LINDA BLAKLEY: Welcome to DePaul Download. I’m your host, Linda Blakley. We live in a time where the truth is becoming harder to find. False information spreads rapidly. Fake videos generated through artificial intelligence are just as convincing as the real thing. Social media provides a platform for anyone to call themselves an expert and use their influence in potentially harmful ways.
In a time when people don’t know who to believe, how can businesses leverage public relations to fight disinformation? DePaul public relations professors, Ron Culp and Matt Ragas, coauthors of “Business Acumen for Strategic Communicators,” join DePaul Download to shed light on this topic. Welcome, Ron and Matt.
RON CULP: It’s great to be here, Linda. Thanks for inviting us.
MATT RAGAS: Hey, Linda, thanks for having us.
LINDA BLAKLEY: Ron, you’ve had long careers at leading PR agencies and in the corporate sector. In fact—full disclosure—you and I go way back, as I was a member of the team you led at Sears, Roebuck & Co. As I recall, you were a teacher back then. What drew you to DePaul and the PR Advertising Program?
MATT RAGAS: First of all, Linda, everyone’s worked for Ron at some point—it seems like—in Chicago.
RON CULP: Well, Linda was a very special colleague in those glory days when Sears was really Sears.
LINDA BLAKLEY: When Sears was Sears.
RON CULP: Yeah, we were there during the glory days. Well, the story—and I’m going to try to make it as short as possible—but I was heading the Midwest offices of Ketchum and responsible for the agency’s corporate practice in North America when along came Teresa Mastin. She was then chair of the PRAD Program at DePaul, and she’d been selected to participate in an Educator Fellowship Program sponsored by the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations. So she came in. The whole purpose of the program was for her to gain a better understanding of what the professionals do in their daily lives as well as to let the professionals understand all the dynamics and pressures and needs of academia. So it was really a wonderful blend of the two.
Well, at the end of the end of the two weeks that she was with us, she floated this crazy idea that: How about coming in and being an adjunct in our program? And I said, “That is, you know, the furthest thing from my mind, but let me consider it.” Well, two months later, fast forward, I was in a classroom at 14 East Jackson teaching some 30 undergrad students, and I had a ball. So then, shortly after that, then Dean Jackie Taylor asked me to help find and recruit a professional director for the program.
So I said, “Jackie, what are you looking for?” She said, “Well, I’m looking for you, but I know I can’t afford you.” We got a big laugh about it, and I said, “You certainly got that right.”
I went home and I mentioned it to my wife, Sandra, and she also thought it was most amusing. And that night, I didn’t sleep well. I woke up finally and said to my wife, “I’m going to call Jackie Taylor and see if she really meant it.” So I called and she said, “Absolutely positively.”
And I said, “What the heck? I’m going to jump in with both feet.” I left the agency world and joined academia. Now, that was almost 11 years ago. It was lifechanging for me, and I’ve certainly built on what you mentioned earlier: the mentorship role that is so important to me in my life.
LINDA BLAKLEY: Matt, you and Ron published a book last year called “Business Acumen for Strategic Communicators.” Of the leaders you interviewed for the book and the companies you researched, can you give us an example of a business that used effective communications to fight, or at least manage, disinformation being used against it?
MATT RAGAS: Well, this latest book, we interviewed dozens of different corporate communication leaders. And I don’t think Linda or Ron will be surprised that we’re going to highlight a Chicago-based company and corporate communication leader. Mike McGrew is chief communication officer for Constellation Brands, which is physically located literally right down the street from the Loop Campus. He is a great friend of our program. His wisdom and insights are in our latest book, “Business Acumen.”
Constellation is the parent company of brands like Corona, Kim Crawford, so it’s a spirits company—fantastic Mexican import cerveza portfolio. And if we go back to the beginning of the pandemic, one of their top brands in the U.S. is Corona. And there is an erroneous survey that was published that suggested that American consumers were afraid of drinking Corona back at the beginning of the pandemic.
Of course, Constellation had nothing to do with said survey. That came out of a firm in New York that had a very faulty survey methodology; it was very opaque. Some of the trade publications in our industry, like PR Week, declined to publish the survey, but it did get pickup from other news media outlets. The stock price was impacted. Mike has explained to us: Normally, Constellation doesn’t comment on market rumors or speculation. But what’s interesting, Linda, in this case, they made a decision internally that they would put out a statement combatting the misinformation with actual sales data in the marketplace that showed that Corona at home sales—this is during lockdown—were up, actually, and doing quite well.
