33rd Street Public Relations: Student-Run Firm with a Mission

By Maia Livengood

April 21, 2010 — As a student, it can be challenging at times to distinguish which student organizations best fit academic or professional enrichment needs. Drexel, in fact, is host to over 260 current student organizations. Often, the integration of several clubs, ranging from social causes to business acumen development, serves students with a well-rounded college experience. The Drexel chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA), however, has distinguished itself by combining academic, professional and applied learning in their student-run firm, 33rd Street Public Relations.

In 2006, Drexel student Sarah Mason laid groundwork for her communications senior project. Her goal was to form a student-run public relations firm as a tool for applied learning. 33rd Street, named to reflect Drexel’s home in the heart of Philadelphia, began with no long-term goals and a single client: the student-run literary publication, Maya. Having worked at Drexel’s writing center, Mason had established numerous contacts with the publication’s editorial staff, who were highly receptive to her public relations project pitch. Mason began the project by writing a communication plan. Ultimately, her goal was to increase campus awareness through a launch event for Maya’s spring 2007 issue release. The event was extremely well received, and Mason was recognized for her work by faculty, staff, and students who attended.

Upon Mason’s graduation in 2007, the firm continued under the guidance of appointed Executive Director Michael Stumpo, a communications major in the College of Arts and Sciences. Though he had not been a member of PRSSA previously, Stumpo’s strong background in writing, his foundation in business administration, and his professional network made him an ideal fit for the position. PRSSA President Frannie DeFranco also recognized his potential for leadership as a highly motivated, driven student.

33rd Executive Committee
33rd Street Executive Committee

An executive committee, composed primarily of PRSSA members, was established under St    umpo’s guidance. The group was a collective unit sporting an array of talents; each student brought to the table a different academic strength, professional skill set, and unique personality that gave the group its necessary dynamism. Their first order of business was outlining the firm’s mission, “To provide eligible clients with public relations services and to serve as a learning community for Drexel undergraduate students.” Stumpo further decided that the firm would be run as a non-profit organization. Though he was originally met with some contention due to the legal restructuring of the firm, Stumpo was convinced that 33rd Street would thrive if operated as a non-profit. Functioning as a business with an education-centered mission, their independent contracts would legitimize the group and provide greater autonomy. In our interview, Stumpo reflected on the advantages of operating as a non-profit independent entity:

“We fulfill our mission and we report to the IRS. Our professional and legal advisors serve to keep us on the right page, enabling us to negotiate our own contracts, and deal directly with our clients. It allows for a greater sense of professionalism and is more reflective of a real-world scenario.” The firm’s earnings then contribute to support PRSSA functions such as invited speakers, workshops, and conferences.

In fact, funds from these work efforts allowed the executive team to attend the national PRSSA conference in San Diego this past November. The team was able to present their work with 33rd Street to students from across the nation. Stumpo commented on the team’s impact in inspiring and providing insight to small student-run startup firms:

“Many PRSSA chapters have 200 to 300 student members, have been around for twenty odd years, have full-time faculty dedicated to their projects, and are university-level initiatives. And, most of the [conference] panels were run by these student PR firms—which is great, but not very helpful to students like us who are looking to start a small student organization with limited funds. Bigger firms can’t necessarily help or give specific advice in these scenarios, which is where we stepped in and presented our work. We made great contacts with students from several states, and offered whatever resources we could.”

As a direct result of their accomplishments and the recognition they received at the national conference, the Drexel chapter of the PRSSA was one of only 12 schools in the nation selected to host a 2010 regional conference.

Though the firm is now thriving, it’s important to note their “grassroots” beginning, and how both their reach and scope has increased in just two short years. Shortly after gaining the legal and financial backing to proceed as a non-profit, the Executive Committee contracted their first major client, CityRyde LLC.

The software-based company was modeled after European bicycle-sharing services, similar to PhillyCarShare, but was in desperate need of media promotion for their relatively foreign service concept. Sonal Patel, account director (soon to be executive director), was the account executive for the project. Her objective was to work with various media to enhance CityRyde’s image and thus, better appeal to investors and government organizations. Students contributing to the CityRyde account pieced together a campaign and pitched the company’s strengths to Drexel’s school newspaper, The Triangle. The team proceeded to use the published Triangle article to pitch to larger publications: University City Review and Metro. After tracking user traffic to CityRyde’s website, it was clear to the company’s owners that the campaign had made a significant impact. Consequently, with the help of a staff member at Drexel’s Baiada Center for Entrepreneurship , the group sought out a publication with a much higher number of potential impressions. The story was pitched to a contact at Entrepreneur magazine, which profiled the CityRyde co-founder, Timothy Ericson, in their June 2009 issue.

Said Ericson, "33rd St. PR gave us the initial support needed to build our company's awareness."

City RydeIt was clear that the 33rd Street staff had the necessary skills and talent to grow the new organization. And there was a substantial market for their business, too. Following the success of CityRyde, 33rd Street won accounts with the Chicago-based group The Iris Organization, the New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity, the National Arthritis Foundation, the Photographic Society of Philadelphia, and most recently, GreenKonnect and PlaySay. Additionally, several startups owned by Drexel and University of Pennsylvania alumni have approached Patel to establish a relationship with the firm.

Due to the firm’s impressive performance in creating a learning community that develops and improves professional communication skills, Drexel has recently authorized up to six class credits (three credits per term) for participation in 33rd Street. Additionally, Drexel’s Steinbright Career Development Center (SCDC) has approached the Executive Committee regarding the possibility of adding a co-op position to the firm. Though still in the initial planning stages, the role would require a variety of skills ranging from event planning to graphic design.

Stumpo highlighted the many ways students benefit from involvement in the firm:

“Foremost, students develop their communication skills; we delegate communication projects that can be showcased in a portfolio for potential employers. Students develop the ability to plan and strategize from a business perspective. Account executives need to understand media relation strategies, brainstorm marketing concepts, and discuss clients’ strengths and weaknesses to help the client’s business grow. And most importantly, students learn how to maximize on self-marketing. 33rd Street works in tandem with top Philadelphia firms so students gain access to an invaluable network of professionals in the city.”

As with many student organizations, members choose varying degrees of involvement in 33rd Street; however, the focus of the firm encourages staffers to take on leadership roles, engendering a new sense of professional responsibility. The benefits of taking on these roles are obvious; students acquire the practical foundation needed to qualify for competitive co-ops, post-graduation job opportunities, and admission to rigorous graduate school programs. The success of the firm mirrors the success of Drexel’s student development mission: integrating academia and real-world experience to prepare students for a challenging lifelong career of scholarship and professionalism.

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Maia Livingood '12 is a Business Administration major with concentrations in Finance and Economics, as well as an English minor. Working for the College of Arts and Sciences, she has developed a strong interest in publication management and hopes to build upon the experience throughout her professional career.