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Experiential learning labs in public relations programs: Characteristics of undergraduate student-run public relations firms on U.S. college campuses

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Advisors from 55 of 119 student-run public relations firms on U.S. college campuses provided data about firm characteristics. A listing of student-run public relations firms, or agencies, was created and through an online survey questionnaire, results show that firm characteristics (years in operation, funding, workspace, hiring process, types of clients, and student involvement in decisions) are more similar than dissimilar even when comparing student-run public relations agencies of varying years in operation. Statistically significant results were found for the difference between firm types for the average number of hours students worked per week (F=6.612, eta-square= 0.18) and ACEJMC accreditation (F=3.71, eta- square=0.13). Recommendations and research ideas about this type of experiential learning lab are explored for future study.
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Experiential Learning Labs in Public Relations Programs 1
Running head: EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING LABS IN PUBLIC RELATIONS PROGRAMS
Experiential learning labs in public relations programs:
Characteristics of undergraduate student-run
public relations firms on U.S. college campuses
Sarah Maben, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Communication Studies
Tarleton State University
P.O. Box T-0230
Stephenville, TX 76402
254.968.9751
maben@tarleton.edu
Kathleen Whitson, Ph.D.
Senior Lecturer, Counseling and Higher Education
Program Coordinator, Higher Education
University of North Texas
Mean Green Village B 103
Denton, TX 76203
940-369-7173
Kathleen.Whitson@unt.edu
Manuscript history: Research originates from a dissertation project.
Author biographies
Sarah Maben (Ph.D., University of North Texas) is an assistant professor in the communication
studies department at Tarleton State University, where she teaches media writing and public
relations. Her research agenda includes experiential learning in communication programs, public
relations education, media ethics, and social media in the classroom. She is also a co-director for
the Texas Social Media Research Institute and editor of The Journal of Social Media in Society.
Kathleen Whitson (Ph.D., University of North Texas) is the program coordinator and a senior
lecturer in the higher education graduate program in the college of education at the University of
North Texas, where she teaches teaching and learning, economic and resource development and
organizational communications in higher education. Her research agenda includes the evolving
role of community colleges and student success. She is also the Deputy Officer for Academic
Integrity for the University.
Experiential Learning Labs in Public Relations Programs 2
Abstract
Advisors from 55 of 119 student-run public relations firms on U.S. college campuses
provided data about firm characteristics. A listing of student-run public relations firms, or
agencies, was created and through an online survey questionnaire, results show that firm
characteristics (years in operation, funding, workspace, hiring process, types of clients, and
student involvement in decisions) are more similar than dissimilar even when comparing student-
run public relations agencies of varying years in operation. Statistically significant results were
found for the difference between firm types for the average number of hours students worked per
week (F=6.612, eta-square= 0.18) and ACEJMC accreditation (F=3.71, eta- square=0.13).
Recommendations and research ideas about this type of experiential learning lab are explored for
future study.
Keywords: Student-run public relations firms, college agencies, public relations education,
campus public relations agencies, journalism program
Experiential Learning Labs in Public Relations Programs 3
Experiential learning labs in public relations programs:
Characteristics of undergraduate student-run public relations firms on U.S. college campuses
Students have long had the opportunity to hone their newsgathering skills working for the
campus newspaper. In more recent years, students interested in public relations began honing
their craft at student-run campus public relations firms. With the recent call for more hands-on
education in journalism schools (Mangan, 2012), it seems logical to better study the mechanisms
already being used to deliver such learning. To date, a few single firm descriptive studies and
one qualitative study have been published specifically about student-run public relations firms.
Analyzing the experiential labs created for student learning is important to establish best
practices and benchmarks for measuring student experiences. The research questions posed in
this study are designed to look at student-run public relations firms: 1). What are the common
characteristics of student-run firms at institutions of higher education in the U.S.? and 2). Is there
a significant difference between firm types (Bush, 2009) and
firms’ years in operation?
student involvement?
average number of hours students work at firm per week
firms within Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications
(ACEJMC) accredited programs?
The purpose is to better identify and typify the experiential learning labs, the student-run
PR firms, already in place. Noting differences between longer established firms and younger
firms provides clues as to keys for longevity. It also lays groundwork for future analysis and
potential trend studies. The significance of this study is the starting point it provides for future
Experiential Learning Labs in Public Relations Programs 4
research. Other studies have only looked at individual case studies or a handful of firms. A
bigger picture of the firms in the U.S. and a listing of firms give researchers tools to create
theoretical and analytical studies. This research paves the way for researchers to conduct studies
comparing student firm characteristics with student success measures.
