The first transformative step is always the riskiest.

I remember how nervous I was when I walked into the Newhouse School at Syracuse University on that August morning in 1999 — I was about to meet 20 other communications professionals who were also accepted into the prestigious Syracuse Communications Management graduate program. I’m not embarrassed to say that I felt like an impostor — a public relations consultant with no formal undergraduate training in the practice, just 13 years of experience on the frontlines of crises, risk controversies and community relations management. Surely my new colleagues were much smarter, more talented and had greater experiences and expertise then I did.

Little did I know that all the other students were feeling the exact same — “do I really belong here” — “I’m not worthy” (ok, no one really said that but just an homage to Mike Myers and Wayne’s World). We all felt like impostors, not worthy of our acceptance into a top-tier communications school.

And then, our collective mentor, Professor Maria Russell, assured us that we were there not by luck but by choice (ours and Syracuse’s choice).

The anxiety began to immediately subside as our comfort and trust in one another grew over that first residency week. The fear of failure fell away as we met our legendary professors (Toth, Shukla, Kinsey, and Longstaff — to name a few) as we realized that they were more our coaches, facilitators and cheerleaders — they all wanted us to succeed.

Newhouse Communications Management Class of 1999.

Fast forward to October 2019 — as I greeted and welcomed our 13th cohort into the McMaster-Syracuse Communications Management degree program. I watched them all walk in and nervously introduce themselves to one another. The tension and anxiety in the classroom was noticeable — the same as each of the 12 cohorts before them.

These students, just like the 125 before them in the program, took a tremendous step forward in their own personal learning journey, to apply and be accepted into this program. It was the first step in a two-year transformation that will forever change their lives — in a very positive and meaningful way. As we gathered for our first orientation session, I recounted my own journey and my fear of being seen as an impostor. Almost on cue, their heads nodded in acknowledgement of their impostor syndrome feelings and their shoulders started to relax as the the tension in their necks began to disappear.

I gave them the same encouragement that I received from Professors Russell, Toth, Kinsey and Shukla on that first day 20 years ago. I am now their mentor, their coach and a facilitator in their own learning journey.

Please welcome our Class of 2019 — our 13th cohort.

Here’s to their success!

MCM Cohort #13 — Class of 2019

When Your Graduate Student Writes A Groundbreaking Masters Capstone Thesis

Yesterday I had the privilege of listening to my Master of Communications Management capstone student, Sharlyn Carrington, present the results of her groundbreaking study on the lived experiences of 21 black women who work in public relations in Canada (mostly Ontario). It was one of those moments that makes your extremely proud to be a professor, a mentor, a researcher and a colleague.

Shar’s own lived experience working in public relations in Ontario is what drove her interest in this research. It is an excellent example of trying to make sense a phenomenon (have other black female public relations practitioners in Ontario had the same experiences as I have in my career) and diving into the literature on gender, race, intersectionality and public relations.

My McMaster University colleagues (Drs. Philip Savage and Alex Sevigny) believe that this thesis has at least 2-3 manuscripts that could be carved from her study and are very encouraging of Shar to pursue publication (and maybe even further graduate studies!).

Here are three recommendations that Sharlyn landed on at the end of her research:

1. Black women need to be disruptors — “black female practitioners have a huge responsibility to be disruptors, to be brave and speak out when they see and experience unacceptable behaviours. These practitioners can encourage more black women to enter and to stay in public relations, find more opportunities to mentor, help crate networks and find opportunities to be seen to the younger generation of diverse practitoners”.

2. Public relations associations need to be scupltors — It is the responsibility of associations and public relations programs to reshape and rebuild the reputation of public relations. They should look for opportunities to employ more diverse faculty and guest speakers, because seeing black leaders and practitioners can send the signal to diverse audiences and student that they too can succeed in this practice.”

3. Organizations need to be nurturers — Organizations need to shape the environment in which public relations operates. They can increase diversity by creating an open environment where people can talk about inclusion, and experiences without fear and enforce cultural sensitivity and unconscious bias training.

I look forward to reading her published articles in the not so distant future — warning to public relations journals … these articles will be arriving in your editor’s inboxes in 2019 —  groundbreaking research results are on their way.

Hopefully Shar will also be available to present her findings to professional associations and public relations programs across Canada.

Congrats Shar — thanks for inviting me along for this wonderful journey.