Fox Sports University partners with MJ-school students to create Instagram-focused campaign for Fox Sports South

It's 2 p.m. on a Thursday in late September — the time when coffee is lukewarm and minds are sleepy. This, however, doesn't describe the atmosphere surrounding the students in the UNC School of Media and Journalism’s "MEJO 634: Public Relations Campaigns" course. All are punctual, dressed and ready for the next hour and fifteen minutes. Excitement passes from student to student, and one whispers, "This feels so important."

This is the ninth year MJ-school public relations student teams will compete with one another to win over their semester client, Fox Sports, with a unique public relations campaign.

Camera ready

Fox Sports representatives Jeff Genthner, Rolanda Gaines, Caroline Youngs, Cory McCartney, Cati Hance and Micaela Asercion sit at the front of the room, ready to explain their needs to the eager students. A videographer waits for his cue, camera in hand, to capture the meeting for Fox Sports social media. Genthner breaks the nervous tension, jokingly saying, "The business casual doesn’t seem so bad now."

Fox Sports University is a program designed to provide real-world experiences for students that go beyond the classroom. In its 11th year, Fox Sports U has worked with UNC and more than 40 other schools across 11 athletic conferences, including the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism  and Arizona State Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

The Fox Sports U client for UNC this year is Fox Sports South. Five teams from the "MEJO 634: Public Relations Campaigns" course compete to create a public relations campaign that will bring a wider audience and greater engagement with the network. Primarily focusing on Instagram, MJ-school students are taking the already-established brand image and figuring out how to diversify its feed while still complementing its current voice.

"The way we use Instagram is inherently different from how we might use Twitter or Facebook, for example. Developing a campaign for just one of these platforms allows us to really focus in on the strengths of that platform and tailor all of our ideas to its potential," said senior Mark Goldbach '19. "We’re extremely excited to get to work and hopefully develop something that really engages the people we’re trying to target."

The teams are:

Creating campaigns and collaborations

Previous Fox Sports University collaborations were led by MJ-school Professor of the Practice Dana McMahan (seen in the video below). Now, Teaching Assistant Professor Livis Freeman is guiding MJ-school students in their creation of these professional campaigns.

"It’s a real compliment to both Dana and Livis that [Fox Sports] wants to continue to work with us," said the school's Director of Advertising and Public Relations John Sweeney.

Sweeney oversees many of these kinds of industry collaborations and recognizes the benefits of providing students with real-world work assignments.

"This field is a very quirky field, and some very wonderful case studies leave you scratching your head. But they were fresh and they were different and it was a whole different look of things, and we do that," Sweeney smiled. "The more I can push that kind of reality ... I just find better results. It's better for the students."

And the students agree. Senior Kiley Burns '19 is excited to work with her team to try to exceed the client's expectations. She is grateful for the hands-on experience in creating social media-based campaigns.

"I think that experiential learning is imperative, so working with Fox Sports — who will actually use our campaigns and our work — is awesome," said Burns. "We are harnessing real-time results and feedback, and it's motivating to know that our work has the potential to be utilized on a major platform."

A 'win-win'

After the Fox representatives wrap up their presentation, hands shoot up in the air. Students pose thoughtful questions about audience demographics, social media metrics and previous campaign obstacles. The voices are steady, cool and confident. Bringing well-informed ideas to the table impresses the clients, who exchange glances and broad smiles. This is the reason they keep coming back.

Micaela Asercion, who co-manages the program for Fox, says she is happy to provide the platform for immersive educational experiences, acknowledging that the program is mutually beneficial for students and Fox.

“It really is a win-win for both of us. The company then has a network of potential talent with a deeper understanding of the brand that can come into the business as interns or full-time employees," Asercion said. "In a constantly evolving media landscape, FOX Sports can learn from students just as much as the students are learning from FOX Sports."

Asercion and the other Fox Sports representatives returned to Carroll Hall on Thursday, Nov. 29, to decide the winning pitch. Until then, students in the class continued to monitor social media and develop plans to engage a wider audience on Fox Sports South's Instagram.

During the September kick-off presentation, Genthner, the senior vice president and general manager for Fox Sports South, left the students with a parting thought: "Let’s look at what no one else is doing and fill that space," he said. "Dare to fail."

Day of pitches

The Fox Sports representatives rejoined the students in November to hear the student groups pitch their campaigns. With high expectations, they settle into their seats in the school’s Freedom Forum Conference Center and wait for the first presentation. The teams trade glances and smiles, though the air is tense. The competition would end shortly, and each team believes their campaign is the one to beat.

Before presentations start, each team hands pages filled with research and campaign ideas to the representatives. The teams then present their pitches.

"Each team member took his or her turn speaking to the crowd with confidence and poise," said Cati Hance, who co-manages Fox Sports University with Asercion. "The students’ campaigns were filled with insightful research that shed light on any gaps in reach or opportunities of improvement. The campaigns were fresh, innovative and sometimes unconventional."

On Saturday, Dec. 8, Fox Sports released a video of Ashley ShahAhmadi, digital reporter for Fox Sports, announcing the winning team. The video was shown to the class that afternoon during their final exam period.


The winning team is Beyond PR with their campaign, "We Are All Gamers."

"This team took a risk by thinking outside of convention and focusing their campaign around esports — and this risk paid off," Hance added. "Their in-depth research in their campaign report and their excellent presentation impressed the judges and earned them the win."

Fox Sports surprised the class by announcing that they would also pull some elements from MVPr's campaign.

This year's collaboration between UNC and Fox Sports has come to a close, and Freeman could not be more proud of his students.

"The most rewarding part of this collaboration was hearing Jeff Genthner tell my students that their campaigns and presentations were better than many of the ones he’s given regularly by experienced professionals," said Freeman. "It was also hearing my students talk about the impact that this class and their ability to work with such a high profile company has had on their overall Carolina experience."