Cross-cultural curriculum

This is an article by Alan Freitag.
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A scientific study comparing how European-American and native Chinese students interpret a photograph showed some profound cultural differences.  Asians see the world as socially more complex, while westerners are individualistic, paying less attention to things beyond the person in the photograph.

What has this to do with public relations practice?  Quite a lot, and practitioners who understand and plan for these subtle and not-so-subtle differences among nations and cultures will enjoy the greatest success and satisfaction in the decades ahead.  Additionally, they will contribute, as public relations practitioners ought, to making the world a better place.

Refining the curriculum

What’s needed, therefore, is continued refinement of university curricula to ensure public relations students and practitioners acquire and master the skills needed to compete in a global setting.  This article provides guidelines for an approach to education based on the author’s years of international experience in public relations practice as well as more than a decade immersed in developing an international public relations curriculum.

Public relations is practised by means of communication at all its levels: symbolic; non-verbal; verbal; interpersonal; small group; mass; etc.  Communication, in turn, is a fundamental component of culture; indeed, the terms may, some scholars maintain, almost be used interchangeably.  Consequently, a basic understanding of cross-cultural issues will permit an appreciation for the need to consider international public relations as presenting a unique set of challenges to the practitioner.

Several scholars have written on the topic of crafting cohesive and comprehensive courses in international public relations, and public relations programs are increasingly adding such a course to their curricula, offering recommendations for course structure (Culbertson & Chen, 1996; Acosta-Alzuru, 2003; DeSanto, 2003).  This article is based on our experience at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

My experience

I began designing a university course here in international public relations in early 2000, and first taught it on our campus in 2002; we have offered the on-campus course each year since.  In 2003, we added a London-based summer course version and have offered that four-week experience each year since as well.

We treat international public relations as an advanced elective course requiring previous grounding in public relations principles, strategies and tactics.  This permits the instructor to assume students’ reasonable mastery of fundamental public relations knowledge and a degree of application.  Students completing international public relations are likely to have one or two core courses remaining, and their new international awareness will aid in their weaving international concepts into those remaining courses.

We employ the following general sequence for the course:

  1. A review of general public relations principles: Roles and models; social forces that have driven and guided the development of the discipline; Components of practice; the traditional 4-step process; etc.  This permits later explanations of how unique social and other forces in various countries spawned equally unique variations of public relations practice.
  2. The introduction of cultural taxonomies: high-context/low context; power distance; individualism/collectivism; masculinity/femininity; acceptance of ambiguity; chronemics; proxemics; kinesics; etc.  This provides a baseline for comparing cultures and discussing how those differences affect mass and interpersonal communication processes.
  3. Comparative infrastructures such as media systems, legal systems, educational systems (including literacy), theories of the press, and ethical systems.  Again, this provides a metric to aid understanding of how these infrastructures affect public relations practice in other cultural settings.
  4. Having established a set of metrics by which to understand and delineate differences in public relations practice around the globe, we examine world regions, describing each in terms of those metrics.  I begin with Asia, then the Middle East, then Africa, then Latin America, then Eastern Europe, then Western Europe, then the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  Of course, an instructor could not possibly cover each nation in each region, so I focus on just two or three illustrative countries in each while making general observations about central tendencies in each region, cautioning students not to paint with too broad a brush.
  5. We conclude with discussions about ongoing trends such as globalisation and advances in technology, forecasting how those trends will continue to shape the profession. We also look at public relations education around the globe.

While lectures are necessary in the first few sessions to get the class up to speed and on equal footing, I swiftly make the shift to a more discussion-based, seminar-style approach.  I have students read chapters from course texts along with selected journal articles, then distribute discussion questions based on those readings in advance, typically via a class website.  The questions provide a framework for class discussion, but I don’t cling rigidly to each question if the course of the discussion takes us to interesting and worthwhile places.

As previous scholars have recommended for an international public relations course, guest speakers are a superb addition to the curriculum.  We identify practitioners with deep international experience from Fortune 500 companies, large PR firms, or with government or counselling experience relevant to the course.  I ask speakers to describe two or three “case studies” from their experiences then describe the principles each case reveals.  I have students research the speaker and the topic in advance, preparing two or three open-ended questions each to spur class discussion with the speaker (class participation is part of the grade).

In a 15-week semester, I will typically invite seven or eight guest speakers.  If you don’t have access to speakers of this level, consider inviting faculty colleagues on your campus who come from other countries; they can share cultural insights and will understand and contribute toward your pedagogical goals.  Alternatively, with fairly simple equipment you can arrange a conference call with a distant scholar or practitioner.


Assignments should match the advanced level of students in this class.  I engage students in activities that mix research with reflection and individual work with group projects.  For research, I typically have students work individually or in pairs to prepare a country study using the Zaharna (2001) framework as a model.  However, I permit students to choose either a formal written format or a “scrapbook” format; needless to say, most students choose the latter and thoroughly enjoy the experience as they explore a country such as Turkey or Argentina from a public relations viewpoint.  I’ll have slightly larger teams take on a case challenge applying a familiar campaign in an unfamiliar setting.  For example, I’ll have teams research and outline communication campaigns promoting safe driving in India, anti-smoking in Italy, or fighting child obesity in Israel.

