As the son of two high school teachers – his mom taught English, his dad history – and, as of June 2008, the director of George Washington University's masters program in strategic PR, Larry Parnell likes to say, “Those who can, do; those who care, teach.”
Certainly, Parnell and other GW instructors have plenty of real-world experience in PR to pass along.
Parnell's past includes corporate communications jobs at Ernst & Young (where he received PRWeek's Professional of the Year award in 2003) and Barrick Gold, as well as at agencies including Hill & Knowlton, Ketchum, and MS&L.
“Right now my passion is taking my experience and making something special out of it,” he explains.
Parnell wants his program to help students make the move from thinking tactically to strategically. He also views such programs as a chance for pros to break through to a higher level in their own careers.
Howard Paster, WPP Group EVP and co-chair of GW's Council on American Politics, says this is the perfect job for Parnell, because he is an experienced pro “who thinks about the nature of the profession and looks at the bigger picture.”
One lesson Parnell can immediately share with students is the value of introducing oneself to a stranger. After graduating from Boston University with a degree in journalism, he was on a train traveling through New Haven, CT, when he saw Julian Bond, the former close associate of Martin Luther King, Jr. and current chairman of the NAACP.
“I told him I admired his work, knew he was from Atlanta..., and was interested in going there and helping however I could,” Parnell recalls. “He said, ‘That's terrific' and I ended up driving to Atlanta.”
Parnell went on to be a speechwriter for Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson and a press aide for Jimmy Carter's 1976 presidential campaign. That work led him back to Massachusetts, where he began his formal career in PR as public information officer for the Massachusetts Department of Corrections.
Serving as the public face for the department during more than a few cellblock riots and hostage takeovers, the job required a deft touch in dealing with both the media and prisoners, two groups who present unique communications challenges.
“These guys in the prisons were not [always] that nice when you got up close to them,” Parnell explains. “When people say to me, ‘This crisis is life and death,' I'll say, ‘Well, let me tell you about life and death.'”
Parnell notes that in crises, what people basically judge companies or individuals on is not so much the crisis itself, but how it was handled.
“Every time there's a challenge, there's an opportunity,” he notes.
Both Paster and Parnell stress that teaching PR is not just a matter of telling war stories. They agree that an academically grounded, disciplined curriculum is the key.
“We use a lot of case studies and bring in [outside] speakers,” Parnell says. “It's not a book-based program. [Students] ask questions, do case studies, mock presentations to management, and learn.” In addition, the students' experiences help inform class discussion. This, he points out, invariably gives the teachers a few new things to think about themselves.
Assoc. prof. and program director, GW's master's program in strategic PR
Partner, Beacon Advisors
VP, corporate comms practice, H&K Canada