There’s going to be a little more “gown” in Grand Forks’s “town” communications, and it’s all because of some innovative UND faculty, open government officials, energetic students and one pretty adorable baby.
It will all start with a scheduled “take over” of the Grand Forks Snapchat account by UND students to cover the State of the City address Feb. 15, but reaches much farther, including a lasting relationship for the City and students launching their careers.
The story of the “take over” starts back last academic year when Communication faculty Joonghwa Lee and Soojung Kim were at doctor’s visit preparing for the upcoming birth of their child. Their physician is known for being chatty, and the three talked about their lives, including Lee and Kim’s work with students planning to enter public relations and advertising careers, and the obstetrician’s “other” job, as Grand Forks Mayor Michael Brown.
Kim and Lee were interested in offering more experiential learning opportunities for their students, where they could practice concepts and skills in real-world contexts for real clients. Somewhere along the way, both the idea of having UND strategic communication students work for the City and Jaden Jiho Lee were born.
During the Fall 2016 semester both Lee’s Advertising and Public Relations Campaign course and Kim’s Research Methods course went to work on three initiatives the City wanted to tackle: 1) communicating better with UND students; 2) communicating better about events in the City, particularly to young adults; and 3) communicating better with minority populations, particularly Native Americans.
One result is the “take over” for the State of the City Address, but it hardly stops there.
“I have learned more in this class than any other I have taken in my college career in regards to how make plans, set goals, be organized, be professional, interact with teammates and work together to overcome obstacles along the way,” said Abby Smith, a student in both classes. “I have changed and grown as a leader.”
Kim and Lee structured the courses to mimic what students would experience in a strategic communications firm with the City as a client. Students met with city officials to better understand the communication situation, conducted extensive research — including best practices in other cities, and focus groups and surveys of the target audience — and regularly met with city leaders like Community/Government Relations Officer Pete Haga.
Haga said he was more than open to working with the students. The City has successfully used student learning teams from other disciplines on other projects — saving tens of thousands of dollars in consulting fees — and the Communication students brought a lot to the table beyond just being an economical choice of consultants for the taxpayer.
“One of the reasons why we would take this opportunity is we wanted some ‘non-industry’ answers to our questions,” Haga said. “Students bring authentic, fresh perspectives that allow us to see our work in different ways.”
The students provided a full report with lots of fresh perspectives at an official presentation Dec. 12. The crowded room heard recommendations on several tactics, including using Snapchat — the current popular social media app for the college-aged set — and restarting the City’s Instagram account with a new handle to indicate it would be more active than in the past. Students also recommended leveraging UND Hockey as an attractive feature to keep graduates in the City, providing growth.
The recommendations weren’t all about just following the hot trends, Lee said.
“As we know, students are very excited about social media,” he said. “I expected them to emphasize social media. The interesting thing is the students tried to find how to use social media strategically rather than randomly.”
Lee said he was happy to see the students thinking critically about social media use and what is and what is not effective in a professional context. The students even recommended that some more traditional techniques would be best for getting the word out about events in the city, particularly print mailers.
Haga said the City was surprised by some of the more novel ideas, but that they were all supported by his further research.
“I had not heard of Snapchat takeovers,” he said. “But we’ve since found that’s on the radar of governments elsewhere. Everything we received from the students has so far been completely validated.”
The City was impressed enough by the student’s work that Kim’s spring course has been “hired” to work on better communicating about city-wide events to the UND student population, particularly the Downtown Street Fair held annually in September. Kim said she hopes to keep that relationship going.
“I may have different clients in the future or keep working with City,” she said. “But overall, I plan to provide my students with this type of client project because this has much more value for this material than just listening to lectures and taking exams. I want my students to become professionals who can contribute to the community.”
The approach worked for Communication student Peter Monsrud, who said he gained more than just skills through the experience.
“I personally found the class empowering as it allowed not just me, but the class as a whole the opportunity to contribute something real and give us real-world experience,” he said. “I’m proud of how I worked and how our entire class worked throughout the semester, and I’m excited to show this plan and the process in future job interviews.”