Social Media for the Win

Molly Marshall, Natalie Uhl and Hope Herline.

A UofL graduate school program partners with the Breeders’ Cup

By Laura Ross

Photos by Kathryn Harrington

When the Breeders’ Cup World Championship gallops into town Nov. 2 and 3, people throughout Louisville, and from across the equine world, will be studying the horses and racing forms.

A select group of University of Louisville students, however, will be studying much more than that.

This year, thanks to a new partnership between the University of Louisville and the Breeders’ Cup, a special communications course, COMM 510, will task students with practical experience in marketing and public relations. They’ll promote the 2018 Breeders’ Cup World Championships through social media and influencer marketing on platforms that reach world-wide.

Karen Freberg, Ph.D. Photo provided.

 “I’ve always tried to bring real-world clients into my social media classes, but this is by far the biggest client we’ve ever had,” said Karen Freberg, Ph.D., associate professor in strategic communications at the University of Louisville. “I’m excited for this opportunity because I’ve always tried to bridge the gap between what industry expects versus what is taught in a classroom.”

The unique partnership came through Freberg’s friendship with Louisville promoter Joey Wagner. Earlier this year, Wagner was in discussions with Breeders’ Cup officials who were looking for ways to promote the festival and the race. He thought of Freberg’s social media courses at UofL and made the connection.

“It was a six-month process of brainstorming between my colleagues at UofL and Breeders’ Cup, figuring out the syllabus and assignments and deliverables,” said Freberg. “It’s brilliant on their end to engage the students. Once I announced the class in the spring, word got out and it was quickly over-enrolled.”

The graduate-level course is offered through the Department of Communication in the College of Arts & Sciences, in partnership with the Breeders’ Cup and its national social media firm, Grand Slam Social. Portions of this year’s class are based on a textbook Freberg authored, titled “Social Media for Strategic Communication: Creative Strategies and Researched-Based Applications.” While companies and corporations often offer counsel or internships to college students, Freberg said the extent of this collaboration between UofL and Breeders’ Cup is rare.

“We are excited to collaborate with the University of Louisville to provide this unique opportunity for students looking to build their practical knowledge,” said Bryan Pettigrew, chief marketing officer of Breeders’ Cup. “Every year, we seek out interesting ways to collaborate with the community, and we are particularly excited to engage with local students.”

During the fall semester, Freberg’s students have studied and analyzed strategic planning, influencer marketing, public relations, social media management and other topics. The class is divided into two teams to develop a strategic approach for covering both the Breeders’ Cup Festival and the World Championship. Students have focused on creative ideation, social listening, content creation, run-of-show development, influencer management, social media publishing, event attendance and data analysis.

“This experience has been surreal,” said student Candice Champlin, 23. “This has truly been the most impactful class of my college career, lasting far beyond a grade on a report card. I have learned so much beyond the normal scope of study, not only learning theory and practice but being able to use and prove it. Instead of finishing with an arbitrary grade, we can complete our studies with a traceable project that we can show our future employers.”

“I could teach you what the textbook says, but it’s a completely different experience this time,” said Freberg. “The students will be on the ground, preparing content in real time and creating strategies based on their research. They’ve done an analysis and audit of the Breeders’ Cup social media in the past and have shown what can they improve and change for this year.”

Graduate student Berry Craig.

 By the end of the class, students will present a report outlining 2018’s successes and challenges and will then make recommendations for key takeaways for future Breeders’ Cup World Championship events. Armed with that knowledge, said Freberg, the Breeders’ Cup will use that data in planning for its 2019 event. “The students are going to walk away with not only the skills and experience of being part of a huge international event,” she explained, “but they will have the experience they can take to any future employer and say not only did I work on this, but here’s the data I created.”

“Having real world experience is vital to any graduate work, and doing work on a national level is exciting,” said graduate student Berry Craig, 25, who also works at C2 Communications, a Louisville public relations firm. “Being the boots on the ground for the Breeders’ Cup is exciting because we’re able to offer a Louisville perspective that will help make the event a success.”

Craig’s classmate Katie Wells, 24, agreed. “This class has allowed me to watch the campaign be developed and implemented,” she said. “I can see my efforts being used and that’s super cool. However, it also allows us to see the stressful side from the real-world. In a matter of weeks, we are learning about our client and their history while also developing and executing a plan that would typically take months to create. It’s challenging work at a hastened pace, which can be stressful at times but also shows us that this is what it’s like in the real world of PR. There’s no room for error or missed opportunities.”

Some students will fan out across Churchill Downs and Louisville during the Breeders’ Cup festivities while others will work remotely, monitoring the Breeders’ Cup’s social media channels and responding in real time to trending topics, questions, concerns and comments, using the brand voice of the Breeders’ Cup.

Freberg stressed that it’s not just taking selfies and posting on Facebook and Instagram – there is deep strategy and carefully crafted audience psychology and brand development underlying every Tweet, post or image. The rise of social media and its instant communication aspects have made the world a smaller place in recent years, and Freberg notes that these “new” ways of communicating will continue to rapidly evolve. “The tools may change over the coming years, but the mindset of real-time communication will not,” she said. “We have to continually be agile and adaptive to our environments and respond accordingly.”

Freberg hopes the success of this partnership grows to include many other major brands in coming years. “I’m always looking to expand partnerships with Louisville-based brands, but this opens us up to international partnerships thanks to the Breeders’ Cup,” said Freberg. “I’d love for UofL to be known for its social media classes on a national level.”

Dr. Karen Freberg’s COMM 510 class.

As the window closes on the Breeders’ Cup weekend of events, Freberg looks at the partnership as not just a homework assignment but a true window into her students’ futures. Her students agree.

“I don’t know many graduate students who can walk into a job interview and say ‘I worked directly with the Breeders’ Cup on their 2018 campaign,’” said Wells. “That alone speaks volumes. Also, because I’m having this hands-on opportunity, it reaffirms that I’m entering the right field. I won’t have the feeling of uncertainty after graduation because I already know what I am getting myself into in PR.”

This fact makes their professor proud.

“I’m inspired by my students and excited for the Breeders’ Cup,” said Freberg. “They’re ready, and they’re bringing their ‘A game’ for a win across the finish line.” VT