Note: This is part one of a series for our Wine + Food 2020 pre-fest coverage. Find all things fest-related at

For attendees, the 2020 Charleston Wine + Food festival will be a time to eat, drink, and mingle. For 20 seniors at the College of Charleston, it’s a time to work and learn. And the work began months ago.

Those seniors are enrolled in the strategic communication campaigns course taught by Amanda Ruth-McSwain, an associate professor in the department of communication. It offers a rare opportunity for students to experience firsthand the daily work of a public relations and marketing agency.

The course came about somewhat serendipitously. In 2015, the department of communication instituted a new “capstone” model for senior communication majors, a course that runs for two semesters and blends research and theory with field internships or other experiential forms of learning.

The full-year model sounded great to Ruth-McSwain, who had previously taught seminars where students engaged with local nonprofits and created strategic communications plans. “But we had never had a chance to see a marketing plan through to execution because it was just one semester,” she says.

By chance, Ruth-McSwain ran into former student Alyssa Maute Smith — now the festival’s marketing and communications director — at a professional event. Smith relayed that the fest had far more communications needs than they could handle.

“We sat down and talked through it,” Ruth-McSwain says, “and the timeline worked out perfectly, given the timing of the festival being in March.”

The result was Ruth-McSwain’s capstone section, which takes students end-to-end through a strategic communications campaign, from initial research to post-campaign assessment.

The fall semester begins with a briefing period in which the students conduct in-depth research into the Charleston festival as well as similar festivals in other cities. They conduct audience analytics and assess other events and activities in town that might compete for locals’ time and entertainment dollars.

Then the planning starts. “Once a month they go to the festival offices and sit down with the team for brainstorming sessions,” Ruth-McSwain says.

The first semester culminates in a campaign plan. “Part way through the planning [the students] present a campaign brief with the thought, strategy, and tactics,” Ruth-McSwain says. “The actual exam is a pitch presentation of the campaign.

“They call us their local agency of record,” she adds. “They are by no means easy on the students, so it’s a realistic view of the agency experience … they are truly understanding what it’s like to work with a client and walk through everything from the account to plan to execution.”

Then the real work begins. “Spring semester is really execution,” Ruth-McSwain say. “From January until the festival in March, [they’re] working on everything they have promised to deliver.”

What gets delivered has differed each year. In 2017, the campaign was christened “Pour into Charleston,” and focused on economic benefits — how the festival pours visitors and their dollars into the greater Charleston area; the following year, students created a series of videos with local chefs.

Last year’s class went in a very different direction, with the students developing an interactive social media-based campaign. “It was one of the more exciting ideas to work with,” Ruth-McSwain says, “everyone endorsed and loved it.”

The festival staff already had a campaign underway using doodles of wine bottles and plates of food, so the students installed doodles of their own in white ink on the windows of downtown stores and on restroom mirrors in participating restaurants. The idea was for people to take selfies in front of the doodles and post them on Instagram and Twitter.

“It was exciting and fun to see,” Ruth-McSwain says, but there was just one problem. “People didn’t actually interact with it and post on social media the way we anticipated … It didn’t accomplish what we set out to accomplish, but it was a great learning opportunity.”

One of the questions the students are wrestling with this year is what should be the larger purpose of an organization like the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, beyond just throwing a five-day party. “They can tout the economic benefit of that five-day festival,” Ruth-McSwain says, “but how else can they give back to Charleston?”

Even with the year-round focus, the efforts will culminate in the main event between March 4-8, and the students will be on the ground working right alongside the festival staff and volunteers.

“At first, doing PR for a big festival seems, ‘How glamorous, how cool,'” Ruth-McSwain says. “It’s actually lugging stacks of glasses … They are seeing the behind the scenes what event management really looks like.”

The rest of the spring semester will be spent in post-campaign analysis, assessing what worked and what didn’t and what they might have done differently. That end-to-end process is something communications students rarely get to experience, even with internships and other field work.

For those who decide to continue on with agency work, it’s also a valuable stepping stone to a job. “Some of the students have secured internships and full time jobs upon graduation because of the connections they’ve made,” she notes.

When I interviewed Gillian Zettler, the festival’s executive director, a few months ago, she raved about the success of the capstone program. “Our hope,” she told me, “is that all of these folks stay and become a part of the Charleston industry.”

Ruth-McSwain says that is increasingly becoming the case. “My pitch 15 years ago was, ‘You probably are going to have to go elsewhere because the opportunities aren’t as good here. “Now that conversation has really changed.”

The remarkable rise of the Charleston food scene, which the festival has helped make possible, has created many of those opportunities.”We have seen a lot more [marketing and PR agencies] pop up in Charleston in the last five to 10 years,” Ruth-McSwain says. “In particular, we have such a large number of food and beverage based agency or agencies who are trying to work for food and bev clients.”

For new graduates trying to break into one of those agencies, having an end-to-end communications campaign in their portfolio can be invaluable in landing the job. And it’s one more example of the festival’s local impact extending beyond just five days in March.

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