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«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»

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Nonprofit organizations in the U.S. are facing a management crisis. According to a recent survey, three out of four executive directors plan to leave their jobs within the next five years (Cornelius, Corvington and Ruesga, 2008) and that by 2016 the nonprofit sector will need 80,000 new senior managers each year, 40 percent more each year than is currently required (Cornelius, et al., 2008).

In 2002, a study, Managing Public Relations in Nonprofit Organizations, determined that more staff is needed to support the communication activities of nonprofits, and that “in the future, it is certain that the importance of public relations in nonprofits will continue to grow in the management of nonprofits” (Dyer, 2002, p. 17). With such heavy stakes riding on effective communications and strategy in a climate of public skepticism and opposing advocacies, public relations in nonprofit organizations and professional-trade associations are playing an increasingly important role in dealing with issues in the news that affect their members and publics. This is why, as the labor market matures, it is important to start understanding not only what the subsequent generations of public relations practitioners are looking for, but what they value as they begin their job searches, and if programs such as service learning courses affect their plans to pursue a nonprofit communication career.

Definition: Service learning, according Corbett and Kendall (1999), condensed from the National Community Service and Trust Act of 1993, and adopted by the American Association of Higher Education, is defined as: “Service learning means a method under which students learn and develop a thoughtfully organized service that: is conducted in, and meets the needs, of a community and is coordinated with an institution of higher education and with the community;

helps foster civic responsibility; is integrated into, and enhances, the academic curriculum of the students enrolled; and includes structured time for the students to reflect on the service experience. “ (p. 67). “Communication educators have recognized that service learning and communication coursework can be a good match, offering students a chance to put communication principles into practice” (Corbett, 1999, p. 66).

Service learning and the communication discipline. Many communication studies have pointed out the positive relationship between communication courses and service learning. In 2004, a follow-up study was conducted on the status of service learning in departments of communication. It was reported that “communication studies is a disciplinary leader in service learning because of its concern for conceptual understanding (Depew and Peters, 2001), for skill development (Soukup, 1999), for integrating theory and practice (Bachen, 1999), and for improving relationships among groups and individuals (Applegate and Morreale, 1999)” (OsterAaland, 2004, p. 349). Applegate and Morreale (1999) also pointed out that growth in a variety of communication skills has also been attributed to service learning. “These communication skills include interpersonal, small group, organizational, intercultural, written, public speaking, and mass communication competencies” (Oster-Aaland, 2004, p. 353).

Communication specific projects within the nonprofit sector.The nonprofit sector offers excellent communication projects for undergraduate students. One study by Daniel Panici and Kathryn

Lasky (2002) on service learning in communication scholarship reported that:

A majority of those integrating service learning into curriculum do so by integrating service learning components into existing courses. The most common courses that integrate 188 service learning include public relations courses (e.g. public relations principles, public relations cases and campaigns, public relations writing and management of public relations) and media production and design courses (e.g., television production, media style and structure, radio workshops, and television documentary). (p. 116).

Many public relations majors are required to fulfill the same curriculum prescribed by the Commission on Public Relations Education for a public relations program.

Experiential learning in such communication courses offer students the opportunity to produce work that will develop their skills in ways that involve them in the community, as well as a professional environment. Therefore, specific job tasks focus on professional communication tasks such as writing, production and research, rather than administrative or clerical work, and can be displayed in student portfolios. Specific examples of tools that many nonprofits are in need of that students can provide include: backgrounders, position papers, web pages, memos, a crisis communication plan, press kit, press releases, public service announcements, pitch letters, newsletters, brochures, fliers and even a comprehensive communication plan. Grappling with real life issues such as accuracy, completeness, clarity of requirements, design usability, understandability, organization, maturity and appeal to target audiences with whom nonprofits are trying to communicate and/or service allows students to gain academic and professional insight.

If service learning projects are conducted as a group, this opportunity can also increase students’ interpersonal development. Teamwork in professional settings demands that situations be handled between individuals before approaching a supervisor. Service learning can also introduce students to professional communication work where they will need to listen to a manager’s needs, successfully work as a team, and produce professional communication materials. “A service learning project as an introductory experience to a career in communication can increase your confidence, interest, and initiative in becoming a communication professional and in using communication skills to improve society” (Melchior and Bailis, 2002, p. 201).

