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When students get a chance to run their own PR agency (featuring Amy Shanler)

Lessons for veteran agency owners and newcomers to the agency world from the experience of students
Amy Shanler

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As higher education faces increasing pressure to not just educate students but better prepare them for gainful employment after graduation, the student-run PR agency model provides some useful lessons.

Boston University’s PRLab is the longest-running such program in the United States, and co-director Amy Shanler joined Chip on this episode to talk about what it is and how it works. She explains how the students handle not just client service, but also the business and operations side of running an agency.

This show includes valuable lessons — whether you’re a student yourself or an experienced agency owner.


About Amy Shanler

Amy Pavel Shanler has 25 years of experience managing communications activities for multiple organizations and industries, including retail, technology, business, health care, and entertainment. As co-director of PRLab, the nation’s longest-running student-managed public relations agency and a cornerstone of Boston University’s College of Communication PR curriculum, Amy oversees a working, profitable and award-winning student-run PR agency. In addition, Amy teaches courses on media relations, principles of public relations, and crisis communications.


The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.

CHIP: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Chats with Chip. I am your host, Chip Griffin. And my guest today is Amy Shanler. She is the co-director of PRLab at Boston University. Welcome to the show Amy.

AMY: So thank you so much. It’s great to be with you.

CHIP: It is fantastic to have you here. And I think listeners are going to be really intrigued to talk or to hear more about PRLab. But before we do that, why don’t you share a little bit of your own background?

AMY: Sure. So I have been with Boston University for about seven years now. And before that I have had a lot of leadership roles and public relations most recently with Philips, the medical device company, and staples, the Office products company and then before that I was all in the technology and prior to that healthcare sectors. And so I’ve had a broad range of experiences and PR and so it is so exciting for me to be able to package that up and draw from that and bring that to my students at Boston University and in my current role A PR lab where we’re running an agency. I’m still practicing because we have a multitude of clients that we are servicing throughout the academic year.

CHIP: Well, as someone who has many, many, many years removed from my own college experience, I can say that I’ve always appreciated the professors that I have had in the past to had that real work experience to marry up with the academic. So, you know, I’m sure that that produces some useful perspective for your students,

AMY: for sure. And I also love that I can share with them some of the mistakes I’ve made as well, that goes a long way they could see that we’re human, and that helps build our professor student relationship, but it also gives them a little bit of breathing room as they’re anticipating their career. Their next step is to say it’s okay to make mistakes sometimes right.

CHIP: Now, if I recall from your bio correctly, early in your career, you did have some agency experience in addition to the big brands that you cited, but now right now you are involved in something very interesting with PR lab so why don’t you tell our listeners what that is?

AMY: sure our PR lab is a PR agency. And that is first and foremost we have paying clients. We have leadership structure. We have agency operations, we run accounts, we have a really exciting experience. So pure lab started about 42 years ago. And it started as a way to give students a bit of a practical hands on learning experience. And originally our clients were local nonprofits and maybe they needed a brochure or a newsletter. And so the students would work all semester to create one deliverable. And at the time, it was groundbreaking and exciting and students had to work with real clients. As PR lab evolved and as different people have stepped in to add their mark add their contribution to the agency. They’ve added more rigor and really increased the bar, the level of quality of client, but also the work that’s expected. And as a result, I reputation is quite strong. So that’s really a high level overview just to break it down a little bit more tip for scale. For example, this semester, we have 19 paying clients. And so students in teams of three or four will work with their account supervisor to implement a scope of work, really, that has already been decided. And they’ll work each week they track their hours, they do activity reports, they’ll do, you know, final wrap up report and then transition memo for the next team. So it is really the full cycle but just condensed down into 13 weeks,

CHIP: when and I think it’s a great way for students to get some of that real world experience before they head out into the workforce, whether they’re going to be working for an agency or not, but I know from many of the agencies that That I work with and many that I’ve been involved with over the years, it’s very tough to get that young talent, particularly today’s job market. And so to have people who are experienced and know what they’re getting into, that’s very helpful.

