Tag Archives: strategic communication

Systematically Applying DEI Accreditation Standards to a Strategic Communications Curriculum

Editorial Record: Submitted May 30, 2022. Revised August 29, 2022. Accepted October 28, 2022. 


Lee Bush
Strategic Communications
Elon University
Elon, North Carolina
Email: lbush3@elon.edu

Vanessa Bravo, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Strategic Communications
Elon University
Elon, North Carolina
Email: vbravo@elon.edu

In November of 2020, the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications revised its accreditation standards and included new guidelines for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). To meet the new DEI guidelines in a systematic way, the authors led an initiative to research, develop, and test modules to achieve DEI learning outcomes in four core Strategic Communications courses at Elon University. The authors then shared the modules and assessment with Strategic Communications faculty and discussed how they could be applied in each of the core courses. This initiative created shared language and norms for faculty teaching DEI across the curriculum, provided tested content that resonated with students, and supplied faculty with needed resources and applications they could then customize to fit their own class projects and teaching styles. This pilot study outlines the approach taken and results of the assessment and faculty feedback.

Keywords: accreditation, DEI, ACEJMC, diversity, strategic communication

In November of 2020, the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC) approved revised standards for its accredited and accreditation-seeking universities. Part of these revised standards included new guidelines for diversity and inclusion. In the area of curriculum, the standards read:

The unit’s curriculum creates culturally proficient communicators capable of learning with, working on and advancing the value of diverse teams. The unit’s curriculum includes instruction on issues and perspectives relating to mass communications across diverse cultures in a global society. (ACEJMC, 2021, p. 50)     

In addition, the standards require units to demonstrate “effective efforts to enhance all faculty members’ understanding of diversity, equity, inclusion and ability to develop culturally proficient communicators” (ACEJMC, 2021, p. 50). To meet these standards in the Strategic Communications department at our university (Elon University, North Carolina, USA), the department chair spearheaded an initiative to update student learning outcomes in all our required courses. The newly created diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) learning objectives were specific to each required course and were incorporated into syllabi beginning in the fall of 2021. It was then up to each faculty member to meet these learning objectives in their courses in their own ways. 

As Waymer and Dyson pointed out in 2011, while diversity is emphasized in accreditation standards, these issues do not always trickle down to the PR classroom “in systematic ways” (p. 462). Similarly, while the recent report from the Commission on Public Relations Education (2018) charged educators with taking a leadership role in addressing critical DEI areas, particularly regarding the centrality of DEI in accreditation standards, it also acknowledged the difficulty in conveying “how D&I-focused content is reflected in curriculum” and called on public relations programs to “proactively address and plan for diversity related content” (Mundy et al., 2018, p. 141). Likewise, in their study of student and faculty leaders in DEI, Bardhan and Gower (2020) proposed that faculty thought leaders “need to work collectively with peers and accreditation bodies to enhance curriculum for D&I and develop needed courses and content” (p. 136). 

While revising our course learning objectives was a good start, we began to think about how we could infuse DEI content more systematically into our courses, while also scaffolding the content so that upper-level courses were building on what was learned in lower-level courses. In addition, we acknowledged that faculty were at different levels in their understanding and ability to teach DEI. While many faculty are already infusing DEI into their courses, it would take time and research to meet the new learning objectives. During the COVID-19 pandemic, time is something faculty members do not have. How could we make it easier for faculty to create content that is meaningful and effective in meeting the new learning objectives?

To accomplish this task, the authors took a leadership role in creating, testing, and sharing content with faculty to help them navigate the challenge of meeting our DEI learning objectives. Through a Diversity and Inclusion Grant from our university’s Center for Teaching and Learning, we spent the summer of 2021 researching and developing teaching modules for each of our core Strategic Communications courses. We tested and assessed the modules in courses during the 2021-22 academic year, and then shared the modules and our assessment with faculty at an information session in the spring of 2022. The result was that we created shared language and norms for faculty teaching DEI across our curriculum, provided tested content that resonated with students, and supplied faculty with needed resources and applications they could then customize to fit their own class projects and teaching styles. This study will outline the approach we took and the results of student assessment and faculty feedback, addressing the focus area of “Faculty preparation/training and peer mentoring for teaching PR to advance DE&I in this time of great uncertainty” outlined by the editors of this special issue.

Literature Review and Modules Focus

For decades, the communication industry has bemoaned its “diversity problem,” and though the industry has made some strides, it still has a long way to go (Dunleavy, 2022; Marszalek, 2021; Moore, 2022). In the results of a 2016 omnibus survey reported by the Commission on Public Relations Education (Mundy et al., 2018), practitioners said they value candidates with a multicultural professional lens, but that this perspective is often lacking in entry-level candidates (p. 139). Acknowledging the link between industry and education, the report states, “In order to see D&I within the public relations industry flourish, change must begin at the academic level,” partly through how DEI is taught in public relations programs (p. 139).

While industry leaders and educators agree that DEI is critical to a public relations education, the content for making this a reality is often lacking. For example, in interviews with faculty, Waymer and Dyson (2011) found that race is often non-existent in PR classes and “few textbooks deal with the subject matter in any real depth” (p. 473). In their paper on the role of industry and education leaders bringing about needed change, Bardhan and Gower (2020) found that the PR curriculum “is still not adequately incorporating diverse course content despite ongoing calls from accreditation bodies and professional associations” (p. 110). In their interviews, students and educators shared that it is often only faculty with marginalized identities who engage DEI in the classroom, that DEI needs to be incorporated throughout the curriculum and not just as one class, the importance of including diverse authors and speakers in PR classes, and the need to challenge students to think in new ways in an industry that lacks diversity.

While several departments within our university provide faculty training in intercultural competence and DEI teaching and learning skills, the focus of our project was on developing and testing the course content needed to meet our DEI learning objectives and create culturally proficient communicators, as required by ACEJMC. The Goodman model for “Cultural Competence for Equity and Inclusion” requires developing in students “a range of awareness, knowledge, and skills,” including “self-awareness,” “valuing others,” “knowledge of social inequities,” and “skills to interact effectively with a diversity of people” and “foster transformation towards equity and inclusion” (Goodman, 2020, pp. 7-10).

To help students achieve cultural competence, Georgetown University provides a toolkit for faculty to design “inclusive, antiracist learning environments” (Georgetown, n.d.a.). The toolkit includes five interconnected aspects of teaching and learning, beginning with content and pedagogy. In the area of content, the toolkit encourages faculty to intentionally bring “a range of activities, materials, perspectives, and identities into the learning space” and to “name and discuss the agenda(s) and historical biases of your field” (Georgetown, n.d.b.). In the area of pedagogy, the guide suggests that course design should “encompass explicit learning goals, transparent assignments and criteria, and engaging active learning activities that stimulate and challenge students” (Georgetown, n.d.c.). Further, in the Wheaton College guide for “Becoming an Anti-Racist Educator,” the resource offers guidance for assessing course content and employing evidence-based anti-racist pedagogy (Torres, n.d.).

To fill the DEI content gap in our program, we developed teaching modules for each of our core Strategic Communications courses: Public Relations & Civic Responsibility, Strategic Writing, Strategic Research Methods, and Strategic Campaigns. Since our newly revised DEI learning objectives were specific to each course, it was important to review literature that addressed these specifics. We developed an annotated bibliography to help us create the content, lessons, materials, and class activities (described later in this paper) for each course. It was sometimes difficult to find educational-related DEI research to apply to each objective and thus it was often necessary to go outside the communications field for resources. Below is a sample of this research and how we used it in each of the teaching modules.

Public Relations & Civic Responsibility

Because Public Relations & Civic Responsibility is our introductory course in the major, it was necessary to share and explain to students certain basic DEI concepts they might not be familiar with (what is diversity, what is equity, what is inclusion) and the state of DEI in the field of strategic communications. Different recent studies have indicated that our industry, in general, and our field within the federal government, in particular, is about 81% to 88% White, respectively. In contrast, the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (2019), is only about 60% White. This data clearly indicates that our profession is not reflecting the diversity of the society in which it operates (Chitkara, 2018; Diversity Action Alliance, 2021; U.S. Census Bureau, 2019). In fact, the DAA’s report (2021) surveyed more than 100 U.S.-based public relations and communications organizations and found that just 21% (about one-fifth) of employees are racially/ethnically diverse, and, in 2019, they were promoted at a lower rate than their White counterparts.

To meet our course learning objectives, it was also important for students to understand why our field is so White (Diversity Action Alliance, 2021; Landis, 2019) and why the United States has marginalized and/or failed to fully include some identity communities for so long (Coates, 2014; DiAngelo, 2019; Hannah-Jones, 2019; 2021), although this second goal would require a full separate course (or several) to do it justice. We included, in our annotated bibliography, some foundational readings for our students to at least start understanding the historical processes that explain why racial and ethnic inequities still exist in the United States (Capps, 2015; Collins, 2018; Curtis, 2015; Elliott & Hughes, 2019; Guilford, 2018; Mulholland, 2019; PBS, 2003). We also added recommendations from the literature on how to make our field of strategic communication more inclusive (Chitkara, 2018; Diversity Action Alliance, 2021; Landis, 2019, PRSA, 2022). 

Additionally, we incorporated a case study about the Latinx community, the second-largest community in the United States, to dispel myths and better understand facts (Noe-Bustamante & Flores, 2019). Other PR professors could use this case study or choose to focus on other marginalized communities (i.e., the Black community, the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities). 

Strategic Writing

For the Strategic Writing course, which is the second required course in the major, it was important to refresh some statistics about the racial and ethnic demographics of the United States, adding information as well about gender and gender expression, sexual orientation, levels of ability or disability, religious affiliations or lack thereof, and socioeconomic status. Excellent resources about U.S. demographics regarding race and ethnicity, immigration, religion, generations and age, gender and LGBTQ populations can be found at the Pew Research Center’s website under the heading “Research Topics” (Pew Research Center, 2022). 

The overarching purpose for the Strategic Writing DEI learning objectives is to teach students that we write for very diverse audiences. Diversity, equity, and inclusion all need to be reflected in the topics we write about, the angles we use for those topics, the sources of information we use for those materials (both regarding expert sources and “regular people”), the visuals that accompany our storytelling, and the media through which we disseminate our messages. In summary, we wanted students to understand that diversity is about all of us in society, not about “the Other.”

We also added information about the importance of consulting expert groups when we create content for internal and external campaigns in our organizations or communication      agencies, which we can find through general web searches and by focusing on certain platforms such as LinkedIn. We mention organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Association of Retired People, The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation Media Institute, UnitedWeDream, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, and Voto Latino. Furthermore, we review the guidelines that the Associated Press Stylebook offers related to DEI aspects (AP, 2022). 

Strategic Research Methods

Content for Strategic Research Methods, the third required course in the major, focused on teaching students how to develop culturally-sensitive research projects – from design and implementation to analysis and final report writing. This also included discussing DEI in research ethics. 

For research ethics, we were cognizant that many communication research textbooks cover only Western and male-centered ethics theories, such as deontological, teleological, and relativism. We discussed how Western ethics theories focus more on the individual, while Eastern and other non-Western theories focus more on the community or group, and why it is important to consider both in an increasingly global world (Hongladarom, 2019). 

In covering how to design culturally sensitive research, we began by discussing why it is important to take a “DEI-first” approach when developing a research project rather than making it an afterthought. Baugh and Guion (2006), for example, assert that research should place culture and its impact on human behavior at the forefront of the research process, viewing culture as an explanatory rather than tertiary variable examined in relation to other variables. A resource that was particularly helpful for outlining the components of a culturally sensitive research project was an article in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry (Burlew et al., 2019). Although not specific to communications, the article goes through each stage of the scientific research process and identifies the most appropriate strategies for researching marginalized identity groups. In addition, we included more practical guidance, like how to ask questions about race/ethnicity (Burlew et al., 2019; Office of Regulatory Affairs and Research Compliance, 2020), and sexuality/gender (Vanderbilt University, n.d.) in a survey.

We also provided examples of qualitative research methods that challenge the traditional positivist approach. These included examples of “decolonizing” research methods such as participatory action research (Zavala, 2013), and communicative methodologies (Gomez et al., 2019). The purpose of these examples was to show that research should be done “with” rather than “on” marginalized communities. Another example provided was a “research manifesto” created collaboratively by community members in the Downtown Eastside area of Vancouver, Canada (Neufeld et al., 2019). The manifesto was created to eliminate research practices that cause harm to community members and provide guidelines for researchers to engage in practices that are respectful, useful, and ethical.

Strategic Campaigns

For the Strategic Campaigns course, the culminating senior-level course in the major, our focus was on teaching students to be proficient in incorporating DEI into their campaigns and understanding the business case for doing so. Since our major includes students who are interested in both advertising and public relations, we reviewed materials that covered both disciplines. In this module, we provided a video of interviews with industry professionals at Cannes Lions (CNBC International TV, 2018) on how far the industry has come on DEI (not far) and how far it had to go. We provided statistics that emphasized the lack of diversity in the industry, including in graphic design (Brewer, 2019; Statista, 2021). We further discussed the impact this lack of diversity has on consumer perceptions, purchasing habits, and missed market opportunities (Brown, 2019; Walker, 2020). 

To help students better understand communication professionals’ ethical and moral responsibilities to DEI, we discussed how corporate history is tied to oppression (Coates, 2014; Jan et al., 2020; Lockhart, 2019; Lowell, 2020; Modern Marketing Partners, 2017) and the responsibility of corporations to right this wrong. For example, in her “Theory of Corporate Responsibility to Race,” Nneka Logan (2021) posits that, because corporations have profited from racial oppression, they have a responsibility to “communicate in ways that advocate for racial justice; attempt to improve race relations; and support achieving a more equitable and harmonious society” (p. 1).

Walking through each stage of the campaign planning process, we discussed ways to incorporate DEI throughout. For example, we included resources on brainstorming with cross-cultural teams, outlining how different cultures prefer different styles of participation (Livermore, 2016); making sure your creative concepts and tactics accurately reflect the diverse cultures of your audiences (Dallis, 2020); and approaching social media from a DEI perspective, including diversifying your own social feed and working with a diverse group of influencers (McFarlane, 2016).

After the first round of assessments, revisions to the module included two other resources: materials from the UN Women’s Unstereotype Alliance, and a diversity and representation guide from the World Federation of Advertisers. While these materials focus on the advertising industry, they are applicable to all communicators in strategic communication.

The Unstereotype Alliance is an industry-led initiative convened by UN Women to end harmful stereotypes and affect positive culture change (Unstereotype Alliance, n.d.). In May of 2021, the Alliance created a “State of the Industry” report outlining gaps and opportunities in fostering workplace equality, achieving unstereotyped advertising, and empowering public action (Unstereotype Alliance, 2021a.). In addition, the Unstereotype Alliance has created the “3 Ps” framework for representing diverse people in marketing communications materials. These include Presence (representation that goes beyond simply being a “mannequin for the product”), Perspective (who is framing the story) and Personality (depth of the character) (Unstereotype Alliance, 2021b.). This framework is helpful as students are thinking about their target audiences and how to accurately portray the characters used in their campaigns.

The guide from the World Federation of Advertisers (Daykin & Smith, n.d.) goes through every step of the creative process, from identifying the business challenge, to strategic insight and data, to creative development, media activation, and evaluation and measurement. Under each stage, the guide poses a set of questions for communicators to ask themselves, such as “How are you ensuring your strategy is grounded in diverse consumer insight?” (p. 5) and “What steps are you taking with suppliers to bring in more diverse talent?” (p. 7). The guide includes multiple additional resources to tap under each stage. This guide is helpful for students to refer to as they go through the planning process.

Methodology: Module Approach and Assessment Outline

The pilot test of our DEI curriculum included four components: developing teaching/learning modules specific to the DEI learning objectives for each of our core Strategic Communications courses, including activities for students to apply the concepts; delivering the modules and activities in Strategic Communications classes; assessing the modules from the perspective of both students and faculty presenters; and sharing and getting feedback on the modules from faculty colleagues. Curriculum testing following the above develop/deliver/assess model has been used prominently in education — from K-12 to college and professional training — to test new curriculum content and pedagogy against learning objectives before going to scale (see, for example, Briliyanti et al., 2020; Cannon et al., 2020; Swart et al., 2020). 

In its “Toolbox for Curriculum Documentation and Testing,” the Northwest Center for Sustainable Resources (NCSR), funded by the National Science Foundation, states, “Pilot testing is the process of evaluating the efficacy of the course or stand-alone modules in attaining the intended student outcomes,” and it “involves the implementing, evaluating, and revising of each discrete part of the new or revised course or module” (NCSR, n.d.). In pilot testing its Shared Discovery Curriculum, Michigan State University states that, in addition to learning how to best meet learning objectives, pilot testing also provides “time to reflect on required faculty prep time; resources required for faculty preparation; and the group process skills needed by faculty to achieve the learning goals” (Michigan State University, n.d.).

Below we outline each phase of our pilot test.

Module and Class Activities Development

As mentioned above, the teaching modules we developed covered DEI learning objectives for each of our core Strategic Communications courses. Each module included the following:

  • One foundational reading and one video to introduce the topic to students in the course
  • A PowerPoint presentation to be delivered by instructors with an initial student lesson about the topic at hand
  • A hands-on/application activity where students apply the concepts to a real-world situation in the strategic communication industry 
  • A short lesson plan for instructors to execute the activity in class
  • A list of references that professors could use a) to assign readings to students during the semester, b) to learn more about these topics themselves as teachers, and c) to incorporate this knowledge in their lectures during the semester

It is important to note that, while the teaching modules were designed to be covered in one to three class periods, the aim of the content was to get students thinking about DEI throughout the course. Faculty members could then supplement other materials to reinforce the concepts throughout the semester.

