Reviewer Lois Boynton, Ph.D., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
You Need PR: An Approachable Guide to Public Relations for Early-Stage Companies Author: Jenna Guarneri An Inc. Original, 2022 Routledge, 2019 Print ISBN 978-1-63909-004-4 eBook ISBN 978-1-63909-006-8 https://anincoriginal.com/titles-authors/
According to the Census Bureau, more than 5 million new businesses filed for IRS tax IDs in 2021, the highest number in 20 years and a 53% increase from 2019 pre-pandemic applications (Newman & Fikri, 2022). Despite these large numbers, the vast majority of start-ups fail, typically in the first five years. Among the reasons for these failures are misjudging demand, insufficient funds, stronger-than-expected competition, and – as Jenna Guarneri’s book You Need PR argues – ineffective marketing (“106 Must-Know,” 2022).
Guarneri’s easy-to-read book is part of An Inc. Original’s leadership book series, the same organization that publishes Inc. magazine. She adeptly brings her professional expertise into the pages of the book, interspersing her entrepreneurial experiences creating a start-up agency seven years ago. As CEO of JMG Public Relations in New York City, Guarneri identifies herself as a publicist, a position under the broader public relations umbrella and generally related to media relations and events. Her firm received several recognitions in the last five years, including the 2021 Most Outstanding Startup-Focused PR Firm, awarded by digital B2B magazine publisher Corporate Vision. She also shares her expertise as a member of the Forbes Business Council and a Forbes magazine contributor.
Structure and Organization
Guarneri breaks the 12-chapter book into four sections that mirror a business start-up process: Establish (chapters 1-3), Build (chapters 4-6), Launch (chapters 7-9), and Deliver (chapters 10-12). The book includes a brief glossary of terms, from advertorial to wire service, and a six-page index. Each chapter begins with a poignant quote to set the stage. For example, “The Competitor Landscape” (chapter 6) starts with, “A horse never runs so fast as when he has other horses to catch up and outpace” (p. 95). My favorite quote starts chapter 10, “Follow Through,” attributed to realtor-turned-sales and leadership coach Michelle Moore: “Not following up … is the same as filling up your bathtub without first putting the stopper in the drain” (p. 167). The author wraps up each chapter with an “Innovation Station” to summarize the main points and pose questions for the reader to consider based on their organization’s publicity needs.
Guarneri kicks off the book discussing the significance of perceptions, focusing on the company’s core values and delving into brand differentiation. She employs simple descriptions without technical terms. The “Competitor Landscape” chapter describes what constitutes environmental scanning and issues management, for example. The PR Pitching Cycle (p. 212) synthesizes an effective process involving essential research, outreach, and follow-up, and media catching options available from resources such as Help A Reporter Out, ProfNet, and Qwoted (p. 164).
You Need PR also advocates for an oft-used strategy of third-party endorsements gained by media coverage, despite recent evidence that trust in news media continues to drop. According to a July 2022 Gallup poll, only 16% of Americans have considerable trust in newspapers, with a mere 11% holding trusting views in television news (Brenan, 2022). But the text is not behind the times; it also points to the value of creating connections and sharing media coverage via social media channels.
Strengths and Weaknesses
The book effectively backs recommendations with campaign examples from the likes of Patagonia, FedEx, T-Mobile, Warby Parker, TED Talks, and Oreo. The publication also reinforces the why and how of its suggestions by interlacing research findings from prominent organizations such as Gallup, Edison Research and Catalyst, Pew Research Center, and University of Chicago.
Today’s public relations and publicity also must have grounding in diversity, inclusion, and equity, issues not featured in You Need PR. These elements do not necessarily require a separate chapter, but could be reinforced if woven throughout the text. For example, the subsection “Types of Media Outlets” (p. 108-110) might refer to the value of scanning a wide range of diverse publications to learn points of interest and the potential to pitch relevant story ideas. In addition to a notable branding success story such as Patagonia’s Don’t Buy this Coat campaign (p. 26), the book might also feature the Starbucks UK (2020) campaign, “Every Name’s a Story,” which showcased the significance of a trans person hearing a barista say their chosen name. There’s also value in sharing teachable moments, such as Barnes and Noble’s 2020 Black History Month debacle, in which it recovered classic books with “new covers that reimagined protagonists as characters of color” (Cornish, 2020).
Publicists and public relations practitioners must have a strong grasp of inclusive language, as well. A link – perhaps in the chapters on storytelling, content, or brand materials – to a resource such as the Conscious Style Guide [https://consciousstyleguide.com/] would provide readers guidance about how to refer to the breadth of diverse stakeholders – from race and ethnicity to age, disability, gender expression, religion, and socioeconomic status. These issues, plus reinforcing the profession’s ethical standards to eschew misinformation and potential conflicts of interest (Bortree, 2022), would provide essential context for students and novice practitioners.
Contributions to Public Relations Education
Overall, You Need PR is an easy-to-read overview of the role publicists play in creating memorable, brand-focused media content, particularly, as the title reinforces, for start-up ventures. The book outlines the value of a number of tactics that professionals expect entry-level employees to have mastered (Edwards-Neff, 2020), such as media pitches, posts on popular social media platforms, news releases, blogs, and podcasts. The author also includes briefs about newsletters, press kits, fact sheets, bios, boilerplates, features, and media lists. As a result, a more-apt title might be You Need Publicity, to delineate media strategies from the additional keys to effective public relations when building relationships with other stakeholders: investors, employees, multicultural communities, and government organizations.
Overall, some instructors may find this book useful for media relations classes or some public relations writing courses that focus primarily on writing for news media. Guarneri’s book also is a valid go-to resource to provide students, recent alumni, or other novices with a media relations primer or refresher, particularly when working with start-up organizations.
To cite this article: Boynton, Lois. (2023). You Need PR: An Approachable Guide to Public Relations for Early-Stage Companies. [Review of the book You Need PR: An Approachable Guide to Public Relations for Early-Stage Companies]. Journal of Public Relations Education, 9(1), 166-170. https://journalofpreducation.com/?p=3636
Abstract With the purpose of giving students real-world experience in teamwork and remote project management pre-pandemic, two instructors taught their undergraduate crisis communication courses collaboratively for an entire semester. Students from comparable public 4-year Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) located in the south-central and southwestern regions of the United States worked together on a service-learning project requiring the development of a crisis communication plan for a client representing a nonprofit organization. The following themes emerged concerning lessons students learned: navigating cultural uncertainty, using tactful communication via technology, managing distance and adapting to challenges. The results correspond with reports by the National Association of Colleges and Employers and the Commission on Public Relations Education emphasizing the importance of preparing students for the challenges posed by a technological work environment. Along with anecdotes from the instructors’ observations and students’ evaluative comments, suggestions for future applications of this type of service-learning collaboration are provided.
Keywords: service-learning, crisis communication, inter-institutional collaboration, public relations, remote work
The COVID-19 global health pandemic accelerated organizations’ adoption of digital technologies, as many nonessential businesses were forced to embrace hybrid and remote work environments to sustain business activities. During the pandemic, nearly 70% of full-time employees in the U.S. worked from home (OWL Labs, 2020). As a result of the work-from-home (WFH) surge, organizations now rely heavily on technology to power connectedness among employees and processes in hybrid and remote work environments, and systems that were once manual are now digital and automated (Craig, 2021).
College graduates face the reality that employers seek new hires with relevant work experience (Craig, 2021) which now includes navigating the plethora of professional technologies required to enable WFH settings. Adequate preparation has challenged college graduates for years and spurred the need for hands-on experiences and internships (Thompson, 2014). While Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2012) are referred to as “Zoomers” because they have grown up in a digital world and are hyperconnected, comfort with technology does not necessarily equate to professional prowess (Gentina & Parry, 2021).
To help students overcome these challenges in preparation for today’s job market, educators need to consider modern career readiness competencies and strategies for incorporating opportunities to practice these skills in the classroom. In the context of public relations, scholars have argued that education must include collaboration and industry tools to support PR practices (Formentin & Auger, 2021), as well as “the need to help students learn about their digital presence” (Kim, 2022, p. 9). Furthermore, a roundtable workgroup sponsored by the Commission on Public Relations Education (CPRE) argued that “a significant element in public relations education is developing a student’s presence to effectively deliver content, lead groups, and engage in interpersonal dimensions online” (Kim, 2022, p. 11).
Service-learning is one high-impact practice (HIPS) shown to help students develop competencies while providing a service for the community that allows for hands-on experience in a real-world situation (Dapena et al., 2022). Through service-learning experiences, students may develop a sense of personal and social responsibility and work ethic, retention of course content, the ability to apply theory to practice, and leadership and communication skills (Jacoby, 2015). In fact, researchers have found that service-learning and collaborative learning approaches “can successfully bridge academic concepts and practice” (Maresh-Fuehrer, 2015, p. 187) by fostering an environment where students take personal initiative, become a better team member or emerge as a team leader, and feel connected to their community (Johnson, 2007; Maresh-Fuehrer, 2015).
While many researchers have studied the benefits of service-learning in singular classrooms and across academic departments and colleges, an exploration of inter-institutional collaborative versions of this teaching practice is lacking (Chang & Hannafin, 2015). Some researchers have found that inter-institutional collaborations result in unique benefits (Fraustino et al., 2015), so it is worthwhile to explore how such a collaboration addresses the need for exposing students to the technological practices required in today’s professional environment.
Thus, the following case study reflects on a collaborative semester-long service-learning partnership led by two instructors at comparable, public 4-year Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) in different regions of the United States. Although this remote collaboration occurred pre-pandemic, the results provide important support for the CPRE recommendations for online pedagogy and guidance on how to improve such instruction.
University and Student Comparisons
This service-learning project was implemented in senior-level crisis communication courses at two accredited universities located in the south-central and southwestern regions of the United States. Because of their geographic locations, the campuses are in two different time zones with a one-hour time difference. One institution is a comprehensive university located on a tri-institutional commuter campus with 95% of its students coming from in-state. The other institution is a research university that has both on-campus and commuter students, with 93% of its students coming from in-state. More than 40% of enrollment at both institutions is first-generation college students, and both are federally designated Hispanic Serving Institutions. However, the differences in geographic locations and student characteristics made this collaboration particularly appealing to the instructors. The class at the southwestern university was composed of 11 upper-division journalism and public relations majors. Each of the enrolled students had completed several courses in AP style and journalism-centric writing techniques. Conversely, the south-central university class featured 39 students from a variety of majors, many of them had limited or no experience in public relations or journalism writing but with backgrounds working in related industries such as emergency response.
Prior to embarking on this collaboration, both instructors modeled their crisis communication courses to involve team projects and a semester-long service-learning experience where students develop crisis communication plans for community-based clients. As such, both instructors were familiar with choosing appropriate clients for service-learning projects and how to balance client needs with student learning outcomes.
Curriculum coordination began approximately one year in advance of the project. Since students would be registering for the course at their home university, the instructors felt it was important to discuss the time zone difference and try to teach the courses at the same time to build in time for team teaching and collaboration. However, an unanticipated challenge arose when scheduling courses as both institutions use specific time blocks, none of which were shared between campuses. As a result, the instructors selected times when the classes could overlap for 30 minutes. In the class periods leading up to a major assignment deadline, students were expected to use the overlapping time to work together and submit a report to both instructors detailing their progress.
The next step required examining course syllabi and policies, discussion content and grading rubrics with the purpose of creating a unified voice between the classes. Each syllabus incorporated the same policies, resources, deadlines and expectations except for university-mandated statements. Both instructors shared lecture notes and determined the content to be taught but, recognizing that no two instructors share the same teaching style, allowed for individuality in selecting examples and instructional methods. All documents were shared with both classes in their independent Blackboard shells. Several class periods were scheduled via Zoom to provide the students with an opportunity to participate in lessons taught by both instructors. In these class periods, the instructor in charge of the lesson for that day broadcast their lecture live via Zoom, while the other instructor and their students were sitting together in their own classroom, attending via Zoom.
New grading rubrics were also developed for each of the assignments. During the semester, the instructors graded each group assignment separately and then discussed and agreed upon scores before providing a unified grade to students. Little to no variation in the instructors’ individual scores occurred.
Technology and Collaboration
In addition to the Zoom class meetings, students used a variety of technology applications to communicate and collaborate outside the classroom, including the text messaging app, GroupMe. Students were encouraged to post questions and examples in a class group and create subgroups for discussions within their assigned teams. Students were also encouraged to participate in an optional Twitter discussion using a unique hashtag for the course. To encourage collaboration, students were prompted to share something interesting they learned in class or in the readings, an example of a course concept or commentary about a crisis that was not discussed in class. Fourteen students (28% of the class) contributed 119 posts with an average applause rate (likes) of 1.96. While the engagement rate is modest, it is worth noting that the students’ examples were referenced during class sessions to spark face-to-face discussion. Also of interest is the fact that many of the engagements were from persons who were not members of either class, thus evidencing increased visibility of the institutions and the PR profession among students’ networks.
The instructors used the crisis management plan (CMP) project developed by Maresh-Fuehrer (2013), which consists of four major assignments and a written/oral presentation to a client. Three of the assignments required students to work in different groups to collaborate, and one assignment allowed for individual work. Since group work can be daunting for students, the instructors assigned the most graded weight to the individual assignment. The instructors used a shared rubric to independently grade each team’s work and then briefly met to discuss and finalize scores and feedback before issuing grades to the teams. Students were told that their team assignments were being graded collaboratively by both instructors. However, for the individual assignments, instructors used a shared rubric but only graded the work of students enrolled in their class sections. Students were required to complete revisions of each assignment based on the feedback they received. The revisions were compiled into a Google document that students presented to the client at the end of the semester.
A component of service learning is reflecting on what has been learned and how it applies to a real-world project. The instructors’ observations of student communication coupled with comments from student reports of instruction (SRIs) suggested that students gained individual insights and exercised newly acquired skills from the challenges posed when collaborating with peers in another region to complete a major academic project for a real client.
Navigating Cultural Uncertainty
The first learning experience for students emerged during the early weeks of the semester. While the instructors expected students to share their excitement about the collaboration, a different attitude was apparent. An “us versus them” mentality seemed to dominate students’ communication about their classmates and the project. Students at both institutions emphasized the difference in geographic regions by referring to the collaborating class as the “[State] class” or “[State] students,” rather than using inclusive language such as “our class” or “our group.” The tone was negative and competitive and became most obvious during a situation where a few teams submitted late assignments, despite the instructors’ shared policy on late work. The students tasked with submitting the assignments on behalf of the teams were all from the same campus, so the students from the collaborating campus expressed anger at the fact that the “[State] students” were negatively impacting their grades. Some students even used stereotyping to make sense of the experience, saying things like “You’d think people from [State] would be more laidback.”
This language and behavior seemed to signal the existence of implicit cultural bias among students, which was especially exposed due to the teams being geographically dispersed. However, this allowed the instructors to engage in a discussion with all of the students about recognizing how cultural differences may impact communication among the members of their teams, respecting those differences and knowing when personal accountability can be used to avoid conflict. After having this talk with the classes, the instructors observed an increase in communication between the groups and more individual students demonstrating accountability. One student shared, “This course really demonstrated ‘real world’ situations when working with groups of different backgrounds. Involved VERY tactful communications within the groups and individuals. Conflict resolution was tested to the extreme.” However, it is unclear whether the students ever fully escaped the “us versus them” mentality, as one student reflected, “There were times that working with [State] class was a little difficult, but we worked it out and made it happen – that proved to be a learning experience in itself.”
Using Tactful Communication via Technology
Students were overall receptive and comfortable using new technologies, such as GroupMe and Zoom to communicate with their classmates; however, they were faced with differing expectations for communicating on these platforms. For example, students experienced a great deal of conflict when communicating using GroupMe. A specific anecdote occurred early in the semester when students formed their initial groups for the organizational history assignment. Students from one campus were using the app for casual/social messaging, such as connecting with each other to identify their location (such as studying in the student union or eating lunch at a particular restaurant). This irritated some students who were not on the same campus, prompting them to post derogatory comments that sparked even more unrelated text exchanges that further created division among the classes. One student wrote, “The smaller chats worked better but still had problems, like people using it to find what room they should meet in. I think a training on how to use group chats would help these problems.”
Thus, when this issue arose, the instructors used class time to discuss professional text messaging conduct and provided a handout that offered tips for professional engagement. They also directly addressed concerns with select students and prompted the students to reflect on how they may have approached their text responses differently. As the semester continued, students adapted to the norms for professional technology use and realized that tactful communication was necessary on these platforms, especially to resolve misunderstandings. At the end of the semester, one student shared, “TIL [today I learned] collaboration can actually go smoothly across time zones when communication is respectful. Looking back, this project has taught me more than I thought…”
For each assignment, students were randomly grouped with classmates from both campuses. During class, the students who shared a physical location would coordinate their schedules and select out-of-class meeting times to work together on their assignments. The ease of communicating with classmates that shared a physical location made it common for them to forget to reach out to the remote group members. This resulted in frustration when the classmates who were left out of the arrangements were unable to meet at the time their group chose to work on the assignment. When referring to this scenario, one student described, “Working with the…team was difficult because there were some instances where they were not willing to support team work. There were a few times where it was hard to communicate with them.”
This dynamic opened the pathway to discussing the differences between collaborating virtually and face-to-face. When the instructors learned of this, they quickly reminded the students of the importance of including everyone in conversations that impact the team or the project. They utilized an analogy of the students being stakeholders in the project and connected this to the core public relations principle of the need to inform stakeholders about matters that concern them (Center et al., 2012). The instructors expressed that the communication tools available–such as GroupMe–are meant for fostering collaboration, especially in these types of moments.
Adapting to Challenges
When the instructors approached their classes about a lack of participation in team meetings, several students shared that they were uncomfortable in virtual meetings because they could see themselves while talking and became self-conscious. Sharing these challenges in the classroom helped students realize that others had the same feelings. The instructors shared tips for navigating this situation, such as hiding the self-view on Zoom.
A second challenge that emerged was based on student characteristics (differing class sizes, majors and PR writing experience). The instructors observed several benefits and challenges students faced as a result of this mixed class configuration. The heterogeneous nature of the group contributed to the discovery of a robust set of potential risks (335 unique risk scenarios) that illustrated students’ specialized knowledge of the law, environmental science and other technical risks that may not have otherwise been considered in a class of only PR/journalism majors. At times, however, students in both courses approached the instructors with frustrations over the varying degrees of professional writing skills, AP style proficiency and personal worth ethic present among their classmates. Some students reported that they made extensive edits to their group’s work, while others expressed frustration that their individual contributions had been edited to a degree that changed the intended meaning of their content. These concerns led to the instructors discussing the nature of collaborative projects in the workplace, which included a discussion of French and Raven’s (1959) bases of power. The instructors emphasized that professionals often work with people from different departments and locations that may not share the same knowledge base. However, each person must be valued for the unique strengths that they contribute toward the success of a group. At the end of the semester, one of the students shared about the remote work experience, “Working with different individuals throughout the semester helped me jump out of my comfort zones.” Another student emphasized that the challenging nature of group work was “a real example of how life may work sometime.” Much to the instructors’ satisfaction, one student shared
This class was a favorite of mine this semester! It was definitely a challenge every minute, but it taught me so much in just a short 4 months. I learned how to work with various individuals on a large project with a wonderful outcome.
As Kim (2022) describes in the Commission on Public Relations Education’s Spotlight Report, “online education should prepare students to develop their digital presence by providing opportunities to learn about, practice, and reflect on digital interaction” (p. 11). Since COVID-19, the professional world–including education–has seen a rise in the use of different modalities to collaborate with workgroups. Although the project described in this case study was a remote collaboration that only partially took place online, the lessons learned from this inter-institutional project show that this approach makes it possible for instructors to expose students to the “ways that remote and hybrid workplaces practice presence across teams and between managers and their teams” (Kim, 2022, p. 9).
The students’ experiences are consistent with previous research on the benefits of service-learning and inter-institutional collaborations as “mirroring the type of work PR professionals regularly perform” (Smallwood & Brunner, 2017, p. 450) and providing mutual benefit to the students and client (Maresh-Fuehrer, 2015); however, the added component of remote collaboration resulted in several added benefits. Students were suddenly thrust into an environment where communication deficiencies were realized. They had to learn to adapt to cultural uncertainty, differing skills and communication expectations, and challenges posed by geographic distance and their own insecurities. As Berger and Calabrese (1975) explain, people feel uncertainty about others that they do not know. Given the nature of the collaboration, students anticipated future interaction with one another, so their interest in reducing uncertainty was high. Unfortunately, the brief overlap between the two classes provided only limited opportunities for verbal and nonverbal warmth and self-disclosure among students. Additionally, moments of conflict–such as in the cases of the frustrated GroupMe messages or late assignment submissions–may have led to uncertainty remaining high, despite the collaborative environment. This challenge is important to overcome because a sense of closeness results in higher contributions from students (Gilmore & Warren, 2007).
Another advantage of the collaboration was the numerous teaching moments the instructors were able to have with students to help them navigate challenges, as described in the Results section. This corresponds with the CPRE’s recommendation to incorporate “topics such as leading a Zoom presentation, nonverbal communication through technology, and other elements that hold the potential to elevate or inhibit their future success” into online instruction (Kim, 2022, p. 11). This seems especially important as the instructors observed that, although both classes were mostly comprised of “digital natives” (Prensky, 2001), it became clear that students did not understand how professional technology use differs from personal use. Overcoming this issue is necessary, as “students’ efficacy with the technologies…may lead to…positive attitudes and performance expectations when using such technologies in future on-the-job environments” (O’Malley & Kelleher, 2002, p. 183).
In many cases, diversity in skill sets were an asset in helping students avoid groupthink, which occurs when a homogenous group of people allow the desire for harmony in the group to result in poor decision-making (Janis, 1997). The instructors observed students gaining insight into their strengths that required them to recognize how they operate within a team (e.g., do they take on a leadership role or do they hold back their questions or concerns? Do they criticize others’ work, or do they help improve the end product?). Students arrived at these realizations by being asked to regularly reflect on their experiences throughout the class and during the instructors’ one-on-one or team conversations with them when concerns arose. These discoveries helped students understand how to be more effective team players and work through disagreements and miscommunication, regardless of the geolocation of their team members. More research is needed on the benefits and pitfalls associated with learning in remote inter-institutional service-learning activities, especially when students have varying levels of competency.
Another significant contribution of this project is the experience and benefits afforded to students while requiring few additional resources beyond what is normally required to manage a classroom. While O’Malley and Kelleher (2002) remarked that “the extra resources required to coordinate two distant university classes did not seem worthwhile…” (p. 183), the instructors of the CMP project did not arrive at the same conclusion. The primary resource required to formulate and run this class was time. The instructors developed their own syllabi to reflect university-specific language and classroom conduct expectations but collaborated on the development of each assignment, rubric, and grading structure, and determining audio and video technology requirements to sync classrooms. Each instructor also prepared lectures for joint classroom instruction, and the instructors graded some of the projects together to ensure consistency in evaluation. When student concerns arose, the instructors took time to turn them into teaching moments, but these lessons did not exceed what would normally occur as part of classroom management.
Recommendations for Future Applications
The areas where students struggled present opportunities to improve the design of a PR curriculum focused on providing students with real-world experiences. Based on their shared experience, the instructors offer the following recommendations for future applications of inter-institutional service-learning projects.
Schedule Time for Team Building. As evidenced by the exemplars provided in the Results section, students struggled with aspects of intercultural communication which, at times, contributed to a feeling of hostility among students. The intense course schedule necessary to cover the material allowed little room for team building exercises. The instructors agree with the need to integrate team-building exercises into the curriculum to build trust, develop team identity and promote information exchange to help improve virtual team dynamics (Jarvenpaa et al., 1998). Students would also benefit from a discussion of the similarities and differences among the institutions and student skill sets, as well as more specifications for assigning roles and deadlines and streamlining communication when working in groups.
Discuss Professional Technology Use. Collaboration, especially in a virtual environment, requires guidance and some level of oversight by instructors. Initially, the instructors believed setting communication parameters, such as establishing a GroupMe text channel, offered sufficient room for students to successfully connect. However, instructors quickly found that students would have benefited from more information about what constitutes professional communication in mediated platforms. Additionally, students’ lack of comfort seeing themselves on Zoom also supports the notion of teaching them how to use technology. This finding is especially salient, as the CPRE report discusses the need to help students learn “how to do direct engagement with groups in virtual settings, how to leverage software…for successful group projects, and what effective Zoom engagement looks like in various professional settings” (Kim, 2022, p. 9).
Balance Class Sizes. Furthermore, the instructors would recommend considering comparable class sizes as a factor in selecting a cross-collaboration partner. A lack of balance in class size resulted in lopsided group representation. The natural in-person collaboration that occurred among students in the larger class meant the students in the smaller class often reported feeling out-of-sync with their teams. According to O’Leary and Cummings (2007), it is common for geographically dispersed teams to experience unequal distribution across locations. As the National Research Council (2015) explains, this results in a phenomenon called the “hub and spoke model,” where the “culture and communication style of the headquarters typically dominate, and the group members at remote locations may experience lower status and less power, while their needs and progress are invisible to others” (p. 154-155). In this case, the larger class seemed to be perceived as the main class or a centralized “hub,” where the smaller class’ students felt as though they were just the “spokes” feeding into the larger hub, though this was not the case.
Course Extensions.By fine-tuning aspects of communication and balancing the size of teams, an international inter-institutional course is possible. Such a course would enhance students’ exposure to different cultures, ethnicities, communication nuances, social norms and technologies in a way that extends what they are able to experience working with students in another region of the same country. According to Molleda (2009), gaining a broad understanding of the global economy and standards of communication practices in various regions of the world is increasingly important. This data is confirmed by the career readiness competencies outlined by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) in its job outlook report: career & self development, communication, critical thinking, equity & inclusion, leadership, professionalism, teamwork and technology (NACE, 2021).
In sum, while data exists illustrating the benefits of service-learning, little information exists about the value of experiential learning in a remote inter-institutional environment. With globalization and the ability to telework expanding, it is imperative for students to learn how to work collaboratively and virtually and with people who are different from them (Kim, 2022; NACE, 2021). With structured facilitation of such projects, remote inter-institutional collaborations are a highly effective method for honing the interpersonal and technological skills required in today’s workforce.
Berger, C. R., & Calabrese, R. J. (1975). Some explorations in initial interaction and beyond: Toward a developmental theory of interpersonal communication. Human Communication Research, 1(2), 99-112. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2958.1975.tb00258.x
Center, A. H., Jackson, P., Smith, S., & Stansberry, F. R. (2012). Public relations practices: Managerial case studies and problems (8th ed.). Pearson.
Formentin, M. & Auger, G. A. (2021). Pivot now! Lessons learned from moving public relations campaigns classes online during the pandemic in Spring 2020. Journal of Public Relations Education, 7(3), 7-44. https://aejmc.us/jpre/?p=2709
Jacoby, B. (2015). Service-learning essentials: Questions, answers and lessons learned. San Francisco. Jossey-Bass.
