The Best of Both Worlds: Student Perspectives on Student-Run Advertising and Public Relations Agencies
- Joyce Haley, Abilene Christian University
- Margaret Ritsch, Texas Christian University
- Jessica Smith, Abilene Christian University
Student-led advertising and/or public relations agencies have increasingly become an educational component of university ad/PR programs. Previous research has established the value that advisers see in the agencies, and this study reports student perceptions of agency involvement. The survey (N = 210) found that participants rated the opportunity to work with real clients, the importance of their universities having agencies, and the increase in their own job marketability as the most positive aspects of the agency experience. Participants said that the most highly rated skills that agency participation built were the ability to work with clients, working in a team structure, and interpersonal skills.
Keywords: Student-led agencies, public relations, advertising, skills
Haley, J., Ritsch, M, & Smith, J. (2016). The Best of Both Worlds: Student Perspectives on Student-Run Advertising and Public Relations Agencies, Journal of Public Relations Education 2(1), 19-33.
PDF Download Link: The Best of Both Worlds: Student Perspectives on Student-Run Advertising and Public Relations Agencies (Link opens in a new window.)
Student-run public relations agencies have existed for nearly 40 years. Self-identifying as the nationís oldest student-run public relations agency, PRLab at Boston University was founded in 1978. By 1989, eight student-run advertising agencies had been established in such places as the University of Oregon and the University of Illinois (Avery & Marra, 1992). By 2010, a study of student-run public relations agencies identified 119 such firms (Maben, 2010).
In the past decade, the student-led agency has increasingly become a component of university public relations and advertising programs. Bush and Miller (2011) found that nearly 60% of participating agencies had existed for fewer than 6 years and almost 15% of agencies had existed less than a year. Further, Busch (2013) reported that 55% were established after 2007.
Likewise, research about student agencies is also a relatively unexplored frontier. The available research examines the pedagogical value of the agency from the adviser or educator perspective. Many of the studies are qualitative. This study adds the student perspective of the learning experience to the existing literature.
In this survey, students and alumni report that the student agency provides an experiential learning opportunity that gives students the chance to apply the knowledge gleaned from the classroom to client work, performed in a professional environment with faculty adviser guidance. Participants reported their perceptions of how agency experience helped them develop skills required for employment in strategic communication fields.
Survey results indicate that campus-based advertising and public relations agencies can offer a powerful learning environment in higher education. The experience enables the development of skills that are important to employers: teamwork, written and oral communication, and interpersonal skills, as well as reliability and problem-solving ability (Battle, Morimito & Reber, 2007; Commission Report, 2006; Paskin, 2013; Todd, 2009). This paper begins with a review of literature that has examined education in strategic communication, the value of experiential learning, and the growth and performance of student agencies. It continues by describing the survey methodology employed, sharing results, and discussing implications of the findings.
Strategic communication educators periodically receive input from industry professionals regarding skills requirements for entry-level practitioners. The Commission on Public Relations Education issued a report in 2006 (an update of an earlier report issued in 1999) titled The Professional Bond: Public Relations Education for the 21st Century. In both the 1999 and 2006 reports, the commission identified gaps between what public relations majors were able to do upon graduation and what PR professionals required of entry-level employees. Among the most desired attributes were writing, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. Professionals deemed graduates lacking in all of these areas. The commission called on faculty to balance the teaching of writing skills with instruction in “higher order knowledge” like strategic thinking and management skills. Gaining practical experience was highly recommended and was named a key factor in students obtaining entry-level positions (Commission Report, 2006).
Several recent studies indicate that this gap continues to exist. Todd (2009) reported that PRSSA professional advisers thought skills taught in classes and skills needed in industry were mismatched. Todd said professional advisers placed higher value on “a curriculum that emphasizes practical experience in new media, internships, preparing students for their first job, and ëhands-on experience” (Todd, 2009).
There is a wide divide between how recent graduates employed in entry-level public relations positions view their job skills and how their supervisors rate them, according to Todd (2014). Practitioners who had been working in the field for 2 years or less believed their performance to be average to above average on skills and professional characteristics. Supervisors rated them significantly poorer on all but two skills, social media and computers. The greatest disparity in technical skills was in the evaluation of writing ability, followed by oral and research skills. Of the 16 professional characteristics measured, the largest divide occurred in critical thinking, dependability, attention to detail, following instructions, time management and accepting responsibility.
