Hilltop on the Hill, 2014

Students traveled to Washington, D.C., in October 2014 as part of SMU’s Hilltop on the Hill program. The students visited media and government sites, and met with political communicators, journalists and SMU alumni. The trip was led by Rita Kirk, director of the Maguire Center for Ethics & Public Responsibility and professor of Communication Studies in Meadows School of the Arts; Sandy Duhe, Chair of the Division of Communication Studies; and Stephanie Ann Martin, assistant professor of Communication Studies. Endowed by the Bauer Foundation, the Hilltop on the Hill program also takes students studying political communication to political party conventions, the presidential Inauguration and the G8 Economic Summit.

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Off the Record

An update from Sara, a sophomore majoring in English and public relations with a minor in History. She is a Dedman Scholar and a Second Century Scholar:

“These words never leave this room.” Such a simple command, yet it signals much more than impending confidential information. It introduces a sense of urgency, a bond of trust, and a thrill of forbidden knowledge. Throughout our entire trip, I have noticed the tense, secretive undertones each time we step into a conference room. As we have been fortunate enough to meet with many influential corporations during our visit, we are automatically exposed to sensitive information when we walk into a meeting. Whether this information refers to a pre-breaking news article or day-to-day operations, our group is trusted to keep certain information “off the record.”

This recurring sub-theme of our trip peaked this evening at dinner. After a day of bustling around the city, we were finally freed to eat, and a group of us decided to visit a locally renowned restaurant, called “Off the Record,” historically known for its low-key atmosphere. Many reporters used to stop by for a drink after work to loosen their ties and unwind, and they needed a place that would understand the clandestine nature of their work. Off the Record was that safe place. Our table was actually in an alcove, where we quite easily forgot that the rest of the restaurant surrounded us. It was there, away from the eyes and ears that constantly surround us in the city’s hustle and bustle, that we were able to emulate reporters of old and truly pick apart the past four days.

The best conversations we had through the entire trip occurred at that very table, as we examined what we had seen and what we would take away. How ironic it was that our dinner conversation produced more analysis than a Socratic seminar in a classroom! We were free to discuss which corporations we enjoyed visiting, those we didn’t, and why. It was our safe zone, and the knowledge that no one would judge our opinion or tell the wrong person loosened our lips far more than any classroom or reflecting activity.

It wasn’t until our dinner that I fully understood the value of our approach to information. Our little experience was a small-scale version of the entire program. The “off the record” mentality permeated every meeting, which encouraged our hosts to open up much more about their professions. Situations and advice came up, that we would never have read about in a textbook, and our hosts were free to discuss the topic because they understood that we would remain discreet.

Without a certain kind of tact, the hosts would not be as willing to share their experiences, which would result in more of a “sales pitch” kind of meeting than a question-answer session about the reality of communications in Washington, D.C. The students would not see any of the humanity in the businesses represented. After the program, I can look at a logo, such as Southwest Airlines or ExxonMobil, and see a person behind the drawing — a human who has a passion for her profession. If we had only received a sales pitch when we met with the various companies, I would see nothing but a logo, which inspires a robotic image of a corporation as opposed to a living, constantly shifting organization.

The “off the record” mentality did more for us than simply to force us to stay discreet. Because of our willingness to discuss without reporting all details to the world, our group was able to glimpse a sliver of life in each organization. That small piece of reality, gained only because we agreed to respectfully keep information to ourselves, allowed each of us to better determine where we could see ourselves — and where we couldn’t — in a way rivaled only by true job experience.

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