Journal of Public Relations Education
2016, Vol. 2, No. 2, 54-67
Improving Grease Disposal Behavior: Combining
the Classroom, Real-World Experience and Service
Learning in a Public Relations Practicum
Robin Rothberg, Sayde J. Brais and Alan R. Freitag
The University of North Carolina at Charlotte
In 2011, the North Carolina Urban Water Consortium approved a grant
funding a communication planning project by University of North Carolina
at Charlotte researchers aimed at addressing the problem of improper
disposal of fats, oils and grease (FOG) by population segments in Char-
lotte, Winston-Salem and Raleigh, North Carolina. The research results,
summarized in a 157-page report, led to additional funding to support ini-
tial implementation of elements of the strategic communication plan. Fac-
ulty in UNC Charlotte’s Communication Studies Department undertook
this phase of the project and crafted a Public Relations Practicum course
to support it. This paper describes the course structure and evaluates its
effectiveness as measured by both student outcomes and client satisfac-
tion. Results point to the academic and professional development value
of a course that combines classroom structure, practical experience and
service learning. Initial responses from clients suggest satisfaction with
the quality of products and services as well.
Keywords: Experiential learning, practicum, service learning
In its landmark 1999 report, the Commission on Public Relations Education (“Port of En-
try”) called for PR programs in universities and colleges to develop curricula responsive to
the dynamic needs of the profession. The report, an initiative of the Public Relations Soci-
ety of America, noted the rapid growth and acceptance of public relations as a management
and leadership function increasingly indispensable and valued, requiring commensurate
improvements in higher education programs graduating new generations of entry-level
practitioners. Among the Commission’s guidelines is the call for curricula to produce
graduates “well-prepared in public relations theory and practice, tested not only in the
classroom but in the field” (p. 1). Among the report’s recommendations regarding modes of
instructional delivery, emphasis is placed on experiential learning, supervised work experi-
ence and service learning in addition to more traditional, classroom-based pedagogies. In
a subsequent 2006 report (“The Professional Bond”), the Commission reported continued
academic and professional support for experiential learning, noting “…public relations
education should include an internship, practicum or other work experience in the field”
Rothberg, Brais and Freitag 55
The Certified in Education for Public Relations-certified undergraduate public
relations program at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte is designed to be in
compliance with “Port of Entry” and “The Professional Bond” guidelines and includes
requirements for experiential learning along with a comprehensive agenda of public rela-
tions, communication and liberal arts courses. The university’s proximity to a large and
rapidly growing metropolitan area makes it an internship-rich environment. Despite the
large number of public relations undergraduate students, only about one-third of available
internships can be filled each academic term, so abundant are the opportunities in the met-
ropolitan region. Students are required to complete one internship and are encouraged to
complete more if their schedules permit. Still, as valuable as internships are to a student’s
professional development, the lack of direct and frequent faculty engagement in the intern-
ship experience introduces a level of uncertainty regarding the usefulness of each individ-
ual internship. Of course, each internship opportunity is carefully vetted and monitored,
but the program still relinquishes a degree of control. The challenge is to craft additional
opportunities that combine real-world experience with a higher degree of qualified faculty
guidance and involvement. Two years ago, UNC Charlotte’s program benefitted from just
such an opportunity.
In spring 2013, nine undergraduate public relations students at UNC Charlotte
were competitively selected for a PR Practicum course offered as the third and tactical
step in an ongoing, collaborative project involving the university and the North Carolina
Urban Water Consortium (UWC). The overarching aim of the project was to address the
problem of improper disposal of fats, oils and grease (FOG) by population segments in
Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Raleigh, North Carolina. The UWC identified two groups
for researchers to target: multifamily housing residents and Latinos, populations identified
by the Consortium as potentially contributing disproportionately to problems caused by
improper FOG disposal. Sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) often result from improper FOG
disposal, incur significant corrective costs for water utilities (costs that must be passed on
to customers) and pose potential public health issues. Consequently, reducing SSOs is in
the interest of community members both as residents and utility rate payers. The aim of the
project was to gauge levels of issue awareness among the target populations, identify con-
straints preventing desirable behavioral changes and craft a strategic communication plan
to encourage proper FOG disposal. Thus, the first two project phases involved extensive
research followed by the development of a comprehensive, strategic communication plan
to address the issue. For a full description of the initial research and planning phases of
the overall project, see Freitag, Rothberg and Brais (2014). This report addresses the third
phase – initial, tactical implementation of the plan – and describes how this aspect was
undertaken in the context of an undergraduate public relations elective course.
Two primary conceptual approaches to public relations education are at play in
the context of this case: experiential learning and service learning. Of course, scholars
nearly universally agree that effective programs successfully blend the theoretical with the
applied. In fact, Motschall and Najor (2001) believe, “The orientation of an entire under-
Vol. 2 (2), 2016 Journal of Public Relations Education 56
graduate public relations program or curriculum should reflect this same effort to blend
theory with application” (p. 6). Most scholars agree that for a program to be successful,
instruction must contribute to students’ application beyond the classroom, into the real
world through the use of practical application in the form of service-learning activities, us-
ing the client-centered approach, and a response-oriented approach to experiential learning
(Gleason & Violette, 2012; Motschall & Najor, 2001). It is through these approaches that
teaching becomes “…more relevant, predictable and scalable” (Gleason & Violette, 2012,
p. 281). UNC Charlotte’s goal was to introduce this applied element but within the frame-
work of extensive faculty engagement to ensure participating students grasped the direct
correlation between abstract theory and a real-world problem.
Experiential learning opportunities strengthen the connection between theory and
application for greater student understanding. As Gleason and Violette (2012) note, “The
study of Public Relations is not abstract or idealized, but rather is most effective when
it takes place in the context of its real-world application” (p. 280). Experiential learning
allows for the blending of theory and application to take place through simulations, re-
al-life experiences, client-based cases, and more. When applying to practical problems the
principles they’ve learned in the classroom, students experience a shift in meaning, and
they begin to tangibly recognize public relations as having importance and value in society
because they see the function it serves (Motion & Burgess, 2014).
Experience is a crucial credential for any professional, but accumulating it early,
even before completion of an entry-level degree, can be challenging. Accumulating ex-
perience requires opportunity, and that’s not always practical in many higher education
settings. Gleason and Violette (2012) acknowledge the importance of scholarship but judge
experience to be even more useful for practitioners aiming to provide wise counsel to
clients. Thus, courses that provide students with experiential learning opportunities will
benefit the student both academically and professionally.
The Experiential Learning Model, developed by Kolb (1984), provides a frame-
work for the assessment of the association among education, work and personal develop-
ment. Kolb maintains that the retention of abstract concepts is significantly enhanced when
those concepts are presented and demonstrated in the context of real-world experience
along with reflection and experimentation. Experiential learning, through the form of sim-
ulations or client-interaction, can help students gain professional knowledge, while also
engaging students in active learning, defined as “anything that involves students in doing
things and thinking about the things they are doing” (Bonwell & Eison, 1991, p. 2).
The “Client-Centered Approach” amplifies the concept of practical application
through the use of simulations and classroom exercises and allows students the opportu-
nity to develop materials for an often real-life client. The approach applies the knowledge
and skills foundational to public relations to a real-world problem (Motschall & Najor,
2001). Often described as a service-learning approach (Gleason & Violette, 2012), work-
ing toward something tangible for an actual client provides for a re-conceptualization of
“public relations as a communicative function that is deployed not only by corporations,
but also by local community organizations and even by individuals” (Motion & Burgess,
2014, p. 530). Although this client-centered model may be advantageous, even preferable,
it is not always a plausible option due to budget (unless the client can underwrite costs),
Rothberg, Brais and Freitag 57
class size (less feasible in large classes), or other constraints. In fact, Miller and McCain
(2012) maintain that the biggest challenge faced by curriculum planners lies with lower
enrollment cap requirements for these classes, creating budgetary pressures. Further, there
is a sensitive dimension to working with real clients because of the need for the instructor
to monitor carefully all interaction between multiple individuals and teams. Demands on
client time can quickly become unmanageable, there may be breeches in customary busi-
ness protocol by inexperienced students, and relationships can become strained. Oversee-
ing these dynamics even on a modest scope can be trying, yet most courses are taught by
a single instructor with no assistance (Motschall & Najor, 2001). In this case, the authors
felt teaching a practicum course using the client-centered model, led by an instructor and
aided by graduate assistants, provided the best model for students. Not only does it provide
real-world practice, but in many cases it also provides students an opportunity to improve
the community. Additionally, the use of real clients positively affects student perception
of the instructor’s credibility (White, 2001). Further benefit accrues because students can
exercise an assortment of real-life tasks and scholastic skills such as research, writing,
speaking and team-work (Miller & McCain, 2012). In fact, these experiences “allow stu-
dents to begin to develop an instinct for appropriate action based on ‘real-life’ situations”
(Motschall & Najor, 2001, p. 7).
Benecke and Bezuidenhout (2011) consider experiential learning to be crucial for
students’ career preparation, but lament that its use is not widely employed. Bringle and
Hatcher (1996) felt so strongly about the value of experiential learning that they outlined
the Comprehensive Action Plan for Service Learning (CAPSL), a guide for creating and
implementing service learning programs on campuses, programs that focus on strategies
to engage the institution, faculty, students and the community in a cooperative approach.
