Helping hands go digital
During the Fall 2011 semester, UALR’s Public Relations Writing class, taught by professor Amy Barnes, worked with the Arkansas Foodbank to help bolster the nonprofit organization’s social media campaign.
The class, which was comprised of both graduate and undergraduate students, was divided into three groups of four. One group was put in charge of administrating the Foodbank’s twitter account, another was in charge of its Facebook account and the last created a blog for the Little Rock organization. The three teams were created to update information about the Foodbank’s programs, events and volunteer opportunities, which they did multiple times a day via their respective outlets.
“Any PR professional these days needs to know how to use social media and how to use it most effectively,” Barnes said, “and students need to know how to work with clients, because they’re always going to be going out and working with clients. They have this unrealistic belief that if they tell the client, the client will listen, and it never ever ever works that way.”
The project was more hands-on in the digital sense than the actual physical sense, but the effects were still enlightening. By the end of the semester, the number of Facebook friends (59 percent), Twitter followers (10 percent) and WordPress visitors (517) was up substantially, and the students assembled to document the effects in person, armed with video cameras and cell phones.
Barnes said that visiting the food pantries that work with the Foodbank was an eye opener for the students. They expected stereotypical homeless and destitute people, but Barnes said that the number of average, blue-collar parents in the crowd was overwhelming.
“Something we learned the first year while working with Our House, was that social media is best used for awareness — it is best used for informational purposes,” Barnes said. “Unless you’re having a riot in your country or having an Arab Spring or whatever, it’s not great for promoting activity. So when we did Our House, instead of just tweeting things, we actually asked people to give.”
Barnes said that after initiating the project with the Our House in Fall 2009, she realized that the student teams had to be “apples to apples” with their target audience. The team set up drop-off boxes for the collection of non-perishable donations across the Little Rock metro, but to no avail. The failed attempt inspired the team to set up links to companies such as Walmart and Target on their social media pages, giving individuals the ability to send gift cards to the nonprofit organization.
Barnes says it’s all about connecting the dots and essentially being a reporter — and with social media outlets at students’ fingertips, that is what they did. Social networking, blogging and micro-blogging skills are the top three most vital social media communication skills for public relations job seekers to possess, according to the 2009 Readiness Report.
“The Arkansas Foodbank — a member of Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger relief food bank network — has been fighting hunger in central and southern Arkansas for 27 years by acquiring and distributing food through local partnerships,” according to the UALR website.
Barnes said that she tries to work with nonprofits that are “one-man bands” and really need the help. The idea behind this is that someone who really needs the help will be more appreciative, thus offering more feedback to both the students and Barnes herself.
The leaders of each of the three teams worked directly with the Foodbank’s Ray White, the marketing and public relations director, and Kathy Kaigler, the outreach director. Barnes explained that White is one such one-man band. While he was skeptical about the operation at first and wasn’t certain the students would be very helpful, she said he was pleasantly surprised by the results.
“It’s not only an eye-opener for what they are going to encounter in the professional world, but it’s an eye-opener for these Foodbanks,” Barnes said.
At the end of each semester, Barnes’ students must complete reflexive papers that review their experiences with and insights on the semester project. Thus far, each essay has mentioned the fact that these projects improve the students’ critical thinking skills, Barnes said.
“I think our class was lucky to get to work with the Arkansas Foodbank,” said Starr Crow, a mass communications major. “It provided a lot of insight about an important non-profit company in our community — one that’s making a huge difference in so many people’s lives. I think the project really opened my eyes to the epidemic that we’re facing with hunger in our country. It was definitely a rewarding experience for me personally, and I think I learned a lot too.”
Professor Barnes has over 20 years of broadcast journalism experience under her belt. She worked as a producer, reporter, anchor and assistant news director at Little Rock’s KATV and KARK, and in public relations for over 15 years at Arkansas Children’s Hospital and UALR, where she received her master’s degree in journalism in 1998. She is now on the Foodbank’s advisory council and is planning another such project with her Fall 2012 Public Relations Writing class.
“Now that we have some actual evaluative ways to see what we’re doing,”Barnes said, “the next class can just jump in there and say ‘okay, this is what we need to be doing.’”
“I thought that the class was a great experience, said Michelle Zengulis, a senior strategic communications major. “It was very hands on and taught me a lot about social media and how to use it for a company, not just personal use. It was challenging because I had never done anything like that, but it definitely prepared me for what I am going to be encountering in the public relations field.”