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Vaccinate Against Hate: Using Activism to Teach Applied PR Research and Theory

Editorial Record: Submitted June 8, 2021. Revised December 3, 2021. Accepted March 25, 2022.


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


The social and political tensions of 2020 exposed an increased threat by hate groups attempting to spread extremist ideologies. Today, words have become weapons on social media and across all corners of the internet to persuade, recruit, mobilize and motivate. As undergraduate college students may seek to participate in activist work to combat hate and extremism, public relations research and theory can provide a roadmap for strategy.

Activism as a broad topic may pique the interest of many students and can be used to demonstrate the application of strategies, tactics, messaging and more. This activity attempts to situate activism into an existing introductory public relations course, by using it as the lens through which students examine the application of research and theory.

In this activity, students are given a fictional scenario: they have joined an anti-hate group on campus called Vaccinate Against Hate, which seeks to educate campuses across the country about hate groups and ways to fight the threat of extremist propaganda, conspiracy theories and calls to action. As a public relations student, they’ve been asked to work on developing a recruitment campaign, as well as an educational and awareness campaign for Vaccinate Against Hate.

Students will identify the research methods needed to craft Vaccinate Against Hate’s first campaigns. Then, they draw on public relations theories to guide their strategy. Through this activity, students are introduced to and apply a myriad of research methods and public relations theories, as well as the role of public relations in an activist context.

Keywords: teaching brief, in-class activity, activism, research, theory, public relations


The social and political tensions of 2020 exposed an increased threat by hate groups attempting to spread extremist ideologies. Today, words have become weapons on social media and across all corners of the internet to persuade, recruit, mobilize and motivate. As undergraduate college students may seek to participate in activist work to combat hate and extremism, public relations research and theory can provide a roadmap for strategy.

As noted by scholars like Mules (2021), there is increased discussion about the relationship between public relations practice and activism. But this discussion has not made its way into public relations curricula, other than in reference to activists being seen as oppositional to the objectives of an organization (Coombs & Holladay, 2013). Given that activists have successfully applied public relations strategies and tactics to achieve their objectives for at least 100 years (Ciszek, 2015), the study of their work can make a positive contribution to public relations curricula (Mules, 2021).

And, as Coombs and Holladay (2012) see the incorporation of activism studies into the curriculum “as central to broadening students’ education, it also holds promise for re-imagining the field and legitimizing the works of activists as an important component in public relations theory and research.” (p. 347)

While the addition of activism studies to public relations curricula may take time, or simply not be possible for many programs, one step that can be taken now is to incorporate assignments or activities with a focus on activism into existing courses.

Activism as a broad topic may pique the interest of many students and can be used to demonstrate the application of strategies, tactics, messaging and more. This activity attempts to situate activism into an existing introductory public relations course, by using it as the lens through which students examine the application of research and theory. As noted in the 2017 Commission on Public Relations Education report Fast Forward: Foundations and Future State. Educators and Practitioners, “Theory can get a bad rap because it sounds like all the stuff that never changes. In fact, public relations and public relations education, with our core commitment to research, are a master class in continually observing, questioning and adapting the theoretical drivers of what we do in practice. The world, the profession and education never stand still; our theory is in a similar state of adaptation.” (p. 16)

In this activity, students are given a fictional scenario: they have joined an anti-hate group on campus called Vaccinate Against Hate, which seeks to educate campuses across the country about hate groups and ways to fight the threat of extremist propaganda, conspiracy theories and calls to action. As a public relations student, they’ve been asked to work on developing a recruitment campaign, as well as an educational and awareness campaign for Vaccinate Against Hate.

Using Kathleen Kelly’s (2001) ROPES planning process (research, objectives, programming, evaluation, stewardship) as a starting point, students will identify the research methods needed to craft Vaccinate Against Hate’s first campaigns. Then, they draw on public relations theories to guide their strategy. Through this activity, students are introduced to and apply a myriad of research methods and public relations theories, as well as the role of public relations in an activist context.

STUDENT LEARNING OUTCOMES: This activity was used in Introduction to Public Relations and was created to align with the learning outcomes stated below. The student learning outcomes for this activity also correspond with selected student learning outcomes for the course:

  • Develop an awareness of the role that public relations plays within an organization and its key publics
  • Understand communication terms, theories, concepts and issues as they relate to public relations
  • Explore a range of real-life public relations scenarios through readings, discussions and assignments
  • Enhance communication skills as well as the ability to work individually and as part of a team
  • Demonstrate learning through discussions and assignments


This activity was created to align with the learning outcomes stated above. Here is a brief sampling of responses to a post-activity survey:

  • Did this activity help you to develop an awareness of the role that public relations plays within an organization and its key publics? Response: 100% YES (26 responses)
  • Did this activity help you understand communication/public relations terms, theories and models? Response: 100% YES (26 responses)
  • Did this activity help you better understand how theory applies to public relations? 100% YES (26 responses)

What did you learn about public relations from this activity?

  • “One thing that I learned about public relations from this activity was how different qualitative and quantitative research methods might be used to help inform a campaign.”
  • “I learned more in-depth about the theories behind the practice of PR and how they are utilized.”
  • “That research is really important before starting any type of PR campaign.”
  • “I learned about the specific research methods in a more in-depth way. Terms like two-step flow were introduced in a deeper way as well.”
  • “A better understanding of applied theory.”

As part of the assignment, students were also asked to identify a key takeaway, which they delivered at the end of their group presentations. Comments ranged from noting increased knowledge about public relations overall to a better understanding of the theories they had read about. Students also reported a more in-depth understanding of the importance of research to inform public relations campaigns, and that they developed a better understanding of how different qualitative and quantitative research methods might be used in practice.

Finally, students reported that this activity introduced them to the role of public relations in activism – something many stated they had not considered.

CONCLUSION: The introduction and application of research and theory in an ungraded assignment may have helped students to think critically and creatively about the content and assuaged fear about “getting a bad grade.” Theory tends to be a tough pill for many students to swallow but students were generally enthusiastic about participating in this activity.