Literature Review
Historically, public relations educators and practitioners have cited the importance of
internships and practical experience. The 1985 Commission on Undergraduate Public Relations
Education, Blanchard and Christ’s New Professionalism of 1993
(Dickson, 2000) and The Public
Relations Society of America’s 1999 Port of Entry all supported internships, on-campus
apprenticeships and hands-on learning. Student work on the campus public relations firm is at its
core hands-on or experiential learning. John Dewey, a champion for experiential learning, said
students learn best by experiencing the problems that surround them (Ehrlich, 1997). He said
every experience is a “moving force” (Dewey, 1938, p. 38) and an interaction where something
is learned (Campbell, 1995). This experience can educate or mis-educate and lay groundwork for
subsequent experiences. Fulfilling definitions by Kolb (1984) and Hativa (2000) and others,
students at the firms are learning by doing and participating in the experience teaches them about
client interactions, tactical skills and ways to address problems. It is one thing to understand the
parts of a news release, but the process of crafting an actual release for a client’s approval creates
an experience of learning. Similarly, Cohen reflects on writers covering modern dance, “The
lesson, however, is learned in a considerably deeper way when the novice writer actually has to
struggle with the process of both observing the movement and then putting those observations
into clear prose” (1988, p. 51).
Experiential Learning Labs in Public Relations Programs 5
Lee (1947) said practical experience and motivation were more important than certain
education to producing public relations leaders of the time. This is still echoed today in recent
calls for the medical field’s teaching hospital model in journalism schools (Mangan, 2012). In
this experiential learning model, ala student-run firm, students must feel their way around a
simulated work environment, with guidance from advisors, for their chose fields. The
experiential learning is a “sequence of events with one or more identified learning objectives,
requiring active involvement by participants” (Walter & Marks, 1981, p. 1). Gibbons and
Hopkins created a scale to determine how experiential a task was - simulated experiences are on
lower end of the scale. As more of the planning and execution of the experience moves into the
learner’s responsibility, the experience becomes more experiential (Gibbons & Hopkins, 1980).
In the firm setting, students are meeting with clients and making decisions about what messages
to distribute, making it more experiential than simply writing a news release in a public relations
course. This study asks advisors to comment to what degree students fulfill planning or
administrative roles in order to gauge how experiential the experience is. In a pilot study, U.K.
journalism educators created an experiential learning situation where journalism and political
science postgraduate students worked together to cover a general election (Steel et al., 2007).
Students cited anxiety at first that eventually transitioned to a greater confidence and they saw
how even a group with some problems can effectively cover a news event when team members
focus on the same goal. The experiences at the student-run firm are not simply simulations, they
are real experiences that educate, or mis-educate, and provide hands-on learning preparing
students for their next experiences.
Student-run firms
Experiential Learning Labs in Public Relations Programs 6
A listing from the Public Relations Student Society of America shows 124 of its members
self-reporting a student-run public relations firm. A few student-run public relations firms have
received recognition in academic journals. Imagewest, a student-run agency, was established in
2004 at Western Kentucky University (Imagewest, 2005). Students working for the firm receive
course credit and a stipend during what they call an internship. Students apply and interview for
positions at the firm. Their clients are both on-and-off campus and are diverse. Their list includes
a hospital, attorney, church, nonprofits, credit union, and many campus departments and
organizations. Services seem full-service ranging from logo creation and other graphic design to
research to event planning to news release writing to printing.
Much earlier than Imagewest, Del-Com was awarded a contract to help its university
promote summer programs. In 1980, the student-run agency at the University of Delaware even
beat out professional agencies for a campaign (Mogavero, 1982). Del-com was designed to
provide agency functions for the State of Delaware, corporate Wilmington and the University of
Delaware. Students working for the firm had finished their core coursework and most already
had one internship experience. About fifteen students worked for the agency and it was run out
of a course covering two semesters. The students’ campaign to promote university enrollment
was deemed a success; a five-year decline in enrollment halted.
