From Divide and Conquer to Dynamic Teamwork: A New Approach to Teaching Public Relations Campaigns

From Divide and Conquer to Dynamic Teamwork: A New Approach to Teaching Public Relations Campaigns

Authors

     

  • Kristen Heflin, Kennesaw State University
  • Shana Meganck, Virginia Commonwealth University

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Introduction

Approximately 80% of public relations programs offer a public relations campaigns course and the course is required for almost 90% of public relations majors (Benigni, Cheng, & Cameron, 2004). According to the most recent surveys of public relations campaigns teaching methods, 92% of instructors divide students into teams to handle the work and about 90% of classes operate using an “agency structure” with most instructors serving as an “adviser” or “coach” (Benigni, Cheng, & Cameron, 2004, p. 265). This “implies a pedagogical strategy that emphasizes student/team autonomy rather than a didactic approach directed by the professor” (Benigni & Cameron, 1999, p. 55).

While emphasizing student/team autonomy has the potential to improve critical thinking and strategic planning skills, the authors of this article also found that it can lead to a “divide and conquer problem” where students divide up parts of the campaign and work on sections alone. This approach frequently results in an unequal distribution of work, clunky writing, and campaigns that do not meet the needs of the client because they are either low quality, internally inconsistent, or repetitive. Another negative side effect of the divide-and-conquer phenomenon is that few students fully understand the strategic planning process.

To help public relations campaigns instructors address these problems, this article will start by reviewing the important literature on teaching public relations campaigns, active learning, and the benefits and challenges of teamwork in the classroom. It will then detail a step-by-step guide for implementing a new approach to teaching public relations campaigns that require students to actively participate in each step of the campaign-planning process. After discussing steps for implementing this new approach, the article will conclude with a discussion of how this approach solves the problems associated with the traditional approach to teaching public relations campaigns.

LITERATURE REVIEW

Teaching Public Relations Campaigns

The goal of public relations campaigns is for students to apply all of the skills they have learned in previous public relations courses, such as public relations writing, graphics, research, strategic planning, and public speaking. Because public relations campaigns gives students the opportunity to utilize these previously developed skills, it is often the capstone of a public relations curriculum (Benigni, Cheng, & Cameron, 2004; Worley, 2001). There are, however, two things that make the public relations campaigns course unique. First, students get the chance to build a campaign from research through evaluation. Second, it gives students the opportunity to build relationships with team members and clients. Worley (2001) echoes these points saying, “While research, writing and production, and familiarity with the basic structure of a campaign have been developed in earlier courses, the opportunity to apply these skills while working for an actual client is the essence of this course” (p. 48).

In addition to working with clients and building a campaign from start to finish, encouraging teamwork and emphasizing team autonomy are common pedagogical approaches for public relations campaign instructors because developing group work skills is imperative for professional contexts (Beccaria, Kek, Huijser, Rose, & Kimmins, 2014; Benigni & Cameron, 1999). According to Worley (2001), of the nine objectives that guide the structure and process of the public relations campaigns course, one is related to teamwork, suggesting students must “work as a team including delegating responsibilities, meeting deadlines, and coordinating activities” (p. 49). Worley (2001) goes on to say:

Probably the most difficult aspect of the learning process for students is . . . to overcome obstacles in effective communication within groups. . . . Students must understand the nature of such critical issues as interdependence, conflict management, decision-making in groups, and the nature and development of group roles and norms, among others. (p. 51)

Service learning is one way to develop these important teamwork skills in the public relations campaigns course. Through student work performed for real clients, students in the public relations capstone learn to build client trust and satisfaction, boost critical thinking, and increase social responsibility (Benigni, Cheng & Cameron, 2004; Werder & Strand, 2011).

Active Learning

The literature on teaching public relations concludes that public relations courses should include “real-world” situations, and because of the often didactic nature of introductory public relations courses, upper-level courses should foster “active learning” or other group work initiatives that encourage real-world learning opportunities (Benigini, Cheng & Cameron, 2004, p. 260). Active learning is defined as “anything that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing” (Bonwell & Eison, 1991, p. 2), and it includes several learning strategies, such as involving students in more than listening, encouraging skill development instead of just transmitting information, engaging students in activities, and giving students the opportunity to explore their own attitudes and values (Lubbers & Gorcyca, 1997).

Lubbers and Gorcyca (1997) emphasize the importance of active learning in public relations for increasing student involvement in the classroom through engaging students in class discussion and class presentations. This participatory learning/teaching allows students to not only practice, but also see and learn from the results of their practice (Lubbers & Gorcyca, 1997; McKeachie, 1994).

The public relations campaigns capstone promotes the principles of active learning by developing socialization skills through emphasizing teamwork, teaching students how to research and present detailed information, creating more independent learners, and providing a bridge between theory and practice (Lubbers & Gorcyca, 1997).

