Tag Archives: Training and Development

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

Training International Public Relations Teams: Active Learning in a Multinational Context

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted to JPRE January 17, 2019. Revision submitted April 25, 2019. Manuscript accepted for publication June 14, 2019. First published online January 21, 2020.


Bond Benton
Associate Professor of Public Relations
Montclair State University
Montclair, NJ
Email: bentonb@montclair.edu


From 2004-2014, the State Department conducted a series of trainings for local, non-United States staff tasked with public diplomacy projects. These projects focused on activities that would better tell the U.S. story to international audiences and highlight attractive aspects of U.S. culture to external constituencies. Given the applied nature of these projects, training organizers elected to use an active and applied learning approach for training design. Non-U.S. staff worked directly on real world public diplomacy projects as the primary focus of each training session. Training groups’ composition included both homogeneous groups (with participants all from the same country) and heterogeneous groups (with participants coming from multiple countries). Measured training outcomes demonstrated the effectiveness of applied learning in this context and improved outcomes for heterogeneous groups. Implications for teaching public relations, public diplomacy, and training pedagogy are considered.

Keywords: State Department, strategic communication, experiential learning, training and development, public diplomacy, diversity

Training International Public Relations Teams: Active Learning in a Multinational Context

Strategically communicating with an international constituency presents a challenge under the most ideal circumstances. Reaching an international audience primed to believe the message is imperialistic, hostile, dangerous, hateful, and untrustworthy (Sardar & Davis, 2002) presents a considerably more substantial obstacle. That, however, is the exact obstacle the United States State Department took on in efforts to improve U.S. perceptions in the world through improved public diplomacy. Public diplomacy relies on a multidisciplinary approach that integrates ideas from marketing, public relations, international relations, and cultural studies (Botan, 1997). Turning this approach into an actionable strategy necessarily relies on trained teams with knowledge of both the state they are representing and the constituencies they are addressing. In this case, the State Department was tasked with training teams to deliver key messages at consular and diplomatic posts throughout the world from 2004-2014. As this message would need local partners to navigate and adapt the approach to the conditions on the ground, teams were composed of non-U.S. citizens who work for the U.S. State Department. The unique focus of this training, coupled with the opportunity to study the impact of multinational training groups focused on public relations, provides an important contextual opportunity for research that has implications for both educators and public relations practitioners.


Public Diplomacy and the U.S. State Department

Public diplomacy is based on the idea that states have fundamentally attractive dimensions that can be leveraged in the creation of improved relationships with a variety of international stakeholders (Sevin et al., 2019). An improved national image can lead to greater trade opportunities, more tourism, better positioning in international negotiations, and a decrease in international acrimony, potentially resulting in improved security and more favorable economic conditions. The public relations element of public diplomacy has been well-established. Dating back to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, states have regularly attempted to win over the publics of other nations by highlighting cultural and political characteristics that might be viewed as attractive to an international audience. While writing about the public relations dimension of public diplomacy, Sun (2008) argues that “American soft power has great influence worldwide from Hollywood stars to Harvard education, and through Microsoft applications” (p. 167).

The positive association with the economic and cultural dimensions of a country, if nourished through a program of public diplomacy, can “maintain and enhance long-term political relationships at a profit for society, so that the objectives of the individual political actors and organizations involved are met” (Sun, 2008, p. 168). Positive perceptions of a state can then serve as a buttress against negative attitudes directed against that state (Nye, 2004). A corporate social responsibility corollary is the investment that companies make “in areas like cause-related marketing to improve their reputation and create goodwill among consumers in the host country” (Choi et al., 2016, p. 82). In fact, Signitzer and Coombs (1992) argue that “public relations and public diplomacy seek similar objectives and use similar tools” (p. 137). The challenge, however, of public diplomacy mirrors the challenges faced in international public relations, which are well documented by both practitioners and researchers. As Taylor and Brodowsky (2012) note:

For the past three decades, increasing numbers of firms, at an increasing rate, have adopted a global mindset. Growth, if not survival, depends upon making the right decisions with respect to the international environment. (p. 149)

