Today's PR pros understand the importance of grooming tomorrow's players.
When Barry Liden left his PR firm job in LA a couple of years ago to take a senior corporate communications position in Orange County, CA, he had to decide whether to continue serving as an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California's (USC) Annenberg School of Communications.
"It's a huge hassle to get up there for class," Liden says, referring to the long commute from his job as VP of communications at Edwards LifeSciences in Irvine, CA, to USC's downtown Los Angeles campus.
But the teaching position was too important to give up. "There's just a great deal of satisfaction and a huge amount of reward in helping people learn about our profession," he explains.
Three years ago, Jerry Swerling, director of PR studies at Annenberg and a longtime PR pro, recruited Liden, who was then working at Rogers & Associates, to join the adjunct faculty at USC. The school had created a communications law course and believed Liden, who has a law degree, would be a perfect fit. "I was intrigued and, quite honestly, flattered, because USC has one of the best PR programs in the country," Liden says.
Swerling has recruited dozens of PR professionals to Annenberg since he was hired eight years ago to run the PR studies program.
Brenda Lynch, MD of MS&L's LA office who teaches product promotion and publicity at USC, says, "Every week I reconnect with my initial passion for PR through the eyes of my 15 graduate students. They are excited about the field, want to learn more, and can fervently discuss a PR case study for hours. It [helps me] bring that level of enthusiasm to my clients."
Brian Lewis, SVP of corporate communications for Fox News Channel, has relished his work as an adjunct over the past nine years and hopes one day to become a full-time professor of PR. For now, though, he appreciates that his boss at Fox, Roger Ailes, allows him to follow his passion - if only for one night a week.
"Many people wouldn't allow their top PR person out the door at 4pm to do something that they love," he says.
Lewis landed a job as an adjunct after his friends and colleagues suggested he should parlay his communications skills into teaching. He sent his r?sum? to several schools in the New York area, and Fairleigh Dickinson University invited him to join its adjunct faculty. He now works at the school's Teaneck, NJ, campus, where he teaches various classes, including media relations, corporate relations, and crisis management.
While he recognizes the invaluable work of the professors with PhDs, Lewis notes that many of his students voice their appreciation of learning from those in the work force. "Bringing real-life experience [is] valuable," he says.
As an undergrad at the University of Texas, Jeff Hunt recalls, the most meaningful lectures he heard came from PR pros. Hunt, CEO of GCI Group, says the professionals "did an incredible job of helping shape my interest in a career in PR, so I know the impact that professionals can have on these students."
Now that he has returned to his alma mater as an instructor, Hunt has grown to appreciate the energy and vibrancy that students bring to the PR field. "And selfishly, it gives me a good look at people we can hire," he adds.
Indeed, PR pros often find their classrooms an ideal environment for recruiting. Hunt has hired several of his former students. "You get to pick the cream of the crop because you're seeing how they perform," he says.
Nancy Hobor, who works during the day as VP of communications and IR at Grainger, says she has hired about 10 former students during her 15 years as an adjunct professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. "They are very bright people. I know because I've taught them."
Hobor and other PR executives also look at teaching as a way to remain polished professionals. "You never learn anything quite as well as when you have to teach it," Hobor says.
Larry Lamb, who had a 25-year career in PR before accepting a full-time teaching position at the University of North Carolina's School of Journalism and Mass Communication, agrees that being forced to explain ideas to others gives teachers better insight into their own behavior. "I think I understand PR better now because I have been teaching it to others," Lamb says.
Real world lessons
Teaching styles vary among PR professionals. Many eschew textbooks. They instead rely on their own experiences or the insight of guest lecturers.
In his crisis communications class at Columbia University, Peter Hirsch, leader of Porter Novelli's corporate affairs discipline, relies heavily on case studies. "What makes the class interesting to the students is the ability to get their teeth into real examples and to get into a discussion about what went wrong, what went right, and how to figure out what to do based on real examples," Hirsch says.
Napoleon Byars, who worked in public affairs with the US Air Force and in other PR positions for almost 30 years, believes students have a thirst for understanding what the real world will be like when they graduate.
The University of North Carolina offers its students a blend of PR theory and practical training offered by PR pros who return to teach, notes Byars, who joined the school's Journalism and Mass Communication faculty in July. "What the practical aspect gives them is a bunch of scenarios or options that they will have once they leave Chapel Hill," he explains. "It gives them an idea of the demands of a PR pro."
During his lectures, Liden says, he is brutally honest with his students about the challenges of a career in PR.
"I have succeeded - and I take great pride in this - in helping some students reach the conclusion that PR isn't right for them. I'm glad that I did that now," he says. "They'll graduate with a PR degree and hopefully they'll move on and be able to apply it in a field that they feel more comfortable with."
Swerling recognizes the importance of honesty about the profession when training students.
"We have built one of the best PR studies programs in the US," he says. "The reputation of the program is at stake if we aren't honest."
Words of wisdom
MD of MS&L's Los Angeles office; teaches product promotion and publicity at USC's Annenberg School of Communications
"The best classroom experience is when a student sees how a well-thought-out strategy can result in a highly creative execution that really changes behavior. When a student works it through for himself and sees the outcome, you know you have launched another person's PR career."
SVP of corporate communications, Fox News Channel; teaches media relations and corporate relations at Fairleigh Dickinson University
"I use my experience at Fox only if it fits into that night's lecture. I've been in classrooms where people came in and told war stories. There's not a quicker way to lose the students if they can't relate to what you're saying."
VP of comms, Edwards Life Sciences; teaches mass communications law, PR writing, and strategic PR management at USC Annenberg
"I think we provide students with a real life glimpse of what it's like to be a PR professional. It's sometimes not a pretty picture. There are some aspects to our careers and our profession that aren't as pretty or idealistic as what many people might think."
Partner, corporate affairs, Porter Novelli; teaches crisis communications at
"There are always standouts. It's always refreshing to see students who are able to dig beneath the surface and ask you a question that you haven't thought about before or offer perspectives you have not heard before."
CEO, GCI Group; teaches PR practices and principles at Univ. of Texas
"I feel as if I do bring something to them, but I equally feel like they give me a lot in terms of keeping me current. For example, there is the discussion around blogging. The classroom is a good place to discuss it."
Formerly managing supervisor, Fleishman-Hillard; teaches classes in PR case studies, writing, campaigns, and principles at the University of North Carolina
"You can talk about theories and principles and models of behavioral PR. But when you can give specific examples of something from the workplace to illustrate them, it makes them come alive."
VP of communications and IR, Grainger; teaches IR at Northwestern University's Medill school
"The goal is to produce people who go into the communications profession, but who think like businesspeople and who understand the role of communications in a larger perspective."