By Dr. Ben W. McClelland
“On October 24, 2019, a signature public relations event occurred at Wildrose Kennels—an intersection of Mike Stewart’s media savvy and a seminal group of writers and photographers who produce the media.”
Mike Stewart is a public relations maven.
Of course, he’s a dog whisperer. And, yes, he revolutionized dog training with the Wildrose Way. And, certainly, envisioning a business model of the gentleman’s gundog was an entrepreneurial coup. However, key to all this has been Stewart’s ability to attract people’s interest and encourage them to hold a favorable view of Wildrose dogs—so favorable that they want to own a great hunting or adventure dog that is also a desirable companion in the home.
Wildrose Kennels’ history is marked by a series of public relations events beginning with a decade of weekly television appearances on the Ducks Unlimited show and continuing through periodical articles in Forbes, Garden & Gun, Covey Rise, and on and on.
On October 24, 2019, a signature public relations event occurred at Wildrose Kennels—an intersection of Mike Stewart’s media savvy and a seminal group of writers and photographers who produce the media.
The Southeastern Outdoor Press Association held its 2019 conference in and about Oxford, MS. Over a hundred outdoors writers and photographers—representing twenty states—bussed from town to Wildrose Kennels for a breakout day of sessions presented by Mike Stewart and his Wildrose staff.
Under a sunny sky the kennel grounds took on the appearance of a fall festival—six vendors displayed wares under colorful tents, Lexus presented its Concept Expedition Vehicle, Wildrose Texas held puppy obedience sessions, Scott Wilson invited folks to greet Service Dog Roxy, the Super Learner Center displayed framed posters of numerous magazine articles on Wildrose, the Roamer Room was outfitted with a media center for presentations, and everyone enjoyed a sumptuous catfish lunch, picnic-style, on tables scattered under the trees behind the Wildrose Trading Company. It was Wildrose’s largest gathering, including thirty-three cars and two large buses all parked on the grounds. “A good time was had by all,” as they say.
Here are notes on the conference sessions:
In the opening session “Dog Photography, Applied,” Wildrose Kennels photographer Katie Behnke (klbehnkephotography.com) gave her tips for capturing great images of dogs—especially black dogs. In her Powerpoint presentation Katie explained, of course, how to use lighting effectively. But she also offered wonderfully intuitive advice: focus on the dog’s body—tail, head, and eyes, especially—to project action and the dog’s inner drive. Furthermore, she gave keen insights into what media publishers do and do not want to see in outdoor (e.g., hunting) photos. She concluded by responding to a number of questions from the enthusiastic audience.
Animal Clinic of Oxford Veterinarian Dr. Lee Payne presented a fact-filled session, “Dog Field Vet Medicine.” Besides giving a primer on how to keep your hunting dog healthy year round, Payne presented a practitioner’s knowledge of the major maladies that affect our dogs, plus a catalog of information on preventative medicines and care practices. The extended Q & A session that followed revealed the audience’s intense interest in the topic.
After the picnic lunch, sponsored by TTI-Blakemore and Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association, Mike Stewart gave an eye-popping demonstration outdoors. “Wildrose Dogs In Action” featured Stewart’s pack—a passel of the Wildrose sires. Oohs and Aahs resounded throughout the crowd as Stewart ran them through their paces: staying steady at sit all in a long line while Stewart threw bumpers every which way, responding individually by name to retrieve, stopping to the whistle, responding to hand signals, casting back and to the sides.
After performing on the hillside alongside the Roamer Room, the talented canines further showed off their genetic traits and skill sets as Stewart sent them by command—singly and, then, in alternating fashion—from the levee into the pond for one retrieve after another and still another. With several dogs swimming back to shore while others dove off the levee in close proximity, it was pure poetry in motion. Even as the carefully orchestrated activity demonstrated the dogs’ beautiful athleticism and dependable obedience, Stewart explained that the dogs were trained for such precise performance to maximize their abilities as confident game-finders during the fast-paced action of a waterfowl hunt. At the event’s end the onlookers expressed their appreciation with a long ovation.
On the following morning Mike Stewart and Danielle Drewrey, Trainer and Director of Wildrose’s Adventure Dog Program, traveled to the Convention Center in Oxford, with two dogs in tow, and presented “Adventure Dog Program,” a Powerpoint-aided discussion about Wildrose’s skill-and-merit-based training program that offers the perfect complement to a family’s outdoor lifestyle. As they explained, “Adventure Dogs are thoroughly socialized and trained for a multitude of sporting activities: shooting sports, hiking, boating, fishing, camping, kayaking, mountain biking, ATV trekking and jogging.” This presentation stirred great interest in the audience members, as many in attendance were unaware of this training program for a canine companion to complement a family’s outdoor lifestyle.
