Tag Archives: Service Learning

The Pandemic Pivot: How Teachable Moments in a Service-Learning Course Provided an Opportunity for Student Growth

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted on October 1, 2020. Manuscript accepted for publication March 9, 2021. First published online December 2021.


Lois Boynton, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Hussman School of Journalism and Media
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, NC
Email: lboynton@email.unc.edu

Marshéle Carter
Founder and Director 
Carolina Cause Communications
Chapel Hill, NC
Email: marshele@live.unc.edu


Research shows students gain considerable experience working with peers and interacting with clients in the real-world settings that service-learning classes provide. But, what happens when well-planned and well-structured service-learning opportunities are interrupted by social distancing, nonprofit closures, and quarantines? Although upfront planning and structure are essential for effective service-learning experiences, all players – students, clients, and instructors – must prepare for the unexpected. This article assesses undergraduate student reflection essays to ascertain their perceptions of the spring 2020 mid-semester shift to online learning for a public relations service-learning course. These results help identify strategies instructors may employ when university teaching requires significant online activity.  

Keywords: service learning, experiential learning, reflection


The most-recent Commission on Public Relations Education report (CPRE, 2018) continued the calls from the 1999 and 2006 reports for experiential learning, based in part on research showing potential employers identified the importance of hiring experienced practitioners. The report concluded that “supervised work experience or internship” is one of five core requirements “essential to an undergraduate program in public relations” (p. 60). 

While CPRE identified internships as the most-crucial experiential learning opportunities, the report also acknowledges service-learning courses are beneficial for undergraduates “to gain career-related experience and establish professional contacts” (CPRE, 2018, p. 63). Researchers have found that students gain considerable experience working with peers and interacting with clients in the real-world settings that service-learning classes, such as public relations writing and campaigns, can provide (Cox, 2013; Farmer et al., 2016; Gleason & Violette, 2012; Harrison & Bak, 2017; Witmer et al., 2008).

While there is considerable focus on structure and planning service-learning initiatives (e.g., Gleason & Violette, 2012; Lundy, 2008; McCorkindale et al., 2018), Harrison and Bak (2017) also acknowledge the necessity of “having a back-up plan” (p. 84) when assumptions such as easy and ongoing access to client representatives don’t play out as expected. Contingency planning may come into play because of day-to-day time management challenges. Nonprofit personnel often have to multitask, and some of these clients “simply ha[ve] too many other obligations to make us [service learning class] high on their priority list, resulting in communication breakdowns between the client and the team” (McCorkindale, et al., 2018, p. 85). 

Such is the situation in the COVID-19 era. What happens when well-planned and well-structured service-learning opportunities are interrupted by social distancing, business closures, and quarantines?

The purpose of this research is two-fold: (1) to assess undergraduate students’ perceptions of the mid-semester shift to online teaching and learning for a service-learning course in public relations writing, and (2) to help instructors teaching this service-learning course plan for subsequent semesters that may require significant online activity. One way to ascertain the service-learning effectiveness is to review reflection essays written by students and posted on their publicly accessible web portfolios as part of their final project.

Public Relations Writing is an applied writing skills laboratory and service-learning course. Students create major communication tools of the public relations trade for multiple platforms, including news releases for print and broadcast, content for digital media, feature pitches, speeches, fact sheets, media advisories, public service announcements, direct mail campaigns, and more. 

This course emphasizes that students learn professional writing skills best by doing, particularly through experiential, hands-on work in partnership with community nonprofit organizations.  In addition to applying public relations strategies and proper techniques to written content, they also create personal online portfolios that showcase deliverables they develop for their nonprofit community partners.  

Although the spring 2020 semester started off like any other, it quickly presented significant, unexpected challenges for faculty, students, and their community partners. The COVID-19 global pandemic resulted in sudden, stay-at-home orders by state and city governments; these initial announcements coincided with the university’s spring break. Everyone, including faculty, students, and community partners, had no choice but to move instruction and service-learning activities online.  The closures took place at a critical point in the course, when the momentum of student learning and community engagement typically peaks.  

The responses of community partners to these challenges varied widely. Most organizations did their best to survey and address the situation, successfully staying engaged with their student teams and service-learning projects through the end of the semester.  In other instances, students were not able to reach their organization supervisor, which created a predicament for those trying to meet course objectives.  

Literature Review
Service learning has a good track record as an effective strategy for public relations courses, including writing and campaigns (Cox, 2013; Daugherty, 2003; Farmer et al., 2016; Gleason & Violette, 2012; Harrison & Bak, 2017; Lundy, 2008; Werder & Strand, 2011).  These classes provide a win-win: nonprofit organizations gain extra expertise to meet their public relations goals in serving their stakeholders, and students expand their abilities and portfolios through pre-professional, hands-on activities (Harrison & Bak, 2017). In addition to this real-world experience, students are more likely to connect classroom concepts to their on-the-job experiences, and apply critical-thinking and problem-solving proficiencies to develop professional independence and collaborative skills (Daugherty, 2003; Gilchrist, 2007; Wigert, 2011). They also may develop “a greater sense of cross-cultural understanding” and a stronger commitment to civic responsibility and community service (“Universities and colleges,” n.d.). Wigert (2011) determined that students “who contributed more hours to their service-learning placement, and wrote more in-depth reflections on their experiences, gained more from the service-learning requirement” (p. 96). 

A crucial component of service learning is having students reflect formally on their experiences, which allows them to connect the relevance of their textbook learning with their on-the-job activities (Lahman, 2012; Wigert, 2011). As Dubinsky (2006) explains, “Students need opportunities to respond to their service intellectually and emotionally; to discuss problems and questions; and to come to understand if and, if so, how their service activities are helping them learn and apply the course goals” (p. 307). Such a formalized process can solidify and heighten learning now (Wigert, 2011), while also preparing students to make better decisions down the road. Introspection also shows how students may develop empathy toward those facing social problems and see the value of their continued community service (Gilchrist, 2007; Lundy, 2008; Rogers, 2001). These insights can help instructors understand their students’ experiences (Mahin & Kruggel, 2006) and then incorporate those viewpoints into their subsequent lessons. 

There are a number of ways students can reflect, including journaling, end-of-semester papers, and informal, in-class conversations (Lake, 2008; Lundy, 2008; Wigert, 2011). Written reflections, stress Cone and Harris (1996), can help students perfect their ability to think and write critically (see also Lundy, 2008). Lake recommends providing students with clear prompts to guide their responses. These prompts may ask students how their experiences connect to the course material, how they feel about their client’s situation, what recommendations they would make to their client, and, when applicable, how the team dynamic progressed (Lundy, 2008). Lahman (2012) added the question, ‘‘Of all the contributions you made, which one(s) do you value the most?’’ (p. 2). 

These foundations for service learning and reflections address expectations through the course of a regular semester. But, it is also important to ask how students perceive their service-learning experiences when a crisis – the COVID-19 pandemic –changes how they take classes, interact with their clients, and meet course objectives. 

Based on this literature and course background, the following research questions were posed:

RQ 1: How did undergraduate students in public relations classes perceive their service-learning experiences after the shift to online teaching and learning? 

RQ 2: How do their experiences inform service-learning course planning when it requires significant online activity?

A total of 44 reflection essays publicly accessible from students’ portfolio websites were analyzed qualitatively. Each essay is 1-2 pages in length, single-spaced, and addresses four prompts (aligning with Lake’s (2008) recommendations) that helped students articulate their service-learning experiences in general and in the context of the unprecedented shift to online learning:

  • How did this experience contribute to your education and preparation for the real world? 
  • What was the most-valuable part of your service-learning experience? Most challenging? Least-valuable? 
  • What recommendations would you make to the client regarding its public relations efforts? 
  • What recommendations would you make regarding continuing to work with this particular client as a future community partner?

Qualitative content analysis was used to analyze 44 essays that reflected students’ perceptions of their service-learning experiences. This “inductive process of searching for concepts, ideas, themes, and categories … help[s] the researcher to organize and interpret data” (Benaquisto, 2008, p. 86) in ways that show how student experiences have similarities and differences. 

The process began with open coding (Corbin & Strauss, 2008), which involved reading and re-reading the reflection essays to identify “categories of meaning” (Court et al., 2018, p. 61), guided by the first research question. In the axial coding step, the categories were revised, refined, and merged; the repetitive process helped show relationships among categories and explain the students’ experiences. In vivo coding – using the students’ words and phrases – was employed to ensure the students’ meaning was captured. Finally, in selective coding, category linkages were identified, themes were solidified, and the researchers revisited the literature to synthesize the results (Benaquisto, 2008; Corbin & Strauss, 2008; Julien, 2008). 

The themes emerging from the analysis reflected both positive and negative reactions the students had regarding the COVID-19 shift to online-only class and client interaction. Primarily, positive comments focused on learning how to adapt when plans go awry, optimism, seeing the significance of effective communication, and their ability to make a difference in their community. Negative comments reflected students’ frustrations with how the stay-at-home orders disrupted their routines and affected their ability to meet course requirements, paired with a feeling that they were in their client’s way. The analysis begins with the two themes reflecting students’ perceptions of the downsides of their experience.

“My Real-World Learning Opportunity Was Taken Away from Me”
Students definitely felt a loss when shifting from in-person and onsite classes to distance learning. They shared concerns that COVID-19 “definitely made it more difficult for me to learn” because “the whole dynamic of the course changed” and “we lost our direction.” They found it challenging, “to still be as present and attentive to our clients in this chaos. … [O]nce my world and all of my classes flipped upside down, it was hard to be as helpful as I was before we moved to online classes.”  As a result, they also felt distanced from the nonprofit organizations they served. 

One student found the changes untenable. “My real-world learning opportunity was taken away from me,” they wrote, adding: 

It is crazy how unfair the world can be sometimes. Here college students are trying to learn and prepare for their future and our full learning experience is stripped right from our hands because of a pandemic that came out of nowhere.

Other students focused on how the changes affected their ability to complete required assignments. “I feel like I lost out a bit in developing my portfolio,” one student wrote, “as my writing materials became based purely off of what I could salvage from the cluttered organization website.” Another perceived the reduced client interaction as the antithesis of effective public relations:  

Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was never able to visit the office or foster close relationships with the organization’s staff. This inability to foster relationships within [the organization] limited my understanding of the organization as a whole and proved to be the least valuable part of my experience.

“More of a Burden than an Asset”
Most students also recognized the impact that sheltering in place had on their clients, as the nonprofits “had to shift their focus” to “address more-pressing issues.” For example, “Once measures were put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the organization also had to cancel its largest fundraising event of the year,” one student wrote. Another student explained, “[Our organization] obviously had more on its plate than it would have anticipated when it agreed to take on a team of student volunteers, and we were no longer a top priority.”

While they wanted to assist their organizations, some students expressed concern about being “more of a burden than an asset since I could not actively aid in helping or providing solutions to [our client’s] main obstacles during this time.” Another wrote: 

I began to feel like we were in her way more than anything. It was difficult to balance the feeling of wanting to help and fulfill the requirements for the class without feeling like a bother, especially during the pandemic. We tried to take the stress off of our nonprofit by coming up with projects to work on by ourselves. This proved to be the most vulnerable part of the experience. I felt that we were out of line and wasting her time. Most of what we suggested she shot down.

Although students shared feelings about negative experiences and perceptions, many also wrote about positive experiences and opportunities to grow professionally. They applied classroom lessons and saw value in learning to adapt in ways that allowed them to make a difference for their clients and community.

