PR Week: The business of teaching PR

Author: Matthew Arnold

Professor James O’Rourke tells the tale of a well-known IR professional for a powerful Chicago bank who saw his hard-fought ascendancy up the corporate ladder grind to a halt because he couldn’t read a balance sheet.p. “He was told by the chief executive that until he figured out how banks made their money, he would never have a voice at the boardroom table. This CEO told him, ‘Reporters might believe what you say, but none of us do.’ So he went out and got educated – he found the smartest people he could to explain everything about banks and lending systems, and he acquired the credibility he needed to succeed as chief spokesman.”

The point, says O’Rourke, is “at that level, knowing how journalism works is useless.” Knowing the business inside out is essential to advancement at the upper rungs; and at the graduate level, getting a well-rounded education in both business and communication is essential for advancement – to MBAs and PR grads alike.

O’Rourke directs the Fanning Center for Business Communication at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, which offers one of the precious few MBA programs with a strong communications component, and he is a prominent voice among the chorus of senior educators and industry figures troubled by the disconnect between PR and business in graduate programs on both sides of the fence.

At a time when corporate accountability is the issue du jour, interdisciplinary training giving MBA candidates a grasp on PR – and graduate communications students a basic business know-how – is crucial, and one-off seminars and electives no longer cut it.

“You don’t have to look any further than the headlines in today’s business pages to see how important this stuff is,” says Jerry Swerling, who heads USC-Annenberg’s PR graduate program. "Corporate governance, ethics, the economy, reputation management, crisis managementit’s all right there, and clearly, an integration of business and communications programs needs to take place.

Industry advocates like the Arthur W. Page Society have long mourned the meager communications training that most MBA candidates receive, fearing the rise of another generation of C-level executives with little appreciation for the importance of PR. Graduate communications and journalism courses have hardly done better in delivering business basics to future journalists and corporate communications professionals.

A year ago, a Council of Public Relations Firms (CPRF) survey of business school deans found that just 16% of respondents’ programs offered coursework in PR. Only 9.5% required a strategic communications overview course.

Since then, the wave of corporate accounting scandals has inspired MBA programs to add seminars and electives on ethics and crisis management. “Crisis management is kind of sexy right now, so that’s one way to leverage communications into the business school curriculum,” says Clarke Caywood, who chairs the Department of Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. But most of what passes as communications training in MBA curricula continues to consist of little more than cursory training in public speaking and writing releases, critics say. “A smaller number of schools offer instruction in corporate communications or communications strategy,” says O’Rourke, “but they tend to be in single-session electives rather than being offered in multiple sections.”

“It’s almost as if the function doesn’t exist some places,” says Paul Argenti, a professor at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business and author of Corporate Communication. “In most programs, a student can get an MBA without any communications courses.”

In addition to Dartmouth’s Tuck and Notre Dame’s Mendoza schools of business, MBA programs given high marks for communications include UCLA’s Anderson and the University of Virginia’s Darden schools.

Barriers to business

Graduate communications courses have, by most accounts, done more to offer their students a solid background in subjects like statistics and accounting, and elite PR graduate schools like those at the University of Maryland, Syracuse University, and the University of Florida already offer their students business courses. But their management offerings consist chiefly of electives run through associated business schools that are often difficult for communication students to access.

“It takes some perseverance by our students to get into the business courses,” says University of Maryland communications professor James Grunig, voicing a common litany. “The business school limits courses, and there’s a great demand from many departments for them. If any seats are left after the MBA students get there, then they’ll let some in.”

Despite the schism, a widespread consensus for greater cross-disciplinary instruction between graduate communication and business programs has emerged among leading educators and industry figures in recent years. So why are so many students still being left out of the loop?

The treacherous territoriality of faculties and departments can raise a number of barriers to interdisciplinary teaching. “We are in silos many times,” says Maria Russell, who heads the independent-study degree program in communications management at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School. “We have a lot of turf wars.”

For starters, there’s the question of who teaches what. Should schools within colleges and universities teach cross-disciplinary courses internally, stretching budgets and workloads thin? Or should they send students across campus to another school, where they might find themselves struggling for seats in overcrowded courses, receiving only secondary consideration for placement behind native students? Even thornier is the implicit question of who doesn’t teach what, as adding one requirement to a course load means cutting another. “If you eliminate courses, those faculty members have to go,” says Argenti, “and that’s not going to happen unless it’s through attrition, because they’re tenured.”

As a result, most cross-disciplinary courses are offered though separate departments or schools as electives. In addition to the potential difficulty of getting students into the courses, electives are frequently offered only one semester out of the year, and can pose scheduling problems for those juggling full course loads. Critics argue that teaching communications or business basics as electives fails to ensure uniformity in what should be core competencies among MBAs and communications grads.

Defenders of electives argue that the students themselves have widely divergent academic needs, and so must be offered cross-disciplinary courses on an a-la-carte basis. A graduate student eyeing a career in IR requires far more financial acumen than one, say, planning to go into public affairs, the argument goes. And graduate students are already pressed for time, often juggling two or three courses and a job.

Indeed, asked what the major barrier to a strategic communications program in their curriculum was, the largest number of deans responding to last year’s CPRF survey58.1%cited a lack of room in their schedules. Nearly half suggested a program of guest lecturers as a remedy, and the CPRF responded by crafting lectures for members to deliver, while the Arthur W. Page Society is putting together a guest-lecture program for business schools to launch next year. A competition sponsored by the Page Society and the CPRF was launched last year, offering students and faculty prizes for the best corporate communications case studies as a means of engaging professors and their classes. Last year’s entries were disappointingly sparse, and the Page Society declined to award a third-place prize, judging only two entries worthy of honors. But the group expects to receive 30-40 entries this year, and the Page Society is also launching an agency internship program for business students and faculty this spring.

Deans’ lack of understanding

But blindness to the value of PR on the part of business school deans seems to be a factor, as well. Grunig recalls attempting to initiate a collaborative effort with the dean of a business school. Typically, he says, he was told that the business school didn’t need communications training, as students were already required to take a marketing course.

Marian Pinsdorf, a crisis communications expert and professor of corporate image and responsibility at Fordham, blames the compartmentalized world-view of many business programs. “Business schools are taught rigidly in disciplines. It’s a business law problem, or it’s an accounting problem. Business schools have trouble looking at PR because it cuts across a lot of disciplines.”

Curricula tend to change at a glacial pace in the famously cloistered and stodgy world of academia. Even in this post-Enron age, with consumer confidence inching downward and investor confidence in free fall, critics say there are few indications that graduate business schools are making communications a part of their core programs, and too many corporate communications programs continue to see management training as an elective.

All that could change in a heartbeat, says Argenti, if the business world took to its bully pulpit and demanded more from academia.

“Schools respond to pressure from business,” says Argenti. “They say they want students with better analytical skills, and we’re jumping through hoops to do it. Right now, we’re under tremendous pressure to deal with the ethical questions cropping up in business. They’re the ones that recruit the students, and they’re the ones that give the money. Yes, there would be resistance among deans and faculty, but bang on the door enough, and things will change.”

September 16,2002

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