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Developing Business Literacy in the Classroom and the Workplace: A Delphi Study of Corporate Communication Leaders

Editorial Record: Submitted September 30, 2022. Revised January 11, 2023. Accepted January 27, 2023. 


Matthew Ragas, Ph.D.
Professor and Director, MA in Professional Communication program
College of Communication
DePaul University
Illinois, USA
Email: mragas@depaul.edu


Public relations graduates are increasingly expected to demonstrate business fluency. Based on a Delphi expert panel of chief communication officer (CCO) level leaders, this study systematically derived actionable recommendations for the teaching of business literacy in the classroom and the workplace. In addition, ways to infuse diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) into this subject were examined. The implications of these findings for leadership training and talent development are discussed, and future research pathways are provided. 

Keywords: business literacy, business acumen, chief communications officer, communication leadership, communication management, Delphi method, training and development, leadership development, corporate communication, DE&I, teaching business

Public relations and communication professionals are increasingly gaining the opportunity to have a “seat at the table” or at least to provide strategic counsel to those sitting at the leadership table (Bolton et al., 2018; Meng & Neill, 2021; Neill & Barnes, 2017). This evolution of the field into more of a strategic management function has significant implications for the training and development of PR and communication students and young professionals into emerging leaders (Berger, 2019; Berger & Meng, 2014; Commission on Public Relations Education, 2018; Meng, 2014; Meng & Neill, 2021; Penning & Bain, 2018, 2021). 

In essence, PR and communication graduates and young professionals now need to be more “T-shaped” (Essenmacher, 2022). The vertical portion of “the T” has always been taught in communication curriculum and in workplace training and development programs: PR and communication graduates are typically well versed in the art and science of communication. However, the evolution of the profession into the role of strategic counselor and advisor to organizations requires additional competencies. This is the horizontal portion of “the T.” To serve as problem solvers and add strategic value, communication professionals should have knowledge and capabilities that span across functions, including having at least an intermediate understanding of “the business of business.” Surveys of senior corporate communication professionals consistently show that business acumen is perceived as a critical competency for future communication leaders (Krishna et al., 2020; Ragas et al., 2015). 

While business acumen has been carefully defined by scholars in the context of corporate communication and public relations (Ragas, 2019; Ragas & Culp, 2021), there is little in the way of scholarship focused on how to effectively teach business literacy in the classroom and in the workplace. Corporate communication leaders, such as chief communication officers (CCO), have a unique vantage point into the training and development of PR and communication graduates and professionals, as well as the future directions and needs of the profession (Arthur W. Page Society, 2016, 2019; Neill & Barnes, 2017; Penning & Bain, 2021). 

The purpose of this study was to convene a group of senior corporate communication leaders to systematically derive actionable recommendations for the effective teaching of business literacy in the classroom and the workplace. PR educators should be concerned with supporting the “lifelong learning” of emerging leaders, from when they are students to post-graduation working in their jobs (Rutherford, 2021). Further, as diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) should be integrated into all aspects of the PR profession (Bardhan & Engstrom, 2021; Bardhan & Gower, 2020; Wallington, 2020; Wills, 2020), recommendations for infusing DE&I into business literacy training and development were also analyzed. More specifically, a Delphi panel technique (Dalkey, 1969; Dalkey & Helmer, 1963; Hsu & Sandford, 2007; Richards & Curran, 2002) was used to solicit opinions and to reach general consensus among a group of subject matter experts, in this case, senior corporate communication leaders, about effectively teaching business literacy to emerging leaders in the classroom and in the workplace. 

Literature Review

The argument for the need for business acumen among all professionals who desire to contribute to organizational strategy and help to advise organizational leaders is not a new one (Charan, 2017; Cope, 2012). The general lack of business education in mass communication curriculum has been viewed as a detriment by some in successfully preparing graduates for the workforce (Claussen, 2008; Neill & Schauster, 2015; Roush, 2006). Some public relations scholars have argued for more than 30 years that business management skills should be taught in PR and strategic communication programs (see Turk, 1989). For example, the classic Excellence studies determined that the best indicator of excellent public relations are teams with professionals who have the knowledge and skills needed to assume the role of communication managers (Dozier & Broom, 2006; J. Grunig, 2006; L. Grunig et al., 2002). 

Business Literacy Grows in Importance to the Profession 

However, what has changed in recent years is that top industry associations, centers, and institutes at the nexus of professional-educator collaboration have prioritized the need for greater business literacy among PR and strategic communication graduates. For example, the influential Commission on Public Relations Education (CPRE), which is made up of senior scholars and practitioners, has recommended the inclusion of business literacy education in both undergraduate and graduation curriculum (Commission on Public Relations Education, 2012, 2018). In its landmark 2018 report on the future of PR and communication undergraduate education, the CPRE recommended six minimum courses for undergraduate majors: introduction/principles, research methods, writing, campaigns/case studies, supervised work experience/internships, and ethics. In addition, the CPRE recommended five additional areas of study: business literacy, content creation, data analytics, digital technology, and measurement and evaluation. When it comes to business literacy, the CPRE (2018) argued that PR graduates should gain “a working knowledge of the fundamentals of corporate accounting and finance, economic thinking, capitalism, markets and financial communications” (p. 63). 

Similarly, scholars associated with The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, which is housed at The University of Alabama, have identified business knowledge and skills as core to preparing PR graduates and professionals to contribute as future strategic counselors and advisors (Berger, 2019; Berger & Meng, 2010, 2014; Meng, 2014; Meng & Neill, 2021). More specifically, The Plank Center’s model of integrated leadership in public relations is based on seven dimensions or categories of overall leadership competency (Berger, 2019; Meng, 2014). Six of these dimensions focus on the individual level: self-dynamics, team collaboration, ethical orientation, relationship building, strategic decision-making, and communication knowledge management. The seventh dimension is the organizational culture and structure in which the communication team and the professional operates. A comprehensive study of communication professionals across 15 countries found that strategic decision-making was rated the most important of these leadership dimensions (Berger & Meng, 2014). According to Berger (2019), for PR and communication professionals to effectively participate in strategic decision-making, they should seek training and development in business and financial essentials, critical thinking, cultural intelligence, strategic planning, and on power dynamics in organizations. 

Business Literacy Training and Development: The Classroom 

Recent research has explicated the concept of business acumen in the context of the PR and strategic communication profession (Ragas, 2019). Based on a Delphi panel of senior corporate communication leaders, business acumen and its knowledge areas are defined as: 

Business acumen means becoming knowledgeable about business functions, stakeholders and markets that are critical to the success of one’s organization or client; using this understanding to assess business matters through a communications lens; and then providing informed strategic recommendations and actions. As such, professionals should demonstrate a commitment to ongoing learning about a range of business subjects, including interpreting financial statements and information; strategy; operations; supply chain; organizational behavior, culture and structure; marketing and sales; human resources; technology, data and analytics; economics; legal, public policy and regulatory; stakeholder management; and corporate governance and social responsibility. (pp. 9-10)   

The senior communication leaders who participated in this same study also identified perceived professional, organizational, and societal benefits that accrue to corporate communication professionals that develop greater business acumen (Ragas, 2019). Ragas and Culp (2021) argue that business literacy is a necessary, but not sufficient condition of business acumen. According to Ragas and Culp (2021), “someone who is business literate has at least an intermediate level of proficiency in understanding, speaking, and translating the language and concepts of business,” while someone with business acumen not only has a more advanced level of proficiency, but “applies this knowledge and understanding through providing strategic counsel and advice that drives business actions” (p. 11). While it is important to define these concepts and the potential benefits, it is at least as important to also examine how to effectively teach business knowledge and skills to emerging communication leaders. 

Extending this prior line of work, the current study seeks to obtain actionable recommendations for PR and communication educators and managers to better develop the business literacy of those in the classroom and in the workplace. Senior corporate communication leaders have a unique vantage point into the training and development needs of the field, as they help hire, manage and mentor rising talent in the profession, as well as have personally acquired the competencies needed to rise to the highest levels of the profession. 

As such, the first research question is submitted: 

RQ1. What are the top recommendations of the senior communication leaders on developing the business literacy of students? 

Business Literacy Training and Development: In the Workplace

The emergence of the chief communications officer (CCO) as a member of the C-suite and an advisor to the senior leadership of organizations has elevated the roles and responsibilities of the corporate communication function (Bolton et al., 2018; Ragas et al., 2015). With this ascent has come the need for an expanded set of competencies for communication professionals, whether they serve on in-house communication teams or as external agency partners. Either way, they are helping to support CCOs and advance organizational strategic priorities. The Arthur W. Page Society, now often known simply as Page, has conducted extensive research into the future of the CCO and the communication function (Arthur W. Page Society, 2016, 2017, 2019). Page is a global membership organization comprised of senior PR and corporate communication executives with a mission of strengthening the enterprise leadership role of the CCO.

Page’s research (2017) into the needs of the C-suite finds that total business knowledge by the CCO and senior communication leaders is now seen as “table stakes” (p. 4). More specifically, this study, based on interviews with 20 CEOs of large corporations, into the roles and responsibilities of the CCO and the corporate communication department concludes that: 

In years past, CEOs have expressed hope that their CCO would know all about their enterprise’s business in order to more strategically apply communications to advance its goals. Now, many CEOs require their CCO to be knowledgeable about the business—from strategy to operations—so they are able to provide strategic input on issues that span business functions. This is especially true at enterprises with communications departments that are well established and have a broad mandate. (p. 4) 

Large-scale, industry-wide survey research conducted by Krishna and colleagues (2020) tells a similar story. Business acumen was rated in the top quartile by communication professionals out of an extensive list of skills/areas of expertise needed for future communicators. In rank order, the most important skills/areas were: 1) writing, 2) listening, 3) research/measurement skills, 4) creative thinking; ability to deal with online reputation crises; ability to communicate effectively in today’s environment of disinformation (all tied), 5) creativity, 6) ability to build a modern crisis response plan, 7) digital storytelling, and 8) possessing business acumen; social listening (tied). The surveyed top/senior communication professionals placed a greater importance on business literacy than the less senior practitioners. The authors suggest that “senior executives’ experience and broader worldview of the business world contributed to this difference” and conclude that “business literacy then needs to be built into basic curricula by public relations faculty so future generations are well-versed in the language of business, as recommended by senior managers” (Krishna et al., 2020, p. 50).   