“I Had to Learn to Quickly Adapt and Shift My Plans”
Despite the disruption and uncertainty of COVID-19 and the required shift to online, many students found ways to adjust to “the new normal,” and “think proactively and use strategic communications to highlight the hope in the current situation.” In fact, several saw change as an opportunity for personal growth. One student wrote about the need to adjust expectations: 

[I] learn[ed] to adapt to change in times of crisis, not panic and continue to persevere in my responsibilities. Seeing an organization have to adapt to a drastic change like this and keep their publics informed is something I will likely not see again in my lifetime.

Others said they learned how to pivot when the COVID-19 crisis disrupted their routines.  When “the events were cancelled and we weren’t able to achieve certain PR goals … we did not give up on the client just because the work became more difficult,” a student wrote.  “I’m proud we persisted and it was a valuable learning experience about how to handle external crises impeding planned PR work with clients.”

Motivated to be proactive, some students crafted messages and tactics their clients might employ in response to the crisis. As one student explained: 

[Our supervisor] expressed that COVID-19 was negatively affecting [the organization] and may cause them to have to shut down operations. The pandemic’s influence on the organization allowed us to come up with ideas for the company, such as making a case analysis to see what other nonprofits are doing during COVID-19 and make recommendations based on that information. 

Lack of client direction did not discourage some of these pre-professionals. “[S]ometimes we did not receive direct communication from our client about what services to deliver or what we should be working on,” wrote one student, adding: 

At those times, I had to think like a professional, and cultivate the right tone and subject matter to give the client work that perhaps they did not know they needed. For example, when writing a news release about the coronavirus, I had to consult past communications from the organization, as well as read the affirmation and mission statement over and over to nail down the tone and the messages that the organization would want to send to its publics.

While some nonprofit supervisors went dark, others took advantage of the teachable moments. A student explained: 

The challenges led to some of the most valuable parts of working with [the client],” said a student. “I learned a real-world scenario about how to implement crisis communication. Our team talked with [our supervisor] about the balance of protecting and promoting the [organization] while remaining sensitive to the issues surrounding COVID-19. 

Another student wrote, “In the real world, there will always be some level of crisis to manage, and by working with my client I was able to put into practice protecting and promoting the organization.” 

One supervisor kept the students abreast of the strategies required to shift gears: 

[Our supervisor] was transparent to our team about [the client’s] priorities and capabilities during that time. She informed me that [the organization] not only had to stop offering many of their community programs, but that they were also suffering from staff shortages. Rather than releasing a statement about the postponement of the fundraiser, she emphasized that the focus of the organization should be to provide updates to the community about their available services as well as provide information about available online resources.  Learning directly from [our supervisor] about how to adjust to a real-world crisis will definitely help me better evaluate potential difficulties I may face in future workplaces.

“Seeing the Good in Every Situation Is the Key to Success.”
It is understandable that students would be discouraged that their service-learning opportunity did not progress as they had hoped. Yet, many students still were willing to “change my perspective,” which, “helped me grow in ways that I believe will help me immensely in my career.”  

Another student explained: 
I got to experience a logistical nightmare and find ways to communicate on behalf of my client in a way that would reassure and inform the target publics. The coronavirus is impacting [sic] businesses and people all across the world, and no one had time to prepare for it, so having to completely reorganize plans and come up with a new strategy is something I might have to do one day as a PR professional.

They also saw themselves grow personally and professionally: “In the real world of public relations, nothing is ever perfect; nothing goes exactly to plan. This pandemic helped me learn to be more flexible, while also giving me insight into how organizations respond to crises and communicate with their publics in the face of adversity.” The students’ ability to find or create opportunities contributed to their success, as well: 

I was able to learn more and produce more work, and now have a strong example of the importance of proactive reputation-building PR when trying to advocate for my services to a non-profit client.…We were able to create and deliver some good work, if not as much as we would’ve liked, I hope that [the client] will use this work in the future, and I know that I will carry my experience with this type of crisis management to be more adaptive in nonprofit PR work in the future.… Above all of it, I learned the importance of turning trouble into opportunities.

The instructor, as the third participant in service learning, also played an important role in guiding students through the changes. As one student explained, “While at first this seemed like a major setback as many of the events and items my team planned to conquer were no longer feasible, [our instructor] always encouraged us to see each potential threat as an opportunity.” 

“I Realized Communication Is More Critical Now Than Ever.”
Being in “a tough situation” meant student-client interaction “dwindled off because of unforeseen circumstances.” Yet, many students “realized communication is more critical now than ever,” both with their clients and the clients’ stakeholders.  

The students’ initial concern was reaching their organization supervisors, many of whom “were busy with transitioning their practices to something more adaptable for their clients during quarantine.” As one student wrote, “I learned about the importance of effective communication as well as how to professionally navigate a frustrating situation without risking the relationship with my client.” Another noted, “Luckily, the staff was great about communicating over email to ensure that there were no misunderstandings throughout the semester.” 

That communication enabled students to modify their plans based on client needs. According to one student: 

During the transition, I had the opportunity to speak with a coordinator at [our organization] for an extensive period of time to create a game plan for the rest of the semester. After the transition, our group and client reestablished a solid communication channel and resumed work.

The result of reestablishing effective communication with supervisors “was an incredibly eye-opening experience” that allowed students to contribute their public relations expertise to support stakeholders. One student wrote:

The deliverables I created for [our client], specifically the ones pertaining to COVID-19, are extremely important to the organization right now. This experience of COVID-19 will go down in history, and I got to create a news release and fact sheet for an organization that needs those right now. They need to communicate with their publics and I was able to do some of that communicating. That opportunity is unmatched. 

 Another summed up the experience this way: “I am still grateful for the learning experience and opportunity to adapt to a challenge. [The client] taught me a lot about the importance of strong leadership and consistent communication. 

“Truly Make a Difference”
Students often identify that their reason for going into public relations and strategic communication is their ability to make a difference in their communities, country, and world. That theme was evident in these reflection essays, as well. “Fortunately (or unfortunately), the COVID-19 pandemic eventually gave our team a substantial problem/opportunity to work with,” wrote one student. “This allowed us to create some potential PR strategies to make sure [the organization] stayed afloat during the pandemic.”

Students also reflected a sense of pride in their hands-on roles in helping nonprofit clients during these difficult times. “After moving past our initial disappointment, my team shifted our outlook and dedicated our work to serving [our clients’] needs in the midst of COVID-19,” one student wrote. “We were able to practice our crisis communications skills and I believe, truly make a difference.” Another shared appreciation for the experience: “Watching [our organization] transform to online while continuing to support its [clients] is truly inspiring and I am so grateful that I got to be a part of that change.”

Overall, the positive comments outweighed the negative ones, showing that they were able to identify the value of their experiences despite the disruption. Any focus on assignments and grades was overshadowed by a sense of optimism and pride in accomplishments for the good of the organization, their stakeholders, and the community. 


As the results show, most students rose to the occasion, maintaining optimism, a can-do attitude, and a remarkable eagerness to apply course concepts to their clients’ needs in real time.   Only a few students went silent for a time, but resurfaced soon after the initial upheaval as they learned to navigate their new circumstances at home and at work.  Although some students ended the semester feeling pessimistic that their service-learning experiences didn’t go as planned, most regained their bearings and expressed optimism, describing lessons they gleaned from their experiences, many of which reinforce the four service-learning outcomes identified by Witmer et al. (2008). 

First, students related instances in which they were able to apply classroom learning to their real-world, service-learning experiences (Witmer et al., 2008). They identified examples of using their knowledge of crisis communication and relationship-building to strategize ways to help their clients as well as meet course objectives. Their real-world learning occasionally seemed harsh, particularly when their ideas were dismissed or their emails went unanswered. But, they also relayed success stories and feelings that they had contributed to their organization’s ability to weather the COVID-19 storm. Second, teamwork was evident as students conversed and collaborated to develop the most-effective ways to engage their clients despite the shutdowns. Although they expressed some disappointment and frustrations in their reflection essays, they also consistently referred to “we” and “our” more than “I” and “me.” 

Third, not all client interactions went as students had initially planned. Some found it challenging to connect with their nonprofit’s leadership, some felt as if they were an extra burden, and others applied a quarantine pivot to help their clients navigate the crisis. This finding supports Harrison and Bak’s (2017) contention that contingency planning is vital for students – and practitioners – to employ. While some students relied on instructor guidance or recommendations to jumpstart their efforts, others were proactive, sometimes employing trial-and-error approaches to find what was most effective. There is a tendency to expect upper-level students to take the initiative; however, it is also important to remember the high levels of stress and uncertainty these students experienced, which may have affected the speed with which they regrouped. Fourth, the students’ references to doing good for others was particularly noticeable, which aligns with Witmer et al.’s (2008) and Cox’s (2013) conclusions that civic responsibility can be nurtured in service-learning. Amid stress and uncertainty, there is a human tendency to focus inward on one’s own needs and feelings. Despite their angst, many students connected with their client communities that had lived experiences different from their own, which supports literature about the potential for civic engagement and social responsibility growth (Gilchrist, 2007; Lundy, 2008; Rogers, 2001). These students found their way outward to appreciate their ability to strengthen their communication skills for the betterment of nonprofit organizations. 

Additionally, the reflection essays provided a medium for students to share accomplishments, make recommendations, vent, and show what they learned. There is a degree of “self-discovery” that Blomstrom and Tam (2008) discerned in their assessment of reflection essays. This finding also supports Dubinsky’s (2006) contention that intellectual and emotional reflection helps students synthesize their experiences with course material, understand their own strengths and weaknesses, and help them prepare for post-graduation endeavors in public relations (see also Wigert, 2011).


There are three sets of players in the service-learning environment. Thus far, this research focused on two groups – the students, primarily, as well as the clients they served. The third group in this relationship is the instructors, who serve as coaches, leaders, and occasional confessors. As Harrison and Bak (2017) discussed in their article, instructors – like students – must also learn to pivot, whether realizing each semester’s clients and students are different or tackling monumental changes during a pandemic quarantine. In their assessment, Harrison and Bak documented how their teaching assumptions sometimes didn’t match the realities, which allowed them to do their own reflection on lessons learned and recommendations for subsequent classes.  So, too, the now-infamous “pandemic pivot” pushed faculty out of their own comfort zones. 

Instructor challenges

Amid the maelstrom of spring semester 2020, faculty – with their own stresses – embarked on a pedagogical journey in uncharted waters. A shift from in-class instruction to an online environment was fraught with technological trip-ups, but also opened time to refocus students on the opportunities ahead. The instructor, who occasionally added cheerleader to her repertoire, combined synchronous and asynchronous tactics to engage students in real-world discussions that moved from “What about my assignments?” to “What about the client’s new communication needs?” 

But the challenges didn’t end when spring semester books closed. Faculty shifted their focus to an eye on how much of spring’s experiential learning approaches would continue into the fall semester. Although some classes began in hybrid or mask-to-mask formats, a shift back to all-online teaching and learning soon followed. Among the practices added or reinforced for fall:

  • Start building relationships with students early to establish foundations for their success. The online environment can make it difficult to participate in pre- and post-class exchanges that occur organically in face-to-face classrooms. These one-on-one interactions help the instructor gauge student abilities and challenges early and over the course of the semester.  
  • Consider how to “manufacture” interactions. For example, an instructor may text students during a synchronous class meeting and invite them to reply with a question or comment. In addition to finding out whether students are engaged in the day’s activities, it also opens the door for the instructor to respond individually and continue the conversations started in the first online, face-to-face introductions.
  • Regular encouragement can be accomplished through video or digital measures. For example, sending a weekly, detailed group message to students on Sunday afternoons can provide an overview of the coming week, reminders about assignments and deadlines, and generally encourage them and equip them for a better week. Mix it up with written documents and short videos. 
  • Identify ways to stimulate the natural conversations with students that occur in hallways and classrooms, such as extended office hours and other appointments. 
  • Encouraging team and client dialogue around relevant topics in online forums can facilitate participation and learning while also providing ongoing opportunities for student reflection. Although most posts come from an instructor’s prompts, over time, students may converse with one another. It is also important for the instructor to provide students with regular feedback to maintain the momentum.
  • There’s a balancing act for instructors to show compassion for the physical, emotional, and financial struggles students may face while also retaining a sense of discipline. 

