When CFM decided to improve the way it conducted public relations and corporate communications services for clients, it turned to a respected teacher for help. CFM didn’t have to go far. Long known as a veteran lobbyist, CFM Managing Partner Gary Conkling also has established himself as a professor of strategic business communications at Willamette University’s Atkinson Graduate School of management.
A decade ago, when Conkling noticed many young professionals lacked vital strategic communications skills, he decided to do something about it. Since 2002, he has been teaching a class called “Cutting Edge Topic – Communications, Public Relations and Crisis Communications” for the Atkinson program. The Atkinson School has been ranked Oregon’s top business school by Forbes magazine and is one of just three Northwest programs to make the list of the top 75 business schools in the nation.
As a contributing assistant professor, Conkling draws from his own wealth of public relations experience as he teaches a new generation of business leaders how to craft strategic communications, which he says are imperative for reputation management, public engagement, employee relations and policy enactment. Atkinson School administrators and alumni praise his real-world expertise, which they say helps students succeed.
“Gary’s mix of public, private and not-for-profit experience aligns with the Willamette MBA program’s mission of preparing students with tools and knowledge needed to succeed across sectors,” says Debra Ringold, the Atkinson School’s Dean and JELD-WEN Professor of Free Enterprise.
Adds Russ Yost, the school’s director of marketing and a former student in Conkling’s class, “As a student, I appreciated the opportunity to work with faculty that put knowledge into practice. Gary’s class did just that. I valued his expertise and ideas as a student and look to his guidance as a professional.”
By keeping the class topical and on the cutting edge of the public relations field, Conkling says he expands his own capabilities in addition to those of his students. “Teaching this class is a wonderful way to refresh my own skills, remind myself of the fundamentals of the craft, and stay on top of current trends.”
Social and mobile media, which were on the fringe of his syllabus eight years ago when he began teaching the class, now are important public relations tools in any leader’s kit. Although methods may change, Conkling continues to teach his students “strategic communications, which remains the discipline of finding a way to get your message connected to your target audience.”
In the past year, Conkling has transitioned from working with CFM’s State Lobbying business service to leading the firm’s Marking Public Relations team as well as the Public Affairs business, which includes reputation management, issues management and corporate communications. “It’s a refreshing challenge. I get to practice what I teach and teach what I practice,” Conkling concludes.