Janis, I. L. (1997). Groupthink. In R.P. Vecchio (Ed.), Leadership: Understanding the dynamics of power and influence in organizations (pp. 163-176). University of Notre Dame Press. (Reprinted from “Psychology Today,” Nov 1971, pp., 43-44, 46, 74-76).
Maresh-Fuehrer, M. M. (2013). Creating organizational crisis plans. Kendall Hunt Publishing.
Maresh-Fuehrer, M. M. (2015). Service-learning in crisis communication education. Revisiting Coombs’ objectives for the crisis communication course. Communication Teacher, 29(3), 173-190. https://doi.org/10.1080/17404622.2015.1028554
OWL Labs. (October 7, 2020). State of remote work: How employees across the U.S. feel about working remotely in a post-COVID-19 world, their new workplace expectations and what employers need to know to recruit and retain top talent. https://resources.owllabs.com/state-of-remote-work/2020
Smallwood, A. M., K., & Brunner, B. R. (2017). Engaged learning through online collaborative public relations projects across universities. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 72(4), 442-460. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077695816686440
To cite this article: Maresh-Fuehrer, M., and Baum, M. (2023). Inter-Institutional Service-Learning Collaborations in a Remote Environment: A Case Study. Journal of Public Relations Education, 9(1), 147-165. https://journalofpreducation.com/?p=3564
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
Abstract 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.
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.
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).
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 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).
APR vs. CMP & SCMP
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.
Blom, R., Davenport, L. D., & Bowe, B. J. (2012). Reputation cycles: The value of accreditation for undergraduate journalism programs. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 67(4), 392-406. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077695812462349
Brody, E. W. (1984). The credentials of public relations: Licensing? Certification?Accreditation? An overview. Public Relations Quarterly, 29(2), 6-9.
Brody, E. W. (1992). We must act now to redeem PR’s reputation. Public Relations Quarterly, 37(3), 44.
Luttrell, R., Wallace, 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.
Pellegrini, S. (2017). Journalism education in Chile: Navigating historically diverse views and goals. In R. S. Goodman & E. Steyn (Eds.), Global journalism education: Challenges and innovations (pp. 41-64). Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.
Seamon, M. C. (2010). The value of accreditation: An overview of three decades of research comparing accredited and unaccredited journalism and mass communication programs. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 65(1), 9–20. https://doi.org/10.1177/107769581006500103
Tindall, T. J. & Waters, R. D. (2017). Does gender and professional experience influence students’ perceptions of professors? Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 72(1), 52-67. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077695815613932
Wilkerson, J. M. (1999). On research relevance, professors’ “real world” experience, and management development: Are we closing the gap? Journal of Management Development, 18(7), 598-613. https://doi.org/10.1108/02621719910284459
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
Editorial Record: Submitted August 1, 2022. Accepted October 4, 2022. Published May 2023.
Julie O’Neil, Ph.D. Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Administration, Bob Schieffer College of Communication Strategic Communication Texas Christian University Texas, USA Email: email@example.com
Emily S. Kinsky, Ph.D. Professor of Media Communication Department of Communication West Texas A&M University Texas, USA Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Michele E. Ewing, APR, Fellow PRSA Professor School of Media and Journalism Kent State University Ohio, USA Email: email@example.com
Maria Russell, APR, Fellow PRSA Professor Emerita, Public Relations Newhouse School Syracuse University USA Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Abstract The growing need for data competency among entry-level PR practitioners underscores why it is imperative that PR educators evaluate how they are teaching data and data analytics to students. Researchers interviewed 28 high-level PR practitioners with significant data and analytics experience to examine how educators can best prepare students to curate, analyze, and discern actionable insight from data. Practitioners said students must understand PR fundamentals, basic research and statistics concepts, and the ability to succinctly and persuasively tell a story using data visualization. Participants also discussed the importance of soft skills, including a willingness to learn, adaptability, and critical thinking. Implications and teaching suggestions for educators are provided.
Keywords: data, analytics, competency, pedagogy, public relations
The communication industry is transforming into a data-driven field (Fitzpatrick & Weissman, 2021; Weiner, 2021). People around the world consume and share information as they play, work, learn, engage, and advocate in digital spaces. Public relations practitioners must accordingly upscale their abilities and efforts to use technology to work in the digital world. As part of this digital revolution, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Big Data are becoming integrated into contemporary public relations practice (Wiencierz & Röttger, 2019; Wiesenberg et al., 2017). Sommerfeldt and Yang (2018) opined: “The question is no longer if, but how to best use digital communication technologies to build relationships with publics” (p. 60).
Despite the vast opportunities afforded by data and technology, many public relations practitioners are behind on the learning curve (Virmani & Gregory, 2021). According to the 2020-2021 North American Communication Monitor (Meng et al., 2021), 40% of PR practitioners lack data competency; 29% are under-skilled, while 11% are critically under-skilled.
Educators know the importance of embedding data and technology competency into public relations curriculum. Five of the 12 professional values and competencies promoted by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (ACEJMC) relate to digital analytics (Ewing et al., 2018). In the most recent Commission on Public Relations Education (CPRE) report (2018), educators and practitioners indicated “research and analytics” was the fourth-most desirable skill—out of 13—for entry-level PR practitioners.
The growing need for data confidence and proficiency among entry-level practitioners underscores why it is imperative that public relations educators evaluate how they are teaching data and data analytics to students. Researchers interviewed 28 high-level PR practitioners with significant data and analytics experience to examine how educators can best prepare students to curate, analyze, and discern actionable insight from data.
Review of Literature
How PR Practitioners are Using Data and Technology
According to a McKinsey report, companies’ adoption of digital technologies “sped up by three to seven years in a span of months” in 2020 (Galvin et al., 2021, para. 3). In 2021, the pandemic accelerated companies’ adoptions’ of digital technologies, and according to McKinsey, the future belongs to organizations that fully embrace digital technology, skills, and leadership (Galvin et al,. 2021). Public relations practitioners are responding and leaning into this digital transformation as their usage of digital approaches and technologies increases (Wright & Hinson, 2017). Data infuses the entire PR process, and communication professionals can examine data from social platforms, email, websites, mobile apps, internal platforms, business data streams, and more to inform strategic and tactical decisions. Communicators can examine and analyze data for environmental scanning, issues management (Kent & Saffer, 2014; Triantafillidou & Yannas, 2014), crisis communication, combatting disinformation and misinformation (Weiner, 2021), audience identification and segmentation (Stansberry, 2016), influencer and journalistic outreach (Galloway & Swiatek, 2018; Wiencierz & Röttger, 2019) and campaign evaluation (Weiner, 2021).
The Arthur W. Page Society developed a communication approach called “Comm Tech,” which is designed to help chief communication officers (CCOs) apply data and analytics to create campaigns that are hyper-targeted and optimized to drive business outcomes (CommTech Quickstart Guide, 2020). According to Page members Samson and O’Leary (2020), CCOs must help their communication teams evolve from a proactive to predictive function, transform how they understand and engage stakeholders, and improve their digital skills and agility among team members so they can respond to complex problems and opportunities using real-time data.
A commonly referred-to term is Big Data, which is “advanced technology that allows large volumes of data to drive more fully integrated decision-making” (Weiner & Kochhar, 2016, p. 4). Big Data is often defined by four V’s: volume, velocity, variety, and value, and consists of many small structured and unstructured data streams, including PR data derived from news coverage, internal communication, and social media (Weiner & Kochar, 2016). PR practitioners can collaborate with other organizational units to examine Big Data to make decisions regarding product or service demand, competition, and community trends (Weiner, 2021, p. 24). Communicators are also starting to use AI to enhance their capabilities (Virmani & Gregory, 2021). Defined as the “ability of machines to perform tasks that typically require human-like understanding” (Knowledge@Wharton, 2018, para. 1), AI is being used for tasks such as responding to consumer questions, monitoring social media, conducting journalistic and influencer outreach (Galloway & Swiatek, 2018), and engaging employees (O’Neil et al., 2021).
Pedagogical Approaches to Teaching Data and Analytics
Educators and practitioners alike agree upon the importance of including data and analytics in the public relations curriculum. When asked about the future of PR education, Duhé (2016) said educators should focus on three pillars: fast-forward thinking, interdisciplinary learning, and analytical reasoning. The latter relates to students’ ability to curate, analyze, and effectively describe disparate forms of data. In the 2018 CPRE report, educators and practitioners rated the skill of working with research and analytics a 4.16 (on a scale from 1-5) in importance, yet scored entry-level practitioners only a 3.11 in terms of having that skill (on a scale from 1-5). Relatedly, educators and practitioners rated critical thinking as a 4.45 in importance, and scored entry-level practitioners a 3.07 in terms of having those skills. In addition to the importance of data skills emphasized by CPRE, five of the ACEJMC (2022) professional values and competencies relate to research, data, and technology. Recommended competencies include presenting information; thinking critically, creatively, and independently; conducting research and evaluation; applying basic numerical and statistical concepts; and applying tools and technologies.
In addition to the CPRE (2018) report, Krishna et al.’s (2020) survey of public relations practitioners and Brunner at al’s (2018) analysis of PR job announcements both indicated the importance of research and measurement skills for entry-level practitioners. Based upon a content analysis of university websites and job advertisements, Auger and Cho (2016) concluded that PR curricula were overall aligned with the needs of practice, except for social media and technology. O’Neil and Pham (2020) analyzed 101 full-time communication and research job positions that were posted on Glassdoor in late 2019. The advertisements most commonly required the following knowledge and skills: SEO (search engine optimization), SEM (search engine marketing), OTT (over-the-top), traffic metrics, A/B testing, data analytics, data visualization, presentation,and teamwork.
Other recent pedagogical work has examined how public relations educators are teaching data and analytics, which students have indicated they desire (Meng et al., 2019; Waymer et al., 2018). Ewing et al. (2018) researched how PR faculty are teaching social media analytics by analyzing course syllabi and conducting a Twitter chat with 56 educators and practitioners. Participants (mostly educators) suggested students know how to measure social media results, understand the context of social media, engage in social media listening, and conduct digital storytelling. The researchers’ analysis of syllabi revealed very few included learning outcomes related to analytics in general or required certifications with an analytic underpinning. Fang et al. (2019) also examined digital media content in 4,800 courses offered in 99 advertising and public relations programs. Approximately one in four universities offer digital media courses, and there is a greater emphasis overall on skills than concepts in courses.
Lutrell et al. (2021) investigated how social media, digital media, and analytics courses have been incorporated into the public relations curriculum in programs accredited by either ACEJMC and/or Certificate for Education in Public Relations (CEPR). Only 32% of 94 programs require either an undergraduate or graduate course in social media, digital media, or analytics; 16% of programs offer these courses as electives. McCollough et al. (2021) examined 154 syllabi to see how programs are teaching new media. Their study indicated 21% of courses offered content related to analytics and interpretation; only a few mentioned “social listening, data insights, or return on investment” (p. 41). Importantly, these two studies indicate only one of three accredited programs—or one out of five when considering syllabi—are teaching data and analytics.
Feedback from Practitioners About Data Skills and Knowledge Needed
Research has also focused on feedback from practitioners on how to best prepare students for the public relations field. According to communication executives in the United States and China, PR education is not adequately preparing students for emerging media and technology (Xie et al., 2018). The executives named digital and social media as one of the six primary skills needed to succeed and said students should be trained to be “digital thinkers” (Xie et al., 2018, p. 10). “Critical thinking, continuous learning, emotional intelligence, and curiosity” (Xie et al., p. 301) were ranked as the most important soft skills for entry-level practitioners.
Communication practitioners have repeatedly said students do not need to be trained to be digital scientists (Neill & Schauster, 2015; Wiesenberg et al., 2017). Yet, students must embrace numbers, math, business, and statistics (Neill & Schauster, 2015; Wiencierz & Röttger, 2019; Xie et al., 2018). Other suggestions include teaching students how to conduct data analysis, evaluate a campaign’s impact (Freberg & Kim, 2017), engage in social media listening (Neill & Schauster, 2015), and manage a measurement budget (Xie et al., 2018).
Lee and Meng (2021) interviewed South Korean executives for their perceptions of data competency needed among communication practitioners. According to these practitioners, having the right mindset is more important than having the skills to work with data and tools. Lee and Meng (2021) posited that data competency can be fostered by building cognitive analytics, data management, technology literacy, sensemaking skills for data transformation, and crisis management digital skills.
Fourteen managers from public relations agencies described what analytics-related knowledge and skills are needed for entry-level practitioners (Adams & Lee, 2021). They said educators should focus less on the tools and more on content. The agency practitioners recommended critical thinking, general measurement approaches, communicating data insight, social media listening tools, influencer marketing, message resonance, and data storytelling.
In summary, this review of literature has indicated the growing need for data and analytics competency among entry-level PR practitioners. Educators are seeking to enhance how they teach data and analytics, but research suggests there is room for improvement. Scholars have noted the need for more feedback from industry professionals about teaching data competency (Ewing et al., 2018; Fang et al., 2019; Luttrell et al., 2021). This study builds upon Adams and Lee’s (2021) research by expanding the sample from agency employees to communicators working in a wide range of industries. Moreover, the focus of this project is on data, in general, and is not limited to analytics. The study seeks to answer the following questions:
RQ1: What knowledge and skills do students need related to data and public relations?
RQ2: What basic software/tools are organizations using to analyze data and digital analytics and which of these tools should students learn?
RQ3: What can educators do to improve student readiness in these areas?
Researchers recruited 28 public relations professionals with data and analytics experience using purposive and snowball sampling. Researchers recruited from their professional networks, many of whom are members of either the Institute for Public Relations Measurement Commission or the International Association for Measurement and Evaluation of Communication (AMEC) and have decades of experience in public relations, research, and analytics. As indicated by Table 1, most participants work for either corporations or agencies, but some work at nonprofit organizations and consultancies; industries represented included air transportation, communication/information, consumer packaged goods, education, entertainment/sports, finance/insurance, government, and healthcare. More than 50% had more than 20 years of experience.
Researchers conducted the interviews via Zoom between November 2021 and January 2022. Interviews, lasting approximately 60 minutes, were recorded and transcribed verbatim for analysis. Participant names were removed from transcripts to protect identities and were replaced with numbers (see Table 1). These numbers appear with responses in the results section. In some examples, a participant’s role is mentioned to provide context.
Researchers analyzed the interviews using the three processes of data reduction, data display, and conclusion drawing and verification (Miles & Huberman, 1994). Researchers analyzed transcripts line-by-line to generate categories and created broad categories based upon the conceptual framework and variables under investigation. Researchers worked together to identify the major patterns and themes suggested by the coding categories. Next researchers reread the transcripts to code the material according to the emerging categories and to identify frequency of responses and representative quotes and stories.
RQ1: Knowledge and Skills Students Need Related to Data and Digital Analytics
Several patterns emerged from the interviews related to the knowledge and skills public relations students need related to data. Before students can analyze data, participants said students must have an understanding of PR fundamentals and basic research and statistics concepts. From a hard skills perspective, students must explain data accurately and clearly through solid storytelling and data visualization. Finally, participants discussed the importance of soft skills, including a willingness to learn, adaptability, and critical thinking. Participants said they could teach employees about tools; however, it was challenging to teach soft skills.
Knowledge Needed: Understanding PR Fundamentals and Business Functions
In order to conduct effective data analysis for an organization, participants pointed to the foundational need for students to understand fundamentals first, especially how public relations connects to other business functions. According to one communication manager, it is important for students to grasp “the rationale behind public relations,” which means core PR classes “are really important for this [digital analytics] role, getting that domain expertise in the communications and PR area” (2). Another participant agreed that knowledge of PR skills, such as writing, reporting, and pitching, is essential for data storytelling.
Having knowledge of the organization beyond the PR department is crucial. Students need to know enough to communicate with others outside their area. Interview participants encouraged students to learn business basics so they would be able to guide communication efforts that would help meet organization goals. One CEO explained, “if you can’t make it relevant to a business leader because you don’t know very much about business, you’ve got a problem” (17). He said students should learn “all of the contextual pieces” of the organization, from finance to human resources—not to become an expert in every area but to “learn enough” to understand the context—“You don’t have to become a data scientist, but you do have to understand what the fundamentals are so that when you sit down and actually do some of this work or even pose some of these questions, you will have a background” that allows you to proceed effectively (17). A vice president for social and content marketing emphasized the importance of understanding the bigger picture; PR is “one driver, but how do we fit in with the rest of the channels and that consumer experience?” (13). A communication consultancy CEO also recommended students learn every aspect of the organization they work for:
For students to be successful and to deliver value to their organization in the future, I think it’s very important to think broadly to understand how does value happen in an organization. Go out with the sales reps on the road and work in different parts of the organization and learn how people view the customer, the processes internally, the data that results from both of those, and of course, the management structure and layers and ways of getting things done. (21)
Connecting to organizational strategy/objectives.Many of the participants’ responses focused on goals, objectives, and what to measure, which means students need to understand the purposes behind data analysis. One participant said students need to know “how communications data can work in a business—why it’s important, why it’s something that we need to be doing” (1). Several participants pointed to the problem of opening an analytics tool without understanding the “why” first. One participant offered the example of someone going into Google Analytics and looking at site visitors and referral sources but not first considering “Why do we care about that?” (14). One CEO said students need to understand that “it’s the questions that come first and then the analytics, and then the analytics tell you whether or not you’re measuring the stuff you need to be measuring” (17). An EVP of analytics agreed, “We really try to first make sure everybody starts with business goals, communications objectives, and audience alignment, and that’s something that is still very confusing to a lot of clients, and even a lot of our junior staff still has a hard time” (7). She encouraged:
[M]aking sure a goal is a quantifiable goal, so it has a who, what, by when, by how much, whatever, in my opinion, if they get used to doing that, it almost becomes obvious, “Well, do I know enough about my audience to know that this is the right goal? Do I know enough about the culture or the landscape to know if this is something I can do?” If I do, great. Then what are my benchmarks, so I know if I’ve achieved that goal? And it forces that quantified goal to become a way to make sure analytics is part of planning, a part of optimizing, and a part of then the measurement at the end. (7)
Strategy. If faculty have used the ROSTIR (Research, Objectives, Strategy, Tactics, Implementation, Reporting) model in introductory classes, students have learned the importance of objectives being in place before strategies are developed and that students should define their strategy before considering tactics (Luttrell & Capizzo, 2022); students need to grasp how these steps are connected to digital analytics, as well. A CMO said:
Remind students that strategy is timeless…. It’s a very natural tendency on the part of students and practitioners to get caught up in the tactics. But say, “Okay, how are we tying this back to the brand here? . . . How is this tied to the overall approach? How is this supporting this larger goal?” (23)
One participant pointed to how vital it is for students to understand strategy before ever using an analytics tool. “A lot of the analytics tools are dependent on you understanding what a strategy is and understanding how you can take your goals and turn them into key performance indicators, your KPIs, and then how you can build reports from that” (14). Students must comprehend strategy to be able to select the appropriate analytics.
What to Measure. An analytics manager with 15 years of experience said students need to learn to measure outcomes rather than just outputs. She explained outcomes are “really hard to measure,” but it is ideal if students understand the importance of business outcomes (1). Her advice connects to both the second and third iterations of the Barcelona Principles. According to Barcelona Principle No. 2, “Measurement and evaluation should identify outputs, outcomes, and potential impact” (AMEC, 2020). Barcelona Principle No. 3 says, “Outcomes and impact should be identified for stakeholders, society, and the organization” (AMEC, 2020).
Knowledge Needed:Research and Statistics
A communication manager with more than 16 years of experience said, in addition to a “domain expertise about media,” public relations students need an interest “in numbers and understanding of just the basic analytics principles and what it means to explore data” (2). To work in PR now necessitates “an understanding of statistics of some sort” (22). A participant who heads the analytics team for a large agency said, “this is no longer nice to have. You don’t have to be a data person, but you do need to have a base understanding of how to read a chart” (7). Another agency executive pointed to the need for students to know how to write a survey, and an agency founder said all communicators need to complete at least one statistics class that allows students to practice with “a wider range of datasets” (19).
A director of data science said students should not run away from statistics. “Statistics is not math; it literally is not math. You don’t have to do any calculations in statistics. You have to understand how to apply something and when to press the right buttons; there’s no math” (20). A founder of a communication analytics-focused company with more than 25 years of experience agreed students need to move beyond fear of statistics if they want to work in professional communication:
A lot of people go into PR or comms or even marketing because at some level they say, ‘Wow, I really did not like math in college or high school, and this looks like something that is math-free.’ That would be a huge mistake to believe that today. Nothing is math-free, numbers-free, technology-free. If you had a real problem with STEM, science, technology, math in school, you definitely should not go into marketing and communications in the future. (17)
Participants suggested students learn about database systems, spreadsheets, Boolean syntax, data literacy, and dashboards. In fact, one source said, “Get really good Boolean operating codes, then that’s your bread and butter” (16). In addition to Boolean syntax, another source suggested learning the programming language SQL: “A foundational skill for analytics is SQL and being able to query, investigate, and understand large datasets” (26). While one source said seeing R and Python on a resume would catch her attention, other participants argued there’s no need for students to learn R and Python because companies can hire a data scientist; instead, PR employees need to be able to work with data scientists and to discern the insight that has relevance for business outcomes and PR programming. A participant with 30 years of experience said, “They don’t need to be data scientists. They need to have an understanding of it… ask questions. . . . be good probers of the data” (18). Students must recognize “what’s an important number and what’s not” (22) and to “be curious about where things came from” (24). More than any particular tool or ability, participants said students need to be comfortable with data: “how to structure it, how to blend it, how to analyze it, and how to communicate about it” (19).
Hard Skills Needed: Data Visualization and Storytelling
Participants repeatedly said public relations students do not need the same expertise as a data scientist. They need to be able to take complex information and convert it “into simple-to-understand information” (20). Participants spoke of “data-driven storytelling” (6) and simply “being able to explain” (7), which includes presentation skills to “tell your story” (2). One source indicated data visualization is a growth area within their organization, and they will “be hiring big on next year” (7).
Data visualization tools were frequently mentioned by participants, including Tableau and Alteryx; however, one participant warned that tools that create an automatic visual for users might be dangerous: “I’m not a huge fan of data analysis using visualization tools purely because I think it is ripe for the potential of misrepresenting the data” (19). She recommended teaching students basic visualization within communication classes, including the importance of labeling information correctly and providing data sources. Other participants mentioned the frequent need to create their own graphs and other visualization pieces at work, despite the existence of automated tools, so a basic knowledge of good design is helpful.
Soft Skill Needed:Willingness to Learn
While demonstrating curiosity and a commitment to life-long learning is essential in public relations, participants pointed out “genuine curiosity” (8) is critical when it comes to mining and analyzing data and determining insights for communication strategy. Ten of the 28 participants emphasized the importance of curiosity. For example, a corporate communication professional said, “A digital analytics practitioner must have curiosity and strong communication skills” because that interest “will keep them asking why, keep them digging, which will uncover a deeper understanding in their analyses” (26). Another participant said “I try to hire people who are curious” and those with “an aptitude for understanding the bigger story and the strategy” (6).
The participants advised educators to help students and young professionals understand the value of recognizing there’s always going to be more to learn, showing a willingness to learn, and being comfortable with asking questions. A communication executive at a not-for-profit healthcare organization said, “Be willing to say, ‘I’m not an expert at it, but I want to increase my level of understanding,’ because that’s just what it’s going to take for them to be successful” (24).
An executive at a communication consultancy (27) said people with “inquisitive minds” and “a point of view” are more successful working with data and digital analytics. Another executive working for a company specializing in artificial intelligence (14) discussed the value of “being open to trying something” and “digging into the numbers” to discern patterns and insights. According to a participant who directs analytics at a large agency, “Being a person who always wants to know more, wants to understand more, wants to learn more” will lead to both personal and professional success (7).
Soft Skill Needed: Embracing Change and Unexpectedness
Participants discussed how evolving digital platforms and tools create challenges with data access and analysis, which can be frustrating and time consuming. Students need to learn to deal with these challenges and be open to using different approaches to capture and analyze data. In the words of one seasoned practitioner: “Just encourage [students] to get creative and to try things and to not get upset when things get broken” (23). A corporate communication executive explained: “The number-one quality we look for in candidates is adaptability” because “analytics is a science and, as such, it is always on a journey of discovery” (26).
Soft Skill Needed: Creative and Critical Thinking Skills
Overwhelmingly, the research findings demonstrated the value of creative and critical thinking skills to effectively work with data and digital analytics. Participants described digital analytics as an art and science and how public relations students and professionals need to be both creative and analytical when accessing and reviewing data. A corporate communication manager (2) emphasized the importance of “being comfortable with ambiguity” and “pushing back” to dig deeper into the data to determine relevant insights. Another participant (21) explained: “There’s a creative leap in interpreting data and its application” and students must not accept “what the data may appear to say at face value.”
To help students develop critical thinking skills, several participants discussed the value of educators encouraging students to ask thoughtful questions. For example, educators can present a problem, share some data, and direct students to probe in a way that leads to insights connected to business and communication goals. This approach for teaching insight creation is practiced in the workplace. An executive for a global agency (7) explained they conduct training sessions to teach employees how to connect the data back to the communication problem and how to use data to lead to actionable insights.
RQ2: Software and Tools Used to Analyze Data
When asked about software and tools used for data analysis, participants described almost 80 software tools and programs, including those they use either in house or in collaboration with external partners. Eight tools were mentioned by five or more participants: Google Analytics, Tableau, Excel, Adobe Analytics, Talkwalker, Brandwatch, Salesforce, and Sprinklr (see Table 2). Google Analytics was mentioned the most. Related to recent tool trends, one participant indicated “the tool conversation, the PR AdTech, MarTech, data tech stack conversation is one where we’re spending an awful lot of time” (3).
Participants explained the excitement and challenge of this explosion of tools. While practitioners may now choose from a wide range of tools, no single program is capable of accomplishing the myriad tasks needed, which means data must be coordinated from multiple sources, and practitioners frequently combine tools or create their own tools to meet their needs.
When asked which of these tools they recommend for students to learn, 53 different tools/programs were named and of these, only three were mentioned by five or more participants: Google Analytics, Excel, and Tableau (see Table 3). Participants repeatedly emphasized that educators should not worry about teaching the latest data analytics tool because tools change, and employers can teach the tools. Instead, participants suggested educators help students become more comfortable with the meaning of numbers and research in general.
