakers and people from other cultures and that worked in different facets of PR, which was really helpful.”
“I think that because this course was discussion-based, it made the material easy to retain.”


In our ever-changing media and social media landscape, public relations practitioners need to have a strong understanding of public relations practice in other countries and demonstrate cultural competencies. The 2017 CPRE report notes that a global perspective is essential today, and career opportunities in the public relations field are available worldwide. 

The Global Capability Framework, which is a Global Alliance’s benchmark for professionals in public relations and communication management, highlighted the capabilities that professionals hold in common across the world. It states, “to provide contextual intelligence” is an essential capability for PR and communication professionals, in which “you see the bigger picture – socially, culturally, politically, technologically and economically. You identify strategic opportunities and threats, issues and trends. You operate in a connected world, demonstrating broad understanding of local and global diversity in culture, values and beliefs” (Global Alliance, para. 13)

The same study also found that the issues pertaining to businesses and organizations are global today. This indicates that a successful public relations practitioner will have to go global, beginning with the simplest of steps: understanding that public relations practice varies with borders and languages, around the world.

As PR educators work to foster a new generation of public relations practitioners, it has become more important than ever before to address topics of equality and justice by addressing multiculturalism and international diversity in the classrooms. 


Andersen, D. L. (1994). Developing ecotourism destinations: conservation from the beginning. Trends, 31(2), 31-38.

Bardhan, N. (2003). Creating spaces for international and multi(inter) cultural perspectives in undergraduate public relations education. Communication Education, 52(2), 164-172. https://doi. org/10.1080/03634520302473 

Bardhan, N., & Gower, K. (2020). Student and faculty/educator views on diversity and inclusion in public relations: The role of leaders in bringing about change. Journal of Public Relations Education6(2), 102-141. https://aejmc.us/jpre/2020/08/15/student-and-faculty-educator-views-on-diversity-and-inclusion-in-public-relations-the-role-of-leaders-in-bringing-about-change/

Brown, K., Waymer, D., & Zhou, Z. (2019). Racial and gender-based differences in the collegiate development of public relations majors: Implications for underrepresented recruitment and retention. Journal of Public Relations Education, 5(1), 1-30. https://aejmc.us/jpre/2019/01/31/racial-and-gender-based-differences-in-the-collegiate-development-of-public-relations-majors-implications-for-underrepresented-recruitment-and-retention/

Ceballos-Lascurain, H. (1987). The Future of Ecotourism. Mexico Journal, January, 13-14.

Commission on Public Relations Education (2018). Fast forward: Foundations + future state. Educators + practitioners: The Commission on Public Relations Education 2017 report on undergraduate education. http://www.commissionpred.org/wpcontent/uploads/2018/04/report6-full.pdf 

Creedon, P., & Al-Khaja, M. (2005). Public relations and globalization: Building a case for cultural competency in public relations education. Public Relations Review, 31(3), 344–354. https://doi. org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2005.05.021 

Flowers, A. A. (2020). Learning about diversity worldwide: How a social media writing assignment provides students with multicultural perspectives. Journal of Public Relations Education, 6(1), 85-98. https://aejmc.us/jpre/2020/01/21/learning-about-diversity-worldwide-how-a-social-media-writing-assignment-provides-students-with-multicultural-perspectives/

Global Alliance. (n.d.). Global capability framework. https://www.globalalliancepr.org/capabilitiesframeworks 

Holbert, A., & Waymer, L. D. (2022). Teaching race and cultural sensitivity in public relations: The case of Comic Relief and the Western savior ideology. Public Relations Education, 8(1), 116-131.  https://aejmc.us/jpre/2022/03/31/teaching-race-and-cultural-sensitivity-in-public-relations-the-case-of-comic-relief-and-the-western-savior-ideology/   

Ju, R., & Kang, D. (2021). A critical dialogical approach to teaching public relations students intercultural competence. Journal of Public Relations Education, 7(1), 153-168. https://aejmc.us/jpre/2021/05/28/a-critical-dialogical-approach-to-teaching-public-relations-students-intercultural-competence/  

Pompper, D. (2005). Multiculturalism in the public relations curriculum: Female African American practitioners’ perceptions of effects. The Howard Journal of Communications16(4), 295-316. https://doi.org/10.1080/10646170500326582

Sirakaya, E., Sasidharan, V., & Sönmez, S. (1999). Redefining ecotourism: The need for a supply-side view. Journal of Travel Research, 38(2), 168-172. https://doi.org/10.1177/004728759903800210

Taylor, M. (2001). Internationalizing the public relations curriculum. Public Relations Review, 27(1), 73-88. https://doi.org/10.1016/ S0363-8111(01)00071-6

Tsetsura, K. (2011). How understanding multidimensional diversity can benefit global public relations education. Public Relations Review, 37(5), 530-535. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2011.09.020

Verma, A. (2022, June 4). What Is ecotourism? Meaning, examples, pros and cons. Native Planet. https://www.nativeplanet.com/travel-guide/what-is-ecotourism-meaning-examples-pros-and-cons-006737.html

Waymer, D., & Brown, K. A. (2018). Significance of race in the US undergraduate public relations educational landscape: Reflections of former public relations students. Journal for Multicultural Education, 12(4), 353-370. https://doi.org/10.1108/JME-06-2017-0036   

Waymer, D., & Dyson, O. L. (2011). The journey into an unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory: Exploring the role and approaches of race in PR education. Journal of Public Relations Research, 23(4), 458- 477. https://doi.org/10.1080/1062726X.2011.605971


Global Public Relations

Note for professors: Assignments can be adapted to fit any country/region by identifying the country’s designated tourism regions.

All students are required to write a comprehensive research report related to public relations practice in the country of their choice. Then, a team of 2-3 students will develop an international eco-tourism campaign for diverse audiences of 18-25-year-old American citizens. 

Examples of Eco-Tourism in different countries are:

On YouTube channel of World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), there is a wonderful example of Eco-Tourism video, India – Exceptional Stories of Sustainable Tourism. 

Also, on the website of Ecotourism World, there is an article showing different examples of eco- tourism. The name of the article is “5 Inspirational Sustainable Tourism Videos for 2020.”

OBJECTIVE: By writing comprehensive research reports and presentations, the objective is to enhance understanding of global public relations strategies and raise awareness of eco-tourism in the country of students’ choice among 18-25-year-old American citizens. 



Students are required to conduct thorough research related to a country of their choice. Students will conduct a deep analysis of the public relations practice of their chosen country by understanding various structural variables such as political environment, cultural characteristics, media systems, and economic environment, and also provide an example to substantiate their argument. 

The report will elaborate on the history and development of public relations practices in that country, identifying when public relations practices/events began in that country, and examining how public relations is practiced today. Through this exercise, students will be able to identify the most important variables that influenced the practice of public relations in that country.

The research report must include an introduction followed by a brief summary of public relations development in their chosen country and concluding thoughts at the end, focusing on the important variables that they believe most influence the practice of public relations in their chosen country, as mentioned above.


As teams, students transition to the role of PR practitioner of their country of choice, and will collaborate to produce a comprehensive international eco-tourism campaign proposal targeting

18-25-year-old American residents, which they will present in class. In consultation with the instructor, each team will select a country and create ONE proposal. 

  • Each student has already done extensive research about his/her/their county in the CCA report assignment. Students will collaborate and can choose either country. Students can make this choice among themselves. Students will also conduct research related to target audience of 18-25 year old American residents, specifically related to their traveling habits, preferences, and expenditure criterion. 
  • Students will craft a campaign proposal for their chosen country. Ex: Consider their campaign proposal as a pitch to the decision makers. It should be persuasive (based on research); they should spend thousands of dollars on it.

The key sections are (1) Target audience, (2) Travel campaign “idea” overview- define purpose, (3) context-argument/ justification for the “idea [target nation analysis], (4) SWOT analysis of the country, (5) strategic (implementation) suggestions for the future.

© Copyright 2023 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Bhalla, N. and Rozelle, A. (2023). Eco-tourism campaigns as a framework for global
PR course
. Journal of Public Relations Education, 8(4), 240-250. https://journalofpreducation.com/2023/02/24/eco-tourism-campaigns-as-a-framework-for-global-pr-course/

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Literature Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RQ2:  How did students perceive the classroom activity?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Appendix A:  The Assignment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appendix B:  TV Pitch

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

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

Appendix C:  Internal Memo

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

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

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

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

Appendix D:  Internal Emails about Jai Lee Memo 

To: Kris Bufonte, CorpComm

From: Johnny Creekside, Creekside Tires

Subject: Memo

Date: 04/06/2022


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

Johnny Creekside, President

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


To:  Johnny Creekside II, Creekside Tires

From: Kris Bufonte, CorpComm

Subject:  Re: Memo

Date:  04/06/2022


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

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

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

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

Kris Bufonte, Account Director

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


To: Kris Bufonte, CorpComm

From: Johnny Creekside, Creekside Tires

Subject: Re: Memo

Date: 04/06/2022


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

Johnny Creekside, President

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

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

Appendix F:  Internal Emails about Serenity Cervantes’ TikTok Post

To: Kris Bufonte, CorpComm

From: Johnny Creekside, Creekside Tires

Subject: TikTok

Date: 05/16/2022


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

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


Johnny Creekside, President

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


To:  Johnny Creekside II, Creekside Tires

From: Kris Bufonte, CorpComm

Subject:  Re: Memo

Date:  05/16/2022


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

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

Kris Bufonte, Account Director

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

Appendix G:  Internal Emails about Serenity Cervantes’ TikTok

To: Creekside Tire Communication

From:  Johnny Creekside, Creekside Tires

Subject: Fix the Commercial!

Date: 05/18/2022

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


Johnny Creekside, President

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


To: Johnny Creekside, Creekside Tire Communication     

From: Donnie Paige

Subject: Re: Fix the Commercial!

Date: 05/18/2022

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

Donnie Paige
Director or Marketing

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


To: Donnie Paige, Creekside Tire Communication     

From: Jenny de la Bloque

Subject: Re: Fix the Commercial!

Date: 05/18/2022

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

Jenny de la Bloque
Social Media Manager

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


To: Jenny de la Bloque, Creekside Tire Communications

From: Todd Hunter

Subject: Re: Fix the Commercial!

Date: 05/18/2022

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

Todd Hunter

Public Relations Specialist

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


To: Todd Hunter, Creekside Tire Communication     

From:  Jai Lee

Subject: Re: Fix the Commercial!

Date: 05/18/2022

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

Jai Lee
Communication Specialist

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


To: Jai Lee, Creekside Tire Communication     

From: Franklin Conner

Subject: Re: Fix the Commercial!

Date: 05/18/2022

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

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

Franklin Conner

Legislative Liaison

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


To: Franklin Conner, Creekside Tire Communication     

From: Donnie Paige

Subject: Re: Fix the Commercial!

Date: 05/18/2022

Alright, let me try to recap our suggested changes:

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

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

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

Scene 4:  Scene 1 family again

Donnie Paige
Director or Marketing

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


To: Donnie Paige, Creekside Tire Communication     

From: Jai Lee

Subject: Re: Fix the Commercial!

Date: 05/18/2022


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

Jai Lee
Communication Specialist

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


To: Jai Lee, Creekside Tire Communication     

From: Johnny Creekside, Creekside Tires

Subject: Re: Fix the Commercial!

Date: 05/18/2022

Hey team,

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


Johnny Creekside, President

Creekside Tire
1957 Buick Drive
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© Copyright 2023 AEJMC Public Relations Division

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

Enhancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Public Relations Classroom: Current Practices of Public Relations Educators 

Editorial Record:  Submitted June 2, 2022. Revised September 12, and October 19, 2022. Accepted October 21, 2022.


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

Yeonsoo Kim, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Stan Richards School of Advertising and Public Relations, The University of Texas at Austin
Austin, Texas
Email: Yeonsoo.kim@austin.utexas.edu

This study presents a comprehensive framework for DEI education for public relations educators and explores DEI practices in current educators’ classrooms. Specifically, it presents a framework that integrates structural elements of the course across five dimensions and pedagogical approaches to DEI excellence across six dimensions, and examines the status of public relations educator-level efforts in the classroom. The results of an online survey of public relations educators suggest that, overall, public relations educators appear to be actively demonstrating efforts to advance DEI in the classroom based on the variety of pedagogical approaches that they utilize. Meanwhile, efforts on structural elements seem to have room for improvement, especially in terms of DEI-related course objectives, learning outcomes, and course evaluation. Detailed discussions of the findings and their implications are discussed.

Keywords: public relations, public relations education, diversity, equity, inclusion, DEI, organizational culture, pedagogical approaches, educator-level efforts, structural elements

With current diversity as well as the deepening disparities of higher education during COVID-19, ensuring diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) has become one of the most pressing and important agenda items in higher education today. In response, many universities have added diversity statements to their websites (McBrayer, 2022), started more actively engaging in recruiting faculty and students from diverse racial and demographic backgrounds, and created administrative positions focused on DEI (Davenport et al., 2022). Some institutions have also encouraged faculty to include DEI efforts in their annual evaluation reports and increased DEI workshop and roundtable opportunities (e.g., Michigan State University, 2019). This changing higher education landscape is a good starting point; however, efforts to achieve DEI must be multifaceted, not only in recruitment and campus climate, but also in curriculum and instruction, research and inquiry, as well as strategic planning and accountability (Alt, 2017; Worthington & Stanley, 2014). Among the several key areas discussed in previous studies (e.g., recruitment, admissions, climate, curriculum, research, strategic planning, administrative structures, etc.) (Alt, 2017; Clayton-Pedersen et al., 2008; Parkison et al., 2009), this study is particularly concerned with the role of faculty, specifically public relations faculty, as leaders in facilitating student learning and creating diverse and inclusive learning environments. 

Faculty are at the forefront of educating students, so how they structure their curriculum, deliver DEI values, facilitate their classes, and create a classroom environment can have a direct impact on their students (Cohn & Gareis, 2007; Parkison et al., 2009). Curriculum – that is the content of courses and instruction, and how curriculum is delivered (Wiles et al., 2002) – focused on DEI can have a strong positive impact on students’ complex thinking skills, awareness of social and cultural diversity, and understanding of the importance of creating social awareness (Hurtado, 2005; Parkison et al., 2009). In other words, educators directly contribute to fostering students with the DEI perspectives needed by society. For this reason, scholars have commonly pointed out the importance of curriculum and instruction as key aspects of DEI in higher education (Bardhan & Gower, 2020; Cohn & Gareis, 2007; Mundy et al., 2018; Salazar et al., 2017). 

The critical role of educators in the classroom in the advancement of DEI is no exception in public relations education. Given the criticism that the public relations industry does not reflect the rapidly growing diversity of the U.S. population (Bardhan & Gower, 2020), and that the industry’s DEI efforts are rather slow or inadequate (Brown et al., 2019; Jiang et al., 2016), the role of professors in nurturing future public relations practitioners is becoming increasingly important. As stated in the Commission on Public Relations (CPRE) Diversity and Inclusion report (2019a), in order to combat the current DEI problem in the public relations industry, it is necessary that we equip all public relations students with multicultural competencies “to understand and appreciate the value of diversity” (p. 2). These essential exchanges that prepare students to learn about other cultures and how to work effectively with those different from them need to happen in the public relations classroom because whether students identify and address their personal biases, assumptions, and stereotypes regarding diversity have serious implications since their biases might carry over into the industry (Place & Vanc, 2016). Brunner’s (2005) study of diversity environments in public relations higher education institutions further supports this notion, stating that students come to universities at a critical time in their development and, therefore, learn a lot about themselves in relation to others, including how to orient to DEI, during this time. However, although the CPRE and several industry and academic leaders have repeatedly called for change regarding the concerning state of DEI in the public relations industry and the need to educate students in ways that respond to this situation, very little has changed (Bardhan & Gower, 2020, Brown et al., 2011; Place & Vanc, 2016). 

Additionally, research and action on the important relationship between DEI, curriculum, and pedagogy as a means of preparing students to enter the public relations industry is lacking, as the majority of current research is industry-focused (Place & Vanc, 2016). If change needs to happen at the higher education level, then more research should be focused on the current state of DEI in public relations education and the flow of DEI from schools to industry (Bardhan & Gower, 2020). With this need in mind, the current study aims to present a comprehensive framework for DEI education for public relations educators and to explore DEI practices in current educators’ classrooms. While previous studies mainly focused on the students’ points of view and on how they experience learning focused on DEI (e.g., Brown et al., 2011; Brown et al., 2019; Muturi & Zhu, 2019), this study focused on educator-reported approaches to DEI in the classroom. More specifically, this study examined the status of public relations educator-level efforts in the classroom, across the structural elements of courses (Cohn & Gareis, 2007; Fuentes et al., 2021) and pedagogical approaches geared toward incorporation of DEI (Salazar et al., 2017) – two areas that higher education instructors often have direct control over. Through the results of this study, we provide public relations educators with insights about the status of DEI practices in the classroom and actionable steps necessary for future improvement. 

Literature Review

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Higher Education

Diversity is a complex concept based on a set of identity factors, such as race, ethnicity, gender and disability (Fuentes et al., 2021). The key idea behind the concept is, as CPRE (2019b) noted, “all differences that exist between and among people” (n.p.). Diversity can come from both primary and secondary dimensions. The primary aspects are characteristics people are born with that cannot be changed, such as age, race, and ethnicity. The secondary dimensions are characteristics that can be altered, such as religion, marital status, social class, and veteran status. Whereas diversity recognizes that differences exist, inclusion goes one step further by respecting and embracing the unique qualities of people that stem from differences as valuable assets. Inclusion is defined as the degree to which an individual perceives themself as a respected member of the group to which they belong through experience of treatment that satisfies the need for belonging and uniqueness (Shore et al., 2011). It, therefore, “refers to treating people equally with fairness and respect so they can feel valued and welcomed” (The Arthur W. Page Center, n.d., n.p.). Equity is defined as the “creation of opportunities for historically underrepresented populations to have equal access to and participate in educational programs that are capable of closing the achievement gaps in student success and completion” (Fuentes et al., 2021, p.71).

Thus, DEI in education aims to leverage, recognize, and value the cultural experiences that students bring into the classroom, and incorporate activities (e.g., lectures, discussions, projects) that consider all sociocultural perspectives (Fuentes et al., 2021). The pursuit of DEI success in the classroom represents a conscious and intentional effort to implement a diverse and inclusive practice targeting multiple student identity groups (Salazar et al., 2017). This conscious effort is critical to building the academic resilience of students, especially for historically marginalized groups of students in higher education (Salazar et al., 2017). 

Despite the importance and benefits of DEI in higher education, DEI efforts in higher education are highly fragmented (Milem et al., 2005; Parkison et al., 2009; Salazar et al., 2017). DEI issues may be addressed in some parts of the curriculum but not in others, and students often encounter gaps or contradictions in the curriculum (Parkison et al., 2009). Large gaps or inconsistencies in DEI emphasis between educators and subjects/courses may prevent many students from absorbing the DEI content embedded in the curriculum. As another issue, scholars point out the disconnect between DEI practices and criteria recommended for educational excellence (Salazar et al., 2017). 

Educator-Level Efforts 

To overcome these shortcomings and pursue DEI enhancement in education, scholars have proposed several key areas in which higher education institutions, administrators, and educators should work. Alt (2017) and Worthington (2012) suggested key areas for university diversity initiatives to focus on, including recruitment and retention, curriculum and education, leadership development, and campus environment. Parkison et al. (2009) extended the multicultural teaching model of Marchesani and Adams (1992) to propose four dimensions of the teaching and learning process, including faculty, teaching methods, course content, and students. Cohn and Gareis (2007) and Fuentes et al. (2021) emphasized the importance of composing DEI as a major component in the structural elements of a course in order to more explicitly communicate the values of DEI and related policies. As a dimension through which inclusive educators can work to enhance DEI in the classroom, Salazar et al. (2017) presented a comprehensive framework consisting of five dimensions: intrapersonal awareness, interpersonal awareness, curriculum transformation, inclusive pedagogy, and inclusive learning environment. Others focused on the leadership role of educators to improve DEI in education and argue that there are several things that educators should focus on, including curriculum and resources (Vaccaro, 2019), openness to diversity as an individual orientation/cultural competence (Alt, 2017; Fuentes et al., 2021; Vaccaro, 2019), and diversifying the learning environment to enhance inclusivity (Bardhan & Gower, 2020; Vaccaro, 2019). 

DEI in PR Education 

Educators are leaders in the academic environment (Bardhan & Gower, 2020) and play an essential role in creating learning environments that encourage diversity-related growth (Alt, 2017). As such, educators’ DEI work has a direct impact on the future of the public relations industry, as it plays a major role in shaping students to become future practitioners and eventually leaders of the industry. Increasing multidimensional DEI efforts in the public relations classroom will not only enhance cultural awareness, knowledge and understanding, reduce racial stereotypes, and increase commitment to issues of equity (Clayton-Pederson et al., 2008), but it can also help prepare students to work in increasingly diverse environments and feel more confident proposing solutions to diversity-related problems (Biswas & Izard, 2009). Such efforts expand diverse points of view and, therefore, prepare students to solve problems, create ideas, promote innovation and creativity, and consider messaging for diverse groups of people (Brown et al., 2011; Brown et al., 2019). Additionally, students will better understand their role as strategic communicators (Tsetsura, 2011). These DEI competencies acquired through higher education lead to overall organizational and workplace success, as a diverse workforce and competencies increase productivity and competitiveness (Brown et al., 2011; Muturi & Zhu, 2019). For this reason, leadership in public relations education requires active planning and execution of DEI-related program goals (Mundy et al., 2018). To reflect the focus of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC) and the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) Certificate in in Education for Public Relations (CEPR) on DEI, and to meet the expectations of employers and industry leaders, public relations education must be able to present appropriate and effective DEI education and share its success stories (Mundy et al., 2018). Specifically, Bardhan and Gower (2020) identified three areas in which public relations educators should strive to advance DEI in education: “1) curriculum diversification, 2) concern for the learning environment, 3) educator responsibility and structural change” (p. 128). 

Therefore, what these existing studies related to both holistic educator-level efforts as well as PR-specific educator-level efforts commonly suggest seems to be the development or application of DEI-centered pedagogical approaches (method and practices of the instructor)  and the structural components utilized (the fundamental content that should be considered and included in the development of every course, e.g., value statements, course objectives, reading selection, assignments, evaluation methods) by educators that directly affect DEI-centered curricula, teaching methods, or classroom environments. Hence, this study focuses on two key dimensions that public relations educators may need to consider in order to achieve DEI success in the classroom. The first is to establish DEI focused structural elements in courses within the curriculum (Cohn & Gareis, 2007; Fuentes et al., 2021), and the second is the pedagogical approach and practice centered on DEI in the classroom (Salazar et al., 2017). A detailed discussion of each dimension continues in later sections. 

We believe that this study provides an initial basis for a discussion of an integration framework regarding what efforts are needed at the educator level to better integrate DEI into the public relations classroom. Furthermore, we want to provide a snapshot of the current state of public relations education as well. 

Structural Elements of Courses in the Curriculum  

In this study, structural elements refer to the formal content of a course (the core building blocks of curriculum design), such as a policy, course objectives, textbooks, assignments, and evaluation methods, that makes up a course. In order to create diverse and inclusive learning environments, it is necessary to consider structural-level content because these elements provide the first opportunity for faculty to communicate their philosophy, expectations, requirements, and other course information (Fuentes et al., 2021). Therefore, from the outset, educators should promote a diversity-centered approach to course development. Oftentimes, educators simply attempt to incorporate diversity-related topics into their courses by including a reading or assignment, or devoting a single class to DEI-related topics, which can have the unintended effect of conveying that such concepts are unimportant or, even worse, such efforts can appear to be tokenistic (Fuentes et al., 2021; Vaccaro, 2019). However, thinking about it from the outset helps to holistically and effectively incorporate DEI into the course (Vaccaro, 2019), and assures that these issues are evident in the topics and schedule outlined in the course syllabus (Fuentes et al., 2021). In terms of the structural development of the course, this includes considering five key aspects (Cohn & Gareis, 2007): 1) value statements and policies in course materials, 2) course objectives and learning outcomes, 3) textbook selection/reading selection, 4) assignments, 5) course evaluation. These five aspects are similarly reflected in Cahn et al.’s (2022) arguments that effective curricular DEI practices must “demonstrate authentic commitment, establish a common language, create spaces for reflection, evaluate program effectiveness, and include substantive follow-up” (p. 1). 

