Digital Media Lessons from Throwing to Teaching

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By: Karen Freberg, @kfreberg

Dr. Karen Freberg, Assistant Professor at the University of Louisville

Everyone has a story on how they got started in digital media. Some have started online with an internship while others have gotten into the field by sheer interest and curiosity.

I have been online for over twenty years, and it began at a very young age in a time where the internet was still relatively young. I am forever thankful for the Internet — social media especially. I know I would not be where I am without it.

I started off as a track and field athlete in junior high school where I had my very first website. My parents gave my sisters and I each our own domain name for our birthdays in 1995 as a present. Being the 13-year-old I was, I decided the first thing I was going to do was create a dedicated fan site to the actor Val Kilmer. I tell my students this story whenever they are concerned about what their first website and blog posts look like!

However, this site was short lived as I began my track and field career. I grew up in a small town in California named San Luis Obispo, which is halfway in between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Not the hot spot for track and field coaches to visit — it’s a pretty small college town. By knowing this, I realized I needed to market myself in order to get their attention. Plus, I also seized an opportunity knowing at the time, there were very few athletes who had their own website. During my high school career, I would send out updates of track meets, pictures of my record breaking throws, videos of my competitions, and even grades (that motivated me to keep them up since they would be for the world to see!). At the time, I didn’t know I was doing early stages of blogging or even public relations. During my senior year, I wrote a series about the high school recruiting experience called “Karen’s Diaries” for a high school track and field site called Dyestat.

It paid off tremendously for me. I had a pretty stellar career throwing the shot put (2 time California State Champion, 2 time Indoor National Champion, All-American, and at the time was ¼ of an inch away from the high school girl’s national shot put record), I spent my first year in college competing in track and SMU before transferring to the University of Florida. I was majoring in psychology and minoring in business (my Mom is a professor in Psychology and my Dad worked in Marketing for Nestle and Mars to name a few companies), so I thought this would be the path for me.

It was until I met with my athletic academic advisor at Florida I first heard about public relations. She pulled me into her office after seeing the work I was doing with my website (which I was continuing to maintain and create content for along with guest blogging on a website called TrackShark). She told me I needed to switch majors to go into PR. I asked her two questions: What is PR and is it a real major? I ended up taking my first class at Florida and fell in love with the field. The rest is history! I graduated from Florida in 2005, and two weeks later, started at the University of Southern California. I competed for the Trojans in track and field while going to graduate school (ended up being an All-American and still the school record holder in the shot put at USC). I realized in 2006, after battling many back injuries and looking at the sport honestly, I knew my time to hang up my track and field shoes was here. I retired officially in 2006 after finishing up #10 in the US and #31 in the world rankings.

This allowed me to start a new chapter of my life, which was following my passion for research and teaching. I graduated SC with a Master’s in Strategic Public Relations and did a four-month internship working in fashion and consumer public relations. This really gave me the opportunity to look at new media from an international level, where I was able to help clients (fashion designers and fashion shows) online and work on restaurant blog reviews for our consumer clients.

It was at the University of Tennessee where I was able to really get involved in my research in social media and my teaching, I taught my first in person classes while at UT in public relations and started teaching online for West Virginia University in their Integrated Marketing Communication Program.

Now as an assistant professor at the University of Louisville, I believe things have come full circle for me. I’m on the other side of the table where I am the one talking to students about their sport who are in my class, meeting with parents on recruiting trips, and connecting virtually with the great social media and sports community online.

Working, teaching, and practicing in digital media taught me a lot of life lessons I still share with my students. Being a professor and the academic landscape in digital media is very similar to being a track and field athlete, such as:

“You are expected to perform and be on your “A” game if you work in social media.”

The field is changing so much, you have to make sure you have your hand on the pulse of the industry.

“Train like an Olympian with your work in digital media.”

I used to work out 7–8 hours a day back as a collegiate athlete. From weightlifting to throwing, I was trying to master my sport and event to the best of my ability. While I am no longer throwing things, I am still “training” in my work ethic in digital media. You have to do a little bit each day and set time aside to studying, reading, and practicing your work like an athlete. You don’t become an Olympian (or influencer / thought leader in sports) over night. It takes time, persistence and dedication.

“Never feel like you have to be put in a ‘box.’”

People sometimes want to put you in a box and say — you are this type of athlete or this is the only path you will go on. Why be like everyone else? That’s boring. I wasn’t the typical shot putter competing and I tell my students all the time I am approaching being a professor in a different way. Don’t try to be like everyone else. Do what works for you. Showcase your personality and embrace your brand, and be the strongest advocate on why you are unique compared to others. You sometimes have to be your own best PR person.

Give Dr. Karen Freberg a follow on Twitter!