Why B-Schools Need to Teach PR

Recent research shows that business leaders increasingly value public relations.

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According to a new study, many American business leaders regard recent M.B.A. grads as ill-prepared to manage corporate crises due to a lack of strategic communication and reputation management skills. To combat this, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) has launched an M.B.A. Initiative aimed at incorporating more public relations coursework into b-school curricula to better prepare future C-suite executives for handling the evolving reputational challenges they will face.

Commissioned by PRSA and funded by the public relations firm MWW Group, the Kelton Research study found that 93 percent of business leaders believe public relations is just as important to their companies as other forms of communication, including advertising and marketing.

"The need for these skills has never been greater," notes MWW Group President and CEO Michael Kempner on his personal blog. "With social media driving the conversation, what used to be considered a small setback can now turn into a major PR disaster in a matter of minutes."

[Read about social media in the M.B.A. classroom.]

While 59 percent of business leaders say their companies have hired recent M.B.A. grads within the last three years, only four in 10 find the skill sets of these grads to be extremely strong in the areas of building and protecting the company's reputation (41 percent) and credibility (40 percent). Nearly all executives (98 percent) believe that business schools should incorporate instruction on corporate communications and reputation management strategy into M.B.A. curricula.

"If you ask business executives how important organizational and brand reputation are to their jobs, they're likely to answer 'extremely,'" says Anthony D'Angelo, co-chair of PRSA's M.B.A. Initiative along with Ray Crockett, retired Coca-Cola communications director. "The difficulty is, if you ask them how much formal education—however basic—they've had in these disciplines, the answer usually falls between very little and a blank stare."

A Businessweek article on the subject earlier in 2011 identifies the main reason elite M.B.A. programs aren't doing a stellar job of preparing students for future responsibilities in reputation management. A paltry 16 percent of top-ranked schools "offer a single course in crisis and conflict management, strategic communications, public relations, or whatever label one chooses to describe management of a precious organizational asset: reputation," according to the article.

[Learn how the M.B.A. is being reinvented.]

To help address this lack of training, PRSA has created a turn-key program based on course curricula developed over three decades by Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communications at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business. The class will include lessons on communication strategy, media relations, international corporate responsibility, reputation management, and investor relations.

Developed with the support of the Arthur W. Page Society, the course incorporates flexible full-semester, mini-semester, and seminar formats, thus increasing the likelihood of adoption by the nation's M.B.A. programs.

Argenti believes that now is the perfect time for M.B.A. programs to place a greater emphasis on strategic communication and reputation management studies.

"It's exciting to think of Tuck's enduring and successful approach to corporate communication getting recognition and acceptance in the wider business school community," Argenti says. "We look forward to working with PRSA and its partners to help spread the message about the imperative for today's business leaders to understand reputation and corporate communication strategy and methodology."

[Read more about public affairs and marketing grad schools.]

PRSA says it's in the process of identifying four charter schools, in addition to the Tuck School of Business, to take part in a pilot program, through which the schools will formally integrate the public relations course into their M.B.A. programs for their fall 2012 semesters. PRSA set a timeline to launch the initiative with M.B.A. programs nationwide in 2013.

Public relations should be taught right up there with accounting and talent management, says Kempner, who feels PR is as intrinsic to a business strategy as the advertising budget, finances, or inventory. "Business schools have the opportunity and a responsibility to graduate well-rounded leaders, who have all the tools in their toolbox, including a core set of public relations skills."