Value statements and policies.

The statement of values is the first place for educators to highlight the importance of, and the amount of attention that will be given to, DEI efforts in the course (Cohn & Gareis, 2007). This can include an institutional-level value statement, an instructor-level value statement, and/or a disability/accommodations statement. The inclusion of diversity-related statements is relatively common in academia, particularly disability/accommodation-related statements, and there has been an increasing push to include them in course syllabi and discuss them on the first day of class (Fuentes et al., 2021). The goal of these statements is to make educators’ intentions and values explicit (Fuentes et al., 2021), which has been shown to have a positive effect on students’ perceptions of the classroom climate (Branch et al., 2018). It is also essential to consider the placement of these statements in the syllabus or throughout other elements of the course. Branch et al. (2018) determined that placing them earlier in the syllabus increases recall. Beyond value statements, ground rules for communication also help to promote comfortable learning environments that encourage and support diversity (Cohn & Gareis, 2007). These guidelines promote a respectful discourse and help to create an optimal learning environment, both of which are essential for encouraging a diversity of perspectives (Fuentes et al., 2021; Warner, 2019). Creating these guidelines in collaboration with students can also be helpful (Fuentes et al., 2021; Salazar et al., 2010; Vaccaro, 2019).

Course objectives and learning outcomes.

Another important structural element within courses for incorporating DEI are the course objectives and learning outcomes. This is where educators describe what they expect students to take away from the course. It can involve a culture-centered approach, which introduces DEI into all objectives and outcomes, or adding one specific objective/outcome that focuses on DEI (Bardhan & Gower, 2020; Fuentes et al., 2021). Instructors are encouraged to commit to integrating diverse voices across courses in a non-tokenistic manner by articulating DEI-related course objectives and learning outcomes (Cohn & Gareis, 2007). Specifying course objectives and learning outcomes focused on DEI demonstrates a genuine commitment to achieving and enhancing DEI (Cahn et al., 2022).

Textbook/reading selection.

Course textbooks and readings are an important place for educators to demonstrate the value they place on diversity. Considerations may include focusing on readings of historically underrepresented and marginalized scholars and discussing the purpose of including the readings, assuring examples and applications of textual materials extend to diverse groups, and making sure photographs and graphics depict various groups (Bardhan & Gower, 2020; Cohn & Gareis, 2007; Fuentes et al., 2021). Additionally, educators should reflect on whether textbooks/readings provide accessible and structured text and images to meet the needs of diverse learners and whether they are affordable (Vaccaro, 2019). 


In terms of assignments, educators should try to personalize assignments (Clayton-Pedersen et al., 2008), and reconsider the use of standardized exams and individual assignments (Fuentes et al., 2021).  Doing so helps to tailor learning to student’s needs, interest, and abilities, which improves student learning and engagement (Feldstein & Hill, 2016). Alternatively, they may consider the diversity of learning abilities and incorporate creative assignments that promote group cohesion (Clayton-Pedersen et al., 2008; Fuentes et al., 2021). It is also important to let students choose topics that they are comfortable with and offer alternative assignment options to accommodate different learning abilities, when possible (Cohn & Gareis, 2007). 

Course evaluation.

As with other aspects of a course, formal and informal evaluation is important for determining whether students perceive that a commitment to DEI was established throughout the class (Cohn & Gareis, 2007) and to monitor the effectiveness of inclusive pedagogical strategies (Cahn et al., 2022). Course evaluations may include questions that focus on DEI efforts and educators should keep track of the value of pedagogical strategies. By evaluating the effectiveness of the efforts implemented in the course in relation to DEI through various methods, it is possible to develop a follow-up plan for future improvement (Cahn et al., 2022). 

Based on the discussions above, the following research question was proposed to explore the current practice of DEI-centered structural elements of courses taught by public relations educators. 

RQ1: What are the current structural elements of courses incorporated by public relations educators to advance DEI in the classroom (i.e., value statements and policies in course materials, course objectives and learning outcomes, textbook selection/reading selection, assignments, course evaluation)? 

Pedagogical Approaches to DEI in the Classroom

Applying structural-level changes to courses within the curriculum is an essential first step toward creating excellent diverse learning environments, but educators need to think beyond this in order to make an appreciable difference in learning environments (Clayton-Pederson et al., 2008). Efforts should be made to develop competencies based on critical awareness of educators’ own sociocultural competencies, and further efforts to adopt comprehensive pedagogical approaches. Pedagogical approaches can be defined as broad principles, beliefs, and methods of education in individual educators’ teaching practices.

Vaccaro (2019) identified three cultural competency components that shape how instructors teach and engage: awareness, knowledge, and skills. Awareness focuses on knowing oneself, being aware of one’s past socialization, and examining one’s beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions (Parkison et al., 2009). These are important considerations; for example, educator perceptions of race can impact how they teach about race and DEI-related topics (Waymer & Dyson, 2011). Knowledge relates to becoming informed about contemporary diversity issues and increasing understanding of students’ campus/classroom realities and the diverse backgrounds of students (Vaccaro, 2019). Lastly, skills are needed to engage students in learning about sometimes difficult, diversity-related topics (e.g., discrimination, privilege, race, religion, sexual orientation) and to ensure students feel challenged to grow (Vaccaro, 2019). Creating diverse learning environments also involves designing inclusive learning spaces. Strategies that foster this include “being approachable, developing trusting relationships with and among students, affirming diverse student experiences, managing classroom dynamics appropriately, acknowledging and reducing power differential in the classroom, modeling inclusion, and engaging in on-going critical self-reflection” (Vaccaro, 2019, p. 31). 

Regarding these two broader components, Salazar et al. (2017) developed a detailed framework for inclusive excellence that educators can use to promote DEI along five dimensions. These dimensions are intrapersonal awareness, interpersonal awareness, curricular transformation, inclusive pedagogy, and inclusive learning environments. This study seeks to explore the current practices of public relations educators by applying the comprehensive framework proposed by Salazar et al. (2017). 

Intrapersonal awareness. Personal awareness of one’s own ideas, assumptions, and values, as well as increasing knowledge about other cultures, are both important components to truly embracing DEI (Salazar et al., 2017). According to Salazar et al. (2017), such awareness and knowledge can be improved through committing to the process of self-actualization and determining where and how one’s worldview has developed, reading about diverse cultures and identity groups and developing a better understanding of how one’s worldview affects curriculum and pedagogies. Similarly, other scholars recommend faculty introspection as an important part of the pursuit of DEI in pedagogy. For example, Parkison et al. (2009) wrote that the faculty should be open to knowing “oneself, being aware of one’s past socialization, and examining one’s beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions” (p. 6). Fuentes et al. (2021) also pointed out that it is important for educators to engage in reflection on their sociocultural background and position and to communicate this reflection.

Interpersonal awareness. Creating interpersonal awareness can be accomplished by facilitating inclusive interpersonal interactions among students, providing opportunities for interaction, and more. Educators’ commitment to interpersonal awareness facilitates the exchange of diverse sociocultural perspectives and experiences among students. Dialogues can take place that welcome and respect all of these different perspectives and experiences, which validate these experiences (Salazar et al., 2017). Salazar et al. (2017) discussed several tools for improving interpersonal awareness, including empathetic listening, awareness of nonverbal communication, co-creating classroom norms that reflect diversity, and creating group work opportunities. 

Curricular transformation. An essential part of creating diverse and inclusive learning environments is transforming the curriculum (Carr, 2007; Cohn & Gareis, 2007; Salazar et al., 2017; Vaccaro, 2019; Zhang et al., 2016). Educators should ensure they are integrating diverse groups into the curriculum, using culturally accurate materials, reflecting on both whom the curriculum does/does not include as well as remaining vigilant in detecting hidden forms of oppression within curriculum and course content (Salazar, 2017). Based on these things, changes should be made to the curriculum, if necessary.  

Inclusive pedagogy. Inclusive curricular and pedagogical practices enhance the motivation, engagement, and learning of all students, including historically marginalized groups, because these practices holistically invite students into the learning process (Salazar et al., 2017). Inclusive pedagogy views students as co-constructors of knowledge; therefore, it fosters student choice and establishes critical dialogues with and among them (Salazar et al., 2017). It also includes formative assessments and assignments that personalize learning as well as noncompetitive, collaborative assignments (Salazar et al., 2017).  

Inclusive learning environments. Caring for and respecting students not only ensures a safe learning space, but also fosters an environment where DEI thrives. Educators should create opportunities for authentic interactions with and among students, avoid actions that encourage tokenism, learn about students’ backgrounds and learning styles, show pride in student achievement, and provide constructive feedback (Salazar et al., 2017). 

Based on the above discussion, this study proposes the following research question to explore the pedagogical approaches currently prevalent among public relations educators.

RQ2: To what extent are the pedagogical approaches discussed above being implemented by public relations educators to advance DEI in the classroom?


A self-administered online survey was conducted to answer the proposed research questions. A survey method was selected in consideration of the descriptive nature of this study, which explores the current status of DEI practices in the classroom among public relations educators. The target population was public relations educators in higher education institutions in the United States. A convenience sampling method was used, allowing public relations educators who wished to participate in the survey to participate in the survey. To recruit participants for this study, we sent out survey invitation emails using the listserves for the public relations divisions of the Association of Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), as it is one of the largest email lists with a wide range of public relations educators in the United States: “AEJMC’s public relations division is the largest organization of public relations educators in the world. Its 500+ members represent institutions of higher learning in the United States and about two dozen countries around the world” (Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, 2022). To extend the reach of survey invitations beyond AEJMC’s email list, we also placed posts encouraging participation in the survey on the social media pages of academic and public relations organizations, including major academic communication associations (e.g., National Communication Association, International Communication Association, Association of Journalism and Mass Communication) and professional associations (e.g., Public Relations Society of America Educators Academy). Respondents who identified themselves as public relations educators and agreed on the informed consent page were able to participate in the survey. The survey was conducted from late April to early May 2022. After the survey was launched, several email notifications were sent to public relations educators using the AEJMC listserv, and reminders were posted on the social media pages mentioned above. On day 10 after the start of data collection, we closed the survey site as the number of survey participants was no longer increasing. 

A total of 101 public relations educators participated in the survey, but after removing incomplete responses, a total of 77 responses were used for analysis. Among them, 25.97% were male (n=20), 70.12% were female (n=54), 2.58% were non-binary (n=2), and 1.29% (n=1) preferred not to respond. When asked about race, 2.58% (n=2) identitfied as African American/Black, 18.06% (n=14) as Asian, 61.92% (n=48) as White, 3.87% (n=3) as Hispanic, 5.16% (n=4) reported being Other, and 9.03% (n=7) preferred not to respond. The ages of the study participants was between 27 to 71 years, with a range of approximately 47 years (SD=11.96). When asked how long they had been public relations educators, they answered, on average, about 12 years (SD=8.376). As for the current job position of respondents, 10.32% (n=8) were non-tenure-track instructors, 29.67% (n=23) were tenure-track assistant professors, 19.35% were tenure-track associate professors (n=15), and 19.35% (n=15) were tenure-track professors. The political affilications of the survey participants was 38.7% Democrat (n=30), 5.16% Republican (n=4), and 18.06% independent (n=14). Approximately 56.76% (n=44) of respondents work at universities/colleges with between 20,000 and 35,000 students, but the distribution of university sizes where respondents work ranged from fewer than 5,000 to more than 50,000. Approximately 67.08% (n=52) of respondents worked at public universities. Respondents’ colleges/universities were located across the United States, with 33.54% (n=26) located in the Northeast, 6.45% (n=5) in the Midwest, 34.83% (n=27) in the South, and 9.03 %(n=7) in the West.

Survey Instruments   

First, the structural elements of the curriculum were evaluated through five aspects: value statements and policies in course materials, course objectives and learning outcomes, textbook selection/reading selection, assignments, and course evaluation. Measurements of structural elements were adapted from previous studies to suit the purpose of this study (Cohn & Gareis, 2007; Fuentes et al., 2021; Vaccaro, 2019). Second, the pedagogical approach to DEI was measured in terms of intrapersonal awareness, interpersonal awareness, professional development, curriculum transformation, inclusive pedagogy, and building an inclusive learning environment.  Most of the measurement items for pedagogical approaches were adopted from Salazar et al. (2017), and further, we added items from Parkison et al. (2009) and Vaccaro (2019) to explore pedagogical approaches more comprehensively. All measures used a 7-point Likert scale (1-strongly disagree, 7-strongly agree). Appendix A details all measurement items.

While we reported Cronbach’s alpha score for reader reference, these measures do not necessarily assume internal consistency between items (especially structural elements of the curriculum’s subdimensions). Therefore, we report results with more focus on the descriptive statistics of individual items, e.g., in considerations related to textbook selection, the instructor may consider some items while not considering others. As such measures of structural elements of the curriculum do not expect similar responses in all sub-items, it is appropriate to report the descriptive statistics of each item. 


Descriptive statistics for tested aspects of DEI practices are explained below. In the order of the presented research questions, we first present the results related to the structural components of the curriculum implemented by public relations educators to advance DEI in the classroom (i.e., value statement and policies, course objectives and learning outcomes, textbook/reading selection, assignments, and course evaluation). We then present the descriptive statistics for aspects of the pedagogical approaches that public relations educators are using to advance DEI in the classroom (i.e., intrapersonal awareness, interpersonal awareness, curricular transformation, inclusive pedagogy, and inclusive learning environments). 

Structural Elements

Value statement and policies.

When asked if the lecture materials included explanations of values and policies related to DEI, the average score for responses in the seven areas was 5.52 (SD=1.14), indicating “somewhat agree” to “agree.” Looking at the individual areas, the inclusion of disability-related accommodation statements received the highest score (M=6.57, SD=.91). However, in all other respects, items related to formal inclusion of diversity-related value statements or policies in course materials (e.g., institutional values and policies on diversity and inclusion, instructor values, ground rules for class participation, etc.) scored relatively lower, ranging from 4.95 (SD=1.85) to 5.76 (SD=1.35). The item, “I highlight diversity in the course description and acknowledge intersectionality,” received the lowest score at 4.95 (SD=1.85), indicating less than “somewhat agree.”      

Course objectives and learning outcomes.

For questions about inclusion of curriculum goals or learning outcomes related to diversity and inclusion, the average score was 4.74 (SD=1.56). Looking at the individual items, survey participants’ responses scored 4.41 (SD=1.58) to the question about whether the courses have a course objective and associated learning outcomes designed to promote diversity and inclusion in general. This indicates that responses were closer to “neither agree nor disagree” with respect to inclusion of course objectives/learning outcomes that promote overall diversity and inclusion. Survey participants’ responses scored 4.91 (SD=1.66) when asked whether their courses have course objectives and relevant learning outcomes to promote diversity and inclusion in relation to the subjects they teach. That is, the inclusion of course objectives and related learning outcomes for subject-specific diversity and inclusion also falls short of “somewhat agree.” 

Textbook/reading selection.

Respondents were asked on nine items what aspects of DEI they consider when selecting textbooks and/or reading materials. The overall score for textbook-related items was about 5.28 (SD=1.14), indicating that respondents somewhat agreed with various considerations related to textbook selection. However, depending on the item, the range of responses was rather wide, from 3.74 (SD=2.18) to 5.97 (SD=1.12). Looking at the responses for each item, “I carefully think about which resources are necessary and consider affordable options and alternatives” received the highest score with a score of 5.97 (SD=1.12). In addition, considerations, such as whether “textbooks/readings can serve to empower and encourage students in all voices,” “textbooks/readings include diverse people (e.g., minorities, women, and people with disabilities) as content experts or authorities,” and “the examples and application of textual materials extend to diverse groups of people, such as minorities, women, and people with disabilities,” also received a relatively high score of 5.65 (SD=1.45), 5.69 (SD=1.45), and 5.59 (SD=1.47), respectively. As items to be considered when selecting textbooks/readings, responses to the following three items were closer to 5, indicating “somewhat agree,” than 6, indicating “agree”: “In photographs and graphics, diverse groups of people are depicted in positions of power with the same frequency as those in the majority” (M=5.16, SD=1.63), “textbooks/readings reflect diversity and inclusion regarding culture, gender, ethnicity, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, education, and religion, whenever possible, taking into account the context of the particular subject being addressed (M=5.39, SD=1.47),” and “textbooks/readings are affordable or open access” (M=5.42, SD=1.42). Two items scored relatively lower than the others. “Textbooks/readings provide accessible and structured text and images to meet the needs of diverse learners (e.g., providing alternative means of access to multimedia content in formats that meet the needs of diverse learners when applicable)” received a score less than 5 (M=4.96, SD=1.51). Whether instructors request additional desk copies of course materials that can be reserved by the library received the lowest score at 3.74 (SD=2.18). 


Respondents were asked about the extent to which they considered the diversity of learning abilities and integrate creative tasks that promote group cohesion in relation to class assignments through six items (M=5.08, SD=1.03). The item “I incorporate noncompetitive, collaborative assignments and group work” received the highest score at 6.29 (SD=1.11), followed by “I incorporate creative assignments (e.g., flipped classroom models, interactive activities, group-based projects) by considering the diversity of learning abilities of my students” (M=5.81, SD=1.28). While the two items received high scores indicating “agree” or more, the other four items scored rather low, ranging from 4.19 (SD=2.14) to 5.01 (SD=1.51). In other words, the other aspects of the assignment composition received rather low responses that fell somewhere between “neither agree nor agree” and “somewhat agree.” In particular, two items were close to 4: “I offer alternative assignment options to accommodate different learning styles for certain structured assignments” (M=4.31, SD=1.71) and “I include assignments, such as life history interviews, personal stories of survival, and autobiographical writing that will diversify and personalize learning” (M=4.19, SD=2.14).  

Course evaluations.

Regarding course evaluations related to DEI practices in the classroom, respondents’ responses varied across the six items. Compared to other aspects of the structural elements of the curriculum, the responses to the course evaluation were found to be the most deficient overall (M=4.38, SD=1.34), with some items scoring less than 4 points. Looking at the items from the highest score to the lowest, “I allow students to offer anonymous feedback about the inclusivity of my pedagogy and take suggestions for improvement seriously” scored the highest with 5.16 (SD=1.89). It was followed by “Course evaluation includes questions about to what extent the instructor makes efforts to create a classroom environment in which diverse perspectives are respected” (M=5.12, SD=1.91), “Course evaluation includes questions about to what extent the course content integrates diverse voices and demographics” (M=4.38, SD=1.91), and “I keep track of the effectiveness of inclusive pedagogy strategies (e.g., disclosure, risk taking, trust building)” (M=4.35, SD=2.00). The other two items scored lower than 4: “Course evaluation includes questions about to what extent the assignments in the class provide opportunities for students to incorporate content related to diverse and underserved populations” (M=3.97, SD=1.76), and “I ask colleagues who are known for effective multicultural and inclusive pedagogy to observe my teaching and provide suggestions for improvement” (M=3.35, SD=1.87).        

Pedagogical Approaches 

Intrapersonal awareness.

When asked about respondents’ intrapersonal awareness efforts to support diversity and inclusion in the classroom, the average score was 5.97 (SD=.96), close to “agree.” All nine items were close to 6 (agree) and ranged from 5.74 (SD=1.34) to 6.26 (SD=.89). This indicates that respondents are engaging in practices that support DEI in general by engaging in self-reflection and intrapersonal awareness efforts.

Professional development.

The average score for the four items for professional development efforts to support DEI practices in the classroom was 5.52 (SD=1.22), somewhere between “somewhat agree” and “agree,” and ranged from 6.01 (SD=1.28) to 5.17 (SD=1.75). “Attending diversity workshops, conference sessions, and/or reading books/manuscripts to improve my diversity and inclusion efforts” received a score of 6.01 (SD=1.28), while “I work with diversity competence groups to practice diversity and inclusion skills” received 5.17 (SD=1.75). 

Interpersonal awareness.

For items related to the instructor’s efforts to support DEI through interpersonal awareness efforts, the average score was 5.92 (SD=.85). “I foster opportunities for group work” received the highest score at 6.40 (SD=.95), followed by “I validate students’ experiences by engaging in empathetic listening and asking questions openly and constructively” (M=6.21, SD=.85), and “I am aware of students’ nonverbal communication” (M=6.17, SD=.96). Most of the other items scored slightly below 6, with two exceptions being relatively low, near 5: “I develop and practice conflict resolution skills in order to prepare for difficult situations in the classroom” (M=5.29, SD=1.54) and “I revisit and enforce co-constructed norms reflective of diversity regularly” (M=5.28, SD=1.45).  

Curricular transformation.

Instructors’ curricular transformation efforts to support diversity and inclusion in the classroom averaged 5.40 (SD=1.06), closer to “somewhat agree.” “I point out ways individuals from the same social identity groups have unique realities, perspectives, and other social identity differences” (M=5.88, SD=1.14) received the highest score, followed by “I cover differences in my curriculum based on a variety of factors, including race, ethnicity, age, gender, sex, religion, culture, handicap, and social class” (M=5.77, SD=1.28), “I explain how models, theories, and concepts are (or can be) applied to diverse communities” (M=5.67, SD=1.39), and “I consider the various social and culture backgrounds of my students when organizing my curriculum” (M=5.62, SD=1.22). Some relatively low scoring items include: “I audit my curricular materials for the inclusion of multicultural and other DEI-related topics” (M=5.17, SD=1.86), “I review my curriculum for hidden forms of oppression and make appropriate changes” (M=5.23, SD=1.53), and “I invite relevant campus organizations or offices to speak to my class” (M=4.77, SD=1.78). 

Inclusive pedagogy.

For instructors’ inclusive pedagogical efforts, the mean score was 5.83 (SD=.84). Most of the items were rated relatively high, but the following items received slightly higher scores: “I recognize students’ personal experiences as worthy knowledge” (M=6.37, SD=.99), “I incorporate noncompetitive, collaborative assignments and group work” (M=6.25, SD=1.17), “I use teaching methods other than traditional lectures and assigned readings” (M=6.19, SD=1.09), “I invite students to share their knowledge in multiple ways” (M=6.13, SD=.89), and “I include experiential learning activities in my curriculum” (M=6.13, SD=1.19). 

Inclusive learning environment.

In terms of creating an inclusive learning environment, the average score across the 13 items reported by instructors was 6.13 (SD=.81). Twelve out of 13 items scored above 6, indicating that respondents answered “agree” or more to almost all of the items presented. Efforts to support students in various ways, which have been traditionally done, seem to have received higher scores: “I demonstrate caring through attitude, expectations, and behavior” (M=6.33, SD=.84), “I demonstrate pride in student achievement” (M=6.46, SD=.77), “I meet with students outside of scheduled class time” (M=6.24, SD=.97), and “I provide constructive feedback” (M=6.25, SD=.87). Some of the slightly lower-scoring items (though still very high-scoring items, close to 6) include: “I learn about students’ backgrounds, social identities, and learning styles” (M=5.8, SD=1.06), and “I am sensitive to my students various social and cultural backgrounds and the different ways in which they experience the classroom environment” (M=6.03, SD=1.00).      


Recognizing the important role of educators in training future public relations practitioners and ultimately leaders in the public relations industry, this study focused on the role of public relations educators in the advancement of DEI in the classroom and their current practices. More specifically, this study intended, first, to provide a useful and comprehensive framework that encompasses various aspects of the endeavor that public relations educators can refer to as they pursue DEI growth in the classroom. In addition, this study was intended to examine the current state and practices of public relations educators according to the framework proposed for future improvement, beyond the normative proposals for DEI-related pedagogies in the classroom. An online survey of public relations educators in the U.S. was conducted. The findings of the study are discussed below, along with their implications.  

