Public Relations Seniors Overcome Remote Challenges for a Successful Capstone Experience

Semester-Long Experience was Tied to First Amendment and May 4 Commemoration

Public Relations Campaigns is a rite of passage for any senior public relations major at Kent State.

Taught by Professor Michele Ewing, each semester, the capstone experience partners with a client to solve a real public relations challenge. Throughout the 15 weeks of the semester, classmates work together in teams to create a strategic communications plan, casebook and presentation, mimicking a real-life pitch they might work on in a communications role after graduation. The research, planning and creative work for the campaign strengthens students’ portfolios and helps them launch their careers in agencies, corporate communication, fashion, government, healthcare, nonprofit organizations, sports and many other industries. The experience also provides networking opportunities, as 12 alumni mentors work with the students, guiding them through the process.

“The Campaigns course is designed to help students transition from the classroom to the workplace,” Ewing said. “Many of my former students have shared that their Campaigns experience helped them land their first job – and that’s the ideal outcome.”

This year’s challenge aligned with Kent State’s 50th commemoration of the tragic events that occurred May 4, 1970. Students developed a strategic communications plan and were tasked with piloting an event/program that would increase students’ awareness and understanding of First Amendment freedoms. They worked with the School of Media and Journalism’s Media Law Center for Ethics and Access.

But as the coronavirus pandemic took hold of the country and Kent State shifted to remote instruction, this year’s seniors overcame unique challenges. Teams’ pilot programs could no longer be implemented. And their final presentations, traditionally in the Kent State Governance Chambers with family, friends and other professors present, became a Zoom Q&A with judges and clients.

The Zoom format created an opportunity to include senior public relations professionals beyond Northeast Ohio on the judging panel. Bethany (Early) Chieffallo, a 2007 Kent State graduate who works as a marketing director for a law firm in Washington D.C., judged the presentations and campaign plans. “It really took me back to my own campaign days and so many valuable lessons,” Chieffallo said. “I loved joining in and was very impressed by the professionalism, enthusiasm and creativity the students displayed.”

Graduating senior Olivia Eastly said that although the change was disappointing, “we couldn’t dwell on the opportunities we were missing out on.”

Her team, which earned the traditional bragging rights of “Judge’s/Client’s Choice,” focused on targeting student leaders, like Resident Assistants.

“We wanted to create a campaign that was targeted at groups that would be influential to their peers. We knew student leaders, especially RA’s and SSL’s, have an immediate connection with younger students,” Eastly said. “Since part of their job is to share the information they’ve learned about Kent State, we figured we could use that same principle to encourage them to spread accurate information about the First Amendment and the Media Law Center for Ethics and Access.” 

Macy Kittelberger, another graduating senior, and her team chose to target marginalized audiences. Their research indicated that oftentimes, marginalized populations feel more threatened to express First Amendment freedoms than majority populations and that they can struggle to gain traction in fighting for issues for which they care deeply.

“I think we were all disappointed and discouraged that our pilot campaign couldn’t be put into place because we were really counting on some additional research,” Kittelberger said. “We dove deeper into research and turned our pilot campaign into a tactic we highly recommended the Media Law Center for Ethics & Access use in the future.”

The team recommended a “Passport to Freedom” event to take place during the Kupita/Transiciones orientation program that would encourage students to visit different destinations on campus that advocate for First Amendment freedoms. They also proposed hosting a “Change My Mind” debate table (based on a famous meme) that would educate students about their press and petition freedoms.

“All in all, the experience likely prepared us for the future,” Kittelberger said. “Though it was difficult and frustrating, we made it work and are ultimately proud of what we were able to accomplish. Each group member was forced to be a better communicator during the pandemic, which allowed us to finish out strong.”

For Eastly, the support of her teammates throughout the process helped her get through a challenging end to her senior year.

“When someone was worried about an internship cancellation for the summer, we would support them. When a different member found a new internship, we celebrated with them. If someone needed to rant during a meeting, we let them do that,” she said. “Everyone was going through similar experiences, so we were able to empathize and help however we could. And we always tried to find something small to laugh or smile about. Trying to stay positive, even if it was only for a short period during the day, helped us keep our motivation high.”

The Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University supported the students’ work with a 1 For All Grant. Past clients for PR Campaigns have included the Cleveland Clinic, ideastream, the J.M. Smucker Company and more.

POSTED: Friday, July 31, 2020 - 12:12pm
UPDATED: Friday, July 31, 2020 - 12:12pm