A Beginner’s Guide to Starting a Student-run Firm

The best way to learn public relations is through application and experience. Thankfully, through professional organizations like PRSSA, students are able to equip themselves with the necessary skills to succeed in today’s ever-changing public relations industry. As the Faculty Adviser of Stockton University’s  3-year-old PRSSA Chapter and 1-year-old Student-run Firm, I am grateful for all the career development opportunities these two groups have provided both the students and me. Although our firm is still in its infancy, I have learned much from running the firm during the past academic year. In this article, I will share how I got started and my experience as the Faculty Adviser. If your Chapter is thinking about starting your own firm, which I highly recommend, I hope this article will provide you with a few useful tips.

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How to get started

The best way to get started is through shadowing and networking with nearby PRSSA Chapters that have established Student-run Firms — a process my students and I spent quite a lot of time on before starting our own. I went to many of these schools’ PRSSA-related events to get to know the executive board members and ask firm-related questions. Building this network laid a good foundation for launching my Chapter’s Student-run Firm. We built close connections with Temple University’s Student-run Firm, PRowl. In the semester before launching our own firm, one of PRowl’s previous firm directors came to our Chapter to give an extensive presentation on how they operate. This kind of exposure helped us consider both strategic and tactical issues we might face. It was also an effective way to educate my students on what it takes to work in a Student-run Firm and to pique their interest.

Format of the Firm: Course or Internship?

Our Student-run Firm, StockPRo, was launched in fall 2015. I proposed this as a full-credit course in the spring 2014 semester. Course credits helped to maximize the firm’s potential value to students and held students in the firm accountable. I ran the firm in very different ways between the first and second semesters:

  • Semester one: teacher-led format — During the fall 2015 semester, I took the lead. I divided the 12 students into four different groups and gave these groups four different areas of responsibility: research and development, social media and marketing, client team one and client team two.

    As a class, we developed our logo (StockPRo), and slogan (PRoactive, PRogressive and PRofessional). Throughout the semester, I brought in guest speakers to cover a wide range of topics related to public relations, such as branding, Photoshop, photography, press releases, digital public relations and resume writing.
  • Semester two: student-led format — During the second semester of the course, students took the reins and ran the firm themselves. As in the previous semester, students were divided into four teams; however, all four teams had client roles, with teams rotating social media tasks and blogging responsibilities. I also reduced the number of guest speakers that I brought in. Instead, students rotated to lead workshops on topics of interest to them and relevant to the class.

Pro Bono or Paid Services?

One question that I pondered deeply is whether or not we should offer paid services or go pro bono. After careful deliberation, I chose pro bono. This proved to be a smart choice, since we were a new firm and needed to establish credibility. We recruited our clients through my professional connections and our school’s Office of Service-Learning.

Recommendations for Starting New Firms/Lessons Learned

  • Entrance interview for students: Not all students are serious about doing this. Some take it simply to fulfill the course requirement. It is important to let students know the implications of the course and the ramifications of a poor work ethic. Working with clients has real impacts and can be extremely stressful. Some clients have high demands; failing to work well with an organization can potentially sever a long-term relationship and damage our firm’s reputation. Students also need to be very flexible and proactive in their engagements, particularly in learning new skills based on the clients’ requests. 
  • Diversify the Student-run Firm’s background: Most of the students who took my course are public relations students and PRSSA members. Last semester, I admitted a few students in our school’s film production track, which proved to be helpful. Their production and editing backgrounds brought unique skills to the firm that most public relations students don’t have. When I had students run their own workshops in the second semester, they covered a wide range of topics, often outside of public relations, which were all well-received. After all, in real agencies, public relations professionals don’t just work with people in public relations.

My motto as a teacher is: knowledge without application is merely philosophy; it is only through application that knowledge becomes impact and has the potential to usher in change. I am glad that I am able to offer students an opportunity to apply their classroom learning into real-world experience through a Student-run Firm.

Dr. Ai Zhang is an associate professor of public relations at Stockton University. Zhang is also the founder and Faculty Adviser of both Stockton University’s PRSSA Chapter and the University’s Student-run Firm. Outside of academia, Zhang serves as an independent social media consultant for a small business and as the co-chair of college relations for the Philadelphia Public Relations Association.

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