Getting PRactice

Grady College public relations students get hands-on experience through a student-run agency

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Getting  PRactice

From left: Senior public relations and womens’ studies major Paula Bryant of Watkinsville, junior advertising and psychology major Katelyn Fish of Alpharetta and senior public relations major Ashely Biondich of Alpharetta use Skype to consult with client Shannon Short about a public relations strategy for Short’s business, Girls Get Real.

Photo by: Andrew Davis Tucker

A Chick-fil-A in a college town should have no problem attracting nugget-craving students, right?

So when the Chick-fil-A franchise in east Athens—a mere two miles from campus—realized that most students were satisfying their chicken sandwich urges on the other side of town, they were eager to work with a team of smart, young professionals to improve their student-oriented promotions. And what better public relations consultants than UGA students, the demographic they’re working to attract?

Creative Consultants team members Hannah Berle and Megan Beavers work the t-shirt color voting station at Chick-fil-A’s Surf N’ Shirt college night as UGA students Chase Duff and Austin Bentley (left to right) place their votes. College nights allow students to buy one entrée and get one free with their student ID and have attracted more students to the Barnett Shoals location.

The team of students researched how college students like to be contacted (Facebook is king) and promoted events geared toward college students, such as 1 a.m. breakfasts during final exams and college nights, where entrees are buy one get one free. Wrenn Hoover, marketing and public relations director at the eastside Chick-fil-A, says she has noticed more student customers since the team began working with them as well as an increase in overall exposure—they even brought TV news crews to some events.

A special “Spice and Shake” college night to benefit UGA philanthropies brought in more than any other previous college night event.

“They blew our record number in sales by $800, which is incredible,” Hoover says. “They blew us out of the water with their event."

This team is part of Creative Consultants, an organization offered through the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, which provides public relations students an opportunity to do real work with real clients while in school. The clients, including local businesses and nonprofit organizations, get marketing research and public relations campaigns that would cost thousands of dollars if done by professional consultants.

Now more than a decade old, Creative Consultants operates under the Public Relations Student Society of America chapter at UGA. Students run the “agency” as a professional business, working in teams of staffers and reporting to an executive director.

Currently there are 100 staffers that work with 14 clients—ranging from national companies like Chick-fil-A to student organizations such as the women’s ultimate Frisbee team. Each client has an account executive, a junior account executive and four to six staffers on their team.

This internal structure, part of an overall restructuring that executive director Lauren Hughes spearheaded last summer, has increased the accountability of staffers and encourages communication among members.

Ashley Biondich, a senior public relations major, is the account executive for Girls Get Real, an organization founded by Shannon Short (BBA ’86) to help college women realize their opportunities and feel empowered to defy stereotypical roles.

“I think the key to our success is communication, making sure that we align what the team knows they’re doing with what Shannon wants us to be doing,” Biondich says.

Short came to Creative Consultants for help getting her message out.

Chick-fil-A’s campus relations director Lauren Locher (ABJ ’11) and Haley Cartey, 10, take time out from eating “mor chikin” to have a hula-hoop contest, as Creative Consultants team members Katie Sykes and Hannah Berle look on.

“When I came in, it was really all about getting exposure,” she says.

She began working with the Creative Consultants team, led by Biondich and junior account executive Katelyn Fish, in the fall of 2010 to rebrand the group and herself, update the website and get firsthand feedback from college women—her target demographic.

“We decided the first thing we needed to do was research—it’s the foundation of any PR campaign,” Biondich says. “We looked at and defined our target audience, our objective, and then decided that we wanted to conduct a focus group.”

Although none of the staffers had experience with focus groups, they reviewed textbooks, researched online, developed a detailed plan and hosted a focus group of 10 young women in October. Afterward, they reviewed the findings and used them to map out a plan of action, which they presented to Short as well as the Creative Consultants directors.

During the second semester, the team worked with Short and a web designer to create a website that college-aged women would find appealing, understandable and legitimate.

Forging a positive relationship like that with the client is just one skill that Hughes believes Creative Consultants teaches its staffers.

“They really learn a lot—like really invaluable stuff—that you would just not get in any other experience,” says Hughes, a senior communication studies major. “There’s more to it than just an internship where you have some interaction with people, you don’t really have ownership over a lot. But with this, they own all of it. And at the end of the day, their name is stamped on it.”

That ownership also gives students something to discuss and show potential employers in an increasingly competitive job market.

“We can pull that [website] up…and say, ‘We did this. We designed this.’ That is a product that you can see that we produced,” Biondich says.

They’re also producing tangible results for their clients. Rent the Runway, a national website that allows people to rent designer dresses for special events, has seen a spike in business from UGA since they sponsored fashion shows and an Academy Awards viewing party in Athens—suggestions from its Creative Consultants team.

UGA is consistently one of the top campuses in terms of rentals, and numbers of rentals have increased significantly since the Creative Consultants team began to represent them. In fact, UGA students have rented more than 1,000 dresses in the past year, according to A.J. Nicholas, director of public relations at Rent the Runway.

Initially the students had to solicit clients who needed marketing and public relations assistance. Now clients come to them. They even received a query from MARTA, the Atlanta area public transportation system. They had to decline the client, because Hughes says they don’t have the budget or staff right now to produce a full campaign for such a large company.

They also have seen contributions to the program increase as their success becomes better known. While the organization asks clients for a $25 donation, most give at least $100, Hughes says.

“We got a great amount of support from our clients, which I think says a lot about what they think of our program and what they think of our students,” she says, “and what they think of the work we’re putting out.”

To learn more about Creative Consultants go to http://www.ugacreativeconsultants.com.