Here are comments by SEOPA staff and scholarship recipients in their own words:
Kevin was First Vice President/Conference Chairman. Following the conference he was named SEOPA President.
Tate is VP of Media for Mossy Oak, a company he’s worked with nearly 20 years, producing video content for broadcast and for online delivery. He’s also a freelance writer and produces a weekly outdoors page for the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal.
Each session of the recent conference was an opportunity to gather, on the spot, content
for future production, as well as contacts for more content down the road. In this, the sessions hosted and produced by Wildrose were exceptional. They offered a wealth of salable material and a trove of happily willing connections from which to gather more.
Mike Stewart and the Wildrose family fit perfectly with SEOPA because of their professionalism, their in-depth knowledge of their subject and their overall enthusiasm for sharing what they know. Katie Behnke’s discussion of the tips, tactics and techniques she applies to get the wonderful photography that so beautifully illustrates the lives of the Wildrose retrievers was spot on. It was the sort of session that makes content for a story in and of itself, and should pay dividends for the listeners in future photography of their own. Dr. Lee Payne’s discussion of home and field veterinary concerns filled a role exactly the same. Each point, shared from a position of such authority, was fodder for stories and photos, and was of benefit to the attendees, dog owners nearly all, in their personal adventures as well.
Stewart’s demonstration of the dogs’ abilities and aptitudes, and those of his staff by extension, was a marvel, both in the field and, next day, in the classroom. Danielle Drewery’s discussion of the Wildrose adventure dog program revealed an innovative idea for involving new people in the outdoors in an exciting way, and it’s one our members have already begun to place before their audiences.
SEOPA’s membership represents a broad swath of professions, each tangentially connected to the outdoors. We share a common professional interest, but arrive at it from an assortment of different backgrounds. Field biologists, music producers, engineers, marketing professionals and more form a network that facilitates interesting and beneficial synergies that multiply exponentially as years go by.
SEOPA conference is an annual event that’s part professional seminar, part travelogue and part family reunion. If your professional interests in any way lie in the outdoors, there are benefits awaiting to be discovered.
SEOPA Corporate Director Pam Swanner is the Director of the Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association, a tourism marketing organization that was launched ten years ago to foster economic development in a 23-county rural area of Alabama by promoting its natural resources, which provide an abundance of outdoor related activities, both consumptive and non-consumptive. She’s been in the tourism industry for more years than she cares to admit.
While the conference agenda each year provides educational sessions designed to help the media members excel in their profession as well as provide onsite story ideas and content, the subject matter is beneficial to Destination Marketing Organizations (DMO), as well. It’s extremely important to keep abreast of the platforms media members are utilizing to share story content and the trends that are driving that demand. For example, the Wildrose Kennels’ Adventure Dog session was inspiring and spurred creative ideas for exploring new topics available in my region beyond the traditional “hook and bullet” that would be of interest to outdoor communicators. Soft adventure, or non-consumptive activities, continue to grow among the younger demographic markets targeted by the tourism industry.
Wildrose Kennels has excelled in their ability to stay ahead of the pack. It’s obvious Mike Stewart and his exceptional staff are true visionaries intent on providing canine companions that appeal to a wide range of outdoor enthusiasts as well as those that live their daily lives with health and physical challenges. For conference attendees, Wildrose Kennels’ sessions opened the door wide for the professional communicators by providing unlimited story ideas that will reach a much broader audience.
I’ve had the honor and pleasure of working with Mike Stewart on several media events hosted by our organization and they (he and the dogs) never fail to entertain, but more importantly, provide useful and relevant material for the attendees.
As a destination marketing organization (DMO), we strive to leverage the power of earned media, or third party endorsement, which is considered more credible by the consumer than paid advertising. Participation in the SEOPA conference each year provides that opportunity to meet one-on-one with editors and freelance writers who are seeking story content. Our task is to share our destination’s outdoor assets as well as suggested storylines, therefore, it’s a win-win. As a DMO, another benefit is networking with corporate product members who make great partners as co-hosts for media events.
SEOPA is dedicated to the profession of those whose livelihood is dependent on the outdoor industry, both communicators and supporting allies. The conference is structured so that attendees gain knowledge both through classroom settings and outdoor edutainment events and provides a friendly “we’re family” atmosphere. You’ll feel right at home.
