Wednesday, March 13, 2019

How the Public Relations Campaigns Class Can Better Meet the Needs of Nonprofit Organizations: A Preview of a Panel I'm Moderating on April 5, 2019

In late 2001, I was hired to teach a class entitled “Public Relations Campaigns” to undergraduate students majoring in communication studies at University of San Francisco (USF). Here’s the course description and learning objectives as outlined in the syllabus.

Course Description

This course offers students the opportunity to develop a public relations campaign for a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization.  The class functions as a public relations agency, with the instructor as agency principal who evaluates student performance in class participation and assignments as a professional manager would evaluate an employee. The class will be divided into groups consisting of up to four students, and each group will be responsible for a client and a specific project. Depending on the needs and budget of each client, the campaigns will either be planned or planned and implemented. Each team will produce a campaign book of professional quality, which will be presented to the client and the rest of the class during the last session of the course.  This campaign book may be used in your attempt to secure employment in the public relations field.  

Course Objectives

By the end of this course, students will be able to:

  1. Identify organizational problems and develop solutions to public relations challenges, while gaining hands-on experience in working with clients;
  2. Master the public relations problem-solving process, and apply it to real-life situations;
  3. Cultivate skills involving group work through completion of project and in-class exercises;
  4. Conduct research that helps formulate plans and assists with decision making;
  5. Complete public relations efforts that help clients successfully meet challenges specific to their circumstances; and
  6. Develop a written public relations campaign and presentation of viable, long-term public relations solutions.

Since then, I’ve taught the class in a variety of formats and in different contexts. Currently, I teach it to graduates students enrolled in the MA program in professional communication at USF

Graduate students in my "Communications Consultancy" class at University of San Francisco present their public relations campaign for the Randall Museum in San Francisco, Summer 2019

All public relations campaigns courses I’ve taught have been inspired by a similar practical orientation. I thus immediately saw the course as an opportunity to students to actually “do” public relations, as opposed to reading about other people “doing” public relations. To this end, I recognized immediately the unique perspective I brought to the classroom as both a practitioner and instructor. I relished the challenge of blending both worlds and in turn, hopefully even inspiring some of my students to pursue work in the public relations field when they considered longer-term career options after graduation.  

At the same time, I recognized that the class filled a unique role in the different curricula offered by programs for which I taught. Without anyone telling me it was so, I considered the class as the logical outcome of the students’ experiences in prior public relations classes—regardless of what that was, whether they had completed scattered elective public relations classes at USF or a formal degree program in the field if they attended another institution (as USF did not offer a degree in public relations).   

My perspective was not unique. Scholarship has consistently considered the public relations campaigns course as the “capstone,” or culminating, experience in undergraduate degree programs. Thus, it bears the weight of expectations in terms of preparing students for professional practice (Aldoory & Wrigley, 1999; Benigni & Cameron, 1999). 

Working with real organizations solving actual problems lies at the heart of this approach. Yet I was given little guidance on how to incorporate actual organizations into the class when I first started teaching it, although I was advised “it would be nice” if I could include organizations that shared the Jesuit-run USF’s social justice focus, in terms of wanting its graduates “to make the world better — more fair, more just, more livable for more people.”

Nonprofit organizations in particular fit that mandate best, so I proceeded to recruit such organizations. First, I reached out to organizations I had worked for over the prior decade as a public relations consultant. Second, I reached out to other individuals in my professional network who either worked for or with other nonprofit organizations located throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. 

“Service learning,” or, as it’s now referred to, “community engaged learned,” was not yet a requirement for undergraduates at University of San Francisco when I first started to teach the class. Service learning involves students in a range of activities that benefits others (including a particular organization); it’s been described as a form experiential learning with a decided focus on outcomes that have an impact beyond those of the classroom. At USF, service learning was slowly gaining adoption across the curriculum when I started teaching the public relations campaigns course. Courses were beginning to align themselves with service learning principles and practices by the mid-2000s, making more options available for students who needed to participate in a service learning experience through a class in order to graduate. I gradually became part of this wave albeit informally and largely based on my own initiative.  