Recent research into elevating the performance of corporate communication teams has noted that training and development can play an important role in the success of communication professionals and departments (Jain & Bain, 2017; Penning & Bain, 2018, 2021). High-performing communication functions possess specific and appropriate levels of expertise gained, in part, through a focus on talent development (Penning & Bain, 2018). In the view of Jain and Bain (2017), professional development should “become a top priority and not an afterthought” for the managers of communication teams (p. 14). They argue there is “a dire need to develop business leaders, not just communicators” and “financial acumen, operational insight, and management/leadership skills are just a few of the critical competencies that now distinguish good communicators from trusted business advisors” (p. 14). 

While there is widespread recognition of the importance of business knowledge and skills to the success of future communication leaders, there is little in the way of senior leader-derived actionable recommendations on how to incorporate business literacy education into professional training and development programs. As such, the next research question is submitted: 

RQ2. What are the top recommendations of the senior communication leaders on developing the business literacy of professionals?  

Business Literacy and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion 

Due in part to stakeholder demands and the increasing diversity within society, more companies are making diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) a strategic priority (S. Spector & B. Spector, 2018). The public relations and strategic communication profession has responded by making lofty public statements and commitments about the importance of DE&I to business and society (Wills, 2020). Actual meaningful action has been more muted (Bardhan & Gower, 2020). While there has been progress made, the public relations and strategic communication field in the US remains largely homogenous: it is primarily white, dominated by white women at the lower and mid-levels of the profession, with white men still holding onto many of the top leadership positions (Diversity Action Alliance, 2021; Vardeman-Winter & Place, 2017). Being a person of color and/or LGBTQ+ in the communication field can feel isolating and is full of challenges (Wallington, 2020). While agencies and in-house departments have launched various programs and initiatives, research finds that minorities continue to face barriers to advancement (Bardhan & Engstrom, 2021; Brown et al., 2019). As explained by Wills (2020) “because white men still hold most of the executive positions in public relations, these inequalities should be explicitly addressed and discussed in this professional field” (p. 10). 

There is general agreement within the profession that moving more from words to action on DE&I means that DE&I should not be simply a series of standalone programs and initiatives (Bardhan & Gower, 2020; Wallington, 2020; Wills, 2020). Rather, a commitment to DE&I should be integrated into the day-to-day practices, decision-making, and counsel of communication leaders and the communication function as a whole (S. Spector & B. Spector, 2018). By extension, this includes areas such as education and talent development for rising professionals (Jain & Bain, 2017). Bardhan and Gower (2020) argue that, to turn this more inclusive vision into reality, requires more and closer collaboration between PR and communication scholars and practitioners on mutual areas of interest, including pedagogy. Specifically, Bardhan and Gower’s (2020) research into the school-to-industry continuum with PR and communication faculty/educators found that “industry leaders need to organize better for D&I, lead the conversation, keep in mind the greater social good, and hold themselves and each other accountable in genuine and measurable ways” (p. 135). 

Therefore, to help advance this important conversation and drive more action by practitioners and educators on this front, the third and final research question is submitted: 

RQ3. How do senior communication leaders feel about infusing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) into business literacy education? 


The Delphi method was used for conducting this study. First developed by the Rand Corporation as an interactive group problem solving and consensus building approach, the Delphi method brings together a panel of subject matter experts (Dalkey, 1967; Dalkey & Helmer, 1963). In Greek mythology, the Pythia, a high priestess, was known as the “Oracle of Delphi” (Avella, 2016). The Oracle would answer questions put to her by visitors about the future and serve as a guide. Core to the Delphi method is assembling a panel of subject matter experts, known as a Delphi panel, typically via multi-wave surveys, with the goal of reaching group consensus on matters of importance to a field. The Delphi method is regularly used in business and communication scholarship (e.g., O’Neil et al., 2018; Richards & Curran, 2002; Watson, 2008; White & Fitzpatrick, 2018).   

The Delphi method is often used when there is uncertainty and/or incomplete knowledge on an issue, topic or subject and for which expert judgements can be essential in filling such gaps (O’Neil et al., 2018). The Delphi method allows for dialogue rather than a traditional one-shot survey, in which respondents have no opportunity to see the opinions of other experts and to potentially reflect upon them. With a Delphi approach, the expert panelists can review and offer feedback at each round of data collection, which adds validity to the results (Hsu & Sandford, 2007). Alternate research methods involving a group of experts, such as focus groups and brainstorming sessions, can pose scheduling difficulties, can be difficult to conduct, and can introduce group think into the process (Avella, 2016).  

A Delphi study typically consists of a structured set of questions answered by a panel of recognized experts over at least two rounds, working toward the goal of obtaining an acceptable level of group consensus. Based on the level of agreement achieved across the research questions, the current study consisted of two rounds. So-called “Delphi consensus” is generally defined as achieving 55-100% agreement among a panel, with 70% or greater often seen as the desired goal (Avella, 2016). For the current study, the final round summary statements for the three research questions of interest received a group consensus level of 94-97%. 

Expert Panel

The expert panel for this study consisted of senior communication executives with significant experience helping to lead communication functions for organizations. The senior leaders for this panel were recruited from the professional network of the researcher. The panelists were typically members of the Page Society (now simply known as Page), an association for senior public relations and communication leaders. Many of these panelists serve or have served on the boards of the top professional associations and centers in the field, including Page, the Institute for Public Relations (IPR), the PRSA Foundation, The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, and The Page Center for Integrity in Public Communications. 

Fifty senior leaders were individually invited via email to consider participating on this panel. A total of 41 of these individuals agreed to participate, after reviewing the study expectations and time commitment. Thirty six of the 41 who agreed to participate then completed the first round of the online survey for an initial participation rate of 88%. A series of two reminder emails were sent to non-responders. Some drop-off is standard with multi-wave surveys. A total of 34 panelists participated in the second round (for a 94% participation rate).   

The ratio of panelists identifying as male or female was split 50/50 (n = 36). Nearly three out of ten panelists (28%) were Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). A strong majority (80%) of panelists had held the title of VP or above during their careers. The five most common titles were: chief communication officer (61%), executive vice president (25%), senior vice president (16.7%), president (11.1%), or other (11.1%). These other titles, which were written in and not listed, included, chief marketing and communication officer, executive director, staff officer, and global VP of corporate affairs. Almost all the panelists (94%) had at least 20 years or more of professional experience. A comfortable majority (64%) had 25 or more years of experience. 


This Delphi panel study was in the field for approximately a two-month period, specifically from mid-November 2021 through mid-January 2022. The panel was invited to participate in two waves of surveys. The online questionnaire for the first-round consisted of a mix of close-ended demographic questions and several open-ended questions about business literacy training and development. The survey instrument was purposely kept concise to accommodate the busy schedules of these senior executives and to help boost the participation rate. The open-ended questions of interest included: “Think about coaching your most junior team members over the years. If you were teaching communication students in a classroom setting, how would you go about developing their business literacy?” (RQ1) and “Based on your experiences, what has worked the best over the years in developing the business literacy of your team members in the workplace? (RQ2). Respondents were allowed to enter in up to three recommendations for each question. The final question of interest pertained to diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) and a free response box was provided: “There is growing recognition that DE&I should be incorporated into all aspects of corporate communication and PR. As such, do you have thoughts on how to help infuse DE&I into business literacy education?” 

In the first-round survey, participants were also asked to rate on a 5-point Likert-like scale, where ‘1’ is “not important at all” and ‘5’ is “extremely important,” the question: “in your opinion, how important is having business acumen to the overall success of corporate communication and PR professionals today?” The second-round survey then synthesized the open-ended responses from the first round into summary statements. The three original research questions along with the summary statement answers, as well as lists of the raw responses by all the respondents to each question, were then sent to the panel for careful review and comment. Panelists were asked to rate the summary statements using a 5-point Likert-like scale where ‘1’ is “strongly disagree” and ‘5’ is “strongly agree.” Response points ‘4’ and ‘5’ on the scale were summed into percentages to indicate the agreement levels achieved. If a respondent disagreed with a statement, they were encouraged to explain why in a text box. For the second Delphi round, the level of agreement for RQ1 was 94% (M = 4.41, SD = 0.81) and for RQ2 was 97% (M = 4.47, SD = 0.78). For RQ3, the level of agreement achieved was 94% (M = 4.38, SD = 0.80). 


Before examining the research questions, in the first Delphi round, the panelists were asked to rate the level of importance they ascribe business acumen to the overall success of corporate communication and public relations professionals today. The senior leaders placed sizable importance on mastering business acumen (M = 4.92, SD = 0.27 on a 5-point Likert-like scale where ‘1’ = “not at all important” and ‘5’ = “extremely important”). Specifically, more than nine out of ten respondents (92%) said that business acumen was “extremely important” to career success. The remainder (8%) said this competency was “very important.” The results generally mirror prior surveys of senior communication leaders, which typically say that training and development on business literacy is a critical area (Krishna et al., 2020; Neill & Schauster, 2015; Penning & Bain, 2018, 2020; Ragas, 2019; Ragas et al., 2015).  

