Curriculum Chronicles

Public Relations: Coming to a B-School Near You


Public relations is a topic that has long been a lonely stepchild in most MBA curricula, touched upon briefly, if at all, in soft-skills classes that teach writing and communication. That may soon change, thanks to a push by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), the largest industry group for public relations professions, which is trying to get business schools to take a more serious approach to teaching MBA students the art of corporate communication and reputation management.

It’s a skill that is sorely lacking, according to a new study the PRSA commissioned earlier this fall of senior U.S. business leaders. Of the 204 respondents, 98 percent said they believe that business schools need to incorporate instruction on these topics into the MBA curriculum, and 94 percent believe that top management needs additional training in core communication disciplines. Only 40 percent of the executives surveyed rated their recent MBA hires as “extremely strong” at responding to crisis and building and protecting company credibility.

One of the first efforts to encourage business schools to start thinking more about corporate reputation management and strategic communication will commence in the 2012-13 school year, when five business schools will participate in a pilot program spearheaded by the PRSA. Dartmouth University’s Tuck School of Business will be one of the five schools participating; the other four schools have not yet been named, the PRSA said. Paul Argenti, a Tuck professor and author of the textbook Corporate Communication, is developing the curriculum for the pilot, which can be adapted for full-semester, mini-semester, or seminar-format courses. The class will include lessons on communication strategy, media relations, international corporate responsibility, reputation management, and investor relations. In addition, students will be asked to participate in crisis communication simulation exercises and review case studies on the topic. The hope is that all the leading business schools will incorporate this class, in some format, into their curricula in the 2013-14 academic year, the PRSA said.

Bloomberg Businessweek‘s Alison Damast recently spoke with Argenti about his role in developing the new curriculum and why he believes it is important for MBA students to have a background in this area. Here is an edited transcript of their conversation:

What is the business school world’s current approach to teaching public relations and reputation management skills?

Most business schools have some basic communications training, maybe a writing or speaking class, but I think Tuck is the only school that has had a required class on this subject for 30 years. When I came to Tuck in 1981, I was hired to teach its first corporate communications class, so I put together a required course in communications and the school has been doing it ever since. We survey MBAs asking them which courses they think are the most important, and they say the corporate communications class is No. 1 or No. 2 in what they use on the job when they graduate. The course has included for many years writing, speaking, and corporate and cross-cultural communications. This year we’re adding a whole host of other topics, from negotiations to reputation management. For example, we’ll have a session where students learn to prepare for testimony before Congress, and a guy who teaches acting at the college will be doing a session on personal presence. The gut of the class is being able to think strategically about basic communication strategy. This area has become critical for business leaders, CEOs, functional heads, and other people, but they know so little about it and there is nowhere they can learn this material.

Why did you decide to get involved with the PRSA on this effort to promote better corporate communication skills among MBA students, and do you think this pilot will succeed?

Over the last 30 years, there have been at least four or five efforts to teach communications at business schools on a broader level, but none have really taken off. When the folks at the Public Relations Society of America approached me, I told them I’d be happy to help and we basically stuck with it this time. A couple of people really pushed it and got the job done. I think the reason this could be successful is because it’s not like five professors sitting around a campfire and trying to see how they can make it work. This effort is thousands of people who work in public relations saying, “Hey, this is important and we need your help to get it done.” If we can get a critical mass of schools teaching these skills, then it just becomes something that everyone gets interested in.

I understand that five schools, including Tuck, will be involved in the pilot program next year. Tell me a little bit about the curriculum you’ve designed for these schools and how you foresee this being integrated into MBA programs.

I think we need to start small. If it is in the curriculum at all, that would be a plus. Existing classes that teach presentation skills and writing would be the obvious place to incorporate this. Schools can use my textbook and there’s an instructor’s manual that I’ll tailor for the needs of each of these schools. I’ve written 100 different cases on this topic, and there are a number we are rewriting into shorter cases that, for example, someone who works in public relations could come in and teach without a lot of training. For example, one case I wrote is about Starbucks (SBUX) and how it dealt with the battle over fair trade coffee. I’ve also written a lot of experiential exercises, like one I’ve done on Toyota (TM) that looks at a situation from the perspective of a Japanese executive, a U.S. executive, and someone from the Japanese and the U.S. press.

Why do you think these communication and reputation management skills are so essential for business leaders today?

If you ask CEOs what is important to them and how much time they spend communicating, they’ll tell you it is a huge part of their job. But it has sort of been cordoned off as an area of specialty, and I don’t think people realize the power of it. I was putting together my list of public relations blunders for the year, and I had so many candidates I didn’t know where to stop, from Anthony Weiner to Netflix (NFLX). When you think about it and go down the list, these things don’t have to happen. Most of the time these executives shoot themselves in the foot. Crisis communication has become so important and there is a tremendous amount of differentiation in management today based on reputation and clear articulation of strategy. Now we have to convince the deans and the business schools that this is an important thing to teach students.

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