Student-led PR for organizations in need
Launched in 2017, Agency is a senior-level, capstone undergraduate public relations course that provides public relations and communications support to area organizations. Through an online application process, any organization may apply to be an Agency client. Once selected, students work together over a 16-week semester to create communication plans and campaigns based on the individual needs of the client. The fast-paced nature of the course and the demands of working with clients, encourages the the highest level of professionalism, performance and strategic thinking. Each course is supervised by an account director who serves as both an instructor or record and client liaison. Account director's guide student work, while monitoring progress and deliverables. Agency concludes with a formal student presentation (pitch) to the client, with all materials and rights to work passed to the client for use.
Clients range from small start-ups to well-established organizations. The criteria for being an Agency client are based on need and prioritized through an online application process. Each semester, clients are selected and matched with a 20-student Agency class.
At the start of the semester, clients and students meet to discuss the needs and goals of the organization, and keep in regular communication throughout the process. At the end of the semester, clients are given a final communication plan or campaign presented by students. During the presentations clients can ask questions and offer feedback.
Clients are given copies of all materials, plans, prototypes, etc. The rights to all work are also given to the client for immediate use. Clients may select students from Agency for internships or to hire to help implement the strategies and tactics presented at the end of the semester. Upon completion of this class the majority of students will graduate with a bachelors of science in mass communication and are seen as independent contractors unaffiliated with Agency, the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture and Virginia Commonwealth University.
Agency students are senior mass communication majors focused on the study and practice of public relations. Students are only permitted to take Agency after completing prerequisite courses in the program, which include: Communication Ethics and Law; PR Writing, Media Relations; Graphic Design and Production; Social Media; Professionalism, Case Studies, Crisis Communication and Research. Students also complete public relations electives like Sports and Entertainment PR and Special Events to explore different skills required by the pr industry.
In Agency students apply theory and methods to develop a strategic communications plan or campaign. Special attention to the planning process, including issues analysis, application of public relations and research methods are also implemented.
Students are given high industry expectations in professionalism, performance and strategic thinking. Students are also assessed on their individual and group contributions at the midterm and again at the end of the semester.
Each student is provided an evaluation at the end of the semester with feedback from peers, other professors and the client. At the end of their Agency experience students should have a well-rounded understanding of their strengths in both the theory and practice of public relations.
Agency account directors are highly qualified industry experts hand selected to manage the relationship between the students and client. Account directors also function to support the overall framework of the class by helping to choose a client, assigning teams, coordinating instruction and monitoring progress and project development.
Account directors support the learning functions of the class as the official instructor of record, both generating assessments and assigning final grades to groups and individuals.
Meet the Team
Diana Burkett, Adjunct Professor, Robertson School; Director, Communications and Enrollment Management, VCU School of Education
Diana joined the School of Education in August 2014 after spending two years at University of Richmond as communications manager for the Office of Alumni and Career Services. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, Burkett focuses her efforts on supporting the mission and initiatives of the school by developing and implementing a comprehensive communications strategy consistent and integrated with VCU strategic goals and brand requirements. She also manages the communications team and provides communications council to the school leadership.
She has more than ten years of experience in communications and public relations, including at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, Edelman Public Relations and Chandler Chicco companies.
Jeff Caldwell, Adjunct Professor, Robertson School; Director of External Affairs, Virginia Department of Emergency Management
When not teaching undergraduate PR classes at VCU's Robertson School, Jeff Caldwell currently serves as director of external affairs and chief agency spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM). Caldwell previously served as a corporate communications manager with Altria, press secretary to former Governor Bob McDonnell and communications director for the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and the Virginia Department of Health (VDH).
He has more than 20 years experience in journalism, crisis and representational public relations, marketing, media relations and writing. Caldwell also has experience in corporate communications with Circuit City Stores, Inc, as an award-winning journalist with Richmond Magazine, and as a freelance public relations professional, writer and strategist.
Caldwell earned his bachelor’s degree and master's degree from the University of Richmond. He is a graduate of the Virginia Executive Institute, is a licensed real estate salesperson in Virginia, and has won multiple state and national awards from the Virginia Press Association, VDOT and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. He’s also passionate about spending time with his kids, finding unique antiques, restoring classic cars and woodworking. A native of upstate New York, he has lived in Richmond for more than 20 years.
Paula Otto, APR, Adjunct Professor, Robertson School; President, Otto Training and Consulting
As a journalist, PR professional, college professor and industry expert, Paula Otto has held leadership roles for 25 years. Otto was part of the leadership team that created the Virginia Lottery nearly 30 years ago and served as its executive director from 2008 to 2018. In addition to nearly 20 years at the Lottery, Otto was a tenured professor and associate director at VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture from 1997 to 2008. After retiring from state service in early 2018, Otto formed Otto Training and Consulting (OTC), which serves both government and private clients. Otto has an undergraduate degree in Journalism from West Virginia University and an M.A. in Public Communication from American University. Otto is also active in the community, volunteering with Community in Our Schools, Bon Secours Hospitals, Virginia Voice and the Girl Scouts of the Commonwealth of Virginia. In 2014, Otto received the Thomas Jefferson Award for Excellence from the Richmond Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), which "recognizes the achievement of a seasoned public relations practitioner who has made an ongoing commitment to the advancement of the profession."
Agency is a Robertson School VCU Service-Learning course designed to serve area programs and organizations.Through client research, planning, materials development and a final communications plan, each student will complete a minimum 20-hours of community service.
Agency estimates $30,000 of pro bono community service through 2,040 hours of student work annually. (Financial impact based on local average of $15hr for entry PR work per student at $30,000 per yr, at $5,100 per client. Hours of work based on 17 Students per section, or 102 students per year, completing a minimum of 20 hrs of community service per student.)
"The VCU Division of Community Engagement mobilizes university-community partnerships that generate innovative solutions to societal challenges and prepares the engaged citizens of tomorrow." VCU Division of Community Engagement
Richmond BizSense: "VCU PR course provides ‘Agency’ work to area nonprofits"