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Snapchat ‘takeover’ part of image makeover for Grand Forks

UND students emulate a real-world PR firm to help city reach young people

Queen Ngale and Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown
UND student Queen Ngale updates the City of Grand Forks’ Snapchat profile with Grand Forks Mayor Michael Brown after the mayor’s annual State of the City Address on Feb. 15.

Queen Ngale doesn’t mess around when it comes to job shadowing. She goes straight to the top.

Ngale, a UND psychology/pre-med student from Mounds View, Minn., got a whirlwind tour of a day in the life of Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown on Wednesday, Feb. 15. In some ways, it was a typical day with Brown, who also works as a physician at Altru Health System. In others, it was anything but.

Along the way Ngale captured the mayor’s every move on social media platform Snapchat and shared it with the world.

“I followed the mayor around — from watching him take out the garbage to discharging patients,” Ngale said. “It’s been pretty cool.  I think he enjoyed it. I mean, I don’t know how I would feel with someone following me around and documenting everything I did.”

Ngale’s day with Brown culminated with a surprise request for her to serve as a warm-up act for one of the Mayor’s biggest annual policy speeches, the State of the City Address, in front of about 600 people.

“The most interesting part of it all has been just seeing how normal Mayor Brown is,” said Ngale, who’s interested in specializing in aviation medicine. “It’s been a surreal experience.”

Social push

For the past several few weeks, Ngale and others, many of them advertising and public relations students in the UND Communication Department, have been working with Mayor Brown and his office on initiatives to engage with younger Grand Forks residents.

“We are in the age of smartphones and social media, and the research shows that is how to get in touch with us,” Ngale said.

Ngale’s “takeover” of the city’s Snapchat account, GrandForksCity, was one part of a much larger effort to establish meaningful experiential learning opportunities for UND students, and at the same time help the city spice up its social media presence and overall public relations posture with younger audiences.

Ngale’s social media push seemed to latch on quickly. Within seconds, after introducing herself as the city’s “Snapchat girl” at the State of the City Address, GrandForksCity surged by more than 60 followers.

Idea is born

The whole story dates back to last year when UND Communication faculty members and husband-and-wife team Joonghwa Lee and Soojung Kim were at a doctor’s office preparing for the upcoming birth of their child. Their physician, known for being chatty with patients, was none other than Grand Forks Mayor Michael Brown.

Joonghwa Lee
Joonghwa Lee, UND Communication Department faculty member

Kim and Lee told Brown about the need for more experiential settings in which their students could practice concepts and skills for real clients. Eventually, the idea of having UND strategic communication students work for the city was born.

During the fall 2016 semester, both Lee’s “Advertising and Public Relations Campaign” course and Kim’s “Research Methods” course went to work on three initiatives for the city: (1) communicating better with UND students; (2) spreading the word more effectively about city events, particularly ones geared toward young adults; and (3) engaging the city’s minority populations, particularly American Indians.

“I have learned more in this class than any other I have taken in my college career in regard to how to make plans, set goals, be organized, be professional, interact with teammates and work together to overcome obstacles along the way,” said Abby Smith, a student in both classes. “I have changed and grown as a leader.”

City as client

Kim and Lee structured the courses to mimic what students would experience working in a strategic communications firm with the city as a client. Students examined the communication situation, conducted extensive research — including best practices in other cities and focus groups and surveys of target audiences — and regularly met with city leaders like Community/Government Relations Officer Pete Haga.

Haga said the students brought a lot to the table and saved the city tens of thousands of dollars in consulting fees.

“One of the reasons why we would take this opportunity is we wanted some ‘non-industry’ answers to our questions,” Haga said. “Students bring authentic, fresh perspectives that allow us to see our work in different ways.”

Soojung Kim
Soojung Kim, UND Communication Department faculty member

Impressed by the UND student’s work, the city “hired” Kim’s spring semester course to design communication plans that resonate with UND’s student population for city-wide events, such as the annual Downtown Street Fair in September.

Kim said she hopes to keep that relationship going.

“I may have different clients in the future or keep working with the city,” she said. “But overall, I plan to provide my students with this type of client project because this has much more value than just listening to lectures and taking exams.”

Student Peter Monsrud agreed, saying he gained more than just skills through the experience.

“I personally found the class empowering, as it allowed not just me but the class as a whole the opportunity to contribute something real and give us real-world experiences,” he said. “I’m excited to show this plan and the process in future job interviews.”

Tim Pasch, chair of the Communication Department, praised Lee, Kim and Assistant Professor of Communication Sarah Cavanah for their efforts in establishing this experiential learning environment.

“As chair, I am both proud of, and highly impressed by, the quality of the linked scholarship and outreach of our tenure-track faculty in the Department of Communication,” Pasch said. “Drs. Cavanah, Lee, and Kim are clearly rising luminaries in their scholarly areas, with the added benefit of their work directly catalyzing digitally driven broader impacts in our community.”

The UND Department of Communication contributed to this report.