Shaping Town-Gown Relations: PR Students’ Work Has Real Impact for University, City

Kent State public relations seniors helped lay the groundwork for future partnerships between the university and the city of Kent. And today, many of their ideas are coming to life. 

Students in the Media and Journalism capstone course Public Relations Campaigns (taught by Professor Michele Ewing) partnered with the newly formed Kent State Office of University Outreach and Engagement as their client during the Spring 2021 semester. The office was established in June 2020 to enhance town-and-gown relationships with the city of Kent, among other things.

In teams of six, students worked on the public relations challenge to develop a communication campaign for the Office that would foster increased engagement and meaningful two-way communication among its target audiences: the city of Kent business community and K-12 pipeline partnerships.

Students shared what they learned and recommended at a virtual presentation to university and city leaders, including Dana Lawless-Andric, Ph.D., Associate Vice President of University Outreach and Engagement, who worked closely with the teams throughout the semester.

The partnership “couldn’t have been at a better time,” Lawless-Andric said. Because the office was newly established, students had a blank slate for creativity and offering input about public relations and communications strategy.

“It was really an ideal opportunity because there wasn't much done yet in terms of public relations strategy,” Ewing said. “So, for (the students) it was a valuable experience about what it’s like to be part of a start-up.”

Teams recommended tactics like social media content and online brand awareness. They also brainstormed ideas that would connect campus to downtown.

Public relations alumna Katie Thompson, ’21, now a marketing coordinator for Visit Dublin Ohio, was part of a team that recommended a downtown Kent welcome kit for incoming freshmen. Alumna Katie Null, '21, collegiate development consultant for Delta Gamma Fraternity, and her team suggested downtown events like football watch parties and tailgates, a freshman scavenger hunt and volunteer days.

These recommendations were based on research that indicated that students do not have much awareness of downtown Kent, aside from the bars. With that in mind, in 2021, the Office of University Outreach and Engagement was part of a Discover Downtown event during Welcome Week, to introduce new students to all that downtown offers.

Other teams also recommended tactics that are now in place or being explored:

  • A listserv that connects the university and area businesses now has more than 100 subscribers.
  • Opportunities for locally owned businesses to sponsor university initiatives have been created for the downtown winter attraction Kent Skates and Kent State Farmers’ Market last fall.
  • The university is exploring ways to establish a presence downtown through art. During Homecoming 2021, the parade route was painted; a mural is also being explored.

“One of the things I enjoyed the most ... was how open (the Office of University Outreach and Engagement) were to our ideas throughout the entire process. Since they were a newer addition to the university when they were our client, it gave us a lot of room to play around with what this department could become,” Thompson said.

Lawless-Andric said Discover Downtown and other initiatives that came from students’ research — from website and social media content, to email newsletters, to partnership programs — are now part of the office’s foundation and will be used in years to come.

“I think it's helped shape the bones of who we are,” she said. “And so from the beginning, because of the timing of this, it's helped us define and set us up in a way where the core of those project elements are part of what we do.”

PR students on Zoom
Alumni mentors
Above: Teams of students (top) met with alumni professional advisors (bottom) virtually as part of the Public Relations Campaigns course.

Because of the pandemic, most of the work the students did was virtual — working in teams, conducting focus groups, presenting their findings. This in-depth virtual work prepared them, Ewing said, for conducting virtual job searches and remote work. Thompson said her experience in the class also gave her a lot to talk about with future employers.

“The most prevalent experience was the leadership skills I gained during the process,” she said. “While the strategic communication and storytelling skills I learned have helped me tremendously in my current role, the confidence I gained in myself has been the most beneficial.”

And for Null, the experience prepared her for things like teamwork, budgeting, time management and research — all of which are part of her current role at Delta Gamma.

"I regularly write reports that are sent to upper level management and volunteers," she said, "and I can be confident in my writing skills and ability to form logical and realistic plans and goals for the Delta Gamma chapters that I work with."

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 1, 2022 - 12:39pm