The class activities included in each module varied depending on the course. For our Public Relations & Civic Responsibility course, we included an activity where students worked in groups of three people and compared the DEI statements posted on different corporations’ and communication agencies’ websites with the composition of their C-Suites. Students then arrived at their own conclusions on whether diversity statements got reflected appropriately or not in who has real decision-making power within these organizations.

For Strategic Writing, our hands-on activity includes a “topic-mapping” exercise where we explore the case of a local organization (such as a local hospital or university) in relation to COVID-19. We examine the different topics that we could be writing about for our stakeholders, depending on our publics’ racial and ethnic identities, age brackets, sexual orientation, presence or absence of physical and learning disabilities, urban or rural locations, socioeconomic status, and, in particular, the context of the county where we are located in North Carolina. 

Once we map out these possible topics with the students, we ask students to consider those topics as initial input to pitch three different story ideas about the impact of COVID-19, depending on the diversity of audiences discussed. On a separate class day, we review two strategic communication pieces (we selected two print ads by major brands, but this can also be done with TV commercials) – one where a particular community is portrayed with nuance and respect, and one where a particular community is portrayed in stereotypical, insensitive ways –  to discuss what probably went right and what probably went wrong in each case.

For the Strategic Research Methods course, we ask students to pretend they have been hired by the Centers for Disease Control to increase COVID-19 vaccinations among unvaccinated populations. Students were asked to think through the preliminary research they would do, the cultural contexts they would need to explore, the language/terms they would need to consider in developing primary research plans and materials, the methodologies they would use, how they could make the project more participatory and communicative, and which community experts or influencers they would engage. 

For the Campaigns course, we used the Diversity & Inclusion Wheel for PR Practitioners (Luttrell and Wallace, 2021). The wheel includes six inner spokes of diversity (e.g., race/ethnicity, national origin, age) and 17 outer spokes (e.g., language, education, religious beliefs, socioeconomic status, etc.). The authors provide instructions for reviewing a public relations case study and connecting elements of the case study to spokes in the wheel. 

Module Delivery and Assessment

We tested the content of three modules in one PR & Civic Responsibility class, two Strategic Research Methods classes, and one Strategic Campaigns class during the fall of 2021 (the fourth module for Strategic Writing was tested in the fall of 2022). After the initial assessment, we revised the teaching modules based on the input we collected from both students and presenters, and the modules were presented again in the spring of 2022. Revisions included updating some content, slightly modifying some of the in-class activities, and incorporating more discussion questions throughout each module. Our assessment plan included four elements: A qualitative Qualtrics survey given to students after they had read the materials and seen the presentations; results of quiz questions on the material in two courses; instructor reflections on what worked well and what didn’t in each class; and a review of reading reflections submitted by students.

A total of 120 students participated in the pilot, from sophomores to seniors, with 58 students voluntarily responding to the Qualtrics survey. Survey data was analyzed using thematic analysis to identify common themes overall, and themes specific to each course. In addition, after the modules were tested, we held a session with faculty colleagues in May of 2022 where we shared the revised modules and assessment results, gathered feedback on the usefulness of the modules in meeting our new DEI learning objectives, and determined what other resources or training might be needed.


As stated previously, modules were tested and assessed in the fall of 2021, revisions were made, and several of the modules were presented again in the spring of 2022. Below are highlights of student and instructor assessment.

Qualtrics Survey

One to two weeks after modules were presented in the fall, students were asked to take a qualitative Qualtrics survey to answer four questions: 1) What did you like/appreciate about the class session on DEI?; 2) What would you say are the two most important things you learned?; 3) Was there anything missing from the session that you think is important to add or include?; and, 4) In what ways might you apply the knowledge or concepts from the DEI session in the future (in this class, future classes, or your internships or career)?

In their responses, students said they appreciated hearing about DEI specifically in relation to the communication industry. For many, this was the first time they had heard a DEI lecture or thought about these issues as they apply to their major. In fact, this was the first time many students had learned the definitions of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Several students repeated those definitions in their responses. Many were also surprised at the lack of diversity in the industry. Students felt it was important to discuss DEI as an integral part of the communication curriculum and, “NOT as if this is something extra considered above and beyond in the comm world.”

Examples were helpful to students to envision how DEI can be applied in the field or to their own work in each class. When asked about what was missing from the presentations, students reiterated that more examples would be helpful. Students specifically wanted more examples of how they can apply DEI in the workplace. This was reiterated in class when students asked questions about how to deal with a supervisor or peer who does not believe in promoting DEI.

The Public Relations & Civic Responsibility presentation was given by a professor who immigrated to the United States from Costa Rica (the second author in this article). In responding to this session, students repeatedly stated how much they appreciated the personal examples from the instructor’s own lived experiences. For example, one student said, “I appreciated hearing about DEI from the perspective of a Costa Rican. It made the topic a lot more real and pressing coming from her own personal struggles.”

In stating what they learned from the modules, students often named specific theories or concepts from the presentations, showing that they were retaining the content. When asked how they would apply this information in the future, students in the introductory public relations class used terms like “understanding,” “keeping in mind,” and “being aware.” Students in the upper-level courses, where they were taught about applying DEI to research and campaigns, were more likely to use terms like “personal responsibility” or discuss how they could specifically apply the content to their projects and future workplaces. This aligns with the content in the lower-level course introducing students to DEI in the industry, while the upper-level courses were more about applying DEI specifically to research and campaigns. Noting these response differences helped discussions of how to scaffold the DEI modules for all our courses.

Quizzes and Student Reflections

Quiz questions relating to the content were included in two Strategic Research Methods classes and one Public Relations & Civic Responsibility class. For the three DEI quiz questions in the first Strategic Research Methods class, 88% of students responded correctly to all three questions. In the second Strategic Research Methods class, 100% of students responded correctly to the first and third questions, and 91% responded correctly to the second question. For the three quiz questions in the PR class, 86% of students responded correctly to the first and third questions, and 76% responded correctly to the third question.

In the spring of 2022, Strategic Campaigns class students reflected on what they learned from DEI readings assigned alongside the module. Readings included the two listed above from the Unstereotype Alliance and World Federation of Advertisers, as well as an article in Fast Company titled, “We need to talk about how the media and creatives portray Black people” (Dallis, 2020). Written as an open letter to the industry, the author reflects on how she felt as a Black woman, mother, and brand strategist following the murder of George Floyd. She discusses the power of the communication industry in shaping public perceptions of Black people and outlines 13 steps the industry can take to wield that power responsibly.

Students responded to the poignancy of the Dallis reading and appreciated how the reading reflected the perspective of a Black woman. One student wrote, 

This article was incredible and so important for anyone in the communications industry to read. It can be easy to get caught up in the strategy or creativity of a campaign and forget the implications of being able to reach so many people with our ideas and portrayals of others. 

The student went on to think about how we can access this cultural diversity in a predominantly White university: “We can spend time doing extensive research on the brand as it pertains to people of color and pull our insights from a wide range of sources, not just those who are readily accessible and convenient.”

On the World Federation of Advertisers guide, one student wrote:

The addition of questions throughout the campaign planning process, rather than the all too common, ineffective act of just a final DEI review, illustrates how integrating DEI . . . is an aid to reach more audiences, more effectively, and think more authentically.

Commenting on the Unstereotype Alliances 3 Ps reading, another student wrote, “Following the three Ps can help avoid tokenizing BIPOC individuals, where rather than just using them as tools to tell our stories, we can provide a platform to share their stories.”

Interestingly, in a reading reflection on a different reading several weeks later, a student mentioned the lack of diversity in the sources of the material: 

This article caused me to think back to Reading Reflection #1 and the importance of hiring diverse teams not solely for inclusivity purposes but also for bringing new perspectives that can drive innovation and collaboration. When looking at the CMO section of this article, the headshots show me not much diversity at all . . . different CMOs would have added an extra dimension to this reading.” 

This student’s response shows the importance of including diverse resources in our materials throughout the semester, and not just during a specific DEI discussion.

Instructor Reflections

The modules were presented in courses by the two authors, as well as another enlisted professor. We each recorded notes on what worked well or didn’t work well in presenting the modules, the readings, and the activities; student discussions and specific questions raised when presenting the modules; timing of the modules and alignment with other class content/activities; and reflections on the identity of the instructor when presenting materials. Below are highlights from our reflections.

Customization and Application. Adding or adjusting content to align with a specific assignment, project, or client helps students apply the modules to their work. For example, during the presentation, a Strategic Campaigns instructor showed an old commercial from the brand students were working on and this sparked discussion about DEI challenges specific to their client. In two Strategic Research Methods classes, in addition to learning how to develop culturally sensitive research projects outlined in the module, students then applied that learning to a qualitative project where they conducted focus groups with Black participants. It is important to refer to the modules throughout the semester and develop assignments where students can apply what they learned to their class projects.

More Practical Examples are Needed. While the DEI modules deliver a 30,000 ft. view, it is helpful to provide further examples of how these concepts are applied in the field. More discussion questions during the different class sessions would also be appreciated by the students to share ideas and to have a moment to pause and reflect.

Reinforcing the Message from Industry Professionals. The day after the PR module was presented in a class, a DEI professional from a public affairs agency spoke to the class on how her agency applies DEI in their organization. This reinforced that it is not just instructors saying it is important – our industry thinks it is important.

Lived Experiences of the Instructor. One of the instructors is an immigrant to the United States from Costa Rica. It was helpful for her to share her own lived experiences with students about the challenges she faced during her long journey to become a U.S. citizen and her experience of being a Latinx public relations professional in a White-dominated industry. Not every faculty member will be able to do so. However, because these personal reflections resonated with students, we need to think about how we can further bring these experiences into the classroom.

Scaffolding. Since this was the first time many students had been introduced to DEI in our industry, and since the modules for each level of class were presented at the same time, we needed to explain the definitions of diversity, equity, and inclusion in each presentation. In future years, the objective is for students to learn the basic DEI terminologies and concepts in the entry-level course, and then be able to apply that knowledge to the professional skill sets of each subsequent course. 

Faculty Sharing and Feedback

While the modules were available for use by all Strategic Communications faculty in the fall semester, we held an information session in late spring where we discussed the modules in more detail, shared our assessment of the modules, and engaged in discussion with other faculty members. The 10 colleagues who attended this information session reacted very positively to these materials and expressed that they can see themselves using the modules as they were presented or also customizing certain aspects as needed.

A common theme from the feedback was that the modules provided a common language to be used across our department. One colleague said:

These modules do the important job of introducing students to a common grammar, to shared definitions and to be able to recognize what DEI is. Part of it is providing them with the grammar and with the cultural norms in relation to DEI, and then to find an applied thread to relate these concepts to.

In addition to shared DEI definitions, other colleagues said they appreciated the examples, case studies, real-world applications, and the suggestion of bringing in guest speakers “so that students see how these things matter and are applied in the world, even if, in their industry, they are not a DEI Vice-President or so.” In discussing one of the class activities, a colleague said,

“Most major brands are required to have diversity statements. But there is great power to see how brands are engaging in this conversation through words and actions. Students will encounter these realities when they work in this field.”

One of our colleagues reminded the group that this material is important for all students, not just our White students. The colleague said, 

The Asian and Pacific Islander students that I work with have told me that learning more about DEI is not only important for them to pursue their own identity, but also because they need the language, the concepts, and the theories to really process what they are experiencing and feeling, and to process the microaggressions they often experience. This content helps them process their own realities and their own experiences. This is important content not just for White students but for students of all minority groups as well.

When asked what other materials or resources they might need to bring this kind of content into their classes, our colleagues suggested creating an additional module to use in our School of Communications’ introductory class (our equivalent of Introduction to Mass Communication, called Communications in a Global Age), which all Communications students take, no matter which of our five majors they go into later. A colleague said, for example: 

Many of us teach COM1000 Communications in a Global Age. We need to be thinking of how to describe the history of the different mass communication fields in multicultural ways to avoid presenting this history only through a White-male lens. We need to expose our students not only to the Edward Bernays’ of our fields but to the Inez Kaisers as well.

At the end of this session, we reminded our colleagues that these materials are posted in our Department’s online learning site, and urged everyone attending the session to share other materials there as well. One of our colleagues, for instance, shared that she has a lesson plan she developed on the multicultural history of public relations, and she promised to share that lesson plan on our site or to create a video to post there for all of us to use in our classes.

Discussion and Conclusion

At a time when both faculty and students are overwhelmed by upheaval from the pandemic and the U.S. political and cultural climate, it is more important than ever to integrate DEI principles into our communication curricula. However, the chaos of the past two years has also made it difficult for faculty to find the time and resources to develop and integrate content that is relevant, research-based, and that can be applied in meaningful ways in our courses. Further, it is important that we look across the curriculum, and not just in our own courses, to ensure students are learning basic concepts and then progressing in their learning as they advance through their college career. We do this when we develop our core communication curricula, but we often do not integrate and scaffold DEI into our courses in the same systematic way. Faculty are often left to their own devices to infuse DEI individually into their courses without knowing what other faculty are doing or if their content is reinforcing what students have previously learned.

By taking the dual approach of creating agreed upon learning objectives, and then two faculty members taking a leadership role in developing and testing content that met those learning objectives, we were able to integrate DEI into our strategic communications curriculum in a more systematic way. Through the modules we created and the annotated bibliography we compiled for four of our required Strategic Communications courses, students were able to appreciate that we were teaching DEI concepts that specifically relate to their major and progressed from having “awareness” in the entry-level course to developing “personal responsibility” for applying DEI in their own assignments and careers in upper-level courses. 

 By reflecting on what worked well and what didn’t in presenting the modules and activities, we found that students need multiple examples of effective DEI applications, that pairing the content with specific class projects and speakers from the industry helps to reinforce the message, and that sharing the lived experience of diverse faculty members makes the content more real for students. In revising the modules, we incorporated more discussion questions throughout each module. Breaking the lesson plan into shorter segments helped to increase student participation and keep their attention and focus. We discovered that students are eager and willing to reflect on what they are learning through discussion questions at different moments of each class session. 

In faculty conversations, we were also reminded to consider all students when teaching DEI, and not just those who have the most privilege, to provide marginalized students with the theories and concepts to help process their own lived experiences. In addition, through the faculty information session, we prompted a dialogue that allowed faculty to share their unique knowledge with each other and consider ways that other faculty members can include that knowledge in their teaching. Moving forward, it will be important to create a mechanism for continuing this dialogue as new information and resources come to light, and as we each progress in our intercultural competence.

Though PR programs at other universities may have different required and/or elective courses, this systematic approach to developing a DEI curriculum applies regardless of the specific classes. The self-study evidence that ACEJMC (2021) requires for the curriculum component of its DEI guidelines is fairly broad and includes 1) Course syllabi reflecting learning outcomes; 2) A grid outlining where cultural communication proficiency is taught in the curriculum; and 3) Assessment of that proficiency. Thus, cultural communication proficiency should align with and be integrated into the communication skills and proficiencies taught in each of our PR courses. Just as being a proficient communicator in the PR field means you know how to understand audiences, write, research, strategize, produce materials, and counsel management in an effective way, being “culturally proficient communicators” means we can do all these things through a DEI lens. The key is to build and scaffold learning objectives and content in a systematic way so that students are continually progressing in their DEI competence throughout their academic career.


A common limitation of pilot studies is “the possibility of making inaccurate predictions or assumptions on the basis of pilot data” (Teijlingen & Hundley, 2001). For example, because we are a predominantly White institution, the data is skewed toward this demographic. Testing the modules in classes with higher percentages of diverse identities may yield different results. Likewise, the limited timeframe of the study (one academic year) means our pilot captures one moment in time. Any changes in student demographics or the DEI knowledge of incoming students will necessitate ongoing evaluation of our DEI content. 

Our pilot test also relied largely on qualitative data. In the future, we will need to closely monitor our quantitative curriculum assessments (e.g., our senior assessment exam and department climate surveys) to determine if results are tracking with our pilot test of the modules. Lastly, we know that faculty are at different levels in their own intercultural competence. A question remains if the level of instructor DEI competence will impact the delivery of –or student knowledge gained from– the modules.


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© Copyright 2023 AEJMC Public
Relations Division

To cite this article: Bush, L. and Bravo, V. (2023). Systematically
applying DEI accreditation standards to a strategic communication curriculum.
Journal of Public Relations Education, 8(4), 128-160. https://journalofpreducation.com/2023/02/24/systematically-applying-dei-accreditation-standards-to-a-strategic-communications-curriculum/

The Future of Feminism in Public Relations and Strategic Communication

Brandi Watkins, Ph.D., APR, Virginia Tech

The Future of Feminism in Public Relations and Strategic Communication
Authors: Linda Aldoory, Ph.D. and Elizabeth L. Toth, Ph.D.
Rowman & Littlefield, 2021
ISBN: 978-1-5381-2824-4
Number of pages: 238

In The Future of Feminism in Public Relations and Strategic Communication, Aldoory and Toth present a comprehensive review of public relations literature that has addressed feminism, gender, race, LGBTQ, and marginalized groups in the field of public relations and organized that work into a socio-ecological model. The final model presented in the book demonstrates how research and practice in public relations have been influenced at the practitioner level, organizational level, professional level, media level, and ideological level. The book also provides an analysis and critique of the multiple factors that have constituted meaning about women, people of color, and LGBTQ practitioners and its influence on research and practice in public relations. Finally, the authors opened up a dialogue with scholars and practitioners (see Chapter 11), which informed the final model presented in the book. The content presented in this book is complex, but Aldoory and Toth are skilled at making these concepts accessible, organized, and easy to follow. The book’s scope is rather broad, attempting to review and organize an entire field of literature. Still, the authors expertly present the content in a way that makes this a practical resource for scholars at all levels. 

