Real World Career Preparation

A Guide to Creating a University Student-Run Communications Agency

by Douglas J. Swanson (Author)
©2017 Textbook XVI, 298 Pages


University student-run communications agencies allow students to work with real clients and get real world experience before they graduate from college and enter the workforce. Student-run agencies are increasing in popularity, but building a successful agency is challenging.
With more than ten years of experience supervising a student-run agency, Swanson examines the three critical roles a student agency must fulfill in order to be successful. First, the agency must be an exceptional environment for learning. Second, it must be a successful business—without satisfied clients, the agency will not survive. Third, it must be a supportive partner in both on- and off-campus communities.
As the first book to address student-run agencies, Real World Career Preparation offers extensive ‘how to’ guidance, and is supported by 22 Agency Spotlight best practice examples from student-run agencies across the U.S. The book ends with a comprehensive directory of 158 university student-run agencies in operation all over the world.
Real World Career Preparation is essential reading for any faculty member or administrator who is involved with an agency, or who plans to launch one in the future. This book is also valuable for college students working in an agency who seek ‘the big picture’ view of how their work for clients has long-lasting impact on the campus and the community.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • The Student-Run Agency, and How I Got Here
  • Section I: The Agency as a Learning Environment
  • Section II: The Agency as a Business
  • Section III: The Agency as a Community Resource
  • Section I: The Agency as a Learning Environment
  • Chapter 1. The Agency as a Place for Learning
  • Different, Yet the Same
  • Good for the Program, Good for the Students
  • Student-Run vs. Student-Staffed
  • Developing Students’ Knowledge and Skills
  • The Agency as a High-Impact Practice
  • Theory and Practice
  • Summary
  • References
  • History
  • PRLab Today
  • Successes
  • Operations
  • Professional Development
  • Future Goals
  • The Team
  • Operations
  • The Facility
  • The Finances
  • The Future
  • Chapter 2. Linking the Agency to the Curriculum
  • Curriculum Options for the Agency
  • What Should Agency Curriculum Look Like?
  • Use a Syllabus!
  • Is the Student-Run Agency an Internship?
  • Summary
  • References
  • TCA – Student Teaching Equals Student Learning
  • Team Leader and Team Player – Not Mutually Exclusive
  • Don’t Expect What You Don’t Inspect
  • Wrapping It All Up
  • Chapter 3. Building a Place for Learning
  • A Space for Success
  • Do it Right from the Start
  • Balance Form with Function
  • Don’t Scrimp on the Resources
  • Technology and Information Access
  • Access and Security
  • Student Lab Assistant
  • Footprint Encroachment
  • Summary
  • References
  • Chapter 4. Engaging Students for Learning
  • Educational Engagement and Collaboration
  • Conceptual and Hands-On Skills
  • The Revolving Door
  • Team-Building
  • Serving the Client and Making Mistakes
  • Ethical Practice
  • Mindfulness in the Student-Run Agency
  • Motivation to Do Best Work
  • Engaged and On The Air
  • Summary
  • References
  • References
  • Chapter 5. Mentoring and the Student-Run Agency
  • What Is Mentoring?
  • Mentoring and Millennials
  • Making Mentoring Work
  • The Carrot and the Stick
  • Summary
  • References
  • Chapter 6. Expanding Learning Opportunities with Graduate Teaching Assistants
  • Graduate vs. Undergraduate Education
  • What Makes a Successful Graduate Student?
  • Undergraduates, Graduate Students, and the Agency
  • Summary
  • References
  • Chapter 7. Assessment of Learning in the Student Agency
  • Higher Education, Student Learning, and Employer Expectations
  • Confusion and Resistance
  • Pressure to Assess
  • Sound Planning and Simple Steps
  • Elements of an Assessment Plan
  • Policy, Process, and Procedure
  • Identify and Address Learning Outcomes
  • The Syllabus as a Guide for Learning
  • Map Out the Plan
  • Faculty Members Must Drive the Process
  • Collect Evidence Consistent with Professional Realities
  • Co-curricular Engagement
  • Closing the Loop
  • Summary
  • References
  • PRactical ADvantage Communications
  • Learning Outcomes
  • Agency Structure
  • The Assessment Plan
  • Always in Flux
  • References
  • Chapter 8. The Student-Run Agency and Accreditation
  • ACEJMC Accreditation
  • ACEJMC Support and Dissent
  • CEPR Certification
  • The Student-Run Agency and Accreditation
  • Other Professional Recognition Opportunities
  • Summary
  • References
  • Why Do It?
  • National Affiliation Requirements
  • PRSSA Affiliation Standards and The Carolina Agency
  • PRSSA Centered
  • Professional and Faculty Support
  • Accountability
  • Outcome-Driven
  • Ethically-Based
  • Geared Toward Professional Practice
  • Organized and Structured
  • Summary
  • Section II: The Agency as a Business
  • Chapter 9. Establishing a Business Within the Academic Environment
  • Learners or Customers?
  • Begin at the End
  • “Free Labor” and “Commercial Product”
  • Plan, Involve, Support, Value
  • Summary
  • References
  • References
  • Chapter 10. Dissent Within the Ranks
  • Dissent Happens
  • Viewing Innovation in a Theoretical Context
  • “The Problem with Your Idea Is …”
  • Finding the Good Fit
  • Summary
  • References
  • Chapter 11. Establishing a Firm Foundation
  • Facilities, Equipment, Furnishings
  • Coffee, Tea, or Not At All
  • Revenue Sources and Concerns
  • Summary
  • References
  • Establishing Our Agency and Our Space
  • Our Financial Support
  • Chapter 12. To Charge, or Not to Charge – That is the Question
  • The Pro Bono Agency
  • The Competitive Agency
  • The Philanthropic Agency
  • Summary
  • References
  • What Are Cyber Situations?
  • Organizational Strategy
  • Key Messages
  • Practice Pointers
  • Chapter 13. Recruiting and Retaining Quality Clients
  • Balance and Independence
  • On-Campus Clients
  • Networking
  • Don’t Go In Cold
  • The Client Services Agreement
  • In the Deep End of the Pool
  • Roll Over, Good Client
  • Breaking Up is (Sometimes) Hard to Do
  • Don’t Fear the No
  • Summary
  • References
  • Chapter 14. Promoting the Agency and its Successes
  • Balance of Efforts
  • The Agency Team
  • Existing Efforts: The Oh Wow! and the Oh No!
  • Recommendations
  • The Internet
  • Social Media
  • Not the Only Game in Town?
  • Word of Mouth Trumps All
  • Summary
  • References
  • Reference
  • Section III: The Agency as a Community Resource
  • Chapter 15. Relationships with Area Professionals
  • Education, Business, Service
  • Crumbs from the Table?
  • Campaign Strategists, Not Worker Bees
  • Partnership Opportunities
  • Solar Decathlon Partnership
  • Summary
  • References
  • Review Panels
  • Client Role
  • Training Sessions
  • Chapter 16. Working with Area Nonprofits
  • Identifying Appropriate Nonprofit Clients
  • Campaigns for Religious Organizations?
  • Fundraising?
  • When the Train Goes Off the Track
  • The Client Who Shall Not Be Named
  • Summary
  • References
  • Along Comes Hope
  • Cal Poly Men’s Basketball Team & The Food Bank of San Luis Obispo
  • Creating and Educating
  • Chapter 17. Honoring Diversity and Inclusiveness
  • The Importance of Being Multilingual and Multicultural
  • Developing a Mindset for Multiculturalism
  • Opportunities for Outreach
  • Diversity Isn’t Just about Culture and Race
  • Summary
  • References
  • Directory of University Student-Run Communications Agencies
  • First, a few words about the listing of agencies …
  • United States of America
  • International
  • Agency Spotlight Contributors
  • Index

