Semester of Service: Service as a Sustainable Part of Public Relations Education at South Carolina 

By Brooke McKeever with contributions from Ernie Grigg, Holly Ott, Jeff Ranta, and Lisa Sisk

Service is part of every semester in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications (SJMC) at the University of South Carolina, and Spring 2017 is no exception. Whether it is through PRSSA, Bateman Team, or courses like PR Campaigns and Crisis Communications, USC public relations students can be found working with a variety of causes and nonprofit organizations on local, state, and national levels. Some of the highlights of this work are described below to help celebrate Semester of Service. Please continue sharing your updates with us by sending an email to brookew@sc.edu or chriswilson@byu.edu or by using #PRDServe on social media and tagging @AEJMC_PRD.

The Carolina Agency

The Carolina Agency, a full-service, student-run agency at the University of South Carolina, has been busy serving a variety of clients this semester. Celebrating its 11th year, The Carolina Agency (TCA) has served more than 85 separate clients since its inception, contributing more than 20,000 hours of service and winning more than 24 professional awards from IABC, PRSA and PR News. In Spring 2017, students in TCA are working with Professor Jeff Ranta to help multiple new and returning clients.

For instance, The South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind Foundation, formerly the Walker Foundation, has been a perennial recipient of TCA students’ efforts. This semester TCA members are assisting Foundation Director, Ann Akerman, with groundbreaking ceremonies for a new, specialized playground geared to serve those with sight and hearing disabilities. About working with students in TCA, Akerman, said: “I have always enjoyed our work with TCA.  The students contribute energy and creativity to every project. They are a valuable resource that we could not match anywhere else.”

What do hot sauce and veterans’ service organizations have in common?  At TCA, The General’s Hot Sauce has been a long-term client of the student agency’s attention.  TGHS is an epicurean delight, crafted in South Carolina by a group of veterans, sourced from peppers grown exclusively in the U.S. Using the tagline, a great sauce for the greater good, the company was founded by Naval Academy veterans to honor one of their fellow alumni who is known for giving back and currently serves as a general in the United States Marine Corps.  Similar to the Newman’s Own™ brand of sauces and condiments, TGHS gives to charity all funds raised that are not intrinsically involved with the management of the company. TCA is celebrating its third semester of involvement with TGHS and is busy creating educational videos about the company and its products. Recipients of TGHS contributions include Paws4Vets, a charity that provides service dogs for vets with PTSD or other service-related conditions.

Another nonprofit client TCA is helping this semester is Leeza’s Care Connection, founded by Hollywood celebrity, Leeza Gibbons, who happens to be from Columbia, SC, and an alumna of the University of South Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communications. Leeza’s Care Connection is a place where day-to-day health care providers for patients with serious, life-long or life-ending conditions can find support, assistance, and understanding. TCA students are working with the organization to support caregivers through a memory-makers video project, a day of giving fundraising effort, and a Dare 2 Care Fair in June 2017, where the greater Columbia community is encouraged to provide displays of caring and compassion.

What can you do with hundreds of gallons of used fryer oil?  Students at The Carolina Agency found out when they launched Naturally Carolina soap. Thanks to a pro-sustainability outlook, a small grant and a mission-forward approach, a team of University of South Carolina staff partnered with a local biodiesel manufacturer to source their used cooking oil from across campus and convert it to biodiesel.  The process, called transesterification, transforms the cooking oil to a product that is combined with diesel and then used to power the many transportation requirements for USC’s large, urban campus.  A byproduct of the conversion process is glycerin, a key ingredient in most bath soaps. By combining the glycerin with skin care oils and natural dyes and fragrances, the waste byproduct becomes a new revenue stream for the program and provides an opportunity to tell the recycling story in a fresh, new way. Soaps are designed in distinctive shapes that include U of SC’s Block C and intertwined CS logos as well as others.

