Enriching Public Relations Education through the Implementation of Social Media in the Classroom

By Karen Freberg, The University of Tennessee

The public relations profession continues to play an essential and changing role in society, requiring the regular reassessment of the education of future public relations practitioners. Academics and practitioners often differ in how they view the public relations field, how they define the discipline, and how they view the major pedagogical approaches. The demands of the current economy and the ever-changing digital environment is challenging public relations practitioners and scholars to constantly evolve their research and practices in the discipline to meet the expectations of their stakeholders.

Having social media incorporated throughout the public relations courses will allow professors to feel more connected and up-to-date with their students. In the process, implementing social media in public relations classes will create a more dynamic, interactive, and forward-thinking learning environment for all parties. Also, understanding new technologies that focuses on how to communicate to various publics like social media does also creates a link to the theoretical foundations of thought (researchers or managers) to the those that are view public relations as a more applied field (practitioners or technicians).

Public relations scholars and practitioners can accomplish this integrated perspective of the profession in their classroom by engaging their students to incorporate social media into their readings, case studies, and interaction beyond the classroom. Here some some ways that I have incorporated social media into the classroom in my Public Relations Cases class:
  • Integrating research and practitioner perspectives with social media: Public Relations Cases is a course where public relations students are expected to know the iconic PR cases that have shaped our profession, like the Tylenol crisis case or Exxon-Valdez to name a few. Besides analyzing these traditional cases, I have asked my students to think about what would happen if these traditional cases happened today in 2010 – what would be some of the opportunities and challenges PR professionals would be facing? Each student group is also asked to identify a new stakeholder group that would be relevant today as well as a new innovative tactic – such as implementing a viral marketing campaign to establishing a social networking community on Ning. Students are also exposed to how to measure social media using specific sites such as Technigy SM2, BackType, and Tweetmeme to monitor and track social media discussions related to specific brands and topics. This project combines both research and application in Public Relations, which is where PR programs need to be heading.
  • Being part of the online PR community: Students are encouraged to interact and go to events that are sponsored by public relations professionals working with social media. Besides PRSSA, students are encouraged to go to events that are sponsored by the local chapter of the Social Media Club in Knoxville for networking and professional opportunities.
  • Using Twitter and Facebook for online discussions and present mini case studies. Public relations students need to not only be aware of the different types of social media sites, but be able to understand how they are strategically implemented and used in public relations. Students each week are assigned to write a mini case study on a current situation on the topic covered for the week and focusing on what the corporation, PR agency, or parties involved did in terms of their implementation of social media strategies and tactics. Each student writes a one page summary and critique of the case, as well as post the link of the article discussing the case on the class Facebook site and Twitter accounts. Students are encouraged to discuss and comment on the case studies being presented.
  • Bringing in leading experts into the classroom via Skype. With the increase travel expenses and limited resources, social media has provided academic professionals the opportunity to bring in experts to come talk to their class via Skype, the free Internet and phone service. These individuals can be experts in their specific area and provide students a wonderful learning and enriching experience in this new presentation format. In my class, I had the opportunity to have Dr. John Cacioppo speak to my class on the Elaboration Likelihood Model and its implications towards Public Relations.
  • Online reputation management practice and exposure: More than ever, future employers are looking at social media sites for information pertaining to potential employees of their agency or corporation. We are forming impressions and making decisions about individuals based on what information is presented online – and how the information that we are presenting online is for public viewing. Students are presented with proactive strategies on how to present themselves professionally and managing their reputation online, such as doing searches on themselves not only on Google, but also on social media search engines like Samepoint, Peoplebrowsr, and Social Mention.
In summary, the overall purpose of implementing social media into the classroom is to build not only a better understanding of the new technology for class assignments, but to present students with the opportunity to use these skills outside in the classroom in their internships and in the workplace. By exposing them with examples of how specific corporations and public relations professionals are using social media, students will be able to analyze what were the best practices in implementing social media for public relations in specific fields (ex. crisis communications, employee relations, non-profit public relations, etc.)

The role of the public relations academic professional is not only to show the students how social media is changing the profession, but also participating in the process as well. Students want professors that not only share them the opportunities of social media, but want to see that the professors are active online as well. Social media provides numerous opportunities for students and professors to create a more engaging and interactive classroom experience that contributes to a positive learning experience.

Social Media Readings

Baekdal. T. (April 27, 2009). Where is everyone? Baekel Online Magazine. Retrieved from
Basille, D. (November 5, 2009). Social Media influencers are not traditional influencers. Retrieved
Mangold, W.G., & Faulds, D.J. (2009). Social media: The new hybrid element of the promotion mix.
Business Horizons, 52, 357-365.
Solis, B. (2008, August 5). Introducing the conversation prism. Retrieved from

Web sites and Blogs for Social Media

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