Knowing that their peers, and they, were aware of — and fatigued by — COVID-19 information as they prepared to return to campus in August for fall 2020 classes, the “Safe Return Campaign team,” led by professors Leslie Haines and Matt Taylor, wanted to reinforce MTSU’s campuswide mask mandate.
“We realized that the fact-based messaging just isn’t working,” said Bella Utley, a senior advertising major from Lebanon, Tennessee, who was one of six top College of Media and Entertainment students on the project.
“We are bombarded with COVID-19 messaging. … This had to be concise, easy to digest and hit on an emotional level for students.”
Their extensive research in late spring and summer showed them what would resonate with their target audience.
“We wanted to choose something that pushed forward a unique way to frame life with a mask … to implement it as a normal part of our lives and our lifestyles and making wearing a mask easy instead of annoying or strange,” Utley said.
She and her colleagues — senior visual communication majors Sydney Clendening of Nashville and Andrew Felts of Murfreesboro; senior advertising major T. Chism of Brentwood, Tennessee; Caitlin Davis of Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, a junior majoring in agribusiness and public relations; and Nathaniel Nichols of Tullahoma, Tennessee, a public relations major who graduated in August — found a simple, straightforward focus for their campaign: tell students that mask-wearing is easier than the everyday challenges of parking, finding a spot to study, or remembering your ID, ending with “Wear Your Mask. Defend True Blue.”
Their plan used close-cropped photos of current students on yard signs, bus shelters and digital screens scattered across campus; videos; social media, buttons and even text-only messages pasted onto high-traffic windows and doors, incorporating the “True Blue” motto of community values MTSU has embraced since 2011.
“Students recognize that it is much different (than official university campaigns), which automatically creates a stronger sense of connection to the message,” Utley said. “Most importantly, it builds the community without saying ‘We’re all in this together.’
“‘Defend True Blue’ isn’t just the MTSU campus; it’s Murfreesboro, it’s Middle Tennessee, it’s students who travel from out of state. We’re showing that we’re all doing this together. We’re defending True Blue the best way that we know how.”
They encouraged faculty to add their own “it’s easier than …” comparisons on syllabi and in the classroom to keep the mask reminders up front.
“I’ve had professors in the past who like to joke about their classes, where they say that their class is so hard to pass,” said Davis, who appears in the Instagram video below, “so they can even put it on the syllabus: ‘Remember, wearing your mask is going to be easier than passing my class!’ They kind of have their own fun with it, specific to the content that they are teaching.”
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MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee praised the campaign, admitting he’d been sharing “shameless bragging” on the students.
“I thought I was on Fifth Avenue at a PR firm that was selling your proposal to a company, and that’s without exaggeration,” the president said. “We really can’t put a dollar figure on the effort and the work that you all have done.”
The university’s ongoing mask mandate for every person on campus, coupled with an assortment of on- and off-campus courses and aggressive health protocols, has helped keep MTSU’s coronavirus infection rate comparatively low, at least through mid-November, among nearly 22,000 students and 2,500-plus employees.
In surrounding Rutherford County, where mask mandates have expired and been reinstated, COVID-19 has claimed 134 lives through Nov. 17. The county is currently averaging nearly 201 new cases a day.
Officials warned that students’ and staff’s off-campus interactions, if Rutherford County’s numbers continue to climb, could affect MTSU’s reported cases before the semester ends.
McPhee mentioned the university’s safety efforts Nov. 11, writing in an update for students that “our work with wearing masks and remaining socially distant really does make a significant difference.”
Taylor noted that this campaign fell under the School of Journalism and Strategic Media’s “capstone course” plan to give advertising and public relations majors real-world experience in their final semesters.
“Students work on a campaign with a client, often nonprofits in the community, the sort of thing that gives them a chance to apply the skills they’ve been learning,” the professor explained.
“A course I co-taught in the spring with Professor Haines, where students competed in a national advertising competition, … gave us a chance to merge public relations, advertising and visual communication, something more reflective of where that world is going.
“So when this came along, it was an exciting opportunity to have that same type of experience, very hands-on, and … Leslie and I were able to take grades out of the equation and just focus on the product and the work itself.”
MTSU will celebrate commencement in person for the first time this year on Saturday, Nov. 21, using mask and seating restrictions for three outdoor ceremonies at Floyd Stadium.
Fall classes end Nov. 25, and finals are set online for Dec. 4-11.
“I’m really thrilled to be a part of this and have the opportunity to work with these incredible students and come out with an effort that makes a difference,” Haines said.
“I always talk about design for the greater good, and I work with nonprofits, and for them (the students) to be able to see their work put into action and to have this actual end result and to be able to present to an executive board and the president of the university is great.
“I’m so impressed that MTSU gave the students this challenge and had enough confidence that they could pull it together. It’s been great working with them.”
For more information on MTSU’s School of Journalism and Strategic Media, visit www.mtsu.edu/journalism. To learn more about the College of Media and Entertainment and its programs, visit www.mtsu.edu/media.
— Gina E. Fann (firstname.lastname@example.org)