Photo of Manuelita Maldonado
Manuelita Maldonado, recipient of the Institute for Public Relations 2020 Makovsky Best Master’s Thesis Award.
Photo by: John Davis

Graduate student receives the Institute for Public Relations 2020 Makovsky Best Master’s Thesis Award

Manuelita Maldonado, a former English teacher who majored in literature at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Colombia, her home country, joined USC Annenberg in Fall 2018 to pursue a graduate degree. She joined the strategic public relations program and has spent the past two years immersed in research into how artificial intelligence is reshaping the field of public relations.

Her exploration of the intersection between communication and technology began less than three months into her starting the program, when Maldonado heard Megan Jordan (BA, public relations, ’92), speak at the USC Center for Public Relations’ annual Relevance Report event. Jordan, the chief communications officer and senior vice president of global corporate affairs at ChromaDex, shared a story about how artificial intelligence affected the work she had been doing at a prior company.

“As I listened, I was like, ‘Oh, this is amazing, I never thought of AI as something that could really change the way we do PR,’” Maldonado said. “Then, from the beginning of my master’s program, I started researching and reading about the topic and learning more and more. And that's why I decided to write my thesis on it.”

At a virtual event being held on Sept. 29, Maldonado thesis, “The Rise of Intelligent Machines: How Artificial Intelligence is Transforming the Public Relations Industry,” will receive the 2020 Makovsky Best Master's Thesis of the Year Award from the Institute for Public Relations and Makovsky. The award was created to recognize and encourage graduate study and scholarship in public relations. This was the first time since 1995 that a USC Annenberg student received the honor.

Maldonado will receive a $2,000 grant, and her faculty advisors a $1,000 grant. Her faculty advisers, Fred CookJennifer Floto and Burghardt Tenderich, all professors of professional practice, are donating their $1,000 prize back to the USC Center for Public Relations.

“As sponsors of this important research program, we take great pride in the quality of the entries this year,” said Ken Makovsky, president of Makovsky + Company and former co-chairman of the board and trustee for the Institute for Public Relations. “They are among the best in history. The advanced thinking that comes out of Manuelita’s research, in particular, will influence the profession for years to come. Her work is of amazing value.”

In the written thesis summary, Maldonado notes, “This technology is transforming the way PR practitioners target demographics, measure the effectiveness of their communication efforts, obtain insights into the media landscape, and interact with influencers to deliver their message more efficiently.” She goes on to explain how working with AI “allows us to read through an enormous amount of data that is not humanly possible. It gives us insights and interprets things that we wouldn't otherwise be able to interpret. We are able to bring numbers to the C-suite that prove it is worth investing in public relations.”

Cook, who is also the chairman of Golin and the director of the USC Center for Public Relations, said, “Manuelita was an outstanding student and a valued member of the team. Her thesis on the impact of AI on communications is both provocative and practical. She provides a comprehensive overview of a complex technology and translates it into terms any PR professional can understand. Everybody should read it!”

Maldonado, who is now working as a technology intern at Golin, says that her learning at USC Annenberg wasn’t limited to the classroom; she took advantage of all the tools and networking spaces available to connect with others. “My thesis is the result of amazing teachers, the opportunity to work at the Center for Public Relations, and the opportunity to connect with other USC alumni that contributed and taught me about their experiences in the field of public relations,” she said. “It was the whole package.”