Academics and Research

Communications students provide PR guidance for Denver nonprofit

For 10 weeks this spring, the head PR office for local nonprofit Slow Food Denver (SFD) was located in a classroom in DU’s Media, Film and Journalism Studies Building.

As part of a spring quarter seminar, undergraduate and graduate students in the strategic communications program partnered with the nonprofit organization, which focuses on linking communities with food sources and on creating a more just and sustainable food system throughout the region. (SFD is the Denver chapter of the Italy-based global organization Slow Food International.)

Working in two separate teams, seminar students acted as SFD’s public relations agency, choosing key audiences to target to raise awareness and strategizing on how to increase membership. They also helped create an ambassador program, slated to debut this summer. The program will send people committed to the slow-food lifestyle into various Denver communities to promote the organization and its work. Students met with SFD’s staff and board of directors May 28 to present their final plans.

“It feels very real-world; it’s very applicable to what a PR agency actually does — working with clients and making sure we are integrating the feedback that they give us and what their wants and needs are, and making sure that we’re very cognizant of those, instead of it being a theoretical plan with an unlimited budget and unlimited time and a staff of 20 to implement it,” says Carley St. Clair, a first-year strategic communications graduate student. “This is a very real organization with very real limitations that we have to bear in mind.”

The project took students off campus and into the city: The SFD office is in the Source, a converted brick foundry in north Denver that houses a collective of restaurants, retailers and artisan food shops. And as a networking exercise, the class attended a barbecue at the home of an SFD member, who treated the students to locally sourced pizza made in a backyard pizza oven.

“That’s something else that’s really cool: We’re part of the community now,” St. Clair says. “We’re not just DU students, but we’re residents of Denver who are able to go out and work in the place where we live. It’s fun.”

Erika Polson, the assistant professor who leads the seminar, says she was guided in part by her students’ interest in food issues when picking a nonprofit for the class to work with.

“We’re interested in fulfilling DU’s vision of being a private university dedicated to the public good, so my first thought is ‘How can we use our class and what our students are learning to help an organization with their own communication needs?’” she says.

“My goal as the professor is to strategically choose an organization that has a mission that I think is going to teach something really great to our students as well. [The students are] all learning about sustainable food and food cultures and food traditions and building communities around food as a part of this class. I really like that part. I don’t pick just any nonprofit; I think about the students’ futures as community members and understanding what it’s like to be part of a really local and yet global organization,” she adds.

Polson also thinks about her students’ professional lives after DU, and how to expose them to the different arenas in which their strategic communications degrees will prove useful.

“Strategic communication is a skill that can be applied in so many ways,” Polson says. “Everyone’s aware of the ways you can apply it in a corporate environment, but I don’t think the students are aware of all the opportunities in a more community-oriented, nonprofit-oriented, activist-oriented way that they can actually have really meaningful careers.”


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