There are two principal individual assignments I’ve found to be highly effective.  I have students write a paragraph or two after each class session, reflecting upon new concepts they’ve grasped or are struggling with, surprising things they’ve discovered about themselves, new ways to interpret past experiences, points garnered from assigned readings, etc.  Each week, I have them turn in a one page, bullet summary of their journals and share a point or two from them at the start of each class session.

The second individual assignment is for each student to acquire a conversation partner from a culture other than his/her own (I must approve their choices).  In a full semester course, each student must conduct four one-hour conversations with his/her partner, and I provide guidelines for each discussion.  The first session focuses on social and personal relationships, the second on mutual stereotypes about the other’s culture and country, political structures, formal education structures, community activism, the military, environmental issues, economic structures, faith and religion.  The third session concerns describing, comparing and contrasting media structures and media uses/roles, the role and nature of advertising, popular culture, and perceptions of the public relations profession.   The final session addresses communication patterns the student observed during the conversations, both verbal and nonverbal, and explores how those styles might influence other cultural dimension and syndromes.  Students prepare and share reports of their conversations, always generating active class discussion.  The conversations also frequently lead to ongoing international friendships as well as the razing of individual barriers to cross-cultural exchange.

Four-week course in London

Adapting the full semester course for application in a short-term education abroad setting presents some difficult challenges and some extraordinary opportunities.  We’ve successfully marketed and conducted our four week course in London for a number of years and expect to continue doing so.  The overseas version of our international public relations course differs from the campus course not only in its truncation but also in a major way in its content.  We’ve designed the London course to have the students exposed as much as possible to public relations practice in highly international settings in and around the city.  Each year’s four-week session is unique, but typical activities include visits to corporate headquarters of the world’s most important companies, the US Embassy, the BBC, and major public relations firms.  As with the campus course, we have students research each venue in advance and prepare discussion questions.  We will also bring in three or four guest speakers during the four-week course, speakers who represent a cross section of the London public relations scene.  Of course, a day or two of classroom teaching is necessary between site visits and guest speakers to provide students with the theoretical underpinning and the background that enable them to more fully understand and gain from the experiences.

Assignments for the London course vary slightly in expected ways from the on-campus course.  I still require the conversation partner project, but I reduce the conversations from four to two.  As we conduct the course in an internationally-focused university, students have no difficulty acquiring a partner.  I require the journaling as well, and add recommendations for students to incorporate their observations of their surroundings.  I also assign a group project that provides a meaningful and motivating goal linked to their experience.  Most recently, I had the class of 18 students design, build and publish a simple website depicting their experience in the class.  In just a few weeks, and with other course responsibilities, they were able to prepare a credible site (, and the 2008 class added its own site (

The need for “third culture practitioners” is bound to increase, not diminish.  Public relations educators everywhere are needed to expand that cadre.  With a growing body of literature, both texts and articles, even instructors lacking the benefit of overseas experience can comfortably enter this arena.  Equipping entry-level practitioners with the fundamental skills to succeed in our profession increasingly demands that those skills include navigating the complexities of planning and conducting effective communication across borders and cultures.  Designing and incorporating an international course on campus, abroad or both, is essential to rendering graduates competitive in a global setting.

Photography by Victoria Louise Crampton

Acosta-Alzuru, C. (2003). Teaching international public relations in the U.S. In L.M. Sallot, & B.J. DeSanto (Eds.), Learning to Teach (pp. 401-421). New York: PRSA.

Culbertson, H.M., and Chen, N. (1996). Public relations education in the United States: Can it broaden international students’ horizons?  In H.M. Culbertson, & N. Chen (Eds.), International Public Relations: A Comparative Analysis (pp. 397-415). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Desanto,  B. (2003).  Teaching international public relations abroad.  In L.M. Sallot, & B.J. DeSanto (Eds.), Learning to Teach (pp. 389-400). New York: PRSA.

Zaharna, R.S. (2001).  ‘In-awareness’ approach to international public relations.  Public Relations Review, 27, 135-148.


  1. Nathaniel Southworth-Barlow says:

    Kress and van Leuwin in “Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design” describe ‘apparent’ differences between images in western and eastern societies. For example eastern societies appeared to show a preference for ‘circular designs’ – an image in the centre surrounded by satellite images say. They stress, however, that their research was rooted in western culture and that they had insufficient evidence to draw conclusions.

    The book itself, whilst scholarly, is easy to read and an excellent introduction to the language of advertising.


  1. […] We look at the growth of international public relations. Valentina Nobili has tried managing pan-European campaigns, and thinks the mess and complexity can resemble a bowl of spaghetti. Nathaniel Southworth-Barlow experienced public relations in Transylvania on a summer placement. Dan Nicholls advises on hiring consultants to support your international campaigns, and Alan Freitag describes how to internationalise the public relations curriculum. […]

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