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UNF basks in international spotlight during CNN debate

spring 2012 cnn

There have never been more eyes locked on the University of North Florida.


For one unseasonably balmy night in January, UNF was the center of the American political universe. 

Hundreds of media descended on the campus to cover the CNN Republican Presidential Debate. Thousands came to campus to soak in the sights and sounds of a bustling political event. And millions more from across the world watched the live debate, which was broadcast from UNF’s 1,300-seat Lazzara Performance Hall in the Fine Arts Center.


It might be the single most notable event to ever take place at the University. But it’s far from the last time UNF’s thriving campus and bountiful amenities will be featured positively in the national media, President John A. Delaney said.


“This was one of the most important days in University history,” Delaney said. “The staff and faculty worked tirelessly to make UNF shine as millions of people watched on TV. The effort that went into that night has already started to pay off. University-related interest has never been higher.”


Setting the stage 


Securing the debate, however, was no stroke of luck. The chairman of Florida’s Republican Party, Lenny Curry, has deep roots in Jacksonville and counts Delaney as a friend. Considering his party’s sponsorship of the debate, Curry pushed hard for Jacksonville to host the event.


While scouting Jacksonville locations, CNN’s advance crews visited UNF just before the December break. They were impressed by the campus’ facilities and natural beauty, and an offer to host the debate was extended soon after. But UNF administrators held firm to two conditions before committing to hosting duties — no classes would be disrupted, and the University would be reimbursed for any hard costs and overtime. 


Both conditions were met, and CNN is reimbursing UNF for nearly $30,000 in expenses and overtime costs.


Preparation makes perfect 


Delaney said the campus rose to the task of preparing for the debate with a very abbreviated lead-in period. When national news organizations plan a presidential debate, there’s usually a six-month window of on-site planning. UNF had just three weeks. Staff members worked feverishly on sprucing up the campus in the weeks leading up to the debate.


Dozens of new banners were installed across campus to ensure the University logo was ubiquitous in live TV shots. Gobos — large discs that project images on a massive scale — were also used on campus for the first time. Larger-than-life projections of the UNF logo were featured on CNN and other TV stations regularly, thanks to gobos installed near the Fine Arts Center and Student Union.


The day of the debate involved an even more concentrated effort by the campus community. From setting up green rooms for the candidates to coordinating security and access credentials, it was all hands-on deck. Extra shuttles were enlisted to transport 250 CNN employees to the Lazzara and about 330 other credentialed journalists to the Press File room in the Student Union where they covered the debate by watching a live feed on huge monitors. Additional space on campus had to be designated for 30 massive satellite trucks from state and national TV organizations. 


Every angle was accounted for during the University’s debate preparation. CNN anchors and staff took note — lavishing praise on the picturesque Northeast Florida campus. And the buzz around UNF has yet to fade.


Interest generated 


There’s been a groundswell of institutional interest since the debate. Phone-a-thon donations nearly tripled while the GOP presidential candidates exchanged verbal jabs on stage. There was a significant uptick in the University’s social media presence that led to hundreds more followers from across the country on UNF’s Facebook and Twitter.


Many of the comments and tweets came from students and alumni, who expressed their Osprey pride by following the University’s social media pages during the debate.


“It was great to see our school represented on national TV.”


“I’m so proud of my alma mater right now.”


“The value of my degree just went up. UNF keeps getting better.”


And while thousands of UNF fans followed along on Facebook and Twitter, millions more were exposed to the campus in the hurricane of media coverage from national news sources such as The Washington Post and The New York Times. In all, UNF’s media coverage increased by 133 percent, according to UNF public relations metrics.


Student engagement has also been on the rise since UNF’s time in the spotlight. Kim Diamon, associate director of Alumni Services, said applications to join the Presidential Envoys, a group of student leaders who volunteer throughout the year at various University events, doubled in the few weeks after the event. While always a popular student organization, the Envoys became highly visible on campus in the days leading up to the debate as they volunteered a majority of their time to help with preparations. CNN used the Envoys is myriad capacities — even having them stand in on stage for the candidates during rehearsals. Campus buzz really started when fellow students saw the Envoys in their distinctive blue blazers sitting in the front row during the televised debate, meer feet from the candidates.


Their seats were in front of even Delaney and Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown. Delaney said the seating arrangement was by design. UNF prides itself on its Transformational Learning Opportunities — educational opportunities that allow students to learn by seeing and doing. So it only made sense that the students, not the dignitaries, were front and center when the candidates were on stage.


“It’s fitting that the students were front row for UNF’s big coming-out party,” Delaney said. “This was their night in the spotlight, as well as the campus’s. We’re still hearing from people in the local community, as well as people from across the country, about how great UNF looked on TV.”


Dr. Ajay Samant, dean of the Coggin College of Business, was almost 10,000 miles away from campus, but UNF was still the conversation of the day.


He was in Chennai, India for a meeting with a potential academic partner for the University when he stopped for breakfast in his hotel’s lobby. The TVs were tuned to CNN, and UNF logos stood out conspicuously in the background.


“It was with great pride that I saw our campus, the Lazzara and all the UNF logos in the CNN frame,” Samant said. “Everyone in the hotel lobby was looking at the TV, and I heard conversations about UNF starting all around me — people expressing interest in the beautiful school on the TV. It was surreal sitting halfway across the world watching your University on a large TV screen, surrounded by people who had never heard of the University until they saw it on the program. Now they have definitely heard of it.”


Campus comes to life 


Dr. Pierre Allaire, vice president for Institutional Advancement, said the debate was a dynamic example of all that UNF has to offer. From the abundance of campus amenities to the active on-campus student population, everything great about UNF was on display when the cameras rolled.


CNN anchors Wolf Blizter and Erin Burnett raved about the natural beauty of the campus from their stage overlooking the Green. CNN’s Chief National Correspondent John King demonstrated the signature Osprey “Swoop!” to the delight of dozens of students who surrounded the make-shift, open-air stage. And Anderson Cooper spent some time after his show the night of the debate with students from the crowd, hopping off stage to pose for photos and sign autographs. He declined offers to “swoop,” though.


A debate viewing party was set up at the Robinson Theater that allowed UNF to extend the political experience to an additional 700 students.  They watched a live feed from the same building as the debate and cheered vigorously every time UNF was referenced or its logo entered the frame.


The Green, often a peaceful spot for leisure study and Frisbee tossing, morphed into a hub for debate-related activity. Students swarmed to snap pictures of CNN’s Election Express Bus and milled around hoping to pop up in the background of a live TV shot.


Some protesters even converged on the Green to voice their opinions by waving hand-made signs and starting call-and-response chants. Students and political activists co-existed convivially, and no issues were reported.


Student involvement 


Behind the scenes, dozens of UNF students served as vital cogs in the political machine. Their academic backgrounds spanned a variety of disciplines, but they all helped make the debate a University-wide success. Most importantly, each student volunteer came away with a valuable hands-on learning experience that won’t soon be forgotten. 


“Our students are tremendous ambassadors for the University,” Allaire said. “CNN staff members told us frequently how pleased they were with the quality of our student volunteers.”


Lexi Dupre, a senior English major, not only worked the event but wrote a piece about the debate that was featured in USA Today’s College section online.


Dupre described her time working as a runner for the CNN Special Events team as a surreal experience in the way it quickly enveloped the campus. It was almost circus-like in the way CNN crews briskly set everything up only to pack it all away once the candidates had spoken their piece.


“The media chaos left campus about as quickly as it arrived,” Dupre wrote in her article. “When the smoke and mirrors of the week’s events cleared, I found myself questioning if it had all been a dream. I never imagined that I would sit in the front row of a presidential primary debate or see how one is put together. When I reflect back on the week, I know I’ve learned an important lesson about looking past the podium — seeing not only what is directly in plain sight, but also what the camera does not show. This meteoric experience is something that I will remember for a long time to come, or at least until the 2012 Presidential Election madness begins.”

Max Lesser, a junior communication major, also worked as a runner for CNN, helping photographers send pictures to editors and other event logistics.

He said the public relations student in him was ecstatic that UNF landed the debate, and he immediately got to work looking for volunteer opportunities.


“I was just excited to hear that the media would be coming to our side of Jacksonville,” he said. “It’s a cool experience to get our own world out there in the spotlight — in the national and international media — for everyone to see. When I heard about the opportunity for the school, I made sure to volunteer.”

Lesser spoke highly of his experience and described it as a fantastic building block for his resume. He learned a lot from being around all the major news outlets on campus, and the atmosphere helped prepare him for a professional future he hopes is filled with large, media-heavy events.


He even managed to get on camera — a personal highlight of the debate.  


“I did an interview for Channel 4 where I got to speak about my experiences helping out with the debate,” he said. “That was definitely my favorite part because I found it online and sent it to my parents and family.”

Marija Diceviciute, a senior political science major, volunteered during CNN’s live dial testing for uncertain voters. Dial testing is a scientific process used to determine how voters react to situations or speeches. In this case, 40 registered Republicans gathered in the University Center the Saturday before the debate and watched the returns from the South Carolina primary live. They were asked to turn a dial when they liked or disliked something a candidate said. From those results, CNN staff and consultants were able to gauge overall public opinion about the messages the campaigns were sending. CNN Reporter Tom Foreman hosted the four-hour test and his reports were broadcast both on AC 360 and throughout the next day. Diceviciute said the experience was a good primer for her, as she hopes to find a job in the political arena.


“Whether I will be writing a research paper for one of my future classes or arguing the case on various political matters in the U.S. Supreme Court, I know I will be revisiting my notes and my knowledge from the event,” she said. “I have worked political events in the past, in the States and in my home in Lithuania. However, none of my experiences up to this point could compare to this, and the extent of national exposure that UNF received for the GOP debate was great.”



In the spotlight 


Emorja Roberson, a junior music major, sang the National Anthem before the debate with the UNF Chamber Singers, an elite group of student musicians from the Chorale ensemble under the direction of Dr. Cara Tasher.

