Social-environmental issues spark grad student's research goals

Jonathan McVerry
March 31, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Jeff Conlin likes to find clarity in everything he does. So when he began his doctoral work in Penn State’s College of Communications last year, studying the role of strategic communication in social and environmental issues was a natural fit.

Over his career, Conlin found clarity leading projects in these areas. He advised advocacy group Friends of the Chicago River with media relations and helped corporate sustainability leader Interface, Inc., launch a global conservation program in the Philippines.

“I’ve had an interest in communication’s power in reducing uncertainty to issues and helping bridge relationships throughout my career — and even life,” Conlin said. “Some of that passion comes from wandering in places like the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, but also living in urban Chicago.”

Born and raised in the Chicago area, Conlin graduated from Wittenberg University with a degree in American studies and spent several summers paddling and portaging through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and backpacking in the Absaroka Mountains. After graduating, he worked at Ogilvy Public Relations in Chicago and later moved to the account side of the industry as a communications director for organizations including Interface, Inc.

“Some of that passion comes from wandering in places like the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, but also living in urban Chicago.”

— Jeff Conlin

“I had opportunities to work on some amazing environmental and sustainability initiatives where I helped find impactful messages to tell effective stories,” he said. For Friends of the Chicago River, Conlin garnered media attention for organized cleanups and issues like pollution and overflow. For Interface, Inc., Conlin traveled to remote islands in the Philippines to document an initiative to recycle artisanal fishing nets, while helping establish community-owned and -operated banking systems.

“These narratives are important for concerns like reducing nonpoint source pollutants and water use caused by urban residents, cleaning up fishing nets entangled in life-giving mangroves and helping some of the world’s poorest coastal communities with basic infrastructure needs like access to reliable savings and loans for education,” he said.

Ray Valek was one of Conlin’s early supervisors at Ogilvy and later Conlin became a client while at Interface, Inc. The two keep in touch and sometimes collaborate on tasks for Valek & Co. Communications, a company Valek started in 2003 that offers public relations and communications services.

“Jeff has always had an intellectual interest in communication … how it works and how it affects people,” Valek said. “From my point of view, that’s rare. Most people come in, do the tactics and do what they are told. Jeff asks ‘Why are we doing this? Is it working? How can we be better?’”

Over 16 years, Conlin excelled in the public relations world and often found himself seeking theoretical explanations to questions in a typically practical industry. While working full time, he earned his master’s degree in communications management from Syracuse University, and with the help of professors and mentors, he learned how to answer those questions.

Valek said he was not surprised when Conlin began his doctoral candidacy at Penn State. His quest for knowledge was too strong. Based on the talents he witnessed at the corporate level, Valek does not think Conlin will have any issues tackling the challenges of doctoral work.

“There is an amazing world of great science work being done at Penn State and I hope to work with colleagues from many other departments,” Conlin said. “I am ready to break out of my little PR bubble and learn all about it.”

In terms of communication strategies, “Jeff can virtually do anything,” Valek said. “Many writers can’t do media relations or media relations people can’t write … or some people only do social media. He does it all. He is also a natural networker. He has the facility of bringing the right people together.”

Conlin’s networking skills will do him well in his research endeavors. Still early in his candidacy, he hopes to reach across colleges and connect with researchers in a number of disciplines. Penn State’s reputation and breadth of research areas attracted Conlin to University Park. He hopes to build and maintain those bridges over the next four years. Initial research projects include looking at moral outage in response to environmental images; reputational objectivity and universities’ roles in serving as non-biased resources in science; and understanding uncertainty related to the introduction of food-safety technology.

“There is an amazing world of great science work being done at Penn State and I hope to work with colleagues from many other departments,” he said. “I am ready to break out of my little PR bubble and learn all about it.”

“Jeff has broad interests and experience, including work in digital media and marketing, that line up well with important science communication research questions,” said Lee Ahern, director of the college’s Science Communication Program and Jeff’s adviser. “Scientists across the University, and across the country, appreciate the critical role of the media in public understanding of science. They are keenly interested in working with communications researchers to better understand the problems. Jeff’s ability to work across disciplines and apply communication research methods to a broad array of science issues is going to open up a lot of exciting research and funding opportunities for him.”

Penn State has taken steps to broaden science communications as a whole, including an annual workshop designed to help researchers share their research with the public. Conlin hopes to examine how strategic communication can be used to explain risks associated with issues and offer clarity for organizations, researchers, policy-makers and everyday people. He said areas he is interested in are earth and environmental science, food science and public health.

“It’ll be challenging for a non-hard science guy like me to step into the complexity of other sciences,” Conlin admitted, “But I love immersing myself in new areas. These kinds of opportunities have been the most fascinating in my past work and were a huge selling point for me at Penn State, and I want to take advantage of every one.”

  • Jeff Conlin

    Jeff Conlin, doctoral student in the College of Communications at Penn State.

    IMAGE: Jonathan F. McVerry

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 03, 2017