It goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic changed a lot for both our on- and off-campus communities. But for the Towson Chamber of Commerce (TCC), the pandemic created an opportunity for continued growth and development.

Thanks in part to strong leadership from TCC executive director Nancy Hafford, the Towson community saw fewer disruptions and more growth than similar communities. Despite pandemic-related challenges, less than a handful of businesses closed since the pandemic started, and the Chamber came up with creative events to replace the 180-plus events it usually hosts during the year.

And during the pandemic, the TCC continued to grow its influence, actively seeking state-based grants and funding to support initiatives and projects aimed at strengthening perceptions of Towson as a great place to “live, work, and play.” Even so, the Chamber recognized it wanted to strengthen itself in three ways: 1. Better understand key public attitudes and awareness of Towson; 2. Create a more cohesive brand and identity for Towson; and 3. Build stronger relationships with Towson University. 

Because of this, the timing was perfect to focus on a strategic communication plan designed to highlight the TCC’s contributions to the Towson area. And through a BTU Partnership, in Spring 2021 a collaborative relationship with Hafford was born.

In the Strategic Public Relations Campaigns service-learning capstone course, Dr. Melanie Formentin’s students work in teams of six to mimic a public relations agency-style setting. To support Hafford and the TCC, each team was assigned a key public (residents, business owners/managers, or students) to emphasize as they built proposed communication campaigns plans during the semester.

Additionally, the BTU Partnership afforded a special opportunity to hire a student assistant, Emily Wannen, adding a new layer to the class. In practice, most organizations outsource their research needs. This allowed students taking the class an opportunity to work through the process of preparing materials for and collaborating with a consultant.

Ultimately, the collaboration between and among Formentin, Hafford, Wannen, and each student team led to the creation and distribution of the most comprehensive survey ever distributed by the TCC. Each team worked with Formentin and Wannen to create and distribute a survey examining awareness, attitudes, and behaviors among the three key publics. Through a concerted distribution effort, the survey garnered just more than 1000 responses from key publics. 

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Ultimately, the experienced turned into an opportunity for students to practice their professional skills in a way that gave back to—and can help strengthen—the Towson community.

First, teams used findings from the research to develop strategies the TCC can use to reach its key audiences and achieve its organizational goals. Survey results suggested that while members of the Towson community are familiar with TCC events, they are less familiar with the Chamber itself. This presented an opportunity to think about creating content and materials aimed at highlighting the TCC’s involvement in building community through events, support for businesses, and projects such as street beautification. To do this, each team presented their work, highlighting solutions for reaching audiences and growing the TCC’s visibility in the community. This included branding materials with a new, proposed TCC logo and implementing strategies such as events related to student and resident engagement, particularly through partnerships with local businesses.

Second, Wannen both wrote and presented a comprehensive overview of the survey findings at the TU undergraduate research symposium and to members of the TCC Board of Directors. Results showed support for ongoing TCC initiatives related to beautification, wayfinding, and community building. This gave Wannen an opportunity to develop a professional presentation for business leaders from multiple industries and created visibility for the project in general.

The result of Wannen’s report is that Hafford was immediately able to begin working on grants and setting new organizational goals using data from the research findings. This included increasing the TCC’s branding and communication efforts to highlight just how influential the organization has been in building the Towson community. It also included providing data the TCC can leverage to support proposals aimed at meeting community needs.

In short, Formentin and Hafford greatly look forward to continuing their partnership, building on the first round of research to consider opportunities to strengthen the relationship between the university and local business partners. In Spring 2022, the pair plan to continue working together to develop a program that will offer the same types of student-led research and strategic communication proposals for local businesses. Through BTU partnerships such as this one, students gained meaningful, practical experience that also helped the community. And while the COVID-19 pandemic created significant challenges for many people, the TCC embraced its core values by looking for opportunities to elevate the Towson community and support those who live, work, and play there.