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Nov. 27, 2017
Students in Northwest Missouri State University’s School of Communication and Mass Media recently gained some valuable insight into the world of corporate communication at one of the world’s most recognizable brands.
Patricia Sweeney, director of corporate reputation for Harley-Davidson Inc., visited Northwest for two days last month and shared her experiences with students in a variety of communication courses, in addition to meeting with faculty and student organizations in the School.
Sweeney’s visit was a reciprocal result of a faculty internship program that placed Dr. Joy Daggs, an assistant professor of communication at Northwest, at Harley-Davidson headquarters in Milwaukee for two weeks last July. Daggs assumed staff responsibilities under Sweeney’s supervision.
The Fellowship for Educators Program, sponsored by the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, embeds educators with world-class corporate public relations teams and agencies. The summer fellowship is designed for public relations educators with the dual purpose of exposing professors to current day-to-day operations of the public relations function and to help create an exchange of information and ideas that will enhance the professional development of both the educators and the practitioner-hosts.
Establishing that connection has allowed Daggs to incorporate multiple guest speakers from Harley-Davidson, via Skype, in her classroom this fall. She also is building opportunities for students to visit Harley-Davidson’s Kansas City plant to learn about communication in a manufacturing setting.
“I benefitted by getting in touch with a major corporation and seeing how corporate communication plays out in a daily setting,” Daggs said. “I was there for an earnings release, and I got to see preparation for that release. It has been great to have those examples to show that even something that seems routine can require major planning and preparation.”
During her class visits at Northwest, Sweeney discussed topics such as social media strategies and crisis communication while offering insight into Harley-Davidson’s communication and public relations approaches. Sweeney also joined AdInk and ComCats for their organizational meetings.
“The information she shared really helped me think about all of the possibilities that the communication field has to offer,” Taylor Middleton, a junior public relations major from Kirksville, Missouri, said. “Having the opportunity to hear from a real-world professional really helps set students apart. Students gain an upper hand when they get the opportunity to talk to real-world professionals.”
After earning her bachelor’s degree in journalism at Penn State University, Sweeney worked as a newspaper reporter and then as manager for corporate communication at a paper company in Pennsylvania. In 2003, she was recruited by the Harley-Davidson Motor Company to become the communications manager for its assembly plant in York, Pennsylvania.
In 2006, Sweeney moved to Harley-Davidson’s Milwaukee headquarters where she has directed communication in varied capacities. Managing the company’s crisis communication, handling media relations and overseeing the Harley-Davidson Foundation are among her primary responsibilities today.
“It was just – over time – learning more, demonstrating my skillset, working closely with people, getting deep into the business, understanding the problems that we had, how we communicate the problems, how I support leaders to be more effective communicators and how we engage with the community,” Sweeney said of her progression in the company.
She emphasized the importance of internships and gaining experience early. She worked for the student newspaper at Penn State and completed two internships that helped affirm the type of work she wanted to do in her professional career. Those experiences helped Sweeney develop soft skills – such as being a good listener, having empathy, leadership ability and presenting yourself well to others.
“When you’re looking for things that differentiate you, it’s that kind of experience,” she said. “Even if you get to the other side of an internship and decide, ‘This is really not what I want to do,’ and switch your major, that is ok because you learn a lot through those internships. You really build some grit out of it.”
The students who interacted with Sweeney not only gained valuable information about corporate communication but how their professional goals will evolve throughout their careers.
“It’s not every day that we can bring a director of corporate communication for a Fortune 500 company to campus, so I think students learned a lot about the importance of protecting a brand, in addition to interesting stories about how all aspects of their communication coursework will come into play in their future career,” Daggs said.
Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager
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Northwest Missouri State University
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