Nearly two decades later, Hatcher and Studer (2015) assessed service learning as a process
for developing “civic-minded graduates” (p. 12), finding service learning curricula to be of
crucial value to students and communities. This was further confirmed by Novak, Markey
and Allen (2007) in their meta-analysis of service learning literature. They found a posi-
tive relationship between service learning and development of students’cognitive capacity,
understanding of subject matter, skill acquisition, and “ability to apply knowledge and
reframe complex issues” (p. 153).
Swords and Kiely (2010) provide a model for service learning aimed primarily
at faculty, whom they see as pivotal to the service learning approach. They cite four key
components of their model: pedagogy, institution/organizational learning, research, and
community development. Further, they suggest such a model can lead to faculty becoming
change agents, building and strengthening relationships between the institution and the
community. This model is mirrored in the Kolb and Kolb (2011) observation that learning
is best conceived as a process and that knowledge is gained through transformative experi-
Based on this understanding of the value and framework for experiential and ser-
vice learning, the authors saw in the FOG project an opportunity to develop a public rela-
tions practicum course that would allow students to work for an actual client and toward
addressing a societal issue – in this case, an issue involving both public health and mone-
tary costs. Student participation in such an act of “civic responsibility,” the literature sug-
Vol. 2 (2), 2016 Journal of Public Relations Education 58
gests, helps to build mutually beneficial relationships with multiple stakeholders beyond
that of the client themselves (Motion & Burgess, 2014). While challenges would remain,
the confluence of opportunity and support compelled the authors to proceed.
To gauge the value of experiential and service-learning approaches for public re-
lations curricula, the following research questions were posed:
RQ1: To what extent will students report that this PR Practicum met their academic
RQ2: To what extent will students report that this PR Practicum met their profes-
sional development expectations?
RQ3: In what ways did the course meet those expectations?
Within the scope of these RQs, we were interested in learning whether students viewed
favorably the structure of the course, such as its emphasis on laboratory time, the presence
of two instructors and the participation of client representatives. We also wanted to deter-
mine if students believed the PR Practicum improved their confidence and marketability
as communication professionals, and we hoped to learn what important concepts and skills
the students felt they acquired from the experience. We also sought to gauge the value of
the practicum to the client:
RQ4: To what extent will utility representatives find materials created by UNC
Charlotte students potentially useful for FOG-related communication?
RQ5: To what extent will utility representatives report they have employed and
implemented materials and concepts developed by students in this PR Practi-
Fundamentally, this is a case study following the model employed by Wooddell
(2009) called action research. This qualitative approach might be encompassed within the
broader parameters of participant-observer research, but action research has, as Wooddell
explains, several unique characteristics: the researcher is not merely observing but is ac-
tively engaged, the intent is to effect improvement of some condition, and there is attention
paid to the learning cycle of the project under observation – the process of feedback and
reflection. O’Brien’s (2001) definitive description of action research credits German re-
searcher Kurt Lewin with introducing the method to social science during the late 1940s
and says the process requires that “a group of people identify a problem, do something
to resolve it, see how successful their efforts were, and if not satisfied, try again” (p. 2).
O’Brien lists EducationAction as one of four streams of action research and says advocates
of this stream maintain that “professional educators should become involved in community
problem-solving” (2001, p. 7). This project follows that admonition.
Within O’Brien’s (2001) concept of action research, however, the researchers also
employed two surveys comprising closed-ended and open-ended items to collect and an-
alyze quantitative data and additional qualitative data. Students involved in the class and
representatives of municipal utility offices were separately surveyed via Survey Share 6
months following the final, in-class student presentations to utility clients. Survey instru-
ments were simple: 10 items on the student survey and nine items on the utility representa-
tive survey. Each survey used 5-point Likert scales for valence items and nominal response
Rothberg, Brais and Freitag 59
options for others, but the instruments also sought narrative elaboration on selected items.
All nine participating students completed their surveys, and 4 of 12 utility representatives
responded. Although the overall response rate was perfect for students and marginally ac-
ceptable (roughly 33%) for utility representatives, the low census numbers preclude the use
of measures of statistical strength or inferential statistical projections. We can report that
all nine students in the class were female, upper-level undergraduate students following the
public relations concentration within a broader communication major. The selection of all
female participants in the class was not purposeful but rather reflects the gender imbalance
typical of undergraduate public relations programs in the U.S. The small number of survey
participants precluded collection of further demographic data because its collection would
have diminished anonymity and, therefore, candid responses.
Survey items for utility representatives asked respondents to identify and priori-
tize their target publics, list their greatest needs in terms of FOG-prevention communica-
tion, suggest the degree to which student-designed collateral materials would contribute to
FOG-prevention efforts, and identify those student-created materials they found the most
promising. The survey also asked which materials and student recommendations had been
implemented during the 6 months since the in-class presentations and asked for initial as-
sessments of the effectiveness of those items and tactics. Survey items were derived from
analytical and evaluative instruments used previously for similar projects by the Energy
and Environmental Assistance Office (EEAO), an agency of the researchers’ home univer-
sity. The EEAO was awarded the original grant for the FOG research project and engaged
the authors’ academic department in carrying out the project.
The student survey’s 10 items asked students to list positive and negative factors
about their experience in the class; how the class affected their aspirations for a career in
public relations; their assessment of the value of small class size, client in-class participa-
tion, and the self-paced class structure; the degree to which the class experience improved
their “marketability” as entry-level job seekers; self-assessment of the quality of class-gen-
erated products; and whether they would recommend a similar class to other students. The
survey also asked each student if he or she had been offered and had accepted a full- or
part-time position in public relations or a directly related field. Student survey items were
adapted from standard student course evaluation instruments and tailored to the practicum
setting. As with the utility representative survey, quantitative and qualitative survey re-
sponses were entered on Excel spreadsheets for analysis.
Planning the Class
The authors were actively engaged in the initial FOG research and planning proj-
ect that had begun more than a year before this class started and recognized within it
the opportunity to incorporate a service/experiential learning opportunity for advanced
undergraduate public relations students. Two of the authors of this report were directly
involved in developing and delivering the course and conducted the active research com-
ponent of this report. The elective course the researchers designed was promoted as a
“beyond books” opportunity to develop public relations materials for water utilities across
North Carolina promoting proper disposal of FOG. Applications required qualified stu-
dents to address several essay questions regarding their level of commitment, expectations
Vol. 2 (2), 2016 Journal of Public Relations Education 60
and qualifications. Applicants were winnowed to result in a small group gifted in writing,
editing, and graphic design/layout, along with qualities such as creativity, passion, detail
orientation and leadership. The class was further aligned in three smaller teams. A portion
of the grant from the UWC allowed the teams to create FOG-related materials for 12 of
the largest UWC utilities as well as for up to 300 smaller utilities across the state. Funding
support enabled access to professional-level stock photography, printing and other resourc-
es. Importantly, the grant also funded a graduate student to meet with each of the 12 pri-
mary utilities before the class began to ascertain unique expectations for materials students
would create through Public Relations Practicum coursework.
One full-time lecturer and one graduate assistant led the class and guided student
efforts. Graded items included: attendance, each student group’s calendar/plan for the
term, two student-written critiques of their group’s progress, two peer grades extracted
from the student-written critiques, the group’s final set of documents/materials, and the
group’s client presentation.
To address research questions, students and utility representatives received on-
line surveys via Survey Share 6 months after the students presented their work to utility
representatives. Because all students in the practicum were graduating seniors, the survey
also occurred roughly 6 months following their completing their bachelor’s degrees. All
students responded to their 10-question survey, while four utility representatives responded
to their nine-question survey.
Conducting the Class
In their semester of work, students worked in teams of three to craft FOG edu-
cation materials in English and Spanish including door hangers, brochures, instructional
videos, bill stuffers, grocery store receipt advertisements, infographics, social media out-
reach concepts, T-shirt designs, PSA storyboards, and teacher lesson plans. Students also
created display items for utilities’in-person interaction with customers (often from a booth
at county fair-type events) such as a clear plastic tube filled with glue substituting for FOG.
A student-made cookbook offered recipes that replaced store-bought oils with a consum-
er’s own leftover cooking grease, and a student-designed website consolidated utilities’
disparate and fragmented FOG concepts into a single, statewide message. All materials
and concepts followed strategies prescribed in the planning document that constituted the
initial deliverable of the grant project and which led to the creation of the PR Practicum
Students met with utility representatives at the beginning and middle of the course
for guidance. At the beginning of the course, the purpose of the meeting was to understand
the utilities’ unique needs so students could customize materials for statewide use. The
purpose of the mid-semester meeting was for students to show drafts of concepts. Most
utility representatives drove – some for more than 2 hours each way – to meet with students
in person, though Skype allowed for interaction with utility representatives who could
not come to the computer lab where the class met. The class also collectively chose one
student representative to present at the 15th Annual Water Resources Research Institute
Conference in Raleigh, N.C., in March 2013, where she showcased a poster depicting work
common to all groups.