Taylor and Brodowsky (2012) further explain “there is widespread acceptance of the fallacy that IMR [international marketing research] can use the same approaches, theories, methods, and scales in different worldwide locations“ (p. 150). The idea that a successful messaging approach in one location will work equally well in another has been regularly shown to be a dubious thesis (Cheon et al., 2007). To remedy the dangers of an insular and homogeneous perspective in international messaging, the State Department regularly draws upon the perspectives of non-U.S. citizens employed by the organization when conducting public diplomacy. Non-U.S. citizens working at State Department posts comprise the bulk of the 42,000 staff members who work at more than 250 U.S. embassies and consulates worldwide. The term used in State Department literature describes them as the “glue” that holds U.S. diplomatic posts together (Bureau of Human Resources, 2007). As the “glue” of the organization, these international employees offer logistical bridges between the diplomatic post and region as many U.S. staff do not have the local cultural or language experience to create functioning programs in their posted countries (Asthana, 2006). Officials from the United States are assigned to a post for three years or less (and often for a much shorter duration than that). The job of U.S. diplomats posted overseas mirrors the expectations that many organizations face when operating internationally. They need to be sensitive to the needs of the local population, while ensuring the policies they enact match the overall vision Washington has for diplomacy. This need for adaptation to stakeholder needs while maintaining message consistency is echoed in literature defining the linkages between public diplomacy and public relations. In Vanc and Fitzpatrick’s (2016) analysis of public relations scholarship on the subject of public diplomacy from 1990 to 2014, they note that “studies examining the strategic aspects of public diplomacy, including works on media and messaging, revealed both commonalities in the two fields” (p. 436).

In terms of public diplomacy, the United States’ agenda is broadly to win the “hearts and minds” of people throughout the world. This became an acutely difficult objective to achieve in the early 2000s when worldwide public opinion against the United States was sharply negative in the context of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The extent of those negative attitudes was crystallized in a study issued by the U.S. State Department, which was delivered to the House Appropriations Committee in 2003:

The bottom has indeed fallen out of support for the United States. In Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, only 15 percent view the United States favorably, compared with 61 percent in early 2002. In Saudi Arabia, according to a Gallup poll, only 7 percent had a “very favorable” view of the U.S. while 49 percent had a “very unfavorable” view. In Turkey, a secular Muslim, non-Arab democracy that is a stalwart member of NATO and a longtime supporter of America, favorable opinion toward the U.S. dropped from 52 percent three years ago to 15 percent in the spring of 2003, according to the Pew Research Center. The problem is not limited to the Arab and Muslim world. In Spain, an early ally in the war in Iraq, 3 percent had a very favorable view of the United States while 39 percent had a very unfavorable view. (Djerejian, 2003, p. 19)

The longevity of these negative feelings was further validated in both academic and popular research. For example, Bellamy and Weinberg (2008) noted that over a five-year span in the 2000s, the percentage of people with a favorable image of the United States decreased 11% in Japan, 18% in Argentina, 30% in Germany, and only reached 51% in the U.K. (Bellamy & Weinberg, 2008, p. 55). Such low numbers represented a diplomatic liability extreme enough that popular sentiment against the United States could be a hindrance in conducting foreign policy. Thus, the call to speak to the needs of key global stakeholders in appropriate language and substance was paramount. The leveraging of opportunities created by the U.S. State Department’s sizable non-U.S. citizen workforce would necessarily need to be a key component of any such initiative. With this in mind, the State Department issued an open solicitation to create a training program for its staff of non-U.S. citizens in 2004. This multi-year training program would focus on developing strategies for localized programs and presentations that highlight attractive aspects of United States culture to key international publics.

In this context, the key role of non-U.S. staff would be that of an enabler and intercessory. Their primary approach to communicating U.S. messages to local populations must be consistent with Washington’s goals but adapted to match the needs of local targets. Managing messages and evaluating locally appropriate channels are the key components of their work. The term “engagement“ has gained much traction as a public relations concept as the idea that “stakeholders challenge the discourse of organizational primacy and organizations prioritize the need for authentic stakeholder involvement” (Johnston, 2014, p. 381). This emphasis on dialogue, where the motivations of local constituencies are reciprocal in messaging, mirrors much of the literature about the goals governmental organizations have when initiating public diplomacy (Leonard et al., 2002; Nye, 1990, 2002b, 2002a, 2004, 2008, 2009). While such activities may appear insignificant in something as massive as a state’s foreign policy program, the relationships built with publics in foreign countries can have a significant overall effect on the perceptions of that country. International staff working for the U.S. State Department can improve local constituency access in a number of ways. These include access to the local media channels, links to relevant programs and publics in the community, an understanding of local and regional government processes, and the skills to conduct research in a culturally appropriate and effective way.  These international partners also have credibility in helping to share the American messages in a way more likely to be accepted in the region.

