It has been over a month since BU shifted to online learning via Zoom. The semester was flipped on its head in many respects due to COVID-19. Changes went into effect on Monday, March 16. A glimmer of hope was initially given by the university, citing Monday, April 13 as the tentative date to return to campus. As all are aware now, the Spring Semester is happening entirely online. This new format of learning has had its challenges for students and professors alike. However, two student-led agencies within COM have risen to the occasion.
PRLab and AdLab each have impressive credentials. PRLab is an award-winning PR agency and just so happens to be the longest-running student-led PR agency in the U.S. According to PRLab, “Boston University’s cutting-edge public relations curriculum empowers [PRLab] to deliver measurable results and craft strategic communications for brands nationwide.” AdLab holds the honor of being the country’s largest student-run agency. “We’re the future of advertising, providing clients with innovative creations that cut through the noise,” according to AdLab. At both PRLab and AdLab, undergraduates and graduates have the incredible opportunity to produce work for paying clients under the guidance of peers and incredible, seasoned faculty advisors.
Although PRLab is a public relations agency and AdLab is an advertising agency, the two have faced new, similar challenges that come with the uncharted landscape of transitioning to remote working. After speaking with several members of AdLab and PRLab, while also drawing on my experience as Director of External Affairs for PRLab, four central tenets were evident to me in explaining the successes of the two agencies, despite the unforeseen disruption:
- Acknowledge the challenge
- Recalibrate strategy
- Create unity while being apart/be human
- Look toward the future
1) Acknowledge the challenge:
Ignoring a challenge is the perfect way for it to fester and ultimately spiral out of control. Both members of AdLab and PRLab were candid about the difficulties that have inevitably been presented due to moving online.
“Overall challenges are that we’ve had our students, our Account Executives [and members of e-board] work really hard on preparing for… events’ management and events’ planning, pitching to reporters, all of this stuff we were really excited about, unfortunately can’t happen due to the circumstances,” noted PRLab’s President of Client Services, Lexi Glicksman (COM ’20). “So it’s been a challenge keeping everyones’ attitude positive and motivation high. We are committed to delivering for our clients, trying to work around what we can’t do, and instead focusing on what we can do.”
Hannah Schweitzer (COM ’21), AdLab’s President, details the difficulties associated with being a remote agency. “For each client we perform communications research … We write surveys, we hold focus groups and individual interviews which now all need to be conducted virtually, so we’ve been learning how to do focus groups over Zoom,” said Schweitzer. “It is not the same because you don’t get to read that body language… we are figuring out how to get correct insights out of research when it’s definitely a little bit skewed.”
“I think the transition was definitely rough at first, but we’ve all settled in,” says copywriter Austin Pak (COM ’20). “It’s difficult to replace the in-person interactions that you have every week with your teammates, but everyone has made it work. We’ve been doing multiple Zoom calls making sure that our work is as good as possible.”
For AdLab and PRLab, uncertainty and challenges don’t incapacitate, rather they are used as fuel for problem-solving.
2) Recalibrate strategy
The pivot to online work had to be made swiftly. Neither AdLab nor PRLab hesitated.
“The process of moving PRLab online was surprisingly fast,” said President of Operations Kelci Lowery (COM ’20). “We kind of had the entire system figured out I would say within two to three days of BU announcing that they were moving to online classes. It’s actually been a very smooth transition.”
“For example, we have a document that is shared with Lexi [Glicksman] and me and our faculty advisors/professors, Amy and JJ [Professors Shanler and Joseph],” said Lowery. “The document has every team and a week-by-week breakdown of how every team is doing — how people are making adjustments and what’s needed to change for the semester, if the scope of work has been switched around, and just generally clarifying where everybody is at.”
Anna Pham (COM ’21), an account executive for PRLab, cited a specific instance of changing the scope of work.“While my in-person experience was cut short, my team and I still tried our best to serve our client, Partners for Youth with Disabilities,” said Pham. “My client’s main event, Party for PYD, which was their end of the year gala, was postponed and moved online. As a team, we had to adapt to the changes and help them in any way we could, realizing that eventually, things would be in person again. We had a shift in focus and helped them transition their programs and events to be virtual, as well.”
“At the beginning of AdLab, we had started working with a new business organization software called Basecamp where we share all of our folders and group messages and teams and so forth,” notes Schweitzer. “When we went remote, we continued to use it… because of its success in improving workflow while we were in person… I can say our communication continues to be strong.”
