‘PR is all but invisible at the MBA level’

PRSA researchers found that 80 percent of business schools in the United States all but ignore the function of PR. So the trade group teamed up with five universities to train MBA students.


In 2010 and 2011, PRSA conducted research to find out just how much MBA students were learning about PR. It isn’t much.

“The research consistently yielded that PR is all but invisible at the MBA level,” says Joe Cohen, a member of the national board of directors for Public Relations Society of America and senior vice president at MWW Group. “In 80 percent of MBA programs, PR’s just not part of the coursework.”

Which is why this fall, MBA students at five universities will have the option to take a course that few of their peers can.

Dartmouth University, The University of Maryland, Northwestern University, Quinnipiac University, and the University of Texas at El Paso—with help from PRSA—will participate in a pilot program to offer business students a course in PR for managers.

“The purpose of the pilot program is to set the standard for how PR should be taught at the MBA level,” Cohen says.

PRSA developed the course with Paul Argenti, a professor of corporate communications at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. It isn’t a standard PR course you’d find in a communications department. It’s specifically designed to equip managers with a working knowledge of strategic PR, something many MBA graduates sorely lack.

Demand is there

Demand for a working knowledge of communications and media is ever-increasing among employers. About 90 percent of business leaders told PRSA that executives in their companies need more training in communications. Students are interested in learning more, too.

“Social media has changed the game,” Cohen says. “It’s hastened the news cycle so that a negative story that goes viral can potentially cripple venerable brands.”

Indeed, CEOs such as Netflix’s Reed Hastings, BP’s Tony Heyward, and JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon have had to respond very quickly and publicly to major crises in the past few years.

“The role of the CEO has evolved,” Cohen says. “CEOs have always been looked upon to serve as a brand ambassador for their organizations, but now the transformed news environment has created added pressure and scrutiny.”

Argenti says companies that traditionally hired MBA graduates strictly for financial know-how or strategy acumen are coming to” “realize the high transaction cost of not being aware of communication.”

The schools and the course

PRSA chose the five universities in the pilot program because they “are all best in class in their selective categories,” Cohen says. It also helped that each school had a faculty member who could teach the course, he notes. Argenti says not many universities have that luxury.

The five universities also offer a cross-section of sizes, geographies, and demographics, Cohen says.

Under Argenti, Dartmouth has offered a PR course in its business school for more than three decades, and Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern already had a course of its own. The University of Texas at El Paso had a course it was only offering online; it will now offer a full-semester version. The University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business and Quinnipiac University’s School of Business had to develop new courses.

Argenti says students in these courses won’t be learning how to write press releases. “We’re not really training people to go work in communications,” he says.

Most of the coursework is about building strategies, Argenti says. He teaches students to be aware of brand reputation, identify crises versus “just drama,” and understand the value of communications.

For example, Argenti offers his students a case in which an executive centralizes procurement for a large manufacturing organization with lots of independent plants, and communicates that process badly.

“The goal of the case is to say that, if you really want to get something right, it’s worth investing in the communications,” he says.

Cohen says the course will be offered as an elective, not as a requirement. But he notes that student interest has already been high at the University of Maryland, which is offering a summer version of the course. That class is full, he says.

Big goals

As the courses progress, PRSA will oversee the process and make sure the five schools communicate best practices with one another. Next summer, the association plans to release a report with case studies from each university and a wrap-up of the whole program.

“What we want to put together is a blueprint and an approach that other universities can learn from so that PR is taught properly in MBA programs,” Cohen says. “This is the first step before a national rollout.”

Lots of schools that offer something they call business PR courses are really teaching public speaking or tactical courses, he says. PRSA wants to offer those schools a more comprehensive guide.

That blueprint will be vital, Argenti says.

“Every corporation has a communication function. It’s a major part of the business,” he says. “The opportunity is to try to spread that gospel more widely.”

Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.

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