Although many of the interview participants encouraged professors to be “platform agnostic” — focusing on concepts more than specific platforms, two tools were repeatedly mentioned as critical: Google Analytics and Excel. Google Analytics was often referred to as “table stakes” or “low-hanging fruit” (1), “a must” (23), “a good place to start” (15), and that the platform training “gives you a framework for not only thinking about digital analytics, but a framework for thinking about how users move around the web and interact with digital channels” (9) and “if you understand the terms per Google, you’ll understand about 80% of everything else that you might look at . . . because that’s the terminology that just about every other platform uses, so I would say that’s the starting point” (11). Similarly, sources said “start with Excel” (19). “Microsoft Excel is a good way to understand and learn how to organize data, how to use formulas to manipulate data within Excel. You can create charts and graphs and pie charts and all of those different types of things, so I would definitely look for competency at a bare minimum of Excel” (15). Specifically, sources recommended students learn how to run pivot tables, make charts, and pull graphs out of Excel to put into PowerPoint. In addition to placing emphasis on Google Analytics and Excel, a few sources suggested exposing students to as many tools as possible because “you don’t necessarily know what that company or agency is using” (19).
RQ3: How Educators Can Improve Student Readiness
Participants shared suggestions to help educators prepare students for data and analytics competency. To conquer students’ fear of analytics, some practitioners recommended educators embed data and analytics in multiple courses, with one participant (19) explaining: “You have to socialize them to it and maybe spoon feed in little baby steps, but all along from the beginning.”
Some participants said educators should dig into the context. For example, if students are analyzing social media conversations on Brandwatch, they should also analyze media coverage and competitor information to understand the nuances of micro changes in those conversations. Respondents recommended that PR educators partner with other academic units on campus, such as business or data science, or with industry professionals or agencies, to team-teach data competency to students.
Participants suggested educators use real clients and datasets to deepen learning, something also recommended in the interviews conducted by Adams and Lee (2021). One manager at a global agency (4) said educators should incorporate open-ended assignments that encourage students to ask questions, inspire motivation, and figure out solutions on their own. Respondents also provided a number of assignment suggestions, including:
Use AMEC research award entries to write case studies. Students could interview the professionals who submitted an entry to discern best practices and write the study (18).
Have students assume the role of a junior executive in a communication agency, and in a 48-hour timeframe, create a client report with insights and infographics (5).
Encourage students to participate and learn in online conversations about PR data and analytics on platforms such as Reddit, Slack, and LinkedIn (28).
Have students develop weekly reports to examine different sources of data to consider societal factors that may be driving change (18).
Give students a large data file on the first day of class. Teach them how to clean the data and how to gain insights in steps across the semester (20).
Require students to attend a dissertation defense presentation from another department to gain practice taking complex ideas and data from outside their field and communicating key takeaways in a way that is understandable to a lay person. They could summarize the highlights in an executive summary or pitch the newsworthy findings in a news release (20).
Develop a data integrity assignment that requires students to write and explain their data
source, including any possible biases and/or limitations (18).
Analyze social conversations on Brandwatch and connect the analysis to what’s happening in the news and from a Google search. Connect the analysis to both theory and conceptual frameworks when looking for insight and making recommendations (5).
Examine where social media fits within the consumer journey for a business and how it impacts outcomes relative to other channels (13).
Use a client or university website to understand how to improve campaigns and readership using data from Google Analytics (24).
One participant encouraged educators not to feel pressured to teach students everything about data analytics: “I think there’s a naive belief that a university can train everything. It can’t, it absolutely can’t and it shouldn’t” (20). He also shared an encouraging message for graduating seniors:
the company is going to invest money and time into training you, but they have a base level of knowledge that they want you to have. And I think there’s this little fear that I should know how to do everything when I walk in the door, and that’s crap, you’re never going to know everything when you walk in the door. We’re going to teach you the things that we think you don’t know, and you should ask questions along the way. (20)
The resulting focus should be for students to learn as much as they can in and out of school, to be ready to continue to learn during the rest of their career as tools change, and ask questions as confusion arises.
In this study, seasoned communication professionals from a wide range of industries shared recommendations on how public relations educators can best prepare students to succeed in our increasingly digitized world. According to participants, students need a range of knowledge and hard and soft skills to work effectively with data and analytics. Most importantly, students must understand PR fundamentals, including how PR connects to other organizational functions and goals (Adams & Lee, 2021; Brunner et al., 2018; Ewing et al., 2018; Krishna et al., 2020). Practitioners explained that knowing business basics and knowing one’s own industry are critical for asking the right questions, considering the nuances and context, and discerning actionable insight. Understanding how data aligns with or drives organizational objectives overshadows knowledge of any one digital tool or metric. While practitioners explained students do not need to be a data scientist (Neill & Schauster, 2015; Wiesenberg et al., 2017) nor know a programming language, they must have a strong grounding in research and statistics (Brunner et al., 2018; Krishna et al, 2020). Students must understand statistics and research in order to know how to examine frequency distributions, correlations, regression analysis, A/B testing, and more when examining data. Qualitative research skills are also needed for examining digital conversations and discerning meaning in data. Finally, students must also know how to succinctly and compellingly tell a story using data visualization for a wide range of audiences. Students must learn how to filter unnecessary data points to construct a simple story.
Much of the feedback from practitioners relates to soft skills, which employers often weigh more heavily than hard skills when making hiring decisions (Lee & Meng, 2021; Xie et al., 2018). The soft skills mentioned by participants included a willingness to learn, adaptability, and critical thinking, all of which align with the cognitive analytics and sensemaking skills recommended for data competency by Lee and Meng (2021) and Xie et al’s (2018) research. PR educators, mentors, and internship supervisors can all help to cultivate these necessary soft skills. Study practitioners suggested assignments that could foster critical thinking and adaptability, such as requiring students to wade through data dumps, thinking about data biases when cleaning and sorting data, and figuring out how the data provides solutions to specific problems.
Given constantly changing technology, a plethora of programs, and the high price tag of many tools, it is daunting to decide which digital tools to teach to PR students. However, participants explained data competency relates more to the approach than the tool. Encouragingly, the tool most widely recommended by participants was Google Analytics, one that provides free training and certification. Excel was another basic and cost-effective tool recommended frequently and vehemently by practitioners. According to participants, students must know how to create and analyze a pivot table and create graphs using Excel; therefore, educators may want to require Excel certification. For faculty who want to learn new tools or software, the key is to start and keep it simple. Educators can tap into resources, like Matt Kushin’s Social Media Syllabus blog and Karen Freberg’s Social Media Professors Facebook Community Group.
While this study builds upon other research touting the necessity for PR students to learn to work with data, the question remains whether educators should create a stand-alone course and/or to integrate data analytics into existing courses. Given increasingly tight resources and crowded curriculum requirements, a separate course might not be possible; therefore, educators should consider spoon feeding data and analytics training across the curriculum, including introductory public relations, campaigns, research, and social media courses. Educators could introduce data and common terminology and metrics in introductory classes and later require students to use and analyze data in more advanced courses (Kent et al., 2011). Educators should continue to foster connections with industry professionals to serve as guest speakers, mentors, and project partners and to use real data and clients (Adams & Lee, 2021; Meng et al., 2019). Finally, students must take some responsibility for their own learning about how to work with data. Students can invest in their own learning by earning certifications, reading blogs and posts related to data analytics, attending brown bags and webinars, and completing internships.
While this study sheds much-needed insight into how to teach data and analytics, the findings are limited to a sample of 28 communication professionals. Future researchers might implement a survey with a larger sample of communicators to ask about data competency and tools needed. Future research could also compare the efficacy of various pedagogical approaches used by educators to teach data and analytics. Another possibility is to examine and describe data and social media labs housed in communication academic programs.
In conclusion, this research has indicated that while educators have many new tools and ways to teach data competency to public relations students, the basics have not changed. To succeed, students need foundational knowledge in PR concepts and models, strategy, business acumen, and research; skills in analyzing data and connecting to strategy and storytelling; and soft skills in critical thinking, adaptability, and a desire to learn. Educators should focus less on the tools and more on the knowledge outcomes and skills identified in this study. By investing small amounts of time in professional development and focusing on the basics (e.g., Google Analytics and Excel), educators can cultivate data competency among themselves and their students.
Auger, G. A., & Cho, M. (2016). A comparative analysis of public relations curricula: Does it matter where you go to school, and is academia meeting the needs of the practice? Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 71(1), 50-68. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077695814551830
Fang, F., Wei, W., & Huang, H. (2019). Keeping up with fast-paced industry changes—Digital media education in U.S. advertising and PR programs. Journal of Advertising Education,23(2), 80-99. https://doi.org/10.1177/1098048219877765
Fitzpatrick, K. R., & Weissman, P. L. (2021). Public relations in the age of data: Corporate perspectives on social media analytics (SMA), Journal of Communication Management, 25(4), 401-416. https://doi.org/10.1108/JCOM-09-2020-0092
Freberg, K., & Kim, C. M. (2018). Social media education: Industry leader recommendations for curriculum and faculty competencies. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 73(4), 379-391. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077695817725414
McCollough, C. J., Wallace, A. A., & Luttrell, R. M. (2021). Connecting pedagogy to industry: Social and digital media in public relations courses. Teaching Journalism & Mass Communication, 11(1), 36-48.https://aejmc.us/spig/volume-11-number-1-2021/
Meng, J., Jin, Y., Lee, Y-I, Kim, S. (2019). Can Google analytics certification cultivate PR students’ competency in digital analytics? A longitudinal pedagogical research. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 74(4), 388-406. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077695818816916
O’Neil, J., Ewing, M., Smith, S., & Williams, S. (2021). Measuring and evaluating internal communication. In R.L. Men & A.T. Verčič’s (Eds.), Current trends and issues in internal communication (pp. 201-222). Springer Nature.
Sommerfeldt, E. J., & Yang, A. (2018). Notes on a dialogue: Twenty years of digital dialogic communication research in public relations. Journal of Public Relations Research, 30(3), 59-64. https://doi.org /10.1080/1062726X.2018.1498248
Stansberry, K. (2016). Taming the social media data deluge: Using social media research methods in the public relations classroom. In H. S. Noor Al-Deen (Ed.), Social media in the classroom (pp. 75-92). Peter Lang.
Waymer, D., Brown, K. A., Baker, K., & Fears, L. (2018). Socialization and pre-career development of public relations professionals via the undergraduate curriculum. Communication Teacher, 32(2), 117-130. https://doi.org/10.1080/17404622.2017.1372590
Weiner, M. (2021). PR Technology, Data and Insights: Igniting a positive return on your communications investment. Kogan Page Limited.
Xie, Q., Schauster, E., & Neill, M. S. (2018). Expectations for advertising and public relations education from agency executives: A comparative study between China and the United States. Journal of Current Issues & Research in Advertising, 39(3), 289-307. https://doi.org/10.1080/10641734.2018.1490358
Table 1:Interview Participant Information
Current Job Title
Manager, Analytics & Insight
Communications Manager, Measurement & Insight
Managing Director, Analytics-Based Strategy
Global Health Innovation Agency
Associate Manager, Digital Analytics
Public Relations Agency
Director of Communication Intelligence
EVP, Head of US Analytics
Public Relations Agency
Assistant Athletic Director for Digital Strategy and Analytics
Digital Communication Agency
Digital Communication Agency
Founder & Chair; CEO; Chair
Data Science & Communication Agency
Chief Visionary Officer and Founder
Digital Communication Agency
Partner / Senior Vice President, social media
Advertising & Public Relations Agency
VP, Social and Content Marketing Lead
Finance and Insurance
Chief Growth Officer
Marketing AI Agency
Audience Development Director
Head, Media Analysis
Founder and CEO
Communication Industry Association
Founder & Chief Strategy Officer
Communication Agency (Oil & Gas focused)
Director of Data Science
Sports & Entertainment Consultancy
Public Relations Consultancy
Chief Marketing Officer
Arts & Entertainment
EVP and Chief Marketing & Communications Officer
Chief Marketing and Communications Officer
Finance and Insurance
Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer
Consumer Packaged Goods
PR & Strategic Communications Agency
Founder and CEO
Table 2:Software and Tools Most Frequently Used to Analyze Data and Data Analytics
Participant Quote about its Use
“measuring engagement, share of voice, reach, landing, just all of that”
data visualization; “Google Analytics overwhelmingly is where we get a lot of our data, but we’re using Tableau to present it.”
“99.9% of your job in analytics is using Excel” to manipulate data, figure out what’s important and to generate reports for clients
“very similar to Google Analytics, but that’s a paid tool”
social listening tool; “we have Talkwalker, which we’re huge, huge, huge fans of”
“I really like Brandwatch from a listening perspective”
“We also use Sprinklr for our social media monitoring, as well as our social media listening, as well as social media publishing.”
“Salesforce is a CMS system. And so that allows us to analyze things like our electronic newsletters, the open rates, the read rates, as well as social media data.”
“We use Cision, which is our media monitoring tool. That’s the tool that we distribute most of our news content through. And what I mean by that is reaching out to reporters and distributing our press releases. It’s our media monitoring and our distribution.”
“On the social front, we’re able to look at things like engagement rate through some platforms that we use, including Meltwater”
Table 3:Software and Tools that Students Should Learn
Participant Quote about its Use
“Google Analytics and any of those social media analytics I think that are more of the low hanging fruit. That’s the table stakes, in my opinion” (and related to certification: “Google web analytics certified. Cool. That’s a marker. When we see a student who’s taken the effort, even outside of the program to go and do that, great.”)
“you need to be a fricking Excel power user. There’s no getting around that”; “a base Excel knowledge, I think is critical”
“Ultimately, you’re looking for any trends or patterns that you can see. So really being able to visualize the data in some way, I think Tableau is great for that”
“We use Brandwatch a lot for social media. And so, familiarizing yourself with those tools, I think, is very important”
“We use Cision a lot”
“So for instance, Sprinklr, all the social media listening tools, basically just get the Twitter Firehose and then you drill down by keyword type of thing.”
To cite this article: O’Neil, J., Kinsky, E., Ewing, M., and Russell, M. (2023). “You don’t have to become a data scientist”: Practitioner Recommendations for Cultivating PR Student Data Competency. Journal of Public Relations Education, 9(1), 62-81. https://journalofpreducation.com/?p=3616
Editorial Record: Submitted May 19, 2022. Revised August 23, 2022. Accepted October 28, 2022.
Bruce K. Berger, Ph.D. Professor Emeritus Advertising & Public Relations College of Communication & Information Sciences University of Alabama Tuscaloosa, Alabama Email: email@example.com
Elina Erzikova, Ph.D. Professor of Public Relations College of the Arts and Media Central Michigan University Mount Pleasant, Michigan Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Abstract Public relations education is a primary pipeline for preparing and developing future professionals. Yet, one of the most valuable leader, mentor, and educator capabilities—meaningful self-reflection (SR)—is neither highlighted nor strategically developed in many PR education programs. Mentoring programs at many organizations also do not appear to recognize SR as an invisible rudder that helps successfully navigate DEI challenges, day-to-day work issues, and unfamiliar situations like the pandemic. This paper closes the gap by reviewing a three-phase study focusing on self-reflection that highlights dozens of strategies and tactics that leaders, mentors, educators, and practitioners can use to enrich and increase SR in the workplace, classroom, and their personal lives. Doing so will drive, grow, and sustain DEI awareness, understanding, value, and practice in our profession and education even in challenging times.
Keywords: Public Relations, Self-reflection, Mentorship, Leadership, DEI
This research examines and underscores the crucial role of meaningful self-reflection (SR) by public relations teachers, leaders, mentors, and professionals to drive diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in public relations education and practice during the pandemic and other challenging times and environments. Recent research, webinars, trade publications, news stories, and conferences have highlighted the great need for increased DEI in public relations education and practice.
The term, DEI, usually refers to a policy or program that, in short, signifies an organizational intention or commitment to respect differences, promote fairness and assure diverse voices are heard and valued (The language of diversity, 2021). Diversity and inclusion in the workplace represents both moral and business cases: treating people equally and with respect is the right thing to do, and such practice brings a business outcome in the form of positive organizational performance (Diversity and inclusion at work, 2018). In this regard, Bardhan and Gower (2022) called for an in-depth look into whether and how organizations strike a balance between the moral and business cases. They also emphasized the role of leaders in cultivating an organizational culture in which differences are valued instead of being feared or resisted. The process of creating (or maintaining) such a culture requires an introspection on both leaders and followers.
The research is based on a three-phase project carried out by the authors in the past four years. The research argues that meaningful self-reflection is the crucial key to building, growing and especially sustaining DEI in education and organizations of all kinds. DEI must not become a here today, gone tomorrow idea. To ensure that does not happen, and to grow and sustain DEI in public relations, educators and professionals must practice meaningful SR, which means: 1) the individual honestly controls both the size of their ego and the extent of their self-criticism, and 2) they examine themselves (me-reflection) and especially how others may see them (we-reflection) regularly to increase self-awareness and other-awareness. SR is the unseen rudder that helps us navigate vital challenges like DEI, workplace issues, and unfamiliar situations like the pandemic.
Drawing from the three-phase research project, the authors provide a practical six-step strategic self-reflection process practiced by excellent PR leaders and mentors, that can be taught and practiced in the classroom and at home. In addition, the research identified a number of strategies and approaches for including SR in PR education. These were then organized into seven building blocks for improving SR capabilities and practice in the classroom to strengthen and sustain DEI and manage other professional issues. Finally, dozens of excellent classroom exercises and tactics to help build SR capabilities are noted and briefly described.
This research-based paper is eminently practical for public relations educators and students. Too often SR is an overlooked skill in PR education, or taken for granted, not unlike listening and empathy capabilities, among others. Yet, meaningful SR is the foundation for continuous improvement in public relations leadership, mentorship, education, and practice, all of which are crucial to driving, growing, and sustaining DEI, which offers a brighter, richer, and more promising future in PR practice and education.
Three Research Projects: Methods and Key Findings
Many studies in communication, psychology, and education confirm the benefits of self-reflection (SR), e.g., richer relationships, heightened emotional IQ, enhanced leadership and mentorship skills, and more engaged work teams. The sooner students and young professionals hone their strategic SR skills, the sooner they and their employers receive the benefits. Yet, as Mules (2018) found, SR is largely absent in PR research, textbooks, and the classroom. We know meaningful SR is not easy—the world is too noisy, we are too busy, and we battle egos—but it is crucial. This paper addresses that deficiency and identifies practical building blocks to advance development of SR in the classroom and organizational settings in order to enrich and sustain DEI in PR education and practice. The first two projects in the three-phase research program are briefly reviewed in this section. The most recent research project focusing on public relations educators and students and how they evaluate and use SR is then presented in more depth.
Self-Reflection Study with 30 PR Leaders (2018)
First, the researchers explored SR in depth interviews with 30 PR leaders in two countries in 2018 to learn about the role, process, practice, and benefits of SR in the workplace (Berger & Erzikova, 2019). Various leadership theories highlight the importance of SR and self-awareness, notably authentic, servant and transformational theories. In public relations, SR is implicit in Excellence Theory and more explicit in the Integrated Model of Leadership in PR (Meng & Berger, 2013). This model combines six personal dimensions for excellent leadership, four of which incorporate SR: self-insights, team leadership capabilities, relationship building and ethical orientation. This model provided the theoretical framework for this phase of the study.
For example, self-reflection is explicit in the self-dynamics dimension of the model, which includes the sub dimensions of visioning and self-insights. In this sense, self-insights refer to the extent to which PR leaders understand their own strengths and weaknesses and understand current issues, like the pandemic, to successfully adapt strategies and tactics to achieve organizational goals. Self-reflection is the process that helps build self-awareness and knowledge that can be put into subsequent actions and reflected in behaviors and communications by public relations leaders. In short, SR is a crucial driver of both continuous learning and improvement in the competency categories in this leadership model.
To learn more about SR perceptions and practices among PR leaders, this study examined SR in diverse Russian and N. American PR leaders. Depth interviews, averaging 45 minutes in length, were conducted with 15 Russian (9-F, 6-M) and 15 American (8-F, 7-M) communication leaders, who represented diverse organizational types, possessed more than 10 years of experience and lead, or have led communication teams, functions, or agencies. The interviews probed for insights to help answer five research questions: how and to what extent the leaders practiced SR, barriers to productive SR, practical benefits of SR in their work role, and the extent to which mentoring might contribute to the development of SR and leadership capabilities.
Overall, the study found all PR leaders in both countries believed SR is an important leadership capability, though it is practiced and valued somewhat differently in the two systems. The leaders regularly self-reflected and shared similar views about the role, process, practice, and benefits of SR. Three differences also were found, the most substantial being the me-reflection approach used by the Russians (a nearly total focus on the self) versus the we-reflection approach used by more N. Americans (incorporating others in their SR). Also, Russians raised far more concerns about “dangerous” SR, or excessive self-criticism, while Americans more strongly valued the role and influence of mentors, whom they suggested were the “best” SR teachers. Most of the Russian leaders were also in mentorship roles in their work.
The study’s richest contributions are the practical, actionable implications for improving SR capabilities and practices among professionals, educators, and students. The most valuable may be a six-step strategic SR process that describes how to prepare mentally for SR, and then to plan and carry out insights from the introspection. Another rich implication for mentors and mentees is a “questioning approach,” or Socratic approach which teaches meaningful self-inquiry: mentors ask thoughtful questions to help mentees reach answers, rather than simply answering their questions. Study participants also suggested many specific approaches to stimulate and improve student SR in the classroom. Overall, the study sheds new light on SR in PR leadership practice and development and provides actionable implications for practice and education in dealing with DEI, a pandemic environment, and other big issues in the field.
Content Analysis of Educator SR Exercises in the Classroom (2020)
Building on the 2018 study, the researchers conducted a comprehensive content analysis of online educator blogs, articles, and websites focusing on how to increase self-reflection skills of students and teachers in the classroom in 2020 (Berger & Erzikova, 2021). More than 200 online blogs, articles and websites were analyzed to identify what specific steps educators took to try to increase SR capabilities in students, and in themselves.
The researchers discovered hundreds of specific exercises and approaches which educators used to advance SR student skills. These were then grouped into seven building blocks (detailed later) for advancing SR in the classroom. The foundational building block focuses on the teacher’s commitment to SR, and their corresponding commitment to enriching DEI awareness and focus in SR. This building block also reflects the idea of trying to build some SR exercise in each class session, rather than devoting one class session to discuss the topic. Other key building blocks include using more Socratic teaching approaches, depth debriefs of team projects, self-assessment tools like Meyers-Briggs and Strengths/Finders, and great literature, films, and poetry to trigger journal writing and self-discussion.
Evaluation and Practice of SR by PR Teachers and Students (2021-22)
In 2021, the researchers used brief written surveys of 22 PR educators, and similar written surveys and focus groups with 23 PR students, to examine SR in PR education today, the extent of teachers’ and students’ SR, the perceived value of SR, and best classroom SR exercises or learning experiences, including those for dealing with DEI (Berger & Erzikova, 2022). The findings in this third phase of the research project are detailed below the brief introduction to self-reflection that follows.
Self-Reflection: What is it and why is it important?
Self-awareness is “the ability to see ourselves clearly—to understand who we are, how others see us and how we fit into the world” (Eurich, 2017, p. 3). Self-reflection (SR) is the primary way we examine ourselves and how others see us. It is deliberate, conscious introspection to better understand our thoughts, experiences, and emotions—to become aware of them, learn from them, and increase self-awareness.
Self-reflection also advances our emotional intelligence (EI) by helping us recognize and understand our emotions, listen better, and be more empathetic (Goleman, 1995). SR deepens critical thinking, improves communication and decision-making, builds confidence, and enriches relationships and leadership capabilities (Miller, 2013). In addition, SR may render us better workers and team players, who are less likely to lie, cheat, and steal (Eurich, 2017).
Acknowledging the complexity of professional practice nearly four decades ago, Donald Schön introduced a concept of the “reflective practitioner.” This professional responds to workplace challenges by reflecting on the happening while it is unfolding (reflection in action) and afterwards using reflection on action. Schön (1983) argued:
In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground where practitioners can make effective use of research-based theory and technique, and there is a swampy lowland where situations are confusing “messes”, incapable of technical solution. The difficulty is that the problems of the high ground, however great their technical interest, are often relatively unimportant to clients or to the larger society, while in the swamp are the problems of greatest human concern (p. 42).
Given the unpredictable nature of public relations work and number of problems (“messy situations”) PR practitioners face every day, SR should be considered one of the essential features of professional competence. The earlier this skill starts developing, the better a PR practitioner is prepared to deal with dilemmas , uncertainties, and crises.
Despite the recognized importance of SR and self-awareness, little research has been conducted regarding reflection in and by PR and communication leaders (Mules, 2018; Mules et al., 2019).). Mules (2018) found that popular PR textbooks do not address the importance of reflective practices, and there is “very little research into the role of formal reflection in the daily practice of public relations practitioners and public relations curricula” (Mules, 2018, p. 175).
Furthermore, Mules et al. (2019) discussed an action research project implemented in a PR course and shared useful insights into benefits and challenges of formally incorporating reflective practice in PR curricula: While the task “was neither easy nor comfortable,” the project “provided a fresh and exciting way to interact with the students” (p. 10), which might be especially valuable in pandemic times. As an implication for the PR profession, Mules et al. (2019) argued that classroom reflection is crucial for “the professional standing of public relations because it provides a way to integrate theory and practice at the beginnings of students’ professional careers, and because it provides specific strategies for scrutinizing assumptions” (p. 11).
Some barriers to meaningful self-reflection also exist. These include such “inner roadblocks” as a (perceived) shortage of time, a lack of understanding of the process and its benefits (Porter, 2017), and being delusional about personal traits (Eurich, 2017), among others. In addition, Eurich (2017) pointed out that an “insidious societal obstacle” – “the cult of self” (p. 73) – impedes self-awareness as inflated self-esteem makes individuals feel special about themselves and blinds them to the truth about their capabilities. This may be an increasingly acute problem in our fragmented world.
Mentors can play important roles in facilitating reflection by asking mentees seemingly simple – “what” and “why” – questions (Kail, 2012). Coached reflection, or a formal help an individual receives during a difficult situation to work through and learn from, is an essential component of both coaching and mentoring (Day et al., 2009). In other words, mentors’ help is vital during what Eurich (2017) called alarm clock events or “situations that open our eyes to important self-truths” (p. 44). These trigger moments can be negative, neutral, or positive (Avolio & Wernsing, 2008).
Mezirow (1997) argued, “thinking as an autonomous and responsible agent is essential for full citizenship in democracy and for moral decision making in situations of rapid change” (p. 7). The educator or mentor assures that learners achieve this goal by creating a supportive environment to help mentees develop critical reflectivity and self-confidence to “take action on reflective insights” (Mezirow, 2000, p. 25).
Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in public relations
A recent study (The language of diversity, 2021) revealed several concerns regarding DEI initiatives in U.S. organizations. At the individual level, some PR practitioners felt uncomfortable discussing DEI, and some were confused about DEI basic terms. At the organizational level, only about a third of respondents said their organizations codified DEI definitions, while two-thirds admitted their organizations did not move from a verbal commitment to meaningful action. Other companies do worse – their actions contradict their DEI statements. For example, Starbucks made a statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and later forbade employees to wear pins and clothes with the phrase (Murphy, 2020).