Most groups had an easy time applying appropriate research methods and could quickly distinguish between qualitative and quantitative methods. Persuasion models were applied mostly accurately with most groups identifying inoculation theory as one of the most applicable theories to the assignment. Given the relevance and prevalence of social media influencers today, it came as little surprise that students were interested in the two-step flow theory. Other media and mass communication models were applied with varying degrees of understanding. Management theories proved confusing, which was expected, given that this assignment was deployed in an introductory course.

Overall, students dove into this assignment with energy and enthusiasm despite any challenges due to participating via Zoom. Using Google Slides, they created presentations that were well organized and demonstrated curiosity, critical thinking, and creativity. Ample time was provided for students to collaborate in class, which allowed them to adequately articulate their findings and present them to the class. As a result, most presentations exceeded expectations.

Future recommendations include providing students with an opportunity to conduct secondary research about activism prior to class in order to better prepare them for the assignment. Additional recommendations include adding details about the intended audience to the written directions, and revising the menu of theories provided to students, which notably did not include theories directly related to activism. Consideration may be given to remove the management models from the menu and replace them with activist theories. The addition of theories surrounding race, including Logan’s (2021) Corporate Responsibility to Race (CRR), may also be added as appropriate to the course.

Vaccinate Against Hate: Applying Research and Theory to the Fight Against Extremist Ideologies

This activity was created for an Introduction to Public Relations course in an online setting (Zoom) but can be adapted for upper-level research and theory classes, and/or to a course related to public relations and activism. It can also be easily adapted for use as an in-classroom activity.

Prior to class, students are asked to prepare for the activity by reading Page & Parnell chapter 4, and by listening to the segment “Neutralizing Hateful Propaganda,” from “No Silver Bullets,” an episode from WNYC’s On the Media podcast (2021). The episode features Kurt Braddock, author and professor of communications at American University, in a discussion about strategies and tactics to prevent radicalization before it happens.

In class, students are given the following fictional scenario:

Following a series of racist incidents involving members of the campus community, a student group has formed to combat hate and the proliferation of hate groups on college campuses across the country. The group, Vaccinate Against Hate, seeks to educate students about hate groups and works to find ways to combat the threat of extremism.

Vaccinate Against Hate needs communicators to help them recruit new members. As a student studying public relations, you have joined Vaccinate Against Hate to provide your expertise. You have been assigned two very important projects:

  1. Develop a recruitment campaign in order to increase membership for the organization.
  2. Research, plan and execute Vaccinate Against Hate’s first educational and awareness campaign to combat extremist ideologies. Your campaign will involve strategic messaging, media outreach, and elements of media literacy training.

Using the ROPES planning process as a starting point, you will identify the research needed in order to craft these campaigns, drawing on public relations theories to guide your strategy. Once you have identified the research and theories needed, you will present your findings to the class to make connections between research, theory, and practice.

Students are then placed in breakout groups of 4-5 students per group (40 minutes):

Step 1: In your group, discuss the fictional scenario and apply the podcast and fictional scenario to your readings.

Step 2: Discuss what strategies and tactics might be involved in the two campaigns for Vaccinate Against Hate.

Step 3: Create a slide deck that you will present to class. Required slides:

Slide 1: Identify the primary research methods that you would use in order to inform your initial recruitment campaign. Using the “Common Public Relations Research Methods” table (Page & Parnell, 2019, pg. 85) as a starting point, you will first consider the two type of research most appropriate: quantitative and/or qualitative. Then you will determine the appropriate method(s), which many include surveys, content analysis, digital analytics, focus groups, in-depth interviews and/or participant observation. Be specific in your responses and provide a rationale for using each method.

Media and mass communication models include: Agenda Setting/Framing, Two-Step Flow, Spiral of Silence, Diffusion of Innovations, Uses & Gratifications. Persuasion models include: Elaboration Likelihood Model, Inoculation, and Cialdini’s Principles of Influence. Management Models include: Excellence and Image Restoration Theory.

Slide 3: Identify the primary research methods that you would use in order to inform your educational and awareness campaign. Using the Common Public Relations Research Methods” table (Page & Parnell, 2019, p. 85) as a starting point, be specific in your responses and provide a rationale for using each method.

Slide 4: Identify public relations theories that will guide the strategy for your educational and awareness campaign. Using the table “Ten Theories for Public Relations” (Page & Parnell, 2019, p. 91), as a starting point, be specific in your responses and provide a rationale for using each theory.

Slide 5: Each team member will identify one key takeaway. What did you learn about the role of public relations in activism?

Step 4: Present your slide deck. Each team member must present one slide to the class. Each team has five minutes to present.

Additional Teaching Notes:

Suggested time allotment for an 80-minute class:

  • Activity introduction: 5 minutes
  • Group work: 40 minutes
  • Presentations: 30 minutes
  • Final remarks: 5 minutes

Suggestions for further reading for upper-level courses: These readings may provide useful for upper-level students and classes seeking to dive deeper into the application of attitudinal inoculation as well as the applied use of persuasion in radicalization and counter-radicalization.


Braddock, K. (2019). Vaccinating against hate: Using attitudinal Inoculation to confer resistance to persuasion by extremist propaganda. Terrorism and Political Violence. 33(7), 1-24.  http://doi.org/10.1080/09546553.2019.1693370

Braddock, K. (2020). Weaponized words: The strategic role of persuasion in violent radicalization and counter-radicalization. Cambridge University Press.

Ciszek, E. (2015). Bridging the gap: Mapping the relationship between activism and public relations. Public Relations Review, 41(4), 447-455. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2015.05.016

Commission on Public Relations Education. (2018). Fast Forward. Foundations + Future State. Educators + Practitioners. The 2017 Report on Undergraduate Education. http://www.commissionpred.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/report6-full.pdf

Coombs, W. T., & Holladay, S. J. (2012) Privileging an activist vs. a corporate view of public relations history in the US.Public Relations Review. 38(3), 347-353. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2011.11.010

Coombs, W. T., & Holladay, S. J. (2013) It’s not just PR: Public relations in society. John Wiley & Sons.

