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Department of Communication’s Advertising Agency Gives MC Students Hands-On PR Experience

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Churches, small businesses, and nonprofit organizations in central Mississippi have a dynamic new avenue to help spread the word about their objectives and grow their brand through traditional and social media.

Big River Strategies, a student-driven public relations agency springing from the Department of Communication at Mississippi College, began accepting clients last fall. The firm’s tagline: “Communicating What Matters to Who Matters.”

According to Reid Vance, associate professor and chair of communication, the agency serves as an extracurricular function of the department and comprises communication students who have met certain academic progress benchmarks. It is housed in the Student Media Center in the Aven Fine Arts Building.

“I think the agency will be an outstanding avenue of experiential education for our students and will reflect well on the University,” Vance said.

Dr. Mignon Kucia, professor of communication and Big River Strategies advisor, said the full-service public relations and advertising agency can handle all aspects of a traditional public relations firm, from cultivating and interviewing clients to creating and executing multifaceted advertising campaigns to tabulating and researching analytics.

“The purpose is not for the agency to make money, Kucia said. “The purpose is to give students some solid exposure to all elements of advertising. We want to let them get their hands dirty and participate fully in this learning experience.

“The students have a unique perspective. They’re extremely bright, and the opportunity for them to be part of a team that runs an account for a paying client shows they have initiative and are developing leadership skills that will be attractive to employers in the future.”

Cole Benoit, a second-semester graduate student in integrated communications, serves as agency director. The Carriere native thrives on structuring the public relations team, helping students build leadership qualities, and creating an organization that can have a lasting impact on Mississippi College.

“Big River Strategies is an incredible opportunity for undergraduate students to apply the knowledge that they receive in the classroom,” Benoit said. “The hands-on experience with real clients is pivotal when paired with the high level of education that the Department of Communication offers.

“I am thankful for the students I get to work with. Their passion for what we are creating is inspiring.”

As director, Benoit is responsible for overall success of the agency. He keeps the student members motivated during weekly meetings that focus on agency effectiveness. He creates the official administrative documents – including contracts, invoices, and budgets – that keep the agency running. And he maintains a holistic vision for the group.

“I have learned many lessons of creating and leading a team,” he said. “Creating ‘buy-in’ for an organization may be challenging, but sustaining ‘buy-in’ over busy seasons creates unique challenges. I have learned how to cast a vision and how to share that vision with my peers. I have also learned professional skills of communicating with clients and negotiating contracts.

“The opportunity to fail in a safe environment provides so much personal growth. This agency has allowed me to learn my strengths and weaknesses as a leader. My role in this agency has allowed me to better understand myself and how to collaborate with others. That will help me be a better employee, boss, mentor, husband, and father in the future.”

All aspects of the agency stem from student involvement. Even the agency’s name emerged from a focus group session the students conducted themselves.

The idea for a student-run marketing firm at MC was conceived by Kucia, who had observed a similar agency when she was doing postgraduate work at the University of Southern Mississippi. Vance encouraged her to pursue the idea, so she visited Elon University in North Carolina to learn how a similar firm could be run at a private university. Lessons learned from that visit were incorporated into Big River Strategy’s organizational structure.

The Department of Communication served as the agency’s first client. Soon Big River Strategies picked up a paying client, and business took off quickly.

The excitement of being part of an emerging communications business attracted Mason Kendall to the agency. The junior from Mobile, Alabama, serves as client relations executive.

“Big River Strategies gave me an opportunity to apply the lessons I was learning in class to real clients and businesses,” said Kendall, a psychology and interpersonal communication double major. “My favorite thing about working with BRS is the team dynamic. We have specifically chosen a group of some of the most devoted, passionate, and genuine people in the department.

“Working alongside these people makes the job even more worthy.”

Kendall serves as the contact point for one of the agency’s clients. He sets up calls and meetings and leads a team of three that develops and implements PR plans for the client. He has filmed, edited video and images, created content, planned events, and encouraged his teammates to provide excellent customer service and high-quality campaigns.

“What we are doing is not normal for college students,” he said. “We are actively working to build PR plans for real organizations. Drawing wisdom from these experiences will continue to build a background for me as I go into the workforce after college.

“Big River Strategies’ presence on campus shows that the Department of Communication is seeking to equip its students with opportunities to engage with the business world. It demonstrated that the school cares about the future of its students.”

Clients have raved about the results they have achieved by partnering with Big River Strategies. As an example, Kucia points to the pastor of a small church that lacked any social media presence. After an initial client meeting, the MC communication students developed a proposal and recommended how to move forward with a social media campaign. He signed off on their suggestions, and Big River Strategies implemented the recommendations.

Students are paid a stipend based upon their level of experience, but their compensation goes beyond an hourly surcharge.

“The real benefit to them is having an opportunity to see what they like – or don’t like – about PR and advertising,” Kucia said. “They get exposed to all aspects of the occupation. They get the experience of working with a client from start to finish, which gives them a broader understanding of the business. And they get something to add to their resumes.”

Conner Dyess, a junior public relations major, was drawn to the idea of gaining professional experience while benefiting the community. In his role as client relations strategist for Big River Strategies, the Brandon resident creates content and social media posts for one of the outside clients.

“Our main goal is to help share and promote the vision and mission of the client we represent,” Dyess said. “The experience I am gaining here will be beneficial to me in the long run. Being surrounded by classmates and professors who know more than me makes all the difference because they support my efforts.

“One of my favorite things about working in BRS is the team – I love when we have meetings to discuss what each individual is working on. Once I graduate, I will be joining some form of organization or agency. BRS has taught me how to be a good team member.”

The greatest challenge to maintaining a student-run organization long-term is turnover. Kucia said Big River Strategies addresses this issue with a “doer and trainee” model.

Ultimately, Vance and Kucia intend for Big River Strategies to grow into a fully self-sustaining agency that is funded completely by client contracts. Early indicators are favorable.

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