Clearly, there is an urgent need for PR leaders to step in to support and drive DEI initiatives that, in the words of Bardhan and Engstrom (2021), help organizations eliminate bias and discrimination. To approach this task, PR practitioners should start with self-reflection or examination of their own perceptions of DEI. There is little doubt that DEI is here to stay and eventually, the majority of U.S. organizations will define basic DEI terms and make them public for both employees and society. Still, a question is whether this formal appearance of commitment to DEI would result in action. This study argues that without adopting DEI at the individual level, the commitment at the organizational level would be rather superficial. SR seems to be helpful in identifying/articulating personal relevance to DEI as a prerequisite for an organization-wide pledge to the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion. It is expected that PR leaders will be in the forefront of change by modeling a desired behavior and inspiring their followers to deeply embrace DEI (Bardhan & Gower, 2022).
Building on these and other insights from substantial previous research in the area, and the authors’ three previous studies (Berger & Erzikova, 2022; Berger & Erzikova, 2021; Berger & Erzikova, 2019), this paper draws from all three studies but highlights the recent study of educators and students, and tries to answer five research questions in this regard:
RQ1: Do PR educators and students differ in their rank order of self-reflection as one of
the important professional skills and capabilities?
RQ2: To what extent do PR educators and students practice self-reflection in their everyday lives? And what approaches do they use?
RQ 3: In students’ opinions, what are practical benefits of SR? What approaches do PR students experience in the classroom?
RQ 4: In educators’ opinions, why and how is SR a valuable skill and practice for PR students as future leaders?
RQ 5: In educators’ opinions, what are the most powerful SR learning experiences, especially those related to DEI?
Twenty-two PR educators (12 were women) from ten states and 23 PR students (seniors, 19 were women) from a public university provided written responses to six questions about the extent of teachers’ and students’ SR, the perceived value of SR, and best classroom SR exercises or learning experiences. PR teachers’ experiences working at colleges and universities ranged from five to 30+ years, and six of them were of foreign origin. Sixteen educators received terminal degrees from U.S. universities and were tenure/tenured track faculty. Six educators received M.A. degrees and were instructors in undergraduate programs. Professors and instructors taught a variety of PR courses at the undergraduate level, which was the focus of the study (e.g., PR principles, PR writing, PR campaigns, PR case studies). They were recruited via a personal network.
Completing the written questionnaire required about 12 minutes for both teachers and students. In addition, students participated in four focus groups (each 45 minutes in length) to discuss SR approaches they were part of in the classroom. Four student-leaders had a 30-minute training on SR and focus group as a research method prior to the conversations. Student-leaders helped a researcher guide focus group discussions, making the process less stressful and more engaging. Focus groups were not recorded. Instead, each group developed a thorough written summary. Student participants found this task beneficial as it helped them pin down most important discussion outcomes they might use in the future. The researcher took notes during the conversations. All students were born in the U.S.; three of them were people of color.
Using Lincoln and Guba’s (1985) guidelines, the researchers first conducted independent analysis of two data sets (educators’ written responses and students’ individual written responses as well as focus group summaries and researchers’ notes). After patterns in each set were identified, the researchers exchanged preliminary findings to assess the adequacy of analysis. Next, they examined both data sets to categorize differences and similarities. This analysis was important as “Comparisons not only uncover differences between social entities but reveal unique aspects of an entity that would be virtually impossible to detect otherwise” (Mills et al., 2006, p. 621).
RQ1: Do PR educators and students differ in their rank order of self-reflection as one of the important professional skills and capabilities?
The first stage of this research asked PR educators and students to rank order the relative importance of seven skills and capabilities that are usually considered important for young public relations professionals (Table 1). Neither group ranked the “soft” leadership skill of self-reflection as the top skill; educators ranked SR a bit higher (4th) than students (6th). Out of 45 participants (both teachers and students), only one educator ranked SR as 1st.
Collectively, PR educators ranked the technical skill of writing as 1st, followed by three so-called “soft” skills: critical thinking 2nd, listening 3rd, and self-reflection 4th. The last three were technical skills: measurement 5th, channel knowledge 6th, and design 7th.
Students ranked the “soft” leadership skills of critical thinking and listening as 1st and 3rd respectively, with the technical skill of writing 2nd. The top three were followed by the technical skills of measurement (4th) and channel knowledge (5th). Self-reflection was 6th on the list, followed by design know-how (7th).
The relative importance of the seven important professional skills and capabilities
Measurement knowledge and application
Channel knowledge (SM, print, etc.)
Note: The most important skill was ranked “1,” the least important skill was ranked “7.”
RQ2: To what extent do PR educators and students practice self-reflection in their everyday lives? And what approaches do they use?
A majority of educators and students reported using SR extensively in their everyday lives. They reflect daily through journaling and/or thinking about important events. One teacher said, “At work, I constantly make note of which practices seem to work best with my students. I am happy to adjust to keep up with the industry or evolving learning styles. At home, I try to do the same thing.” A student echoed this line of thinking about SR: “I often think back on past decisions and actions I made. I re-evaluate how I handled conversations, relationships, etc. and think to myself maybe where I went wrong. I do it as a learning experience and so I can always try to better myself.”
Further, careful analysis of responses revealed shared and unique themes in the two data sets. The shared topics included two approaches – “Looking back” and “Looking forward.”
A looking-back approach. This method appeared to be most popular among educators and students.A majority of respondents reported reflecting on past experiences. An educator said, “I reflect on my teaching every so often (maybe several times a month) to identify what I could have done differently/better.” Another one said that SR is “something of a compulsion” and happens while “reviewing situations, what motivated my decisions/behaviors and thinking through the why, and what I might have done differently or better.” A student shared, “After finishing a conversation with people, I’ll think if I was too awkward, or if it went well. After tests I’ll also think back on how I did, or how I could have done better.”
A looking-forward approach. Several educators said they use SR as a planning tool. For example, one teacher shared, “I seek feedback at least once a semester and constantly make notes after classes, meetings, etc. Then, I try to reflect on it before a new semester begins.” Another teacher said, “Each time I give an assignment in class and see what my students learned—did I do a good job, or do I need to revise my methods?” A student said she self-reflected when “mulling decisions for me and life. You must self-reflect to move forward with life.”
The following unique approaches were detected in educators’ responses:
A cautionary approach. Two participants indicated that SR should be undertaken with caution to avoid negative consequences. One explained: “I have small segments of time slots to manage since there are multiple tasks to be accomplished, so if the plan changed either based on choices or unexpected, SR will take place. However, I must admit that it is hard to separate positive SR from self-criticism.” Another educator echoed this concern:
There is a thin line between self-reflection and obsessing: One needs to reflect upon organizational and personal relationship interactions but not become bogged down by them or become emotionally self-critical. We must learn to give ourselves grace, keep things in perspective, not be perfectionists, but still be in an ever-growth mindset for ourselves and our organizations.
An imaginative approach. One educator said, “Through reading books or learning others’ situations, I often imagine what I would do if were in their positions. And, more importantly, I think about how to make a situation better.”
The following unique approaches were detected in students’ responses:
A dealing with a stress approach. The theme of an ongoing stress/feeling overwhelmed was directly or indirectly communicated in several student responses. One student shared, “Whenever I get stressed or overwhelmed, I self-reflect of all the things I’ve accomplished so far to get myself in a better mood, or at work, or in church.” Another student said, “I try to do this before I start to feel overwhelmed.”
A dealing with the pressure to succeed approach. A number of students indicated SR is beneficial for them as they strive to find ways to succeed in life and profession. One student defined SR as “Looking inward to address personal/professional strengths and weaknesses, and how you approach life knowing them.” Another provided a similar answer: “SR is being able to know yourself and your own strengths and weaknesses along with knowing what you need to thrive.” While answering how she practiced SR, a student said, “I often do this through therapy, self-help books, or looking at others who have been in my position and what they did to succeed.”
RQ 3: In students’ opinions, what are practical benefits of SR? What approaches do PR students experience in the classroom?
Overall, students assign a high value to SR practice. They see it as “helpful with mental health” and being “one of the best ways to know yourself.” One student said SR is a way to identify her weaknesses and thus, knowing “when to ask for help.” Another respondent saw SR is a necessary component in the process of goal setting that leads to life improvement. SR also helps students to “hold yourself accountable to move forward,” find “perspective, learn and grow from past experiences,” and live “to the fullest potential.” In addition, they believed “it’s important to self-reflect to be a better person and a successful PR professional.”
Students said they are engaged in SR in some classes, mainly through peer review, professor feedback, case study analysis, debriefs on projects, and reflection papers. Respondents shared that SR activities help them learn from mistakes, understand their strengths and weaknesses, and prepare for real-world challenges. In particular, one focus group participant said:
Being a student is about gaining knowledge, experience and confidence. It’s a valuable skill because it’s important to stay on top of industry trends, new techniques and crises. In a PR class, you are putting your skills to the test. It gives us an opportunity to make mistakes. Also, reviewing our own morals and values and what kind of company you want to work for.
Another group also believed it is always a valuable experience – working in a class with three-four people and “see how different minds come up with incredible ideas through reflection.”
Importantly, students said class discussions and assignments should incorporate a better variety of SR activities. Given the fact that SR benefits both individual and group projects, the SR approach should be used on a regular basis in all PR classes.
RQ 4: What do PR educators see the benefits of self-reflection for students as future leaders?
All teachers said SR helps PR students as future change agents to enhance self-awareness and emotional intelligence, among other qualities. One educator provided a detailed answer:
PR professionals must have and hone emotional intelligence, of which empathy is a big part, for they are responsible for creating, maintaining, and nurturing various relationships within and external to their organizations (i.e., among various stakeholders) and providing insight and counsel to management. They also represent the organization, so they need to reflect on how they might communicate more effectively with others, what messages might best resonate, and how they might project a more professional, engaged image. SR involves what one can do differently or better in response to others—not how they can change others. The change should be internal (themselves or their organizations) in response to others, as a result of SR.
In addition, several respondents reported using SR to help students understand “their own set of values and how to use those values, as well as professional communication values (particularly those in the PRSA Code of Ethics), during ethical decision-making.”
One teacher argued SR is a way to meet challenges of a complex and ever-changing industry environment: “The PR industry is constantly changing. Also, there is no one right answer in PR. There are many unpredictable situations and PR practitioners need to communicate with different people all the time.”
Another educator believed that the importance of teaching SR “has been elevated considerably by the toxic environment we live in today. We need to look at ourselves and ask what we are doing to be moral agents.”
However, the extent to which educators practiced SR and “taught” it in the classroom, varied widely. About one-third incorporated SR in their courses and used challenging projects and exercises to help students develop both me- and we- reflection capabilities. These in-class exercises and projects summarized below (see the RQ5 discussion) may be the most valuable and practical findings in this research.
Other examples of rich classroom exercises the educators described included: 1) unconscious bias training and reflection on DEI; 2) self-assessment exercises based on four working-style preferences; 3) requiring seniors in a campaigns class to write a letter to their “Freshman Self,” explaining what they would learned about communication and PR practice in their four years of college; and 4) completing a “privilege knapsack” class exercise, which helps students realize privileges they may take for granted and which may impact their professional PR performance.
On the other end, about one-third of educators did little if anything in the classroom to help build or encourage development of the skill, though they recognized it was probably important to do so.
RQ 5: In educators’ opinions, what are the most powerful SR learning experiences, especially those related to DEI?
Eighteen out of 22 educators shared specific practices they believed are powerful in helping students to do both – master content and improve SR skills. This twofold benefit appeared to be the most prominent theme in teachers’ responses. For example, one educator said an effective method of learning SR is to “build it into a real-life business or professional example, case, situation. This approach allows students to discern SR in a constructive setting and through an experiential.” Another participant echoed, “I found having students evaluate their own campaign execution the most effective. Students brought up many ‘could have done better’ points such as teamwork, messaging, channel selections, and research part in campaign design.”
Other educators reported using simulation and role plays, peer feedback, discussions, written summaries, and soft grading which is giving “students a chance to revise, instead of letting them sit with their grade and do nothing to improve.” One respondent shared she considers discussions of projects she did as a practitioner a form of SR. Another teacher reported using online tools after discovering that “students venture into SR more on Discussion Boards.”
Analysis of teachers’ responses revealed several characteristics of effective SR learning experiences. Regardless of a project type, the effort should be intentional, encompassing, consistent and creative. For example, one educator said she is “intentionally allocating some time (e.g., 5 minutes) each week for students to reflect on what they learnt from the lectures, readings, exercises, assignments, teamwork, etc., summarize, and write down such reflections.”
Educators use an encompassing approach by incorporating SR strategies into assignments related to public relations directly (e.g., case studies) and indirectly (e.g., general management skills). Two participants said they built SR into assignments aimed to improve students’ conflict management skills and create awareness about different working styles.
Another respondent’s answer is an example of a consistent and creative effort:
At the end of a semester, I ask campaigns class students to write a letter to their freshman self. For (name) Agency they write a letter to their pre-(name) Agency self. It is an amazing exercise as they see how far they have come. It usually involves both laughter and tears on their part and mine. For (name) Agency we print it out in a book that we give all the seniors at a Senior Send off. They sign each other’ books like a yearbook. It’s epic.
Several participants mentioned that SR helped them address DEI-related issues in classroom. One educator said:
So far, I think the most powerful SR learning experience will be related to the unconscious bias training or discussion related to DEI. It’s a topic we are aware of, but we are uncomfortable to talk about. The common (or easy) answer is we treat everyone the same, which is colorblindness and a lack of authenticity and failure to recognize differences. Because in the real world, everyone is not the same.
The educator continued by sharing a DEI approach to help students open up and thus, make an SR exercise more meaningful:
Since my class on diversity and leadership is an online course, the SR exercise is not a public discussion in class. I found it actually makes students more comfortable to share and reflect on their past experience or circumstances when they feel privileged (or underprivileged), biased, or those common stereotypes they attribute to other minority groups, since I am their only reader. They tend to be more open and authentic. This is the topic I get to read more authentic self-reflection than other topics such as leadership styles or ethics.
Based on teaching experience of a PR instructor, an effective DEI-related pedagogy is a writing assignment in the format of a reflection paper on student’s “cultural identity, including the influences that shaped that identity, the core values internalized from those influences, and how one personally expresses or resists or transforms those values.” The instructor also asks students to “think about how those values impact how they react and respond to others not like themselves” and “give the paper a title that is reflective of its content.” The instructor added, “I remind them that white is a race.”
Another respondent shared using online resources to discuss DEI:
An exercise that encourages students to realize privileges that they may take for granted and how that may impact their PR communication in negative ways. For example, the privilege knapsack class exercise. See: Diversity Toolkit: A guide to discussing identity, power and privilege (2020).
Overall, analysis of responses revealed those educators who have made SR-related activities part of the curriculum, appeared to be committed to developing both hard and soft skills in their students. As for DEI activities, only a few participants linked SR and DEI, but their approaches seemed to be quite powerful.
Discussion and Practical Implications
This research found most surveyed PR educators and students value SR and practice it in varying degrees in their personal lives and work/professional lives. SR is considered a valuable skill, though ranked as 4th by educators and 6th by students among the seven skills surveyed (all important skills). Educators expressed more caution than students about focusing too much on self-criticism in SR. Most students use a “me-reflection” approach, focusing on their personal lives and how they can improve relationships, communicate better, reduce stress, and create a better and brighter future. They “look back” to help “look ahead.” Students expressed more use of SR to help deal with stress and the pressures to succeed. They described using SR to “react” to such challenges, while educators used SR more to “respond” to such challenges. As an implication for mentorship programs, one of the tasks would be to help mentees to be less reactive and more responsive to issues and problems associated with their work-related challenges. As U.S. organizations are adopting the DEI agenda, SR becomes an indispensable tool in helping position the organizational effort as a moral case (Diversity and inclusion at work, 2018).
All teachers said SR was important. Those educators who use SR to talk about DEI in class, did not appear to utilize a variety of approaches, but their practices seem to be effective. Accordingly, one can imply teacher’s passion and consistency in addressing DEI are more important than an assortment of pedagogies.
The extent to which teachers personally practiced SR and “taught” it in the classroom, varied widely. About one-third incorporated SR in their courses and used engaging projects and exercises to help students develop both me- and we- reflection capabilities. On the other end, about one-third did little if anything in the classroom to encourage development of the skill. The structures of educators’ own SR practices were wide-ranging—from daily walks to morning journaling sessions, daily meditation or exercise periods, to reflecting during wait times in airports.
Implications for Teaching and Mentoring
This study underscores the value and importance of self-reflection in PR education and in mentoring, and the researchers’ two previous studies provide related insights and specific processes and approaches to advance SR skills in the classroom and in mentoring relationships. During depth interviews with 30 leading professionals in Russia and N. America (Berger & Erzikova, 2019), the researchers found all the professionals practiced SR, though in different ways and settings. All 30 also were mentors to students and young professionals, and part of their mentoring focused on enriching SR skills among the mentees.
Based on these interviews, the researchers developed a six-step strategic SR process that bears implications for practice and education, and provides a distinct pathway to more meaningful SR. The six steps are:
1. Make time for SR. It is too important to be too busy. It is difficult getting started, but SR can become part of your daily routine. Walking, exercising, tending the garden, riding to work, reading books, writing in a diary—choose an approach that works best for you. Then do it.
2. Create the “right” mindset. Like putting on a game face, in SR we must create a mental space where SR fills the foreground. We cannot empty our brains, but we can adjust focus.
3. Be self-honest and balance your self-assessment. This is the most difficult step, and two issues are involved. First, do not let ego overpower your self-critique and, second, don’t let self-criticism (rumination) lead to inaction or loss of confidence.
4. Formulate actions based on your assessment and evaluation. Calendar them. Consider discussing them with a mentor or colleague, especially if they deal with DEI or a related crucial issue. For example, you can decide to meet periodically with a colleague/classmate whose worldview differs from yours.
5. Carry out actions. Be professional, timely and authentic. Rehearsing the actions to test and refine them may be useful, whether for small or large events or issues.
6. Self-reflect on the outcomes and renew the cycle. Writing things down may help at this point. Over time, this process becomes routine. Individuals can use this process, and mentors and teachers can help students and young professionals frame each step with relevant questions to ask the self along the way.
The researchers also completed a content analysis and comprehensive review of online SR development approaches and tools for use in the classroom (Berger & Erzikova, 2022). This review helped identify seven building blocks for including more, and more effective SR in the classroom and in organizational mentoring programs. Dozens of specific exercises were identified that can be built into real or virtual classrooms, and mentoring settings to develop SR power among students and teachers. The seven building blocks are briefly described below.
Block 1: Commitment The foundation block is a firm commitment by educators/mentors to develop students’/mentees’ SR capabilities, along with improving their own SR knowledge and practice. Educators can make a similar commitment to developing DEI awareness through their SR teachings. A powerful overall strategy is to structure courses to include SR moments and practices into most class sessions, rather than highlighting SR in a single class. A blog by Tricia Whenham (April 9, 2020): 15 ways to spark student reflection in your college classroom, provides examples.
Teachers’/mentors’ own SR practices and enrichment efforts also are crucial to strengthening students’ SR capabilities. One approach for teachers/mentors is to consistently examine and question their own teaching/mentoring approaches, capabilities, and outcomes. As John Dewey famously argued, we do not learn from experience, but rather we learn from reflecting on experience. A good resource in this area is the report by Julia A. Hatcher and Robert G. Bringle, “Reflection Activities for the College Classroom” (1996).
Block 2: Socratic Teaching Use Socratic teaching more often—less lecturing/less teacher talking, and more listening and questioning—to stimulate critical thinking and draw out ideas and underlying assumptions. Erick Willberding’s Socratic Methods in the Classroom (2019) is an excellent resource. Six types of basic Socratic questions concern: 1) clarifying thinking by using basic “tell me more” questions to drive deeper thinking; 2) challenging or probing assumptions to identify presuppositions, including DEI related issues and beliefs; 3) probing evidence or reasoning in arguments to assess strength and weight; 4) exploring alternative viewpoints on the topic or issue; 5) examining implications and consequences to assess relevance and desirability; and 6) questioning the question(s) itself.
For example, educators can use Socratic questions to discuss the impact of current events (the pandemic and anti-transgender legislation) on mental health of LGBTQ young people. The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ youth, provides online educational resources to make such discussions informative and meaningful.
The Socratic teaching approach challenges the accuracy and completeness of thinking in ways that help people move forward and promote higher order thinking skills and capabilities. The more such questions are used, especially those dealing DEI issues, the more critical thinking is strengthened, and a wide-lens perspective is adopted. About half of the 30 PR leaders interviewed (Berger & Erzikova, 2019) used a Socratic approach in mentoring students and young professionals. They helped students answer their own questions by raising questions with the students, by way of providing answers. This may be an especially valuable approach during pandemic times.
Block 3: Artistic Stimulation Use poetry, great literature, films, art, and music to trigger journal writing, creative thinking, and reflection and discussions about the self, dreams, hopes, values, and behaviors. Art often stimulates self-reflection because it often is a product of SR. For example, have students read and discuss a poem or short story, listen to music, or view a painting, and then discuss what it means to them, or what it feels like to them. Challenge them to create a tweet to capture the essence of their feeling about the work. Then consider how the tweet might frame or describe a PR or advertising campaign.
A powerful example of artistic stimulation to drive DEI self-reflection and group reflection in the classroom is the poem, I am diversity. Please include me. Written by the former pastor and poet, Charles W. Bennafield, it was apparently used at the Conference Board’s Diversity Boot Camp in 2012. Many version of individuals’ reading this poem is available on Facebook.
Block 4: Deep Debriefs Lead students/mentees through depth debriefs of in-class team projects/work for a client, or review of case studies, which build analytical and reflective thinking and deepen understanding—opening the door for improved planning and execution in future projects. Questions that focus on identifying the most important facts and issues in a case, and then specifying alternative courses of action, closely assessing each course, and finally recommending the “best” course of action, help build analytical and reflection skills.
This approach to SR was evident in responses by about one-third of the PR students and educators involved in this study, and in similar numbers of professional leaders in Russia and North America who described their mentoring approaches with PR students and young professionals (Berger & Erzikova, 2022).
Block 5: Self-Assessment Tools Sharpen students’/mentees’ self-insights and team-insights with assessment tools available online or in booklet form. These self-assessments can drive self-reflection and awareness and help students or professionals better understand themselves and others/different types. Self-awareness can help improve performance, relationships, team building, diversity, and trust. Several educators and students highlighted this approach in their survey responses. Here are four commonly used assessments:
Myer-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI): Reveals personality type (16 types) and helps individuals better understand and accept themselves (and others) and who they are.
Conflict Dynamics Profile (CDP): measures conflict behaviors, increases self-awareness and helps develop conflict management skills. Focuses on behavior, not styles.
Kirton Adaption-Innovation Inventory (KAI): reveals one’s style of problem-solving and increases self-awareness and teamwork. Useful especially for building teams and carrying out change management.
Diversity and Inclusion Self–Assessment (DISA): helps individuals understandtheir team’s or organization’s relative commitment to DEI and where improvements can be made.
Strengths Finders (SF): helps individuals identify their top strengths (from a list of talent themes) and become more engaged and improve performance. This positive approach is a good first step in team building and leadership development.
Block 6: Recurring Workplace Questions Lead students/mentees to create a list of the kinds of recurring SR questions they are likely to deal with in their professional work world as individuals or team members.Consider how you might answer them, and the relevant behaviors needed to convince others you mean what you say. Here are five such questions: 1) Do my words and actions on the job reflect my core values? 2) How do I contribute to my work team’s or organization’s culture? 3) How can I develop a better work relationship with my boss? 4) How do others likely see my actions and behaviors? 5) How do I contribute to the DEI agenda? Educators/mentors may ask similar questions of themselves and their performance.
Block 7: Calendar Approach Use a straight-forward “calendar approach” to help students/mentees reflect on and rehearse important, upcoming events, assignments, or challenges in their current educational/professional world. This might include leading a team session, or study group of mixed race students where DEI is the central issue, applying for a job, delivering a speech, being a social host at some event, participating in a club meeting, a call with a mentor or client, and so forth. This forces students/mentees to consider such events before they take place, as well as their words and actions, behaviors, what to look for, and so forth.
Limitations and Directions for Future Research
While this study provided valuable insights into how self-reflection can help sustain and enrich DEI, the sample included only U.S. students and educators. Future research therefore should include a larger U.S. sample and examine the interrelations between SR and DEI in other countries to shed light on attitudes and practices and attempt to uncover similarities and differences among various audiences—PR students, educators, and practitioners. In addition, this qualitative study revealed patterns that should be further investigated through a quantitative study to provide a generalizable view of DEI initiatives’ sustainability through SR. Finally, future research should specifically focus on best DEI teaching practices of diverse PR educators.
Conclusion: More Research and Practice in Self-Reflection
This was a brief, descriptive study of self-reflection in PR educators and students, and therefore, the findings cannot be generalized. However, combined with extensive SR research in education, psychology, and other fields, and the authors’ two previous studies in this area (Berger & Erzikova, 2022; Berger & Erzikova, 2021), we have a growing sense of the state and importance of SR in public relations practice, education, and mentoring. We also have a strong set of SR learning tactics and strategies to enhance SR in the classroom, mentorships, and practice, which may be crucial in the pandemic world we live in today.
In the end, the study provides intriguing findings and suggestions that may help frame and design future qualitative or quantitative in-depth SR studies. The PR profession and related education programs would benefit greatly from more SR research to identify best SR practices in teaching and mentoring and how such practice might best be shared or incorporated into DEI learning and training, and educational and organizational programs. Many studies in other fields have confirmed the great value and positive power of SR for leaders and professionals, suggesting that SR may be the difference between good and great leadership. At the least it surely carries some weight in making a difference. More research can shine a light on this crucial, albeit often invisible or tacitly taken-for-granted professional and leadership capability and practice.
SR is a kind of invisible rudder that helps guide our thinking and decision-making, especially in difficult or uncertain times. For example, during the current pandemic and growing concerns about the need for greater DEI, or other future dramatic changes in the world, the importance of SR likely multiplies. The building blocks and corresponding teaching tactics herein provide a framework of practical guidance to develop and/or enrich self-reflection about the effects of COVID-19.
Studies reveal that disease outbreaks can have a long-term impact on the workforce’s mental health and well-being (Restubog et al., 2020; Sibley et al., 2020). In this regard, educators/mentors can reflect on the ways to prioritize students’/mentees’ mental and emotional health and help students/mentees do the same. Mentors can help students and young professionals identify SR guides via alumni, PRSA, companies, nonprofits, etc. The guides can assist with reflecting on what DEI means to mentees, their classmates/colleagues, and college/workplace. In addition, the guides can help mentees to reflect on personal biases and outline the ways to manage them.
