Faith Integration in a Public Relations Capstone Service-Learning Project
Associate Dean, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; Professor, Department of Communication Studies
Abstract: this article explores a service learning project in PUBR 400, a capstone course for Public Relations Management. Students carry a public relations/strategic communication plan for Los Angeles-area nonprofit organizations through the entire four-step process of research, program planning, implementation, and evaluation. Professional ethical codes, and moral guidelines for public relations practice are discussed and emphasized through the lens of the Christian faith, using a “faith supports learning” worldview model. Specific faith-learning integration strategies also include readings from Gordon Smith’s Courage and Calling, with a Reflection Paper question prompt.
Keywords: public relations, nonprofit organizations, worldview model, reflective discussion, vocational calling
I first experienced the value of applied academic service-learning experiences as an undergraduate student majoring in public relations. Since teaching my first course as a doctoral student, I have integrated service-learning projects in all of my public relations courses. Over the past 20+ years, my students have produced academic service-learning projects for more than 50 nonprofit organizations in California and Indiana.
I have always felt God’s direction to practice my vocational calling as an educator-scholar in faith-based institutions. I feel a responsibility to provide contexts for students to explore the possibilities for integrating their career interests with their Christian convictions, and to make a significant contribution to society as Christian leaders. My philosophy of service learning and faith integration is informed by Richard Foster’s book, Streams of Living Water, Richard Hughes’ The Vocation of the Christian Scholar: How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind, and Bob Briner’s Roaring Lambs. Streams introduced me to the intersections between faith traditions (e.g., holiness, social justice) and to demonstrations of God’s love in practical ways that have impacted societies around the world throughout history. Hughes defines the “life of the mind” as disciplined search for truth, conversation with diverse viewpoints, critical analysis, and intellectual creativity, and argues that such life can be enhanced by rather than impeded by Christian faith. His advocacy for the faithful pursuit of truth has enhanced my approach to integration of faith in the classroom and in scholarship, which then is implemented in my courses and in my research. Briner exhorts those of us in professions that impact popular culture, such as public relations, journalism, television, film, and the arts, to pursue opportunities that connect faith and culture.
I see the world, my teaching and mentoring, my research, and my practice of public relations through the lens of my Christian faith, similar to the Faith Supports Learning Worldview Model Mark Cosgrove writes about in Foundations of Christian Thought. The Worldview Model’s description of how faith integration acts as a filter to evaluate information, as a change agent in organizations and society, and as a two-way growth process captures my approach to teaching academic service learning. I approach teaching from a faith perspective and facilitate opportunities for students to think critically from a Christian point of view, to explore ideas from the vantage point of Christian tradition, and to challenge, deepen, and affirm cultural, professional, and disciplinary perspectives related to the content of their courses. My course syllabi contain a section on faith integration which includes these statements: “My primary goals include fostering in students a desire to learn, a desire for excellence, a desire to serve others and, above all, to glorify God as ‘world changers’ for His Kingdom. ‘And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly before your God?’ (Micah 6:8) seems to me to be a good guiding principle in our practice of public relations and for our class environment.”
Public Relations Service-Learning Project Description
In my senior capstone Public Relations Management course, students carry a public relations/strategic communication plan through the four-step process of research, program planning, implementation, and evaluation, which equips students to critically examine situations faced by organizations and analyze how to manage them through public relations efforts, and prepares them to enter professional life as creative strategists.
Half of students’ semester grades are based on their participation in planning and implementing a public relations campaign for a Los Angeles-area nonprofit organization, and the quality of the campaign they deliver. The academic service-learning project has several graded elements: professional resume and cover letter, job interview, agency Research Brief, agency Strategic Communication/Campaign Plan Proposal and Presentation, non-binding Contract that outlines the negotiated strategic plan that the student agency will execute, implementation of the communication plan and collateral materials/deliverables, agency Final Report and in-class presentation after conclusion and evaluation of the strategic plan, weekly individual journals, individual reflection paper, and peer evaluation of agency members. I provide students with detailed materials outlining the project elements and expectations; readings on academic service learning and what to expect in the course; a detailed client letter describing the partnership and process; sample Research Brief, Campaign Proposal, Contract, and Final Report; and evaluation rubrics. I act as Agency Director (as in a professional agency), editing and providing revisions, reviewing and approving all materials, mentoring each agency’s Executive Director, coordinating with client representatives, providing all campaign-related resources, and grading assignments.
During the first week of class, students submit a resume and cover letter and attend 15-minute individual interview with me; students are then “hired” and placed in agency teams of 4-5 students dedicated to a nonprofit client. Students begin gathering information about the client organization, the environment, and the patrons served by the nonprofit. Within the next two weeks I accompany each student agency to a site visit at the client’s location to tour the facilities and meet with appropriate staff members for additional information gathering and discussion about the nonprofit’s communication problems and opportunities. During the next 3-4 weeks student agencies gain insights from their research and discussions, and create a comprehensive strategic communication plan with measurable objectives, strategies, and tactics, as well as a budget and timeline for implementing the plan. Each student agency formally presents this proposal to the nonprofit leadership (much like professional public relations agencies “pitch” to a prospective client), negotiates a nonbinding contract, and implements the communication plan. At the end of the plan’s timeline, students evaluate the effectiveness of their plan and execution, prepare a comprehensive Final Report with recommendations for the nonprofit to extend and build on the plan’s success, and make a formal presentation of this report to the client.
