Faculty say new PR lab will serve more students, but Y Digital transition creates controversy

Adam Durfee, director of Y Digital, helps his students as they work on digital marketing projects in the Y Digital lab in 2018. (BYU Photo/Gabriel Mayberry)

Scores of BYU communication students and alumni have voiced their concerns and disagreement over the School of Communications’ recent decision to change the Y Digital social media and digital marketing lab to a new Public Relations Intelligence Lab beginning in Fall 2021.

The new lab is considered an “evolution” of the Y Digital Agency and the Carroll Digital and Social Media Studio associated with it, according to a press release. The School of Communications sent out an email on May 26 to all communications students with a brief description how the Y Digital lab will transition to the PR Intelligence Lab.

Y Digital was first started in 2017 by BYU alum Adam Durfee and has been a successful digital marketing agency since, placing students in a wide variety of public relations and marketing roles upon graduation. The lab teaches students digital marketing and social media skills while providing them with real-world experience through completing projects for clients.

An application process is required to be admitted into Y Digital with between 30 and 40 students involved in the program each semester.

The incoming director of the new Intelligence Lab is assistant professor of communications Devin Knighton. He said the communications faculty has been involved in conversations the last several months regarding how to expand Y Digital to service more of the students in the public relations sequence. He hopes this new lab will accomplish that by being open to all 200+ students accepted into the public relations program.

All PR students to be involved in the new lab

All students currently accepted into Y Digital, regardless of the communication sequence they are in, will be moved into the PR Intelligence Lab.

But going forward, primarily only public relations students will be involved in the lab. Knighton said if other communications students are interested in participating, they can meet with him to discuss the situation and request approval from their sequence coordinator to work in the lab.

Knighton said the PR Intelligence Lab will expand on the success of Y Digital by housing a greater number of projects that focus on “data intelligence” instead of just focusing on digital marketing and social media research.

This will include using more sources of information on top of digital and social media such as news media and social science data. The lab experience will help students draw insights, create strategies for communication in all channels and do data analytics for various corporations and companies, Knighton said.

But many who have been or are currently involved in Y Digital are upset about the change.

Some students and alums upset about the change

Public relations senior Ellie Hughes said her graduation plans are messed up now because she had planned her graduation and coursework around working at Y Digital. She said Y Digital has been a blessing for her and, from her perspective, expanding it to include more people isn’t the problem.

She said she and her classmates are frustrated that everything being communicated to them is so vague and has created so much uncertainty that students don’t understand what the new lab will look like and how it will operate for her and other students with some Y Digital experience.

Paxton Gray, an alumnus of BYU and CEO of digital marketing service 97th Floor, posted on LinkedIn saying BYU is “shutting down Y Digital Agency, one of the most cutting-edge, in-demand programs on campus. Industry is falling all over themselves to hire these kids … Why shut down such an amazing program?”

His post received over 270 comments and 273 reactions. Many alumni of BYU, alumni of Y Digital, digital marketers and current students discussed their frustration, confusion and disapproval regarding the change in the LinkedIn comment section.

Gray has worked with Y Digital on several projects in the last two years and has hired over a dozen Y Digital graduates. From his recruiter perspective, Gray does not think the new lab will be able to provide the kind of real-world experience with hard and soft skills that students learn in Y Digital.

More academic and research focus?

“From what I understand this new lab to be, it appears more academic and research based and I fail to see the broad industry application or the opportunity for students to learn applicable and in-demand skills,” Gray said.

Gray is in full support of expanding the amount of students involved in Y Digital, but thinks this approach is the wrong solution.

“If expansion and equity is the true goal, it seems a larger investment meant to broaden the doors of Y Digital is in order, not a dilution and complete refocus of the lab,” Gray said.

Ty Mullen, a recent graduate from BYU and Y Digital, was especially vocal on Gray’s post. His post said the change is a conversion of an “independently chartered lab” to an “entirely different lab.” He voiced a concern that the new lab will not be able to benefit from the reputation and brand recognition Y Digital created for itself.

The Y Digital lab accepted students from all communications sequences and Mullen said he believes this new change will be detrimental to students interested in digital marketing who are not in the public relations sequence.

The School of Communications’ press release about the change says, “refocusing the lab on data intelligence anchors it to the PR curriculum.” The lab is expected to run client projects through existing public relations courses and extracurricular opportunities.

Public relations senior and Y Digital account executive Charity Monroe said the overall idea of making Y Digital accessible to everyone is awesome. However, she feels the way the change was communicated was hurtful.

Monroe said the initial email was shocking, and she felt like she and her classmates had been let go and left with hardly any answers. She said if the faculty had worked with the Y Digital students on how to expand it, she and the other Y Digital students would probably be more excited and open to this transition.

“The idea of a new lab is great, but it’s a shame to cancel Y Digital to make that happen,” Monroe said.

Y Digital student Jessica Awerkamp said if the new lab is based on volunteer student efforts, she fears they won’t be able to create concrete results and products for their clients.

Lab changes met with excitement by some

Knighton said after the announcement was made, while some students responded negatively, many others responded with excitement for the new lab.

Public relations senior Eleanor Woon said she thinks the new lab will create more hands-on learning experiences for the whole curriculum and she sees a benefit in having a lab supported by the core classes.

“I think it will be good to have classroom coursework paired with real life experience,” Woon said.

Woon said she understands why many are upset about the change and why many view Y Digital changing to be a loss to the public relations program. She said she hopes students put in effort in the new lab so it can be successful like Y Digital has been.

School of Communications director Mark Callister said giving these experiences to more students allows a larger number of students to graduate from the program with a greater skillset and the experience of applying what they learned in the classroom so they are better prepared for a changing industry.

“The new structure is going to build upon the strengths of Y Digital and will amplify those in terms of creating more opportunities for the public relations students and will bring in projects that will tap into a larger set of competencies that reflect the field of public relations,” Callister said.

Potential for new partnership opportunities

Callister said he also hopes the PR Intelligence lab will provide opportunities for more social engagement projects such as partnering with the Church or the Ballard Center.

Knighton said public relations faculty are also planning to have three communication professionals involved in the lab compared to Y Digital only having one.

Knighton said he feels sorry so many are hurt and afraid for what the change will entail, but all students are welcome to talk with him about what the new lab will look like for them.

“I hope that if they will open their mind they will see that many of the great outcomes they achieved through Y Digital can still happen, just in a different way. This new lab will still have real world client experience. This new lab will still have leadership opportunities. This new lab will still have a connection to professionals, in fact it will have more,” Knighton said.

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