By Kevin Mouritsen
LOGAN—She’s the best in the state, and Courtney Schoen Lewis has the Golden Spike Award to prove it.
The Utah State University junior from Texas won those bragging rights after being named Utah Public Relations Student of the Year this week at the annual meeting of the Salt Lake-area Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC).
“Courtney Lewis is exactly the kind of student that this award represents,” said USU PR professor Troy Oldham “She is smart, hard-working and a good leader.”
PRSA Greater Salt Lake Chapter President Chad Saley agreed. “Courtney showed great intuition and had a good grasp of public relations strategies and tactics,” he said.
“At first I couldn’t believe I won because the other contestants were so high-caliber and extremely qualified,” said Lewis, one of four finalists from Utah universities. “But the more I think of it, the more I realize I had no excuse to lose: we have the best PR and communications professors in the state.”
As the first place winner, Lewis won the Golden Spike Trophy, 1 $1,000 prize, and an internship with Salt Lake City PR agency Intrepid, the state’s biggest. She and the other finalists were selected from a field of more than 20 contestants representing five universities competing for the coveted award.
Contestants in the annual competition create a public relations campaign for a real-world client. This year’s client was the non-profit Utah Food Allergy Network.
Lewis titled her campaign, “Know Your Plan with UFAN.” She says she spent roughly 15 hours just coming up with a campaign theme. After considering using “acronyms or cutesy word combinations,” she decided a clear and simple theme would be the best option.
Her campaign focused on children as the target audience. “I talked a lot about why children are the hope for the future and how they can help create a safer environment for those with food allergies,” said Lewis.
The competition was open to all college students from Utah universities and BYU-Idaho. The other three finalists represented Brigham Young University, Utah Valley University and Weber State.
“We are very pleased that an Aggie won the Utah Golden Spike PR Student of the Year Award,” said Oldham, “but it’s no surprise to anyone who knows about our program. Our students have always performed well in this tough and comprehensive competition.”
Preston Parker, adviser of USU’s Public Relations Student Society of American (PRSSA) chapter, of which Lewis is 2009-10 president, shared that sentiment: “USU PR students are recognized as some of the most prepared to enter the industry, and winning awards like this certainly validates this recognition,” Parker said.
In 2008, USU student Breea Heiner finished second in the regional competition, and USU’s Elizabeth Wortley took home the first-place prize in 2006.
“The application process is pretty intense,” Oldham said. “The competition involves submitting an application, including a proposed PR plan, along with strategic planning, creative design, detailed research and an objective-based media strategy.”
“Total, I probably spent no less than 100 hours working on my campaign,” said Lewis. “It really was a part-time job for a month and a half.”
To be considered for the award, contestants submitted a 10-page summary of their campaign approach, including a cover letter, an executive summary, a PR plan, a campaign timeline and a press release.
A panel of PR professionals judged the entries, and selected finalists from four different universities to present their campaign plans at a day-long competition on Nov. 14 in Salt Lake City.
During the presentations, Lewis and the other finalists formally presented their plans, pitched a news story to veteran KSL-TV reporter Jed Boal, wrote a press release on deadline, and managed a crisis situation. The judges asked finalists direct questions about their campaigns and provide one-on-one feedback.
“One day of this competition is comparable to what students might learn in a semester PR internship,” said Saley. “This is a learning experience unlike any other for those preparing for a communications career.”
Saley offered advice for those interested in next year’s Golden Spike competition, as well as for students heading into PR careers.
“Writing, writing, writing,” said Saley. “Writing is the key skill that every public relations professional needs to have. It is also important to remember that public relations includes media relations. Creating a concrete strategy for targeting media is a crucial part of most PR plans.”
At USU, Lewis is public relations assistant for the Caine School of the Arts. She and her fellow PR students are working hard in preparation for the Public Relations Regional Conference, which USU’s PRSSA chapter will host on campus in April.
“Courtney and the other PRSSA board members have worked hard to take the USU PR program to a higher level,” said group adviser Parker, who noted that hosting a nationally recognized professional public relations conference is a significant honor.