The incoming executive vice president of AdLab for Fall 2020, Lindsey Rosenblatt (COM ’21), echoes Schweitzer’s sentiments. “…I will say that the way any advertising agency is successful is through communication, and if we maintain that then we will be able to continue being successful remotely if necessary next year,” said Rosenblatt. “This year AdLab implemented a new software called Basecamp which basically moved all communication into one program. With Basecamp, we’re able to work on projects together, share documents, exchange comments, and post announcements and so far, it’s been working pretty well.”
Although disappointing that both PRLab and AdLab have had to push event-centric collateral and certain campaigns, both agencies feel confident about the future utility of the work that teams have produced.
“We understand much of our creative will be for clients to use in the coming months,” says Schweitzer. “We quickly adapted all of our strategy right away to make sure we weren’t being ignorant to what is happening.”
3) Create unity while being apart/be human
There is no question that both AdLab and PRLab teams are feeling the impact of not being able to meet in person. Both agencies have thought up creative ways to keep connections strong and continue to foster a sense of community virtually.
“We make sure we are having real world conversations before getting to business,” noted Schweitzer. “Zoom can make it feel that you have to forget about the fact that everyone still has a life outside of what you’re on the call to talk about.”
Schweitzer also shared that AdLab’s e-board has taken to doing virtual movie nights for an added element of fun.
During PRLab lectures, Professors Shanler and Joseph release polls in Zoom with prompts asking how students are doing. This simple gesture offers the opportunity to check in with many people at once anonymously and see how the agency is doing as a whole. PRLab e-board members have also come up with creative ways to create a sense of togetherness. Whether it be through the communal Spotify playlist, the digital recipe book, or group Zoom lunch, there are always ways to stay unified.
The faculty advisors of both AdLab and PRLab are cited as being phenomenal during this time. “Professors [Gould and Sullivan] have been very understanding if we feel confused because no one has experienced this before,” says Schweitzer. “For everyone it is a learning process. That honesty has been very motivational.”
Pham also praises the PRLab faculty. “Luckily, we adapted as an agency pretty quickly–and communication was what got us through this…I’ve witnessed a lot of empathy from my professors, team, and client.”
4) Look toward the future
Tunnel vision isn’t a fixture of PRLab or AdLab. Both agencies’ members have taken to reframing the unfortunate circumstances.
“We’re all going through challenging times right now and I think this experience of going virtual has taught me how to be resilient,” says Pham. “[In PRLab,] I learned how to ask for help and become a better communicator because of that.”
“Hannah [Schweitzer] and I are already discussing what we want AdLab to be next year. If we are still remote, I would want to implement regular Zoom sessions that are designated for brainstorming and also provide some career workshops via Zoom for our AdLab students as well because it is a stressful time,” says Rosenblatt. “I hope we do not have to be online next semester, but if we do, I know AdLab will still provide students with a valuable experience that will prepare students to be successful in the real world. AdLab is definitely one of my most valuable experiences for my career development at BU.”
“With all of this uncertainty it is extremely hard to find a summer internship, which I know is a common stress for many COM students, including me,” says Rosenblatt. “I think AdLab is the perfect solution for enhancing your resume and learning more about advertising hands-on, especially during a time like this when it is hard to find a real-world experience.”
Speaking from my own perspective, I couldn’t agree more with Rosenblatt. PRLab has been an incredible opportunity to grow a lot as a leader. As a director, I oversee the work of five account teams and have had the privilege of getting to know each. Seeing the work produced is such a rewarding experience. I highly recommend participating in PRLab or AdLab if given the chance.
The unknown of what is to come can be troubling regardless, but it is exacerbated during this particular moment. Both PRLab and AdLab have embraced the uncertainty and acted on it. Their swift transitions have allowed the reorientation of the semester to still be a success for clients and students — ensuring the best is made out of the current circumstances. There is no question that both AdLab and PRLab are stronger for it.
Magdalene Soule, Staff Writer
Magdalene is a senior studying public relations. She loves the pace and opportunities offered in Boston and above all, at the College of Communication. She is a COM Ambassador and the Director of External Affairs for PRLab. She is passionate about community outreach and hopes to ultimately work in the nonprofit sector or serve in a community relations/external affairs role at a company committed to corporate social responsibility. She enjoys strolling around Boston, great company, and almond milk lattes.