Benefits and Challenges of Teamwork

Pedagogical research has found that there are several benefits to teamwork, such as increased knowledge and retention, boosted motivation among participants, and improved attitudes toward learning (Chiriac, 2014; Johnson & Johnson, 1986). Additionally, group learning fosters socialization, promotes critical thinking, develops a better understanding of cultural backgrounds, and provides practice and preparation of important group work skills that are needed in the workplace (Beccaria, Kek, Huijser, Rose & Kimmins, 2014; Chiriac, 2014). According to Gillies and Boyle (2011), these benefits of group work are consistent regardless of age. However, while there are several benefits, teamwork also presents challenges, including perceptions of unfair distribution of workload, poor communication, conflict among group members, lack of formal leadership, and culturally different approaches to work (Becccaria, Kek, Huijser, Rose & Kimmins, 2014; Hassanien, 2006; McGraw & Tidwell, 2001). Specifically, Werder and Strand (2011) contended that “negative team dynamics, when present, can become the central focus of students and may impede the learning process” (p. 484). Silverman (2007) also concluded teamwork can create a free-rider problem where some students may not do their fair share of work, creating resentment among team members and potentially reducing the quality of the final product.

Approach

After experiencing several problems associated with the traditional approach to teaching public relations campaigns, the authors decided to completely redesign the way they implemented the course. To do so, the authors drew from the literature on teaching public relations campaigns, the value of active learning, and the benefits and challenges of teamwork. The new approach discussed below was implemented in 13 campaigns classes at two universities across six semesters.

Drawing from the findings in the literature on the benefits of teamwork (Beccaria, Kek, Huijser, Rose & Kimmins, 2014; Chiriac, 2014; Johnson & Johnson, 1986), teamwork remains an essential aspect of the course. However, instead of splitting students into static teams that work together the entire semester to develop their own distinct campaign, the authors have the entire class develop one campaign. At the end of the semester, the client receives one research report, one campaign book, and one comprehensive set of tactic prototypes. To do this, students serve on three different types of teams throughout the semester: a research team, a campaign book team, and a strategy team.

Research Teams

At the beginning of the semester each student serves on one of several research teams. Depending on the client’s research needs and the number of students in the class, the instructor creates two to four research teams that conduct primary and secondary research. For example, one research team may be responsible for conducting focus groups, and other teams may be responsible for conducting a survey, communication audit or competitive analysis. Each research team is then responsible for writing a section on their findings for the client research report and presenting their findings to the class. This ensures all students understand all research findings related to the client.

Campaign Book Teams

Once the research phase is complete, the research teams disband, and each student is assigned to one of five campaign book teams. Each campaign book team produces a portion of the campaign book and then presents it to the class for feedback. In developing this requirement, the authors drew from Russell (1998), Lubbers and Gorcyca (1997) and McKeachie (1994) who discussed student-led presentations as a way to capitalize on the benefits of active learning. Students who are not on the campaign book team responsible for a particular section are required to complete a brief related writing assignment. The idea to have related writing assignments was influenced by Writing Across the Curriculum scholarship, which contends that asking students to write about their ideas helps them “take more responsibility for their own education. Put them into situations where they must contribute to teaching themselves and others,” (Meyers & Jones, 1993, p. 13). These brief writing assignments, coupled with class presentations and feedback, ensure all students are aware of and involved in each phase of campaign development.

Strategy Teams

After the class develops the campaign goals and objectives, they brainstorm strategies to help the client accomplish these goals and objectives. The instructor then picks three to five of the most appropriate and effective strategies. The class is then divided into three to five strategy teams (one for each selected strategy) where students describe the strategy and develop tactics necessary for the client to effectively implement the strategy. For example, if students think a client needs to improve its social media engagement, increase media coverage and develop community partnerships, the instructor can then assign students to one of three teams: a social media team, a media relations team, or a community partnerships team. Each team would then produce tactic prototypes related to its strategy. The idea for splitting students into strategy teams is akin to Silverman’s (2007) recommendation that breaking students into “tactics-based teams,” instead of assigning them to competing teams, gives students a “unified sense of purpose – an esprit de corps – and enthusiasm about the class project” (p. 422).

Steps for Implementation

To implement this new dynamic teamwork approach, the authors recommend the following steps.