He said it was an excellent performance to gain experience and perspective about what he hopes to be doing in the future — performing in front of large, televised audiences. He’s had some nerve-wracking performances before, such as the times he sang in front of Florida’s governor in high school.


But it’s never been this big — national TV big. About 5 million people were watching when he took the stage. No pressure.

“I felt a rush,” Roberson said. “The chamber singers are a prepared group, and we perform regularly. But this opportunity was huge. We demoed our performance to check voice quality and make sure it was good for TV. And that was about it, other than checking to make sure everyone was on the same page. We’ve done this a lot, so it’s more about making sure you stick to your training. You had to make sure you were on point and didn’t have your voice crack. With all of us together, we were fine.”


The University’s faculty was also front-and-center during the run-up to and after the debate. All of Jacksonville’s TV stations featured UNF professors as expert analysts during their newscasts. The programs broadcast live from the balcony outside the Boathouse in the Student Union.


Political Science Professors Dr. Michael Binder, Dr. David Schwam-Baird and Dr. Matt Corrigan were among the faculty members who weighed in on the election cycle during the local TV shows.


Binder said the experience was an interesting change of pace for him, as he’s been previously featured on local TV to discuss regional politics.


“It was a unique chance to discuss national politics at this level,” he said. “It’s not every day we have a major, national event on our campus. That’s why I was pleased to offer my insight into the debate, especially on a day when UNF is in the spotlight.”


Bobbi Doggett, an associate professor in the Communication department, helped coordinate interviews with the TV stations and other UNF professors.


An experienced public relations instructor, Doggett said the event was a runaway success from a PR standpoint.


“Everything ran smoothly thanks to the overwhelming support of the campus community — from Physical Facilities to the student volunteers,” she said. “Everyone was on the same page, and it was obvious to anyone watching on TV. The University was under the microscope, and we came out looking great.”


Working with the VIPs 


While other students were helping to set up the Spin Room — a room set aside for the candidates or members of their campaign to talk to the media about the highlights of the debate after it was over — or assisting CNN staffers, the Presidential Envoys were getting ready for the crush of invited debate guests to descend on the Lazzara.

Paula Mercado, a senior communication major and Envoy, said the scale of the event was far larger than anything she and her fellow Envoys had ever worked.

“It was my first time working with a nationally recognized news organization such as CNN,” she said. “This was also the first time that we have had the opportunity to be so involved in the preparation for an event.”


Mercado said she plans to find a job in public relations once she graduates, so the event was extremely informative from a hands-on learning perspective.


“Coordinating events is a crucial facet of my studies,” she said. “That’s why I can apply the skills that I learned the week of the debate to my future career. As a UNF Presidential Envoy, I’ve been fortunate to assist with many distinguished events, but they have never involved politics or have been of this stature. This was my first time working a political debate, and to be honest my first time working and engaging in any political affairs at all. Before this exposure, I steered as far away from politics as I possibly could, but I gained a lot from this experience and a better appreciation of how important my freedom truly is. I have a voice, I have a vote and I will use it. And the experiences I gained have given me tools that I will utilize in my future endeavors.”


One of the Envoys who sat the front row, Derek Davis, a junior health administration major, said he was awestruck by the entire event. Working behind the scenes during the week with CNN and sitting feet away from the candidates during a live presidential debate — those are experiences most college students wouldn’t ever dare to dream about.


But there he was, designating spots for VIP guests in the Lazzara and assisting the production crew by shuffling around camera equipment.

“This was incredible PR for the University,” he said. “Our campus offers first-class opportunities for its students, and this should be shared nationally. This event offered the publicity that we need and deserve to truly put us on the map for prospective students.”


Davis said the debate will stick out as one of most memorable on-campus experiences for the students who participated, volunteered or simply occupied the Green while the cameras rolled.


His favorite moment was being able to stand in as a faux candidate in an off-camera mock debate with Wolf Blitzer to help test the sound system and lighting. Other highlights include meeting Anderson Cooper and Republican presidential candidates Ron Paul, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney.


The experience was so transformational, Davis is thinking about adding public relations to his course load and pursuing a double major.

“I can’t get enough now,” he said. “Being in the thick of it all — I think I’m hooked now.”


The buzz remains 


A palpable sense of excitement lingers on campus even months after the debate. UNF’s time in the spotlight was a major success, and planning continues to ensure more national events will come to campus.


Allaire said the community feedback praising UNF has been persistent and all encompassing. The next step involves leveraging that buzz for the future of the University.


“We’re proud of the reception UNF received from the national media and viewers,” he said. “But we can’t rest on our laurels. We’re constantly improving as a University, and the results are reflected in the national awards we’re receiving and the positive word-of-mouth coming our way. Here at UNF, we’re on the way up.”


And Delaney said UNF welcomes anyone who has a national event to produce to take a look at our campus. “This was not just a one-off for us. We proved we could hang with the big boys and we would welcome any organization who needs a picturesque, highly cooperative environment to come see what we have to offer. CNN said they want to come back and we are sure others will want to be here, too, once they see what we have to offer. UNF is ready to shine.”