Again, I was not alone in this effort. In fact, the public relations campaigns course has become a model for incorporating service learning into the public relations curriculum. That’s because it relies on using real, off-campus, nonprofit organizations as clients (Rogers & Andrews, 2016). 

The particulars of establishing, maintaining, and incorporating the experiences of nonprofit partners into the class within this service learning framework has emerged as a key theme in the scholarly literature on the course. Aldoory and Wrigley (2000) and Benigni, Cheng, and Cameron (2004) mention this connection, which subsequent researchers (see for example Allison, 2008; Farmer, Perry, & Ha, 2016; Harrison & Bak, 2017) have explored more fully. They focus largely on how educators and students alike can address course-related client challenges. 

As the needs of the two latter stakeholders have been addressed at length by other researchers, I didn’t feel their needs relative to the course warranted further inquiry. 

Yet I wondered: Where are the nonprofit organizations in this equation?  They are supposed to benefit from students’ efforts on their behalf in the public relations campaigns course. Are they? And to what extent? Are their needs being met, above and beyond their desire to work with students? How does their work with public relations students mesh with broader public relations activities they undertake on behalf of their organization? On this point, Rogers & Andrews (2016) argue nonprofits require better education about public relations to help instructors prepare students in the campaigns class, and thus their needs ought to be incorporated into scholarship on the course. If, when, and how this education of nonprofit organizations and their representatives happens remains to be explored in this literature, moreover. 

As a former public relations practitioner, I’m intrigued by this subject. As a long-time instructor of the public relations campaigns course, I couldn’t help but wonder what more I could have done to help my nonprofit partners above and beyond the general promise of offering potentially useful communications-related products they might call upon in their subsequent internal and/or external communications activities. 

I thus was inspired to organize a panel to explore these interrelated topics. It will take place the upcoming International Academy of Business Disciplines Annual Conference, to be held in Jacksonville, Florida from April 3-5, 2019.  

Three of us--me, Roberta “Bobbi” Doggett from the University of North Florida and Eric W. Hoffman of Flagler College, will grapple with the challenges associated with working with nonprofit organizations in the public relations campaigns class as we provide our thoughts in response to the following questions:

  • How do you recruit nonprofit clients for your public relations campaigns class?
  • How do you prepare them to work with students? 
  • To what extent do you feel a need to educate them about public relations? 
  • How do you educate them?
  • Have you considered modifying or expanding your education efforts? Why or why not?

I anticipate we’ll collectively identify best practices. More importantly, I hope our effort will at some point result in a contribution to the body of knowledge on how to best work with nonprofit organizations that choose to partner with our students in the public relations campaigns course.


Aldoory, L., & Wrigley, B. (1999). Exploring the use of real clients in the PR campaigns course. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 54(4), 47-58.

Allison, A. W. (2008). A Best Practices Service Learning Framework for the Public Relations Campaigns Course. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 8(3), 50-60.

Benigni, V. L., & Cameron, G. T. (1999). Teaching PR campaigns: The current state of the art. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 54(2), 50-60. 

Farmer, B. A., & Lane Graves Perry, I. I. I. University-Community Engagement and Public Relations Education: A Replication and Extension of Service-Learning Assessment in the Public Relations Campaigns Course. The International Journal of Research on Service-Learning and Community Engagement, 4(1).

Harrison, G. B., & Bak, E. N. (2017). Service-Learning in a Public Relations Campaign Class: How Contingency Management Supports Positive Outcomes. Partnerships: A Journal of Service-Learning and Civic Engagement, 8(2), 79-91.

Rogers, C., & Andrews, V. (2016). Nonprofits’ expectations in PR service–learning partnerships. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 71(1), 95-106.

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