Structural elements 

First, in terms of structural elements that are key building blocks of a course, such as course policies or course objectives, the findings showed that there was some variation in the stated DEI emphasis and/or DEI-focused practices among the five tested elements (i.e., value statements and policies in course materials, course objectives and learning outcomes, textbook selection/reading selection, assignments, and course evaluation). 

The inclusion of value statements and policies in syllabi and other course materials has been shown to be somewhat better implemented than other structural elements. This appears to be because the inclusion of disability-related accommodation policies and explanations is a requirement at the institutional level rather than the individual educator’s choice. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires a statement informing students of school resources and policies for accommodating disabilities. However, the inclusion of other DEI-related value statements or policies that were not mandated was significantly lower. For example, the importance of sharing the values and policies of the institution or the values of instructors supporting DEI was rated as “somewhat agree.” Emphasizing DEI and mentioning intersectionality in course descriptions scored only slightly above neutral. That is, among the five elements tested, the value statement/policy inclusion received the highest score, but the likely reason could be that the inclusion of a disability-related statement is legally/institutionally mandated. As Fuentes et al. (2021) noted, it is common practice in academia to include disability/accommodation statements in syllabi or other course materials. Although there has been a recent push to make DEI-focused statements and policies more explicit in syllabi and course materials to create an inclusive classroom atmosphere that encourages diverse perspectives and collaboration (Fuentes et al., 2021), there is still room for improvement. These efforts can begin as easily as including statements of institutional DEI values, statements of instructors’ DEI values, ground rules for communication, and a description of the intersectionality of course topics in the course description.

Regarding the selection of textbooks and reading materials, the findings showed that public relations educators appeared to strive to select textbooks and readings through careful consideration in almost every aspect of the multifaceted considerations recommended by previous studies (e.g., whether diverse people are included as content experts and authorities, examples and applications of textual material to diverse groups of people, accessible and affordable options, reflection of multiple sociocultural perspective) (Bardhan & Gower, 2020; Cohn & Gareis, 2007; Fuentes et al., 2021; Vaccaro, 2019). The reason this element ranked second highest for structural elements was because whether educators requested additional desk copies scored very low. Possible explanations for this could be that educators are already opting for affordable textbooks, many readings are freely available through the school library, or faculty no longer use physical desk copies due to the possibility of using electronic copies. While it was not possible to determine a reason based on the information available in this study, based on the response that educators are working towards accessible and affordable textbook options, it is likely that educators may use other affordable alternatives instead of desk copies. 

In terms of assignment-related structural elements, the gap between items was found to be large. Although educators agreed they incorporate non-competitive collaborative group work, most items other than group work were rated rather low. Because some public relations courses (e.g., public relations campaigns) tend to involve group work to mimic the nature of public relations agency settings, responses that indicate educators use collaborative groups alone do not necessarily indicate that educators are seeking excellence in the DEI domain without support from other related domains. In order to incorporate DEI in assignments, it seems that educators should consider the following options more carefully: developing assignments for diversifying and personalized learning (e.g., autobiographical writing, interviews), providing alternative task options to accommodate different learning styles, and depersonalizing controversial topics and structuring assignments in a way where students can choose topics they feel more comfortable with. These options are intended to account for the diversity of learning abilities, when possible (Cohn & Gareis, 2007; Clayton-Pedersen et al., 2008). 

 The two areas of structural elements that scored the lowest were two of the most impactful and important areas (these are also areas that require a higher level of systematic effort than that of just individual educators): course objectives/learning outcomes and course evaluation. 

Overall, the explicit inclusion of DEI-related course objectives and learning outcomes in syllabi or other course materials does not seem to be actively practiced. Public relations educators were slightly more positive about setting course objectives and learning outcomes to promote DEI related to the subjects they teach, rather than promoting overall DEI. The low rate of practice for the course objective of improving DEI, which is not directly related to course subject matter, is understandable given the complexity of the course objectives and learning outcomes that faculty must achieve in their curriculum. However, specifying DEI-focused course objectives is critical to enhancing DEI in the classroom (Cahn et al., 2022). When faculty don’t set DEI-related course objectives/learning outcomes (whether set as a single course objective or incorporating DEI into all objectives), DEI-related efforts in the classroom lose their direction and, therefore, there is a risk that those efforts will be sporadic and will not aid in systematically building DEI into the curriculum. This is an important area that needs improvement among the structural elements of courses that public relations educators need to keep in mind and practice.

Another practice that was critically lacking was the evaluation of DEI-related efforts in the classroom. Respondents agreed to some extent that course evaluation includes DEI-focused questions, such as whether educators strive to foster a classroom environment in which diverse perspectives are respected and whether students can provide relevant and anonymous feedback. However, given that these two aspects are standard practice in higher education, and the rest received low overall scores, tracking the effectiveness of educators’ efforts appears to be another key area for improvement. One thing to note here is that, in many cases, course/faculty evaluation items or methods do not depend on individual faculty members. In a situation where the influence of individual faculty is limited because of the use of standardized evaluation forms determined by the institution, how to systematically evaluate DEI-related efforts and provide a reference point for improvement emerges as an important question.   

Pedagogical Approaches 

Respondents tended to be more active in practicing DEI-focused pedagogical approaches compared to practices across structural elements. For example, dimensions that received relatively low scores in pedagogical approaches, such as curriculum transformation efforts and professional development efforts, had similar scores to value statement/policies (the dimension that received the highest scores in structural elements). That is, public relations educators reported that they have played a better role in holistic efforts to incorporate DEI-focused pedagogical approaches into the overall learning process of the classroom, compared to making systematic changes and taking clear and specific steps to address structural elements of the curriculum.

Of the six areas tested with respect to pedagogical approaches to DEI in the classroom, respondents demonstrated the highest level of practice in creating inclusive learning environments. Inclusive faculty strive to transform the learning environment into an atmosphere in which everyone’s voice is welcome and everyone believes they contribute to the discourse (Elenes, 2006; Salazar et al., 2017). In this context, public relations educators surveyed appear to have made a conscious effort to care for their students, take pride in their achievements, provide constructive feedback, engage with students outside the classroom, and work closely together to create an inclusive learning environment. 

In addition, it was found that respondents actively participated in efforts to improve intrapersonal and interpersonal awareness. Self-reflexivity is an important element of embracing differences (Banks & McGee Banks, 2004; Salazar et al., 2017). The findings suggest that public relations educators have engaged in a variety of activities to raise intrapersonal awareness (e.g., by critically examining their ideas, assumptions and values and their impact on pedagogy, articulating where and how their worldview has developed, expanding knowledge of the other through readings about diverse cultures and identity groups, and sharing their own background and experiences with students and more). In addition, educators appear to engage in interpersonal awareness efforts by creating opportunities for interpersonal conversations where diverse perspectives are respected and validated. In particular, educators have demonstrated excellence in fostering opportunities for group work, validating students’ experiences by engaging in empathetic listening and asking questions openly and constructively, and being aware of students’ nonverbal communication. This indicates that public relations educators have recognized the importance of developing interpersonal awareness in the classroom and have worked towards it. In terms of inclusive pedagogical efforts, educators have been shown to recognize the value of the student experience, invite students to jointly create knowledge, facilitate student choice, and include teaching methods other than traditional lectures and directed reading. 

The efforts of public relations educators on these four dimensions (i.e., inclusive learning environment, intrapersonal awareness, interpersonal awareness, inclusive pedagogy) should be clearly recognized and appreciated. However, the areas of professional development efforts and curriculum transformation still need further improvement. 

As a pedagogical approach, curriculum transformation represents the faculty’s effort to look at the course content from multiple angles using a more inclusive lens, efforts to identify overt and subtle forms of oppression in course material, and efforts to critically approach theories and concepts presented in textbooks in relation to social and historical contexts (Tuitt, 2003; Salazar et al., 2017). Respondents were found to be better at acknowledging that their perceived reality and perspectives, amongst other things, may differ by different socio-political backgrounds. However, overall, it appears that a more conscious effort is required in the process of critically auditing and reviewing course materials. Regarding professional development, educators have attended various workshops and conferences to enhance their DEI efforts, but they are not making the extra effort to work directly with a diversity competency group to practice DEI skills. 

That is, even within pedagogical approaches, respondents showed a tendency to engage in soft skills-related practices (e.g., caring for students, mindful listening) or to engage in rather passive activities (e.g., attending DEI workshops), compared to efforts that require additional actions and visible changes, such as curriculum transformation or working with diverse groups. 

Overall, the findings showed that there is a slight gap between the pedagogical approaches and structural elements when it comes to enhancing DEI in the public relations classroom. Public relations educators have recognized the importance of DEI advancement in the classroom and have been involved in a variety of practices in the classroom, particularly with regards to efforts to create an inclusive atmosphere and raise awareness of DEI. However, there is room for improvement in active efforts to bring about systematic change beyond fostering an inclusive atmosphere in the classroom. These may include explicit communication for the advancement of DEI in the classroom (e.g., including value statements and policies), visible changes related to structured elements (e.g., specifying DEI objectives and course evaluations), curriculum transformation, and additional proactive efforts to work with diverse groups. 


Despite the useful findings and implications of this study, we acknowledge its limitations. This study is an initial attempt to provide a framework for educator-level efforts to strive for DEI enhancement in the classroom. Since the focus of this study was not to develop sophisticated scales of DEI practices in higher education, it provides basic descriptive results based on measures adopted from previous studies. This study has limitations with regard to generalization of results because it used convenience sampling to recruit survey participants and the number of participants was not as high as hoped for. The findings, while they are adequate for providing a snapshot of the current practices of public relations educators, should not be generalized in a statistical sense. In particular, self-selection bias may have occurred as it is possible that educators who are more interested in DEI completed the survey. Therefore, the possibility that the results of this study are somewhat more positive than reality cannot be excluded. 

Directions for Future Studies 

In future research, it is necessary to improve and develop measures that public relations educators can use based on initial attempts such as this study. In future research, it is recommended that more participants be recruited using the probability sampling method to increase the generalizability of findings. Although this study focused on efforts at the level of educators; future studies should also look at efforts at the level of institutions, administrators, and the higher education sector in general. Additionally, future studies should focus more acutely on specific dimensions of diversity and inclusion, including age, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. Lastly, while we can, on a normative level, encourage educators to make every possible effort to improve DEI, it is also important to be aware of the practical difficulties and obstructions that educators may face despite all their intentions and motivations to advance DEI in the classroom, and future research should seek ways to more realistically and effectively support the role of educators.  


This study was intended to provide systematic and multifaceted guidelines to public relations educators who strive to enhance DEI in the PR classroom. The framework proposed in this study comprehensively presents the important factors that public relations educators must keep in mind to achieve DEI success in the classroom. In addition to providing a multidimensionally-structured framework, this study illuminates the current state of DEI practice in the public relations classroom, and further suggests areas for improvement.


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© Copyright 2023 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Meganck, S. and Kim, Y. (2023). Enhancing diversity and inclusion in the public relations classroom: Current practices of public relations educators. Journal of Public Relations Education, 8(4), 15-58. https://journalofpreducation.com/2023/02/23/enhancing-diversity-equity-and-inclusion-in-the-public-relations-classroom-current-practices-of-public-relations-educators/

Building Bridges and Relationships Through Balanced Communication: Understanding Psychosocial Factors in Positive Public Relations Mentorship

Editorial Record: Submitted September 2, 2021. Revised January 25, 2022. Accepted March 11, 2022.


Melissa Adams, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Department of Communication
Appalachian State
Boone, North Carolina
Email: adamsmb2@appstate.edu

Melanie Formentin, Ph.D. 
Independent Researcher
Orlando, Florida
Email: mformentinphd@gmail.com

Brigitta R. Brunner, Ph.D.
Professor & Associate Director
School of Communication & Journalism
Auburn, Alabama
Email: brunnbr@auburn.edu


Mentoring relationships are correlated with positive outcomes and career success in both industry and academia. Although public relations mentorship is not studied as broadly as other managerial disciplines, it is a large and growing field. Results of a study of an academic public relations mentorship program indicate that structural factors such as distance or frequency of contact are not as important to perceived positive outcomes as were psychosocial factors. Two surveys (N = 25 and N = 33, 62.5% and 53.97% response rate, respectively) revealed that trust emerged as a central factor for building positively perceived mentoring relationships. However, emphasis is placed on how to build trust through responsive communication. And building trust leads to more positive perceptions of mentoring relationships. Notably, mentors and mentees had significantly different perceptions of relationship outcomes, suggesting the need to further explore power differentials in mentoring relationships. Theoretical and practical implications are discussed.

Keywords: mentorship, public relations education, skills, trust, mentor


A significant body of research exists to explore best practices in and outcomes from mentoring relationships, but gaps persist in the literature (Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, 2016). For example, scholars have yet to concretely define the concept of mentoring, in part because mentoring can take multiple forms and consist of multiple activities. Further, the Plank Center’s white paper on mentoring and best practices specifically points to the “lack of convincing empirical evidence that mentoring programs make a positive difference” (p. 17). Although it only breaks the surface of these issues, this study explores some of these issues through an analysis of a faculty-focused mentoring program housed in a major national communication association.

The Association for Education in Mass Communication and Journalism (AEJMC) Public Relations Division’s (PRD) mentorship program began in 2014-2015 with 26 participants (13 pairs) and grew to 36 pairs and 72 active participants by 2019-2020. Annually, PRD members are recruited via the PRD listerv, newsletter, and social media platforms. Program participants complete an online application form and membership committee leaders pair them based on responses regarding mentorship needs (e.g., primary research area interests, job market preparation), demographics (e.g., age, gender, academic status) and interpersonal factors and preferences (e.g., scholar with professional background, female scholar only). 

Mentorship pairs are announced via email introductions prior to AEJMC and all are invited to attend an hour-long meet and greet held at the conference. For those able to attend, the “mentorship coffee break” provides a formal face-to-face meeting opportunity for the mentoring pairs to make initial contact before moving into a distance relationship.

During the first five years of the program, PRD leadership followed its progress anecdotally through membership committee feedback (received directly from participants) and surveys. However, long-term membership committee members noted trends that might provide opportunities for improvement and to share best practices for mentorship with other programs and academic mentors in general.

Mentorship in higher education has long been studied as a pathway to success for junior faculty and doctoral students transitioning into academic positions. Formal mentorship has emerged as a determinant of positive career outcomes (van der Weijden et al.     , 2015), especially in regard to teaching (Pierce & Martinez, 2012). Contributing factors such as gender, race, the added responsibility of dependents, and the structure of the mentorship relationship (such as co-learning and peer-to-peer mentoring) have been investigated in various academic fields (Ogan & Robinson, 2008; Sarikakis, 2003; Totleben & Deiss, 2015), but few studies have examined mentorship in public relations education to identify best practices or the structure of successful and positive relationships.

To fill this gap, this study examines participant perceptions of relationships formed through the AEJMC PRD Mentorship Program. Two surveys distributed during a five-year period (2015-2020) were used to explore how structural and psychosocial factors such as frequency of contact, responsivity, length of relationship, and trust correlated with positive perceptions of relationships and their outcomes. Additionally, as this program pairs mentoring partners between institutions, distance was considered a factor impacting relationship outcomes. In practice, survey results were used to understand the overall attitudes of program participants and identify any factors that should be addressed or changed in the program’s structure to improve both outcomes and participant experiences. Results indicate that psychosocial factors related to relationship building are key to positive mentoring relationships. Further, practical outcomes highlight the need for responsive communication between mentoring partners and the importance of understanding differing perceptions among mentors and mentees.

Literature Review

To better understand best practices and quality in mentoring relationships, this section outlines existing literature on mentoring, mentoring relationships in public relations, and the psychosocial and structural factors that contribute to or inhibit success in these important relationships.

What is mentoring?

Mentoring is considered important for developing skills, gaining psychosocial and socioemotional support, supporting career advancement, and ultimately, encouraging success (Haggard et al., 2001; Jacobi, 1991; Kram, 1985; Packard, 2016). The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations’(2017) recent report on mentoring describes mentorship as “when a mentor, or someone with experience in a certain field, creates a bond or relationship with a mentee, an individual who is looking to grow [their] expertise in that field” (     p. 2). To note, it is important to distinguish mentoring from advising, which typically emphasizes sharing information about the activities needed to complete an educational program or pursue a career path (Montgomery et al., 2014). Mentoring may include aspects of advising but extends that type of support due to its personal nature and deep engagement (Montgomery, 2017; Montgomery et al., 2014). While mentoring is a term often used in conversation, there is no universally accepted definition of mentoring (Miller 2002; Zimmerman & Paul, 2007), and the term is difficult to define consistently (Crisp & Cruz, 2009; Jacobi, 1991). Some define mentoring as a process (Anderson & Shannon, 1988; Baker, 2015; Baker      et al., 2013; Roberts, 2000), while others define it as a series of activities, an intense relationship between a more experienced and less experienced person, or simply powerful informal communication that leads to career or personal advancement (Allen et al., 2004; Bahniuk & Hill, 1998).

One commonality across definitions of mentoring is the emphasis on one-way, top-down communication (Montgomery, 2017). However, both early career professionals and those in senior positions seek mentoring; and in practice, the benefits of mentoring are often reciprocal (Zachary & Fischler, 2009). Because mentoring is mutually beneficial to both mentors and mentees (see Jones & Brown, 2011; Mullen & Kennedy, 2007; Tong & Kram, 2013), a more holistic definition of mentoring is as a relationship in which one participant shares their expertise and time to help another participant further develop and master skills and knowledge (Kram, 1985). 

Ideally, mentoring relationships include a joint sense of caring, sharing, and helping between the mentoring pair. These distinctions allow for mentorship to be viewed as more than a one-way, top-down relationship. To note, because of the strong connections between the Plank Center and the PRD Mentoring Program, program leaders have generally embraced Plank Center research (2016) and values (2017) when developing and maintaining the program and sharing insights into mentoring best practices. These values are routinely communicated at the annual breakfast and in participant-facing communication that happens throughout the year, both to provide context for the values guiding the program and to encourage best practices while mentoring pairs build and maintain their relationships.

Mentors, Protégés, and Mentoring Relationships

In simple terms, a mentor can be described as a more experienced person, while the protégé or mentee has less experience and may be in a junior position (Eby & Allen, 2002). A mentor is someone who teaches, supports, counsels, protects, promotes, and sponsors another person in their career and personal development (Zey, 1984). Scholars have expanded this definition to note that mentors are role models and someone a protégé can seek when they do not know how to work through an issue independently (Noe, 1988; Wilson & Elman, 1990). Although mentors are often identified and selected based on demographic or structural qualities, research suggests that selecting mentors based on psychosocial qualities can lead to more meaningful outcomes (Allen et al., 2004; Kram, 1985).

For example, while several scholars note that mentors can attend to both career and personal development, some have found that male mentors are more likely to provide career guidance and female mentors are more likely to also attend to psychosocial needs of protégés (Allen et al., 2004). However, such gender-based differences in mentoring may contribute to the continuation of gendered social roles (Pompper & Adams, 2006). For example, public relations is a predominantly female field, but males are more often in leadership positions (Arenstein, 2019). This situation creates a competitive dynamic between males and females, including among females vying for roles to advance their careers. As females are expected to be naturally more nurturing than males, assumptions of female excellence as mentors is often assumed. Unfortunately, this occurrence is not always the case in competitive work environments. Although females report that emotional support is indeed a benefit of same-sex dyads, conflict is also reported due to the competition for advancement (Pompper & Adams, 2006). Arguably, this example highlights the value of seeking mentors based on psychosocial rather than demographic needs. 

Specifically, psychosocial needs emphasize interpersonal aspects of mentoring relationships (Allen et al., 2004). Psychosocial needs may refer to functions that are specific to mentoring relationships (Kram, 1985) or, more broadly, social identifiers that individuals bring to relationships (Upton, 2013). For example, psychosocial factors such as social support, loneliness, marriage status, social disruption, bereavement, work environment, social status, and social integration have been identified. However, specific to mentoring relationships, Kram (1985) found that psychosocial mentoring functions included role modeling, acceptance-and-confirmation, counseling, and friendship. And when mentors helped mentees based on psychosocial needs, the mentor boosted the mentee’s confidence, helped them define identity, and helped them evaluate their professional capabilities (Kram, 1985). Mentors who support psychosocial needs are likely to model behaviors and offer emotional acceptance or confirmation while also providing the mentee with counseling and friendship (Allen et al., 2004). Further, compared to career or structural factors, psychosocial aspects of mentoring are more highly related to protégé satisfaction with mentoring relationships and       deepen bonds between mentoring partners (Kram, 1985). Additionally, the ability to communicate well and competently is essential for both mentors and mentees (Wiemann, 1977). Mentors must possess self-worth and believe in their abilities to help others (Kalbfleisch & Davies, 1993). Mentees must trust and respect their mentors for mentoring to be successful because emotional connections such as familiarity, closeness, and trust are the foundation of mentoring relationships (Bell      et al., 2000; Kram, 1985; Ragins et al., 2000). Both mentoring partners must invest time, energy, and emotions to form and maintain relationships (Schulz, 1995). 

Finally, mentoring relationships develop through four phases: initiation, cultivation, separation, and redefinition (Kram, 1985). In the initiation stage, the mentoring pair learns about each other and are more likely to share information akin to advising, such as career or disciplinary knowledge (Dixon      et al., 2012). Interpersonal bonds grow in the cultivation stage as the partners exchange ideas and build trust (Dixon et al., 2012). The pair may become co-creators as they share experiences. Next, separation is perhaps the most important phase (Kram, 1985), allowing the mentee to demonstrate their independence and gain confidence (Schulz, 1995). If the mentoring pair does not part after the separation phase, the relationship moves into the redefinition phase. In redefinition, the pair form a long-lasting, perhaps even life-long, relationship of continuous mentoring (Montgomery, 2017). Mentoring relationships often grow even stronger when the former mentee becomes a mentor themselves (Ragins & Scandura, 1999). 

Types of Mentoring

Two types of mentoring relationships—informal vs. formal—exist based on how those relationships were formed. Informal mentoring generally happens spontaneously when people identify a connection and decide to enter into a supportive relationship. This connection can occur whether a mentor approaches a mentee or vice versa (Chao et al., 1992; Edmondson, 2012; Grant, 2015; Monroe et al., 2008; Ragins & Cotton, 1999). However, some researchers caution that informal relationships can allow organizational and cultural barriers to continue (Füger & Höppel, 2011). 

Alternately, formal mentoring gained popularity in the 21st century (De Vries & Webb, 2006; Haynes & Petrosko, 2009). In formal mentoring, an independent third party matches mentors with mentees, often using the needs or wants of the mentee to make that match (Chao et al., 1992; Grant, 2015; Monroe, et al., 2008; Montgomery, 2017: Montgomery et al., 2014; Ragins & Cotton, 1999; Redmond, 1990; Wallace, et al., 2014). People in formal mentoring relationships may have weaker emotional connections due to the matching process, and these pairs may focus on career needs rather than psychosocial ones (Ragins & Cotton, 1999).  

Although mentoring is typically imagined as being either informal or formal, other types of mentorships exist. Developmental mentoring is considered an effective form of mentoring that builds on learning and experience (Clutterbuck, 2008), focusing on networking and providing guidance and advice (Alean-Kirlpatrick, 2011). Developmental mentors often challenge mentees to take the lead and determine their mentorship goals by planning and acquiring resources. This task empowers the mentee by developing personal accountability, building self-resourcefulness, and leveling the power balance between the mentoring pair (Clutterbuck, 2008). 

