Hilltop on the Hill 2013

Eight students are in Washington, D.C., in October 2013 as part of SMU’s Hilltop on the Hill program. The students will visit media and government sites, and meet with political communicators, journalists and SMU alumni. The trip is led by Rita Kirk, professor of communication studies in Meadows School of the Arts and director of the Maguire Center for Ethics & Public Responsibility; Sandra Duhé, chair of communication studies, associate professor and director of the Meadows School’s public relations program; and Candy Crespo, assistant director of the Maguire Center for Ethics & Public Responsibility. 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.

Coming full circle

DSC_8647 - Version 3An update from Candy Crespo, assistant director of the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility and an SMU alumna:

It’s morning in Washington, D.C. I take a deep breath in through my nose, pause, and exhale. “Do you smell that?” I say to one of our students. There’s something different about the air here. They smile in agreement. Anyone near our group, especially fellow metro travelers, must be able to sense the excitement and anxiousness. The students’ energy levels are soaring and their eyes are bright with anticipation.

This will be my third Hilltop on the Hill trip, and each time is more exciting and meaningful than the last. I went on the trip as an undergraduate when I wanted to find out what kind of communications jobs and career routes were out there. The next year, as a senior, I went as Dr. Rita Kirk’s teaching assistant so that I could experience the city one more time and make up my mind as to whether or not I was really going to make the move across the country. That trip sealed the deal. I caught the bug. I couldn’t see myself anywhere else after graduation, and so I went.

Candy Crespo with Dr. Rita Kirk and Dr. Sandra Duhe.

Candy Crespo with Dr. Rita Kirk and Dr. Sandra Duhe in front of the U.S. Capitol Building.

A year or two later when I was working in D.C. at the Glover Park Group, I hosted the Hilltop on the Hill group at my place of work, and also got to talk with students at the alumni roundtables and mixers. I’m still in touch with many of those students today, like my dear friend Roza. Now, I’m on the trip once again, but this time as one of their group leaders. I think that means I’ve officially come full circle.

This year, the schedule is stacked. This select group of eight communications students will be meeting SMU alumni and friends all over the city from the public and private sectors. We’ll go to CNN, Edelman, ExxonMobil, Glover Park Group, Dept of Health and Human Services, 21st Century Group, Senator John Cornyn’s office and the Center for Public Integrity. Did I mention the alumni mixers? This is not a trip for the faint of heart. This is a fast-paced, head-snapping, four-day, behind-the-scenes view of one of the greatest and most influential cities in the world. I can’t wait to see which of our students will catch “the bug” and decide that they, too, will go to work in Washington and that absolutely nothing else will do.

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The view from Capitol Hill

Hilltop on the Hill 2013 at the U.S. Capitol.

Hilltop on the Hill 2013 at the U.S. Capitol.

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Freedom of information vs. national security

KatelynAn update from Katelyn, a junior double-majoring in journalism and theatre in Meadows School of the Arts, with a special emphasis in international politics in Dedman College:

The media storm engulfed this past summer with the breaking and subsequent three months of solid coverage of Edward Snowden and the NSA file leaks. Visiting D.C. and meeting with top journalists provided a prime opportunity for open discussion on the line between exposing necessary truths to the public and putting national security at risk.

While the issue is far more complex than just two sides of patriot versus traitor, those qualifiers remain the general divider between most public opinion, in the broadest scope of the matter. The media thrives both off stories of heroism and of criminalized scandal. But the issue of the NSA leaks and the extensive media coverage given to it – while it could qualify under either, depending on one’s opinion – seemed to not fall under a consensus at major media networks and outlets under questions of ethics, public safety, and public knowledge.

Of the two leading news outlets I spoke with over the past two days, both openly admitted that their entity never reached a conclusion on the question racing through the studios, which were reporting only the aftermath: Had Snowden approached them with the files, would they have published them?

It’s a question far more involved than it may seem on the surface, where even then its complications are still relatively clear. Journalism is built on the basis of checks and balances – news media is one of the key ways the government and other large entities, both domestic and worldwide, are held accountable. If a person’s rights are being violated, the media is the one to inform and ignite the public.