AMY: Right? And it’s also a lot of the softer skills that, that when you’re in an agency and you’re running 90 miles an hour, it’s hard to stop and show someone, here’s how you set an agenda for a meeting, right? Or here’s the post conference call wrap up note, right? Like they already know how to do this. And so it does make their entry into, like you said, an agency or any position, it’s a lot faster and a lot more smooth.

CHIP: And how much do you and other faculty members do as far as the the operations go to the students running themselves? Do they just turn to you all for advice here and there, talk to us a little bit about the mechanics of it.

AMY: So So the way it works, I actually have a co director. So my colleague Justin Joseph, and I co teach the course and we are attending I think that’s important actually going to pause there for a moment tip because it is a class. It is an agency, but it’s also a class. And so our boundaries are that Justin and I run the class. So we are teaching, and we are evaluating, and we are coaching, but the students run the agency. So we have two presidents, one that is focused on client service, and one that is focused on operations. And we see them in person once a week, and we can we know what’s happening with the agency. We know what’s happening with the clients, we have systems of reporting in place so that Justin and I are watching what’s happening, but we really try not to interfere unless things are really concerning. Or, for example, last semester, we had one expense for client that was just going out of control. And so we had to step in and say guys, we have to manage these expenses better, right?

CHIP: And is the Folks are working on these projects. They’re having the the day to day interaction with the clients, I assume and or the clients treating them just as they would any other agency or I mean, the other two, they give them slack because their students are. What’s your experience with that?

AMY: I’ve seen a quite a large range actually, Chip, it’s, it’s interesting, most are pretty understanding and respectful that these are students and their learning. And that’s what’s great about this as we were learning on the job, and the PR lab account executives have a really diverse range of capabilities. I have some students who are graduate students who have had five internships, some of them have maybe been worked before, and I might have a junior and this is their first professional experience. And so we take a lot of care to mix the team so that at least the clients have a consistent level of quality, regardless of who the client is. But back to your question. You’re right, but we do have to remind the client that these are students. And they might need some pushback, right? They might need, they might nothing’s going to be perfect that they develop the first time, right? We have to allow room for editing, we have to allow room for coaching and for growth. And if a client isn’t really receptive to that, will know pretty quickly, and then that’s a conversation then between Justin and I and that client and then maybe, you know, there’s been times where I’ve ended the relationship if it’s really been that negative. That’s not what students need. And so I’ll I’ll fill in a short term client project for those students in the meantime,

CHIP: right? It may be a lesson in the realities of agency life, but probably not the most useful during a class experience.

AMY: Well, I you know, that you’re right. It’s hard during a class but afterward I hear back from those students. And they say, as tough as that was, it really helped give me some perspective and that when I when I started working, I saw there are actually people like that, you know, I think a lot of students assume just because You’re an adult, that you’re a kind person, or that you’re a smart person, right? Like they always have to get a reality check in this is that we’re all just people doing the best we can in most cases right

CHIP: now, you’ve spoken now about firing clients, but how do you how do you sign up clients? Is that something that you do at the Faculty level or to the students engage in the the actual business development process as well?

AMY: Yeah, that’s right. The students do all the business development. And we’re probably one of the oldest agencies that has a waiting list of clients. So it’s, it’s a good problem to have. So the students will get the clients we do that through phone interviews, they also get them through the development of that scope of work. If we can’t get the client on the same page with us or if the clients expectations are really out of line with what we can reasonably accomplish in those 13 weeks. Then we know even before we’ve officially brought them on board that this is probably not going to work and so they do that whole process, but the students also go out and pitch counts, they want to, they’re always on the move to try to get, you know, a bigger client a bigger name or, you know, and so they’re, they’re pitching and that’s exciting to see too. And then once they’ve got the clients, you know, we’re because we’re student run agency, we’re slightly limited and when we can approve and bring them on board, so I have to look at registration numbers, and do some math and see, okay, I think we can support 19 clients this semester, like I said, we had before in the fall, we had 15 clients. So it really the client load will vary. And that makes some challenges when we’re trying to plan to the students do that with me, we’re all part of it. It’s a definitely a collaborative process. They do the bulk of it, but we do the approval. So we might look at that client and say, you know, I’ve I’ve seen that client before. I know the students weren’t so happy with it. Maybe we shouldn’t bring them back or, you know, gosh, you have this person on the no list, but I think That’s right. Agree. Tell me a little bit more about your decision on that.

