What’s an easy way to instill respect for PR among the next generation. of business leaders? Require them to take communications courses to get their MBA. But as Ana Vargas discovers, most business schools offer only a cursory, optional introduction to PR, which faces the same prejudices in the academic world as it does in the business world.
What’s an easy way to instill respect for PR among the next
generation. of business leaders? Require them to take communications
courses to get their MBA. But as Ana Vargas discovers, most business
schools offer only a cursory, optional introduction to PR, which faces
the same prejudices in the academic world as it does in the business
A meeting of upper management is going on behind closed doors. Glitches
in a new product that may cause a late release and a potential stock
dive are being discussed. A strategy finally gets hammered out. Everyone
has been consulted - everyone except the head of PR, who gets the news
two weeks later and is asked to do damage control.
Business schools have been trying to make this scenario look like a
relic from the Stone Age. In the last 20 years, most top business
schools have incorporated PR into their curricula. But a study of
business school professors conducted by the Arthur Page Society Research
Committee last November found that these communications courses are
still in need of some development.
The need for PR training
The 35 survey respondents recognized the need for communications
training, with 79% agreeing that every MBA program should offer a course
in corporate communications. In fact, well over half (65%) of the
respondents taught in a program offering a corporate communications
course. Top business schools at Dartmouth, Cornell, Harvard and MIT all
offer a corporate communications course.
At Notre Dame, first-year MBA students are required to take a management
communications course. Traditionally these courses covered writing for
business, presentation planning and speech writing. But in the last 20
years, programs began to include basics on crisis management,
communication with stakeholder groups and media relations.
’The nature of the job has changed. Higher management needs to be more
articulate and able to communicate with people who aren’t experts in the
field,’ says Charlotte Rosen, senior lecturer at Cornell’s Johnson
Graduate School of Management.
While not all of the nearly 600 US business schools offer specific
corporate communications courses, most include survey courses on PR
topics. A 1998 study by Melinda Knight, a lecturer at the University of
Rochester, revealed that 23 of the top 25 business schools named by
Business Week included communication in their curriculum. In addition to
writing and speaking, courses usually included communications strategy,
media relations, cross-cultural communication and managerial
communication with stakeholder groups.
But many feel that a quick PR primer for MBA students isn’t enough. Only
48% of professors surveyed in the Arthur Page study believed that all
MBA grads leave their programs with sensitivity to the issues and
processes of corporate communications.
The Arthur Page Society hopes to keep PR on the business school
’PR programs have been perceived as bastard stepchildren in journalism
schools. We don’t want the same thing to happen in business schools
There’s a strong sense in the Page Society that we should work to keep
PR in the top schools,’ says Donald Wright, chair of the society’s
research committee and professor of communication at the University of
The survey indicated that professors were usually satisfied with both
the support management communications programs were receiving from deans
and the financial backing of the universities.
However, it is unlikely that more advanced communications courses will
be standard requirements in the near future. As in most academic
circles, PR is sometimes looked down upon by the business community or
is seen as a publicity tool rather than a strategic one. Those same
employers who lock their PR teams out of high-level strategy meetings
are not demanding that new hires have corporate communication
’Most business school faculty don’t see communications as essential,
because business programs are set up to teach students a focused area of
expertise,’ says Jim O’Rourke, associate professor of management at
The survey figures back O’Rourke’s contention, as only 52% felt that a
course on corporate communications should be required. ’Some students
have a lot more experience than others. Electives are preferable because
some students need this training more than others,’ adds Rosen.
The danger of a little knowledge
In addition, PR education for future corporate executives has also met
with some skepticism from PR pros themselves. While corporate pros see
the benefits of having a boss who understands the importance of PR
within the organizational structure, that same knowledge is a potential
’Having PR courses in business school is better than not having them.
The danger I see is business school grads thinking they know how to do
PR and making some dumb decisions,’ says Burke Stinson, senior public
relations director at AT&T.
But management communications professors counter that what they teach
MBA students is how to use their PR departments strategically, not how
to do PR. ’We look at corporate communication from a managerial point of
view,’ says Paul Argenti, professor of management communication at
Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. ’General managers don’t need to
know how to write the best press release. They are responsible for
day-to-day communication within the organization, so our focus is on
Business school students, raised in a media-intensive society, are also
realizing the importance of PR 101. ’All MBAs should be required to know
the basics of corporate communications. I’ve seen more student interest,
and corporate communications has become one of our most popular
electives,’ says Mary Munter, professor of management communication at
But while communications has become an integrated part of most business
schools’ curricula, the scarcity of stand-alone courses shows a lack of
understanding as to the place of communication within an organization’s
Technical courses have been strongly developed, but other areas have
hardly been addressed. ’There hasn’t been a lot of progress in the last
15 years. Business schools have done a terrible job at teaching students
how to use communication as a strategic weapon,’ says Clarke Caywood,
chair of the integrated marketing communications program at Northwestern
Notre Dame’s O’Rourke has created a team of professors and corporate
communications specialists that meet biannually to work on creating
better programs. But while communications is gaining respect in the
business world, it has yet to gain a prominent place within the business
school curriculum. ’The idea of an MBA program was to cut across many
areas to teach a range of tasks that managers have to deal with, but
communication has been ignored,’ argues Caywood. Until the value of PR
is better communicated to new generations of CEOs, CFOs and general
managers, there will be little incentive for change at business schools.