Starkville — Dr. John Forde, a well-known figure in public relations circles, was recently named to lead Mississippi State University’s Department of Communication.
A Laurel native, Forde earned a bachelor’s degree from MSU and master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Southern Mississippi.
Active in groups such as the Public Relations Association of Mississippi (PRAM) and the Southern Public Relations Federation (SPRF), Forde has been with MSU since 1987 and was named PRAM “State Practitioner of the Year” in 1992. He earned the SPRF Professional Achievement Award in 1999. He shares his insights about his field in an interview with the Mississippi Business Journal.
MBJ: The communications department at MSU is quite diverse in terms of its educational offerings. Can you give us a brief overview regarding the scope of academic disciplines under the communications umbrella and the breakout of students in each area?
John Forde: Our department is very broad in nature. In our Department of Communication we are very fortunate to have well over 400 majors currently registered for fall classes. I expect that number will rise as the semester begins.
We offer emphasis areas in broadcasting, communication studies, journalism, public relations and theatre. Our students typically take some courses from all of the areas, even when they declare an emphasis in only one area. Our largest area, with just over half the students, is public relations. This is followed by broadcasting and journalism. Theatre and communication studies emphasis areas have fewer declared majors, but these serve the other areas and attract numerous students who are involved in productions and classes but are not counted as majors.
MBJ: Your experience at MSU is quite extensive and your contacts within the business community are well known among professionals in journalism and specifically, public relations. How does this give you an advantage in taking on your new role as department chairman?
JF: I have been fortunate to become very involved in educational and practitioner organizations. This has given me many people to learn from and to have as mentors. I strongly believe that our students must be connected to professional organizations and the related fields to succeed quickly when they graduate. We encourage students to join student and professional groups as much as possible so they can become immersed in their fields. We welcome the opportunity to work with professionals who would like to speak to classes, provide internships or jobs or otherwise support our program.
MBJ: In speaking with your colleagues, professionals who interview and hire MSU communications students and various deans and administrators, what have you identified as some of the key challenges and opportunities facing the communications department?
JF: I think one of our key strengths is having fantastic teachers in our department who truly care about students and helping them progress. We also have varied professional experiences to draw from that again help link our students to the organizations where they plan to work. Our students who have attended graduate schools also have been evaluated highly by educators from other institutions. We are also continuing to work on building a broad research focus that will help serve students, graduates and citizens in general.
We have several new faculty members entering this fall who further strengthen our department, and we hope to continue this type of growth. Our faculty and students need to continue building partnerships with many groups both inside and outside the university for all of us to succeed at the highest level.
One challenge we have is not being located near a major metropolitan area, which somewhat limits the scope of direct professional contacts, at least geographically. However, we do make up for this limitation by working hard to contact potential employers at national conferences and through other avenues.
MBJ: You have been a strong advocate for professionalism in the public relations field and have served in a number of leadership capacities in public relations groups. How does a department head encourage practical experience among faculty and students?
JF: In our department it is a necessity to have students who understand what the work world is really like. It is a great advantage for us, for example, to have faculty on our staff who have worked and often continue to work as public relations directors/consultants, television reporters, newspaper reporters, professional speakers and theatre consultants. We strive to provide students with many viewpoints from many different types of professors. I do believe it is possible to attract faculty members with strong professional practitioner backgrounds who can also meet the academic requirements and expectations of a comprehensive university.
MBJ: I understand that the public relations track has grown steadily in recent years. I know from my own experience that there are many misconceptions regarding public relations and what it entails. What are you doing at MSU to promote student interaction with public relations professionals? What about internships?
JF: Our public relations emphasis has continued to grow significantly, especially over recent years. I think people from all fields are increasingly understanding better what public relations truly is. However, to demonstrate my belief that misconceptions still prevail, I typically start my Principles of Public Relations class with discussion of what public relations is not — such as just being a good “people person.” Students and others need to understand that public relations is about building relationships between an organization and its publics. Other major factors include managing communication, listening and responding appropriately to needs of important publics.
We have had student members for many years in the Public Relations Association of Mississippi, which is affiliated with the four-state Southern Public Relations Federation. We also chartered our Public Relations Student Society of America chapter again in 2001, which is affiliated with the Public Relations Society of America (the largest professional public relations organization with almost 20,000 members). We continue to encourage students to join these organizations and attend the conferences.
Our internship program is another area we continue to emphasize. Our students who complete internships typically are very successful in obtaining employment.
MBJ: Are you finding in your discussions with business leaders that there is an increasing understanding and appreciation of the value of public relations?
JF: I think many people do understand how public relations can help an organization succeed, both in increased profits and at the same time decreasing or eliminating potential problems. Public relations should be an integral part of any organization’s overall plan for success. Many people understand the value of public relations when they see the direct connection between these communication efforts and the bottom line. I frequently say that public relations professionals need to implement better public relations plans about our field.
Accreditation is one way that public relations professionals can elevate our field. Our Accredited in Public Relations (APR) program demonstrates to those in the field and outside our field that we care enough to reach a level of professionalism. I think the APR designation will increase in importance as the number of people desiring work in the field continually increases.
MBJ: Marketability of students is a concern for any department head. What employment trends have you identified regarding MSU communications students and how do you plan to build on that?
JF: Our students have generally been very successful in finding related employment and succeeding in graduate schools. Our alumni tend to be very loyal to our department and pleased with their education. We are constantly trying to gain feedback from alumni and others to gauge where we can improve. We will also be working hard to track alumni progress and to bring them back to campus more often.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Karen Kahler Holliday at firstname.lastname@example.org.