While the opportunities provided by local resources are clear in any public relations strategy, efforts at effective public diplomacy have been sharply criticized for their failure to adapt to the needs of various international constituencies. Undoubtedly, some of the shortcomings are circumstantial. U.S. foreign policy decisions are frequently not well received by a number of publics worldwide. As the old saying goes, you can’t PR your way out of a product people hate. Echoing this sentiment, an internal study commissioned by the State Department (Djerejian, 2003) argued:

We must underscore the common ground in both our values and policies. We have failed to listen and failed to persuade. We have not taken the time to understand our audience, and we have not bothered to help them understand us. We cannot afford such shortcomings. (p. 24)

Given the constraints of the short posting periods for U.S. officials, it is not feasible for them to form the partnerships essential to key public relations tasks. As such, the bulk of stakeholder relationship building is contingent on the work of local, non-U.S. staff.  This creates organizational tension, as message creation is clearly under the domain of U.S. State Department employees, but adaptation and delivery of the message is sourced to local teams.  This tendency has been identified in the Ethnocentric, Polycentric, Regiocentric, and Geocentric (E.P.R.G.) schema, which demonstrates that organizations engaging with international constituencies will typically have a reflexive tendency to contextualize the processes of the country they are operating in with the processes of their home country (Mahmoud, 1975). Wind et al. (1973) describe this as the “ethnocentric phase“ (p. 14) of international messaging. Moving beyond this phase is particularly challenging, as Molleda et al. (2015) note that “organizations with operations in more than one country are confronted with differences in geography, culture, politics, economy, communication, and demands for transparency that make finding an appropriate balance difficult” (p. 335).

While many modern international operations have moved beyond this phase, State Department culture tends to be considerably more traditional and remains grounded in U.S. organizational preferences.  The State Department is hardly alone in this tendency as multinationals regularly emphasize their home countries’ cultures. As Samaha et al. (2014) indicate, “Despite the increase in international relationships, managers and academics have little guidance regarding whether or how strategies should be adapted in different countries“ (p. 78). This is reflected in substantial public relations literature that suggests the field remains quite homogeneous despite the increasing need for messaging to diverse audiences (Vardeman-Winter & Place, 2017). U.S. models and preferences still dominate public relations practice even in a global context (Freitag & Stokes, 2009). Diversification of the perspectives of public relations should be embedded in education and training, but shortcomings in this area remain. As Sriramesh (2002) succinctly states:

Public relations (PR) education has not kept pace with the rapid globalization . . . . The existing PR body of knowledge, and PR curricula around the world, have a US bias. In order to prepare PR students in various parts of the world to become effective multicultural professionals it is essential for experiences and perspectives from other continents to be integrated into PR education. (p. 54) 

For the State Department, some of this inward focus is institutional, but much of it is structural as well. The focus of the organization is ensuring that its staff remains on message in terms of mandates coming from a central leadership. At the same time, however, for messages to gain currency with targeted stakeholders, the message must be localized by teams of people who are not from the United States. Verčič et al. (2015) argue for improved training for international public relations teams by companies, which:

have to establish international training initiatives for communicators as well as an international selection process for communication staff, encourage international exchange of best practices and creative approaches, in corporate communications between countries, regions, as well as divisions and functions, and establish a visible international communication performance within the company. (p. 791)

