Author Malcolm Gladwell contended that it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated practice for anyone to become an expert in what they do, from striking a golf ball to developing the next great innovation. He called it the 10,000 hour rule.
So imagine the expertise of public relations students in a progressive learning environment, one that provides real clients with 17,000 hours of public relations strategy and execution per year. This is the formula that has made the nation’s longest-operating student-run agency, PRLab at Boston University (BU), the premier agency of its kind. In fact, PRLab has garnered more campaign and agency industry awards than any other student-led agency in the world.
"Today’s professional firms provide higher value when they are infused with the energy of emerging practitioners, particularly those who already have experienced a wide range of agency work while training," says Ray Kotcher, former CEO of Ketchum and now a Professor of the Practice at BU. "One reason so many top agencies around the world are recruiting and hiring our grads is because PRLab is exposing them to client relations, research, strategic planning, campaign execution, business development, and basic financial management in an intense way. It builds on what they learn in the classroom and in internships."
Founded in 1978, PRLab has already helped thousands complete over 650,000 hours of dedicated client work, giving them a startling advantage in their careers. The students work with real clients – established and start-up commercial and nonprofit entities - to solve real business challenges. Going well beyond case studies and textbooks, students experience the full client cycle in a concentrated 12-week period, from scope of work and planning, time management and activity reports, to performance reviews and results presentations. And the word is out – PRLab has a waiting list of clients, often exceeding 40 at a time vying for the agency’s services.
"Being the longest-operating student-run agency only matters if the agency has its eyes on the future of public relations," says Phoebe Bowe, former president of client service of PRLab and now an assistant account executive at Weber Shandwick. "Every year, PRLab evolves to best reflect the current communication trends and prepare for the future direction of the industry."
The structure of PRLab parallels the structure of most major agencies, complete with account directors, supervisors, and executives. Each semester, the team adds or updates its capabilities. SEO, social listening, and influencer relations are just a few recent examples.
In addition, PRLab is always on the lookout for new tools to make operations and client service more efficient. Though it only charges each client a nominal fee, PRLab would generate approximately $2 million annually if billed like a commercial agency.
Behind the scenes, PRLab students are also engaged in an intense academic education. With a mix of PR theory and professional application in their courses, as well as internship experiences off campus, PRLab students are preparing to be at the forefront of the communication industry and a valuable asset to their organizations.
"PRLab has been a really great experience," says Jason Sweeney, owner of Ben & Jerry’s, Boston, which has been a PRLab client for more than six years. "It’s always a lot of fun to challenge the PRLab students to see how much we can accomplish in one semester. And it’s gratifying when they hit their objectives. We love how the students bring new, innovative ideas to our team and help us grow our business."
PRLab gives students a jump-start on their careers, which also benefits the agencies, nonprofits, and corporations hiring these students.
If, as Gladwell proposes, it takes 10,000 hours to develop an expert, then with the 17,000 hours PRLab students commit to their clients every year, they are well on their way.
Justin Joseph and Amy Shanler are Associate Professors of the Practice of Public Relations at Boston University College of Communication. In addition to their award-winning careers as public relations leaders for some of the world’s most-recognized brands, both now teach and serve as faculty advisors for PRLab.
Click here for the previous column, penned by Dean Thomas Fielder, which elaborated upon why Boston University decided to offer the world’s first degrees in PR seventy years ago.
Check back on Monday, June 5, for a new column from Boston University College of Communication.