PR Student of the Year 2006

Tara Burnham, Penn State University

PR Student of the Year 2006
Winner: Tara Burnham, Penn State University

Five Student of the Year candidates ran a one-day gauntlet, a challenge for even a seasoned PR pro. The task, for which they had a week to prepare: Create a full-scale PR campaign to launch Royal Caribbean Cruise lines' newest, and largest vessel, Freedom of the Seas. The finalists were charged with identifying target consumers for a ship that has something for everyone, including a wave-maker, rock-climbing walls, pools, an ice-skating rink, and Jacuzzi-style whirlpools suspended over the bulwark. Student proposals ran the gamut from a tie-in with MTV's Run's House, a mock-up of the ship's on-board rock-climbing wall on a mall-to-mall road trip, to Royal Caribbean tout the ship as a floating weight-loss clinic.

Tara Burnham stood out for her professionalism and a remarkable level of discipline and insight. Burnham, a senior at Penn State, noted that families' level of interest would depend on how Royal Caribbean incorporated all members of the family. For couples the appeal would depend on opportunities to do things on-board that aren't typical of dating. Singles would seek thrills and adventure.

Her campaign, "Free to be Extraordinary," offered appeal to all of those segments with a host of traditional and offbeat media placements and highly targeted promotions, all with an eye on the bottom line: Hers was a program that wouldn't cost Royal Caribbean a king's ransom. Besides outreach to morning-show hosts, and Travel Channel's "Travel Channel Hot Spots," Burnham's program included online ads on dating services like, and on sites like Craigslist's calendar page.

Burnham also proposed sending a miniature version of the ship to media with an invitation to an on-board tour, and another version of the toy vessel to national toy store chains as part of a sweepstakes dangling five grand prizes of a one week cruise vacation for a family of four.

Burnham suggested building buzz with multi-city street teams chalking a Freedom of the Seas web address and "Your adventure begins here May 2006" on sidewalks. The teams would also develop an underground video about the adventures possible on the cruise and send a link to college e-mail listservs.

Where Burnham really shone was in crisis mode. Students were thrown a variation on an event that actually happened to a Royal Caribbean ship two years ago, when one of the cruisers sailed into port with a whale stuck on its bow. Students had to face the prospect of explaining it to media, passengers, and staff, and environmental groups. Burnham entered with a well-considered plan, which included a draft of a press release on the mishap, all remarkable in scope given the hour she'd had to prepare. Burnham also divined that it was just possible that the whale athwart the ship's bow might actually be alive, and came up with a solution that defused the crisis by bringing in a third party – the Boston Aquarium.

Honorable Mention: Jake Basden, University of Oklahoma

University of Oklahoma student Jake Basden presented a stunning campaign that included ad boards, placards, tote bags stuffed with sunglasses, water bottles, and gizmos to suggest that a vacation on a cruise ship like Freedom of the Seas doesn't have to be centered on the deck chair. With a new tagline for the company, "Rest & Recreation," Basden proposed coverage on Discovery Kids with kid reporters going on board to explore the surf machine, pools, skating rinks, climbing walls, karaoke, and Ben & Jerry's. The program included a podcast component, letting travelers upload video podcasts to, and a 90-minute Memorial Day musical special broadcast from the ship: "A patriotic musical celebration brought to you by NBC and Royal Caribbean."


Jake Basden: University of Oklahoma

Lenzy Betters: Howard University

Stancheka Boone: North Carolina A&T

Tara Burnham: Penn University

Jenet DeJesus: Syracuse University


Weber Shandwick
Weber Shandwick

Weber Shandwick is one of the world's leading public relations agencies, with offices in major media, business, and government capitals around the world. The agency is a leader in marketing public relations, public affairs and corporate communications counseling, and also provides services in advocacy advertising, market research, visual communications and web relations.

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