Adult Learning and Public Relations Training

Active and experiential learning in public relations, marketing, and strategic communication training has been recognized as fundamental for successful outcomes (Alam, 2014; Bove & Davies, 2009; Craciun & Corrigan, 2010; Laverie et al., 2008). This need is seen in trainees at all levels but appears to be particularly salient in the case of adult learners. Specifically, prior research on adult learners has shown a preference for immediacy and the opportunity to have training sessions directly inform work in which they are currently engaged (Merriam & Caffarella, 1991). While learners in traditional college classrooms might be more willing to see learning as exploratory towards an eventual professional outcome, most professionals in a training session do not have the luxury of time. Additionally, adult learners typically bring professional experience to the training environment and look to utilize existing skills and prior knowledge in learning activities (Luke, 1971). While courses geared to university students frequently emphasize making challenging concepts accessible, the accessibility of adult learning frequently comes from contextualizing new knowledge with previous experience. Content ownership is important in training working adults, as participants want to feel a sense of authorship in the material that emerges from the training session (American Management Association, 1993). While periods of extended reflection and reinforcement are features of the university classroom, adult learners generally prefer action items they can immediately apply and refine through implementation in professional activities. The importance of this approach for a population engaged in international public relations practice becomes clear when considering many of the key challenges of the field.

Consistently, the most pedagogically sound way to navigate these challenges has been through active engagement and application activities on the part of training participants (American Management Association, 1993; Knowles et al., 1998; Luke, 1971). Contextual reflection and differentiation appear to be the most successful approaches to encouraging learners to consider different ideas related to international climates and the corresponding challenges related to culture that may emerge. While important theoretical lessons might be imparted through traditional lectures, the decision-making required to apply those principles requires dialogue, reflection, application, and activity (Hollensen, 2011). In a global context, diversity would appear to support these sorts of active learning outcomes. Multinational learning groups have been found to stimulate curiosity and foster a creative climate of collaboration among participants (Boehm et al., 2010; Fine-Davis & Faas, 2014). Specifically, culturally heterogeneous groups appear to have advantages over homogeneous groups in that they tend to foster less insular thinking and encourage consideration of new perspectives (Jacobi, 2018; Tyran, 2017). Diversity in training groups is seen as a particularly salient need for public relations (Verčič et al., 2015).

Given the State Department’s need for effective public diplomacy training and the specific needs of adult learners, the following research question emerged:

RQ1: What is the effect of active and experiential public relations training among non-U.S. citizens working for the U.S. State Department?

As cultural diversity would seem to support effective active and experiential learning, investigating diversity in training group composition begs the following research question:

RQ2: What are the differences in training outcomes between culturally homogeneous groups and culturally heterogeneous groups of non-U.S. citizens engaged in public relations training for the U.S. State Department?


Case Context

The situation the State Department faced in terms of global attitudes toward the United States presented an obstacle with non-U.S. staff serving as an opportunity for shifting the worldwide narrative toward attractive aspects of U.S. culture. As an organization, tensions existed between the necessity for message consistency and the need for localization of communication. Navigation of that tension to ensure the preferences of different global publics were respected was the responsibility of non-U.S. staff working within the institution. Moving the needle in terms of worldwide opinion of the United States was a key objective that would require creative, compelling, and well-researched communication tactics. To ensure that non-U.S. staff would be empowered to develop those tactics, effective staff training was a crucial component of this initiative.

Training Approach

With world attitudes towards the United States being an important focal point of the institution, the U.S. State Department made improving the communication skills of its international staff an area of emphasis. With that in mind, the 2004 solicitation issued by the State Department focused on skills-based training that would improve the ability of non-U.S. staff to define the attributes of local stakeholders and tailor the messages to appeal to local preferences. These local staff were tasked with creating a positive image of the United States in their countries in the hopes of accruing a range of public diplomacy benefits. As public diplomacy is intrinsically connected to public relations (Corman et al., 2008), consideration of effective public relations teaching methods was top of mind when constructing the training program for the local staff. Training these teams to ensure they could deliver a consistent message with appropriate localization was clearly a key component of this initiative. Given the distinct population associated with these trainings and the outcomes sought, a unique context for teaching public relations emerged.

In reviewing the mandates and circumstances outlined in the solicitation, it was clear that an approach emphasizing active and applied learning would be crucial for successfully training this population. In response to these exigencies, an approach focused on application-based learning of public relations principles served as a foundational direction in the proposal. The State Department found this approach to be most salient, and the proposal was accepted. As such, this case presented opportunities to test the viability of an applied experiential approach to public relations training in an international context.

