Pressed For Information

Business school PR departments respond to the financial crisis

As Brian Kenny watched Lehman Brothers’ collapse on Sept. 15 from his office inside the Harvard Business School, he knew there was little time to follow the unraveling news story—let alone consider his personal financial stakes. Kenny, the chief of marketing and communications at HBS, realized immediately that he would soon become very popular among members of the media.

“Shortly after the Lehman incident—I’d say within twenty-four hours—we had a meeting of five or six people from different departments at the business school to think of ways that we could provide leadership on this topic,” he says.

With once-sturdy financial institutions having collapsed, and markets extremely volatile, business schools across the country have been swamped by media to make sense of the global economic crisis. And these schools, out of a sense of duty and a desire for publicity, have been answering the media’s call—whether it be for insight into the economy’s inner workings, information on business school applications, or job placement rates among recent graduates.

“The calls came in almost immediately in two categories,” Kenny says. The first: “Reporters wanted to know what was going to happen next, and what was the implication of this on our MBA students and graduates.”

Harvard wasn’t the only school deluged with press requests. Media relations personnel at Columbia and University of Chicago’s business schools said their offices were busier in the last month than any point in communications director Allan Friedman’s previous eighteen years there, he said. At University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, the two-person communications department enlisted a group of former staff members to help process media requests coming from as far as Ghana and India. “I stayed at work real late on Sept. 16,” says Peter Winicov, the senior associate director of communications at Wharton. “We’re just a couple of people in our office, working all day and all night.”

Between fielding calls from journalists and scheduling interviews with the appropriate faculty members, these communication offices also published their own videos and articles regarding the economic crisis and highlighting their faculty’s analysis. The site has published 50 percent more content since Sept. 15 than they did over the same period last year.

Media savvy professors who speak eloquently about the crisis have also found themselves sought after by a news environment characterized by twenty-four-hour business news channels and ever-updating Web sites. Nouriel Roubini, a professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business who predicted the recent turmoil two years ago, has been cited in at least fifty print articles since Sept. 15. At Harvard, business history professor Nancy Koehn and professor emeritus Samuel Hayes have been quoted in no fewer than a dozen articles over the same time. Jeremy Siegel, a finance professor at Wharton, has given over ten on-air interviews, at least one per day in the first four days following Lehman’s collapse.

“Jeremy went straight from an interview with CNN to a lecture to another interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Channel,” says Winicov. “It’s self-perpetuating. Once the media see a professor speak well on a subject, they tend to ask for that same professor.”

The beneficial association with a media-appointed economic authority hasn’t been lost on these business schools, either. Some schools have used the boon in media attention to their advantage, highlighting faculty commentary in news articles and appearances on television on their Web sites. On the front page of its Web site, NYU’s Stern School of Business features a rolling news feed of quotes from their professors. Wharton’s front page links to a special section called “Wall Street’s Day of Reckoning” (featuring bear and bull statuettes engulfed in flames). The University of Chicago Graduate School of Business’s media relations office has contributed to a university-wide “Crisis Page.” Cornell University’s Johnson School of Management launched a series of Web casts named Business@Cornell with discussions about the financial crisis.

Even though the hysteria has abated somewhat, the University of Chicago’s press office is still fielding a steady stream of crisis-related inquiries. “We are still sending e-mail alerts to our students and alumni featuring research items, op-eds, etc. that are related to the crisis,” communicatiosn director Friedman said. In mid-October, Harvard successfully launched a Web site devoted to faculty opinion and research on the financial crisis.

The Web site was conceived during the meetings Kenny attended in mid-September. The launch date was set days after a business summit celebrating of the school’s Centennial from Oct. 12 through 14. Harvard opened its business school in 1908 partly in response to the Panic of 1907, which sent stocks into a tailspin and paralyzed several Wall Street firms and banks. “It seems that one of these crises happens every 100 years,” says Kenny. “If I’m around for the bicentennial, I’m going to take the weekend off.”

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Amanda Angel is a freelance journalist in New York City.