How to Send Your PR Team Back to School Without Leaving the Office

David Hagenbuch, Professor, Messiah College

About 20 million college students are returning to classrooms. While understanding course content is important, what I hear consistently from colleagues in all types and sizes of organizations is that new graduates often lack one critical skill: communication.

What’s caused the deficiency? Some argue that communication competency among new graduates is an age-old issue, but there’s reason to believe that recent trends have exacerbated the problem—for instance, screen time replacing personal interaction and texting instead of talking.

It’s also fair to ask whether teachers are doing their jobs. That question is particularly motivating to me, a marketing professor whose daily work and discipline depend heavily on effective communication. So, I’d like you to experience what one faculty member is doing to address the imbalance. It might prove helpful as you coach your team.

Forget for a moment that you’re an experienced communicator and imagine you’re in Personal Selling, an upper-level marketing course. Like most students in the class, you don’t see yourself in a sales career, but you understand that everybody sells—their ideas and themselves—so it’s important to cultivate selling skills. As we know, sales success depends significantly on effective communication. Here are three course assignments that will help you hone those skills.


1. Write an effective email:This exercise may seem simple, but emails still are the most common form of internal and external organizational communication, so you have to master them. An email may be the first impression you make with a prospective employer, the way you persuade a client to consider a product, or how you encourage coworkers to adopt your approach. Unfortunately, many of the emails students write aren’t effective. Young people often need to learn email etiquette—for instance, an appropriate greeting, a clear purpose, proper tone, complete sentences, short paragraphs, and good grammar, not to mention an appealing subject line. You’ll start by editing a poorly written email and graduate to writing your own great one, helped by in-class peer review.


2. Tell a good story:Storytelling is as old as humanity, but this ancient communication method has enjoyed a resurgence for good reason: Stories are a great way of gaining attention and keeping interest, and they’re very effective in emphasizing important points that hearers tend to retain.

All types of communication, from formal presentations to everyday conversations, benefit from good stories. For our course, you’ll need to write a brief story (200-300 words) that has a main takeaway, and you must tell the story to the class in an engaging way. Your classmates and I will provide constructive feedback.

3. Act the part:Most of us aren’t professional actors, but each day we play a wide variety of roles, from employees to community leaders to parents. Good actors read through and rehearse their lines. Similarly, salespeople often use roleplaying as training for client interaction.

At times it’s helpful for all of us to rehearse. A test run of some important communication in front of others is often very revealing. Also, the more we practice anything, including communicating, the better we become. For our course, you and a few classmates will script and act out a sales scenario, as well as provide commentary on the action. The rest of us will watch the performance and share our reactions.

These three approaches to increasing communication efficacy certainly are not the only ways to improve, but they are practical techniques that fit the needs of most people’s lives. As noted above, if members of your team could use communication coaching, try one or more of these approaches, or send yourself “back to school” and see yourself become a more effective communicator.

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1. Oral and written communication may be pain points for new graduates and could require coaching.
2. Practical exercises can help hone written and oral communication skills.
3. Practice oral communication by yourself and in front of others.