RQ1: Business Literacy in the Classroom

In the first round (n = 36), the panel responded to an open-ended question which instructed them to think about coaching and developing their most junior team members over the years: If they were teaching communication students in a classroom setting, how would they go about developing their business literacy? Panelists were allowed to provide up to three teaching recommendations. An analysis of the open-ended responses of the senior leaders revealed that recommendations generally involved activities and assignments inside or outside of the classroom, defined as the formal course contact hours between the instructor and the students. Of course, some activities and assignments straddle both inside and outside the classroom, particularly as the physical walls of courses break down with virtual and hybrid learning. 

Starting inside the classroom, at a base level, the panel strongly recommended that students are assigned to regularly read top business news outlets and “develop lifelong learning habits.” Outlets that were specifically highlighted include The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Bloomberg News and Harvard Business Review. Respondents also recommended that courses incorporate business case studies, including group work where students “work through a real-world business challenge.” A respondent emphasized choosing case studies that
“show the impact (cost, cost prevention, revenue, profit and market capitalization) of communication on business outcomes.” The panel also recommended that students are assigned to read business and management books that “help explain the financial system and business operations.”

The panel strongly recommended that industry professionals of varying experience levels—from rising communication professionals up to chief communication officers (CCO) and chief marketing officers (CMOs)—with “deep understanding of the business-communication linkage” are invited into classes as guest speakers. Such speakers can help students understand “how businesses make money and lose money.” On a related note, one senior leader recommended inviting alumni to “share business literacy/career success stories.” Some panelists also recommended that students get to engage with C-suite level guest speakers, outside of the public relations and communication function, such as in finance, investor relations, strategy, and accounting. In the words of one respondent: “ask a CXO to share a sample of a weekly calendar and walk through the range of interests competing for CXO mindshare.” 

The panel also recommended that instructors introduce students to key annual business materials produced by organizations, particularly public companies. More specifically, the leaders recommend that students read annual reports, as well as the required major filings made by public companies with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (S.E.C.), such as the annual 10-K report, quarterly 10-Q reports, and the proxy statement. Such filings are freely available in the S.E.C.’s EDGAR database and by major business information providers. To gain familiarity with such materials from a corporate communication perspective, panelists recommended that students study business models/business plans of companies; watch analyst/investor day presentations; and review quarterly earnings, including earnings reports/releases, management earnings conference call recordings and/or transcripts of these calls. As one leader remarked: “make them listen to a recorded earnings call for a publicly traded company, including questions from financial analysts.” Advanced recommendations included assigning students to “do an ‘analyst day’ presentation on a company and its results” and to do a “mock earnings” assignment, in which students are asked to “prepare and deliver an earnings call with investors.” 

The panel also emphasized the importance of learning outside of the communication classroom in developing young professionals’ business literacy and associated skills. More specifically, the senior leaders recommended that students go on agency/company field trips and learning days; complete internships/co-op programs; take business school coursework; and get involved in the leadership of pre-professional student organizations on campus and beyond. In terms of coursework, one respondent argued that “finance and marketing should be mandatory” for communication students. When it comes to internships, another respondent contended that there is “no better teacher than actual experience” but, beyond doing the “blocking and tackling of public relations work” while working at a company, part of the internship “should be spent engaging with other functions.” When it comes to co-curricular involvement, one senior leader opined that students who join campus organizations for their chosen profession are often better prepared to “keep up with the latest trends and expectations for graduates to be job-ready.” 

Based on these responses, a summary figure (see Figure 1) was constructed to integrate the panelists’ opinions and attempt to reach a general consensus. Then, the original question, along with the figure, as well as all the raw responses by the panel, were sent back to the senior leaders for review and comment. The second-round responses (n = 34) revealed a very high level of agreement (94% ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’). As such, a third round was not necessary. 

Figure 1

Recommendations by senior leaders for teaching business literacy to students.

With a larger Delphi panel, perfect consensus is rarely feasible. While the panel strongly agreed overall with the second-round summary figure, several respondents expressed some reservations about agency/company field trips as they relate specifically to helping to develop business acumen. As one panelist said, “I’m not questioning the overall value, but am questioning the value as it relates to developing business literacy” and “the visits would have to be structured with that in mind.” Overall, the panel strongly endorsed experiential learning for communication students, saying that “hands-on, real-life experience is key” and “all of these are good as long as they are aligned with the students actually ‘doing’ versus ‘studying’.”

RQ2: Business Literacy in the Workplace

In the first round, the panel (n = 36) responded to an open-ended question, which asked them: Based on your experience, what has worked the best over the years in developing the business literacy of your team members in the workplace? As with RQ1, panelists were allowed to provide up to three training and development recommendations. An analysis of the open-ended responses indicated that recommendations generally were set in the workplace, as in during traditional office hours (whether onsite or remote) for a position, or outside of the workplace, defined as often occurring outside of the office hours associated with a position. 

For within the workplace, the panel recommended that rising communication professionals study internal materials on the “businesses of the business” (examples included reviewing quarterly earnings releases/reports, annual reports/meetings and public company S.E.C. filings); attend internal training and development sessions and programs (held by internal and external recognized speakers/trainers on key business subjects); join internal mentorship, sponsorship and/or coaching programs; network, shadow and/or embed with other business functions/units and gain more cross-functional experience beyond PR and communication; and go on “hands on” field visits outside of the office (examples included “ride-alongs” in the field, “walking the floor” of factories, and “voice of the customer” mystery shopping and customer service work). On this latter recommendation, a panelist said they have their communication team members visit the operations and the field “as often as possible,” as there is “nothing better than ‘walking the floor’ to learn how the company operates and makes its margin.” Several panelists noted that some large corporations provide “finance for non-finance professionals” training and workshops; communication pros should take advantage of such development opportunities. 

Incorporating several of the recommendations outlined above, one senior leader recommended the following “learning-by-doing” training for developing one’s business acumen: 

Mandating in annual performance evaluations for my senior team that they all actively participate in at least two corporate earnings cycles within our company, to include the creation of the quarterly narrative, the press release and investor presentation, the pre-call “murder board” with the CEO & CFO, the post call media availability, the quarterly all-hands employee call, and overall event wrap up & alignment meeting with all key functional stakeholders. 

For training and development outside the workplace, the panel provided a series of recommendations related to business literacy. Specifically, panelists recommended that rising communication professionals immerse themselves in business news, books, and reference guides; join business-oriented professional associations, including taking on leadership positions; completing external business-oriented seminars and courses, offered by professional associations, colleges and universities and other education providers; and earn a graduate business degree, such as a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA). A panelist noted that they have had “high potential team members get MBAs, which has greatly enhanced their effectiveness and potential for future success.” In terms of specific coursework, there was a recurring theme that rising leaders need to be able to read and interpret financial statements and become versed in financial management concepts. As one panelist explained, professionals should attend workshops that help them understand “core financial documents,” including the balance sheet, income statement and statement of change in financial position, and “often used business metrics (i.e., key ratios), marketing terms and financing instruments.”    

A summary figure was constructed to integrate the panelists’ opinions and work to reach a general consensus. The original question, the summary statement and all the first-round individual responses were then sent back to the panelists for review and comment. As with RQ1, the second-round responses (n = 34) indicated a very high level of agreement (97% “agreed” or “strongly agreed”) with the summary figure so a third round was not necessary. 

Figure 2

Recommendations by senior leaders for teaching business literacy to professionals.

A key takeaway from the panelists in their second-round responses was that for the business literacy development recommendations to be most effective, communication professionals must be willing to “raise their hands” and be self-motivated to learn. For example, one respondent remarked: “you often have to ASK to be included in prep sessions, meetings and calls, etc. Assert confidence in this area, which isn’t always the strongest for communicators as you raise your hand, volunteer, schedule a coffee with a business/financial SME” (Subject matter expert). Another panelist implored rising communicators to “ask to be invited” to non-communication meetings. Yet another respondent found that “shadowing and mentoring only works when people are curious and engaged and put time into getting knowledge of it.” Finally, a different senior leader observed that “these are all good” but “the student/employee has to be dedicated to learning it.” 

RQ3: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Business Literacy 

For the first round, the panel (n = 36) responded to an open-ended question, which asked them to consider: There is growing recognition that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) should be incorporated into all aspects of corporate communication and PR. As such, do you have any thoughts on how to help infuse DE&I into business literacy education? As with RQ1 and RQ2, panelists were allowed to provide up to three recommendations. 

In general, the panelists strongly indicated that DE&I should be integrated into all aspects of business and communication strategy. Some respondents further argued that the communication function has the opportunity to lead when it comes DE&I in organizations. Further, panelists suggested that more diverse voices on teams and an inclusive culture can contribute to business success. In the words of one senior leader, DE&I needs to be “front and center part of every conversation about communication strategy.” While another leader said that DE&I “should be incorporated as part of business strategy and approached similar to other key business priorities in communication.” Another panelist summed up the increasingly critical relationship between DE&I and communication and business strategy as: 

DE&I must be embedded into business strategy from internal and external perspectives. Therefore, any understanding of a company’s strategy, must include an understanding of its plans for DE&I. This includes the catalytic role that DE&I excellence can play in business and personal success. In addition, communicators must understand how to develop and enhance culture as business & reputation strategy. Again, DE&I leadership leads to a stronger culture. 

Many panelists also recommended that students and young professionals complete unconscious/implicit bias training. A respondent suggested that educators should “consider putting unconscious bias curriculum on the list for special topics courses for all comms majors to take as required or elective course work.” Some specific recommendations on integrating DE&I into business literacy training and development focused on using case studies that can be unpacked from several different points of view (and not just the dominant perspectives of corporate leaders or investors); visits from industry professionals from diverse backgrounds as guest speakers; and class exercises and activities that help students see how DE&I contributes to organizational success (including measurement and evaluation on DE&I). DE&I “needs to be part of the fabric of the organization and have established goals with execution and measurement similar to other areas of the business.” Young professionals were encouraged to join company employee resource groups (ERGs) and mentoring programs. Some panelists did not feel that DE&I was being considered enough yet in business literacy training. As one respondent said: “I’m not sure that DE&I is part of business literacy yet. Let’s hope it will be one day.” 

