5 comms pros highlight the benefits of teaching: Career Guide 2015

Tanya Lewis profiles five professionals whose stories provide a master class on myriad ways adjunct professors are better for the experience.

Image via audiolucistore / Flickr; used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license
Image via audiolucistore / Flickr; used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Paula Askanas
EVP of communications
Company: Sony Pictures Television
Where she teaches: USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
Years at school: Approximately 1

In spring 2014, one of Paula Askanas’ colleagues at Sony who teaches at USC asked her to speak to his class. She was a hit. Her colleague recommended her for a teaching position.

Last fall she co-taught an Advanced Entertainment PR class with her Sony colleague. This fall, about 20 graduate students will attend her first solo class, called Image Management in Entertainment.

"Before I started teaching I realized there was a significant gulf between formal education and real-world experience," explains Askanas. "I felt interacting with someone who lives it every day would be highly beneficial to a well-rounded education. Students are starving for it. My students have been so appreciative – even the ones I had to coax into engaging at first. It’s very gratifying."

Askanas truly enjoys helping students and the challenge of teaching. Her global responsibilities at Sony often require her to work long before and after West Coast office hours, so she says it would be difficult to get to USC if teaching wasn’t energizing for her.

"At a certain point in your career, you realize a lot of what you do is by instinct based on experience," she notes. "Teaching has made me really look at and clearly explain the thought processes behind those instincts and my strategic decisions."

Teaching has also enriched Askanas’ relationships with colleagues.

"Some of my colleagues have spoken to my class about their roles and the strategy behind specific things they’ve handled," she says. "It gives us an opportunity to interact on a completely different level and in a totally different context. It’s great to be able to have thoughtful conversations about various aspects of PR with colleagues who are at
the very top of their game. That’s not something we would normally have time to do."

Students speak

Go here to hear from a quintet of students who share key lessons they learned from our profiled professors.

Jon Harris
Title: CCO
Company: ConAgra Foods
Where he teaches: University of Chicago Graham School
Years at school: 8

Though he had years of guest lecturing experience, Jon Harris didn’t formally become an adjunct professor until a colleague at Sara Lee, where he was serving as SVP of global communications at the time, asked him to speak to her class. She was getting her integrated marketing certificate from the University of Chicago.

Harris happily accepted. The next day, he was offered a job teaching a PR and marketing class to students in that same program.

"The University of Chicago is such an important part of the business community," notes Harris. "I was honored to be asked. I saw the job as a great opportunity and a lot of fun. Both turned out to be true. I really enjoy sharing my experience and get great joy out of helping people."

Harris feels he learns as much from teaching – if not more – than his students learn from him in class.

"Teaching has been an incredible education for me," he says. "It gives me insights into trends, as well as what and how young professionals think.

Communications has evolved so much since I started teaching. For example, I got to witness the evolution of Twitter through my students. Learning upcoming trends really gives me experience outside the classroom, which is interesting because that’s what I’m trying to provide students."

Helping students network, find a job, or change jobs is fulfilling for Harris. And regularly lecturing has enhanced his public speaking skills.

"Teaching also provides opportunities to work with other adjunct professors, who are fantastic," he adds.

Brian Reid
Title: MD
Agency: W2O Group
Where he teaches: University of Nebraska–Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications
Years at school: 3

Rather than teaching in a classroom, Brian Reid serves as a PR and social media adviser to students who run the University of Nebraska’s Jacht Advertising Lab.

"Ad Lab students have real clients, collect real fees, and pay real rent," he explains. "It’s very much a live-fire experience and incredibly intensive. Typically, about 30 students per semester run the lab. They work with about 12 clients."

"PR and social media are important at an agency that size," continues Reid, "because the students aren’t doing multimillion-dollar media buys. They’re crafting very targeted, cost-effective communications messages."

The experiential learning environment is exciting for Reid and invaluable to students.

"There are things you learn by doing that simply cannot be taught as effectively in a classroom, such as dealing with clients and managing work flows," notes Reid. "Advising students as they go through that is incredible."

He also finds his students’ enthusiasm inspiring. "They are much more willing to experiment," says Reid. "They’re not interested in simply refreshing an existing campaign. They look at everything with a blank-sheet mindset that leads to really interesting ideas. Some work, some don’t, but my students inspire me to think more creatively in my professional life."

"Teaching also forces me to communicate about my profession in a new way," he adds. "You can’t rely on shared anecdotes. You must communicate clearly and simply in a way that’s both explicit and comprehensive. That discipline is just as applicable at a firm."

Lesley Lopez
Title: Director of comms, US China Business Council
Most recent organization: Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee
Where she teaches: The George Washington University’s Strategic PR program
Years at school: 2

Both of Lesley Lopez’s parents are educators, so teaching is in her DNA. After several years working on Capitol Hill, Lopez felt ready to pursue teaching. She met with the director of George Washington University’s Strategic PR program, who hired her to teach a writing boot camp in the summer of 2013. Lopez began teaching a full Advanced Writing for Communicators class the following fall.

"I’ll never give students an assignment they couldn’t use tomorrow if they worked at an agency," she explains. "Teaching real, tactical applications for persuasive writing has ironed out my skills as well."

Lopez finds teaching is an important component of her overall professional development.

"Ideally, your job will expand your skill set, provide leadership development, and be fulfilling," she suggests. "In reality, sometimes you need opportunities outside of work to really develop professionally. That could be volunteer work or graduate school. In my case, it was teaching graduate school."

"Leading 30 students through a three-hour meaningful discussion after we’ve all had a full day of work has helped me develop my own presentation and leadership skills," adds Lopez, who finds the experience of teaching in our nation’s capital and being a faculty member at GWU particularly rewarding.

"Spending time in DC is advantageous to anyone with an interest in politics, business, and media," she notes. "All of my fellow adjunct professors have real-world, practical experience in the field. I learn just as much in staff meetings as I do teaching."

John Powers
Title: Director, digital communications
Agency: Acara Partners
Where he teaches: Quinnipiac University School of Communications
Years at school: 8

John Powers earned an MS in education in 1991, but he didn’t teach because he was busy practicing PR.

About eight years ago, the chairperson of the PR department at Quinnipiac University’s School of Communications invited him to become an adjunct professor. He now teaches three classes a semester that span PR, social media, global studies, and ethics.

"I didn’t think two seconds about accepting the job," he recalls. "It’s perfect because it’s a meld of what I studied in school, what I do professionally, and my passion for teaching. Quinnipiac has a highly regarded comms program. I’m drawn to the academic, scholarly side of PR. It’s refreshing to get into the theory behind [communications]."

Powers notes he continues to grow professionally through teaching.

"No matter what class you teach you have to know the latest trends, so it’s helped me get ahead of the curve," he says. "For example, I had to know social media before it was the go-to because I had to teach it. It also gives me even more incentive to read articles, books, and research on the latest trends, because when I have to teach a semester’s worth of material to bright students, I can’t fake it."

Being a professor also gives Powers access to great talent. "We get the best interns and new hires because I have four months to get to know students," he notes. "That helps a lot with hiring decisions, as does the availability I have to call professors in other departments for recommendations."

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