This past week, three students from GVSU’s Advertising and Public Relations program attended a leadership and diversity conference at the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations. Located in Chicago, our members gained many professional development skills and connected with fellow public relations students from around the country. Read about their experience below.

What is the Plank Center? (Erin)
The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations is the leading global resource for practitioners, educators and students who are passionate about advancing their careers and the public relations profession.

What is the Challenge for Emerging Leaders? (Madi)
The Challenge for Emerging Leaders is a two-day workshop for seniors majoring in public relations, who are focusing on leadership development. Along with 16 other students from 4 other universities, we participated in personal development training, learned from young PR professionals in the Chicago area, and presented a case study in small groups.

How were you chosen? Who was there? (Dren)
People from the public relations major were invited to apply for the opportunity and then four were chosen to attend. I was fortunate enough to be chosen due to the amount of public relations classes I had already taken, the extracurriculars I was involved in, and the leadership roles I currently hold on campus.

The setup for the Challenge for Emerging Leaders included 20 students total with four students from each university. The universities included DePaul University, Marquette University, Ball State University, and of course Grand Valley State. Along with that, we had major leaders in the field and had guest speakers from major PR firms and companies that lead the field.

Explain the case study you were asked to present. (Dren)
The case study we were asked to present focused on how to diversify the public relations field. We were given demographics on the current professionals in the field and essentially it boils down to the field being a Caucasian female that resides in New York City. Our goal was to figure out how to enhance the field and attract diverse millennials to join the force.

We were given free reign to focus on different aspects of the case and try and improve one part, focus on improving one company, or we could even just give an overview for the field as a whole. It was an interesting task because there were very few guidelines because they wanted each group to be creative and think outside of the classic PR tactics.

What was did each day look like? (Amandari)
While each day was jam-packed with business, it all seemed to fly by. What was so great about this conference was the variation of activities and that no day was the same.

Day One: We arrived at the DePaul college of communication and immediately sat with our teams. The opening ceremony consisted of Bruce BErger PhD and Keith Burton providing welcome speeches and an introduction from the rest of the administrative staff and advisors. We then introduced each other in an activity that really broke down the barriers of not knowing each other and familiarizing ourselves with the other participants. After this, we got straight to work with a one-hour work session with our teams. After the hour was up, we went to dinner where, George Tateoka, VP at Edelman spoke to us about his story and answered all of our burning questions.

Day Two: The day started at 8 a.m. so ot required an early start from all of us. When we arrived, we sat in a room for a session on leadership skills with Peter Hammerschmidt. In this session, we learned about or KAI Inventory score (similar to a Myers Briggs assessment) and learned about the productiveness of a team based on these scores. After this session, we had another work session with our teams for one hour (mind you there was definitely work to be done and we all could have used more time, but I guess thats why its called “The Challenge”). After this, we had lunch and listened to Jon Harris, the CCO of Conagra talk to us about his journey and knowledge. We again, were invited to questions. After lunch, we had another session with Peter Hammerschmidt which addressed conflict resolution and were given a Conflict Dynamic feedback report (both these assessments were taken before the challenge began). After this session we had another hour to work on our case studies before dinner. At dinner we were joined by Glen Eden, Executive VP of Weber Shandwick, who told us his story of how he graduated with a degree in chemistry at University of Michigan. After this dinner many of the teams used this valuable night before the big presentation time to work on the finishing touches of our papers and slide decks.

Day Three: The day had finally come to present all that we had worked on. We were to be at Depaul at 8 a.m., ready to go. We were greeted by Ron Culp and MAtt Ragas, who spent the morning educating us on the importance of business acumen for the PR professionals. After this presentation, teams met for the final work session of the conference, before presentations. After this session, we all met to present our work to the conference orchestrators and two judges, one if them being the head or HR for Ketchum Chicago. Once presentations were done, we went to lunch and listened to Rashanda Hall, Director of Global Media Relations for Business Wire, speak on the importance of leadership and tell us her story. At the end of lunch, we were all given our certificates of completion for passing the challenge and then one group received extra recognition in the form of the Betsy Plank award. The winning team was decided by the judges of the presentation, and the winner was……….. The green team (Dren’s)! It was great to hear the why that team was chosen and how their work will be used. After the winning announcement, we took a group photo and The Challenge was officially over.

What was it like to work with students from other universities? Advantages? Challenges? (Dren)
I thoroughly enjoyed working with my group for the duration of The Challenge! My group just clicked really well and were able to crank through our case study really quickly because we just kept building off of each other and the ideas kept flowing.

I think one of the big advantages of working with students from other universities was the fact that they had new ideas and concepts I had never considered before. We each brought something new to the table and together it just worked. However, there were definitely some challenges.

One of the big ones I noticed was that we all had different terminology for concepts and processes we used. For example, at Grand Valley you learn to use the RACE process when creating a communication plan, but every other student in my group had a different name for the process so it was a little confusing at first. The other main challenge was that one of my group members was actually a computer science major and not a public relations major and her brain was not wired the way most PR majors are. She brought a lot of great things to the table and did fantastic research, but there was a decent amount of time trying to explain concepts and ideas to her that most PR major would just understand.

What was the most important thing you learned from the speakers? (Amandari)
Mentors, mentors, mentors. Public Relations is all about building relationships and seizing opportunities. Making connections can be difficult without the aid of mentors. It is so important now more than ever to start gaining mentors to help budding PR pros like ourselves succeed in the industry.