Rothberg, Brais and Freitag 61
At the end of the course, nearly all of the 12 major UWC utilities sent at least
one representative to student team presentations of finished, professionally printed sets of
materials. Those attending utility representatives said they planned to re-present all three
teams’ concepts to utilities’ respective legal and corporate communications departments.
Students had believed utilities were looking for one, coherent, statewide message regard-
ing FOG. Surprisingly, though, many utilities said they planned to use materials from all
three groups, despite the groups’ slightly different approaches, with one utility member
noting: “I’ve been saying, ‘Don’t pour grease down the drain’ for 5 years – now I have
three new ways to say it!” Utility representatives expressed plans to offer the cookbook to
cooking shows on local and network TV stations, as well as to restaurants in Leadership in
Energy & Environmental Design-certified buildings.
Although utilities have already used multiple student-created items in their out-
reach efforts, coursework for this class was designed both to educate students and to satis-
fy the needs of potential employers, as the principles underlying experiential and service
learning would attest. So, a full estimation of this Public Relations Practicum requires a
gauge of student satisfaction and learning outcomes from the practicum-delivery model.
Additionally, a measure of utility satisfaction with student-created materials will help as-
sess the value of this pedagogical approach.
The surveys yielded qualitative and quantitative data for each research question.
RQ1: To what extent will students report that this PR Practicum met their academic
RQ2: To what extent will students report that this PR Practicum met their profes-
sional development expectations?
RQ3: In what ways did the course meet those expectations?
Six of the 9 students, surveyed 6 months following the course (and their own graduation)
had been offered and accepted professional positions in public relations. All responding
students agreed that the course resulted in improved professional portfolios. Seven of 9
said the course improved their presentation skills, and 8 of 9 reported improved self-con-
fidence. Similarly, 8 of 9 students said they advanced their ability to work in teams and
acquire other skills that helped in their job searches. Eight of 9 also said they had improved
their client relation skills such as participating in meetings and processing feedback. Seven
of 9 responding students said there were no negative aspects of the class. Only one student
reported not having improved teamwork skills. Asked their strength of agreement with
the statement, “PR Practicum was a worthwhile course that improved my confidence and
marketability as a communication professional,” 7 of 9 students “strongly agreed” and 2
Key qualitative findings among students revealed their impression that the unique
benefit of the classroom setting and low student-faculty ratio was the students’ ability to
discuss work in progress immediately with the lead instructor or graduate assistant. Sam-
ple survey responses include:
Vol. 2 (2), 2016 Journal of Public Relations Education 62
• “Having laboratory time twice a week with two professors was a huge plus. They
were always there to oversee our work as well as answer our questions.”
• “[B]eing able to get individual time with teachers to help direct your work on a
professional level is something students don’t get too often in undergrad, and that
was extremely helpful!”
• “The ratio gave us a sense of one-on-one mentoring. The workshop style allowed
us a ‘true’ PR professional atmosphere.”
Of note: Though two teams always met in the assigned classroom, one did not. In
that regard, a former student praised the flexibility of class laboratory time, as her group
was the one that used a few class sessions to work off-site to create a conceptual display
model based on clear plastic tubes with “FOG” glue. Because it would be impractical to
bring to a classroom tubes and glue that then had to set as the glue dried, the group crafted
the items at a student’s off-campus apartment. Those students used the cameras on their
smart phones to send course instructors real-time photos and videos of the production pro-
cess. This allowed instructors to offer instant feedback, even though the students were not
in the classroom.
To understand why students deemed the course successful in improving their
confidence and marketability as a communication professional, it is necessary to under-
stand how the items created affected the students’ professional aspirations, qualitatively
and quantitatively. Qualitative results suggest this student satisfaction took the form of
empowerment, as student responses to the open-ended survey question, “How did the FOG
items you created in PR Practicum, individually or as part of a team, affect you as an aspir-
ing professional communicator?” include:
• “Creating these materials allowed me to tap into a creative gene in me that I never
• “The FOG items I created helped me realize new skills such as graphic design
and helped me realize the communication skills needed to go into such projects.
It helped improve my confidence and hone my skills to make me a well-rounded
• “My group took a very modern approach to the course, with upbeat content and
[visually] appealing design to cater more toward women. I think it’s safe to say we
all left our presentation feeling confident in our campaign and our presentation.”
Empowerment isn’t useful without being underpinned by specific knowledge,
skills and abilities, so Practicum students needed to be queried on this aspect of the class.
In response to the open-ended question, “What important concepts did you take away from
PR Practicum?” the students surveyed described how the PR Practicum enhanced their
knowledge, skills and abilities in areas such as time-management, group communication
and collaboration, adaptation to client needs, speedy subject matter assimilation, and pre-
sentation skills. One student captured the sentiment of numerous responses: “In my current
job, I make presentations, communicate with clients and create similar materials. Without
the practice in PR Practicum, I would have had a really hard time. I started my job with a
Other responses frame this student satisfaction with the course in terms of career
aspirations and encouragement to other students considering enrolling in a similar course:
Rothberg, Brais and Freitag 63
• “The skills I developed and used in the PR Practicum are skills I now use every
day in my [job]. I strongly encourage all students serious about landing a job right
after graduation to enroll in this class.”
• “Because of the work experience I gained, and the professional-grade materials I
created in PR Practicum, I was able to land a job before graduation at one of the
top agencies in the U.S. I also started on a level above most college graduates.”
Another value a surveyed student reported was client feedback in the beginning,
middle, and end stages of the class: “Having different clients with different needs and
tastes was definitely a challenge, but it helped me to learn how to take one overall product
and mold it to what everyone else wants.” One responding student noted the professional
lesson inherent in client feedback: “The client time was extremely helpful.” The student
It was hard hearing criticism, but it was probably the most important lesson
learned in class. Real, constructive criticism is something you’re not exposed to
normally in college, and it is definitely something you’ll be exposed to in a career.
It helped because I was able to learn how to take such criticism and improve my
This client interaction leads to the research questions posed to the utility representatives.
RQ4: To what extent will utility representatives find materials created by UNC
Charlotte students potentially useful for FOG-related communication?
The survey of municipal utility representatives began by asking them to identify
the primary audience segments they hoped to influence with FOG materials and strategies
developed by the student teams. Of course, this basic question was integral to research con-
ducted at the outset of the multi-year project and refined by students in the PR Practicum.
The item was included in the survey to provide a region-specific benchmark for potential
future research and to reinforce the core aim of the communication effort. Nominal re-
sponses included: “General Community,” 3 of 4 respondents; “Restaurants and Restaurant
Owners,” 3 of 4 respondents; “Subsidized Housing/Apartments,” 3 of 4 respondents; and
“Latinos” and “Local Schools,” 1 respondent each. Given the option, no respondents added
any audience segments under the “Other” category. These results confirmed findings of the
initial project research preceding the PR Practicum course.
To further frame the context for this research question, one of the survey items
asked utility representatives to indicate their municipality’s most important needs in terms
of FOG communication materials. From a nominal list of collateral materials, respondents
reported needs for “bill inserts,” 3 of the 4 respondents; “fact sheets,” 3 of the 4 respon-
dents; and “event displays,” 3 of the 4 respondents. Two of the 4 respondents reported a
need for “post card/infographics” and “door hangers.” One in 4 respondents reported needs
for “brochures,” “educational activities,” “fliers,” “potty pamphlets” (on what should prop-
erly be disposed of in a toilet) and “other” (without elaboration). None of the respondents
selected from the nominal options “blog templates,” “cookbooks,” “contest layouts,” “PSA
storyboards,” “receipt stamps,” or “T-shirt designs.”
To determine the degree to which respondents were satisfied that PR Practicum
student teams had addressed their needs, the survey used two Likert-scale items. Of the
Vol. 2 (2), 2016 Journal of Public Relations Education 64
4 utility survey respondents, 3 “agreed” with the statement: “With the UNC Charlotte
student materials, I feel my municipality is adequately prepared to reach out to its target
audience(s).” None “strongly agreed,” and 1 checked “other” but did not elaborate. Two
respondents agreed and 1 strongly agreed (the 4th indicated “undecided”) with the state-
ment: “The materials the UNC Charlotte students created are useful for my municipality’s
The respondents who “agreed” that materials were useful explained, “They cre-
ated materials that we might not have the time to develop,” and “Obtaining a different
perspective from the students’creation of material helped in having new thoughts and ideas
being brought to the FOG control issue. As regulators we sometimes lose sight of what
residents and citizens know or think about FOG.” The respondent who “strongly agreed”
with the usefulness of the materials said they “conveyed a given message with the benefit
of ‘new eyes’ on the issue,” while even the undecided respondent reported, “The material
helped us re-evaluate our current educational materials.”
RQ5: To what extent will utility representatives report they have employed and
implemented materials and concepts developed by students in this PR Practi-
Two of 4 responding utility representatives indicated their agencies were using
student-developed postcard/infographics, and 1 in 4 indicated they were using brochures,
door hangers, fact sheets, fliers, the “potty pamphlet” and event displays based on concepts
and designs developed by the student teams. One respondent expressed frustration in the
municipality’s inability to use more of the student-created items: “Staffing levels do not
facilitate the amount of time needed to implement more. We have used the postcards for
small geographic areas (a condominium complex) that experienced a sewer overflow due
to grease. Again, more materials would be integrated if we had the manpower to spread the
word. We appreciated all their hard work!”