Central Coast PRspectives is the student-run public relations firm at California
Polytechnic State University (Swanson, 2008, 2011). It began in 2002 with a client base of
community nonprofits. Students working for the firm are enrolled in a capstone course called
advanced public relations practice. The firm has an open-door policy where any student may
volunteer. The student leader for the firm earns academic credit for his or her role. Students were
Experiential Learning Labs in Public Relations Programs 7
required to attend a one-hour planning meeting and then work four hours weekly on a campaign.
CCPR receives $2,500 from the university per year and has its own office.
Bush (2009) used a snowball sample to learn more about the pedagogical benefits and
risks of student-run public relations firms. In-depth interviews with advisors from ten student-run
firms showed three pedagogical benefits: experiential learning/process learning, professional
identity development and career choices/opportunities. Bush created a schema for the “types” of
agencies. Type 1 most resembled a real-world firm and had a low risk of dissolving. Firms exist
on a continuum of participation and professionalism and the Type 3 firms had a high risk of
dissolving and there are no required meetings. Type 2 was in between. Bush cited the Type 1
agencies as the model that can fill voids in coursework. She asserts that agency work fills in
where campaigns courses or service learning cannot. The agency work also focuses on process-
oriented work, as opposed to the sometimes task-oriented work from an internship. While only
120+ programs have student-run firms, most do have campaigns courses or internship programs.
Other Learning Labs
For many of the U.S. public relations programs, a campaigns course is where hands-on
learning is acquired. Eighty-eight % of programs responding to a 1999 study required public
relations majors to take a campaigns course. Researchers behind the study asserted that a
campaigns course “can never be sufficient to fully prepare students for real-world experiences
(Benigni & Cameron, 1999). A difference between agency work and the campaigns course is that
courses typically end with a presentation. Implementation is left to the client. In the agency
setting, students are creating, presenting and then implementing the campaign. In 1999, a study
found that ninety-two % of campaigns students in the sample used had actual clients, but only
Experiential Learning Labs in Public Relations Programs 8
half of the campaigns courses use an agency-type backdrop for the class environment (Benigni &
Cameron). Researchers suggested an agency structure should be more widely adopted. In a larger
2004 study, 96% of the campaign teachers invited actual clients to participate in the campaigns
class and 90% used an agency structure (Benigni, Cheng & Cameron, 2004).
The campus public relations firm could be likened to an in-house internship program.
Journalism students view internships as highly valuable, according to a phenomenological study
in 2002. Basow and Byrne (1993) analyzed pre-internship and post-internship questionnaires to
reveal that students completing longer internships agreed more with statements about career
insights than the students completing shorter stints. A position at the student-run firm would
likely last longer than a holiday break or summer internship. Receiving payment for internship
experiences increased student perceptions of educational preparedness and career insights and
“perhaps the most valuable experience students gain is in the learning to adjust to the climate and
structure of the workplace” (Basow & Byrne, 1993, p. 52).
When students work at the student-run public relations firm, it could be likened to an
extensive problem-based learning scenario. The student-run public relations firm is a model of a
real-world public relations firm and students work to solve their clients’ communication
problems. PBL focuses on the process more than the products of learning and creates a situation
that is open-ended with no one correct solution (Hativa, 2000). Students in public relations
courses at a Midwestern university acted as public relations agencies for clients and were asked
to view themselves as professional problem-solvers. Using analysis of questionnaire responses
and student evaluations, researchers asserted that students felt like they learned a lot and found
“real-world applications appropriate for their needs” (Attansey, Okigbo & Schmidt, 2007).
Experiential Learning Labs in Public Relations Programs 9
The composite provided by research studies on experiential learning, campaigns courses,
problem-based learning, and internships, gives a basis for this study: an analysis of student-run
public relations firms at U.S. colleges.
Method
Survey data was collected from advisors of public relations programs in U.S. institutions
of higher education with student-run public relations agencies. To search for universities with
student-run public relations firms, a benchmarking study was conducted. That list was compared
to the listing of student-run firms kept by the Public Relations Student Society of America; it is a
self-report item on the membership form. The combined list created the population from which
the study began.