| vii →


Many scholars and professionals have served as mentors in the quarter-century that has elapsed since I first walked into a university classroom and stood behind the lectern. In recent years, I was given great responsibility as student-run agencies were entrusted to my care. My thanks are owed to the late George Ramos at Cal Poly and to Bill Briggs of Cal State Fullerton. When it was clear that a book about student-run agencies was needed, my wife Terri encouraged me. My CSUF teaching colleagues also did so. The professionals at Peter Lang Publishing took a chance on my concept, and were supportive throughout. A debt of gratitude is owed to the Agency Spotlight contributors, outstanding teacher/scholars who are engaged where the rubber hits the road. This book would have been incomplete without their stories. I tip my hat to the more than 500 graduates of Cal State Fullerton’s student-run agency. We learned together how to make the agency a well-oiled machine! Finally, I offer humble thanks to my children, grandchildren, and extended family. They take pride in my accomplishments, and smile politely as I endlessly retell the same old agency war stories. Their presence is a daily reminder, as Art Buchwald once noted, “the best things in life aren’t things.”

| ix →


The Student-Run Agency, and How I Got Here

Although I’ve been involved with college student-run media for almost my entire professional life, my first opportunity to supervise a student-run communications agency developed 11 years ago. That first expeience, and everything that followed, has persuaded me that the student-run agency is an invaluable learning experience in higher education.