Also consider the type of exchanges that will benefit the client partners. Typically, instructors meet or call the nonprofit leaders individually before the semester gets underway. With the limits imposed by the pandemic, these interactions typically occur online to solidify the partnerships and undergird the whole service-learning experience for students and instructor.  Once student teams are assigned, instructors are less involved in day-to-day communications, which ensures students gain first-hand experience in client relations. However, recognizing that clients may have their own set of pandemic-induced challenges, instructor check-ins may mitigate any problems before they get out of hand. 

Faculty at various universities have identified opportunities for service-learning engagement. For example, Susan Haarman (2020) with Loyola University Chicago’s Center for Experiential Learning, created a resource for reflecting on civic responsibilities during the pandemic. It includes reflection prompts such as:

  • “When you think of the individuals you met at your placement, are there certain factors that put them more at risk to outbreaks like COVID-19? Are there certain factors that uniquely give them an advantage?” (para. 3)
  • “How do you understand your obligations and responsibilities to others? Has this experience challenged or confirmed that?” (para. 8)
  • “What assumptions or implications does your coursework have about an individual’s role or obligations to their community?” (para. 8)
  • “Some students experienced having to be relocated unexpectedly due to larger issues outside of your control. Has this made you more aware of or thinking differently about issues of freedom of mobility?” (para. 5)

Research supports the value of service learning incorporated in public relations classes such writing and campaigns. Although upfront planning and structure are essential for effective experiences, all players – students, clients, and instructors – must prepare for the unexpected. Not all disruptions are at the level of a pandemic, but as these students reflected, practitioners must be prepared to pivot when the need arises. 

The analysis of student reflection essays provides valuable insights into how they processed the unprecedented experiences of a pandemic quarantine. The results of the 44 essays cannot be generalized, but do provide key measures to use in subsequent quantitative surveys.  Additional insights from the community partners will also contribute to better understanding of how community nonprofit organizations adjust to crises and their perceptions of how service-learning initiatives may help or hinder their progress. 


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© Copyright 2021 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Boynton, L. & Carter, M. (2021). The pandemic pivot: How teachable moments in a service-learning course provided an opportunity for student growth. Journal of Public Relations Education, 7(3), 45-67. https://aejmc.us/jpre/?p=2722

Visionary Public Relations Coursework: Leveraging Service Learning in Public Relations Courses to Spur Economic Development Through the Arts, Travel, and Tourism

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted to JPRE December 21, 2018. Revision submitted April 22, 2019. Manuscript accepted for publication May 24, 2019. First published online August 17, 2019.


Christopher Jon McCollough, Columbus State University


Scholarship on service learning demonstrates a variety of benefits to students, faculty, universities, and surrounding communities. While literature in public relations education offers strong examples of community benefits pertaining to civic engagement, community service promotion, and fulfillment of the needs of local governments and nonprofit organizations, scholarship is just beginning to address the potential long-term benefits for economic development. Literature in business and economics education offers some indication of the potential value of service learning to economic development in communities. This article offers an account of the use of service learning in a senior internship and two public relations courses as part of a collaborative project to promote a community partnership, a visionary arts venue, and the community that stands to benefit from its success. The article discusses the project development, execution of courses, and subsequent early indicators of economic impact.

Keywords: service learning, nonprofit, internship, community, economic impact

Visionary Public Relations Coursework: Leveraging Service Learning in Public Relations Courses to Spur Economic Development Through the Arts, Travel, and Tourism

Service learning is a common approach to teaching in the public relations curriculum, particularly in capstone and management courses. The benefits of service learning to students are clear: direct application of practice, grounding theory and principles of best practice in the real world, and a wide variety of essential skills in communication that employers now prioritize in entry-level employees (Muturi, An, & Mwangi, 2013; Werder & Strand, 2011). The value of service learning to communities is also a growing, well-established body of literature within the context of public relations (Rogers & Andrews, 2015), as well as across disciplines (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996).

One key potential area of impact is on economic development within communities. A body of literature in business pedagogy demonstrates the value of using service-learning projects in the classroom of inner city (Desplaces, Steinberg, Coleman, & Kenworthy-U’Ren, 2006) and rural communities (Frazier, Niehm, & Stoel, 2012) in economic struggle, as well as for study abroad programs (Dato-On & Al-Charaak, 2013). That said, the current literature in public relations education (e.g., Fraustino, Pressgrove, & Colistra, 2019) is just beginning to examine the potential of service-learning projects to provide economic benefit to communities through nonprofit, public sector, or small business means. Public relations is a management function and plays a central role in organizational decision-making (J. E. Grunig & L. A. Grunig, 2008). As such, it stands that providing students with an opportunity to strengthen experience in economic development would have long-term benefits to the students and the organizations they represent.

This article offers a report on the conduct of a multi-term service-learning project across multiple public relations courses. The project’s initial aim was to promote a new arts and culture venue managed by the university, which grew to include recommendations and materials for helping the community adapt to a travel and tourism economy that supported those coming to visit the new venue, as well as promotion of the region surrounding the venue. The initial success of the first course projects provided students with the means to expand on the initial recommendations for the community to include execution of travel and tourism promotion to support local venues in a subsequent public relations management course, as well as an individual public relations internship focused on executing grant writing work and daily management of the community’s marketing and promotion of the venue. The net result was that the students’ work served to set up the subsequent efforts in economic development that continues to take place today. To gain insight on the economic impact of the community transition and potential value of student project work after the project’s completion, the author conducted an analysis of statewide and local economic data, along with open interviews with the local chamber of commerce to assess the impact of the project on the community. Early returns are positive, suggesting value of service-learning work to support community economic development initiatives.


Since Sigmon (1979) introduced the term service-learning, the pedagogical practice has been defined by what students do to better understand theory and best principles of practice through structured reflection. Bringle and Hatcher (1996) defined service learning in the following way:

A course-based, credit-bearing educational experience in which students (a) participate in an organized service activity that meets identified community needs and (b) reflect on the service activity in such a way as to gain further understanding of the course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility. (p. 112)

Often, service learning is identified as a process of development for creating knowledge where students are given opportunities to transform the information they receive from their experience and make sense of it within the theoretical framework of their academic course material (Kuban, O’Malley, & Florea, 2014).  Eyler and Giles (1999) noted that service learning is an evolving form of pedagogy connected back to John Dewey’s (1998/1933, 1938) calls for direct experience in the field that cultivates well-rounded citizens.

The body of literature exploring benefits of service learning to students, faculty, and communities is well-documented across disciplines, including public relations pedagogy. Service learning became a broadly accepted part of public relations education in the 1990s (Bourland-Davis & Fall, 1997; Daugherty, 2003). Most commonly, service learning is used in campaign or capstone courses (Aldoory & Wrigley, 1999; Allison, 2008; Kinnick, 1999; Rogers & Andrews, 2015; Werder & Strand, 2011), and typically includes a client component (Benigni, Cheng, & Cameron, 2004).

Given public relations’ connection to business, particularly as it relates to corporate communications and community relations in this case (Cutlip, Center, & Broom, 2006), the potential to execute service-learning projects associated with economic development initiatives is viable. Moreover, there is room for exploration in scholarship on the impact of service learning in public relations.

Value of Service Learning to Public Relations Faculty and Students

The public relations literature offers insight to the perceived benefits of service learning among students. Wandel (2005) found that 84% of students surveyed reported a strong preference for service-learning courses to traditional lecture learning, and that 90% of those responding believed they had learned more from the service-learning course than alternative course designs. Civic and social efficacy among students was also a point of emphasis. Of the students responding, 37% of those who responded planned to continue their service work beyond the class project. Bollinger (2004) identified increased student understanding and successful application of principles in group, organizational, and interpersonal communication, as well as improved public speaking acumen with the use of service-learning course components. Wilson (2012) found value in service learning for public relations students’ critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. The most significant impact came in students’ increased ability to identify new information needed for creative thinking to support problem-solving. She notes creative thinking and problem solving are of particular value to those interested in entering a dynamic, challenging field like public relations.

Numerous researchers indicate the benefits of service learning. Allison (2008) found common themes around the value of service learning, including motivation for better performance, critical thinking improvement, and exposure to the value of civic engagement. Toncar, Reid, Burns, Anderson, and Nguyen (2006) identified perceived benefit for students’ practical skills, interpersonal skills, sense of personal responsibility, and citizenship. Witmer, Silverman, and Gashen (2009) cited several benefits to public relations students, including application of theory and principles of best practice to real-world settings, teamwork experience for students, opportunities for client interaction, and the ability to enhance civic responsibility.

Public relations literature on service learning also explores holistic assessment of student learning. Werder and Strand (2011) developed and tested a model for assessing student achievement across multiple dimensions, including practical skills, interpersonal skills, personal responsibility, and citizenship. The model also included discipline-specific technical, creative, and research skills. Skills found of greatest value to students in this study included creative expression, design, writing/editing, strategic planning, group-work dynamics, client relations, and both quantitative and qualitative research. These skills proved key in evaluating quality of student performance and project output.

Muturi et al. (2013) found that public relations students reported a high level of motivation from service-learning projects, viewing them as an opportunity to learn about the real world. The authors identified a key motivating factor for students to engage in service learning could be the “desire to move away from hypothetical classroom situations and into a real-world setting as the site for education” (Muturi et al., 2013, p. 400).

Research shows the service-learning experience is rewarding for faculty members as well. The public relations literature offers a body of evidence supporting the benefits of service learning to the faculty who adopt it, particularly in the areas of the pedagogical approach involved in service learning (Bollinger, 2004), a demonstration of faculty service on the tenure track (Fall & Bourland-Davis, 2004), and a more-engaged classroom (Rentner, 2011; Wandel, 2005).  With benefits to public relations students and faculty discussed, the author will now address challenges and limitations of service-learning pedagogy.

Challenges and Limitations of Service Learning

Scholarship in public relations pedagogy does identify limitations in service learning and suggests some practical considerations before adoption of the practice in the classroom. Aldoory and Wrigley (1999) raised concerns about discrepancies between client-partner expectations and students’ ability to deliver a finished product that meets client-partner needs. Rogers and Andrews (2015) identified a lack of scholarship on the communication needs of local nonprofits and what they believe constitutes ideal service-learning relationships. Through focus group interviews, the authors confirmed public relations faculty assumptions that partners need a stronger education in the practice of public relations and the public relations process. It is clear that public relations educators need to establish a role in educating nonprofit partners about the discipline in order to manage client expectations of student groups. Witmer et al. (2009) found that instructors perceived a failure of university administrators to manage perceived risks of both students and community organizations that comprise a client partnership. Among the challenges noted with clients were unpredictability, occasional unprofessionalism, a vast time commitment, and the nebulous role service-learning projects might play in the tenure and promotion process. Witmer et al. (2009) noted that the findings raised more questions than were answered.

Emergent strategic communication scholarship identified some students’ concerns with service-learning course projects, particularly in the area of senior capstone courses. Fraustino et al. (2019) identified several student concerns about time management, instructor and client expectations of student travel to communities, unrealistic instructor expectations of students, and a shaky sense of self-efficacy with the project. In reflection on the class experience, immediate perceived student concerns about time commitments were mitigated by how personally rewarding they found the class project experience. A consistent comment from students, however, was the potential for the capstone course project to dominate their focus and attention to the detriment of other courses. This finding drew parallels with Witmer et al.’s (2009) concerns about the potential negative impact of wide institutionalization of service learning. Another key finding was student fears about the “parachute effect,” where the class dropped in on the communities and worked toward providing assistance and recommendations; however, there was no guarantee that the communities would keep the work going over the long term on the heels of a short-term engagement with the class.