A summary statement was constructed to integrate the panelists’ opinions and work to form a consensus. The original question, the summary statement, and all the first-round responses were sent back to the panelists for review and comment. As with RQ1 and RQ2, the second-round responses (n = 34) indicated very strong agreement (94% “agreed” or “strongly agreed”) with the statement so a third round was not needed. The final statement is as follows: 

Consistent with the quantitative measure, the open-ended responses in the second Delphi round also indicated strong support for the above statement. As one senior leader wrote: “Agree. The entire corporate world has a long way to go here! Well written statement above.” An important theme that was in the first-round replies and then was reinforced in the second round was the rise in the importance of environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) performance to the C-suite and corporate boardrooms, and how DE&I is a critical component of ESG. This linkage is astutely summed up by the observation of a senior leader:

For the purpose of a business literacy course, there could be value in looking more broadly at ESG – which is playing more heavily into financial comms and IR – and then go deep into the “E”, “S” and “G.” Within the “S” – there could be a standalone session on DE&I – and the value of DE&I in creating sustainable workforces with contributions from a guest expert/lecturer who can speak about DE&I from a perspective that transcends business management and reputation management.


Public relations and communication professionals typically have a “way with words”; they are connoisseurs of the alphabet. Shifts in the expected competencies of practitioners mean that their skillset should resemble more the letter “T” when it comes to future leadership training and talent development (Essenmacher, 2022). Specifically, communicators are increasingly expected to not just be well versed in the vertical portion of “the T”—maintaining deep knowledge and skills in the art and science of communication—but the horizontal portion too, demonstrating fluency that spans “the business of business.” The results of this Delphi panel of senior leaders on business literacy has significant implications for pedagogy and practice.  

Teaching Business Literacy to Future Leaders 

Career success in public relations increasingly requires a commitment to “lifelong learning” that extends beyond the student’s time as a PR or communication major (Rutherford, 2021). When a student graduates, their learning journey is just beginning. As such, PR educators should be interested in the learning and development that is going on in the PR and communication workplace and look for ways to help support these efforts post-graduation. 

Fostering collaboration between educators and industry professionals is essential to fulfilling the recommendations of the senior leaders on teaching business literacy to PR and communication students. From industry guest lectures, case studies, and real-world projects in the classroom to going on agency/company field trips and providing internships outside of the classroom (see Figure 1), close ties between educators and professional networks are required. The results of this study reaffirm the call by Bardhan and Gower (2020) for a stronger bridge between education and industry to help accelerate actionable change in the profession. 

Educators should actively look for ways to get their scholarly insights and expertise into practitioner-friendly settings, such as by presenting at industry conferences and contributing to industry trade publications, as well as by serving on industry committees and boards alongside practitioners. Conversely, practitioners should invite educators (and their students) into their organizations for learning and networking opportunities, which can result in collaborative research, class projects, internships, entry-level jobs and more. Such educator-industry efforts ultimately will help better prepare the future leaders of our field—students and graduates. 

There may be a concern among some PR educators that they do not have sufficient training to teach business-oriented materials. This is yet another reason to collaborate with the industry professionals who have such knowledge and expertise. In a related vein, the Delphi panelists also recommended that PR majors try to take coursework in the business school. PR educators should encourage students to consider doing so, although at some colleges and universities, the business schools are resistant to having non-business majors in their courses. Further, there are advantages to developing business essentials courses and modules specifically tailored to the needs and knowledge levels of communication students (Duhé, 2022).   

The PR curriculum is already packed with required courses and recommended electives for students (CPRE, 2018). At some colleges and universities, business literacy content is being incorporated into existing required courses in the curriculum, such as PR Management and PR Campaigns. In other cases, educators are designing new courses on business fundamentals for PR students. Examples of universities doing the latter include DePaul University, Marquette University, New York University, University of Minnesota Twin Cities, and the University of Southern California (Ragas & Culp, 2021). Finally, institutions that have successfully fostered collaboration on coursework between the communication and business schools include Elon University and Syracuse University. 

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion 

A stronger bridge between education and industry could also accelerate the diversification of the talent pipeline in the public relations and communication industry (Bardhan & Gower, 2020). The field remains whiter and less diverse than the US population (Diversity Action Alliance, 2021), and continues to struggle with equity and inclusivity (Bardhan & Engstrom, 2021; Brown et al., 2019; Vardeman-Winter & Place, 2017; Wallington, 2020; Wills, 2020). Greater education-industry collaboration may sound straightforward on the surface, but it should be coupled with thoughtful intentionality around the building of such partnerships. 

For example, many C-suite leaders went to flagship public universities or to elite private colleges and universities (Crist Kolder Associates, 2022). In turn, these may be the institutions of higher learning where these business executives have existing ties and may be the most inclined to support. Communication professionals are encouraged to make an intentional effort to work more with administrators, faculty, and students at institutions with a focus on educating first-generation college students and students from diverse backgrounds. This includes partnering with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs), and Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving institutions (AANAPISIs).   

The results of the Delphi panel for the DE&I research question seem somewhat self-explanatory. Of course, emerging leaders should complete unconscious and implicit bias training. An interpretation of these findings is that DE&I remains in the early-to-intermediate stages at many organizations, including when it comes to a subject such as the integration of DE&I into the business literacy development of team members. As one senior leader on the panel remarked: “I’m not sure that DE&I is part of business literacy yet. Let’s hope it will be one day. In the meantime, communications professionals should be studying DE&I to the same extent that it is taught to human resources, psychology, and/or organization behavior students.”

Leadership Training and Development 

The findings of this study support prior research, which generally finds that senior communication leaders believe that business acumen is critical to their career success (Krishna et al., 2020; Neill & Schauster, 2015; Ragas et al., 2015) and that developing the business literacy of their team members is a priority (Penning & Bain, 2018, 2021). The senior leaders recommended that emerging leaders participate not just in internal training and development programs, but also in external programs, including attending conferences, workshops, completing certificates and even earning graduate business degrees (see Figure 2). Pursuing these professional development opportunities takes a commitment of time, effort, and resources not just by the emerging leader, but by their employer, their supervisor(s) and their colleagues. 

Survey research by Jain and Bain (2017) suggests that in-house senior communication leaders say that training and development is important but, after staffing costs and agency/consultancy fees, there is little remaining budget for professional development and program measurement. In light of these findings, Jain and Bain (2017) argue that “talent and performance should become a top priority and not an afterthought” (p. 14). In the context of the current study, if senior leaders are serious about improving the business fluency of their teams and bringing their recommendations to life, then a stronger commitment must be shown to training and development budgets. Such a commitment may not only enhance the strategic value and performance of communication teams (Berger, 2019), but could assist in attracting and retaining rising talent in a desirable job market for employees (Penning & Bain, 2021). 

Limitations and Future Research

As with any study, there are limitations that should be acknowledged and discussed. Such limitations also provide pathways for future research. While the Delphi panel method has its previously discussed strengths, it also has its potential weaknesses (Avella, 2016; Hsu & Sandford, 2007; O’Neil et al., 2018; Ragas, 2019). For example, the anonymity afforded by this approach should have uncovered the opinions of the panelists (and not allowed one respondent to dominate), but it may have also suppressed the spirited debate that might be found in a focus group (Watson, 2008). It is also worth considering the potential influence of the researcher on the group’s opinions, as well as potential recruitment bias. For example, the Page membership leans heavily toward corporate rather than nonprofit organizations. Further, to encourage the continued participation by busy executives in a multi-round process, agreement and feedback was solicited for the overall summary statements, rather than for individual items within statements. Finally, the results of a Delphi panel are not necessarily generalizable. As such, future quantitative research using probability sampling could be valuable in advancing this work. There is also the need for cross-national and cross-cultural comparative research on this subject. 

The senior leaders who served on this Delphi panel have a wealth of professional experience and unique vantage points on managing and developing talent in the workplace (Arthur W. Page Society, 2016, 2019; Bolton et al., 2018). While they may serve as class guest speakers and student mentors, they are generally not college or university instructors of record. As such, this should be kept in mind when interpreting their recommendations on teaching business literacy to communication students and graduates. Therefore, future research is needed that specifically gathers and analyzes the experiences of public relations and strategic communication educators who have taught business literacy and communication management in the classroom. In a related vein, while the perspectives of senior leaders are invaluable, there is also value in triangulating the current study’s findings against the perspectives of emerging and rising communication leaders regarding developing greater business fluency. Such a future research program would provide a more holistic view of professional development on business literacy through various career stages (Berger & Meng, 2014; Krishna et al., 2020). 


For decades, educators and practitioners have argued that the public relations and communication profession can be most effective when it has a “seat at the table” or at least advises those in the “room where it happens” (Grunig, 2006; Turk, 1989; Ragas & Culp, 2021). The rise of environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) performance and a stakeholder capitalism approach to business on the corporate boardroom agenda is notable for the field. To serve as trusted advisors and counselors on these domains means that the expected competencies of the PR and communication graduate and emerging leader is changing and expanding (Jain & Bain, 2017). More specifically, communicators with business acumen are needed by the corner office (Neill & Schauster, 2015; Ragas et al., 2015; Roush, 2006). It is hoped that pedagogy-focused studies such as this one will help to accelerate the training and development of the next generation of PR and communication professionals prepared to lead. 


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© Copyright 2023 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Ragas, Matthew. (2023). Developing Business Literacy in the Classroom and the Workplace: A Delphi Study of Corporate Communication Leaders. Journal of Public Relations Education, 9(1), 82-116. https://journalofpreducation.com/?p=3589

Developing a New Generation of Public Relations Leaders: Best Practices of Public Relations Undergraduate Programs

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted to JPRE August 30, 2017. Revision went under review August 10, 2018. Manuscript accepted for publication October 1, 2018. Final edits completed January 20, 2019. First published online January 31, 2019.