On the Media (2021, February 19). No silver bullets. WNYC Studios. https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/otm/episodes/on-the-media-no-silver-bullets

Kelly, K. S. (2001). Stewardship: The fifth step in the public relations process. In R. L. Heath (Ed.) Handbook of Public Relations (pp. 279-290). http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781452220727.n21  

Logan, N. (2021). A theory of corporate responsibility to race (CRR): Communication and racial justice in public relations. Journal of Public Relations Research. 33(1), 6-22. http://doi.org/10.1080/1062726x.2021.1881898 

Mules, P. (2021). Making space for activism studies in public relations curricula. Public Relations Review, 47(3), 102033. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2021.102033

Page, J. T., & Parnell, L. J. (2019). Foundations of public relations: Research and Theory. Introduction to public relations: Strategic, digital, and socially responsible communication (pp. 80-106). Sage.

© Copyright 2022 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Rozelle, A. (2022). Vaccinate against hate: Using activism to teach applied PR research and theory. Journal of Public Relations Education, 8(2), 147-157. https://aejmc.us/jpre/?p=3096

Journal of Public Relations Education, Volume 6, Issue 2

Emily Kinsky

Emily S. Kinsky, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
West Texas A&M University
Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Public Relations Education
Email: jpre@wtamu.edu

Note from the Editor-in-Chief:

Below you will find the table of contents for our latest issue, which includes four research articles, six teaching briefs (top ranking Great Ideas For Teaching from the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication-PR Division competition this year), and three book reviews. This issue is filled with valuable information for public relations educators.

We are pleased to welcome several new JPRE board members this summer, who are listed on the Editorial Board and Staff page along with the entire board. We thank all our board members for their service as reviewers, supporters, and problem solvers.

The editorial team, which gained a new member in Dr. Eaddy, donated countless hours of effort into this issue. Their assistance is priceless, and I am grateful for their brilliant minds, their willingness to serve, and their incredible work ethic.

Thank you to those of you who have reviewed manuscripts for JPRE this year. You each completed a valuable service to the field, and it is appreciated.

Thank you to Gini Dietrich, author of Spin Sucks, for allowing us to use her PESO model graphic in this issue. We are appreciative of that permission. I gain so much from her podcasts, so I was pleased to see her work featured in a GIFT teaching brief in this issue.

This fall, we look forward to publishing a special issue on the topic of ethics education in collaboration with the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication with guest editor Denise Bortree.

This is my final regular issue to publish while serving as editor-in-chief. It has been an honor.

cover Journal of Public Relations Education Volume 6, Issue 2

Current Issue

Table of Contents

Research Articles

Media Literacy Among Public Relations Students: An Analysis of Future PR Professionals in the Post-Truth Era
by Jami A. Fullerton, Oklahoma State University; Lori Melton McKinnon, Oklahoma State University; & Alice Kendrick, Southern Methodist University

Perceptions of Mindfulness Among Public Relations Professionals and Students: Similarities, Differences, and Implications for Undergraduate Career Preparation
by Doug Swanson, California State University – Fullerton

A Simulation as a Pedagogical Tool for Teaching Competencies in Public Relations Education
by Aoife O’Donnell, Griffith College, Dublin, Ireland

Student and Faculty/Educator Views on Diversity and Inclusion in Public Relations: The Role of Leaders in Bringing About Change
by Nilanjana Bardhan, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, & Karla Gower, University of Alabama

Teaching Briefs: Top PRD GIFTs from AEJMC 2020

Synthesizing Primary and Secondary Research to Drive Strategy: A Final Project for a Strategic Communication Research Course
by Danielle LaGree, Kansas State University

Diverse Voices in the History of Public Relations
by Arien Rozelle, St. John Fisher College 

Graph Interpretation Exercises for the Public Relations Classroom: An Environmental Scanning Approach
by Lauren Bayliss, Georgia Southern University

From Acronym to Application: PESO Comes to Life
by Arien Rozelle, St. John Fisher College

Who’s Out There? Using Google Analytics and Social Media Data to Research Online Publics 
by Melissa Adams, Appalachian State University

Evaluating Organizational Culture and Courageous Communication
by Melanie Formentin, Towson University

Book Reviews

Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto
Reviewed by Matthew LeHew, Dalton State College

Social Media for Strategic Communication: Creative Strategies and Research-Based Applications
Reviewed by Geah Pressgrove, West Virginia University

Lifescale: How to Live a More Creative, Productive, and Happy Life
Reviewed by Amanda J. Weed, Kennesaw State University

Read the full issue here:

A publication of the Public Relations Division of AEJMC
Copyright 2020 AEJMC Public Relations Division

The Journal of Public Relations Education (JPRE) is devoted to the presentation of research and commentary that advance the field of public relations education. JPRE invites submissions in the following three categories:

  • Research Articles
  • Teaching Briefs
  • Book/Software Reviews

Learn more by visiting the About JPRE page and the Authors/Contributors page for submission guidelines. All submissions should follow the guidelines of the most recent edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA).

Questions? Contact the Editorial Staff.

Undergraduate Public Relations in the United States: The 2017 Commission on Public Relations Education Report


Marcia DiStaso, Ph.D., APR
Associate Professor
Public Relations Department Chair
University of Florida


As history books document, the field of public relations dates back to the early 20th century. Since then, society and public relations have evolved. This evolution has led to multiple definitions of public relations over the years, and, in fact, the term still continues to evolve today. Currently, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) defines public relations as, “A strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics” (PRSA, n.d., para. 3). In October 2019, the International Public Relations Association (IPRA) announced its new definition of public relations as, “A decision-making management practice tasked with building relationships and interests between organisations and their publics based on the delivery of information through trusted and ethical communication methods” (IPRA, 2019, para. 2).

