Communication student builds portfolio with real-world experience

It takes a plan to navigate a crowded media landscape with a constant exchange of information. Communication major Chris Bonelli uses his plan to help Virginia Tech’s Hybrid Electric Vehicle Team and gain experience that will drive him toward his professional goals.

Bonelli, a senior from Mechanicsville, Va., earns a stipend for leading the communication efforts for the Hybrid Electric Vehicle Team (HEVT), a senior design project for engineering students. The team competes in EcoCAR 2: Plugging In to the Future. It's a three-year competition that challenges 15 universities across North America to reduce the environmental impact of a Chevrolet Malibu without compromising the performance, safety, and consumer acceptability. Communication effectiveness plays a role in the final ranking.


Communication student Chris Bonelli talks on camera during the EcoCAR 2 competition. Communication student Chris Bonelli talks on camera during the EcoCAR 2 competition.

Bonelli provided the team with writing and video production, including media relations, social media, public and youth outreach, in 2013, the second year of the competition. To be effective, he studied the car’s electrical and mechanical systems to convey its unique design without using much technical jargon.

“Chris jumped right in and soaked up as much automotive knowledge as possible,” said Dana Bubonovich, the advanced vehicle technology competition communications specialist at Argonne National Laboratory. “With this program, you’re always learning and it constantly keeps you on your toes.”

Bonelli said a comprehensive communication campaign starts with planning and strong objectives. “You may have the catchiest slogan, coolest graphics, or best-written press release, but without adequate research, you won't know how your audience will respond,” he said.

“Chris is an invaluable part of our team,” said Eli White of Thaxton, Va., a mechanical engineering graduate student and HEVT team leader. “He played a vital role in taking care of much of the video requirements for our team, always producing professional-grade material praised by competition sponsors and organizers.”


Connie Bezanson of the U.S. Department of Energy presents Chris Bonelli with the third-place Communications Award during the EcoCAR 2 competition. Connie Bezanson of the U.S. Department of Energy presents Chris Bonelli with the third-place Communications Award during the EcoCAR 2 competition.

Virginia Tech’s communication component finished third among the 15 teams in May 2013, with Bonelli’s video taking second in both the dSPACE Embedded Success award and in the Snap-on sponsor collaboration. A skit video claimed third place and a cash prize.

Bonelli has minors in psychology and professional writing and is concentrating in the public relations option in communication. This option, accredited at by the Public Relations Society of America, spans media, organizational, corporate, and political contexts and includes analysis of public relations situations, message production and campaign planning, writing and presentation, and evaluation of public relations strategies.

“Advertising, marketing, and public relations need to work together more than ever to reach an increasingly fragmented audience,” Bonelli said.

Douglas Cannon, assistant professor of communication and Bonelli’s mentor, said Bonelli is “strategic and creative. He’s shown the ability to establish relationships with individuals and groups in person, online, and through other tactics.”

Bonelli also was the first Virginia Tech delegate to the Public Relations Student Society of America National Assembly before being voted PRSSA vice president of chapter development in spring 2013.

In that role, Bonelli is coordinating sessions for the PRSSA 2013 National Conference such as brand building, working on a limited budget, and effective networking.

Among his accomplishments, Bonelli anchored "Tech Tonight" on Virginia Tech Television for two semesters and volunteered with Ut Prosim PR, a Public Relations Student Society of America firm that provides promotional materials and campaigns strategies for campus and community clients.

At the end of his freshman year, Bonelli served as a College of Liberal Arts and Humans Sciences ambassador. He led tours and presented at open houses in helping with the college’s recruitment team as a sophomore. As a senior, Bonelli assists with the college’s social media efforts, making posts to its Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Bonelli said he would like to take his integrated approach in communication to an agency or corporate setting after graduation.

“Chris is a great team player,” White said, “always excited, and ready to get the job done.”

  • For more information on this topic, contact Jean Elliott at 540-231-5915.

Video: Meet Chris Bonelli

    Chris Bonelli

Chris Bonelli talks about his experience with the Hybrid Electric Vehicle Team and the Public Relations Student Society of America.

Chris Bonelli works with EcoCAR 2

Examples of Chris Bonelli's work include the following:

  • Media relations: A Richmond morning show interviewed Bonelli during the EcoCAR 2 Challenge
  • Video production: Bonelli produced a video about collaboration with Snap-on tools

Group connects students with professionals

The Public Relations Student Society of America is the foremost organization for students interested in public relations and communications.

Founded in 1968 by its parent organization, the Public Relations Society of America, the student group includes more than 10,000 members and advisers and is active at more than 320 colleges and universities.

Virginia Tech students’ re-engineered car wins international competition

    From left, members of Hybrid Electric Vehicle Team, John Saffran, senior from Woodbine, Md.; Patrick Walsh, masters student from Richmond, Va.; Lynn Gantt, graduate student from Yorktown, Va.; Brad Bowman, senior from Christiansburg, Va.; John Ely, senior from Richmond, Va.; and Andy Karpin, senior from Olean, N.Y. All focused their studies in mechanical engineering, and since have graduated.

The 2009 General Motors crossover SUV that 66 Virginia Tech College of Engineering students spent three years re-engineering into a hybrid electric vehicle boasts the equivalent of 82 miles per gallon and won first place in the international EcoCAR Challenge.

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