Michele E. Ewing, Kent State University
David L. Remund, Drake University

Lauren Dargay, Kent State University (picture not available)


This qualitative study explored best practices for leadership development within U.S. accredited and/or certified undergraduate public relations programs. Researchers conducted a qualitative content analysis of website content regarding leadership development for 110 undergraduate programs offering a public relations major, which are accredited by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC) and/or hold Certification in Education for Public Relations (CEPR) by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). The second phase of the study involved semi-structured interviews (n = 19) with program directors and educators identified through website analysis as having the most information about fostering leadership development; additional programs were included in the sample, based on interviewees’ recommendations. The results suggested four components for undergraduate public relations programs to help develop the next generation of leaders.

Keywords: public relations, leadership, leadership development, public relations education, public relations curriculum

The authors thank The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations for grant funding to support this research.

Developing a New Generation of Public Relations Leaders: Best Practices of Public Relations Undergraduate Programs

Scholars have already established that leadership is essential to effective public relations practice (Berger & Meng, 2010; Meng, Berger, Gower, & Heyman, 2012). Subsequently, the Commission on Public Relations Education (2015) advocated for better integration of leadership development in public relations education. Further, this need to develop future communication leaders was conveyed in the largest global study of public relations leadership to date (Berger & Meng, 2014).

How to best go about developing the public relations leaders of tomorrow, however, remains a difficult question to answer. Researchers have looked at the degree to which educators integrate leadership development within existing public relations courses (Erzikova & Berger, 2012); how perceptions of leadership differ between college students and established practitioners (Meng, 2013); and even the specific competencies that aspiring public relations leaders need (Jin, 2010). A study among U.S. students, young professionals, and senior professionals supported the need for undergraduate curricula to include courses with leadership/management principles (Remund & Ewing, 2015). Further, this study indicates that young people in public relations want to step into leadership responsibilities to gradually acclimate to the demands.

This qualitative study builds upon existing scholarly knowledge while filling a gap. The study was designed to identify and analyze best practices for leadership development within undergraduate public relations programs in the United States.


Leadership development has gained traction as an issue in public relations practice and as a focus for scholarly research. The Plank Center for Leadership’s global study emphasized the need for leadership development to be better integrated in educational curricula (Berger & Meng, 2014). However, while researchers have acknowledged the growing importance of developing leaders within the public relations profession, the scholarly examination of best practices for leadership development is comparatively thin, particularly as it relates to how such practices actually come to life in undergraduate education.

To better emphasize leadership development and improve public relations curriculum, Berger and Meng (2010) recommended educators must first determine how leadership is taught in undergraduate courses and to what extent it is taught and incorporated into existing courses. They need to pinpoint where the gaps in education exist, and find effective ways to teach leadership to students. This study begins to help answer these important questions.

Leadership in Public Relations

Prior studies have explored how public relations roles are defined, how the communication function is structured within corporations and other organizations, and the competencies and cognitive qualities that communication leaders must possess in order to be effective (Algren & Eichhorn, 2006; Berger, 2005, 2009; DeSanto & Moss 2004; Dozier & Broom, 2006; Lee & Evatt, 2005). Additionally, J. Choi and Y. Choi (2009) identified seven dimensions of public relations leadership. They determined that leadership in public relations includes “upward influence, coordinating, internal monitoring, networking, representing, providing vision, and acting as a change agent” (p. 292). These aspects indicate that leadership in public relations is multidimensional and involves a variety of skills (Choi & Choi, 2009).

Still, the concept of leadership is difficult to define (Gaddis & Foster, 2015). A variety of attributes are involved in leading and leadership roles, and some individuals may consider certain aspects of leadership to be more important or valuable than others. Additionally, previous research suggests that public relations professionals consider leadership in their field to be different from leadership in other fields (Berger & Meng, 2010). Therefore, Berger and Meng (2010) developed a definition of leadership in public relations as “a dynamic process that encompasses a complex mix of individual skills and personal attributes, values, and behaviors that consistently produce ethical and effective communication practice” (Berger & Meng, 2010, p. 427; see also Meng et al., 2012, p. 24). This definition takes into account that leadership is an ever-evolving process that consists of skills, characteristics, values, and actions. Berger (2012) asked participants in his study to rank 12 leadership-development approaches according to importance. The highest-rated leadership-development approach was “strengthen change management capabilities,” followed by “improve the listening skills of professionals” and “enhance conflict management skills” (Berger, 2012, p. 18).

The Need for Expertise in Leadership

In public relations, good leadership has the potential to strengthen the entire field and to increase organizational effectiveness (Petersone & Erzikova, 2016). Additionally, good leadership benefits both organizations and employees. Meng (2014) found that “organizational culture generates a direct, positive effect on the achievement of excellent leadership in public relations. More importantly, excellent leadership in public relations also influences organizational culture by reshaping it in a favorable way to support public relations efforts in the organization” (p. 363). Developing communication leaders who can navigate issues and respond effectively is critical, as organizations become more dynamic and change rapidly (Meng, 2015).

Gender may play an important role. Women have dominated the public relations field during the past two decades and female enrollment in many undergraduate public relations programs has exceeded 80% (Daughtery, 2014). However, some scholars argued that feminization of the public relations field has resulted in lower pay (Aldoory & Toth, 2002; Grunig, Toth, & Hon, 2001), less power (O’Neil, 2003) and slower advancement to leadership (Grunig et. al, 2001). In turn, a 2012 study indicated that manager role enactment and participation in management decision-making were among the factors contributing to the pay inequity between male and female public relations professionals (Dozier, Sha, & Shen, 2013).

Gender poses unique challenges at work, making leadership development particularly vital for women. It is essential that public relations students, young professionals, and experienced practitioners be trained in leadership skills and informed about best practices to develop strong leadership. A nationwide study involving interviews with senior public relations practitioners, recent graduates, and students nationwide showed young professionals and students want to be mentored and have actual leadership responsibilities, need to take risks without the fear of failure, and know that hard work is important (Remund & Ewing, 2015). This interest in leadership among young public relations professionals and students, as well as the need to focus on leadership development, provides an opportunity to break down barriers for future female leaders.

Although the demand for strong leaders in public relations is high, leadership training is inconsistent. Berger (2015) concluded that “a lack of leadership development programs,” and “incredibly high expectations for future leaders in the field” exist (p. 50). Consequently, teaching and mentoring students and professionals how to be good leaders is essential in helping them succeed in the field. The literature documents limited leadership-specific development and training for students and professionals, but not much is being done to address this problem. Based on the Plank Center for Leadership’s study among public relations professionals in 10 countries, Berger (2015) concluded that there is no sense of urgency to address the need for leadership development programs within companies or schools. Meng (2015) noted, “Although the profession has advocated for leveraging the roles of public relations to a managerial and strategic level, the actual effort in building up the pipeline of future leaders in the profession is delayed” (p. 31).

Best Practices for Developing a New Generation of Leaders

While the literature has conveyed the need for leadership expertise in public relations, limited research focused on best practices for developing the next generation of public relations leaders has been conducted. Earlier research suggests that university programs need to focus specifically on leadership skills. Bronstein and Fitzpatrick (2015) stated, “To truly groom a generation of leaders for the future will require intentional leadership training” (p. 77). Some scholars argue that leadership training should occur both in and outside of the classroom. Shin, Heath, and Lee (2011) explain that contact with professionals and professional organizations will prepare students to become public relations leaders. A study conducted by Erzikova and Berger (2012) indicates that PR educators advocated “a holistic approach to teaching that includes more specialized leadership content, greater access to PR leaders and role models, and increased opportunities for related experiences outside of the classroom” (p. 3).

Integrating leadership development into curriculum. Some scholars contend that students learn about leadership as they progress through the program (Berger, 2015). However, many scholars believe students need more leadership-specific training and education. Bronstein and Fitzpatrick (2015) argued that undergraduate public relations programs do not focus enough on leadership. “In higher education, there is a remarkable scarcity in designing, integrating, and delivering leadership in public relations teaching and education” (Meng, 2015, p. 31), which has a negative impact on future generations of leaders. The lack of curricular integration of leadership development slows the development of future public relations leaders (Meng, 2015). Even when leadership development is integrated, concerns linger about how to teach it. Several researchers argue the curriculum requires a better balance of abstract concepts and real-world experience (Benjamin & O’Reilly, 2011). These authors noted, “Our challenge is to ensure that our curricula not only provide abstract concepts and frameworks but are also grounded in the real problems that our students will have to navigate” (Benjamin & O’Reilly, 2011, p. 468). Leadership is an abstract concept that requires contextualization and application to take meaningful root with students.

Scholars have made recommendations for how to integrate leadership development into curriculum in public relations programs. After comparing public relations students’ and professionals’ perceptions of leadership skills, leadership in public relations, and leadership development, Meng (2013) suggested six ways to incorporate the findings of her study into education: use the findings as a training checklist to discuss how to apply leadership principles in real-world situations; as an assessment tool administered before or after a public relations course; as the basis for a research project or a role play assignment involving strategic planning, an ethics scenario, or a crisis; and as a platform for discussions about issues in leadership or as assessment metrics to help students monitor and revise their ideas about leadership through internships or group projects.

Bronstein and Fitzpatrick (2015) argued formal leadership training in the curriculum would prepare students to become thought leaders, corporate leaders, and team leaders. They determined that students need a “leadership mindset, or a purposefully cultivated understanding of oneself as capable of exercising leadership in daily contexts” (Bronstein & Fitzpatrick, 2015, p. 78). Cooley, Walton, and Conrad (2014) explained that students need more exposure to leadership theory in their courses. They concluded, “PR professors do an adequate job of teaching students good management skills, but, generally speaking, the PR curricula needs more focus on theoretical understanding, development, and application” (Cooley et al., 2014, p. 444). Educators advocated that case studies, group discussions, and student-led projects are the most effective approaches to teach leadership content and concepts (Erzikova & Berger, 2012).

