Robert Morris University debuts ad campaign focused on community service

Images of Robert Morris University students giving nursing care in Nicaragua or walking among Washington D.C.'s homeless may seem at odds with a lingering impression of a school where commuters study accounting in a Downtown classroom.

But starting today, those far flung adventures are on display in a new ad campaign by the Moon-based university, which is trying to recast its image through stories of personal and professional transformation.

In one Robert Morris TV commercial, an earnest-looking young man in medical scrubs is seen walking amid the squalor of a Nicaraguan barrio. As the TV camera zooms in close on nursing student Lee Folk, he says, "We were there to bring nursing care to some desperate people."

Along the way, he encounters another form of desperation -- a Nicaraguan teen who lost his most prized possession, a trumpet, to thieves. So Mr. Folk takes up a collection to provide the teen with a new trumpet on a return trip.

"The look on his face said he'd never forget us," he says.

Those words might sound as if they belonged in a promotion for the Peace Corps or an international relief group -- not a place that little more than a decade ago was viewed as a specialty business school.

But Robert Morris and its growing residential campus in Moon have evolved, administrators say. The TV, radio and billboard spots that debut today are helping to show a wider array of student experiences in and out of the classroom.

The 30- and 60-second TV spots place particular emphasis on the community service and outreach component of professional education.

"We wanted to tell the emotional side of what we do," said Kyle Fisher, a campus administrator who directed the campaign.

With service learning and outreach in vogue on college campuses, real life stories of transformation are one more way for schools to make a connection with prospective students and distinguish themselves from the pack, experts say.

"This generation is said to be truly interested in changing the world, and they have come to expect that in their college as well," said Tom Abrahamson, chairman of Lipman Hearne, a marketing firm in Chicago and Washington, D.C., that works with colleges and universities.

Of course, while students may want to do good while in college, they also want to graduate with a job.

Eric Sickler, principal consultant with the Iowa firm Stamats, said his company's latest national survey of traditional-age, college-bound students finds that in their final college decision, the most influential factor was the type of jobs a school's recent graduates had secured.

That points to another attraction of these out-of-classroom experiences, some halfway around the world.

Students have "a near paranoia" that they might leave college with great grades and a few standard extracurricular activities but nothing that truly distinguishes them, Mr. Abrahamson said.

That appears to be part of the message behind the Robert Morris spots, which highlight a mix of traditional-age and older-adult students.

In one, Kristen Graziano spends an alternative spring break working in Washington, D.C., with the homeless and is so affected by the experience that she alters her career goal, saying she wants to open a psychiatric clinic for people on the street. In another, Mr. Folk, who has since graduated, talks about the human connections he made while in Nicaragua for clinical study.

A male voiceover in the commercials announced that the school requires its students to reach out to others.

"You can imagine the stories they bring back," the announcer says in one radio spot. "Stories that stick with you. And the beginning of another great story -- their own."

The school has purchased time this fall during CBS TV's "Survivor," which is set in Nicaragua this fall. Ads are set to run during other shows, including Fox TV's "Glee," which the school said could reach prospective students interested in musical theater.

There's even a tie-in to the school's Division I sports program.

In yet another TV spot, Lijah Thompson, a power forward on the school's NCAA tournament basketball team, is seen working with a grade-school student he mentors at Mooncrest Neighborhood Center in Moon.

Some of the billboards are equipped to allow students featured in the ads to send Twitter messages about what they are doing to motorists and pedestrians.

The $300,000 fall advertising effort used a mix of in-house staff and outside consultants, Ms. Fisher said. University officials say they hope the "Change a Life" marketing campaign will attract more prospective students and others to the school's website, including parts that focus on outreach by students.

"We want to give our brand a louder and more compelling voice," Ms. Fisher said.

Bill Schackner: or 412-263-1977. First Published September 20, 2010 4:00 AM


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