Training Structure

Based on both the existing research and the needs of this specific group of adult learners, the training structure emphasized application-based active learning that leveraged the participants’ experience. This approach was operationalized in the proposal in several key ways. First, project-based scenarios tailored to the learners’ immediate needs would be built. Rather than teaching general theories and concepts related to public relations, participants would be tasked with assessing the values, interests, needs, and preferences of the countries in which they were working. They would also need to identify their organization’s overall objectives in the region and begin preliminary work on a strategy and set of tactics that would best meet those objectives. The character of the training would then turn those ideas into direct action plans with ideas for implementation. Thus, the training sessions would move away from lectures and speeches and would take on the character of a workshop. Participants would solve their own problems and collaborate with one another, with the facilitator offering guidance based on research related to public relations.

The Regional Program Office headquartered in Vienna, Austria, directed this training project. Upon acceptance of the proposal, training organizers immediately scheduled a series of fact-finding sessions focused on identifying State Department needs and outcomes sought.  The role that improved public relations could have in achieving key objectives was also considered. These sessions proved immensely helpful as much was discovered about the circumstances of local staff tasked with communicating on behalf of the United States. Many of the unique challenges they face also came to light. As noted, short duration postings for officials from the United States frequently made international staff the public face of the organization for their community and, by extension, the U.S. government.

Having identified key challenges and opportunities that would be the focus of the training, developing specific training structures followed. The structure of each session was based directly on best practices related to active and experiential learning of public relations. Robust scholarship supports this approach, particularly Kolb’s (1984) frequently utilized work on the subject (cited in Herz & Merz, 1998). This approach emphasizes learning by doing and is increasingly a staple of pedagogic methodologies in a range of public relations courses at universities:

Experiential learning exercises help students to confront problems; make decisions; understand conflict resolution; evaluate feedback; understand negotiation and bargaining and recognize, and perhaps change their attitudes . . . this offers an opportunity to interact with the real business world bringing relevance and currency. (Alam, 2014, p. 117)

This is particularly important for an audience of working adults because the emphasis on utilizing experience and providing content for immediate application is crucial to meeting their needs (American Management Association, 1993; Knowles et al., 1998; Luke, 1971). To ensure the training sessions met this standard and served the needs of participants, a pre-seminar questionnaire was distributed to all attendees. This survey requested that participants evaluate the specific needs of the community they would be attempting to reach, along with an assessment of the outcomes that were being sought in terms of reaching key stakeholders. From this, participants were tasked with coming up with an overall strategy and possible tactics that would be part of that strategy. While participant proposals would be refined in training sessions, the pre-seminar questionnaire required developed answers and research related to the following questions:

  • What goals does your post have for specific communities in the area that you serve?
  • Looking at the goals, what do people in those communities like about the United States? (NOTE: It could be anything from music to clothes to movies to brands).
  • What sorts of events and activities could your post do to showcase those areas of interest to people in the targeted community?
  • How would these activities reinforce the positive feelings that the community has towards certain aspects of U.S. culture?

Seminar sessions were organized according to each area with creative participation among diverse practitioners framing the text of the training, as prescribed by Verčič et al. (2015). Sessions focused on the first “goals” bullet point would include an overview of the importance of establishing goals and objectives from the facilitator. The bulk of the session, however, would be collaborative sharing from participants about the outcomes they have been tasked with achieving by their post. The “what do people like about the United States” item opens the door for sessions on audience analysis and the importance of understanding the attitudes and beliefs of a targeted public. Again, collaboration on this point is immensely important as seeing the distinctions between various publics is foundational for adaptation. The “events and activities” item would lead to sessions on the importance of tactics as instrumental activities that support goals and objectives. In this session, participant brainstorming about tactics in a safe space allows for creativity from multiple perspectives. The seminar was designed as an application-based endeavor with participants working with one another to develop, refine, and improve these plans with the guidance and direction of a facilitator, rather than a prescriber.

While this research represents an investigation into learner experience in a public relations training project, it could also be more broadly contextualized as an investigation into a specific case. As staff training was an essential component of U.S. State Department public diplomacy efforts, exploring that training from a case perspective provides heuristic value (Yin, 2013). Moreover, case studies have been recommended as a necessity in understanding the interplay between the activities of individuals within an organization and the effects of those activities on institutional outcomes (Lawrence et al., 2009). Training serves directive and creative functions in explaining individual activities within an organization, with organizational initiatives being better understood as an amalgamation of individual actions (Thompson, 2018). Thus, exploring public diplomacy training in the U.S. State Department functionally serves as an investigation of public relations pedagogy while providing a richer understanding of public diplomacy efforts overall. Assessment of outcomes is based on survey responses related to training effectiveness, coupled with qualitative inclusion of narrative statements from participants detailing their experiences. As training sessions occurred in multiple contexts, results are compared based on group composition. Culturally homogeneous group results are compared with culturally mixed, heterogeneous group results.

