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Student-Run Integrated Communication Firms Must Become the Norm

Published on November 3, 2017, at 9:07 p.m.
by Mallory McDonald.

The public relations industry continues to expand, and the hiring process has become even more competitive. Students with the most real-world experience will have an advantage at getting a job in the field.

To have a solid chance at landing a job in the public relations industry, three years (minimum) of experience outside the classroom is a necessity. But how do you gain this experience while going to school?

Currently, one of the best opportunities for PR students to get hands-on experience is with student-run agencies on campus. There are over 100 student-run firms in the country. At these agencies, scholars are able to work with real clients in designated departments, similar to how a professional agency operates.

Benefits of student-run firms 
One of the first student-run integrated communication firms began 10 years ago on Temple’s campus. What started out as just 10 people working with one client grew into a multifaceted firm with multiple client teams and departments just one decade later.

Back then, the experience required to get an
entry-level public relations job was hardly as steep as current stipulations. As requirements continue to increase, student-run firms are becoming more prevalent on campuses across the nation. Student agencies that have been around longer, such as PRowl, Temple’s student-run firm, continue growing and functioning more like professional firms as opposed to just a student organization on campus.

Student-run agencies allow communication students an opportunity to work with clients and create real plans that will be implemented throughout their time with the firm. Not only do students get a chance to work with clients, but they also learn how to work as a team with other students as passionate as them about being successful in their respective fields.

“Having a group of people that you spend so much time with that they become your professional family is rare in college,” said Megan Perkins, firm director of Capstone Agency, The University of Alabama’s student-run integrated communications firm. “People who get accepted to these agencies are taking the same classes as you, pursuing the same goals and are just as driven. You become surrounded by people who motivate you to be better and do better and challenge you to succeed instead of partying and going out all the time.”

Learning where you fit and how to get there
One struggle for many students studying public relations and other communication degrees is understanding which department and niche are right for them. Student-run firms model real agencies and can provide students with an in-depth look at how integrated communication firms operate, and where they fit best before having to apply to jobs.

“If I hadn’t been a part of Capstone Agency on UA’s campus, I wouldn’t have understood the structure of my work environment now,” Samantha Vlahos, former Capstone Agency member and current assistant account executive at GCI health, said. “Not only did I learn what niche was best suited for me, but I also learned what field I wanted to be in. The greatest gift Capstone Agency gave me was the opportunity to be around older students and see what internships and experience outside Capstone Agency they would do, so I could see what I needed to do to be as successful as them outside of the classroom.”

These firms on campus provide students with a network of peers to learn from, look up to and eventually mentor. When you first start working for an agency on campus, you are taken back by the dedication, drive and success students within the agency possess. However, in a few semesters, you become the person you once looked up to.

“Aside from immense personal and professional development, Allen Hall Public Relations (AHPR) has given me the ability to say I worked my way up at a nationally accredited PR firm,” Jaclyn Robinson, firm director of Allen Hall Public Relations, University of Oregon’s student-run PR firm, said. “I have gained experience working in and managing teams, editing, organizing, planning events, coordinating social media, writing press releases and even rebranding an entire company.”

Disadvantages students face without access to a student-run firm
Students at schools that do not offer student-run firms are at an immediate disadvantage when applying for jobs against students who have had the opportunity to work at one. Students at these firms get multiple years of experience and develop skills that are hard to gain without being exposed to this environment.

“If it wasn’t for AHPR, I would not only not know what I wanted to do, but I would not know what I was capable of,” Robinson said. “I now have confidence that I can achieve my goals, however far-reaching they may seem, which is invaluable as I enter the workforce.”

These on-campus agencies give students who join a sense of security when stepping out of school and into the workforce. They get a taste of what they can expect in a full-functioning firm. While not every student necessarily wants to work in an agency environment, the skills learned in one can transition to almost any communication position.

“Attending different conferences like the recent PRSSA National Conference, and sitting on a public relations panel, I realized that other schools and professionals are overwhelmed by student-firms like Capstone Agency,” Perkins said. “Other schools are so intrigued by what we do and how big we have gotten over the past few years. When other students hear we have this opportunity at UA, they want that opportunity at their own schools. Eventually, student-run firms will become the norm as competition gets steeper.”

Universities and colleges have a responsibility to provide students with the tools they need to be successful when they graduate. Public relations and communication students are required to have years of experience to get a job, and the best way schools can provide this necessity on campus is student-run firms.

“Students need opportunities to explore their interests, get involved, gain relevant experience and add to their résumés prior to graduation,” Robinson said. “Schools that don’t offer this need to realize they are setting their attendees behind and need to get on board to help create the best incoming public relations practitioners the industry has seen.”

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