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PR Undergraduate Degrees: How We Should Prepare Our Future Practitioners

Published on November 20, 2019, at 1:05 p.m.
by Gabriel Wahl, Broom Initiative Messaging Manager.

San Diego State University’s School of Journalism and Media Studies considers its public relations emphasis a legacy program. With the most adopted PR textbook coming out of SDSU, as well as scholars like Dr. Glen Broom and David Dozier spending their careers on the mesa, the description fits. Today’s SDSU faculty see the label of a legacy program and think it is more about the future than the past.

For her part, PR professor Dr. Kaye Sweetser looks to build on the legacy from the ground up in her capstone PR campaign course. From day one of the course, Sweetser set the tone for the semester by establishing the “ground rules”: Class times are staff meetings, the 16-student class is an agency, and the agency has one executive and four managers. Self-reported timecards are due every Monday night and shared with every team member for accountability and transparency; peer evaluations are submitted and reviewed twice throughout the semester. The agency works for a client and is responsible for the research, planning, implementation and evaluation of a complete PR campaign.

Broom Initiative branded materials at the registration table

Using a service-based learning model for an external client, this semester the agency represented the Glen M. Broom Center for Professional Development in Public Relations. In their campaign, they launched the Broom Initiative. This umbrella project within the Broom Center invests in those taking initiative in PR, just as the service-based and experiential learning capstone course models. Young PR professionals in the course are treated and expected to perform as professionals throughout the semester. All 16 students collaborate in specified areas that suit their strengths in the RPIE process, but they also collectively work toward the same end goals: to uphold industry standards, to push the status quo in PR practices through fresh and rejuvenating perspectives, and to successfully complete a PR campaign fueled by theory and strategy for their client.

According to a 2015 study conducted for the American Association of Colleges & Universities, 60% of employers surveyed think all college students should complete a significant applied learning project before graduation. Whether it is called “project-based,” “active” or “experiential learning,” there is a universal value in this style of education.

“As lead executive for the agency, I spend most of my time managing the team, looking at the overall progress of the campaign and checking on each moving part,” said Paige Shewmaker. “This experience has prepared me to be able to multitask and prioritize while considering deadlines. I have learned a lot about myself and how I interact with my colleagues, and I will take the communication skills I have developed here to an agency position.”

A study published in the Journal of Public Relations Education found 84% of students surveyed reported a strong preference for service-learning courses to traditional lecture learning. Ninety percent of those responding believed they had learned more from the service-learning course than alternative course designs.

In Sweetser’s capstone course agency, there are a lot of those learning opportunities.

Young professional Gabriel Wahl speaks with Dr. Hongmei Shen about her connection to the late Dr. Glen Broom.

Folded into the semester campaign was the hosting of two elite professional events on the sidelines of the Public Relations Society of America International Conference. The team planned events for the PRSA Educators Academy and the Commission on Public Relations Education: CPRE’s West Coast Industry/Education Summit and PRSA’s Educators Academy Super Saturday as key tactics in the Broom Initiative campaign. A total of 152 CEOs, vice presidents, members of the PRSA College of Fellows, educators and practitioners attended these events.

The Broom Initiative was responsible for pre-event logistics, pre-event social media content, event day logistics, a social media takeover for PRSA Educators Academy, a day-of social media campaign for the Broom Center, various interactive activities including virtual reality, and more.

All the while the young professionals were challenged to remember the tactics were not the campaign. The tactics were ways the team could strategically promote the launch of the Broom Initiative.

“As a professor in the campaigns journey, you always work to keep the team’s eye on the big picture of the campaign,” said Sweetser. “It would be easy to get caught up in the events only. But we aren’t teaching party planning. We are teaching strategic PR. The events are just ways to attract your publics to you.”

A study led by Dr. Brigitta Brunner content-analyzed 199 entry-level employment job advertisements posted to the Public Relations Society of America Job Center. Major findings included the need for graduates to possess not only hard skills, such as writing, but also soft skill abilities, such as time management, deadline orientation and collaboration.

In Sweetser’s capstone course agency, team members do peer evaluations twice during the campaign. At the campaign midpoint, before implementation, Sweetser privately meets with every team member to conduct a professional performance review.

“I have had a few internships, but they typically only tell me that I’m doing great and rarely give constructive feedback,” said Lexi Cook. “This was a great opportunity for me to sit down to discuss how I can improve as a professional. I heard how great I am, but I also got actionable advice on how I can be better.”

The capstone’s young professionals pose for a team photo in front of historic Hardy Tower, SDSU.

As evidenced from the Broom Initiative campaign, students gain experience in leadership, time management, deadline orientation, collaboration, event planning, research practices, digital media practices, strategic communications theories, the ability to interact with elite-level professionals and how to take initiative.

This investment in the agency-style experiential learning model is how Sweetser’s course is creating future PR icons and how SDSU is keeping that legacy title.

“We are using the pedagogical techniques Dr. Glen Broom loved,” said Sweetser. “We are helping them take steps forward to become their best professional selves.”

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