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Student-Run Agency Spotlight: Hill Communications at Syracuse University

Published on October 8, 2020, at 10:35 a.m.
by Kathleen McManus.

Today, many universities embrace student-run public relations firms as both an excellent supplement to classroom teaching and a unique opportunity for clients to reap the benefits of talented students’ efforts.

The success of Syracuse University’s Hill Communications, founded in 2001, demonstrates how student-run agencies are mutually beneficial for students and their clients. Students gain experience applying technical skills they are learning in the classroom to real public relations work. Students also learn lessons not found in a textbook, such as client communication etiquette, how to effectively work on or manage a team, and presentation skills.

Likewise, clients benefit from the tangible work performed by these agencies. “These are clients that can’t afford to use an Edelman or a FleishmanHillard for their client services,” said Hill Communications Firm Director Jesse Nadelman. “They’re coming to us with the same trust they would place in a large agency.” Oftentimes, these clients do not have a communications specialist internally and rely on the student-run agency to help connect with their publics.

“We are a staff of students volunteering our time to help different clients while gaining transferable skills, but they’re getting real work to help support their business. They want to help us, and we want to help them. I think that’s really enticing to potential clients,” said former Hill Communications Firm Director Riva Goldberg.

Photo courtesy of Jesse Nadelman

Agency operations

Hill Communications focuses on five services:
• Research campaigns.
• Press releases and media relations.
• Publicity campaigns and event planning.
• Branding.
• Social media.
• Crisis management.

Currently consisting of 35 members plus four executive board members, Hill Communications has five account teams in industries varying from health care to financial communications. Each client team is equipped with an account supervisor, account executive, a few associates and an intern. New this year, each team has a graphic designer. “It’s something I implemented to give each team their own ability to get graphics and digital content for clients in a fast manner,” said Nadelman.

While offering unpaid positions, the agency prides itself on mirroring the operations of a real-world agency. Director of Development Talia Simmons compared her experience in Hill Communications to her professional internships at agencies including W2O Group. She noted that the student-run firm’s services help its students build a body of work through real projects.

Member experience
The firm creates skill-building opportunities for its members early. Each semester a handful of freshmen are invited to serve as an intern on an account team. In addition to team meetings, the interns meet weekly with the director of development on a comprehensive program covering topics from résumé building and interviewing to basic public relations skills. “Only one semester into college, our interns have already built portfolios of client work they can be proud to showcase when applying to internships. That is truly what makes this such a unique opportunity,” said Simmons.

Mentorship is a common thread throughout the firm’s operations and culture. Between each account team’s tiered structure and the intern program, members find mentorship central to their work. Human Resources Director Annelise Hackett shared that the variety of majors and class standings on each team helps members learn from one another. Whether it’s collaborating on deliverables or class recommendations, the agency is a place for members to grow and share ideas, she said.

Students gain experience through collaboration. Nadelman described how collaboration is important to a team’s approach to client work, and regardless of title, each team member has input on deliverables produced for the client.

Members also are encouraged initially to map their trajectories, setting a solid foundation they can use as young professionals to think beyond their first jobs. Many freshmen who start as interns move up the ranks to serve on the e-board. While members reapply for their firm membership each semester, retention and promotion are encouraged from the start.

Each semester gives members the opportunity to work for a new client and with other members. Clients are recruited at the beginning of each semester and often continue into the next. Simmons commented that one of her favorite parts of being in the agency is presenting to the client at the end of the semester and seeing their reaction. It is those winning reactions that help retain clients for the following semester and bring in new clients through word of mouth promotion, she noted.

Photo courtesy of Jesse Nadelman

Ultimately, it is the real-world experience that draws members in and supports them in their career. “It’s one of the reasons I applied to Syracuse University,” said Hackett. “The opportunity to get hands-on experience and do work in the real world as soon as freshman year is something that is valuable to our students.” Hackett also believes that the experience is just as valuable to the clients who are receiving work from a younger audience as they learn current industry trends.

Goldberg, currently an account associate at W2O Group, said that when applying for internships and her full-time position, employers were interested and impressed by her experience at Hill Communications. “It was great when I was asked interview questions to pull from my experiences at Hill Comm. I didn’t have a ton of internship experiences during the summers, but this gave me the opportunity to gain relevant experience while taking classes.”

For Goldberg, bridging the gap between her undergrad to her first job experience was almost seamless thanks to Hill Communications, which confirms the agency’s mission is successful. Many of her current responsibilities directly relate to her experiences in the firm, she said. In addition to strengthening her technical skills, she gained soft skills like communication with clients and understanding leadership styles.

With the increasingly competitive job market and the ever-changing demands of public relations professionals, student-run firms are providing relevant experience and helping students gain a competitive advantage when seeking to enter the professional arena. Since day one, Hill Communications has understood the value of a student-run firm for its participants but has been equally focused on ensuring they deliver a high-quality result for their clients. One of the most rewarding lessons that students have learned is that providing value for clients through their work is the best public relations they can create for their firm and subsequently for themselves.

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