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Guest speakers were always one of my favorite parts of teaching Principles of Public Relations in a traditional classroom. They invigorated my class with their real-world stories and advice that complemented the textbook and lesson plans. Every semester students would tell me how guests had influenced or inspired them. When I was converting the course to an online format, I wanted to include the guest speakers. My initial objectives were to: I considered a number of ways to incorporate the guests into the course. Although students would have more direct interaction through certain means—such as live Skype sessions in the classroom—the logistics of doing that could be complicated. Also, the interview sessions would have to be scheduled each time I taught the course, usually three times a year. I decided instead to take students on virtual field trips by recording interviews with each guest at his or her workplace and uploading the video files into the course modules. I wrote interview questions that corresponded with the textbook and the online course modules:
  1. Describe your professional background and how you got to where you are now.
  2. What is your title with your organization?
  3. Describe your role at the organization.
  4. What does your organization do?
  5. What role do ethics play in the public relations profession?
  6. Describe a public relations crisis and how it was handled.
  7. What's a typical workday like for you?
  8. What should students be doing to prepare for a career in public relations?
  9. What's your favorite part of your job?
I emailed the questions to the guests and asked them to keep their answers simple and short, like sound bites. To record the interviews, we used an iPhone, a tripod, and a Swivl robot, which is a device that holds the phone, allowing it to move and follow the subject. The robot also uses a remote microphone. We shot practice videos of each guest answering the introduction question. As the interviewer, I was not heard or seen on camera; I asked the questions off-camera. After each question, we recorded the answer and then paused the recording until I asked the next question. After the first few interviews, we started recording B-roll (supplemental footage) of the workplace, inside and out. This footage could be added to the interviews, such as by overlaying the screen with the tour while the speaker was talking, to break up the continuous shot of the speaker. We shot videos while standing on the ice in a hockey rink, walking down a busy downtown street, sitting in an art museum, and even while visiting a zoo. With the questions as a guide, we used iMovie to edit the raw video into shorter segments (less than five minutes) organized by the questions and added subtitles of the question to each video. We also added closed captioning through the YouTube function. Conducting the interviews became easier with each guest as we learned techniques that worked well, such as the following:
  1. Planning ahead ensures that the project goes smoothly. I saved a lot of time by emailing the guests to explain the project and the questions and by confirming appointments.
  2. The technology you use does not have to be complicated or intimidating. Some of the guests were surprised that we didn't arrive with heavy camera equipment, but the devices we used were sufficient and easy to use.
  3. Although one person could do this project, having two people work together saves time, especially during the editing phase.
  4. Coaching the subjects may be necessary. All of the people interviewed for this project had experience working with broadcast media outlets, so they knew how to talk to a camera. Coaching might include explaining how to answer in short, clear sentences and where to look during the interview. However, don't expect perfection; minor mishaps, even laughter, add to authenticity.
  5. Editing and adding the closed captioning are the most time-consuming parts of a project. If you're designing an online course, be sure to allow time for this.
  6. You don't have to be an experienced interviewer for this type of project. Prepare a script, if you wish, and rehearse before doing the interviews.
  7. Sound quality is the most important part of video recording. Eliminate background noises by checking for distractions before choosing a room for the interview. A good microphone is vital.
  8. Lighting is important. Avoid heavily shadowed rooms and use natural lighting when possible.
  9. Ask all interviewees the same questions. This makes editing and using the videos in a course easier.
  10. Use short videos. Students are more likely to watch videos that only last a few minutes. Ask interviewees to keep their responses short and to avoid pauses or other verbal distractions (like “um” or “uh”). During editing, cut or eliminate videos that that are too long or off-topic or that might be uninteresting to students.
This project was fun and I was excited to add the guests' experiences and diverse viewpoints to my course. I encourage others to try something similar or create interview assignments for students to share with the class. Dr. Sherri Johnson is a professor of mass communication at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond.