Erin Willis

Assistant Professor of Advertising, Public Relations and Media Design • Studies Online Health Communities

When Erin Willis first graduated from college, she took a public relations job in Chicago. “Because I like people. Of course! Why else do you do PR?” she thought. Her degree was in public relations and she felt capable of the work, but she didn’t really know what kind of career she wanted. After a few years of work in the industry and a few more running a regional tourism magazine in Missouri, Willis gave in to her “quarter-life crisis,” as she refers to it, and returned to school for a master’s degree in strategic communications­—an overarching term for the ways in which organizations use advertising, public relations and design to communicate.

There, Willis found her passion in her side job at an arthritis rehabilitation facility. While translating medical research on arthritis into news articles for general audiences, she became fascinated by how people read and understand health information. “Everyone thinks that health communication is so different from PR, but in reality health communication is just persuasive messages related to health,” she explains.

Inspired to pursue a doctorate, Willis started to explore online health communities. She wondered: were people coping with their disease symptoms outside of traditional health care organizations? “We do this all the time with other aspects of our lives,” she says. “Your car breaks and you Google it to find an online forum to help. We do this with our health too.”

“It’s so interesting to try to understand people’s motivations, to try to crack that code.”

-Erin Willis

Willis’ research shows that many patients use online communities to share methods of coping with their shared disease and to support one another. Today, she’s beginning to study how online health communities can be structured to connect patients with medical specialists, to encourage and enable members of the online community to take action to manage their disease.

But Willis has never left public relations behind. “I study health communication,” she explains, “but I think it’s really just PR in disguise. It’s so interesting to try to understand people’s motivations.” As a young professor at the University of Memphis, Willis was given responsibility for her public relations department’s struggling internship program. She brought in industry professionals to mentor students as part of the program. Motivated and informed by their discussions with professionals, Willis’s students soon secured many more internships and jobs.

Now, as a professor at CMCI, she continues to seek out new ways to get students hands-on experience with the public relations industry. “The new college and my department are finally bringing public relations to Boulder,” Willis says. “I am thrilled to be part of this beginning. PR is a growing field and I know my students will be successful. I’m really lucky to be able to do what I do.”