When she is not helping her students with every detail of a project, you’ll find her on the links probably yelling “FORE” or donating her expertise to make sure Main Street looks impeccable. A woman who has worn many hats, Sharon “Ms. Fitz” Fitzgerald of MTSU’s School of Journalism and Strategic Media helps students step into the role of “PR professional” from the moment they step into her classroom.
Q: Thank you for speaking with the Student Voice today. To start off, tell me a little about your background and what led you to MTSU?
I graduated from the University of Tennessee with a degree in journalism and then went to work for the Gatlinburg Press. From there, I worked for a couple of other newspapers, and then my husband’s job took us to Delaware — which is where I started getting into higher education. I jumped from journalism to public relations when I became a press secretary for Thomas R. Carper, who at the time was running for his first U.S. congressional race and is now a U.S. senator.
We won that race even after it was dubbed “the nastiest campaign in the nation.” The guy who was the standing congressmen had been caught at a bachelor pad in Florida and because of this, he started passing around rumors that my guy was beating his wife. So that was a really interesting campaign. … I was 26 … talk about baptism by fire.
I then went to Washington, D.C., thinking that is where I wanted to be. I lasted three months— they just don’t breathe the same air, and the stress of it all wasn’t good for me or my family.
So I went to work for the Delaware Department of Natural Resources. I ran a team of five PR people, and it was probably one of my favorite jobs. It was really a lot of fun, but I was lured away by the University of Delaware, where I became the marine information coordinator for the Graduate College of Marine Studies and Sea Grant College Program.
We then came home to Tennessee, and I took a job at UTK as a communication consultant with the UT Municipal Technical Advisory Service. And then I decided to start my own business — Sharon Fitzgerald Communications. I started it two years after my only child was born, and basically I was doing journalism one day and PR the next. They say you can’t do both of those things, but of course you can. I just changed my hat the next day. And I really loved it, and it was actually where I made the most money.
Then one day I went to the Society of Professional Journalists luncheon and the MTSU School of Journalism director sat next to me. We had never met, but by the end of the luncheon I was an adjunct professor at MTSU. It was an opportunity to get me out of the house, which I needed because I was already getting antsy.
I started out teaching two classes of Media Writing and I really loved it. Then in 2010, I took a full-time (teaching) position, and in 2015, they told me I had to get my master’s; otherwise they couldn’t keep hiring me year after year. So I went to Kent State and got a master’s degree in public relations.
I now teach four different PR classes from year to year: PR Principles, PR Publications, Strategic Writing for PR and Case Studies in PR.
Q: Why is it so important for you to be such a hands-on teacher?
I just don’t think there is any other way to do it. I have to lean right over your shoulder and get in your business. … I think that is the best way to teach people how to do skills, which is different than a lecture class.
I am a grammar stickler, and some students don’t see the importance of this. However, I have seen students lose internships, and even first jobs, over grammar. It just breaks my heart when it happens.
Q: What are some of your most memorable PR moments?
One time I spelled someone’s name wrong in a publication, and that is something that still haunts me today. My lesson was learned: always triple-check the names in a piece. You don’t want to have a mistake like that haunt you for the rest of your career!
Another really big lesson that I learned was actually a lesson about the importance of coffee. When I was working for the Delaware Department of Wildlife, we did a whole weekend for the teachers to teach them how to incorporate lessons about environmental habitats into their curriculum. I was in charge of doing everything for that weekend. So I bought all the food, but I don’t drink coffee, so I didn’t buy coffee. And I think that was one of the biggest strategic errors in PR I’ve ever made in my life. All the teachers were furious on Saturday morning because we didn’t have coffee. Coffee is critical.
Going back to that political campaign I worked on, one of the things I always think about is thank goodness we did not have social media back then. I never even let my client go in front of microphones and TV cameras to talk about it. He wanted to go out and say, “I don’t beat my wife,” and call it rumor campaigning. But I never let him do it. I told him just to “let it lay, let it lay,” and it was the right thing to do … because now he doesn’t have any footage to haunt him, which is probably something that has still helped his career. It was definitely one of the proudest decisions I’ve ever made strategically as a PR professional.
