Hear From the Director: Larry Parnell

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Larry Parnell is an Associate Professor and Director of the Strategic Public Relations program at The Graduate School of Political Management. Over a 30-year career, Parnell has held senior communications positions in consulting, on the client side and in politics. Most recently, he was Vice President and Group Leader of the Corporate Communications practice at Hill and Knowlton Canada. He came to Hill & Knowlton from Barrick Gold Corporation (Toronto) where he was Senior Vice President, Corporate Relations with responsibility for corporate, financial and internal communications. In New York, he served for four years as Director of Global Public Relations at Ernst & Young LLP. While at Ernst & he was named PR Professional of the Year (2003) by PR Week magazine.

What advantages do graduates of the GW Strategic Public Relations online program have?
Well, I think the major advantage, what we’re finding in this market now, where public relations as a profession is growing so dynamically and many people are deciding it’s the profession they want to get into, it’s a differentiator for them. To have an advanced degree from a recognized institution like George Washington University is an advantage to you in the marketplace that someone who does not have that degree or someone who went to a lesser known school does not have. Ultimately, that’s one benefit. The other benefit is the skill set you pick up and the refinements of your skill set that you develop while you’re with us that make you that much more effective as a communications professional once you graduate.

What would you tell a friend or colleague about the GW Strategic Public Relations online program?
We have a lot of fun. We really enjoy what we do. It’s dynamic, it’s exciting. The classes are participatory; they’re small, maybe fifteen to twenty students. The faculty are experienced people who do this on a daily basis. And the outcome is students become quicker, smarter, very more aggressive and thoughtful in what they do. And my goal, eventually, is for people to be in the workplace and have somebody say to them, “Where did you go to school?” and they say, “GW,” and they say, “Okay. Then I know I can count on you,” that’s what I’m looking for.

How has the GW Strategic Public Relations online program positioned graduates in the public relations industry?
We’ve been at this for about five years, so it’s still anecdotal but we’re seeing examples of students who finish the program and get promotions, get new assignments, get opportunities, driven by classwork, the reputation of the program and the people they meet in the classes and the adjunct faculty they work with. The network is very, very strong for GW. I mean, there’s fourteen members of congress that are GW alumni. So there’s a very strong universe of people on a worldwide basis who share that GW brand and that’s very, very strong in the marketplace.

What are some memorable moments from your time teaching in the GW Strategic Public Relations online program?
Well, for me, probably the first graduation ceremony that I participated in, which is kind of a new thing for me, you know, being not an academic by background in training. That was, sort of, an eye opening experience, enjoyable. But, most recently, the graduation last year was the graduation ceremony for a class of students that I had recruited, overseen their entire course work, advised them, worked them through their difficult times and challenges and seeing them complete that degree and be excited and enthusiastic about the future was very, very rewarding.

What is your position at The George Washington University?
I’m an Associate Professor and the Program Director for the Master’s in Strategic Public Relations at George Washington University.

What courses do you currently teach in The George Washington University’s Strategic Public Relations Program?
I teach several courses. I teach the capstone course which is a course at the end of the program where students put together their final project. I also teach a course on Sustainability Communications. And, just recently, taught a course on research.

What are the overall learning objectives in the online courses for students?
Well, I think across all of our courses what we’re trying to do is deliver to the students the practical application of what it is we’re talking about in the classroom setting. We are not an “academic” per se program, although it’s fully accredited, well-funded, et cetera. It is much more about how to apply the skills and lessons that we have, we bring as adjunct faculty to the classroom in your day-to-day work.

So, as we discussed earlier, many of the assignments involve students doing something for their current employer or for an employer they’d like to work for and they use the projects and the classwork as part of their offer, if you will.

What makes The George Washington University’s Strategic Public Relations online program unique?
Well, there’s a couple of factors. First and foremost is the institution, George Washington University and its reputation on a worldwide basis. And in terms of a place that is situated where it is in Washington, DC, with a good understanding how government works and how government affects business, that’s a starting point. Our particular program, over the past five years, has developed a profile as being a place where students can go and get the practical skills they need to be successful in this business. And they’ll have an advantage, we believe, over those who either don’t go to graduate school or go to some other school.

Why do you believe in The George Washington University and the Strategic Public Relations online program?
I think probably the best way to describe it is that our program is, as I mentioned, practical, focused, it’s live, it’s current and it is … things are covered and discussed in the class that you can apply immediately in your workplace the next day. That’s unique in an educational setting. It’s not theoretical and someday soon I may use this information, you can put it to work the next day.

What will the public relations profession look like in the near future?
Well, I think what you’re seeing, in general, is a movement away from what I would call being an expert mechanic at public relations strategies and tactics to being a strategist, someone who executives, voters, non-profit organizations can go to and say, “We’re thinking of doing this. What would the outcome be? How would you suggest we proceed from a communications perspective?” That kind of person’s going to be very desirable as the market explodes, as social media drives so much of what we do. The profession has changed and those that understand that and are equipped, through programs like ours, to adapt to it are going to be more successful in the long run than those who don’t.

How does this program equip students to become an effective networker?
Well, many of the students come to us already very adept at networking. And what they really do is expand their network through the university. Alumni, faculty, fellow students, et cetera, become assets to them in terms of their career and their personal life. And there’s many, many examples that happen on a regular basis of students connecting with an alum, or somebody else who makes a recommendation for them for a job, or a new assignment, or a project, or a client or a campaign. And it’s driven by the fact that they’re part of this large GW network.

What can students take away from the program curriculum on the topic of social media?
Well, the relevance of social media is it is driving a lot of changes in consumer behavior, in voter behavior. And corporate reputation is very much at risk by social media, if you don’t understand how it works. But it’s very important for our students and anyone, for that matter, in the profession to understand that social media, whatever platform you’re talking about, is just another vehicle for delivering the message that you’re trying to get across to your stakeholders. And what is the message, and how to deliver it and how to know if it’s being received is as important as … if not more, than the means by which you deliver that message.

How does the program curriculum address ethical issues and practices?
Two levels. There is an ethics course, in which we dive into ethical cases and situations that you’re going to be faced with as a professional, in terms of confidentiality, all those kinds of issues. And so there’s one dedicated course to that. In addition, ethical considerations are woven into all of the course work, whether it’s how to manage a crisis, how to deal with the media, what kind of questions are fair to ask in a research study and not fair. All that is … it’s both … on two levels, both in terms of the course work and one dedicated course specifically on that subject.