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VCU’s new ‘Agency’ provides Richmond-area nonprofits with pro bono PR, communication strategies

Savannah Smith, a senior PR major, answers questions about her team's ideas for UMFS to expand th...
Savannah Smith, a senior PR major, answers questions about her team's ideas for UMFS to expand the number of prospective parents interested in fostering teenagers.
Photos by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs

At the Richmond campus of the nonprofit UMFS on Tuesday, a team of Virginia Commonwealth University public relations students is laying out its best PR and communications ideas to boost the number of parents interested in fostering teenagers.

“There are 400,000 American children who are in the foster care system. The majority of those are males and the vast majority are between the ages of 11 and 20 years old,” said Lilia Souri, a senior PR major in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “We need to get these teens adopted and fostered.”

Souri and her teammates are participating in “Agency,” a new course in which senior public relations students spend the fall semester developing a pro bono PR campaign for a local nonprofit organization.

By working in what is essentially a PR agency within the Robertson School, the students get an opportunity to take their PR and communication skills for a test drive before entering the workforce, and the nonprofit clients benefit by receiving all the students’ ideas, plans, prototypes, graphic designs, research and more.

We were looking for a class that could truly have an impact on organizations that might not be able to afford these services elsewhere.

“This is a senior-level capstone class where the students take the lead in solving the communication needs of area nonprofits,” said Joshua Smith, a PR instructor and undergraduate public relations sequence coordinator in the Robertson School. “In this applied learning approach students are expected to combine what they have learned through core and required classes in the PR sequence. Following the traditional public relations process, this means assessing the clients' communication needs, researching specific issues, then creating and implementing a strategic communications plan to address those needs.”

This fall, students enrolled in three sections of Agency worked with a different nonprofit client. In addition to UMFS, teams also worked with VCU’s School of Education and the Henrico Humane Society.

“We were looking for a class that could truly have an impact on organizations that might not be able to afford these services elsewhere, while showcasing the quality work our students can perform,” Smith said.

Agency follows VCU’s service-learning model, in which each student contributes 20-plus hours of community service over a 16-week semester, Smith said.

“This is achieved through time spent creating and distributing surveys, conducting focus groups, holding in-depth interviews, and analyzing that data in a way that can be used by the client,” he said. “Students may also create a strategy for social media, websites, apps and other communication channels based on the needs of the client.”

Abbie Edwards, a senior public relations major, presents her team's PR and communications recommendations to UMFS on Tuesday.
Abbie Edwards, a senior public relations major, presents her team's PR and communications recommendations to UMFS on Tuesday.

Additionally, the students typically provide graphic design work, videos, photos, website stories, blog posts, and other content to support the strategy they’re proposing. “Twenty hours is a conservative estimate when we track how much time goes into these projects and classes,” Smith said.

Agency is open only to PR majors, and only after they have completed prerequisite courses such as Communication Ethics and Law, PR Writing and Media Relations, Graphic Design, Production, Social Media, Professionalism, Case Studies, and Crisis Communication and Research.

For the section of the class that worked with UMFS, two teams of eight students were tasked with developing a PR campaign aimed at increasing the number of foster care parents of teenagers, specifically in Northern Virginia.

As part of their research, the teams interviewed past foster care parents to better understand what it means to be a foster parent and what might lead a prospective foster parent to sign up.

Souri’s team found that two demographics, “working class heroes” and “empty nesters,” were the two best groups of potential foster care parents to target.

“Working class heroes, that’s teachers, firefighters, police officers, people who have a stable career, not super-low income but not super-high, they’ve had kids before or they’re able to stably raise kids,” Souri said. “And empty nesters, those who had children who’ve gone to college or entered the workforce, and who are now looking for something else involving children.”

They made a variety of recommendations, including boosting the UMFS website’s search engine optimization, purchasing advertising through Google for search terms related to foster care, and focusing on public outreach by providing information outside Northern Virginia grocery stores, at farmer’s markets and at special events.

Most notably, the students created a pamphlet, titled “What it’s like to actually foster a child in need: A testimonial guide from real UMFS foster parents.” The pamphlet addresses misconceptions many prospective foster parents might hold.

Among these misconceptions: “I don’t think I’d be a good fit to foster a child. I don’t have any family or children of my own.” The pamphlet answers: “There’s no cookie cutter shape for being a foster parent. We have parents that are married, single, parents that are part of the LGBTQ community and from every class, religion and race.”

Another was: “There is no way I would ever be able to afford a foster kid.” The pamphlet responds: “It sounds expensive, but it’s not as bad as you would think. One of the only financial requirements is that you have an open bedroom in your home. We'll take care of therapies, and the government will provide you with stipends month-to-month to help you provide for the child.”

Team leader and senior PR major Abigail Mitchell said the students’ aim was to provide UMFS with professional PR services that could be implemented.

“Our main goal was to create a new and compelling PR campaign for them,” she said. “They’re having trouble getting people to foster teens, specifically in the Northern Virginia area, so our goal was to increase the number of people interested in finding out more about fostering a teenager.”

Lilia Souri, a senior PR major, discusses her team's pamphlet designed for UMFS that responds to common misconceptions about being a foster parent.
Lilia Souri, a senior PR major, discusses her team's pamphlet designed for UMFS that responds to common misconceptions about being a foster parent.

Leslie Perez, the family systems coordinator at the Northern Virginia office of UMFS, oversees recruitment, training, retention and maintenance of resource families. Perez said the VCU students’ recommendations, such as holding community events to draw in interested families, were great ideas.

“Studies have shown that only 10 percent of the contacts actually come through to fruition, so while the goal is to increase inquiries or initial contact, the real goal is to increase the number of viable resource families,” she said. “But the first step is awareness, and [holding events] could help us do that.”

Agency is looking to become even more established and expand in the community, Smith said.

“It is our goal to position Agency as an ongoing community service here at VCU,” he said. “We want area businesses to know it’s here, and to seek it out. We take applications for clients on a rolling basis. For now, the main qualification is that the organization be classified as a nonprofit. We are looking to expand this model to for-profit businesses in the future, following in the footsteps of other great programs at VCU, like the da Vinci Center and the Brandcenter.”

For more information on how to apply as an Agency client, visit the class client application form.