I fell off a boat one time. I was doing a feature on the Marine Police for the Delaware Department of Natural Resources. So he started up and I was overboard. And man, it was chilly.
One time I was doing a press release for the University of Delaware, and there was this big controversy over the pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. So I was interviewing one of our professors, and he was just giving me all these numbers that the public would not understand. I told him I needed to relate it to like how much (pollution) was in a cup of water. He sat down and did some calculations on the back of an envelope … and he made a mistake. So I sent out the press release to The New York Times and The Baltimore Sun and all the big ones — it turned into a nightmare. Having to call all the newsrooms and explain that there was an error that needed to be fixed was just really difficult, especially back then. This is why you should try to avoid math at all costs!
Q: What are three things that you don’t think your students know about you?
1. I am the world’s worst golfer … and I absolutely love it. I used to live on the sixth fairway, then the 10th fairway, and now I live on the 17th fairway … all on the same course. And I have a golf cart, and I put my little hat on, and I really enjoy it.
2. I have a daughter who is getting her doctorate at UTK in microbiology and environmental engineering. She definitely took after her father, but you know what — she can write!
3. I’m a ZTA (Zeta Tau Alpha). I get together with all my sorority sisters from UTK quite frequently here in Murfreesboro.
Q: What is a common misconception about PR you wish people understood?
When I was a journalist, we always called the PR people “flacks.” I used to love going into the newsroom to see the huge bulletin board with press releases all over it. We would make fun of them and correct all the errors and laugh at their choice of words. But then I saw how important PR was when I jumped to that political campaign. I learned that messaging is critical and having people in your target audience understand your message is so important. From there, I was PR all the way.
It was tough at times to get even the people I was working with to understand that PR people are truth-tellers, and that when you start to spin, things can go haywire very quickly. Educating target audiences is important for our democracy, and a lot of PR people hold the keys to that. I have had a foot in each camp my entire career, and I’ve never felt that I had to spin a “journalist article” because of something I knew as a PR person. I just try to be straight as an arrow with the facts.
Q: What is one of the biggest things you have seen change in PR throughout your career?
The education side of public relations has grown exponentially. There was a time when pushing the product was the most important thing, but now there is more focus on educating the public. When you educate the public that you are trying to reach, you are going to have a better result every time.
Q: What are you involved with outside of teaching here?
I am the promotions chairman for Main Street Murfreesboro, which is the nonprofit organization that takes care of downtown, ensures historic preservation and promotes events like Jazz Fest. We do a lot of things for the community in relative obscurity — most people think the city or county is the one lighting the Christmas trees and putting on the shows, but nope, it’s little old Main Street. I do the press releases and most of the design. I am actually in the process of designing a new website for Main Street.
I am also a part of the Society of Professional Journalists. I have been on the board of the SPJ Nashville since 1991. Now, more than ever, SPJ has a big job to do to help people understand what real and professional journalism is — that it’s essential to our democracy. I think knowing a lot about journalism is a good footing for a PR professional. You need to know how news is gathered so you know how to deliver it.
Q: What kind of things are you doing to help MTSU a better university?
I am the editor of The Leading Edge, which is the College of Media and Entertainment blog. We are telling the college’s story every day. We are talking about student activities and faculty activities and events on campus. I really feel good about what we are doing. Make sure to check it out!
Q: What is your biggest piece of advice for PR students?
WRITE! Know how to write and understand social media — WELL! Social media isn’t the “be-all or end-all,” but it is simply other avenues to send the same message to the public. When we are doing a campaign, we need to have a traditional media part and a social media part. We need to think in terms of advertising and the audiences we are reaching — we need to go where they are. Knowing how to tailor your message to all the different media out there is how you can be successful.
Author Caitlin Davis is a sophomore at MTSU with dual majors in the School of Journalism in advertising and public relations and in the School of Agriculture in agribusiness.
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