However, when the NSA leaks were published and the public “informed,” it was also put at risk. National security measures were out in the open to a mass-audience worldwide. Additionally, foreign relations suffered – some more significantly than others – as allies and friendly countries questioned the honesty and integrity of the American government. Moreover, the position of America as a capable and stable government was weakened in the eyes of enemies – i.e., al Qaida.

Media professionals in D.C. did all agree on the fact that had they been presented with the documents and decided to extend consideration, the process before publishing would have been incredibly extensive – involving ethics and standards specialists, top-level deliberation within the company, and, in some cases, clearance by and discussion with the highest-ranking officials in the White House.

And because I am yet to speak with a journalist who is able to provide a clear-cut view on the rights and wrongs of publishing the NSA files, the question can be turned more directly retrospective: Was the exposé fanfare worth the consequences seen now, and the consequences now possible?

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Washington, a city of possibilities

LaurenAn update from Lauren, a sophomore majoring in political science in Dedman College and public relations in Meadows School of the Arts:

Being in D.C. for the past four days has made me realize so many things about myself, my future, and the workplace. We met so many highly successful, influential people in professional settings over the course of only four days. I came out of nearly every meeting thinking, “I want to work here!” I have realized that politics really is what I love and that I can’t imagine doing anything else.

One thing that I liked was being thrust into such professional settings. Most students are not exposed to very formal, professional settings until their first internship or job. We had the great opportunity to meet with professionals in their industries as well as meet alumni at an alumni mixer, and luckily we had great advisers to give us feedback about everything. There are so many important things to think about when you are in a professional environment that you just don’t know until someone tells you, so having such a great, professional faculty at SMU that has plenty of experience in the workforce was extraordinarily helpful.

People aren’t exaggerating when they say that D.C. is an extremely diverse city with a rich history. Being in the capital of the United States – with it having the history that it does – we were amazed to see so many landmarks and historical places. The thought and care  which the people long before us put into making these buildings and landmarks are incredible. It’s amazing to know that nearly everywhere you stand in this city, something that’s a part of our history probably happened there. It was also fascinating to see the diversity that the city has. Although Dallas does have diversity, it does not have it to the extent that D.C. does. Everywhere you walk, you hear tons of different languages and accents, and are easily able to experience other cultures.

Another thing about D.C. is that it is also a city that is all about networking and whether you are able to go after what you want. Many of the people we met with told us how they just packed up after they graduated from their undergraduate studies and left for D.C., regardless of whether they had a job or not. Something that they stressed was that nearly all of them found jobs through the connections they had made as an undergraduate student. Going on this trip gave us the opportunity to make connections now that not many students will be able to make.

A couple of the places that we visited that stuck with me the most were CNN and the Glover Park Group. We were able to see a lot of what goes on behind the scenes at CNN and talk to people who are major players within the network. As a political science and public relations major, I loved hearing about CNN’s brand and how they market themselves, as well as getting to meet Wolf Blitzer and see the set of his show and CNN’s new show, The Lead with Jake Tapper. The Glover Park Group is a strategic communications firm founded by several members of the Clinton administration. Both CNN and Glover Park Group had environments where I could definitely see myself working in the future.

Although I’ve been to D.C. before, I never got to see this much of the city the last time I was here. I completely fell in love with the city during this trip, and I absolutely can’t wait until I can come back. Being able to meet all of these successful people and hear their stories, get their advice and insight, and learn about what they do was one of the best things I have ever done at SMU. Experiences like Hilltop on the Hill are a huge part of why I chose SMU. These opportunities are very rare, and the great thing about SMU is that anyone who is willing to work hard is able to have these opportunities given to them. The most important thing I learned was that although D.C. is a tough city, if you aren’t afraid to go after what you want, your possibilities are endless.

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Health care: A human right

AlexAn update from Alexandra, a junior majoring in psychology and English with a minor in women’s and gender studies in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences:

At 9 a.m. our group struggled through the metro system and found our way to the Department of Health and Human Services. Surrounded by the impressive Planetarium buildings and the Met museums, we were in awe. It was an interesting situation, given the context of the government shutdown. Still, we were rightfully impressed by the sheer importance of the buildings in which we had meetings.

I’ve always believed that health care is one of the vehicles through which we can achieve a more equal playing field. That’s why I pursued my current internship with Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas: I believe that healthier mothers contribute to healthier families, and ultimately healthier communities. Public service has always made sense to me and that’s why I so enjoyed meeting with Jason Young, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs for Health Care, and his associates.

