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COM’s PRLab Celebrates 35th Anniversary

Prepping students for the real world

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Who could forget Kanye West’s infamous outburst during Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards? “Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time!” he yelled into the microphone, which he had ripped from Swift’s hand, leaving the bewildered Swift with a stunned look on her face. The incident created something of a public relations disaster for West, whose publicist was left to do damage control.

This example is one Jo O’Connor, a College of Communication associate professor of public relations, likes to cite in her role as faculty advisor for COM’s PRLab, the nation’s oldest student-run public relations firm, which is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year. Through weekly classroom lectures, team meetings, and interaction with real clients, such as Ben & Jerry’s and Goodwill Industries, longtime public relations executive O’Connor strives to ensure that students have the knowledge and skills needed to thrive in the world of PR.

On a recent Monday afternoon, O’Connor stands in a College of Arts & Sciences lecture hall in front of what looks like a high school student’s angry blog site displayed on a projector screen. The blog has a neon blue font backed by black wallpaper and an excess of exclamation points and ellipses. In fact, the blog belonged to West, who used it to write to Swift and apologize for the VMA incident.

“I’m so sorry to Taylor Swift and her fans and her mom,” says O’Connor, reading the post aloud in a goofy, mocking voice, obviously unimpressed with West’s apology, pausing before asking incredulously, “And her mom?”

Laughter echoes in the lecture hall as the class recalls this pop culture disaster.

“He used all caps. Never write in all caps,” says O’Connor, her voice rising to reach her class of about 50 students, more than double the number enrolled in PRLab when she took over three years ago. “He used 16 exclamation points!”

The West-Swift fiasco is one of several examples she uses to demonstrate the delicate path publicists must navigate in celebrity damage control. The publicist can respond to such crises in a variety of ways, she tells the class, whether it’s attacking the accuser, justifying the issue, or taking corrective action. As she elaborates on each strategy, one thing is clear: she’s arming students with real-life scenarios they’ll be able to draw on in the future.

Boston University BU, College of Communication COM, Professor Joanne OConnor COM PR Lab, 35th anniversary, public relations

O’Connor uses memorable incidents, like the West-Swift Video Music Awards debacle, to illustrate the importance of crisis communication.

As a former director of public relations at the Boston Garden and the Fleet Center and later director of advertising, special events, and publicity for the Boston Celtics, O’Connor is well versed in the nuances of PR. “My lectures are geared toward preparing them for the real world, and mostly the real agency world,” she says.

That real-world approach has been a hallmark of PRLab since its founding in 1978. Students not only learn about topics such as crisis communication in a classroom setting, but they get to experience firsthand what it’s like to work in an agency setting.

PRLab has a president, a vice president, a director of branding and administration, a web and graphic designer, and a number of account supervisors and executives—all students. Best of all, they have real clients. Supervisors and executives are broken up into several teams within the class, and each team is assigned a particular client. The students work directly with that client crafting news releases and media advisories, using social media, and doing event management.

PRLab demands a lot of the students enrolled in the program: in addition to O’Connor’s two hours of classroom lectures each week, the teams meet for an additional hour to discuss progress and plans and work at least 11 hours on their client’s account, either remotely or on site. Students receive credit for the lab—four credits or two, depending on how many hours they put in each week—and are able to sign up for the class as many times as their schedule permits. This gives them a chance to take on multiple positions.

Among this semester’s clients are the U.S. Coast Guard, the One for Health Foundation, Restoration Resources, Urban Art Bar, Beantown Bedding, Ben & Jerry’s, Goodwill Industries, BUTV 10, the BU Sexual Assault Response & Prevention Center, and the BU Police Department. It’s an impressive list, especially considering the lab’s humble beginnings.

“It used to be that we had only local nonprofits, and that started to change,” says O’Connor. “Now we have a nice blend of not only nonprofits, but corporations and government entities, and we have local, national, and international clients, which is great.”

Although O’Connor does recruit some clients—ones she believes will get students excited about their work—most contact PRLab on their own. And because the lab now has a demonstrated track record of achievement, there is a waiting list of eager clients.

“These companies that are established and know what they’re doing in the business sense really have no idea what they need public relations–wise and what they need for certain types of demographics,” says vice president Jason Feldman (COM’14). “So being able to tap into a school like BU, and furthermore having a team of account executives and a supervisor who are working solely on that account for an entire semester, is a huge benefit for them.”

The PRLab also offers students experience in crisis communication. During the series of armed robberies that shook the Charles River Campus last semester, the PRLab worked with the BUPD (already a client) to improve their emergency alert system.

“We actually took the department to task to say, who is sending out the alerts and who is writing those alerts, those immediate alerts that you get that actually can scare students and parents and create a frenzy,” O’Connor recalls.

Boston University BU, College of Communication COM, Professor Joanne OConnor COM PR Lab, 35th anniversary, public relations

Since O’Connor took over as faculty advisor three years ago, the PRLab class size has doubled.

A team from the PRLab came up with four templates that could be easily accessed by BUPD staff and provide an appropriate and effective message for the community.

“It was an awesome experience, and I don’t think BUPD would have given PRLab as much involvement if we hadn’t worked with them the previous semester, so we had built enough of a relationship,” says Samantha Trachten (COM’13), who worked on the project as an account executive. “To have crisis experience before graduation is amazing. I didn’t sleep for days, but it was really cool.”

PRLab students have worked closely with BUPD on other projects, creating the department’s social media outlets and helping to coordinate various events, such as Public Safety Week, Coffee and Donuts with the Police, and the department’s first Open House at the police station. All of these efforts, O’Connor says, were aimed at making the BUPD more approachable to students. And it’s worked. The department’s Facebook page has nearly 1,000 “Likes,” and its Twitter account has more than 3,000 followers.

“Each semester the group comes up with new and better ideas for our department,” says Scott Paré, BUPD deputy chief and BU’s deputy director of public safety. “It’s been a pleasure working directly with these students as professionals. I’ve learned so much from them each semester and look forward to learning more in the future.”

The relationship between students and clients is a win-win situation for both, says Feldman. “Some clients just don’t know what a hashtag is or don’t know how to use Twitter, so for us to be able to come in and consult with them and introduce them to these new platforms and how to expand their business in a changing social media age is huge for them. And it’s also huge for us because students in PRLab are getting to learn new things just as much as the clients are. This is on-the-job training.”

For O’Connor, whose expertise includes media relations and communication and who regularly hosts networking sessions on campus, serving as the lab’s faculty advisor has been incredibly rewarding.

“It’s the students that keep me going, because, boy, without them, there’d be no heart to PRLab,” she says. “It’s really terrific.”

Tom Vellner can be reached at tvellner@bu.edu.

3 Comments

3 Comments on COM’s PRLab Celebrates 35th Anniversary

  • Former Student on 05.02.2013 at 7:12 am

    Prof. O’Connor was a great professor. She taught us how to properly wear a name tag while networking. “Jo” was also very friendly to her students after a few rounds at the BU Pub.

    We also learned a valuable lesson when she made us paint the PR classroom as extra credit!

    Thank you Professor O’Connor for these truly valuable lessons!

    • Huh on 05.02.2013 at 10:24 am

      I’m not convinced you took a class with her; if you did, you weren’t paying much attention. Two exclamation points?

  • BU Alum on 05.02.2013 at 8:57 am

    Jo is one of the best professors I had while at BU. She was extremely approachable and developed a relationship with her her students that was a rarity in my time at BU. As a current public relations professional, many of Jo’s lessons have stayed with me. PR Lab is invaluable as is Jo.

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