This book focuses on the agency as a communications entity (think advertising, marketing, or public relations). But the overarching concepts are equally applicable in other communication contexts. This book is about structuring a learning and business environment that allows college students to get together, work collectively, and generate valuable real world-focused professional communication outcomes that benefit clients and communities.

For me, the first opportunity to direct such an environment came about when I interviewed for an associate professor’s position in the journalism program at a mid-sized state university. Along with the teaching responsibilities came supervision of the department’s fledgling student-run public relations agency.

On the day I interviewed, all the usual interviewy things happened. I taught a class, made a research presentation, met students, and talked with ← ix | x → faculty. Overall, I was left with the impression that department was much in need of a PR person who would be welcomed and given an opportunity to build and grow the existing student agency.

Reality set in when I took the job. The faculty who were welcoming and gracious during the interview turned out to be mostly interested in preserving the journalism education status quo. Nobody was wearing a typesetter’s green eye shade, but the picture was pretty clear. Faculty saw the program’s reason for existance as journalism education – but journalism enrollment was in a precipitious decline. Undergraduate PR enrollment was increasing rapidly and no full-time faculty members seemed to have interest, experience, or much liking for public relations or the student-run agency.

The agency showcased so positively on my interview day turned out to be much less developed than it was presented. It wasn’t really an insightful curricular collaboration. It had been put into place somewhat reluctantly, and only after PR students protested that they weren’t receiving valuable real-life experience. The agency had no faculty advisor. Temporary office space shown to me during my interview was taken away afterward. Of greater concern was the fact that the agency never had any structure allowing students to complete client projects. Students who were operating the business only had time and resources to make proposals. After a client accepted the agency’s proposal for services, the relationship ended. The client was left with a three-ring binder full of ideas and a cheery “good luck!” This is not how the student-run agency experience is supposed to work. (I don’t fault my former colleagues. They didn’t have guidance, and their program was struggling with many other unrelated challenges at the time.)

Fortunately, I had a good background in student-run media. As a Communications undergraduate at Eastern New Mexico University in the early 1980s, I was privileged to work in one of the nation’s best public broadcating programs. Beginning as a freshman and continuing through my senior year and beyond, I was immersed in all aspects of broadcast journalism for radio. I worked as a field reporter, wrote copy, produced programming, and did extensive on-air work. In later years, while working on my doctorate, I worked writing copy, doing videography, and planning events for a small public relations agency. From there, I went on to a job as a news director for a campus radio station in Oklahoma – and eventually to my first tenure-track teaching position, serving as student newspaper advisor at a Baptist college.

So there wasn’t any question that I could master my new job superving the student-run agency that had miserly support from colleagues, no office ← x | xi → space, and no ability to complete projects for clients. I could do this. The problem was that there were few published resources to lean on.

At this point in time, the literature revealed very little scholarly interest in the topic of student-run communications agencies. I found this especially odd, since college student-run media had been around for decades, and the first student-run advertising and public relations agencies were formed in the 1970s. While Elon University’s Lee Bush and a few other Communications scholars were publishing articles on student-run agencies, overall, there wasn’t a wealth of guidance for those of us trying to structure and run a communications business with the goal of teaching students how to transition to the real world. I had to figure things out as I went along.

My personal experiences – trials and errors over the past ten years – were the inspiration for the book you hold in your hands. A guiding idea throughout this process has been that the student agency serves three key functions. These functions, if attended to, balance the agency on a solid foundation – like a three-legged stool. It’s all about the balance. This book recognizes the three functions, and the critical balance that must be maintained. Chapters are organized accordingly.

Throughout the book, Agency Spotlight sections support the text by showing how concepts introduced in the chapters are operationalized in practice. Spotlight sections have been provided by faculty who have launched and guided the leading student-run agencies across the United States – and the wisdom these colleagues offer is invaluable.

Section I: The Agency as a Learning Environment

The chapters in this section focus on the student-run agency’s most important function – as a place for students to develop mastery of professional-level concepts and skills. If the agency isn’t equipping students to enter the professional workplace with a higher level of ability than students who have not had an agency experience – then no other function the agency performs will matter.

Chapter 1, The Agency as a Place for Learning, opens the discussion by establishing the conceptual rationale for the agency. Recent research is profiled, showing the kinds of knowledge and skills most valued by employers of communications undergraduates. From there, Chapter 1 conceptually links back to the agency as an ideal place for students to work collaboratively to ← xi | xii → develop critical professional competencies. Certainly the agency supervisor/ instructor is indispensable. But it’s more important to facilitate than to train.

Chapter 2 identifies and compares the three primary ways agencies do or do not integrate within the collegiate curriculum. Each option has advantages and disadvantages. There’s no right or wrong way to establish a student-run agency because each university and community is unique.

