Published on April 13, 2018, at 6:32 p.m.
by Halle Russo.
“If you had asked me four years ago, I would’ve laughed if you told me that I was going to major in public relations. I never would’ve guessed it,” Maret Montanari said.
As the winner of the PRWeek’s 2018 Outstanding Student award and firm director of Capstone Agency, The University of Alabama’s student-run, integrated communications firm, this statement may seem ironic as Montanari already stands out in the field as a college junior. However, it is clear that Montanari was always meant for a career in PR, even if she didn’t realize it immediately.
In high school, Montanari volunteered for a local nonprofit where she gained experience in event planning and communications.
“I met with my mentor at the nonprofit one day, and we chatted about my struggle and what I was thinking about choosing as my major,” Montanari said. “She asked if I liked what I was doing and I said: ‘Yeah, I’d come here every day if I had the chance.’ My mentor told me that I was essentially doing public relations and suggested that I pursue it in college.”
From there, Montanari scheduled a tour with the College of Communication and Information Sciences at The University of Alabama. She recounted how she immediately fell in love with the school and could sense the faculty’s passion for the industry.
While it may have been love at first sight with UA’s A+PR program, Montanari credits her acceptance into Capstone Agency as the most defining moment of her college career.
“I think that set the tone of the rest of my time here at The University of Alabama. The roles I’ve had in Capstone Agency have constantly pushed me to learn and challenged me to become a better PR practitioner,” Montanari said. “I had that immediate exposure [to the industry] and realized that PR was not just about being a good writer. There is so much more to it.”
“I met Maret when I was a sophomore and she was a freshman. It was obvious from the start that she was someone who was going to be known in Reese Phifer,” Megan Perkins, Capstone Agency’s 2017 firm director, said. “She’s easily the most organized person I know and always has an idea for how something can be done better.”
Fast forward four years. In March 2018, Montanari traveled to New York for the annual PRWeek Awards Dinner and Presentation where she was named PRWeek’s 2018 Outstanding Student. Montanari is the first UA student to win this award; however, UA alum Katie Gatti was recognized as the 2017 Honorable Mention.
In fact, Montanari said that this award has been on her radar since Gatti applied last year. When Teri Henley, Capstone Agency’s faculty adviser, sent the application to her, Montanari was ready.
“When I first read about the campaign, I thought that it would be a really interesting and challenging opportunity, so I decided to go for it,” Montanari said. “I immediately started planning how I was going to hold myself accountable and complete everything before the deadline.”
Montanari had a lot of creative freedom with the overall structure of the campaign. Her campaign’s title was “Delaware On Demand,” and the overall goal was to promote tourism in Delaware.
She was given guidelines to include elements such as research and influencer engagement, and was also given the choice of creating supplemental materials, such as a campaign website and video. Upon being named one of the top five finalists in January 2018, Montanari pitched her campaign to a PRWeek editor.
According to PRWeek, some of Montanari’s proposed tactics were “an international competition where participants create a Pinterest board based on their dream trip to Delaware, a craft beer fest at various state locations, and the development of a Snapchat ad with an interactive in-app game.”
Rachel Hobbs, a student at Elon University, was the other finalist for the 2018 Outstanding Student award. Her campaign focused on “discovering Delaware with your eyes, not your iPhone,” and she proposed an app that would temporarily disable a phone’s social networking functions so that visitors could fully experience the state’s attractions.
Ultimately, Montanari’s submission stood out because of her thorough research and creativity. Two focus groups and multiple interviews with tourism experts and millennials helped shape her campaign.
One of PRWeek’s judges remarked, “[Montanari] could work at an agency right now and thrive.”
“She stands out because she puts in the effort that very few people are willing to. She completes 10 things on your to-do list before you even knew they were on there, she inconveniences her schedule to make time for a last-minute project, she builds relationships with professionals that most students would forget to follow up with, and she stays on top of trends that others haven’t even heard of,” Perkins shared.
When her name was called as the winner of the Outstanding Student award, Montanari said that she was “smiling and shaking because she could barely contain her excitement.”
“It was so surreal to be there. They call it the Oscars of PR, and now I know why,” Montanari said. “Some of the most influential leaders in the industry were there, and it was inspiring to see the work that they do. It’s also very motivating from a student’s perspective because we’re the next generation of professionals in the industry, and we have to continue the legacy of innovation and creativity that these leaders have built.”
When Montanari’s Capstone Agency colleagues heard that she won the award, they all agreed that they could not think of anyone more deserving of the award and recognition for her hard work.
“The Outstanding Student award is just the beginning,” Perkins said. “I recommend anyone who has the chance to get to know her to make time for it because she is going to change the landscape of PR one day. She’s always had the role of being my assistant because of our age, but the truth is, I’m the one who aspires to be half as great as she is.”
“She never mentioned it to me when she was a finalist for the award,” Hudson Nuckolls, Capstone Agency’s assistant firm director, said. “That kind of speaks to who she is. When you talk to her and see her at meetings, she is so down to earth. You would never know that she was in New York City accepting an award in front of tons of people. She always gives all of the credit back to the people around her, which says a lot about her.”
Perkins emphasized the fact that Montanari is so humble as one of her top qualities. “She has all the reason in the world to brag about her accomplishments, but you will never hear her sputter a word about her success. Just look at her social media accounts after she won the award … the only evidence of her award is her responses to people congratulating her,” Perkins explained.
One of the biggest lessons that Montanari has learned throughout her journey as a PR student is that “you can always learn something whether it’s from the specific situation that you’re in or from the people who currently surround you.”
Montanari discussed how she learned a lot as a student by reaching out to her professors and by getting involved as a freshman.
“My mom always told me to not be afraid of going to my professor’s office hours,” Montanari said. “If a professor offers to help you learn more about the industry or get an internship, you should take them up on it because they would not offer if they weren’t serious about it. Plus, it’s not enough to just have good grades in this industry. You need to know how to implement your education, which you can demonstrate by getting involved and having internships.”
Not only has Montanari learned a lot from the people surrounding her, but her Capstone Agency colleagues shared that she has taught them countless lessons in time management, creating a welcoming team dynamic and exhibiting overall professionalism.
“I’ve learned it’s better to just sit down and get the job done in the moment than to put it off until later. Maret remains in her seat after everyone else has left and knocks out everything on her agenda,” Perkins said. “She’s also taught me there’s always a way to make a meeting more fun.”
“[Montanari’s] work ethic is admirable. I don’t know if she has bad days and that’s because of her work ethic. No matter the circumstances, she’s willing to stay late, go to the extra meeting and be present, even if it’s just for moral support,” Nuckolls said. “She makes sure that nothing is left undone, and nothing is ever overlooked.”
Montanari offered one final piece of advice for students looking to distinguish themselves at the national level: “Apply for awards and find your niche. In PR, there are a ton of different avenues you can pursue. Finding your niche in the industry will lead you to your passion. Whenever you capitalize on that, you’ll produce awesome work that will get you recognition as a standout student.”