Making Strides through Better Communication

Step by step, a Rollins public relations class helped nonprofit REBUILD globally move forward in Haiti.

REBUILD globally equips artisans to hand-make Strides Sandals out of recycled tire. (Photo courtesy of REBUILD globally) REBUILD globally equips artisans to hand-make Strides Sandals out of recycled tire. (Photo courtesy of REBUILD globally)

The devastation caused by the earthquake in Haiti in January 2010 motivated Orlando social entrepreneur Julie Colombino to help. But she knew that just being sympathetic or donating once would not be enough to create lasting change.

(Photo courtesy of REBUILD globally (Photo courtesy of REBUILD globally

After deciding the best thing she could do was to help stimulate economic opportunities on the ravaged island, Colombino created the nonprofit group REBUILD globally in August 2010. The group takes discarded automobile tires found in Haitian neighborhoods and recycles them into the soles of sandals. Known as Strides Sandals, the footwear is handmade by Haitian artisans and then sold around the globe.

By selling those sandals in several countries, REBUILD globally has recycled more than 4,000 tires and produced income for dozens of Haitians. Collecting tires littered throughout neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince prevents them from clogging drainage systems, washing out to sea, or being set on fire and releasing poisonous fumes.

However, the group continued to bump up against a problem: How does a small Haitian nonprofit with a tiny headquarters in Orlando tell its story to the world?

That’s where Ted Gournelos, assistant professor of communication, and his public relations class came in. The class needed real-world companies so students could develop practical communication plans. Gournelos wanted them to have experience with operating—rather than hypothetical—companies.

Colombino wanted to find cost-effective ways to create better marketing for Haitian artisans supported by REBUILD globally, so she turned to the Rollins class for help, but not without some hesitation.

She was grateful for the suggestions made by some student groups in the past, but they didn’t meet her real-life concerns. Too many blue-sky ideas and not enough attention to the tight budget.

“It doesn’t help me to know what I could do if I had a $1 million budget or $50,000 to pay a professional director of marketing,” she says. “I don’t have that.”

Her concerns evaporated after dealing with Gournelos and Chrissy Garton, director of social innovation at the College. After hearing that the Rollins class would remain focused on practical solutions, Colombino agreed to talk with the students.

This summer, one of those students, Elizabeth Connett ’16, interned with REBUILD globally and implemented parts of the communication plan that her team created for the class.

“I really feel like the things I am doing are making a difference not only for the organization but also in the lives of the artisans,” Connett says. “I love the people I work with and the work that I do. It isn’t like internships my friends have where they get coffee and move boxes; I am made to feel like an integral part of the REBUILD globally team.”

At the start of the spring semester, Colombino told the Rollins class that the 2010 earthquake had left more than 100,000 dead, destroyed more than 200,000 homes, and crushed the already struggling economy. She showed them examples of the handcrafted products and told stories of those involved.

Colombino’s talk fit perfectly with Gournelos’ strategy for the class. “I want students to understand two things: One, that public relations can be a force for good, not only for an organization but for the world. And two, that PR is just as much about storytelling and strategy as it is about writing in AP style,” Gournelos says. “You have to understand and care about being a good storyteller and adding value to the organization and its product or service before you can be good at this job.”

To reinforce the need for action-oriented professional plans, Gournelos functioned like the head of a PR agency with the students acting as members of the firm, trying to please demanding clients.

During the semester, Connett’s team came up with ways for REBUILD globally to reach potential buyers and donors without a huge investment. She is executing part of that strategy this summer. “The biggest part of the plan that I am implementing is the increase in social media presence,” she says. “We are working to make the Facebook and Twitter content more engaging and consistent, and we are also implementing an Instagram account that focuses on the organization’s Strides Sandals.”

Colombino, who has office space in the First Presbyterian Church of Orlando, is pleased so far with the results. “We are strengthening our presence here and our digital presence on the Internet.”