Fraustino et al. (2019) cited the need for managing expectations, the need for being mindful of the potential of service at the expense of learning, and the need for community assessment going into the partnership. The authors expressed concern about the viability of service-learning impact on communities in single capstone projects, noting that the only means of managing the potential for a parachute effect was for the client or professor to see the preliminary work of students to its conclusion. The authors noted that many of the benefits of service learning stand but that scholarship should address concerns and how to limit concerns through performing stewardship (Waters, 2009) and closing the gap between partner expectations and student output (Rogers & Andrews, 2015). The focus will now shift to a discussion about the potential impact of service learning on economic development.

Service Learning in Economic Development and Other Subfields

Literature on the teaching and learning of public relations has established the benefits and challenges of service learning. Scholarship in public relations pedagogy offers clear examples of the benefits of service learning to corporate communication (Clark, 1999), development (Kelly, 1991; McKinnon, Longan, & Handy, 2012), public health (Rentner, 2011), and a variety of public sector (Rothberg, Brais, & Freitag, 2016) and charitable nonprofit programs (Bollinger, 2004). These examples establish the practical benefits to communities collaborating with university programs that employ service learning. Public relations literature focusing on economic development is still in its infancy.

Fraustino et al. (2019) analyzed a service-learning project that tested a place-based branding model for promoting economic development in communities experiencing downturn. As part of two senior capstone projects, students engaged in research, development, and strategy designed to rebrand each community. Students acknowledged that the project would help them grow professionally, specifically on practical skills, interpersonal skills, career development, and personal responsibility. Through post-class surveys, students confirmed that many of the initially established desired skills to develop were met, including technical skills, teamwork skills, and client relations. The authors cited enhanced motivation among students to perform exceptional work, particularly on dimensions of professional development and community engagement. Students reflected on the experience and expressed that the service-learning campaign project left them with a sense of accomplishment, a valuable test of knowledge, and a resume builder. The authors also cited benefits to civic and community engagement. Scholarship in the teaching of economics, marketing, and management offers additional examples of the value of service learning and experiential learning to entrepreneurship and economic development for students, faculty, and the institution.  

Historical and Economic Background on Marion County and Pasaquan

Outside of a small town in the southeast, a visionary artist named Eddie O. Martin was born in 1908 and returned home to care for the property after his mother’s death in 1957. From 1957 until his death in 1986, Martin transformed his home into a folk art center called Pasaquan (Patterson, 1987). For some in Marion County, he was a peculiar neighbor, who produced admirable work and put unemployed or underemployed members of the community to work on the grounds. For others, he was a threat to their way of life, rumored to engage in drug dealing, homosexuality, and other forms of behavior outside of the socially acceptable behavior of residents in the rural Southeast of the 1950s (Patterson, 1987). His apparent suicide in 1986 left Pasaquan largely unattended, with the exception of a few men and women who formed the Pasaquan Preservation Society.

Over time, Pasaquan fell into disrepair, and the Pasaquan Preservation Society engaged in the process of seeking support to rehabilitate the property and the artwork for the purposes of public exhibition. After years of petition, and 28 years of relative neglect at the venue, the Kohler Foundation responded and offered to facilitate the rehabilitation of Pasaquan in 2014. At the end of the process, the Kohler Foundation identified a local university as the appropriate caretakers for the future maintenance and stewardship of Pasaquan after its rehabilitation completion in October 2016.

This opportunity brought with it challenges for the university and work for the community to prepare for the takeover. To sustain Pasaquan, the university needed a means to promote the venue that could capture the interest of a global audience over time, the community needed to develop a plan for supporting the venue and a broader appeal for travel and tourism, and the previously split community needed to unify behind a reinvigorated visionary art venue created by a mercurial former member of its community.

The process of working toward these goals provided students enrolled in two public relations courses and their instructor with the unique opportunity to cultivate relationships with local businesses, a city government, the state’s travel and tourism marketing team, and the university’s Pasaquan director. The experience created a means for public relations students to gain valuable experience in arts management, as well as arts and entertainment promotion.

The partnership between the venue and university came at perhaps the most opportune time for Marion County and the neighboring small town. The county and town have endured an economic downturn that began with the migration away from production plants in the region and hit its lowest points in the economic collapse of 2008. Unemployment figures at the time for Marion County stood at 11.2% (United States Department of Labor, 2018). With a minor rebound and the presence of a livestock processing plant, the employment numbers rebounded to 7.0% in May 2015 (United States Department of Labor, 2018). The town and county suffered another setback as the livestock processing plant closed its facility that May, and unemployment rose to 9.4% within a month (United States Department of Labor, 2018).

Seeing the potential of Pasaquan and understanding the need for other economic opportunities, the Marion County Chamber of Commerce approached the state’s Department of Economic Development about bringing in a team to assess the potential for adapting the town, Marion County, and Pasaquan into a travel and tourism economy. Over the fall semester of 2014, the state economic development team visited all regional venues and held town halls with citizens to gather information and to offer a set of recommendations to the town about approaching revitalization, building mutually beneficial partnerships, and adjusting the town mindset to art and cultural promotion. The finished product was a 115-page report that detailed the resources available to Marion County, effective models for a travel and tourism economy, and community-specific recommendations for updating storefronts, sidewalks, and the types of business and infrastructure they would need to develop as the new economy began to grow over the next 5 to 10 years (Georgia Department of Economic Development, 2014). One of the chief recommendations was to make full use of the new partnership with the university and its various departments to achieve mutual benefit that would help improve Marion County and the town’s prospects, while enhancing the university’s town-gown profile.

Research Questions

On the basis of the aforementioned literature on service learning and its value to the community and students, the researcher posed the following research questions:

RQ1: What constitutes the process of developing and executing a multi-semester public relations service-learning project?

RQ2: To what extent do the community partners make use of the resources provided by students in public relations courses?

On the basis of the aforementioned literature documenting the potential benefits of service-learning projects, the researcher posed the following research questions:

RQ3: What evidence of economic impact on Marion County and Pasaquan can be identified since completion of the multi-semester public relations service-learning project?

RQ4: What benefits did the service-learning project provide for students engaged in the project?


To answer the research questions, the researcher performed a mixed-methods case study analysis (Yin, 2014) for two reasons. First, the need to offer a clear breakdown of course development, execution, and impact required a comprehensive approach that documented each step in the process. Second, the timing of discovery of the influence and impact of students’ projects after course completion when reported by the local chamber of commerce limited the researcher to consider the project and its impact through a review of materials. To promote clarity, the discussion of methods employed is broken into two sections. Each is discussed below and will permit the reader to review the findings in a sequential flow.

Documenting Course Research, Design, Execution, and Partner Adoption

As a first phase of the discussion, the researcher explained the project and its results. The researcher began with a discussion of the process of conducting course background research, course designs, students’ execution, and clients’ use of students’ work. The researcher explained the course research and design through the use of logged notes collected during the background research and course development phases of the course projects. The researcher also reviewed completed project work and student peer evaluations of other group members to assess the overall effectiveness of groups. This triangulation of differing forms of data will enable readers at other academic institutions to consider how they might adopt some of the more successful practices into their own programs. To explain the client-partners’ use of student materials, the researcher performed a qualitative review of all marketing materials, news content relating to the community and Pasaquan, as well as venue websites in the two years since the project’s completion. In addition, the researcher interviewed the Marion County Chamber of Commerce president to track the students’ work in both courses, as well as in the senior internship. To assess student benefit, the researcher’s assessment incorporated the content review of course project products, as well as a report on the work of a graduate who participated in the project in both courses and the senior internship. To identify the larger body of student engagement across the university, the researcher reviewed archived counts of student engagement collected by the Pasaquan’s site director, who documented the information for the purposes of fundraising efforts for Pasaquan.

Documenting Economic Impact

After the project completion with Pasaquan in fall 2016, the researcher decided to revisit the venue in fall 2017 to assess the progress of student recommendations with the Marion County Chamber of Commerce president. To perform the analysis, the researcher interviewed the chamber president for a report on community progress since the partnership’s inception in May 2014 and obtained economic data from January 2014 through January 2018 from the United States Department of Labor’s Unemployment Statistics and performed a simple comparative analysis to track the community’s progression, paying specific attention to the period from 2014 through 2018, to assess the progression of Pasaquan’s revitalization, opening, and the continued development and revitalization of local venues in Marion County and the town. The interview consisted of one 60-minute session, and consisted of open-ended questions focusing on progress in economic revitalization, the relationship of the county with Pasaquan, and how the students’ work influenced the efforts of the Chamber of Commerce as it progressed in its community revitalization efforts. The researcher performed his own transcription, and utilized Nvivo to conduct coding and thematic analysis of the interview, utilizing a grounded theory approach (Strauss & Corbin, 1990) in an effort to allow for emergent themes in the analysis. The findings report will begin with the development of the client partnership before progressing to the instructor’s course design, discussing campaign execution and assessment, reviewing of client adoption of student materials, and ending with an analysis of preliminary economic impact.


Instructor Relationship Cultivation and Research

Shortly after the partnership announcement with Pasaquan in summer 2014, the Department of Art tasked one of its professors with the role of director of Pasaquan. Among the first challenges he had to address was making Pasaquan self-sustaining. To do so, he would need to cultivate revenue and donor partnerships that could help keep the maintenance and promotion of the venue viable. To achieve this end, he began brokering partnerships with faculty, the community leadership, and the state travel and tourism board. In short, the director was engaged in relationship management.

To earn the support of university faculty, the director of Pasaquan brought university faculty out to the venue for a social event and a tour of facilities to garner ideas for added value. Faculty in the sciences and other social science disciplines brainstormed and contributed valuable ideas for retreat meetings, conferences, and lab observations of the nature surrounding the venue. The public relations professor conversely identified the need for economic development in the community, the need to effectively brand and promote Pasaquan, and the need to revitalize the brand for Marion County, all while garnering the buy-in of the town.

With this in mind, the public relations professor brokered a relationship with Pasaquan’s director and worked with him to cultivate an active role with the Marion County Chamber of Commerce, a seat on the university’s Pasaquan advisory committee, and a consulting partnership with the state’s Department of Economic Development’s Travel and Tourism Promotion team. The instructor’s participation in these roles allowed him to develop contextual knowledge and collect information of value to course design. The role with the chamber indeed helped the public relations professor build a contextual knowledge of the community and its economic challenges. The seat on the Pasaquan advisory committee helped the instructor learn about both the resource and creative challenges the art venue had to address prior to takeover by the university. Finally, the partnership with the state’s Department of Economic Development opened the door for research data in travel and tourism that his students would find invaluable as they tried to design and pitch a campaign. It also enabled the instructor to bring the state economic development team to the public relations classroom to present guest lectures on specific strategies and tactics for effective travel and tourism public relations work, as well as opening a line of dialog with the students to seek advice and input throughout both courses.

Over the subsequent six months, the instructor made bi-weekly trips to various functions at Pasaquan to strengthen relationships, expand on his partnerships, and to collect data to build a strong course design that would yield service-learning projects that could have tangible impact on Marion County, the town, and Pasaquan. With a sense of the need for effective partnership cultivation established, as well as the lead time for data collection established, the article will now cover the design of the courses so that the reader will understand how the projects, partnership, and products were meant to advance the relationship and enhance student skill sets.

Course Designs

The instructor spread the client work across two courses: a fall public relations campaigns course and a spring public relations management course. Students in each of the courses and the senior internship were instructed to use best practices in public relations through effective application of RACE PR (Cutlip, Center, & Broom, 2006), ROPES PR (Kelly, 2001), and the four models of public relations communication (Grunig & Hunt, 1984).