Service Learning and Career Plans Included in the several studies that have documented the effects of participating in community service and service learning for college undergraduates is a career plan component. Research (e.g., Astin and Vogelgesang, 2000) has shown that in a large study of several thousand students at different colleges and universities across the U.S., service learning participation was a strong predictor of students’ preference to engage in a servicerelated career. The authors suggested “the students’ expression of a desire to be employed in a service-based career after graduation indicated a particularly strong finding because of the strong commitment to service that manifests” (Fenzel, 2003, p. 4). In addition, Astin and Sax (1998) found that involvement in service learning was related to increases in students’ commitment to serving the community and plans to participate in service in the future (p. 256). In Fenzel’s study (2003) on college alumni and service, 51% of the service learning alumni surveyed were employed in a service-related field (education, nonprofit, government, healthcare or social work). Fenzel’s (2003) results showed both general community service participation and service learning participation make independent contributions to the continued involvement of alumni in community service and to the 189 actual career choices made by alumni. For example, while alumni who, as undergraduates, participated in at least some general community service were more likely to have chosen a career in a service-related field, having participated in service learning exerted an additional effect on such a choice. (p. 10) According to a study by Bush-Bacelis (1998), most students want to secure a job that earns more than minimum wage, and they also want to feel like they are contributing to the organization and to society. “Students who have completed a service learning project indicated that working with a nonprofit agency opened their eyes to what is really important in life” (Bush-Bacelis, 1998, p. 31). They often indicated that, while they will continue to seek a high-paying job, they might aim for a career in the nonprofit sector. Even when a student participates in a service learning activity for a minimal amount of time (8 – 10 hours), one study (Reed, 2005) found that students participating in the service learning rated themselves as more likely to choose a nonprofit service occupation at the end of the term than they had at the beginning.

The variation of the studies shows that there is not only interest in the area of service learning and that researchers and educators are discovering its importance, but also that there are deep connections between the communication discipline, service learning and nonprofits/service-related fields. General findings suggest that service learning does have an effect on career plans among various disciplines. Therefore, it is logical to investigate the likelihood that there would be a similar, if not greater effect on career plans for communication students, specifically to enter a career in nonprofits, because of the synergy that exist between the communication discipline and nonprofit organizations.

Values, Service Learning and Communication Programs: Service learning can also build a value foundation that enriches an individual’s existence. The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) has a “Member Statement of Professional Values.” These values are espoused to be the fundamental beliefs that guide the behaviors of public relations practitioners and their decision-making, and are vital to the integrity of the profession as a whole. They include: advocacy, honesty, expertise, independence, loyalty and fairness.

Professional standards and values demand that public relations practitioners tell the truth, that they are able to understand the problems and viewpoints of employees, co-workers, neighbors, etc. Practitioners need to take into consideration the impact of their work on internal and external publics.

According to the National Communication Association, “the service learning community affirms two cardinal values – personal responsibility for civic participation and institutional responsibility to participate with the community to improve society.” Much of the service learning research reinforces this, and focuses on the personal, social and intellectual development of young people, as well as preparing them to become involved and effective citizens. Service learning taps the public service roots of American higher education, and fulfills the need of both students and faculty to build lives of meaning and purpose.

Nevertheless, one researcher found the absence of a personal value system that places a high priority on serving others in the discussion of service learning approaches. In a paper on nonprofits and communication programs presented by Laurie Wilson of Brigham Young University at the 1997 Association for Education and Journalism in Mass 190 Communication conference, Wilson discussed how, “the word ‘values’ is avoided by the use of phrases such as ‘developing a sense of caring’ or ‘recognizing civic responsibility.’ [And that] we are afraid to affirm the instinctive sense of value of service in the overall quality of life” (p. 11). If education professionals are concerned with influencing students to develop a sense of civic responsibility and caring, then it is important to understand the theoretical work that examines developing, and changing, values and attitudes. Service learning is a legitimate experiential method of education that can concurrently build a value foundation.

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