Industry supervisors placed “real life industry experience in the classroom” as their top suggestion to improve professional performance (Todd, 2014). Entry-level personnel ranked that suggestion second after business etiquette courses. Obtaining multiple internships ranked as second for industry supervisors and third for entry-level personnel. Supervisors also suggested increasing opportunities for writing with constructive criticism and requiring students to gain more writing practice.
The professional expectations of integrated marketing communications practitioners mirror those required of dedicated public relations professionals. Students entering IMC fields should have strong communication skills, strategic and conceptual thinking, interpersonal skills and professionalism (Battle et al., 2007; Beachboard & Weidman, 2013).
Professional application of new media tools has become essential to the practice of advertising and public relations. But, when asked to compare the importance of new media skills to traditional skills, professionals said a foundation of basic skills like writing, communication and strategic thinking should take precedence. Teaching traditional skills within the context of new media applications was considered to be ideal (Paskin, 2013).
Experiential Learning in the Curriculum
Kolb (2014) focuses on experiential learning and suggests that most disciplines would be well served to go beyond imparting factual information to helping students place the information in a conceptual framework so they can use it in varied settings. Experiential learning is “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (Kolb, 1984, p. 41). In this approach, learning is a process of relearning that requires learners to adapt as they interact with their environments. Experiential learning connects learning, thinking, and doing in a continuous loop.
Experiential learning activities have long been available for journalism majors through working on a school newspaper or yearbook. This applied learning experience increases the likelihood that students entering the journalism field truly understand the discipline and secure a job immediately upon graduation, according to Feldman (1995).
Within the public relations and advertising curriculum, experiential learning is typically facilitated through the capstone campaigns course, internships, and service learning. Students rated a campaigns course as highly effective in helping them develop the professional skills of writing and editing, strategic planning, teamwork, research, client relations and managerial skills. They also ranked service-learning high for its ability to deliver an opportunity to apply course knowledge to the real world and to build confidence and leadership (Werder & Strand, 2011). Yet, the campaigns course generally provides minimal client contact. According to Benigni, Cheng and Cameron (2004) more than half of professors report having client contact only one to three times per semester. The class also tends to have short-term technical tasks that must be repeated rather than focusing on “evolved management function” (p. 270).
Muturi, An, and Mwangi (2013) write that students report a high level of motivation from service learning projects, viewing them as an opportunity to “learn about the real world outside the classroom” (p. 401). A key motivating factor could be the “desire to move away from hypothetical classroom situations and into a real-world setting as the site for education” (p. 400), suggesting they would have a positive attitude toward any project that would meet these needs.
Professionals ranked having an internship/practicum or work-study program among the top five out of 88 areas of public relations content (DiStaso, Stacks & Botan, 2009). But internships may be more task- than process-oriented, thus not facilitating higher-level knowledge (Neff, 2002). The student agency delivers a form of experiential learning that facilitates a “cycle of learning” where the learner “touches all the bases – experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting” (Kolb & Kolb, 2009, p. 298).
Growth in the Number and Size of Student Firms
An analysis of undergraduate student-run public relations firms on U.S. college campuses in 2010 identified 119 agencies (Maben, 2010). Advisers representing 55 of these agencies responded to the online survey, reporting an average agency age of 9.36 years, with 22 having been in operation for 4 years or fewer. Thirteen had existed over 15 years, and the oldest was 37 years. Bush and Miller (2011) found that nearly 60% of advisers worked with agencies that had existed fewer than 6 years. Almost 15% of respondents advised firms that were less than a year old.
Busch (2013) analyzed the online presence of advertising and public relations agencies and found that only 19% of the analyzed agencies were established before 2000. More than half began after 2007. Busch found that agencies get larger over time. Seventy-five percent of small agencies (fewer than 25 members) were founded after 2007. All of the large agencies (more than 50 members) were founded before 2007. Taken together, these studies indicate that student-run agencies are a relatively recent trend.
Structure of Student-Run Agencies
Bush and Miller (2011) found that advisers of 51% of student-run firms described them as focused on integrated communications, followed by about a third primarily focused on public relations, and 9% focused on advertising. Agencies were evenly split between schools offering credit for participation and those that did not. Just over half operated out of journalism/mass communication programs, and 40% were student organizations, most commonly affiliated with a professional organization such as PRSSA. Just over a third had a dedicated workspace. The service most frequently provided for clients was social media (89.6%), followed by event planning (87.5%), and campus posters (85.4%). Full campaigns were implemented by 83% of firms.
