Corporations and other organizations across the country face hard decisions and crises on a daily basis. And that’s why professionals trained in the area of reputation management are always needed.

Enter the School of Communication’s M.A. program and its reputation management major. Reputation management was added as a major for master’s students in the fall of 2020. Since then, this two-year program has benefited students seeking training in public relations management in a variety of sectors, including corporate, nonprofit, and government sectors.

“Reputation is a business asset grounded in how people perceive organizational actions,” said Cayce Myers, director of graduate studies in the School of Communication. “Our M.A. program equips graduates to advise corporate leaders on how to act in ways that are consistent with business objectives and that key constituents will accept and respect. Strategic communication about those authentic actions then influences public perceptions of the organization and enhances its business success.”

For master’s students Madilynne Tanner and Emma Pendleton, the reputation management program was an unexpected treasure. 

Tanner and Pendleton both graduated from the School of Communication in 2020 with degrees in public relations. They each intended to continue their academic careers in the communication major of the M.A. program. When they learned about the new reputation management program, switching was a no-brainer.

“It came at a perfect time,” Tanner said. “Reputation management appealed to me because of how applicable it was. I feel energized with the work I’m doing in the program. I love all the real-world experience I’m getting because my goal is to go into the industry.”

The program supplements its coursework with a hands-on project at the end of the students’ second year. Those projects vary from industry reports to fully designed and implemented public relations campaigns.

Tanner geared her courseload toward a corporate communication and crisis communication focus. Her final project is crafting a public relations campaign for The Shops of South Hill, a merchants’ association in her hometown.

“It’s like I’m a practitioner being able to do a campaign for a client,” Tanner said. “I’m hoping to bring The Shops of South Hill a stronger internal communication structure. They are an energized group, but after COVID, participation started to dwindle, as they weren’t able to have meetings. They want to get their membership involved again, and they just need to communicate better internally.”

Meanwhile, Pendleton knows she wants to work abroad in international public relations, so she tailored a cognate in this area by taking public policy and history courses.

For her project, Pendleton is producing an industry paper investigating the “Stop Asian Hate” movement. The spotlight shifted toward Asian hate in the months following the start of the pandemic. Ajinomoto, a Japanese food and beverage company, launched a “Take Out Hate” campaign in response to this movement.

“They encouraged Americans to order takeout from local Asian restaurants in their area through the hashtag #TakeOutHate on social media,” Pendleton said. “I’m going to analyze the press releases and how the news media framed the issue. From there, I’m going to talk about lessons learned. I’ll create a deliverable that can be released to other PR practitioners if they want to make a purposeful campaign so they can tailor it to the unique story of Asian Americans.”

There’s an even deeper motivation for Pendleton’s project.

“I’m Asian American myself,” Pendleton said. “It was the first time I saw a movement that was focused on the Asian American and Pacific Islander narrative because the perspective and our narratives are so different. It’s different for Blacks, it’s different for Hispanics, different for different races. It was the first time having a movement that was focused on something I know so well. I was curious whether, through an academic lens, it was effective. Was it even worth people’s time?”

Tanner and Pendleton are hard at work in the beginning stages of their projects. They’re both extremely thankful for their project committee chairs — Stephanie Smith for Tanner and Brandi Watkins for Pendleton — and their insights at every step of the way. In the spring, Tanner and Pendleton will be part of the reputation management program’s first graduating class.

“It feels awesome to think, ‘Yeah, we’re the first ones at Virginia Tech,’” Pendleton said. “When I pitch my background to prospective clients and employers, I’ll be able to say I specialized in reputation management. I’m proud I’ll have the skills and deliverables to show for it.”

The reputation management program continues to evolve and grow on both the Blacksburg and Falls Church campuses. Myers noted that the goal is to see an increasing number of alumni in the communication industry over the next several years.

For the time being, the program is already having a profound impact on its students.

“I’m excited for the future,” Tanner said. “It’s neat to see how many industry professionals and other PR-savvy students who might be considering going into the industry but still want to get a master’s can have that opportunity in the School of Communication.”

Written by Cory Van Dyke