For other utilities, red tape seemed to be a barrier: “We have included some of the
educational approaches found in the materials, just have not been able to incorporate [the]
town’s seal for official use. We have used the grease/debris pipe display for our events.
As measured by student satisfaction and learning outcomes, as well as utility/
client satisfaction with student-created materials, this Public Relations Practicum appears
to have been a useful course offering. Student responses to their survey favorably gauge
the practical/applied aspects of the course, and the authors can attest to the theoretical di-
mensions they addressed in class in the form of principles and guidelines of practice. This
fulfills the tenets of experiential learning as described in the literature review, and this PR
Practicum addresses the challenge for public relations students of acquiring and refining
relevant skills while still in their academic, pre-professional stage. The context of a
real-world issue of consequence fits squarely with Kolb’s (1984) Experiential Learning
Model and bridges theory and application. Thus, the course design appears to satisfy Glea-
son and Violette’s (2012) concern that limiting public relations education to traditional
Rothberg, Brais and Freitag 65
classroom curriculum designs risks restricting student understanding to abstract and ideal-
ized contexts.Additionally, the combination of close attention from the course instructor(s),
experience in multiple client-involved discussions and presentations, and the development
of professional-quality portfolio items serves Kolb’s (1984) standards of reflection and
experimentation; for example, recall one student’s recognition that constructive criticism
from the client was useful not only in the development of strategies and tactics but also in
preparing the student to face and benefit from such feedback in future professional settings.
As students reported and Practicum instructors observed, the course contributed
to student development in skill sets specifically cited in the 2006 report of the Commission
on Public Relations Education (“The Professional Bond”): presentation skills (beyond the
traditional assignment reports); audience segmentation; problem-solving and negotiation;
and working with current issues. The authors acknowledge, of course, that the practicum
approach would be difficult, even ill-advised, to duplicate in course settings such as Public
Relations Writing or Public Relations Campaigns where students initially acquire funda-
mental craft skills. The practicum model, as applied in this case, requires that students enter
the class with reasonable public relations skills nearly approaching professional entry-level
The practicum setting certainly appears to support Bonwell and Eison’s (1991)
contention that active learning adds value to the curriculum, and it does so in ways a tradi-
tional internship cannot. A public relations internship site supervisor could not be expected
to work with a student to the same degree or with the same intent as a seasoned facul-
ty member. This practicum framework offered a number of advantages when compared
to an internship: students reinforced each other’s learning experience through teamwork;
students had daily access, if needed, to instructors; and students had immediate access
to university amenities such as the library, computer laboratories, meeting rooms, media
production facilities, etc. Still, the authors certainly agree with the Commission on Public
Relations Education in maintaining that at least one professional internship should be re-
quired in the undergraduate public relations curriculum. Internships bring their own unique
benefits: individual student responsibility for assigned tasks; exposure to a full range of
organizational functions beyond public relations; engagement in the professional public
relations community; and supervision by a full-time public relations practitioner. Although
the PR Practicum richly supplements experiential learning through internships, it should
not be viewed as a substitute or replacement.
Considering Swords and Kiely’s (2010) model for service learning, this Practicum
course successfully positioned faculty and students as change agents and contributed to
strengthened relationships between the university and the community. Through the active
engagement between faculty and students on one hand and water utility representatives
throughout the state on the other, the university’s identity as a contributor to community
improvement has been reinforced. Utility representatives were clear in expressing their
intention to employ student-generated materials and concepts in their ongoing quest to
stem improper cooking grease disposal, and that bodes well for continuing engagement
with the university in refining and reinforcing communication efforts. It is encouraging,
too, that students would overwhelmingly gauge the experience to have been professionally
beneficial, despite involving sewage. This further suggests that the course achieved Kolb
Vol. 2 (2), 2016 Journal of Public Relations Education 66
and Kolb’s (2011) transformative criterion.
This Practicum was made possible through a substantial multi-year grant that be-
gan with extensive research and planning for a state-wide project. The unpredictable nature
of the grant application process means this model would be difficult to incorporate reliably
into a set undergraduate public relations curriculum. However, the model does point to the
merits of considering the inclusion of a practicum component in grant proposals. In many
cases, the prospect of experiential learning, service learning and community engagement
may well strengthen the competitiveness of a grant proposal. When funding is available,
a Public Relations Practicum course, particularly one working in the public interest and
thereby combining experiential learning with service learning, can be highly valuable on
several levels. The students gain experience and confidence, the client/community receives
professional-quality work with relatively minor investment in money and time, and the
instructors gain credibility along with consultative experience.
Public relations pedagogy can benefit from PR Practicum courses. The course be-
longs within a framework of skills and concept courses such as those recommended in the
1999 CPRE “Port of Entry Report.” The PR Practicum blends tactical and strategic skills in
an experiential and service learning context while it benefits students eager to expand their
Limitations and Implications
The benefit of outside funding facilitated this course, but public relations faculty know the
scarcity of such funding is a barrier to predictable inclusion of the PR Practicum in stan-
dard curricula. Pressures on class size as well as the cost of funding stock photography and
professional printing could singularly or cumulatively constrain the possibility of offering
such a course. Another limitation is client selection. The principles of service learning
favor projects that meet a public need, and clients representing those needs often face the
same financial constraints faced by college and university public relations programs. Of
course, a single case study based on the happy confluence of several enabling circumstanc-
es is hardly representative, but perhaps it encourages faculty to seek similar opportunities
Benecke, D.R., & Bezuidenhout, R. (2011). Experiential learning in public relations in
South Africa. Journal of Communication Management, 15(1), 55-69. doi:
Bonwell, C., & Eison, J. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom
(ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report, No. 1). Washington, DC: The George
Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.
Bringle, R. G., & J. A. Hatcher. (1996). Implementing service learning in higher education.
Journal of Higher Education, 67(22), 1-39.
Freitag, A.R., Rothberg, R., & Brais, S. (2014). Improving grease disposal among Latino
populations in North Carolina: A public relations case study. Presented at the
Rothberg, Brais and Freitag 67
International Public Relations Research Conference, Miami.
Gleason, J. P., & Violette, J. L. (2012). Integrating service learning into public relations
coursework: Applications, implications, challenges, and rewards. International
Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 24(2), 280-285.
Hatcher, J.A., & Studer, M.L. (2015). Service-learning and philanthropy: Implications for
course design. Theory into Practice, 54(1), 11-19.
Kolb, A.Y., & Kolb, D.A. (2011). Kolb learning style inventory 4.0. Experience Based
Learning Systems, Inc. Retrieved from http://www.haygroup.com/leadershipand-
Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and De-
velopment. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Miller, A.N., & McCain, J. (2012). A semester-long joint simulation of the development of
a health communication campaign. Communication Teacher, 26(2), 109-114. doi:
Motschall, M., & Najor, M. A. (2001). The client-centered approach as a foundation for
teaching the introductory course in public relations. Public Relations Review, 27,
Motion, J., & Burgess, L. (2014). Transformative learning approaches for public relations
pedagogy. Higher Education Research & Development, 33 (3), 523-533. doi:
Novak, J. M., Markey, V., & Allen, M. (2007). Evaluating cognitive outcomes for service
learning in higher education: a meta-analysis. Communication Research Reports,
24(2), 149-157. doi: 10.1080/08824090701304881
O’Brien, R. (2001). Um exame da abordagem metodológica da pesquisa ação [An Over-
view of the Methodological Approach of Action Research]. In Roberto Richard-
son (Ed.), Teoria e Prática da Pesquisa Ação [Theory and Practice of Action Re-
search]. João Pessoa, Brazil: Universidade Federal da Paraíba. (English version).
Retrieved from: http://www.web.ca/~robrien/papers/arfinal.html
“Port of Entry” (1999). Commission on Public Relations Education Report. Public Re-
lations Society of America. Retrieved from http://www.commpred.org/_uploads/
“The Professional Bond” (2006). Commission on Public Relations Education Report. Pub-
lic Relations Society of America. Retrieved from http://www.prsa.org/SearchRe-
Swords, A. C. S., & Kiely, R. (2010). Beyond pedagogy: service learning as movement
building in higher education. Journal of Community Practice, 18(2-3), 148-170.
White, C. (2001). The usefulness of consulting as a teaching tool. Journalism and Mass
Communication Educator, 56(1), 31-41. doi: 10.1177/107769580105600104
Wooddell, V. (2009). Employee empowerment, action research and organizational change:
a case study. Organizational Management Journal, 6, 13-20. doi: 10.1057/
Journal of Public Relations Education
2016, Vol. 2, No. 2, 68-82
The State of Social Media Curriculum: Exploring
Professional Expectations of Pedagogy and
Practices to Equip the Next Generation of
Carolyn Kim, Biola University
Karen Freberg, University of Louisville
With the rise of social media, university programs are searching for ef-
fective ways to prepare students to use social media (Fratti, 2013). This
challenge is mirrored by professionals who are also seeking to better
equip themselves (Brown, 2014). This study explored key elements that
should be included in social media education through interviews with over
20 social media industry leaders. Findings provide extensive guidance for
faculty who teach social media courses.
