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To help boost recruitment, Chesterfield County police taps the advice of VCU PR students

Devin Lainer, a senior public relations major, presents marketing and PR recommendations to Chest...
Devin Lainer, a senior public relations major, presents marketing and PR recommendations to Chesterfield County police on Tuesday as part of Agency, a capstone course in which VCU students provide pro bono communications services to nonprofit and government organizations. (Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs)

With police officers retiring at a rate of nearly four per month, the Chesterfield County Police Department is focused on attracting new recruits, particularly millennials who might not have considered a career in law enforcement.

This fall, Virginia Commonwealth University public relations students have been working all semester to draw up a list of marketing and communications recommendations that might help.

“[One] strategy would be to attract more followers [on social media]. This could be utilizing hashtags, using memes, gifs and videos — because that’s what millennials are into — and then having more promotions for brand recognition: T-shirts, ride-alongs,” senior public relations major Brianna Weathers told a panel of Chesterfield County police officers. “That way you'll reach more [young people] and they’ll be more likely to tell their friends.”

The students are taking part in Agency, a senior-level, capstone undergraduate public relations course in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences in which students provide public relations and communications support to organizations in need.

Launched in 2017, Agency operates much like a professional PR agency. The students, under the supervision of an account director who also serves as an instructor and client liaison, are held to industry-level expectations in professionalism, performance and strategic thinking.

“Students work together over a 16-week semester to create communication plans and campaigns based on the individual needs of the client,” said Joshua Smith, the public relations sequence coordinator for the Robertson School and executive director of Agency. “The fast-paced nature of the course and the demands of working with clients encourages the highest level of professionalism, performance and strategic thinking.”

This semester, 41 students were assigned to three sections of Agency, each working with a different client. In addition to the Chesterfield County Police Department, the other two sections worked on behalf of Boys Home of Virginia, a residential education facility for school-age boys from challenging circumstances, and CARITAS, a nonprofit organization that helps individuals and families in the Richmond area who are dealing with homelessness and addiction.

All students in Agency are senior mass communications majors focused on PR. To be eligible for Agency, they must first complete prerequisite courses such as: Communication Ethics and Law; PR Writing, Media Relations; Graphic Design and Production; Social Media; Professionalism, PR Strategy, Crisis Communication and PR Research.

“They are by all means at the top of their game, and ready to take on such an important task,” Smith said. “In Agency, the real world starts now. This is where theory meets practice, and the rubber meets the road. For some students, this is their first interaction with a real client and a great way to conclude their learning here in the school.”

Two teams of VCU students and Chesterfield County police officers pose for a photo.
Two teams of VCU students and Chesterfield County police officers pose for a photo after the Agency students presented their recommendations to help the department in its efforts to boost recruitment. (Photo contributed by Joshua Smith)

Seventeen students — divided into two teams — worked on behalf of Chesterfield County police, and presented their recommendations Tuesday evening before Chesterfield police officers, classmates and PR industry professionals. They produced numerous items to help the police department with its recruitment efforts, including a website redesign, a billboard design, and advice for the creation and distribution of radio public service announcements to complement new television PSAs produced this fall by the production company Studio Center.

The students also presented designs for banners, flyers, brochures, T-shirts and mugs that could be handed out at job recruitment fairs.

And they provided a long list of recommendations to enhance the police department’s social media presence. One suggestion was to aim for more cohesive branding with messages that appeal to millennials.

“Posting more about how you are helping the community would [be effective],” said Ali Alzaabi, a senior public relations major from United Arab Emirates. “Millennials want to feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves.”

The students also suggested hashtags that could be used across social media platforms that would differentiate Chesterfield County police from peer departments. One was #GreaterInGreen, a reference to CCPD’s distinctive green uniforms. The other was #MoreThanABadge, which aims to convey the community engagement aspect of law enforcement.

“When we asked [Chesterfield County officers] what CCPD meant to them, everyone said community,” said Rendha Maharosa, a senior double majoring in public relations in the Robertson School and marketing in the School of Business. “So we came up with #MoreThanABadge to kind of change the perception of law enforcement and … move it to a more positive outlook, a more human perspective on who is behind the badge.”

In Agency, the real world starts now. … For some students, this is their first interaction with a real client and a great way to conclude their learning here in the school.

Lauren Zampella, a senior public relations major, said she and her classmates enjoyed the experience of working with a real client, particularly one as interesting as a police department. It also gave them valuable work experience as they prepare to enter the job market, she said.

“CCPD's goal is to recruit younger, more diverse applicants,” she said. “In addition to our own research, a few of us were able to visit the set of their new commercial to get a feel for some of their core values that we could include in our campaign. Some of our final products included a new hashtag (#GreaterInGreen), a social media calendar and two sample radio commercials.”

Paula Otto, who taught the section working on behalf of Chesterfield County police, said her students spent months researching and planning, and developed products that CCPD can employ immediately.

“Our students uniquely match the target demographic for the CCPD, so their insight into pertinent media habits, social media practices and employment criteria was extremely helpful,” Otto said. “Most importantly, the Robertson School curriculum that leads into this capstone course has prepared our students with the writing, research, critical thinking and technical skills that are now translating into valuable deliverables for the client.

“This is truly a real-world experience,” she added. “The students have done an excellent job of executing the process that professional agencies use in developing campaigns. That includes research, setting objectives, programming and evaluation.”

“We are very grateful for the opportunity for VCU to choose us as one of their partnering agencies. And we are very serious about implementing some of their recommendations, especially when it comes to social media and then measuring our success or lack thereof,” he said. “We’re especially interested in their ideas about how to reach millennials, which is something we’ve been focusing on [for recruitment] for some time.”

Agency accepts applications year-round. Organizations interested in the service can apply online or contact Joshua Smith at the Robertson School of Media and Culture.