Population and Assessment Survey

All training sessions consisted entirely of international staff employed by the U.S. State Department. These staff members were engaged in public relations and communication related activities on behalf of the United States. As the State Department mandated consistency, the structure of each course was standardized, meaning that, insofar as possible, the experience of each participant in each context would be reasonably similar to all other participants. Upon completing the course, participants were required to complete a survey that measured their overall experience and also an evaluation of how learning would allow them to meet key outcomes related to public relations. These measures were constructed by the State Department and were required for use in the course evaluation. This survey was developed by the State Department to ensure the investment in training produced a return in terms of participant outcomes. These State Department measures offer meaningful insights into the perceived outcomes learners experienced.

Participants responded to a four point, Likert scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree). Assessed items on the scale included understandability, interest stimulated in course content, active participation, and the overall benefit sessions offered for future public diplomacy projects. Space was also provided for narrative responses where participants could directly share experiences in the training sessions.

Follow-up with participants and external observation of courses have consistently shown the survey to be useful for training outcome assessment (B. Pressler, personal communication, July 10, 2010). Performance assessment, external observation, narrative responses, and review of the training sessions further validated the outcomes identified by participants in the questionnaire.

Group Composition Comparison

The training sessions’ organization would also allow for an analysis of the effectiveness of public relations training in culturally heterogeneous versus culturally homogeneous groups. Specifically, several of the training sessions were slated to occur at a regional training office in Vienna. Participants for these sessions came from all over the world and collaborated on their respective projects together. Other sessions, however, occurred onsite in specific countries. The participants in these sessions all came from the same country. The opportunity to investigate the effectiveness of public relations training by comparing the outcomes of mixed, heterogeneous versus homogeneous groups was particularly compelling. It also offered the chance to evaluate how active and experiential learning strategies might be affected by group composition. This project provided a unique opportunity to explore how multinational groups of adult learners navigate public relations challenges in the training context.

There were two distinct contexts in which these courses were delivered with seven total sessions for this project. All sessions occurred from 2004 to 2014. Four of these sessions were delivered to participants at a regional training center in Vienna. The 48 trainees at these sessions came from different nations, as described in Table 1.

Table 1

Nationalities: Training Site Participants who Came to Vienna

The other three sessions occurred at American Embassies in the following nations: Baku, Azerbaijan; Vienna, Austria; and Yerevan, Armenia. The 37 trainees in these sessions were all citizens of the respective country in which the training took place. 


In investigating the research question “What is the effect of active and experiential public relations training among non-U.S. citizens working for the U.S. State Department?”, it was expected that course participants would report general satisfaction with training outcomes.  Research suggested the use of active, experiential, and applied pedagogy would be especially beneficial for this group of learners, and participant response supports such an approach. The mean scores from both groups on all assessed areas suggest general acceptance and appreciation for the training format. With a 4 indicating strong agreement with the perceived success of each area, the fact that the mean score of all participants approached 4 suggests the training was successful in fostering understandability, stimulation towards course content, active participation, and overall benefit for public diplomacy projects (see Table 2).

Table 2

Group Means

Several open-ended responses from participants reflect appreciation for the active and experiential approach of the training:

“I liked how we worked directly on items that I’m dealing with at my post. I can see how this will help when I return to work right away.”

“This was great! We had so much freedom and the facilitator really worked with us to figure out solutions to the problems we’d been having.”

“This wasn’t a lecture or a class, which I appreciated. They listened to me and let us work with each other.”

Based on the literature that strongly supports active and experiential learning (especially considering the needs of adult learners focused on public relations), training outcomes should show that greater diversity in group composition would foster improved course satisfaction overall. To investigate the research question “What are the differences in training outcomes between culturally homogeneous groups and mixed, heterogeneous groups of non-U.S. citizens engaged in public relations training for U.S. State Department?”, the difference between the means of mixed, heterogeneous groups versus homogeneous groups was calculated, as shown in Table 3.

