Inside Look: Priming the Pipeline

Here’s an experiment to try at this year’s IABC Heritage Region Conference. Ask 10 attendees to tell you how they explain what they do to their families or to their peers. What does it mean to work in corporate communications? You are guaranteed to get 10 different answers.

Why? Because our field is diverse and ever-changing. That’s exciting. But it’s also challenging in that we struggle as a profession to agree on how to tangibly and consistently define what we do.

In fact, Patricia Whalen, in her 2005 IABC publication, Corporate Communication from A to Z: An encyclopedia for public relations and marketing professionals, acknowledges that there are more than 500 definitions for the practice of public relations alone. And, the labels that colleges and universities use to describe their communication degrees are also very diverse. As an undergraduate, you can major in public relations, strategic communication, corporate communication, integrated marketing communications and more – all with a similar end-goal in mind.

We all love what we do, so does it really matter what we call it? “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Right?

Well, imagine being 17 or 18 years old and trying to figure out what you want to do in life. If you’ve even heard of corporate communication (how many high school students have you heard enthusiastically listing this among their career options?), now you have to sort through ambiguous terminology, and try to determine whether intimidating phrases like reputation management and stakeholder relations really sounds like a fun way to spend your life.

We all know it is. So, how do we communicate this to emerging professionals as they decide what to study in college and what careers to pursue after?

This is a real issue for the industry, not just for colleges. USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations’ 2017 Global Communications Report reports that while the future looks bright for our profession – 92 percent of agency executives and 70 percent of in-house communicators predict growth in the next five years – recruiting and retaining the right talent ranked among those surveyed as the biggest challenges preventing growth in the industry.

Meanwhile, less than one-third of the executives who participated in the survey believe the industry is doing a good job of positioning itself as an aspirational career choice. According to a 2014 report from the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, we are seeing a downturn in the number of college students majoring in corporate communication.

The good news is that many students who choose to study corporate communication – from our research, about 50 percent – transfer into the major after taking a class in the subject. So, once exposed to the topic, they discover this amazing field that offers a ton of exciting possibilities.

But what about those who never discover the field? Many of the non-communication majors we surveyed cannot even begin to define what corporate communication is; some use terms that denote unethical behavior. The more disturbing trend is that most of the non-communication majors we surveyed in our research were pursuing business degrees.

In our session, Priming the Pipeline: Attracting the Next Generation of Corporate Communicators, we’ll present the results of research we conducted on this topic last year. Our goal is to engage professionals in discussions around how we can better position the field to attract more talent. How can we create and perpetuate positive high-profile role models? Mentor young adults to understand that they can actually make a pretty good life doing all the creative things they love to do? Help business-focused students understand the value smart corporate communication strategies offer organizations? We hope you’ll join us in this discussion.

Tamara L. Gillis, Ed.D., ABC, IABC Fellow, Professor of Communication, Elizabethtown College and Yvette Sterbenk, M.A., APR, Assistant Professor, Strategic Communications, Ithaca College