ANALYSIS Investor Relations: The best IR education takes place in class and on the job

Though many industry pros still put more stock in workplace training, colleges are taking an increasing role in facilitating the IR education of students.

Though many industry pros still put more stock in workplace training, colleges are taking an increasing role in facilitating the IR education of students.

Though many industry pros still put more stock in workplace training, colleges are taking an increasing role in facilitating the IR education of students. Gail Gardner has run the internship program at Adamson Public Relations in St. Louis for seven years. Students from nearby schools, including Washington University and the prestigious University of Missouri journalism school, vie for spots with Adamson, submitting résumés and sitting for interviews. In her seven years, through hundreds of students, Gardner hasn't seen investor relations printed on a résumé, nor had IR been mentioned by a student in an interview. "Usually in interviews or on résumés, people will highlight areas of expertise that they've gained through their academics, as well as other internship positions they may have held," says Gardner, an account supervisor at the firm. "And most of those opportunities don't really give them the chance to pursue or learn about IR. I've never heard anything indicating it's part of their curriculum, either, in PR courses. I'm sure they may have heard about it in one chapter of their PR textbook or something like that, but it's not something they focus on." IR curriculum remains largely absent at colleges and universities, even ones with PR pro- grams and even after the tech boom of the 1990s spawned IR as a prevalent - if not always strong - part of the PR industry. It's a discipline, then, talked about, but rarely taught. Getting a bead on the place and value of IR education means steadying your aim on what can be taught in the classroom or through internships like the ones Gardner runs - and what can only be taught on the job. Learning as you work A lot of IR can't be taught in the classroom or through internships, many IR pros say. It's something you learn on the job and work your way toward - unlike PR, which is taught in many writing-intensive programs at schools throughout the country. Here's how the logic goes: IR is PR on steroids - the typical people-person pitching combined with a deep understanding of finance, all those dense numbers that have to be distilled so reporters and investors understand them. That type of financial understanding and distillation can't be taught. It must be learned hands-on. Also, few public companies are going to turn over their relations with investors to a fresh-faced college graduate with an internship under his or her belt. Better to ease them into the company's culture and vision, and then pluck them for IR after they've worked in PR or the communications department. "I've never heard of a situation where you would go right out of school - or even very soon out of school - into a strictly IR job," Gardner says. Still, a lot of people in IR and IR education would like to train more for the discipline so that it doesn't have to be all picked up on the job. (There appear to be about a dozen college IR programs.) Randy Ryerson penned his master's thesis at Rowan University on IR education, an academic toe-dipper few have repeated since his in 1997. He didn't get much help from for-profit reports and professional groups like the National Investor Relations Institute (NIRI). Ryerson is now the VP of marketing and PR at Pembroke Consulting in Philadelphia. "They were kind of protective of it," Ryerson says of IR expertise. "When I first started looking at that academic industry, there really wasn't any research per se done on it." (Lou Thompson, president and CEO of NIRI, responded that questions about entering the IR profession are answered for free by NIRI. The institute charges for access to its newsletter, quarterly journal, and job bank, he said. NIRI did not have a website in 1997.) Ryerson eventually discovered a disparity. "A lot of PR folks kind of lack the financial skills, but they're great at communicating," he says. "On the other side, there are the financial people who are great on the numbers, but not so great at getting their points across. "I think what's happened in IR over the past 10 years," adds Ryerson, "is that it's become a highly specialized type of field. You really need that financial savvy, that CFO sort of skill set, but you also need that understanding of the information needs of both the press and the financial-analyst community." Melding IR into a PR curriculum Some schools are adjusting to this changed landscape, melding IR education into PR through hands-on approaches like internships and traditional business education. At New York University, Renee Harris is the director of the Center for Marketing, a continuing-education program that includes a 3-year-old, five-course certificate curriculum in IR. The curriculum regularly draws a variety of experiences and includes an introductory course called Financial PR/IR. It lasts from one to three semesters, depending on how heavy the course load a student chooses. IR originally was just one elective course in the PR curriculum, but it grew quickly. "There's a combination of people either already in IR or PR or people who want to move into one of those areas," says Harris. "We also get a great deal of international students, and a lot of them are also looking to make a move into the field." The program mixes financial curriculum with communications training, Harris explains, creating a balance between the worlds of finance and PR. Even students with no prior financial training should emerge from the NYU course knowing the basics of finance, she says, and would know how an IR person works with the varied elements of finance. The program teaches what Harris calls a core group of courses just on IR, including curriculum on corporate disclosure, capital markets, and investing. "They typically are already working," Harris says of the curriculum's students. "If they are looking to make a career change, then they do the program. Then they may do some networking with the faculty as well as guest speakers in order for them to get up to speed." Continuing education programs like NYU's may be the best bet for those seeking formal IR education. That's not because it can't necessarily be taught in undergraduate curriculums - it's more a demand thing. "The thing about IR is that it's a very narrow field," says Patrick Gallagher, SVP at Cleveland-based Edward Howard & Company. "It's almost never an entry-level position." Still, getting the word out about IR at colleges and universities couldn't hurt the field. Gallagher recalls when representatives from a local NIRI chapter met with 25 students in a finance class at one of Ohio's biggest business schools. The discussion quickly turned to get-ting investment information from a company. "And there was this revelation," Gallagher says, "because students realized there was somebody at the company they could have called." Dashing that ignorance is the ultimate role of IR education. It's a slow evolution, something started in just the past several years, like the NYU curriculum. More education, after all, could only benefit an already challenging field. Holli Kolkey studied PR at California State-Long Beach through its journalism program. A few years out of college now and working IR at Euro RSCG Life NRP in San Diego, she says IR was mentioned in college as a specialty of PR, but never studied in depth. "We didn't get any formal training in IR," Kolkey says. "I wish we had learned it. I still wish that I had been taught some of the fundamentals of IR like financial vocabulary, what it means, why it's important, 10K filings, SEC regulations, etc. I think it would be a good idea for PR majors to take a financial class to understand the workings of the SEC. It would make for a head start in the working world and is useful when working with any public company or planning on an IPO." Ryerson says that a "melding of the minds" needs to occur, ultimately dosing the teaching of PR healthily with IR. "Going forward," he says, "PR programs really need to have a financial component. PR people today need to really understand the annual report, the back of the book, as well as those case skills for writing the front of the book."

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