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Academic Community Engagement and Branding
Dr. Rita Colistra is an associate professor of public relations in the Reed College of Media. She returned to her home state in 2008, after earning her Ph.D. from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a Roy H. Park Fellow. She earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from West Virginia University.
Dr. Colistra recently served as the principal investigator and project director for the Benedum-funded Community Branding Initiative in which she established @BrandJRNY, a program serving West Virginia communities by developing research-based, integrated branding plans and creative strategies that are unique to each place. She currently serves as the principal investigator and director for the American Electric Power Foundation Community Branding Initiative, which continues and expands the work of BrandJRNY to communities within the Appalachian Power service area. Dr. Colistra also is a co-investigator on a $1 million federal grant with principal investigators Drs. Judith Feinberg (WVU Medicine) and Gordon Smith (WVU Public Health) to address the opioid epidemic in rural West Virginia through community engagement and support for the adoption of harm-reduction programs. She is a faculty research associate in the College’s Public Interest Communication (PIC) Lab and serves as a faculty research mentor for the Undergraduate Research Academy.
Colistra’s research primarily focuses on media sociology and theory from a public-interest perspective as well as community and audience engagement. Her research has focused on various influences on news media content and coverage decisions; building and testing media theory, including the emerging area of agenda cutting; and measuring and increasing community and audience engagement across various platforms. Although primarily a quantitative researcher, she also applies qualitative and mixed-methods approaches in order to best address her areas of study. Colistra’s research has earned top-paper awards at national conferences as well other awards and honors. She has presented and published her research at the local, regional, national, and international levels, and she has served as a keynote speaker at international and statewide conferences.
An award-winning professor and scholar, Colistra has obtained nearly $450,000 in both grant and client funding for community branding and engagement projects as well as other strategic communications campaign work. She has worked with students to develop nearly 20 strategic communications campaigns for communities and organizations in West Virginia. Colistra and her students have won 18 Crystal Awards and eight Honorable Mentions from the West Virginia Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America for their client campaign work serving West Virginia communities and organizations.
Dr. Colistra has been the recipient of a national Promising Professor Award; a national PRSuPRstar Award; a state Public Relations Educator of the Year Award; a college Golden Quill Teaching Award; a university Faculty Excellence in Civic Engagement Award; and, most recently, the James and Karen Caveney Alumni Association Faculty Excellence Award, which honors one faculty member at WVU for productivity in all three pillars of the academy—research, teaching, and service.
Before entering academia, Colistra worked in integrated marketing, events, and sports marketing in the casino industry in southwest Colorado. She also has worked in marketing and strategic communications consulting and has experience working with nonprofit public relations.
Colistra is a member of WVU’s Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI), the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), and the Broadcast Education Association (BEA), among others. She also is an inductee of Alpha Epsilon Lambda, a national academic honor society for graduate and professional students, Gamma Beta Phi, an honors and service organization, and Kappa Tau Alpha, a national honor society in journalism and mass communication. She teaches beginning and advanced public relations courses.