The good news for public relations employers in this economic climate is that there is no shortage of entry-level applicants. The bad news is that wading through those hundreds of resumes can be a daunting task. How do you know if you’re choosing the right candidate?
Traditionally, employers look for graduates who have hands-on experience outside of the classroom. This experience typically comes in the form of communications internships. While internships are an excellent gauge of meaningful experience, there’s another indicator employers can look for—participation in student-run communications agencies.
While no one knows how many student agencies exist at U.S. colleges and universities, a recent census revealed as many as 34 such agencies in ACEJMC-accredited institutions alone. Some of these have been around for decades, while others have popped up in the past five years. While student agency structures vary widely, typically they mirror that of professional agencies, with account teams conducting real work for real—and often paying —clients.
The presence of student agency work can indicate meaningful qualifications for several reasons. First, many student agencies institute a competitive application process, which means that student skills have already been vetted. At our own student agency, we typically receive 70 applications to fill 10-15 available positions each semester. Candidates are chosen based on a writing exam, a skills assessment and an in-person interview conducted by agency management.
Second, agency students get to do it all—just like professional account executives or creative directors. Students gain experience developing social media; writing and pitching news releases; planning and executing events; designing advertising, Web sites, and other graphics materials; and filming and editing PSAs and promotional videos. They have the opportunity to build a more extensive portfolio, and are involved in the full process of a client program—from conception through execution and evaluation.
Even more important than these applied skills, however, are the intangible skills that are hard to detect on a resume. Several studies in the past decade have documented a gap between what employers expect in communications professionals and what graduates are able to do. These expectations go beyond PR theories and tactics to include leadership, self-management, teamwork, professionalism and knowledge of agency practices and business protocols.
In other words, employers want graduates who understand the dynamics of the profession. A study published in the spring 2009 issue of Journalism & Mass Communication Educator revealed that this might well be the biggest benefit of student-run agencies. Not only do students learn to apply public relations techniques, they also learn how to manage client relationships, deal with employees, negotiate with suppliers, and navigate the approval processes and protocols of both the agency and the client organization. In essence, student agencies help participants develop their professional identities, and give them the confidence to think on their feet in a variety of communications situations.
While the benefits of student agencies are apparent, institutional support of these agencies has not yet reached that of their mass media counterparts. Many agency advisors report that they are not funded at the same level as campus newspapers or television stations – or not funded at all. Beyond funding, many do not receive the resources and departmental commitment necessary to keep the agency going. Having this support at my own institution, as well input from local professionals, can be directly correlated to our agency’s success. Established in 2007, we now have 42 students in the agency, our own office space, serve 6-8 clients per semester and have won two local PRSA awards for client work.
Providing support is where professional agencies and corporations can help. PR practitioners can offer input on creative work, mentor account teams, communicate industry trends, share cost-prohibitive technology resources or even serve as a client. By building an ongoing relationship with student agencies, not only do you help strengthen university PR programs, you also develop a pipeline of qualified applicants for the future.
If the university in your area does not have a student agency, encourage them to start one and ask how you can help. Student agencies provide a means for academia and the profession to work together to produce the well-rounded applicants that employers seek.
Lee Bush is an associate professor in the School of Communications at Elon University and faculty director of Live Oak Communications, Elon’s student-run communications agency.