PR education continues to be a topic of growing importance in the industry, but a unique spin has been put on it through a joint venture between Johnson & Johnson and New York University.
On June 8, 2009, in New Brunswick, NJ, 23 J&J communications pros were invited to participate in the first weeklong program of The Academy of Communication Excellence and Leadership, or ACCEL, a continuum of education, professional development, and leadership training – devoted completely to the communications profession.
Since then, ACCEL has conducted four more programs, producing 100-plus graduates, says Craig Rothenberg, VP of corporate communications at J&J. The most recent program was held this past May.
“We felt we could do more to address the development of our communications pros across J&J to ensure we are meeting the needs and, ideally, staying ahead of the needs of the businesses,” he says.
The groundwork for the in-house development program began in 2007, recalls Rothenberg, who at the time was VP of communications for J&J's pharmaceutical business and was named to his current post the next year. The company's Communications Leadership Council, of which Rothenberg was a member, felt there was a void in its global communications staff, comprised of approximately 250 pros.
“A lot of the development of our people and the function was left within the businesses,” he explains. “We thought there was an opportunity to centralize a bit more, so that we develop our people in a more consistent and harmonized way.”
J&J traditionally has had a decentralized structure for its communications function, with a corporate communications group of about 25 people, led by CCO Ray Jordan and reporting up to CEO William Weldon, as well as three business segments (pharma, consumer, and medical devices and diagnostics) with their own communications teams. Overall, J&J has approximately 115,000 employees in 60 countries.
“Some of our teams are very small and dispersed across the businesses, so the opportunity they have to go and develop something, or even pay to send someone to a workshop, was going to be limited,” Rothenberg notes. “We have the corporate team here, so we felt there was the opportunity to develop something here. We wanted it to meet the needs of our people wherever they do business – be it Latin America, Asia, Europe, or here in North America – and no matter what business segment they're in.”
Setting up the program
Early benchmarking work for the program was conceptualized by Dave Swearingen, former corporate communications VP; Carol Dobrovolski, Jordan's executive assistant; Anthony Carter, J&J's chief diversity officer; and John Doorley, academic director, master of science degree program in PR and corporate communication at NYU and former Merck CCO.
Matthew Johnson, director of comms at Ethicon USA, a J&J company
ACCEL's focus on being a well-rounded business leader truly resonated with Johnson.
“It helped put me where I am today, in terms of now sitting on a management board of a global business and being considered one of its leaders, not just a functional practitioner,” he says. “I'm engaged in business discussions every day. A lot of what I took away from the coursework and through the experience helped me appreciate the importance of that, probably more than any other experience I've had.”
Johnson took part in the June 2009 comprehensive program. He's been with J&J for 12 years. He started in corporate communications.
Angelika Elser, director of public affairs and comms at J&J's Ethicon Endo-Surgery for EMEA
For Elser, ACCEL reinforced the idea of being a trusted adviser to CEOs and boards.
“This means bringing different criteria to the table and other perspectives that see the business within a wider societal context,” she says. “Our business decisions must anticipate trends and resonate with stakeholder expectations. ACCEL helped me better understand the changing requirements for communications pros and provided tools that were readily applicable to fulfill the increased role back in the business.”
Elser, a graduate of the June 2009 comprehensive program, joined J&J in 2007 after eight years at Coca-Cola in various communications roles.
J&J also entered an academic partnership with NYU, bringing in core faculty, including Doorley, Fraser Seitel, senior counselor of corporate and financial communications at Burson-Marsteller and adjunct professor; Helen Ostrowski, retired chairman and CEO of Porter Novelli; and Lou Capozzi, retired chairman of Publicis Groupe's Public Relations and Corporate Communications group and adjunct professor.
Outside of J&J's communications function, finance, information technology, and HR have all had longstanding staff development programs, says Rothenberg.
“We were a little bit slower to the game,” he explains. “That is emblematic of who we are as PR people. We're always so intent on taking care of the needs of others first. It's the nature of our beast. We are in PR. We go from issue to issue, crisis to crisis.”
The intensive program is divided into two paths of study: comprehensive (manager through director level) and advanced (senior director and up). Both incorporate tailored lessons and on-the-job learning, customized with individual development plans. Topics are related to continued development of staffers' communications, business, and leadership acumen. The courses support J&J industries in healthcare, business, public policy, and global affairs. The Communications Leadership Council selects the participants. Each program is capped at 25 students.
The comprehensive program features more than a dozen courses, conducted over a week, on a curriculum related to communication, business, and finance, as well as the business of J&J. The advanced studies format takes place over two to two-and-a-half days.
“We tried to make it something that was really academically rigorous and sound,” says Doorley, “and yet practitioner oriented. If you could imagine walking into the room, the first day of the first session of the academy, and there's some senior-level people in there from J&J. Here we are to teach you something, and it's a tricky situation, but they were very receptive. They soaked it up. They felt honored.”
In October 2010, ACCEL's comprehensive program was taken over to J&J's offices in Paris – a first – to serve the company's communications professionals in EMEA. Rothenberg is hoping to roll out the academy in Asia next year.
Rothenberg checks in with graduates about four months after each program, seeking their input. This serves to innovate and refresh future offerings.
“One clear result is for more on planning,” says Doorley. “We in communications don't do enough planning. You survey the field and you'll see we tend to go right to the tactic.”
Rothenberg adds: “If you have communications people who are really business savvy, they are in a much better place to play the role of consultant. They can stand up to management and say, ‘I hear you, but here's what you really need.'”