The Fashion Institute was excluded because of its differences from all other
universities. The population of the study was the 120 firms in the U.S. and the sample consisted
of the survey respondents. The 29-question survey was submitted to a panel of experts to look at
its validity. Questions covered firms characteristics like years in operation, types of clients, types
of office space, funding, how and if students are compensated, etc. The questionnaire is available
upon request. IRB approval was acquired and measures were followed to properly maintain
confidential data. A pilot study was conducted by administering the questionnaire at a school not
selected to participate in the larger study. Minor changes were made and the survey instrument
was uploaded to www.surveymonkey.com. After the first invitation, undeliverable e-mail
addresses were updated or alternative e-mails were entered. Four subsequent e-mail reminders
were sent over a two-month time frame. Forty-six responded. Phone calls and voice mail
messages garnered another 16 responses. Two incomplete surveys were kept in the dataset
because of the value in analyzing the responses made. Another two respondents reported no firm
at their institutions and those universities were deleted from the list. Five cases were deleted for
Experiential Learning Labs in Public Relations 10
noncompletion. Two advisors from the same university responded with similar answers. The
non-advisor’s comments were deleted from the study. One university has two firms, so both
advisors’ responses were included in the study. Fifty-five usable surveys of the 119 possible
means 46% of firms are represented.
Data Analysis
Data was exported into PASW® Statistics and an alpha of 0.05 was used. Where advisors
reported ranges, the mean was used. For questions with an “other” response, advisor comments
were analyzed and categorized. For example, one question was, What is the primary workspace
for the student-run public relations firm? a. Dedicated office space, b. Shared space with other
student organizations, c. No Space, d. Other (please explain). Advisors reported other workspace
options like department labs, conference rooms, empty classrooms and other spaces. These were
deemed “shared space” by the researcher. In future administrations of this instrument, the shared
space could be more inclusive. Students working from their own residences were classified as no
space. Responses for student payment were handled in a similar way. If a respondent said “credit
hours and a few scholarships” the case was coded into the category paid in credit hours. Another
example was that most are unpaid, but the executive director receives three credit hours of
practicum. In this case, credit hours would have been entered. A category was added for
cooperative payment accounts where students can use funds for travel and professional
development. In subsequent administrations a question should be added to qualify which
students, or what percentage of students, are compensated. Firm funding received “other”
responses produced new categories (PRSSA or student dues, a combination of university funds
and client fees, no funding, and fundraisers) that were added as the data was coded in PASW®.
Experiential Learning Labs in Public Relations 11
One respondent said the firm was taught as a class, so the funding was classified as university
funds.
Advisors were asked how often students handled certain firm responsibilities. The
question was an effort to determine student involvement to create a metric of how “student-run”
the firm actually was. Advisors responded never, rarely, sometimes, often, or always to how
often students 1) are involved in the firm’s planning; 2) are involved in the financial aspect of the
firm; 3) negotiate with clients; 4) handle client complaints; and 5) solicit new clients. Reliability
analysis was run for the five elements used to create the student involvement metric. The
Cronbach alpha was 0.828. The Cronbach alphas for each item, if deleted, were similar, so no
item was deleted from the metric. The metric was also coded into high, medium and low
involvement. Scores from 9-12 were low, 13-16 were medium and 17-20 were high.
While not an exact replication, the student-run public relations agencies were classified
into one of Bush’s (2009) types. Questions from the survey classified the firms. The following
questions were used to determine each quality that was counted toward the larger variable of
firm type:
What is the primary workspace for the student-run public relations firm?
Does the student-run firm have a written policy or employee manual?
How are students paid for work at the student-run public relations firm?
Do students have titles when working for the firm? If yes, what position or titles
can students occupy at the student-run public relations firm? Mark all that apply.
How are students selected to work for the student-run firm?
What is the primary type of client your firm serves?
Experiential Learning Labs in Public Relations 12
On average, what percentage of YOUR (advisor) week is devoted to the student-
run public relations firm? (Please give a percentage.)
Table 1 outlines how responses from the seven questions were used to classify the
student-run firms into types.