As the public relations profession has evolved, so has education. Edward Bernays is credited with writing the first public relations textbook and teaching the first class in 1923 (Broom & Sha, 2013). Fifty years later, in 1973, the Commission on Public Relations Education (CPRE) was founded. Since then, this group has combined insight from academics and practitioners to provide recommendations on public relations education around the globe. These recommendations have impacted both graduate and undergraduate education as many academic programs have aligned their course offerings as a result of CPRE recommendations. Plus, CPRE recommendations serve as the foundation for the criteria for the Public Relations Student Society of America’s chapter standards (PRSSA, 2019) and the Certification in Education for Public Relations (CPRE, 2006).

Following the recommendations from the 1999 CPRE report, “A Port of Entry,” academic public relations programs commonly included courses in the following topics:

  • Introduction to public relations
  • Public relations research, measurement and evaluation
  • Public relations writing and production
  • Supervised work experience in public relations (internship)

In 2006, the CPRE recommended that public relations programs should include these four core courses plus the following addition: a public relations course in law and ethics, planning and management, case studies, or campaigns.

The purpose of this article is to present the combined findings from the CPRE omnibus survey that is spread across the 17 chapters in the report Fast Forward: Foundations + Future State. Educators + Practitioners. Many of the chapters include the results from educators and practitioners from outside of the United States for a global perspective. This article, however, is delimited to the results for U.S. respondents to highlight the current state of undergraduate public relations education in the United States.


This research built onto past CPRE reports on undergraduate education, mainly A Port of Entry: Public Relations Education for the 21st Century (1999) and The Professional Bond (2006).Similar to those reports, an extensive omnibus survey was also conducted. Where appropriate, the questionnaire remained the same; however, given the vast changes in the public relations field over the last decade, few specifics were retained.

Survey Distribution

While past CPRE surveys were distributed to a stratified random sample of members in public relations associations, that approach in 2016 was not preferred due to typically low survey responses and difficulty obtaining membership lists. Therefore, the 2016 omnibus survey was distributed by email to CPRE members. The individual representatives for these associations invited their members and colleagues to participate in the survey. These members represented the following organizations:

  • Arthur W. Page Center
  • Arthur W. Page Society
  • Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) Public Relations Division
  • Canadian Public Relations Society
  • European Public Relations Education and Research Association
  • Global Alliance for Public Relations
  • Institute for Public Relations (IPR)
  • International Communication Association (ICA) Public Relations Division
  • National Black Public Relations Society
  • National Communication Association (NCA) Public Relations Division
  • Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations
  • PR Council
  • Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Educators Academy
  • Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Educational Affairs Committee
  • PRSA Foundation
  • Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)
  • The Corporate Board/Society of New Communications Research (SNCR)
  • Universal Accreditation Board (UAB)

The survey was open for participation from October 10 to December 19, 2016. Given that the survey distribution was through CPRE member associations, using their own recruitment process, it is not possible to calculate the number of people who actually received the survey.

Overall, a total of 1,601 questionnaires were started. Respondents who indicated they were not in public relations (or a related field) were removed (n = 48), along with anyone who took fewer than 10 minutes on the survey. This survey had a high drop-out rate given that it took an average of 25 minutes to complete (n = 738). The focus of this article is on undergraduate public relations education in the United States, so all respondents from other countries were removed (n = 124).

The questionnaire began with a filter question that asked respondents to identify as an educator, as a practitioner, or as someone not in public relations (or a related field). Based on responses to this question, participants were filtered to either an educator or a practitioner survey. If they were not in public relations, they were thanked for their time, and the survey concluded. The questionnaire contained eight sections. The final sample included in this article was 690, comprised of 231 educators and 459 practitioners.



The demographic information for this study is included in Table 1. Overall, 33% of respondents were educators (n = 231), and 67% were practitioners (n = 459). The percentage of female practitioners in this study matched the approximate percentage in the profession (74%, n = 291). The age distribution was skewed slightly younger in the practitioner sample than the educator sample; however, that is also consistent with both populations. The educator sample was predominantly white (94%, n = 156), and the practitioner sample was 77% white (n = 354), consistent with the lack of diversity in the field. Most educators had a Ph.D. (72%, n = 134), and most practitioners had a bachelor’s degree (54%, n = 209). Only 38% of educators (n = 92) and 28% of practitioners (n = 111) had their Accreditation in Public Relations, and 1% of practitioners were Accredited Business Communicators (n = 4). The practitioners were from a variety of organizational settings and sizes. The educator sample included 70% tenured or tenure-track faculty (n = 121).

The practitioner sample had some academic experience, with 18% of the practitioners having taught as an adjunct (n = 71) and 58% having guest lectured in a public relations course (n = 223). On the job, 52% of practitioner respondents directly supervised entry-level practitioners (n = 203), while 61% had supervised an intern in the last five years (n = 240).

Knowledge, Skills and Abilities

The KSAs (knowledge, skills, and abilities) from the 2006 survey were updated to better align with current public relations education and practice. As a result, only a few KSAs were assessed in both 2006 and 2016, resulting in minimal comparisons (see Table 2). Writing was one skill that was measured in both years. In 2016, the mean scores for desired writing skills increased for both educators (0.19 increase) and practitioners (0.41 increase). The mean scores for delivered or found writing skills also increased (0.77 increase for educators and 0.02 increase for practitioners). Research and analytics was another item measured in both surveys. Educators and practitioners had a decrease in mean scores for research and analytics as a desired skill (0.03 decrease each), while educators believed that the delivery of these skills increased (0.86 increase), and practitioners felt the amount the skill was found had decreased (0.32 decrease).

In 2016, educators indicated a high desirability for 15 KSAs, while practitioners identified 11 as highly desirable (mean ratings of a 4.0 or higher). On the other hand, educators indicated only three KSAs as frequently delivered, and practitioners did not believe any KSAs were frequently found.

The top three knowledge topics desired by educators were: ethics (M = 4.44, SD = 0.95), business acumen (M = 4.09, SD = 0.92), and cultural perspective (M = 4.02, SD = 0.89). The top three desired knowledge topics by practitioners were: ethics (M = 4.57, SD = 0.78), diversity and inclusion (M = 3.95, SD = 1.06), and social issues (M = 3.67, SD = 1.00).

