I recently had a non-traditional student from the Adult Degree Program, Annette, in my “COMM 270: Foundations of Public Relations” course at Northwest Christian University. She works for the U.S. federal government overseeing the management of several buildings. Throughout our nine-week course, I noticed that each time a new project was assigned Annette was enthusiastic, even excited, and that she tried hard to find a way to apply the results of her coursework to her current job.
However, when the infographic was assigned, Annette became nervous and a bit skeptical. She’d never done any design work and wasn’t really sure how to deal with Piktochart, graphics, typography, color, balance, white space, etc. It was all a bit overwhelming.
Annette finally decided that she would create an infographic (for work) to encourage and educate the kitchen staff in her buildings about composting and to convince them to begin doing it. This was a fabulous idea, but unfortunately Annette kept getting stuck – a sort of “infographer’s block” set in. No matter how hard Annette tried she just kept producing…a poster. It was not a story; it didn’t include any significant data; and it looked much more like a piece of advertising than a piece of PR. Even after I looked over a draft of her work and said point-blank, “Annette, this is a poster, not an infographic. You need to tell a story with numeric data and visuals,” Annette still tried to turn in this poster via email:
I immediately sat down and wrote Annette the following email:
From: Wendy M. Ames
Sent: Monday, April 28, 2014 4:32 PM
To: Annette R. Maddux
Subject: RE: Piktochart
I can see your jpeg, thanks.
You’ll need another round of revisions before this is final and grade-able. As we discussed last week, the infographic communicates a visual/verbal story by informing the audience with data. There are tons of online examples, and you’ve now seen your classmates examples. Check out this site for some ideas: http://www.customermagnetism.com/solutions/infographic-design.
You are still in “poster” mode and the assignment is to make an infographic. Even though you’ve made a lovely poster, if I graded this now (based on the assignment) you wouldn’t pass. You have got to communicate a story with data – not just a singular message with a poster. Let me know if you’d like to talk on the phone or meet to discuss this. We could also take some time tomorrow night [in class] to go over it one-on-one.
Hang in there! Just two more weeks to go and you have come a long way. Keep pushing through…
Annette did push through and she ended up with a much-improved infographic aimed at a slightly different audience, the building managers across various government offices. They may not do the composting in the kitchens, but they do make decisions about whether or not composting will be required of the kitchens. Annette used her infographic to convince them of the need to make their buildings greener (and this of course includes the practice of composting). Here is Annette’s revised piece:
Even more important than Annette’s updated infographic assignment, which is still a work in progress and will need more finessing, is the positive impact this process had on Annette and her career. The VERY NEXT DAY after she completed her assignment revisions I received an email from Annette stating that a colleague had sent along an infographic from a partner government office. Annette was excited to learn that this type of strategic communication was already being used at her workplace. Now she could recognize it for what it was, a piece of internal public relations, one she was motivated and equipped to create herself. Here’s the email from Annette:
From: Annette R. Maddux
Sent: Wednesday, April 30, 2014 9:05 AM
To: Wendy M. Ames
Subject: Look what was on my email at work today!
I was so surprised to see this message [and the attached infographic from one of my colleagues]: “I thought this was a pretty cool infographic about some benefits of teleworking. What do you think, Annette?”
Wendy, we are now using infographics at work, so now I am SOOO happy you had me push through the creation of my infographic.
This case study illustrates a few important issues for instructors:
1. Incorporating technology into the PR communication syllabus can challenge students, and particularly non-traditional or returning students, in unexpected ways. Be prepared.
2. Adding visual or design assignments to the PR communication syllabus can present unique obstacles, i.e., it is easy to get caught up in the designing, or fear of the designing, and thus lose focus on the core communication elements that inform the piece: context, tone, format and target audience.
3. Being blunt with students and insisting on the detailed requirements of a PR assignment is hard work, but it is ultimately of great benefit to all involved. Coupling bluntness with encouragement and availability is golden.
4. Students clearly benefit from the process of work, feedback, revision, and work, feedback, revision. The more opportunities PR students have to collaborate with their peers and instructors, the more likely they are to develop their skills and enthusiasm for the field.