The fall campaigns course used a competitive pitch format (Rentner, 2011) modified to an internal class model (McCollough, 2018). This involved six student teams engaging in three separate competitions on behalf of three separate clients. The student teams were pre-assigned to work together on the basis of balance of public relations coursework experience, media production coursework experience, and media writing acumen. The goal of the pre-assignment was to maximize competitive balance, while providing students with experience in working in a professional environment akin to those where they might be hired. The three teams that won each of the three pitch competitions earned an A on the course project while receiving thorough, constructive feedback. Those that lost the pitch were subject to full evaluation by the instructor (see Table 1 below).

Table 1

Competitive Team Assignments by Client Partner Need                                                                  

Client PartnerTeam 1Team 2
Community Relations20/20 PRPeachbelt Grassroots PR
Community Marketing and PRKindred 5Brevity.
Pasaquan Marketing and PRChampion PRCraft PR

*Winning Team Marked in Italics

The purpose of adopting a competitive evaluation model was to encourage a higher quality of strategic planning and material development in support of each team’s proposed campaign (McCollough, 2018). Even in losing a pitch, with the exception of one team earning a poor grade due to poor research, planning, and production, the other five teams earned a B or above on the final course project. To assist each of the three clients in selecting a winning pitch, the instructor brought in four public relations practitioners from the community to offer constructive feedback on each team’s product and pitch, as well as an informed perspective to relatively uninitiated clients.

Two four-member student teams worked with Marion County on community relations work meant to help the community acclimate to supporting an emerging travel and tourism economy, as well as growth in support for the once-controversial Pasaquan. Two five-member student groups worked on travel and tourism public relations intended to help develop a larger brand for the county and town, support materials to use in promoting the town and region, and a larger strategy meant to bring visitors into town and to push more capital into the community. Their client was the director of the travel and tourism office of the state’s Department of Economic Development. Finally, two five-member student groups worked with Pasaquan’s director on cultivating a brand identity consistent with the venue, developing marketing materials, and creating an effective promotional strategy for Pasaquan.

Communication and effective client relations were an essential aspect of course performance. Students met each of the three clients at the outset of the project, were required to meet frequently with their client and instructor as teams throughout the term, and were encouraged to maintain open communication to achieve the best results. This line of communication included encouraging students to discuss prospective plans for pitches and execution in advance of roll-out to ensure the product was in line with their client’s expectations and needs. The instructor also worked with each client to bring every student to Pasaquan and the community to collect preliminary data and to gain a more immersive perspective on the project and each of its elements. This step helped students in providing a more representative finished product that their client could more immediately employ in practice.

The initial client conversations set the baseline for student teams to identify preliminary areas of focus for research prior to developing a strategy. The research work included interviews with the clients, their respective staff, and local community members to better understand the local context they needed to attend to in their work. For the students assigned to Pasaquan and Marion County, students built upon this by reviewing current promotion approaches of similar arts and travel and tourism venues, both nationally and within the state. In support of student efforts, the state’s travel and tourism office also provided materials on the larger travel and tourism strategy to students to inform their strategy and align it with the existing body of promotions in place. For students engaged in the community relations effort, the professor provided supplemental reading on community relations from Center, Jackson, Smith, and Stansberry (2014), including case studies involving community relations strategy, to aid students in establishing a contextual baseline for community relations work.

At the completion of the fall course, each of the winning bids was collected and held for the spring public relations management course, in which a team of seven students worked with the Marion County Chamber of Commerce President as a client to adopt the best of each winning project in executing a campaign that helped market Pasaquan, Marion County, and the neighboring town. The reduction from three clients to one reflected an anticipated consolidation of interaction once the preliminary work with Pasaquan and the state’s travel and tourism office were complete. The move to one seven-student team kept the group of students involved in the fall campaigns course engaged with the efforts in the subsequent spring management course, preserving institutional memory and reducing lag in cultivating contextual knowledge. To ensure continuity in work, the instructor provided all collected winning strategies as a resource tool to students to engage in a preliminary review of strategy, prior to execution. This enabled students to meet with the client and adapt the strategy to updated client needs and student skills. The client took the community relations strategies at the end of the fall course and the refined work in the spring management course and implemented the finished product in the Chamber of Commerce.

While not part of the initial plan, the development and implementation of promotional materials prompted a student from Marion County in both courses to take on a senior internship course in Marion County’s Chamber of Commerce where the student implemented the refined version of the strategy with the client. The intern spent the final four months of her program of study working closely with the Chamber of Commerce in developing a new public relations strategy and executing on the initial stages of promoting Pasaquan and helping to continue bringing in new businesses and infrastructure to support the new travel and tourism economy, including grant writing to support community revitalization initiatives to enhance the profile and presence of the town. The following section will highlight the extent to which the clients made use of student work in meeting local needs.

Quality of Student Products: Sometimes When You Lose, You Win

In reviewing the projects and considering the ultimate adoption of student materials, it was clear the client used both winning (Craft PR) and losing teams’ (Champion PR) materials and strategies. In reviewing the Pasaquan teams’ projects, one team offered strong graphic design and manuals for standards and practice, prompting the Art Department to adopt many of their designs in the logos for the venue’s marketing materials. The Art Department, however, believed the losing team actually cultivated a much stronger perspective on Pasaquan’s identity, the concept of visionary art, and the perspective of potential visitors to the venue. Thus, much of the research and messaging used in promotional literature and the venue’s website that accompanies the logos of the winning team actually come from the losing team’s book. This particular example demonstrates the relative strength of the work of both student teams engaged in a direct competition and bodes well for competitive modeling in service-learning courses (McCollough, 2018; Rentner, 2011). Both winning and losing team members were able to use their work to strengthen their professional portfolios because the client derived tangible value.

That said, there were elements that clearly posed a challenge for some student groups. In one group, it was clear that the inability to balance group dynamics and individual student egos limited their effectiveness in managing a campaign. Student peer evaluations consistently discussed team disagreements and criticism over team members’ inability to accept one another’s viewpoints as part of the strategy. In another student group, inattention to the quality of the writing and media produced led to the campaign falling short against a better balanced campaign pitch despite superior research and strategy by the other team. Finally, one team’s inability to communicate with the client for the duration of the campaign left them well behind their opponent, making winning a pitch a very difficult prospect. Even with the limitations on individual projects, the overall quality of the products were stronger than in previous campaigns courses and helped yield a solid campaign execution in the spring semester.

Impact on the Community and Pasaquan

While not causal, the data point to strong indicators of positive returns for Marion County and Pasaquan in terms of revenue, development, and population growth. Interview data and the content review of student materials and subsequent promotional materials and grant writing indicate student work took on a foundational role upon which the community built its materials and arguments for support. The Chamber of Commerce president reported the county successfully obtained $62,000 in initial grant support targeting economic development and travel and tourism promotion support. The chamber president noted the state’s Department of Community Affairs granted the funds on the basis of an updated design proposal from the public relations management team for refinishing storefronts, streets, and the courthouse grounds of the town square. This design proposal was based on the recommendations of student teams in the public relations campaigns course tasked to help the community adapt to effectively support Pasaquan’s guests.

The chamber president credited the partnership and project success with enabling subsequent growth and project work from the county. Since June 2016, eight new businesses have opened in Marion County, and there is an ongoing conversation about the opening of seven additional businesses, according to the Marion County Chamber of Commerce president. In addition to the proposed openings, early reports indicated new buyers were developing recreational hunting and lodging venues, as well as commercial real estate purchase inquiries from potential commercial developers. Furthermore, the chamber was working to encourage small business development through multiple seminars for aspiring business owners and travel and tourism promotion seminars. Most importantly, the unemployment numbers were down to 5.5% from the 9% after the Tyson plant closed (United States Department of Labor, 2018).

Another solid indicator was the recent reports on sales tax revenue. In the summer of 2016, the Chamber of Commerce president reported the sales tax revenue had bottomed out in 2015 but has enjoyed a steady increase in revenue each subsequent quarter. She attributes this increase in revenue to the opening of new businesses and growing tourism numbers in the community related to both Pasaquan and the partnership now in place with a regional tourism program sponsored by the state’s Department of Economic Development. The community relations and promotional strategies in use employed elements both directly and indirectly sourced from the core materials and strategies developed, presented, and shared by students in the public relations campaigns and management courses. The finalized strategies and materials were implemented and monitored by the senior public relations intern.

Another area of concern when the local community entered into the partnership was the potential for community growth, and early indicators also suggested successful community growth. At present, 34 housing permits have been approved for additional development. This number is the largest in the seven years the Building, Code, and Zoning Administrator has been in office. The president of the local Chamber of Commerce asked new residents about their reasons for joining the community, and several reasons were clear. Among the strongest reasons were the community culture, the strong school district, and the revitalization underway. Helping the effort are the relatively inexpensive property taxes and the positive reputation of the local government in Marion County.

Although the areas of macro-business development, shrinking unemployment, and growth in residence and sales tax revenue were not targeted areas of the class projects or points of focus for assessment of students, the students’ work did directly support the migration to the new economic model and the early promotion of Pasaquan, Marion County, and the small town within it, which is prompting much of the subsequent growth. Data analysis indicates the students’ initial work in both courses and through the internship provided foundational material for revitalizing the community and contributed to raising the profile of the primary engine for the community’s economic growth: Pasaquan.

On October 22, 2016, Pasaquan opened to the public and was transferred to the university foundation. At the opening, 2,200 people attended the festivities from 34 states and 14 countries. In its first five weeks after the opening, 892 visitors came to Pasaquan, averaging 179 visitors a week on a 3-day weekly schedule. Visitors since the opening have traveled in groups from New York, Portland, Chicago, and Atlanta. Graduate students from Cornell University, University of Wisconsin, University of Georgia, and Georgia State University have conducted research on site, and it promises to host guest artists and provide source material in its archives to art students for years to come. In addition to several traveling exhibitions and a documentary on the restoration, the efforts of public relations campaigns, public relations management, and senior internship students helped the Department of Art solicit more than $16,000 in fundraising in the first five weeks after the opening. All promotional materials and the Web presence for Pasaquan were a direct result of advanced research and content development on the part of students in the public relations campaigns course and remain in use three years later. The service-learning efforts impacted Marion County and Pasaquan, and they also made an impact on university students.

Impact for the Students

The project work in Marion County and Pasaquan brought more than 28 public relations campaign students, eight public relations management students, and one senior intern to the region and helped them develop industry-relevant experience and portfolio materials. Looking at the larger collaboration, according to Pasaquan’s director, 120 students enrolled at the university have helped to advance the work in Marion County and Pasaquan over the last two years. The students came from the public relations and integrated media production program in communication, art historians and studio students in art, students gathering information through oral history collection and archiving in history, students developing travel and tourism maps in geography, and creative writing students in English. The venue’s plans for flexible use promise to bring a more diverse, interdisciplinary group of students for future class projects. The most obvious source of collaboration is within one of the university’s colleges, which now produces several onsite exhibitions each year, most notably a collaborative composition of an opera about the artist and Pasaquan, first performed by faculty and students on the grounds in October 2017. In short, the project brought an intellectually diverse group of young talent together to facilitate solutions intended to help revitalize a community and elevate the profile of a unique cultural venue in the rural Southeast.