But what they did is they didn’t actually—they responded, but they didn’t actually give the name of the publisher of the erroneous survey. So it was a response without sort of dignifying the source of said information, and then they commented, actually, on it. They happened to have a quarterly earnings call—it was upcoming—as well. And I think as we know now when we look at it, Corona’s doing quite well as a brand. But that is a very high-profile Chicago-based example of combatting misinformation, arguably maybe even into the realm of disinformation.
LINDA BLAKLEY: Fighting rumor with truth.
MATT RAGAS: What a novel idea, but sometimes complex in this world today.
LINDA BLAKLEY: Ron, how is business acumen related to the role communicators have in protecting businesses’ reputations against rumors and false information?
RON CULP: Well, I guess I’d go back to NBC, for the last 20 years or so, has had a tagline for its public service announcements, a pretty catchy tune that says, “The more you know.” Well, if you expand that tagline to what Aristotle actually said, “The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.” So our contention is: If you really follow the bottom line of business, and you study and really get comfortable with business terms and how the world evolves around it, then you’re going to be more likely, as business leaders do, to question almost everything. And it just really helps you get to where you need to go in saying: There’s something else here besides the soundbite I’m hearing or the 140 characters that I’m seeing as claiming then that I know enough actually to be dangerous.
So we’re encouraging through a better understanding of business that you will then raise your knowledge overall and questionability because believe me, as you well know, Linda, a CEO, if you say something that they question, you’re going to be put on the spot immediately and challenged with: Where did you get that information? Is it verifiable? And is it something, if we act on, we’re not going to be penalized later? So I kind of marry the two that pulls together both having a business acumen just provides the discipline to let you be a better thinker and better evaluate what is fake news versus real news.
LINDA BLAKLEY: And know what questions to ask in the first place.
RON CULP: Absolutely.
LINDA BLAKLEY: DePaul’s Public Relations and Advertising program recently received the PR Week Recognition for 2022 Outstanding Education Program. Matt, how are you and the other professors in the College of Communication preparing PR students to handle today’s challenges?
MATT RAGAS: Linda, I am so proud of all of our students, our alums, our faculty, the—literally— dozens upon dozens of, what we call, friends of our program, industry professionals and leaders like yourself that give back. And I’ve got to tell you that I am most excited for this guy, AKA Ron. We won Outstanding Program back in 2018 as well, and I know Ron was feeling a little under the weather. And you don’t know that you’re going to win. You go to New York to the PR Week Awards and you know you’re a finalist. And one of my big regrets is that we won in 2018, and I got to go on stage and accept the award, but Ron wasn’t able to enjoy that in person. So, for me, that was—I was so excited for our program, and particularly for Ron, to get to celebrate and have that moment. He’s given so much to our program over the past decade-plus.
The other thing I want to point out is: In terms of preparing our students, we launched a whole new grad program during COVID. So we now have our master’s in professional communication. It is—we saw a gap in the marketplace. It is fully online. It’s cohort based. It’s an accelerated program reaching that audience of working professionals that are deeper into their careers. So we call that Pro Comm. Our first cohort of rockstars is going to graduate in August. We’re recruiting now for our second cohort. But I think that that’s one way that we prepare our students is: We listen, we adapt, and try to serve the needs that we see out there in the marketplace.
RON CULP: If I could build on that for a second, Linda, the really exciting thing—and I appreciate the fact that Matt mentioned the fact that I got to go and actually accept the award because you’re sitting there with four other really good academic programs. And everyone thinks they’re going to win, so when they call out the fact that DePaul did, it is a major moment. And wouldn’t you know, in the audience with maybe 1,000 people or so, was one of our former students who was there with her company, which had also been nominated for an award that didn’t win it. So on the way to the podium to accept the award, Don Ingle and I brought her along with us and it was a major moment for her, but it really is what the program’s all about, which is the students. And to see this successful graduate standing on stage with us was probably—next to the award—the highlight of the evening for many of us.
LINDA BLAKLEY: It was proof that it’s working.
RON CULP: Exactly.
