• BEST IN STATE—Senior Courtney Schoen Lewis was named Best PR Student in Utah. Story

Student PR Agency means real-world experience

April 4th, 2010 Posted in Business

By Melanie Klein

LOGAN—Forget classrooms, 50-minute lectures, textbooks and multiple-choice bubble sheets. For about 20 senior public relations students at USU, the world is their classroom.

And these newborn PR professionals are teaching the world a thing or two as they tackle real-world customers ranging from on-campus clients like the Caine School (soon to be College) of the Arts, to sister-act recording artists The Falk Sisters, the National Park Service, and software manufacturer Pengala.

“The purpose of the Agency class is to give students a real-world opportunity to apply all the skills and teachings they have received in the program,” said PR instructor Troy Oldham, a former Microsoft executive who created JCOM 5320—PR Agency, as a senior capstone for the top PR students in the department.

The idea came from one of Oldham’s own college classes, in which students got to work with actual clients, earning real-world experience. “Students are able to take leadership roles, work directly with their clients, and help build a strong professional portfolio,” Oldham said.

Over the past six years, the Agency has landed bigger and more complex PR challenges, working for clients like ABC TV’s Extreme Home Makeover, Microsoft MSN, Airlaunch Aerospace Technology, and Kids Who Rip.

Students also the chance to work with the Summit Group, one of Salt Lake’s largest media relations agency, on team projects for Bajio, Subway, and the Salt Lake Marathon.

Although the Agency students do meet as a class, mostly the four- to six-member teams work independently, conferring with Oldham for guidance and meeting with their clients as the projects progress. Some of the work includes regular conference calls to distant clients, such as Pengala personnel in India from JCOM department head Ted Pease’s office phone.

Each semester, the Agency staff take on four or five new clients, each paying rates of between $1,000 and $4,000 for finished projects that Oldham says would cost many times that much in the real world.

“It’s a win-win arrangement,” Oldham said. “These clients are getting professional-quality work in branding, market research and publicity for a fraction of what they’re used to paying. The students get incomparable professional experience, networking opportunities and material for their portfolios that will help them land jobs when they graduate.”

The client fees go to pay for materials and expenses for the projects, Oldham said, with a portion of the fee going to the JCOM department for future Agency projects. In addition, every semester one of the Agency clients is pro bono, a project for non-profit groups or campus organizations.

Just getting into the Agency class is competitive, with senior PR students formally applying and interviewing for one of the 15 to 20 slots available each semester.

Students work hard to get into the Agency “for the experience,” as Kari Selin said. “I’m tired of lectures and wanted to do something real.”

Each Agency team is assigned a client, and these slots can be highly competitive as well. “As the word gets out, we really have more clients than we can handle,” Oldham said.

Each team includes a team lead, a creative director for the campaign, a creative director for writing, a media specialist, an events director, a research director and an interactive media director.

Social media is become a new area for the PR teams, and it’s an increasingly big part of the overall communications-marketing strategy, Oldham said.

Teams are creating a social media presence for their clients, press kits, and doing branding and marketing plans.

The Pengala team has particular challenges as they launch a campaign for the company in India. “Our goal is to promote Pengala, an educational software company, to help students prepare and study for college entrance exams,” said team lead Natalie Curtis.

Senior Colie Peterson says the Agency experience offers “great support but total independence.” Students consult with Oldham on their projects and get advice from Utah’s biggest public relations agency, Richter 7. Richter7 partner Tim Brown and other professionals come to campus to consult with the teams at various times during the semester, and assess the final projects at the end of the semester. “The best part about the Agency class is we don’t sit in a classroom and listen lectures or learn about PR from a book,” Curtis said. “We get to learn from our own experiences.”

Inspired by the Agency class experience, Curtis and other PR students have launched a permanent PR firm within the JCOM department. The firm, TrueBlue PR, is a student club that will serve as a professional media relations company that can provide continuity from semester to semester for clients who want to continue their relationship with the student professionals after the Agency class is over.

There are other concrete benefits to being part of the Agency class. Oldham estimates about 70 percent of the students get job offers or internship opportunities growing out of their work with the clients.

Students worked with the Utah Department of Agriculture on a number of campaigns, including designing a new logo.

“I enjoy seeing the maturity and professionalism that develops through the process,” Oldham said. “Most of our graduates are placed with the top agencies and organizations throughout the West. For example I was in Salt Lake early this week and I bumped into three different PR agency alumni who are all working in senior roles in great companies.

“From my point of view, that is what this program is about—preparing smart and motivated students to add real value in the industry,” said Oldham, who will leave the JCOM department for a position in the Huntsman School of Business in May. “We really have an amazing group of students and I will really miss teaching this course.”


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