A ‘Purple’ Passion for Public Relations

Robin Street, celebrated teacher, purple-clad advocate for diversity and acceptance, to retire from UM

UM senior lecturer in journalism Robin Street is retiring from the university in May after a 30-year public relations teaching career. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – Robin Street’s office in Farley Hall is lined with business cards from her former public relations students and a wall full of photos with them. The mementos are powerful reminders of the lives she has touched over nearly three decades at the University of Mississippi

Street, a senior lecturer in journalism, is retiring at the end of the spring semester. After being hired in 1990 to teach news reporting and direct the high school press association, Street later asked Samir Husni, then-chair of the department, if he would allow her to take over the PR classes from a retiring colleague. 

She’s mentored thousands of students over the years, and many of them owe their success to her. The Oxford native, who is often clad in her favorite color, purple, said she hopes she’ll be remembered most for helping them grow.

“I get emails and texts from them all the time that say, ‘Oh, Ms. Street, I thought about you today because my employer wanted me to do something and I pulled out my notes from your class and I knew exactly how to do it,” Street said. “Nothing makes my day more than getting those messages.”

But, the always smiling, upbeat teacher didn’t start out as a confident molder of minds. She first wanted a master’s degree in public relations, but at the time, UM offered only a master’s in journalism. She was less than thrilled, but pursued it anyway. 

“That scared me to death because at that time, I was so shy and the idea of interviewing people terrified me,” Street said. “Kicking and screaming, I got a master’s in journalism and just fell in love with it, especially the ability to interview people and gather information and turn it into a concise, hopefully interesting, article.” 

That shy nature also manifested itself the first time she taught at Ole Miss.

“I can clearly remember how very nervous I was,” Street said. “Once I got over the initial fear, I began to see the lightbulb come on over a student’s head. That has been so rewarding to me: to be able to teach a student something and have it make sense for them.”

She has had a stellar career, evidenced by her many professional accomplishments. 

The Public Relations Association of Mississippi, known as PRAM, named her Educator of the Year in 2009 and Professional of the year in 2014 and she was chosen as the overall winner from among all the states that belong to the Southern Public Relations Association. In the history of both organizations, only one other person has been named both Educator of the Year and Professional of the Year.

All told, she has more than 30 other professional awards.

Also, more than 150 of her students have won awards in the student PRism competition. Every student “Best in Show” award given by PRAM has gone to one of her students.

Street also leads with a conviction to support acceptance and inclusion whether based on race, sexual orientation or mental health. She also turned this belief into an anti-stereotyping campaign, which won a Silver Anvil from the PRSA in 2018. The award is the “Oscar” of the public relations world.

She also won a Silver Anvil Award of Excellence in 2012 for a campaign she and her students created to celebrate diversity.

Street, who holds an APR accreditation, also co-founded the Oxford-Ole Miss chapter of PRAM in 2003 and has served that chapter in every officer position.

Some may not know she is also a prolific freelance journalist specializing in fitness, preventive health, nutrition and mental health topics. Her work has appeared in Woman’s Day, Better Homes and Gardens, Good Housekeeping, Cooking Light, Writer’s Digest and Golf for Women, among others. 

To help her better understand health information, she earned a master’s degree in wellness from the university in 1997, after taking classes part time for several years while continuing to teach. 

Students listen intently during Robin Street’s upper-level IMC 491 public relations class. Street, praised for her close relationships with her students, is retiring at the end of the spring semester. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

She stresses to her students the importance of good writing, even in an age where social media is creating new niches for PR professionals. 

“Writing is everything,” Street said. “If you cannot write clearly and concisely, you do not belong in the profession of public relations. Many of my students learn that from me the hard way.”

She also preaches the gospel of honesty to her pupils.

“A true public relations professional will always urge her employer to tell the truth,” Street said. “Your employer is going to decide, but it’s just so much easier to tell the truth and be done with it instead of working forever to hide something that is always going to come out anyway.” 

Students respect her lessons and value their relationship with her. In fact, during the interview for this story, a group of students texted her a selfie as they prepared for a competition in Hattiesburg. 