Keywords: Social media, social media pedagogy, public relations edu-
University programs have fully embraced using social media across different departments
and capacities, but one challenge is still alluding them, which is how to best prepare stu-
dents to use social media strategically (Fratti, 2013). Along these lines, practitioners feel
they may be the best ones to help prepare and educate the future generation of professionals
entering the field (Brown, 2014). While both the academy and industry seek to equip peo-
ple with the appropriate training and expertise, there seems to be a growing gap between
the two in working toward this common goal. In fact, a recent study from the IBM Institute
for Business Value found that 60% of academic and industry leaders believe that higher
education fails to meet the needs of the industry (King, 2015). This is particularly true in
the context of social media, which is constantly growing and evolving. As the technology
continues to evolve and requires greater expertise to leverage it effectively, there will be
an increasing need to design appropriate education processes for those wishing to engage
professionally in the digital world. Finding a curriculum that is both fluid and reactive to
the changes in the social media landscape, yet also based on fundamental principles and
practices, is a growing challenge for the academy. In light of this, it seems reasonable to
look to the industry as the litmus test for what social media curricula should contain.
While there are many suggestions and approaches for optimizing social media
preparation, there has yet to be a single study that proposes a unified model for social media
education. One recent study (Kinsky, Freberg, Kim, Kushin & Ward, 2016) explored the
use of Hootsuite University as a tool that can be implemented within social media courses.
While this study contributed to understanding the benefits of training with a social media
Kim and Freberg 69
management tool, it did not explore the full scope of a social media curriculum. The current
research is designed to address this gap in the literature by examining professional and
academic beliefs about the core components of a social media curriculum.
The Rise of Social Media in Organizational Life
Organizations of all shapes and sizes have been impacted by the rise of social
media. As a result, there has been a rise in public relations scholarship that addresses the
implications of this digital influence (Wright & Hinson, 2014). One significant feature
contributing to the rise of digital influence is that, through social media, messages can be
amplified like never before. Thus, an organization’s reach, impact and influence have the
potential to expand. But this only can happen when the organization successfully identifies
and builds authentic conversations with key influencers within social media (Freberg, Gra-
ham, McGaughey & Freberg, 2011).
Professional Resources for Social Media
To equip professionals for the influx of social media expertise required in today’s
landscape, many resources have been developed. For example, Breakenridge (2012) pro-
vided guidance for public relations professionals wishing to understand how social media
provide a unique platform for enhancing relationships with key publics. Another example
is Kerpen (2011), who explored the relationships between the use of social media and
being a truly likable organization that listens and develops two-way dialogue. A driving
concept in most of these resources is that the power of social media rests in the ability to
identify what publics are interested in and then to join that conversation, rather than trying
to approach social media as a publicity platform (Macnamara, 2010).
Social Media in Higher Education
With classrooms filling with digital natives, the implications for social media
within education have been felt for many years now. Tess (2013) pointed out that the “po-
tential role for social media as a facilitator and enhancer of learning is worth investigating,”
when he introduced a comprehensive analysis of the current role of social media in higher
education classrooms by examining scholarship and through empirical investigations (p.
A60). Tess concluded that the potential for educational impact through social media in
college campuses is yet to be fully explored, citing several variables including the affor-
dance of social media platforms and using social networking sites and course management
The proliferation of social media in higher education within the established cur-
riculum and the examination of it as a pedagogical tool has resulted in numerous studies.
Marketing scholars, for example, have explored how marketing educators have been in-
corporating social media (Atwong, 2015; Muñoz & Wood, 2015; Neier & Zayer, 2015). In
addition, many studies focus not just on a specific platform, but on student competencies
Vol. 2 (2), 2016 Journal of Public Relations Education 70
required to use social technology in professional settings after college. For example, An-
derson, Swenson and Kinsella (2014) used social media to help conduct a crisis simulation
within their course, allowing students to practice engaging in real time with crisis informa-
tion over social media channels, develop decision-making capabilities and learn to effec-
tively respond in a digital environment. These skills are needed by most entry-level digital
marketing or communication professionals. One of the key findings from this experiment
was the reaction of students. They reported that not only did they learn how to handle crisis
situations better, but also that a learning environment where social media was implemented
was particularly effective in boosting their comprehension of the competencies they were
learning in the course.
In addition to exploring the ways social media help prepare students for profes-
sional competencies and skillsets, many scholars have also examined the ways college stu-
dents use social media and the implications of these patterns of use for the higher education
environment (e.g., Hosterman, 2011; Junco, Heibergert, & Loken, 2010; Kassens-Noor,
2012). For example, Pempek, Yermolayeva and Calvert (2009) explored the experience of
college students who use Facebook for networking. Other examples include a study by An-
derson and Swenson (2013) that explored ways to equip students for the professional ex-
pertise they will need using Twitter. What comes to light when examining this literature is
that there are two seemingly large categories of scholarship dealing with higher education
and social media. The first deals with social media platforms and real-world applications,
such as a crisis-simulation experiment. The second deals with social media platforms used
to create classroom learning environment and cultures.
Real-World Application and Classroom Culture. Of the two larger sections of
social media research focusing on higher education, research involving real-world applica-
tions of social media and learning competencies for students is somewhat less developed.
This may be due to scholars’ emphasis on the implications of social media for higher
education rather than on the competencies gained by students who engage in social media
assignments. However, studies that have opted to focus on the real-world application of
technology have reported significant findings for student learning. For example, Anderson
et al. (2014) immersed their students in a crisis simulation that not only forced students to
learn about crisis management, but to use social media as the tool with which they could
respond and assess crisis communication in the digital environment. This approach mirrors
what they will be expected to do in the real world and thus builds not only crisis competen-
cies but also tools to enhance their effectiveness.
The other vein of research into social media and higher education focuses not
on application but on learning environments that are created through technology. Carpen-
ter and Krutka (2014), for example, explored the way educators are using Twitter, a mi-
cro-blogging platform, to build a community. Rather than focusing on students using the
tool as a way to illustrate their competencies, this research explores the creation of an
environment that is dynamic, responsive and inclusive for students and educators. Gant
and Hadley (2014) examined microblogging’s potential to create heightened engagement,
to encourage transactional learning and to help with retention of class content. Whether
focusing on social media applications or the environment the media can create, educators
have also identified the need to explore the impact on credibility based on the use of social
Kim and Freberg 71
media in a college environment.
Faculty Credibility and Social Media. With a long body of research support-
ing the connection between faculty credibility and student learning, it is no surprise that
professors are concerned about the potential impact of technology on perceptions of their
expertise (Martin, Chesebro, & Mottet, 1997). Teven and McCroskey (1997) reported that
faculty credibility is based on three main dimensions: competence or expertise, trustwor-
thiness, and care for students. Educators are still exploring the practices and pedagogy
approaches that best display those three dimensions via social media. That may be why the
Pearson Learning Report (Pearson Learning Solutions, 2013) found that professors have
“concerns about privacy, both for themselves and for their students, and about maintaining
the class as a private space for free and open discussion,” when integrating social media
into courses (p. 3). DeGroot, Young and VanSlette (2015) tackled the issue of faculty cred-
ibility related to Twitter use. They found that a professor’s profile and Twitter content did
influence students’ perception of the faculty member’s credibility and evaluations of the
course. However, they noted that a potential mediating factor could be the fact that the
“student’s perception of an instructor on Twitter may be indicative of his or her differences
in preferred learning and teaching philosophies” (p. 15). While there is still much to learn
about how to integrate social media in applications and to create culture in courses as well
as the impact to a faculty member’s credibility, many institutions have begun offering
classes either entirely dedicated to social media, or courses with large portions focused on
social media. Thus, a final area to review is the development of social media curriculum.
Current Standards of Social Media Education
Due to the ubiquitous nature of social media use among students and within edu-
cation, it is to be expected that research has been growing on the topic. Davis, Deil-Amen,
Rios-Aguilar, and González (2012) explored the role of social media in higher education
by looking at the type of technology available, the impact of technology perils of social
media, and implications of the platforms. They predicted that future research with social
media would need to explore the impact of technology on student learning and ways to ac-
curately assess information (pp. 23-24). Taking a larger perspective on the general compe-
tencies required, Lipschultz (2015) provided insight into how educators can equip students
to understand important components of social media such as key concepts and theories and
applications to professions such as journalism and public relations. A number of scholars
have explored specific components related to social media and digital technology instruc-
tion such as writing (Carroll, 2014) and ethics (Drushel & German, 2011). Even with the
growing body of research, no study has proposed a unified model for a social media cur-
riculum, in spite of the fact that social media courses are strongly recommended (Brodock,
2012). In light of this gap in research, the current study was designed to explore the follow-
RQ1: What key concepts do professionals believe should be taught in an under-
graduate social media course?
RQ2: How can social media courses prepare students to be leaders within the social
Vol. 2 (2), 2016 Journal of Public Relations Education 72
RQ3: What is the value of a social media mentor for professionals entering into the
To address these questions, 20 industry professionals were interviewed. Social
media as an industry is largely led by professional needs and changes, which are often then
reflected in the academy. Because this sector is led and influenced by practice and not exist-
ing curricula, which often lag in reflecting the current state and needs of the industry, it was
determined that professionals would be the best group of individuals to speak to current
needs within the industry and the educational expectations of those they plan to hire.
