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Finding qualified entry-level public relations personnel can be difficult. Finding college graduates with hands-on experiences can seem nearly impossible for PR agencies and corporate PR departments. That’s if they don’t know about student-run PR agencies.

There are more than 150 student-run communications agencies at U.S. universities, says Douglas J. Swanson, professor of communications at California State University-Fullerton. They are businesses within academic environments that provide hands-on experience in PR as well as advertising, marketing, and social media. Students apply concepts they learn in school to real projects and campaigns for real clients with minimal faculty oversight.

In addition to gaining real-world experience, students improve their collaboration and interpersonal skills. They put down their phones and talk to others, Swanson says.

The Many Benefits of Student-Run Agencies

Student-run communications agencies offer more than experience for entry-level PR hires. Swanson cites these benefits for their clients:

PR agencies and company PR departments can ask student-run agencies to help develop and implement their PR and marketing campaigns. College students understand the types of products and social media messages that resonate with 20-somethings. In reverse mentoring, students who know everything about Snapchat can educate clients about social media.

Student agencies can take on clients or projects that aren’t a good fit for professional agencies. Commercial agencies can refer pro bono work they’re too busy to complete and clients who can’t afford their fees to student agencies. Student agencies charge minimal fees or request fees on a donation basis.

PR professionals who offer student agencies input, sit on their advisory boards, or work with them in other ways build long-lasting connections and networking opportunities.

More New Student-Run PR Agencies

Although not a new concept, more universities are creating student agencies. Virginia Commonwealth University created its PR agency, called simply Agency, last August, according to PR Week. Student teams promote nonprofit clients, and professors serve as account directors. Their campaigns provide more education than most internships do.

“I was an intern in undergrad and I was filing news releases, and I didn’t get a lot out of it,” VCU Professor Joshua James Smith told PR Week. “With Agency, we can control the quality and exposure the students get with the client.”

PR Lab at Boston University, formed in 1978, has grown significantly in recent years. Its organization mimics the structure of a commercial agency, with two presidents, account directors, supervisors, and account executives. It has worked with Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries in Boston for more than a decade.

Five Cal State Fullerton public relations students planned and executed a charity event for the Assistance League of Fullerton, relates The Orange County Register. The nonprofit organization, which assists indigent children and families, wanted to increase foot traffic at one of its thrift stores, especially from millennials. It also wanted to attract more business sponsors and educate local residents about its activities and mission.

The students organized a fashion show on the college campus, with models wearing merchandise from the thrift store. They distributed flyers, promoted the event on social media, sent email announcements, and pitched to the local media.  The nonprofit was impressed. “I was wowed,” Carol Bosman-Anderson, public relations co-chair for the nonprofit, told the Register. “It was remarkable. They were so professional.”

Bottom Line: Student-run PR and communications agencies can provide real-world experience to college students and a reservoir of talented, experienced personnel to PR agencies and corporate PR departments. While the students may lack businesses experience, they can bring a youthful perspective to PR campaigns.