Among other types of mentoring, comprehensive mentoring refers to when a mentee recognizes many mentoring needs and seeks different mentors at different times to meet these needs (Anderson, et al., 2012; Griffin & Toldson, 2012). Maintenance mentoring helps a mentee advance through a plan of study or career path, working toward accomplishing one major goal, such as earning a college degree (Montgomery, 2017). Similarly, transitional mentoring helps a person move from one career stage to another, such as advancing from graduate student to faculty member (Montgomery, 2017), while aspirational mentors help their mentees plan for future roles or positions, such as a move to administration (Montgomery, 2017; Yosso, 2005). Finally, continuous mentorship reflects long-term relationships between mentoring partners that may span the entirety of a mentee’s career (Montgomery, 2017).

Benefits and importance of mentoring

While mentoring relationships often emphasize benefits for mentees, they also benefit mentors, organizations, and society (Schulz, 1995). Because mentoring allows for collaboration and experiential learning, it may be one of the most important developmental aspects of adulthood (Bova, 1987). Mentorship is often bidirectional or reciprocal in nature, and both mentees and mentors benefit from their engagement and experiences (Chesler & Chesler, 2002; Greco, 2014; Lechuga, 2011; Long et al., 2013; McGee, et al., 2015; McKinsey, 2016). Research broadly suggests that mentorship can lead to career advancement, a sense of satisfaction and belonging, and boosted confidence (Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, 2017), but there are also more nuanced benefits for both mentees and mentors.

As expected, mentorship benefits mentees in various ways. Mentoring allows mentees to learn and grow from failure in safe environments (Schulz, 1995). Mentees may ask mentors questions they are afraid to ask of others, such as seeking advice about or protection from political or other uncomfortable situations (Kram, 1983; Schulz, 1995). Mentees also benefit from their mentor’s shared knowledge, career planning, improved professional skills, and competence awareness (Schmidt & Faber, 2016). Good mentorship can also help mentees advance their careers through networking and visibility (Schmidt & Faber, 2016). In addition to gaining self-confidence from mentoring, mentees often strengthen their well-being by learning more about life-work balance from their mentors (Schmidt & Faber, 2016). When mentees receive good mentoring, they are often inspired to give back and, in return, offer their time as mentors, building a source of mentorship for a new generation (Plank Center, 2017; Schulz, 1995). 

Notably, the bidirectional and reciprocal nature of mentoring relationships also yields distinct benefits for mentors. Research suggests that mentors achieve self-awareness and learn to capitalize on their personal strengths through mentoring duties (Schmidt & Faber, 2016; Kram, 1983; Schulz, 1995). As mentors are typically established in their careers, they often share their experiences and knowledge with others, affording the mentor added respect (Schulz, 1995) and recognition as a leader or knowledge expert (Kram, 1983). Mentors also improve their leadership, collegiality, and communication skills through mentoring engagement (Schmidt & Faber, 2016). Additionally, mentors learn from their mentees as they become exposed to new skills, ideas, and self-discoveries when they answer questions, think through their career paths, and re-examine how and why they made certain choices (Schulz, 1995). Expanded networks, stronger relationships, institutional recognition, increased awareness of gender structures, and personal satisfaction are also outcomes of mentoring relationships for mentors (Schmidt & Faber, 2016). 

This is not to say that there are only positive outcomes from mentoring relationships; however, scant research exists examining the negative effects of mentoring (Eby & Allen, 2002). For example, research shows that distancing and manipulative behaviors and poor dyadic fit are consistent factors leading to perceived negative mentoring experiences (Eby & Allen, 2002). And research on graduate student mentoring suggests that poor mentoring can have negative career and psychosocial effects (Tuma et al., 2021). Even so, because this area of research is still growing and generally privileges the protégé perspective, and because most mentorship research focuses on positive outcomes and best practices, the negative effects of mentoring are not fully discussed here.

In short, mentoring relationships cannot be defined in simplistic terms or linear constructs. They are dynamic, needs-based, reciprocal relationships that are as defined by time and experience as they are by emotional and psychosocial factors important to both mentoring partners. And it is with these qualities in mind that the PRD mentoring program has been designed and developed. Although the program is formal because it serves as an independent third party that recruits and pairs mentoring partners, the goal is to facilitate the growth of less formal mentoring relationships. Both mentors and mentees can indicate which demographic characteristics, psychosocial factors, and professional issues they wish to prioritize. Each year, mentoring pairs are encouraged to meet during a planned conference event, which is designed to facilitate the initial contact between participants while sharing best practices for maintaining the relationships. Finally, there is no system for tracking the progress or outcomes of mentoring relationships, although program managers share resources and tips throughout the year to encourage mentoring pairs to meet in some capacity. With this context for the study in mind, it also seems discipline-specific factors should be included in any understanding of mentorship.

Mentoring in Public Relations Education

Formal mentorship is considered a determinant of positive career outcomes (van der Weijden, et al., 2015), especially regarding teaching (Peirce & Martinez, 2012). Contributing factors such as gender, race, the added responsibility of dependents, and the structure of mentorship relationships (such as co-learning and peer-to-peer mentoring) have been investigated in various academic fields (Ogan & Robinson, 2008, Sarikakis, 2003; Totleben & Deiss, 2015). For example, research on female public relations professionals shows that while there are distinct career-related benefits to mentoring relationships, many in the field do not have meaningful mentoring relationships (Meng & Neill, 2021).      Yet, few studies have considered mentorship in public relations education, which often requires professionalization in both corporate and academic contexts. 

The few studies of public relations scholar-to-scholar mentorship have focused on the learning modalities involved (Pardun      et al., 2015) and the impacts of gender and ethnic identity on mentoring pair relationships (Pompper & Adams, 2006; Waymer, 2012). For example, the importance of factors such as shared racial identity experiences and ongoing emotional support can make academic mentors into close friends or even role models (Waymer, 2012). To date, no formal research of public relations mentorship has produced best practices to emulate or has considered the topic from a longitudinal perspective, examining how relationships evolve as participants’ careers progress.

Based on this review of mentorship, types of mentoring, and mentoring outcomes, there exists an opportunity to understand the quality and experience of public relations scholars participating in a formal mentoring program. Mentoring partnerships can focus on both professional and personal development opportunities. Additionally, because mentoring partners in the target program are encouraged to build partnerships that best meet personal needs, both structural and psychosocial factors that impact the success and positive perceptions of mentoring relationships can be examined. These items can include the structure of the relationship (e.g., frequency of contact and physical distance between partners) and the importance of psychosocial factors (e.g., responsivity, confidentiality) leading to satisfaction in mentoring partnerships. This study examines these concepts to identify the factors shaping perceptions of positive mentorship relationships and relationship outcomes in the context of an academic public relations mentoring program. Three broad research questions guided this exploratory study:

RQ1: What structural factors are associated with positive PR educator mentoring relationships? 

RQ2: What psychosocial factors are associated with positive PR educator mentoring relationships?

RQ3: How do perceptions of mentoring relationship outcomes differ between mentors and mentees?


To understand perceptions of the mentoring program, two surveys about the program were used to understand program participant experiences. This section includes an overview of mentoring program participant data. Next, data collection and analysis methods are described.

Mentoring Program Data

Data collected since the beginning of the PRD Mentorship Program shows a relatively consistent number of participants per year (see Table 1). Since 2017, n = 96 individual members have participated in the program. Mentoring partners were primarily female (n = 75, 78.12%). Following a concerted recruitment effort in 2019-20, the program saw a significant jump in mentoring pairs (n = 36). That year, n = 7 (7.29%) participants participated as both mentors and mentees. Additionally, three mentoring pairs formally continued in the program starting in 2017-18; however, anecdotal evidence shows that additional mentoring relationships have continued outside of the program.

Mentoring Program Survey

To monitor the growth of the mentoring program, the PRD membership committee distributed surveys to explore participant perceptions of their experiences. These surveys were designed to understand participant engagement with the program and opportunities for program growth. Of the distributed surveys, those sent in 2016 and 2020 received meaningful response rates, offering this opportunity for longitudinal analysis. 

Surveys were distributed with minimal modifications. Changes to the 2020 survey were based on open-ended responses to the 2016 survey, an interest in exploring anecdotal evidence, and an effort to include items that align with existing mentoring literature. Data was collected anonymously, and both mentors and mentees were recruited via email addresses provided via program applications. To understand the quality of the program, participants were asked whether they found the program useful, would recommend the program, and would participate again. They were also asked about the results of their mentoring relationship including whether they put enough time into the relationship, planned to stay in touch with their mentoring partner, and found their relationship successful. Items exploring psychosocial relationship-building factors focused on whether partners were responsive to communication, seemed committed to relationships, and fostered a sense of trust. Items were also designed to understand structural  factors such as how communication occurs, including which partner was more likely to initiate contact, which tools were used to communicate, and how frequently communication occurred. Participants were asked about the areas in which they received mentoring (e.g., strengthening scholarship, strengthening teaching, strategizing job searches). Due to the number of participants in the program, and to protect participant anonymity, the only demographic information gathered in 2016 was academic rank. Additional demographic data was gathered in 2020. Table 2 shows participant data from both the 2016 (62.5% response rate) and 2020 (53.97% response rate) surveys.


In this section, results from both the 2016 and 2020 surveys are presented concurrently. The results explore the structural and psychosocial factors addressed in the research questions. Additionally, why participants chose to be part of the mentoring program is outlined for context.

Among the most popular reasons for seeking mentorship, participants sought support for strategizing job searches, strengthening scholarship, and adjusting to faculty positions. Further, additional categories were added to the 2020 survey based on “Other” responses provided in 2016. As shown in Table 3, the range of motivations for joining the mentoring program shows a balanced need for both structural and psychosocial outcomes. 

Structural Factors Influencing Mentoring Relationships

To begin understanding qualities that contribute to positive mentoring relationships, RQ1 focused on exploring the structural factors that lead to more positive mentoring experiences. Structural factors of a mentoring relationship may include organization-based influences such as location of the program, physical distance between mentoring partners, and frequency of contact. As expected, the mentoring program examined in this study is just one source of mentoring for public relations educators. Most participants completing the 2020 survey indicated they received mentoring at their home institutions (n = 24, 72.7%), and others received non-academic mentoring (n = 10, 30.3%).

First, 2020 participants (n = 33) somewhat agreed they put enough time into the mentoring relationship (M = 4.73, SD = 1.68) and found their mentoring partner was responsive to communication (M = 4.76, SD = 2.09). These findings represented a small dip in perceptions from the 2016 survey, when participants (n = 24) agreed they put in enough time (M = 5.29, SD = 1.73) and found their mentor responsive (M = 5.88, SD = 1.70). However, using a bipolar scale with 1 indicating the participant was most likely to initiate contact and 7 indicating the mentoring partner was most likely to initiate contact, 2020 participants generally indicated they were more likely than their partners to initiate contact (M = 2.76, SD = 1.786). However, mentees from both surveys indicated they were slightly (but not significantly) more likely to initiate contact (2016: M = 3.0, SD = 1.81; 2020: M = 2.54, SD = 1.67) than mentors (2016: M = 4.25, SD = 1.87; 2020: M = 3.00, SD = 1.89).

Next, participants in both surveys indicated that communication primarily occurred via email, but phone and in-person conversations were also used for mentoring meetings (see Table 4). Video conferencing was reported by fewer participants, although it is worth noting that data was collected prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

  Regarding frequency of contact, participants indicated various communication timeframes, with most participants indicating that communication occurred at varying frequencies (see Table 4). For example, some participants met once, such as at AEJMC. Others met at frequencies that “varied throughout the year,” while some participants reported making initial contact but never actually having a meeting.

Another structural factor considered here is the academic rank of participants. As expected, Chi-square analysis showed that in 2020 mentors were significantly more likely to be senior faculty members at the rank of associate professor (n = 8, 24.2%) or higher (n = 6, 18.2%), while mentees were either graduate students (n = 10, 30.3%) or assistant professors (n = 3, 9.1%), χ2 = (8, N = 33) = 27.73, p = .001. The same trend occurred in the 2016 survey, (χ2 = 15.49, p = .008)

Psychosocial Factors Influencing Mentoring Relationships

To continue exploring qualities that contribute to positive mentoring relationships, RQ2 emphasizes an analysis of psychosocial factors. Psychosocial needs generally include attending to more personal issues such as boosting confidence, defining identity, or evaluating abilities. Results suggest that building interpersonal relationships and fostering a trust-based environment were key psychosocial factors influencing the perceived quality of mentoring relationships. 

In the 2020 survey, participants were asked to reflect on the quality of their mentoring relationships to set a baseline understanding of participant perceptions. On average, participants neither agreed nor disagreed that their mentoring partner seemed committed to the relationship (M = 4.45, SD = 2.11) but they somewhat agreed they were able to have confidential conversations with (M = 4.76, SD = 2.08) and trusted (M = 4.85, SD = 2.05) their mentoring partners. Notably, large standard deviations suggest that participants had widely varying experiences in the program.

Both surveys also showed that participants were interested in receiving mentoring about issues beyond how to meet specific job requirements related to teaching, research, and service (refer to Table 3). As previously outlined, participants were particularly interested in strengthening scholarship and strategizing job searches. However, they also sought mentoring for adjusting to faculty positions, considering career paths, and dealing with specific situations. Notably, participants’ responses suggested that psychosocial factors such as having shared life experiences (such as being a mother) and shared academic goals and ambitions were beneficial to both positive outcomes and relationship development. Unsurprisingly, and as will be discussed, trust was a significant factor for both mentors and mentees who reported positive partnership outcomes. 

In 2016, strong relationships emerged among those who would continue participating in the program; they were more likely to recommend the program (r = .916, p < .000) and find the program useful (r = .916, p < .000). Those who planned to stay in touch with their partner were also more likely to report the relationship leading to positive results (r = .911, p < .000). However, these numbers dipped in the 2020 survey. Those who would continue participating in the program were somewhat less likely to recommend the program (r = .776, p < .001) and find the program useful (p = .612, p < .001). 

Correlation analysis from both the 2016 and 2020 surveys showed that increased responsivity and trust correlated with more positive mentoring relationship experiences and longevity. For example, in 2016, the strongest relationship existed between trusting one’s partner and the partner being responsive to communication (r = .955, p < .000). There was little change to this relationship in the 2020 survey (r = .830, p < .001). This finding was notable because other relationships related to trusting the mentoring partner existed but were not as strong. For example, trusting a partner correlated with increased plans to stay in touch (2016: r = .884, p < .000; 2020: r = .815, p < .001) and believing the relationship led to positive results (2016: r = .881, p < .000, 2020: r = .819, p < .001). 

Building on the 2016 results, the 2020 survey showed the importance of mentoring partners being responsive to communication and offering a sense of confidentiality in the relationship. Those who experienced responsive relationships were significantly more likely to recommend the program (p = .800, p < .001), believe their relationships were successful (p = .796, p < .001), and believe their relationships led to positive results (p = .894, p < .001). Further, those who trusted their partners were significantly more likely to recommend the program (p = .849, p < .001), and believe the relationship was successful (p = .884, p < .001). Trust was also positively related to being able to have confidential conversations (p = .924, p < .001) and perceiving the mentoring partner as responsive (p = .830, p < .001). And being able to have confidential conversations with mentoring partners increased the likelihood of believing the mentoring relationship was successful (p = .906, p < .001). In short, psychosocial qualities of both responsivity and confidentiality were key factors related to trust in these relationships, and pairs that planned to continue their relationship were more likely to report benefits and consequently recommend the program to others. 

Perceptions of Mentoring Outcomes

Existing definitions of mentoring emphasize one-way, top-down communication (Montgomery, 2017), wherein a mentor with more experience supports a mentee who may be a junior colleague (Allen et al., 2004). This nature of mentoring relationships may lead to power differentials between partners. Because of this situation, RQ3 explored how perceptions of mentoring relationship outcomes differed between mentors and mentees. To answer this question, results are described both among and between groups.

Overall Perceptions of Mentoring Outcomes

Participants in both surveys indicated they would recommend the PRD’s mentorship program and would consider participating in the program again (See Table 5). However, in 2020, they only somewhat agreed that their mentoring relationship was successful (M = 4.55, SD = 2.03) and that the mentoring program led to positive results (M = 4.61, SD = 1.92). Large standard deviations suggest a wide range of perceptions about success of the relationships. Even so, participants across both surveys agreed they planned to stay in touch with their mentoring partner; and in 2020, n = 16 (48.5%) participants indicated they planned to continue their partnership. 

Next, although both mentors and mentees agreed the program was useful (2016: M = 6.3, SD = 1.16; 2020: M = 5.61, SD = 1.48), overall positive perceptions of the program were not as pronounced in the 2020 survey (See Table 5). Additionally, results from the 2020 survey showed significant, practical differences between mentor and mentee perceptions of positive program outcomes.

Differing Perceptions between Mentors and Mentees

In 2016, independent samples t-tests showed no significant differences in perceptions of partnership outcomes between mentors and mentees. However, significant differences between mentor and mentee perceptions emerged in the 2020 survey results. 

As previously discussed, trust was a key psychosocial factor related to positive outcomes. However, mentors were significantly more likely to agree that they trusted their partners (see Table 6). Similarly, across multiple items mentors at least somewhat agreed they had positive experiences, whereas mentees reported somewhat disagreeing or neither agreeing nor 

disagreeing with the same items. Additionally, large standard deviations among mentee perceptions also suggest that mentees had widely varying experiences—more than participating mentors. On average, mentees were significantly less likely to consider participating in the program again, were not sure of whether they planned to stay in touch with their mentoring partners, and did not consider their relationships successful. For example, among the noted discrepancies, mentors (n = 12, 36.4%) were more likely than mentees (n = 4, 12.1%) to plan to continue their partnership. Moreover, among the n = 4 (12.1%) participants who did not plan to continue their partnership because it was not a valuable experience, n = 3 respondents were mentees. Additionally, mentees generally disagreed that their mentoring relationships were successful, while mentors somewhat agreed their relationships were successful. Mentors were also more likely to feel they could have confidential conversations and that they trusted their mentoring partners.

Despite these differences, results suggest similar perceptions of mentoring relationship outcomes on a few key items. For example, both mentors and mentees somewhat agreed that their mentoring relationships led to positive results and that the program is useful. These findings suggest that while there are potential differences in perceptions of nuanced partnership outcomes between mentors and mentees, a holistic analysis of mentoring partnerships yielded generally positive responses.


This study offers an opportunity to explore perceptions of an academic public relations mentoring program across a five-year period. Analysis of two quantitative surveys distributed to program participants suggest the value of emphasizing psychosocial factors over structural factors when evaluating the positive perceptions of mentoring relationships. Specifically, key findings point to (1)      the importance of building trust in relationships and (2)      the need to understand differing perceptions among mentors and mentees. Practical recommendations for guiding participants in mentoring programs are provided.

The Need to Build Trust

Unsurprisingly, trust emerged as a key factor in evaluating the quality of mentoring relationships. Most important, however, are the factors that contributed to building trust and the outcomes of building trust in these relationships.

Trust seemed particularly influenced by a simple act: responsivity. Simply hearing back from mentoring partners seemingly set a tone in relationships. It allowed participants to feel they could more confidently communicate with their mentoring partners, for example by reaching out with random or unplanned questions. Additionally, responsivity and trust were positively related to participants feeling more confident about having confidential conversations, building to a sense of openness in relationships. And, overall, the more participants felt a sense of trust, responsivity, and confidentiality in their mentoring relationships, the more likely they were to plan to stay in touch with their partner and believe their relationship led to positive results. 

This finding suggests that psychosocial factors based on positive interpersonal interactions contributed to successful mentoring partnerships, strengthened relationships, and greater satisfaction. This aligns with foundational mentorship research that suggests meeting psychosocial needs, rather than structural factors, leads to more satisfying and deeper mentoring relationships (Kram, 1985).      Existing mentorship research highlights the importance of role modeling, acceptance, counseling, and friendship (Kram, 1985). Arguably, the simple act of being responsive could create an environment in which these psychosocial needs are met. Being responsive might model best practices, create a sense of acceptance for mentees, and foster an environment that helps mentees feel comfortable seeking counseling and advice. And the more a mentor fosters a sense of trust, particularly in a smaller academic circle such as that found in public relations, then the more opportunity there might be to develop friendships. This finding builds on the literature that defines mentorship as a dynamic, reciprocal relationship based on trust and sharing (Bova, 1987; Chesler & Chesler, 2002; Greco, 2014; Lechuga, 2011; Long et al., 2013; McGee, et al., 2015; McKinsey, 2016). And this is suggested particularly because structural factors related to time, distance, or communication modality had little effect on the perceived positive outcomes of the mentoring relationships. 

The Gap Between Mentors and Mentees

Although the findings suggest that responsivity, trust, and confidentiality are positively related to increased positive perceptions of mentoring relationships, notable gaps existed in perceptions between mentors and mentees. Findings suggest that naturally occurring power differentials not only impact that quality of relationships, but also may need to be addressed by mentors.

First, large standard deviations in the data show that participants had widely varying experiences in and perceptions of the mentoring program. These differences became particularly noticeable when parsing the data between mentors and mentee participants. Existing research provides evidence that mentees do not always perceive positive benefits to mentorship (Tuma et al., 2021). Further, negative personal behaviors and good dyadic fit can lead to poor mentorship experiences (Eby & Allen, 2002). Here, standard deviations were much larger for mentees, suggesting that they had a greater variety of experiences in the program. Previous research exploring graduate student perceptions (Tuma et al., 2021) is relevant here because many participants in the program identified as doctoral students. The unexplored issues here are why mentees felt they had different experiences. For example, mentees were significantly less likely to recommend and keep participating in the program. They were also less likely to stay in touch with their partner and believe the relationship was successful. Existing research has found that negative mentoring experiences can lead to negative career and psychosocial outcomes (Scandura, 1998; Tuma et al., 2021). As will be discussed, future research might consider exploring why and how participants had such different individual experiences and whether career and psychosocial or other factors influenced perceptions of the mentorship participants received. This is recommended in part because mentees still found the program useful even though they had mixed beliefs about whether their relationship led to positive results.

To that end, mentors had significantly more positive perceptions of their relationships and outcomes. They reported being more comfortable with confidential conversations and felt they were more responsive. However, this arguably speaks to the natural power differentials that exist in mentoring relationships. Mentors are more experienced (Allen & Eby, 2002, Allen et al., 2004; Montgomery, 2017) and likely have less to lose in these relationships; conversely, mentees may feel unsure of the degree to which they can speak about confidential or sensitive issues. Academic communities—especially public relations—can feel very small, which may lead mentees to feeling less power and control in formally established mentoring relationships. This dynamic may lead to mentee concerns about sharing confidential information, while mentors more likely see themselves as an open book and font of knowledge willing to share their learned experiences. The concern, then, is how to break down perceived power differences and more closely align mentor and mentee perceptions.

Building Better Mentoring Partnerships

Based on the findings, multiple strategies can be used to strengthen both relationships formed through formal mentoring programs and the structure of mentoring programs through which these relationships are formed. These are discussed in turn.

Strengthening Individual Mentorship

Research shows that formal mentoring programs can lead to weaker psychosocial connections between mentoring partners because of the structured matching process (Ragins & Cotton, 1999). To counter this, building responsive communication should be emphasized, and both mentors and mentees can adopt practices to help foster positive, mutually beneficial relationships regardless of the type of mentoring being performed (Montgomery, 2017; Yosso, 2005).

First in regard to suggested practices, if the base behavior to building trust is responsivity, it is notable that mentors perceived themselves as more responsive than mentees judged them to be. Data from both surveys showed that mentees felt they were more likely to initiate contact. Considering responsivity is a simple approach to building trust, and considering the role of power in mentoring relationships, having the mentor initiate contact can show a recognition of and attempt to break down these barriers. At its base level, this step involves the mentor initiating contact; at that point, the mentee should offer the same level of responsivity as is valued from the mentor. Next, early in the relationships, the mentoring partners should mutually define the structure of the relationship and communication expectations. This definition includes addressing the preferred frequency and method of contact to set expectations and provide a defined structure for communication. Goals for the partnership should also be shared early in the relationship. 