The direct impact of this project for public relations students continues to be improved marketability at graduation, as well as enhanced civic engagement. Mentioned earlier, the senior public relations student who took on the role of an intern at the Chamber of Commerce demonstrated the benefit of this approach to study for students. She did so largely because of her desire to gain more experience, but also because she was from the region and wanted to continue to help its growth. During the internship, she had a direct role in developing the marketing and promotion for the county and town. She also aided planning and executing the launch for Pasaquan and was the first ambassador for the new Pasaquan Welcome Center. The experiences she had in the internship made it possible for her to earn her first position as the communication director for a neighboring chamber of commerce, as well as maintaining her support role with the Marion County Chamber of Commerce two years after graduation. The intern’s experience and ultimate career path represents an ideal model for the civic and professional benefit of service and experiential learning (see Bollinger, 2004; Bringle & Hatcher, 1996; Wandel, 2005).


As a single case, there are certainly conditions here that proved beneficial to faculty, students, and the community. The shared mission and vision for the project among faculty, students, community leaders, and appropriate state agencies have much to say about the access, opportunity, and outcome of the project. That said, none of this diminishes the level of commitment and professional attitude and ability demonstrated by 37 students throughout three public relations courses. It should also be noted that the researcher acknowledges the comprehensive body of work from the students in strategy and materials, while significant as source material for subsequent project work and grant funding, do not explain the entire impact. In fact, there are multiple factors that contributed to the ongoing economic improvement in the region over the past three years. That said, the project demonstrates value in adopting service learning for students, faculty, the university, and a community partner on multiple fronts.

This study contributes to the limited body of knowledge about the value of public relations education to economic development (Fraustino et al., 2019). These findings also reinforce the body of literature supporting the value of service learning, including impact on rural communities (Frazier, Niehm, & Stoel, 2012; Miller, 1991; Tonn, Ezzell, & Ogle, 2010). This piece should be seen as a preliminary step in exploring means of developing more sophisticated and nuanced models for assessing economic impact in future scholarship on the subject, particularly on matters of long-term impact and projects that extend beyond single-semester courses. The researcher acknowledges the limitations of this assessment and analysis, particularly in examining student perceptions, but also notes the potential for additional scholarship that develops service-learning models devoted to economic development projects, as well as tools specifically designed for assessing the economic impact that faculty, students, and community partners achieve in projects similar to this one.

Literature in service learning details the value of the practice to individual students (Allison, 2008; Muturi et al., 2013; Rentner, 2011; Todd, 2014; Toncar et al.,2006; Witmer et al., 2009) and educators (Fall & Bourland-Davis, 2004; Wandel, 2005), and the larger view of the benefit to organizations, communities, and the university’s original purpose and strategic mission (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996; Greene, 2006). This case offers a model for a project that helped advance the university mission by helping local economic prospects, raising the profile of a visionary art venue and strengthening a community’s buy-in during the process.  Furthermore, it creates opportunities for students to build portfolios that will make them marketable in the workforce.

The concerns posed about service learning as a time-consuming and labor-intensive process (Fall & Bourland-Davis, 2004; Fraustino et al., 2019; Wandel, 2005) certainly hold true here. The instructor invested the better part of a year in research and relationship cultivation on site in Marion County with community members, in meetings with faculty in other departments, and in the development of a project design that would provide students with the opportunity to meet community needs. The intent of this research, however, is to illustrate the long-term value of the preparation and effort to advancing the students, community, and the faculty member. This project prompts further inquiry into the measurable impact of competition on service learning (McCollough, 2018; Rentner, 2011), and further study of the ultimate impact of the service-learning projects on Marion County, the town, and Pasaquan. Further, the specific case offers an opportunity for educators to further explore situations in which a losing team’s work ultimately contributes to the partner organizations.

Building and sustaining relationships through the two years of development and coursework speaks to relationship nurturing, a key component of stewardship in the ROPES PR model, which is commonly associated with fundraising (Kelly, 2001; Waters, 2009). The strength of the students’ stewardship permitted the work to progress across three semesters. This is an example of the value of teaching stewardship in service learning public relations courses. It also suggests a potential alternative to leaving work partially complete for the professor or client to see through (Fraustino et al., 2019) and a potential approach to managing client expectations of student output and timeline for useful strategy and materials (Rogers & Andrews, 2015). It also suggests an argument for developing a curriculum that incrementally builds in service-learning coursework that culminates in a capstone course structure, strengthening student aptitude with service learning and providing sustained support for client partners.

For community leaders, academic decision-makers, and other interested parties, the study should also be an example of the potential value of integrating coursework with practical environments. For community leaders, the local university may be able to serve as an engine for growth and revitalization beyond enrolled students, faculty, and staff living in the region. Service learning offers an approach to teaching that engenders strong social and civic engagement from students that can facilitate change. For faculty members who are hesitant to engage in service learning for various reasons, time commitment among them, this offers an example of economic growth spurred in part at the foundational level by students working both in a classroom and in a real-world lab environment.


A study of this nature has its limitations in assessing impact. The researcher learned about the potential economic and community impact of the collaborative partnership after the coursework began, and only started studying the impact of the project 15 months after the completion of the senior internship. This limited the study to a case analysis of student project work, student outputs, client responses to project outcomes, and review of economic development markers after the coursework was complete. Future scholarship on service-learning projects associated with economic development would benefit from quantitative or qualitative survey analysis that examines student perspectives, either from a follow-up survey (Werder & Strand, 2011) or a pre-test and post-test model (Fraustino et al., 2019). This would enrich the body of knowledge on the value of service learning in economic development to public relations students in addition to the case analysis presented here. Furthermore, in light of scholarship examining the challenges of service learning for faculty and students (Fraustino et al., 2019; Witmer et al., 2009), future studies in this area should examine the potential challenges service learning can pose for faculty and students alike.


In considering the perspective of students, the students’ holistic experience with and impression of projects of this nature is of benefit and should be an area of analysis in looking at future service-learning projects that focus on economic development and community revitalization of this nature. This presents an opportunity to leverage prior scholarship and models related to the subject (Muturi et al., 2013; Rogers & Andrews, 2015; Werder & Strand, 2011) to get a better perspective on students’ responses to and benefit from service-learning projects focused on economic development.

Also valuable would be further assessment of economic impact that can be implemented at the outset of a public relations course. This study provides an example where the client partner indicates that the work of students across each semester developed strategy and materials that ultimately shaped and informed promotional materials for the arts venue, as well as background research and strategy that yielded grant support for economic-development projects. A more comprehensive instrument that would demonstrate economic performance at the outset and in the aftermath of the course project would offer a stronger argument that supports qualitative data akin to the findings in this case study.

Finally, another area of analysis is to explore the impact of embedding stewardship (Kelly, 1991, 2001; Waters, 2009) in the public relations curriculum to create service-learning partnerships that endure across semesters. The potential benefits for students in terms of sustained client partnerships and the long-term value to community partners demonstrated in this case suggest value in additional study to determine viability of embracing the practice in the public relations classroom.


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Author Note

The author wishes to acknowledge and thank his conference reviewers, conference respondent, and the reviewers and editorial team. Their thoughtful comments, suggestions, and questions about structure, focus, and alternative literature reflect the best of an emphasis among reviewers and respondents in the Public Relations Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication to provide meaningful feedback and input throughout the review and presentation process. Their efforts helped the author make an award-winning paper stronger, and provided the author with some ideas for extension of the work into future areas of scholarship.

Correspondence concerning this article should be directed to Christopher J. McCollough, Department of Communication, Columbus State University, Columbus, GA 31907. Contact: chris.mccollough@columbusstate.edu

To cite this article: 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 Eduction, 5(2). Retrieved from https://aejmc.us/jpre/2019/08/17/visionary-public-relations-coursework-leveraging-service-learning-in-public-relations-courses-to-spur-economic-development-through-the-arts-travel-and-tourism/


Competition and Public Relations Campaigns: Assessing the Impact of Competition on Quality of Projects, Partners, and Students

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted to the AEJMC-PRD Paper Competition by April 1, 2017. Selected as a Top Teaching Paper. Submitted to JPRE on July 21, 2017. Final revisions completed on May 5, 2018. First published online on May 21, 2018.


Chris McCollough

Christopher J. McCollough, Columbus State University


Scholars in public relations pedagogy have provided a strong body of research on the impact of service learning, community partnerships (Daugherty, 2003), and applied learning on campaigns, writing, and production courses common to the public relations curriculum (Wandel, 2005). Rarely explored, however, is the impact of competition among student groups within a public relations course on the quality of campaigns, student experience, client satisfaction, and achievement of learning outcomes (Rentner, 2012). This study presents a comparative analysis of campaign courses that employed competitive and non-competitive campaign course models to demonstrate the impact of incorporating competition within public relations courses.

Key Words: Competition, Service Learning, Public Relations, Community Outreach, Benefits

Competition and Public Relations Campaigns: Assessing the Impact of Competition on Quality of Projects, Partners, and Students

Contemporary public relations pedagogy consistently employs the use of service learning in the delivery of course content in the upper division and capstone courses pertaining to public relations management and campaigns. Research on the practice demonstrates social, professional, and educational benefits among students (Bourland-Davis & Fall, 1997; Eyler & Giles, 1999; McElhaney, 1997; Melchior & Bailis, 2002). One key reason behind the adoption of service learning relates to the need of students to develop professional practice with clients, as well as the need to cultivate a professional portfolio. Scholars are adapting the practice beyond the capstone course in professional writing courses (Wandel, 2005), introductory public relations courses (Wilson, 2012), and even as a philosophical approach for the entire public relations curriculum at institutions (Enos & Morton, 2003).

More broadly speaking, early scholarship in service learning and its effects on students clearly articulate benefits in a variety of areas (Bringle & Hatcher, 1995; Eyler & Giles, 1999; Kuban, O’Malley, & Florea, 2014). Service learning proponents indicate that service learning is a more effective application of core concepts and principles than if simply provided in a classic lecture model (Gray, 2005), it is an engine for strong professional development and civic development (Lewis, 2002), and it even is a natural extension of the philosophy of John Dewey (1933, 1938). Returning to the subject of public relations education, however, other elements of public relations practice remain largely unexplored. One of these elements, with the exception of one study (Rentner, 2012), is the added element of competition among teams within a public relations campaigns course.

This paper is a comparative analysis of four public relations campaigns courses. The first two course sections (2012 and 2013) made use of a traditional campaigns model, in which teams worked with different community partners, with mixed results. The second two courses (2014 and 2015) adopted a competitive model of service learning, in which student teams engaged in head-to-head bids for a win and the top score. We begin with a brief review of pertinent literature about service learning, public relations pedagogy, and competition.


Stated previously, service learning became a broadly accepted part of public relations education in the 1990s (Bourland-Davis & Fall, 1997; Daugherty, 2003). To set the context for a broader audience, we will begin by defining service learning before addressing some of its benefits to students and discussing the rarely explored concept of incorporating professional forms of competition in the classroom.

Service Learning Definitions, Practices, and Challenges

In its organic development, service learning has acquired several definitions that come back to consistent, essential practices. Bringle and Hatcher (1995) identify service learning as an educational experience involving organized service that meets community needs that includes reflection on the work to gain deeper content knowledge, to increase disciplinary understanding, and to enhance civic responsibility. Kolb’s (1984) core elements of service learning include concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. Gelmon, Holland, Driscoll, Spring, and Kerrigan (2001) explain service learning as an educational methodology that marries community service with academic learning objectives and reflection.

Service learning is a process of development or knowledge creation where students transform the information they receive from their experience and make sense of it within the theoretical framework of their academic course material (Kubin et al., 2014). Acker (2003) emphasizes active, participatory learning and developing students’ critical-thinking, analytical, and problem-solving skills. Service learning maintains a high level of academic integrity, combined with a means of experiencing the material in a way students come to see that the content of classroom lectures holds true problem-solving potential for societal problems (Bringle & Hatcher, 1995; Giroux, 2010; Twenge, 2013). Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (1999) simply identified service learning as a way to help people take control of their own learning.