Table 3

Evaluation Differences in Mixed vs. Homogeneous Groups: Mean Comparison

The “understandability” item was the only assessed area where the mixed nationality group did not clearly report higher outcomes than their homogeneous group counterparts. There are many viable explanations for this, including the fact that both groups scored quite high on this assessed item. Understandability also deals primarily with comprehension, rather than other measures that deal with creativity and development. In contrast, the area of greatest difference was in the stimulation offered by the content of the course. Those in the heterogeneous groups rated the stimulation received from the training at a 3.98 on a 4-point scale, while those in the homogeneous groups rated stimulation at 3.59. Experiential learning in public relations courses “requires that students draw on their direct experiences to reflect, test, and create new ideas“ (Munoz & Huser, 2008, p. 215) and group diversity appears to enhance these areas. At an intuitive level, a group with more diversity would naturally have more rewarding and diverse experiences to share. The creative dimension of experiential learning also appeared to be enhanced by having a range of unique and differing perspectives present. Participant-reported training outcomes appear to have benefited by the presence of diversity in the training group. Narrative comments from participants in heterogeneous groups also reflect this:

I learned so much from my colleagues from all over the world. It was great to hear they are facing many of the same issues as us.”

“Meeting people from all over was my favorite part of the course. They do some different things and we will totally look into trying them at our post.”

“I love my colleagues from around the globe!!!!”

“This was such a wonderful training and I will for sure be staying in contact with the people I met here. Great friends and we get so much from talking to each other.”

An example of an outcome produced by these activities emerged from German training participants tasked with youth outreach by the U.S. embassy in Berlin. Leaders at the embassy had also expressed interest in improving relationships with the large Turkish diaspora in the country. From the pre-seminar survey, the participants suggested programming that would appeal to both German and Turkish youth.  Working on this approach at the seminar, participants identified research that showed German and Turkish youth had a particular interest in American hip-hop music. During seminar sessions, the German participants were able to build a series of events featuring American, German, and Turkish hip-hop artists who would appeal to the targeted demographic.  Lauded by State Department officials, the approach was seen positively as mirroring Cold War era public diplomacy:

The State Department’s program is modeled on the jazz diplomacy that the U.S. government conducted during the Cold War by sending integrated bands led by Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman to Africa, Asia, and the Middle East to counter Soviet propaganda and instead promote “the American way of life.” (Aidi, 2014)

Such examples offer insight into the focus of the training sessions, where the bulk of the course was guided by management of tangible, real world public relations challenges, rather than lectures and directives from the facilitator.


Diversity and Active Learning

The results broadly support the effectiveness of experiential and active learning strategies. Initially, this reinforces the rationale for such an approach for groups working on projects related to international messaging. In this instance, the application-based structure seemed ideal to a staff of non-U.S. citizens tasked with public relations initiatives by the U.S. State Department. The role they play in public diplomacy programs for the U.S. State Department has been well-established, and training outcomes like these speak to strategies on improving the training and preparation that goes into such initiatives. The creation of groups that were diverse in terms of nationality did not, in any way, compromise the overall effectiveness of active learning (Chang, 2009) and likely offered unique benefits that made the applied piece of the training more effective. This suggests an approach to international public relations teams’ composition should likely attempt to ensure diversity of cultural backgrounds for such teams. As indicated, an organization that truly embraces international opportunities will integrate the perspectives of constituents from throughout the world and create a vision for successful communication that transcends the limited perspective of a single group (Mahmoud, 1975; Wind et al., 1973). The composition of groups tasked with international public relations projects and the corresponding training they receive is an important element of this optimization.

The results of this project also reinforce the importance of facilitating diversity in the public relations classroom. As public relations, like all fields, continues to globalize its scope, educators would do well to create spaces of international engagement in their courses. Doing so supports the professional development of students who will be practitioners in a multinational environment. The feedback from this particular case would suggest that learning overall would be enhanced when public relations students learn through engagement with diversity.

