Cynthia Clark is working to make Boston University's PR program more business-oriented, as well as bring discussion of corporate America's financial scandals into her IR class. Thom Weidlich reports.
Just as Enron, Global Crossing, Adelphia, and other financial scandals open up a bonanza of pedagogical possibilities for accounting professors, these incidents are forcing teachers of IR to rethink their class plans.
At Boston University, which has probably the longest-running IR class in the country, that assignment falls to assistant professor Cynthia Clark, who has taught the class for eight years.
Clark has already been in the midst of working with her department to make the PR program at BU more business-oriented. And that suits her just fine. Her whole career has been based on the notion that PR people should focus more on the bottom line.
Clark, 37, grew up outside Chicago, and got her BA in English from Boston College in 1986. She fell into PR because of her love of writing. In 1998, she received her MS from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, where she also took classes at the Kellogg School of Management.
She left school to enter a tough post-1986-crash job market, but managed to land positions at Dewey Square Investors in Boston, and Prudential-Bache in New York, where she did marketing communications, including writing brochures and speeches.
Marriage brought her back to Boston. She'd always been interested in teaching, and in the early 1990s, she was an adjunct professor at Emerson College while freelancing as a writer and PR consultant. Then in 1995 she went to BU, where she now teaches IR, community relations, and managing stakeholder relationships.
BU says it has the oldest PR program in the country. It is taught in the College of Communication, known by the acronym COM. Clark says the students refer to it affectionately as the "College of Optional Math." But, she says, "there is no College of Optional Math. You can't even be a plain-vanilla PR person without understanding the very nature of a corporation, which is profit. You cannot communicate in a vacuum. That, in a nutshell, is her message.
Clark thinks too many PR programs are concerned with imparting skills, and not with functioning in an organization and learning what it does.
"To craft a solid message that makes sense, you must understand so much history of the company, the CEO's predilections, and the relations the company has had in the past with investors and customers and employees," she says. "Nobody's teaching that. So we've begun to get there by looking at our curriculum and changing classes so as not to overlap."
Clark feels that IR is especially crucial now because, with Reg FD, it affects what even the director of marketing can do in terms of releasing information about the company's plans.
Her IR class, which is over 20 years old (and one of only about a dozen such courses in the country), is limited to 20 graduate and senior students. (Clark also gets some business students.)
Some of the things she discusses in the class include public offerings, Reg FD, understanding stocks and bonds, and how the markets work, in addition to communications-related topics like annual reports and internet disclosure.
"I have a sense that, more than in other IR classes, she stresses the financial aspects, says Julie Lorigan, VP of IR at Hingham, MA-based retailer Talbots. Lorigan lectures to the class once a semester.
Clark says that because of the explosion of financial stories, she will probably add a discussion of analyst conflicts to this fall's course.
"It's a great way to introduce the idea of ethics, in addition to the lecture on what an analyst does."
Her accounting talk will probably address the high-profile subject of pro forma numbers.
Erin Moore, 22, graduated from BU this year, and took all three of Clark's classes. "She's very organized, very straightforward in terms of her expectations from her students, and she has a remarkable knowledge of corporate PR and investor relations, she says, speaking on her first day as an account coordinator at Brodeur Worldwide in Stamford, CT. "When I decided I wanted to go toward IR, I sat with her several times and talked about the industry, especially with the way the economy is. She was encouraging."
One fact that probably makes Clark an empathetic teacher: She's also a student, pursuing a PhD in BU's University Professors program, which allows her to customize her degree. She is partly focusing on the connections between PR and corporate social responsibility, which has been a big part of her research.
Clark considers her consulting work to be important for keeping her classroom discussions up to date. One client was Cambridge, MA-based software maker Pegasystems, which in the late 1990s, ran into such problems as lawsuits and an SEC investigation, after it restated earnings. In June 2001, Pegasystems brought in its first in-house IR person, Leah Goldman, who had Clark speak to the communications team and other executives.
1988-1989: Marketing and PR associate, Dewey Square Investors Bank of
Boston, Boston, MA
1989-1990: Senior writer, Prudential-Bache Securities, New York
1990-1995: Communications consultant/freelance writer
1991-1995: Adjunct professor, Emerson College, Boston
1995: Adjunct professor, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA
1995-present: Assistant professor, Boston University