Service learning is a demanding approach for instructors, as Wandel (2005) offered up several examples commonly discussed as instructors address challenges in delivering the approach in the classroom. She notes a pragmatic challenge of time management on an academic calendar, assisting students in clearly defining a community need with partners, helping the community partner in creating goals that will effectively help meet their need(s), effectively executing work that progresses towards a solution, and allowing for the reflection that students have to embrace to maximize experiential learning. With a sense of the practice, the paper will now discuss the relative value of service learning to all relevant parties.

Practical Value to Faculty, Students, and Community

Faculty members often receive student complaints that course content has little to do with real life and, thus, is devoid of any practical value. Service-learning components, when embedded into curriculum, can add the level of relevance that students perceive as missing from curriculum. Research suggests that incorporating service-learning components into the curriculum increases levels of faculty satisfaction not only with course content but also with student learning outcomes (Bringle & Hatcher, 1995; Kahne, Westheimer, & Rogers, 2000). Through the service-learning experiences, students identify with course concepts, find the course material relevant to real-life situations, and become more familiar with the theoretical course content and more confident in the application of that content in the classroom and beyond. The service-learning model also provides faculty with a means of going beyond the basic instruction that provides a skeleton concept of the work performed with the agency, but it also allows faculty and students the opportunity to engage in deeper learning as they explore alternative applications for applying course content outside of the classroom (Bringle & Hatcher, 1995).

From the student perspective, literature also offers strong examples of how service learning can help in cultivating stronger individuals. Fritz (2002) notes that active-learning strategies can promote metacognitive process in most college subjects and data show increased retention in the course and in college. Conrad and Hedin (1989) saw evidence of improved observation techniques, open-mindedness, and aid with insight and judgment skills (Conrad & Hedin, 1991), as well as improved problem analysis skills and creativity, while being exposed to opportunities to enter the service industry. Huckin (1997) found evidence of improved critical thinking and writing skills in adopting service learning. These findings address the perspective of scholars who identified a clear call from universities to cultivate problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, and effective decision-making in students (Acker, 2003; Bransford et al., 1999; Lynott, 1998; O’Leary, 2002; Page & Mukherjee, 2007).

Adopting a service-learning model can help meet real needs of community agencies that include expanded capacities – both human and resource – of local agencies (Basinger, 2015; Fletcher, Rousell, Worrell, McLean, & Baydala, 2012); mitigate the dearth of resources in rural and otherwise, underserved, populations (Auld, 2004; Basinger, 2015; Hall, Lasby, Ayer, & Gibbons, 2009; Miller, 1991); and build vital sustaining partnerships between faculty, students, university and the community (Fletcher, et al., 2012). Research suggests that reciprocity is one of the strongest predictors of successful partnerships resulting from service learning opportunities, where each stakeholder gains from the experience with an equitable exchange of resources (Cruz & Giles, 2000; Jacoby, 1996). As such, service learning provides community agencies with knowledge, skill, and human resources they need but could not afford. In turn, students view the community agency as experience and professional network providers – both of which can be helpful in the job search. Effective service-learning partnerships encourage mutuality, shared resources and accountabilities, where each service-learning stakeholder contributes resources to help the others (Basinger, 2015; Honadle & Kennealy, 2011). Additional research suggests that service learning helps build levels of confidence in content and practice (Basinger, 2015; Kahne et al., 2000).

When viewed as such, the service-learning experience and learning can be as rewarding for the faculty member as it is for the student. One of the many positive outcomes of service learning is that faculty members can incorporate these opportunities – that often come from their own personal involvement in the community – to help students experience first-hand how vital and relevant course content can be to meeting needs in the community (Bringle & Hatcher, 1995).

Faculty can draw upon a growing body of quantitative and qualitative research literature indicating increased content knowledge and levels of awareness and engagement result from service-learning components embedded into the course curriculum (Honadle & Kennealy, 2011; Kahne, et al., 2000; Kuban, et al., 2014). Furthermore, research suggests that service-learning experience “enhances the student’s academic development, life skill development and sense of civic responsibility” (Astin & Sax, 1998, p. 262). McEachern (2001) makes the point that service learning helps bridge the gap between theory and practice in matters of civic engagement. Having established a broader sense of the value of service learning to relevant parties, the paper will now focus on the benefit of service learning to public relations education.

Value of Service Learning to Public Relations Pedagogy

Scholarship on service learning integration in the teaching of public relations suggests some tangible benefits to the holistic and professional development of college students. Scholars note that the nature of the ever-changing media environment makes the ability to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information for decision-making essential for new professionals in public relations and journalism (Lloyd, Slater, & Robbs, 2000; Strohm & Baukus, 1995). The aforementioned literature on personal, professional, and civic development of students speaks directly to this.

Other scholars have looked at the benefit of service learning in the public relations context. Strohm and Baukus (1995) identified several benefits in the practice, including (1) flexibility to ambiguity, (2) strengthening professional adaptability, and (3) dealing with delineation using diagnostic thinking and evaluation. Daugherty (2003) explored the value California State University-Long Beach students enjoyed after the public relations program at their institution adopted service learning in not only the campaigns course but also in the internal communication, external communication, and the public relations publications course. She found that throughout the courses, students enjoyed healthy client relationships with community partners. For clients, the working experience with students was productive and beneficial to the organization, leaving them interested in future partnerships.

Bollinger (2004) detailed a small class’ work on cultivating a 5-year strategy on behalf of a local chamber of commerce. While the formal plan’s write-up fell to the instructor, students engaged in the research, data collection, and strategy sessions that generated the final document over the semester-long course. In addition to students expressing a strong sense of value in service learning, Bollinger also noted that students refined group, organizational, and interpersonal communication skills in the process of completing the project, as well as practicing public speaking skills as part of the formal presentation to the client at the end of the term.

Wandel (2005) assessed the value of using service learning in a public relations writing course to determine if the application of additional effort in course design and implementation elicited the kinds of benefits her students appreciated. In her results, she noted that the students expressed concerns over the additional work that come from collaborating with community partners. Traditionally strong performers in the class who assumed leadership roles expressed concerns over having to carry the load for the team, rather than being able to rely on the group. Students, however, found benefit in tangible portfolio materials and inspiration in working with the nonprofit organizations with which they worked. Wandel (2005) noted the one consistent element expressed by students was a desire for a stronger mechanism of individual evaluation in addition to the group project grade.

Wilson (2012) found value in service learning for public relations students’ critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. Through pre-test and post-test analysis, she found significant progression across a variety of skills, most significant of which was in identifying new information needed to solve a problem and creative thinking to support problem solving. She notes that while the skills refined in a service-learning course can be beneficial for all college students, the skills highlighted are of particular value to those interested in entering a dynamic, challenging field like public relations. Next, the paper will discuss the added value of competition in public relations courses that incorporate service learning.

The Value of Competition in Public Relations Courses

Recent scholarship on service learning in public relations education puts the focus on the value of other professional pressure, specifically competition. As a concept, competition has gone largely unaddressed in public relations and service-learning literature. Early scholarship on competition in the classroom explored it as a means for motivation (Clifford, 1972) and task accomplishment (Lowell, 1952), with little consensus on findings that demonstrate the value of incorporating competition in the classroom (Dowell, 1975). Rudow and Hautaluoma (1975) noted that competition could be a strong social motivator, with both positive and negative consequences.

Literature within public relations and communication pertaining to the impact of competition remains largely unexplored, with the exception of Rentner’s (2012) examination of campaign competition among classes at different institutions during the period of two semester-long courses working for one client: the Ohio Tobacco Prevention Foundation. Over the course of 2 years, Rentner explored student motivation to succeed, the quality of the work produced, and the pride expressed in a job well done through the critical analysis of student evaluations and service-learning journals produced by students. In terms of motivation to succeed, students all expressed a high motivation to succeed and did so by putting the focus on the client, deadlines, and the work of competition at other institutions, rather than their individual evaluation. Students expressed a high desire to produce quality work in light of the competition taking place with other institutions, routinely citing the products of the competition in contrast to their own when citing concerns over product. Finally, complaints about the time-consuming nature of campaign work were mitigated by acknowledging the pride they took in seeing finished project work and the final event they helped coordinate and run, as well as a sense of pride in their own university.

While Rentner’s (2012) work offers a model for a broader program among institutions that effectively implements service learning to the benefit of students in a public relations curriculum, what is lacking is additional scholarship reviewing the actual products of students and exploring the impact of competition within a public relations classroom in seeking the approval of a client. Moreover, no scholarship on pitching clients exists in the current public relations education literature. This paper answers Rentner’s (2012) call for exploration of the impact of competition on the work produced in a single public relations campaigns class employing a service-learning format.

Research Questions

Based on Rentner’s (2012) intercourse analysis as the model for testing the value of competition within a single public relations classroom, the researchers consider the following research questions:


RQ1: What is the quality of the product delivered to the client?

RQ2: What is the client perception of working with the student group(s) assigned?

In addition to Renter’s original focus, the researcher is also exploring the overall student       perception of the class, which prompts the following research question:

RQ3: What are the students’ evaluation of the public relations course with and without the competition element?


The study used a mixed-methods approach to analyze the products, client perceptions, and students’ assessments of the courses. To assess the quality of the products produced, the researcher revisited the campaign books produced in all four classes. There were three in the 2012 course, three in the 2013 course, six in the 2014 course, and six in the 2015 course. The research evaluated the design aesthetic of each project’s mock-ups, the quality of student writing, the public relations logic and application of principles of best practice, and the quality of the research employed.

To evaluate the client perception of working with the student groups, the instructor asked each client to provide frank assessments of each team at four separate points in the semester, as a means of evaluating client relations and meeting needs. The researcher reviewed each comment on this basis to assess the quality of each team’s effort to (1) find common ground with the client, and (2) produce work that meets client needs.

Finally, to evaluate the student perspective on the course, the researcher reviewed the student evaluations provided for each of the four course sections. First, students reviewed the 10 standard questions asked of students at the university regarding all instructors. Faculty evaluations at the institution are on a five-point Likert scale, with 5 being the strongest assessment and 1 being the weakest. Second, since the 10 questions posed in the institution’s final course evaluations lack depth of description and speak very little to the course projects, team dynamics, or the experience of working with a community partner, the instructor asked students in the free response sections to comment on specific elements that they enjoyed and disliked. The instructor reviewed all comments and identified key themes reflecting the strengths and weaknesses of the course design in the non-competitive and competitive models.

With the means of analysis established, the paper will now briefly discuss the design of the four course sections.

The Course Designs

The instructional presentation of content across all four sections of public relations campaigns held true. During the first 8 weeks of the course, students began with some light remediation about the principles of best practice in public relations, including a review of and thorough discussion of the application of RACE (Cutlip, Center, & Broom, 2006), ROPES (Kelly, 2001) and the four models of public relations communication (Grunig & Hunt, 1984). The instructor covered assignment-specific elements in research, campaign planning, campaign execution, evaluation, book production, and client pitching throughout the term as well. The instructor held lectures one day a week, with an in-class work session the second day, in which the instructor visited with each team and discussed the weekly progression of their projects.

The second half of the course moved to a more team-driven form of applied learning. Each team engaged in the campaign process and, rather than hold formal lectures, the professor had one mandatory team meeting each week, and the teams held a mandatory client meeting in lieu of a second lecture session each week.

The fundamental difference in the 2014 and 2015 course sections of public relations campaigns was the migration from a traditional team-client dynamic where the sole focus was production on deadline to a pitch competition. Whereas three student teams of 6-8 in a class size of 18-24 for three local nonprofit organizations was the framework for the 2012 and 2013 sections, the growth in popularity of the class to roughly 28-30 students enabled the instructor to adopt a competitive model of six student teams, consisting of 4-5 members. The instructor then identified three community partners and assigned two student teams to each client based on student team interest in working with each client.