What did you learn about yourself from the KAI leadership and conflict assessments? (Madi)

The KAI and Conflict Dynamics tests were very enlightening. From the KAI, I learned that I tended towards the “A” side of the continuum, which means that I am an “adapter,” instead of an “innovator.” I learned about how to interact with people on the “Inside of the scale, whose perceived lack of structure in their work can be intimidating to a rule-follower like myself. Understanding how I-types think really helped me gain a better understanding of how to work with people who don’t have the same thought processes and natural tendencies as me.

The Conflict Dynamics test showed me where I have room for personal growth. It was really spot-on in identifying the areas where I need to improve, so I can use this knowledge when I’m in conflict situations in the future and actively attempt to avoid my passive-destructive conflict tendencies.

What ideas about diversity do you think Ketchum should implement? (Madi)
Every group had great ideas that I think Ketchum should take into consideration! Some of my favorite ideas the groups suggested were: a series called “Keeping up with Ketchum,” where diverse PR pros are features on the Ketchum social media accounts; book clubs and speakers from diverse authors/public speakers for Ketchum employees; and partnering with PRSSA chapters to reach out to high school students to encourage them to pursue PR in college.

What about your case study do you think made it the one chosen to win? (Dren)
Honestly, I think that any of the teams could have won because everyone presented a unique and thoughtful case study. I believe the main reason my group won was our introduction for our presentation. We wanted to make ourselves credible to the judges and the audience to prove we should be providing the information. To do this, we introduced ourselves as diverse millennials. For examples, I introduced myself by saying, “My Name is Dren Kihn. I am 21 years old. I am German and Mexican. I am from Baltimore, Maryland. I am a diverse millennial.” By having our group members do this, we established our credibility stating we were the target audience. This set the bar for our presentation and got the audience’s attention because they now knew we had knowledge about the case study.

Don’t get me wrong, our presentation itself was also strong and well put together, however, I think it was our introduction that sealed the deal for us.

Did this opportunity help prepare you for life after graduation? How? (Amandari)
This opportunity was one of the most valuable experience I’ve had in my PR career so far. I feel as if I have grown immensely in the profession since The Challenge and because of it. Through working with a team with varying experiences and perspectives, prioritizing and managing due to such strict time constraints and maintaining professional communication with experts in the field, it seemed this conference was a glimpse into the standard day of a PR pro and something I couldn’t be more excited for.

What is one takeaway from the conference? (All answer)

Amandari: Joseph Tateoka (our first speaker) made a point that resonated with me, “No one’s paths are going to be the same. If you want to do what I do, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to take the exact steps that I did, it is possible in this industry to get to the same place as someone else through a completely different process,”. I love this idea. In this industry (especially as a senior terrified of what I’m going to do after graduation), it’s reassuring to hear that just because I’m not doing exactly what my peers who have the same goal as me are doing, I can still get to where they are going. Through making my own path, I am eager to learn more about the industry and myself.

Madi: I think my biggest takeaway from the conference is the value of making the PR workforce a more diverse space. I think PR works more effectively when there are voices from many different walks of life contributing to strategy; a lack of diversity can contribute to tone deaf messages (think the Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial or Dove’s recent misstep), or it can contribute to messages not reaching large swathes of people. With a more diverse PR workforce, everyone can feel that they are being represented and we can show that everyone’s voices matter in PR conversations.

Erin: My biggest take away was the value of mentors. All the business professionals who spoke at the conference explained how they gained their success through relationships. Many were given their current positions through connections their mentors had. This really opened my eyes to the importance of having a business professional coach new professionals along and give them industry specific advice. I can only think of positives to having a mentor and I plan to network and contact potential mentors in the near future. My goal is to have a mentor, or a few, before I graduate in April.

Dren: I think the biggest takeaway I got from the conference is just how vast and interconnected the PR field is. After listening to the many guest speakers we had, you learn that most of them know each other and have worked with some of them at one point or another. It just makes you think about all the possibilities there are out there in the field and just how important networking is. It makes you wonder if down the road I might reconnect with a fellow classmate working together at a firm. It makes me excited to get out in the field and continuing to connect with different people because you never know where your career will take you and who you will run into down the road.


Erin Stehlik is a senior majoring in PR with a minor in Spanish. She is the GVSU PRSSA Director of Social Media and an account associate for GrandPR. Erin is also a communications and development intern at Kids’ Food Basket and a behavioral technician at the Autism Centers of Michigan.
Amandari Karaca is a senior from Kalamazoo majoring in Advertising and Public Relations and minoring in Spanish. She is an Account Executive for GrandPR and heavily involved in her sorority, Sigma Kappa. She is currently working as a digital media intern for Gemini Publications in Grand Rapids. In her free time, you can find Amandari watching reality TV, reading skincare blogs, online shopping and cheering on the San Antonio Spurs.
Madi Barnes is a junior from Columbus, Ohio, double majoring in PR and political science. She is a member of the GVSU varsity lacrosse team. She currently works in digital and social media for the Hauenstein Center, where she is also a Cook Leadership Academy fellow. In her free time, Madison enjoys listening to political podcasts, running an Instagram account for her cats, cheering on the sports teams from her beloved home state of Ohio, and expressing her creativity through writing and design.
Dren Kihn is a senior from Baltimore, Maryland and is majoring in Advertising and Public Relations. She is a member of the GVSU varsity lacrosse team. She is the president for the Student Athlete Advisory Council. In her free time, Dren enjoys traveling, reading a good sci-fi book, playing beach volleyball, and writing creative short stories.