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The Communicator


Real clients are the centerpiece of experience for CommAgency

CommAgency students on set with lights and camera for a shoot.
CommAgency students practice setting up video equipment at one of the agency's routine trainings.

In just a few short years, students working in CommAgency have gained valuable real-world experience as the organization expands to meet the technical and artistic needs of its Penn State clients.

Housed in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications, CommAgency began in 2017 first as a video production agency. Video was the strong suit of director Catie Grant, who was brought into the fold from WPSU to develop the production agency. Three more divisions have since been developed: photo, live streaming and social media and analytics. It was always in the plans, Grant said, to develop the agency beyond video.

“We really wanted it to represent all of the different experiences the students were going to have,” she said. “When we were thinking about the name and thinking about CommAgency, a lot of it came from thinking about all of the different services we wanted to offer in the future.”

CommAgency has grown to 45 students across the four divisions after starting with just 13 students three years ago. Its students and faculty leaders continue to serve Penn State clients, providing client service and technical expertise that may be out of the scope of abilities for those who need high quality communications. In exchange, students are paid for their services and able to gain valuable experience under the direction of faculty mentors.

Building a new division

The latest addition to CommAgency — social media and analytics — had its soft launch in the fall 2019 semester under the guidance of Grant and Bill Zimmerman, a lecturer in the college. It’s first student director was Ashley Ferrara, a senior majoring in advertising and public relations.

Ferrara said her division has worked hard to provide structure for the new venture while remaining flexible enough to tailor service to each client’s needs.

Faculty member Bill Zimmerman, seated at a table and working at a laptop with student Ashley Ferrara.

Bill Zimmerman (left) and Ashley Ferrara were among those working to establish the social media division within CommAgency.

“The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that each client is so different, and so my team and I have had to become super comfortable with the notion that there is no true set formula and you must make decisions and changes to accommodate each client and their goals,” she said.

Ferrara added that it’s been “an amazing experience getting to craft an entire division,” and playing a lead role in the decision making process.

Zimmerman said that while social media is still a relatively young field, it’s now old enough that audiences place high expectations on social media practitioners.

“Social media is effective when it’s not just a one-way platform to get information out,” he said. “That sort of thing already existed. It becomes useful and beneficial and a place where people continually look to for information if there’s interactivity, if there’s an acknowledgment that there’s an audience out there that has questions, concerns and needs.”

Ferrara said that it’s still considered a young person’s niche.

“One thing I have learned is that most clients are generally trusting of a college student’s suggestions for social media,” Ferrara said. “It’s definitely a plus that my team has grown up in a generation where social media accounts are an extension of one’s brand and presence online, so our understanding of different platforms helps us bridge the gap between our quantitative research and qualitative suggestions when developing strategic communication plans for our clients.”

The two main prongs of service from the social media division are strategy and content creation. The team works to create documents and uniformity for the client in a form that can be shared with others and any new people that might come into an office or project. In some cases, the division will do the actual execution: logging into clients’ accounts and interacting with the community and addressing any problems.

In the spring semester, CommAgency’s social media division began working with the Student Engagement Network, building off of work previously done by the video division in fall 2019. The video division created an overall promotional video and interviewed SEN’s interns for videos that could be used on social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook. The social media division followed these efforts with a social media strategy and content plan for SEN moving forward.

“This has been a tremendous experience, because the students have been the big winners,” said SEN Director Michael Zeman.

He added that it was a perfect way to accomplish much-needed work because engagement and education are knitted into the fabric of the service.

“Overall when this was first conceptualized, the idea was to create this engaged scholarship-like experience,” Grant said of CommAgency. “Especially with communications students, internships are often unpaid. It’s difficult for students who can’t necessarily take a lot of unpaid hours, particularly during the semester.”

A whiteboard full of drawings and ideas for a video project.

Storyboard planning was part of the CommAgency process to shoot a video project for the Student Engagement Network. (Photo: Kerry Newman)

Kerry Newman, director of the Undergraduate Education communications office that partnered with CommAgency on their work with SEN this fall and spring, echoed that the partnership is a win-win for all involved.

“We get the student perspective while giving them an opportunity to work with us as a professional client,” she said. “We learn from one another in the process and help them develop skills they will use on the job after graduation.”

Variety in clients and talent

Christina Chambers was the student executive director of CommAgency in the spring semester. She worked her way up into this role after starting in the video division. But the Public Relations and Political Science major didn’t have a strong video background when she started. It was the client work she liked, and she said Grant took a chance on her when CommAgency was a younger venture and growing, giving her the opportunity to grow her skills.

This variety of talent is needed, Grant said, because in addition to direct experience, CommAgency needs students who show drive, a desire to learn and can look at the agency’s work from a broad perspective. For these reasons, it’s not necessary that a student must be a film major to work in the video division.

“If you get in an entry-level position after graduation, and can show that you’ve got the dedication, the drive and the interest to understanding a larger platform campaign and strategy then you’re that much more valuable,” Grant said.

“Our hope is when our CommAgency students go into an internship or job, they’ll be 10 steps ahead of a person who might have all of those technical skills, but they don’t have the professional workplace skills,” Chambers said added. “We really combine the two.”

The spring 2020 semester’s usual routine was upended when Penn State moved to all-remote learning in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Chambers said much of the filming was completed for the video division and many in CommAgency were able to work from home.

The success of the projects, and the high quality of the work, was underscored this spring when the promotional video for SEN using scrapbook-style graphics to tell student stories, earned CommAgency multiple awards. The project earned first place from the Broadcast Education Association in the promotions category and two awards of distinction from the Communicator Awards, the annual awards program presented by the Academy of Interactive and Visual Arts.