Teachers also can encourage learners to reflect on changes in class modalities (moving online and back to classroom) and study routines. Brief reflection sessions might be held at the conclusion of classes, stimulated by music or artwork. Topics might include how to stay motivated, cope with stress, or self-evaluate our empathy toward others.
Building this capability in students and young professionals—our future leaders—will enrich the profession and infuse it with power, especially during these trying times. The sooner one begins meaningful SR in education and mentorship, the better for the individual, their organization, and their profession, and for driving and sustaining DEI in the workplace and profession.
Avolio, B. J., & Wernsing, T. S. (2008). Practicing authentic leadership. In S. J. Lopez (Ed.), Positive psychology: Exploring the best in people (Vol. 4, pp. 147–165). Greenwood Publishing Group.
Bardhan, N., & Gower, K. (2022). The role of leadership in building inclusive diversity in public relations. Routledge.
Berger, B., & Erzikova, E. (2022, March 3-5). Enriching PR practice through self-reflection: Building blocks for the educational pipeline [Paper presentation].25th annual International Public Relations Research Conference, Orlando, FL .
Berger, B., & Erzikova, E. (2021, July 2-3). Enriching self-reflection in public relations education to deal with pandemic challenges [Paper presentation]. 28th International Public Relations Research Symposium (BledCom), Bled, Slovenia.
Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning to think like an adult. Core concepts of transformation theory. In J. Mezirow & Associates (Eds.), Learning as transformation. Critical perspectives on a theory in progress (pp. 3-33). Jossey-Bass.
Mezirow, J. (1997). Transformative learning: Theory to practice. In P. Cranton (Ed.), Transformative learning in action: Insights from practice (New directions for adult and continuing education) (Vol. 74, pp. 5–12). Jossey-Bass.
Mills, M., Van de Bunt, G.G., & De Bruin, J.G.M. (2006). Comparative research—Persistent problems and promising solutions. International Sociology, 21(5), 619-631.https://doi.org/10.1177/026858090606783
Restubog, S. L. D., Ocampo, A. C. G., & Wang, L. (2020). Taking control amidst the chaos: Emotion regulation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 119, 103440. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2020.103440
Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. Basic Books Sibley, C., Greaves, L., Satherley, N., Wilson, M. S., Overall, N., Lee, C., Milojev, P., Bulbulia, J., Osborne, D., Milfont, T., Houkamau, C. A., Duck, I. M., Vickers-Jones, R., & Barlow, F. (2020). Effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide lockdown on trust, attitudes towards government, and wellbeing. American Psychologist, 75(5), 618-630. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000662
To cite this article: Berger,B.K. and Erzikova, E. (2023). Self-reflection is the engine that drives, grows and sustains DE&I among leaders, mentors and public relations educators and professionals. Journal of Public Relations Education, 8(4), 59-90. https://journalofpreducation.com/?p=3425
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: email@example.com
Yeonsoo Kim, Ph.D. Associate Professor Stan Richards School of Advertising and Public Relations, The University of Texas at Austin Austin, Texas Email: Yeonsoo.firstname.lastname@example.org
Abstract 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
Introduction 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 changeregarding 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.
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).
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).
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).
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.
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).
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.”
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).
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).
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.
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).
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
Biswas, M., & Izard, R. (2009). 2009 assessment of the status of diversity education in journalism and mass communication programs. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 64(4), 378-394. https://doi.org/10.1177/107769580906400403
Branch, S., Stein, L., Huynh, H., & Lazzara, J. (2018, October 18-19). Assessing the value of diversity statements in course syllabi [Paper presentation]. Society for the Teaching of Psychology Annual Conference on Teaching, Phoenix, AZ.
Brown, K., White, C., & Waymer, D. (2011). African-American students’ perceptions of public relations education and practice: Implications for minority recruitment. Public Relations Review, 37(5), 522-529. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2011.09.017
Cahn, P. S., Makosky, A., Truong, K. A., Young, I., Emile R. Boutin, J., Chan-Smutko, G., Murphy, P., & Milone-Nuzzo, P. (2022). Introducing the language of antiracism during graduate school orientation. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 15(1), 1-6. https://doi.org/10.1037/dhe0000377
Cohn, E., & Gareis, J. (2007). Faculty members as architects: Structuring diversity-accessible courses. In J. Branche, J. Mullennix, & E. Cohn (Eds.), Diversity across the curriculum: A guide for faculty in higher education (pp. 18-22). Anker Publishing Company.
Davenport, D., Alvarez, Al’ai, Natesan, S., Caldwell, M., Gallegos, M., Landry, A., Parsons, M., Gottlieb, M. (2022). Faculty recruitment, retention, and representation in leadership: An evidence-based guide to best practices for diversity, equity, and inclusion from the council of residency directors in emergency medicine. Western Journal of Medicine, 23(1), 62–71. https://doi.org/10.5811%2Fwestjem.2021.8.53754
Elenes, C. A. (2006). Transformando fronteras. In D. D. Bernal, C. A. Elenes, F. E. Godinez, & S. Villenas (Eds.), Chicana/Latina education in everyday life: Feminist perspectives on pedagogy and epistemology (pp. 245-259). SUNY Press.
Fuentes, M. A., Zelaya, D. G., & Madsen, J. W. (2021). Rethinking the course syllabus: Considerations for promoting equity, diversity, and inclusion. Teaching of Psychology, 48(1), 69-79. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628320959979
Marchesani, L. S., & Adams, M. (1992). Dynamics of diversity in the teaching–learning process: A faculty development model for analysis and action. In M. Adams (Ed.), Promoting diversity in college classrooms: Innovative responses for the curriculum, faculty, and institutions (pp. 9–20). Jossey-Bass/Wiley.
Tuitt, F. A. (2003). Afterword: Realizing a more inclusive pedagogy. In A. Howell & F. A. Tuitt (Eds.), Race and higher education: Rethinking pedagogy in diverse college classrooms (pp. 243–268). Harvard Educational Review.
Vaccaro, A. (2012). Campus microclimates for LGBT faculty, staff, and students: An exploration of the intersections of social identity and campus roles. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 49(4), 429-446. https://doi.org/10.1515/jsarp-2012-6473
Warner, T. V. (2019). Racial microaggressions and difficult dialogues in the classroom. In J. A. Mena & K. Quina (Eds.), Integrating multiculturalism and intersectionality into the psychology curriculum: Strategies for instructors (pp. 37–47). American Psychological Association.
Waymer, D., & Dyson, O. (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
Wiles, J., Bondi, J., & Sowell, E. J. (2002). Foundations of curriculum and instruction. Pearson Custom Publishing.
Worthington, R. L., & Stanley, C. A. (2014). National association of diversity officers in higher education standards of professional practice for chief diversity officers. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 7(2), 227-234. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0038391
Zhang, M. M., Xia, J., Fan, D., & Zhu, J. C. (2016). Managing student diversity in business education: Incorporating campus diversity into the curriculum to foster inclusion and academic success of international students. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 15(2), 366-380. https://doi.org/10.5465/amle.2014.0023
EditorialRecord: Submitted December 3, 2021. Accepted March 11, 2022.
Virginia S. Harrison, Ph.D. Assistant Professor Department of Communication Clemson University Clemson, South Carolina Email: email@example.com
Scholars have suggested that fundraising education is a specialty of public relations. This study examines how a fundraising-specific service-learning project may help prepare future fundraisers and motivate giving. A survey of qualitative and quantitative data was administered to public relations students in a fundraising-focused class and in other service-learning classes at a major public university. Students in the fundraising-focused class were more knowledgeable about nonprofits but were not more inclined to enter the profession. However, they were more motivated to donate after graduation, especially to their alma maters. Implications for public relations and fundraising curricula are discussed.
Keywords: service-learning, public relations, fundraising, higher education, ROPES
With more than 100,000 professional fundraisers in the United States (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020), the field has become a popular career for many individuals (Shaker & Nathan, 2017). However, rarely do two fundraisers take the same path to the profession (Farwell et al., 2020). With no undergraduate degree programs designed specifically for fundraisers, these professionals enter fundraising with training in various industries—such as business, marketing, communication, and nonprofit management—and learn their profession on the job (Farwell et al., 2020; Mack et al., 2016). Although fundraising professionals hold positions across the nonprofit sector, higher education fundraising has developed more rapidly toward professionalization with norms, standards, and practices for its professionals (Skinner, 2019). Thus, higher education fundraising is a fitting place to start a study of educational training for the profession.
While the practice of fundraising has no clear academic home, public relations has laid claim to the theoretical development of fundraising (Mack et al., 2016). Because fundraising is based primarily on the practice of relationship building, the public relations paradigm of relationship management is a natural theoretical and practical fit (Kelly, 1991). Emphasizing the two-way symmetrical communication model of public relations, the ideal of fundraising practice relies upon ethical, mutually beneficial communication between donors and nonprofit organizations. Thus, fundraising is an important aspect in the study and education of public relations scholars and practitioners (Mack et al., 2016).
If fundraising is best informed by public relations and it has yet to be established in undergraduate education, can public relations curricula help to create better-prepared and better-informed future fundraisers? The current study seeks to examine the ways that public relations education may have an impact on the educational pathways students have to enter the profession of fundraising. While many fundraisers say they “fell into” the profession after earning their college degrees (Farwell et al., 2019), service-learning projects that expose students to fundraising tasks at nonprofits may be a way to bolster fundraising education. Specifically, this study investigates how a service-learning project for a higher education fundraising team at a major U.S. university may help students understand the profession of fundraising, consider entering the profession, and motivate them to give to their alma maters philanthropically. While the benefits of service-learning in public relations is well-documented (e.g., Aldoory & Wrigley, 1999; Fraustino et al., 2019; Rothberg et al., 2016), the study seeks to apply what is known about public relations service-learning to the underdeveloped study of fundraising education.
Service-Learning in Public Relations
Often found in upper-level communications courses, service-learning brings together students in the classroom with real-world community clients (Fraustino et al., 2019). The terminology emphasizes how students are engaged in solving actual community issues with the input and help of community members, which often means such projects are nonprofit-based. When practiced successfully, clients and students work together to address actual questions from the practice of communications, which may not be addressed without the student involvement.
The benefits of service-learning for teaching public relations to undergraduate students is manifold. Students gain actual experience working with clients and producing materials that reflect real industry questions rather than simulations (Addams et al., 2010; Rothberg et al., 2016). Therefore, students gain practice managing clients and peers, addressing problems creatively, and putting basic communications skills to practice (Aldoory & Wrigley, 1999; Muturi et al., 2013; Kim et al., 2021; Whitmer et al., 2009). Students themselves value the experiences of service learning, especially appreciating the opportunity to hone their writing skills and to manage teamwork toward a client’s goal (Aldoory & Wrigley, 1999). Working with nonprofit clients can also teach students the merits of being civically engaged and motivate giving back to their communities as professionals (Kim et al., 2021; Whitmer et al., 2009).
Working with nonprofits is a common practice of service learning because these organizations often need the extra capacity to accomplish some of their goals (McCollough, 2019). Student projects may even have an economic impact on the communities in which they serve through these class projects (Fraustino et al., 2019; McCollough, 2019; Rothberg et al., 2016). Students who complete service-learning projects for nonprofit organizations in their community have been motivated to continue their work for the organization beyond the project requirements (Addams et al., 2010). Students who feel motivated to work on the service-learning project tend to rate their experiences in the class more positively (Aldoory & Wrigley, 1999; Kim et al., 2021). Thus, evidence exists that the benefits of service-learning can be mutual: students and local communities benefit from working together on projects addressing real society needs.
Certainly, not every service-learning experience is flawless. Students have reported facing unrealistic expectations from clients or clients’ lack of understanding for the curricular knowledge students have before entering a project (Aldoory & Wrigley, 1999; Fraustino et al., 2019). Additionally, clients report that instructors are unprepared to manage the relationship between the client and classroom, leading to mismatched expectations (Fraustino et al., 2019). Given that nonprofits already face burdens with external partnerships due to staff capacity (van Dyk & Fourie, 2015), service learning should be approached as ways to build mutual goals for undergraduate education and nonprofit community development (McCollough, 2019; Kim et al., 2021).
Service-Learning for Fundraising Education
Because service-learning so often incorporates clients from nonprofit organizations (Fraustino et al., 2019), applying the practice of service-learning to fundraising education is a natural fit. Because many fundraisers reported learning their professions “on the job” (Farwell et al., 2019), having students participate in fundraising-related service-learning projects may be one way to help prepare future fundraisers while they are still in the classroom. For example, assignments created for a university’s fundraising team by students in a business writing class showed similarly positive results to those in public relations courses. Students wrote a fundraising letter for their dean’s review, and the most impressive letters were implemented in an upcoming solicitation (Addams et al., 2010). Students in that class reported being motivated above and beyond earning a good grade. They wanted to perform well for the dean (the client) and to have their letter chosen for implementation. Like results reported from public relations service-learning (e.g., Aldoory & Wrigley, 1999; Whitmer et al., 2009), students reported retaining and understanding writing skills more readily and had more positive reactions to the project when preforming for a client (Addams et al., 2010).
Because fundraising is a specialization of public relations (Kelly, 1991), it follows that fundraising-based projects or project components would fit well into service-learning in public relations courses. In an investigation of service-learning business impact, students helped a local community nonprofit raise $16,000 during the semester (McCollough, 2019). Although the projects were not solely about fundraising, the goals of the nonprofit—which the students assisted with—were to raise funds to keep it financially healthy. Other projects that directly related to fundraising—such as writing a fundraising letter on behalf of a nonprofit—resulted in actual donations to the nonprofit (Addams et al., 2010). Thus, service-learning projects incorporating fundraising activities are not only helping students learn public relations skills but also potentially preparing them to become future fundraisers.
Nonprofit management courses are also natural places to find instruction and service-learning projects related to fundraising. Grantwriting is one such skill that has been incorporated into nonprofit management courses and greatly benefits from service-learning applications (Falk, 2011). Other nonprofit programs have specific grantwriting courses that use service-learning as the basis of the entire course specifically because “service-learning” implies a mutual benefit to the nonprofit and to the student (Cuyler, 2017). This study, however, seeks to understand how fundraising-related service-learning projects can be incorporated into a public relations curriculum. Based upon the theory development in public relations which argues that fundraising is best informed by public relations theory (Kelly, 1991, 1998), this study seeks to further demonstrate the alignment between the fundraising practice and public relations education. It further builds upon the argument by Mack and colleagues (2016) that the educational home of fundraising should be in public relations due to its focus on relationship management. Furthermore, public relations education is beginning to incorporate the concept of stewardship into its practice by following the ROPES (research, objectives, programming, evaluation, and stewardship; Kelly, 2001) model of public relations campaigns (McCollough, 2019). The value of stewardship in public relations campaigns has been documented in research (e.g., Worley & Little, 2002) and in studies of service-learning projects (e.g., McCollough, 2019). For example, one criticism of service-learning is the lack of impact after the semester ends (McCollough, 2019). However, stewardship—a concept borrowed from fundraising—allows organizations and publics to keep communicating after a project is over (Kelly, 2001; Worley & Little, 2002). Implementing this final step may enable the service-learning campaigns to have a long-lasting impact that ultimately is the desired outcome of such collaborations (McCollough, 2019). Thus, this study situates fundraising as of particular importance to public relations education, particularly in the setting of service-learning which aims to purposefully benefit students’ communities.
Service-Learning Public Relations for Professional Fundraising Client
The current study examines the outcomes of a public relations campaigns course that partnered with a university fundraising team for a service-learning project. Specifically, the university team had great success with a small-donor challenge for food insecurity on campus and was looking for insights on next steps from the perspective of young donors. This project was targeted by the client because of recent trends in declining university donations and shifting philanthropic motivations from alumni donors (Root et al., 2017). Thus, the students in the class were tackling real-world questions for a client while simultaneously learning about the profession of fundraising. The project fits the definition of service-learning which emphasizes civic engagement (Fraustino et al., 2019) by helping students engage with their alma maters and reflect upon their motivations for giving back to this nonprofit institution in the future.
The class at the focus of this paper was one section of an upper-level public relations campaign course taught by one instructor to senior-level students. The curriculum began by teaching students about fundraising communication, the donor cycle of giving (e.g., Worth, 2002), and stewardship (Kelly, 1998) and by providing readings to introduce these concepts during the first few weeks of class. The client included representatives from the university fundraising team, and they joined one class session to present their requested tasks to the class and to share fundraising data from the university framing the success of the original football-game-related challenge campaign. Student were asked by the client to design a follow-up communications campaign that would further engage donors who initially gave to the first giving challenge. Thus, the students were tasked by the client with a goal of creating and building ongoing relationships with these donors, which is articulated as the foundation of stewardship communication, rather than a singular fundraising event (Kelly, 1998). To execute this directive, students then followed the ROPES model and created a full campaign plan and deliverables for the client by the end of the semester. The 15-person class was split into four groups, each designing a campaign for a different audience of interest to the client: young alumni, athletics-only donors, parents, and current students. The actual campaign was not implemented during the semester, but the projects—including specific tactics and evaluation plans—were presented to and delivered to the client at the end. This course syllabus closely matched syllabi from other sections of the same course taught by one different instructor. These other sections were partnering with other clients who were not university- or fundraising-based, and students did not know the client for each section prior to the start of the semester.
Given the lack of preparation for future fundraisers in traditional college degree programs (Farwell et al., 2020; Mack et al., 2016), this study seeks to understand how pairing a service-learning public relations class with a problem from fundraising-focused client may provide students with a basic knowledge of this potential career.
RQ1: How will student perceptions of the fundraising profession change over the course of a semester working on a fundraising-focused service-learning project?
Specifically, the paper examines how this curricular focus impacts future careers and giving behavior of students who are exposed to fundraising in service-learning projects. To help contextualize the insights, this paper uses the other sections of the same class as a comparison to gauge the reactions of the students from the fundraising-focused project. Thus, the study seeks to explore these additional questions to better understand the impact of this curriculum choice:
RQ2: Will students in the fundraising-focused service-learning project be more likely to consider a career in fundraising than students in the other sections?
RQ3: How will students engaged in fundraising-focused service-learning project understand the profession of fundraising in comparison to students in other sections?
Impact of Service-Learning on Giving Behavior
A fundraising-focused project may help motivate philanthropic behavior on the part of the students as well. Millennials and Gen Z have been shown to give less to institutions like higher education and more to problem-specific causes benefiting society, a sharp departure from giving behavior of older generations like Baby Boomers (Root et al., 2017). Fundraisers at higher education institutions specifically have been concerned about the drop in young alumni donations from these generations, fearing that the traditionally strong alumni support for higher education institutions may be disappearing (K. Hedberg & G. Hallett, personal communication, January 29, 2020). Thus, service-learning projects that expose students to the importance and significance of donations to higher education institutions may help to engage and educate this group of donors toward the importance of giving back. Evidence exists that undergraduates who are involved with their alma maters while students are more inclined to give back after graduation (Fleming, 2019; Skari, 2014). Other service-learning studies have been shown to motivate student giving and deeper involvement with their nonprofit clients (e.g., Addams et al., 2010; McCollough, 2019). Thus, if students are immersed in the work of a client who demonstrates the value of giving back to higher education institutions, perhaps students will be more inclined to consider their alma maters as beneficiaries in the future.
RQ4: Will students enrolled in a fundraising-focused service-learning project be more motivated to give back to 1) other nonprofits and 2) their alma maters by the end of the semester?
RQ5: Will these students be more motivated to give back to 1) other nonprofits and 2) their alma maters compared to students working on other service-learning projects?
Students in four sections of an upper-level public relations course described above received surveys at two time points: week 3 of the semester and then during the final week of the semester (week 15). Every student received the same survey, no matter what section they were enrolled in, and were asked to provide the name of their instructor. Reponses were split into two groups: the author’s section who completed the class for the university fundraising client and the three other sections, all learning from a different instructor, but with non-fundraising-based clients. Of the author’s section, 11 of 15 students completed the survey at time one, and 7 of 15 students completed the survey at time two. Of the other sections taught by a different instructor, 34 of potential 45 students completed the survey at time one, and 21 of potential 45 students completed the survey at time two. Responses at time one and time two were not linked to protect privacy. Although a survey was distributed to ensure confidentiality, the methodology used for the survey was mixed methods as both descriptive statistics and qualitative open-responses were analyzed.
Students were emailed a Qualtrics link to the survey questionnaire outside of class per IRB regulations. The author emailed the instructor of the other sections to send the same link to those students in the other classes. Surveys were distributed via email simultaneously to students and the other instructor; students were asked to list their instructor so the researcher could determine what sections the students were enrolled in during analysis. No incentives were given to protect privacy and ensure no undue influence on the author’s students.
Measures & Analysis
Questions included Likert scale items as well as open-ended, free responses. Given the small sample sizes of each survey group, inferential statistics cannot be used for analysis due to lack of statistical power. Instead, descriptive statistics and qualitative responses to open-ended questions were analyzed for the analysis; thus, both quantitative and qualitative measures were employed. To answer each research question, results were triangulated with quantitative responses and qualitative responses to open-ended questions. The researcher examined the responses abductively, meaning previous theory on service-learning teaching and new evidence from the survey were analyzed together to develop new meaning to answer the research questions (Lindlof & Taylor, 2019). Thus, results were coded and recoded until common themes were identified from the responses and then interpreted in answer to the research questions. This approach has been used in previous teaching-related research in public relations (e.g. Aldoory & Wrigley, 1999; Fraustino et al., 2019) and fundraising (e.g., Addams et al., 2010). Relevant measures from the survey include:
Interest in learning about nonprofits: Students were asked to rate “What is your level of interest in learning more about the nonprofit sector and career opportunities in nonprofits?” on a 5-point scale from “not at all interested” to “extremely interested.” This question was included on both surveys (time one and time two).
Knowledge of public relations and nonprofit industries: Students were asked to “Rate your knowledge of the public relations industry right now” and “Rate your knowledge of the nonprofit industry right now” on a 5-point scale from “not at all knowledgeable” to “extremely knowledgeable.” These questions were included on both surveys.
Giving likelihood: Students were asked “How likely are you to donate to a nonprofit in the future?” This question was adjusted slightly in the second survey to read, “How likely are you to give to a nonprofit after this class (class name) is over?” Both questions were measured on a 7-point Likert scale from “extremely unlikely” to “extremely likely.”
Free response questions: Students would see a specific set of open-ended questions based on their response to yes/no questions about giving behavior. For example, the question “Have you ever donated money to a nonprofit during your time in college?” would be followed with one to two specific questions depending on the student’s response. Questions are further explained in the results section.
Demographics were not collected in the survey due to concerns that this information would reveal students’ identities to the author who was instructing one of the class sections. The author also had taught students in the other sections of the class in previous semesters. IRB and the author were concerned about the potential loss of confidentially for respondents by collecting this information in the survey itself. Instead, the college-level data is reported here to present an estimate of the demographic makeup of the survey respondents. All students who participated in the survey were members of the college for which the following statistics are reported. For race, 70% of the students are reported as white only, followed by 10.3% international, 7.2% Hispanic/Latino only, 4.7% African American only, 3% two or more races, 2.7% Asian only, 0.2% Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and 0.1% American Indian/Alaska Native (University Planning, 2019). For gender, 64.9% of the college identified as female, 35.1% identified as male, and no other genders were tracked.
RQ1: The first research question asked how student perceptions of the fundraising profession will change over the course of a semester working on a fundraising-focused service-learning project. Only responses from the author’s section were analyzed (time one N=11, time two N=7). Three of 11 students mentioned an interest in pursuing a career in nonprofits or fundraising when asked why they were a public relations major or what their career goals were at week three of the semester. While two seemed interested in nonprofit work, one was interested but afraid of entering the nonprofit industry: “I’d like to work for a PR agency in New York working with a variety of clients in different areas. I used to want to do PR for a non-profit, but after a poor internship experience, I’m skeptical of that now.” One student specifically mentioned an interest in working in “development communications for a nonprofit or hospital.”
At the end of the semester, two of the seven students who completed the survey said their goals changed. One addressed a strengthening interest in working in corporate public relations: “As much as I loved talking about nonprofits and fundraising, this class made me realize how much I want to be in corporate PR or an agency.” This student’s resolve to work in the more stable corporate industry may have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on job prospects during the semester. The other five students said their career goals remained the same.
In comparing time one to time two, students showed a slightly increased interest in learning about nonprofit career opportunities, but the increase was statistically nonsignificant, t(16) = -0.31, p = .76. At time one, the mean (M = 3.09) was slightly over the midpoint with one student saying they were “extremely interested,” four students indicating they were “moderately interested,” and one student indicating they were “not at all interested.” In time two, the mean increased slightly to 3.29 with two students indicating they were “extremely interested,” three students were “slightly interested,” and no students indicating they were not interested at all. Therefore, descriptive statistics and open responses indicate students were anecdotally interested in learning more about nonprofit careers but were not motivated enough to change their career goals after taking a class on fundraising in the nonprofit sector.
RQ2: The second research question asked if students in the fundraising-focused service-learning project will be more likely to consider a career in fundraising than students in the other sections. In looking at the other sections that were not working on fundraising-related service-learning, one student of 34 respondents (time one N=34) mentioned working in nonprofits as their career goal, while two others mentioned possible nonprofit industries (museum curation and historical organizations) as career goals. Additionally, three of 34 students mentioned working in nonprofits as a reason for pursuing the public relations major. One of the respondents said:
I have a lot of interests. I’d love to work for a music agency, do something with sustainability, work for a nonprofit, etc. I thought PR would be perfect for this because I can go into any one of these fields with this major.
At the end of the semester, 10 of 21 students (time two N=21) said their career goals had changed. None of these respondents mentioned that they wanted to enter the nonprofit world specifically, but 4 students said they gained a broader understanding of the wide range of jobs available in the public relations field. For example, one student wrote: “I see how widely necessary and broadly defined public relations really is. It’s so much more than flashy spirit events and Sean Spicer, and I’m excited to bring public relations tactics to any position I find myself in post-grad.”
In comparing time one to time two, students in the non-fundraising service-learning sections showed a slightly decreased interest in learning about nonprofit career opportunities, but the changes were statistically nonsignificant, t(53) = 0.93, p = .36. At time one, the mean was slightly below the midpoint (M=2.91) with five students (14.7%) indicating they were “extremely interested,” 12 students (35.3%) were “moderately interested,” and six students (14.7%) indicating they were not interested at all. At time two, the mean (M=2.57) decreased slightly with three students (14.3%) saying they were “extremely interested,” four students (19%) indicating they were “moderately interested.” More than half of the respondents (57.1%) said they were “not interested at all” or “slightly interested” (n=12). While the decrease in interest in learning about nonprofit careers could be a result of the impact of COVID paralyzing the economy at the second timepoint, the fundraising-focused section qualitatively saw an increase in interest about nonprofit careers over the same timeframe. Descriptive statistics indicate the fundraising-focused curriculum may have at least softened the impact of the COVID shutdown on students’ interests to learn about careers in the nonprofit sector (see Table 1).
