Sink or swim: Valerie Fields pushes students to be their best

For public relations students, taking a class with Teaching Associate Professor Valerie “VK” Fields is a rite of passage.

Whether it’s "MEJO 332: Public Relations Writing," the core course for the public relations specialization in the UNC School of Media and Journalism, or "MEJO 533: Crisis Communication," a hands-on, experiential course where students implement a crisis communication plan for a company in real time, Fields keeps students on their toes with daily challenges.

Public relations senior Olivia Buffington '18 — who has taken both of these courses with Fields — describes Fields’ teaching style as sink or swim. From the first day of class, students are expected to act like public relations professionals, writing errorless press releases and answering questions on behalf of the potential client. Buffington remembers her first day of PR writing, when students were asked to write a press release and warned of the 50 point penalty for each misspelled proper noun. 

“From the beginning, I knew I was going to like her,” says Buffington, who welcomed the challenges. 

Fields says crisis communication is her most entertaining class. After all, the course is designed to help students step out of their comfort zones and navigate challenges that will inevitably occur on the job.

Under pressure

For Buffington, one of the most memorable crisis classes was Nov. 1, 2017, just after the Las Vegas Shooting. Fields divided the class into groups representing each entity involved. To add to the challenge, Fields brought props: two flood lights, a video camera, a DSLR and a podium. After a debrief, each team took turns being questioned under the heat of the lights and flash of the camera.

Buffington — who was on the team representing Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino — says the experience was intense to say the least.

“That really got to everyone… But it really made us all stronger in the end. You get used to difficult things and difficult questions.” 

“We were all terrified,” says fellow senior public relations Kyle Werner '18, who has also taken both PR writing and crisis communication with Fields. Werner describes Fields as tough but fair.

“You definitely have to put the work in [to succeed]. It’s tough, and she’s tough, but I came out of PR writing ten times a better writer than I was before,” he says. "[and] crisis communications was, by far, the best class I've taken at Carolina."

'Do well and do good'

Fields’ teaching style is a reflection of her own professional experience. Buffington says she admires how Fields embodies what she wants her to students to be — confident, cool and collected. Since graduating the MJ-school in 1993 with a degree in public relations, Fields’ career has been multifaceted.

It began at Walt Disney World Resort, where she was a publicist and worked to analyze current and future market strategies for the entertainment complex. From there, she moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, and pursued marketing and public relations at local companies. Within four years of the start of her career, Fields founded her own public relations firm, V.K. Fields & Company Public Relations PROS. She is still at the head of the award-winning company.

On top of that, Fields has been an active community member, having served on advisory boards and given dozens of lectures and keynote addresses. She also founded the Millionaires in Training (MiT) program, which teaches local youth entrepreneurial skills, and Miracle Ministries Inc, an outreach organization that provides counseling for children and families.

Fields lives by the motto, “Do well and do good.” Her multiple accolades, leadership positions and service projects can be traced back to this foundational phrase. Fields says the mentality has allowed her to climb the corporate ladder and act as a force of good in the Triangle and around the globe.

“We make time for the things we really want to do — and I enjoy all of them,” says Fields. “The opportunity to serve in the community or volunteer and do mission work is as fulfilling as everything else that I do.”

Finding purpose in the classrom

When Fields began as an adjunct professor in 2008, she realized her passion for teaching. 

"One semester turned into 12 years," says Fields.

Her superstar legacy has been cemented, though. Both Buffington and Werner had heard about Fields long before taking a class with her, but never expected she would help change the trajectory of each of their careers.

For Buffington, the moment came during a mock press conference in crisis communication. The class was divided into five teams, all representing high-profile companies that had dealt with scandals through the previous year. Throughout the semester, Buffington and Werner, along with teammates Sloan Taylor '18 and Lauren Miller '18, worked on a crisis communications plan for Uber in the wake of the company's recent data breach, sexual assault issues and the #DeleteUber Twitter movement. Each team presented their communications plan in front of MJ-school faculty members and working professionals. 

"I didn't know how to put into words what I wanted to do [before taking crisis communication]," says Buffington. "Now, I'm so thankful I have an answer when people ask what I want to do."

Werner had a similar experience with the press conference. He loved the challenge and realness of being questioned by working journalists. 

"I was so nervous," Werner says. "But it was so rewarding seeing our hard work pay off." 

For Fields, it's all part of the job. Her work is all about achieving goals and seeing students live up to their potential.

“There’s just great fulfillment in helping make other people’s lives better.”

After graduation, both Werner and Buffington will be working in New York City with leading public relations and strategic communications firms. Werner will join Burson-Marsteller as a Harold Burson Summer Intern (HBSI) in the public affairs and crisis practice. Buffington will join BerlinRosen as an account coordinator for the consumer technology team.