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Cal U enlists assistance of PR students

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Posted: Sunday, November 3, 2013 2:00 am

California University of Pennsylvania faced a challenge this semester: how to convince busy college students to fill out online instructor evaluations between the many other obligations they juggle.

Online instructor evaluations, which students use to assess their professors’ classes and teaching style, are more efficient than paper and can be easily tabulated to show trends and give professors a clear sense of their performance.

But unlike paper evaluations, which can be handed out during class, online evaluations require students to get online and fill them out on their own time.

Last year, the number of students who submitted evaluations was dismal.

The Cal U provost office turned to its own student-run public relations firm, the PRactioners, for solutions to boost interest and improve evaluation participation.

After in-depth planning and collaboration with Studio 224, the campus’s student-run firm of graphic designers, the PRactitioners presented the University with a multifaceted marketing solution, catering to the tricky audience of college students.

The PRactitioners plan of action involves social media marketing, incentives like iTunes gift cards and free food, a dance-team flash mob, a slogan (“Do You Have an Opinion?”) and even a mascot — a bespectacled “nerd,” who will go from classroom to classroom spreading the word about online evaluations.

All of this will come together in a week-long, campus-wide evaluation extravaganza called “Eval Week,” from Nov. 11-15.

“We’re creating an Eval Week that feels like Homecoming Week, to tell students, ‘It’s all about the evals this week; you shouldn’t be doing anything else,’” said Rachel Connelly, PRactitioners president.

The Cal U provost office loved the PRactitioners unique, interactive ideas.

Said Connelly, “It was one meeting. We talked for a half hour, and we spit out a bunch of ideas, and they loved every one.”

The PRactitioners is made up of 50 public relations students who work not only on public relations assignments within the University but outside of it as well, with small businesses in and around California.

The goal is professionalization, a portfolio before graduation, and, as a result, an advantage in a competitive job market.

The university benefits from having students market to other students — a group they understand because they’re a part of it.

Plus, the PRactitioners have the experience of their public relations education behind them.

The PRactitioners, meanwhile, benefit from real-world experience on a campaign with results they can observe and measure.

“Some things you don’t learn in school. You have to do them hands-on, like talk to the clients and see for yourself what they think of your ideas,” said Connelly.

Connelly adds, getting the attention of distracted students can be tough.

“The biggest challenge is to actually get them to do it, to want to do it. That’s why we had to do so much to remind them.

“In college, you have a million things going on. College students want an incentive. How does it benefit them? In this case, everyone will see the mascot and the flash mob, and that will remind them that this is going on,” Connelly said.

Connelly acknowledges that much of her own free time has been sacrificed to the PRactitioners, on top of her courses and internships, but that she and the other PRactitioners agree its worth it, said Connelly.

Christine Kindl, director of communications and public relations at Cal U, said the PRactitioners are unique among similar college-level organizations in that it’s more than just a club or group — they’re a working firm, with real-world clients.

“We try to give our students opportunities to build a resumé even before they graduate, so that when they walk out the door with that freshly minted diploma, they also have some actual, real-world experience behind them. These student-led firms give them just that,” said Kindl.

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