Next, to facilitate confidential conversations, create openness, and build trust, the mentor should be responsible for assuring the mentee both verbally and non-verbally that conversations are confidential and designed to support the mentee both professionally and personally. Many mentees—especially if they are new to formal mentoring programs and are paired with someone they do not know personally—may be hesitant to share sensitive information. This can involve confirming the confidentiality of conversations or offering opportunities for the mentee to communicate using tools that evoke a feeling of safety (for example, communicating by voice rather than email).

Additionally, the mentor should consider how they can support their mentee by reflecting on what they learned through mentoring (Alean-Kirlpatrick, 2011; Clutterbuck, 2008). For graduate students and new tenure-track faculty, it can be difficult to know what type of mentoring to seek or questions to ask: We don’t know what we don’t know. This is not to suggest that mentees should adopt a stance of tabula rasa, but to acknowledge that professional growth and learning often happens through experience that mentees may not have. Here, the role of a mentor can be to consider what information they wish they had known, or perhaps ask about specific topics that may be important to mentees based on their career standing or trajectory. Further, results suggest that more than seeking mentorship on structural expectations related to teaching, research, and service, mentees often seek support for psychosocial needs related to these areas. Sometimes the mentee simply needs someone to help them build confidence, define their identity, and sincerely evaluate their professional abilities (Kram, 1985). In this context, mentees may be interested in considering how to balance personal experiences (such as parenthood or partnership) and full-time academic work. They may seek advice about types of service needed to meet long-term goals or how to overcome challenges related to completing research at different types of institutions. More personally, they may seek advice for dealing with issues related to discrimination based on gender, race, or other diversities. A mentor who has had these experiences or can speak to these professional development issues can foster an environment of trust by being open about their own experiences and broaching issues they wished someone had addressed with them (or were fortunate enough to have someone address). 

Finally, if the mentee knows that psychosocial factors are a key reason for seeking mentorship, they should consider sharing information about the specific and transitional issues for which they want support with both their mentor and those organizing the formal program (Montgomery, 2017; Yosso, 2005). For example, one may ask to be paired with someone who is a mother of young children or works at an institution that lacks diversity. By sharing this information early in the mentoring relationship, the mentee can help the mentor understand how to support their development and foster a partnership that eventually leads to a balanced, mutually beneficial, and satisfying relationship. 

Strengthening the Mentoring Program

Results also point to potential recommendations for strengthening both the AEJMC Public Relations Division and other mentoring programs. 

First, the program should take into consideration both the value of psychosocial mentoring functions (Kram, 1985) and the challenge that arises wherein formal mentoring programs often emphasize pairing partners based on career rather than psychosocial needs (Ragins & Cotton, 1999). In recent years, the PRD Mentoring Program has added options for both mentors and mentees to identify what characteristics and support they seek in and from a partner. For example, mentees can indicate they would like a female mentor who has a family or children. By creating partnerships based on psychosocial factors, and by informing participants these were the guiding factors, it may be possible to enhance the emotional connections that sometimes get lost when third party matches are made.

Next, it may be valuable for the program to define more concretely how participation in the program can play an active role in diversifying mentoring options for faculty. For example, comprehensive mentoring occurs when a mentee recognizes they have different mentoring needs that may require different forms of advice or mentorship (Anderson, et al., 2012; Griffin & Toldson, 2012). A program such as the one run by the PRD may benefit from specifically outlining how it offers a service that can provide individuals additional mentoring options based on their specific mentoring needs.

Finally, mentoring relationships often develop through four phases of initiation, cultivation, separation, and redefinition (Kram, 1985). A review of program practices suggests that initiation and cultivation opportunities may be fostered by the program, but less is done to facilitate separation and redefinition—this could potentially lead to feelings of dissatisfaction among program participants. Specifically, the program facilitates the initiation stage by giving partners a chance to meet at the annual conference. At that time, program leaders present information about best mentoring practices and share a tip sheet and the Plank Center Mentoring Guide (Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, 2017) with participants. It may also be helpful to create a mentoring worksheet that asks mentoring pairs to outline what psychosocial and structural goals they have for the year. Next, the program attempts to support relationship cultivation by sharing mentoring resources and sending check-in reminders during the year. This has been met with positive feedback from participants, who have indicated it serves as a reminder to stay in touch with their mentoring partners. However, the program does not yet have in place resources for facilitating the separation and redefinition phases. Although mentoring partners are offered the opportunity to continue their pairings from year to year, no information is shared regarding how to end the mentoring relationship and what to expect. This can lead to relationships ending abruptly, which may lead to an increased sense of dissatisfaction among participants who may have less mentorship experience. The program should consider hosting an end-of-year event or check-in opportunity that encourages mentoring partners to reconvene and discuss whether and how mentoring goals were met. This could also help partners consider whether they wish to redefine their relationship (Montgomery, 2017) or possibly serve as an opportunity for the program to recruit mentees to begin serving as mentors, which also helps enhance perceptions of mentorship satisfaction (Plank Center, 2017; Schulz, 1995). And, if there were problems with the partnership, these could be confidentially reported to the program so it can continue to monitor and adjust recommendations for building successful mentorship relationships.

Limitations and Directions for Future Research

Despite the insights provided, notable limitations exist in this study that warrant further exploration. First, the differences noted between mentor and mentee perceptions in the 2020 study may be attributed to the fact that more mentors than mentees responded to the survey (n = 20 mentors, n = 14 mentees). This potentially skewed the data regarding perceptions among the mentor group. This is also noted because the 2016 survey had a better balance of mentors and mentees participants. Future research should aim for a more balanced set of participants to identify whether the statistical patterns hold.

Next, because the 2020 survey data showed marked differences in perceptions of relationship outcomes and program benefits between mentors and mentees, qualitative analysis may help illuminate why those differences existed. Data showed that even among mentees there appeared to be significantly different perceptions of the program quality and outcomes. However, among mentees, there may have been a sincere interest in reporting honest, if unfavorable, feedback to provide opportunities to strengthen the program. This is posited because participants found the program valuable overall, even when they did not have positive individual experiences. Continued longitudinal analysis supplemented with qualitative research may illustrate how and why such different perceptions emerged. 

Similarly, the small number of minority-identifying and male participants in the study prevented an analysis of potential differences in mentoring experiences compared to those of white females. For example, although the ratio of female to male participants reflected the general ratio of program participants based on gender, this difference in participation could speak to gender gaps that exist in practice. This evokes existing public relations scholarship that suggests gender and racial identity often influence both the quality and the long-term career relevance of mentoring relationships (Pompper & Adams, 2006: Waymer, 2012). Initial findings from this study suggest additional research on this and similar mentoring programs could provide a fruitful avenue of research both because public relations is a predominantly white, female field and because many of the psychosocial factors related to mentoring are often gendered (whether fairly or accurately) as female. Future research should consider whether males or females are more willing to participate in mentoring programs, and why; the experiences of minority-identifying mentoring partners and whether that influences their willingness to participate in formal programs; opportunities to make mentoring programs more inclusive; and how to address gender and other identity-based influences in mentoring relationships, particularly in public relations.

Finally, this study was limited in scope as it focused on one mentorship program. Future research should consider using both quantitative and qualitative methods to explore the factors influencing successful mentorship programs being developed for other membership associations or professional and academic organizations such as the Public Relations Student Society of America or on-campus mentoring programs.  


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© Copyright 2022 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Adams, M., Formentin, M., and Brunner, B.R. (2022). Building bridges and relationships through balanced communication: Understanding psychosocial factors in positive public relations mentorship. Journal of Public Relations Education, 8(3), 7-48. https://aejmc.us/jpre/?p=3195

Exploring HBCU Students’ Interests in Pursuing Graduate Studies in Public Relations and Communication Programs

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted June 13, 2021. Revised October 26, 2021. Accepted November 11, 2021. Published March 2022.


Damion Waymer, Ph.D.
Professor and Department Chair
Advertising & Public Relations,
The University of Alabama
Tuscaloosa, AL
Email: dmwaymer@ua.edu

LaTonya Taylor
Graduate Student
Advertising and Public Relations
The University of Alabama
Tuscaloosa, AL
Email: ltaylor12@crimson.ua.edu


This research responds to calls to support diversity and inclusion within the academic discipline of public relations specifically and in the communication discipline generally by engaging juniors and seniors at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The authors conducted focus group interviews with students (n=22) at five HBCUs. This study addresses the extent HBCU students are aware of or are interested in pursuing graduate studies in the discipline, the barriers to application or entrance into public relations and communication graduate programs for Black students majoring in a communication discipline at HBCUs, and the strategies, tactics, programs, or initiatives that are useful for the successful placement of Black undergraduates into graduate public relations and communication-related programs

Keywords: access, black graduate student recruitment, social class, public relations education, hbcu

Acknowledgments: This research was supported by and was the recipient of the National Communication Association (NCA) Funds to Advance the Discipline’s annual competition in 2020. 

Critical public relations scholar Nneka Logan (2021) argued that corporations have a responsibility, a moral obligation, to address race because historically they have profited from and perpetuated racial oppression. For example, some (Thomas, 2019, n.p.) have highlighted the hidden links between slavery and Wall Street, suggesting that large U.S. insurance firms such as New York Life, Aetna, and AIG “sold policies that insured slave owners would be compensated if the slaves they owned were injured or killed”; they “counted enslaved people as assets when assessing a person’s wealth”; and in an age of social awakening, some U.S. banks recently “have made public apologies for the role they played in slavery.” Thus, we see evidence that some organizations are making amends for their role in perpetuating racial oppression.

While we should view such advances as progress, Logan (2021) challenges us to only view such actions as preliminary. She argues that many more organizations must make amends, in part via their public relations and communication efforts, for the role they have played and continue to play in contributing to and benefitting from racial injustice. Logan’s corporate responsibility to race (CRR) theory answers an earlier question posed by PR scholars: Does public relations have a place in understanding and theorizing race? (Waymer, 2010).

Some might consider such critical race theorizing beyond the purview of this particular study because public relations educators tend to be more concerned with matters more closely aligned with their day-to-day professional lives: How do we make our classrooms more welcoming places? How do we recruit and retain more underrepresented students? How do we best prepare those students for the profession? We disagree that there should be a separation between critical race theorizing in PR education and practical strategies to further diversify the classroom. To the contrary, we argue that if scholars dug deeper, they would find that by addressing diversity issues in higher education, we are also heeding Logan’s call of holding organizations accountable for their racial-oppressive pasts—as historically, racial oppression and slavery were central to the founding, development, and intellectualism and norms of universities in the U. S. (Wilder, 2013). Any efforts to diversify the PR practice and the PR classroom can be viewed as efforts to combat the legacy that lingers from this complicated history. Thus, the connection is clearer, theoretically, between CRR and diversity as good business/educational practice than upon first glance.

From a theoretical standpoint, the link between diversity and public relations theory was established nearly three decades ago by L. A. Grunig, J. E. Grunig, and Ehling (1992). They argued that requisite variety allows organizations to identify all groups and foster productive relationships with each group. The authors concluded that communicators from underrepresented and culturally diverse backgrounds can translate and intercede on behalf of organizations and diverse groups and vice-versa—thus increasing organizational effectiveness. Without said diversity, organizations are vulnerable—as they inadvertently can overlook, offend, or even alienate some publics and are likely to face repercussions for said actions. As such, without seeking and acquiring requisite variety, organizations can suffer immense reputational threats or outright be deemed illegitimate (Waymer & VanSlette, 2013).

The link between PR education and practice has always been strong, as some argue that the issue of a lack of racial and ethnic diversity in the industry begins in college—as college is the pipeline for preparing racially aware undergraduates for the public relations profession (Waymer & Brown, 2018; Waymer & Dyson, 2011). The PR education scholarly literature is replete with examples of how the lack of diversity in practice is a result of an educational pipeline issue; however, what is less explored is how the lack of diversity in the PR classroom is a bona fide educational issue in its own right. For example, researchers have found that African American students want to see and be taught by at least one professor who identifies as Black American (Brown et al., 2011). So, lack of diversity can contribute to underrepresented student recruitment and retention challenges. Furthermore, most universities require at least a master’s degree for faculty instructional status. We cannot hire underrepresented faculty if we do not have underrepresented students pursuing graduate degrees in the discipline. Requisite variety matters in higher education spaces, too; as diversity of thought and lived experiences greatly enhance the learning environment.

This issue has now garnered attention, nationally, in the communication scholarly community. Two of the largest educational associations that have public relations divisions in the United States are the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) and the National Communication Association (NCA). Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)—the nation’s leading professional organization for public relations professionals—has an active educators’ division and offers accreditation of higher education PR programs. All organizations highlight diversity and multicultural competencies in their strategic plans (AEJMC, 2021; NCA, 2015; PRSA, 2020-2022). NCA specifically states that it “supports inclusiveness and diversity among our faculties, within our membership, in the workplace, and in the classroom; NCA supports and promotes policies that fairly encourage this diversity and inclusion” (para. 2). While diversity is a multifaceted concept that is used to discuss several aspects of identity including gender, sexuality, ability, age, and religion, in higher education, faculty, staff, and student body racial/ethnic diversity is arguably the primary demographic category institutions use to assess whether they are a more or less diverse and inclusive environment (Davis, 2002). Therefore, it is reasonable to infer that any effort to increase African American or other underrepresented graduate student enrollment in public relations and communication-related programs across the nation aligns with the aforementioned educational associations’ strategic plans—as enrolling more African American graduate students in these programs increases the likelihood of having more African American students participate in these associations, entering the profession as practitioners, and potentially increasing the size of the pool from which to hire African American faculty.

A recent Council on Graduate Schools (2018) report indicated that in 2017 (the last year of data gathered in this report), nearly 50,000 African American students were enrolled in graduate schools for the first time, and they constituted 11.9 percent of all first-time graduate students at U.S. universities. African Americans constituted 18.8 percent of all first-time graduate students in public administration, but only 5.7 percent of all first-time graduate students in engineering and less than 4 percent in physical and earth sciences.

Currently, first-time African American graduate student enrollment in communication-related disciplines is about 12 percent (NCA, 2018), which is consistent with first-time African American graduate student enrollment in the social sciences, education, and business (Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, 2018). While this percentage is not glaringly low, on its face it appears that there is the potential of increasing African American public relations and communication-related graduate student enrollment if a well-crafted strategy and plan are put into place that explores students’ interest in graduate study as well as barriers to access or other factors that might deter this pursuit.

This study, by strategically examining ways to increase African American representation in public relations and communication-related graduate programs, aligns directly with AEJMC’s, PRSA’s and NCA’s mission to foster a more diverse and inclusive organization. Specifically, this study, in part, is a response to calls by scholars who are challenging public relations and communication to address the whiteness—both demographically and intellectually— of the disciplines (Logan, 2021; Waymer, 2021).

Of the three organizations, PRSA was the only organization that provided concrete, measurable objectives in its strategic plan pertaining to increasing the number of African American and other underrepresented students in PR programs. Objective 4 of PRSA’s (2020-2022) D&I strategic plan is clear: “Increase and retain the number of multicultural students in PRSSA and new multicultural professionals into PRSA by 15% by 2023” (n.p.). We use PRSA’s ambitious recruitment and retention goals as impetus for this study. Further, in the spirit of Brown et. al (2011), we seek to find ways to broaden the pipeline of underrepresented students who can acquire teaching credentials.
Consequently, research questions that drive this study include:

RQ1: How do underrepresented students majoring in applied communication disciplines at minority-serving institutions describe their educational and work-preparation in the major and its related extracurricular activities?

Currently, there are just over 100 HBCUs in the U.S., and around half of them offer a graduate degree of any kind; only 10 HBCUs offer a graduate degree in journalism/applied communication disciplines, with Howard University being the only institution to offer a PhD in the discipline (HBCU Colleges, 2021). These facts compelled us to ask these research questions.

RQ2: To what extent are HBCU students aware of graduate studies in the discipline or are interested in pursuing graduate studies in the discipline?

RQ3: What barriers, if any, to application or entrance into applied communication graduate programs exist for African American students majoring in a public relations or another communication-related discipline at HBCUs?

Rationale for Choosing HBCUs as Investigative Site
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are chosen because they play a major role in producing college-educated African Americans, especially those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds (Chiles, 2017; Nichols & Evans-Bell, 2017). Furthermore, HBCU supporters highlight that despite African Americans only representing 3% of all colleges in the United States, HBCUs enroll 12% of all Black college students, produce nearly a quarter of all Black college graduates (Waymer & Street, 2015, 2016), and they produce many professionals who have earned advanced degrees including “80 percent of the black judges, 50 percent of the black lawyers, [and] 50 percent of the black doctors” (Hill, 2019, n.p.).

Another reason we chose HBCUs as our scholarly investigation site is because HBCUs are diverse institutions that capture and reflect intragroup diversity well (Palmer, 2015). As Palmer (2015) noted, “there are black students who are first-generation, international, high-achieving, conservative, liberal, non-traditional, gay, straight, bisexual, and transgender” at HBCUs (para, 8). Therefore, if we want to identify those diverse African American students who might be potential candidates for graduate study in public relations and communication and better understand their graduate preparation and readiness, we can gain insights by strategically targeting large HBCUs in different U.S. states.

Even though there are around 100 HBCUs in the United States and the U.S. Virgin Islands (Anderson, 2017), only 24 of them have undergraduate enrollments exceeding 3,500 students (Affordable Schools, 2019). Communication faculty found that student participation in extracurricular clubs, and honor societies—especially those sponsored by the academic department—are vital to students’ academic socialization, success, and preparation for entering the workforce as a communication professional (Nadler, 1997; Waymer, 2014; Waymer et al., 2018). Thus, students who are either involved with a Lambda Pi Eta chapter—the National Communication Association’s (2019) official national honor society at four-year colleges and universities—or a Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA)—“the foremost organization for students interested in public relations and communications [that advocates for] rigorous academic standards for public relations education, the highest ethical principles and diversity in the profession” (PRSSA, 2019, para 1), should be highly motivated, high-achieving students who have the acumen and might possess the drive to pursue graduate study. The five institutions included in this study meet the criteria above and represent the Mid-Atlantic region, the Southeastern region, and the Southern region of the U.S..

In this study, we visited, in-person, five HBCUs and conducted one focus group interview per site with 4 to 5 undergraduate students per group at each institution (N=22, 12 women, 10 men. We visited one HBCU in South Carolina, one HBCU in Alabama, one HBCU in Louisiana, and two HBCUs in the Washington, D. C., Maryland, Virginia (DMV) metropolitan area. In some instances, participants volunteered their classification year in school. These data were collected between January and February 2020. Nine other schools agreed to participate in this study, but travel plans were canceled due to COVID-19. While it may have been possible to conduct additional focus groups via Internet technologies such as Zoom, we deemed in-person visits to be vital because HBCUs have a unique culture all their own: The Yard.

For hundreds of thousands of folks who have attended HBCUs since the first historically Black college, Cheyney, Pennsylvania’s The Institution for Colored Youth, was established in 1837, the term evokes a myriad of images. The Yard is a celebration of unapologetic Blackness. It’s the gathering place on campus where students can hang out, catch up between classes, break intellectual bread, get it in at the campus party or fall in love. The Yard helped fuel the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and ‘60s. Here, Black lives have always mattered. (One Yard, 2020)

Zoom would not enable the researchers to walk across campuses, get first-hand looks at the classrooms, the facilities and equipment, or to experience, personally, the pride and culture exhibited at these institutions. One might argue that one cannot fully appreciate HBCU culture without witnessing it first-hand. Furthermore, if participants complained about lack of resources, we were able to verify those claims immediately. Students participated in focus group interviews which lasted about 1 hour each. All focus groups were transcribed by authors.

The authors conducted focus groups to examine HBCU students’ knowledge and perceptions of graduate study in public relations and communication-related disciplines in the United States. Focus groups as a research method (see Goldman & Waymer, 2014; Krueger, 1994; Morgan, 1996, 1997) is an optimal method for this study because this demographic is highly susceptible to peer influence. Often scholars who explore social influence and peer pressure among college-aged students do so as a means of examining students’ willingness to engage in risky behaviors such as consuming too much alcohol or engaging in risky sex (Borsari & Carey, 2001; Fielder & Carey, 2010). We, however, believe that social influence and peer pressure also can lead to positive behaviors, such as encouraging students from underrepresented groups, in a group setting, to consider the possibilities of pursuing graduate education. As such, it is key to see how a group of college-aged students in the same peer group would view and discuss the potential of graduate education. Thus, this method allows the researchers to adequately address the research questions.

According to Krueger (1994) focus groups are “carefully planned discussion[s] designed to obtain perceptions on a defined area of interest in a permissive, non-threatening environment” (p. 6). Focus group methodological best practices suggest that participants are arranged in a way that they can provide and receive eye contact from the focus group moderator and each other, and these arrangements were adapted in this study (Krueger, 1994).

I, the first author, an African American man, post-graduate degree holder, moderated each focus group. While I had no formal relationship with the participants, I was welcomed as being a member of the community. Scholars have argued that for researchers to recruit and retain study participants successfully as well as facilitate group rapport, using team members who are recognized as welcomed members of the target population or community is crucial (White et al., 2019). I established rapport with both the participants and the administrators who granted access to the students by talking about my experiences—successes and challenges—of being a student-centered faculty member at a prominent HBCU from 2017-2019. I was able to draw from my prior published studies on HBCUs to demonstrate expertise on the subject matter. Also, my credibility was bolstered by my post-graduate degree, given the focus of the study centered on uncovering access, barriers, and opportunities for graduate study for HBCU undergraduate students. I represented an example, a different voice than their current professors, of what one could pursue with a graduate degree in the discipline.
All sessions were audio recorded. After participants were introduced to the study and topic and completed the consent forms, the first author asked the participants a series of questions about their view of graduate education in public relations and communication-related disciplines. All comments made during the sessions and the moderator notes counted as data.

After the data were gathered, we began analyzing data. We each read and analyzed the transcripts of participants. The multiple readings ensured that our potential different perceptions would be addressed via reading and discussion, as the second author is an African American female. As the reading and rereading of transcripts occurred (stopping the recordings frequently to discuss the meaning of statements), we began the process of memoing, comparing and interrogating categories using generative questions, and developing themes using grounded theory (see Charmaz, 2005; Glaser, 1978; Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Locke, 2001). We used inductive analysis. This prescribes linking and relating sub-categories by denoting conditions, context, and consequences, based on the structure of the interview guide. We examined interviews to answer the research questions by identifying repetitive themes and concepts that addressed the questions until the list became repetitive and exhaustive (see Strauss & Corbin, 1990). This process allowed us to analyze the data without making assumptions; additionally, it involved paying close attention to the data beginning at the point of data collection. Throughout the iterative process of analysis, we wrote memos that summarized relationships between codes, captured insights and impressions into the data, and elaborated on key conceptual issues (Glaser, 1978). The themes of responses manifested through a method of constant comparison and evaluation of the transcripts, looking at causal conditions, context, and interactions. Finally, we examined the central ideas that emerged from the aggregate of concepts and made inferences and recommendations based upon them.

In response to RQ1, students shared a variety of reasons for choosing their majors and talked about their preparedness via the curriculum in several ways. Four dominant themes emerged. These themes are as follows: How do students choose their communications major? What are their exploratory experiences during college? What are their post-graduation career plans? What are their perceptions of their job preparedness on the market? Each of these themes is discussed in greater detail below.

Selection of Student Majors
First, many mentioned that their majors aligned with their interests and talents. Several told the moderator that they enjoyed speaking and were good at communicating, excelled in writing, considered themselves vocal, or had been told they had a good or unique voice for careers in television or radio. Some students were driven by a desire to help others and felt that studying communication would allow them to fulfill that desire. Students also mentioned lifelong goals of being on TV or the radio. Others recalled admiring media figures on news or sports broadcasts or discussed interests in social media, trends, image, and branding that drew them to study communications. They also identified the influence of others who enjoyed studying communication. One student shared that her goal was to increase the representation of African American women on television.

