Communications Educators Shift Curricula to Address 2020

Educators at two of the country’s top communications programs are among those who have shifted the content they are teaching to include the role communicators and their employers have in addressing the health and societal issues that 2020 has brought us.

Rita Men, Ph.D., APR, is an associate professor of public relations within the School of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida and also a Page Up member.  “I had been conducting research documenting for some time how leadership communication needs to be authentic and conveyed with empathy, while also being hopeful and expressing gratitude,” Rita said. “But some of my students were surprised. Why isn’t this how companies have been communicating all along? Common sense is not really common practice.” 

Did business leaders suddenly realize how important internal communication is? No. “Impactful CCOs knew way before the pandemic how important it is to communicate with transparency, authenticity, and empathy,” said Rita. “I started to add examples of employee and leadership communications during turbulent times to my original research, work I did during May and June collaborating with Dr. Marcia DiStaso, my department chair and Page Society member. I briefly touched on the topic before the pandemic, but now it is very salient and relevant so now I talk more about this issue in my undergraduate and graduate classes.”

Page Up member Ethan McCarty, CEO and founder of Integral, an employee communications firm, teaches a Masters-level course, Activating Employees, as part of the strategic communications program at Columbia University. “I first designed this course for the Fall 2019 semester,” said Ethan. “I needed to cover the core principles of creating an impactful employee experience, including values and culture, content strategy, measurement, shifting to mobile channels, etc. And, how content would have to become more engaging and exciting, driven more by multimedia. All accomplished by earning the attention of employees.”  

Before 2020, Ethan didn’t have a crisis component in his course other than to address imagined scenarios in the final project, like that of Uber and Lyft merging. “I was examining my syllabus for Fall 2020 again this summer following George Floyd’s murder,” said Ethan. “And it was suddenly like, ‘crap,’ I would be doing a disservice to students by not having something that’s meeting the moment and showing how communications needs to be out in front.”

“Even before the pandemic, most students come in with an anachronistic perception of internal communications as being the guys who send out the memo after something has happened,” said Ethan. “When we talk about things like CEO transition and the response to the pandemic, it really starts to crystallize that communications plays an important role in the functioning of a company as opposed to just being about awareness about information.”

“We have been having deeper discussions on what business are still left to do,” said Rita, “Communications is not the only solution for the challenges that businesses are facing. New dynamics may have crept in with the move toward empathy, but now include wellness and being more mindful of how are you doing and how is your family, how are you coping, how are you dealing with kids in school and home and all that.”

One trend Rita talks about with her students is how employees are demanding their employers have a voice in influencing societal issues encompassing environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG). “We see more and more CEOs taking a stance as their employees are pushing them to do that,” said Rita. “Employees want to work for companies that serve not just their shareholders, but all stakeholders.”

Most of those taking master’s courses are already in the workforce, they can apply the concepts learned in the classroom in real-time. “I hear frequently from my students that they can immediately up their game to help their companies thrive amidst the challenging times we are facing,” said Ethan.