Content and Scope

The first section sets the stage for the research that is to come later in the book. In Chapter 1, Aldoory and Toth take time to define socio-ecological models and provide examples of how such models have been used, such as Shoemaker and Reese’s (1996) hierarchy of influences model that illustrates the multiple influences that shape media content. The authors then sharpen their focus on applying a socio-ecological model to public relations and present the first iteration of their model, which becomes the organizing structure for the remainder of the book. Chapter 2, aptly titled “The Backstory,” is beneficial to the book, especially if the reader is new to feminism and the academic study of public relations. The authors define public relations from various perspectives, including functional structuralist, rhetorical and critical, and postmodern. Aldoory and Toth then take to task the job of presenting the varying conceptualizations and approaches to feminism, reviewing feminist research, and discussing feminism communication theory. The chapter concludes with a section on intersectionality, presenting it as a method for considering “the multiplicative effects of identities and oppressions” (p. 31). 

Sections two through five are the heart and soul of the book where the authors start broadly, at the ideological level of the model, and work their way through the remaining levels of the proposed model, concluding with the practitioner level. Throughout the chapters in these sections, the authors take care to define key concepts, explain why they placed particular concepts in certain parts of the model, and present relevant research. For example, Chapter 3 focuses on the ideological level of the model and includes macro-level discussions of hegemony, capitalism, Marxism, classism, critical race theory, racism, feminism, sexism, heteronormativity, and homophobia. These high-level discussions about broader ideals are always brought back to how they are relevant to public relations. This structure allows Aldoory and Toth to provide the reader with a primer on the higher-level ideologies and return them to a public relations emphasis while presenting the reader with an overview of extant literature in these areas. Several chapters within this section include a case study to illustrate the main ideas presented in the chapter. For example, Chapter 9 consists of a case study, “The Feminist Fallacy” at the Practitioner Level, which the authors describe as “a discouraging yet cautionary case example of how feminism can be co-opted and designed to be against women’s better selves. This case shows the invisibility of class, education, race, and gender influences while also assuming a success story for women” (p. 151). 

Section six concludes the book with two chapters that includes a summary and a call to action, respectively. Chapter 11 was an interesting and thought-provoking read as Aldoory and Toth brought together women from different backgrounds and countries to discuss feminism, the challenges for women and people of color in public relations, and the proposed socio-ecological model. The chapter is devoted to highlights from a two-day discussion in which participants spoke candidly about issues like racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and bias in research. The scholars also weighed in on the socio-ecological model and suggested adjustments to the model so that the professional and organizational levels were moved, arguing that the organizational level has a more direct influence on the practitioner level than the professional level. Chapter 12 accounts for the authors’ changes to the model after receiving feedback from their peers. The book ends with a call to action, where Aldoory and Toth acknowledge this is not a definitive work but rather a call for continued 

professional and scholarly discourse that deepens an understanding of the problems of racism, sexism, and homophobia in public relations. The model here is new and has not been used before, but we hope it will become a helpful tool for future research. (p. 195)

Contribution to PR Education

Through a comprehensive overview of the extant literature on public relations and feminism and a model that serves as an organizing structure, Aldoory and Toth provide the reader with an introductory course on the state of feminist research in public relations and identify gaps in the research. Their book contributes to PR education by demonstrating the need for continued scholarly work that is more comprehensive and includes the experiences of women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and other marginalized groups not represented in the current body of research. They challenge scholars to critique the structures that uphold patriarchal values, limit change, and prohibit social justice. 


The Future of Feminism in Public Relations and Strategic Communication is an essential read especially for the new scholar interested in studying feminism, public relations, and strategic communication. The book’s structure lends itself well to be used as a text in a graduate seminar on public relations or feminism or as a researcher’s guide to previous scholarship. The book covers a variety of issues and perspectives on public relations and serves as an instruction manual for interpreting such problems and perspectives with a critical lens. The accessibility of the writing in this book would make it a practical addition to a graduate-level course.


In their discussion of intersectionality (Chapter 2), Aldoory and Toth write, “We believe in the criterion of reflexivity and promote it among our students and in our paper. Thus, for transparency and analysis purposes, we describe below some of our reflexive thoughts about our own feminism and how we came to be feminists” (p. 33). In that same spirit, I would like to disclose that, as a researcher, my studies are situated in the social scientific, empirical tradition, and I frequently seek opportunities to research with co-authors who specialize in qualitative methods. I find value using a mixed methods approach to research. I disclose this about myself because my one critique of this book is that as a feminist, I want to do research that answers the call put forth by Aldoory and Toth in the book, but there is limited guidance in how to do that from different research traditions. All scholars, including those of us whose work is more empirical, would benefit from the arguments made in this book about the need for more research to examine gender, class, race, and sexual orientation and should consider how to make our research methods more inclusive. Doing so would help us create a richer understanding of the public relations discipline. 


Aldoory and Toth took on the challenge to review and organize an entire body of literature in one book, and started a conversation on where the field should go next. My critique of The Future of Feminism in Public Relations and Strategic Communication came from a place of being inspired to want to do more to promote social justice and diversity, equity, and inclusion in public relations scholarship. But I also acknowledge that one book can’t be all things to all people. What makes this a compelling book is that it inspires with facts and information, and it shows the reader where we are in the field and how far we still have to go to create a body of knowledge that accounts for the experiences of people from varied backgrounds. 


Shoemaker, P., & Reese, S. D. (1996). Mediating the message: Theories of influences on mass media content (2nd ed.). Longman.

© Copyright 2022 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Watkins, B. (2022). The Future of Feminism in Public Relations and Strategic Communication [Review of the book The Future of Feminism in Public Relations and Strategic Communication]. Journal of Public Relations Education, 8(3), 145-150. https://aejmc.us/jpre/?p=3267

Student Perceptions of Guest Speakers in Strategic Communication Courses

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted October 18, 2019. Revision submitted January 17, 2020. Manuscript accepted for publication March 9, 2020. First published online May 2021.


Hong Ji, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
School of Visual & Communication Arts
Avila University
Kansas City, MO
Email: hong.ji@avila.edu

Parul Jain, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
E. W. Scripps School of Journalism
Ohio University
Athens, OH
Email: jainp1@ohio.edu

Catherine Axinn, Ph.D.
Retired Professor
College of Business
Ohio University
Athens, OH
Email: axinn@ohio.edu


Using linkage beliefs theory, focus group and survey methods, we conducted a systematic investigation to understand students’ perceptions of having guest speakers in strategic communication courses. Our findings suggest that students prefer relatable speakers from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, and alumni and recent graduates are two of the most preferred types of guest speakers. Students prefer to hear about networking tips, career advice and speaker’s professional background and journeys. Course-tied topics are less preferable than career-related topics. Visual aids are preferred in guest presentations. Career-related benefits are perceived to have more value than academic and classroom learning benefits. The preferred number of guest speakers in a semester is three. 

Keywords: public relations, advertising, strategic communication, guest speakers

In many college classrooms, across many disciplines, guest speakers have become a familiar figure and teaching tool. Past research shows that if utilized correctly, they can be a valuable educational asset, particularly in disciplines that emphasize practical experience and hands-on skills. But that outcome is by no means guaranteed, depending upon the quality of guest talks.

The idea that such speakers are a welcome addition to a class is well documented. Students view speakers as someone who can teach them more about “real life” experience in the field of their choice and serve as a potentially valuable professional connection who can help them succeed in that field (Byrd et al., 1989; Kamoun & Selim, 2007; Merle & Craig, 2017; Metrejean et al., 2002; Wortman, 1992; Zou et al., 2019). A recent review of 18 studies across 13 disciplines suggests that having guest speakers enhances pedagogy by improving teaching outcomes and leads to a mutually beneficial relationship for the students, professors, and speakers (Zou et al., 2019). In some cases, the speakers themselves may view their appearance in the classroom as a potentially valuable recruiting trip to scout for young talent who could be an asset to their firms. Instructors see the speakers as bringing perspectives and knowledge to the subject that the instructor may not have, and perhaps on a less lofty note, as a way to fill valuable class time and provide a needed break (McCleary & Weaver, 2008). However, the mere presence of such a speaker in the class does not guarantee a successful or valuable educational experience, particularly if there has not been adequate communication between the instructor and speaker, sufficient integration of the speaker’s appearance into the course curriculum, or a clear assessment of student needs and interests, including the desired topics and preferred formats (Kamoun & Selim, 2007; Laist, 2015; Lang, 2008; Metrejean et al., 2002). 

Previous studies suggest that a good guest speaker is knowledgeable, dedicated, and credible (Eveleth & Baker-Eveleth, 2009; Farruggio, 2011). Also, a good guest speaker is an excellent communicator who understands students’ needs, prepares well, and knows how to engage and motivate students in the classroom (Lee & Joung, 2017).

 There are only a few empirical studies that focus on the use of guest speakers in communication and journalism courses, in addition to some anecdotal essays that offer tips on having guest speakers in the classroom. Given the potential value of the classroom speaker to the learning experience, we believe it is important to supplement anecdotal evidence with new empirical data on how to ensure a positive experience. Using focus group interview and survey approaches, this study examines what makes a successful guest talk in strategic communication courses and how students perceive guest speakers. This research takes an important step in that direction by learning and conveying what students want, expect, and respond to when a guest speaker enters their classroom.

Literature Review

In this conceptualization, we relate linkage beliefs theory to guest speakers and review literature regarding guest speakers. 

Linkage Beliefs Theory
Based on associationist theory with a presumption that attitude is derived from linked beliefs, Culbertson and his colleagues proposed the linkage beliefs theory and further developed and tested the theory by conducting a series of studies (Culbertson, 1992; Culbertson et al., 1993; Culbertson & Stempel, 1985; Denbow & Culbertson, 1985). The theory proposes that a person’s attitude is connected to the linkage between the attitude object and a person’s beliefs and goals. In their survey study of patient perceptions of the image of a medical center, Denbow and Culbertson (1985) found that salient positive beliefs, including the patient’s feeling that “physicians care about their patients,” “up-to-date care is associated with teaching function,” and “people who answer the phone at the center are usually informed and helpful,” positively affect the patients’ perceptions of the center’s image. 

In addition to applying the linkage beliefs theory to the patient relations from the attitude impact perspective, Culbertson (1992) tested the theory in alumni relations but from the behavioral impact perspective. He found that the similarity-based linkage, ego-involvement linkage, and instrumental linkage contributed to the intent to join an alumni chapter.

These studies developed and tested the linkage beliefs theory in public relations settings. The linkage beliefs theory connects the audience and public relations practitioners and is useful in audience segmentation. The practical value of the linkage beliefs theory is that it can help a practitioner identify salient linkages, strengthen existing positive linkages, build new useful linkages, and strategically link the target audience’s goals, needs, and values to the organization’s goals via persuasive messages. As such, the public relations strategies and tactics, such as creating clear, creative, and appealing message content and selecting appropriate communication channels, mirror the efforts for effective linkage (Culbertson, 1992; Denbow & Culbertson, 1985).

In a pedagogical setting with strategic communication elements, the linkage beliefs theory connects the target audience (i.e., students) and instructors. In the case of a guest speaker event, the theory guides an instructor to identify the salient positive links between the student beliefs/needs and teaching-learning goals, and further devise strategies of planning an effective guest talk, such as the choice of a guest speaker and the topic and format for the guest talk.

Guest Speaker Studies
Previous studies have discussed various aspects of the use of guest speakers, specifically planning details, types of guest speakers, topics of guest talks, formats for guest talks, guest talk tests and assignments, benefits for guest speakers, and guest talks in an online setting. This research is reviewed below. 

Planning and Implementing a Guest Speaker Event in Classes
Designing and implementing a guest speaker event requires the instructor’s efforts before, during, and after the event. Before the event, the instructor should set appropriate expectations for the guest talk that tie to the course objectives, share the necessary course materials with the speaker, ask for the guest speaker’s biographical information, and communicate with the speaker about the logistic issues and do’s and don’ts in the classroom as needed (Cloud & Sweeney, 1988; Henderson & Streed, 2013; McClearly & Weaver, 2008; Metrejean et al, 2002; Payne et al., 2003). Also, the instructor should prepare students for the guest talk by informing them of the guest speaker’s visit, providing the speaker’s information, and asking students to prepare questions (Cloud & Sweeney, 1988; McClearly & Weaver, 2008; Metrejean et al, 2002; Payne et al., 2003). During the event, the instructor should make sure the guest speaker talks about their professional background and includes a Q&A session (McClearly & Weaver, 2008; Metrejean et al., 2002; Payne et al., 2003). After the event, the instructor sends the speaker a thank-you letter and obtains feedback from both the speaker and students to help improve the future guest speaker events (McClearly & Weaver, 2008; Metrejean et al., 2002; Payne et al., 2003). 

While the importance of guest speakers has been well documented in various disciplines (e.g., Zou et al., 2019), the studies on the use of guest speakers in communication and journalism courses are rare, other than some anecdotal essays. Envisioning the guest speaker as a supplement to the instructor, Roush (2013) suggested best practices in terms of using guest speakers in mass communication and journalism courses, such as “Don’t overuse guest speakers” and “find guest speakers who have personalities” (p. 15). In a PRSA article, Henderson and Streed (2013) offered guidelines for a successful guest speaker event in a public relations course. They emphasized guest speakers should respect students and professors, and “collaboration between the professor and the guest speaker, mutual preparation and clear expectations are essential to a successful classroom experience for everyone” (para. 22). 

Only one empirical study was found that assessed students’ perceptions of guest speakers in communication courses. Merle and Craig (2017) surveyed journalism and mass communication students from a variety of communication classes at two institutions on their perception of guest speakers, including preferred topics, types of speakers and presentation formats, and perceived effectiveness and benefits. Their study analyzed student perceptions of guest speakers in mass communication and journalism curriculum overall as opposed to any specific sub-field, such as public relations and advertising, which was encouraged by the authors as a topic for future research and is one of the factors driving the present study.

We started by asking the first question about students’ experiences with guest speakers in strategic communication courses (RQ1), which was a topic largely missing from the literature. 

RQ1: What experiences did students have with guest speakers in strategic communication courses?

Types of Guest Speakers

A variety of guest speakers can be invited to the classroom. Past studies in other disciplines offered some guidance, including inviting a mix of professionals, faculty members, and even graduate students (Lang, 2008; McClearly & Weaver, 2008; Metrejean et al., 2002; Payne et al., 2003; Soiferman, 2019). In mass communication courses, Cloud and Sweeney (1987) suggested using recent graduates and avoiding people who are out of the loop. Instead of aiming for recent graduates, Roush (2013) suggested professors “shoot for the moon with guest speakers” (p. 15) by inviting high-profile professionals to journalism and mass communication courses. In their survey of journalism and mass communication students’ perception of guest speakers, Merle and Craig (2017) found that students like guest speakers from the industry better than professors.

The diverse and even seemingly contradictory advice that emerges from the literature makes an opportunity to further examine students’ preferred types of guest speakers, particularly in strategic communication courses. Thus, the following two research questions are presented: 

RQ2: What types of guest speakers do students prefer in strategic communication courses?

RQ3: What types of organizations that guest speakers are associated with do students prefer in strategic communication courses?

Topics of Guest Talks

Previous studies indicated that students like to hear about the guest speaker’s personal experiences and professional journey (McCleary & Weaver, 2008; Soiferman, 2019), particularly “when a guest speaker can use industry experiences to illustrate how to apply (or not to apply) a theory, concept, or idea that incorporates the learning objectives of the course” (McCleary & Weaver, 2008, p. 406). Career-oriented advice is also a popular topic of guest talks (Kamoun & Selim, 2007; Metrejean et al., 2002).

In journalism and mass communication courses, Merle and Craig (2017) found that students prefer to have a guest lecture that is professionally oriented. Course-related guest talks seem not to be as preferable as career-related topics. They found that less than 16% of participants like the topics of theoretical frameworks or methodological issues in guest talks. With a focus on guest talks in strategic communication courses, this study proposes the following research question: 

 RQ4: What topics do students want guest speakers to cover in strategic communication courses?

Format for Guest Talks

Previous research suggested that guest talks should have visual aids (Payne et. al, 2003), but reading from notes should be avoided (Metrejean et al, 2002). In journalism and mass communication courses, students tend to prefer an active presentation style from guest speakers that includes components such as providing examples and an interactive Q&A section (Merle & Craig, 2017). With a focus on guest talks in strategic communication courses, this study proposes the following research question: 

RQ5: What format for the guest talk in strategic communication courses do students prefer?

Being Tested and Having an Assignment Based on Guest Talks

Should students be tested and have an assignment based on guest talks? Very few empirical studies have addressed this topic. In their experimental study on the role of test-expectancy on student learning and evaluations of guest speakers, Hite et al. (1985) found students in marketing courses do not want to be tested over guest talk content, but they also found if students know they are going to be tested, a more positive learning experience occurs. The scarcity of research prompts the research question below: 

RQ6: How do students perceive being tested and having an assignment based on guest speaker content in strategic communication courses?

Benefits of Guest Speakers

Guest speakers enrich students’ learning experiences by helping them gain first-hand knowledge from practitioners, as well as networking opportunities (Byrd et al., 1989; Wortman, 1992). Metrejean et al. (2002) found that accounting students consider guest talks helpful in “alleviating students’ fears about career choices,” offering “encouragement,” giving “some insight that will expand on what they are studying or give them information they would not get directly from the course material” (p. 360), helping “to focus more on the future” and providing “insights into what employers want in an accountant” (p. 357). 

Merle and Craig (2017) found that journalism and mass communication students tended to believe guest talks can enhance their learning experience, are effective in the classroom, and add overall value to the class content. To explore student perceptions of the guest speaker benefits in strategic communication, a sub-field of mass communication, a research question is posited: 

RQ7: What benefits of guest speakers do students perceive in strategic communication courses?

Guest Talks in an Online Setting

With the increasing use of online teaching, the use of guest speakers in an online setting can be both beneficial and challenging. Using an example in an online social work course, Sage (2013) asserted that technical assistance will be needed for guest speakers, and that students should be encouraged not to post distracting notes during the session. Privacy and copyright issues need to be taken into consideration as well. 

