Value of real world lessons

Student-run PR agencies give those preparing for a career in the industry experience they can't get in the classroom.

Student-run PR agencies give those preparing for a career in the industry experience they can't get in the classroom.

The Beacon Hill Business Association (BHBA) is a 140-member nonprofit that promotes the tony neighborhood in Boston. Since 2007, BHBA has been represented by PR Lab, Boston University's student-run PR agency. Last May, a team of four students helped promote the Eighth Annual Taste of Beacon Hill, including crafting a media strategy and executing all media relations. According to BHBA executive director Ellen Rooney, the students helped make the event one of the most successful to date. “We sold out ahead of time and were turning people down,” Rooney says. “It's always been a fun event, but we've never had a response like that.”

She notes that each team has worked on a major event in addition to general promotion, including developing and writing Web site content. She's “very pleased” with the students' professionalism.

“They show up ready to work and have ideas of their own,” she says. “It's a win-win situation – we get help and they get experience.”

Founded in 1978, PR Lab (it was called PR Planners until 1999) is open to BU College of Communication undergraduate and graduate students, who get academic credit for their work. The firm has 35 students (including six account managers) and 16 clients this semester. It's led by Peter Morrissey, associate professor of PR at BU College of Communication and founder, president, and CEO of Morrissey & Co.

“I try to replicate a real agency,” Morrissey says. “Students understand how to track time... manage clients, and deliver on programs. They get a good sense of accountability.”

Morrissey focuses on “core competencies,” such as strategy, creative problem solving, account management, and developing portfolios that demonstrate results. Students get classroom instruction, and Morrissey reviews work and firm management with account managers once a week. The agency also hosts guest speakers on topics such as social media. 
 
Hands-on learning
This year, PR Lab has a dedicated office space where students can brainstorm and conduct client business. The one major way the agency differs from professional firms is that clients actually pitch the students for business at the beginning of each semester. Students submit client preferences, and Morrissey does his best to meet requests, though he stresses to students that they won't always get to work on their first choice of accounts.

BU has another student agency, PRSSAgency, which is affiliated with the student organization and strictly a volunteer activity. Steve Quigley, associate professor of PR, is the faculty adviser.

“I spend time with account teams to provide guidance and support, particularly at the strategic level,” he says. “[Because it's voluntary], it attracts students who... want to go way beyond what's expected.”

Quigley notes that PR is an applied discipline, and the hands-on experience in student agencies is a critical part of education. He adds that these agencies give students a chance to review practical experiences with professors, an opportunity even most internships cannot provide.

University of Georgia (UGA) and Indiana's Valparaiso University (VU) also have PRSSA-affiliated, volunteer-based, student agencies – Creative Consultants and SPARK, respectively. Neither agency charges for services, aside from expenses.

Creative Consultants is more than 10 years old. Kaitlyn Darr, a fourth year PR major, was elected director this year, and she chose 107 students out of more than 130 who applied. Student teams of five or six work on site with 17 clients, which include nonprofits, small businesses, and UGA sports teams. A faculty adviser provides guidance if needed.

SPARK is about five years old and has 42 students currently working with six clients. Bonita Dostal Neff, associate professor and an Institute for Educational Leadership Fellow at VU, oversees the agency. She says students get a variety of practical experiences, including intensive qualitative and quantitative research, community relations, and crisis communications.

TriSight Communications is the student-run, volunteer-based PR firm at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication. Jennifer Floto, an associate professor at USC Annenberg School of Journalism, acts as CEO. She explains that the agency formed 30 years ago to work on projects for on-campus organizations. In 2003, it became known as TriSight Communications and began working with outside clients.

Floto says the firm started charging $250 per semester for services (on a sliding scale) two years ago after Ron Rogers, principal of The Rogers Group, advised charging a modest fee to give students opportunity to learn about budget management. She explains that the curriculum is extensive and includes classes on the business of PR.

For each student-run agency, the ultimate goal is to provide the industry with experienced talent. And so, ultimately, the programs benefit not only the students, but also the overall PR industry.

Morrissey says, “Our objective... is to provide students... ethical underpinnings and send them into the world ready to do great things.”

Clients of student-run agencies

VU's SPARK
Client: Valparaiso International Student Association

Work: Campaign to increase US student interest in attending a multicultural banquet-entertainment program.

BU's PR Lab
Client:
Boston Medical Center

Work: Media relations, community/special events promotion, and Web content.

BU's PRSS Agency
Client:
internshipratings.com

Work: Development of a social media plan for the Web site.

UGA's Creative Consultants
Client:
imagine group

Work: Event management, media relations, and a blog.

USC's TriSight Communications
Client:
Howard Bragman

Work: Campaign supporting the January launch of Where's My Fifteen Minutes?

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