The Dallas region is a particularly vulnerable region: As we learned, 1 in 20 people whom the federal Department of Health helps is from Dallas. That’s a lot of people. I enjoyed meeting with Mr. Young and his associates because his work in the communications field makes a real difference in the lives of many. Someday, I will help other people in the same way. For that, I’m thrilled.

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New age of news reporting

An update from Elena, a senior majoring in corporate communications in Meadows School of the Arts and business in the Cox School of Business:

As a D.C. first-timer, I found that the Hilltop on the Hill experience exceeded all of my expectations. Communications majors fill a wide variety of positions around the city. Our group had the pleasure of interacting with highly ranked executives.

One of the people we met was Dave Levinthal, a senior reporter at the Center for Public Integrity.  Visiting with him at the Center for Public Integrity reignited my belief in unbiased, fact-based reporting.  Levinthal is an inspiration for any individual interested in news devoted to the truth.  The Center for Public Integrity hopefully is just the beginning of a trend toward nonprofit, transparent reporting.

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Hilltop program sets up students for success

brianaAn update from Briana, a sophomore Hunt Scholar majoring in political science in Dedman College and communication studies in Meadows School of the Arts: 

During lunch with the 21st Century Group, we had the pleasure of speaking with one of the firm’s principals, who happens to be a woman. She explained how being a woman in the lobbying industry sometimes poses difficulties in such a male-dominated field. While she did provide this advice about entering this particular field, her thorough and compassionate explanation created a confident atmosphere nonetheless for me to continue to pursue a degree in politics, and if not, in a career in Washington, D.C., at the least.

Our lunch meeting at the 21st Century Group is the epitome of what our trip was meant to do for us SMU students — create an atmosphere that not only encourages us to inquire about our passions, but also develop as a professional ready for any setting we may be placed in (including a lunch meeting).

As I write my last blog post and reflect on what I have learned, not only from 21st Century Group, but from all of our Hilltop experiences, I understand why and how this program can truly change and create dreams. I have been inspired and changed as I meet successful alumni as well as prominent professionals here in the great city of Washington, D.C. As I sign off, I thank the Bauer family, Dr. Rita Kirk, Dr. Sandra Duhé, and Ms. Candy Crespo for giving me the opportunity to experience everything that I have only dreamed of. The only obstacle anyone has is themself. The only thing we can do is pursue what we have a passion for and work hard for what we believe in.

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A firm in a class of its own

AlexAn update from Alexandra, a junior majoring in psychology and English with a minor in women’s and gender studies in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences:

After a long, busy, and just plain exhausting day of traipsing through Washington, D.C., meeting SMU alums and other communications professionals, we reached our final meeting. Glover Park Group, a strategic communications firm, is housed in the 8th floor of a high rise. The interior of the corporation is sleek and stylish, with modern art adorning the walls, minimalist white furniture lining the rooms, and a wonderful view of the city out the large windows that surround the building.

By the time we reached our final appointment, my peers and I were quickly approaching collapse due to exhaustion. However, meeting with one of the managing directors for Glover Park Group woke us up quicker than a skinny vanilla latte with an extra shot. A former colleague of one of our own program supervisors, Candy Crespo, he began by telling us the story of Glover Park Group’s formation. The strategic communications firm was formed in response to the changing administration in 2001, and its original founders were mostly Clinton Administration officials.

It was obvious that he was part of a pretty selective group: he is someone who seems to legitimately enjoy the work that he does. He described corporate and strategic communications as “telling a good story” about what a corporation does and why it deserves our business. Strategic communications firms cover a variety of projects, from designing and implementing advocacy campaigns to working on litigation that will benefit clients. Glover Park Group isn’t just another public affairs firm, though. It stands apart because of its passion for advocacy. Its story isn’t about profit or power; it is about change for the better.

When asked to describe the challenges he faces in his work, he mentioned the difficulty of drawing people in when the firm was still small and hadn’t had a chance to develop its brand. As the firm grew, the challenge became getting clients to stay. Another challenge is the volatile nature of the social climate, especially in a city like Washington, D.C. Although one can’t always predict how people will respond to messaging, Glover Park Group has continued to grow and gain the trust of major corporations by successfully monitoring and reacting to the social climate in which it operates.

