Students with skills

Phoebe Galvez is nervous. The red light on the television camera blinks, distracting her momentarily before a news reporter thrusts a microphone in her face and peppers her with questions.

“Why is this issue so important?” “Do you really think you can make a difference?” “Who’s funding you?” the reporter asks Galvez, a University of Utah student enrolled in the Master of Social Work Program.

Galvez pauses, gathers her thoughts, and responds calmly, reciting well-researched talking points, statistics and authoritative statements on an issue she is passionate about discussing publicly: racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

After a few minutes the interview concludes and Galvez takes a moment to exhale and reflect. Initially apprehensive about dealing with the news media, she realizes she’s happy with her interview performance.

“That wasn’t so bad,” Galvez tells her fellow students.

Galvez attributes her preparation for the media interview to a summer elective at the University of Utah College of Social Work called Advocacy and Public Relations Skills for Social Workers.  The course introduces graduate students to PR skills such as public speaking, messaging planning and interviewing. The course complements advocacy training students receive in the MSW Program core curriculum.

The idea for the course stems from a need to help prepare students who may work in smaller agencies or non-profits after graduation, where they’ll wear multiple hats, including event organizer, lobbyist and media spokesperson. The elective prepares them for working effectively with policymakers and the news media, says associate instructor Michael Babcock, who developed the course.

“I realized that while most social work students are passionate about helping their clients at the micro level, they are largely unprepared to work within the macro political and media systems to effect change,” says Babcock. “This course helps bridge that gap.”

Students learned how to navigate the state legislature’s website to identify lawmakers, meeting calendars and committee minutes. They also learned about the importance of relationship-building with policymakers throughout the year.

In addition to understanding the political system, students followed topics in the news media related to social work. It didn’t take long for them to put their burgeoning public relations skills to the test.

When Salt Lake City Councilman Charlie Luke proposed replacing police officers with social workers on the Salt Lake City Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Services Team (HOST), students contacted Luke to clarify budget numbers and to emphasize the importance of hiring licensed, master’s prepared social workers. Luke pledged to work with the College of Social Work to develop internship opportunities and job descriptions. The students learned it takes persistence to engage policymakers, and that what’s reported in the news isn’t always accurate.

“I think PR is an untouched topic in social work,” notes Heidi Stirling, a student and employee at the College of Social Work. “I think it’s important for social workers to learn these valuable skills and to overcome their fear of public speaking and dealing with the media.”

Some students had attended subcommittee hearings on Capitol Hill, but few had previously appeared on television. The capstone assignment was a mock TV interview where students faced tough questions about their topic of choice. For most of the 12-week summer session, students researched and prepared talking points to support their chosen cause, event or social concern.

Babcock invited Matt Sampson, news manager for Fox 13, to explain the news gathering and reporting process, and to give students ideas for finding and sharing human interest stories that would appeal to viewers. Students pitched their own ideas and Sampson provided feedback on what could be considered newsworthy, resulting in several potential stories.

“Social workers have incredible human interest stories to share,” says Babcock. “Each day they’re making a difference for individuals, groups and communities. Since most non-profits run on lean budgets, public relations is an effective and affordable strategy for sharing these stories with a broader audience.”

Galvez agrees.

“Macro social work is so important for representing our agencies and needs of our clients. Advocacy and PR skills make this possible,” she says.