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June 20, 2016

By LaRahia Smith, Communication Manager

What began as a standard writing assignment in Mike Emery’s PR Writing class evolved into a full-fledged public relations campaign.

Emery, a lecturer at the Valenti School of Communication, selected the aniMeals on Wheels program as the client for the class’ media kit assignment this past semester.

Coordinated by Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston, aniMeals on Wheels is the companion to the organization’s more known program, Meals on Wheels. While Meals on Wheels delivers food to homebound seniors in Houston and surrounding areas, aniMeals on Wheels makes sure their pets are also fed.

The program emerged from the realization that Meals on Wheels recipients with pets were skipping meals to ensure that their pets were also fed. The subject hit home for some students.

“I have two dogs, mini dachshunds named Lola and Chubbs, who are a part of my family. I can’t begin to imagine the struggle some of these seniors are going through to ensure their furry family members have full and happy bellies,” says Natasha Wilson, a public relations major.

As the media kit assignment neared its end, Emery outlined two options for moving forward. The class could continue on to the scheduled final project or they could use the finalized media kits to build awareness about aniMeals on Wheels and campaign for pet food donations.

Despite having only three weeks left in the semester, the students elected to use their media kits to make a real impact. Emery, familiar with aniMeals on Wheels, gave them copy points and information to help shape their plans.

“As part of the media kit assignment, each group created a press release, video and flyer. They also had to come up with creative plans for raising donations and present them in class,” says Emery.

To craft the plans, the students conducted firsthand research to supplement what Emery had told them about aniMeals on Wheels.

“They visited Interfaith Ministries. The volunteer coordinators spent a lot of time with them so they could actually do their videos there on-site. They let themselves be interviewed by the students and gave them tours of the facilities,” says Emery.

Emery, who also serves as assistant director of media relations at UH, leveraged existing media connections to get the students’ work in front of local media professionals.

“I used the best release and reached out to the Cougar editor with an unofficial UH pitch that students wrote and explained the project and they covered it. I also selected two students that I thought would be responsive for interviews, so they had experiences as spokespersons. For the feature on the University of Houston website, I gave credits to the students who contributed to it. So they all get to use these as portfolio pieces.”

Like any campaign, this one presented its share of challenges – the most pressing was the short timeframe.

“We realized our initial idea might not work and had to come up with several back up plans just in case,” says Wilson. “We initially wanted to utilize our campus resources by hosting a ‘Yappy Hour.’ Unfortunately, due to time constraints, we were unable to set the event up.”

“The groups had to rethink a lot of the on campus activities when people weren’t getting back to them in time. A lot of them began to collect donations at their places of employment or their parents’ place of employment. I also had a student who works at PetCo who was able to reach that audience, as well,” says Emery.

The students adjusted their plans based on the time constraints. For example, Wilson’s group decided to organize a pet food drive to collect food from students on campus, instead – which she says was a huge success.

All of the groups worked hard to make an impact. They enlisted abc13 News meteorologist Casey Curry as the honorary chair for the campaign. Working with Curry helped raise awareness about aniMeals on Wheels. She allowed her image to be used on collateral and used her social media channels to get the word out.

This hard work paid off. Together, the class raised 800 lbs. of pet food.

Many students appreciated the real-world experience that the campaign provided.

“The flyer I made was chosen to represent the class campaign overall, which was also shared by Casey Curry,” says Yessica Soto-Imm, also a public relations major.

But the biggest takeaway was the understanding that public relations can be used to make a huge impact in a community.

“There are many organizations that are trying to make a difference in the community, and I am appreciative to have been given the opportunity to a part of one for a short period of time,” says Wilson.

On the heels of this successful campaign, Emery is leading his Principles of Public Relations students on a similar, yet smaller project this summer to continue to create goodwill toward aniMeals on Wheels. 

Header photo credit:  unsplash-logo