Purposive sampling was used to identify individuals who had strong experience
within social media in a professional setting, often serving in a managerial or senior posi-
tion. These professionals represented a variety of sectors including agency, corporate and
nonprofit organizations. A mix of face-to-face, phone and in-person interviews were con-
ducted based upon availability and geographic limitations. In the event of phone or in-per-
son interviews, transcripts were taken for later analysis. Participants were all 18 years
or older and resided in the United States. While most of the participants consented to be
identified, some asked to remain anonymous in the final manuscript and will be identified
as Participant A, B, etc.
Participants were recruited based on their interaction with social media at a vari-
ety of levels within an organization. The breadth of experience of these participants pro-
vided rich content from which to draw conclusions. Participants included individuals such
as Michael Brito, author and speaker on social media; Michael Stelzner, from Social Media
Examiner; Melissa Agnes, crisis communications specialist; Deirdre Breakenridge, social
media expert and author; Dennis Yu, from Blitzmetrics; Whitney Drake, from General
Motors; Seth Grugle, from Ogilvy PR; Samantha Huey, from Team USA; and Amy Gerber,
from the American Red Cross. A wide range of professionals from a variety of organiza-
tions were purposefully selected in order to have represented voice within this study. The
researchers interviewed nine women and 11 men who participated in this research. Five
are employed at agencies, three at nonprofit organizations, three own their own consulting
businesses, and nine work at large organizations or brand corporations. Everyone who was
interviewed has a role or responsibility working in social media.
The researchers used semi-structured interviews to be able to expand or follow up
on any areas with participants worthy of further exploration (Rubin & Rubin, 2005). The
interview protocol began with a discussion of what should be included within social media
education and continued into questions involving leadership, mentoring and the role of
To analyze the interviews, two researchers read through the transcripts and in-
dependently, qualitatively coded the transcripts for the emergence of themes. This was
done using the Glaser and Strauss (1967) constant comparison method. Using a qualita-
tive, grounded theory approach is particularly appropriate for this study due to the limited
research that currently exists involving perceptions of industry professionals toward social
media curricula.After discussing the initial themes, the researchers again independently re-
Kim and Freberg 73
viewed the transcripts. Considering the research questions, the researchers established and
refined the initial themes based on evidence from the transcripts in the form of quotes using
an open-coding procedure (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002). Finally, the researchers discussed the
coding and any inconsistencies that arose in order to ensure the validity and reliability of
the category coding. From this discussion, a coding scheme was created and the research-
ers revisited the data to ensure consistent coding of the transcripts. Lastly, the researchers
reconvened to confirm findings.
Based on the interviews conducted among the 20 social media professionals for
this study, several themes emerged from the research questions.
Key Concepts for Students to Have
Business principles in social media. Michael Brito stated, from his role as both a profes-
sor and practitioner, that students “know how to use the tools, personally. What I try to do
is show them this is how it is important from a business perspective.”
Dennis Yu, a data analyst for Blizmetrics who works with clients like Facebook,
Golden State Warriors, and Rosetta Stone, also reiterated this point and noted that students
(and professors) need to look at the company picture of how social media is used as a busi-
When people talk about social media, they are thinking about blogging or Twitter
as opposed to as a process of integrating across different functions within the
company. It’s almost like putting the chicken before the egg. The companies don’t
know how to define it, and the programs do not know what to offer. You look at
all of these programs out there and there is no way to define this monstrous beast.
Other professionals noted that there were specific areas of business that needed
to be emphasized even more. Samantha Hughey, Audience Engagement Editor for Team
I think a lot of students are missing out on the fundamentals of marketing and
advertising. While many believe that traditional marketing is dead – that people
are no longer taking out ads in magazines and instead are turning to social media,
which is the case, however, the general concepts and ideology behind the creation
of great plans still resonates from those core courses.
Social creativity. Another area that was discussed among the professionals was this notion
of having social media classes focusing on the art (creativity) as well as the science (ana-
lytics). Hughey emphasized strategic thinking:
Students need to be aware of this and need to hone other crafts that will make
them assets in those people’s eyes. Whether that be graphic design, research, vid-
eo production, photography – have something (and something amazing) that you
can also bring to the table. Also, students need to understand that if they are going
into the field of social media it has to be for more than just because they love Ins-
tagram. A lot of what I am currently doing is the strategic thought process behind
Vol. 2 (2), 2016 Journal of Public Relations Education 74
things – I don’t Instagram very often. Had I gone into this field thinking that’s all
I would be doing I would be bummed.
Seth Grugle, a public relations professional at Ogilvy PR in NYC, agreed that the
point is to be creative not only with the content that is being produced, but to be creative
by looking outside of the PR field itself. Grugle stated:
I still believe, and this may be because of my background in PR, but the strongest
social media campaigns start outside of social media. The first thing is to not just
start on Twitter, you want to start with the end result. Always think of your sphere.
Professionals noted the importance of both creativity and writing. Carly Visbal
(Giving Children Hope) emphasized that writing is both necessary and sometimes chal-
lenging to do when it comes to social media. According to Visbal, “Learning to write in a
concise yet in a persuasive way is different than other writing practices taught traditionally.
A challenge to working in social media is maintaining creativity while balancing time
management of a fast pace profession.”
Analytic and paid media capabilities. The links between return on investment and ana-
lytics are also important elements to consider in the classroom. Shonali Burke, a public re-
lations practitioner and consultant, emphasized the importance of understanding measure-
ment and the power of analytics in social media. When teaching key metrics and analytics,
the professionals discussed different approaches. Michael Brito, who is a social media
strategist and adjunct professor, discussed how he approaches his classes when covering
paid media and analytics:
I talk heavily about paid media, and going to the back end of the Twitter ads and
Facebook ads and show them. They are actually responsible for finding a local
business and manage their content over the course of the semester. A lot of it is
instructional up front, and practical for the last two and a half months of school,
and it is coaching.
Writing capacities. Like public relations courses, writing is a key skill needed for success
in social media. Michael Stelzner stated that it’s not only about writing in general, but
writing in different ways and on different platforms for different purposes: “Every student
should write different kinds of updates: to entertain, sell, share others’ content. I would
want them to get experience in different content for different purposes.” Dan Natsika of
Discovery Cube LA/OC made a similar conclusion:
I think it all comes down to writing. It’s kind of like when you’re in advertising
and you have to make billboard: if you can make a clear ad and a clear call to
action, then you generally start with that for everything else. I kind of view it the
same way. It’s a clear message and call to action. I would say writing is always a
big part of social media.
As reiterated by other professionals, writing content for multiple platforms and
for emerging platforms that are currently being used by industry professionals is important
to address in classes. In addition to traditional writing assignments in class, such as main-
taining a personal blog, Burke recommended delving into writing for multimedia platforms
and participating in Twitter chats to get hands-on experience with the platforms: “Doing a
Kim and Freberg 75
Periscope or going on to Blab. I think it is important to get their hands dirty.”
Benefits of Having a Social Media Class for Students
Hands-on experience. Whitney Drake, who works at General Motors in the Social Care
division, discussed how having hands-on experience is essential if you want to have a po-
sition working in the field. However, having the ability and willingness to continue to learn
is another element that is important. Drake said:
From a practitioner’s perspective, it is evolving and we do not want people to join
our team who are not constant learners. Because you can’t sit on your laurels and
be like, oh, I learned social media in school and I am done! It’s not going to stop.
I think it is important to communicate these messages loud and clear and say -
what I am telling you now may not be the same in five days, and it is up to you to
continue to learn that.
Matt Kelly, who is a PR and social media specialist at Golin, shared his experi-
ences getting hands-on experience in student agencies and how these experiences have
translated to the current landscape:
While at Eastern Illinois University and Ball State University, I participated in
the student-run firms. This was a great experience, because it allowed me to serve
real clients. Luckily, we didn’t encounter many difficult situations or crises. But
what if we did? Instead of a high-level crisis like a product recall or negative story
going viral, what are some situations an entry-level person might find themselves
in more regularly? A measurement report went out, and the client found a mistake.
What do you do? You posted errantly from your personal account to a client ac-
count. What now? Weekly problem-solving workshops from real-world examples
might help students prepare for what they’ll surely experience in the field.
Professionals who were interviewed discussed the power and great learning ex-
perience that is involved with working with real clients for class and providing insights,
research, and creative proposals for them as part of the overall learning experience. Jeff
Kallin, who is in charge of the Clemson Athletics Digital and Social Media team, discussed
his continued involvement with higher education classes:
We do not lose sight because we are an institution of higher learning. The fact we
have our students who are closely working with us. It’s been very empowering
and it’s so integral to us. We are able to do the training and content creating our-
selves, and work with our students and be able to mentor them . . . is huge. Having
your content market create your content is golden.
Exceptional content creators and storytellers. Students need to have the opportunity
to not only be tested on the key trends, terms, and concepts related to social media, but
according to the professionals interviewed, they need to be exceptional storytellers and
content creators across different platforms and channels.
As Breakenridge discussed in her interview, this could be the deciding factor be-
tween candidates for a job:
The students who stand out are the ones who can easily build blogs, create dif-
ferent social media visuals (memes, infographics, etc.), know how to write for
Vol. 2 (2), 2016 Journal of Public Relations Education 76
Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. They are storytellers through different media.
