Public relations program evolves, becomes its own major


Courtesy of the Journalism Department

PRSSA members visit journalism alumnus Shane Arman, front, at his Ketvchum office in Chicago.

Jessica Foster

The UW Oshkosh Department of Journalism’s new public relations major may look like an overnight success, but it has been a long-term development.

The Department of Journalism was created in 1968 to train news reporters, but in 1974 that training was expanded and a second emphasis, advertising-public relations, was added. New faculty members E. Garner Horton, who had led University communications during Black Thursday, and Bill Scrivner developed the curriculum.

The Department of Journalism faculty had discussed how to improve its public relations and advertising programs for years. In the 1996-1997 accreditation report, the visiting site team voiced concerns about the lack of depth and range of advanced public relations and advertising courses, specifically at the upper level. While the Department had twice as many PR/advertising students as news/editorial students at the time, it had more news-oriented courses than advertising or public relations courses.

The Curriculum Committee discussed changes to the program in 2004-2005, and faculty reviewed the proposed changes in 2005-2006, with curriculum revisions put in effect by fall 2006. The public relations and advertising emphases were divided in September 2007. At the same time, the Department of Journalism also added visual, writing/editing and media studies as emphases.

It was also in 2007 that the Public Relations Student Society of America chapter won first place in the National Organ Donor Awareness Competition. The team repeated that honor in 2008. The chapter had earned fifth place in 1997, the first year of the national competition, and has continued to place almost every year since.

In 2009, in the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications on-site evaluation report, the visiting team again referenced the weaknesses from 1996 in the current curriculum, as well as the department’s continuing heavy emphasis on news/editorial classes. In 2010, the department was placed on provisional accreditation, and the faculty started an extensive review of its curriculum. By fall 2011, the faculty completed the revised curriculum, and in November 2011, during a second site visit, the site team concluded the department met the curriculum standards. The ACEJMC Committee approved the report in March the following year.

The public relations program was granted the Certification in Education for Public Relations by the Public Relations Society for America in fall 2011, the public relations-specific equivalent of ACEJMC accreditation. It became the first university in Wisconsin to receive this distinction and the 15th nationally. The designation happened largely because of the work and expertise of Dr. Julie Henderson, now emeritus PR professor. “Earning CEPR for the program was a huge step,” Henderson said. “We were required to meet 12 standards and passed all.” She emphasized the importance of the quality of students in achieving this distinction, something that was noted throughout the final report.

In 2014, a new opportunity for students became available, the Certificate in Principles of Public Relations, offered through PRSA. It provides an entry-level certificate designed to demonstrate a fundamental level of knowledge for graduates entering the public relations profession and related fields.

The UW Oshkosh PRSSA chapter, founded in 1985 by Dr. Harvey Jacobson and guided by him until his retirement in 1993, was renamed the Dr. Julie Henderson PRSSA Chapter in 2012 in honor of the dedicated public relations professor and adviser. Through the years, the chapter has frequently been successful in the NODAC and Bateman national competitions, despite competing against much larger chapters.

Henderson played a major role in growing the public relations program at UW Oshkosh, and by 2015, after three years of applications and reviews from the department level through the State Board of Regents, public relations officially became its own major within the Department of Journalism. In 2015, according to the Undergraduate Headcount Enrollment by Major, 29 students had enrolled in the PR major. The following year, the number of enrollees increased to 69.

Moving the emphasis to a full major allows the university to meet the increasing demand for the profession, as well as gives the program more visibility within the department, according to Dr. Sara Steffes Hansen, associate journalism professor and chair of the Department of Journalism.

“We highly value our tradition of aligning with ACEJMC curriculum guidelines while working with industry standards and best practices through our relationship with PRSA,” Hansen said. “These efforts keep the department moving forward with a strong public relations program that provides career opportunity for students while meeting the demands of the marketplace.”