By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–Scott County, Indiana, has one of the highest per capita rates of opioid addiction in the United States.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) rank it as the 32nd most vulnerable county in America–out of a total of 3,142–placing it in the top one percent.
For one group of committed teenagers, statistics like these are more than numbers, they are the lives of family, friends, neighbors, classmates.
Since 2018, the members of EMPOWER, a youth-directed, Drug-Free Communities-supported coalition of students from two school districts in Scott County, have worked to create and maintain a safe, healthy and drug-free community.
To help the members of EMPOWER develop strategies and tools to advance their efforts, students from the IU Southeast chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) have been conducting workshops in social media campaigning and other aspects of public relations.
The relationship with IU Southeast began when the Scott County substance abuse prevention coalition (CEASe) received a federal grant from the Drug-Free Communities Support Program (DFC) to enable EMPOWER to build and execute a social media campaign highlighting the impact of alcohol use on adolescent brain development, as well as connecting youth alcohol use to increased risk for poor health outcomes and substance use disorder.
Lori Croasdell, CEASe and Drug-Free Communities coordinator, reached out to Dr. Melissa Fry, professor of sociology and director of the IU Southeast Applied Research and Education Center (AREC), who in turn facilitated contact to Dr. Jane Dailey, assistant professor of public relations and faculty advisor to the IU Southeast chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA). The members of the PRSSA were enthusiastic about applying their own burgeoning expertise to a real world project, and began conducting workshops in social media campaigning and other aspects of public relations with their new partners at EMPOWER.
“Some of our members have some journalism background, but social media is such a fast-paced changing environment that we wanted to be more aware of how to make our presence known,” said Melinda Lowry, Drug-Free Communities youth coordinator.
So far the IU Southeast students have conducted three workshops in Scottsburg, focusing on both on strategy and tactics.
“We go through the basics of a social media campaign: What do you want to express to your audience? What do you want them to take away from it?” said Logan Corn, a senior from New Albany majoring in journalism and public relations, and president of the PRSSA chapter. “It’s about creating a central theme and message, and then the content to get it across.”
Corn and her colleagues helped the EMPOWER group become more skilled in the use of Canva, a photo-editing freeware, and other tools that can produce a richer, more eye-catching social experience. They also honed in on preparation — an effective social media campaign might look spontaneous, but actually involves rigorous planning according to a posting calendar aligned to the overall goals of the campaign.
For Tierra Combs of Scottsburg High School, the workshops helped her apply her design skills more effectively. It was also nice to have the information coming from fellow students.
“Listening and learning from other people who are students and are relatively close to us in age makes me more comfortable during our workshops,” Combs said.
The EMPOWER members have been quick to put the lessons they learned into practice.
“I really like the strategy of varying the types of posts: informational, member introductions, events, and more,” said Lyndie Foster of Scottsburg High School, a Scott County Partnership intern working on EMPOWER Jr. “It will help keep the audience engaged and attract more interest in the content.”
For Riya Bhula of Scottsburg High School, the social media manager for EMPOWER, the workshops have made the group’s outreach more strategic and effective.
“The PRSSA students taught me how to put facts together with a catchy phrase, to make what I’m saying more effective, how to create polls for our audience to answer, so they feel more involved, how to make posts connect back to our community, how to make posts for local sports teams and clubs to gain a bigger audience,” Bhula said.
As more robust tactics lead to a higher profile, the group feels confident to push more serious content.
“Instead of just focusing on getting members to our meetings, we have started to let teenagers know about the dangers of drinking and abusing substances,” Bhula said. “The workshops helped immensely in creating a social media campaign for EMPOWER because none of the posts before the workshop really helped spread the word about participating in positive resilience-building activities.”
EMPOWER’s newfound social media prowess comes at a time of rising visibility and hopefully influence. Recently EMPOWER members presented at the Indiana Attorney General’s Prescription Drug Symposium — the only youth coalition invited to present. In February, five coalition members will participate in the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA) National Leadership Conference in Maryland, the group’s third appearance there.
“Our youth are leading the way for social change to happen,” Lowry said.
Collaborating with EMPOWER has also been transformative for the IU Southeast PRSSA chapter.
Founded in 1967, the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) is the foremost organization for students interested in public relations and communications. With more than 10,000 students and advisors in some 300 chapters in the U.S., Argentina, Colombia and Peru, the PRSSA advocates for rigorous academic standards for public relations education, the highest ethical principles and diversity in the profession.
That ethos is visible in the classroom, but is truly manifest in the EMPOWER project.
“A lot of what you learn in class is how to apply your skills to agency work or branding,” said Kiko Dixon, a senior from Louisville, Kentucky majoring in international relations, with a minor in public relations. “But this is using PR skills to make a difference in the community, and it’s awesome.”
For Fry of AREC, the project is part of a broadening portfolio of initiatives that serve both community needs and student learning.
“Many of AREC’s clients need social media and communications support and an increasing share of our projects include us developing content for social media,” Fry said. “Dr. Daily and I are working to develop strategies for continued collaboration to provide opportunities for students to learn through experiences that support local community organizations.”
Homepage photo: Some of the members of the IU Southeast chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America, from left: Kiko Dixon, Beth Hunter, Josh Roy, incoming president, Dr. Jane Dailey, faculty advisor, Logan Corn, president.