I also look for students who are active on social media because this shows their
knowledge/proficiency, as well as the breadth and depth of their own digital foot-
print. I may also give an assignment to test a candidate’s level of EQ (Emotional
Quotient) in handling sensitive situations on the company blog or in social media
communities. It is important to test different situations and how they would han-
dle customers and other stakeholders.
Stelzner, founder of Social Media Examiner, reiterated this point by stating:
Thought leaders will always be content creators. They will be the podcasters,
bloggers, and video people. They will be creating content and that’s one thing that
most people have no clue how to do. If you can create content, then you can very
rapidly become a thought leader.
Along with creating content, discussing the application of how content creation can benefit
from understanding key theoretical frameworks and how they could be applied strategical-
ly are other factors that came to mind among the professionals.
Amy Gerber of the American Red Cross noted:
I think it would be helpful to flesh out best practices with real-life case studies—
transition the academic into application. Given that information and situations
move so quickly in the social realm, it’s important that students develop critical
thinking and problem-solving skills that will help them be more nimble when they
find themselves managing official brand channels.
In addition, Jeff Kallin said that having the opportunity to work with classes to help create
content and stories has been greatly beneficial for both his team and for the students. In
fact, one of the tests his team does when interviewing students to be part of the Clemson
Athletics social and digital team is to create a story:
One of the ways we audition students is to ask them to create. If we have three
students to work with us in video, we have to say—you three go shoot and tell a
story of this event and then submit. We can tell what they do and how their work
flow is. You are going to have to create content. About social media in general, I
think some of it is framed in an intimidating way and it is important to empower
them to create so many opportunities and content on a daily basis. Take advan-
tage of it. Get a website and get on Adobe’s Creative Cloud services and mobile
platforms. You have so many tools at your disposal and the war is in content.
People are trying different ways to connect with consumers. How are people
going to find you with your content?
Melissa Agnes, a social media and crisis communications keynote speaker and consultant,
also supported this perspective and stressed the importance of taking a leading role in cre-
ating and sharing content with others:
The ones who are using it well are the ones who truly, truly understand its pur-
pose. If you look at the leaders out there who are leading the way with their
organizations and utilizing social media in brilliant ways, they understand the
purpose. That it is a means to an end. When I look at crisis communication, what
differentiates these people from the herds or people who are just using it . . . the
Kim and Freberg 77
difference between leaders and followers is looking beyond the tool and platform
and seeing the purpose behind it and the opportunities it presents.
Trend forecasting and strategic thinking. Professionals repeatedly emphasized the stra-
tegic thinking component in social media, incorporating the idea of trend forecasting. Ag-
nes, for example, explained:
We share with students about great ways to use social media but we’re not teach-
ing them that in every step of the process we should ask ‘what is the worst that
could come of this’ so we can mitigate the risk. Employers want to have profes-
sionals who understand the consequence of actions prior to finding themselves in
uncomfortable situations. At the same time, strategic thinking is more than just
avoiding threats. It is also about taking advantage of opportunities.
Luke Cheng, a social media strategist at OMD Entertainment, emphasized the
importance of knowing nuances so that practitioners can take advantage of the creative
potential on platforms: “We need to have an understanding of what we are actually doing
and what we are doing that no one else can do.” Professionals look for strategic thinking
and trends forecasting in individuals who seem to manifest these qualities in their personal
social media habits. Natsika pointed out: “One of the things I would say is important is to
be in the know and be progressive in what is happening across the board and in different
platforms.” Kristi Torrington, a social meida professional working at WestLIVING, also
said students can illustrate strategic thinking through experiential learning in courses that
integrate a real-world client.
The Value of the Mentor for Students in Social Media
Mentorship. Among the professionals interviewed, many discussed the growing emphasis
of mentorship not only for the future generation of professionals, but also a willingness
to take advice and mentorship from those coming up in the ranks. Matt Kelly of Golin
pointed out that these relationships are “mutually beneficial for students and profession-
als. Students learn the nuances of working in their prospective fields. Professionals gain
knowledge of millennial behaviors and platforms, and a new perspective.” Even at large
global corporations such as General Motors, mentorship is an important skill for both pro-
fessionals and students. Drake mentioned how you have to “make yourself available” and
how this practice is being implemented not only in the course she teaches, but also how she
approaches her team at GM.
Industry Experience and Social Connectors. Other professionals mentioned the benefit
of having a professor in the social media course serve as a social connector, bridging both
practice and research into the class by bringing in guest speakers. These guest speakers, as
Hughey discussed, allow students to get a real-world sense of the field as well as provide
a window into networking. Some of these connections come with industry experience,
which is a key attribute for a professor teaching social media. Being able to bridge the gap
of knowledge and making connections in the classroom has an impact on the mentorship
opportunities available for students. Kelly agrees: “Professors should either have practi-
cal experience themselves in corporate/agency settings, bring in professionals, or both. A
professor teaching social media should be a connector, bridging the gap between students
Vol. 2 (2), 2016 Journal of Public Relations Education 78
DISCUSSION AND FUTURE DIRECTIONS
The current state of social media education is in a point of transition. Students are
facing constantly changing expectations and ever-demanding skillsets in order to excel and
meet the needs of corporations, agencies, and practitioner needs.
State of Social Media Education
Public relations education and programs have been routinely evaluated and re-
searched over the past several decades (e.g., Commission on Public Relations Education
Professional Bond Report, 2006). Expectations for what needs to be taught in social media
classes should be fluid and evolving as new platforms, tools, programs, and needs are in
demand. Some of the skills such as paid media, business acumen, and marketing are all
traditional concentrations in public relations programs.
The growing expectations for content creation, storytelling, and analytics are ar-
eas that need to be further developed and enhanced relative to social media courses. Re-
search has explored the use of certain assignments in social media classes like certification
programs provided by Hootsuite University (Kinsky et al., 2016), infographics (Gallicano,
Ekachai, & Freberg, 2014), Twitter chats (Fraustino, Briones, & Janoske, 2015), and blogs
to name a few. However, exploring and experimenting with new assignments in social
media classes that tie into these skills and specific areas within social media could be ben-
eficial for the educator and professional community.
Another theme that arose from this study is the fact that some practitioners in this
research study discussed not only the possibility but also the willingness to collaborate and
be part of social media classes. This participation ranges from being clients for proposal
projects and campaigns to actually co-teaching the course. Future research could explore
the different ways in which educators can create more of a fluid approach to the curriculum
to address growing needs and expectations from practice while staying true and aligned
with the program’s and college’s learning objectives.
Along with expectations for what should be covered in a social media class, cer-
tain assignments and exercises were also recommended. The highest priority mentioned
by the practitioners was the importance of hands-on experience. This hands-on experience
can range from having guest speakers come to class, speak through a video conference call
system like Skype, Blab, or Google+, or serve as a client or judge for a social media client
proposal project. These guest speakers can provide insight as well as be a connection for
the students to reach out to during and after the class for guidance and advice on projects
and internship possibilities. Agencies, small businesses, and large athletic teams are wait-
ing for the opportunity to work with students and allow them to get hands-on experience
in social media. Educators could further explore individual assignments through research
to determine the effectiveness of each assignment, application of learning objectives, and
overall application of the experience from classroom to the workplace.
Mentoring and being connected with the industry were two apparent themes that
emerged from the data among the practitioners. Mentoring was mentioned frequently by
Kim and Freberg 79
the professionals in this study. Having educators who help guide students not only in the
class, but help them make established connections with the industry are becoming a neces-
sity in social media classes. Professors are not only expected to mentor in the traditional
sense, but also to take on the role as a social connector for students and the professional
community online as well.
State of the Perception of the Professor Teaching Social Media
One of the conclusions from this research is the growing emphasis on the role of
the social media professor. Few studies have explored the role of the professor in a social
media classroom. The respondents in this study discussed how the professor needs to have
real-world experiences and to be connected with the social media community. In response
to growing expectations and new demands, professors today may feel overwhelmed.
Future research could potentially explore the different characteristics, skills, at-
tributes, and experiences professors of social media need to have in order to be successful.
In addition, there is a growing trend of adjunct professors teaching these courses who are a
bridge between research and the practice that brings a new dynamic of the hybrid professor.
Higher education is facing challenges because of the emergence of social media
as a pedagogical tool, the development of new technologies, and greater expectations from
the industry. These particular challenges are also opportunities to explore new approaches
to ensure that students entering the workplace in public relations and social media are fully
prepared, not only in the tools, skills, and knowledge within social media, but also in the
behavior of becoming lifelong learners who strive to take the initiative to become the best
they can be.
The dynamics of social media education are evolving and ever changing. Social
media education is a rising discipline and specialization within public relations research
and a growing interest among brands, practitioners, and agencies that wish to recruit the
best talent into their own communities. The constant push and discussion of new emerging
tools, platforms, and skills might result in a constant fear of missing out (or FOMO) for
programs, departments, and professors. This study hopes to contribute to a clear direction
for where higher education and social media courses need to go in the future, how to best
prepare students for the workplace, and how to create a stronger bridge between educators
and practitioners in public relations.