One challenge to integrating leadership development into the curriculum, though, is that schools focus on skills needed in first jobs rather than leadership skills (Bronstein & Fitzpatrick, 2015). According to Cooley et al. (2014), students must be prepared for their first jobs; consequently, skills training should take precedence. Practical skills and knowledge are necessary for students to be hired, so more focus is placed on those rather than on leadership skills. Further, a lack of leadership training and teaching experience among educators may create obstacles for leadership education (Erzikova & Berger, 2012).

As the literature review reveals, existing research on public relations education generally suggests that not enough is being done to address leadership development within undergraduate education, and there are mixed recommendations about how to hone leadership among public relations students. To that end, the first research question is:

RQ1: What are U.S. undergraduate public relations programs doing in the realm of leadership development?

Developing leadership skills outside of the classroom. Students can develop leadership skills through means other than coursework. Aside from more specialized leadership content in classes, educators say that more access to public relations leaders, mentors, and role models, as well as more opportunities for experiences outside of the classroom, will improve leadership development (Erzikova & Berger, 2012). Benjamin and O’Reilly (2011) determined that leadership should be taught through building procedural and declarative knowledge in a course, as well as through hands-on opportunities in which students can apply that knowledge. Mentorships and interactivity between students and professionals can also be beneficial in leadership development. Contact between students and professional public relations associations may help better prepare future leaders, as well as educate them on how leadership is viewed around the world (Shin et al., 2011). Finally, leadership skills can be developed and improved through extracurricular activities and involvement outside of the classroom. Haber, Allen, Facca, and Shankman (2012) found that individuals involved in student organizations self-reported higher emotionally intelligent leadership behaviors than students who were not involved, which suggests that the more involved an individual is in student organizations, the more that individual will practice emotionally intelligent leadership behaviors.

These prior studies make a consistent argument that leadership development should stretch beyond classroom instruction. With that position in mind, the second research question is:

RQ2: What are the recommendations among educators from U.S. undergraduate public relations programs for developing the next generation of industry leaders?


The study began with a qualitative content analysis of website content regarding leadership development for all 110 undergraduate programs offering a public relations major (Appendix A) that are accredited by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC), hold Certification in Education for Public Relations (CEPR) by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), or have both distinctions. This decision was based on the premise that these programs meet similar national standards. A second phase of the study included interviews with a sample of program leaders and/or educators to further explore leadership development best practices inside and outside of the classroom for public relations majors. The sample for the interviews was drawn from the full list of 110 programs and determined based on an analysis of these programs’ websites, as well as using a snowball sampling method (Stacks, 2016).

As part of the qualitative content analysis, the researchers conducted thematic analysis of website content for 110 U.S. programs offering an undergraduate public relations major to identify the extent to which leadership development is being addressed. This process, common in qualitative research, involved determining the essential information to know about each program and developing a guide to identifying, recording, and ultimately comparing such information (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002). Based upon the literature review, the researchers determined essential information for recruitment purposes, including whether the program’s website mentions leadership development in the undergraduate PR program description; mentions leadership in any of the PR course descriptions; offers a specific course on PR leadership/management, and whether that course is optional or required for PR students; whether the program has a PRSSA chapter; and whether leadership development is mentioned as a focus of that PRSSA chapter.

A thorough qualitative content analysis generally involves more than one researcher reviewing an entire data set and looking at each dimension in question, then drawing thematic conclusions based upon that comprehensive investigation (Boyatzis, 1998; Braun & Clarke, 2006; Guba & Lincoln, 1989). The researchers worked independently at first, with each person reviewing all of the programs’ websites and recording notes for each program, specific to the dimensions of essential information outlined above. The researchers subsequently compiled all of their notes into a cohesive spreadsheet for comparison, resolving or discarding any areas of substantive disagreement.

The qualitative analysis of website content helped form the essential foundation of knowledge from which an interview guide was developed. To choose programs for the interview phase, the researchers identified the programs that conveyed the most information about leadership development on their websites. As a whole, 18 U.S. programs were identified that explicitly emphasized leadership development in their curricular descriptions online; two of these programs were eliminated from the interview phase to minimize potential author bias in the study. An additional program was included in the interview process based on recommendations of primary interviewees; this purposive snowball process helped ensure a rich set of interviews. As Table 1 shows, the 19 interview subjects represented 17 U.S. universities, representing both public and private institutions, as well as those with large and small enrollments.

The second phase of the study involved semi-structured interviews (n = 19) with directors of the programs having the most robust information about leadership development on their websites, based on the qualitative content analysis of website content for all undergraduate public relations programs across the United States. An interview guide (Appendix B), based on literature findings and the website content analysis, ensured consistency in topics being discussed with participants.

Table 1

Table 1 Interview Subjects’ Experience (years)
University* Professional Teaching
Ball State University 19 6
Boston University** 14 14
Brigham Young University 15 22
Drake University 6 10
Illinois State University 16 13
Loyola University 3 28
Louisiana State University 25 26
Ohio Northern University 5 9
Ohio Northern University 8 16
Penn State University 10+ 9
San Diego State University 21 10
Syracuse University 7 21
Temple University 12 14
University of Florida 7 19
University of Florida 4 4
University of Georgia 15 15
University of Maryland 8 34
University of Oklahoma 23 16
Virginia Commonwealth University 5 5

*University of Alabama and Kent State University were excluded to minimize bias in the study.
**The inclusion of Boston University was recommended by interview participants.

Notably, the interview subjects possessed extensive experience in the professional industry and the classroom, as well as with managing academic programs. Participants, on average, had 14 years of teaching experience (range = 4 to 34 years), with seven years as PR sequence director (range = 1 to 30 years). In addition, participants had, on average, 11 years of professional experience (range = 3 to 25 years), largely in agency or corporate settings. Some also had worked in health care, government, military, and other sectors.

All 19 phone interviews were recorded and fully transcribed, representing 10 hours of interviews. The researchers used open coding when reviewing transcripts to identify major themes (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). They initially worked independently and then worked collaboratively to refine their examples that illustrate the major themes.


The study identified best practices for developing the next generation of leaders, including leadership training, curriculum revision, and more experiential learning opportunities.

Defining Leadership

When asked to define what leadership is today in PR, participants most often said leadership means having a vision of how to help move an organization or industry forward, thinking strategically and providing counsel. One respondent said, “Leadership means making decisions for our company and really being able to influence the strategy for different organizations.” Another respondent said: “It’s about defining a vision and setting an example.” One respondent noted:

It means to have a clear vision about the role of public relations as a strategic function of management; to take the responsibility of this important advising role; to be on top of your game in terms of time management, supporting your team, working as a team leader, and accomplishing your tasks according to the expectations of your supervisors.

The participants considered leadership to involve motivating staff members and helping them grow, especially by providing a professional and ethical example of what it means to lead.

Finally, participants talked about leadership in terms of simply managing a team or project and collaborating to get the necessary work accomplished. A respondent explained:

Leadership falls into the traditional realm of leadership in terms of managing employees, managing people. But I think in public relations it takes on a slightly other track as well, and that would be taking leadership on particular projects with multiple audiences simultaneously.

Developing Leadership Skills

Consistent with Berger’s (2012) findings, program leaders agreed that students and practitioners must develop change management, listening, and conflict management skills. Overall, the interviewees agreed with these findings and most often discussed change management. They noted that it is fundamental for both students and practitioners to understand and manage change because the world is transforming at such a fast pace; change is inevitable. As one respondent said: “PR people can be a catalyst for change. They’re the only ones—and I teach this—PR people are the only ones who are prepared or trained to be environmental scanners both internally and externally to an organization.” Another respondent said:

We will continue facing transformations of audiences, issues, and realities, especially socioeconomic and political reality. So definitely knowing how to understand and approach change, it will be fundamental…Change is going to also bring conflict, and we see those conflicts playing out right now in the political realm.

Some interview participants raised the point that change management, listening, and conflict management skills are related because listening helps manage change, and effective change-management skills will help minimize and resolve conflicts. One respondent explained:

To communicate with our various stakeholders in public relations, you have to listen. That is the way by which we get feedback, which then enables us to go back and modify, reinforce, or even keep things the way they are.

Best Practices for Cultivating Leadership

The results suggested four components for undergraduate public relations programs to help develop the next generation of leaders: train faculty about leadership, infuse leadership principles in every class, encourage students to pursue leadership opportunities, and provide accessible leadership opportunities through PRSSA, a student agency and experiential learning.

Train faculty about leadership. Interviewees emphasized the value of focusing faculty training and professional development on leadership. The more that faculty are familiar with leadership concepts, the more likely they seem to be able to intentionally integrate leadership development into courses. One respondent explained:

We need to get outside of our comfort zone…discover what are our leadership styles. What are our unconscious biases? We have to learn those things ourselves…because we can’t expect our students to do things that we ourselves haven’t attempted to do, learn, or understand.

Another respondent advocated a need for training:

I don’t think we’re doing a good job of teaching leadership. I’m sure there maybe are faculty who have either had more professional experience to complement their graduate work or who have more of a business-academic background…they have more development in leadership…. I’ve never had any leadership training formally.

Interview participants also recommended talking to faculty and exploring other undergraduate public relations programs to obtain ideas for leadership development. The educators suggested sharing leadership-related assignments, assessment methods, and coaching and mentoring activities for PRSSA and student agencies. Finally, participants recommended reading recent research on leadership and looking critically at faculty experience in leadership.