Communication plans/academic service-learning projects have been completed by my students for nonprofit clients such as the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, St. Vincent Meals on Wheels, Boys and Girls Club of Malibu, Community Pregnancy Clinic of Simi Valley, and Malibu Task Force on Homelessness. For example, in spring 2018 we partnered with North Valley Caring Services, which has been my community partner for capstone public relations classes for five years. NVCS began in 1978 as a soup kitchen for homeless individuals and expanded to provide breakfast, literacy, after-school, and several other outreach programs. NVCS serves families and individuals from North Hills, Panorama City, Van Nuys, and Arleta, California. A large number of people served live in the agency’s immediate community, known as the Langdon/Orion Street neighborhood of North Hills. The Langdon/Orion neighborhood is characterized by gang activity, immigration raids, poverty, homelessness, and is one of the poorest communities in Los Angeles County. More than 56 percent of these families and individuals are immigrants from Central and Latin America—one of the highest in Los Angeles County. The three public relations plans my students most recently created, proposed, and implemented for North Valley Caring Services provided social and digital media promotion that resulted in exceeding fundraising goals for the Los Angeles Marathon, created a redesign and content development for the nonprofit’s new website, and created a branding plan for Colectivo, a community gathering place/coffee shop/boutique/micro-enterprise training center that was launched in 2018.
Integration of Faith and Learning in Action
Academic service learning has been my central pedagogical tool for facilitating public relations students’ exploration of how their faith impacts their professional lives, specifically in the quality of their work and in their ethical decision-making. In my experience, service-learning experiences avoid some of the potential pitfalls of forced or superficial faith integration, and they allow students to explore their faith and vocational calling as they fulfill academic learning outcomes. Yet, they hold some challenges in general, as the instructor cedes a degree of “control” to students and to the nonprofit partner. Particular challenges in service-learning projects relate to the types of client partnerships and campaigns we encounter in my public relations classes, yet students typically stay engaged with their agency team, client, and project throughout the entire semester, and engage their faith from a holistic perspective with excellence in the academic and service enterprise.
Further, the capstone academic service-learning experience offers an opportunity for students to make the connection between their various acts of service and a response to the call of God on their lives, and the realization that a life of service is their Christian vocation. There are two student learning outcomes that specifically target faith integration in the service-learning project:
- Demonstrate ethical research, planning, and execution of public relations efforts that integrate faith with the responsibility to serve and engage communities and social justice globally.
- Understand your vocational calling in relationship to your future professional life.
Beginning on the first day of class, I explain my approach to public relations and to the senior capstone public relations course through the lens of my Christian faith, and we discuss the faith-integration section of my syllabus—my goals to foster the faithful pursuit of truth and excellence, a faith-grounded worldview and a desire to serve others and glorify God as “world changers,” and the Micah passage and what it means to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before your God”—and how these principles will guide our classroom environment and our work with our nonprofit clients.
Throughout our work with our nonprofit client, we have regular readings and discussions about how faith intersects with professional ethics and decision-making. For example, we discuss the Strategic Cooperative Communities Model, which is characterized by a commitment to community, the importance of people, cooperative problem solving, and relationships with publics built on trust, mutual respect, and dignity, and the similarity of these principles and the Micah passage, and their application to serving our client and our client’s patrons. Throughout the agency team and campaign planning experience, we approach and discuss (during class and in my weekly meetings with each agency team and in weekly one-on-one meetings with each agency’s Executive Director) situations within the agency and with the client, and related to the project elements they are working on from the perspective of excellent, ethical practice informed by faith (Learning outcome #1). In a recent client meeting we discussed how the website and other messages of Santa Anita Family YMCA could clearly reflect its voice and culture, which emphasize the Y’s Christian mission.
There are other indirect ways in which faith integration is accomplished that impact students’ attitudes and actions during the service-learning experience. Professional ethical codes and moral- and faith-based guidelines for public relations practice are discussed and emphasized. For example, when we discuss a variety of ethical frameworks and professional codes of ethics, we discuss the extent to which they are consistent with and/or conflict with a Judeo-Christian ethic. When we discuss current events and ethical dilemmas their clients and, more broadly, organizations, governments, and leaders face, as well as hypothetical and actual case studies, we examine and discuss how faith may inform how decisions could be made in these situations. Students read a professional journal article about crisis communication message strategies, written by me and my research colleagues, based on surveys of over 800 public relations professionals. These professionals reported the strategies they consider to be most ethical, and we discuss their intersection with a faith-based ethos. Students also identify ethical dilemmas they will likely face as public relations professionals, and deliberate on and articulate the process by which they may make decisions and how these decisions will be informed by their faith.
The primary way students explore their vocational calling (Learning outcome #2) is through a reading from Gordon Smith’s Courage and Calling, followed by an in-class discussion guided by these questions:
- How does Smith define vocational calling differently from a job or career?