Finally, this study highlights the value of encouraging social media educators to
share their best practices and strategies for education (Weede, 2016). While there seem
to be many reports that indicate social media education is lagging and missing key com-
petencies, it is more important than ever for educators to continue to share resources and
pedagogy in order to improve all of higher education in the area of social media.
There were several limitations to this research study. First, the professionals who
were interviewed for the study ranged across different industries, and they were all highly
invested in social media practice or consulting. This study did not interview professors
who teach social media courses. Further research should reach out to professors who are
Vol. 2 (2), 2016 Journal of Public Relations Education 80
currently teaching social media courses at the university level. Interviews were only con-
ducted to gauge what practitioners would consider to be a strong social media curriculum
as well as what skills and areas needed to be added to the current curriculum program at re-
spective universities, but there were no actual syllabi or examples shown to the profession-
als in this case. With this in mind, future research could explore a content analysis looking
into common themes in established social media classes to determine which assignments,
topics, skills, learning objectives, and outcomes align with the expectations from educators
and practitioners in this area.
Anderson, B., Swenson, R., & Kinsella, J. (2014). Responding in real-time: Creating a
social media crisis simulator for the classroom. Communication Teacher, 28(2),
Anderson, B., & Swenson, R. (2013). What should we be teaching our students about
digital PR? Collaborating with top industry bloggers and PR Twitter chat profes-
sionals. Teaching Public Relations, 87, 1-4.
Atwong, C.T. (2015). A social media practicum: An action-learning approach to social me-
dia marketing and analytics. Marketing Education Review, 25(1), 27-31.
Breakenridge, D. (2012). Social media and public relations: Eight new practices for the PR
professional. Upper Saddle River, NJ: FT Press.
Brodock, K. (2012, Feb. 10). 9 ways students can use social media to boost their careers.
Mashable. Retrieved from: http://mashable.com/2012/02/10/students-job-search-
Brown, G. S. (2014, June 17). Airline apologizes for World Cup social media misstep.
ABC News. Retrieved from: http://abcnews.go.com/Travel/airline-apologiz-
Carpenter, J.P., & Krutka, D.G. (2014). How and why educators use Twitter: A survey of
the field. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 46(4), 414-434.
Carroll, B. (2014). Writing and editing for digital media. New York London: Routledge.
Commission on Public Relations Education. (2006, November). Public relations education
for the 21st century – The professional bond. New York: Public Relations Society
Davis III, C. H. F., Deil-Amen, R., Rios-Aguilar, C., & González Canché, M. S. (2012).
Social media and higher education: A literature review and research directions.
Report printed by the University of Arizona and Claremont Graduate University.
Retrieved from https://works.bepress.com/hfdavis/2/.
DeGroot, J.M., Young, V.J., & VanSlette, S.H. (2015). Twitter use and its effect on student
perception of instructor credibility. Communication Education, 64(4), 419-437.
Drushel, B., & German, K. (2011). The ethics of emerging media information, social
norms, and new media technology. New York, NY: Continuum.
Fratti, K. (2013, August 29). Hootsuite University moving into J-school classrooms. Media
Bistro. Retrieved from http://www.mediabistro.com/10000words/hootsuite-uni-
Kim and Freberg 81
Fraustino, J.D., Briones, R., & Janoske, M. (2015). Can every class be a Twitter chat?:
Cross-institutional collaboration and experiential learning in the social media
classroom. Journal of Public Relations Education, 1(1), 1-18.
Freberg, K., Graham, K., McGaughey, K., & Freberg, L. A. (2011). Who are the social
media influencers? A study of public perceptions of personality. Public Relations
Review, 37(1), 90-92.
Gallicano, T. D., Ekachai, D., & Freberg, K. (2014). The infographics assignment: A qual-
itative study of students’ and professionals’ perspectives. Public Relations Jour-
nal, 8(4), 1-23.
Gant, C., & Hadley, P. (2014). Microblogging for class: An analysis of affective, cogni-
tive, personal integrative, and social integrative gratifications. Journalism & Mass
Communication Educator, 69(1), 17-32.
Glaser, B., & Strauss, A. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualita-
tive research. New York, NY: de Gruyter.
Hosterman, A. R. (2011). Tweeting 101: Twitter and the college classroom. In H. S. Noor
Al-Deen & J. A. Hendricks (Eds.), Social Media: Usage and Impact (pp. 93-110).
Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
Kassens-Noor, E. (2012). Twitter as a teaching practice to enhance active and informal
learning in higher education: The case of sustainable tweets. Active Learning in
Higher Education, 13(1), 9-21. doi: 10.1177/1469787411429190.
Kerpen, D. (2011). Likeable social media: How to delight your customers, create an irre-
sistible brand, and be generally amazing on Facebook. New York: McGraw-Hill.
King, M. D. (2015, July 17). Why higher ed and business need to work together. Harvard
Business Review. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2015/07/why-higher-ed-and-
Kinsky, E.S., Freberg, K., Kim, C., Kushin, M., & Ward, W. (2016). Hootsuite University:
Equipping academics and future PR professionals for social media success. Jour-
nal of Public Relations Education, 2(1), 1-18.
Junco, R., Heibergert, G., & Loken, E. (2010). The effect of Twitter on college student
engagement and grades. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 27(2), 119-132.
Lipschultz, J. (2015). Social media communication: Concepts, practices, data, law and
ethics. New York, NY: Routledge.
Neier, S., & Zayer, L.T., (2015). Students’ perceptions and experiences of social media in
higher education. Journal of Marketing Education, 37(3), 133-143.
Macnamara, J. (2010). Public communication practices in the Web 2.0-3.0 mediascape:
The case for PRevolution. PRism, 7(3), 1-13.
Martin, M.M., Chesebro, J. L., & Mottet, T.P. (1997). Students’ perceptions of instructors’
socio-communicative style and the influence on instructor credibility in situation-
al motivation. Communication Research Reports, 17, 432-463.
Muñoz, C.L., & Wood, N.T. (2015). Update status: The state of social media marketing
curriculum. Journal of Marketing Education, 37(2), 88-103.
Pearson Learning Solutions (2013). Social media for teaching and learning report. Re-
trieved from: http://www.pearsonlearningsolutions.com/assets/downloads/re-
Vol. 2 (2), 2016 Journal of Public Relations Education 82
Pempek, T. A., Yermolayeva, Y. A., & Calvert, S. L. (2009). College students’ social net-
working experiences on Facebook. Journal of Applied Developmental Psycholo-
gy, 30, 227-238.
Rubin, H. J., & Rubin, I. S. (2005). Qualitative interviewing: The art of hearing data.
London, UK: Sage.
Tess, P. A. (2013). The role of social media in higher education classes (real and virtual): A
literature review. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, A60-A68.
Teven, J. J., & McCroskey, J. C. (1997). The relationship of perceived teacher caring with
student learning and teacher evaluation. Communication Education, 46(1), 1-9.
Weede, J. (2016, January 14). University reputations: The truths are not all self-evident.
Edelman. Retrieved from: http://www.edelman.com/post/university-reputa-
Wright, D. K., & Hinson, M. D. (2014). An updated examination of social and emerging
media use in public relations practice: A longitudinal analysis between 2006 and
2014. Public Relations Journal, 8(2), 1-35.
Journal of Public Relations Education
2016, Vol. 2, No. 2, 83-100
Exploring Diversity and Client Work in
Public Relations Education
Katie R. Place and Antoaneta M. Vanc
This exploratory qualitative study examines public relations students’ no-
tions of diversity and client work within the public relations curriculum.
Drawing upon the literature regarding teaching diversity, client work, and
public relations, two research questions guided the study asking, How do
students make meaning of “diversity” in the context of public relations cli-
ent work? and How does client work prepare students to address diversi-
ty as future public relations professionals? Findings indicate that students
engaged with the concept of diversity introspectively through self-reflec-
tion of personal biases and through assumptions regarding technology.
Students’ perceptions of client work as a bridge to an increasingly diverse
public relations profession centered on notions of exposure, awareness,
personal growth, and preparedness. Ultimately, this study fulfilled the
need for more research regarding the understudied topic of diversity and
public relations education. It confirmed that public relations students may
struggle with notions of diversity, but they can benefit greatly from the
preparedness and personal growth that client work with diverse publics
Keywords: Diversity, client work, public relations education, self-reflec-
tion, student perceptions
The increasingly competitive and diverse job market of the twenty-first century demands
practitioners who can demonstrate both “cultural competence and multicultural knowl-
edge” (Biswas & Izard, 2009, p. 391) as well as understand and facilitate diversity in
the public relations industry (Galloway, 2004). Despite these demands, public relations
professionals rarely receive diversity education prior to entering the public relations field
(Toth, 2011) as public relations courses may fail to engage with diversity or feature diverse
faculty members (Pompper, 2005a, p. 306). Increased emphasis on diversity and cultural
competency in public relations education is necessary, as students will ultimately become
the next generation of public relations professionals to counsel clients, make strategic de-
cisions (Pompper, 2005a), and communicate with diverse stakeholders on behalf of their
organizations (Tsetsura, 2011, p. 531).
The benefits of fostering diversity in public relations are plentiful. Diversity helps
position an organization as a welcoming environment, implement more effective custom-