Scott Fiene, assistant dean for curriculum and assessment and associate professor of integrated marketing communications, said he’s happy for his colleague who has earned the opportunity to retire.

Street’s contributions to IMC, and to PR teaching on campus have been many, and she will be missed, Fiene said. The department will hire someone to continue her work, and she will likely return to teach some classes part time in the spring of 2021.

It’s her strong bond with students that makes her a great teacher, he said. 

“She cares about them not just as students, but as people,” Fiene said. “She has helped launched a lot of PR careers and she gets to know students on a personal level, and they see her as a mentor, not just for the profession, but in general.

“Her classes have always been engaging and enjoyable for students. Her reputation has grown in our school for those reasons.”

Will Norton, dean of the School of Journalism and New Media, worked with Street when she first arrived at Ole Miss. He was department chair and returned to campus as dean in 2009. She calls him a mentor. 

Norton’s mentee always had a laser focus on making sure her students learned the most important lessons, he said.

“I generally have found through the years that those faculty who focus on their students are the teachers who truly change student lives,” Norton said. “For decades, Robin has done the many little things that result in high student development.

“What a joy she has been to work with since I came back to this campus.”

The journalism school has established the Robin Street Public Relations Students Support Fund to help PR students with funding for internships, attending conferences and entering competitions. It also will be used to establish the Robin Street Outstanding Public Relations Student award, to be presented annually. Donations to those efforts can be made here.

A celebration of Street’s career is set for 6-8 p.m. Oct. 23 at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics during fall 2020 Homecoming Weekend. RSVP with Sarah Griffith at slgriff@olemiss.edu.

Former students are also asked to write a statement of what Street has meant to them and to their career, or to share their favorite stories, which will be organized into a bound volume. Alumni are asked to write their entries on letterhead of their employers, if possible, and send them to Griffith at slgriff@olemiss.edu by April 15.

The door to Robin Street’s office in Farley Hall is always open. The teacher, who is praised for being a close mentor to her students, will retire at the end of the spring 2020 semester. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

It won’t be hard to find students to say nice things about her.

Jessica Shipp, a senior integrated marketing communications major from Southaven, said Street is the reason she decided to specialize in PR.

“I consider myself lucky to have her as not only a teacher but also a mentor,” Shipp said. “She has ceaselessly believed in me and pushed me to aim high. Without Ms. Street, I would have never thought to work in public relations, and I owe all my future success to her.”

Jaimie Brooding, a senior IMC major from Walnut Creek, California, said she admires Street as someone who leads with dignity, grace and compassion. She also has instilled in her students the values of positivity and a “never quit” attitude. 

“She has affected so many lives, whether it be in their professional career or from their relationship with her personally,” Brooding said. “She is a teacher you can never forget and you will always hear her voice in your head whenever anything PR-related comes up.”

Kassidy Biss, a senior integrated marketing communications major from Ocean Springs, said she’s learned from Street how to be both an effective listener and communicator. She believes those skills will be valuable both inside and outside the workplace.

“Communication is the foundation of our daily lives,” Biss said. “We need to be able to communicate our needs, wants and emotions as well as empathize.

“Robin Street is the leading expert on how to form yourself into a compassionate communicator. I am honored to have been in her classroom while studying here.”

Hannah Williamson, a senior integrated marketing communications major from Maumelle, Arkansas, lost a family member the day before she was to have campaign ideas in Street’s class.

She was devastated, but Street showed her a rare level of kindness as she completed a campaign on the reality of grief for college students, which was inspired by her own situation.

“It was by no means easy for me, but Ms. Street helped me every step of the way,” Williamson said. “Her door was always open if I had questions about parts of the campaign, and she checked in on me fairly often, as she knew I was going through the grief process while constantly researching it for my campaign.”

She’s always been touched by the example of empathy and understanding Street showed her, while at the same time making sure she learned all of the lessons she needed.

“It’s been said plenty of times before, but the University of Mississippi has been beyond blessed to have Ms. Street for the last 30 years,” Williamson said. “I can’t imagine my time at Ole Miss without her. I can’t wait to make it in the PR world and send her my business card.”