The effectiveness of using virtual guest speakers is mixed. Henderson et al. (2018) found that MBA students evaluated using a guest speaker in a face-to-face setting as a more effective teaching method than the online setting. L. Hemphill and H. Hemphill (2007) found that guest speakers can be used “sparingly in online discussions while still maintaining the quality of the online discussion and frequent, meaningful interactions among students” (p. 287).

 In a 2012 PRSA article, some public relations professors emphasized the importance of having guest speakers face the challenges of teaching millennials public relations in the fast-changing technology environment. The tactics they shared included inviting guest speakers to speak in both classes and PRSSA clubs, and inviting them to speak in person or via video conferencing (Jacques, 2012). Thus, the last research question explores online guests: 

RQ8: How do students perceive having guest speakers in online strategic communication courses?   

Methods and Results

This study had two phases. In Phase 1, we conducted two focus groups to explore student perceptions of guest speakers in strategic communication courses. In Phase 2, we further examined the research questions via a survey to confirm and add to the findings from a larger sample.

Phase 1: Focus Groups 

 A qualitative focus group approach was employed in this study, and the method details and findings are reported as follows. 

Focus Group Interview Methods

Considering the scarcity of empirical studies on how students perceive guest speakers in strategic communication courses, initial focus groups were an appropriate research method to explore insights from students and to provide a foundation for a follow-up survey. 

Two focus groups were conducted in September 2017. The target participants were students who enrolled in strategic communication courses in fall 2017 in a journalism school at a public Midwestern university that offers strategic communication courses, including introductory, writing, creative concepts, research, and capstone topics.

After the research protocol was approved by the university’s Institutional Review Board, the recruitment process started. A recruitment flier was posted on the Blackboard sites of three strategic communication classes. These were undergraduate courses with a few seats available for graduate students. The study was also announced in classes. Each participant received one percentage point of extra credit in exchange of their time/effort. Pizza was provided during each focus group session.

Seven students participated in the focus group on Sept. 25, 2017. The participants included one male student and six female students; the breakdown in educational level was one master’s student and six undergraduate students. Eight students participated in the focus group on Sept. 27, 2017. The participants included one male student and seven female students. All participants were undergraduate students.

Each session lasted about 45 minutes. Both sessions were audio recorded and took place in a conference room. In both sessions, one of the authors who was not the instructor of the participants served as a moderator. A research assistant served as a note taker. Letters were assigned to participants in place of their names for the sake of their privacy. The focus group discussions started after participants signed the consent form.

The focus group discussions were semi-structured, including the topics of students’ preferences of the types of guest speakers, preferences of the content and format for the guest talk, and benefits of having guest speakers.

The recordings of the two focus groups were transcribed after the focus group sessions were completed. The research proposal, transcripts, field notes, and the three authors’ reflections were used to analyze the data. Each of the three authors independently read these study-related documents carefully, and identified the emergent themes, points with supporting evidence, and quotes. Then the three authors met and discussed their findings and came to a consensus.

Focus Group Results       

All the participants in both focus groups reported they have had experience with guest speakers in their various courses. The first research question explored their experiences with guest speakers.

Likes and Dislikes. Most participants stated that relevance and fit were particularly important to them. If the guest speaker did not fit in with their interests or the overall theme of the course, they did not seem to care much about them. Furthermore, students felt a need to have their voice heard by having some agency in choosing guest speakers by participating in a poll early in the semester.

Students also acknowledged having a variety of speakers was informative and eye opening and at times, resulted in a change in career paths. For example, one participant stated: “I had a speaker come in my freshman year in my first semester. I came in as a strat. comm. major…she completely…changed everything that I wanna do, and she’s been an inspiration to me since.”

The participants did not like speakers who put an excessive focus on themselves, did not leave ample time for questions and answers, did not have aesthetically pleasing visual aids, had too much material on visual aids, read off the PowerPoint slides, or reiterated course material. For example, one participant complained of a speaker who “kind of talked at us, not with us.” Another participant criticized a guest speaker who “talked a little bit too much about herself.” One student lamented a speaker who “followed her PowerPoint [too much], I don’t know, she…read directly from her PowerPoint…that’s almost insulting, I could read it just as well as you could.”

Participants also seemed to suggest that smaller classes are more conducive to having guest speakers than larger class sizes as the former provide an environment that fosters connections by engaging in a more intimate interaction with the guest speakers. In smaller classes, students preferred spending more time and engaging with guest speakers; in larger classes, students seem to emphasize a more general introductory approach and some way to network with the speakers.

The majority of the participants stated that the opportunity to network was one of the primary advantages of having guest speakers in class. Furthermore, participants liked when the instructor or the guest speaker themselves provided the students an opportunity to connect with them either through social platforms such as LinkedIn or via email.

Participants stated they did not particularly like it if they were expected to know the content from the guest speaker’s presentation for an exam, but also said it was a good motivator to attend the presentation. One student stated that she did not have guest speakers in the online class she took and really missed that aspect of class.

Types of Guest Speakers.  In terms of the types of guest speakers, most participants preferred to have working professionals (compared to academics), alumni, and a mix of early career and senior-level executives. For example, one participant stated:

I think both [recent graduates and senior-level professionals] are very, very, very valuable ‘cause the recent grads are the ones that [we] can most connect with, and they have been in your shoes most recently. But the higher-level-up professionals may be the ones that get you your internship or your job. So again, from a networking standpoint, they are both important.

Due to the global nature of the field of strategic communication, most participants expressed a desire to have more international guest speakers in their classes. The following quote from a participant illustrates this sentiment clearly: “I think [they] give you a whole new perspective, especially [in] our field . . . it’s a global field now. So it’s important to have that.”

There were no differences expressed in preference based on gender. In both focus groups, none of the participants cared if a guest speaker was a male or a female.

Types of Organizations.   In the same vein, none of the participants were particularly concerned about the organizations that guest speakers were associated with. The participants did not care if the guest speakers worked in government, for-profit, or not-for-profit organizations. However, participants did appreciate hearing the differences between agency work and working with a particular organization and suggestions about how they themselves might apply the knowledge once they start working.

Topic Preference.  None of the participants suggested a desire to have guest speakers cover course content. Overwhelmingly, the participants were interested in hearing about each guest speaker’s journey. All the participants echoed a desire to learn about the speakers’ personal narratives, their experiences, day-to-day working conditions, and the challenges that they faced and how they solved them. In addition, most participants liked to hear about things that would advance their career, including job hunting and personal growth tips. The following quote further illustrates this point:

 I think novelty is very important. When people . . . give their backstory . . . I think that’s super important. Just kind of understand and kind of humanize them a little bit, makes you more comfortable with listening to them. So it is not just some adult talking at you.

Format Preference.  Both groups suggested that guest speakers should adopt a conversational tone, should be interactive, engaging, interested in answering students’ questions, and show warmth and respect for students. Some students mentioned that having an activity such as discussing a case study that emulates real-world problems could also be an interesting way to engage students. As mentioned previously, students preferred a visual aid, and they did not like speakers reading off the slides.

In sum, our focus group interview findings suggest that students prefer speakers from a variety of backgrounds and experiences with whom they could relate and prefer to hear about tips related to networking, job search, and career advancement. The focus groups served as a precursor or pilot for a larger follow-up survey, to answer further research questions.

Phase 2: Survey

A quantitative survey approach was employed, and the method details and survey results are reported below. 

Survey Methods

Procedure. The target survey participants were students enrolled in strategic communication courses in spring 2018 in the same journalism school where the focus group sample was formed. While we only recruited 15 focus group participants from three strategic communication courses to help explore students’ perceptions of guest speakers as a foundation for the follow-up survey, we tried to recruit survey participants more broadly from all strategic communication courses offered in that semester in order to further examine student perceptions of guest speakers with a larger sample size. The strategic communication courses offered during that semester were taught by eight instructors, including two of the authors. The researchers reached out to the six other instructors, asking them to help distribute the survey to their students. All instructors agreed and helped.

After the survey protocol was approved by IRB, the survey instrument was developed for online delivery and data gathering via Qualtrics. On April 2, 2018, an invitation letter including a survey link was sent via email to those instructors who agreed to help. The students were asked to answer the questions about their perceptions of guest speakers in strategic communication courses.

On April 10, a reminder was sent to participating instructors except for one author, who sent this reminder email, asking the participating instructors to encourage their students to take the survey as soon as possible. The survey was closed at 1:40 p.m. EST on April 24, 2018. One hundred and seven students completed the survey. Unfortunately, it was not possible to calculate the response rate because one student may take several strategic communication courses.

Some participating instructors offered one percentage extra course credit in exchange for the students’ time/effort, and some did not. The consent form appeared after the survey introduction page. The questionnaire was devised to be completed within 15-30 minutes.

Participants. Of the 107 respondents, 79.4% were female, 15.9% were male, and 4.7% did not provide their gender information; the vast majority were white (80.4%), 5.6% were black, 2.8% had Hispanic/Latino/Spanish origin, 2.8% were Asian, and 8.4% had other ethnicity background or did not provide their ethnicity information. Of the 102 students who provided their information on age, year in college, and major, their average age was 20 years old; 32.4% were sophomores, followed by 28.4% juniors, 25.5% freshmen, 12.7% seniors, and 1.0% graduate students; 53.9% were majoring in journalism (n = 55), among which 72.7% were in the strategic communication track (n = 40); 23.5% were non-journalism communication majors (n = 24), such as communication studies and commercial photography; and 22.5% were in other majors, including marketing, and retail merchandising and fashion product development (n = 23).

In all, 93.5% of the 107 respondents had heard guest speakers in their strategic communication courses before. The students’ guest speaker experiences were largely in traditional classrooms. Only three students said they had guest speakers in their online strategic communication courses.

Measurement. Guided by our focus group findings and related studies, the measurement of key variables was developed and explained as follows.

Experience of Having Guest Speakers. Respondents were asked to rate their level of satisfaction with their guest speaker experiences in strategic communication courses on a 5- point scale ranging from 1 (highly satisfied) to 5 (highly dissatisfied).

Types of Guest Speakers. Eight statements were evaluated by respondents using a 5- point scale ranging from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree) to assess the preferred types of guest speakers. These statements included “I would really like to have faculty members as guest speakers in my strategic communication courses.” And “faculty members” was replaced by “junior-level professionals,” “senior-level professionals,” “recent graduates,” “alumni,” “men,” “women” in the other six statements respectively. We also included a statement “I would really like to have international guest speakers in my strategic communication courses.” These eight statements had a Cronbach’s Alpha of 0.82.

Types of Organizations. Four statements were rated by respondents using a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree) to assess the preference for the guest speaker’s organization. One statement was “Guest speakers in strategic communication courses should come from corporations and industry.” In the other three statements, “corporations and industry” were replaced by “advertising and PR agencies specially,” “nonprofit organizations specially,” and “government departments and agencies,” respectively (Cronbach’s Alpha = 0.85).

Topics of Guest Talks. Participants were also asked to indicate their level of agreement with five statements on hearing the topics of “career advice,” “network tips and opportunities,” “personal backgrounds, experiences, and back stories of the guest speaker’s professional journeys,” “industry trends,” and “a specific topic tied closely to the course” on a 5-point scale, ranging from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree). The five statements measuring topic preference had a Cronbach’s Alpha of 0.90.

 Format for Guest Talks. Similarly, participants were asked to indicate their preferences  on “a conversational format” and “use visual aids,” by using a 5-point scale from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree). Participants were asked to indicate the importance of having a Q&A session in guest talks on a 5-point scale, ranging from 1 (extremely important) to 5 (not important at all). Also, participants were asked to indicate what percentage of time should be saved for Q&A.

Being Tested and Having an Assignment Based on Guest Talks. Participants were asked to indicate their level of agreement on a 5-point scale with the statement that “Students should be tested on guest speaker content,” ranging from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree). They were also asked to rate the helpfulness of having an assignment based on guest talk content, ranging from 1 (extremely helpful) to 5 (not helpful at all).

Benefits of Guest Speakers. Based on Merle & Craig (2017) and our focus group study, participants were asked to indicate their level of agreement on a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree) with eight statements regarding benefits of  having guest speakers, including “giving me an opportunity to network with the guest speaker,” “so I can feel more confident in strategic communication career decisions,” “so I can be more aware of strategic communication career opportunities,” “to help understand the industry at large,” “to help enrich the curriculum,” “to help improve my attention in class,” “to help me take a break from the same instructor,” and “to help enhance my learning experience” (Cronbach’s Alpha = 0.88).

Having Online Guest Speakers. Participants were asked to evaluate the importance of having guest speakers in online strategic communication courses, using a 5-point scale from 1 (extremely important) to 5 (not important at all). They were also asked to rate their level of agreement with two statements: “Guest speakers should be invited to participate in online strategic communication courses,” and “Advances in technology (e.g., Skype or FaceTime) can enable guest speakers’ participation in online strategic communication courses.”

Participants were asked to indicate their level of agreement with the statement “Instructors should have students participate in a survey early in the semester to help choose topics for guest speaker talks” on a 5-point scale from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree). Participants were asked how many guest speakers they would like to have in their strategic communication courses in a given semester. Participants were also asked to provide their age, major, year in college, and ethnicity.

Survey Results

The 107 responses received from our survey generated some informative data that allowed us to answer the research questions using descriptive statistics. In tables, certain items have fewer than 107 responses due to missing data.

RQ1: What experiences did students have with guest speakers in strategic communication courses?

Eighty two percent of respondents were highly satisfied or satisfied with their guest speaker experience, and only 5% were dissatisfied or highly dissatisfied (M = 2.07, SD = 0.74, n = 100).

RQ2: What types of guest speakers do students prefer in strategic communication courses?

As Table 1 shows, alumni were the most preferred guest speakers in strategic communication courses (M = 1.81), and 82.5% of the respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that they would like to have alumni as guest speakers. Recent graduates were perceived as the second most preferred type of guest speakers (M = 1.83) with 81.7% of the respondents either agreeing or strongly agreeing that they would like to have recent graduates as guest speakers.

Similar to what was found in our focus groups, respondents tended not to care much about the guest speakers’ gender. Less than half of the respondents preferred either male (32.7%) or female guest speakers (48.1%). More students preferred senior-level professionals (77.9%) than junior-level professionals (68.9%).

Unlike the focus groups findings, which suggested that students tended to prefer working professionals to academics, the survey data revealed that there were not many differences in preference between senior-level professionals (77.9%), faculty members (68%) and junior-level professionals (68.9%). Focus group data suggested strong support for having international guest speakers. The survey data confirmed the majority of the respondents would like to have international guest speakers (69.2%).

RQ3: What types of organizations that guest speakers are associated with do students prefer in strategic communication courses?

Our focus group data suggested that students were not concerned about the guest speaker’s organization, but the survey results tell a different story. Descriptive data in Table 2 indicated 75.7% of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that guest speakers should come from advertising and PR agencies specially, and only a little more than half of the respondents (56.3%) agreed or strongly agreed that guest speakers should come from government departments and agencies. About six out of ten of the respondents preferred guest speakers coming from corporations and industry (62.1%) and from nonprofits (66.0%).

RQ4: What topics do students want guest speakers to cover in strategic communication courses?

The survey data were somewhat in line with the focus groups’ findings in terms of preferred topics. In focus groups, none of the participants appreciated course content being covered by guest speakers; instead, guest speakers’ personal journeys were the overwhelmingly preferred topic. Our survey results (see Table 3) indicated that nearly nine out of ten respondents would like to hear career advice (88.3%), networking tips and opportunities (86.4%), and professional backgrounds, experiences, and backstories of the guest speaker’s professional journeys (85.4%). Comparatively, hearing about a specific topic tied closely to the course was lower (72.5%) in preference, though still appreciated by a majority of the students.

RQ5: What format for the guest talk do students prefer in strategic communication courses?

Table 4 shows that the vast majority of the respondents (87.4%) preferred that guest speakers use visual aids (M = 1.65)     . Most respondents (65.0%) preferred that guest speakers employ a conversational format (M = 2.24)      . Our focus group study also suggested that a conversational format and visual aids were the preferred methods of presentation.

When asked about the importance of the Q&A session in a guest talk, 36.9% of the respondents said it is extremely important, and 34% said very important; no respondent said not important at all (M = 1.96, SD = 0.89, n = 103). They were also asked their opinion about what amount of time as a percentage of the presentation should be saved for Q&A in a guest talk. Forty-six point six percent of respondents said 11 to 20% of time should be saved for Q&A, 30.1% of the respondents said 1 to 10%, 13.6% of the respondents said 21 to 30%, and 9.7% of the respondents said more than 30% of time for Q&A.

RQ6: How do students perceive being tested and having an assignment based on guest speaker content in strategic communication courses?

The survey results were in line with the focus groups’ findings that students did not like having an exam based on the guest talk, but they can see it as motivation for attending class. In fact, more than half of the participants did not like the idea of being tested on guest speaker content (57.4% disagree or strongly disagree) (M = 3.68, SD = 0.99, n = 101). Also, nearly half of the students who responded considered having an assignment based on guest speaker content to be slightly helpful or not helpful at all (46.6%). Only a handful of the respondents (2.9%, n = 3) said having an assignment based on guest speaker content was extremely helpful, and 13.6% of the respondents said very helpful (M = 3.52, SD = 1.10, n = 103).

RQ7: What benefits of guest speakers do students perceive in strategic communication courses?

In focus groups, the majority of the participants stated that networking was the primary advantage of having guest speakers in class. The survey results show richer data on the benefits of guest speakers. Table 5 shows about eight out of ten respondents perceived the benefits of guest speakers to be career-related, including providing an opportunity to network with the guest speaker (87.1%), being more aware of strategic communication career opportunities (84.3%), feeling more confident in strategic communication career decisions (79.4%), and helping to understand the industry at large (78.4%). Although 85.3% of the respondents perceived the benefit of guest speakers as enhancing the learning experience, the pedagogical benefits were not perceived as greater than career-related benefits including helping improve attention in class (53.9%), enriching the curriculum (69%), and helping take a break from the same instructor (72.5%).