Table 1
How Firms in Study Were Divided Into Types
Type 1
Type 2
Type 3
Primary workspace as
dedicated space
Primary workspace is
shared
No primary workspace
Has a written policy or
employee manual
No written policy or
employee manual
Students paid an hourly
wage, credit hours, stipend
or a combination of these
Students can access a
cooperative account for
travel or professional
development
Students are not paid
Students have titles like
account coordinator,
account executive, area-
specific titles, assistant
account executive and
executive director
Students have titles like
intern, secretary, treasurer
or associate; lacking
hierarchical titles
Students do not have titles
Students are handpicked by
faculty or through a
competitive
application/audition/
interview process
A noncompetitive
application/audition/
interview process is used
Firm participation is open
access
Primary clients include area
businesses and
national/international
clients, or a mix including
these
Clients are nonprofits,
campus departments, or pre-
packaged/
simulated clients
Experiential Learning Labs in Public Relations 13
Advisors reported spending
50-100 percent of their
week devoted to firm
Advisors spent 20-49
percent of week devoted to
firm
Advisors spent 0-19 percent
of week devoted to firm
Predictive discriminant analysis (PDA) was used to test rater consistency. PDA can
determine a classification role for assigning units into groups (Huberty, Wisenbaker, & Smith,
1987). Seven items were loaded with the rater’s type assignment producing a hit rate of 65.9 and
the I index (effect size) was 0.49 (Huberty & Lowan, 2000). The rater reviewed cases for
inconsistencies. The secondary selection by the statistical analysis matched the rater’s original
type in all but one case. It was even parts Type 1, Type 2 and Type 3 and was therefore classified
as Type 2. After a case-by-case analysis, no changes were made.
One-way ANOVAs tested hypotheses about differences between types on variables like
years established and student involvement. An alpha of 0.05 was used and homogeneity of
variances and post hoc tests were checked.
Results
Of the 55 advisor responses, all but one could be identified and therefore connected to
institutional data. As shown in Table 2, more public institutions (n=35) were represented in the
study. Two firms came from the same university, an accredited public institution.
Table 2
Characteristics of Responding Universities with Student-Run Public Relations Firms
ACEJMC
Accredited
Not Accredited
Total
Experiential Learning Labs in Public Relations 14
Public Institutions
16
19
35
Private Institutions
6
13
19
Total
22
32
54
Note: n= 54; one university from the dataset is not reflected here because the advisor’s
incomplete survey could not be aligned with its corresponding university. ACEJMC is the
Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.
About the Firms
The length of operation for firms was from the newest beginning in 2009 to 37 years.
The mean number of years was 9.36 years (n=51, SD=9.45). The majority of firms (44 of the 53
responding) reported operating in a continuous manner. Nine advisors said there was a period
when firms did not operate. Advisors offered explanations for the hiatus. One said a lack of an
active advisor led to periods of inactivity for firms. Another advisor said his firm was suspended
for a two-year period due to a lack of qualified participants. Lack of interest from students and
clients was cited by one advisor for a hiatus. Others responded they did not know because of
limited time in the advisor position. Other firm characteristics are cataloged in Table 3.
Table 3
Firm Characteristics Reported by Advisors
No. of Firms
22
8
8
13
Firms Primarily Funded By
Client fees
20
Experiential Learning Labs in Public Relations 15
14
Combination of university funds and client fees
5
4
PRSSA or student dues
4
Private donations
3
Not funded
3
Grant/foundations
1
Firm Workspace
Dedicated office space
20
No space
17
16
Student Selection Process
Open access
26
17
Non-competitive process
5
Combination of methods
3
PRSSA elections/membership
2
1
29
8
7
4
3
2
43
35
33
22
19
8
8
1
22
12
11
9
Experiential Learning Labs in Public Relations 16
Thirty-six firms reported having written policy manuals. The average number of students
working at the firm each semester or quarter ranged from four to 125 (n=50, SD=19.06) with a
mean of 19.4. Advisors reported students spending between one and five semesters working at
the firm. The mean was 2.42 semesters (n=46, SD= 0.98).
Firms handled accounts for a variety of clients. The average number of clients per
semester/quarter was 5.41 with the least amount of clients at one and the most at 25 (n=52,
SD=4.627). Of the eleven firms reporting a mix of primary clients, one reported having a
national client and two were a mix of campus organizations and community nonprofits. One
received referrals of start-up businesses from the Small Business Development Center.
Advisors were asked to what degree students share in the decision-making process.
Forty-one of the 54 respondents said “all” and 13 said “some.” Advisors were asked to divulge
how often students handled certain aspects of the firm’s business. Table 4 shows that the
majority of advisors responded students “always” were involved in the firm’s planning and
handling client complaints.