RQ3: The third research question asked how students engaged in fundraising-focused service-learning will understand the profession of nonprofit fundraising in comparison to students in other sections. At the start of the semester, all students in the fundraising-focused class (N = 11) rated their understanding of the nonprofit sector no higher than “moderately knowledgeable,” while 82.4% of students in the other sections rated their knowledge of the nonprofit sector no higher than “moderately knowledgeable” (n = 28). At the end of the semester, students in the fundraising-focused class rated their knowledge of both public relations (t(26) = -.79, p = .44) and nonprofits higher (t(26) = 3.02, p <.01) than those in the other sections, and the difference in knowledge about nonprofits was a statistically significant difference. All students in the fundraising-focused class (N = 7) rated their knowledge of nonprofits at “moderately knowledgeable” or higher, nearly the opposite of their responses in time one, a statistically significant increase from time one to time two (t(16) = 4.07, p < .01) (see Table 2). Thus, students in the fundraising-focused class appeared to have greater understanding of the nonprofit sector than those in the other service-learning courses. Their knowledge of the public relations industry was comparable to the other students (see Table 2).
RQ4: The fourth research question asked if giving motivation toward 1) other nonprofits and 2) their alma maters would change for students in the fundraising-focused class over the course of the semester. Many of the students in the class had made donations to nonprofits before taking the course (n = 8), but many of the causes were nonprofits unrelated to higher education. Of those related to the students’ institution, two said they gave to the university’s student-run philanthropy benefitting childhood cancer, and one gave to a university-led campaign for food insecurity. Only one mentioned the institution by name as a recipient of the donation. All but one student (n = 10) said they had at least considered giving to a nonprofit during their time in college. Those that did not give money said they donated goods or posted messages on social media to support the cause. At the start of class, most students said they were likely to make a gift to a nonprofit in the future (M = 5.82, SD = 1.83). One student said it was “extremely unlikely,” but the rest said they were at least “slightly likely” to make a future donation to a nonprofit. Many of them said their decision to make the future gift would depend on whether the nonprofit was “trustworthy” and handled their money honestly (n = 4) while the majority said they would give to a cause they cared about (n = 7). Thus, the students enrolled in the fundraising-focused project were already philanthropically inclined, likely due to the strong emphasis on a student-run philanthropy at their university. However, few said they had made a gift to their institution unless it was connected to a cause (e.g., cancer research, food insecurity).
By the end of the semester, two of seven students (28.6%) said they had made a donation to a nonprofit during the course of the semester. One of these students said they gave to two hunger-related nonprofits because of the impact of COVID-19 on people’s lives. Of the five who did not, all cited the impact of COVID-19 on their finances or mental health, which prevented them from donating. However, six of seven students (85.7%) said they would give to nonprofits in the future because of their experiences in the fundraising-focused service-learning class. They cited the importance of the work of many nonprofits and a sense of personal duty to give back as reasons for their future donations. One student specified that they would give once financially stable. All students said they would be at least “slightly likely” to give to a nonprofit after the class was over (M = 6.00, SD = 0.82), but the increase was not statistically significant (t(16) = 0.25, p = .81). Additionally, five of the seven students (71.4%) said they would give back to their alma maters after graduation because of their experience in the fundraising-focused public relations class. Three said they would give to specific causes at the university (e.g., food insecurity, student-run philanthropy), but others said they would give back generally to the university. Said two respondents: “I see how it’s important to give back (to my alma mater)” and “(I would give) to support a place that has had such a big impact on my life and those within the university.” Thus, to answer RQ4, evidence exists to show that students were at least similarly or more inclined to give to nonprofits after class concluded, and qualitative evidence shows new interest in giving to their alma maters.
RQ5: The fifth research question asked if students in fundraising-focused service-learning project would be more motivated to give back to 1) other nonprofits and 2) their alma maters than students in the other sections. Like the fundraising-focused class, students in other classes were philanthropically inclined, with 31 of 34 students (91.2%) saying they had donated to a nonprofit during their time in college. Only one of these students said they gave to the student’s university in general, while six said they gave to university-affiliated causes. The other nonprofits mentioned were those combatting domestic violence, natural disasters, and cancer or supporting environmental and religious causes. Like the fundraising-focused class, students in the other sections were already philanthropically inclined when they started their public relations service-learning projects.
By the end of the semester, 10 of 21 students (47.6%) in the regular service-learning courses said they had made a gift during the semester. One of these students specified that they gave to COVID-19 relief efforts, while four said they gave to the student-run philanthropy at their university. Six of the students who did not give cited lack of money or COVID-related fears that prevented them from making a donation during the semester, similar to the fundraising-focused class section. Fourteen of 21 students (66.7%) said they would donate to a nonprofit in the future based on their experience in the service-learning class. Said one student: “In working with a client that is a local nonprofit, I was able to see what staff and resources can be directly provided by donations.” Two other students cited their class projects as eye-opening to the financial needs of local nonprofits and reasons that they would give to nonprofits in the future. Two students who said “no” to the question explained that they will give to nonprofits in the future, but their experience in the class was not a motivation for doing so. Overall, students in the non-fundraising-focused classes said they would be either neutrally or positively inclined to give to a nonprofit after the class was over (M = 5.86, SD = 1.15). Additionally, only 11 of 21 students (52.4%) said they would consider giving back to their alma maters after graduation based on their experience in the class. Said one student who replied “yes” to this question: “I’m not sure this donation would be monetary. I know how much networking resources have helped me and I’m eager to lend similarly [sic] in the future. (The university) doesn’t need any more of my money any time soon.” Other students said they would give of their experiences at the university as students. Said one, “The institution has done so much for me throughout my years here and I would love to help continue that for future students.” Of the 10 who said “no,” four students specifically said the course did not influence their decisions about whether or not to donate to their university in the future. One said an internship with the fundraising office was more motivating than the public relations course; another said that they would only donate to the university to specifically benefit teachers who made an impact on the student’s experience.
To answer the fifth research question, students in the fundraising-focused class had higher percentages of those willing to give back to their alma mater and stronger inclination to give to nonprofits in the future. They also specifically stated in open responses that the class helped them see the importance of giving to their university, while the other class did not. See Table 3 for comparisons between classes.
The current study sought to understand how a public relations campaigns course focused on a fundraising service-learning project could help students better understand the profession of fundraising; more actively consider entering the profession; and be more inclined to donate to their alma maters in the future. Overall, students in the fundraising-focused class seemed to have a stronger understanding of the nonprofit sector and an interest in learning about nonprofit careers but not necessarily more motivation to enter the profession. While both the fundraising-focused and non-fundraising classes were inclined to donate to nonprofits after the class was over, the fundraising-focused class was more motivated to give to their alma maters and cited the class specifically as an influence on future giving behavior. Thus, fundraising-focused service-learning projects may have important instructional impacts for public relations students: teaching them about the profession and encouraging future donation behavior.
Findings from this study support Mack and colleagues’ (2016) assertion that fundraising has a home in public relations classrooms. Students in this study indicated they felt just as knowledgeable about the public relations industry no matter what class section they enrolled in. Additionally, students in all sections reported learning more about nonprofits and how they function through their service-learning projects, which is a well-documented result of working on service-learning for public relations (e.g., Aldoory & Wrigley, 1999; Kim et al., 2021; Whitmer et al., 2009). The majority of students–no matter their class project–were inclined to give back to nonprofits after the semester ended, reflecting previous work showing how service-learning can motivate student involvement in their communities (Fraustino et al., 2019). However, students in the fundraising-focused service-learning project mentioned how their class specifically motivated them to give back to their alma maters, while students in the other class said they were inclined to do so based on unrelated factors. This finding reflects observations from previous service-learning studies that show how involvement in service-learning specifically motivates giving back to the class’s nonprofit partner (Addams et al., 2010; McCollough, 2019).
The findings showed that students in the fundraising-specific project had a greater interest in learning more about and greater knowledge of the nonprofit sector at the end of class, which is not surprising. On the other hand, for students in the non-fundraising-focused class, these results provide evidence that public relations service-learning curricula may not strongly impact students’ knowledge of the nonprofit industry, even if the class is working with a nonprofit client. Instead, curricula deliberately focused on nonprofit fundraising and the nonprofit sector may provide students with the knowledge necessary to understand the industry and pique their interest in future careers. This commentary is not to say that nonprofit service-learning must focus on fundraising to convey this understanding. Admittedly, a few students in the non-fundraising sections said their partnership with a nonprofit client helped them to see how important donations were to the programming capabilities of nonprofits. Instead, the takeaway here is that fundraising-focused service-learning projects and curricula may provide the nonprofit-focused skills-based learning that is lacking in the current educational structure of future fundraisers (e.g., Farwell et al., 2020; Shaker & Nathan, 2017). The fundraising-focused class learned how to raise funds; in contrast, the traditional service-learning class learned the importance of those funds for nonprofits. Additionally, the results showed that focusing on fundraising-specific public relations projects did not hinder students’ ability to learn about the public relations sector. Thus, a fundraising-focused service-learning experience may provide a twofold benefit to students: learning important public relations skills while better understanding the profession of fundraising in the nonprofit sector.
While students in the fundraising-focused class did feel motivated to give back to their alma maters, the motivation was still tied to specific causes that the university supported. The cause of food insecurity was likely cited as a specific example because the university client project focused on this cause. Only a few students said they would give to the university generally, and only two of them came from the fundraising-focused class. Conversely, students explained how they would give to nonprofits with causes they felt “emotionally connected to,” including disaster relief, COVID-19 relief, or societal ills like cancer or domestic violence. These insights continue to underscore the concerns of current fundraising practitioners who acknowledge that giving back to one’s alma mater is not as routine for Gen Z and Millennials as it was for other generations (Root et al, 2017). Instead, capturing the attention of future donors may depend upon linking universities with timely, relevant, emotional causes. Additionally, getting students interested in pursuing careers in university fundraising may also depend upon making them feel like they are impacting an important, worthy cause, rather than lining the pockets of an institution that, as one student said, “already has too much of my money.”
The impact of COVID on the results of the study is certainly worth exploring here. The first survey (time one) was launched in mid-January 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic was fully understood and before shutdowns had occurred in the United States. By March 2020, the university in this study had moved to fully online instruction, and many students were told to leave campus for their safety. The second survey (time two) was distributed in the wake of this campus shutdown in mid-April 2020. Many students in the service-learning classes were seniors graduating that semester who were contemplating the demoralizing end to their college years. Due to the uncertain nature of the pandemic during those early months, the impact of COVID-19 likely decreased students’ career motivations and inclination to give to nonprofits. The shuttered economy also presented pessimistic hopes of finding a job upon graduation. While these caveats could be considered limitations, the findings in this environment may help us to understand how students were affected by the pandemic. While donations nationwide increased during 2020 (Fidelity Charitable, 2020), students were contemplating their lack of job prospects and lack of financial certainly. However, students’ overall strong motivation for future giving to nonprofits seen in this study ultimately reflects their positive view on the future and a deep understanding of the importance of philanthropy. The findings show that the fundraising-focused service-learning project may have increased those motivations slightly over those in the other class sections. Perhaps learning about important causes that nonprofits work to address gave students some perspective about their privilege during the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, and thus motivated their perspective to be generous to these organizations.
This study provides more evidence to show how service-learning projects help students engage with their communities and learn important public relations skills (Aldoory & Whitmer, 1999; Fraustino et al., 2019; Kim et al., 2021; McCollough, 2019; Rothberg et al., 2016). Thus, instructors should actively seek out partnership in their communities to engage students with real-world nonprofit projects and help them learn about the unique nature of working in this field. This study also supports the idea that service-learning projects with nonprofit partners can also be fundraising-focused and still help students gain important public relations skills, backing theory from Mack and colleagues (2016). In focusing a class on nonprofit fundraising, instructors should follow the ROPES model of public relations to teach their students how to execute a fundraising campaign, as suggested by Kelly (2001). This model of public relations campaign instruction may help students learn to incorporate key elements from the fundraising practice like stewardship into future public relations campaigns outside of fundraising (McCullough, 2019). Thus, the benefits of teaching fundraising-focused public relations may also benefit the practice of public relations overall.
Additionally, evidence from this study shows that incorporating a fundraising-specific service-learning project in a public relations course may help address the current lack of fundraising education for future practitioners. Although the class curriculum was not solely focused on fundraising skills or practices, the practice of fundraising can be theoretically linked to public relations (Kelly, 1991, 1998; Mack et al., 2016), and thus future fundraisers could benefit from public relations training and coursework. Instructors should consider advising their students who have an interest in nonprofit or fundraising careers to enroll in public relations campaigns courses to receive some of this skills-based training. Although this certainly does not substitute fundraising- or nonprofit-focused coursework like those in nonprofit management programs, it will help students receive some formal relationship management and communications training so they are not learning “on the job,” as is the current model (Farwell et al., 2020; Shaker & Nathan, 2017). Any preparation will be beneficial to the continual formalization of the profession (Skinner, 2019).
For clients, such as those in the fundraising industry, partnering with public relations courses can provide specific benefits. Despite the drawbacks documented about service-learning for client outcomes, these relationships can help to add new supporters to the nonprofit’s cause, getting an outside perspective on a problem, or having students complete work that staff do not have time for may ultimately help the client’s own organization (Aldoory & Wrigley, 1999; Rothberg et al., 2016; Whitmer et al., 2009). Evidence for these impacts were also found in this study, although this study did not examine the client perspective. First, partnering with students to plan a future fundraising campaign helped the client to understand giving motivations of future alumni from Gen Z, which was one of the client’s motivations for initially working with the class. Results from this study indicated that only few students would give back to their alma maters generally out of gratitude, partly due to student debt. Instead, higher education fundraisers may want to align fundraising appeals targeted at younger generations with specific causes that the university is addressing like curing diseases, assisting communities with social issues, or recovering from natural disasters. This recommendation follows other recent research on fundraising trends (e.g., Root et al., 2017).
Additionally, having better trained and more interested students available to the fundraising profession will help managers hire more capable and prepared employees. Learning good writing, analysis, and communications skills found in public relations curricula will only help future fundraisers excel in their jobs, based on the skills required in this industry (Mack et al., 2016; Shaker & Nathan, 2017). Therefore, clients may be able to identify future fundraisers by partnering with an upper-level class project.
Limitations & Future Directions
Unfortunately, the unforeseen interruption of the semester due to COVID-19 pandemic likely had an impact on the results of the study. While the implications of the pandemic on the findings were discussed above, another limitation is its potential effect on the response rates for the second survey of the study, launched at the end of the semester after campus had closed. Motivating students to respond to a survey about their future careers and inclinations to donate to nonprofits was difficult during a time when their semesters and future career plans had been interrupted with such a pessimistic situation. Additionally, longitudinal studies commonly see drop-off in response rates from the first survey to the next (Groves et al., 2009).
Another concern could be that the researcher did not link first and second responses, so no specific changes in attitude could be tracked over the course of the semester. Instead, findings are analyzed in aggregate, but the small sample size allows for some general linking to occur. The researcher chose to not link these responses due to the researcher’s personal knowledge of the students taking the survey and the survey requirement that they would need to disclose what section they were enrolled in. An IRB reviewer concurred with this concern.
Given the small sample size in this study, results can only be interpreted using descriptive comparisons and qualitative data, and thus a mixed-methods approach was used. This analysis is not uncommon for studies of service-learning (e.g., Aldoory & Wrigley, 1999; Fraustino et al., 2019), but future quantitative measures with statistical power can help predict specific outcomes from service-learning experiences. Thus, this paper is meant to start a conversation about the ways to educate future fundraisers more deliberately and to incorporate donor-specific communications campaigns into public relations curricula. The hope is that additional studies will seek to build upon the questions posed here so that public relations scholars can better determine the educational home for fundraising and inspire future leaders in nonprofit communications.
Addams, H. L., Woodbury, D., Allred, T., & Addams, J. (2010). Developing student communication skills while assisting nonprofit organizations. Business Communication Quarterly, 73(3), 282-290. DOI: 10.1177/1080569910376534
Aldoory, L., & Wrigley, B. (1999). Exploring the use of real clients in the PR campaigns course. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 54(4), 47–58. doi:10.1177/107769589905400405.
Fraustino, J. D., Pressgrove, G. & Colistra, R. (2019). Extending understanding of service-learning projects: Implementing place-based branding for capstone courses, Communication Teacher, 33(1), 45-62, DOI: 10.1080/17404622.2017.1372609.
Groves, R. M., Fowler, F. J., Couper, M. P., Lepkowski, J. M., Singer, E., & Tourangeau, R. (2009). Survey methodology (2nd Ed.). John Wiley & Sons.
Kelly, K. S. (1991). Fundraising and public relations: A critical analysis. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Kelly, K. S. (1998). Effective fundraising management. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Kelly, K. S. (2001). Stewardship: The fifth step in the public relations process. In Heath, R. L. (Ed.) Handbook of Public Relations (p. 279-289). Sage Publications.
Kim, Y., Meganck, S., Kristiansen, L., & Woo, C. W. (2021). Taking Experimental Learning to the Next Level with Student-Run Agencies. Public Relations Education, 7(1), 80-121.
Lindlof, T.R. and Taylor, B.C. (2019). Qualitative communication research methods (4th Ed.), SAGE.
Mack, C. E., Kelly, K. S., & Wilson, C. (2016). Finding an academic home for fundraising: a multidisciplinary study of scholars’ perspectives. International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 21, 180-194. DOI: 10.1002/nvsm.1554.
McCollough, C. J. (2019). Visionary public relations coursework: Leveraging service learning in public relations courses to spur economic development through the arts, travel, and tourism. Journal of Public Relations Education, 5(2), 41-74.
Muturi, N., An, S., Mwangi, S. (2013). Students’ expectations and motivation for service-learning in public relations. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 68(4), 387–408. DOI: 10.1177/1077695813506992
Root, T., Taylor, E., Rose, K., & Lauderdale, W. J. (2017). Communication and contribution preferences: An investigation of millennial alumni. Journal of Education Advancement & Marketing, 2(2), 135–143.
Shaker, G. G., & Nathan, S. K. (2017). Understanding higher education fundraisers in the United States. International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 22, 1-11, DOI: 10.1002/nvsm.1604.
Skari, L. A. (2014). Community college alumni: Predicting who gives. Community College Review, 42(1), 23-40.
Skinner, N. A. (2019). The rise and professionalization of the American fundraising model in higher education. Philanthropy & Education, 3(1), 23–46. DOI: 10.2979/phileduc.3.1.02
University Planning, Assessment, and Institutional Research. (2019). Undergraduate enrollment diversity. URL omitted for blind review.
van Dyk, L. and Fourie, L. (2015). Challenges in donor–NPO relationships in the context of corporate social investment. Communicatio, 41(1), 108-130. DOI: 10.1080/02500167.2015.1022563.
Whitmer, D. F., Silverman, D. A., Gaschen, D. J. (2009). Working to learn and learning to work: A profile of service-learning courses in university public relations programs. Public Relations Review, 35, 153-155. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2009.02.001.
Worley, D. A., & Little, J. K. (2002). The critical role of stewardship in fund raising: The Coaches vs. Cancer campaign. Public Relations Review, 28, 99-112.
To cite this article: Harrison, V.S. (2022). Teaching philanthropy: How Can public relations courses prepare future fundraisers and motivate giving? Journal of Public Relations Education, 8(3), 49-78. https://aejmc.us/jpre/?p=3212
Reviewer Brandi Watkins, Ph.D., APR, Virginia Tech
The Future of Feminism in Public Relations and Strategic Communication Authors: Linda Aldoory, Ph.D. and Elizabeth L. Toth, Ph.D. Rowman & Littlefield, 2021 ISBN: 978-1-5381-2824-4 Number of pages: 238
In The Future of Feminism in Public Relations and Strategic Communication, Aldoory and Toth present a comprehensive review of public relations literature that has addressed feminism, gender, race, LGBTQ, and marginalized groups in the field of public relations and organized that work into a socio-ecological model. The final model presented in the book demonstrates how research and practice in public relations have been influenced at the practitioner level, organizational level, professional level, media level, and ideological level. The book also provides an analysis and critique of the multiple factors that have constituted meaning about women, people of color, and LGBTQ practitioners and its influence on research and practice in public relations. Finally, the authors opened up a dialogue with scholars and practitioners (see Chapter 11), which informed the final model presented in the book. The content presented in this book is complex, but Aldoory and Toth are skilled at making these concepts accessible, organized, and easy to follow. The book’s scope is rather broad, attempting to review and organize an entire field of literature. Still, the authors expertly present the content in a way that makes this a practical resource for scholars at all levels.
Content and Scope
The first section sets the stage for the research that is to come later in the book. In Chapter 1, Aldoory and Toth take time to define socio-ecological models and provide examples of how such models have been used, such as Shoemaker and Reese’s (1996) hierarchy of influences model that illustrates the multiple influences that shape media content. The authors then sharpen their focus on applying a socio-ecological model to public relations and present the first iteration of their model, which becomes the organizing structure for the remainder of the book. Chapter 2, aptly titled “The Backstory,” is beneficial to the book, especially if the reader is new to feminism and the academic study of public relations. The authors define public relations from various perspectives, including functional structuralist, rhetorical and critical, and postmodern. Aldoory and Toth then take to task the job of presenting the varying conceptualizations and approaches to feminism, reviewing feminist research, and discussing feminism communication theory. The chapter concludes with a section on intersectionality, presenting it as a method for considering “the multiplicative effects of identities and oppressions” (p. 31).
Sections two through five are the heart and soul of the book where the authors start broadly, at the ideological level of the model, and work their way through the remaining levels of the proposed model, concluding with the practitioner level. Throughout the chapters in these sections, the authors take care to define key concepts, explain why they placed particular concepts in certain parts of the model, and present relevant research. For example, Chapter 3 focuses on the ideological level of the model and includes macro-level discussions of hegemony, capitalism, Marxism, classism, critical race theory, racism, feminism, sexism, heteronormativity, and homophobia. These high-level discussions about broader ideals are always brought back to how they are relevant to public relations. This structure allows Aldoory and Toth to provide the reader with a primer on the higher-level ideologies and return them to a public relations emphasis while presenting the reader with an overview of extant literature in these areas. Several chapters within this section include a case study to illustrate the main ideas presented in the chapter. For example, Chapter 9 consists of a case study, “The Feminist Fallacy” at the Practitioner Level, which the authors describe as “a discouraging yet cautionary case example of how feminism can be co-opted and designed to be against women’s better selves. This case shows the invisibility of class, education, race, and gender influences while also assuming a success story for women” (p. 151).
Section six concludes the book with two chapters that includes a summary and a call to action, respectively. Chapter 11 was an interesting and thought-provoking read as Aldoory and Toth brought together women from different backgrounds and countries to discuss feminism, the challenges for women and people of color in public relations, and the proposed socio-ecological model. The chapter is devoted to highlights from a two-day discussion in which participants spoke candidly about issues like racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and bias in research. The scholars also weighed in on the socio-ecological model and suggested adjustments to the model so that the professional and organizational levels were moved, arguing that the organizational level has a more direct influence on the practitioner level than the professional level. Chapter 12 accounts for the authors’ changes to the model after receiving feedback from their peers. The book ends with a call to action, where Aldoory and Toth acknowledge this is not a definitive work but rather a call for continued
professional and scholarly discourse that deepens an understanding of the problems of racism, sexism, and homophobia in public relations. The model here is new and has not been used before, but we hope it will become a helpful tool for future research. (p. 195)
Contribution to PR Education
Through a comprehensive overview of the extant literature on public relations and feminism and a model that serves as an organizing structure, Aldoory and Toth provide the reader with an introductory course on the state of feminist research in public relations and identify gaps in the research. Their book contributes to PR education by demonstrating the need for continued scholarly work that is more comprehensive and includes the experiences of women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and other marginalized groups not represented in the current body of research. They challenge scholars to critique the structures that uphold patriarchal values, limit change, and prohibit social justice.
The Future of Feminism in Public Relations and Strategic Communication is an essential read especially for the new scholar interested in studying feminism, public relations, and strategic communication. The book’s structure lends itself well to be used as a text in a graduate seminar on public relations or feminism or as a researcher’s guide to previous scholarship. The book covers a variety of issues and perspectives on public relations and serves as an instruction manual for interpreting such problems and perspectives with a critical lens. The accessibility of the writing in this book would make it a practical addition to a graduate-level course.
In their discussion of intersectionality (Chapter 2), Aldoory and Toth write, “We believe in the criterion of reflexivity and promote it among our students and in our paper. Thus, for transparency and analysis purposes, we describe below some of our reflexive thoughts about our own feminism and how we came to be feminists” (p. 33). In that same spirit, I would like to disclose that, as a researcher, my studies are situated in the social scientific, empirical tradition, and I frequently seek opportunities to research with co-authors who specialize in qualitative methods. I find value using a mixed methods approach to research. I disclose this about myself because my one critique of this book is that as a feminist, I want to do research that answers the call put forth by Aldoory and Toth in the book, but there is limited guidance in how to do that from different research traditions. All scholars, including those of us whose work is more empirical, would benefit from the arguments made in this book about the need for more research to examine gender, class, race, and sexual orientation and should consider how to make our research methods more inclusive. Doing so would help us create a richer understanding of the public relations discipline.
Aldoory and Toth took on the challenge to review and organize an entire body of literature in one book, and started a conversation on where the field should go next. My critique of The Future of Feminism in Public Relations and Strategic Communication came from a place of being inspired to want to do more to promote social justice and diversity, equity, and inclusion in public relations scholarship. But I also acknowledge that one book can’t be all things to all people. What makes this a compelling book is that it inspires with facts and information, and it shows the reader where we are in the field and how far we still have to go to create a body of knowledge that accounts for the experiences of people from varied backgrounds.
Shoemaker, P., & Reese, S. D. (1996). Mediating the message: Theories of influences on mass media content (2nd ed.). Longman.
To cite this article: Watkins, B. (2022). The Future of Feminism in Public Relations and Strategic Communication [Review of the book The Future of Feminism in Public Relations and Strategic Communication]. Journal of Public Relations Education, 8(3), 145-150. https://aejmc.us/jpre/?p=3267
Editorial Record: This article was originally submitted as an AEJMC Public Relations Division GIFTs paper, with a February 25, 2022 deadline. Top papers were submitted to JPRE June 2022, and accepted for publication at that time. Published November 2022.
Mary Beth Deline, Ph.D. Assistant Professor School of Communication Illinois State University Norman, Illinois Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Class tested assignments: a sequential series of assignments and an activity developed for senior PR students in a capstone PR management and research class.
