When Boston University’s PRLab was founded in 1978, the goal was to provide students with an internship-like experience that didn’t require them leaving campus. Now operating as the country’s oldest student-run public relations agency, the PRLab has evolved into much more than that—providing an experience far beyond the traditional internship.
“When part of a larger team or a larger marketing organization, sometimes interns don’t get to do as much work,” says Boston University Visiting Associate Professor Amy Shanler, director of the PRLab. “Our students are doing the work, they’re running the account teams, they’re leading the whole initiatives.”
Throughout the semester, students work with a wide variety of local clients, ranging from small startups to nonprofit groups, serving as the account executives, account supervisors, vice president or president found at any actual PR agency. To meet objectives, students draft media materials, analyze trends, manage social media, plan major events or carry out whatever else their client needs.
“This allows them to take on a little more responsibility than they would at any other internship,” says Boston University student Julia Lytle, PRLab’s co-president of operations. Instead of “Intern,” Lytle notes students can put on their resume “Account Executive, Goodwill,” because that better suits the real-world experience they were given.
Goodwill is one of dozens of big-name brands that have asked—and paid—to be a part of PRLab. Others include Ben & Jerry’s, General Motors, the Boston Athletic Association and, this year, women’s hockey team the Boston Blades, the first U.S. team in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
Last semester, Ben & Jerry’s launched the #PintProject, a campaign aimed at encouraging customers to use their empty pints as something creative, all because of the PRLab. Other students helped create “Goodwill Not Landfill,” a movement meant to encourage fellow undergraduates to donate everything they were going to throw out at at the end of the school year to Goodwill. Boston University diverted 61.31 tons of reusable items following last year’s campaign.
At the beginning of every semester, PRLab holds a client fair, giving students the chance to meet the new brands on board. From there, both the clients and students jot down the names of who they would like to work with, and the PRLab’s executive board puts together the teams. Then, students outline the objectives they plan to meet for clients and then get to work on executing, sending in weekly activity reports detailing what they’ve accomplished.
Shanler, who stepped in as director over the summer, acknowledges they recently made changes to the program “to achieve more regular, predictable client communication.” Beyond submitting weekly activity reports, students also undergo mid-semester and end-of-semester check-ins.
“One of my key objectives is to make sure all of the clients receive the same high level of consistent service,” Shanler says. “For them to see that progress each week, it helps build a level of trust and a level of comfort.”
Shanler, who’s worked as the director of public relations for brands like Staples and Philips North America, admits she wishes she had participated in PRLab when she was a student at Boston University. In the short time she’s served as director, she’s seen her students’ professionalism and work ethic fuel the program, as they’re taking what they’ve learned inside the classroom and applying it to real-world situations.
“I’ve had internships in the past when it’s [getting] coffee and doing paperwork for the clients,” says student Rachel Goldstein, PRLab’s director of administration and marketing. “We’re actually doing work and we’re making decisions. We don’t need to ask a supervisor.”
Goldstein adds that, because the PRLab is student-run, it’s collaborative. To Shanler, however, the students bring an added element of power.
“Today’s students are so much more savvy,” Shanler says. “They understand multimedia, social media and traditional media. They’re the whole package.”
Students have just started meeting with their clients—some new to the program and some who’ve reaped the rewards and returned for more help. For the new clients, the goal will be to show them what the power of PR can do, and how it can make an organization grow.
“I’m excited to look at those final recap reports and feel proud of all the accomplishments the students achieved for these clients,” Shanler says, reiterating the program’s strength. “PRLab is a win-win for both the clients and the students, and that’s why it’s persisted and grown since its early days. For the client, they’re getting access to the best and brightest PR students. … For the student, they’re getting real world implementation experience.”
For an inside look at the PRLab’s latest client fair, check out the photos below.