- What does Smith mean when he stresses “self-perception” and living a life of “congruence,” citing Paul’s urging in Romans 12 to “know yourself and be true to yourself”?
- Who we are and who we are called to be in the world is found at the intersection of four questions:
- What are my gifts and abilities?
- What is the deepest desire of my heart?
- Where do I personally sense the needs of the world and feel the brokenness in God’s creation? What impresses me to the core of my heart and calls me to be or do something?
- What is my unique personality or temperament?
Assessment of successfully and effectively integrating Christian faith with student learning reflecting both learning outcomes #1 and #2 is conducted through qualitative, indirect evidence—responses to two reflection paper questions:
- How has your public relations campaign experience demonstrated ethical research, planning, and execution of public relations efforts that integrate faith with the responsibility to serve and engage communities and social justice globally?
- Through the public relations campaign experience, what have you learned about your vocational calling in relationship to your future professional life?
These questions give students the opportunity to reflect on the entire semester’s campaign and agency experiences and are intentionally designed to promote their consideration of Cosgrove’s Faith Supports Learning Worldview Model, Briner’s call to be “world changers,” Hughes’ belief that intellectual pursuit and professional practice can be enhanced by Christian faith (question 1), and Smith’s call for Christians to know themselves and discern God’s call on their lives (question 2.
Campaign Evaluation and Reflection
Throughout my 20-plus years of teaching the public relations capstone course, students have consistently endorsed the value of this practical academic service-learning experience, regardless of whether they achieved the strategic plan’s SMART objectives, were unable to achieve their objectives, or whether they had challenges in their team or with their nonprofit client. They articulate what they have learned about public relations, about working with clients and working in a team, and about themselves and their vocational calling in their final reflection paper, in assessment by the Center for Academic Service Learning, and in subsequent informal communication with me.
Formal assessment data and enthusiastic student comments show that the service-learning experience in Public Relations Management is effective in meeting the academic and faith-integration learning outcomes. I would argue that there should be no bifurcation; all learning outcomes should be understood from a holistic perspective. Students report in their reflection paper responses to the PLO #1 question (integrating faith with professional practice) that using what they have learned has allowed them to approach a situation and assignment for a client by being “light in the world” and assist clients in finding ways to spread their mission and services to a larger reach of people, and that they are gratified that their coursework is potentially making a difference. They realize that public relations can be practiced from a Christian perspective, and appreciate working with their clients because they believe that working with nonprofits is what Christ would do—help those in need.
In response to the second learning outcome question, which relates to the their vocational calling, students reported that through the public relations campaign project and readings they realized that their vocation is to help people and that whatever job that leads them to do that will allow them to be content in life, that the public relations campaign process made their God-given talent and vocation more readily apparent, and that they are called to a mission field filled with opportunities to reveal God’s identity through the creation and maintaining of organizations’ identities.
Azusa Pacific University’s Center for Academic Service Learning surveys students at the conclusion of a project. Public Relations Management students who responded unanimously reported that their learning in this specific course was enhanced by the service-learning project, and the majority said they were able to make connections between course content and service-learning experiences, live out Christian values, and understand the connection between their service-learning and their personal faith.
Tips for Getting Started
First, allow ample time to build the service-learning project and faith integration elements, and revise as needed. Start by examining your program and course student learning outcomes, and make sure they are aligned and can be achieved through a service-learning project that integrates faith. Then, begin with perhaps one project element and “scaffold” from there. I have found it helpful to provide detailed instructions for each project element, clear rubrics, and examples of high-quality project elements completed by students in previous classes, so that students will know the standards they are expected to meet. The weekly journals and meetings, midterm feedback, reflection papers, and peer evaluations help me to monitor how students are experiencing the entire process, anticipate problems or correct them quickly, and make changes for future classes.
Second, select your service-learning project client partners and projects carefully. When building new nonprofit partnerships, I begin with a phone call, followed by an in-person meeting if there is mutual interest and our goals align. It is essential that the client organization, especially the representative you and your students will be interacting with throughout the semester, understand that this is an academic learning experience, and understand what your particular course (and professional simulation, in my case) is designed to achieve. I recommend crafting a detailed letter that describes the project’s purpose, process, and expectations for both students and the client organization along with a statement of the instructor’s role and oversight.
Overall, this practical capstone experience is preferred by my graduating seniors, is conventional in public relations education, and is impressive to professionals. A culminating academic service-learning project is an excellent way for students to apply their knowledge and skills in ways that are informed by their faith, as they also come to better understand their vocational calling. There are many excellent service-learning organizations with resources, conferences, and educational and research opportunities, and veteran service-learning educators (like me) are generous in sharing their expertise.
 Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water (New York: HarperCollins, 1998).
 Bob Briner, Roaring Lambs (Grand Rapids: MI, Zondervan, 1993).
 Richard Hughes, The Vocation of the Christian Scholar: How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005).
 Mark Cosgrove, Foundations of Christian Thought: Faith, Learning, and the Christian Worldview (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2006).
 Gordon T. Smith, Courage and Calling (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999).