Several students perceived communication to be a field that would give them the freedom to be creative, express themselves through their work, or develop their own career paths. Some were drawn to the breadth of the field. Others described a desire to use their skills behind the scenes. “My biggest goal is to…portray people’s dreams the way they wanted them to be portrayed,” one student said.

Students talked about choosing communication majors through a process of discovery after trying other fields. Some mentioned not liking math, struggling in their original courses of study, realizing they lacked passion for their original area, or simply evaluating their strengths and weaknesses, leading to another choice of major. While some students changed their majors, others changed their emphases within a communication program. For example, one student realized that she liked journalism but did not want to become a reporter. She found that she enjoyed devising communication strategies. As a result, she changed her emphasis from journalism to public relations. Others spoke about discovering that they preferred PR to marketing. Students talked about the influence of parents, members of a parent’s network, or a professor in helping them decide to study public relations or communication.

Post-Graduation Career Plans
Some students shared that they planned to go to graduate school to pursue careers in media or film. Media and film were a popular option for a couple of reasons: first, at two of the smaller HBCUs we visited, the schools did not have the resources to have an exclusive public relations curriculum; thus, students enrolled in other classes such as media and film to complete their degree requirements. Second, students wanted to be famous and be on television as indicated above, so they assumed studying media and film could prepare them for fame and acclaim. Thus, while students overall expressed some interest in graduate school, their plans were not well-articulated. In fact, several shared the fallacious sentiment that the master’s degree is the “new bachelor’s” degree, so they knew they needed to go back to school eventually to “stay ahead,” earn their desired salary, or achieve other long-term goals. For many, this was the extent of their reflection on graduate school. Several expressed a desire to take a semester or a year off before returning for a graduate degree, and some hoped to attend schools that are closer to their families. Many saw graduate study as a way to broaden the range of opportunities available to them and had researched them. Samantha stated: “I feel like I need to master more skills, and grad school will definitely help me do that.”

Other students hoped to go directly into the field, working as publicists or in corporate marketing communication departments. Many said that they already had strong connections with potential employers. Some of these students planned to pursue additional study but first wanted to work in industry. They felt unsure about the timing of a return to school, wanted to gain job experience, or hoped to work for major media outlets or leading PR firms. Many wanted to get a sense of what to specialize in before returning to school.

Financial concerns factored into students’ decision-making; for example, some students were interested in online graduate programs that would allow them to study while building their careers, noting that they were expected to become financially independent after graduation. Some expressed a desire to earn good salaries. Others said they planned to pursue a master’s degree eventually but would need significant financial support.

Exploratory Experiences
The students who participated in the focus groups had a broad range of experiences related to jobs, internships, and other preparation to enter the field. Some students mentioned having more than one internship, which allowed them to talk with professionals about their education and career paths. Several made inroads at large companies, including IBM and BET; one had written bylined articles for the food section of a local newspaper. One student observed that her internship “reinforced what I learned in class” and “made the experience better. I was actually going out on assignments and having to shoot, edit, and all that kind of stuff.” Another found that her internship opened her eyes to the 24/7 nature of some jobs in PR. A student who gained experience at a firm owned by an alumnus of her school had significant responsibilities for social media but realized she eventually wanted a broader portfolio of projects. Another learned that she preferred PR over broadcasting as a result of her experiences. One did an internship at a local nonprofit organization. Some students mentioned opportunities in campus media, including newspapers, radio, and TV stations. Others gained professional experience by using what they had learned in the classroom to promote student clubs.

While some students felt that their departments had made valuable connections, others wanted more variety in their options for internships. Some students in the DMV felt that “It’s either Capitol Hill or pretty much nothing.” Some sensed that there were many resources for internships but that the information wasn’t communicated well or was limited to select students. Some felt that local Black-owned businesses were not helpful to students seeking internships. Others mentioned having personal or mental health struggles that prevented them from pursuing internships.

Several students mentioned the effect that finances had on their ability to pursue internships. Students who had greater financial responsibilities often could not afford to take unpaid internships and felt at a disadvantage. One student noted that she had worked at restaurants and was good at marketing, upselling, and customer service. She wanted help to represent her experience in ways that would be viewed favorably as she applied for corporate jobs. Another student, Denise, was fearful because she hadn’t been able to do an off-campus internship for financial reasons:
“My little—my resume is built on things I’ve done on campus. [There’s] nothing that I have done outside, with a company, things that somebody can vouch for me…I’m very afraid because I don’t think my resume and my experience is going to get me to where I want to be and what I can imagine.”

Preparation for the Job Market: “Networking Center” vs. A Place to “Get It out the Mud”
Students also reported a range of experiences with preparation for the job market. Students at a DMV, higher-resourced HBCU comparatively viewed their department as “a networking center.” Students at this institution said their school had a reputation for helping students find internships: “They put us on with so many internships and opportunities and they make sure that we’ll at least be in the right track to have a job by the time we graduate.” Students observed that their department held frequent career fairs and internship fairs—some specifically for communication and PR students—and that many of their professors are well-known, work in PR, and own consulting firms. They felt that they were receiving an experience that was better than students at some PWIs and other HBCUs.

At other schools, students expressed that their professors provided training, prepared them to compete with students from larger schools, and often e-mailed information about local jobs. One student observed that professors played a significant role in preparing students for potential challenges they may face as Black professionals: “They…encourage us to keep going because of the lack of representation…they keep it real with us…they try to encourage us to keep going and to just do as much as we can.”
Conversely, some students at lesser-resourced HBCUs expressed deep frustration with their institutions, observing, for example, that their software and equipment—some of which had been purchased by a professor using personal funds—was severely outdated. Maxine lamented: “it’s no reason why we’re still doing Photoshop from 2002, why we’re still doing InDesign from 2000, like, we need to be evolving with it too, like our cameras, our equipment, the photography room, like stuff that’s just so old.” Michael stated: “y’all know, we go to [this school] like we’re under-resourced and everything like that. So we got to grind a little bit harder.” Claire stated:

There is a lack of resources, a major lack of resources… But see, this is media, right? Media is changing every day. We’re not changing with the media every day. So we’re learning stuff. Absolutely. But we’re learning stuff that is already setting us behind. This is–everybody says, well, I don’t know if everybody says but I say, me and my friends say, this is a get-it-out-the-mud school, [sound of students agreeing] because you literally have to go that extra mile and get it out the mud.”

The students on more than one occasion referred to these schools colloquially as “a school where we have to get it out the mud.” According to Urban Dictionary (2018), “Get it out the mud, refers to someone who only had themselves to rely on, to become stable, financially, physically and mentally. They drug themselves out the mud, with no help from family and friends.” In this instance, the students feel that any job they might land or opportunity they might come across is exclusively their responsibility to make happen. These students worried that they would not be as prepared for the workforce as their competitors. Others felt that they were being taught material that had not evolved alongside the changes in the industry. They saw little value in parts of the general studies curriculum and felt that they had to fend for themselves when finding internships. These students were concerned by a perceived lack of movement or progress since their arrival on campus as first-year students. They wanted more guidance that felt relevant to their career goals.

Considering Graduate School
In response to RQ2, it was evident from these data that many of the students who participated in the focus groups had considered going to graduate school in communication after graduation. Students gave a variety of reasons for this consideration. Some students had been advised that an undergraduate degree would not be sufficient; others felt that they had received a solid foundation but needed to continue to develop their skills. Many saw graduate school as potentially providing a competitive advantage, resulting in better jobs or higher compensation. A student stated: “it seems like a lot of people, the higher up you get, of course, it seems like the more probable it is that you attained a master’s degree. So–and I want to be high up…” One student felt that having more education would increase her credibility and competitiveness among White co-workers; another expressed that adding diversity to her resume by attending a predominantly white institution (PWI) would make her a more marketable job candidate. Another indicated that she wanted to work for large corporations; she expected the competition to be more intense in the larger cities where she wanted to live. Some students were considering graduate school in business or law.

Some students were motivated to continue their studies by being the first person in their family to attend college; others wanted to continue a family legacy of pursuing graduate education. Students also mentioned being influenced by professors and family members. While most of the students were considering graduate school, many were trying to decide whether to go immediately or take a break after receiving the BA. Others questioned whether an additional degree is needed in the field or felt that networking was a more impactful strategy for future career success.

Factors that Convince Students to Pursue Graduate Study
In response to RQ3, a dominant theme emerged: financial considerations could both “convince” students to pursue graduate study immediately or deter students from pursuing graduate study if they are provided no or scant financial support. In fact, students in all five focus groups identified financial considerations as critical in considering whether they would pursue graduate study. They frequently responded to the question, “What factors would convince you to pursue graduate study in communications?” with comments like, “If it was being funded…and I was not paying, I would definitely just go right ahead.” Several students were opportunity-oriented in addition to being financially motivated. These students said that having a guaranteed opportunity for a job or placement at the end of the program would be a motivating factor. They expressed a desire for stability, and some were concerned about the potential opportunity cost of going to graduate school after graduation rather than entering the workforce immediately. “[I want] something that makes it seem like I’m getting closer to my job instead of just, like, a stalling point to get into my career,” one student said.

Some students were skeptical about whether a graduate degree would provide the advantage they sought. Others were concerned about whether to choose another HBCU or a PWI for a graduate degree, or wondered if earning an MA would cause people to view them negatively: “You’re uppity,” one student said, expressing this concern. Another questioned the value of earning a degree in environments that are not diverse: “The big companies [are] not diverse; they obviously don’t want us there. So how can that benefit me, getting the grad degree to fight for a spot that I’m unwanted in? I just don’t understand.” Others were concerned that their schools had not provided them with the education or exposure to equipment to give them the drive to go to graduate school. They felt that they were teaching themselves in the undergraduate setting and feared that they were not prepared for further study.

Factors that Prevent Students from Pursuing Graduate Study
Students in the focus groups stated that financial considerations could also be a critical factor in preventing them from pursuing graduate study in communications. Allyson said, “So, I would say money, number one” why she would not go to graduate school. Many were prepared to postpone graduate school if their “dream job” became available: “If it offered both money and opportunity,” one student said. Interestingly, many of these students expressed confidence that they would eventually attend graduate school—it was just a matter of timing. Others shared that not having tuition would keep them from considering graduate programs in communication. “I’m barely making tuition here,” Kyla said, explaining why she would need funding. Another student, Melissa, explained that she already carries loans from her undergraduate experience, saying money concerns are “taking me out the game, ’cause…loans are cool and all, but you have to pay them back.” Several students shared a similar aversion to debt, particularly if they didn’t yet have a strong sense of career direction.
Other students shared concerns about whether they could compete, identifying fear and self-doubt as obstacles. Some mentioned mental fatigue and the desire to rest after the undergraduate experience. Students shared that receiving rejection letters would affect them, recalled earlier difficulties with learning or standardized tests, or feared that their undergraduate education was inadequate. Students also mentioned not understanding the application process and timelines and fear and stress related to taking the GRE. Some expressed a belief that companies value experience over education and that a graduate degree may not be necessary if certifications and licenses are available. Others felt that they could work their way up within an organization or would be able to pursue their goals through networking and their natural abilities.

The interviews we conducted with students in communication programs at HBCUs reveal a group of emerging professionals who are bright, ambitious, and realistic. Many of these students are planning to attend graduate school or are open to considering it. They have also sought out experiential learning opportunities to prepare for work in industry. However, the data show that lurking beneath the surface of whether these students will pursue graduate education or even feel prepared to do so is a considerable matter of social class. According to Waymer (2012b), social class is a tough concept to understand fully, but it is one that is highly relevant to public relations. Further, Waymer (2012a) argued that public relations scholars, practitioners, and organizations must grapple with issues of social class “because of the determining role that social class status has on persons’ life chances” (p. 5). Waymer continues:
If organizations via public relations activities have the potential to address large social issues and achieve other social goods, then it appears reasonable to expect that these organizations address at least a portion of the needs of lower-class citizens—who tend to be some of the most vulnerable publics in any society. (p. 5)

At some of these institutions where faculty are purchasing equipment and resources from their own pockets, or where students are using outdated equipment and are learning skills that are no longer relevant in industry, or where students feel that every internship, everything that they learn they are doing on their own and for themselves, we have clear issues of social class that are furthering the divide in our society between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Even the statement by a student that pursuing a graduate degree might lead people to perceive her as “uppity” is a telling aspect of class identity negation (see Waymer, 2011). In the African American community, being uppity is often used as a pejorative term to denote someone who is “taking liberties or assuming airs beyond one’s place in a social hierarchy. Assuming equality with someone higher up the social ladder” (Urban Dictionary, 2007). While recruitment of underrepresented students has been a focal point of public relations researchers for years (Brown et al., 2019; Brown et al., 2011), for a student to dismiss the furthering of her education because of the perceived negative consequences about how she will be perceived (as uppity) in her workplace—and by extrapolation her community—reveals that social class considerations are critical and must be factored into any efforts designed to recruit underrepresented students. There is a legitimate belief among some members in Black community, even among those who are pursuing graduate education, that acquiring education is no “magic bullet” that will ever affect a Black person’s upward mobility, station, or lot in life (Sanchez et al., 2011).

While it is always important to discuss the intersectional aspects of identity when conducting identity-focused, qualitative research in public relations (Vardeman-Winter et al., 2013), gender did not reveal itself as salient in these data. While it is possible that the moderator’s gender being that of a privileged man could have led to gender not emerging as salient from these data, the fact that women constituting nearly 60% of all U.S. college students at the close of 2020-21 academic year (Belkin, 2021), and nearly 70% of first-time African American students pursuing graduate degrees (Council on Graduate Schools, 2018), indicate that in terms of access to college and graduate school, gender (unless we are seeking to address men’s underrepresentation in the classroom) is a less salient consideration than race or class (Mintz, 2021) or the combination of the two (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2021). What is more, social class also shapes the career preparedness of students. Claire stated:
“I haven’t really had an internship at all. So when I got here, I pretty much–my parents are once you’re 18, you got to take care of yourself. So…I immediately started working on top of going to school full time, I was working like 40 hour weeks. And to me during the summer, it’s either you work to support yourself, or you get an internship that’s not going to pay, then how am I going to get around? Where am I going to live? So I haven’t been able to actually do an internship because I’ve had to work.”

Our dataset included students from one of the wealthiest, urban HBCUs as well as students from one of the most rural, Southern, economically challenged HBCUs. With this knowledge in mind, and if we are going to actively address issues of social class via pedagogy, research, and practice, we must ask ourselves as educators the following: what role are our institutions and educational practices playing in “enacting social class norms, reinforcing social class norms, and even masking…[our] role in the continuation of rigid social class stratification” (Waymer, 2012a, p. 7)? Mintz (2021) highlighted how “the concept of merit, now equated with test scores and academic credentials, has been defined too narrowly and has become indistinguishable from social class, denying opportunity, far too often, to outsiders” (n.p.) from lower socioeconomic classes. If we are not critically asking ourselves these questions, then we and our universities are not living up to our social responsibilities—that is to play a constructive role, through community engagement, research, and outreach, to elevate CSR standards with purpose of growing social impact through constructive change (Heath & Waymer, 2021).
Based on the aforementioned findings, we provide four potential suggestions for PR and communication educators for the purposes of increasing the number of students from HBCUs who attend graduate school in public relations and communication.
First, find the funding. Traditionally aged students in undergraduate programs are in the Gen Z age cohort—a group that experienced the 2008 recession during their formative years (How the Great Recession Shaped GenZ, 2017, p. 3). These students are concerned about student loan debt, and they are “pragmatic” about earning and saving money (Data reveals GenZ’s pragmatism about the job market & student debt, n.d.). College financial aid offices should explore ways to help students at HBCUs avoid the kind of debt that limits their future educational prospects. Additionally, graduate programs need to consider how to offer attractive financial packages to potential students. Specifically, PWI institutions with robust internship and industry immersion programs, top-notch equipment and curriculum, and financial resources for graduate assistantships should partner with HBCUs to create joint BA/MA degrees with partner HBCUs whereby students spend their last year(s) at a PWI, earn a Master’s degree, and receive high-quality, practical experience to land top, paid internships and full-time jobs with agencies, corporations, or NGOs. So, partnership with PWIs can be deemed a solid strategy; however, we believe fervently that this strategy should not be used to thwart the continued development in and advancement of HBCUs nor should this strategy be viewed as a rationale for states and federal government not to address the long-standing inequality between HBCUs and PWIs. In a recent article (Wilson, 2020), the president of Morgan State University (one of the nation’s largest HBCUs) lamented the fact that while some HBCUs have R2 doctoral university (high research activity) status based on the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, no HBCUs are among the top research universities (frequently referred to R1 doctoral university (very high research activity) status):

“If we are to address the systemic barriers put in place over many generations for America’s communities of color, we must empower America’s highest performing HBCUs to become pillars of America’s research enterprise, just as we did for today’s elite research universities over the last 70 years. While many of those have built massive, successful research programs, they oftentimes produce research with only tangential value to Black and marginalized communities.” (Wilson, 2020, para. 3)

Additionally, industry leaders and nonprofits should explore creative partnerships with educational institutions, such as the LAGRANT Foundation, to provide students with incentives such as guaranteed job opportunities or resume-building experience to potentially overcome the perceived opportunity cost of attending graduate school rather than immediately entering the workforce.

Second, be consistent with career development. Career development offices remain critical to students’ vocational growth. They can guide students to think carefully about their skills and interests early enough to avoid costly dead-ends on the road to declaring majors. They can also find ways to enhance partnerships with professors and marketing initiatives to ensure that students know about available opportunities—both vocationally and at the graduate program level.

Third, join the “GRExit” movement. Graduate schools can drop the GRE requirement, removing an often-onerous burden that creates socioeconomic barriers, “disadvantages applicants from underrepresented groups,” and does not accurately predict a student’s ability to succeed in graduate school (Hu, 2020).

Fourth, refresh curriculum regularly if possible. We recognize that this is dependent upon resources available, but if partnerships from PWIs, nonprofits, and industry are in place, the HBCUs of lower social class status would have the resources and support to ensure that students have access to updated equipment and curriculum that reflect current issues and trends, providing students with confidence in their education, momentum for the future, and a return on their investments of money and time.

Limitations and Directions for Future Research
Even though we feel we have a good mix of HBCUs (large vs. small, rural vs. urban, Southern vs. Southeastern vs. Mid-Atlantic) represented in this study, we still only conducted five focus groups. COVID-19 severely limited our ability to conduct further focus group interviews on HBCU campuses, and we felt that given the nature of the topic, it was paramount for us to be present on those campuses, for us to walk and tour the campuses and their facilities, and for us to meet with students on their campuses in spaces that were comfortable to them. Even with this limitation in mind, we reached saturation with the themes that emerged and feel our findings are representative of the feelings of current HBCU students and their interests in pursuing graduate education and the barriers they perceive are present to this pursuit. Future research should explore other potential challenges that should be lessened to increase the number of HBCU students who attend graduate school in public relations or other communication-related disciplines. Additionally, future research should ask HBCU administrators what strategies, tactics, programs, or initiatives do they believe to be useful for the successful placement of African American and other underrepresented undergraduates into graduate public relations and communication-related programs.

While progress has been made over the past two decades in terms of increasing (doubling) the number of underrepresented racial and ethnic persons practicing public relations (see Nguyen, 2015), industry professionals and academics alike have lamented and continue to lament the lack of racial and ethnic diversity amongst public relations—both in the classroom and in industry (Berger, 2012; McGirt, 2018; O’Dwyer, 2018; Waymer & Brown, 2018). Stated simply, despite the fact that industry leaders have prioritized diversity in public relations (O’Dwyer, 2018), progress in the area of increasing the number of underrepresented racial and ethnic persons working in the profession or even majoring in the discipline has been slow. We offer this study and its findings as a contribution to the existing vein of research designed to add further racial, ethnic, and class-based diversity to the profession and our academic institutions.


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Teaching Race and Cultural Sensitivity in Public Relations: The Case of Comic Relief and the Western Savior Ideology

Editorial Record: Original draft Submitted January 22, 2021. Revisions submitted February 21, 2021. Accepted March 22, 2021. Published March 2022.


Ashley Holbert
Graduate Student
Advertising & Public Relations
The University of Alabama
Tuscaloosa, AL
Email: aeholbert1@crimson.ua.edu

Damion Waymer, Ph.D.
Professor and Department Chair
Advertising & Public Relations,
The University of Alabama
Tuscaloosa, AL
Email: dmwaymer@ua.edu


In the following teaching brief, we undertake the task of providing a means for public relations educators to talk about diversity, race, equity, and inclusion in the classroom. We know that educators are asked to teach about these matters; yet, many of them do not have adequate resources from which to draw. So, we provide one such teaching brief. This teaching brief centers on the case of Comic Relief and its perpetuation of the Western Savior Ideology. It then takes readers through the experience of how Comic Relief evolved its approach after public outcry. We have provided critical questions and an essay question an instructor can use to facilitate discussion about and to assess, subsequently, student learning on diversity issues in public relations.

Keywords: nonprofit communication, comic relief, diversity, race, public relations education, international PR


In this age of heightened awareness about issues of social justice in the U.S. and abroad, it is becoming evident that if we are going to more fully prepare our students to enter the profession and be successful practitioners, we must address issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, whiteness, privilege, and social injustice in the classroom and overall curriculum (Waymer, 2020). As Flowers (2020) noted, several scholars in the discipline have called for greater intercultural, multicultural, diversity, and international skills and competency for public relations students in the U.S. (Bardhan, 2003; Creedon & Al-Khaja, 2005; Taylor, 2001; Tsetsura, 2011; Waymer, 2012a, 2012b; Waymer & Brown, 2018; Waymer & Dyson, 2011). Likewise, the Commission on Public Relations Education (2019), has recognized the centrality of diversity to public relations education—and has “encouraged it—one might say, mandated it (emphasis in original)—with new standards for accreditation of schools of journalism/mass communication and certification of public relations programs” (para. 3). In light of current events in our world and the Commission on Public Relations Education’s (CPRE) mandate, the time and opportunity are ripe for public relations education scholars to address diversity matters and racial justice more fully.

We know that educators are asked to teach about these matters; yet, many of them do not have adequate resources from which to draw. In the following teaching brief, we undertake the task of addressing diversity matters and racial justice more fully. After or as part of a PR unit on intercultural communication, diversity, or global public relations, the instructor should introduce the following case. It is best to use this case after the instructor has conducted at least one lecture or seminar on the topics of diversity, intercultural communication, or global public relations so students are at least familiar with concepts used to discuss these matters. At a minimum, if an instructor has no resources from which to draw, the instructor can assign for reading and discussion CPRE’s (2019) statement on diversity that details four critical definitions (of diversity, culture, segmentation, and stereotypes) and expected outcomes of diversity education in public relations.

STEP ONE: ensure the discussion on diversity in public relations has taken place with students. This sets the stage if faculty want to use the Comic Relief case study to facilitate teaching and discussion of diversity in public relations. The remainder of the case analysis should be covered over at least two class sessions (50-minute or 75-minute sessions).

To familiarize instructors with the case and to demonstrate why it is suitable for teaching diversity matters in public relations, we introduce the case of Comic Relief and provide adequate context for instructors to see its relevance and pedagogical potential.

Assigning and Teaching the Comic Relief Case
In a subsequent class, STEP TWO is to introduce the case of Comic Relief. Have them read about Comic Relief. Also allow them about five minutes to peruse the organization’s website https://www.comicrelief.com/. After students have read about the history and mission of Comic Relief and have spent 5 minutes reviewing its website,
STEP THREE is to have students read the following news articles in class. The first is written by Sarah Young (2019), and the second was written by Kitty Wenham-Ross (2019). Also have the students read Comic Relief’s (2019) response to this situation on Twitter. Students should take about 20 minutes to read both news articles and Comic Relief’s brief statement issued on Twitter. Once students are finished reading these items, the instructor should ask Reflection Question 1 and then later Reflection Question 2 located at the end of this teaching brief. These questions should drive conversation with students for the remainder of the class session. At the end of the class session, after students have engaged in instructor-facilitated dialogue around Reflection Questions 1 and 2 above, the instructor assigns for homework the following readings to be completed before the next class session.