Of business processes, the most common practices were weekly meetings (89.6%) and client contracts and staff orientation (at 77.1% each). Less than half used planning briefs or time sheets, and only 32.6% tracked billable hours. A majority of student agencies have implemented standard industry business practices such as job descriptions, approval and reporting hierarchies, an application and interview process, and client billing (Bush & Miller, 2011). These findings were supported by Maben (2010). Bush and Miller (2011) found that nearly 90% of agencies provide leadership opportunities for students. Fewer than half have creative teams or media directors. Nearly 60% invoice clients for their services (Bush & Miller, 2011). Maben (2010) indicated that nearly half of agencies charge clients for services.
Prior to 2009, publications about student agencies focused on case studies of individual firms (Swanson, 2011). Bush (2009) evaluated pedagogical benefits and suggested agency structures (or types) that were best prepared to deliver these benefits. Another focus of the study explored features that appeared to enhance agency sustainability. To provide a consistent platform for teaching and learning, student agencies need stability. More than 20% of the sample agencies in the Bush and Miller (2011) study had gone out of existence and revived, a few more than once. Bush (2009) suggested that agencies with the greatest likelihood of longevity had well-established structures with teams and job titles, and used business procedures including job applications and performance assessments. Additionally, clients were charged for services and the firm had a dedicated office space. Academic course credit and set meeting times provided accountability for student performance. Some students were paid. Faculty advisers were compensated, generally through a course release or overtime pay. Services provided to clients required both task and process-oriented skills.
Agencies that are operated through journalism/mass communication programs reported having more of the variables that contribute to sustainability than those run as student organizations (Bush, 2009). Those connected to JMC programs were significantly more likely to have an office that included technology and to charge clients for their services. Advisers of these programs report spending more time in their advising roles.
Among the significant challenges to stability and consistency were funding and university support. Bush and Miller (2011) found that nearly two-thirds of agencies received no university funding. Only 2% received funding at levels consistent with other student media. Seventy-five percent of agencies in Maben (2010) reported receiving no university funding.
Bush and Miller (2011) found that almost 40% of advisers described their advising as more time-consuming than teaching other courses, and about 20% reported spending the same amount of time. Eighty percent did not receive a course release or overload pay, and their advising did not count as service for tenure and promotion. Those who received compensation generally spent more time than advisers who took on the role as faculty service (Bush, 2009).
Agencies identified by Bush (2009) as having the greatest risk of dissolving had little student accountability, were volunteer-based with no application process, operated with few business protocols, and had no dedicated office space. These less stable student agencies functioned entirely as a student organization or club, and the quality of student leadership varied from year to year. Few of the 55 agencies Maben (2010) studied were this type of agency.
The importance of a dedicated office space to sustainability is unclear. Firms in existence the longest were less likely to have dedicated office space, according to Maben (2010). Only 38% of agencies in the Bush and Miller (2011) study were housed in a dedicated space.
At one university, an agency model provides an example of an approach that may circumvent the sustainability and university support issues. The university established a PR firm and integrated it with a required senior-level capstone course. In this way, faculty involvement is included in a regular course load (Swanson, 2011).
Adviser Perceptions of the Educational Value of Student-Run Firms
Previous research indicates that advisers of student-run agencies believe in the educational value of the agency model. Two-thirds said they believe student agencies are “extremely beneficial to student learning” (Bush & Miller, 2011, p. 488). They are viewed to be “highly beneficial to public relations pedagogy in the two areas that are most difficult to teach: Process-oriented experiential learning and professional skills,” according to Bush (2009, p. 35). The advisers articulated another benefit: the facilitation of career choice and opportunities.
Among the professional skills learned, the top benefit cited was the experience of working directly with clients (Bush & Miller, 2011). Learning to manage client relationships, anticipate issues, and deal with clients who change direction were commonly defined benefits (Maben, 2010). A majority of advisers said the agency experience benefited students by giving them the chance to apply their classroom learning to immediate client challenges, and to practice business processes within the context of a professional environment. (Bush & Miller, 2011). Advisers report that applied learning occurs with research, writing, strategic planning, event planning, media pitching and other client services (Maben, 2010).