Keywords: public relations; post-traumatic growth; knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs); diversity, equity and inclusion; career preparation; pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a worldwide trauma (Prideaux, 2021). Young people, who make up most of post-secondary student bodies, are experiencing these effects in many ways (Mental Health America, 2021). For example, the US Surgeon General recently announced a mental health crisis among America’s youth (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2021). This assignment helps PR senior students who have been learning in the pandemic access post-traumatic growth. Post-traumatic growth, both a process and outcome, occurs when traumatic experiences result in positive growth (Tedeschi et al., 2018). It is fostered by education, specifically reflexive meaning-building exercises and the development of narratives about what has happened and the opportunities that this provides (Tedeschi, 2020). While the pandemic is not yet over, seniors shed their student identities when graduating, marking an opportunity to reflect on the end of their roles as students during the pandemic and foster such post-traumatic growth.
To facilitate this process, this series of assignments has senior students identify KSAs – Knowledge, Skills and Abilities – that they’ve developed or adapted in their PR courses in response to the pandemic. This occurs through a KSA assessment via a handout and in-class activity with a list of KSAs culled from recent research and industry reports on topics ranging from entry-level PR hiring (DiStaso et al., 2019; Krishna et al., 2020; Meganck et al., 2020) to pandemic KSA development (Cukier et al., 2021; Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2021). (See Table 1 in Appendix A and Table 1 in Appendix D). They then analyze how these KSAs provide them with competitive advantages by developing an interview guide and undertaking information interviews with PR professionals on hiring and emergent pandemic PR trends using the list (see Appendices B and D). To facilitate these interviews students are invited to connect to the professor’s LinkedIn profile representative of the course’s alumni network, and in-class discussions detail how to research and network with potential interviewees in these networks. Finally students synthesize what they’ve learned from their KSA assessment and the interviews in a short report (see Appendix C).
Such work enables two particular post-traumatic growth outcomes. The first, personal strength outcomes, occurs when students realize how strong they’ve been facing pandemic challenges (Tedeschi, 2020). The second, identifying new possibilities, occurs when students assess how their newly developed or adapted KSAs provide them with opportunities in the PR field (Tedeschi, 2020).
Student Learning Goals
Recognize the strength exemplified in developing or adapting knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) during the pandemic, as well as the opportunities afforded by those same KSAs.
Adopt a strategic framework to analyze and understand how challenging events provide strategic opportunities.
Gain actual experience developing, recruiting and undertaking interviews for strategic analytic purposes.
Ensure equal access to professionalization networks and networking knowledge.
Connection to PR Theory and Practice
This exercise was developed for my senior capstone in PR management and research for PR majors. The course requires students, working in agency teams, to develop a strategic PR plan (SPP) for a client. One of the challenges students typically face in the classroom is how to begin to think strategically. This often occurs when students are asked what opportunities their potential clients face during the client appraisal process as well as in their strength, weakness, opportunity and threat analyses (SWOTs). This exercise shows them how to assess contextual value and opportunities, and therefore provides scaffolding for how to develop those aspects of the SPP. It also prepares students for the primary research needs of the SPP, such as client briefing interviews or primary employee research, via actual interview development, experience and analysis. These experiences are similar to what one would encounter in professional strategic PR contexts. Additionally, the first activity in this series of assignments, the student KSA assessment, provides students with a researched handout with KSAs that they may have developed or adapted in response to the pandemic. Working with this handout expands students’ knowledge of their own pandemic KSA repertoires. Finally, research shows that a key barrier to professionalization for first generation and historically under-represented students involves lack of access to professional networks and networking education (Parks-Yancy, 2012; Stanislaus et al., 2021; Terry & Fobia, 2019). This assignment is one small step toward ensuring that such access and learning occurs, as called for by the most recent Public Relations Society of America report on diversity, equity and inclusion (Blow et al., 2021).
Evidence of Student Learning Outcomes
The assignment’s reassessment process ensures students adopt a strategic framework to their pandemic induced KSAs. As one student noted in her final assignment: “Overall, this assignment forced me to reflect on me. It allowed me to see light in all the negative that has happened over the course of the past few years. Most of all it allowed me to take my past experiences and analyze how the pandemic made me even more prepared to enter the industry.” (The student has provided permission to have this portion of their work used publicly).
Meganck, S., Smith, J., & Guidry, J. (2020). The skills required for entry-level public relations: An analysis of skills required in 1,000 PR job ads. Public Relations Review, 46(5), 1-7.https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2020.101973
Parks-Yancy, R. (2012). Interactions into opportunities: Career management for low-income, first-generation African American college students. Journal of College Student Development, 53(4), 510–523. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd.2012.0052
Stanislaus, E. P., Hodge, L., & Wilkerson, A. (2021). COVID-19: How will historically underrepresented groups fare in the job market? Journal of Underrepresented & Minority Progress, 5(SI), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.32674/jump.v5isi.3043
Tedeschi, R., Shakespeare-Finch, J., Taku, K., & Calhoun, L. (2018). Post-traumatic growth: Theory, research and applications. Routledge.
This assignment is done in class and submitted for participation credit.
Think back to when the pandemic started. What did you have to do to shift to learning online? Bullet points are fine.
After you got online, what did you need to do to keep effectively learning online? Think about technical skills, communication with classmates/professors, and what you needed to do to take care of yourself during this period of change. Bullet points are fine.
The next page contains a list of key PR knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs). Bolded items identify KSAs that research shows are important both for PR and pandemic purposes. Identify your level of experience with all the items in the list.
Review these skills again. Are there any items on the list that you had to newly develop because of the pandemic? Are there any items that you had to adapt because of the pandemic? Provide a short explanation next to each identified item.
List the skills you’ve identified using, developing or adapting during the pandemic here. Rank them in order of most to least important. Write a paragraph that details why your top three KSAs are most important to you now as a student. How have they helped you be a successful student during the pandemic? What advantages, if any, have they given you as a student during the pandemic?
Sample of Table for Student KSA Assessment
Information Interview Assignment
When interviewing someone, whether it’s a PR professional or a client for a client assessment or a member of a key public, you’ll want to have an interview guide to help your interview flow. This handout is designed to help you develop an interview guide.
Researchers use interviews to investigate how others see and understand the world. Doing interviews can help us:
Ask questions that are important for our society or culture;
Help leverage previous knowledge; and/or
Help us learn something new or unexpected.
Information interviews are designed to help you better understand what it’s like to work in a field in practice. For career planning purposes, they’re useful to assess which of your sets of knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) are needed; KSA deficiencies; which KSAs might be in demand in the near future; as well as identifying KSAs that will help you stand out from others in your field.
To find someone to undertake an information interview with, use your network – ask friends and family, search LinkedIn and any professional directory of which you’re a member (for instance, PRSSA). When you contact them, tell them that you identified them as someone to potentially chat with based on your mutual connection “X” (name of your mutual connection here). Ask them for a twenty-thirty minute information interview about public relations. Let them know you’ll soon be a recent graduate of [your institution’s name here]’s PR program, and you’re undertaking an assessment of KSAs you’ve developed as a result of the pandemic. After they agree to participate, let them know that you’ve got a list of key PR KSAs that you’ll be using during the interview and will be sending to them in advance of the interview (see Appendix D). You’ll also need to ask your participant to let you record the interview so you can use the answers for a KSA value assessment assignment.
To develop your interview guide, take the following steps:
Do some research. Generally for any interview you want to identify what is already known about a topic (in this case, KSAs in relation to early career jobs), and what is not known. For an information interview in general, you’ll want to:
Have a general understanding of some of the practices of the person you’ll be interviewing. For instance, if you choose to interview someone who specializes in crisis communication, what are some of the key things that happen in crisis communication versus media relations? PRSA is a good resource for this; see https://www.prsa.org/about/all-about-pr
Have a sense of some of the trends in the field. For instance, what’s been happening as a result of the pandemic that might have affected the person you’re talking with? To do this, scan through some industry publications such as PR News or PR Daily.
Based on this research, develop some research questions that you want answered by the information interview. For example, one research question might be “What KSAs do I need to start a position in the PR field?” For information interviews, research questions can cover a variety of topics; below is a list of common topics. Please choose which ones you’ll cover in your interview and develop at least one research question for each topic that you choose. Common information interview topics
Job fit – common KSAs needed for the job.
What are industry trends? Where is the industry heading?
What KSAs are regularly used?
What KSAs aren’t needed?
What KSAs are rare and highly needed?
How are KSAs best gained?
Preconceptions about the everyday job that aren’t true.
The everyday job practice.
List your research questions here. You should have three minimum research questions.
After developing a list of research questions, you’ll need to operationalize them into questions that make sense to your participant. For example, a research question that asks “What knowledge do I need to start a position in the PR field?” could generate the following participant questions:
What do you do during an average day?
Thinking about the average day you just described, what skills do you need to do the things you described doing?
Of these skills you just identified, which ones do you think are the most important? Why?
List your interview questions here:
Make sure your interview questions address research questions: list 6 interview questions and identify which research questions they address. For example, if the first interview question is: ‘Thinking about the average day you just described, what skills do you need to do the things you described doing?’, and the corresponding research question is ‘A: What knowledge skills do I need to start a position in the PR field?”, you would indicate
Interview Question #1: Thinking about the average day you just described, what skills do you need to do the things you described doing?
Which research question Interview Question #1 addresses: A
Interview Question #1:
Which research question Interview Question #1 addresses:
Interview Question #2:
Which research question Interview Question #2 addresses:
Interview Question #3:
Which research question Interview Question #3 addresses:
Interview Question #4:
Which research question Interview Question #4 addresses:
Interview Question #5:
Which research question Interview Question #5 addresses:
Interview Question #6:
Which research question Interview Question #6 addresses:
You’ll want to make sure your interview feels like a conversation, not just a Q & A session. Identify two interview questions from your list of interview questions that each represent introductory, transition, key and closing questions below. Identifying these will help ensure that you’re appropriately structuring your interview.
Your final task is to make sure your participants will understand your questions, and that they’ll get you good responses. Review your questions and make sure that they follow these guidelines:
They ask one question at a time (i.e.: no double-barreled questions)
They aren’t leading
They are open-ended
They provide opportunities for participants to provide detailed answers
They’re written in plain language and are easy to understand (i.e., they do not use jargon or academic language)
Attach your interview guide as a Word document to your submission. It should contain, in the following order:
your research questions;
your interview questions, including:
introductory, transition, key and ending questions in the order in which you’d like to ask them.
After submitting your interview guide, you’ll need to add several key questions that are detailed below to your interview guide. These questions MUST BE ASKED during the interview. You may need to remove or adapt several questions from your interview guide to make room for these key questions.
Using the list of KSAs that I sent, what do you think are the top three KSAs that are needed for an early PR career? Why these three?
What are some of the key trends that you see emerging in the PR field as a result of the pandemic?
Using the same list of KSAs, what do you think are the top three KSAs that are needed to take advantage of these key trends? Why these three?
KSA Value Assessment
Congratulations! You’ve undertaken an assessment of KSAs that you’ve developed or adapted in relation to the pandemic. You’ve also developed an information interview guide and interviewed a PR practitioner to get information about key career issues and trends in the PR industry during COVID-19. This assignment has you merge this information together to identify which of your KSAs have the most value for your PR career moving forward during the pandemic. In other words, what KSAs should you highlight in career materials and processes like resumes, interviews and career plans?
Synthesize information to assess the strategic value of pandemic-affected KSAs to your career.
Strategically reflect on how events can function as opportunities.
Whom did you interview? List their name, position and company that they currently work for.
Using the list of KSAs, what did your PR practitioner think were the three major KSAs that would be needed for an early PR career? Bullet points are fine here.
Using the list of KSAs, what did your PR practitioner think were the three major KSAs that would be needed in the field in the near future, given industry trends and the pandemic? Bullet points are fine here.
Of the six KSAs that your PR practitioner identified as important for beginning your PR career or for the field’s future, list the top three KSAs that you have the most experience with from your KSA exercise sheet. Provide a paragraph on each KSA that describes what the KSA is and how you’ve used it during the pandemic. This writeup should detail how, if at all, you’ve had to adapt or learn the KSA as a result of the pandemic.
Of these top three KSAs, how do you think you can emphasize them in your career search materials? Think specifically about products or processes that you’ll be undertaking as part of your career search, such as resumes, portfolios or interview preparation. Your answer should be a minimum of one paragraph and a maximum of three, and use examples.
Of the six KSAs that your interviewee identified as important to your early career or for the field’s future, which one was most challenging to develop or adapt during the pandemic? Why? What were some of the specific challenges? How did you successfully deal with those barriers to use or adapt the KSA? Your answer should represent a minimum of one paragraph and a maximum of three paragraphs.
Go back to your list of ranked skills from your skill assessment exercise for being a student. Given what you’ve learned from your interview, re-rank them in order of most to least important for beginning your PR career. Write a paragraph that details why the top three KSAs in this list will be most important to you as you start your PR career. How will they help you succeed at the beginning of your career? What advantages, if any, will they give you as you begin your career during the pandemic?
Handout for PR Practitioners during Information Interview
The following is a list of knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) that have been identified in research and industry reports as important for PR careers, as well as for careers during the pandemic. KSAs that represent both PR and pandemic concerns have been bolded.
To cite this article: Deline, M.B. (2022). Looking back, stepping forward: COVID-19 KSA development and adaptation assessment for post-traumatic growth. Journal of Public Relations Education, 8(3), 120-139. https://aejmc.us/jpre/?p=3251
EditorialRecord: Submitted June 17, 2021. Revised January 16, 2022. Accepted March 26, 2022.
Jenny Zhengye Hou, Ph.D. Senior Lecturer, Strategic Communication School of Communication/Digital Media Research Centre Queensland University of Technology Queensland, Australia Email: email@example.com
Yi Wang Sessional Academic Department of Media and Communication Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences The University of Sydney Sydney, Australia Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article seeks to remedy a drawback that widely exists in current activist public relations education: the lack of creativity in both content building and delivery. The traditional teaching of activist public relations has focused on confrontational or radical activism that manifests itself in political campaigns, street protests, civil disobedience, or riots, by invoking social movement theories and case studies that may cause despondency. Little educational effort has captured or incorporated the nonthreatening, subtle activism aimed at incremental social changes to public relations curricula. To invigorate the activist public relations classroom, we argue for essential dual creativity: (1) by incorporating creative activism as a content framework (i.e., building content around creative activism and selecting inspirational case studies); and (2) by applying creative pedagogy for activist public relations (i.e., delivering content through participatory play, immersive storytelling, and field studies; and diversifying assessments such as creating case-study portfolios and creative project-making in team). Overall, our research contributes to activist public relations education through offering both theoretically informed and practical insight to developing creativity as a key to student engagement.
Introduction: From a historical tension to theoretical conflation
Scholars (e.g., Coombs & Holladay, 2012; Dozier & Lauzen, 2000; Karlberg, 1996) have long criticised a historical tension or division between public relations and activism, with public relations mainly being a corporate function, or an instrument of commerce, to manage activists and pressure groups in favour of organisational interests. Traditionally, activists refer to those who have high levels of conviction and emotional engagement with a single issue and thus challenge the status quo and push for an uncompromised vision (Chua, 2018; Swann, 2014). Derville (2005) exemplifies this activist approach with Greenpeace’s refusal to mediate with DuPont (a chemical company). Public relations practitioners need to handle the activist stakeholder who can impede organisational goals either directly through protest, boycott, or indirectly through government regulation (Karlberg, 1996). Accordingly, activism is excluded from mainstream public relations or portrayed as antagonist to public relations (Coombs & Holladay, 2012). Likewise, while activism has historically involved public relations-like activities and strategies (e.g., publicity, media influence), it tends to differentiate itself from public relations by claiming activism creates social changes while public relations maintains hegemony and domination (Choudry, 2015; Holtzhausen, 2012).
To relieve this historical tension, a growing number of theorists have called for an activist turn to public relations (Moloney & McKie, 2015), or theoretical conflation of public relations and activism (e.g., Mules, 2021; Weaver, 2018), mainly inspired by the postmodern thinking (Holtzhausen, 2000; Holtzhausen & Voto 2002; Kennedy & Sommerfeldt, 2015). In contrast to modern Western discourses that are infused with language games prescribing rational-critical debate and consensus-seeking (Lyotard, 1984), postmodernism prioritises dissensus and plurality of meaning-making arising from activism and resistant social movements (Kennedy & Sommerfeldt, 2015). For example, differential consciousness typifies postmodern resistance by describing activists working with or within dominant ideologies to challenge them and promote diversity (Sandoval, 2000). To this end, activists have increasingly used public relations interventions or hired public relations veterans to promote social causes (Mules, 2019). In this sense, activism can be seen as “public relations in social movements” (Coombs & Holladay, 2012, p. 348), or “the postmodern agency of public relations” (Holtzhausen, 2012, p. 211).
It is in such an activism context that scholars reposition public relations as making changes both within organisations and in society. For example, Holtzhausen (2012) and Pompper (2018; 2021) describe public relations’ potential as an insider-activist change agent and ethics guardian to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within organisations and fight for those less powerful. Pompper (2015) articulates public relations’ stewardship role in navigating organisations toward greater corporate social responsibility/sustainability (CSR/S). On a societal level, Karlberg (1996) endorses the social value of public relations in community relations. Inspired by this advocacy, Dozier and Lauzen (2000) recommend expanding public relations from being a professional activity that serves organisations or employers to an intellectual domain that includes alternative perspectives from activism. Additionally, empirical studies have found that activists gradually see powerful organisations more as enablers or support mechanisms than barriers to social causes and thus practice a type of activism called prosocial public relations (Brooks et al., 2018).
While activism is increasingly conflated theoretically with public relations, also known as activist public relations, it is insufficiently involved in public relations education. Activists’ voices, practices, and lived experience are under-represented in public relations to the extent of being glaringly omitted or downplayed from U.S. public relations education (Coombs & Holladay, 2012). Similarly, activism is globally either excluded from public relations curricula or taught from a managerial perspective (Fitch & L’Etang, 2020; Mules, 2019; 2021). Nor do professional bodies acknowledge the significance of activist public relations education. For example, the Capabilities Framework established by the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communications Management in 2018 did not recommend any curriculum development or professional training to realise public relations’ social value through developing activism that challenges power inequities and the status quo (Mules, 2021).
Nevertheless, multiple benefits apply to teaching activism in public relations education. Focusing on public relations’ social value and legitimising activists, especially subaltern and marginalised groups as a driving force, educators can re-imagine public relations as a progressive field of knowledge and practice (Vardeman et al., 2019). Students can develop a richer understanding of public relations and how activists have contributed to the field. Educators will be able to carve out new curricular territory (i.e., activist public relations) to allay their professional tension: On the one hand, they are obligated to teach students managerial-functionalist public relations (i.e., instrumental knowledge) governed by an economic value to maintain vested interests (Dozier & Lauzen, 2000; Karlberg, 1996); but on the other hand, educators aspire to teach public relations as an ethical and social conscience occupation to promote social justice, economic equality, political freedom, environment sustainability, human rights, or simply a better world for people (Pompper, 2015; 2018; Sison & Panol; 2019).
Despite both the necessity and benefit of teaching activist public relations, it is unknown how relevant curricula and pedagogical practices have developed across universities. It is also unclear whether existing course offerings and teaching approaches are creative enough to engage students in learning activism within the public relations classroom and beyond. Against this backdrop, this pedagogical article aims to address inadequate or outdated teaching practices in this important area. The remainder of this article thus overviews extant approaches to teaching activism within public relations and identifies a common shortcoming: the lack of creativity in both learning content design and delivery. We then elaborate on the essential dual creativity (i.e., using creative activism as a content framework and creative pedagogy as a teaching philosophy or theoretical framework) approach to reinvigorate the traditional public relations classroom, followed by inviting educators to new encounters to make learning happen. Lastly, we conclude that creativity of learning content design and delivery is the key to enriching and revitalising activist public relations education.
Reflecting the approaches to teaching activism in public relations curricula
Based on reviewing the literature we notice that the approaches to teaching activism in public relations curricula follow three stages: (1) Lacking or insignificantly including activism in public relations curricula; (2) Focusing on confrontational or radical activism that involves communicating provocatively to demand more ground than the target organisations are willing to give (Derville, 2005); and (3) Starting to embrace activism in subtle and creative forms.
Lacking or insignificantly including activism in public relations curricula
While critical scholars (e.g., Demetrious, 2016; L’Etang & Pieczka, 2006) propose that public relations curricula be radicalised through including activism, mainstream public relations education continues to focus on corporate and institutional contexts and ignore (possibly less glamorous) activism that challenges societal structure and promotes social justice (Fitch & L’Etang, 2020; Mules, 2019; 2021). Not only do faculties struggle to integrate activism in practical public relations courses, but also few textbooks are available for teaching it (Pascual-Ferrá, 2019). The main reason for this absence is that universities consistently seek to link public relations to employability and equip students with professional skills through work integrated learning (e.g., internship) or hiring industry mentors as adjuncts (Macnamara et al., 2018; Mules, 2021). Consequently, adjuncts rarely seek to innovate curriculum because they are accustomed to teaching vocationally orientated programs to gain positive student feedback that advances their own careers (Pompper, 2011).
Because (as discussed earlier) public relations has been theoretically conflated with activism, there have emerged ongoing efforts to incorporate activism in public relations education. For example, The Museum of Public Relations, a non-profit, educational institution, offers free lectures, documents, books, and artifacts from its digital archives to inform the public of how public relations and its social application have evolved (Bivins, 2015). Especially the Museum’s three annual events, Black PR History, Latino PR History, and PR Women Who Changed History demonstrate the power of public relations in inspiring activism and social movements. However, such efforts to integrate activism in public relations curricula in universities globally have not yet reached a critical mass (Fitch & L’Etang, 2020; Mules, 2021).
Focusing on confrontational or radical activism
Notably, public relations history education seems to focus on the confrontational, radical, or sometimes deemed subversive activism for a revolutionary purpose (Derville, 2005). As Wakefield et al. (2011) point out, confrontational activism featuring hostility or complex conflicts to gain power and legitimacy over dominant institutions, is emphasised in public relations in general and social movements particularly. As such, traditional teaching of activist public relations tends to draw on radical activists’ militant tactics such as protests, sit-ins, boycotts, sabotage, public shaming, and creating direct pressure without tolerance of compromise (Derville, 2005; Swann, 2014).
Moreover, traditional teaching of activist public relations has relied on orthodox theories such as social movement studies, critical theories of power, hegemony and resistance, and the ethics literature for professional practice (Adi, 2018). Taylor and Das (2010) especially link activist public relations with social movement: “Social movements begin with a group of committed individuals and in order for them to get their definition of the issue and the resolution of the issue onto the public agenda, they need to communicate their issues to broader publics” (p. 14). In other words, activists need to apply public relations to movement building. Parallel to this theoretical orientation is the widely used case study approach to those serious and often heavy-hearted examples, ranging from the London riots of 2011 (Capozzi & Spector, 2016), the public relations battle between Colorado GASP and Philip Morris (Stokes & Rubin, 2010), the American Social Hygiene Association (ASHA) campaign on curtailing venereal disease rates (Anderson, 2017), and the ongoing Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements on social media (Vardeman et al., 2019).
Regardless of what theories and examples are taught in activist public relations courses, the primary delivery method seems to follow a “banking model,” preferably to deposit information into students and view them as receiving it unchallenged (Batac, 2017, p. 140). There is lack of pedagogical discussion on activist public relations to prioritise critical and creative inquiries that are both prerequisites of social and political action. As a result, students may feel disengaged in the traditional activist public relations classroom as they think learning such content is irrelevant unless they choose to become an activist in future (Eschle & Maiguashca, 2006). Doyle (2020) also cautioned that long-term exposure to heavy-hearted case studies might generate a negative impact on student perception of efficacy––whether they believe activism will (positively) change the world or not––thus discouraging their civic participation. In turn, such pessimism may reinforce student desire to acquire only in-demand public relations skills, such as publicity, media relations, and marketing promotion to meet professional requirements (Batac, 2017).
Starting to embrace activism in subtle and creative forms
Compared to the dominant focus on confrontational or radical activism, Mules’ (2019) recent analysis of public relations textbooks has captured an emerging trend to embrace the public relations activism that exemplifies how creative communication successfully facilitate positive social change through, for example, the performing arts, visual communication, and documentaries. However, Mules did not further explore how the inherent and much-needed creativity in activism should be articulated and emphasised to students so that they can develop fuller and more nuanced understandings of public relations as meaningful, imaginative, and impactful activism. Indeed, the preceding review of traditional teaching of activist public relations has revealed such a shortcoming: the lack of creativity in both learning content design (what types of activism would appeal to students) and delivery (how to motivate students to become active learners). Such creativity within activist public relations education is what our article addresses.
Bringing the essential dual creativity to activist public relations education
Public relations educators need to rethink how they transform the teaching of activist public relations, perhaps by advancing it from including activism within mainstream public relations education (Mules, 2021), to bringing creativity to activist public relations education. After all, it is an easy option to fill the gap by uncritically including activism in public relations curricula where some activist tactics, such as cultism, violent resistance, and civil disobedience unsuitably lack integrity and ethics that must be emphasised in public relations education (L’Etang, 2016). We add that, along with critical inquiry, creative thinking is essential to revitalise traditional teaching of activist public relations, and this is not an easy fix.
The essential “dual creativity”
Specifically, we propose to achieve this dual creativity by using creative activism as a framework to build content for activist public relations courses that are, fittingly, taught following creative pedagogy. Creative activism and creative pedagogy are two related but different terms. Creative activism can be understood as “a kind of meta-activism that facilitates the engagement of active citizens in temporary, strategically manufactured, transformative interventions in order to change society for the better” through creative communication such as performing arts, forum theatre, urban guerrilla gardening, and spatial design (Harrebye, 2016, p. 25). In this article, we recommend building the teaching blocks around creative activism (as elaborated later), a body of scholarship that recognises the subtle, imaginative, but equally effective activism practice.
Creative pedagogy, also known as creative teaching methodology or philosophy, emphasises developing student creativity through three interdependent elements: (1) creative teaching––using innovative and participatory approaches; (2) teaching for creativity––identifying opportunities for student creativity development; and (3) creative learning––motivating students to learn actively through playfulness, collaboration, possibility thinking, and supportive or resourceful contexts (Aleinikov; 2013; Lin, 2011; Oral, 2008). As a theoretical framework, creative pedagogy can be applied to teaching practices in any discipline ranging from STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) to arts, humanities, and social sciences, including creative activism. This theoretical framework is of great value to expand the horizon of activist public relations education and make the teaching practice more dynamic and appealing to students.
Integrating creative activism into public relations
To develop creative learning content, public relations educators should learn from both past and contemporary activism practices. For example, in the pre-social media era, activists creatively used different genres of literature (e.g., tales, poetry), the fine and performing arts, happenings, wall doodling, and temporary spatial interventions to convey political messages and pursue social change. The advent of new and social media makes creative activism even easier to raise public awareness, provoke debate, and inspire action, as exemplified by the various virtual museums, digital galleries, hashtag campaigns, and online petitions around the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since contemporary creative activism becomes a category of new media communication, activist public relations courses should be: (1) underpinned by a triad of creative activism, new/social media, and public relations; (2) more process- than result-oriented to enable students to imagine and debate rather than solving problems; and (3) project-based to maximise teamwork and collective action. While promoting creativity, it is not meant to turn a public relations class to an artistic one, nor to prevent students from acquiring public relations knowledge or developing professional skills. Rather, universities and/or educators may consider offering the study of creative activism within an established public relations degree, or a program that is part of a nonprofit or social transformation certificate.