Infuse leadership principles into every class. Less than half of the programs offer a class specifically in public relations leadership or management. Indeed, based on both the analysis of website content and interviews, most of the programs included in the interview process cannot or do not offer specialized classes in leadership, which is consistent with Berger’s (2015) conclusions. When it comes to leadership development, the message from interview participants was loud and clear: Infuse these concepts in every class and get the core curriculum right because adding specialized classes in leadership isn’t easy or even necessarily more effective. Of the 110 universities included in the website analysis process, fewer than half of the programs offer a public relations management and/or leadership class, but all make a concerted effort to address leadership in the core public relations courses, particularly writing, case studies, research methods, and campaigns/capstone. One respondent explained, “We start in the classroom because that’s where we can have, I think, the greatest and most immediate impact on teaching leadership skills.” The best advice for administrators and educators is simply to build from the foundation they have in place. Nearly all suggested infusing leadership development within existing classes, rather than creating standalone courses focused on leadership. Part of the reason is simply because of accreditation and the associated credit-hour constraints.

They use service learning and/or group projects as teaching methods but provide coaching on leadership first. One respondent noted:

One easy way (to teach about leadership) is the group assignments we have in all of our classes at all the levels so that students learn how to work together. And, we often—not always, it sort of depends on the assignment—will ask the students to pay attention to their group dynamics so that we can discuss how it is that certain things happen in their groups, including leadership emergence, but especially group dynamics.

On the leadership development front, the programs have students conduct personality self-assessments, assign case studies for reading and discussion, and require students to interview and write about industry leaders. Some programs also provide PR-specific labs for certain required courses so that students can apply their talents and grow in a controlled, focused environment.   

Based on interviews, the assigned literature for leadership development heavily incorporates books, articles, and online resources, which describe an argument on the most important habits and skills an effective leader needs to possess, as well as personal growth. These pieces are written by journalists, business professionals, government officials, and scholars who have vast leadership experience or connections and stories to tell about others who exhibited good leadership skills. These books also give students tips on how to polish their communication skills. Other required books focused on the principles and theories of public relations, or professors encouraged students to stay current through news and business publications. These texts were often used in conjunction with another. Recurring authors included Heath Brothers, Jim Collins, Charles Duhigg, Peter Northouse, Tom Rath, and Peter Smudde.

Some educators used resources from the Institute of Public Relations, Page Center, Plank Center, and PRSA to facilitate leadership discussions. Multicultural case studies were often mentioned as reading materials for students to learn about diversity and inclusion within the public relations practice. These case studies were compiled from texts, professional trade journals, online resources, and the PRSA Silver Anvil competition.

Help students overcome fear of failure. Educators discussed the importance of coaching students to step up to take on leadership opportunities without fear of failure, which aligns with prior research (Remund & Ewing, 2015) indicating senior public relations practitioners supported the value of young practitioners and students taking risks and learning from mistakes. Experience builds confidence and leadership. One respondent said: “Help students stand up and have a voice and to take risks and occasionally fail. This generation hasn’t really been allowed to do that. It’s a much different student than even 10 years ago.” Another respondent further explained:

We don’t spend time developing them [students] as humans and a lot of times we push that off to the Career Center, which I don’t think is as capable as we are at developing them and getting them to apply those concepts back to the work they’ll be doing in the disciplines.

The educators interviewed for this study considered their vibrant PRSSA chapters as essential to grooming young leaders, which is consistent with Haber et al.’s (2012) findings. A respondent said, “Giving students the opportunity to operate in that environment where the stakes are a little bit higher than a grade and they can exercise leadership… that’s a huge part of the way forward.” Another respondent noted, “We also provide students with plenty of opportunities I will say nowadays to engage with the practice, both here at the college and in internships, and also in professional conferences and activities.”

The respondents also emphasized how rich their curricula are with group projects and service-learning opportunities, exemplified by capstone campaign courses that involve working with real clients on complex issues. One respondent noted: “Here are teachable moments about leadership, especially when things don’t go well, especially with a service-learning client.” Another respondent agreed, “Service learning is always really helpful. Many of our classes work with real clients. It helps students develop a sense of initiative. Any kind of real-world experience is helpful because it creates opportunities to require students to lead.”

Likewise, respondents mentioned that their student agencies are a tremendous incubator for fostering leadership, especially when the firm is guided by a faculty member with strong professional experience. One respondent noted:

The agency fosters the opportunity for students to grow into leaders…For example, [the agency was helpful for] one student who is smart and capable but lacked confidence in herself. It was great to watch that she started to believe in herself and see the growth.

Finally, the participants expressed that their internship programs are exceptional in terms of longevity and scope, often involving corporations, agencies, and other partners in out-of-state markets, including some of the biggest cities in the United States.

Assessing student growth in soft skills remains a challenge. Leadership is an abstract concept and is often not explicit in term of learning outcomes. To that end, many participants discussed challenges with evaluation and assessment. Most suggested incorporating peer reviews, conducting interviews with students, and/or assigning reflections, either as an individual writing project or group discussion. Several participants reiterated the importance of quality grading by instructors. Some participants discussed the use of exit interviews with senior students about their proficiency in a number of topics, including leadership. One respondent shared:

We have a series of questions that we personally answer about the students…we look at their resume and their portfolio, not only are we looking at what kind of experiences they have but one of the questions directly asks about what leadership experiences they had while they were in school. It doesn’t necessarily ask them to judge them or for us to qualify them, but at least we look to see where they have had leadership positions at any point in their college career, not just within the PR-related organizations.


 The first research question for this study centered on what U.S. undergraduate programs are doing in the area of leadership development. All of the programs participating in the interviews emphasize leadership in their core public relations classes, namely writing, case studies, research methods, and campaigns/capstone. Philosophically, this finding suggests that leadership development is more than simply traits or skills, but rather competencies that must be honed over time and through various experiences. That sense of acquired adaptability is also consistent with the notion of change management as an essential leadership skill needed in the future, according to Berger (2012). On the other hand, a specific course in leadership would undoubtedly offer significantly greater opportunities for students to learn about the various models of leadership, which models apply best to their individual personalities and strengths, and how to determine which method of leadership would work best in a given situation. That kind of comprehension and application certainly could not be possible in the context of a core course such as writing or research methods.

The second research question centered around recommendations that educators would offer for developing the next generation of leaders. Educators and program directors emphasized the importance of recruiting faculty with leadership experience and/or providing training opportunities for faculty to learn more about leadership development. Educators need to be informed about and comfortable with leadership so they can guide students to become effective leaders. One respondent noted, “The best bet is to infuse it (leadership principles), but unless… the faculty member has some expertise in it, they don’t usually teach it.” Participants suggested that faculty infuse leadership in every class and encourage students to participate in PRSSA and/or a student agency, as a de facto learning lab for leadership development. Educators felt it important that leadership be covered in all core courses and that students seek extracurricular ways to put leadership concepts into action. This notion of experiential learning is certainly consistent with the model of U.S. undergraduate public relations education. However, the onus is put squarely on the student to figure out what being a leader really entails, in an applied circumstance such as the PRSSA chapter or student agency. Faculty supervision, if any, would be minimal, and even less so would be in-the-moment coaching from a faculty advisor. Educators emphasized the importance of presenting leadership opportunities for students and encouraging students to lead inside and outside the classroom. One respondent said:

We really emphasize with students that you need to be on top of your game. You need to develop your own voice. You need to be self-directed. You need to be self-driven. You need to seek opportunities and take advantage of opportunities.

Ultimately, one is left to question just how consistently students can learn about leadership, given the time constraints of core courses and the freedom of a student-run PRSSA chapter or agency. Indeed, participants nearly unanimously agreed that assessment and evaluation are difficult at best when it comes to teaching leadership development. These findings underscore prior findings that suggest leadership development is lacking in public relations education and that greater training in leadership is crucial (Bronstein & Fitzpatrick, 2015; Meng, 2015).

This qualitative study sheds important light on the fact that greater leadership development is sorely needed in public relations. One respondent advocated this need:

We have to teach them how to be good managers of people; how to give feedback; how to understand how non-verbal communication might translate; how to be sensitive; and how to be good listeners. All those real basic things…but they’re not so basic. We (educators) just haven’t done a good job in our public relations curriculum. And as much as we want to say: “Oh, that’s what the business school teaches; we cannot wait and rely on business schools.”

Another respondent noted: “I’m glad you all are doing this study …. I’ve done a little bit of digging around and maybe there are some new courses, but I don’t think we’re doing a good job of teaching leadership.”

Though there are no silver bullets or straightforward solutions, one thing is clear from these findings: programs find a common strength in building upon their core courses and their primary extracurricular programs, such as PRSSA and student-run agencies. Adding specialized classes and additional experiences may not be necessary or even desirable; the most directly applicable learning may come in the most familiar of places: the classroom and the PRSSA chapter or client meeting. This study reinforced the need for leadership development to support the success of public relations graduates and public relations. One respondent noted:

Leadership in PR—in spite of the Plank Center and a few academics—is underserved and hasn’t been developed as much…we need to develop the field more, and we’ll graduate better students able to take leadership roles in the field. If we can help create talent, you know, leadership talent and people who can think for themselves, we’ll do the field a great service.


Qualitative research is appropriate to employ when exploring areas of inquiry that have not been studied to a substantial extent yet. To that end, this mixed-methods study employs qualitative research in an appropriate way, yielding new insights that had not previously been discovered through other means of scholarly research. However, findings from qualitative research cannot be generalized to a broader universe, and, therefore, their meaning holds true only within the context of the studied population. That depth of insight, both rich and substantive, speaks strictly to the subjects under analysis; a statistically sound quantitative study would be necessary to extrapolate these findings. In that spirit, a forced-response survey of a representative sample of all U.S. program directors would yield generalizable findings.

Still, learning and leadership development are organic and dynamic processes; the perspectives of the varied participants in this study affirm that fact. Quantitative research would yield generalizable data, yet such findings would simply serve as an underpinning and framework. Program directors and educators at all ranks would benefit, as well, from further qualitative and mixed-methods research, particularly related to pedagogical methods and student outcomes. Digging deep is what public relations educators need from future leadership development research – and it is what their students deserve in order to thrive in an increasingly complex world.