LINDA BLAKLEY: Matt, I’ll come back to you. The latest Global Communication Report from the University of Southern California found that 96% of PR students believe business can and should solve social problems. Do you see this reflected in your students’ job searches? How concerned are they with the business’ values aligning with their own?
MATT RAGAS: You know, it’s something that Ron and our colleagues and all of us talk about a lot and observe, and part of it is our students—part of the magic of DePaul is our commitment to social justice and Vincentian values. And it’s just—it’s in the DNA in all of us through good times and rough times. But in my experience of teaching our students—and I teach the seminar each year that is focused on “Business Acumen for Strategic Communicators.” It has never been more pressing in terms of our students are interested in: What is the stated mission and values and purpose of an organization? So what does it actually say on the website? But more so, which I think is really encouraging, they’re actually looking at these organizations saying: Are they living these values or principles and mission? So it’s not just talking the talk but walking the walk. And I think employers, C-Suites, management teams that are not able to align the words and the deeds are going to be very restricted in terms of the talent that they can access in the years ahead.
RON CULP: And, Linda, you and I remember the days when we were told that when we accepted a job, we needed to stay there for at least a year or two. That’s not happening today. If a graduate goes into an agency or a corporation and they’re not reflecting the values that they expect or they thought they were going to be working with, then they cut bait really quickly because it’s all about purpose. And you have to be aligned with what this generation is expecting that enterprise to be delivering—not just a successful enterprise, but are you really focused on all stakeholders and not just accumulating wealth?
LINDA BLAKLEY: You don’t want to have to compartmentalize and you want the ability to bring your whole self to your workplace as well.
RON CULP: Precisely.
LINDA BLAKELY: I have one last question that I’d like each of you to consider. That same study from USC asked communications leaders about preparing the next generation. Could each of you respond to this question? Which traits or competencies are most important for the next generation of PR professionals to possess to be successful in this environment?
MATT RAGAS: Well, I’ll jump in, and I would say that these are traits that are characteristics that are very important for all communicators. And so pretty much I would say anyone listening to this podcast, to this conversation: One is writing, is sharp and clear writing for different formats. And Ron and I are both big believers that clear writing is actually a sign of clear thinking and clear problem solving. Business skills—not surprisingly, business literacy is important. Another—but they’re soft skills, too, and I would say: We think about this conversation we’re having. The future is hybrid work and distributed workforces.
So we’ve always had to learn how to collaborate effectively in teams, but now there’s a premium that’s placed on, sort of, digital collaboration. So how do we collaborate in a hybrid and a remote work world? And then the last thing I would say that is maybe sort of the killer app or characteristic or trait is helping infuse in folks lifelong learning and intellectual curiosity because our business is always changing. We need to know a lot about many different topics. And that is really the talent that hiring managers want to hire and then become managers and then become mentors. So that intellectual curiosity piece and helping become lifelong learners is really key.
RON CULP: Well, Linda, you said: What one trait? Well done, Matt. You left me little ground to cover, but I do want to build on the one. Linda and I had the privilege of working for a CEO who is totally remarkable, one of a kind, Arthur Martinez. And Arthur, over and over again, would use the expression when we’d give him a proposal—here is a document that states what we’re facing as a corporation. And he would invariably say, “Who wrote this?” And you start sweating at times unless you know it was written by a good writer. His whole point: You show me a good writer, and I’ll show you a good thinker. And you, Culp, better surround yourself with those kind of people, the Linda Blakleys of the world and the Jan Drummonds and the others who worked with us at that time. So it was really essential.
The other thing that this generation of students needs to really focus on as a—is just the habit of being engaged in social media, not just on a personal front of the things like text messaging and the like, but what can I do to advance my profession, my career, through social media? And that’s kind of a separate thing because a lot are not involved there. So we really encourage students and we actively ingrain it in a lot of our programs that: We want you to be active and comfortable talking about business issues and your career interest through social media.
LINDA BLAKLEY: Well, Matt and Ron, it’s always fun to talk to you about PR industry trends. Thanks so much for joining me.
MATT RAGAS: We had a ton of fun. Thanks so much for having us.
RON CULP: It was an honor to be with you, Linda, and always great to be with my colleague, Matt.
LINDA BLAKLEY: I’m Linda Blakley. Thank you for listening to DePaul Download, presented by DePaul’s Division of University Marketing and Communications.