VCU PR course provides ‘Agency’ work to area nonprofits

vcu agency class

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

A new course at VCU is giving public relations professionals-in-training some real-world experience while providing area nonprofits with free PR services.

The Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture has launched Agency, the new final course for students in the school’s PR track. True to the name, the course, which rolled out this semester, models an actual PR agency and puts skills students have learned in the track to practical use.

Led by PR professor and sequence coordinator Joshua Smith, who serves as Agency’s executive director, the senior-level course divides 46 students in three classes to provide services to actual clients, all of them nonprofits. This semester’s clients are the Henrico Humane Society, the VCU School of Education and foster care service UMFS.

The school estimates the value of the services provided through the course at $15,000 per semester. Students spend the semester determining the clients’ communications needs, developing and presenting proposals and reworking them based on their input, and putting the results to work through a pitch that serves as the course’s final exam.

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

“It’s a class that takes the students and puts them in a real-world experience, where they’ve got an actual client from the community who’s got a real need,” Smith said. “The students get 16 weeks to try and address that need, to come up with a solution or a communications plan or some kind of a stopgap to get that nonprofit moving from a communications standpoint.”

vcu agency logo

VCU’s Agency logo.

Smith said the idea for Agency came about after the school was approached by some nonprofits seeking assistance. Students started working with the Henrico Humane Society on social media services, and the concept evolved from that.

For this semester’s clients, the students are continuing those social media services for the humane society, while the VCU School of Education is receiving assistance with recruitment and promoting its programs.

UMFS’s need was to get the word out about a need for more teenager adoptions.

“The student ends up almost in a mock job in this class,” Smith said. “They’re really in small agency teams producing. You get to test-drive your skills before you go and apply to a public relations or communications job after graduation.”

The school plans to offer the course from here on out, and Smith said the goal is for more nonprofits to sign on as clients. He said each nonprofit is vetted for the program.

“What we’re hoping for is that enough nonprofits in the area hear about this that they know to come seeking it out,” Smith said. “With as many nonprofits as we have in Richmond and in the surrounding communities and even in the state, I’m positive there’s demand.”

Adding to the real-world experience of the course are the adjunct professors leading the three classes, each of them current or former PR professionals. They include Beth Musick, who worked 20-plus years in sales and account management with data giant Thomson Reuters; Diana Burkett, communications and enrollment management director with the VCU School of Education; and Jeff Caldwell, external affairs director with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.

The course wraps up next month with two final presentations at the VCU School of Education boardroom and UMFS’s headquarters on West Broad Street.

Agency adds to other new initiatives at VCU this schoolyear. The School of Business started the semester with the launch of its first online MBA program. The school also welcomed its second business artist-in-residence, local photographer Alyssa Salomon, who is picking up where inaugural artist-in-residence Noah Scalin left off last year.

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