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Using a Real-Life Problem in an Introductory Public Relations Course

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One, I know that completed problems can form the raw material for a fraternity or sorority's database. That's reason enough not to repeat static problems found at the end of the chapter.

Two, real problems permit a more realistic research phase. Students can search public databases and discover what others have written or said about the problem.

Third, students seem to become more involved with real problems.

But if our pedagogical sensibilities require more rigorous justification, we might follow Gibson's (1992-3) suggestion and look at educational outcomes. He lists five outcomes desirable for public relations education: a) attitudes, b) skills), c) knowledge, d) professional affiliation, and e) resume and portfolio.

Certainly no one problem or class can give our students a full measure of all these outcomes, but some teaching strategies may provide more and richer outcomes than others.

For that reason I want to share my experience with one outside problem that proved to be rich in at least four of the five outcomes for a recent introductory class.

This particular semester I assigned as the first problem the situation faced by Jackson, Michigan at finding itself named last among Money Magazine's list of best places to live in America. This simulation called for the students to counsel the leaders of Jackson, Michigan as to what all this meant, then provide options for action.

Students were to follow the four steps outlined in their text: research, planning, implementation, and evaluation. Individu-ally they looked at selection criteria outlined in Money Magazine. I expected that this was going to be a lesson in the need to fix problems in the community before developing communi-cation strategies. As it turned out, my students learned a good deal more than they or I anticipated.

We started in the usual way. Students used NEXIS to check the wires and published news stories and how they played in various parts of the country. Some called the local Jackson newspaper, the Jackson Chamber of Commerce, and the mayor's office in Jackson to learn first-hand how community leaders viewed the situation.

In the past we have looked at Colonel Sanders' problem with a fat-conscious buying public, the cellular industry's response to allegations that-cellular phones cause brain tumors, a contro-versy associated with building a new airport on land Native Americans called sacred, and the continuing brouhaha posed by a live pigeon shoot at the annual town picnic in Heggins, Pennsylvania.

This case was different. This one added two ingredients the others lacked. One difference was a strong sense of curiosity by southern Michigan media as to why a school 600 miles away might be interested in their community. The second factor involved a student with the means to travel to Jackson to share his and his classmates' analysis and proposed solutions to the problem. Justin Hadley worked at Federal Express and was able to fly space-available to Detroit, about an hour away from Jackson.

An invitation from the Jackson Chamber of Commerce set the next phase of the story in motion. Chamber president Ila Smith agreed to accept the individual plans from the class and arranged a tour of the city for their visiting guest -- Justin Hadley. The tour included radio and TV interviews, visits with local dignitaries, and a luncheon with community leaders. Justin also visited the local prison. The prison was key to understanding Jackson's low ranking, since the crime associ-ated with the prison weighed heavily in the city's final ranking.

With Jackson media in place to cover the visit, the class wondered whether Memphis media might be interested in covering some aspect of Justin's visit. Without much difficulty the class arranged for Justin to do a live interview with a Memphis and Nashville radio DJ live from his remote location in Jackson. Unfortunately, those interviews fell through. But an Ann Arbor radio station spent about 20 minutes of live air time interviewing eight members of the class who remained in Memphis. They discussed their analysis and recommendations with their Michigan radio host.

With interest building, the University released a short fea-ture story to the Associated Press that was picked up by media in Michigan and Tennessee, including the local business jour-nal and two local TV stations. The Memphis NBC affiliate interviewed one of the students on campus and the Memphis CBS affiliate chatted with Justin and his instructor five for about five minutes on the evening news after he returned from Jackson.

Media Interest

Requests for interviews were at first

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