Integrating creative activism in the art (not just management science) of public relations offers a new alternative to ignite student interest, curiosity, and enthusiasm about learning public relations for social change. Through showcasing creative examples in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere while maintaining academic rigour, educators can ease students in learning and inspire them to envisage other ways of living and being that are not constrained by the dominant power. Through exposing students to a “longer lens” (L’Etang, 2015, p. 31) of creative activism, we facilitate their multi-dimensional thinking of social justice issues so they appreciate the collaborative effect of creative expressions and public relations. More importantly, we can transform the public relations classroom from a safe space characterised by normative theories and instrumental rationality to advance organisational interests, to a fun and challenging environment where students are guided to reflect on everyday activism critically and creatively.
Applying creative pedagogy to teach creative activism
To teach creative activism effectively, it is necessary to adopt creative pedagogy as a guiding framework that focuses on cultivating students’ awareness of current events; encouraging them to be life-long creative, to value individual interest and agency, and to actively develop ideas into action (Hay et al., 2020, Hou, 2021). Taking such a focus, public relations educators should see students as both co-creators of learning and active citizens, with their ideas welcomed, their concerns about issues acknowledged, and the creativity behind problem-solving appreciated. Students in the activist public relations classroom are no longer deemed to be silent observers of teaching like spectators in a grand theatre. They are motivated to interrogate the public relations strategies of creative activism, analyse the creativity of activist public relations in their own language, and imagine alternatives to how things can be done to be otherwise (Desai, 2017). Public relations educators who are interested in what is possible for creative activism to counter hegemony should particularly strive for student-centred, eye-opening, minds-on and hands-on learning, and active participation. One way to achieve this is not to impose predetermined moral positions but, in Ellsworth’s (2005) words, to use “a pedagogy of the unknowable”–– encouraging exploration but not dictating “the final correct answer” (p. 76).
Among the many forms of creative pedagogy, we highlight two that are suitable to public relations education. One is the pedagogy of playfulness that fosters participation, enjoyment, and deep learning through affective practice (Facer, 2019; Hay et al., 2020), such as games, role-plays, and mini-theatre performance. Through playful and affective practice students may see activism as less daunting and distant from their everyday lives and thus be willing to learn more about it, take risks, explore new ideas, or even direct themselves to learn. Creative pedagogy is crucial to relieve students from feeling overwhelmed or apolitical when activist public relations is taught in a theory-heavy and meantime heavy-hearted manner. The pedagogy of playfulness also corresponds to Duncombe’s (2016) using affect to create effect within education. Three principles apply to designing enjoyable learning activities (Kolb & Kolb, 2010): (1) balancing between “playful and serious, imaginary and real, and arbitrary and rule bound” (p.28); (2) emphasising play as a learning process that “facilitates the expression of positive and negative emotions through engagement in fantasy and play” (p. 29); and (3) making a specific time and space for the play to help the behaviours associated with it thrive.
Another useful form of creative pedagogy is Freire’s (2004) pedagogy of hope, or what Simon (1992) calls, a pedagogy of possibility. In a public relations context, a pedagogy of hope means educators “unveil opportunities (possibilities) for hope, regardless of the obstacles” to social changes (Freire, 2004, p. 9). Its purpose is to empower students to develop the sense that they can make a difference in helping resolve social justice issues in either big or small, incremental or revolutionary ways. The pedagogy of hope also reflects the mentality of creative activists who create arts and communication not hoping to eradicate racism, sexism, and homophobia directly. Rather, they tend to relentlessly struggle to fight all forms of inequalities in society, while “keeping their unwavering hope and desire to dream of a more equitable and just future” (Desai, 2017, p. 143). The pedagogy of hope or possibility entails three practices: (1) listening to students as co-creators of learning; (2) unknowing––no wrong answers––as central to teaching; and (3) fostering dreaming as part of student imagination of hopeful images––“images of that which is not yet” (Simon, 1992, p. 9).
Invitation to a few encounters: Making learning happen
Considering the preceding theoretical review and creative pedagogical framework, we propose some specific dimensions on how to apply the dual creativity approach mentioned earlier to the teaching of activist public relations. In this section, we invite public relations educators to consider a few ideas that may help them improve the appeal of an activism course to students and motivate them to learn activist public relations in the classroom and beyond. We have also built and reflected on our own experience of teaching relevant activism courses (e.g., Creative Citizenship, Political Advocacy) to make the following recommendations.
Learning content design
Content building for a creative activist public relations course can be challenging firstly because it involves cross-disciplinary knowledge, but also because integrating different elements requires thoughtful planning. Depending on the varying expectations and needs of educators, students and institutions, the broad learning objectives can be set from three aspects: (1) conceptual understanding, whereby students learn about what is involved in activist public relations and creative approaches to it, and how to be digitally literate on new media; (2) capacity building, so students acquire strategic public relations skills for activism and expertise in identifying and appreciating the creative forms, styles, and expressions involved in activist public relations; and (3) critical and creative evaluation, to enable students to think critically and creatively so they might evaluate global activism practices or initiatives.
Following Duncombe’s (2002) four analytical dimensions of activism, we suggest four building blocks or learning rubrics, to develop and frame the learning content:
(A) The topics or issues of creative activism. Educators can choose a wide array of eco-political, socio-cultural, and environmental issues targeted by activism, ranging from poverty, speech freedom, gender equity, indigenous culture, climate change, and eco-fashion, to attract and resonate with students from diverse backgrounds.
(B) The creative forms activism takes. This responds to Morrow’s (2007) call for a shift from activism as protestation and confrontation toward activism as redefining issues creatively. Students will benefit from such a wider angle of creative activism as meta-activism in discursive, subtle, and artistic forms in everyday encounters. This notional shift offers opportunities to immerse students in an unexpected world of activism filled with delights and inspiration from creative arts and communication, such as poetry, music, painting, drama, dance, documentary, TV/film, theatre performance, and social media memes. This is where interdisciplinary resources and inputs are needed. One possible way to build such a “creative wonderland” is to collaborate with colleagues from other schools or faculties with institutional support. For example, we used teaching resources from our Faculty of Creative industries, Education, and Social Justice for course design and delivery.
(C) The wayscreative activism is received or interpreted. This points educators to theories of audience segmentation, agency, reception, and participation especially in social media that offer new conditions for developing creative activism (Harrebye, 2015). Most contemporary activism is not built around a stable political organisation, with reference to party membership or a well-defined repertoire of protests (Harrebye, 2016). Instead, many who participate in activism often gather in creative events or even Facebook group pages. Students need to understand that creative activism is temporal and flexible, in contrast to the stability and stubbornness required in mass social movement.
(D) Theprocess and strategies of creative activism communication. This is where core public relations theories and principles help students understand why activism and public relations are conflated, and how public relations strategies, tools, and interventions are useful for creative activism to boost impact, engagement, and empowerment, all essential to mobilising social action. The relevant public relations theories can be chosen from persuasion, influence, advocacy, campaigns, ethics, narrative building, media relations, relationship management, community engagement, transmedia storytelling, and social media communication. Students need to develop confidence and pride that when strategic planning and communicating activism is infused with creativity and art, and facilitated by wide-ranging traditional and new media, the social impact and contribution of public relations will reach a new height.
Activism theories for consideration
Regarding activism-related theories, we recommend that classical theories of political act, citizenship, and social movement, such as collective behaviour theory (e.g., Lofland, 1985; Melucci, 1996), rational choice theory (e.g., Herrnstein, 1990; Scott, 2000), resource mobilisation theory (McCarthy & Zald, 1987), and political opportunity theory (Meyer & Minkoff, 2004) remain useful for building a fundamental understanding of what activism is and how it works. However, they are insufficient to explain creative activism that operates in non-traditional forms, and which often lacks basic components of social movement, namely, collective challenge, a common purpose, social solidarity, and sustained interaction (Harrebye, 2015). Therefore, we recommend that public relations educators draw on everyday creative activism such as irony or parody (i.e., to laugh at power and imagine alternatives), utopianism (i.e., an ideological critique of dominant systems), and culture jamming (i.e., resisting and re-creating commercial culture) (see James C. Scott’s, 1990, Domination and the Arts of Resistance). Non-traditional ways of civic participation online (e.g., using irony, parody, or satire) have unfolded a “postmodern-social-media-world” that departs from rational-critical discourses but appeals to participants’ and audiences’ emotions even on non-public matters (Kennedy & Sommerfeldt, 2015, p. 39).
Given the wide spectrum of creative activism, it is hard to develop a coherent theoretical framework to cover the variety of practices. However, remember that the central goal of adding creativity to activist public relations curricula is to create an eye-opening, minds-on, experiential, joyful, lively, and relevant learning experience for students, and help them to become resilient, entrepreneurial, and innovative changemakers in society. Creative courses like this serve to guide students into a new territory. At the end of this article, we append a list of diverse teaching resources, including textbooks, The Conversation essays, TED talks, and YouTube links for educators seeking to integrate creative activism in public relations classes (see Appendix 1).
To mitigate the potential negative impact of heavy-hearted case studies on students’ perceived efficacy of activism, that is, whether they believe activism makes a difference (Doyle, 2020), we suggest public relations educators incorporate cheerful examples of creative activism. This is to enact the pedagogy of hope (Freire, 2004), to facilitate students’ positive thinking, imagination of alternatives, and creative problem-solving. As the previous U.S. President, Barack Obama (2011), commented on the booming youth creative activism after the Arab Spring: “Above all, we saw a new generation emerge—a generation that uses their own creativity, talent, and technology to call for a government that represented their hopes and not their fears” [emphasis later added]. What follows are some case studies of creative activism around the world:
Australian youth activists initiated a #ClimateStrikeOnline campaign, by creating music in their own YouTube channels, sharing artistic posters on Twitter, and creating choreography on TikTok, to increase the appeal of climate change messaging among young people around the world and sustain the movement in a light-hearted way. This case study is likely to resonate with many student audiences.
The American iconic poster of the “Ballerina and the bull” is another example of creative activism. The thought-provoking artwork created by Micah White through his anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters played a significant role in leading the Occupy Wall Street movement against economic inequality.
The DanishRoskilde Festival Creative exemplifies resisting the existing hegemony of market-managerialist organisations through its More Than Music initiative. Each year, this festival amasses creative professionals, activists, and social entrepreneurs to function as an open and co-creative laboratory to challenge those politically restrictive parameters and enable the testing of new ideas (Harrebye, 2015).
In addition to the above case study approach, we recommend a few (co-)creative and participatory activities adaptable to different class settings such as tutorials, workshops, or field studies outside classrooms (e.g., visiting museums, art galleries and creative spaces). The activities suggested below embody the theoretical essence of creative pedagogy that empowers students to co-create and co-own learning, unleash creative potentials, and become confident, engaged, and progressive thinkers (Hay et al., 2020). Specifically, these activities have applied the creative pedagogy of playfulness, hope, and possibilities to build an enjoyable, delightful, and meaningful learning environment for serious topics like activism and social justice. From the feedback we received from prior students, the activities that follow have generated increased motivation, purposeful engagement, experiential learning, and social empowerment over time.
If You Are a Superhero: This is an individual activity. Educators ask each student to imagine him/herself as a superhero who can save the world from a deep trouble. The superhero identifies a big problem within society that threatens citizens or public interest, but s/he has superpower to transmit (communicate) his/her thoughts to other people’s minds and influence them to join allies for collective action. Educators then ask students to note their imagination on paper, for example, drawing him/herself a heroic image in a unique outfit, explaining the issue (why it matters), and mapping out their approaches, strategies, tactics (where PR theories apply) and channels (e.g., social/digital platforms) to magically disseminate the key message(s) in creative formats (e.g., texts, posters, poems, songs, symbols, memes).
Imagining Roads to Utopia: This is designed as a group activity. Educators advise students that to change the world we live in we need to be able to imagine an ideal world we desire. Then divide students in groups of four or five. In each group, members brainstorm and rank the issues that concern them. Targeting each issue, the team collectively imagines innovative ways to raise public awareness, influence their attitudes, and mobilise the desired behaviour change. In this process, educators guide students to sketch their visions, review the professional communication and creative skills of each member within the team, help them to agree about an actionable plan and turn at least part of their utopian dreams into reality.
Everyday Life Performance (mini-theatre play): While this group activity combines the creative teaching methods of dramatising and role-play, its development needs collaboration and support from colleagues with diverse disciplinary backgrounds in creative practices. Educators ask students to set a scene of everyday life, for example, at the bus top or on a dinner table with family, and then students play different roles, speaking in others’ voices about a common issue/topic (e.g., vegetarianism, animal rights). The performance is process-oriented to show how students use different resources and communication techniques to persuade, influence, and engage others in a negotiated, collective action. This activity requires a few weeks for students to plan together and co-write the performance scripts for different characters and roles. It is both a challenging and rewarding experience for students to explore different ideas for an activism cause.
Speculative Fiction/Storytelling: This activity idea was inspired by Doyle’s (2020) study into creative education about climate change. Speculative fiction is used as a narrative framing device to help young people develop their stories about promoting a social cause (e.g., climate change) based on their current perceptions of the issue (i.e., what needs to be changed) and imaginative future-thinking (i.e., what the future would look like after activism). For example, FutureCoast Youth is a UK-based creative climate project inviting 14- to 15-year-old high school students to use participatory play and imaginative storytelling to create their own ideas of current and future climate issues. Using such speculative fiction, students develop and visualise scenarios of climatically altered futures and thus prepare for future climate changes (see details of the FutureCoast Youth project, in Doyle, 2020).
Field/Ethnographic Studies: This activity should be planned as a pedagogical event for a few days or weeks to take students outside the classroom to real-world creative spaces, such as cultural centres or local communities, so that students can learn creative activism everywhere (Hay et al., 2020). As part of experiential learning, those events provide students with real-life opportunities to be involved in activism and community action projects and gain experiences that last long after the semester ends. To be sustainable, this activity is best if institutionally sponsored. Public relations educators can refer to the two models House of Imagination and Cambridge Curiosity and Imagination for resource implications (Hay et al., 2020).
In line with creative pedagogy, we recommend diversifying assessment types, structures, and evaluation criteria to nourish student curiosity and creativity when they are educated about public relations as activism. Apart from informative assessments such as weekly reflective journals, critical essays, small games, or quizzes, we also suggest two summative assessments:
Creating a case study portfolioof activist public relations (individual assessment). This assignment can be divided to two parts: (1) Ask students to choose a case study of issue-based creative activism and collect as many proofs and artifacts (e.g., posters, images, videos) as possible to build a portfolio; and (2) Ask students to write an evidence-based report to critically evaluate both pragmatic and aesthetic impacts of the case study, and reflectively suggest future improvement.
Collective project-making of creative activism, with guidance from external advisors (e.g., artists, activists, cultural curators, public relations practitioners) (groupwork). This involves collaboration between universities, arts/culture centres, and public relations agencies. Each project should be led by a small group (5 or 6 students) working with an assigned advisor in a specific location. Students collectively develop an activism campaign proposal based on public relations knowledge involving issue management, SWOT analyses, audience segmentation, key messaging, relationship building, promotional mix, creative tactics (e.g., animation, comics, storytelling), social/digital platforms, implementation techniques, timeline, budget, and evaluation. In addition to the written project, students will also have opportunities to showcase their works in cultural venues (e.g., in an art gallery as a partner organisation) facing external audiences. If funding is available, universities or culture centres can create a website to host student works and boost their visibility and social impact.
Concluding remarks: Creativity is key
As one of the first attempts to explore the intersection of public relations, activism and creative pedagogy, our article contributes to addressing a shortcoming that exists commonly in activist public relations education: the lack of creativity in both learning content design and delivery. We note that, although public relations is increasingly conflated with activism, the research into teaching activist public relations is at an early stage of identifying the gap or calling for action. For example, Coombs and Holladay (2012) articulate the absence of activism from public relations history education as a glaring omission. Fitch and L’Etang (2020) find little growth in universities adding activism to public relations education in that it remains largely concerned with graduate outcomes, industry trends and future demands. Mules (2019; 2021) thus argues that activism studies should have a space in public relations curricula. Given the traditional teaching of activism as confrontation and protestation based on orthodox theories and case studies that can be emotionally draining, educators need to explore creative ways and practical steps to make the learning of activist public relations more appealing and engaging.
We contend that the dual creativity applied to both learning content design (what to teach) and delivery (how to teach and facilitate learning) is essential to motivate students to learn and value activism within public relations classrooms and beyond. On the one hand, we recommend that public relations educators adopt creative activism as a content framework, which is crucial to help students extensively understand activism as an important discursive marker of varying creativity. Applying creative activism to public relations course content may not necessarily equip students with artistic skills but will expose them to the means of locating a rich, diverse, and dynamic world of activism to eventually apply to achieving positive social change. At university, once a semester ends and all the applied learning within one’s degree is covered, we should still leave room for students to continue imagining, exploring, and dreaming of their desired world of social justice (Alexander et al., 2021).
On the other hand, we encourage public relations educators to experiment with creative pedagogy to not only effectively deliver the creative content but more importantly, to make available a collaborative and enjoyable learning environment. Within such a setting, student curiosity, risk-taking, positive thinking, and problem-solving can encourage them to approach and appreciate activism for social change. Specifically, the creative pedagogy applicable to activist public relations education includes a pedagogy of playfulness, exploring play and fun as a way of deep learning, and using student emotions to improve learning (Duncombe, 2016). Another useful idea is the pedagogy of hope and possibilities that unveils different opportunities, regardless of the obstacles to social change (Freire, 2004). Such creative pedagogy that develops students as co-creators, co-enquirers, and co-owners of learning is useful to overcome such potential negative impact as students’ reduced sense of efficacy after long exposure to heavy-hearted and violent case studies from radical activism (Doyle, 2020).
Informed by the creative pedagogical framework mentioned earlier and what we have learned from our own teaching experience, this article invited public relations educators to conduct a few experiments to make learning happen. We suggested applying creativity to teaching and learning when building the course content by selecting inspirational case studies, designing enjoyable activities, and assessing students in ways conducive with creative learning content. We hope that the examples provided in this article will become useful resources adaptable to different contexts, or at least spark thoughts and imagination from educators around the world. Also, we must admit that those creative pedagogical approaches require substantial time and resource investment to build trust and creativity, and overcome challenges in interdisciplinary collaboration, especially when building partnerships between universities, culture centres, activist groups/organisations, and local communities.
Nevertheless, we should trust that adding creativity to the teaching of activism within public relations classrooms and beyond will facilitate more “knowledge construction that is necessary for disciplinary progress” (Macnamara, 2015, p. 344). This will offer the wider community greater access to the emancipation possible through activist public relations. Through educating young generations of the relevance and significance of activism, we empower them to imagine and explore new alternatives, to question society’s discrimination and inequality, and thus reshape their own identities and futures. We seek to cultivate students to be the future leaders and changemakers, rather than merely public relations technicians or managers. As public relations educators, we may continue to be bound by different rules and institutional constraints, but we can still exercise our own agency to reconcile multiple conflicting values to find feasible and creative ways of teaching activism. Taking this point of departure, we call for future empirical research to test and evaluate the efficacy of the theoretically informed, creative pedagogical practices mentioned in this article. Creativity is key.
Adi, A. (2018). Protest public relations: Communicating dissent and activism––An introduction. In A. Adi (Ed.), Protest public relations: Communicating dissent and activism (pp. 1–12). Routledge.
Aleinikov, A. (2013). Creative pedagogy. In E.G. Carayannis (Ed.), Encyclopedia of creativity, invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship (pp. 326–339). Springer.
Alexander, W. L., Wells, E.C., Lincoln, M., Davis, B.Y., & Little, P.C. (2021). Environmental justice ethnography in the classroom: Teaching activism, inspiring involvement. Human Organization, 80(1), 37–49. https://doi.org/10.17730/1938-3525-80.1.37
Anderson, W. B. (2017). Social movements and public relations in the early twentieth century: How one group used public relations to curtail venereal disease rates. Journal of Public Relations Research, 29(1), 3–15. https://doi.org/10.1080/1062726X.2017.1281135
Brooks, K. J., Wakefield, R.I., & Plowman, K.D. (2018). Activism, prosocial public relations and negotiation: The case of St Vincent de Paul. Corporate Communications: An International Journal, 23(1), 139–150. https://doi.org/10.1108/CCIJ-10-2016-0072
Capozzi, L., & Spector, S. (2016). Public relations for the public good: How PR has shaped America’s social movements. Business Expert Press.
Choudry, A. (2015). Learning activism: The intellectual life of contemporary social movements. University of Toronto Press.
Chua, A. (2018). Political tribes: Group instinct and the fate of nations. Random House.
Demetrious, K. (2016). Sanitising or reforming PR? Exploring ‘trust’ and the emergence of critical public relations. In J. L’Etang, D. McKie, N. Snow & J. Xifra. (Eds), Routledge handbook of critical public relations (pp. 101–116). Routledge.
Doyle, J. (2020). Creative communication approaches to youth climate engagement: Using speculative fiction and participatory play to facilitate young people’s multidimensional engagement with climate change. International Journal of Communication, 14(24), 2749–2772. https://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/14003/3093
Dozier, D. M., & Lauzen, M. M. (2000). Liberating the intellectual domain from the practice: Public relations, activism, and the role of the scholar. Journal of Public Relations Research, 12(1), 3–22. https://doi.org/10.1207/S1532754XJPRR1201_2
Duncombe, S. (2002). Cultural resistance reader. Verso.
Harrebye, S. (2016). Social change and creative activism in the 21st Century. Palgrave Macmillan.
Hay, P., Sapsed, R., Sayers, E., Benn, M. & Rigby, S. (2020). Creative activism––Learning everywhere with children and young people. FORUM: For Promoting 3-19 Comprehensive Education, 62(1), 91-106. https://doi.org/10.15730/forum.2020.62.1.91
Holtzhaüsen, D. (2012). Public relations as activism: Postmodern approaches to theory and practice. Routledge.
Holtzhaüsen, D. R., & Voto, F. (2002). Resistance from the margins: The postmodern public relations practitioner as organizational activist. Journal of Public Relations Research, 14(1), 57–84. https://doi.org/10.1207/S1532754XJPRR1401_3
Kennedy, A. K., & Sommerfeldt, E. J. (2015). A postmodern turn for social media research: Theory and research directions for public relations scholarship. Atlantic Journal of Communication, 23(1), 31–45. https://doi.org/10.1080/15456870.2015.972406
Kolb, A. Y., & Kolb, D. A. (2010). Learning to play, playing to learn: A case study of a ludic learning space. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 23(1), 26–50. https://doi.org/10.1108/09534811011017199
L’Etang, J. (2015). History as a source of critique: Historicity and knowledge, societal change, activism and movements. In J. L’Etang, D. McKie, N. Snow & J. Xifra (Eds.), The Routledge handbook of critical public relations (pp. 28–40). Routledge.
Lofland, J. (1985). Protest: Studies of collective behaviour and social movements. Transaction Books.
Lyotard, J. F. (1984). The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge. University of Minnesota Press.
Macnamara, J. (2015). Socially integrating PR and operationalizing an alternative approach. In J. L’Etang, D. McKie, N. Snow & J. Xifra (Eds.), The Routledge handbook of critical public relations (pp. 359–372). Routledge.
Macnamara, J., Zerfass, A., Adi, A., & Lwin, M. (2018). Capabilities of PR professionals for key activities lag: Asia-Pacific study shows theory and practice gaps. Public Relations Review, 44(5), 704–716. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2018.10.010
McCarthy, J. D., & Zald, M. N. (1987). Resource mobilization and social movements: A Partial Theory. In M. N. Zald & J. D. McCarthy (Eds), Social movements in an organizational society: Collected essays (pp. 15–48). Transaction Books.
Melucci, A. (1996). Challenging codes: Collective action in the information age. Cambridge University Press.
Moloney, K., & McKie, D. (2015). Changes to be encouraged: Radical turns in PR theorisation and small-step evolutions in PR practice. In J. L’Etang, D. McKie, N. Snow & J. Xifra (Eds.), The Routledge handbook of critical public relations (pp.175–185). Routledge.
Oral, G. (2008). Creative learning and culture. In A. Craft, T. Cremin & P. Burnard (Eds.), Creative learning 3-11: And how we document it (pp. 3–10). Trentham.
Pascual-Ferrá, P. (2019). Thinking critically about fundraising: Using communication activism scholarship to facilitate brainstorming and reflection in a public relations course. Communication Teacher, 33(4), 239–243. https://doi.org/10.1080/17404622.2019.1575441
Pompper, D. (2015). Corporate social responsibility, sustainability, and public relations: Negotiating multiple complex challenges. Routledge.
Pompper, D. (Ed.). (2018). Corporate social responsibility, sustainability and ethical public relations: Strengthening synergies with human resources. Emerald Group Publishing Limited.
Pompper, D. (Ed.). (2021). Public relations for social responsibility: Affirming DEI commitment with action. Emerald Group Publishing Limited.
Sandoval, C. (2000). Methodology of the oppressed. University of Minnesota Press.
Scott, J. (2000). Rational choice theory. In G. Browning, A. Halcli & F. Webster (Eds.), Understanding Contemporary Society: Theories of the Present (pp. 126–138). Sage Publications.
Scott, J.C. (1990). Domination and the arts of resistance: Hidden transcripts. Yale University Press.
Simon, R. (1992). Teaching against the grain: Texts for a pedagogy of possibility. Bergin and Garvey Publishers.
Sison, M. D., & Panol, Z.S. (2019). Corporate social responsibility, public relations and community engagement: Emerging perspectives from Southeast Asia. Routledge.
Stokes, A., & Rubin, D. (2010). Activism and the limits of symmetry: The public relations battle between Colorado GASP and Philip Morris. Journal of Public Relations Research, 22(1), 26–48. https://doi.org/10.1080/10627260903150268
Swann, P. (2014). Cases in public relations management: The rise of social media and activism. Routledge.
Vardeman, J., Kennedy, A., & Little, B. (2019). Intersectional activism, history and public relations: New understandings of women’s communicative roles in anti-racist and anti-sexist work. In I. Somerville, L. Edwards & Ø. Ihlen (Eds), Public relations, society and the generative power of history (pp. 96–112). Routledge.
To cite this article: Hou, J.Z. and Wang, Y. (2022).Creativity is key: Using creative pedagogy to incorporate activism in the public relations classroom and beyond. Journal of Public Relations Education, 8(2), 78-110. https://aejmc.us/jpre/?p=3108