STEP FOUR sets the stage for what happens during the next class session and marks the beginning and in some instances the continuation of tough discussions of diversity issues in public relations. These are the assigned readings: Charity So White’s (2020) blog entry detailing its newfound partnership with Comic Relief; Pragya Agarwal’s (2019) news article/critique that highlights discriminatory language, ideals, and policies nonprofits use as they work with and describe the racially underrepresented communities that are the recipients or targets of their charity; Charity So White’s (2021a, b, c, d, e, f) Our Story, Our Vision, Our Calls to Action, Our Values, How We Talk, and Defining Racism pages on its website; Cipriani’s (2020) article that announces Comic Relief’s decision to hire new director of fundraising, Fatima Ribeiro; Comic Relief’s (2020a) press release that announces its decision to hire African directors to work on international appeal films and its (2020b) press release that reflects its attempts to address racial inequity; and finally Sandhu’s (2020) article detailing Comic Relief’s decision to stop using images of starving children in Africa for Red Nose Day events. All links are hyperlinked above.

STEP FIVE asks the instructor at the beginning of class to ask an open-ended question that solicits student feedback about their initial response to the assigned readings. Let this conversation and dialogue take place for about 10 minutes. Finally, the instructor should facilitate discussion further around the more structured questions: Reflection Questions 3 and 4.

STEP SIX allows the instructor the opportunity to assess student learning. The instructor can assign Reflection Question 5 as a short essay to be turned in at a later date, or if the instructor does not want to assess student learning for this unit or case example, the instructor can simply ask Question 5 during the same class period as the instructor asked Questions 3 and 4. Regardless of the approach to assessment the instructor takes, after completing this case analysis and discussion, students should be able to determine how well Comic Relief, via its public relations, was able to deal with diversity issues and needs, and they should be able to measure that success against the DEI outcomes prescribed in the CPRE (2019) statement on diversity provided as a supplement to this unit. In short, students get to see how an organization makes attempts to achieve the CPRE’s (2019) ideals about what public relations practitioners should be doing to help organizations be more equitable, diverse, and inclusive—as the commission espouses that “public relations practitioners should be at the forefront in helping organizations respond to these matters” (para. 12).

Now that we have presented specific guidelines for introducing the topic, this case, and facilitating discussion about this case and diversity issues in public relations, we turn to providing more in-depth details about the case for background and context for instructors.

Comic Relief Case Background and Context
Comic Relief, based in the United Kingdom, is one of the most prominent charities in the world. The organization was founded in 1985 by British comedian, Lenny Henry, and comedy writer, Richard Curtis. The organization is known for raising money, via late-night fundraising shows, for those afflicted by a famine in Ethiopia. By 1988, the organization began hosting its first Red Nose Day, a telethon on BBC, which raised more than £15 million euros for tackling poverty during this first event. (Comic Relief, 2013). Many celebrities, musicians, and comedians take part in Red Nose Day each year, and funds raised by the organization are awarded as grants for multiple charities worldwide; the charity has raised more than $1.4 billion since the nonprofit’s inception (BBC, 2015; Sandhu, 2020). In addition to live events, Comic Relief fronts a hefty budget for their cause-marketing collateral, which includes informational documentaries, original photography, and footage for their youthful and entertainment-driven social media presence.

In 2019, the charity came under fire for their use of predominantly White British celebrities in their fundraising and advertising campaigns. Simultaneously, claims began to arise about a lack of diversity across the nonprofit sector. In 2020, Comic Relief made the risky decision to completely eliminate the emotional, “tear-jerking” marketing tactic used by several other charities worldwide, and instead they pursued an unprecedented approach. The changes they made both internally and externally not only reflected the success of a company reinventing their marketing strategy, but they also provided a new framework for other nonprofit organizations seeking to integrate greater levels of diversity and agency at the local level.

Students likely are not familiar with the events of 2019 that damaged Comic Relief’s reputation nor are they likely familiar with the actions Comic Relief took in 2020 to address the criticisms and threats to its legitimacy. These factors make it a solid, non-US centric case to discuss and interrogate diversity and public relations.

Comic Relief Campaigns in Crisis
On February 27, 2019, Strictly Comes Dancing champion Stacey Dooley posted a photo to Instagram from Uganda, where she was working on a documentary with Comic Relief. In the photo, the redheaded media personality was cradling a small African child, with his fingers in his mouth and his eyes averted from the camera. The photo was captioned, “OB.SESSSSSSSSSSED”; it was also one of several similar posts made as part of the documentary’s marketing material. Within minutes, the internet blew up, full of belligerent social media users accusing Dooley of a “Western Savior complex” and begging her to take the photo down. Member of Parliament, David Lammy instigated the onslaught with a tweet, reading:

“The world does not need any more white saviours. As I’ve said before, this just perpetuates tired and unhelpful stereotypes. Let’s instead promote voices from across the continent of Africa and have serious debate.” (Young, 2019 paras. 3-5)

Immediately, Comic Relief was thrust into the spotlight, as social media users scrutinized the organization’s previous fundraising materials and use of celebrity influencers to promote their causes—a key aspect of their cause-marketing strategy. An earlier documentary from 2017 resurfaced, showing singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran trying to quickly pull money from his own wallet to front the cost of a hotel for two homeless children in Liberia. This documentary was called “poverty porn” (para. 1) by aid watchdog groups (McVeigh, 2017), and Sheeran and the organization were accused of using an emotional marketing appeal that sacrificed the dignity of the children pictured and painted a limited narrative where Sheeran was the leading character coming to the rescue (McVeigh, 2017). Other photos used as promotional material by Comic Relief showed media personalities Ben Shephard and Fearne Cotton handing out Malaria nets in Uganda—two smiling celebrities in a sea of otherwise sad faces (Wenham-Ross, 2019). Many social media users were outraged.

Comic Relief’s Response
Comic Relief used Twitter to issue a response almost instantaneously after Lammy’s tweet. Instead of apologizing for Dooley’s actions or their own, the organization expressed gratitude that Dooley “agreed to go to Uganda to discover more about the projects the British people have generously funded, and (we) make no apologies for this” (Comic Relief, 2019, para. 1). Further, Comic Relief expressed that they had offered David Lammy an opportunity to help them with their filming efforts, and he had not taken them up on the offer; however, “Lammy said it was “simply not true” that he had not responded to the offer, adding he had held two meetings with the organization” and that Comic relief “had “fallen short” of what he called its “public duty” to promote racial equality and serve minority communities” (Badshah, 2019, para. 5). Publics’ feelings toward Comic Relief’s response were divided as the story circulated around the United Kingdom and beyond. Some threatened to pull their aid from British charities altogether, while others emphasized that Comic Relief and the celebrities the organization used in their public relations efforts were not at fault for using what influence they had for a good cause.

Lack of Diversity in the Third Sector
Charity So White (2021d) used the spotlight around issues of racial insensitivity and inequality given to the third sector to make their case that a lack of diversity at the management level of nonprofit organizations and unaddressed issues of institutional racism account for the minimal or stereotypical representation of people in developing countries seen in marketing materials. Charity So White was formed just three months after Comic Relief’s crisis with Stacey Dooley, and Charity So White’s hashtag trended on Twitter as thousands of racial and ethnically underrepresented persons shared their experiences of exclusion while working in or with the charity sector. At the center of the outrage was training materials used by a charity named Citizens Advice and its guidelines for working with Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) communities; these guidelines were based on racist stereotypes about these communities being a “cash-centric culture,” having “low literacy levels,” and their having a fondness for “gender discrimination.” Citizens Advice presumed these stereotypical characteristics to be prevalent in these underrepresented cultures (Agarwal, 2019). Charity So White emphasized that these stereotypes could affect funding for charities led by racially and ethnically underrepresented persons working on the ground in developing countries, especially when third sector leadership demonstrated an inherent lack of diversity and racial insensitivity.

The Transformation of Comic Relief
Many had moved past Comic Relief’s crisis by August of 2019, accepting their statement about Stacey Dooley as well-intentioned naivety. Yet, the leadership at Comic Relief stayed engaged in the conversations happening in the third sector, and the leadership began to meet and strategize with the team at Charity So White at the end of 2019 about how Comic Relief could better represent and support communities in the countries, specifically developing African countries, where they had proverbial boots on the ground for their humanitarian efforts. Comic Relief planned strategic changes over the course of the next 18 months, and the result was a new cause-marketing and promotional strategy—one designed to minimize the Western savior ideology in their communication, and the angles with which they framed life in other cultures.

Changing Internal Leadership
While the leadership team at Comic Relief sought to transform their external communication strategy, they first looked inward for a new candidate to fill the role of Executive Director of Fundraising and Creative—the head of their integrated marketing efforts. In August of 2020, they selected Fatima Ribeiro. Ribeiro is a Muslim woman of Portuguese and Gujarati descent who served as marketing director for the nonprofit Islamic Relief over a span of five years; furthermore, Ribeiro received awards for her Ramadan fundraising campaigns, including Third Sector Marketing Campaign of the year in 2019 (Third Sector, 2019). Choosing Ribeiro for the job brought to the organization the perspective of a woman from a culturally diverse background whose stated mission and prior work experiences were focused on helping others understand the beliefs and values of marginalized communities. For example, in her previous Ramadan campaigns for Islamic Relief, she featured references to a verse from the Qur’an splashed on the sides of buses across the UK; the marketing message generated traffic from those outside the Muslim faith to their website. Many persons from those outside the Muslim faith, out of curiosity, looked up the references, and several gained a greater understanding of the month of Ramadan and its significance to those taking part in the spiritual ritual (Ahmed, 2019; Third Sector, 2019). Hiring Ribeiro can be seen as Comic Relief’s newfound commitment to inclusiveness in their storytelling and marketing techniques.

Prioritizing Local Voices and Creating New Influencers
After Ribeiro’s hiring, the first external decision Comic Relief made in October of 2020 was to stop sending British celebrities, like Dooley, to African countries as influencers. The charity decided to remove footage of starving and ill children from their documentaries, even though that particular tactic was considered effective because it successfully elicited emotion from stakeholders who often gave money to support needy children (Sandhu, 2020); however, such imagery did not provide a more accurate representation of development on the continent as a whole. To adequately portray life in the countries where they operated, Comic Relief announced plans to bring members of communities on air as storytellers, captured by local filmmakers and photographers. In a press release dispatched on October 28, 2020 by Comic Relief, President and co-founder, Sir Lenny Henry stated:

“African people don’t want us to tell their stories for them, what they need is more agency, a platform and partnership. I have seen first-hand what it means for African communities to see someone who looks just like them in charge of directing films.”(Comic Relief, 2020a, para. 12)

Furthermore, Kenyan filmmaker and director of one of Comic Relief’s newest documentaries, Eugene Muigai, added:

“This opportunity makes people like us feel like we are finally being listened to. For so long we’ve seen people tell our stories, misinterpreting intentions, beliefs and the values we hold. It has led to a loss of culture and pride among our people.” (Comic Relief, 2020a, para. 17)

Comic Relief also announced that high profile supporters could continue to play an influential role in entertaining and narrating during their Red Nose Day telethons, and they could continue appearing in and supporting other marketing materials created in the United Kingdom; however, the representation of Africans and African culture would be led by members and directors of those local communities. Comic Relief followed these decisions with an online event, releasing three new films from Kenyan filmmakers tackling the difficult topics of mental health, climate change, and child marriage (Comic Relief, 2020a).

While Comic Relief’s initial response to ‘White Savior’ criticisms was deflective and unapologetic, the organizational changes made in the following 18 months reveal time spent listening and seeking to understand the responsibility given to the third sector to help facilitate storytelling. The result is a series of initiatives which set a new precedent for charities with a substantial level of exposure, including changes to the marketing tactics they use. Comic Relief’s CEO, Ruth Davidson, emphasized that despite the radical changes to the organization’s practices, they still knew that they could maximize their efforts to fund those in need and reduce donor fatigue, by showing the ways that developing countries across the world are changing for the better. Davidson stated, “what prompts people to give is an emotional connection—that doesn’t have to be pity. It can be joy, it can be anger, it can be a sense of positivity and hope” (Sandhu, 2020, para. 6). All of the organization’s changes—including the broadcasting of their localized films—will be on full display in March of 2021, with their internationally acclaimed and televised Red Nose Day.

Reflection Questions

Do you believe that Comic Relief did anything wrong in their initial response to criticisms of perpetuating the Western Savior ideology? Why or why not?

Given the backlash, in retrospect what specifically could Comic Relief’s public relations team have done differently in their initial response to backlash for Dooley’s photo?

Given your knowledge of diversity issues in public relations, how could a more nuanced understanding of cultural sensitivity, diversity, equity, inclusion, or race have allowed Comic Relief to execute a better humanitarian campaign?

What are alternative ways that influencers can aid in promoting a nonprofit organization to their audiences without taking the spotlight off of local efforts?

Evaluate Comic Relief’s decisions to change course, to partner with Charity So White, to hire Fatima Ribeiro as Executive Director of Fundraising and Creative, and to change how they created campaigns—by using local filmmakers and photographers for example. Share your evaluation and thoughts.


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© Copyright 2022 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Holbert, A. & Waymer, D. (2022). Teaching Race and Cultural Sensitivity in Public Relations: The Case of Comic Relief and the Western Savior Ideology. Journal of Public Relations Education, 8(1), 116-131. https://aejmc.us/jpre/?p=2881

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/

Captioning Social Media Video

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted June 29, 2020. Revision submitted August 9, 2020. Manuscript accepted for publication September 11, 2020. First published online May 2021.


Lakshmi N. Tirumala
Assistant Professor
Digital Media Production
Drake University
Des Moines, IA
Email: lakshmi.tirumala@drake.edu

Ed Youngblood
Professor and Associate Director
Media Studies Auburn University 
Auburn, AL
Email: ney0002@auburn.edu


Research suggests that the majority of Facebook users typically watch videos with the audio off and often skip over videos that require them to turn on audio, particularly when users are on a mobile device. To counter this tendency, content creators need to caption their social media videos. In many cases, content creators should also be captioning their video because of legal accessibility requirements, particularly if they are producing content for educational institutions or government agencies. In the U.S., these laws might include the Americans with Disabilities Act and Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. This article offers instructions for preparing captions for videos distributed on social media, including guidance on writing quality captions, using captioning tools, and suggested classroom activities. 

Keywords: accessibility, captions, ethics, public relations education, teaching

Ethics is a critical component of public relations (PR) education and interviews with leading PR professionals suggest there are gaps in the ethical components of PR education (Bortree, 2019). While there is little discussion in the PR education literature about making content accessible to people with disabilities, accessibility fits into the Commission on Public Relations Education’s call for incorporating ethics across the curriculum, including the need for students to be knowledgeable in making information accessible, respect for others, and acting in the public interest (Bortree et al., 2019). Accessibility is important to the general public. The presence of website accessibility credentials can positively affect public perceptions of company corporate responsibility (Katerattanakul et al. 2018). There have also been broader calls for incorporating accessibility, including captioning, into the mass communication and PR curricula (Youngblood et al., 2018). 

Why Teach Captioning?

Social media (SM) is a critical PR element and PR students need skills in SM tools and practices that help them effectively reach their target audience (Kinsky et al., 2016). Video is an important part of the PR SM toolbox and students should understand how to make video accessible. Captioning, onscreen-text describing a video’s audio component (Federal Communication Commission [FCC], 2018), is an important element of that process. Captioning makes sense from an ethical perspective because messaging needs to be inclusive. Almost 8 million Americans are deaf or hard of hearing (DHoH) (Brault, 2012) and captioning allows DHoH audience members to participate in the video culture. In silent films, dialogue appeared as on-screen text, so DHoH only missed music played along with the film. Sound-based movies, introduced in 1927, disenfranchised DHoH and captioned films in the US did not appear until 1951. US television captioning began with WGBH’s 1972 captioned version of Julia Child’s The French Chef, which relied on open captions—text that is an integral part of the film/video and viewers cannot turn off (Downey, 2008). Broadcasters soon switched to closed captions, captions viewers can turn on and off, a technique that can also be used for SM video.

Captioning SM video prevents disenfranchising DHoH SM users and also makes sense based on how many people use SM video. Around 85% of users consume SM video with the audio muted, (Patel, 2016), and SM platforms, particularly Facebook, stress captioning’s importance in meeting audience expectations (Facebook for Business, n.d., 2016). Captioning offers benefits when the audio is not muted as well. Dual-coding theory argues people absorb information better when presented simultaneously in multiple modalities, (Paivio, 1990), and captioned video has broad societal benefits among the non-DHoH population, including promoting language acquisition and increasing literacy. Captioning helps with recall. Students retain information better when they watch videos with captions and, more importantly from a PR perspective, people have better brand recall when watching captioned material (Gernsbacher, 2015). Closed captioning improves search engine optimizations (SEO) as search engines can crawl the caption files. Search engines cannot read open captions (3Play Media, n.d.).

Many organizations fall under online-accessibility mandates, particularly government agencies and schools (Youngblood et al., 2018). Federal laws addressing captioning include 

  • Television Decoder Circuity Act (1990): requiring televisions have closed caption Circuitry Act;
  • Telecommunications Act of 1996: established broadcast caption requirements;
  • Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act: required government and education electronic media accessibility;
  • Twenty-First Century Communication and Video Accessibility Act (2010): required increased online video captioning. 

While the 1990 Americans with Disability Act (ADA) was designed for the brick-and-mortar world, in 2012, federal judge Michael Ponsor extended it to the virtual world in the National Association for the Deaf’s captioning lawsuit against Netflix, making it all the more important that PR students understand captioning (Youngblood et al., 2018). 

This combination of ethical and legal imperatives, coupled with user preferences, argues that understanding captioning should be an integral part of teaching PR students about SM video. This article provides background material to help set up an introductory lesson in captioning, including captioning best practices, multiple approaches to creating captions, and outlining a captioning assignment and how to assess it. The article assumes students already have a basic understanding of working with timeline-based media.

Captions and Creating Quality Captions

Captioning is not just repeating on-screen dialogue. The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) offers a captioning framework: captions should be accurate, synchronized with the video, complete (all voices and important sounds captioned), and well placed—not obscuring important information (FCC, 2018). If you watch captioned video, you will find that captioning practices vary. For this article, we are drawing on The Described and Captioned Media Program’s (n.d.) Captioning Key. If only one person is speaking, captioning can be relatively easy—make sure that the captions match exactly what is said, typically including grammatical errors and ‘errs’ and ‘ums.’ With the exception of live television captions, most closed-captioned text should be sentence case, with all uppercase indicating someone is speaking loudly. When additional voices are added, captioners may need to add identifiers to clarify who is speaking, putting the name in parentheses and the spoken text on the next line:


Aunt Linda, how great to hear from you.

Again, conventions vary, as it would not be uncommon to see this caption written on a single line. Important background sounds may need to be captioned, typically setting the sound inside brackets, such as an engine revving up being [engine revving]. Off screen sounds can also be important. If a person looks up when an off-camera door is heard closing, the sound should be captioned [door closes]. Music should be captioned. Examples include [music] and captioning the music’s tone [relaxing music]. In the captions shown in Figure 3, the lyrics for the background music were included because they were important to the video’s content. The captions identify the artist and the song [The Newbeats play “Bread and Butter”] and mark the lyrics with a musical note—♪—at the beginning and end. The key is making sure captions convey all important audio information. Viewers also need to know when there is not any audio for the video [no audio] or unexpected quiet [silence] (Described and Captioned Media Program, n.d.). Captioners need to be careful how they format caption text, and the readability section of Table 1 provides some highlights based on Captioning Key (Described and Captioned Media Program, n.d.)—an article that can be used as a reading assignment. Readers interested in a deeper dive into captioning should read Reading Sounds (Zdenek, 2015) and Closed Captioning (Downey, 2008).

Closed captions work by pairing a video file with a text-based caption file. There are over 30 closed captioning formats (3Play Media, n.d.). U.S. students will most likely use SubRip (.SRT) and the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Video Text Tracks (WebVTT or .VTT) and  need to be aware of which format a given SM platform supports. These text files provide media players with caption text and how long to display the captions. The captions below are from an .SRT for a documentary on the first Apollo moon landing. The number at the beginning of each section identifies the order of the captioning segment. The paired set of numbers on the next line tells the player when to display the caption that follows. These numbers are written in hours: minutes: seconds: milliseconds. 


00:00:10,500 –> 00:00:12,900


We copy you down Eagle.


00:00:13,000 –> 00:00:16,700

(Tranquility Base) 

Houston, Tranquility Base here.


00:00:16,800 –> 00:00:18,400

The Eagle has landed.

In some cases, the final set of time code digits may indicate a frame number and set off by a semi-colon rather than comma. As an example, 00:00:04;18 describes the 18th frame after the four-second mark. Be careful when editing captioning files in a text editor to make sure the correct number of digits are present or the media player may not render the caption correctly. .VTT code is similar, but uses a period rather than comma to separate seconds and milliseconds, e.g., 00:00:47.564 –> 00:00:49.49 and has the option to include formatting and placement information (W3C, 2019). As .VTT and .SRT are text documents, they can be created in a basic text editor such as Notepad. The process is easier with a captioning tool, whether built into the platform like Facebook’s or a stand-alone tool, like Kapwing’s. 

Bringing captioning into the classroom

This captioning assignment was used in an upper-level video production class that included PR majors. The students responded well to the assignment and reported gaining an appreciation of what captions bring to audience members and the effort it takes to create quality captions. The assignments objectives are 1) to understand the ethical responsibility of making media content accessible, 2) to learn the importance of captioning video content, 3) to understand captioning best practices, and 4) to acquire the skills to use captioning tools. Students should learn to include captions as soon as they begin planning and producing SM video and need to understand which captioning type to use. Facebook and Twitter support closed captioning, while Instagram does not and needs open captions. Captioning is particularly important to integrate into client-based projects where students have the opportunity to serve as captioning advocates, helping educate clients about best practices. When setting up the captioning assignment, students need to understand why captioning is important. In addressing this issue, the instructor should discuss

  • Ethical imperatives for inclusive design and meeting the all users’ needs;
  • Legal requirements for inclusive design and captioning, particularly for government and educational institutions (Sections 504 and 508) and the federal court’s 2012 application of ADA to the virtual world; 
  • Meeting user captioning expectations, particularly for mobile devices; 
  • Added PR benefits, particularly SEO and increased brand recognition when captions are used alongside audio. 

Next, the instructor should discuss captioning best practices (see Table 1), including FCC guidelines, and have students watch a muted video and discuss what information they are missing without captions. Crisis/emergency communication is particularly suited for this exercise and encourages discussing ethical and legal concerns. The instructor should then introduce a captioning tool and discuss how to use the tool. We provide discussions of Facebook’s captioning tool and Kapwing’s Subtitler below (see Table 2 for additional tools). Drawing on captioning best practices, the students should caption 30-seconds of video provided by the instructor. The video should have important background sounds and music, as well as off-camera voices. Depending on time, students can begin with auto-generated captions or be given a script. The instructor should stress that copy-and-pasting the scripted lines is not effective caption. Evaluate student captions using the rubric in Table 1. As an alternative, faculty can use this first attempt at captioning as an opportunity for discussion and have students compare their captioning choices, either in small groups or as a class, and discuss their decisions. 

