Oswego's Whelan wins national PR competition

SUNY Oswego’s Sean Whelan has won the prestigious PRWeek Student of the Year competition.

Whelan, a December graduate, earns the $5,000 grand prize and an internship with contest sponsor Hill & Knowlton.

He and senior Eileen O’Neill placed in the top five, marking the fourth straight year Oswego had at least one finalist. In three of those years, Oswego has had two of five finalists for the competition, but Whelan is the first to place among the final two.

“Everyone who made it to the top five was great,” Whelan said. “I am proud to have represented Oswego.”

Judges chose the cream of the crop of proposals submitted for creative ways to promote a partnership between Mazda and Students Against Destructive Decisions. In addition to Whelan and O’Neill, finalists came from California and Virginia.

Oswego’s success comes in part because submissions are worked into the COM 415 “Advanced Public Relations” class as a final project, professor Tina Pieraccini said. Many colleges coordinate through a student organization or as a suggested project, but making it part of the class provides the opportunity for students to learn through examples and guest lectures.

Social media savvy

“My campaign doesn’t patronize them or try to sell them anything,” Whelan said of his submission, aimed toward a student audience. Instead, he used a series of online Webisodes featuring the mysterious Masked Mazda superhero, who prevents people from falling for “auto injustices” in terms of “style, affordability or the environment,” he said. The superhero’s identity remains a secret, building toward a reveal in the final episode.

The Masked Mazda character would build buzz in social media, promoting the campaign and special events on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. “You’re actually making friends with the Masked Mazda,” not a corporation per se, in Facebook, Whelan explained, “and you’re getting updates from him as if you were his friends.”

Whelan’s campaign would use social media to promote a tour by the Masked Mazda character of local dealerships, with events where students could win a grand prize of a Mazda 6 or local prizes such as a free laptop, with most participants receiving free T-shirts or other promotional gear.

Whelan, of Poughkeepsie, also envisioned a Facebook game, the Zoom Zoom Super Rally, similar in ways to the popular Farmville in engaging users.

O’Neill thought the judges liked the way she intertwined Mazda, SADD, proposed spokesperson Taylor Swift and social media avenues Facebook and Twitter. “I created a test-drive contest where Mazda would donate $1 per test drive to SADD” as well as a public-service announcement contest “where participants had to make a safe-driving video.”

“I worked very hard on the campaign, so I was really excited to learn I was a finalist,” said O’Neill, from New City.

Live competition

In New York City in January, finalists each gave a half-hour presentation to the judges, followed by a phone pitch to a New York Times reporter. Then each finalist received a crisis scenario and, with just 10 minutes to work on it, came up with proposed solutions.

“It’s one thing to present in class to your friends. It’s another to pitch to an actual journalist and perform under pressure,” O’Neill said.

“The live competition was stressful and exciting but when you compare it to what you would have to do as far as presenting to real clients as a PR professional, it’s not that different,” Whelan said. “You just have to carry yourself well and have confidence in your campaign and your attributes as a speaker.”

The size of the prize—the money and the internship—also provides great motivation, Pieraccini said. “In the last four years, I’ve noticed the quality of submissions consistently has been outstanding,” she noted. “I get 25 top-notch submissions out of a class of 25 because of the additional incentive.”

Whelan also credited “all the support from professor Pieraccini” for Oswego students’ repeated success.

“I think Oswego students are very creative,” O’Neill added.

And that creativity has especially paid off for Whelan, Oswego’s first national PRWeek champion.

(Posted: Feb 15, 2010)

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