Weeks 1-4

  1. Divide the class into two to four research teams.
  2. Teams do assigned research and write their section of the client research report.
  3. Teams present their findings to the class.
  4. Students complete peer evaluations for research teams. Scholarship suggests that offering peer evaluations can help reduce issues related to the “free-rider problem” (Silverman, 2007, p. 422) and negative team dynamics (Benigni and Cameron, 1999, p. 57).
  5. Research teams disband. Weeks 5-8
  6. Divide class into five campaign book teams.
    • SWOT Team (4-6 students): Team responsibilities include: researching and writing the client background section, SWOT analysis and problem statement, presenting this information to class, and creating final presentation slides of the SWOT analysis and problem statement.
    • Message Team (2-4 students): Team responsibilities include: researching and writing sections that discuss the campaign’s key publics, goal, objectives, key message and tagline, presenting this information to class, and creating final presentation slides of this information.
    • Evaluation Team (2-3 students): Team responsibilities include: developing and writing the campaign evaluation section, presenting this information to the class, and creating final presentation slides of this information.
    • Finishers Team (4-6 students): Team responsibilities include: creating a client logo (if necessary), formatting and creating a PDF of the client research report, formatting the final presentation, writing the campaign’s executive summary, and formatting and creating a PDF of the final campaign book.
    • Editors Team (3-6 students): Team responsibilities include: copy editing the clientresearch report, campaign book, and final presentation.
  7. Editors and finishers teams finalize and deliver the client research report.
  8. Campaign book teams complete their assigned sections and present to the class. Students not on the campaign book team assigned to a particular section complete brief writing assignments and provide feedback to campaign book teams.
  9. Campaign book teams incorporate class suggestions and instructor revisions.Weeks 9-15
  10. Once goals and objectives are developed, the class brainstorms strategies to address these goals and objectives.
  11. The instructor identifies three to five strategies that best address the client’s needs.These strategies become the subject matter for each strategy team.
  12. The instructor divides students into three to five strategy teams where the number of students per team depends on the instructor’s understanding of the client’s needs (i.e., if the client has a lot of media relations needs, the media relations team will have more students). Students remain on both their campaign book teams and strategy teams until the end of the semester to complete their remaining tasks.
  13. Students complete strategy team work, which includes developing a section that discusses their strategy and its associated tactics, developing a budget and timeline for their strategy, and developing a set of tactic prototypes for their strategy. Class time moves from student presentations and instructor lectures to workshops.Week 16 to the End of Semester
  14. The finishers team develops final a presentation template.
  15. Campaign book teams and strategy teams develop and submit slides for the finalpresentation.
  16. Students finalize all campaign book and strategy team work.
  17. Students submit tactic prototypes to the instructor. The instructor reviews prototypes and recommends edits to be made.
  18. The editors team combines all sections into one campaign book document and edits the campaign book.
  19. The finishers team formats the revised campaign book and submits a file as PDF.
  20. Each strategy team submits three identical hard copies of their tactic prototype kit and provides digital files for all tactic prototypes. The instructor receives one prototype kit and the client receives two.
  21. The entire class presents one presentation to the client. Each campaign book and strategy team is responsible for presenting the content it developed. The instructor prints one copy of the campaign book for the client and makes a PDF of the campaign book available for students and the client. The instructor also makes all campaign files available to the client and students via Dropbox or creates a website.
  22. Students complete peer evaluations for campaign book and strategy teams.

RESULTS: PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS

After implementing this new approach in 13 campaigns courses at two universities across six semesters, the authors compared experiences and outcomes. Below is a discussion of the authors’ findings and the ways this new approach solved some of the problems associated with the traditional approach.

Problems and Solutions for the Students

Problem: Collaboration. With the traditional approach, students did not learn how to effectively collaborate or work as a team. Students typically divided up sections and worked in isolation on their assigned sections. This divide-and-conquer approach often led to an unequal distribution of work. Sometimes a few students would take over the project and ignore the contributions of others. Sometimes students would not volunteer to do work, do the minimum amount of work required, or not participate in group activities, issues commonly associated with the free-rider problems discussed by Silverman (2007) and Benigni and Cameron (1999). As a result of these issues, group dynamics often became strained.

Solution: Multiple Team Assignments. Through the new approach, students serve on multiple teams throughout the semester, and each team has multiple assignments that require students to regularly collaborate. For example, students are required to present content and contribute ideas through brief writing assignments, brainstorming sessions and workshops. Requiring students to serve on multiple teams and to participate continually in active learning means free-riders are unable to hide and strong personalities are less likely to dominate. Instead, students are held accountable by more members of the class because they are serving on multiple teams and are evaluated by more of their peers. As a result, it’s easier for teachers to identify and address issues that hinder collaboration. Requiring students to serve on multiple teams also forces students to adapt to new team dynamics, which is an important part of learning how to effectively collaborate. The outcome of this improved collaboration has been improved student collegiality and stronger campaigns for the client, as will be discussed below.

