Tuscaloosa, Ala. – Three students studying public relations at the College of Communication & Information Sciences (C&IS) were among the first to participate in the Country Music Association’s (CMA) inaugural Diversity & Inclusion Fellowship program this summer. The eight-week fellowship is a partnership between The University of Alabama (UA), Belmont University and the University of Tennessee that provides six undergraduate students with hands-on experience learning public relations with country music industry leaders.

Throughout the summer, C&IS students Olivia Alacorn, Deja Evans and Brianna Byrd immersed themselves in the industry, joining CMA’s communications team in the weeks leading into its 50th anniversary celebration of CMA Fest, the longest-running country music festival in the world. They received a first-hand look at how the event comes together, focusing on communication and public relations efforts related to media relations, talent relations, credentialling, digital and social media, communication planning and logistical production planning.

“Working the CMA Fest was one of the highlights of my summer,” said Byrd. “I had the opportunity to do everything from shadowing publicists to working with talent escorts. This helped me understand all the work, tenacity and passion that’s needed to help an event and industry thrive. It was an absolute masterclass.”

Dr. Kenon Brown, professor in C&IS’s Advertising & Public Relations program, was critical to the program’s success. Brown has spent the last two years working with CMA to develop the fellowship program, secure support and recruit partners.

“Being able to work alongside the Country Music Association’s incredibly talented staff has been the highlight of my last two years,” said Brown. “Seeing our efforts come together to give these six students these important opportunities to learn about the country music industry has been a joy to watch. Being part of an initiative that will ultimately impact the level of diversity in the music industry is a fulfilling task, and I cannot wait to see what the future holds for these amazing students.”

Alongside Brown, the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations was key in helping launch the fellowship this year. Janet Walker and Dr. Stephen Rush served as the faculty representatives for UA and Belmont University, respectively, and recruited students to apply for the program. CMA’s Mia McNeal, senior director of industry relations and inclusion, and Catharine McNelly, vice president of communications, worked to construct a valuable opportunity for students and provide industry exposure and education for them.

“By engaging the students in a variety of public relations roles, CMA is helping students discover which roles they enjoy within the public relations industry and giving them opportunities to hone their skills. As an educator, these are exactly the kinds of learning opportunities I get excited to provide our students,” said Walker.

In addition to working at CMA Fest, the fellowship matched students with industry mentors and placed them in entertainment-industry summer internships, giving them first-hand experience working in public relations in Nashville. Evans spent the summer working as an emerging talent associate for Warner Music Nashville, Byrd was a media marketing intern at Universal Music Group, and Alarcon worked with Sony Music Nashville as a media intern.

“For us, we know we only have these students with us for roughly 10 weeks. It’s important that within that time, we provide a full glimpse into as many areas as possible, to give these students a realistic view of what a career in this industry might look like,” said McNelly.

The fellowship program also brought all six fellows together throughout the summer for weekly professional development training sessions on topics like personal branding, television production, crisis management, and the importance of diversity and inclusion.

“The CMA D&I Fellowship program has been one of the most fulfilling and fruitful experiences I have ever had,” said Alcorn. “To be surrounded by such kind and influential people in the industry who truly wanted to assist us in our future careers was an encouragement to us all.”

As the premier trade association representing the country music genre, CMA places a high priority on supporting the professional development of individuals within the music industry. While they have a number of programs that cater to individuals who already have their foot in the door, they also focus significant efforts on developing a pipeline of diverse talent at an entry level. In addition to the CMA EDU collegiate program and the student tier of CMA membership, CMA launched its inaugural Diversity & Inclusion Fellowship this summer to further create pipeline opportunities for students who might not realize the career possibilities that exist within the industry.

“I think one of the things that has been most rewarding is seeing the personal growth within each student,” said McNelly. “For some students, this experience was the first time they had worked in a professional office setting. For others, the experience opened their eyes to new and exciting areas they want to focus on as they begin their job searches soon. As hosts of a program like this, our greatest win is when we can create a single relationship with a young person who will one day be a part of this industry in some capacity. Whether that’s a year down the road, three years, or five years, the relationships that we have formed throughout this fellowship will certainly impact our industry into the future.”