Public Relations Tactics

Lesson Plan: Business Leaders Still Don’t Understand Strategic Communication

December 1, 2017


By Kristie Byrum, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA, and Kathleen Rennie, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA

For PR practitioners, securing and maintaining seats at the management table is an ongoing struggle. Misperceptions about the role of communicators persist among C-suite executives, who often rise to power after spending time in finance or operations positions. And the absence of strategic-communications courses in undergraduate and graduate-level business programs only exacerbates the problem.

To address this dilemma, PRSA launched its MBA/Business School Program in 2013, after PRSA leaders and five business schools collaborated to develop and test a pilot program. The pilot schools were Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, the School of Business and Engineering at Quinnipiac University, and the College of Business Administration at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Participants encouraged business-school deans to add strategic-communications coursework to MBA programs so that future leaders could understand the practice and value of sound strategic communication and reputation management.
Currently, 16 universities are participating in the program, which continues to gain momentum through active recruitment and retention activities.

The participating universities offer courses that educate business students on principles of reputation management, corporate communications (both internal and external), integrated marketing communications, investor relations, corporate social responsibility, government relations and crisis communications.

“PRSA’s MBA/Business School Program is introducing MBA students around the country to the value and importance of strategic communications in effective leadership,” said Judy Phair, APR, Fellow PRSA, former PRSA chair and co-chair of the MBA/Business School Program. “These students are our future business leaders. Their careers and the companies they work for will benefit from their deeper understanding of the positive impact of strategic communication on an organization’s reputation and bottom line.”

Misperceptions of PR persist

In 2015, a team composed of PR faculty members conducted a qualitative research project using interviews with alumni of courses in the PRSA MBA/Business School Program. The goal was to determine how course elements had enhanced the participants’ ability to perform job responsibilities, and whether alumni thought the courses would help them gain access to corporate leadership and then to counsel corporate decision-making.

Responses indicated that business executives continue to associate public relations with tactics such as writing news releases and performing media relations, and often do not understand the strategic dimensions of communication.

Concurring with previous research, the study found that students enrolled in business schools often don’t see a clear connection between communication activities and business results. Researchers say the ability of communications professionals to demonstrate, through measurement, the connection between communication and business results will be essential for increasing business leaders’ understanding and use of strategic communication strategies.

Knowledge of CSR and internal comms

The research also found that MBA students often begin a strategic communications/reputation-management course knowing the value of crisis communication, but with little understanding of the importance of related issues, such as corporate social responsibility and internal communications.

Research, in fact, was the impetus for the PRSA MBA/Business School Program. A 2008 study sponsored by the PRSA Foundation found that only 16 percent of accredited graduate business schools consistently provided instruction in reputation management, corporate communications and related ethical dimensions.

Through ongoing academic research, PRSA will be able to provide further recommendations regarding the Business School Program and the profession overall.  

“We’ve made progress in some key areas, but we’ve also found that future as well as current business leaders still have definite misperceptions and biases about the PR profession,” said Phair. “The study reinforces the critical importance of the work we are doing through the PRSA MBA/Business School Program, and it emphasizes the need to continue to make improvements in our coursework that will advance knowledge and understanding of the value of public relations in the marketplace and prepare MBA students for future success.”

Based on the study’s findings, the researchers have concluded that the strategic function must be incorporated into course materials, with an emphasis on measuring outcomes of strategic communications. The research committee will continue to evaluate program outcomes, performing both qualitative and quantitative research with program participants.

Kristie Byrum, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA, is an assistant professor at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. She currently serves on the PRSA MBA/Business School Program Committee.

Kathleen Rennie, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA, is an associate professor at New Jersey City University. She also serves on the PRSA MBA/Business School Program Committee.


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