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WVU Capstone Healthcare PR Course is Real-World!

By Chuck Harman and Mike Fulton

Many Journalism students understandably focus their senior year on job hunting and career dreams, along with having some fun and creating memories.

All of those lofty goals can be achieved with a demanding, yet rewarding capstone class that offers the chance to put it all together – the skill sets of your collegiate career matched with a “real-world”  experience.

Our innovative, evolving healthcare public relations capstone at West Virginia University P.I. Reed School of Journalism is designed to simulate a real world PR agency and to encourage students to strive to deliver professional quality work in a competitive atmosphere.  Our model includes an instructor who works in the healthcare sector, a professional who provides valuable mentoring, and an engaged client.

The WVU students have tackled some complex issues for their clients, whose geography and reach span West Virginia, national and international boundaries.  Projects have included:

  • Statewide education and awareness campaigns for cancer clinical trials, oral health, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity and testicular cancer;
  • Promotion of a unique therapeutic horsemanship program for people with disabilities;
  • Projects for national corporations involved in senior living and pharmaceuticals;
  • Promotion of European Patients' Rights Day for an Italian advocacy organization (included a trip to Italy); and
  • Development and implementation of an outreach campaign for Ireland’s largest mental health NGO (included a trip there).

Students in the class feel the same pressures as professionals: tight deadlines, demanding clients, limited budgets and team dynamics.  But unlike most established professionals, they also have to learn the nuts and bolts of working as a professional, joining an agency and delivering creative, measureable results.  Plus, their only compensation is the satisfaction of a job well done and a good grade.

We have been fortunate to have had many talented students who are now employed by leading PR agencies, trade associations, hospitals and universities.  The students feel empowered by the class from the very beginning. 

This year we are planning to step up our game.  We will offer our students five outside PR professionals as guest speakers as well as more structure to help them succeed.  However, it all starts with a great client, and we have that – thanks to Chad Hyett, Senior Vice President of Porter Novelli in New York (a WVU graduate who had this very capstone course his senior year).  The class will work with Porter Novelli to provide public relations expertise to the Family Reach Foundation, a national non-profit organization that supports families whose loved ones have cancer.

Initially, the students will break into three small agencies and present their capabilities to Porter Novelli and the client.  Once the agencies’ capabilities statement is approved by the client, they will receive the official RFP.  If it is not accepted, they have to start over while the other agencies move ahead.  Students tend to embrace this type of competition, and it certainly prepares them for the rough and tumble nature of the public relations profession. 

Despite the demands of the instructor, mentor and client, we all keep in mind that we are operating in an academic environment and not on Madison Avenue. Mistakes can be positioned as “teaching moments” and offer rich opportunities for learning value lessons that are hard to explain in text books.

We are confident our fall class  that convened on August 22 will meet and exceed expectations.  We’ll provide an update at the end of the semester on the results of this campaign.  Stay tuned.

Chuck Harman, APR, is a senior lecturer at West Virginia University P.I. Reed School of Journalism, where he teaches the healthcare capstone class, and Mike Fulton mentors the class from an agency perspective.  Mike also teaches an online Public Affairs course for the School’s Integrated Marketing Communications program.  Chuck’s full-time job is National Director, Strategic Alliances and Development at NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness).  Mike is President of the Washington, D.C. Office of The Arnold Agency.  They can be reached at and