In a move meant to minimize disparity in student skills and aptitude, and to enhance the parallel with a “real world” working environment, the instructor moved to assigning the student teams on day one of the course. Students were reminded that when they are hired by a public relations firm, the agency directors assign individuals to specific account teams based on their skills.

To control for concerns about one team member carrying all of the work (Wandel, 2005), individual team members had to provide two metrics of accountability. The first was a bi-weekly peer review of their peers on the team, which the instructor maintained as a weekly assignment and used to frame the team meetings each week. The second was an individual portfolio turned in at the end of the term, which contained a cover letter, resume, and 10 individual project items that were a part of the team project. Peer evaluations and the portfolio comprised 15% of the students’ overall grade. In essence, a good team performance would not be enough for team members who were not active, productive contributors on their teams.

At the end of the 15-week term, students submitted the team campaign books, and performed professional pitches for each of the three clients in head-to-head sessions, akin to standard practice for public relations, advertising, or marketing firms. To assist relatively inexperienced clients with determining the quality and long-term value of the student projects, the instructor invited a team of four local practitioners with experience in healthcare, nonprofit, corporate, and public sector public relations to provide insight on the overall quality of the materials produced and strategies proposed.

At the end of three one-hour sessions, the instructor announced the winners of each competition. The winning teams earned automatic A’s for the project, while the losing teams were subject to the instructor’s evaluation of the project. The projects comprised 55% of the overall student grade, so the competition carried a high incentive value for each student team. With the design of the course laid out, the paper next addresses each of the research questions.


Reviewing Student Products

Overall, the formal review of campaign books in 2012 and 2013 against the 2014 and 2015 campaign books yielded clear overall improvement in organization of the books, attention to detail, and adherence to public relations logic. In the 2012 and 2013 books, it was clear that in the effort to satisfy client needs, students let go of either a RACE or ROPES model of practice in favor of a client-specific text. Also apparent was the relative disorganization of some student team texts, even after careful instruction on campaign book organization. In the effort to do so, however, most of the books still lacked a coherent sense of organization that would enable the reader to review each section and clearly identifying its relationship to the larger book and project. Graphic design, media production, and attention to specific core elements of best practice in public relations were inconsistent among the six books presented. In fact, the two highest scoring teams in the 2012 and 2013 courses were the only teams that attended to these considerations.

There was a clear improvement in the 12 2014 and 2015 campaign books reviewed, at least in terms of design and book organization. Student teams delegated design work and public relations strategy more effectively among team members, which yielded a stronger product for students to submit to the client. Student teams made effective use of integrated media strategies, specifically the strategic application of video production, social and digital media messaging and distribution, and more precise event planning in support of the media production produced on behalf of the client partners. The general organization of the books was also largely much cleaner, with only two of the 12 books earning poor marks on organization.

Some elements did remain problematic, even with the application of competition to the campaigns course model. The quality of student writing was largely inconsistent with the exception of a few strong writers who took the editorial role on the campaign teams. Student research was more effective in employing secondary research sources but suffered when students had to adopt primary research in filling knowledge gaps about the clients and strategic publics or to engage in incremental or summative evaluation of the project work.

One interesting element that was largely inconsistent in both competitive and noncompetitive public relations campaigns models was the application of stewardship (Kelly, 2001) with the client and on behalf of the client with strategic publics essential to the campaign. In two instances, the critical attention to client and publics, specifically in terms of stewardship, made an essential difference in determining the winning bid in the competitive campaigns courses.

Client Reception of the Teams and Products

In reviewing the comments of each client over the four course sections, it is clear that the competitive model encouraged a larger body of student groups to engage in two-way dialog with the clients throughout the campaign process. In the 2012 and 2013 courses, the strongest teams adhered to Kelly’s (2001) argument for the value of stewardship in public relations. Specifically, the most successful teams maintained a minimum of one meeting a week, and often maintained frequent email communication with the client and among team members. That said, it was largely absent from most of the team projects. Of the six student projects reviewed, only two teams really adopted the core principle of stewardship and merited the comments from the client reflecting this. While the majority of community partners expressed a sense of appreciation for the assistance, one 2013 community partner offered this candid perspective on the work of the student team:

I could spend more time reviewing the group and its performance; however, I wanted to tie the final assessment back to the actual written agreement between Client and Consultant. With that said, along with other documentation of events throughout the course of the semester, my overall grade for group as a whole would have to be an F.  I truly hate to say that but, that is, in all honesty the grade I have to give them as a team.  The final straw with this particular grade is based on the fact that the group did not let me review their campaign book at all before submitting it and I do not feel confident that they were truthful in their report.

This report prompted the instructor to adopt direct competition, and the results in subsequent course sections validated this decision. In contrast, in the effort to win a competitive bid, a wide base of the 2014 and 2015 books adopted stronger stewardship and more consistent client communication throughout the process. One client’s comments offer a clear indication that attention to detail, stewardship, and addressing the needs of the community partner remained top of mind for each of the two teams collaborating with this 2015 partner:

Your students were an absolute pleasure to work with. Their final presentations reflected a great deal of work on their part as well as the excellent educational background received from you. Your guidance and leadership was certainly apparent in their final product. The experience and skills your students gained from this “real life” experience will have a great impact on them as they pursue their careers. The time spent with the staff from the Georgia Department of Economic Development Tourism Product Development Division was certainly a valuable experience as well.

The comments effectively reinforced the value of adopting competition in terms of helping students see the need for effectively addressing the needs of the client, either directly or by demonstrating the value of the strategic publics clients may or may not see. Even more indicative than the praise in the client comments is the fact that many of the 2014 and 2015 project materials are still in use by the client partners today.

An interesting component worth noting in this analysis is that student groups in the competitive model also demonstrated an ad hoc form of incremental self-evaluation and adaptation in strategies and tactics in their interactions with clients. In using the weekly client sessions to account for the client wants and needs, students had to confront the clients’ perceptions of the quality of the students’ work and to make necessary changes to project components that did not meet client expectations. The instructor encountered many more conversations with students who had to part with project elements they designed after a client meeting left them with an understanding that this would not meet needs. While not an intentional motivation for the migration to competitive course design, the instructor acknowledges the professional development value of having to let go of one’s ego when producing materials and strategy for clients who may have different aesthetics or opinions on strategic direction.

Students’ Assessment of the Courses

In reviewing the course evaluations across these four sections, there was slightly harsher criticism for the instructor from students in the 2015 course section, but not a potentially damaging assessment of the instructor in considering teaching effectiveness for factors like annual review and promotion and tenure. There was a slight decline in ratio from the 2012 (4.67) and 2013 (4.69) course evaluations against the 2015 (4.49) course evaluations; however, the first year of competition, 2014, yielded the strongest evaluations (4.92) to date. Even with one competitive course section trending lower in student evaluations, the overall evaluations provide strong evidence of the value of service learning among students as the instructor reviewed open student comments about the project work.

In review of the student comments, we see a strong emphasis on the value of service learning in providing exposure to real clients and acclimating students to client relations. Several students expressed appreciation for the practical experience that working with community partners yields. This perspective is in line with the work of scholars who identified student perceptions of benefit (Daugherty, 2003; Wilson, 2012). Students also expressed a strong affinity for the competition element, as well as the excitement behind developing a strategic pitch.

Negative comments about the course were limited, with only an occasional student over 4 years expressing a desire not to engage in service-learning because of the extra demand and pressure it put on them to effectively complete the task. Specifically, in three instances over four courses, individual students expressed frustration over the time commitment in working with community partners and requested that the instructor consider using hypothetical clients to facilitate more efficient project work. This coincides with Wandel’s (2005) timing challenges, specifically the rhythm of engaging in community outreach within the practical limits of an academic calendar.

Another area of student frustration in three instances was the instructor’s decision in 2015 to use assigned teams rather than to permit students to form their own student teams. The student comments suggested frustration over having to work with classmates whom they disliked. Other comments cited frustration with classmates’ relative unreliability, forcing one or two team members to carry the majority of the work. This prompted the instructor to revisit instruction on team dynamics and professional responsibility in task delegation, both from a manager’s and technician’s standpoint.


In reviewing the three research questions, the instructor found support for the application of competition in service-learning courses, specifically within the public relations curriculum. In response to the first research question, a review of the students’ campaign books demonstrated a general improvement in design, organization, and adherence to best practices in public relations when dealing with the competitive pressures in a service-learning course like campaigns. One point of interest was the relative struggles of students with industry standards of effective writing, reinforcing previous findings that indicated young practitioner struggles with writing proficiency in the contemporary workplace (Todd, 2014). Another was the disconnect between the value in primary and secondary research, regardless of the application of competition in the course. Both have prompted the instructor to invest time and energy in reviewing the connection between the writing and research curriculum and the senior-level public relations campaigns course. Overall, however, this is general support for an improvement in the quality of the product produced by the students.

The second research question called upon the clients to reflect on their experiences in assessing the quality of student work in the campaigns course. In general, the clients who encountered students in competition enjoyed a more attentive group of student teams who adopted the principles of stewardship (Kelly, 2001) and benefited from consistent dialog with the team on the overall quality of the product. Student teams had the added benefit of being able to better adapt the project and materials to the needs of the client and to help the clients better understand strategic publics that they may not have previously considered prior to the partnership. That said, further examination of specific teams’ failings in stewardship is a noteworthy area of inquiry for self-reflection and improvement of the class model.

With regard to the third research question, the instructor enjoyed generally strong student evaluations in all four course sections, but did see an increase in criticism in the final year of evaluation (2015), while enjoying the strongest evaluations in the first year of adopting competitive learning models (2014). Each of the 4 years of instruction demonstrated positive student feedback for service learning and for the adoption of competitive modeling.

The refined emphasis on strict scrutiny in the second year of using competitive learning models may have prompted a more critical response from student learners. Another possibility is that in adopting the approach in the first year, perhaps the instructor was more attentive to being specific and thorough in providing initial and subsequent reminders on course instruction that helped students with clarity of content and approaching deadlines. Nevertheless, even in adopting the competitive learning models, the instructor enjoyed a strong reception from students and was able to blend service with teaching. Further review of course articulation and evaluation will permit the instructor to refine the course model.

The instructor acknowledges that the data pool here is limited to one instructor’s course load over four semesters, and that the practice needs exploration across a larger sample, over time. This merits a broader analysis among instructors who have adopted a competitive model to determine student and client satisfaction. It is also of note to consider how differences among clients may also impact differences in the service-learning experience, which will have merit for future adoption of service learning in the realm of working collaboratively with partners before, during, and after the semester-long project (Wandel, 2005).

Acknowledging the merits demonstrated among institutions in Rentner’s (2012) study and what the instructor sees in his own courses, further examination of the value of the practice and the balance of competition’s impact on perception of the course and instructor is important in considering the holistic development of aspiring public relations practitioners (Page & Mukherjee, 2007; Wilson, 2012). More instructors adopting competitive-learning models should engage in scholarship on the subject to enable greater refinement in the discipline.

Those interested in adopting this approach should be mindful of a few elements. First, in the instructor’s experience, an emphasis on cultivating community partnerships and maintaining an instructor-level line of communication with each partner before, during, and after the process proved beneficial. The literature on service learning notes the time intensive necessity for partner cultivation (Eyler & Giles, 1999; Wandel, 2005), so prospective adopters must account for this in course planning. It not only enables a more fluid classroom application, but it facilitates future partnerships, as well.

Instructors should also be prepared to provide consultation with individual students on a wide variety of topics. A common topic for this instructor has been conflict resolution with team members and clients. Another commitment comes in remediation of core concepts with individual students who may have struggled in the introductory public relations, media production, design, or research courses that provide the intellectual foundation for a strong performance in public relations campaigns.


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