2009 PR People Awards: PR Professional of the Year (Academic Institution)

Melissa Connolly, Vice President for University Relations, Hofstra University

When Melissa Connolly was tasked with coordinating and managing the media relations and communications for Hofstra University as it hosted last year’s final presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama, she decided to turn a single historic day into a yearlong educational endeavor.

Known as Educate ’08, this endeavor featured free lectures, conferences, town hall meetings and interactive forums for students, alumni, faculty, staff and the public. The program’s goal was to ready the campus for the debate in the fall. Well-known guest speakers from the media world, including George Stephanopoulos, Maureen Dowd, Bill Kristol and Ari Fleischer, visited the campus to speak during the year.

“Working on the debate was the opportunity of a lifetime,” says Connolly. “I was fortunate to see it through from its very inception—morph from a thought to a plan to an application to an event with thousands of people. It taught me a lot about planning, persistence and organization, as well as how important internal communications are to general public perception.”

Where to Start

“I think that it’s important to engage with people individually, talking to them and getting their ideas first, before working with the media,” says Connolly. “If people, constituencies, or groups haven’t bought into your efforts and gotten excited, the media and the general public won’t either.”

And today there is much more opportunity to engage on a personal level, what with social media and other Web strategies and tools available. However, there comes a significant risk when using avenues that can take on a life of their own. “It’s more important than ever to have very good message discipline, be very well-organized, and communicate frequently and consistently,” Connolly says. â– 

Honorable Mentions

Tomika DePriest, Executive Director, Spelman College

Shining a positive light on decidedly bad news, DePriest engaged in her gifted public relations know-how to turn an economic deficiency into local and national donations. Providing exclusive coverage of the economic effects on the college to a local media outlet, DePriest then took the story to more than 400 outlets nationally and garnered significant donations based on these maneuvers alone. Further, the student body was appreciative of the transparency of the school.

John Walls, Assistant Vice President, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center

A true team player with the professional acumen to handle public relations in a medical and science setting, Walls created and implemented substantial new productivity metrics for the university, which is on pace to achieve more than 10,000 media hits this year. Focusing on attainable standards, Walls uses his creative side to drive the needed media attainment and maintain employee satisfaction.