The top three skills desired by educators were: writing (M = 4.90, SD = 0.37), communication (M = 4.78, SD = 0.50), and social media management (M = 4.52, SD = 0.64). The top three desired skills by practitioners were the same: writing (M = 4.88, SD = 0.41), communication (M = 4.76, SD = 0.57), and social media management (M = 4.33, SD = 0.82).

The top three abilities desired by educators were: problem solving (M = 4.55, SD = 0.65), critical thinking (M = 4.53, SD = 0.75), and creative thinking (M = 4.52, SD = 0.71). The top three abilities desired by practitioners were: creative thinking (M = 4.57, SD = 0.70), problem solving (M = 4.52, SD = 0.77), and critical thinking (M = 4.44, SD = 0.82).

Overall, there was a 40% inconsistency in agreement between educators and practitioners about the desirability of the KSAs (12 out of 30). Significant differences in desired KSAs for educators and practitioners included business acumen, crisis management, cultural perspective, ethics, internal communication, PR history, PR laws and regulations, public speaking, social media management, website development, problem solving, and strategic planning. In each of these, the educators in the survey rated the KSA more desired than the practitioners, except for ethics where the practitioners indicated a higher level of desire than the educators. 

The top three knowledge topics educators believed their programs delivered were: ethics (M = 4.11, SD = 0.95), PR theory (M = 3.77, SD = 1.03), and social issues (M = 3.43, SD = 1.06). The top three knowledge topics found by practitioners were: ethics (M = 3.37, SD = 0.96), diversity and inclusion (M = 3.30, SD = 1.02), and social issues (M = 3.20, SD = 0.96).

The top three skills educators believed their programs delivered were: communication (M = 4.44, SD = 0.78), writing (M = 4.32, SD = 0.83), and research and analytics (M = 3.83, SD = 1.04). The top three skills found by practitioners were: social media management (M = 3.84, SD = 0.91), communication (M = 3.31, SD = 0.88), and writing (M = 3.08, SD = 0.94).

The top three abilities educators believed their programs delivered were: critical thinking (M = 3.91, SD = 0.97), strategic planning (M = 3.90, SD = 1.04), and problem solving (M = 3.85, SD = 0.96). The top three abilities found by practitioners were: creative thinking (M = 3.38, SD = 0.94), problem solving (M = 2.75, SD = 0.89), and critical thinking (M = 2.65, SD = 0.89).

There was a 43% inconsistency in agreement between educators and practitioners about recent graduates having these KSAs (13 out of 30). There were significant differences in KSAs delivered by educators and found by practitioners for business acumen, crisis management, cultural perspective, diversity and inclusion, management, social issues, audio/video development, graphic design, media relations, social media management, speechwriting, website development, and strategic planning. In each of these, educators rated the KSA delivered more frequently than the practitioners indicated finding them. 

Hiring Characteristics/Experience

Practitioners were given a list of “possible hiring characteristics” of recent college graduates and were asked to consider what they look for in entry-level new hires (see Table 3).

Practitioners rated the top five desired characteristics/experiences they look for when hiring (all are desired more than found):

  1. Writing performance (M = 4.88, SD = 0.40); 1.98 gap in what is found
  2. Internship or work experience (M = 4.67, SD = 0.71); 0.84 gap in what is found
  3. Public relations coursework (M = 4.47, SD = 0.83); 0.50 gap in what is found
  4. Strong references (M = 4.22, SD = 0.92); 0.86 gap in what is found
  5. Up-to-date with current professional trends and issues (M = 4.10, SD = 0.92); 1.30 gap in what is found

Practitioners’ scores resulted in this list of five least desired characteristics/experiences:

  1. Certificate in public relations (M = 2.38, SD = 1.18)
  2. Study abroad experience (M = 2.39, SD = 1.12)
  3. Certifications (e.g., Hootsuite, Google Analytics, coding) (M = 2.88, SD = 1.19)
  4. Caliber of university attended (M = 3.02, SD = 1.07)
  5. Bi- or multi-lingual (M = 3.17, SD = 1.22)

Results showed five most commonly found characteristics/experiences in new hires:

  1. Active on social media (M = 4.40, SD = 0.76)
  2. Public relations coursework (M = 3.97, SD = 0.82)
  3. Internship or work experience (M = 3.83, SD = 0.86)
  4. Campus involvement (M = 3.48, SD = 0.82)
  5. Liberal arts coursework (M = 3.46, SD = 1.01)

According to the practitioners who participated in the survey, there were five least found characteristics/experiences:

  1. Certificate in public relations (M = 1.64, SD = 0.86)
  2. Certifications (e.g., Hootsuite, Google Analytics, coding) (M = 1.91, SD = 0.89)
  3. Bi- or multi-lingual (M = 2.00, SD = 0.84)
  4. Study abroad experience (M = 2.33, SD = 0.92)
  5. Participation in an on-campus student PR agency (M = 2.46, SD = 0.98)

Public Relations Curriculum

This study sought to identify the implementation of the 2006 CPRE five-course recommendation and determine any needed changes to this standard. Overall, 90% of academic respondents (n = 178) and 95% of practitioner respondents (n = 395) were in favor of retaining the five-course standard. As Table 4 shows, the 2016 study found that practitioner respondents favored programs requiring all five courses.

Importantly, 99% of academic respondents said they have an Introduction to Public Relations or principles class (n = 198), 93% said this course is required (n = 185), and 87% said what they offer is a public relations specific class (n = 173). Most academics also indicated that a research methods course is taught (97.0%, n = 196) and required (89.9%, n = 178), but many indicated that it is not a public relations specific course that is offered in their program (47.0%, n = 93). Writing was also a course that most respondents said is included (97.0%, n = 195), required (93.4%, n = 184), and public relations specific (82.7%, n = 163). Campaigns and case studies courses are also taught (92.5%, n = 186), required (80.1%, n = 157), and public relations specific (82.2%, n = 162). A course for internships was also offered at universities for 91% of respondents (n = 183), but only 45% said it was a required course (n = 89); 58% said the internship course is public relations specific (n = 113).

