By Gerard Flanagan, news writer and photographer, Office of University Communications
CAMPBELLSVILLE, Ky. – A few weeks before Marc Whitt prepared to depart his hometown of Paintsville, Ky., and start college at Eastern Kentucky University, his grandfather asked him what kind of college graduate he planned to be once he had his diploma in hand.
The 18-year-old Whitt gave his standard answer to what he thought was a standard question.
“Being the 18-year-old I was, I said I was going to learn public relations, and I’m going to do this and this and this,” Whitt, the featured speaker at Campbellsville University’s 18th annual Media Appreciation Luncheon April 13 in the BASC Banquet Hall, said.
Instead, Whitt’s grandfather told him about two types of college graduates. He told Whitt that one group “likes to remind you constantly how much more they know than you do, just how smart they are.”
The other group, however, wants to make a difference with the degree they’ve just received.
“This group remembers they are where they are, standing on the shoulders of many others. They want to take the degree they have and make life a bit better for others,” Whitt said.
Whitt serves as director of Media and Strategic Relations at the University of Kentucky. He was also at Campbellsville University for 11 years, including as a member of the senior cabinet, as assistant to the president for public relations and marketing and eventually as vice president for communications and marketing.
Whitt, who has nearly four decades of experience in public relations, is the author of “When In Doubt, Make Applesauce! Core Habits of the Masterful Public Relations Professional.”
The desire to make a difference forms the core of being a servant leader, one of the eight traits Whitt said make a successful public relations professional.
Everyone, regardless of title or job level, has a responsibility to be a servant leader.
“People at any job level can become a servant leader,” Whitt stated. “Regardless of title or responsibility, you and I can lead from where we are. We make, you make, a significant difference in the lives of others.”
During his time at Campbellsville, Whitt said he saw servant leadership in action.
“It lived and breathed in the very part of what Campbellsville University is about,” he said, as he counted a story about an initiative called “Workday” that would take place at Campbellsville.
As part of Workday, all Campbellsville students and employees would “give back to the institution,” according to Whitt, by doing work on campus—such as cleaning, sweeping, planting flowers or trimming trees and bushes.
Whitt, a self-professed early bird who typically arrives to work by 6:30 a.m., thought he would be one of the first people to arrive on campus that day. Instead, Dr. Ken Winters, 10th president of Campbellsville University, was already hard at work.
“Here he was, in his bib overalls, and he had a garden hoe and a shovel,” Whitt said, “and he was going at it, planting things, and his knees were dirty, his sleeves were rolled up, and he was leading by example.”
He also referenced Joan McKinney, who retired as Campbellsville’s director of university communications in February after 42 years at the university, as another example of servant leadership.
Whitt noted countless students learned under McKinney, and he said, “This lady could have easily done her work and not cared, but she gave back, and she helped to mentor these students, many of whom are editors, serving in various capacities in media, all because this lady cared.”
The seven other traits of successful public relations professionals Whitt shared were being a model of unquestionable character and integrity, an effective and strategic communicator, an exceptional networker and relationship builder, a big picture thinker and bold doer, a master of the mission and brand, an embracer of life-long learning and available communication technology and being resilient.
To journalists and public relations professionals, Whitt asked the following questions: Do we place character and integrity first in all that we do? Do we merely do public relations or journalism, or do we actually feel a calling to these professions? Are we genuine, authentic, trustworthy, and transparent? Is your word solid as gold?
“To be a true master in public relations, it’s more than getting on your cell phone or sending a text, pitching a story idea,” Whitt said. “Much more. It’s about all these things I’ve mentioned, but being a servant leader, being a person that journalists can always look to and know, even in tough times, being truthful is either 100 percent or not truthful.
“Unfortunately, we, sometimes in public relations, get a little bit of a bad reputation as not being quite upfront and honest. That is not genuine public relations work. It’s got to be about integrity.”
Whitt ended with a challenge to journalists, public relations professionals and the Campbellsville University community.
“In closing, journalists, lead and serve where you are,” Whitt said. “Public relations professionals, lead and serve where you are. CU student, faculty member or administrator, lead and serve where you are.”
Those attending the Media Appreciation Luncheon also heard an update on Campbellsville University from Dr. Donna Hedgepath, provost and vice president for academic affairs.
“We continue to thrive, and we’re strong,” Hedgepath said. “Enrollment this year has been strong as well. We continue to offer new programs. In particular, our Mass Communication program and facilities are second to none here in Kentucky.
“We continue to be so proud of that and our faculty and students who are here today. I anticipate some really great things in the future with this program because we’ve tried to be innovative, and we want to prepare our students for the future, not just settle for what was in the past. We see that every day in our faculty, staff and students here.”
Jeannie Clark, chair of the Department of Mass Communication, also offered an update.
“We are growing significantly,” Clark said. “We have doubled the number of students in the past year.”
Clark also read a line from Whitt’s book that she says embodies what the Department of Mass Communication seeks to teach its students: “Lifelong learning is a choice we make. A personal commitment that stretches our minds and expands our worlds. It’s a continuous process from cradle to grave. It’s a promise you make to yourself. And when fully embraced, lifelong learning will become a worthy, life-enhancing, and even life-changing habit.”
“And that’s something that we try to instill in our students, that we don’t just want to teach you how to use this piece of equipment and put it together and put it up there, we want to teach you to learn,” Clark said. “You need to learn how to learn in order to move forward in all of your various careers.”
Tori Cox, senior from Campbellsville, Ky., originally came to Campbellsville University to major in nursing. However, in August 2021, she found herself in her first Mass Communication class—Introduction to Broadcasting—with Alex Meade, instructor of Mass Communication and television programming and production director.
By October of that year, Cox was on live television, co-hosting the 2021 Homecoming parade.
“I had finally found what clicked for me. And I found myself wanting to go to school and wanting to go to work, and even now, I wish I was at work right now,” she said.
Next month, Cox will graduate from Campbellsville University with a Bachelor of Science in Mass Communication Area. She is employed at the LaRue County-Herald News.
“One of the most life-changing things I found at Campbellsville University was their belief in me…Whether it’s staying late to show us how to work a board or giving me an extension on a paper because life happens, they are there to make sure that you succeed because they see our potential,” she said.
“To all the mass communication professors, you all have nurtured me, and you all have helped me grow and taught me how to believe in myself like you all believe in me.”
Campbellsville University is a widely acclaimed Kentucky-based Christian university that offers over 100 programs including doctoral, master, bachelor, associate and certificate programs. The website for complete information is www.campbellsville.edu.