Limitations and Future Research

The results of this research are promising, yet key limitations should be acknowledged in the context of discussing this project’s broader significance. Initially, the group being investigated was relatively small in size and highly specialized in terms of their needs. Non-U.S. citizens working for the U.S. State Department are distinct and tasked with a very specific form of public relations. Making more general assumptions about a larger population could prove problematic when thinking about the specialized nature of this group. While the training was intense and direct in its focus on applied experiential learning, the courses themselves were quite short (lasting only a matter of days). Whether or not this approach could be applied to sustained training and development done by an organization is something that needs additional investigation. Similarly, university public relations courses and programs with durations lasting semesters and years may face challenges when using a primarily experiential approach. Comparing this to previous research on experiential learning done in undergraduate courses is worthwhile, though the comparison likely would not be a direct one.

Beyond items related to generalizability, there are broader issues with using this case to make assessments of experiential learning for adults in a training context. The population studied here was composed of many nationalities, yet it should be noted that these participants shared an important commonality: they all chose to work for the U.S. government. The decision made to seek employment at a U.S. institution is indicative of potential distinction from other citizens in the country in which one resides. Categorization of people from the same country as “homogeneous” is also potentially problematic, as subcultures within a state can indicate profound areas of difference despite shared nationality (Hofstede et al., 2010).

Nevertheless, in this study, satisfaction still appeared to be enhanced in groups composed of different nationalities. It appears, at least in this context, that internationalization of a training group led to better outcomes in terms of active experiential learning. Whatever similarities may exist in the people who participated in these sessions, it remains clear that there were tangible benefits based on the cultural diversity of the groups. When thinking about both the teaching of international messaging and the practice of public relations, the results suggest that heterogeneity can be the basis for higher levels of creativity and collaboration. 

Finally, favorable post-training self-assessments suggest but fail to confirm positive training outcomes. Participant reporting is notoriously tricky when evaluating the success of any teaching or training initiative. People participating in a course may feel that they have learned a great deal only to ignore what they learned when that information is applied to field projects. It is also possible that, despite what they have learned, the reality of the situation they face on the job may not match the content explored in a course. While it is heartening that participants viewed the training as understandable, stimulating, engaging, and beneficial, any declaration of the training’s long-term success would involve a more longitudinal evaluation that assesses not only the direct outcomes of the training, but the direct outcomes of the lessons learned from the training, as well.


The results explored show promise for the use of experiential learning as an approach for public relations training and validate the importance of building international teams with an eye towards cultural diversity in terms of composition. This alone, however, does not fully speak to the experiences members had in the training context. A participant from the Dominican Republic discussed ways in which the embassy’s substantial library resources could be more effectively utilized by nearby schools. A participant from Belarus focused on programs that could make democratic ideals attractive to the population under the constraints of an autocratic regime. Another participant from Turkey worked on promotional materials for a series of American film screenings that the embassy would sponsor in a country that remains fascinated by U.S. culture.  By working on these projects directly in the training, participants were given the opportunity to receive immediate feedback. Rather than receiving lectures that they might be able to apply to their work, the content of the seminar functionally became their work. This is the sort of application-based learning that employees engaging in training prefer.

Application to Other Public Relations Instruction Contexts

Broadly considering public relations instruction overall, a learning-by-doing orientation appears to be more effective in meeting learner needs. Of particular note in this case, it appears that these projects were served by the diversity of the participants who were present. International messaging involves the building of complex relationships across a matrix of cultural influences (Samaha et al., 2014). The ability to adapt cannot be facilitated in a vacuum. The presence of a culturally diverse group enhances the ability of that group to manage cultural variables in public relations practice.

More broadly, the effectiveness of such programs in meeting U.S. State Department goals for moderating the opinions and actions of global constituencies is less clear. Well-intentioned programs may attract interest from prospective stakeholders, but sustaining that interest and leveraging it into action is a considerably more difficult proposition. There is also the unique space of public relations that public diplomacy occupies. Intrinsically, public diplomacy is a public relations proposition (Sun, 2008). However, when the strategic element of public diplomacy is transparent to the individuals targeted, its effectiveness risks being compromised. As Schneider (2006) notes, “This should be a process of building bridges, not a one-way street. Developing respect for others and their way of thinking—this is what cultural diplomacy does” (p. 192).

Challenges like these are not easily navigated, and platitudes about public relations will do little in helping practitioners overcome them. Based on this research, the most productive approach would be transitioning from abstraction to action and ensuring that those tasked with speaking to global audiences have a correspondingly global team.


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