New Management MBA Course Tests Students’ PR Crisis Management Skills

In 1978, the president of Parker Brothers received a phone call from a newspaper reporter saying a nine-year-old boy had died through suffocation from the rubber rivets in one of their construction toys, the Riviton.

Months later, a second child’s death resulted from the misuse of the Riviton, and both tragedies appeared to involve the same part, the rubber rivet.

Management professor Jay Barbuto presented this business crisis to his MBA students as part of a course he taught during the spring semester. Barbuto split the classroom into eight groups, and each team had to act as company executives for Parker Brothers, the American toy and game manufacturer.

The students determined the best course of action to handle the dilemma. Each group analyzed the case and then prepared and presented a press release defending their solutions for the company’s crisis.

The students knew their presentations were going to be in a simulated live press conference setting, but the surprise element was that the students had no idea that they would be addressing a group of professional reporters and be taped throughout their press conference.

Barbuto set up a media room with five reporters: internship coordinator at the O.C. Register, Dennis Foley; business leadership reporter at the O.C. Register, Kevin Sablan; social media coordinator at Mihaylo College, Maritza Gonzalez; former Daily Titan advisor, Jay Berman; and vice president of communications for Disneyland Resort, John J. Nicoletti.

As the MBA students made their way into the media room, Barbuto introduced the reporters. The students immediately took to the podium and addressed the media with their 10-minute presentations laying out the company’s course of action in answer to the crisis and tragedies.

After the students’ press conference, the media grilled the students with questions followed by critiques.

Each group had a different approach to the company’s crisis. Two groups insisted that the death of the two children was not the company’s fault and blamed the lack of adult supervision that the two children had.

The reporters believed that this approach to the two deaths were insensitive and recommended to think of how a real media group would react to their statement.

Critiques the reporters had for some of the other groups, was to always give the media their name and position within the company, since some groups did not address who they were throughout the entire press conference.

The reporters also observed the students non-verbal behavior and mentioned that some students were standoffish and looked nervous, whereas other students seemed more comfortable talking to the reporters and answering their questions.

MBA student, Hema Paliwal, talked about her groups’ experience during the press conference.

“I was honestly not expecting a group of reporters, but my team had prepped as if it was a real press release,” says Paliwal.

“I think our team did a good job in preparing, and I don’t think that the group of reporters threw our concentration off as it may have for the other groups. It was intimidating, but our group was prepared.”

This new management course, combining case analysis and experimental learning, is the result of a winning curriculum proposal by Barbuto. He was one of 10 Mihaylo College’s business professors awarded $5,000 in December 2012 to develop an innovative curriculum to increase student learning and understanding. Proposals were submitted by 21 full-time faculty and reviewed by a university committee in charge of selecting the 10 grant recipients.

In addition to the unexpected opportunity to handle a fiery group of reporters in a challenging situation, the course is designed to expose students to the realities and difficulties of managing internal and external company crises and provides them with the experience of protecting and enhancing a company’s reputation.

Paliwal said that this course was a great way to gain a different perspective and apply interpersonal theories in a business setting.

“I was able to gain the knowledge to expand on communication and interaction that go on in the workplace, where it’s not just numbers, says Paliwal. “It was such a beneficial opportunity.”

The last day of class, Barbuto showed the entire class all of the groups press conferences, and according to Paliwal, it was enlightening.

“We learned a lot from reviewing each group’s press release. We got to see how other groups handled the crisis under pressure in a stressful situation with the reporters, but we also got to see where everybody’s mind set was.”

Paliwal enjoyed the MBA course and says that this course was one of the best experiences she has ever had. She believes that anytime a student has the opportunity to learn about the interpersonal actions required in a real organization is great.

“I loved having the opportunity to present a press release in the atmosphere of having reporters in the room, where there was a lot of credibility and prestige in the room,” she adds. “The opportunity to receive feedback and critique on our presentation is something that you can’t get anywhere else.”

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