Elon senior heads to NYC as finalist for PRWeek’s Outstanding Student of the Year award

Strategic communications major Rachel Hobbs ’18 was one of two finalists for the national award, which was presented at the 2018 PRWeek Awards Dinner and Presentation on March 15.

While Elon University senior Rachel Hobbs – a Pittsburgh native – has never actually visited Delaware, her campaign to increase the state’s tourism among millennials has nevertheless earned her national recognition.

The strategic communications major was named one of two national finalists for PRWeek’s Outstanding Student of the Year award competition, which attracts undergraduate students studying public relations from across the country. Hobbs’ recent honor comes on the heels of her top-five finish in the PR trade magazine’s 2017 contest.

Overall, Elon students have had a remarkable run in the PRWeek student competition, with four top-five finishers in the past three years. In fact, Elon students accounted for two of the top five finalists in this year’s contest, with Kelly Valerio ’20, a strategic communications and business management double major, also earning a nomination. The other three 2018 nominees hail from Alabama, Maryland and Southern California, respectively.

As part of her selection as a finalist, Hobbs was invited ­to – and attended – the 2018 PRWeek Awards Dinner and Presentation in New York City on March 15. According to Visiting Associate Professor John Doorley, the ceremony hosts what many consider “the industry’s most prestigious awards.”

At the ceremony, Maret Montanari of the University of Alabama was named the recipient of this year's outstanding student award, with Hobbs placing second nationally.

Supported by extensive research and equipped with insight from last year’s competition, Hobbs spent several weeks this year developing a comprehensive communications plan titled “Discover Delaware” to persuade millennial travelers to visit the U.S.’s second smallest state.

“The competition’s initial prompt was to promote tourism in Delaware, and they cited an article stating that it had the lowest tourism of all 50 states,” Hobbs said. “Once you hear that prompt, you start to wonder how you can build a campaign because there are many directions you can go.”

Hobbs conducted secondary research, examining the state itself, others’ perceptions of the region, as well as Delaware’s strengths in terms of tourism (coastal location and proximity to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.). The contest required students to gear their campaigns toward millennials, so Hobbs investigated her target audience at length. She came to realize that millennials are “traveling at unprecedented rates,” she said.

With guidance from Doorley, Hobbs focused her campaign on helping millennials “discover Delaware with your eyes, not your iPhone” – the tagline for her communications plan.

“We know that millennials are addicted to their technology, so why not market Delaware as a place where they can unplug from their technology – and have Delaware play a role in that national conversation,” she said. “It’s the idea of discovering Delaware for yourself – not through a lens or a screen.”

The multifaceted plan calls for Delaware to engage and host state celebrities, such as “Parks and Recreation” actress Aubrey Plaza and former Vice President Joe Biden, then invite Instagram influencers and everyday people to the state. Hobbs’ campaign also sought to incorporate Apple as an influencer, which she admitted sounded “counterintuitive” at first, but could likely fit the tech giant’s corporate social responsibility initiatives.

Hobbs’ final two campaign pushes have a creative flair, calling for the development of a Netflix miniseries called “Delaware Detox,” with visitors staying in Airbnb locations across Delaware and completing challenges without the help of Suri or Google. Lastly, she created a mockup of a mobile application that can disable a phone’s social functions (texting and social media features), allowing visitors to better connect with the state’s attractions and landmarks.

“I’ve studied Delaware so much, I want to go there someday,” Hobbs laughed.

The senior, who serves as student body secretary of Elon’s Student Government Association, noted her past competition experience was invaluable, allowing her to submit a comprehensive written campaign supported by a website and video elements.

“Any time you do something for the first time, you learn so much after the fact,” she said. “I think that was definitely the case here. I got a lot of insight last year, and I think my website and video helped me tell the story of my campaign.”

On the strength of their contest entries, Hobbs and Valerio advanced to a pitching-making stage where they marketed their campaigns to a PRWeek editor, hoping to receive news coverage. Hobbs’ pitch pushed her into the top two.

“It is real-world experience,” said Hobbs, who interned with the Ryan Seacrest Foundation in Nashville last summer. “You pitch your idea as a newsworthy story. You want to make sure the conversation is worth the editor’s time and that the campaign is appealing. This was definitely a challenge and it was stressful.”

Hobbs thanked Doorley for his mentorship, noting he’s been supportive of her professional endeavors since leading her Public Relations and Civic Responsibility course two years ago.

“Over the years, Professor Doorley has been a great resource for me, and he has given me a great foundation to know how to design a campaign and be successful in this industry,” she said. “He has always been encouraging me to take advantage of opportunities since I’ve been here.”

Likewise, Doorley praised Hobbs, noting her strong drive to succeed.

“Rachel is just relentless – in a positive way,” Doorley said. “She is ambitious, but always collegial and polite. And her campaign is really strategic communications at its best. She is going to make Elon proud.”

In 2016, strategic communications major Hattie Hoskins ’16 was the first Elon student named a national finalist for the PRWeek Student of the Year award.