Tombras School Grad Students Create Communications Plan for the Tennessee RiverLine
Caption, from left: Professor Brad Collett, Sydney Sinewe, Tammy Castany, Winston Roberts, Muslimah Yusuff, Logan Judy, Professor Beth Foster, and Lila Honaker stand in the Adam Brown Social Media Command Center after the five graduate students gave a presentation on the communications plan they created for the Tennessee RiverLine.
The Tennessee RiverLine was initiated by University of Tennessee, Knoxville, students in 2016, and that legacy has been continued by Tombras School of Advertising and Public Relations graduate students who recently tackled an in-depth campaign analyzing the river’s use and user perception of the RiverLine as their capstone course project. Celebrating the Tennessee River—a 652-mile-long body of water that starts in Knoxville and ends in Paducah, Kentucky—the Tennessee RiverLine’s purpose is to promote equitable access to outdoor recreation, inspire river stewardship, enhance public health, and accelerate economic development.
“I think of it as a way to exercise UT’s land-grant mission we have and continuing collaboration with students and faculty is something we’re committed to. I feel like the foundation of what was set here gives us something that I’m personally excited to build on with the Tombras School and the college as a whole. Because of how important marketing and communications is to our project, it’s a natural fit,” said Brad Collett, director of the Tennessee RiverLine and professor in the Herbert College of Agriculture’s Department of Plant Sciences and faculty member of the UT School of Landscape Architecture.
The Tennessee RiverLine was borne out of Collett’s Tennessee River Studio course, where students envisioned the river becoming miles of waterway trails for outdoor recreation of all sorts, with new points of access making it possible for more people to utilize it. Now an initiative of the UT Institute of Agriculture and UT Extension with support from principal partners UT Knoxville and Tennessee Valley Authority, it continues to grow as the organization collaborates with cities and townships along the Tennessee River to discover new ways to promote the resources the river has to offer the communities on its banks.
That’s where the ADPR capstone course came into the picture. While communication professionals have been integral to the Tennessee RiverLine’s efforts over the past seven years, Collett said this group of students was able to zero in on social media efforts. They used best practices to analyze and research how the organization can strategically engage that sphere of communication.
“I’m really proud of the students. We have a lot of skill sets in the Tombras School that will enable the Tennessee RiverLine to build awareness and motivate the public to become more involved,” said Professor Beth Foster, director of the Tombras School and instructor for the graduate students’ capstone course.
Foster said she had been in talks with the organization to create an on-going collaboration between the Tennessee RiverLine and the College of Communication and Information, and she’s encouraged by how mutually beneficial this project was for all involved. Her graduate students managed to undertake several facets of a communications plan in a short amount of time this fall semester, including: a brand audit, social media audit, secondary and primary research, SWOT analysis, in-depth interviews, intercept interviews, and focus groups.
For public relations student Winston Roberts, this project was a culmination of enacting much of what he’s studied in his undergraduate and graduate programs at UT. All the theory combined with assignments he’s completed over the years informed a project that he views as important and impactful.
“The basic demographic information was all across the map, so we tried to narrow it down to how often people were using the river. We wanted to divide it by their use of the river. The most important step was seeing who is using it, why they’re using it, and what would potentially make them want to use it in the future,” Roberts explained. “We got ground-level information about what is the awareness, how do people use it, and the next step for them to take is understanding a deeper level of behaviors and what can motivate people to use it more. They have a solid general understanding of some of their audiences now, and the awareness.”
Winston said it also worked out that the skill sets of the five students creating the campaign all complemented each other, and there was a split between those with a concentration in advertising and those in public relations. It was the most in-depth project any of them had ever completed, and it resulted in a communications plan that runs all the way through the end of 2024.
For advertising student Tammy Castany, this was an opportunity to really flex all the creative skills she’s acquired through her courses before she graduates this fall.
“It brought those tools to the forefront of my mind and made me realize that I have learned a lot and can actually do all of this, which is nice,” she said. “I had an internship going on this semester as well and it just went hand-in-hand with what I was doing in my internship with following a brand’s voice and understanding the brand and doing research. It’s nice to see how it parallels to working in the real world.”
Both Castany and Roberts said the one real-world aspect that was new was working on a time crunch, and they said it was an invaluable experience that provided them with new time management skills to add to the rest of their repertoire as they go into the workforce. This is exactly the outcome that both Foster and Collett were aiming for by establishing a relationship between the Tennessee RiverLine and CCI.
“They helped us to look at our social media use through the lens of the receiver of our social media presence and gave us an unbiased view of what people were receiving and how they were engaging and what they were actually looking to our social media platforms for,” Collett said. “In some ways, what the students did was help validate what we expected was true but didn’t have evidence to support it. There were also some really important discoveries that are perhaps a lens we’ve not been looking through in our messaging strategies.”
One of those discoveries is exploring “river adjacent” users—people who don’t fish, row, kayak, or paddleboard, but rather enjoy activities by the river. As the river has more than 700,000 acres of public lands, wildlife refuges, state parks, local parks, and more along its banks, this new user group provides even more opportunity for the Tennessee RiverLine to explore.
“They helped identify with some of the messaging through their focus groups that a lot of people are really drawn to the beauty of the river itself. And we had a discussion around the health benefits of being on the river space, whether it was on the river or alongside it, and that was a commonality that people were pursuing those river experiences for those mental health benefits,” Collett said.
While getting valuable hands-on experience was the main takeaway for Castany and Roberts, they also said it was inspirational to be collaborating with an organization promoting such an impactful initiative.
“We were very lucky to work with them and I hope we were of use to them, as well. Resume and portfolio aside, what they do, trying to connect people on the Tennessee River, that’s really cool. I learned a lot talking to people about the river and what it means to them and how getting away from the developed areas of town and being in nature is so important to them,” Roberts said.
As for next steps, the Tennessee RiverLine will further examine how the student’s findings and recommendations will influence its future communications plans, and both Foster and Collett said they want to continue seeking opportunities for students at CCI to collaborate with the Tennessee RiverLine.
“The Tombras School and CCI offer initiatives such as the Tennessee RiverLine important strategies and skillsets for reaching and engaging publics,” said Foster. “The mission of the Tennessee RiverLine lies at the heart of the land-grant mission of our university, and this partnership enables us to make Tennesseans more aware of one of our greatest resources along with an important service-learning student opportunity.”
Tombras School Grad Students Create Communications Plan for the Tennessee RiverLine written by Hillary Tune and originally published on the College of Communication & Information site.