CHIP: And so that’s a good question. So that obviously the the projects, as you’ve described them are bite size, if you will. They’re designed to be completed in that 13 week semester. But you know, do you have clients that carry over from one semester to the next? Do you have them take breaks in between, so that you can rotate through other businesses? How does that work?

AMY: That’s right. So everything. So we have about 60% of our clients 60 to 70 are returning from one semester to the next. And for various reasons. Some clients say, you know, that was great. I think I’m all set or other clients will say, Can we please come back and we’ll say, let’s take a break. Or we have other clients that are more seasonal, so we had a Santa clothes, doll for the fall, who doesn’t need PR in the spring? Right. So so he was a he’s a fall only client and then we have a conservation group that does a lot of work on the Charles River on Eastern obviously Boston. They don’t do they don’t need to work in the fall. They need the support in the spring. So there is some seasonality that we have with a couple of our clients. And that gives us then the flexibility to bring on some new ones. And that’s really exciting, you know, to they’re thrilled to be part of the process, but we’re also learning and teaching and the students are excited because there there aren’t a set of expectations that they have to meet from a previous team, for example,

CHIP: right? And are the clients mostly small to medium size or the nonprofit so they, you what, what sectors do they come from?

AMY: Sure, it’s a good mix between nonprofit and commercial sectors. They range from, for example, our longest standing client is a franchise owner of three Ben and Jerry’s scoop shops here in Boston. And that’s exciting. But it’s also a good lesson. I mean, the students like oh, I want to work on Ben and Jerry’s because it’s a national brand, but they don’t realize there is actually a national PR agency in place and we are focused on being Austin script shops and there are brand guidelines that you have to follow and right and they have their own priorities. And so that’s also interesting because they come in with these expectations of I’m going to go change the world with Ben and Jerry’s, which is amazing because they do a lot of great Cosworth. But then they realize when they’re on some of these other accounts, there is a lot more room for creativity and flexibility. And that’s, I think, really interesting as well. Those are some of those life lessons that that they get when they go through the program. We also have a, you know, some fun clients. We have one client in the semester called Ballroom in Boston. And that sounds great, right? It’s, you know, ballroom dancing lessons. So it’s fun, and it’s interesting. And then the Charles River cleanup boat, which is that conservation, nonprofit that I was talking about where they rely on volunteers to go out and ships and keep the river clean, so is really a broad mix of clients and in trysts, we ask our students at the beginning of the semester actually, are there industries in which you’d like to work and industries in which you absolutely would not like to work. And that gives us a sense of where their interests are. So we can try to match them with a client project that they’re going to be excited about wanting to do.

CHIP: I was particularly intrigued by one of the things you said earlier in the conversation that you have a president for client service and the president for operations. And I think that’s, that’s a great thing. Because in, in my experience, most agencies are very focused on client service and are not focused enough on the business side of things, the operations side of things, and frankly, it’s, it’s one of the reasons why this show exists is to help folks understand the business side of running an agency. So you know, how much of the the experience is helping them understand the operation side, the behind the scenes as opposed to just you know, producing great content, great messaging, great outreach.

