Master Class: How do you best incorporate real-world client experience into PR education?

This month's panel looks at the value of real, working experience in PR education.


Bruce Berger
Professor of advertising & PR, Univ. of Alabama

Rosanna Fiske
Graduate coordinator and associate professor, Florida International University School of Journalism & Mass Communication

Denise Keyes
Associate Dean, PR/corporate communications, Georgetown University

Robert Noltenmeier
Clinical assistant professor, master's degree program in PR and corporate communication, New York University School of Continuing and Professional Studies

Maria Russell
Professor of PR and director, Newhouse Executive Education Programs, Syracuse University S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications

Bruce Berger, University of Alabama

An integrated approach that systematically infuses real-world client experience into each PR course is recommended. PR majors typically complete a handful of core courses: introductory principles, PR writing, design or visual communication, management, or cases and campaigns. They also may take classes in law, ethics, research, journalism, reporting, and so forth. Many also complete internships, which provide on-the-job experience.

But real-world experiences can be incorporated into each class. For example, a principles class might include practitioner speakers who share learning experiences or stories from the front lines. PR writing students can produce writing projects to support local groups. Professionals can share case studies with management classes or lead students through simulated exercises. Students in design classes can produce materials for local nonprofit or university events. Campaign classes, a rich experience, require students to plan and carry out communication campaigns to solve real client problems or capitalize on opportunities.

There were two ways that our program was introduced. The first was through a comprehensive program granting students the opportunity to advance with on-the-job training, exposing them to actual trials that PR pros face every day.

With some thought and planning, it's possible for educators to bring real-world client experiences into each class. And an integrated approach compounds the returns for students and local organizations.

I'm now working on another approach, a two-day, hands-on workshop led by seasoned pros. They would guide students through a real-world problem or opportunity, including a thorough situation analysis, objective-setting, strategic plan development, and a final solution document. At the end of 15 to 20 hours of round-the-clock work, student teams would present their proposals to the professionals for comprehensive critique.

Rosanna Fiske, Florida International University School of Journalism & Mass Communication 

Agency executives repeatedly voice their frustrations in hiring entry-level pros. Their concerns relate to recent graduates lacking enough real-life experience or face-to-face social skills. Both of these issues can be addressed by incorporating some real-world experience in education.

Professional leadership council. Several communication programs invite practitioners to be part of a select group that provides counsel and support. The key, though, is to have the group interact directly with faculty - not just deans and program chairs - to provide professors input on curriculum ideas.

In so doing, pros can have great input in course content by offering real-world perspective. Likewise, the group should interact with students via student club meetings or special networking receptions. The information sharing from all three parties involved - students, faculty, and pros - truly enriches education.

Campaigns classes. The popular model for this has one real-life client that all student teams within the class work on, most notably the PRSA's Bateman Case Competition. However, several professors who have strong practitioner careers have instead implemented an agency model, with each student agency team working on an entirely different campaign and industry. For example, my campaigns class this semester has five real-life clients: a nonprofit, an issue/advocacy campaign, an Internet business, an educational institution, and a Fortune 500 corporation.

The idea is to offer a variety of clients within one classroom. This way the students are exposed to different industries and practices while learning the common elements of successful, real-world campaigns.

The connection between professor and practitioner is vital to making this work. If the two aren't talking or working together on behalf of the profession, the challenge to turn out a competent workforce gets tougher.



Denise Keyes, Georgetown University 

Clients must commit to making the education process their first priority. We require clients to be available to students at different points in the semester, including the final evaluation. To sharpen the competitive edge, clients should review student work based on the criteria established by the instructor.  Finally, we use a competitive process to select clients based on guidelines we've established that determine what makes a good client in an academic setting. While creating an agency environment is beneficial for students, education must always be the first priority. 

The client selection process for the final capstone experience, which is required of all our students before graduation, is formal and competitive. In addition to committing their time to participate in the process, potential clients must commit financial resources to execute the students' final plan and to hire staff if required. Last semester, the winning team presented to an association's board of directors to secure the final approval of their plan, as well as funding to execute their strategy. The plan was received with a standing ovation.

The selection process for our signature class, cause consulting, requires clients, in this case nonprofits, to commit for two semesters. In the first semester, students create a strategic communications plan with their clients and learn how to be consultants. In the second, they execute some of the work with the goal of making communications sustainable within the nonprofit. Many students stay on as skill-based volunteers. The course is in its third year and more than 200 nonprofits have applied to be clients. Students are able to add the title "cause consultant" to their résumés after the experience.

Both students and clients win through these types of relationships. Students are able to apply what they've learned immediately to real-world challenges. They build their résumés with results-oriented experiences. Clients get quality products, as well as a greater appreciation of the role of strategic communications.


Robert Noltenmeier, New York University School of Continuing and Professional Studies

Our school exists to answer that question. The curriculum exposes students to real-world client experiences within the context of communications theory. It's a delicate balance of art and (social) science.

NYU's School of Continuing and Professional Studies students learn from more than 40 adjunct faculty members, many of whom are legends in the profession and literally have written the books. Others have extensive career and client credentials they apply to each class. With their professional backgrounds and networks, faculty members invite more than 100 guest lecturers each academic year. What better way for students to learn about client case studies than face-to-face interaction with leading and rising professionals who discuss current PR issues? The lectures also provide students with networking opportunities and expose them to effective presentation content and skills.

Along with special networking events with top practitioners, top courses should supplement face-to-face learning with internships, practicum, and capstone projects. Selecting from a roster of top agencies, corporations, and nonprofits, students can immerse themselves into an area or an organization of interest.

Sometimes the client experiences meet their expectations - and sometimes they don't. That's the real world. More often than not, however, the networking, internships, practicum, and capstone projects lead to job offers. Perhaps that's the best real-world client experience of them all.


Maria Russell, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse Univ.

The emphasis should be on combining the science, art, and management function of PR on the foundation of a liberal arts education. From the first class in our 36-credit undergraduate program, PR students have numerous opportunities to meet, interview, and shadow alumni and other practitioners.

In the PR writing class, students choose a real client and create a media kit with a full range of writing samples from basic releases, feature stories, executive bios, FAQs, etc., in both traditional and new media formats. Simulated news conferences are held for selected clients; media advisories announce the opportunity and journalists (students enrolled in news writing) cover the event and submit stories to editors (journalism professors).

The department has served the community by taking on real clients in the research class; students use a full range of methodologies to define issues and examine public opinion, culminating in a formal presentation of results before the client. The next semester, the students use those research results to create a full-blown campaign for the same client.

A new course in integrated communications brings together PR and advertising students. For the past nine years, we've offered "Managing the Public Relations Firm," a class created in cooperation with the Council of PR Firms. As an alpha chapter of the PRSA, students gain additional experience through a student-run firm, Hill Communications, and serve a variety of clients.

Additional experience is gained by serving as publicists and PR counselors for myriad campus events and organizations. Combined with three to five internships, these résumé- and portfolio-building experiences make our students day-one ready to enter the profession.

The Takeaway

Connect students with actual clients who will work with them to get new ideas and strategies

PR students can team with students from other focuses to gain a better grasp of outside issues affecting the industry

Retain PR pros that can take part in a panel or support group that can provide students counsel on issues like ethics or crises

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