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O’Neil, J. (2003). An analysis of the relationships among structure, influence, and gender: Helping to build a feminist theory of public relations. Journal of Public Relations Research, 15, 151-179. DOI: 10.1207/S1532754XJPRR1502_3

Petersone, B., & Erzikova, E. (2016). Leadership and public relations in two emerging markets: A comparative study of communication in Latvia and Russia. Public Relations Review, 42(1), 192-200. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2015.09.007

Remund, D. L., & Ewing, M. (2015). The future of our profession: Developing future leaders. Public Relations Tactics. Retrieved from https://www.prsa.org/Intelligence/Tactics/Articles/view/11054/1110/The_Future_of_Our_Profession_Developing_the_Next_G#.V31EZLgrLIV

Shin, J. H., Heath, R. L., & Lee, J. (2011). A contingency explanation of public relations practitioner leadership styles: Situation and culture. Journal of Public Relations Research, 23(2), 167-190. DOI: 10.1080/1062726X.2010.505121

Stacks. D. W. (2016). Primer of public relations research (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Guildford Publications.

Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1998). Basics of qualitative research: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory (2nd  ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Appendix A: ACEJMC-Accredited and/or CEPR-Certified Programs Included in Website Audit

Name of Institution Name of the College/School Housing PR Program
Abilene Christian University Journalism and Mass Communication Department
American University School of Communication and Journalism
Arkansas State University Department of Communication
Auburn University School of Communication and Journalism
Ball State University Department of Journalism
Baylor University Journalism, Public Relations and New Media
Bowling Green StateDepartment of Journalism and Public Relations
Brigham Young University School of Communications
Buffalo State University Communication Department
California State University, Chico Department of Journalism and Public Relations
California State University, Fullerton College of Communications
California State University, Long Beach Department of Journalism and Mass Communication
California State University, Northridge Mike Curb College or Arts, Media, and Communication
Central Michigan University College of Communication and Fine Arts
Drake University School of Journalism and Mass Communication
Eastern Illinois University Department of Journalism
Eastern Kentucky University College of Business and Technology
Elon University School of Communications
Ferris State University College of Business
Florida A&M University Division of Journalism
Florida International University Journalism and Mass Communication
Grambling State University Department of Mass Communication
Hampton University Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications
Hofstra University Department of Journalism, Media Studies and Public Relations
Howard University School of Communications
Illinois State University School of Communication
Indiana University, Bloomington The Media School
Iona College Department of Mass Communication
Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication
Jacksonville State University Department of Communication
Kansas State University AQ Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications
Kent State University School of Journalism and Mass Communication
Lee University Communication Arts
Louisiana State University Manship School of Mass Communication
Loyola University, New Orleans School of Mass Communication
Marquette University Diederich College of Communication
Marshall University W. Page Pitt School of Journalism and Mass Communications
Middle Tennessee State University College of Media and Entertainment
Monmouth University Department of Communication
Murray State University Journalism and Mass Communication
Nicholls State University Department of Mass Communication
Norfolk State University Department of Mass Communications and Journalism
North Carolina A and T State University Journalism and Mass Communication
Ohio Northern University Communication and Media Studies
Ohio University E.W. Scripps School of Journalism
Oklahoma State University School of Media and Strategic Communications
Penn State College of Communications
Radford University College of Humanities and Behavioral Sciences
Rowan University College of Communication and Creative Arts
San Diego State University School of Journalism & Media Studies
San Jose State University Journalism and Mass Communications Department
Savannah State University Department of Journalism and Mass Communications
Seton Hall University College of Communication and the Arts
Shippensburg University Department of Communication/Journalism
South Dakota State University Journalism and Mass Communication
Southeast Missouri State University Department of Mass Media
Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville Department of Mass Communications
Southern University Department of Mass Communication
St. Cloud State University Communication Studies
Syracuse University Newhouse School of Public Communications
Temple University School of Media and Communication
Texas Christian University Bob Schieffer College of Communication
Texas State University School of Journalism and Mass Communication
Union University Communication Arts Department
University of Cincinnati College of Arts and Sciences
University of Alabama College of Communication and Information Sciences
University of Alabama, Birmingham Department of Communication Studies
University of Alaska Department of Journalism and Communication. Note: Strategic Communication Concentration and the major Journalism and Public Communication
University of Arkansas Walter J. Lemke Department of Journalism
University of Central Missouri Department of Economics, Finance and Marketing
University of Colorado, Boulder College of Media, Communication and Information
University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications
University of Georgia Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications
University of Idaho Department of Journalism and Mass Media
University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign College of Media. Note: College offers a certificate in PR, no degree
University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication
University of Kansas William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications
University of Kentucky College of Communication and Information
University of Louisiana, Lafayette Department of Communication
University of Maryland at College Park Department of Communication
University of Memphis Department of Journalism
University of Minnesota Journalism and Mass Communication
University of Mississippi The Meek School of Journalism and New Media
University of Missouri School of Journalism
University of Nebraska, Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications
University of Nevada, Reno The Reynolds School
University of New Mexico Department of Communication and Journalism
Note: Called Strategic Communication
University of North Alabama Department of Communications
University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism
University of North Carolina, Charlotte Department of Communication Studies
University of North Texas Frank W and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism
University of Oklahoma Gaylord College
University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication
University of South Carolina College of Information and Communications
University of South Dakota Department of Media and Journalism
University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
University of Southern Mississippi School of Mass Communication and Journalism
University of Tennessee Communications Department
University of Tennessee, Chattanooga Communication
University of Tennessee, Knoxville College of Communication and Information
University of Washington Department of Communication
University of Wisconsin, Eau-Claire Department of Communication and Journalism. Note: Called Integrated Strategic Communications, PR Emphasis
University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh Department of Journalism
Virginia Commonwealth University Richard Robertson School of Media and Culture
Virginia Polytechnic University College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences
Washington and Lee University Department of Journalism and Mass Communications
Wayne State University Department of Communication
West Virginia University Reed College of Media
Western Kentucky University School of Journalism and Broadcasting
Winthrop University Department of Mass Communication

Appendix B: Semi-Structured Interview Guide

Thank you, again, for volunteering to participate in this research project. Today’s interview should take no more than 30 minutes.

As you know from our email exchange, we are studying leadership development and inclusiveness within public relations curricula. We are talking with PR sequence directors and PR instructors. Our intent is to identify best practices and provide recommendations to the academy about how we can all help better develop the next generation of public relations leaders.

I’d like to remind you that your participation in this study is voluntary. You may now refuse to participate, or if you choose to participate as intended, you may stop today’s interview for any reason and at any point in the process.

Your responses will remain strictly confidential, unless you provide approval now, or at the end of today’s interview, for us to identify you with all or some of your replies. Otherwise, your input will simply be included in aggregate themes within the final report. Would you like to provide approval now, or shall we discuss this again at the end of the interview?

Finally, I’d like to remind you that research on human volunteers is reviewed by a committee that works to protect your rights and welfare. If you have questions or concerns about your rights as a research subject you may contact, anonymously if you wish, the University of Oregon Institutional Review Board (IRB) at 541-346-2510 or by e-mail to ResearchCompliance@uoregon.edu. If you contact the IRB, please refer to study number #16-146. 

At this time, I would like to confirm your participation in this research. Please say “yes” now, if you are willing to be interviewed. This will serve as your consent.

Do I have your permission to record this interview? The only use of the recording is for data collection and analysis. Do you have any questions or concerns before the interview begins?

  1. Let’s begin. I would first like to confirm a few details, simply for statistical purposes.
    • Tell me how many years you have served as PR sequence director (if applicable).
    • How many years have you been teaching public relations courses?
    • Did you work in the industry before joining the academy? If so, for what type of organization: corporation/business, agency/consulting firm, nonprofit organization, government, or other (please specify)?
  2. In your own words, tell me what you believe leadership means today in public relations.
  3. And how about inclusiveness in public relations?
  4. What do you feel would be the best way to develop the next generation of inclusive public relations leaders?
  5. A global research survey of thousands of practitioners worldwide identified the most pressing leadership needs as change management skills/capabilities, listening skills, and conflict management skills. How do you feel about this assessment? Why?
  6. What is your program doing well when it comes to fostering leadership development and/or inclusiveness? Please share a few examples.

For specific programs identified:
6a. Tell me about (name of course/program). Is this a requirement for PR students? Other students? What are the learning objectives?
6b. What is the structure and methods used to teach?
6c. Describe the core content. Is it possible to obtain a copy of the syllabus?
6d. Are diversity and inclusiveness covered within the course/program? If so, please briefly explain. If not, how and where is diversity addressed in the PR curriculum?
6e. What textbook(s) or other educational materials/resources are used?
6f. How is student learning evaluated?

  1. Are there other examples of leadership development and/or inclusiveness that come to mind within your own teaching? What teaching methods, assignments or other techniques do you use to foster leadership development and/or inclusiveness, beyond those already described? Please share a few examples.
  2. What advice would you give to a school that’s just starting a public relations program, or to someone new to teaching public relations, with regard to fostering leadership development and/or inclusiveness?
  3. When it comes to excellence in public relations education, what programs immediately come to your mind? Why?
  4. We are nearing the end of this interview. What haven’t we touched on today about leadership development and inclusiveness in public relations education that is important to include in this study?

NOTE: If subject did not provide approval for identity disclosure earlier, read the following:

As a reminder, your responses will remain strictly confidential, unless you provide approval for us to identify you with all or some of your replies. Otherwise, your input will simply be included in aggregate themes within the final report. Would you like to provide approval for us to disclose your identity? If so, for all replies or only some of them? If only some of them, which replies?

Thank you very much for your time.