Students participating in agencies were observed to grow in gaining confidence, taking on responsibility, solving problems, providing leadership that inspires others to follow, working effectively in teams, and managing deadlines (Bush, 2009; Maben, 2010). Maben said it provided a place where students “gain confidence in their ability to think independently and to take on new challenges” (p. 87). Students learned the skills of negotiating with others and of giving and accepting constructive feedback. Advisers said that the experience helped students believe they could succeed in professional agencies.
One important aspect of learning was leadership. Bush (2009) reported that “most questions for advisers are management questions – team membership, client relationships and how to deal with employees” (Bush, 2009, p. 32). The student agency structure typically gives students experience with more disciplined business practices than are offered in other experiential courses like the campaigns course, Bush found. Students have an opportunity to learn to apply a process approach and critical thinking within the professional environment. (Bush, 2009).
Agency experience on a resume can open doors to internships and employment. Bush and Miller (2011) found that half of advisers report that students often receive job or internship opportunities based upon having the agency experience. Another 42% report that students sometimes are afforded these opportunities. Maben (2010) reported that seeing a student-run agency listed on applicantsí resumes automatically earned interviews. Students with agency experience were able to more quickly obtain top internships and secure jobs, sometimes above entry-level (Bush, 2009). Maben (2010) said that “the whole experience sets them apart from students who have no practical experience” (p. 89).
Adviser time commitment was positively correlated with advisersí perceptions of studentsí skill development (in areas such as writing press releases and graphic design) and of the agencyís overall benefit to student learning (Bush & Miller, 2011; Bush, 2009). Having dedicated office space enhanced learning outcomes in skills application, understanding business processes, and developing professional skills (Bush & Miller, 2011).
Adviser responses were overwhelmingly positive regarding the agency experience, with a few reporting that their firms were too young to predict outcomes or that they believed the effects to be neutral (Maben, 2010). Challenges cited include keeping students motivated and managing client expectations. Advisers reported that “client expectations were often either too high or too low” (Bush, 2009, p. 33).
The literature provides a solid view of the value advisers see in student-run ad/PR agencies, so this study will focus on the perspective of student participants. Three research questions guide the paper.
RQ 1. What were studentsí experience in agency participation?
RQ 2. How did agency experience affect student skills?
RQ 3. How did agency participation affect opinions about university structure for agencies?
An online survey targeted people (current university students and graduates within the previous 2 years) who have worked in a student ad/PR agency. The survey had 28 items. Participants reported gender, major and year of graduation. Participants rated their level of agreement with nine items about their agency experience:
- I feel better prepared for the professional expectations of the workplace.
- The experience allowed me to learn at a deeper level the concepts covered in previous coursework.
- I feel more confident in my abilities.
- It is/was important for my learning to work directly for real clients.
- The experience has enhanced my “marketability” as a job candidate.
- Being in a responsible, dedicated job role is/was one of the most valuable things about the experience.
- It is important for my college or university to have a student agency for ad/PR.
- I have gained a greater sensitivity for people who are different from me (a difference such as racial or ethnic background, sexual orientation, disability).
- Participants also rated the effect of agency work on their development of 10 types of skills:
- Working within a team structure
- Interpersonal skills
- Working with clients
- Understanding new media
- Strategic planning
- Production skills like graphic or web design
- Business practices like budgeting, timekeeping, billing
Participants reported their level of agreement with the need for a student agency to have a dedicated space (instead of a classroom) and a faculty adviser who is readily available to students when they need guidance. They reported whether they received academic credit, a stipend and/or pay for participating in the student agency. They also reported how many hours per week on average they worked in the student agency.
A Qualtrics survey link was emailed to faculty advisers of student advertising and/or public relations agencies at 61 U.S. colleges and universities. The list included student agencies at both public and private colleges and universities, geographically dispersed across the U.S. To compile the list, the authors drew from PRSSAís roster of affiliated student agencies and the list of schools accredited by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. From the combined list, the authors searched for current adviser contacts. Three online searches were conducted to obtain faculty adviser names, first on student agency websites, secondly on the host university website, and finally a general search engine query using the agency name and the term “faculty adviser.”
Out of 227 responses, 210 people provided informed consent and are considered participants. Not all participants answered every question. Participants were primarily female (n = 164, 80%), and two-thirds of participants were advertising or public relations majors in college (see Table 1).