Chapter 3 deals with the nuts and bolts of the agency – its facilities, furnishings, support, and other resources. It’s not possible to build an organization that adequately serves student learning and client service without adequate resources to mirror what happens in the professional world. Chapter 3 discusses these realities.

Of course, without student learners, the agency is just a concept and a place. Therefore, Chapter 4, Engaging Students for Learning, delves deep into a discussion of how we select and empower students for maximum success. The agency seeks to balance education with business. It seeks to balance what the client wants with what the client needs. The agency supervisor/ instructor also seeks balance in measuring philosophy against practicality, and in measuring explanation against personal experience.

One of the most important concepts of the student-run agency is that it’s not a place for lecture-and-regurgitate learning. Students learn together and work to solve problems by creating thoughtful, strategically sound, relevant communications for clients. This happens through expert faculty guidance, not surveillance. Chapter 5 addressed these issues.

While most student-run agencies seem to be focused on undergraduate learning, there are significant benefits to be gained when an agency works with graduate students. Chapter 6, Expanding Learning Opportunities with Graduate Teaching Assistants, offers valuable suggestions for making the most of opportunities to engage – and serve – graduate students.

Chapters 7 and 8 round out the first section of the text by addressing critical issues that occur somewhat behind the scenes. First, Chapter 7 addresses the issue of assessment of student learning in the agency. We can have prominent clients, beautiful facilities, voluminous resources – and still end up in a situation where students aren’t learning what they need to learn to enter the professional world. Chapter 7 shows how we verify that agency students are learning what we think they’re learning.

Chapter 8 follows up assessment by addressing accreditation issues. While not all mass communication programs are professionally accredited, every higher education university and program must answer to an institutional ← xii | xiii → accrediting authority in order to remain operationally viable. Chapter 8 makes the case for a thoughtful integration of the agency with the academic program in a way that will be generally relevant for institutional accreditation.

Section II: The Agency as a Business

Having addressed the primary issues of structure, curriculum, and student learning in Section I, the following chapters focus on issues related to business development and client service. Building a student-run agency is a challenging task. It involves the construction and operation of a profit-making venture inside an educational institution.

One of the key challenges is that a student agency may go dormant for weeks at a time while students are on academic breaks. Building from earlier ideas in Section I of the text, Chapter 9, Establishing a Business Within the Academic Environment, lays out relevant suggestions to address this and other administrative, functional, and legal challenges.

Those of us who believe in student-run agencies can cite plenty of evidence that they’re a valuable contribution to an academic program and to student learning. But many of our colleagues don’t share our enthusiasm. Chapter 10, Dissent Within the Ranks, identifies the causes and outcomes of friction within the academic unit.

Chapter 11 addresses the physical realities of the student-run agency. The agency cannot be treated like a class; it must have its own space, its own resources, and its own revenue stream – just as it would if the agency were an independent business. The agency supervisor/instructor’s attention can quickly be drawn away from learning to nuts and bolts detail if the agency struggles. (This can also happen if the agency is very successful!) This kind of diversion will ultimately hinder students’ progress.

One of the biggest questions in regard to revenue for the agency is whether or not to charge clients, and how much to charge. Charge too little, or nothing at all – and there’s no revenue stream to keep the agency afloat. Charge too much – and the agency risks not finding willing clients. A variety of perspectives on these issues is examined in Chapter 12, To Charge, or Not to Charge – That is the Question.

The student-run agency must secure clients that allow students to work on a full range of projects that model what students will encounter when they enter the professional world. At the same time, the agency must have ← xiii | xiv → clients that support the concept that student learning is the most important goal. Chapter 13, Recruiting and Retaining Quality Clients, addresses the development of work that offers students significant valuable experience, with clients who understand that education is our most important responsibility. Chapter 13 includes a sample Client Services Agreement, a document that articulates the agency-student-client relationship.

Chapter 14, Promoting the Agency and Its Successes, addresses a critical task that can easily be overlooked in the day-to-day activity of the student agency. The agency must continually communicate about its structure, work, and successes – both on- and off-campus. Chapter 14 offers best practices suggestions for increasing community recognition through traditional and social media, word of mouth, partnerships, and paid advertisements.

Section III: The Agency as a Community Resource


XVI, 298
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (May)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2017. XVI, 298 pp.

Biographical notes

Douglas J. Swanson (Author)

Douglas J. Swanson (Ed.D., Oklahoma State University) is Professor of Communications at California State University, Fullerton, where he founded PRactical ADvantage Communications, an award-winning student-run agency. Swanson has previous industry experience as a journalist, broadcaster, and public relations professional.


Title: Real World Career Preparation