SEOPA Executive Director Lisa Snuggs is also CEO of the Outdoor Journalist Education Foundation of America, which offers scholarships for young people to be able to attend the conference. Lisa manages all day-to-day business of the 365-member organization and works closely with board members to plan and execute the annual conference and communications contests. Snuggs also maintains the SEOPA website but admits her favorite part of the job is managing the scholarship program, which allows her to seek out aspiring young communicators to attend the conference.
I learn something from every conference as it pertains to helping SEOPA members get what they need from the annual gathering, and it never fails to amaze me how important it is that they get outside to truly absorb the areas we visit.
Wildrose Kennels was the perfect setting for our Breakout Day. First of all, how can anyone who enjoys traditional outdoors sports like fishing, hunting, hiking, camping or boating not love Labs or at least have a great appreciation for them? Our members learned just how special UK Labs are in so many situations and lifestyles. Secondly, the land and facilities at Wildrose are outstanding. Extra kudos go to whoever ordered the weather. Late October in North Mississippi is delightful.
Unfortunately, as executive director of SEOPA, I’m often too busy behind the scenes to attend sessions, but I did manage to see our members pick up some photography lighting tips from Katie Behnke. The results spoke for themselves, but I expected no less. Katie is a super-talented photographer and Xander, my favorite Wildrose Lab, was her model. Getting good shots of solid black dogs can be difficult. Katie showed our members some tricks about easily manipulating the light behind a dog and making sure his eyes are the focus of the photograph.
I gauge the value of a conference by the comments and actions of members. When a seasoned writer says the trip paid for itself three days after returning home, I know things went well. When a younger writer gets a gleam in his eye when asked how he liked his first conference, I know he’s inspired. When people come back year after year, I know they are having fun while being productive. Networking is at the core of a conference. Members attain something from face-to-face interaction with their peers––both communicators and/or allied corporate representatives––that cannot be initiated through a phone call or text. SEOPA is full of people who will attest to life-long friendships and invaluable professional contacts being made at conferences.
Anyone who wants to pursue a career in any form of outdoors communications could benefit from learning about SEOPA and attending conferences. I’ve heard SEOPA President Kevin Tate say, “Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know.” The same thing often applies to potential SEOPA members. They simply don’t know what they’re missing.
Kristy Fike, recipient of the Toyota “Let’s Go Places” Award, is a high school senior from King George, Virginia. She enjoys both big and small game hunting. Her true passion lies with Labradors, which led her to start her own small breeding business, Whispering Woods Retrievers. Kristy’s business and passion opened the door to writing. She currently writes dog articles for the Northern Neck Sentinel (a regional newspaper), and writes gun dog articles for the website Great American Wildlife.
The value of receiving the Toyota “Let’s Go Places” Award goes beyond the possibilities of being able to put it on future resumes. Part of the value for me was being recognized at my age by such a worthy organization. Most of the value came from being surrounded by like-minded, supportive people from all walks of life and various professions within outdoor communications.
My conference experience was full of so many learning experiences that I can apply to better my writing and myself. Specifically the round tables, learning from media experts and editors was very educational. This conference seemed to be tailored perfectly for me, considering one of the breakout days was at Wildrose Kennels.
After arriving at Wildrose Kennels, I looked around and could immediately tell that Wildrose Kennels was the real deal. A lot of thought and time went into the facilities. The Wildrose staff was very welcoming and eager to answer any questions I had. The photography and vet sessions were full of information that is very helpful to my own business and dogs.
The gun dog demonstrations showed the importance of a well-trained dog in the field, and displayed a deep relationship between the handler and dog. These dogs were mannered and well trained. The results of the Gentleman’s Gundog training program were apparent.
The Adventure Dog program seems like a perfect program for all outdoor-loving owners and dogs. You will be able to take your dog anywhere after completing this program. One thing that really impressed me about this program is how your dog will learn such a vast variety of outdoor skills.
I am not one to immediately “buy” into a kennel, but when you are at the facilities and see firsthand the results of the Wildrose’s training programs, it is hard not to realize that they have very high quality dogs and training programs.
The Gentleman’s Gundog program interested me specifically, because my main passion is working, training, and hunting Labradors. Since I have started my own small Labrador retriever breeding business, and I am an amateur trainer, this program perfectly lined up with my own personal and professional interests. This program is very valuable to me, because there are not many other trainers using the Wildrose methods to “create” a gun dog.
The tight-knit family community atmosphere that SEOPA members create is very welcoming, and honestly before arriving that was something I did not really expect. Everyone I encountered offered to help me in any way I might need. They directed me to others who might also be able to help me—specifically in the writing field I am pursing. For example, Tes Randle Jolly directed me towards a couple young ladies closer to my age that could help out me tremendously. There were many people like Jill Easton who gave me so much motivation to continue in outdoor communication.