Nearly three-quarters of participants were currently working at a student-run agency (n = 153, 74.3%), and the rest had worked at an agency in the past. Participants reported whether they received academic credit, pay, neither, or both for their agency service. Academic credit was the most popular response (n = 114, 55.1%), followed by neither academic credit nor pay (31.4%, n = 65), both academic credit and pay for their agency participation (9.2%, n = 19), and pay for their agency participation (4.3%, n = 9). Slightly more than half of participants spent 6 hours or fewer per week in their agency roles (see Table 2).
Research Question 1
Nine questions measured various aspects of studentsí agency experiences. Mean responses above 4.25 on all items except one indicated high levels of agreement with the statements (see Table 3).
Agreement was particularly high among participants that it was important for colleges or universities to have a student-run agency and that it was important for their learning to work directly with real clients. The only item to receive moderate agreement was the statement that participants gained greater sensitivity for people who were different from them. There were no statistically significant differences by gender on any item.
Participants who were currently working for a student-run agency had a higher estimation of how the experience would enhance their marketability as a job candidate (M = 4.56, SD = .67) than participants who had worked for agencies in the past (M = 4.21, SD = 1.03). This difference was statistically significant, t(204)= -2.82, p < .01.
The number of hours worked per week affected participants’ judgment of two experience variables. The item “The experience allowed me to learn at a deeper level the concepts covered in previous coursework” showed a significant difference, F(2, 205) = 4.24, p = .02. Participants who worked 15 or more hours per week rated their conceptual learning higher (M = 4.77, SD = .50) than participants who worked 1-6 hours per week (M = 4.28, SD = .83) and students who worked 7-14 hours per week (M = 4.39, SD = .89). These are statistically different means according to Games-Howell post-hoc tests. Students who worked 1-6 hours per week did not differ significantly from students who worked 7-14 hours per week.
The item “I feel more confident in my abilities” also showed a significant difference, F(2, 205) = 4.29, p = .02. A Games-Howell post-hoc test showed that participants who worked 15 hours or more per week rated their confidence higher (M = 4.60, SD = .62) than participants who worked 1-6 hours per week (M = 4.15, SD = .75). Participants who reported working 7-14 hours per week were not significantly different from either of the other groups.
Research Question 2
Students evaluated the effect that agency work had on 10 types of skills (see Table 4). Working with clients was the skill that had the highest mean rating (M = 4.45, SD = .76), and production skills was the item that was lowest (M=3.34, SD = 1.04). Skill development did not vary by gender or whether participants were currently engaged in agency work or had been in the past.
Participants who had graduated were more likely to say that agency participation had helped their production skills (M = 3.52, SD = .92) than current students did (M = 3.18, SD = 1.19), t(198) = 2.23, p = .03.
The number of hours worked per week at the agency affected six of the skills variables. Students who reported working 15 or more hours per week rated the effect on their ability to work within a team structure higher (M = 4.63, SD = .49) than students who worked 1-6 hours per week (M = 4.25, SD = .71), a significant difference according to a Tukey post-hoc test on the omnibus F(2, 199)= 3.79, p = .02. The students who worked 7-14 hours per week (M = 4.44, SD = .77) did not differ significantly from the other groups.
A one-way ANOVA examining problem-solving skills by hours worked per week was significant, F(2, 197) = 4.02, p = .02. Post-hoc tests using Tukey HSD showed that students who reported working 15 or more hours per week rated the effect on their problem-solving skills higher (M = 4.59, SD = .50) than students who worked 1-6 hours per week (M = 4.10, SD = .82). The students who worked 7-14 hours per week (M = 4.20, SD = .91) did not differ significantly from the other groups.
A one-way ANOVA examining leadership skills by hours worked per week was significant, F(2, 197) = 5.54, p < .01. Post-hoc tests using Tukey HSD showed that students who reported working 15 or more hours per week rated the effect on their leadership skills higher (M = 4.62, SD = .56) than students who worked 1-6 hours per week (M = 4.07, SD = .84). The students who worked 7-14 hours per week (M = 4.33, SD = .91) did not differ significantly from the other groups.
A one-way ANOVA examining skills working with clients by hours worked per week was significant, F(2, 197) = 7.64, p = .001. Games-Howell post-hoc tests showed that students who reported working 15 or more hours per week rated the effect on their client skills higher (M = 4.83, SD = .38) than students who worked 1-6 hours per week (M = 4.27, SD = .79). Students who reported working 7-14 hours per week rated the effect on their client skills higher (M = 4.56, SD = .77) than students who worked 1-6 hours per week but did not differ significantly from students working 15 or more hours per week.
