FEATURE: Learning the business

Today's PR students need to know how businesses communicate and how they work. From the dot-com collapse to the wave of corporate scandals to companies struggling to justify every expense during the recession, one question keeps haunting the PR profession: Why don't PR people know more about business?

Today's PR students need to know how businesses communicate and how they work. From the dot-com collapse to the wave of corporate scandals to companies struggling to justify every expense during the recession, one question keeps haunting the PR profession: Why don't PR people know more about business?

Would PR people with a solid business education behind them have been able to foresee the troubles the dot-com crowd got into or the coming scandals at such now-fallen behemoths as Enron or WorldCom? And would more business-savvy PR people be better able to demonstrate how PR can translate into sales in today's bottom-line-driven business climate? Many in the profession say yes and point to the PR education establishment as the first place where PR people should be learning the business ropes. "The greatest need PR people have is understanding how a business and, more importantly, how a public company operates," says Joel Curren, an SVP and managing director with CKPR in Chicago and a part-time instructor at the University of Chicago. "Most PR people don't have a clue as to how that kind of company operates. Five or six years ago, you had to push just to get PR people to read an annual report. Now you've got to go further." But the world of education tends to move more slowly than the business world. PR core curricula, even at the graduate school level, tend to stay the same with the understanding that issues arising in the business world can be discussed in the context of existing courses. Insists Jerry Swerling, director of PR studies at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communications, "We force it to come up. We have gone through all of those scandals in excruciating detail." Still, a number of PR graduate programs already have incorporated more business basics into their curricula. Some are working with business schools at their universities, while others are bringing in their own experts to teach, concerned that their business-school colleagues still don't take PR seriously enough to work with them. The changes are essential for preparing a new generation of PR people, Swerling says. "The field is still relatively young, and the study of the field is still relatively young," he explains. The current generation of PR people in many cases received its education in journalism schools that emphasized writing and media relations. But the next generation will need broader skills, Swerling argues. "You'll see more and more people training in business fundamentals," he says. Four major PR graduate school programs - at Northwestern, Columbia, Syracuse and the University of Southern California - show the different approaches to the ways business issues can be incorporated into PR graduate-level curricula. Syracuse University When Maria Russell first arrived at Syracuse University 17 years ago, she recalls the department chairperson asking her what was missing from the PR curriculum. Russell replied that courses in management were needed so PR graduates would be equipped to manage people, time, and money. Russell, a PR professor, has gone far beyond that initial suggestion. In 1995, she began Syracuse's master of science in communications management program, the first at the university that brings together expertise from the academic areas of PR, business, and public affairs. Russell, now academic director of the master's program, spoke to and surveyed a wide range of PR professionals while she was building her program. "There was a real intense interest in learning business skills," she recalls. "Accounting and finance were at the top of the list of interests." So the Syracuse master's program includes such business-related courses as financial reporting, management accounting, and managerial finance. "Everybody struggles in the business classes because it's a foreign language to us," Russell says. Courses designed with the university's Maxwell School of Public Affairs include conflict resolution, mediation, and negotiation theory and practice. While some PR educators say they have difficulty getting their business-school peers to help design such programs, Russell says she lobbied the business faculty with her own grassroots PR effort and found a willingness to work together. The business faculty "really tried to understand the PR person before they starting writing these courses," she says. The Syracuse program is designed for working PR professionals. Most have between 10 and 20 years' experience, with some notching up 30 years. The least-experienced person admitted to date has had six years experience, Russell recalls. The program involves distance learning. Students meet with instructors for a mandatory six days at the start of a semester, and then complete a 14-week program by using the internet. The residency sessions are held in Syracuse in August and May, and in New York City in January to enable interaction with industry professionals. "What we're trying to do is give them the content they need, but in a form that's attractive to PR people," Russell says. The program takes in about 20 students a year and has produced 190 graduates and current students. Tuition is about $26,000 for the program. University of Southern California Across the country from Syracuse, USC is developing a class on business fundamentals for its masters in strategic public relations program. Swerling said he expects the new class, to be taught by a business professor, to be offered in the fall of 2005. In the meantime, he says, business basics are incorporated into all the courses in the master's program, which has been in existence about six years and now has 60 students. Key focuses of the program are critical and strategic thinking, business knowledge, the breadth of the PR profession; social action; and globalization. The program, which seeks to combine a liberal arts education with a practical body of PR knowledge, offers electives in crisis management, public affairs, international communications, sports and entertainment marketing, and multicultural communications. The program works with Weber Shandwick to place students as summer interns in such countries as Britain, South Africa, and Hong Kong. "You can't learn about globalization in a classroom in West Los Angeles," Swerling jokes. With its liberal arts bent and wide range of electives, the program has attracted non-PR professionals interested in coming into the field. "There's a rich vein of people who have discovered PR after they're out of college," Swerling notes. Chemists, biologists, and people with liberal arts degrees all have been in the program. Business skills, such as how to deal with numbers, are covered in research courses and will be looked at in detail in the new business fundamentals class. The program includes an ethics course, but ethical issues also are discussed in every course. Tuition is $30,000 a year. Northwestern University The Integrated Marketing Communications program at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism is "in between a communications program and a business program," says Frank Mulhern, associate dean. "We have more business than the communications programs; we have more communications than the business programs." Students take such courses as marketing management and finance, consumer behavior, and two statistics courses. An organizational behavior course looks at such business trends as the Six Sigma approach to quality management. The program seeks to prepare students for management positions in their companies. As a result, "Our students are very business oriented to begin with," Mulhern says. Discussions of business issues flow from that orientation. The program's connections with Northwestern's business school are more informal than formal, Mulhern notes, although there has been talk of the two schools creating a database management center. Northwestern's program began with advertising about 12 years ago, but has expanded in recognition of the need for integrated communications encompassing advertising, marketing, and PR. Students enrolled generally have three to five years of work experience. Tuition is about $36,000, not including living expenses, for full-time students. A part-time program that was started two years ago is also offered. Columbia University The master's degree program in strategic communications at Columbia tries to involve students in a wide range of real-world issues and challenges. "Every course has a project," says Trudi Baldwin, director of the strategic communications program. Students in the part-time program can do projects for their own employers or for groups that the university has available, looking for help. Depending on the course, students might find themselves creating strategic communications plans for companies or building websites. While basic courses cover writing for the media and market research, the next level of classes looks at leadership in communications and communications case analysis. Current events are woven into all classes. Last year, for example, a market research class looked at the impact of Martha Stewart's legal problems on her brand. Students also discussed how Enron could have better communicated with its key audiences. The program relies on working professionals who serve as part-time faculty. "Instructors are in the field, so they bring these issues to class. Students are in the field, so they bring these issues," says Baldwin. The program costs $950 per credit and can be completed over a two-year period. When Baldwin spoke to communications firms in New York and asked what was lacking in recent graduates, they told her business understanding, along with strategic thinking. Alex Stanton, CEO of Stanton Crenshaw Communications and an instructor this year in the Columbia program, says of students he's seen, "the missing ingredient seems to be, 'How do I compete for resources within my organization' and 'How do I make what I do relevant to the business objectives of the company.'" Knowing more about how business works will help on both scores, and PR education increasingly is trying to provide that know-how.

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