Table 4
Frequency of Tasks Handled by Students Working at the Student-run Firm as Reported
by Advisors
Never
Rarely
Sometimes
Often
Always
Are involved in
firm’s planning
(n=53)
0
0
6
13
34
Experiential Learning Labs in Public Relations 17
Are involved in the
financial aspects of
the firm (n=52)
3
4
9
12
24
Negotiate with
clients (n=53)
0
4
3
19
27
Handle client
complaints (n=53)
1
0
7
17
28
Solicit new clients
(n=52)
0
1
14
12
25
When these variables were summed for a total reflecting student involvement (never=0,
rarely=1, sometimes=2, often=3, always=4), the lowest student involvement was a 9 and the
highest was 20 (mean=16.39, mode=18, SD=3.578). This metric was checked for reliability,
using reliability analysis in PASW®, and the five variables had a Cronbach alpha of 0.828.
The majority of advisors are full-time university employees (n=50 of 53) and are
assistant (n=16) and associate (n=16) professors. Nine were lecturers or instructors, 4 were
adjuncts, 2 staff, 5 full professors, and 4 professionals in residence.
Table 5 divides firms into categories of firm age to compare qualities by highlighting the
most frequent advisor responses. Firms are largely similar when viewed in this manner.
Table 5
Firm Characteristics by Years in Operation
Number of Years Firms Have Been Operating
0-4 years
5-9 years
10-14 years
15+ years
Has a written policy
manual (n=36)
16
5
4
11
Experiential Learning Labs in Public Relations 18
Does not have a
written policy
manual (n=13)
5
3
3
2
How majority of
students are paid
(n=50)
Not paid
(n=12)
Not paid
(n=5)
Combination
of wage,
credit, stipend
(n=3) and not
paid (n=2)
Not paid
(n=8)
Primary workspace
(n=50)
Dedicated
office space
(n=9), no
space (n=7),
shared space
(n=6)
Dedicated
office space
(n=4), shared
space (n=4)
Dedicated
office space
(n=4)
Shared space
(n=5), no
space (n=5),
dedicated
office space
(n=3)
Student titles (n=54)
Hierarchical
titles (n=20)
Hierarchical
titles (n=5)
Hierarchical
titles (n=4)
Hierarchical
titles (n=10)
How students
selected (n=50)
Open access
(n=9),
competitive
process (n=8)
Open access
(n=2),
competitive
process
(n=2),
through
PRSSA (n=2)
Open access
(n=4),
competitive
process (n=3)
Open access
(n=9)
Primary type of
clients served
(n=50)
Community
nonprofits
(n=8); campus
department/
organizations
(n=7); mixed
(n=6)
Community
nonprofits
(n=4)
Community
nonprofits
(n=2); campus
department/
organizations
(n=2)
Area
businesses
(n=5);
community
nonprofits
(n=4)
% of advisor
workweek devoted
to firm (n=43)
0-19% (n=10)
20-49% (n=5)
20-49% (n=5)
0-19% (n=8)
Student
involvement metric
for student-run
(n=47)
High
involvement
(n=12)
Medium
involvement
(n=5)
High
involvement
(n=3);
medium
involvement
High
involvement
(n=9)
Experiential Learning Labs in Public Relations 19
(n=3)
Note: Table shows most frequent responses. Hierarchical titles references account coordinator,
account executive, area-specific titles, assistant account executive and executive director.
Firms were grouped into types using Bush’s 2009 schema. Two respondents did not
provide enough data for classification. The other 53 fell into these types: 20 as Type 1, 20 as
Type 2, and 13 as Type 3. Analysis of variance was used to compare firm qualities between the
types (Bush, 2009). Using a null hypothesis of H
0
=Type 1=Type 2=Type 3, years of operation
and student involvement were tested. Both variables passed tests of homogeneity, but n’s for the
three types (Type 1 n=19, Type 2 n=20, Type 3 n=11) were not evenly distributed. ANOVAs
were run despite this fact. Neither variable was statistically significant and failed to reject the
null hypothesis. For years in operation, eta-square was 0.037 (F=0.91) and student involvement
was 0.018 (F=0.44). ANOVAs producing statistically significant results were for the average
number of hours students worked per week (F=6.612, eta-square= 0.18) and ACEJMC
accreditation (F=3.71, eta-square=0.13). Both variables passed tests of homogeneity; Tukey
post-hoc analysis was used.