A one-way ANOVA examining new media skills by hours worked per week was significant, F(2, 196) = 6.39, p < .01. Tukey HSD post-hoc tests showed that students who reported working 15 or more hours per week rated the effect on their new media skills higher (M = 4.41, SD = .68) than students who worked 1-6 hours per week (M = 3.83, SD = .91) and students who reported working 7-14 hours per week (M = 3.69, SD = 1.04). There was no significant difference between students working 1-6 hours per week and students working 7-14 hours per week.
A one-way ANOVA examining production skills by hours worked per week was significant, F(2, 197) = 4.82, p < .01. Games-Howell post-hoc tests showed that students who reported working 15 or more hours per week rated the effect on their production skills higher (M = 3.90, SD = .86) than students who worked 1-6 hours per week (M = 3.21, SD = 1.07) and students who reported working 7-14 hours per week (M = 3.29, SD = 1.13). There was no significant difference between students working 1-6 hours per week and students working 7-14 hours per week.
Research Question 3
Participants indicated moderate support for the need for exclusive resources. The mean response indicated that it is moderately important for the student agency to have a dedicated space instead of a classroom (M = 3.51, SD = .65). The mean response for need for a faculty adviser who is readily available to students was 3.74 (SD = .50). There were no significant differences by gender or current or past affiliation with an agency, and the need for an adviser also had no significant differences by hours worked. Agency alumni thought it was more important (M = 3.62, SD = .55) than current students did (M = 3.42, SD = .72) for the agency to have a dedicated space, t(202) = 2.08. p = .04.
The more hours participants spent working at the agency, the higher their average rating of the importance of a dedicated space, F(2, 201) = 11.79, p < .001. Students who worked 1-6 hours a week rated this 3.31 (SD = .71) and were significantly different from students who worked 7-14 hours a week (M=3.66, SD = .56), and 15 or more hours a week (M = 3.86, SD = .35), according to Games-Howell post-hoc tests. Students working 7-14 hours per week and students working 15 or more hours per week were not significantly different.
Participants responded to an open-ended question: “Why did you choose to participate in your college or universityís student agency?”
A total of 214 responses revealed a range of reasons, most commonly stated as “experience.” The word ìexperienceî appeared in 68% (n = 146) of the responses in a variety of contexts, ranging from “real-world,” “real life,” and “professional” experience to “the experience of being in charge and making decisions rather than [being] a powerless intern.”
One participant’s response reveals this common theme:
The experience would be more hands-on than learning about strategy from books, in lectures, case studies and projects – working with real clients to solve their marketing problems and see proposed strategies come to fruition was extremely motivating and more gratifying than an “A” on a test.
Some of the students defined their motivation for joining a campus agency in terms of what they believed the experience would not be. “It would not be another class, you get to work with real clients,” wrote one. “I wanted the guarantee of receiving real world work experience versus the possibility of making copies or getting someone coffee,” wrote another.
The quote above reflects a related theme: a desire for a “real” professional experience. Students used the word “real” in 19% (n = 42) of the open-ended responses, with ìreal worldî the most frequent way the term was used, appearing 23 times. Students wrote that they wanted to work with “real clients” and to gain “real-life,” “real job,” “real agency,” and “real work” experience. Another student wrote: “The real-life experience can not be duplicated anywhere else. At the same time, it ís a controlled environment. It’s the best of both worlds.”
Previous research shows that faculty advisers believe in the pedagogical benefits of student-run ad/PR agencies (Bush, 2009; Bush & Miller, 2011; Maben 2010). Advisers who have championed this teaching tool, often giving their time to it without compensation (Bush & Miller, 2011), should be encouraged to know that this survey indicates students and alumni highly value the student agency experience. They join advisers in observing that agencies are able to facilitate process-oriented learning and develop professional skills (Bush, 2009; Bush & Miller, 2011; Maben 2010). On most measures of skills and professional characteristics, participants rated the agencies’ effects on their skills above 4 on a 5-point scale.
For decades, the public relations profession has charged academia with delivering instruction in “higher order knowledge” like strategic thinking and management skills (Commission Report, 2006; Neff, Walker, Smith, & Creedon, 1999). These skills are also considered to be important in the broader IMC field (Battle, et al., 2007; Beachboard & Weidman, 2013 ). Quite recently, supervisors in the public relations field found that their entry-level hires underperform in critical thinking, dependability, attention to detail, following instructions, time management and accepting responsibility (Todd, 2014). Student and alumni participants in this study gave the student agency experience high marks for developing their capacity for strategic thinking, problem solving, and leadership. Advisers report that the student firm facilitates “learning things you can’t learn in a classroom” (Bush, 2009; Maben, 2010).