AMY: I think that that about 30 percent of the agency really gets a great look at operations. And the other 70, not as much. And we talk about it, but because they’re not doing it as much, it’s not the same. So we have, under our two presidents, we have a new position this year called Vice President, that position comes and goes of, I guess I’ll just explain. We have some students who love the experience and want to keep growing through the agency and the way our credit system works. They could actually take it four times at two credits each, and be promoted, you know, and so we had a situation where this student has he’s done all the roles, and he couldn’t be he was not eligible to be president, because that’s the only role that we require students to take on for the full academic year, just for continuity purposes, so he couldn’t become president. So that he said he made a proposal. He said, Could I be vice president? And I said, Well, what would you do and so He came up with this job description. This. So this semester is Vice President is focused on compliance. So he kind of says it’s kind of like, I’m the vice principal. Right? So if people need some motivation, right?

CHIP: We all know what the vice principal did in high school.

Unknown Speaker
Exactly, exactly.

CHIP: That was a long time ago, but I still remember it.

AMY: You remember it, right? So so he calls himself the vice principal, not the vice president. And, and that’s been, that’s actually we’ll see how that works. It’ll be really interesting to see. But then we have three, three directors, who one focuses on social media for the agency. One focuses on special events, and one focuses on external affairs such as Media Relations and awards and then our vice president. He is supporting the new business efforts along with our president of operations. So that small group gets hands on but then all of our supervisors so we have enough supervisors to support 19 clients, they are all part. We responsible for some of that branding for the organization. So they will be providing social media posts each week they write our blog. They will, their transition reports at the end of the semester get turned into case studies for the website or content for awards. So they’re seeing some of it. They also are responsible for the billing. And when I say billing, we don’t bill our clients hourly, but we do track our students. So the supervisors are approving timesheets, the directors are then just checking those time sheets one more time. So they’re seeing some of that the account executives themselves well, they have to do the time sheets right there to learn how that process of tracking time and they are also, if they’re looking, I know it sounds silly, but if they need more work to do for whatever reason, then they might be pulled into a special project to help out with you know something on the operations.

CHIP: I think it’s great that they’re doing timesheets, too. Because that’s obviously one of the biggest challenges as an agency leader to get your team to do timesheets. So if they’ve got, if they’ve got some practice in it already, that’s very helpful.

AMY: Yeah, I just think, you know, Justin and I just explained the whole time she process yesterday in class, and I always feel so bad because like, you chip like, I know how hard it is, but it’s so necessary, right? And then you figure out like, how are you going to do it? Do you write to keep a notebook, you keep your time sheet open each week, like, each day? I you know, they have to figure that out on their own.

CHIP: Right. And it’s, I mean, it is it is so critical. I mean, obviously, in your case, it’s to make sure that they’re doing the work that they need to do in order to get it right. But, you know, in a in an agent of for profit agency, it’s to make sure that you’re running your projects profitably, which obviously is essential in a human capital focused business.

AMY: Absolutely. And it’s also to it helps us learn like okay, if this is the client scope of work, we need to staff that account. To have the right number of hours working on it per week to get done, what needs to get done. So we’re budgeting, you know, not necessarily money, but you’re right, those human capital hours do matter. Because these are students, they have other courses they’re taking, and sometimes jobs or internships and other clubs and activities. So they can’t over service. They just don’t have time to.

CHIP: Yeah, I mean, if you’re building a car, or computer or widget or whatever, you know, the cost of the individual components that go into it. And when you’re in an agency, those components are your your labor hours. And so if you don’t understand the costs, and how you’re going to allocate them to get that scope of work done, you’re going to be in trouble.

AMY: Mm hmm. That’s right.

CHIP: So how many of the students go on to work in agencies afterwards? Do you track that sort of thing? Or do they go work for the, you know, some of the clients along the way or what’s what’s the experience after they’re done with the class?

AMY: Sure. Well, I do know that a handful of them definitely go on to work with the client, whether it it’s an intern capacity, or one of them even in a full time. position. So that’s really exciting and gratifying to see. I do see a number of our students go work in agencies, but I also see them learn from this experience that maybe agency life isn’t for them. Yeah. And that’s important to remember. Yeah.