RQ8: How do students perceive having guest speakers in online strategic communication courses?

About two thirds (67.6%) of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that guest speakers should be invited to participate in online strategic communication courses (see Table 6). And overwhelmingly, 91.4% of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that advances in technology (e.g., Skype or FaceTime) can enable guest speakers’ participation in online strategic communication courses.

Our study also revealed some interesting findings regarding students’ perceptions of their involvement in choosing topics for guest talks. Involvement in choosing a guest speaker and getting their voice heard was one of the “likes” expressed by most of the focus group participants. In the survey, when asked about the degree to which they agree or disagree with the statement of “Instructors should have students participate in a survey early in the semester to help choose topics for guest speaker talks,” 73.5% of the respondents said they agreed or strongly agreed with this statement (M = 1.98, SD = 0.88, n = 102).

Also, we found three guest speakers in strategic communication courses in a given semester was the number preferred by the respondents (49%), followed by two guest speakers (18.6%), four guest speakers (16.7%), at least five guest speakers (10.8%), and one guest speaker (2.9%). Only two of the respondents preferred having no guest speakers.

Discussion and Conclusion

The results of our study support the linkage beliefs tenets. With mostly satisfactory guest speaker experiences, students’ salient beliefs on the benefit of the guest talks and preferences on the types of guest speakers, topics, and formats of the guest talks suggest what the positive links are and what areas instructors can work on to strengthen the connections between students’ beliefs and the effective teaching- learning outcome by using guest talks. On the other hand, the breadth of the preferred types of guest speakers and preferred topics of guest talks also suggest the complexity of the links. Our study suggests instructors need to understand the complexity of the links      while mapping out the contributing factors to a successful outcome for a guest talk. Our findings are also in line with previous research from Zou et al. (2019) who conducted a review of studies on guest speakers across various disciplines and proposed a “Trilateral Model” delineating benefits of having guest speakers in courses. Our findings have also provided pedagogical implications in using guest speakers in strategic communication courses.

Types of Guest Speakers 

It appears students find alumni and recent graduates, two types of most preferred guest speakers,  to be a valuable link between their life as a student and their imagined future professional selves, due to the perceptions of similarity (Culbertson, 1992). The finding of recent graduates as preferred guest speakers is in line with Cloud and Sweeney’s (1988) suggestion that having recent graduates as guest speakers could be advantageous because students can relate to them and establish a rapport. Instructors can build their own list of potential guest speakers by attending existing alumni events to network with alumni.

It is not surprising that students prefer a good mix of senior-level and junior-level professionals as preferred guest speakers. Obviously, the junior level position would be a starting point for students, but the greater attractiveness of the senior level professionals might be due to their capacity to arrange internships and even job placement. Planning to invite a mix of senior-level and junior-level professionals to serve as guest speakers in a semester would be advisable to benefit students in different ways.

Given the increasing globalization of the strategic communication field, preferring international guest speakers is only natural. For an international public relations course, having an international guest speaker would be ideal. As instructors in the U.S., we are not always mindful of bringing in international speakers. We suggest instructors make contact with their university’s international scholar services, which could be a starting point to learn more about international scholars on campus and to identify people who might fit in with their courses. Also, technology could be employed to have guest speakers address the class from remote locations so that the students could hear from a diverse range of speakers.

Guest Talk Topics and Formats

In line with Merle and Craig’s (2017) findings, the preferred topics of guest talks were around career advice, networking tips, professional backgrounds, and journeys. Career advice was perceived as the top topic, which suggests students in strategic communication are eager to learn professional advice and practical tips. It is also understandable that the personal journeys of speakers were among the highly preferred topics, as a guest speaker’s personal story sharing can enhance students’ engagement (Soiferman, 2019).

Should the topic of the guest talk be tied closely to the course? The answer is probably yes. Soiferman (2019) asserted that both declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge are important for students. In practice, guest speakers don’t want to stray too far from the course content. The instructor and guest speakers may want to work together to maximize the effectiveness of guest talks by discussing course content before the guest talk.

Our research suggested that ideally, conversational style talks, plus visual aids would be best. Also, it would be wise to present the idea of a Q&A session to guest speakers in advance. These findings are in line with Merle and Craig’s (2017) findings. The class dynamics may affect the duration and effectiveness of a Q&A session. An instructor can facilitate the session by asking some general but personal questions such as what you enjoy most about your job and what is the most challenging part of your job.

Survey data also indicated that only about half of the students would like to be tested or have an assignment on guest content, which is somewhat in line with Hite et al.’s (1985) findings that students didn’t want to be tested over the guest speaker content. However, as they suggested a more positive learning experience occurred when students are told they would be tested over guest talks, perhaps giving students an assignment or test based on guest content would be a good idea to enhance the learning outcome.

Experience of Having Guest Talks and Benefits of Guest Talks

Our research suggests it would be wise to have guest talks as a teaching tool. It is interesting to see career-related benefits were perceived as higher than academic and particular classroom learning benefits. This may be related to the practical nature of the strategic communication courses. The pedagogical benefits were recognized, although they were not appreciated as much. In order to maximize the benefits of guest speakers, instructors may want to consider the nature of the course and students’ year in college and work with the guest speaker to devise the focus of the talk and the timetable. For example, in an upper-level public relations campaign/capstone course, instructors may want to ask the guest speaker to talk about networking tips and opportunities and career advice and leave some time to allow students who are mainly juniors and seniors to network with the guest speaker.

Online Guest Speakers

Although online courses have been implemented in many schools, students’ experience with online strategic communication courses is limited, and having guest speakers in online strategic communication courses is rare as well, at least in our sample. Even with such limited experience, students expressed the desire to have guest speakers online. This calls for further empirical studies on the effectiveness of online guest speakers, particularly given the mixed findings on this subject (Henderson et al., 2018; Hemphill & Hemphill, 2007). Instructors could experiment in incorporating guest speakers in an online format with the help of technology, such as incorporating Skype, Google Hangouts, or FaceTime, which can enable participatory behavior in online sections.

Students’ Voice and Number of Guest Speakers

Students tended to like playing a role in choosing the topics of guest talks. Previous research suggests when students perceive their voice is being heard and they have agency in their own educational process, that leads to better learning outcomes (Cook-Sather, 2006). Thus, circulating a poll a week or two before the semester starts and inviting students to provide their input on selecting guest speakers based on their interests may help set the right tone for the course and may result in a more enjoyable semester, for both the students and faculty.

Having three guest speakers in a given semester was the most preferred option, which is in line with the tips offered by Roush (2013), who suggested not overusing guest speakers and no more than three or four guest speakers during a class. Indeed, too many guest speakers may affect the course content an instructor may want to cover, and it may also be difficult to manage.

While the students’ perceptions of guest speakers will help instructors understand the needs and wants, it is worth noting that that students do not always know what’s best for them, and instructors may react to students’ perceptions differently according to their knowledge about their students and their experience of hosting guest talks. On the other hand, a successful guest talk cannot be separated from the efforts of a guest speaker. We recommend that guest speakers work closely with the instructors before the talk to learn about the instructor’s expectations, understand students’ needs, and present the talk in an engaging manner.

Limitations and Future Research

The samples for focus groups and survey research were convenience and purposive in nature. Researchers should be cautious when generalizing the findings of this study to a larger population. Another limitation lies in the sample size. Future research should conduct more focus group discussions to enrich the data. Our survey sample size was also small and limited to one campus. Future research can use large-scale survey research to derive findings based on representative samples that could be generalized to a larger population in various contexts.

Focus group participants were not excluded from the survey, which may affect their survey responses due to their previous exposure to the focus group discussion. Also, a student could take the survey multiple times. Although our data did not suggest that happened, we should have taken a precaution when designing the online survey.

Although the results from our survey research provide useful information, it remains descriptive in nature. Due to the smaller sample size, the present study focuses on the student perception of guest speakers as a group. However, basic statistics show some noticeable and interesting differences in preferences of guest speakers by major, which provides useful information for educators. For example, journalism majors tended to prefer junior-level professionals and senior-level professionals much more than non-journalism majors (see Table 1a) and prefer the industry topics much more than non-journalism majors (see Table 3a). Also, journalism majors tended to prefer the following benefits more than non-journalism majors–opportunity to network with the guest speaker, feeling more confident in strategic communication career decisions, being more aware of strategic communication career opportunities, helping understand the industry at large, and helping enrich the curriculum (see Table 5a). As for the differences in perceptions by year in college, it is worth noting that underclassmen tended to prefer faculty members more than upperclassmen, and prefer recent graduates less than upperclassmen (see Table 1b). Underclassmen tended to prefer the benefits of having an opportunity to network with guest speakers, being aware of strategic communication career opportunities, and taking a break from the same instructor more than upperclassmen (see Table 5b). With a bigger sample size, advanced statistical analysis could be employed to examine statistical difference and generate more information.

Some issues are worth further investigation. For example, students tend to dislike being tested on a guest speaker. What alternative testing tools to examine the guest talk effectiveness exist? Students tended to want to have a say in choosing the topics of guest talks. How should this take place? Collecting more data can offer more robust findings and analyses. In addition, future studies could examine how the type of public relations course might affect student perceptions of guest speakers.

In conclusion, the key things we learned from our research suggest an overwhelming preference for guest speakers from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, who share their personal journey, career advice, and networking tips. This allows students to learn from the guest speakers’ personal experiences, so they may apply the knowledge of the speakers’ job searching and networking to advance their own careers. Our findings have important practical implications and suggest that diversity and variety of guest speakers and topics create an enriching pedagogical experience. While an instructor plays a key role in planning and facilitating a guest talk, the outcome of a guest talk would also involve the guest speaker’s effort and audience’s engagement.


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© Copyright 2021 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Ji, H., Jain, P., & Axinn,C. (2021). Student perceptions of guest speakers in strategic communications courses. Journal of Public Relations Education, 7(1), 40-79. https://aejmc.us/jpre/2021/05/25/student-perceptions-of-guest-speakers-in-strategic-communication-courses/


Synthesizing Primary and Secondary Research to Drive Strategy: A Final Project for a Strategic Communication Research Course

Editorial Record: Submitted to AEJMC-PRD GIFT Competition by Feb. 21, 2020. A blind copy was peer reviewed by the PRD Teaching Committee, led by Chair Chris McCollough, and selected as a Top GIFT. Top GIFT winners were notified on April 1, 2020. First published online on August 15, 2020.


Danielle LaGree, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, strategic communications
Kansas State University
Email: danilagree@ksu.edu 


The ability to sort through data to find insight and opportunity, and determine what is meaningful and meaningless, is critical for PR graduates entering the profession (Lum, 2017). Additionally, conducting research and developing strategy informed by data is the bedrock of the PR process (Commision on Public Relations Education, 2018). Students’ success in PR is dependent on their ability to not only conduct primary and secondary research but also synthesize what this data means relevant to the organizational context, challenges, opportunities, and goals. 

A research white paper, the final project for a strategic communication research course, allows the opportunity for students to leverage what they have learned throughout the semester, synthesizing data from a broad perspective to drive strategy. Students are provided with a hypothetical scenario about a real organization, as well as a fictional data set. They must confidently convey their conclusions and recommendations in an easy-to-read, visually appealing report functional for busy executive decision-makers. This project helps students understand how research comes full circle, illustrating its role in PR planning and execution.

Student Learning Goals

  1. Demonstrate understanding of how research data benefits and informs PR strategy and tactics
  2. Demonstrate ability to interpret data as it relates to organizational context, challenges, opportunities, and goals
  3. Successfully utilize research from credible secondary sources to further synthesize primary data and support/justify recommendations
  4. Confidently communicate research conclusions and strategic recommendations using the written word and visuals, such as charts, graphs, and images

Connection to Public Relations Practice

This assignment connects to the PR process known as ROPES (Page & Parnell, 2018) because it emphasizes research as a necessary starting point for producing effective, strategic PR initiatives. It provides the experience today’s PR graduates need to confidently recommend sound strategy informed by data. 

Assessment of Student Learning

  • Since implementing this assignment as the final project (in addition to other course changes), students’ self-report of “confidence handling research and data” moved from the bottom four rankings of student learning outcomes to the top four.
  • “I liked that I could see how everything connects and how it would be presented to a client. There were no gaps, and I wasn’t left asking how it would actually work in the ‘real world.’ I appreciated the challenge of having primary and secondary research to synthesize into recommendations. It was difficult at first, but I realized it made our presentation so much more credible and interesting. Before this class, I could not confidently connect data back to suggestions I was making. This project was challenging because I was forced to do just that.” – senior female
  • “I never thought I would say this about a research class, but this final project has been one of my favorites… I feel like the white paper really does a great job of incorporating everything we’ve learned this semester. We had to come up with a creative way to communicate our insights so that anyone could understand them, whether they’re an expert in this topic or not.” – senior male


Commission on Public Relations Education (2018). Fast forward: Foundations + future state. Educators + practitioners: The Commission on Public Relations Education 2017 report on undergraduate education. http://www.commissionpred.org/commission-reports/fast-forward-foundations-future-state-educators-practitioners/

Lum, E. (2017). Bridging the talent disconnect: Charting the pathways to future growth. The ANA Educational Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.aef.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/talent-2017study-v2.pdf.

Page, J. T., & Parnell, L. J. (2018). Introduction to strategic public relations: Digital, global, and socially responsible communication. Sage.

Appendix: Final Research White Paper Assignment

Client: National Park Foundation*

*This is a real organization but a hypothetical scenario

Background and Situation

The National Park Foundation (NPF) has made significant strides developing modern communications that have increased awareness about the organization. However, its most recent campaign, “Find Your Park,” is underperforming. Although it boosted awareness, it did not significantly increase national park visits. Additionally, the communications team believes there is a lack of understanding of what NPF actually does.

Your team was hired to conduct a nationwide survey, analyze and communicate the results, and recommend three creative strategies for NPF’s next targeted campaign. NPF wants this campaign to increase understanding of what NPF does, ultimately cultivating long-term support for and appreciation of NPF’s efforts.  

Your results analysis should reveal insights about the following:

  1. Understanding and perceptions of the National Park Foundation
  2. Perceptions of national parks as a travel destination
  3. Media use behaviors related to the outdoors/travel

Assume you already distributed the survey and a statistician ran the data (see results in section titled “Survey Results”). You will interpret the data and communicate results in a visual and meaningful way to the client, meaning that you should clearly make the connection between insights, how the insights are relevant to the client’s situation, and how the insights inform your creative strategies. 

Deliverables: White Paper

“A white paper is a persuasive, authoritative, in-depth report on a specific topic that presents a problem and provides a solution” (HubSpot, 2018, para. 5). Click here for more information on white papers. 

There are a lot of free resources to make your white paper visually appealing. I recommend using Canva to design your white paper or Adobe InDesign if you are comfortable. 

Your white paper should be no more than 8 pages in length and consist of the following sections:

  • Cover Page: Title your white paper and include author information.
  • Executive Summary: An executive summary is a brief snapshot of the entire white paper. In two to three paragraphs, explain the purpose of the white paper; in three to four paragraphs, identify the most important findings and provide a brief overview of your creative strategies.
  • Survey Results: Use charts, graphs, icons, or other visuals. (as well as words to support the visuals) to visually communicate the survey results. This means that the client can skim the report and easily understand key information. Additional commentary should support the “hard data” to explain what it means/how it is relevant to the client’s situation.
  • Supporting Insights: Use secondary research from at least three different sources to provide additional information you think would be valuable for the client, given the survey results. This section should include three to five key insights.
  • Creative Strategies: In this section, you will recommend three creative strategies that are informed by your survey data and secondary insights. These are strategies (not tactics), which means they should be broad ideas that align with what the client wants to accomplish.


10 pts. Executive Summary | Provides a snapshot of the entire white paper and includes the following information: purpose of the report, three to four of the most important findings, and a discussion of how the client can move forward. Persuasive argumentation is evident.

25 pts. Survey Results | Visuals clearly and appropriately illustrate all survey results; attention to question type and standard deviation is demonstrated; results are communicated in a way that reflects what the client wanted to learn from the research and why the data is relevant/meaningful.

25 pts. Secondary Insights | Insights come from established, credible sources; relevant and meaningful in light of client’s situation and goals; necessary details are included (e.g., survey population); sources are cited appropriately.

25 pts. Creative Strategies | Three clear strategies are provided that align with the client’s situation and challenge. Strategies are appropriate given primary and secondary data.

10 pts. Design and Formatting | Visually appealing, creative, reflects the brand’s look and feel. Entire white paper flows well from start to finish; is no more than 8 pages in length (excluding cover page); different sections are easily recognizable; cover page is professional yet creative.5 pts. Writing Technicalities and Tone | No spelling/grammatical errors; professional and confident tone.