In the end, this managing director certainly won me over. When we asked him what we could expect should we get a job in corporate and strategic communications, he said, “The only thing I can promise you is that it won’t be boring.” I look forward to seeing for myself if that is true.

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Shadows of the government shutdown

KatelynAn update from Katelyn, a junior double-majoring in journalism and theatre in Meadows School of the Arts, with a special emphasis in international politics in Dedman College:

Americans across the nation are feeling the effects of the government shutdown, and being in D.C. now offers a clear look at what the situation looks like at the heart of itself – and, staying true to its label, many aspects of our nation’s capital are entirely shut down.

The effect of the shutdown not only on government entities – of which all deemed “nonessential” are closed until the crisis is resolved – but also on the businesses that revolve around government interaction arose as a question in each of the meetings the Hilltop group visited today.

In speaking with directors and executives at a major international broadcast news company, the group heard that one limiting factor its reporters are facing is the fact that many of their contacts in government cannot be reached for comment, as their phones are shut down during the furlough period. Specifically citing park rangers and nonessential – but still key for media matters – personnel, our contacts explained that it has put a rather significant stop on getting news from the affected employees.

However, they cited one interesting and, perhaps even more effective than usual, side effect of the shutdown – staffers in Congress have been furloughed, but Congressional members have not. Thus, reporters have a direct, virtually uninhibited reach to the nation’s representatives, via a number of communications (including phone, email, and in-person). The conversations can be slightly more candid and obviously far more immediate, free of red tape and many protocols.

But beyond media access and the transparency it has – or does not have – with aspects of the government during the furlough period, there is the question of entities who are perceived (albeit falsely) to rest even further out of reach of the shutdown.

A public relations firm shared insight pertaining to its federal accounts, as well as its clients whose work depends on the decisions made by Congress and the government in their industry. One of the firm’s senior vice presidents said that while the shutdown has halted some of the relevant case work, it has also allowed for additional time to expand on or re-create solutions and tactics in these accounts to better serve clients when the government is once again in working order. By having relatively unexpected leeway time, an allowance for fine-tuning and revisiting of methods, research, and plans in place to move forward has arisen – offering the opportunity to improve facets of these accounts for better chance of success once everything is back in action.

Beyond firms with clients who may be aspects of the government lie the large companies whose work depends on the laws passed and even more temporary decisions made on the federal level. One worldwide oil and gas company spoke to the fact that while the government shutdown is doing no good, there is at least benefit in the fact that it’s doing nothing at all – in the sense that the company is not missing out on opportunities any other company may be privy to. While Congress is inactive in its normality sense, no bills are being passed that would affect the oil and gas industry, be those impacts positive or negative.

The overall consensus in Washington carries a level of annoyance – I often hear remarks regarding the hard-line conservatives’ needs to “get over their election loss” and get back to “doing their job.” One high-ranking PR representative today put the work – or lack thereof – of Congress into the context of doing their job versus fighting for “concessions.” Their job is to pass the budget; doing their job does not earn them the prize of overthrowing a healthcare plan – as contentious as it is – that has already been made law.

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SMU alums in D.C.

LaurenAn update from Lauren, a sophomore majoring in political science in Dedman College and public relations in Meadows School of the Arts:

Yesterday we had the pleasure of meeting two SMU alums at an alumni roundtable. It was great to see recent graduates of SMU doing so well in the city. Going into the workforce after graduation seems intimidating, but meeting with them definitely eased my nerves. SMU certainly provides its students with the tools to succeed in the workforce.

One of the alums works for a major public relations and communications firm. She told us how she started off with two internships and was eventually offered a job, and stressed how important internships are. Internships can often turn into full-time jobs and are also a good way of gaining experience and networking.

The other alum works for a think tank, and he discussed how the government shutdown was affecting its work. I had such a good time meeting him, especially since as a political science major, working for a think tank is one of the options I’m considering after graduation.

It was encouraging to hear that SMU’s alumni chapter here in D.C. is active and thriving, especially for those of us who plan to move to D.C. after graduation. Being able to speak with alumni who are so successful and enjoying their lives post-SMU was such a great experience, especially knowing that in a few years, I’ll be at the roundtable with other Hilltop students sharing my experiences post graduation.

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