The Carolina Agency has provided services to the soap initiative through logo design, packaging, collateral marketing materials, product photography and social media/website designs including Facebook, Etsy and the soap’s primary website, www.naturallycarolina.org.

“We have really appreciated the services The Carolina Agency has provided us. We are much farther down the road to making this a viable company thanks to the help we have received from TCA,” said Naturally Carolina Founder, Tom Syfert.

PRSSA

Each semester the USC PRSSA chapter participates in at least one service initiative. This semester, the officers will participate in the Curing Kids Cancer Firetruck Pull on Saturday, April 8.  The event will raise funds to support innovative cancer research through Curing Kids Cancer, a nonprofit organization founded by Clay Owen, an alumnus of the USC SJMC, and his family.

The USC PRSSA students also recently participated in the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF). PRSSA students raised money and participated in the walk to support JDRF’s work to cure, prevent, and treat type 1 diabetes. Additionally, PRSSA members are conducting outreach sessions to help educate area high school students about service opportunities in public relations. The PRSSA chapter is advised by Professors Ernie Grigg and Holly Ott.

Bateman Team

The 2017 USC Bateman team developed a campaign focused on mental health awareness in the military community.  To lead the campaign, the team worked with Professor Ernie Grigg to create the South Carolina Coalition of Military Mental Health Awareness, a statewide network of organizations dedicated to raising awareness about the benefits of treatment and normalizing the conversation surrounding mental health and emotional well-being within the military community. It is a central resource for veterans and active duty service members to learn about existing resources throughout the state.

During the one-month execution period, the coalition used a combination of earned, social, and paid media to complement events, including a 5K run and panel discussion. As part of the campaign, the City of Columbia declared February 24 Military Mental Health Day.

One of the students on this year’s Bateman team, Lauren Buckingham, said: “I have been humbled and touched from working with so many dedicated organizations to improve mental health awareness in the military community.”

Service Learning Classes

Many of the PR Campaigns classes at USC involve service learning and working with nonprofit organizations. In Professor Lisa Sisk’s class, students create individual campaign plans. Some of the clients her students are working with this semester include national organizations, such as Ronald McDonald House and Keep America Beautiful’s clean water initiative, and more local organizations such as Palmetto Conservation Foundation, City Roots, and Carolina Wildlife Center.

Students in Professor Holly Ott’s course are working with Palmetto Place Children’s Shelter, Midlands Authority for Conventions, Sports, and Tourism, Heroes in Blue, South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, and Camp T.A.L.K. Students conducted in-depth interviews and survey research to gather valuable information to create creative content for clients. Student contributions have included building and launching websites, revising social media strategy, creating promotional materials (e.g., infographics, video testimonials, etc.) and creating strategic plans for fundraising, outreach, and programming.

Similarly, students in Professor Brooke McKeever’s class are working with two start-up nonprofit organizations this semester and have completed research and moved on to the campaign planning phase, including creating visual and video components for the clients and advising them on website and social media strategy. The two clients, i3 and Project Cyma, were founded by USC faculty and alumni, respectively, and specifically sought out current SJMC students’ help because they had heard good things about previous work.

One client working with USC SJMC students through service learning classes said, “We are thrilled to be able to develop partnerships with USC students. We have been searching for direction and for opportunities to collaborate with the university, and we look forward to strengthening our network across campus in the future.”

And of course, one of the reasons faculty love service learning is because it is a “win-win” for nonprofit organizations and students alike. One student commented: “Working with a nonprofit client has opened my eyes to what public relations is all about. It is so rewarding to piece together things I’ve learned throughout my years here at USC to create a research-based campaign that will actually benefit a real client!”

Finally, students in Crisis Communications, an upper-level elective offered by the USC SJMC are developing a crisis communications plan for Curing Kids Cancer, which does not currently have a crisis plan in place. Students will apply theory, principles and best practices as they create their final projects for the client, under Professor Lisa Sisk’s guidance.

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