Ward WhiteThis guest blog post is written by Ward White in response to Dr. Ana Tkalac’s original post “Nobody’s Baby.”

Dr. Tkalac —

You raise what I see as an important and neglected topic. It is a topic that deserves serious attention from those interested in Corporate Communications, which would include most Page Society members and Institute (IPR) board members. May I amplify a couple of aspects of your argument?

A. Agreement. I agree entirely that employee engagement (by whatever name) warrants a prominent place in the public relations curriculum.

B. An Omission: Commission on PR Education’s 2006 Report

You cite the Commission on PR Education’s 1999 Report (“Port of Entry”) as not covering employee engagement (by whatever name). The relevant source, however, is that Commission’s 2006 Report, (updating the 1999 report and focusing on undergraduate education). If I remember correctly, Frank Ovaitt of the Institute for Public Relations worked prominently on that Report, “The Professional Bond,” I draw attention to two relevant sections of that 2006 Report, found at this link: http://www.commpred.org/theprofessionalbond/undergraduate.php

2.The Undergraduate Curriculum


Whereas organizations have always identified employee publics among those considered important, human resources departments increasingly are expecting public relations to manage employee communication, a change from the days when human resources considered communicating internally to be its exclusive purview.

3.Content of Undergraduate Courses


Also included are a variety of specializations in public relations such as community relations, employee relations, consumer relations, financial and investor relations, governmental relations, public affairs and lobbying, fund raising and membership development, international and cross-cultural public relations and publicity and media relations.

This omission, while significant, in no way undermines your central argument, in my view. I offer it by way of strengthening your case rather than contesting it.

C. Mini-“Case Study.” I offer the following mini-“Case Study” from the field to illustrate your point. In my years (1990-2005) in a large department (80+ people at times) at a large company (Northwestern Mutual, c. #110-120 on the Fortune 500 in those years), it was a mantra of the Communications Department that “employee engagement is 50% of the job.” Other less weighted aspects of the job included executive communications, financial (investor) communications, community relations, events, issues management, crisis preparedness and media relations (the latter viewed as 5-10% of the Department’s job).

As VP and head of that Department, I preached this message endlessly and judge that the communications team both believed and acted upon that mantra. The company’s internal communications division, part of the Communications Department, was then headed by Ted Strupp, who had been a leader in Towers Perrin’s employee engagement practice prior to his joining NM. An outstanding expert in employee engagement, he forged a close and effective partnership with the Organizational Training & Development division of the HR department (a division that focused mostly on training), so that the two divisions operated almost seamlessly.

There was particular emphasis on the Manager as Communicator, providing training and coaching to managers (especially front-line managers). As a result, the effectiveness of a manager’s employee engagement performance was made a measure integrated into the manager’s Performance Review and compensation review.

The Department’s structure reflected this priority on employee engagement. The Department comprised four divisions – internal communications, external communications and executive communications, along with creative services (which supported the other three).

I believe that many (but not all) other CorpComm departments in the U.S. are built on a similar recognition of the centrality of employee engagement to the CorpComm mission.

D. Personal Observations from Site Visits to US universities accredited to offer PR programs.

Since 2005, I have had the honor of serving as the Page Society’s representative on ACEJMC, the Accrediting Council for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications. As a part of that work, I have participated in the evaluation of hundreds of U.S. accreditation or re-accreditation evaluations. More to this point, I have played a role in the on-site examination of perhaps 10 university programs, including such major ones as Penn State, University of Minnesota and University of Kansas and such smaller ones as Marshall and Buffalo State.

My overall observation is that employee engagement receives scant attention in most U.S. programs of my experience.

I suspect that there are exceptions, but I don’t have personal experience of these. One good example might be the University of Alabama’s program. Bruce Berger, the longtime leader of that program, had previously held major Corporate Communications posts — and, I believe, a CorpComm background leads to an emphasis on employee engagement. I suspect that Boston University’s program, at least Don Wright’s part of it, would not neglect important emphasis on employee engagement. The schools that offer a concentration in Corporate Communications are likely exceptions as well. SMU, I think, is one such — its leader, Sandra Duhe, also has a CorpComm background (with Mobil, as I recall). There are likely other good examples, I feel sure, but I cannot personally attest to them.

E. Obstacles

It is not difficult to postulate many possible reasons why employee engagement is under-taught in U.S. academic PR programs.

First, employee engagement is a priority principally to CorpComm people. It appears of little interest to MarComm, Integrated Marketing Communications or Mass Communications programs.

Second, many PR programs (especially the ones accredited by ACEJMC) are sited within what had been Journalism schools. The Journalism bent is typically toward writing and message theory more than toward behavior and the organizational communications knowledge base that is central to employee engagement.

Third, employee engagement is of lesser interest to PR agencies. As former head of Bozell PR (now part of WeberShandwick) and also an alumnus of RuderFinn and Golin-Harris , I can attest that PR firms have traditionally found it difficult to make Employee Engagement practices a main and profitable part of their offerings.

F. How to Effect Change.

In short, it could be argued that employee engagement is not a prominent part of the curriculum in U.S. programs in PR because it is not a prominent part of the overall practice of PR in America.

If CorpComm people want things to change, they will need to lobby their local university programs to effect that change. As employers in the area and as principal hiring and internships options for the university’s Communications students and graduates, these employers can have a big and effective voice. If you want change, create change.

If you’re successful, then at last the baby will have a home.

Ward White is Chief Strategy Officer of Edelman Southwest.


Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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3 thoughts on “Further Thoughts on “Nobody’s Baby” by Ward White

  1. Dear Mr. White,
    I am glad about A, sorry about B, thank you for C, D is one of the major motivators for my blog post, I am worried about E and F was exactly what I wanted to underline.
    Thank you for adding to the debate and giving your view on something I consider important but not remotely discussed enough.

  2. As the current co-chair of the Commission on Public Relations Education and a practitioner I want to thank Ana and Ward for their views.

    The Commission is currently reviewing the 2006 report with a view to update it probably next year. We have held eight focus groups mostly with educators this summer to steer our future work. Furthermore we are planning a summit of practice and educators next April to hear from them and road test possible modifications to the 2006 report.

    Employee engagement is even more critical in today’s environment where social media dominates and employees are seen as ambassadors or at least as someone who should have a say on how an organization behaves and communicate.
    We are in listening mode and soon will move to analyse the views of our peers in the industry.

    Another critical point we are hearing is the need to reflect the global nature of public relations and to be inclusive of diverse points of view.

    Our challenge quite frankly is that while we will publish new guidelines for curriculum, they are not mandatory. We hope it will shape changes to programs but as Ward points out even programs accredited by ACEJMC don’t always reflect the latest recommendations. On the other hand those programs who seek CEPR recognition by PRSA (approx 50) must adopt the Commission recommendations in order to be recognized.
    Ideally both ACEJMC and CEPR recognized programs should be seen as leaders in education. With the proliferation of online degree factories that ignore these well researched recommendations, it creates a ‘buyer beware’ or caveat emptier landscape in public relations education.

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