ANALYSIS: MBA Programs - Working PR into business schools is anuphill battle

The way business schools function has made it difficult to integrate communications studies. But many MBA programs believe in teaching PR, and are finding ways to do it. However, that's only the beginning, finds James Burnett.

The way business schools function has made it difficult to integrate communications studies. But many MBA programs believe in teaching PR, and are finding ways to do it. However, that's only the beginning, finds James Burnett.

Paul Argenti, a professor at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business, and the author of a textbook on corporate communications, likes to say that "top managers don't all need to know statistics, but they all do need to understand how to communicate.

If he had his way, every MBA program in America would include at least two PR courses: one a mandatory overview, the other a more in-depth elective.

Once Columbia University's new certificate in strategic communications gets up to speed, business students there will have access to nine courses.

But even Frank Wolf, dean of the continuing education department that is launching the offerings this fall, concedes that the likelihood of MBA candidates taking advantage of those classes is not high. If all goes according to plan, the university's strategic communications program will be afforded full master's degree status, and enrollees from other disciplines will be able to receive credits toward their diplomas. "Until that happens,

says Wolf, "few students from other schools will cross over."

Slow progress

And so it goes with MBA programs and PR courses, which are mandatory at some institutions and optional at others, available through outside departments or - as is too often the case - not at all. A survey of 74 business school deans conducted last fall by the Council of PR Firms found that just 16.2% provide their students with instruction on public relations.

The good news: Since that study was completed, UCLA's Anderson School of Management has added a class on corporate communications. The bad: When the Arthur W. Page Society recently held a case-writing competition, it received just 10 entries. Only two were deemed award-worthy; the judges decided not to award the third-place trophy.

"It's what academics like to call a recursive issue,

says Jim O'Rourke, who served as faculty advisor to grand-prize winners Joshua Berlo and Joseph Worrell, students in the Mendoza College of Business at Notre Dame.

"If you tend to be unaware of something's value, you tend not to value it highly. Business schools have to realize how important communications is. But that continues to be an uphill battle."

It is also one that the PR industry must win if it is to be held in higher regard by tomorrow's business leaders. "We need decision-makers in finance, accounting, human resources, and consulting to be aware of their organizations' communications challenges, to be sensitive to the fact that the need for communications advice is every bit as great as the need for legal advice,

says O'Rourke.

Recently, his point has gained some currency with business school bosses.

After all, MBA programs, like all institutions of higher learning, also function as business ventures, and are therefore susceptible to the laws of capitalism. James Schmotter, dean of the Haworth College of Business at Western Michigan University, has hosted conferences on the evolution of graduate-level management education, which came into being in 1900 with the founding of Tuck. He points out that it wasn't until more than 80 years later that PR courses gained a foothold in MBA curriculums.

"Administrators were hearing that their graduates' communications skills weren't that great,

Schmotter says, explaining the impetus for the change.

"So the programs started to respond to their constituents.

("While that's been happening, the major business schools have become more active practitioners of their own corporate communications,

Schmotter notes. "They have been hiring people to elevate their own profile, which is kind of ironic.")

But even with the increase in demand, the nature of business schools and the PR discipline have made marriages between the two difficult. "Given the politics of university curriculum committees,

says Don Wright, a communications professor at the University of South Alabama, "the process of creating new programs and courses often moves at a snail's pace.

It doesn't help, either, that there's not much space in students' schedules for PR-centric syllabi. "Most MBA programs are two years long,

adds Argenti.

"There is a very limited amount of academic real estate."

Staffing problem

Should PR claim a greater share of business school, another problem would come into sharper focus: Because few relevant doctoral programs exist, MBA administrators have trouble finding PhDs to teach communications courses.

"One of the toughest tasks I face is finding qualified instructors," says O'Rourke, who oversees five PR professors (four permanent, one adjunct) at Notre Dame. "If we were able to get what we want,

adds Argenti, "we wouldn't be able to staff it."

Both O'Rourke and Argenti believe that problem can be overcome by capitalizing on the pedagogical potential of outstanding industry veterans. They both cite Matt Gonring, former VP of corporate communications at Baxter International, as someone who has stepped up to share his expertise.

"There clearly has been a reach-out by top MBA programs to include high-level communications education in their curriculums,

says Gonring, who has been teaching in the Integrated Marketing program at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism for more than a decade. "The marketplace has been driving that convergence, but it's going to take time."

While they wait for communications to achieve the prominence already enjoyed by relative newcomers like technology and entrepreneurship - two subjects that have experienced a recent surge in popularity at business schools - PR advocates are taking steps to speed up the process.

The Page Society's case-study competition, for instance, is part of a larger effort to secure additional teaching tools for current and future MBA instructors. "We're going to build a pretty good library of information that business schools can use,

says Paul Basista, the organization's executive director. "Our case studies are going to include a teaching note and PowerPoint presentation, so they can be used right out of the box."

Those professors already running classes on basic communications tactics are using the opportunity to slip in pointers on more advanced theories.

"It's a Faustian bargain,

O'Rourke reports. "I agree to show the students where the commas go, and they agree to let me introduce them to some strategy."

And with many deans relying on guest lecturers to fill the gaps in their PR offerings, IABC president Julie Freeman, for her part, has been addressing classrooms filled with future C-suite residents. "I tell the students I speak to that even though you may have something that seems like a great idea based on the numbers, if you can't communicate with other people in your organization and get them to buy into it, then all your great analysis is going to go down the tubes,

says Freeman.

She should know. Three years ago, at age 48, she decided to go back to school to get an MBA of her own.

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