Communication students, experts gather for Grunig Lecture
It was a networking event — for networkers.
Tuesday evening, about 180 communication students, alumni and local professionals gathered in Stamp Student Union’s Colony Ballroom to discuss current trends in public relations. For students, the fifth annual Grunig Lecture was an opportunity to hear stories of life in the field, which many experts say is rapidly evolving with the advent of the Internet and social networking.
“It takes what you learn in your PR track classes and gives it a real-world appeal,” said senior communication major Ashley Freudenheim, who chaired the student committee that planned the event.
The event also featured guest speaker Jack Martin, who grew up in a family of “farmers and ranchers” and ended up starting his own company and taking over as CEO of Hill & Knowlton Strategies, a global PR firm.
“My father wanted me to be a large animal veterinarian, and I didn’t quite make it,” Martin said.
Martin said he became interested in public relations when he went to the World’s Fair in San Antonio as a child and stood on a tower watching cars go by below him.
“Something about that impacted me,” Martin said. “I had an increasing curiosity of where all those cars were going. That gave me a curiosity about people and where they’re going in life.”
Martin also discussed the “democratization” of the world through the Internet, social media and new devices.
“What you see is a mad dash to know everything about the public — by Facebook, Google, political campaigns,” Martin said. “We need to be very, very cautious, because I think a backlash is coming and we’re going to need to clean up the mess. We should not be a part of the problem.”
During the three-hour event, participants also rotated around 12 roundtable discussions with industry professionals. At one table, a representative from Pepco Holdings, Inc. discussed how the company dealt with backlash from the electricity crisis of June’s derecho storm in the Washington area.
At another table, Timothy Strachan, a Terrapin Sports Radio Network football game analyst, spoke about working through “some of the darkest days of Maryland football.”
“He was really interesting,” junior communication major Caroline Niski said. “He talked about the different ways coaches and players approach the media.”
Alan Kelly, the founder and CEO of Playmaker Systems, LLC, talked about political strategy in the presidential election at his table.
“If I go and create this great piece of legislation called the Affordable Care Act and the Republicans call it Obamacare, I’ve used [a label] to reduce this legislation to something derisive and negative,” Kelly said. “But Obama counters the label with a trump. He’ll say Obamacare, I’m Obama, and I care. It’s not flattering at all, but he’ll use it to his advantage.”
Students said speakers were engaging and informative. Niski, who changed her major from marketing to communication over the summer, said it was interesting many professionals didn’t start out where they ended up.
Hill & Knowlton Vice Chairman and former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, known for ordering to ground all flights during the 9/11 attacks, also came to the event to learn more about new platforms in public relations.
He said young people, like university communication students, will be the wave of the future.
“This whole social media is new to public affairs, and so you folks are just coming in on the ground floor,” Mineta said.
In the end, many professionals’ advice to students was simple — in a changing world, be the change.
“Tilt windmills,” Martin said. “Don’t be afraid to rock the boat and challenge conventional wisdom. The world is changing so fast that anybody who says they have all the answers is a fraud.”