National Park Foundation Survey Results (note: fictitious data)

SURVEY DATA (N = 1,500)

I understand that the National Park Foundation serves all national parks by protecting them for generations to come.  (yes/no) AGE21-30: Yes = 72%; No = 28%31-40: Yes: 37%; No = 63%41-50: Yes = 44%; No = 56%51+: Yes = 87%; No = 13%  
Which of the following efforts do you most associate with NPF? (check all that apply)
__ Protecting the wilderness__ Connecting children to the outdoors__ Supporting local communities__ Inspiring the next generation of park stewards and enthusiasts
(41%) Protecting the wilderness(17%) Connecting children to the outdoors(5%) Supporting local communities(8%) Inspiring the next generation of park stewards and enthusiasts
The National Park Foundation:*is an apolitical organization (i.e., not affiliated with any particular political group)is essential for protecting public landshelps me understand how I can contribute to protecting public landsis successful in advocating for all national parksis a good resource for planning trips to national parks(*Likert scale 1 = strongly disagree; 7 = strongly agree)is an apolitical organization
(M = 2.3; SD = 0.5)is essential for protecting public lands
(M = 6.2; SD = 0.7)helps me understand how I can contribute to protecting public lands
(M = 4.5; SD = 1.4)is successful in advocating for all national parks
(M = 3; SD = 1.8)is a good resource for planning trips to national parks
(M = 1.5; SD = 0.5)
To me, visiting national parks as a travel destination with family and friends is**:Easy – – – – – – ComplicatedAppealing – – – – – – Not appealingTime consuming – – – -Not time consumingAffordable – – – – – – Expensive
(**Semantic differential scale 1-7)
Easy-Complicated (M = 6.1; SD = 0.3)Appealing-Not appealing (M = 2; SD = 0.6)Time consuming-Not (M = 1.4; SD = 1.8)Affordable-Expensive (M = 1; SD = 0.5)
I would like to learn about the following regarding travel planning to national parks (check all that apply):__Places to stay in/near national parks__Community events/festivals in/near national parks__Live entertainment in/near national parks__Immersive outdoor experiences in/near national parks
Places to stay in/near national parks (80%)Community events/festivals in/near national parks (22%)Live entertainment in/near national parks (15%)Immersive outdoor experiences in/near national parks (95%)
Which of the following forms of communication/media do you prefer to learn about outdoor travel destinations? (check all that apply)FacebookInstagramPromotional emailsRecommendations from friends and/or familyOther (please specify)________DATA BY AGE GROUP21-30:Facebook (40%)Instagram (89%)Promotional emails (50%)Recommendations from friends and/or family (70%)Other (please specify)________
Google search; travel bloggers; Insta stories

31-40:Facebook (51%)Instagram (78%)Promotional emails (62%)Recommendations from friends and/or family (80%)Other (please specify)________
Netflix documentaries/features; Google search; mom bloggers on Instagram

41-50:Facebook (67%)Instagram (54%)Promotional emails (75%)Recommendations from friends and/or family (91%)Other (please specify)__
Tripadvisor; Google search; magazines (Family Circle, Parents)

51+:Facebook (85%)Instagram (15%)Promotional emails (27%)Recommendations from friends and/or family (78%)Other (please specify)__
Tripadvisor, Yelp, Google search

© Copyright 2020 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: LaGree, D. (2020). Synthesizing primary and secondary research to drive strategy: A final project for a strategic communication research course.  Journal of Public Relations Education, 6(2), 142-149. http://aejmc.us/jpre/2020/08/13/synthesizing-primary-and-secondary-research-to-drive-strategy-a-final-project-for-a-strategic-communication-research-course/

Social Media for Strategic Communication: Creative Strategies and Research-Based Applications

Geah Pressgrove, West Virginia University

Social Media for Strategic Communication: Creative Strategies and Research-Based Applications
Author: Karen Freberg 
Sage, 2018
ISBN: 9781506387109

In the last 15 years, a veritable explosion of social media channels has entered and forever changed the practice of public relations. What does this mean for public relations educators? Well, if you are committed to preparing students for careers, it likely means you are constantly evolving your pedagogical approach. While our ethos of ethically building mutually beneficial relationships remains foundational, preparing students for the digital landscape means that we, as professors, need to consider how this fast-paced environment impacts students’ ability to think strategically and effectively produce content. In fact, the most recent Commission on Public Relations Education report (2018) indicates that employers are most concerned about what entry-level practitioners can produce and do, including writing for the web. Further, the report indicates that social media is the most highly rated technology-curriculum topic by practitioners. 

In the book, Social Media for Strategic Communication: Creative Strategies and Research-Based Applications, Karen Freberg (2018), associate professor of Strategic Communication at the University of Louisville, takes a comprehensive approach to preparing students to produce social media content and enabling them to compete for industry positions with a social media focus. In the book, Freberg draws both on research and practitioner insights from various disciplines. Focusing on strategies, behaviors and mindset, the text is both a guidebook and resource for professor, practitioner and student alike. Based on her own research, experience teaching social media and significant professional connections, Freberg’s text takes the guesswork out of how to approach and teach strategic social media. 

Book’s Composition and Organization 

The book is thoughtfully organized into three parts, first focusing on foundations, followed by strategies, and concluding with careers. In the first part, Freberg frames strategic use of social media as both an art and science, then takes the reader through the ethical and legal considerations of communicating on social media. At the conclusion of part one, the text reinforces the importance of research by reviewing social media monitoring, listening and analysis. This framework is then built on throughout the remainder of the text. 

In part two, the focus is on strategy-based campaign planning concepts ranging from audience segmentation and writing for social media to budgeting, calendaring and evaluation. Importantly, Freberg does not propose that strategic planning for social media is different from public relations.  Instead, she expands on foundational concepts taught across the core of public relations curriculum.  For instance, the first chapter of part two of the text takes readers through the strategic campaign planning process using language that should be familiar to any public relations student.  The following chapters dive more deeply into each step and expand on the topics in a social media-specific context, including areas such as influencers, creators, managing and curating content, and common writing mistakes on social media. 

In part three, the focus is on ensuring the reader understands the pervasive role of social media by covering specializations as diverse as entertainment, crisis communication, sports, nonprofit, health care and international communication. Concluding in this way allows the reader to consider how all they have learned could be applied in different disciplines and myriad interests.  

Book’s Strengths and Weaknesses 

As you read this review, you may be asking yourself if a book published in 2018 can remain relevant and current. The answer is yes. Rather than focusing on platform features and trends, this text offers a clear framework for developing a strategic mindset. For example, each chapter of the text begins with a “Humans of Social Media” feature that introduces the reader to thought leaders in the field. Rather than aging like so many social media case studies, these interviews provide industry relevant insights that frame the chapter content. 

The utility of the text is further strengthened by the use of tables and figures that break up what could be dense reading and provide quick reference to key concepts. For example, tables that provide a comparative glimpse at performance metrics reinforce the importance of advanced and behavioral metrics as compared to basic metrics (e.g., likes, followers). Other tables offer examples for students to reflect on (e.g., sample vision statements, sample content calendars), while others offer templates for their own efforts (e.g., social media audits, content templates). Further, the thought questions and exercises that conclude each chapter offer ready-made discussion prompts and assignments that apply chapter learning outcomes to real-world scenarios. 

One critique of the text could be the lack of emphasis on paid social media strategies. There are presently a few pages dedicated to the topic in the budgeting section of Chapter 10. Additional passing reference to paid content is included in relevant chapters. However, I would argue that with algorithms limiting organic reach, this topic is central to a strategic social media mindset. To overcome this limitation in my own courses, I have supplemented with digital certifications and simulation-type activities that provide a more well-rounded view. A more comprehensive discussion of the role of paid social media seems an appropriate addition for future editions of the text.

While the book provides an in-depth review of important topics like ethics and legal fundamentals, a second area for improvement would be an enhanced focus on diversity related content.  For instance, including accessibility guides and multicultural perspectives would be valuable in the sections focused on understanding the target audience. Additionally, examples that highlight model approaches to equity focused social media communication would help students understand best practices. Further, lifting up diverse voices in the “Humans of Social Media” profiles and resources would also improve students’ understanding of strategic social media careers. 

Who Would Benefit from Reading this Book?

When considering textbooks for a strategic social media course at my institution, I compiled a comprehensive list and narrowed the options to four possible texts. I then gathered a group of a dozen students from varying classes across the public relations curriculum and allowed them to review and offer their thoughts on the options. The students unanimously chose the Freberg text because of low cost and ease of reading, as well as features like interviews with industry insiders, tables that synthesize key topics, and an abundance of resources. I shared their sentiment and the text has now been used with high praise from students and instructors alike for three semesters.

In addition to a foundational text for social media courses, the practical insights and research-based approach of this book makes it appropriate for instructors looking to supplement their other public relations courses or activities. For example, I have referenced chapters related to monitoring, listening, and analysis in a research methods course. The book’s sections on strategic planning, budgeting, evaluation, and calendaring provide an additional resource for students developing campaign plans, such as those for the capstone. The content related to writing offers supplemental insights for a public relations writing course, or sections of a broader writing course seeking more specialized modules. This text is also useful outside of the traditional classroom. For example, the professional branding content has proved useful as part of programming for the Public Relations Student Society of America at my college. Also, I have encouraged graduates starting careers with a social media role to purchase the text as a reference guide. 

Overall, this text has been well worth the financial investment for me, my students, and my graduates.  


Commission on Public Relations Education. (2018). Fast forward: Foundations + future state. Educators + practitioners: The Commission on Public Relations Education 2017 report on undergraduate education. http://www.commissionpred.org/ commission-reports/fast-forward-foundations-future-state-educators-practitioners/

© Copyright 2020 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Pressgrove, G. (2020). Social media for strategic communication: Creative strategies and research-based applications.  Journal of Public Relations Education, 6(2), 200-204. http://aejmc.us/jpre/2020/08/13/social-media-for-strategic-communication-creative-strategies-and-research-based-applications/

Training International Public Relations Teams: Active Learning in a Multinational Context

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted to JPRE January 17, 2019. Revision submitted April 25, 2019. Manuscript accepted for publication June 14, 2019. First published online January 21, 2020.


Bond Benton
Associate Professor of Public Relations
Montclair State University
Montclair, NJ
Email: bentonb@montclair.edu


From 2004-2014, the State Department conducted a series of trainings for local, non-United States staff tasked with public diplomacy projects. These projects focused on activities that would better tell the U.S. story to international audiences and highlight attractive aspects of U.S. culture to external constituencies. Given the applied nature of these projects, training organizers elected to use an active and applied learning approach for training design. Non-U.S. staff worked directly on real world public diplomacy projects as the primary focus of each training session. Training groups’ composition included both homogeneous groups (with participants all from the same country) and heterogeneous groups (with participants coming from multiple countries). Measured training outcomes demonstrated the effectiveness of applied learning in this context and improved outcomes for heterogeneous groups. Implications for teaching public relations, public diplomacy, and training pedagogy are considered.

Keywords: State Department, strategic communication, experiential learning, training and development, public diplomacy, diversity

Training International Public Relations Teams: Active Learning in a Multinational Context

Strategically communicating with an international constituency presents a challenge under the most ideal circumstances. Reaching an international audience primed to believe the message is imperialistic, hostile, dangerous, hateful, and untrustworthy (Sardar & Davis, 2002) presents a considerably more substantial obstacle. That, however, is the exact obstacle the United States State Department took on in efforts to improve U.S. perceptions in the world through improved public diplomacy. Public diplomacy relies on a multidisciplinary approach that integrates ideas from marketing, public relations, international relations, and cultural studies (Botan, 1997). Turning this approach into an actionable strategy necessarily relies on trained teams with knowledge of both the state they are representing and the constituencies they are addressing. In this case, the State Department was tasked with training teams to deliver key messages at consular and diplomatic posts throughout the world from 2004-2014. As this message would need local partners to navigate and adapt the approach to the conditions on the ground, teams were composed of non-U.S. citizens who work for the U.S. State Department. The unique focus of this training, coupled with the opportunity to study the impact of multinational training groups focused on public relations, provides an important contextual opportunity for research that has implications for both educators and public relations practitioners.


Public Diplomacy and the U.S. State Department

Public diplomacy is based on the idea that states have fundamentally attractive dimensions that can be leveraged in the creation of improved relationships with a variety of international stakeholders (Sevin et al., 2019). An improved national image can lead to greater trade opportunities, more tourism, better positioning in international negotiations, and a decrease in international acrimony, potentially resulting in improved security and more favorable economic conditions. The public relations element of public diplomacy has been well-established. Dating back to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, states have regularly attempted to win over the publics of other nations by highlighting cultural and political characteristics that might be viewed as attractive to an international audience. While writing about the public relations dimension of public diplomacy, Sun (2008) argues that “American soft power has great influence worldwide from Hollywood stars to Harvard education, and through Microsoft applications” (p. 167).

The positive association with the economic and cultural dimensions of a country, if nourished through a program of public diplomacy, can “maintain and enhance long-term political relationships at a profit for society, so that the objectives of the individual political actors and organizations involved are met” (Sun, 2008, p. 168). Positive perceptions of a state can then serve as a buttress against negative attitudes directed against that state (Nye, 2004). A corporate social responsibility corollary is the investment that companies make “in areas like cause-related marketing to improve their reputation and create goodwill among consumers in the host country” (Choi et al., 2016, p. 82). In fact, Signitzer and Coombs (1992) argue that “public relations and public diplomacy seek similar objectives and use similar tools” (p. 137). The challenge, however, of public diplomacy mirrors the challenges faced in international public relations, which are well documented by both practitioners and researchers. As Taylor and Brodowsky (2012) note:

For the past three decades, increasing numbers of firms, at an increasing rate, have adopted a global mindset. Growth, if not survival, depends upon making the right decisions with respect to the international environment. (p. 149)

Taylor and Brodowsky (2012) further explain “there is widespread acceptance of the fallacy that IMR [international marketing research] can use the same approaches, theories, methods, and scales in different worldwide locations“ (p. 150). The idea that a successful messaging approach in one location will work equally well in another has been regularly shown to be a dubious thesis (Cheon et al., 2007). To remedy the dangers of an insular and homogeneous perspective in international messaging, the State Department regularly draws upon the perspectives of non-U.S. citizens employed by the organization when conducting public diplomacy. Non-U.S. citizens working at State Department posts comprise the bulk of the 42,000 staff members who work at more than 250 U.S. embassies and consulates worldwide. The term used in State Department literature describes them as the “glue” that holds U.S. diplomatic posts together (Bureau of Human Resources, 2007). As the “glue” of the organization, these international employees offer logistical bridges between the diplomatic post and region as many U.S. staff do not have the local cultural or language experience to create functioning programs in their posted countries (Asthana, 2006). Officials from the United States are assigned to a post for three years or less (and often for a much shorter duration than that). The job of U.S. diplomats posted overseas mirrors the expectations that many organizations face when operating internationally. They need to be sensitive to the needs of the local population, while ensuring the policies they enact match the overall vision Washington has for diplomacy. This need for adaptation to stakeholder needs while maintaining message consistency is echoed in literature defining the linkages between public diplomacy and public relations. In Vanc and Fitzpatrick’s (2016) analysis of public relations scholarship on the subject of public diplomacy from 1990 to 2014, they note that “studies examining the strategic aspects of public diplomacy, including works on media and messaging, revealed both commonalities in the two fields” (p. 436).

In terms of public diplomacy, the United States’ agenda is broadly to win the “hearts and minds” of people throughout the world. This became an acutely difficult objective to achieve in the early 2000s when worldwide public opinion against the United States was sharply negative in the context of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The extent of those negative attitudes was crystallized in a study issued by the U.S. State Department, which was delivered to the House Appropriations Committee in 2003:

The bottom has indeed fallen out of support for the United States. In Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, only 15 percent view the United States favorably, compared with 61 percent in early 2002. In Saudi Arabia, according to a Gallup poll, only 7 percent had a “very favorable” view of the U.S. while 49 percent had a “very unfavorable” view. In Turkey, a secular Muslim, non-Arab democracy that is a stalwart member of NATO and a longtime supporter of America, favorable opinion toward the U.S. dropped from 52 percent three years ago to 15 percent in the spring of 2003, according to the Pew Research Center. The problem is not limited to the Arab and Muslim world. In Spain, an early ally in the war in Iraq, 3 percent had a very favorable view of the United States while 39 percent had a very unfavorable view. (Djerejian, 2003, p. 19)

The longevity of these negative feelings was further validated in both academic and popular research. For example, Bellamy and Weinberg (2008) noted that over a five-year span in the 2000s, the percentage of people with a favorable image of the United States decreased 11% in Japan, 18% in Argentina, 30% in Germany, and only reached 51% in the U.K. (Bellamy & Weinberg, 2008, p. 55). Such low numbers represented a diplomatic liability extreme enough that popular sentiment against the United States could be a hindrance in conducting foreign policy. Thus, the call to speak to the needs of key global stakeholders in appropriate language and substance was paramount. The leveraging of opportunities created by the U.S. State Department’s sizable non-U.S. citizen workforce would necessarily need to be a key component of any such initiative. With this in mind, the State Department issued an open solicitation to create a training program for its staff of non-U.S. citizens in 2004. This multi-year training program would focus on developing strategies for localized programs and presentations that highlight attractive aspects of United States culture to key international publics.

In this context, the key role of non-U.S. staff would be that of an enabler and intercessory. Their primary approach to communicating U.S. messages to local populations must be consistent with Washington’s goals but adapted to match the needs of local targets. Managing messages and evaluating locally appropriate channels are the key components of their work. The term “engagement“ has gained much traction as a public relations concept as the idea that “stakeholders challenge the discourse of organizational primacy and organizations prioritize the need for authentic stakeholder involvement” (Johnston, 2014, p. 381). This emphasis on dialogue, where the motivations of local constituencies are reciprocal in messaging, mirrors much of the literature about the goals governmental organizations have when initiating public diplomacy (Leonard et al., 2002; Nye, 1990, 2002b, 2002a, 2004, 2008, 2009). While such activities may appear insignificant in something as massive as a state’s foreign policy program, the relationships built with publics in foreign countries can have a significant overall effect on the perceptions of that country. International staff working for the U.S. State Department can improve local constituency access in a number of ways. These include access to the local media channels, links to relevant programs and publics in the community, an understanding of local and regional government processes, and the skills to conduct research in a culturally appropriate and effective way.  These international partners also have credibility in helping to share the American messages in a way more likely to be accepted in the region.

While the opportunities provided by local resources are clear in any public relations strategy, efforts at effective public diplomacy have been sharply criticized for their failure to adapt to the needs of various international constituencies. Undoubtedly, some of the shortcomings are circumstantial. U.S. foreign policy decisions are frequently not well received by a number of publics worldwide. As the old saying goes, you can’t PR your way out of a product people hate. Echoing this sentiment, an internal study commissioned by the State Department (Djerejian, 2003) argued:

We must underscore the common ground in both our values and policies. We have failed to listen and failed to persuade. We have not taken the time to understand our audience, and we have not bothered to help them understand us. We cannot afford such shortcomings. (p. 24)

Given the constraints of the short posting periods for U.S. officials, it is not feasible for them to form the partnerships essential to key public relations tasks. As such, the bulk of stakeholder relationship building is contingent on the work of local, non-U.S. staff.  This creates organizational tension, as message creation is clearly under the domain of U.S. State Department employees, but adaptation and delivery of the message is sourced to local teams.  This tendency has been identified in the Ethnocentric, Polycentric, Regiocentric, and Geocentric (E.P.R.G.) schema, which demonstrates that organizations engaging with international constituencies will typically have a reflexive tendency to contextualize the processes of the country they are operating in with the processes of their home country (Mahmoud, 1975). Wind et al. (1973) describe this as the “ethnocentric phase“ (p. 14) of international messaging. Moving beyond this phase is particularly challenging, as Molleda et al. (2015) note that “organizations with operations in more than one country are confronted with differences in geography, culture, politics, economy, communication, and demands for transparency that make finding an appropriate balance difficult” (p. 335).

While many modern international operations have moved beyond this phase, State Department culture tends to be considerably more traditional and remains grounded in U.S. organizational preferences.  The State Department is hardly alone in this tendency as multinationals regularly emphasize their home countries’ cultures. As Samaha et al. (2014) indicate, “Despite the increase in international relationships, managers and academics have little guidance regarding whether or how strategies should be adapted in different countries“ (p. 78). This is reflected in substantial public relations literature that suggests the field remains quite homogeneous despite the increasing need for messaging to diverse audiences (Vardeman-Winter & Place, 2017). U.S. models and preferences still dominate public relations practice even in a global context (Freitag & Stokes, 2009). Diversification of the perspectives of public relations should be embedded in education and training, but shortcomings in this area remain. As Sriramesh (2002) succinctly states:

Public relations (PR) education has not kept pace with the rapid globalization . . . . The existing PR body of knowledge, and PR curricula around the world, have a US bias. In order to prepare PR students in various parts of the world to become effective multicultural professionals it is essential for experiences and perspectives from other continents to be integrated into PR education. (p. 54) 

For the State Department, some of this inward focus is institutional, but much of it is structural as well. The focus of the organization is ensuring that its staff remains on message in terms of mandates coming from a central leadership. At the same time, however, for messages to gain currency with targeted stakeholders, the message must be localized by teams of people who are not from the United States. Verčič et al. (2015) argue for improved training for international public relations teams by companies, which:

have to establish international training initiatives for communicators as well as an international selection process for communication staff, encourage international exchange of best practices and creative approaches, in corporate communications between countries, regions, as well as divisions and functions, and establish a visible international communication performance within the company. (p. 791)

Adult Learning and Public Relations Training

Active and experiential learning in public relations, marketing, and strategic communication training has been recognized as fundamental for successful outcomes (Alam, 2014; Bove & Davies, 2009; Craciun & Corrigan, 2010; Laverie et al., 2008). This need is seen in trainees at all levels but appears to be particularly salient in the case of adult learners. Specifically, prior research on adult learners has shown a preference for immediacy and the opportunity to have training sessions directly inform work in which they are currently engaged (Merriam & Caffarella, 1991). While learners in traditional college classrooms might be more willing to see learning as exploratory towards an eventual professional outcome, most professionals in a training session do not have the luxury of time. Additionally, adult learners typically bring professional experience to the training environment and look to utilize existing skills and prior knowledge in learning activities (Luke, 1971). While courses geared to university students frequently emphasize making challenging concepts accessible, the accessibility of adult learning frequently comes from contextualizing new knowledge with previous experience. Content ownership is important in training working adults, as participants want to feel a sense of authorship in the material that emerges from the training session (American Management Association, 1993). While periods of extended reflection and reinforcement are features of the university classroom, adult learners generally prefer action items they can immediately apply and refine through implementation in professional activities. The importance of this approach for a population engaged in international public relations practice becomes clear when considering many of the key challenges of the field.

Consistently, the most pedagogically sound way to navigate these challenges has been through active engagement and application activities on the part of training participants (American Management Association, 1993; Knowles et al., 1998; Luke, 1971). Contextual reflection and differentiation appear to be the most successful approaches to encouraging learners to consider different ideas related to international climates and the corresponding challenges related to culture that may emerge. While important theoretical lessons might be imparted through traditional lectures, the decision-making required to apply those principles requires dialogue, reflection, application, and activity (Hollensen, 2011). In a global context, diversity would appear to support these sorts of active learning outcomes. Multinational learning groups have been found to stimulate curiosity and foster a creative climate of collaboration among participants (Boehm et al., 2010; Fine-Davis & Faas, 2014). Specifically, culturally heterogeneous groups appear to have advantages over homogeneous groups in that they tend to foster less insular thinking and encourage consideration of new perspectives (Jacobi, 2018; Tyran, 2017). Diversity in training groups is seen as a particularly salient need for public relations (Verčič et al., 2015).

Given the State Department’s need for effective public diplomacy training and the specific needs of adult learners, the following research question emerged:

RQ1: What is the effect of active and experiential public relations training among non-U.S. citizens working for the U.S. State Department?

As cultural diversity would seem to support effective active and experiential learning, investigating diversity in training group composition begs the following research question:

RQ2: What are the differences in training outcomes between culturally homogeneous groups and culturally heterogeneous groups of non-U.S. citizens engaged in public relations training for the U.S. State Department?


Case Context

The situation the State Department faced in terms of global attitudes toward the United States presented an obstacle with non-U.S. staff serving as an opportunity for shifting the worldwide narrative toward attractive aspects of U.S. culture. As an organization, tensions existed between the necessity for message consistency and the need for localization of communication. Navigation of that tension to ensure the preferences of different global publics were respected was the responsibility of non-U.S. staff working within the institution. Moving the needle in terms of worldwide opinion of the United States was a key objective that would require creative, compelling, and well-researched communication tactics. To ensure that non-U.S. staff would be empowered to develop those tactics, effective staff training was a crucial component of this initiative.

Training Approach

With world attitudes towards the United States being an important focal point of the institution, the U.S. State Department made improving the communication skills of its international staff an area of emphasis. With that in mind, the 2004 solicitation issued by the State Department focused on skills-based training that would improve the ability of non-U.S. staff to define the attributes of local stakeholders and tailor the messages to appeal to local preferences. These local staff were tasked with creating a positive image of the United States in their countries in the hopes of accruing a range of public diplomacy benefits. As public diplomacy is intrinsically connected to public relations (Corman et al., 2008), consideration of effective public relations teaching methods was top of mind when constructing the training program for the local staff. Training these teams to ensure they could deliver a consistent message with appropriate localization was clearly a key component of this initiative. Given the distinct population associated with these trainings and the outcomes sought, a unique context for teaching public relations emerged.

In reviewing the mandates and circumstances outlined in the solicitation, it was clear that an approach emphasizing active and applied learning would be crucial for successfully training this population. In response to these exigencies, an approach focused on application-based learning of public relations principles served as a foundational direction in the proposal. The State Department found this approach to be most salient, and the proposal was accepted. As such, this case presented opportunities to test the viability of an applied experiential approach to public relations training in an international context.

Training Structure

Based on both the existing research and the needs of this specific group of adult learners, the training structure emphasized application-based active learning that leveraged the participants’ experience. This approach was operationalized in the proposal in several key ways. First, project-based scenarios tailored to the learners’ immediate needs would be built. Rather than teaching general theories and concepts related to public relations, participants would be tasked with assessing the values, interests, needs, and preferences of the countries in which they were working. They would also need to identify their organization’s overall objectives in the region and begin preliminary work on a strategy and set of tactics that would best meet those objectives. The character of the training would then turn those ideas into direct action plans with ideas for implementation. Thus, the training sessions would move away from lectures and speeches and would take on the character of a workshop. Participants would solve their own problems and collaborate with one another, with the facilitator offering guidance based on research related to public relations.

The Regional Program Office headquartered in Vienna, Austria, directed this training project. Upon acceptance of the proposal, training organizers immediately scheduled a series of fact-finding sessions focused on identifying State Department needs and outcomes sought.  The role that improved public relations could have in achieving key objectives was also considered. These sessions proved immensely helpful as much was discovered about the circumstances of local staff tasked with communicating on behalf of the United States. Many of the unique challenges they face also came to light. As noted, short duration postings for officials from the United States frequently made international staff the public face of the organization for their community and, by extension, the U.S. government.

Having identified key challenges and opportunities that would be the focus of the training, developing specific training structures followed. The structure of each session was based directly on best practices related to active and experiential learning of public relations. Robust scholarship supports this approach, particularly Kolb’s (1984) frequently utilized work on the subject (cited in Herz & Merz, 1998). This approach emphasizes learning by doing and is increasingly a staple of pedagogic methodologies in a range of public relations courses at universities:

Experiential learning exercises help students to confront problems; make decisions; understand conflict resolution; evaluate feedback; understand negotiation and bargaining and recognize, and perhaps change their attitudes . . . this offers an opportunity to interact with the real business world bringing relevance and currency. (Alam, 2014, p. 117)

This is particularly important for an audience of working adults because the emphasis on utilizing experience and providing content for immediate application is crucial to meeting their needs (American Management Association, 1993; Knowles et al., 1998; Luke, 1971). To ensure the training sessions met this standard and served the needs of participants, a pre-seminar questionnaire was distributed to all attendees. This survey requested that participants evaluate the specific needs of the community they would be attempting to reach, along with an assessment of the outcomes that were being sought in terms of reaching key stakeholders. From this, participants were tasked with coming up with an overall strategy and possible tactics that would be part of that strategy. While participant proposals would be refined in training sessions, the pre-seminar questionnaire required developed answers and research related to the following questions:

  • What goals does your post have for specific communities in the area that you serve?
  • Looking at the goals, what do people in those communities like about the United States? (NOTE: It could be anything from music to clothes to movies to brands).
  • What sorts of events and activities could your post do to showcase those areas of interest to people in the targeted community?
  • How would these activities reinforce the positive feelings that the community has towards certain aspects of U.S. culture?

Seminar sessions were organized according to each area with creative participation among diverse practitioners framing the text of the training, as prescribed by Verčič et al. (2015). Sessions focused on the first “goals” bullet point would include an overview of the importance of establishing goals and objectives from the facilitator. The bulk of the session, however, would be collaborative sharing from participants about the outcomes they have been tasked with achieving by their post. The “what do people like about the United States” item opens the door for sessions on audience analysis and the importance of understanding the attitudes and beliefs of a targeted public. Again, collaboration on this point is immensely important as seeing the distinctions between various publics is foundational for adaptation. The “events and activities” item would lead to sessions on the importance of tactics as instrumental activities that support goals and objectives. In this session, participant brainstorming about tactics in a safe space allows for creativity from multiple perspectives. The seminar was designed as an application-based endeavor with participants working with one another to develop, refine, and improve these plans with the guidance and direction of a facilitator, rather than a prescriber.

While this research represents an investigation into learner experience in a public relations training project, it could also be more broadly contextualized as an investigation into a specific case. As staff training was an essential component of U.S. State Department public diplomacy efforts, exploring that training from a case perspective provides heuristic value (Yin, 2013). Moreover, case studies have been recommended as a necessity in understanding the interplay between the activities of individuals within an organization and the effects of those activities on institutional outcomes (Lawrence et al., 2009). Training serves directive and creative functions in explaining individual activities within an organization, with organizational initiatives being better understood as an amalgamation of individual actions (Thompson, 2018). Thus, exploring public diplomacy training in the U.S. State Department functionally serves as an investigation of public relations pedagogy while providing a richer understanding of public diplomacy efforts overall. Assessment of outcomes is based on survey responses related to training effectiveness, coupled with qualitative inclusion of narrative statements from participants detailing their experiences. As training sessions occurred in multiple contexts, results are compared based on group composition. Culturally homogeneous group results are compared with culturally mixed, heterogeneous group results.

Population and Assessment Survey

All training sessions consisted entirely of international staff employed by the U.S. State Department. These staff members were engaged in public relations and communication related activities on behalf of the United States. As the State Department mandated consistency, the structure of each course was standardized, meaning that, insofar as possible, the experience of each participant in each context would be reasonably similar to all other participants. Upon completing the course, participants were required to complete a survey that measured their overall experience and also an evaluation of how learning would allow them to meet key outcomes related to public relations. These measures were constructed by the State Department and were required for use in the course evaluation. This survey was developed by the State Department to ensure the investment in training produced a return in terms of participant outcomes. These State Department measures offer meaningful insights into the perceived outcomes learners experienced.

Participants responded to a four point, Likert scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree). Assessed items on the scale included understandability, interest stimulated in course content, active participation, and the overall benefit sessions offered for future public diplomacy projects. Space was also provided for narrative responses where participants could directly share experiences in the training sessions.

Follow-up with participants and external observation of courses have consistently shown the survey to be useful for training outcome assessment (B. Pressler, personal communication, July 10, 2010). Performance assessment, external observation, narrative responses, and review of the training sessions further validated the outcomes identified by participants in the questionnaire.

Group Composition Comparison

The training sessions’ organization would also allow for an analysis of the effectiveness of public relations training in culturally heterogeneous versus culturally homogeneous groups. Specifically, several of the training sessions were slated to occur at a regional training office in Vienna. Participants for these sessions came from all over the world and collaborated on their respective projects together. Other sessions, however, occurred onsite in specific countries. The participants in these sessions all came from the same country. The opportunity to investigate the effectiveness of public relations training by comparing the outcomes of mixed, heterogeneous versus homogeneous groups was particularly compelling. It also offered the chance to evaluate how active and experiential learning strategies might be affected by group composition. This project provided a unique opportunity to explore how multinational groups of adult learners navigate public relations challenges in the training context.

There were two distinct contexts in which these courses were delivered with seven total sessions for this project. All sessions occurred from 2004 to 2014. Four of these sessions were delivered to participants at a regional training center in Vienna. The 48 trainees at these sessions came from different nations, as described in Table 1.

Table 1

Nationalities: Training Site Participants who Came to Vienna

The other three sessions occurred at American Embassies in the following nations: Baku, Azerbaijan; Vienna, Austria; and Yerevan, Armenia. The 37 trainees in these sessions were all citizens of the respective country in which the training took place. 


In investigating the research question “What is the effect of active and experiential public relations training among non-U.S. citizens working for the U.S. State Department?”, it was expected that course participants would report general satisfaction with training outcomes.  Research suggested the use of active, experiential, and applied pedagogy would be especially beneficial for this group of learners, and participant response supports such an approach. The mean scores from both groups on all assessed areas suggest general acceptance and appreciation for the training format. With a 4 indicating strong agreement with the perceived success of each area, the fact that the mean score of all participants approached 4 suggests the training was successful in fostering understandability, stimulation towards course content, active participation, and overall benefit for public diplomacy projects (see Table 2).

Table 2

Group Means

Several open-ended responses from participants reflect appreciation for the active and experiential approach of the training:

“I liked how we worked directly on items that I’m dealing with at my post. I can see how this will help when I return to work right away.”

“This was great! We had so much freedom and the facilitator really worked with us to figure out solutions to the problems we’d been having.”

“This wasn’t a lecture or a class, which I appreciated. They listened to me and let us work with each other.”

Based on the literature that strongly supports active and experiential learning (especially considering the needs of adult learners focused on public relations), training outcomes should show that greater diversity in group composition would foster improved course satisfaction overall. To investigate the research question “What are the differences in training outcomes between culturally homogeneous groups and mixed, heterogeneous groups of non-U.S. citizens engaged in public relations training for U.S. State Department?”, the difference between the means of mixed, heterogeneous groups versus homogeneous groups was calculated, as shown in Table 3.

Table 3

Evaluation Differences in Mixed vs. Homogeneous Groups: Mean Comparison

The “understandability” item was the only assessed area where the mixed nationality group did not clearly report higher outcomes than their homogeneous group counterparts. There are many viable explanations for this, including the fact that both groups scored quite high on this assessed item. Understandability also deals primarily with comprehension, rather than other measures that deal with creativity and development. In contrast, the area of greatest difference was in the stimulation offered by the content of the course. Those in the heterogeneous groups rated the stimulation received from the training at a 3.98 on a 4-point scale, while those in the homogeneous groups rated stimulation at 3.59. Experiential learning in public relations courses “requires that students draw on their direct experiences to reflect, test, and create new ideas“ (Munoz & Huser, 2008, p. 215) and group diversity appears to enhance these areas. At an intuitive level, a group with more diversity would naturally have more rewarding and diverse experiences to share. The creative dimension of experiential learning also appeared to be enhanced by having a range of unique and differing perspectives present. Participant-reported training outcomes appear to have benefited by the presence of diversity in the training group. Narrative comments from participants in heterogeneous groups also reflect this:

I learned so much from my colleagues from all over the world. It was great to hear they are facing many of the same issues as us.”

“Meeting people from all over was my favorite part of the course. They do some different things and we will totally look into trying them at our post.”

“I love my colleagues from around the globe!!!!”

“This was such a wonderful training and I will for sure be staying in contact with the people I met here. Great friends and we get so much from talking to each other.”

An example of an outcome produced by these activities emerged from German training participants tasked with youth outreach by the U.S. embassy in Berlin. Leaders at the embassy had also expressed interest in improving relationships with the large Turkish diaspora in the country. From the pre-seminar survey, the participants suggested programming that would appeal to both German and Turkish youth.  Working on this approach at the seminar, participants identified research that showed German and Turkish youth had a particular interest in American hip-hop music. During seminar sessions, the German participants were able to build a series of events featuring American, German, and Turkish hip-hop artists who would appeal to the targeted demographic.  Lauded by State Department officials, the approach was seen positively as mirroring Cold War era public diplomacy:

The State Department’s program is modeled on the jazz diplomacy that the U.S. government conducted during the Cold War by sending integrated bands led by Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman to Africa, Asia, and the Middle East to counter Soviet propaganda and instead promote “the American way of life.” (Aidi, 2014)

Such examples offer insight into the focus of the training sessions, where the bulk of the course was guided by management of tangible, real world public relations challenges, rather than lectures and directives from the facilitator.


Diversity and Active Learning

The results broadly support the effectiveness of experiential and active learning strategies. Initially, this reinforces the rationale for such an approach for groups working on projects related to international messaging. In this instance, the application-based structure seemed ideal to a staff of non-U.S. citizens tasked with public relations initiatives by the U.S. State Department. The role they play in public diplomacy programs for the U.S. State Department has been well-established, and training outcomes like these speak to strategies on improving the training and preparation that goes into such initiatives. The creation of groups that were diverse in terms of nationality did not, in any way, compromise the overall effectiveness of active learning (Chang, 2009) and likely offered unique benefits that made the applied piece of the training more effective. This suggests an approach to international public relations teams’ composition should likely attempt to ensure diversity of cultural backgrounds for such teams. As indicated, an organization that truly embraces international opportunities will integrate the perspectives of constituents from throughout the world and create a vision for successful communication that transcends the limited perspective of a single group (Mahmoud, 1975; Wind et al., 1973). The composition of groups tasked with international public relations projects and the corresponding training they receive is an important element of this optimization.

The results of this project also reinforce the importance of facilitating diversity in the public relations classroom. As public relations, like all fields, continues to globalize its scope, educators would do well to create spaces of international engagement in their courses. Doing so supports the professional development of students who will be practitioners in a multinational environment. The feedback from this particular case would suggest that learning overall would be enhanced when public relations students learn through engagement with diversity.

Limitations and Future Research

The results of this research are promising, yet key limitations should be acknowledged in the context of discussing this project’s broader significance. Initially, the group being investigated was relatively small in size and highly specialized in terms of their needs. Non-U.S. citizens working for the U.S. State Department are distinct and tasked with a very specific form of public relations. Making more general assumptions about a larger population could prove problematic when thinking about the specialized nature of this group. While the training was intense and direct in its focus on applied experiential learning, the courses themselves were quite short (lasting only a matter of days). Whether or not this approach could be applied to sustained training and development done by an organization is something that needs additional investigation. Similarly, university public relations courses and programs with durations lasting semesters and years may face challenges when using a primarily experiential approach. Comparing this to previous research on experiential learning done in undergraduate courses is worthwhile, though the comparison likely would not be a direct one.

Beyond items related to generalizability, there are broader issues with using this case to make assessments of experiential learning for adults in a training context. The population studied here was composed of many nationalities, yet it should be noted that these participants shared an important commonality: they all chose to work for the U.S. government. The decision made to seek employment at a U.S. institution is indicative of potential distinction from other citizens in the country in which one resides. Categorization of people from the same country as “homogeneous” is also potentially problematic, as subcultures within a state can indicate profound areas of difference despite shared nationality (Hofstede et al., 2010).

Nevertheless, in this study, satisfaction still appeared to be enhanced in groups composed of different nationalities. It appears, at least in this context, that internationalization of a training group led to better outcomes in terms of active experiential learning. Whatever similarities may exist in the people who participated in these sessions, it remains clear that there were tangible benefits based on the cultural diversity of the groups. When thinking about both the teaching of international messaging and the practice of public relations, the results suggest that heterogeneity can be the basis for higher levels of creativity and collaboration. 

Finally, favorable post-training self-assessments suggest but fail to confirm positive training outcomes. Participant reporting is notoriously tricky when evaluating the success of any teaching or training initiative. People participating in a course may feel that they have learned a great deal only to ignore what they learned when that information is applied to field projects. It is also possible that, despite what they have learned, the reality of the situation they face on the job may not match the content explored in a course. While it is heartening that participants viewed the training as understandable, stimulating, engaging, and beneficial, any declaration of the training’s long-term success would involve a more longitudinal evaluation that assesses not only the direct outcomes of the training, but the direct outcomes of the lessons learned from the training, as well.


The results explored show promise for the use of experiential learning as an approach for public relations training and validate the importance of building international teams with an eye towards cultural diversity in terms of composition. This alone, however, does not fully speak to the experiences members had in the training context. A participant from the Dominican Republic discussed ways in which the embassy’s substantial library resources could be more effectively utilized by nearby schools. A participant from Belarus focused on programs that could make democratic ideals attractive to the population under the constraints of an autocratic regime. Another participant from Turkey worked on promotional materials for a series of American film screenings that the embassy would sponsor in a country that remains fascinated by U.S. culture.  By working on these projects directly in the training, participants were given the opportunity to receive immediate feedback. Rather than receiving lectures that they might be able to apply to their work, the content of the seminar functionally became their work. This is the sort of application-based learning that employees engaging in training prefer.

Application to Other Public Relations Instruction Contexts

Broadly considering public relations instruction overall, a learning-by-doing orientation appears to be more effective in meeting learner needs. Of particular note in this case, it appears that these projects were served by the diversity of the participants who were present. International messaging involves the building of complex relationships across a matrix of cultural influences (Samaha et al., 2014). The ability to adapt cannot be facilitated in a vacuum. The presence of a culturally diverse group enhances the ability of that group to manage cultural variables in public relations practice.

More broadly, the effectiveness of such programs in meeting U.S. State Department goals for moderating the opinions and actions of global constituencies is less clear. Well-intentioned programs may attract interest from prospective stakeholders, but sustaining that interest and leveraging it into action is a considerably more difficult proposition. There is also the unique space of public relations that public diplomacy occupies. Intrinsically, public diplomacy is a public relations proposition (Sun, 2008). However, when the strategic element of public diplomacy is transparent to the individuals targeted, its effectiveness risks being compromised. As Schneider (2006) notes, “This should be a process of building bridges, not a one-way street. Developing respect for others and their way of thinking—this is what cultural diplomacy does” (p. 192).

Challenges like these are not easily navigated, and platitudes about public relations will do little in helping practitioners overcome them. Based on this research, the most productive approach would be transitioning from abstraction to action and ensuring that those tasked with speaking to global audiences have a correspondingly global team.


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Mastering Business for Strategic Communicators: Insights and Advice from the C-suite of Leading Brands


Patricia A. Swann, Utica College

Mastering Business for Strategic Communicators: Insights and Advice from the C-suite of Leading Brands

Editors: Matthew W. Ragas and Ron Culp

Emerald Publishing, 2018

ISBN: 9781787438217 (paperback); 9781787145047 (hard cover); 9781787145030 (eISBN)

320 pages

The internet and social media’s powerful influence on today’s communication landscape has been a game changer for public relations, and it has opened an opportunity for the chief communication officer (CCO). As Ragas and Culp note, “You cannot not communicate” in our lighting fast, interconnected world. How an organization responds, however, is often rife with hidden obstacles just waiting to trip up even the most experienced professionals. One word can make all the difference, as the authors point out, citing United Airlines’ passenger-dragging fiasco and their use of the jargony word “reaccommodate” in their clumsy apology. Today’s uber-scrutiny of organizational messages and actions doesn’t leave room for much error. Ragas and Culp’s new book seeks to shed light on how CCOs manage and inspire (“woo”) their organizations strategically.

Point of View

Ragas and Culp are public relations faculty in the College of Communication at DePaul University in Chicago. In 2014, they wrote Business Essentials for Strategic Communications: Creating Shared Value for the Organization and its Stakeholders. This text provided students with the essential “Business 101” knowledge, including financial statements, the stock market, public companies, corporate disclosure, governance, social responsibility, and reputation.

Their new text, Mastering Business for Strategic Communicators: Insights and Advice from the C-suite of Leading Brands, continues their premise that today’s modern communication student needs to understand business in order to help organizations communicate effectively. Where their first book gave students a solid business foundation, this book takes the reader into the mind of the senior communication professional.


Following the book’s table of contents is a list of 46 communication professionals representing corporate, agency, higher education, and philanthropic organizations. Contributors include communication executives from General Electric, General Motors, Edelman, MillerCoors, Starbucks, Southwest Airlines, and Levi Strauss & Co. to name just a few. Guest contributors give their take on their organization’s DNA such as history, culture, structure, products/services, and challenges, all within the sphere of communication. Contributors give their views on the phrase “business acumen” and how it applies to their personal work success.


In Part 1, the chapter “Advising ‘The Room Where it Happens’: The Business Case for Business Acumen,” presents the book’s justification for what follows. Ragas and Culp quote Bob Feldman, co-founder and principal of PulsePoint Group, that “basic business skills are still required,” and “the need for basic leadership skills is stronger than ever” (Feldman, 2016, as cited in Ragas & Culp, p. 6). Feldman noted that to get a seat at the table, professionals would be judged on their professional “stature, business acumen and performance” (p. 7).

Each chapter represents one organization and a mix of executives, including its CCO. Executives are featured in boxed interviews called “Career Spotlight” and “C-suite View,” which focus on career advice and supplemental information.

Part II, titled “Communications, Business Acumen and the C-Suite” (chapters 2-4), presents Weber Shandwick’s Gary Sheffer, senior corporate strategist, who details the challenges of General Electric’s complex acquisition deal of the French company Alstom; MillerCoor’s Peter Mario, chief public affairs and communications officer, explains why he decided he needed to hone his business acumen and go back and get an MBA.

Part III, titled “Finance and Investor Relations” (chapters 5-6), includes Kathryn Beiser, a former communication executive for Discover Financial Services, explaining how “numbers need a storyteller” to explain to investors and other stakeholders the company’s strategy and accomplishments in its financial filings (p. 52). Carole Casto, vice president of marketing and communications for Cummins, Inc., details some of the key investor relations communication activities—quarterly earnings releases, annual meeting of shareholders, and the analyst day.

Part IV, “Human Resources and Employee Engagement” (chapters 7-9), provides a much-needed look at this employee-focused practice area. Often forgotten or lopped off due to time restraints, this section explains how communication practitioners at Starbucks work closely with their “partners” because customers say the positive human interaction is the main reason for return visits (p. 69). For this reason, company culture is important. Corey duBrowa, former senior vice president, global communications for Starbucks, says Starbucks’ partners often identified key issues early, which helped Starbucks address them earlier. Anne Toulouse, vice president, global brand management and advertising at Boeing, offers her experience of working with HR and communications. She advises practitioners to get a mentor and “pull deep knowledge” (p. 85) about your field.

Part V, “Corporate Strategy, Innovation and Legal” (chapters 10-13), features a journalist’s transition into corporate communication for Southwest Airlines. Another chapter deals with the importance of strategy in business and provides some sage advice from a Walgreens Boots Alliance communication executive to make sure your assumptions are right (p. 109). Mark Bain of Upper 90 Consulting gives a brief introduction to the legal department and why communication professionals should interact with the legal staff.

Additional sections include Part VI, “Marketing, Brand, and Data Analytics” (chapters 14-16); Part VII “Social Responsibility and Transparency” (chapters 17-19); and Part VIII “Communication and Corporate Transformations” (chapters 20-22). Part IX sums up the book with Ragas and Culp providing observations and conclusions about the contributors’ advice (Chapter 23).

The book also provides readers with short biographies of contributors, resources on business acumen, a glossary, and an index, which are useful.


For public relations programs that provide a business foundation, this book is valuable because it reinforces basic terminology and business concepts from a CCO perspective. It’s conversational in tone and is a quick read. It tells us how top communication professionals view their roles and duties in today’s organizations.  It would be a good supplemental textbook at the undergraduate or master’s level for strategic communication or public relations courses that introduce or focus on leadership and management concepts such as a case study course.

If you are looking for detailed information about how communication executives accomplish specific strategy or tactical tasks, you’ll need to find another alternative. It does not show, for example, how research contributes to strategic planning and implementation of tactics or how to form effective fast-acting social media teams. Instead, the book discusses the strategy, counseling and leadership side of managing the public relations function—all important to understand.  The sidebar “C-Suite Views” that discussed CEO expectations for their CCO or what it takes to succeed in the role were particularly interesting.

The book’s design could have benefitted from a more readable typeface for the “C-suite View” sidebar features., and the black-and-white photos of contributors are somewhat hazy.

Overall, it is exciting to see a book like this one, and I hope this is just the beginning. For years, our field has discussed the need for developing business IQ and understanding the expectations of professional communicators within the C-Suite. Here is a book that does both.

New Media and Public Relations (3rd Edition)


Katie R. Place, Quinnipiac University

New Media and Public Relations (Third Edition)

Editor: Sandra Duhé

New York: Peter Lang, 2018

ISBN: 9781433132735 (paperback);  9781433101243 (eISBN)

336 pages

The third edition of New Media and Public Relations offers a comprehensive edited collection of original research regarding digital, social, and mobile media in public relations and strategic communications contexts. Readers of this edition will engage with entirely new content, which spans the most prolific period of new media research thus far between 2012 and 2016. This book is most appropriate for graduate students and faculty in communication disciplines who are seeking an array of new theoretical and practical concepts addressing corporate and nonprofit applications of new media, ethical and diversity implications of new media, and crisis implications of new media. It makes a strong contribution to public relations education by offering creative and cutting-edge applications of social media and public relations theory while offering excellent recommendations for future digital and social media research trajectories.

Organization of the Book

Structurally, the book features 30 chapters that are divided into eight separate categories. First, an introduction by Duhé analyzes the status of new media research since 2012. She found that scholars have largely focused on applications, perceptions, and concerns regarding new media in public relations. The introduction concludes with a spotlight on unique theoretical contributions, such as Hon’s (2015) development of a digital social advocacy model, Valentini’s (2015) critical analysis of social media, Li’s (2016) testing of a psychological empowerment framework for social media, and Vujnovic and Kruckeberg’s (2016) research regarding the concept of pseudo-transparency. The remaining seven parts feature chapters addressing emerging or groundbreaking ideas regarding new media research, corporate applications of new media, nonprofit and education advancements in new media research, ethical implications for new media use, activism and new media, community management and new media, and lastly, crisis management applications of new media.

Inclusion and New Media

Part 2, dedicated to emerging ideas, offers especially thoughtful calls for more inclusive, global, personal, and publics-focused scholarship regarding new media and public relations. Vercic, Vercic and Sriramesh’s chapter entitled, “Where have all the publics gone: The absence of publics in new media research” for example, argues that the majority of new media research remains limited to a North American perspective and remains “silent” on issues of privacy, diverse and marginalized publics, and the remaining digital divide. Similarly, Brand and Beall’s chapter entitled, “Cognitive listening theory and public relations practices in new media” acknowledges the understudied concept of listening in the context of new media. Applying Harfield’s (2014) cognitive listening model, they argue, can best enable public relations professionals to understand and interpret voices and contexts of diverse publics, manage social media listening on a global scale, and foster an effective listening environment within organizations.

Nonprofits, Ethics and New Media

Parts 4 and 5, dedicated to non-profit and ethical applications, also provide creative and thoughtful theoretical models and professional best practices for engaging with publics in the digital and social media spheres. Sutherland and Mak’s chapter in Part 4, for example, acknowledges the challenges of integrating social media and traditional media in non-profit organizations. The authors recommend the blending of dialogic and relationship management principles in order to best foster a consistent flow of communication, integration of social media and traditional media, and relationships among all key publics. Their integrated social media communication model (p. 137) offers a guide for doing so. Similarly, Sisson’s chapter acknowledges the lack of research regarding relationship management, ethics, and social media. After a thorough review of extant scholarship, she argues for greater focus on the concept of control mutuality in ethical non-profit engagement in order to give voice to all publics. In Part 5, McCorkindale applies theoretical concepts regarding care ethics (i.e., Gilligan, 1982; Tronto,1993) and moral reasoning (i.e., Colby & Kohlberg, 1987) to social media. Citing Tronto (1993), she emphasizes the importance of caring about publics (attentiveness), taking care of publics (responsibility), care giving for publics (competence), and care receiving by publics (responsiveness) (p. 163). McCorkindale’s chapter concludes with important recommendations for practice emphasizing the tenets of responsibility, nurturance, and compassion online.

Activism and New Media

Part 6 features research regarding understudied practices of activism in digital and social media environments. Frohlich’s chapter, for example, offers an extensive review of activism and social movement scholarship, focusing on the evolution of new media, public relations efforts, and activist relations. She argues that organizations must better develop specific social media strategies to engage activists and consider them as key organizational stakeholders. Similarly, Lee, Chon, Oh, and Kim’s chapter applies the situational theory of problem solving (STOPS) and communicative action in problem solving (CAPS) theories to activist publics, who are assumed to be quite active on social media. Particularly valuable is the authors’ list of digital communicative activism behaviors addressing dimensions of information acquisition, information selection, and information transmission of digital activists (pp. 202-205). This list and the concluding paragraph offer new scholars excellent ideas for future research regarding digital activism, especially concerning best communication approaches to foster online relationships among organizations and digital activist publics.


Ultimately, Sandra Duhé’s third edition of New Media and Public Relations is a joy to read. It offers timely, original, and insightful considerations for public relations students, scholars, and practitioners who are interested in digital, mobile, and social media theory development and practice. The book is well organized and provides balanced and substantial content regarding a variety of nonprofit, educational, corporate, and activist new media contexts. To strengthen future editions, the addition of a chapter that concludes the book is suggested. The concluding chapter might discuss overarching themes across all contributed chapters, overarching applications of the research to professional and educational contexts, discussion questions for classroom engagement, or additional directions for future research.


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