The capacity to collaborate successfully is a professional characteristic developed by the student firm experience (Bush, 2009; Maben, 2010). Students placed the ability to work with others at the top of the list of skills enhanced by agency participation. The three most highly rated skills were proficiency in working with clients, ability to work within a team structure, and growth in interpersonal skills.
Professionals recommend that students gain practical and hands-on experience. They further recommend that curriculum be designed to deliver some of these opportunities (Commission Report, 2006). One key area where the student firm delivers practical experience is in working directly with real clients. In this study, participants said this was the most important experience gained and the area in which they grew more than any other. Advisers also cited the client interface as the top benefit (Bush & Miller, 2011). Traditionally the campaigns course has encapsulated hands-on learning, but the campaigns course generally provides minimal client contact (Benigni, et al., 2004).
Advisers rate the application of classroom learning as the tertiary benefit (at 85%) after client contact and portfolio building (Bush & Miller, 2011). This survey showed that students who invested more time in working at the firm (15 or more hours per week) rated the experience more highly for allowing them to learn at a deeper level the concepts covered in previous coursework than did students who spent 6 or fewer hours. This finding suggests that students should be encouraged to invest 15 or more hours per week to learn and benefit the most from the experience.
Professionals point to practical experience as a key factor in students obtaining entry-level positions (Commission Report, 2006; Todd, 2009). Participants reported that they are well prepared to meet the requirements of the profession and that their marketability as job candidates had increased. Advisers also believe that the agency experience on a rÈsumÈ enhances job opportunities (Bush, 2009; Bush & Miller, 2011; Maben, 2010).
Results suggest that although student firms provide above-average experiential learning in writing, production, new media and businesses practices, these are the lowest-rated areas for skill development. Agency advisers would do well to explore ways to enhance the learning in these areas.
Participants agreed strongly that colleges and universities should have a student-run agency for advertising and public relations. They rated as moderately important the university-provided resources of a dedicated office space and an adviser who is readily available. According to Bush and Miller (2011), fewer than 40% of agencies have a dedicated space. This survey didnít ask whether participants worked in agencies with dedicated space, but the presence of a facility could have affected participantsí judgments of this factor. Perhaps the role of the adviser is only moderately valued because students may be unaware of the foundational support required to obtain clients, facilitate the staffing and training process, ensure that equipment and supplies are available and other behind-the-scenes work. Additionally, some agencies have both a staff director and a faculty adviser. In these cases, the staff director ís day-to-day role may meet the “readily available” need.
The number of questions included in this survey was limited. The one previous attempt on record (Maben, 2010) to gather the views of students who had worked at student firms resulted in only five responses. In an effort to greatly increase the number of respondents, this study launched a survey that could be completed quickly. The questions provide a first look at student experiences. The area can certainly use further research. The study also used current faculty advisers to contact current and former agency participants. The authors could not confirm that all advisers sent the survey out, nor did the survey ask participants to identify the school they attended. Future research would do well to collect data from a group that could be confirmed to be representative.
The survey was designed to produce results that allowed comparison of participants’ experiences with previous research examining advisers’ views, therefore some questions about need for university support, faculty advisers, and office space may not be salient for many student respondents.
Participation in a student-run advertising and public relations firm, if designed well, can allow students to learn at a deeper level the concepts covered in their coursework. The experience can enable students to feel better prepared for the professional expectations of the workplace. They are likely to graduate with more confidence in their abilities, including problem-solving, interpersonal, and teamwork skills and the ability to work directly with clients. This study suggests that students who participate in a student-run agency strongly believe in the value of the experience and believe every campus should offer it. In general, the more time students spend working in a campus agency, the higher they rate their learning.
Undergraduate advertising and public relations programs that do not offer a student agency can learn much from this study, combined with related literature, as they consider creating such an experiential learning opportunity for their students. Programs that already have student firms will find data that may guide efforts to refine and improve the educational impact of the student-run advertising and public relations agency.
Future research might seek the perspectives of employers who have hired students with campus agency experience. Employers may be able to shed light on whether the experience helped a student land the job, and whether they believe it provided a good foundation for recent graduatesí current responsibilities and prospects within the organization.
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