A smart investment

Many firms are discovering that sponsoring PR programs at universities can reap great rewards.

Many firms are discovering that sponsoring PR programs at universities can reap great rewards.

Despite the many benefits of teaching, the higher salaries offered in the private sector are sometimes just too tempting to prospective or current university academics. That's one of the main problems schools have in attracting top professors to their PR and communications programs, notes Dr. Diana Knott Martinelli, the Widmeyer Communications Professor in Public Relations at West Virginia University (WVU). It's also the reason why scholarships like the ones Widmeyer provides to WVU are so important.

"Universities everywhere, particularly public ones, are really struggling in terms of finances because state funding has been, and continues to be, cut back," says Martinelli, whom WVU recruited from Ohio State University two years ago. "That makes it [harder] to attract quality people."

Martinelli and other academics say the PR field has not traditionally provided the kind of support for colleges and universities that other industries - such as sciences or engineering - have in the way of scholarships or sponsorships for students, professors, or academic facilities.

However, the PR industry does appear to be increasingly generous toward colleges and universities. Scott Widmeyer, a WVU school of journalism graduate, and chairman and CEO of Widmeyer Communications, says his firm's support of the professorship at WVU - Martinelli's salary is partly subsidized through his firm's endowment - and a couple of student scholarship programs stems from his desire to help students get an education and to help the school improve its communications and journalism programs.

More than money

Yet Widmeyer also benefits tangibly from its relationship with WVU, which encompasses more than just providing money for the professorship or the scholarships, one of which is aimed at African Americans attending journalism school at WVU and the other at West Virginians who are the first in their families to attend college.

"If you look at the profession today, we come up pretty short in terms of minorities in the communications profession and in the newsroom, and every little carrot we can put out there has the ability to help someone and build numbers," he says.

Widmeyer himself has taught at WVU and continues to occasionally lecture there. Last year, the firm sponsored a one-month "residency" by Martinelli at Widmeyer's DC office, where she sat in on client pitches, worked with staff on RFPs, and assisted with research.

"It's so beneficial, for me and the students," says Martinelli, who will do a similar residency this summer, along with a WVU student who will intern at the firm. "I can bring all that into the classroom in terms of case studies and the changing environment in the PR field."

Ken Eudy, CEO at Raleigh, NC-based Capstrat, which recently endowed a $100,000 scholarship program for minority students at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill's School of Journalism and Mass Communications, says connections to local universities can help both the firm and the students. He cites a recent job fair Capstrat hosted for students at UNC and nine other local schools that attracted 90 students and 29 client representatives.

"Any time we get clients in our office, it's a good thing," he says.

Growing generosity

Dr. Kathleen Kelly, a professor at the University of Florida's department of PR at the College of Journalism and Communications, says she has found in her research on fundraising and philanthropy that PR firms have become much more generous in the past few years, especially individuals from the PR profession (see below).

"Compared with journalism, where everywhere you look there are endowed chairs and professors, primarily from newspaper corporations and foundations, PR lags far behind," says Kelly, whose recent report, "The Professional Bond: Public Relations Education for the 21st Century," was sponsored by the Commission on Public Relations Education. "But in compiling this list, I got tremendously excited that there seems to be a burst of philanthropic energy. A few gifts are more than a decade old, but most are in the last couple of years."

Among those colleges and universities with PR and communications programs that have not yet benefited from this new spirit of giving is George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management (GSPM), which this fall is launching a master's program in public affairs, headed by Don Bates, a longtime MD at Media Distribution Services, and Rick Sullivan, the now-retired founder of Fleishman-Hillard's DC office.

Joe Bondi, director of advancement at GSPM, says schools that are just starting up programs need to balance fundraising efforts between "current operations money," in which all the funding can be used right away, and endowed scholarships, which are longer-term funding mechanisms. Either way, the arguments for encouraging donations remain the same, from altruism to enlightened self-interest.

"Here's the bottom line: It's good PR," Bondi says. "We do a lot of work to promote gifts, within the university, to the students. So absolutely the firm becomes a good friend of the school, and when it comes time for recruitment, of course we're going to encourage our students to go to that firm. It's kind of a win-win for everyone."

Recent Donations to University PR programs

Endowed chairs
Harold Burson Chair in PR
(est. 2003), Boston University, Burson-Marsteller

Endowed professorships
Widmeyer Communications Professorship in PR
(est. 2005), West Virginia University, Widmeyer Communications

Endowed research centers
Plank Center for Leadership in PR
(est. 2005), University of Alabama, Betsy Plank

Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication (est. 2004), Penn State University, Ellen and Lawrence G. Foster and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Endowed scholarships
Ann Barkelew/Fleishman-Hillard Scholarship
(est. 2001), University of Minnesota, John Graham

Henry C. Rogers Endowed Scholarship (est. 2006), University of Southern California, Marcia Ross and Ron Rogers

Source: Commission on Public Relations Education report "The Professional Bond"

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