Student counselors: Why undergrad-run agencies are popping up across the country

Institutions including Boston University, Rutgers University, and the University of Alabama are giving students a new experience by letting them run their own shops and work directly with clients.

The executive board of PRLab at Boston University (Image via Facebook).
The executive board of PRLab at Boston University (Image via Facebook).

A new breed of communications shop is popping up across the country, boasting a bevy of millennial and Gen Z social media natives and often more client demand than it can handle.

Student-run PR agencies such as Scarlet PR at Rutgers University, Boston University’s PRLab, and Capstone Agency at the University of Alabama are three student-run PR shops at post-secondary institutions. Other schools are getting into the agency game, as well. Virginia Commonwealth University got its first student-led PR firm, known simply as Agency, off the ground this semester.

There are 21 student-run PR agencies affiliated with the Public Relations Student Society of America, according to the PRSA, and these shops have become integral components of top PR, comms, and marketing programs at schools across the country. Faculty say they give students the chance to run accounts, manage other "staff," and learn the ins and outs of what happens in the professional agency world.

Boston University is home to the nation’s oldest student-run PR agency, PR Lab, which launched in 1978. However, Amy Shanler, associate professor in BU’s College of Communication, says the firm has grown the program significantly in the last few years into a fully integrated client services operation. Its structure mimics that of a professional agency, with a hierarchy of two presidents, account directors, supervisors, and account executives. Account execs are even required to record their billable time to supervisors. 

The faculty appoints co-presidents, who in turn pick directors and supervisors from a pool of applicants. Students in PRLab earn program credits. However, in recognition of professional agencies adding disciplines, PRLab is funneling student applicants into director roles for creative, writing, and research.

Turning PRLab into an integrated shop has been a challenge for BU. Shanler says she and PRLab co-director Justin Joseph, also an associate professor, spend extra time providing students with coaching and access to experts in integrated comms services where they might be lacking.

"It is about making sure everyone gets brought up to the same ability, which is not unlike what a real agency would do," points out Shanler.

The model is a hit with clients such as Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries in Boston, which has worked with PRLab for more than a decade. In the past, a student-run agency may have only had the capabilities to work on small tasks, but PRLab works on large projects against real-life client objectives and that go into the market, says James Harder, the nonprofit’s comms director. That includes campaigns for Halloween and the Boston Marathon, for which Goodwill Boston is an official charity.

"I appreciate that PRLab is set up just like a professional agency, because that is the world I come from," says Harder, who was a VP at Racepoint Global and a director at Weber Shandwick. "We review everything that they do: social media posts, videos of do-it-yourself Halloween costumes that were very popular, and other content that we just wouldn't have time to do. The quality of the work is generally very good."

Clients also get a good price. PRLab charges clients, who are selected via an application process through its website, a flat rate of $250 per semester.

Comms students at the University of Alabama also apply to Capstone Agency, the school’s student-run PR firm that launched in 2001. It has departments including creative, insights, media relations, and account services. In the most recent semester, 150 students applied for about 50 positions.

Clients have included Alabama Power, Alabama Public Library Service, and the American Cancer Society on its Real Men Wear Pink campaign. Aside from a few pro bono partners, most of the agency's clients have worked with the firm for several years and compensate Capstone for the work, which it invests in its agency.  

"We really look for clients that will let us work with them on the whole process of a campaign, from research and building strategy to developing a campaign," says Capstone adviser Teri Henley, an instructor at the University of Alabama's College of Communication and Information Sciences. "We don't accept clients generally speaking that come in and say, 'We want a brochure.’"

Virginia Commonwealth University's Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture launched its first student-led agency in August, with the shop serving as the final course for PR students. The inaugural agency class was divided into 17-person groups, with each team taking on a nonprofit client such as Henrico Humane Society; UMFS, a foster care service for teens; and VCU’s School of Education.

In the case of UMFS, "the students had to figure out how to make someone between the ages of 40 and 60 say yes to the idea of bringing a foster child into their home," says Joshua James Smith, PR professor, sequence coordinator, and VCU’s Agency executive director. 

Traditional professors are a part of Agency, but they've been rebranded as "account directors" to keep student work on track and ensure the groups hit their milestones. Because only students nearing the end of their requirements make up Agency, Smith says there’s little worry about differences in capabilities among students. He adds that while students need to complete an internship to graduate, the experiences and skillsets developed during one can be limited.

"I was an intern in undergrad and I was filing news releases, and it didn't get a lot out of it," says Smith. "With Agency, we can control the quality and exposure the students get with the client." 

Student feedback
Alumni say their starts in the real world were greatly affected by their participation in student-run shops—and in surprising ways for some.

Grand Valley State University graduate Daltyn Terpstra was PRWeek's 2015 Student of the Year winner. While she had interest from employers including large PR agencies, she took a communications associate role at Eataly in Chicago. The marketplace of Italian foods, whose partners include celebrity chef Mario Batali, opened in the U.S. in 2010 and has grown to five locations nationwide.

"Eataly had been in a start-up phase in a lot of ways, and so it presented a professional setting with a lot of room for growth, which was attractive compared to something more established," says Terpstra, whose interest in working at a startup was piqued while at Grand Valley’s student-run firm, GrandPR.

Terpstra was an account associate in her first semester, an account executive leading a team of students on a single client in her second, and the CEO for her senior semesters. During her tenure as chief executive, clients included Union Bank of Southwest Michigan, for which GrandPR executed an IR project.

"It was my job as CEO to bring GrandPR to the next level during that year, and so you really had to adopt a startup mentality," she says. 

Reflecting on her experience, Terpstra says students would benefit from allowing business school students to join GrandPR because of the cross-learning that could result.

"It could be students in business management and HR, people who do more than just PR and creative like a real firm would need," she suggests.

2015 Boston University grad Brianna Vieira was director of operations and then president of operations at PRLab. She notes that she was able to work directly with clients and manage other students.

"That leadership experience really laid the groundwork for my career," says Vieira, now a senior creative strategist at DigitasLBi. "I don’t know that I would have moved up and at the rate I have been able to had I not done PRLab."

This story was updated on December 11 to clarify that Goodwill Industries is one of several official charities for the Boston Marathon.

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