By Bonnie Silvestri, JD, Director of Strategic Communications
Dr. Kelly Page Werder, Associate Professor of Mass Communications, has fully integrated service-learning into her coursework. She firmly believes it is crucial for students in her courses to gain real-world experience and to feel a sense of civic responsibility for the Tampa Bay community. Over the past several years, her students have developed strategic communications plans for over eighty local and campus organizations.
Werder realized early on in her teaching career that her field, an applied discipline, which prepares students to become public relations and advertising professionals, is ideally suited to the service-learning pedagogy. Rather than assigning students hypothetical case studies of organizations, she gets them involved in examining real, current issues faced by local organizations in our community.
This is a clear win-win. Students need relevant hands-on experience and networking opportunities to prepare for their careers; and the non-profit organizations often don’t have the personnel or financial resources to engage in the kind of high-level communications planning that for-profit businesses, many of which will ultimately be employing her students, are able to leverage for their short-term and long-term sustainability.
Werder is well aware that not-for-profits have suffered in the current economic climate and that public relations and advertising is often a luxury, particularly when the organization may be struggling just to keep the lights on. She felt strongly that service-learning, through which students go out into the community and provide their knowledge and skills to organizations as part of the course curriculum, is an appropriate instructional model for her courses.
Depending on the course, the structure may change slightly, but generally her students work in teams and function as a full-service agency cohort, with students taking on the roles of research managers, creative directors, financial analysts, event planners, and web specialists. They work directly with their clients in the community to come up with a creative and useful plan in the best interests of the organization.
She helps students overcome the common inclination to want to know exactly what they need to do to “make the grade” in a class and instead learn that they must flow with the variables that come with working with real organizations. This is an important life-lesson that cannot come from a learning model focused on hypothetical organizations designed by a professor.
All of the communications plans are fully researched and evidence-based. For example, her students developed a social marketing plan on behalf of the Tampa Alcohol Coalition, which required that they create a culture shift to reduce the number of drunk driving fatalities in our region. The students conducted a research study, with both qualitative and quantitative components, to arrive at the best strategy to reach those the coalition most wanted to educate. The fact that they were students, who were among those most crucial to reach with the campaign, made them ideally suited to the work.
Werder said, “Given their unique insight and their cutting-edge measurement and evaluation, the students developed a campaign that would cost thousands of dollars if produced by a professional agency.”
Werder goes through a vetting process to ensure that the not-for-profit organizations, ranging from The Women’s Resource Center of Tampa to the Sulphur Springs Museum and Heritage Center, are solvent and well-managed so that it will be a positive working arrangement for the students and the organizations. It’s about managing expectations on both ends for the best possible outcome. She currently has a waiting list of organizations seeking to work with her classes.
Recently, her graduate students completed a major strategic communications plan on behalf of the Brandon Outreach Clinic and presented the plan to Debbie Meegan, Executive Director and board member.
The students conducted interviews with Meegan and members of the board, as well as staff, volunteers, clients of the clinic, donors, and local business owners to assess the current brand management and to develop a one-year plan to improve communications with various constituents. Students said that everyone interviewed truly believed in the mission of the organization and one student described it as a “place of benevolence.”
The students assessed the strengths and weaknesses of the organization and helped the leaders see where there were opportunities to build on what was already a very strong brand. The students developed a highly detailed and comprehensive plan including a suggestion for a “virtual press room,” methods for ramping up social media campaigns, and a beautifully rendered video that captured the spirit of the organization. The students also recommended a brilliant monthly giving strategy called a “co-pay plan,” where donors to the clinic could make small donations, which could help ensure that those who cannot afford health care could get the help they need at the clinic.
Meegan raved about the work of the students and the entire experience. She confessed that during the initial meeting with the students, “I threw out everything I wanted, it was a ‘Christmas wish list,’” including a new logo and a desire for a video that would capture the work of the organization that she had wanted for the past seven years but couldn’t afford.
Meegan said she was “absolutely thrilled with the product” which met every one of her requests and more. “I’m not sure we could get something like that if we paid for it.” She also noted that the students expressed what a positive experience it was for them to work with clients, particularly the volunteers, who were so passionate about the work they are doing. She said her volunteers are so dedicated, they get upset when the clinic closes on national holidays because they want to be sure the people who need services are getting them. Sickness, after all, never takes a holiday.
Werder believes that the opportunity to work directly with clients and develop relationships with them is extremely important because the students “can see the impact and the power they have in influencing society.” They are able to work with under-represented and under-served communities and provide them with first-rate service that is so crucial to these organizations and the communities they represent. The students see the difference they can make when they use their skills in a positive way.
Werder feels that people often think of public relations and advertising experts as “spin doctors” able to change public opinion with a profit-based mission, such as the famous campaign BP engaged in to change public opinion after the oil spill. Instead, she wants students to see that when they operate with integrity and ethics they can make a major change in the world around them using their unique expertise.
Also during the spring semester, Werder was the faculty champion of the Academy for Teaching and Learning Excellence Faculty Learning Community (“FLC”) focused on service-learning. The group met six times over the 2013-14 academic year, culminating in Werder’s presentation of the research at the 25th International Conference on College Teaching and Learning that she, Andrea Lypka, and the rest of the FLC developed through a pilot study called “Exploring Faculty Perceptions of Service-Learning at a Research One University.”*
Werder plans to expand the study in the fall to better assess what USF leadership, the Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships, and other key faculty, who are heavily involved in using service-learning models in the classroom, can do to enhance service-learning opportunities campus-wide. Her preliminary findings are that, although most faculty members have a positive perception of service-learning, many are concerned about potential barriers to integrating the pedagogical model into their classes.
That’s where the Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships and faculty champions like Werder come in. She said, “Service-learning is an instructional model I care a lot about, and I’m proud of the meaningful contribution our mass communication students make to the university and the Tampa Bay community.” Stay tuned for more on Werder’s recent Strategic Communications Management graduate seminar.
* To read the preliminary results of the study, click here.