Curriculum Topics

In addition to the five-course standard, many public relations programs offer courses on additional topics and/or include topics within existing courses. Over the years, the list of possible curriculum topics has changed, resulting in two new topics in the 2006 study and 32 new topics in the 2016 study (see Table 5). Unfortunately, comparisons between the years is made complex due to a change from the 7-point scale used in 1998 and 2006 to the 5-point response metric used in this study; therefore, only the 2016 findings for the individual outcomes are discussed. For the 2016 mean responses, the curriculum topics rated as a 4.00 or higher are highlighted, indicating an essential topic. Educators indicated a high importance for 15 curriculum topics while practitioners identified 13 (mean ratings of a 4.0 or higher). Eleven highly essential curriculum topics were the same for educators and practitioners.

When it came to the most important curriculum topics, educators most often selected: (1) measurement and evaluation (M = 4.60, SD = 0.75); (2) social media (M = 4.58, SD = 0.80); (3) campaign management (M = 4.54, SD = 0.76); (4) strategic communications (M = 4.52, SD = 0.80); and (5) audience segmentation (M = 4.26, SD = 0.97). Practitioners believed the top five curriculum topics to be: (1) content creation (M = 4.52, SD = 0.69); (2) strategic communications (M = 4.48, SD = 0.78); (3) social media (M = 4.47, SD = 0.77); (4) measurement and evaluation (M = 4.41, SD = 0.79); and (5) publicity/media relations (M = 4.40, SD = 0.79).

Most of the items in Table 5 did not have significant differences between the educator and practitioner rankings for the essentialness of each topic. However, educators believed audience segmentation, campaign management, CSR, crisis management, fundraising, issues management, measurement and evaluation, and political communication were all more essential than practitioners did. The practitioners felt that business-to-consumer PR and content creation were more essential than educators thought. 

Online Education

Overall, 53% of educators who participated in this survey indicated that their program offers online public relations courses (n = 102). Six percent of the educators said their program had a completely online undergraduate degree (n = 11). Both educators and practitioners indicated they felt an online degree was not equal to a face-to-face degree (M = 2.27 and M = 2.35) (see Table 6). Furthermore, both educators and practitioners believed job applicants should disclose if all or part of a degree was taken online. 


Of the educators who participated in this study and knew how their program handled internships, 42% said they required an internship (n = 80), 51% had programs that allowed elective credits for an internship (n = 97), and 6% just encouraged internships (n = 12) (see Table 7). Most programs had an internship coordinator (82.1%, n = 156) and 69% of respondents said that coordinator was a faculty member (n = 121).

Only 35% of educators said their program had a training program to prepare students for internships (n = 66), and the most common assessment of internships was a performance review by the supervisor (63.6%, n = 147). Plus, 45% said that to complete an internship for credit, their program required a prerequisite course (n = 103), 46% have minimum credit hours required (n = 107), and 36% have a minimum GPA (n = 83). Many required all three. Overall, 32% of practitioners said their interns were not paid (n = 124). The average pay reported for those who were paid was $13.54 an hour.

The Department of Labor’s Federal Guidelines on Internships based on the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) provides important guidance on internships; however, 36% of educators (n = 66) and 29% of practitioners (n = 111) were not familiar with the guidelines. Overall, of those who were familiar with the guidelines and knew how internships were handled in their area, only 67% of educators (n = 62) and 93% of practitioners (n = 2 44) said these guidelines are always followed.

There were significant differences between educator and practitioner views about interns having a valuable experience (see Table 8). Educators felt more positive about the experience; however, practitioners indicated higher agreement that interns were given meaningful work and that they receive clear and routine instructions.

Membership in Student Associations

Both educators and practitioners found high value in student involvement in associations such as Public Relations Student Society of America and International Association of Business Communicators (see Table 9). They each identified networking as the number one reason for participating in student associations.

Faculty Qualifications

As Table 10 shows, educators and practitioners ranked staying up-to-date on technology as the top faculty qualification (M = 4.51, SD = 0.69 and M = 4.63, SD = 0.65). Educators preferred more than 5 years of professional PR experience (M = 4.15, SD = 1.03), while practitioners ranked more than 10 years of professional PR experience as more important (M = 4.61, SD = 0.69). Similarly, educators rated presenting at academic conferences (M = 3.77, SD = 1.04) as more important than professional conferences (M = 3.47, SD = 0.99), whereas practitioners found the opposite to be more important.


Taking a good look at public relations undergraduate education on a periodic basis is an extremely valuable, though daunting, task. The value that academics and practitioners can derive from the CPRE reports highlight consistencies, gaps, and opportunities.

Consistencies and Gaps

The secret to the success of undergraduate education is collaboration between educators and practitioners. Together they can provide the foundation for a cohesive focus on knowledge, skills, and abilities to prepare undergraduate students for their future careers. While both educators and practitioners identified ethics as the top knowledge topic, there were inconsistencies on the other top knowledge topic areas. Educators identified business acumen and cultural perspective to aid students in having a well-rounded business grounding. Practitioners, on the other hand, identified diversity and inclusion and social issues as core knowledge areas likely to aid graduates to assimilate into the current work environment. Importantly, practitioners identified ethics, diversity and inclusion, and social issues as their top found areas, but none were found at what would be considered a high level; this indicates more work needs to be done to prepare students for all three knowledge areas.   

When assessing the desired skills, practitioners and educators were aligned. Writing is still the most valued skill. In fact, the desire for writing skills has increased since 2006, but the good news is that writing ability has also slightly increased. The other skills both groups identified were communication and social media management. Fortunately, all three of these skills were the highest ranked skills found, but none were frequently found, so there is still a need for continued and increased focus. Unfortunately, there was a gap between the perception of educators delivering writing and communication skills and practitioners identifying the skills as found. 

Both groups included strategic communications, social media, and measurement and evaluation as top curriculum topics, but the practitioners identified content creation as their most important addition to the curriculum.

Practitioners and educators identified creative thinking, problem solving, and critical thinking as the top desired and found abilities (while in slightly different order for the groups). Analytical thinking was not as highly rated by either, and there was a big gap with educators identifying higher levels of delivery of abilities than indications of the abilities being found by practitioners.


