Economic development officials everywhere deal with the same problem. In this digital age, what is the most effective way to present a community online so that it will appeal to citizens and businesses who might consider moving there?
Throughout the spring semester, Purdue students taking Problems in Public Relations (COM 353) worked with the Purdue Center for Regional Development to answer that question for five rural Indiana towns.
The PR student groups in the project – titled “iFrontDoor” – examined the websites of local organizations and businesses in the communities of Connersville, Greensburg, Richmond, Rushville, and Union City, and also used search engines and review sites like Yelp to uncover additional information about the towns. Once they completed their online reputation assessments, they met with community leaders in February to describe their findings.
“We had a series of three different scenarios to run through,” said Bailie Pelletier, a senior from Westfield, Indiana, who studied Greensburg with classmates Joanne Brundza and Dingye Hu. “The first one was a family looking to relocate to Greensburg. What would they find for after-school care, schooling, tourism activities? The second one was someone looking to relocate there for a job. What would they find there? The third one was a corporation looking to relocate a plant somewhere like Greensburg. So it was helpful to put ourselves in those different scenarios: ‘If I were this person, what would I find on Greensburg? If I were that person, what would I find in Greensburg?’
“I think we were able to provide a lot of insight for them with that because we are still an outside source, but we weren’t even looking at it as PR students conducting a project,” she added. “We were immersing ourselves in it and looking at it from the perspective of somebody who would be coming to Greensburg.”
At the initial meeting, the community leaders offered feedback on the students’ findings and described problems they wanted the students to address. With that information in hand, the groups then worked to find solutions to those issues, designing materials, actionable strategies, and timelines to implement their plans.
The community leaders from all five towns returned to campus on April 25 to hear the groups’ suggestions – the final project for the COM 353 course. Bryan Robbins, executive director of the Greensburg-Decatur County Economic Development Corporation, and Philip Deiwert, executive director of the Decatur County Visitors Commission, attended Pelletier, Hu, and Brundza’s presentation at Beering Hall. Meanwhile, three other Greensburg community leaders participated via video conference.
The student group assembled a beginner’s guide to social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Yelp, aimed at helping older business owners establish a digital presence when they might be technology-averse.
“For people who are 25 and under,” Brundza told the community leaders, “social media is a sign that a business exists.”
They also came up with a search engine optimization guide to improve Greensburg-related internet search results, plus objectives for increased web traffic and engagement, and a suggested timeline for implementation.
“I think it’s incredibly valuable, particularly to a small, rural area where some people might be somewhat intimidated or reluctant to try the online, the social media,” Robbins said of the materials the students provided. “We have businesses that have been around for 50-plus years that are somewhat in the mindset of the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s. It’s a whole new ballgame now. We have full expectations and full confidence in them that they can succeed. It’s just that this is something that’s integral to business these days, and to have those physical guidelines that we can slide across the table will be great.”
Finally, the students shared suggestions for possible improvements to Greensburg-area websites, including ways the community leaders can meet objectives that emphasize diversity – which already exists at the massive Honda manufacturing plant on the western edge of town. One of the students’ ideas was to hold an annual community event celebrating global culture, similar to the Global Fest held each fall at Purdue.
“We’ve had the opportunity to tour Honda, and you walk around out there, and it is diverse,” Deiwert said. “You come off the Honda campus, and you come back to Greensburg, and it’s not. So how do you make Greensburg look more like what Honda looks like? Cultural diversity is something that we are very aware of and trying to address.”
The Greensburg officials were extremely receptive to the PR students’ suggestions, and the other COM 353 groups elicited similar responses according to Purdue Center for Regional Development assistant director Roberto Gallardo, a Purdue Extension Community and Regional Economics Specialist, and PCRD program coordinator Jessica Wandless.
“Having someone from the outside come in and back up what the same people have been saying about the changes that need to happen in the community definitely adds clout,” Wandless said.
Gallardo and Wandless introduced iFrontDoor at Purdue this year, pitching the program to the Brian Lamb School of Communication after Gallardo saw positive results from a similar economic development project in his previous position at Mississippi State.
Gallardo joked that the spring semester’s debut was “the pilot of a pilot of a pilot,” but they have ambitious plans for the iFrontDoor program. Their goal is to have next semester’s COM 353 students implement the previous groups’ plans in the respective cities, plus add their own spin to the projects. Then future class groups will start the process all over again in new Indiana towns that agree to participate.
Eventually Gallardo hopes to market the program to state agencies that could provide funding support as the students work to assess and improve the way Indiana’s rural communities present themselves. Meanwhile, the PR students gain practical experience, creating a situation where everyone involved may benefit.
“The kids are getting real-life experience,” Gallardo said. “Whatever it is they’re learning in the classroom, they’re realizing that it does have real-life implications, so that, to me, is a tremendous brownie point for the students. And in the community, having a group of students from Purdue – objective, no ties to the community – come in and say, ‘This is what we found,’ I think it helps. It’s a win-win.”