Discussion and Conclusion
Firms may advertise themselves as one-of-a-kind phenomena, but they are more alike
than dissimilar. The majority operated continuously and is primarily funded through client fees
and university funds. The bulk of the firms have written policy manuals. Open access and
competitive applications were the selection processes most used for student staffs. The majority
of firms do not pay students, but almost all of them use a titled structure for the students. More
firms serve a nonprofit client base. Students are the decision makers and the majority handle the
firm’s planning, finances, client negotiation, client complaints and new client development most
Experiential Learning Labs in Public Relations 20
or all of the time. As one advisor phrased it, he or she only spent five % of each week with firm
activities because “it’s student run.” Programs looking to start a student-run firm could use these
general characteristics as a preliminary roadmap to decisions it would need to make, like do we
need office space?
The descriptives for the firms surveyed raise some questions. What was the key to
success for the firms making it to the 15 year mark? Like their younger counterparts, students
were not paid, it was an open access admission, and the students had a high involvement. One
difference was the older firms’ reliance on area businesses as their client base. Nearly all of the
advisors for firms of all ages were assistant and associate professors, which could point to the
value programs place on these learning labs.
Statistical support for significant differences between types depended on the variable.
Average number of hours students worked at the firm per week and program ACEJMC
accredited were, but with modest effect sizes. Years in operation is interesting because Bush
suggested Type 1 would have a low risk of dissolving and Type 3 would have a high risk.
Research would need to include data from dissolved firms to provide a better analysis. This
dataset reflected a crop of newer firms that could be watched in the future to provide information
on variables tied to dissolution of firms. Average number of hours students worked at the firm
per week and ACEJMC accreditation were statistically different between the types. Previous
studies looking at accredited vs. not-accredited program only showed small differences (Benigni,
Cheng & Cameron, 2004, and Masse & Popovich, 2007). This is worth further examination.
While different, what effect does accreditation have on the firm and the students’ experiences?
The average number of hours students work at the firm differing among the firm types makes
sense. Bush (2009) reported that Type 1 firms had required work hours and Type 3 firms had no
Experiential Learning Labs in Public Relations 21
required meetings. How often students were required to meet was not collected in this study, but
the average hours work reported is consistent with Bush’s study.
Student involvement, a construct created from how often students handled certain tasks,
across the board was strong. Most advisors answered that students handled the five tasks often or
always. Would students report the same frequencies? Would “more successful”—job attainment,
GPA, years to graduation or other variables—students come from firms with higher student
involvement? This might be where the firms would differ on the student involvement metric.
Even when firms were divided into four groups based on years in operation, the firms
were more alike than dissimilar. More had written policy or employee manuals and most had
firms where students were not paid. More of the younger firms had dedicated office space. The
firms operating fifteen or more years were divided between shared space and no space. One take
away could be that the space does not make the firm successful or lead to longevity. Community
nonprofits were the primary clients for firms of all ages, but area businesses were more
frequently the primary client for the firms fifteen years or older. This could provide insight into
why some firms survive longer than others.
Limitations
Broad generalizations must be limited because half of the firms are not represented in this
study. Research needs to include data from dissolved firms to provide a better analysis.
Institutional characteristics reported were limited to accreditation status and public versus
private. And, the study included only U.S. institutions. The timing of this study may have missed
the mark; the first survey invitation was toward the end of a fall semester. While an online
survey e-mail to respondents is easy, it may not collect the nuances a semi-structured telephone
Experiential Learning Labs in Public Relations 22
interview would. Questions were designed to determine how much decision-making students
handled. It might be interesting to compare advisors’ philosophies and approaches to their role.
Recommendations and Future Research
Student-run public relations firms are a way to give students a taste of a prospective
career and its nuances while re-enforcing concepts in the classroom. In an environment
demanding more accountability, advisors and programs will need to be able to provide some
proof of student learning and development and we recommend:
First, keeping a current list of universities with student-run firms, while a moving
target, would allow researchers to investigate aspects of the firms.
An annual survey would be one way to gather data consistently for a database that
could provide opportunities for trend study. Collecting data each year would
create opportunities for trend studies and an annual survey distributed by
participating universities to its graduating seniors as part of the graduation process
could help acquire student responses.
The most crucial recommendation is for researchers to find ways to study the
students working at the firms and the learning that is happening, or not, at the
firms.
