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Student PR Agency Solves Real-World Communication Challenges

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How does an industrial-based city build community among its small population and keep its citizens — many of whom speak Spanish — well-informed? 

That was the problem facing Iris Espino, economic development coordinator for the city of Irwindale. For answers, she turned to PRactical ADvantage Communications, Cal State Fullerton’s student-run public relations/advertising agency.

As an alumna of the agency, which was founded in 2011 by Doug Swanson, professor of communications, Espino ’16 (B.A. communications-public relations) was familiar with what the students could provide — strategic advertising, event planning and public relations services, including social media expertise. She thought that social media just might be the key to achieving the city’s communications goals.

The students, all of whom have a specified role in the agency, met with Espino to fully understand the city’s desire to create positive social media awareness and promote city services, within such restraints as a limited budget and Espino being a “team of one.” 

They began the project by researching the city’s demographics and social media use, analyzing the situation and brainstorming solutions that they would later pitch to the client. 

“The main objective is to increase engagement across the city of Irwindale’s social media platforms through enhanced information distribution flow,” explained Cameron Carpenter, campaign schedule manager.

Strategic planner Charles Lo suggested, “The majority of residents are fluent in Spanish, so maybe the posts are not resonating with them — maybe there needs to be Spanish translation. Also, the city is currently doing an entire website revamp, so we can capitalize on that by making a unified brand.”

Carpenter added, “We want to create a different hashtag for each department … and create basic post templates.” The group also planned to develop a social media tracking system for the city and explore the integration of Google Analytics.

While the PRactical ADvantage Communications experience is designed to mirror real-life agency work, one important difference is that students have the opportunity to practice in front of classmates and receive feedback from Swanson before pitching the client. 

“A big part of what we do is to encourage students’ confidence about their work,” Swanson said. “Our students are just a few months or weeks away from entering the workplace. We want them to develop client work that is strategically sound and creatively appropriate. We also want them to be able to speak confidently about that work.”

Espino agreed with the proposed direction for the project, so the students jumped into action to execute the plan.

“We needed to give them a unified social media presence using hashtags, Spanish and standard post templates as well as some for emergency communications,” said Darius Keshmiri, client services coordinator.

“We wanted to tackle the lack of consistency throughout the platforms,” added Suzanna Hoang, campaign book manager. They wanted to “project an orderliness” through the schedule and a “simple yet unique design aesthetic.” 

On this project, the students experienced another real-world situation: an unexpected issue cropped up at the last minute. They discovered that many Irwindale residents did not know where to find the city’s social media and website online resources. “We had to quickly look at other Southern California cities and find best practices for [handling] this,” Keshmiri said.

At the final client presentation, Espino was pleased. “The team has had good communication with me along the way,” she shared. “They did a great job, and I’m looking forward to implementing these ideas.”

The agency, which students join by taking COMM 474, is indeed a commitment. In addition to the work itself, students are expected to read the “Agency Answer Book” to familiarize themselves with the business policies, functions and resources of the agency; have a working knowledge of the media management platform Cision; keep track of billable and non-billable hours online; and open enough time in their schedule to get to and from the agency, which is located at Irvine Center.

The hands-on experience undergraduates gain at PRactical ADvantage Communications is immeasurable, though. The agency’s advisory board, which includes such prominent industry alumni as Marie Montgomery Nordhues ’86 (B.A. communications-journalism) of the Automobile Club of Southern California, and Aaron Teats ’94 (B.A. communications-radio/TV/film) of the Anaheim Ducks, helps ensure that the experience is true-to-life and state-of-the-art.

“There are only about 158 student-run agencies in all of higher education,” Swanson noted. “Ours is one of the biggest in the country by number of students graduated. We are setting a high standard for other colleges and universities to follow.”

Learn more about PRactical ADvantage Communications on their website.

Contact: Karen Lindell,