Problem: Understanding the Entire Campaign. With the traditional approach, some students did not fully understand the entire campaign planning process. Because students divided up the sections instead of working together, they often failed to think through how one part of the campaign affected the next. As a result, some campaigns were internally inconsistent. For example, students sometimes developed strategies that did not meet the campaign objectives. Also, few students knew the contents of the entire campaign plan because they focused just on their assigned section.

Solution: Improved Collaboration. The improved collaboration discussed above produced a second positive outcome – improved student understanding of the strategic campaign planning process. Because students are involved in each step of the planning process, whether through brief writing assignments, teamwork or presentations, all students are exposed to every aspect of campaign development. Having these regularly occurring assignments also allowed the authors to work with students throughout the process to ensure an internally consistent campaign. As a result, students were more engaged in each step of the planning process and developed more cohesive creative campaigns.

Problem: Editing. With the traditional divide-and-conquer approach, reviewing and editing the work of others was rare. As a result, the variety of editing abilities and writing styles led to disjointed writing and grammatical errors throughout the plan.

Solution: More Feedback. The new approach solves this issue in two ways. First, students are required to turn in sections throughout the semester, so instructors have the ability to provide feedback not just on student ideas, but also on the quality of their writing. Students then have the opportunity to edit their work based on this feedback. The second solution is that this approach calls for the creation of an editorial team, which provides an additional layer of quality control.

Problem: Time for Quality. The traditional approach tended to focus on quantity over quality. The amount of work required by each team meant students were so busy producing content to meet the deadlines that they did not have the time or energy required to think critically or produce high-quality materials.

Solution: More Structure and Focus. With this new approach, the workload is still demanding, but it is also more structured and focused. Students serve on one research, one campaign book and one strategy team. As a result, students are able to focus the bulk of their energy and ideas on their assigned sections while still participating in each step of the campaign planning process. This increased focus led to more meticulous research, coherent campaign plans, creative strategies and high-quality tactic prototypes.

Problems and Solutions for the Client

Problem: Deficient Research. In the traditional approach to teaching campaigns, the research was deficient because each team conducted its own mixed methods research using the same methods. This was an issue because students were not able to focus on perfecting one method, target audiences were being overused, and the client was receiving multiple, repetitive research reports.

Solution: Several Research Teams. With the new approach, students work on one of several research teams. There is no overlap of research methods unless there is a strong reason for it, such as multiple focus groups being conducted with different target audiences.

This gives students a chance to focus on honing their skills in one method instead of superficially practicing several methods. It also allows students to focus on determining the best method to reach each target audience and, in most cases, to not reach out to the same target audience multiple times. This creates more well-rounded research and less repetition in the final research report and campaign book.

Problem: Duplicate Information. With the traditional approach there were multiple campaign books. Due to the nature of the assignment, these final campaign books were often similar because students were gathering and synthesizing information about the same client. As a result, the client received a large amount of duplicate information in the campaign books and presentations, and it was difficult to keep the client engaged throughout the final presentations.

Solution: One Book. With the new approach, students still work with one client, but each class produces one final campaign book and presentation. Having the students create one final campaign book and presentation solves the issue of repetitiveness, provides a much better final product for the client and improves client engagement with the final presentation.

Problem: Inconsistency. The campaign plan featured inconsistencies and was sometimes not internally coherent. The campaign plan was often disjointed because students did not work together to develop an internally consistent campaign. As a result, clients were sometimes presented with campaigns that did not fully address their needs.

Solution: Building on Previous Work. Because the content of each week builds on the previous week and students are constantly receiving feedback from the instructor and each other, the book is more likely to be internally consistent. The new approach also increases the overall quality of the final campaign book because the instructor and fellow students are reviewing the campaign along the way.

Problem: Few Deliverables. Students developed a small set of tactic prototypes, which was not enough to fully implement their recommended strategies. Since each group had five to six members who were each required to create a tactic prototype, smaller groups of students meant a smaller variety of prototypes for each campaign. Also, groups often produced similar prototypes, which cut down on the number of distinct deliverables for the client. For example, two teams might produce a similar press release, thus effectively reducing the number of useful prototypes for the client.

Solution: Strategy Teams. With the new approach, students are divided into distinct strategy teams, which helps avoid duplication of tactic prototypes because there were not multiple groups of students working on the same strategy. This allows for the creation of a wider variety of tactic prototypes to serve the client’s needs.

CONCLUSION

After implementing this new approach, both authors have noticed several positive outcomes, including an increase in student participation and collaboration, and stronger campaigns for our clients. After a semester of collaboration, brief writing assignments and peer-review sessions, students are encouraged to participate and to focus on what is important for the client. This ultimately leads to a more coherent, well-written campaign and a wider variety of tactic prototypes to serve the client’s needs. It also ensures students understand the entire campaign process from start to finish.

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