CHIP: for everybody. I mean, you know, there is not yet in fact, I was just talking with someone a couple of days ago, who is he’s someone who has been on the agency side, his whole career, he went to the brand side decided he’s really an agency person and the other direction as well. So you need to know what you actually enjoy doing and focus on that.

AMY: Absolutely. And some of them to from their client experiences. It really sparks a new area of interest in development. So sometimes they’re doing new things like I had this one student, he’d never done any graphic design work before. And he was taking he happened to be taking just like a basic course. And his client needed the work and he, he practiced like he worked so hard on that and realize you actually really liked it. And so that sort of opened up a new path of discovery for him. Sometimes That he didn’t even realize he was interested in. So it’s it’s a pretty cool experience to see

CHIP: why it’s I think it’s a great program. It’s the kind of thing that, you know, as you say, even if they don’t go on to work in an agency, they learn a lot of good skills, I think that probably makes them, you know, more sympathetic to agencies that they may hire somewhere down the road in their careers, or at least I would hope.

AMY: I hope so too. I hope so, too. Yeah,

AMY: No, I was gonna say, you know, one other part of the aspect of the course that I think just sort of ties into what you’re talking about is just this, not this notion of career management. And so we not only teach them how to do the work, we also focus on how to talk about it. And so we coach them through cover letters and resumes and interviewing and online portfolios and LinkedIn profiles, and it’s part of the class as well, so that, again, when they’re out there, even if they aren’t going to the agency, they can say, you know, the work that I did as an account Executive would be akin to and they can talk about those, those all those important transferable skills.

CHIP: That’s part of the process. Well, I think that’s part of a broader trend in higher education, too. I’m very active in my alma mater American University. And I know that there’s a lot of focus across higher education about helping students find that gainful employment, post graduation and giving them the skills not just in classroom theory and those sorts of things, but programs like PR lab and like the components that you’re doing to help them do career development that that are really so important to your your post college life.

AMY: Absolutely. In fact, we do one we spend one lecture on our day in the life of an agency panel and we bring in PR lab alums who are now working in an agency, yeah, four or five of them to come and do a career focus panel for them to just help them make that transition. Because you’re right, this is this is top of mind, whether they’re a sophomore A junior or their graduate student, they’re always concerned about what that next step is going to be.

CHIP: And their parents are too I do a lot of student perception activities, and the parents questions are always around it is Johnny gonna be out of my basement when he’s done. I don’t want him to have his own apartment, his own job, as

AMY: well. And it’s hard as a parent, because you might have friends whose children are in a business school and they’re securing a job before they even have their senior year of college. And it’s just not like that in our industry is you don’t ship it’s it’s, you have to wait until till you’re ready to work. Really? Because Yeah, that’s how the hiring cycle is.

CHIP: Nobody’s gonna hire your perspectively in this industry. It’s, that’s right. I want someone yesterday whenever I’m looking to hire exactly it. Yes, yes. And so that’s a message we share with our students and hope that they’ll relay that to the parents as well. Excellent. Well, this has been a great conversation, Amy. I really appreciate it if someone’s interested in learning more about PR lab. Where can they find out more about PR lab and about you?

AMY: Sure Our website is, bu for Boston university.edu slash PR lab. It’s that simple. And so they can see videos from the students read about some of the client work that is being conducted. And they can even reach out through the website to talk to some of our student leaders, because they are going to be some great catches. Let me tell you, if anyone’s looking to hire amazing folks. And then you can also reach out to Justin and I through the website, and then I’m on Twitter at Amy shandler.

CHIP: Excellent. Well, I really appreciate your time. And I’m sure that I know listeners here are folks who are hiring in their agency. So hopefully some of them will reach out and make some connections with your students. So

AMY: that sounds great. We welcome it. Thanks so much for inviting us chip. We’re just so glad to chat with you today.

CHIP: Excellent. My guest today has been Amy Shanler, the co-director of PRLab at Boston University.

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