While the overwhelming majority of educators and practitioners in this study was in favor of retaining the CPRE five-course standard, some programs do not have these five courses specific to public relations. This is a missed opportunity; for example, 17% of educator respondents said their writing course is not a public relations writing course. Given how important writing continues to be, having a public relations writing course along with multiple other grammar and writing courses would be ideal. This is especially true considering this research found that writing remains the core entry-level skill and hiring characteristic.

In 2018, the CPRE published the global data from the 2016 omnibus survey reported in Fast forward: Foundations + Future state. Educators + Practitioners. In this report, the Commission recommended adding ethics as a sixth course to the standard. By recommending ethics as a required course, programs will be able to improve their focus on ethics and better meet the needs of this dynamic field.

As the profession becomes more integrated and entry-level positions continue to advertise positions looking for a bachelor’s degree in a “relevant field,” seeing public relations coursework as the third desired hiring characteristic is telling. The core competencies students learn in public relations programs are valuable and sought after. This should lead academic programs to question the value of combining advertising and public relations. Consistently, this research found support for core public relations competencies.   

It is concerning to see the percentage of paid internships remains low, yet internship or work experience is highly regarded. There has been a strong call to action from academics and practitioners across the United States to pay student interns. Additionally, internships should be supervised and considered a learning opportunity for the student.

In addition to the content shared in this article, the full 2017 CPRE report Fast forward: Foundations + Future state. Educators + Practitioners contains 17 chapters with global recommendations.  


Broom, G. M., & Sha, B. L. (2013). Cutlip and Center’s effective public relations (11th ed.) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice–Hall.

CPRE. (1999). Port of entry. Commission on Public Relations Education. Retrieved from http://www.commissionpred.org/commission-reports/a-port-of-entry/

CPRE. (2006). The professional bond. Commission on Public Relations Education. Retrieved from http://www.commissionpred.org/commission-reports/the-professional-bond/

CPRE. (2018). Fast forward: Foundations + Future state. Educators + Practitioners. Commission on Public Relations Education. Retrieved from http://www.commissionpred.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/report6-full.pdf

IPRA. (2019, Oct. 10). The International Public Relations Association wraps its values around a new definition of public relations. Retrieved from https://www.ipra.org/news/press-room/the-international-public-relations-association-wraps-its-values-around-a-new-definition-of-public-relations/

PRSA. (n.d.). About PRSA. Retrieved from https://www.prsa.org/about/all-about-pr  PRSSA. (2019). PRSSA chapter handbook 2019-2020. Retrieved from https://prssa.prsa.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/PRSSA-Chapter-Handbook.pdf

Mining the Gap: Research to Guide CSR Communications Strategy


Editorial Record: Submitted to AEJMC-PRD GIFT Competition by Feb. 22, 2019. A blind copy was peer reviewed by the PRD Teaching Committee, led by Chair Brigitta Brunner, and selected as a Top GIFT. First published online on August 17, 2019.


Janis Teruggi Page, University of Illinois at Chicago


CSR communications have become an increasing responsibility for PR practitioners, as corporations have now recognized CSR as essential to their operations and their reputations. This lesson is designed to prepare students for this growing, essential practice in corporate public relations through analyzing industry research to find gaps between the “good works” companies perform and their “good works” reputation among the general population—gaps that can be filled through the use of strategic communication. According to the Reputation Institute:

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a highly important driver of reputation. Although companies are increasingly becoming more sustainable, the public often does not know or recognize a company’s CSR commitment. Consequently, a company’s actual and perceived CSR is frequently misaligned. Aligning CSR minimizes reputational risks and can improve reputation significantly. (Verheij, 2017, p. 1)  

Student Learning Goals

By engaging in this assignment, students will understand that a strategic CSR program is only as strong as a company’s ability to communicate its strengths, values, and impacts to a wide array of internal and external stakeholders. They will diagnose the need for a CSR communication strategy by evaluating gaps between performance and reputation. They will also gain insight on excellence in CSR communication by evaluating communication tactics of high-performing companies with high-perceived reputations. Guided by this research process, they will recommend a strategic communication plan to support CSR engagement to close the reputation gap between public reception and reality.

Connection to Public Relations Theory

This lesson connects to relationship management theory. An organization’s survival depends on mutually beneficial relationships between the organization and its publics. According to Ledingham (2003), “Successful organization-public relationships develop around common interests and shared solutions to common problems” (p. 188). Among the relational factors is trust that the organization lives its values. Consumers consider CSR efforts when judging the reputation of a company, and CSR is a key public relations tool for communicating norms and gaining legitimacy (Aksak, Ferguson, & Duman, 2016). CSR engagement, when done correctly, is tied to the purpose and values of the corporation and should be communicated accordingly. Recognizing and addressing a misalignment of actual and perceived CSR is one means for corporations to build a sustained and authentic relationship with its publics.  

Evidence of Learning Outcomes

This lesson has been successfully taught multiple times in an online graduate program using data from two respected industry sources: an annual ranking of U.S. corporations’ CSR activity conducted by Corporate Responsibility magazine (CR Magazine, 2019) and an annual ranking of U.S. corporations’ CSR reputation conducted by the Reputation Institute (2019). Positive achievement of outcomes has been measured by students’ engagement with industry data that reveals a company’s “gap”—and students’ subsequent written justifications for selecting a company in need of a CSR communications plan. Student analysis also has determined the company’s strongest CSR programs most worthy of better messaging. Finally, student communications plans are influenced by the strategy and tactics of companies ranking high in both performance and reputation, as well as by best practices in CSR communication. 


CR Magazine. (2019). 100 best corporate citizens. Retrieved from https://www.3blassociation.com/files/yMblCg/100BestCorporateCitizens_2019.pdf 

Ledingham, J. (2003). Explicating relationship management as a general theory of public relations. Journal of Public Relations Research, 15(2), 181-198. 

