USG steps up efforts to reach out to students

Every Wednesday from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m., Undergraduate Student Government President Holden Slusher sits at a table on Trousdale Parkway, ready and waiting to answer questions about USG.

“Anyone can come into my office hours, but we all know walking into a foreign office is intimidating, so that’s why it’s important to have it on Trousdale,” Slusher said.

Slusher’s tabling, along with tabling by Vice President Ashlie Chan and a few USG senators, is part of an effort to reinvent USG’s public relations campaign and address concerns about students’ lack of familiarity with the organization.

“We know that students know that we’re here, but what I want to do specifically is make what we actually do, whether that’s the events we plan or what we advocate for to administrators, [visible] to students,” said Paige Hill, senior director of communications for USG. “I don’t want to be just an organization that exists, I want students to know what we do on campus, and to increase student involvement.”

With a wide-ranging list of events and activities that often receive very little attention from students, USG’s communications department has always had to come up with new ways of reaching out to students.

Former USG Vice President Tony Jercinovich said the 2009-2010 administration’s tabling initiative is a step up from last year’s public relations efforts, which focused primarily on maintaining connections with campus media and reaching students through email listservs and conversations with their senators.

Although last year’s officials tabled on Trousdale on an occasional basis, Jercinovich said he and other executive officers could have taken greater advantage of these techniques.

“It may have been more useful to get out among students,” he said. “One of the major challenges USG faces every year is making itself known to the student body and even beyond that, that we provide a lot of services and we’re actually there to listen to what students have to say.”

Charged with finding the most effective way to achieve this, USG’s communications department — including Hill, three assistant directors and Director of Outreach Chris Cheng, whose position is new this year — began its work over the summer with a focus on increasing USG’s social media presence and developing projects to be implemented during the fall semester.

To help the communications department accomplish the new goals, the administration gave it a $5,000 boost in its overall budget for the year, USG Treasurer Ashwin Appiah said. The total communications department budget is $35,000.

Those funds were redirected from the elections and recruitment committee budget after the administration determined USG’s annual elections carnival was no longer a sound investment, Slusher said.

“[Last year] the elections carnival didn’t have that large of a turnout. It was mostly grad students, and not that that’s bad, but it’s not doing what it’s supposed to,” Slusher said. “So we gave that money to communications, and we wanted to make sure that we could do other things like [last Tuesday’s promotional event] the Hallowiener as a gift to students and to show them that we’re here for them.”

The budget increase has allowed the communications department to program more promotional events like the Hallowiener — a USG-sponsored event held at Tommy Trojan that featured free food from Wienerschnitzel and a chance for students to meet USG executive officers, Hill said. In previous years, the department was rarely able to host events focused primarily on promotion due to its smaller budget, she added.

Dannie Taylor, a junior majoring in communication and sociology, said the redirection of funds to events like Tuesday’s Hallowiener would help USG connect more to the student body.

“I don’t see a problem with [the increased public relations budget] if it helps reach out to students because groups like USG will often be doing something, but students won’t know about it,” she said.

But other students believe the budget increase is not the best use of students’ money.

“I don’t understand why it’s necessary for them to have promotions,” said John Scott Gibney, a junior majoring in cinema-television production. “[The money] should be going more toward resources for students, like KSCR.”

Besides communications efforts, the added funds have also contributed to USG’s outreach initiatives.

According to Slusher, the volume of projects and responsibilities falling under the communications department was often too much for the department’s director to handle alone, so they created the new director of outreach position necessary to better pinpoint and respond to concerns like Gibney’s.

Cheng said he and his committee are working to assess what students want from USG and to make those requests a reality.

“My job isn’t just to be a trophy boy, but it’s more for people to know we’re here to help,” Cheng said. “It’s more for students to know we’re a resource, and they can give their input to see the change they want to see in the university.”

Outreach committee initiatives include promotional street teams, comprised of students from different housing complexes on and around USC’s campus, and the planned Council of Presidents, which will invite the presidents of student organizations to learn about USG’s advocacy efforts and to provide feedback. The Council of Presidents is scheduled for November.

Aside from working to increase USG’s campus presence, the communications department has focused on creating an online presence for itself with a Twitter account and Facebook event invitations.

The department has also added a virtual suggestion box to the USG website and has distributed its weekly event summary, known as the Week-In-Brief, more frequently. In September, USG also began webcasting its weekly Senate meetings to improve the organizations’ transparency.

Many of the communications department’s efforts have also gone toward more visible branding, which places the USG logo on items such as T-shirts, tote bags, sunglasses and highlighters, and uses these items as giveaways during events.

Some students, like Ryan Woods, a junior majoring in cinema-television production, said the public relations changes have given them a better sense of USG’s role on campus.

“I feel like they have more of a presence this year than last year,” he said. “I feel like I’ve just seen their name out there more, like in [Daily Trojan] headlines.”

But for students like Gibney, USG’s increased public relations efforts have not changed their view of the organization’s purpose or reach on campus.

“It’s pretty much the same. I’m part of a student club, so I’ve heard their name for funding, but outside of that, nothing,” Gibney said.

Hill said she hopes to affect perceptions of USG by conducting frequent surveys to gather student feedback on the new initiatives and altering public relations methods accordingly. The communications department also plans to host another promotional meet-and-greet event similar to the Hallowiener in the spring, Hill added.

“It’s a constant battle. As much as students want to know what USG is and what it does, there are avenues to do that but they opt out of them, but you have to respect what they want,” she said. “Until you’re involved in the organization, until you’re involved in USG, you’re not going to care.”