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VCU Robertson School launches student-led PR agency set to aid area nonprofits

Sep 12, 2017

Posted in: News

By William Lineberry

This year the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture estimates it will provide nearly $30,000 of free public relations work through a new student-led initiative. Agency, the newly named senior-level public relations course, launches this semester with three classes and 46 students. In its inaugural semester, the program is already serving three area nonprofits who applied to the program over the summer.

“In Agency each class is tailored to the specific needs of a single client, ensuring individualized attention is given to our clients by the students and faculty,” said public relations professor and Agency Executive Director, Joshua J. Smith, M.S.

In addition to the community service impact, the goal of the course, Smith added, is to “prepare students for the fast-paced, demanding nature of the public relations industry by immersing them in real client work during their senior semester.”

“This new Agency course offers an excellent opportunity for our students to learn through working with real clients and by providing meaningful pro-bono community service,” said Hong Cheng, Ph.D., director of the Robertson School. “While this PR faculty-designed innovative course addresses a strong need in the sequence's curriculum now, I have no doubt it will become a signature PR course of the School soon.”

Additionally, Agency is a designated service-learning course, which means every participating student must complete a minimum of 20 hours of community work during the semester.

“In public relations, our service work in Agency looks different than other programs like dentistry or sociology," Smith said. "In public relations, our service work is accomplished through in-depth research, strategic planning, design and production and the presentation of a comprehensive communications plan pitched by students at the end of the semester. Some clients will get social media plans; some will get promotional and event work. It really depends on the client’s needs."

Through its service-learning contributions, Agency is estimated to contribute nearly 2,000 hours of community service work a year, valued at about $15,000 per semester, or close to $30,000 in a single academic year.

“Our value is estimated by looking at the 20 hours worked by each student, and then multiplying that against what the students could charge for this work in the industry (around $15  per hour in Virginia),” Smith said.

This past summer, three Richmond-area nonprofits were selected to be the course’s first clients for the fall 2017 semester: UMFS, Henrico Humane Society and the VCU School of Education.

“Most nonprofit organizations function on a shoestring budget and would never be able to afford to hire a professional firm to create a PR strategic communications plan for them,” said Lyn Pelco, associate vice provost for community engagement at VCU. “Through this advanced service-learning course, VCU undergraduates not only build their own professional skills and resumes but also positively impact the Richmond community by providing our local nonprofit sector with professional strategic communications plans they could not otherwise afford."

For future clients of the course, Agency has created an application process to begin considering partnerships for the upcoming spring semester. Interested applicants can apply to be considered through the program's “Contact Us” page on its website. All applications for the spring are due no later than Nov. 30.

To learn more about Agency visit the program's website, or contact Joshua J. Smith, M.S.  (