Nearly a decade ago, the PRSA Foundation sponsored research that found only 23 percent of graduate business schools consistently provide instruction in reputation management, corporate communications and related ethical dimensions. In 2010, PRSA commissioned a study conducted by MWW and Kelton to explore the gap for strategic communications training in MBA programs.
The findings revealed that 98 percent of executives agreed that most MBA instructions lack the necessary reputation management and communications strategy training. And nine out of 10 acknowledged more training in core communications disciplines is merited.
These deficiencies helped inspire the PRSA MBA/Business School Program, which launched in 2012 with five pilot schools including the Tuck School of Business and the Kellogg School of Business. The program has since grown to 15 schools nationwide.
“The PRSA MBA/Business School Program gives students the tools to understand and evaluate strategic communications and its impact on corporate reputation, along with the strategies to build trust and credibility with stakeholders,” said Kathleen Donohue Rennie, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA, associate professor at New Jersey City University and PRSA MBA/Business School Program chair. “Over the past five years, we have demonstrated that the curriculum is effective. We now have the opportunity to expand the number of schools participating and the imperative to keep faculty engaged.”
Ongoing research on the student experience with the PRSA MBA/Business School Program course shows that the skills learned and the cases studied have had a positive impact; students report that they are applying the lessons in the workplace.
This research by the PRSA MBA/Business School Program committee will also help refine the curriculum. For example, case studies and practical experience such as news release writing and connecting with senior executives are opportunities highly valued by MBA students. The second phase of the MBA research, led by Rennie and Kristie Byrum, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA, assistant professor at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and PRSA MBA/Business School Program committee research lead, is a quantitative assessment that will begin this fall.
PRSA continues to engage program faculty as well — gathering feedback on how the course has been deployed and what approach to the curriculum has been most successful in the classroom.
“The PRSA MBA/Business School Program curriculum was designed to give faculty flexibility in how they teach strategic communications and reputation management principles and adapt these essential PR management skills to the participating university’s MBA curriculum,” said Rennie.
The committee recently hosted a webinar for program faculty to discuss trends in strategic communications and best practices in teaching the course.
Faculty talk trends and current events
“Leadership is starting to understand — it took 10 years — that control is not just in the hands of institutions or leaders, but communities of individuals who have as much control over the information as you do,” said Paul Argenti, author, professor of corporate communications at the Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth University, and founding faculty of the PRSA MBA/Business School Program. “The authority has changed … We don’t talk [anymore] about control. We talk about creating constituencies. We want more people, more groups we can connect with. That’s a huge shift in the way we think about communications.”
It’s a mind shift that organizations of all sizes are struggling with as the digital landscape continues to evolve and present new ethical challenges such as fake news. One mechanism that faculty have employed to give students the tools they need to address this dynamic environment is the use of case studies. This method has been tried and tested in MBA and PR programs alike. The more contemporary the case study, the more applicable it can be to situations in the workplace.
PRSA MBA/Business School Program faculty stress the importance of applied learning. At West Virginia University, Elizabeth Oppe, teaching associate professor, Reed College of Media, teaches the strategic communications seminar during the on-campus residency for online students.
She shared her approach on the webinar. Oppe begins with branding and helps students craft their personal narrative. This provides an opportunity to build upon the individual experience and transition to reputation management and crisis communications, all the while having students emphasize how the brand plays into the narrative surrounding a corporate or personality crisis. Students have a clear path to understanding the value of reputation and its connection to strategic communications.
“This summer it seemed there was, almost on a weekly basis, some type of crisis — Tiger Woods, Kathy Griffin, United Airlines, Mylan EpiPen or General Mills/Cheerios,” said Oppe. Students write about a current event and critique the assessment. By the end of the course, the students are creating videos, leading mock news conferences and developing crisis communications plans. Oppe also invites local media and corporate executives to discuss current events and provide media training and other practical skills.
She also employs nonprofit organization examples and often draws on other WVU faculty. In the case of the Volkswagen “defeat” emissions testing scandal, engineering professors who uncovered the abundance of nitrogen oxide emissions provided the technical expertise necessary to frame the issue. Through these seminars, students learn that subject matter experts are essential to developing a communications strategy, responding to a crisis and repairing corporate reputation.
“By communicating these best practices with faculty, we can reinforce the business value of strategic communications, engage more students and recruit more schools into the PRSA MBA/Business School Program,” Rennie said.
Tracy Schario, APR, is the retention subcommittee lead for the PRSA MBA/Business School Program committee. She is a public affairs and media consultant based in Washington, D.C. She also teaches media relations and issues management at George Washington University.