Aksak, E. O., Ferguson, M. A, & Duman, S. A. (2016). Corporate social responsibility and CSR fit as predictors of corporate reputation: A global perspective. Public Relations Review, 42(1), 79-81. 

Reputation Institute. (2019). 2019 US RepTrak 100. Retrieved from https://www.reputationinstitute.com/research/2019-us-reptrak

Verheij, D. (2017). Closing the gap between actual and perceived corporate social responsibility. The Reputation Institute. Retrieved from https://lmscontent.embanet.com/GWGSPM/PSPR6207/CLOSING%20THE%20GAP%20BETWEEN%20ACTUAL%20AND%20PERCEIVED%20CORPORATE%20SOCIAL%20RESPONSIBILITY.pdf

Appendix A


Mining the Gap: Research to Guide CSR Communications Strategy

This lesson is designed to prepare you for a growing, essential practice in public relations: managing communication of corporate social responsibility (CSR) engagement. You will analyze industry research to find reality/perception gaps: Companies that are performing excellent CSR but are lacking the reputation they deserve. Through industry data, you will identify one company with a reality/perception gap and recommend how its reputation can be enhanced with a strategic communication plan. 


Corporate Responsibility magazine annually recognizes companies that are good corporate citizens, excelling through their performance in multiple dimensions. Its 100 Best Corporate Citizens 2019 ranking is derived from the Russell 1000 stock market index, which measures the largest U.S.-based companies. It uses a database that tracks publicly available data in seven categories: environmental, climate change, human rights, employee relations, corporate governance, philanthropy, and financials. Beyond an overall company ranking, these categories are also ranked within each company. 


The Reputation Institute annually recognizes companies perceived by the public as good corporate citizens due to their reputation. Its 2019 ranking, US RepTrak 100, presents results from a survey based on more than 167,000 ratings from the general public of 390 eligible companies (the largest U.S.-based survey in this area). The survey quantifies the public’s perception of citizenship (supports good causes, positive societal influence, environmentally responsible), governance (open and transparent, behaves ethically, fair in the way it does business), and workplace (fair employee rewards, employee well-being, equal opportunities), as well as leadership, products/services, innovation, and performance.  

Examples of the Gap 

In Corporate Reputation magazine’s 100 Best Corporate Citizens 2019 ranking, companies that ranked relatively high in actual CSR engagement were ranked in the Reputation Institute’s 2019 US RepTrak 100 as relatively low (or not at all) in CSR perception. Here are just a few examples:

Company100 Best Corporate Citizens ranking
“CSR Engagement”
US RepTrak 100 ranking
“CSR Perception”
General Mills#3#29
Campbell Soup#4#26


Part 1:

  1. Based on these two reports, explore and choose a company ranked high as a good corporate citizen but ranked low in reputation. 

  2. Justify your choice. What is the disparity between good citizenship and reputation? 

  3. In the 100 Best Corporate Citizens report, explore the detailed summary showing which type of CSR engagement ranks highest for that company.

  4. On the company’s corporate website, find the CSR initiatives in the high-ranking category you identified in step 3. Choose one initiative for which you will recommend a communication plan. Provide a URL.

  5. Explain your choice – why did you choose this initiative to help improve the company’s overall CSR perception and reputation?

  6. To help inform your recommendations, identify companies ranking high in both performance and reputation, and then explore their CSR communication strategies.

  7. Other considerations for your communications plan:
    1. Beware empty boasting and greenwashing; focus on authenticity
    2. Be transparent; simple, direct communication is more authentic
    3. Know the audiences and the likely impact on each
    4. Create an ongoing dialogue
    5. Collaborate with friends and foes
    6. Partner with an NGO for credibility
    7. Focus on employee engagement and enhancing morale, image and loyalty
    8. Be consistently credible

Part 2:

Based on completion of Part One, prepare a CSR communications plan that you will recommend to the company. Follow the steps in the “Key Elements of a Strategic Communications Plan” template provided below. For this deliverable, you will play the role of a consultant assigned to analyze the CSR initiative and make recommendations in a presentation to the chief executives of the company. 

Deliver your plan (as if you were presenting and speaking to the executives) in a professional PowerPoint presentation with recorded voice narration. For guidance, search online for Microsoft’s instructions, “Record a slide show with narration and slide timings.” Your PPT should have no more than 12 slides and be approximately 5-7 minutes in length. Regarding slide appearance, use type no smaller than 30 points and incorporate good slide design: visually pleasing, clean, and concise (don’t put all your speaking points onto the slides). 

Submit your plan as a voice-narrated PPT or export it to a video file (with the PPT opened, select File/Export/Create Video). If exported to a video, you may submit the video or upload it to a YouTube account and simply provide the URL. 

You will be assessed based on the quality and depth of your analysis and recommendations as well as the overall quality of the presentation itself.

[Teaching note: This assignment was developed for an online class. As an alternative to a voice-narrated PPT, the plan can be presented in a classroom setting to fellow students acting as board members, providing follow-up questions for discussion. Also, as an alternative to a PPT, the assignment’s end deliverable could be a detailed memo to the CEO.]

Key Elements of a Strategic Communication Plan

Executive SummaryOverview of the entire plan. 
Situation AnalysisSuccinct breakdown of the issue addressed by the plan (high performance, low reputation, need for CSR communications). 
Target AudiencesConcerned stakeholders addressed by the communications. 
GoalOverarching end purpose of your plan.
Objectives Building blocks to meet your goal: informational, attitudinal, behavioral.
StrategyPlan of action designed to achieve objectives. 
TacticsSteps to be taken to achieve objectives.  
Theme and Key Message(s)Theme: Broad statement of the vision guiding all communication.
Message(s): Concise and value based.
[Budget and Timeline are optional]
Evaluation Methods to measure how effectively tactics met objectives. 
References The last slide in your presentation must display all of your sources.

To cite this article: Page, J. T. (2019). Mining the gap: Research to guide CSR communications strategy. Journal of Public Relations Education, 5(2). Retrieved from https://aejmc.us/jpre/2019/08/17/mining-the-gap-research-to-guide-csr-communications-strategy/

PDF of this GIFT: