3 Launching a Student-Run PR Firm as a Part of a Public Relations Course

Yeonsoo Kim

Below is a revised version of the proposal submitted


Innovative and more experiential learning can be achieved through the creation of a public relations student-run agency on campus, as part of Public Relations courses in the School of Communication Studies. A student-run PR agency can be launched effectively with limited resources, and such program will provide significant educational benefits that include a more effective and strategic achievement of certain learning outcomes, stronger pre-professional preparation, and increased prominence of the public relations program within the local, academic, and public relations communities. The project would be researched and evaluated as a case study, and the findings will provide in-depth insight on how such an innovative, hands-on experiential and pedagogical approach can be used effectively in public relations the discipline, and other similar strategic management/communications disciplines that emphasize active engagement and hands-on learning.

Background for the Project/ Plan for Implementation

There is a growing pedagogical debate over what should be taught in public relations courses which began after the discipline rapidly expanded in the late 1990s. One frequently debated topic is the large gap between what professionals desire from public relations graduates versus what they are able to do. Employers have voiced the need for “critical thinking and problem-solving, writing skills, understanding business practices, practical experience, and basic knowledge of the mass media” according to recent survey findings (Lee, 2009). Here, it was reported that public relations executives believe that recent graduates have little understanding of how the profession actually works. Although educators have tried to incorporate a more active learning style (e.g., more opportunities for working with real clients) into the classroom setting such as public relations campaign courses (i.e., development of campaign proposals for real clients), such courses cannot provide students with real experiential learning opportunities.

For these reasons, more universities launched student-run public relations agencies to provide greater experiential learning for students (not only for public relations students, but also for students in other majors who can benefit from a public relations agency setting, including journalism, advertising, marketing, graphic design and more).  Currently, there are more than 100 student-run agencies across the country, and such agencies are often affiliated with the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) and a parental organization, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).

Given the rapid growth of JMU’s public relations program, it is time for JMU SCOM to launch a student run agency to provide such opportunities to JMU students. Currently, the PI and a group of PRSSA students are working on the structure of the agency, operational protocols, program learning outcomes, services, a series of workshops, and more detailed logistics. The program will become part of a practicum class (SCOM318 Cooperative Work Experience with PR Agency) so that students who enroll in the course can function as staff members of the PR agency. Students will work in an account setting mimicking a real PR agency to provide limited services for community service-learning clients.

Outcome of Innovative and Creative Teaching

A student-run PR agency can be launched effectively with limited resources, and such an innovative program carries substantial educational benefits.  First, it can provide more effective and strategic achievement of particular types of learning outcomes.  The learning outcomes of public relations include “implementing effective communication strategies for managing relationships between an organization and its publics,” and “constructing effective communication using various media, strategies, tactics, and messages”. A traditional public relations course is limited in its ability to achieve learning outcomes efficiently due to the characteristics of a classroom setting. These strategic goals can be achieved much more effectively and efficiently in a public relations agency setting. Second, the student-run agency’s educational benefits include stronger pre-professional preparation for students who participate in a student-run agency.  Third, the successful launching of the agency can increase the prominence of the public relations program within the local, academic, and public relations communities, and therefore increase more internship and networking opportunities for students.

To measure the expected outcomes, numerous focus groups with students who participate in the project will be conducted (before and after the program), and with students in similar PR courses. The series of focus groups will provide great insight as to whether the new approach is achieving the expected outcomes. The findings will be also used to revise and improve the program for future semesters. The project is intended to become a sustainable long-term project such that the agency will continue its operation following its launch and SCOM318 “Cooperative Work Experience with a PR Agency” will be offered every semester.

Plan for Result Dissemination

The project will be researched and evaluated as a case study with two major research questions. What is the contribution of experiential learning to program learning outcomes within the student-run PR agency? What additional program benefits can a student-run PR agency provide, if any? The report will include a thorough analysis of other university agencies and focus group interviews with students who participate in the project, and with students enrolled in similar PR courses. This project will be written as 25-30 page manuscript and will be submitted to both a major academic conference (Public Relations Society of America’s Educators Academy) and a journal that specializes in education in communication studies for a broader audience.