I advise anyone taking part in the outdoor communication field to look into SEOPA and their membership. My father has been a member for over twenty years and has never been able to attend SEOPA’s conferences until this year. We both discussed our experience after attending the 2019 conference, and agree that we easily profited back any efforts we made to attend the conference and then some. The conference to me was so invaluable; anyone who decides to become a member and attends won’t regret it.
Serena Juchnowski,recipient of the Lindsay-Sale Tinney Award, is a Third Year Senior at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, with a Marketing Major and an English Minor.
Serena is an outdoor writer, competitive shooter, and hunter from Richfield, Ohio. In 2019, she earned her Distinguished Rifleman’s Badge from the Civilian Marksmanship Program, one of the highest civilian honors for marksmanship. She has been working to redevelop Ohio’s junior high power service rifle program as well as to promote the shooting and hunting sports, primarily through writing and photography. Serena also serves as Secretary for Sycamore Hill Rifle Club. Her goals include making the President’s 100 in service rifle and earning my Distinguished Pistol Shot badge. She has had pieces published in Guns & Ammo AR-15, CMP publications and NRA publications, among others. Professionally, she wants to work in the outdoor industry in a position that will allow her to mentor new shooters, share her journey and the journeys of others in the outdoor world and to inspire.
Serena’s website (all links to published works are there) and social media pages are: Facebook: @serenajuchnowski Instagram: @serenajuchnowski https://www.serenajuchnowski.com/
The opportunity to attend a SEOPA conference, especially being from the North, was invaluable. I was able to meet so many new people who both inspire me, have provided me opportunities to write and who have offered support in the outdoors and in other areas of my life. Earning this award means so much more than just attending the conference. Meeting with Mr. Stu Tinney, the benefactor of the award, I learned so much about his late wife and the impact she had on the outdoor world. Receiving the award is not just a one-time thing, but integrates its recipients into a tight-woven community dedicated to helping people serious about working in the outdoor world to be successful. I am honored to receive this award, which has motivated me even further.
The greatest value of attending the conference came from networking opportunities. There are people I already knew, like my mentor John Phillips, but I also had the chance to meet many new people including Phillips’s mentor, J. Wayne Fears. This was very special to me. I also had the chance to talk in greater depth with people I had met at previous outdoor events. The conference gave me the opportunity to make new friendships and strengthen professional relationships, allowing other people to get to know me as well.
My area of expertise is in the shooting world. I have some limited upland hunting experience, but have not grown up with hunting dogs, just pets. I had no idea exactly how much money and time is invested in dogs. Honestly, I did not connect as well with the kennel visit because it is not something that I have taken a significant interest in. Also, I know that I could never afford a dog from Wildrose. It was wonderful to see how much Kristy Fike, another scholarship award winner, enjoyed the experience as she is working at her own kennel.
I had the opportunity to speak with Scott Wilson, the Wildrose Service Companions Director, who told me about the canines they have to assist Type I diabetics. I was fascinated. Having been diagnosed with Type I this past May, this was news to me and very interesting. (I hope to contact him for information for a story!)
Honestly, the best moments of the conference were getting the chance to talk with people in SEOPA and getting my first real “Southern” experience. I had the opportunity to interview Linda Powell, someone who I greatly look up to and who I have wanted to meet for some time. I also made new friends and sampled Q8 Hand Sanitizer from Advanced Siloxane Technologies which is a product I am very excited about. The two most touching moments include the opportunities I had to speak, once at the awards banquet and again on the last night of the conference. To my surprise and great honor, I was chosen as the 2019 recipient of the Dave Meredith award and received a standing ovation at the banquet. I know where I belong and who “my people” are. I belong in the outdoor world, surrounded by people who share my passions.
I greatly advise any non-SEOPA professional to join SEOPA and attend a conference. The connections made, experiences had, and amount learned is invaluable. I met people who I can work with throughout my career and also grow friendships with. SEOPA is a family. Everyone looks after one another and each person has various skills to offer that complement the rest of the organization while pursuing the preservation of the outdoor world.
I also encourage other youth to apply for the Lindsay-Sale Tinney award. Little things change one’s life and shape the path of both your personal and professional paths. I will be forever grateful for the support I have received and am proud to be a member of the SEOPA family.
In conclusion, this event—the partnering of Wildrose Kennels and the 2019 SEOPA Conference—ranks among the stellar achievements in Wildrose Kennels’ long star-studded history.