Facebook’s Captioning Tool

Facebook auto-plays muted videos as users scroll through their feeds (Constine, 2017), and having a text-version of dialogue helps draw user attention. The captioning tool is not available for personal feeds, so students need to choose their distribution methods carefully. This tutorial covers captioning during upload, but the process is similar when captioning existing video and when adding second-language subtitles. To add video content find the “Video” option in the left-hand menu—you may need to click “See more.” On the Video page, upload the video by clicking “Upload Video” and locating your video in the file browser. On the left side of the Upload Video page (see Figure 1), add a title, description, appropriate tags, and the video’s spoken language. Select “Subtitles & Captions (CC)” on the page’s right-hand side to begin captioning and confirm the video’s main spoken language. Facebook offers three options: uploading an .SRT, auto-generating captions, and writing captions. In all three cases, you will probably use the caption editing tool. 

You have to use the correct file naming convention when uploading an .SRT: filename.[language code)_[country code].srt. As an example, the filename for Fred and the voice of food safety (Food and Drug Administration [FDA], n.d.) might be “fredFoodSafety.en_US.srt,” identifying the SRT as encoded in English as spoken in the U.S. Facebook provides a list of supported language and country codes (Facebook, n.d.). Once you upload the .SRT (see Figure 2), a “Captions Added” box with the text “English:Uploaded” appears with a pencil (edit) and x (delete). Underneath select the default captioning language, which sets a default caption version to show if the user’s preference is not available. You can add additional captions/subtitles in other languages. Watch the video to confirm the captions imported correctly by selecting the pencil (edit). Watch for timing and for encoding problems, such as an apostrophe appearing as ’. Use the editor to fix any errors.

You can have Facebook auto-generate captions by clicking the Auto-Generate button. The “Captions Added” option will show “English:Autogenerated.” The captions will need editing, which you can do by selecting the pencil (edit) option. In addition to fixing mis-transcribed words, add identifiers to show who is speaking and caption important background sounds. 

The last option is to create captions from scratch by clicking “Write.” This process is easier if you have a script to cut-and-paste text from. When you open the caption editor, it will ask you to select what language the captions are written in. Once you select the language, you will see a list of time markers on the right side of the editor (see Figure 3), including predefined time ranges. The numbers are measured in minutes:seconds:thousandths-of-a-second. You can adjust the numbers by clicking on them, but time spans cannot overlap between clips. To start captioning at the beginning of the video, enter captions in the first time-block, usually starting a half-second into the video. Each time-block represents a single captioning line. As you add lines of text, you will need to adjust the times for each box accordingly. You can adjust a caption’s time on screen in the editor underneath the video, clicking on the beginning or end of the blue captioning box and dragging it to the desired time. You can also drag captions around on the timeline, though at the time of this writing, the drag option does not always work correctly. 

If you need to add captions after you upload or edit captions, you will need to open your Video Library to get to the caption editor. To get to the editor, follow the Publishing Tools link in the top page navigation bar and then look for the Video Library link in the left-hand navigation. When you hover over a video title, there will be a pencil icon that will let you edit the video. Select the Subtitles & Captions (CC) button to get to the captioning options. 

Facebook does not provide an easy way to retrieve the caption file it creates, making it difficult to reuse captions in other applications. Getting the caption file requires opening up the Facebook video in a web browser, using inspect code to find the caption file, opening the file in the browser, copying the text into a text editor, saving it as a .VTT, and converting the .VTT to an .SRT (Mbugua, 2020). Students planning to distribute captioned material on multiple platforms may want to do their initial captioning outside of Facebook, particularly if the videos are more than a few minutes long. 

Figure 1
Figure 2
Figure 3

Kapwing’s Subtitler: A dedicated captioning tool

Not all SM platforms provide a built-in captioning tool. Twitter allows for closed captioning and subtitles but requires you upload an SRT. To add an .SRT, go to your Media Studio library, find the Subtitles tab, select the subtitle language, upload, find your .SRT, and select “update file.” Some SM platforms, such as Instagram, do not support closed captions, meaning you have to create open captions that are an integral part of the video. 

Kapwing’s online Subtitle Maker (see Figure 4) lets you create both .SRT and open-caption versions of your video. The free version limits you to projects under seven minutes. As with Facebook, you can upload an .SRT, auto-generate captions, or manually enter captions. This example uses auto-generated captions to create an open-captioned video. Once the source video loads, click the green Auto-generate button and select the video language (see Figure 5). After captions are generated, they need to be edited and timed (see Figure 6). You can edit caption text by clicking into it. You can adjust caption timing by moving the white start and stop circles above the caption text. Be careful that captioning timing between sections do not overlap. Under Text Options on the interface’s left side, you can adjust font type, size, color, background, and alignment. Video format depends on your target platform and the Video Options menu can help with the decision making (see Figure 7). Changing the video proportions while using the Fit option, may result in a black border below the video. Using this border space is a popular way to create open captions (see Figure 8). To export an open-captioned video, click the red “CREATE >” button, which will create an open-caption .MP4. If you have a paid account, you can also download the .SRT.

Figure 4
Figure 5
Figure 6
Figure 7
Figure 8


Teaching PR students to create usable captions for SM videos prepares them to meet viewer captioning expectations, meaning their message will more likely reach its audience, particularly on mobile devices. Closed captions improve SEO, making closed captioned videos more findable than non-captioned or open captioned videos. Most importantly, teaching captioning emphasizes ethical best-practices in content accessibility and prepares students to be accessibility advocates. While this article focuses specifically on captioning SM video, faculty should consider including accessibility more broadly in their teaching—audio podcasting courses might include having students produce transcripts, web design classes should teach students to build accessible websites, and document design courses should include how to create accessible PDFs. 


3Play Media. (n.d.). The ultimate guide to closed captioning. Retrieved June 2, 2020, from https://www.3playmedia.com/resources/popular-topics/closed-captioning/

Bortree, D. (2019). Ethics education in public relations: State of student preparation and agency training in ethical decision-making. Journal of Public Relations Education, 5(3). https://aejmc.us/jpre/2019/11/20/ethics-education-in-public-relations-state-of-student-preparation-and-agency-training-in-ethical-decision-making/

Bortree, D. S., Bowen, S. A., Gower, K., Larsen, N. Neill, M., Silverman, D., & Sriramesh, K. (2019). Ethics education report. Commission on Public Relations Education. http://www.commissionpred.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Ethics-Education-Report-to-Toth-Phair-10-14-19.pdf

Brault, M. W. (2012). Americans With Disabilities: 2010. United States Census Bureau. https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/2012/demo/p70-131.pdf

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Gernsbacher, M. A. (2015). Video captions benefit everyone. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2(1), 195–202. https://doi.org/10.1177/2372732215602130

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© Copyright 2021 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Tirumala, L.N. & Youngblood, E. (2021). Captioning Social Media Video. Journal of Public Relations Education, 7(1), 169-187. https://aejmc.us/jpre/?p=2419

A Critical Dialogical Approach to Teaching Public Relations Students Intercultural Competence

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted April 29, 2020. Revision submitted July 6, 2020. Manuscript accepted July 21, 2020. First published online May 2021.


Ran Ju, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Public Relations Department
Mount Royal University
Email: rju@mtroyal.ca

Dongjing Kang, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Department of Communication and Philosophy
Florida Gulf Coast University
Email: dkang@fgcu.edu


Facing a highly globalized and diversified market, public relations students should acquire intercultural competence before entering the industry. This article proposes to use a critical dialogical approach (Freire, 2000) to public relations education to foster students’ intercultural competence. Key steps in this innovation and a sample assignment designed with it are provided to illustrate the use of this teaching method in public relations education.

Keywords: public relations education, critical dialogical approach, intercultural competence


Globalization creates a huge need for public relations students and practitioners to achieve intercultural competence. Although various courses such as Intercultural Communication and Intercultural/International Public Relations are offered in universities to foster this competence, the public relations industry continues to be concerned with students lacking a true multicultural perspective and intercultural competence (Commission on Public Relations Education, 2018). To tackle this issue, we suggest adopting the critical dialogical approach developed by Paulo Freire (2000). 

This approach aligns with the traditional service-learning/client-work approach to public relations education (Texter & Smith, 1999). And it exposes students to real-world cultural issues and allows them to immerse themselves in different social and cultural realities. In addition, it helps students transform themselves from tactics-driven rote learners to active cultural participants. It challenges them to use public relations to resolve cultural issues, which raises students’ intercultural competence.


Intercultural competence is important to public relations practitioners and students because an increasingly globalized and diversified world market needs it badly (Creedon & Al-Khaja, 2005; Taylor, 2001; Tsetsura, 2011; Commission on Public Relations Education, 2018). More importantly, one of the core elements of intercultural competence, developing relationships with individuals and groups across cultures (Deardorff, 2009), speaks to the core value of public relations: relationship development and maintenance (Cutlip et al., 1994). Other elements of intercultural competence include the ability to understand the context and connectedness of different cultures, to transcend boundaries and transform differences, and, most importantly, to respect each other (Deardorff, 2009). 

Courses such as Intercultural Communication and Intercultural/International Public Relations are offered to foster intercultural competence. Unfortunately, in these classes, students tend to view culture as fixed in history, or predetermined (Halualani, 2011). Somewhat useful, still, this view has prevented students from understanding multiple cultural contexts, and from establishing connections with different cultures (Gallicano, 2013; Munshi & Edwards, 2011). In this view, culture was perceived as a value-neutral commodity distant from and irrelevant to them. In addition, cultural differences are depicted as problems that need to be resolved and overcome or differences that need to be toned down and assimilated (Sobre, 2017). Hence, it is difficult for students to transform the cultural barriers into bonds, to genuinely respect differences, and to build relationships of mutuality with individuals and groups across cultures. 

To tackle this issue, public relations scholars (Gallicano, 2013; Munshi & Edwards, 2011; Tstetsura, 2011) have urged educators to employ a multidimensional approach that connects culture and diversity with larger social, political, and historical contexts from perspectives of diverse publics to ensure students are able to comprehend the multifaceted nature of the underlying concepts. Specifically, Tstesura (2011) suggested that educators and students should explore cultural identities beyond the pre-existing categories such as race, gender, ethnicity or national heritage, and examine the individual’s experiences via relationship-building process. In addition, Gallicano (2013) identified common problems such as using colorblind      and genderblind approaches in agencies’ public relations practices; accordingly, she and other scholars (Brown et al., 2011; Tstetsura, 2011) encouraged educators to use diverse teaching methods such as videos, class discussions, and guest speakers to break the cultural barriers. Furthermore, culturally sensitive assignments centered around language accommodation can facilitate the multidimensional approach in public relations education. For instance, Flowers (2020) developed a social media writing assignment for training students to accommodate international English-speaking populations’ cultural traditions when creating online content for a fictitious client. The assignment enabled students to be considerate when using U.S.-centered idioms and to apply culturally sensitive verbal and visual content that avoids ethnocentrism and othering. With the current effort, students’ intercultural competence could be enhanced through the process of relationship-building, macro-level cultural immersion, and cultural accommodation assignments. 

As a continuum, we suggest that adopting a critical dialogical approach (Freire, 2000) to public relations education offers a great opportunity to help students acquire intercultural competence. This approach stems from a critical-pedagogy perspective, which addresses cultural issues in a macro-context, whether historical, social, or political, as well as examining the power, relevance, and hidden or destabilizing aspects of cultures (Martin & Nakayama, 2000). By showing students the big picture of cultural issues, this approach facilitates a holistic understanding of the broader cultural contexts of these issues and the issues’ connections with the society at large. 

Secondly, this approach advocates for participatory learning in public relations education, aligning it with the service-learning/client-work approach to teaching (Texter & Smith, 1999) to make the adoption smooth. Thirdly, this approach can be applied to any public relations course, so that learning intercultural competence is not confined only to culture-related courses but could become widespread in public relations programs. 

Critical Dialogical Approach

According to Freire (2000), a critical dialogical approach has three pillars. The first one is the reconfiguration of the student-teacher relationship, resolving the contradiction by recognizing that knowledge is not deposited from the teacher to the student but is formed through dialogue. Compared to a top-down “banking” (deposit-withdrawal) model critiqued by several scholars (Freire, 2000; Sobre, 2017) for its rigidity and lack of reflexivity, a dialogical approach encourages the co-formation of knowledge from conversations between teachers and students. 

 The second pillar is participatory learning by students grounded in their individual experience and circumstances in relation to social-cultural issues. This pillar aligns with the service-learning/client-work teaching in public relations education. The difference is that the critical dialogical approach specifically grounds students in cultural issues and challenges students to apply public relations knowledge to resolve the issues, so students can immerse themselves in specific cultures to understand them comparatively and critically.  

The third pillar is transformative learning in self-reflection. Reflection on their own processes and those of others encourages students to question their previous assumptions and knowledge. This process moves them to a deeper understanding of what others experience and believe and how to connect with it. Through reflection, students can identify multidimensional power relations associated with a cultural issue, navigate the ambiguity and complexity, and ultimately transcend and transform differences between cultures through dialogue and self-reflection. 

Adopting the Critical Dialogical Approach 

The adoption of this approach to public relations education to foster students’ intercultural competence takes three steps, reflected in the three pillars mentioned above.

Step One: Focus on Non-Dominant Cultural Groups

The first and most critical step involves selecting a client with a project that can provide intercultural learning experiences. Instructors should look for organizational clients that serve non-dominant cultural groups such as immigrants, LGBTQ+ communities, persons with disabilities, or senior citizens. Selecting such clients would enable students to understand the complexity of power relationships in any given cultural issue by using a critical perspective. If implementing this approach in a senior level course, the instructor should encourage students to seek clients by themselves, which in turn helps students build direct connections with the local community.

To start, the instructors/students work with the client to identify a key intercultural challenge. This could be a lack of meaningful communication or contact between the non-dominant cultural group and the dominant one, or misunderstandings and biases in the society at large towards this non-dominant group. In this way, student participation is galvanized by enacting real scenarios for learning. 

Step Two: Foster a Dialogical Learning Environment

Second, a dialogical learning environment should be facilitated when discussing the intercultural challenge. In this environment, instructors should be the facilitators of the conversation, instead of an authoritarian leader. Students should be encouraged to pose questions and share concerns or voice their (mis)understandings regarding cultural issues they have difficulty comprehending. In this way, a reconfiguration of the student-teacher contradiction (Freire, 2000) can actually occur. It is important to note that fostering a safe and civil classroom environment is critical for the successful execution of this approach. Some ground rules should be established, such as respect everyone’s right to speak, listen first, respond, and use civil language. 

Step Three: Conversations with the Client

Third, the client should be invited to sit in with the class at least twice. The first time should involve the client briefing students. The second time should involve the client evaluating student work. Although inviting a client into classrooms is common for any client-work/service-learning approach, for critical dialogical approach, it should be emphasized that the client should be focused on the cultural aspect of the project. In addition to the two in-class conversations, students should be encouraged to meet with clients outside of the classroom to better understand and serve their needs. Some small tasks should be implemented to encourage such interaction. For instance, the instructor could require each student group to meet (virtually or physically) with the client at least twice throughout the project. The meetings are intended at helping students to: 1) establish relationships with the client and better understand their needs; and 2) seek suggestions and feedback from the client. These meetings should be recorded, and meeting minutes should be submitted as a part of the assignment. It is ideal if the client can be in communication with the students throughout the project; however, it is not required. Through communication with the client, students’ understanding of the cultural issue in question can be reinforced and misunderstandings can be challenged or resolved, so that self-reflection can be realized. It is also beneficial to invite different representatives of the client to visit the class, as it can teach students that even within a given culture, different people have different perspectives. 

The following outlines a specific assignment adopting this approach. The instructors’ observations are shared to illustrate the way this approach can foster intercultural competence. 

Implementation: Sample Assignment

We designed an assignment in partnership with a local community organization serving residents of a city’s Chinatown. It was a major assignment in a Strategic Social Media for Public Relations course for third-year public relations majors. The project lasted three weeks, and students worked in small groups. 

The key learning objectives were: 1) to understand cultural issues within the larger structure of the macro-context (governmental, institutional, legal, and economic) and grasp the mediating forces that affect micro-acts such as small-group and interpersonal cultural encounters; 2) to develop skills in communicating with the client serving a non-dominant culture and understanding the cultural issue critically; 3) to develop an effective and culturally appropriate social media fundraising plan that demonstrates understanding of and respect for the culture. 

Background of the Client and Project

The organization serves the local Chinatown. This Chinatown has more than a 100-year history and was first developed when Chinese railway workers came to the city (Sciban & Wang, 2013). It established and preserved Asian heritage in the city while becoming a cultural interface for the interconnection of many diverse cultures. The cultural conflict in question occurred in 2018, when the city development authority approved a development permit (Vaessen & Gallichan-Lowe, 2018) that contradicted official guidelines for Chinatown’s development. The development of two 27-story towers in the heart of Chinatown did not fit this unique cultural and historical environment. It threatened to limit Chinatown’s revitalization by increasing traffic enough that it would pose a significant risk to pedestrians and by restricting access of visitors in the elimination of street parking. Due to these detriments, legal action had to be taken for the future of the community. The client sought to raise money for legal fees to appeal the development permit. The intercultural challenge the client faced was persuading the public that irresponsible development in Chinatown is detrimental to the community on the micro- and macro-scale, including to much of the rest of the city.  

Week One: Posing the Problem

In the first week, a representative of the client, a Chinese-descended Canadian, met with the class to present the challenge. He introduced the unique historical and cultural background of Chinatown. He also shared the issue’s background — gentrification without considering those it displaces — to the students, explaining why Chinatown was against this development. 

After the client’s visit, students were excited and motivated by the project. Students shared their experiences and understanding of Chinatown. At the end of the first week of class, students were encouraged to further investigate the issue and bring any questions they had to the second week’s class.

Week Two: Analyzing the Cultural Issue through Dialogue

In the second week, the instructor organized the class in a dialogical manner, guiding students through the development of the social media fundraising plan. When discussing their understanding of the case, many students struggled to grasp that “development” could be a problem for Chinatown. Based on their own research, many believed that economic development was just what Chinatown needed. Without telling students about any harm from gentrification, the instructor encouraged them to voice any disagreements or confusion. Most students said that economic development might not be a threat to Chinatown. A small number were able to identify the cultural problem behind the economic problem. The instructors encouraged students holding different views to discuss them and guided this process. 

After several rounds of discussions and conversations, the class tentatively concluded that there were three main problems: 1) the new development would directly threaten the cultural and historical inheritance of Chinatown; 2) the development would negatively influence the lifestyle of Chinatown residents, who are predominantly seniors on foot; and 3) the changes would overpopulate Chinatown, bringing more traffic than it could handle and would eventually hinder its development. Students mapped out unequal power relationships among the city, the developer, and the residents. Most students gained perspective when they examined the development plan from the point of view of Chinatown’s residents. They used the remaining class time and off-class time to work on the fundraising plan and prepared for their presentation in the coming week. 

Week Three: Enhancing Intercultural Competence Through Action and Reflection

In the third week, the client sent three members of the organization to the in-class presentation. The representatives and instructor provided feedback for each group’s presentation. Eleven fundraising plans were presented. Visitors were highly impressed with the students’ ability to use social media as a fundraising tool, and more importantly, students’ intercultural competence. For example, prior to the day of the presentation, one group emailed the instructor and asked if using a fortune cookie as a channel to convey the message would offend the client. Students understood that fortune cookies originated in North America. Another group double-checked with the instructor to see if they had pronounced the Chinese word “hongbao” (red envelope) correctly. They were genuinely concerned that the client might be upset if they mispronounced it. 

Student presentations also demonstrated the intercultural competence they developed through this project. First of all, the visual aids most students used were in red and yellow, which symbolize Chinese culture in a broad sense. This choice was appreciated by the client. Secondly, students integrated cultural elements in their plan. For example, several groups mentioned using the traditional idea of Red Envelope to send out coupons from Chinatown businesses as incentives for the donation. Some groups mentioned using the Lunar New Year rather than Chinese New Year as a more culturally inclusive strategy to raise awareness of the issue and advertise “Chinatown for Everyone.” 

 Two groups used the traditional Chinese value of respecting seniors, which had never been taught in class, as the main message for the fundraising campaign. Students explained that Chinatown was home to many seniors. Caring for and respecting elders was at the core of Pan-Asian culture. Their campaigns advocated that the value of filial piety should be recognized across cultures — because every family has seniors. The transcendence of cultural differences is achieved here. The client commented that these two groups understood the deeper layer of Chinatown culture and bridged it with the wider Canadian cultures. Based on the feedback and comments from the client in week three’s class, students revised their plans and submitted the final version. 

The fundraising campaign began a few weeks after students submitted their 

plans for the campaign. Several suggestions from students have been accepted and implemented, as evident in Chinatown’s “Go-Fund-Me” page and its social media accounts across different platforms. 


Assessment Guidelines

The assessment of any assignment using this approach needs to evaluate two different issues: 1) students’ intercultural competence; and 2) students’ ability to translate intercultural competence into public relations practices. Specifically, each assignment/project should be evaluated on the students’ ability to accomplish the following: 1) to demonstrate understanding and respect for the culture and the culture’s issues; 2) using public relations knowledge and theory to develop a culturally respected and effective plan/campaign to address the cultural issues raised by the client; 3) based on the developed plan/campaign, to deliver a culturally appropriate and effective presentation to the client. It is also important to include the client in the assessment process. 

Assessment of the Sample Assignment

 The assignment above counted for 25% of the total grade, the social media fundraising plan 20%, and the presentation 5%. Both the instructor and the client graded the plans and presentations. The client was instructed to focus on the cultural appropriateness and feasibility of the plan and presentation, while the instructor focused on the public relations perspective (the client received a grading rubric from the instructor). The final marks were the average of the client’s and the instructor’s (50/50). 

Measuring Intercultural Competence in Future Assignments

Due to the time constraint on the sample assignment, students’ intercultural competence was not measured beyond the client’s qualitative feedback. For future assessments, students’ intercultural competence should be measured to ascertain if this approach is successful. There are several ways to gauge students’ competence development. For example, a pre-and post-test of students’ intercultural competence can help both students and the instructor to assess the effectiveness of this approach. Valid scales can be used, for instance, the Behavioral Assessment Scale for Intercultural Competence (BASIC) (Koester & Olebe, 1988), the Assessment of Intercultural Competence (AIC) (Fantini, 2006), and the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) (Hammer, 2012). In addition, a reflection paper from students examining their intercultural competence development through the project can provide qualitative insights of students’ learning journey (Deardorff, 2011). 


To foster intercultural competence, applying a critical dialogical approach to public relations education provides opportunities for students to gain first-hand experience working with a client from a non-dominant culture on a cultural challenge. 

We suggest taking this approach with junior or senior classes. This way students will have a solid foundation with which to understand the macro- and micro-processes of culture and public relations. We mentioned earlier that the target organizational clients are those who serve non-dominant cultural groups. However, considering many universities in North America are located in small towns with limited clients from/serving non-dominant groups, we suggest seeking groups or organizations within the university as clients, such as the Office of Inclusion and Diversity, the Office of Indigenous Affairs, and various student organizations/clubs serving non-dominant student demographics (e.g., Chinese students association or first-generation college students club). Another alternative is to obtain clients online. For example, the United Nations has an online volunteering program (https://www.onlinevolunteering.org/en) providing a list of organizations that need volunteers who can work remotely. By utilizing this list, the instructor/students can find a variety of organizations in need of volunteers, while also meeting the need to serve non-dominant groups in the process. 

This approach could be used in a variety of public relations courses. A Writing course could use it to develop media materials for a nondominant cultural group. A Public Relations Management course or a Capstone Public Relations course could adopt this approach and ask students to develop a campaign for a nondominant cultural organization. The critical dialogical approach also can be used in other service-learning public relations courses, such as Public Relations Campaigns. The approach enables students to apply their knowledge and theories in an intercultural context and become a capable candidate for jobs in public relations.


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To cite this article: Ju, R. & Kang, D. (2021). A critical dialogical approach to teaching public relations students intercultural competence. Journal of Public Relations Education, 7(1), 153-168. https://aejmc.us/jpre/?p=2412