Time and time again business leaders go in front of the press to discuss a controversial issue and end up making a bad situation even worse. Even some of the world’s most savvy businesspeople are subject to the occasional press conference gaffe or unfortunate media statement. On February 21, 2014, MBA students at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business got the opportunity to put themselves in the shoes of those corporate executives on the hot seat trying to navigate the rocky waters of a mid-crisis press conference in this year’s “Leadership Under Fire” competition.
A hotel company facing allegations of unfair treatment of workers and an over budget project at a new site in Guatemala and a multi-billion dollar beverage company dealing with backlash regarding water contamination that may be tied to the firm’s Michigan plant. These were the situations that the six groups of first-year MBA students were tasked with responding to before a press corps and panel of judges made up of experienced media professionals in Van Munching Hall’s Tyser Auditorium.
After providing an initial written press release and verbal statement regarding their company’s situation, the students then truly faced the “fire” of a question and answer period with the press. Included in the press corps were seasoned journalists with experience working for major news outlets such as the Baltimore Sun, Capital News Service, NBC, Barron’s National Business, and the New York Times. And just like a real press conference, the press corps did not pull any punches in their questioning of the student groups, consistently prying for more information and trying their hardest to catch the students in a “gotcha” moment.
“Smith’s student leaders were informed, cooperative and sharp,” said John Files, a senior vice president at Powell Tate and one of the volunteer press corps. “They also exhibited focus and calm under pressure. These skills will help them thrive in an often intense, competitive, and fast-changing business environment and to bring out the best in their teams during difficult circumstances.”
The competition, co-hosted by the Smith School’s Professional Communication's Club and Net Impact chapter, fits with Smith’s initiative to emphasize the importance of communications and media relations skills for future business leaders, as pointed out by Ken White, Smith’s associate dean for MBA and MS programs. In addition to the event, White highlighted Smith’s involvement as one of five business schools to participate in the Public Relations Society of America’s pilot program of MBA-level strategic communications courses as further evidence of the school’s commitment to developing these skills.
“I think this year's event really showcased the talents and tenacity of our students when put under pressure. Our press corps did not hold back in their questioning and our judges provided astute feedback that was extremely beneficial to everyone in attendance as we prepare to take on management roles after graduation,” said Professional Communications Club President Amanda Mendoza. “It is my hope that next year we can recruit some teams from the part-time and executive MBA programs to increase the beneficial impact for our students. Down the line, I can see the competition spanning two days in order to invite other east coast schools, further cementing Leadership Under Fire as a signature event for Smith.”
While all of the groups performed well under the pressure of a demanding press corps, the judges and press corps recognized a few students for their exceptional performances. The press corps awarded Nadine Payne as the “Press Favorite” and the team of Brendan Collins and Katie Tedrow took home the award for “Best Overall Team.”
“The event provides an opportunity to apply what we’ve learned in the classroom about leadership, ethics and teamwork toward a real world scenario,” said Tedrow, a full-time first-year MBA student. “As future business managers, this experience is a fun and effective way to gain practical experience handling high pressure situations and interacting with the press while protecting our company's reputation.”
For more information about Smith’s MBA program, visit: www.rhsmith.umd.edu/mba.
Special thanks to the following people who served as judges and members of the press corps.
- Cassandra Clayton, Professor at University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism
- Thomas G. Donlan, Editorial Page Editor of Barron's National Business and Financial Weekly
- John Files, Senior Vice President, Management Supervisor at Powell Tate
- Scott Dance, Reporter/Blogger, Baltimore Sun
- Kelly Dieter, Director of Media and Marketing, WorldWide Speakers Group
- Angie Howard, President of Howard-Johnson Associates
- Tom Squitieri, Senior Executive Coach, The Pincus Group
- Russ Wilkin, Associate Brand Manager, Campbell Soup Company
Patrick Gillece, MBA Candidate 2015, Office of Marketing Communications