This study focused on the firms, but what about the student workers? The firm
environment’s effect on student workers and their learning is another area of possible
investigation. In a study of practicing journalists, researchers found that day-to-day interaction
with editors and colleagues was the most powerful force guiding values, ethics and professional
practice (Weaver & Wilhoit, 1996). When a student worked at the firm during his or her
Experiential Learning Labs in Public Relations 23
collegiate career might have varying effects on learning. Placing the firm experience into
students’ continuum of learning while in college might illustrate when it provides the most
impact. Is a 10-hour a week student-agency position as intensive as a forty-hour a week summer
internship? Would mimicking some of the agency tasks in a classroom setting be as effective or
is the complete agency experience necessary?
A handful of the firms are in the beginning stages of development. Checking back in with
them in a year or two to see which ones survived might give clues to success factors for firms.
From research, best practices could be bolstered or research could probe into the dissolved firms
for common themes or warning signs of future trouble.
To answer the “so what” question of this study, we point to the expansion of the research
to include a larger understanding of public relations firms run by undergraduates on U.S. college
campuses. The current study was able to piece together characteristics of about half of the
working student public relations firms. Moving to the next stage, investigating measures of
success beyond years in existence will provide more empirical data to satisfy the accountability
of today’s higher education.
Experiential Learning Labs in Public Relations 24
Appendix A: List of Schools with Student-Run Public Relations Firms Invited
to Participate in Study
1. Abilene Christian University
2. Anderson University
3. Appalachian State University
4. Augustana College
5. Ball State University
6. Belmont University
7. Bloomsburg University
8. Boston University
9. Bowling Green State University
10. Brigham Young University
11. Buffalo State College
12. California State University, Chico
13. California State Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo
14. California State University, Dominguez Hills
15. California State University, Fresno
16. California University of Pennsylvania
17. Capital University
18. Central Michigan University
19. Central Washington University
20. Colorado State University
21. Drexel University
22. Eastern Illinois University
23. Eastern Michigan University
24. Elon University
25. Emerson College
26. Ferris State University
27. Flagler College
28. Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University
29. Franklin College
30. George Mason University
31. Georgia Southern University
32. Georgia State University
33. Gonzaga University
34. Grand Valley State University
35. Howard University
36. Illinois State University
37. Indiana State University
38. Indiana University
39. Indiana University of Pennsylvania
40. Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis
41. Iona College
42. Kent State
43. Louisiana State University - Baton Rouge
44. Marshall University
45. Messiah College
46. Miami University of Ohio
47. Michigan State University
48. Middle Tennessee State University
49. Murray State University
50. North Carolina State University
Experiential Learning Labs in Public Relations 25
51. Northern Illinois University
52. Northern Kentucky University
53. Northern Michigan University
54. Northwest Missouri State University
55. Ohio Northern University
56. Ohio State University
57. Ohio University
58. Oklahoma State University
59. Otterbein College
60. Pennsylvania State University
61. Pepperdine University
62. Purdue University
63. Quinnipiac University
64. Radford University
65. Rowan University
66. Rutgers University
67. Saint John Fisher College
68. Salisbury University
69. San Jose State
70. Seton Hall University
71. Slippery Rock University
72. Southeast Missouri State University
73. Southern Illinois University, Carbondale
74. Southern Utah University
75. St. Cloud State University
76. Susquehanna University
77. Syracuse University
78. Temple University
79. Texas State University
80. Texas Tech University
81. University of Alabama at Birmingham
82. University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa
83. University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
84. University of Central Missouri
85. University of Florida
86. University of Georgia
87. University of Indianapolis
88. University of Iowa
89. University of Kansas
90. University of Maryland
91. University of Miami
92. University of Minnesota
93. University of Missouri
94. University of Nebraska, Omaha
95. University of New Mexico
96. University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
97. University of Northern Iowa
98. University of Oklahoma
99. University of Oregon
100. University of South Carolina
101. University of South Dakota
102. University of Southern California Annenberg
103. University of Southern Indiana
104. University of Southern Mississippi
105. University of St. Thomas
106. University of Texas at Austin
Experiential Learning Labs in Public Relations 26
107. University of Texas at San Antonio
108. University of Washington, Eau Claire
109. University of Wisconsin, Whitewater
110. Utica College
111. Valdosta State University
112. Valparaiso University
113. Virginia Polytechnic Institute
114. Wartburg College
115. West Virginia State University
116. Western Carolina University
117. Western Kentucky University
118. Wilkes University
119. York College of Pennsylvania
Note: The Fashion Institute of Technology also has a firm, but it was not included in this study.
The list was compiled in 2009.
Experiential Learning Labs in Public Relations 27
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