The VCU PR course provides ‘agency’ work for nonprofit organizations in the region


An agency class discusses project ideas with representatives of the nonprofit UMFS. (Jonathan Spiers)

A new course at VCU gives trainee public relations professionals real-world experience while providing nonprofits in the region with free public relations services.

The Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture has launched Agency, the new final course for students in the school’s public relations stream. True to its name, the course, which took place this semester, models a true public relations agency and puts into practice the skills acquired by the students.

Led by public relations professor and sequence coordinator Joshua Smith, who is the agency’s executive director, the upper-level course divides 46 students into three classes to provide services to real clients, all of which are not-for-profit. The clients for this semester are the Henrico Humane Society, the VCU School of Education and the UMFS foster care service.

The school estimates the value of the services provided throughout the course at $ 15,000 per semester. Students spend the semester determining the communication needs of clients, developing and presenting and reworking proposals based on their feedback, and exploiting the results through a pitch that serves as the final review of the course.

Students are also required to complete a minimum of 20 hours of community service work during the semester. The school estimates that the agency will contribute nearly 2,000 hours of community service per year.

“It’s a class that takes students and puts them in a real world experience, where they have a real customer from the community who has a real need,” Smith said. “The students have 16 weeks to try to meet that need, to come up with a solution or a communications plan or some sort of stopgap to get this non-profit organization moving from a communications standpoint.”

vcu agency logo

Logo of the VCU agency.

Smith said the idea for the agency arose after the school was approached by some nonprofits seeking help. The students started working with the Henrico Humane Society on social media services, and the concept evolved from there.

For clients in this semester, students pursue these social media services for the humanitarian society, while the VCU School of Education receives assistance in recruiting and promoting its programs.

The need for UMFS was to publicize the need for more adolescent adoptions.

“The student almost ends up in a fictitious job in this class,” Smith said. “They are really in small agency teams that produce. You can test your skills before you go and apply for a job in public relations or communications after you graduate.

The school plans to offer the course from now on, and Smith said the goal is for more nonprofits to sign up as clients. He said every nonprofit is approved for the program.

“What we’re hoping is that enough nonprofits in the region hear about it and they know they will come and get it,” Smith said. “With as many nonprofits as we have in Richmond and the surrounding communities and even across the state, I have no doubt there is a demand.”

The adjunct professors who lead the three courses, each of them, are current or former public relations professionals. They include Beth Musick, who has worked for more than 20 years in sales and account management with data giant Thomson Reuters; Diana Burkett, director of communications and enrollment management at the VCU School of Education; and Jeff Caldwell, director of external affairs at the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.

The course will conclude next month with two final presentations in the boardroom of the VCU School of Education and at the UMFS headquarters on West Broad Street.

The agency joins other new initiatives at VCU this school year. The School of Business kicked off the semester with the launch of its first online MBA program. The school also welcomed its second Artist-in-Residence, local photographer Alyssa Salomon, who picks up where inaugural artist-in-residence Noah Scalin left off last year.

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