Developing a New Generation of PR-Savvy Business Leaders

January 8, 2014

Business leaders continue to rank among the least-trusted groups in the nation and around the world, according to the 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer. It found that in 16 out of the 26 markets surveyed worldwide, less than 50 percent of the public trusts business leaders, with those in the financial services sector leading the “untrustworthy” pack.

The barometer further concludes that the lack of trust is the result of “poor performance and the perception of unethical behavior.” Examples of high-profile business leaders behaving badly — from Lance Armstrong to Rajat Gupta — hasn’t helped. If businesses in this country succeed by public consent, then losing the public’s approval can be fatal.

Even the best PR counsel won’t necessarily make a difference if people don’t seek or heed it. Many PR executives and savvy CEOs agree that, far too often, top leaders don’t understand why, or how, effective communication matters. The fact is, few business leaders have had any training in strategic communication and reputation management.

This is where the PR profession — and PRSA in particular — can have an impact. The new PRSA  M.B.A. Program, which features a carefully detailed model syllabus for strategic communication coursework at the M.B.A. level, is the result of several years of study and collaboration with other associations and leading business schools.

Research inspired the program. A 2008 study sponsored by the PRSA Foundation revealed that only 16 percent of the accredited graduate business schools surveyed offered courses in strategic communication. At three-quarters of those schools, students could only take the courses as electives. Other studies found that existing communications courses focused primarily on “hard skills,” such as putting together presentations. Any effort to develop “soft skills,” such as building relationships and trust, was absent in most.

In a 2010 follow-up survey, 98 percent of the business leaders polled by PRSA agreed that M.B.A. programs lacked adequate instruction in corporate communications and reputation management. Ninety percent said their corporate executives needed greater training in core communications disciplines.

Meanwhile, the Graduate Management Admission Council’s 2011 survey of employer expectations found that 86 percent of employers rated “strong communication skills” as the single most important ability they sought in an M.B.A. recruit. The need for action was clear.

Developing a new model

Five business schools collaborated with PRSA as founding partners. Faculty and administrators at the schools worked with a PRSA team composed of volunteers and staff to develop coursework that would help future business leaders gain critical insights into the practice and value of sound strategic communication and reputation management. The founding partners then tested and fine-tuned the coursework on their campuses during a yearlong pilot program in 2012–13.

The M.B.A. Program officially launched in the fall of 2013. It offers business schools turnkey coursework on the fundamentals of strategic communications and reputation management that is both flexible and content-rich. It is also designed to give business students a valuable learning experience and to be easy for educational institutions to implement.

“Today, leaders need to be able to manage complicated crises and other issues in a global environment,” said Joseph Cohen, APR, senior vice president, the MWW Group, who is both M.B.A. Program PRSA board liaison and 2014 PRSA chair. “Our purpose is not to turn M.B.A. students into professional communicators, but to build an understanding of the importance of effective strategic communication with all of an organization’s key audiences.”

Anthony D’Angelo, APR, Fellow PRSA, senior manager, communications, ITT Corporation, and M.B.A. Program 2013 co-chair, added, “Organizational reputations can be quickly and severely damaged by unanticipated events — we’re focused on how corporate value can be enhanced through trust, credibility and effective communication.”

Recognizing founding partners and inaugural program members

The five founding partners engaged in developing, testing and evaluating the coursework are:

  • Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College
  • Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University
  • Robert H. Smith School of Business, the University of Maryland
  • The School of Business and Engineering, Quinnipiac University
  • The College of Business Administration, the University of Texas at El Paso

Since the Fall 2013 launch, five more schools have joined the program:

  • The S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and the Whitman School of Management, Syracuse University
  • Fisher College of Business, The Ohio State University
  • Opus College of Business, University of St. Thomas
  • Stillman School of Business, Seton Hall University
  • Integrated Marketing Communications Online Graduate Program, College of Business and Economics, and the Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism, West Virginia University

Several other business schools in the United States and abroad have expressed interest in participating too.

“The tremendous interest we have garnered from prestigious institutions offers a significant opportunity for business leaders to gain a working knowledge of strategic communications and inform the strategic direction of a wide range of businesses,” said Paul Argenti, professor of management and corporate communications at the Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College, and a major architect of the final coursework.

Creating different formats for core content

Schools can offer the coursework in flexible full-semester (18 weeks), “mini-semester” (nine weeks) and one-day seminar formats. Some business schools are using their own qualified faculty to teach the course, while others have entered into various partnerships.

For example, West Virginia University will offer the course online, via a three-way partnership among WVU’s online integrated marketing communications program, its College of Business and Economics, and its College of Journalism. At Syracuse, faculty from the Newhouse and Whitman Schools work together on a course taught by Newhouse faculty, which is also open to Whitman students. Seton Hall is teaching the course through a partnership between its business school and the department of communications and the arts.

In general, the coursework covers corporate communications (internal and external), integrated marketing communications, investor relations, corporate social responsibility, government relations and crisis communications. “Our suggested syllabi include content designed to meet the needs of M.B.A. programs, but with the flexibility to allow schools to create their own course framework around key elements in reputation management,” noted D’Angelo.

To be eligible for the program, business schools must offer a course with a syllabus that is similar to the PRSA samples. The PRSA M.B.A. Committee reviews and approves syllabi for participating schools, and the schools must also solicit and maintain a confidential database of course evaluations.

Looking at the M.B.A. Program backstory

PRSA has prepared a white paper called “Bridging the Gap Between Strategic Communications Education and Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) Curriculum,” by Kristie Byrum, APR, who is a Ph.D. candidate at Clemson University and a member of the M.B.A. Program Committee.

The white paper provides a guide to the history of the M.B.A. Initiative (now Program) and offers details and insights into the pilot experiences at each of the five founding schools. It describes the significant contributions to the process of initial co-founders Argenti and Daniel Diermeier, IBM Professor of Regulation and Competitive Practice, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, as well as modifications that other co-founders made, based on student feedback.

For example, several of the 38 M.B.A. students in the Tuck pilot program said it was one of their favorite courses in the entire M.B.A. Program — a good review and, perhaps, a good portent for a new generation of PR-savvy business leaders.

Judy Phair, APR, Fellow PRSA
Judy Phair, APR, Fellow PRSA, M.B.A. Program co-chair, is president of PhairAdvantage Communications, LLC. She was 2005 PRSA president and CEO and received the Gold Anvil in 2010.


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