McMaster-Syracuse MCM February Residency: Record Cohort and 7 Capstone Defenses

Another successful residency of the McMaster-Syracuse MCM program drew to a close on Thursday afternoon. We had a wonderful time sharing ideas, debating the latest industry challenges and opportunities and simply building friendships and professional collaborations.

This residency saw three key events:

  • Seven students successfully defended their capstone research projects. The capstone project is the culminating event in the MCM. Most of the successful students left on Sunday for a well-deserved “new MCM alumni trip” to the Mayan Riviera in Mexico.
  • Terry O’Reilly, founding partner, Pirate Radio, a major advertising firm, and creator and host of two successful CBC radio shows – The Age of Persuasion and Under the Influence – gave an insightful and engaging speech at the Saturday MCM Gala dinner that is held at the start of every residency.
  • John Clinton, president, Edelman Canada, a major public relations firm, presented the lunchtime keynote on the findings of the 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer, which measures trust levels in different sectors and countries globally.

This residency also saw the record-setting first-year cohort of 23 new MCM students finish their first term and head confidently into their second term of six. Now they are old pros and full of excitement at the positive difference that the MCM is making for them by boosting their professional careers and enriching their personal lives.

To ‘cap it all off’ our graduating class offered a wealth of new insight and research directly applicable to practice, and continuing in the MCM tradition of leadership. The following abstracts showcase the talent and innovation, of another successful round of graduate capstone presentations.

From Enrolment to Alumni: Relationship Marketing and Measurement of University-Student Relations (Katherine Blanchard, Supervisor: Dr. Alex Sévigny)

A study that included 17 U.S. and Canadian universities, looked at the application of relationship management theory and relationship marketing to University-student relationship. Examining key components of relationship management, and relationship marketing to develop best practices for university-student relations. The research developed a comprehensive view of tactic and strategy for community building and adding value to the student experience.

Natural or Misleading: A content analysis of media coverage and consumer comments on product labeling and impact on reputation and the bottom-line. (Rosa Damonte, Supervisor: Dr. Terry Flynn)

​The prominence of media attention to a particular product is something that marketing departments strive to achieve when introducing a new product to market. Whereas conventional wisdom suggests that any publicity is good publicity, does the media cross the line when they are aiming to persuade in some way? As in this case study, agenda setting by reporters and editors can influence the public’s perception of companies through their selection and display of the news. This case study explores consumers’ reactions to the news coverage of a major food producer’s product line that were reported extensively in major newspapers and television networks in order to determine the impact the coverage had on the company’s reputation and bottom line.

Best Practices for Media Relations in a Shifting World (Susan M. Emigh, Supervisor: Dr. Philip Savage)

Public relations practitioners are key in media relations and as the variety of media sources and digital media continues to evolve, the role is becoming more complex. Through surveying 18 influential players in politics, journalism and public relations, it was found that traditional media sources are no longer the sole-gatekeepers of “agenda setting” but have maintained most of their viewership and authority in influencing public policy issues. Although the fundamentals are maintained, additional understanding of new media streams is needed as they continue to gain credibility.

Exploring the Relationship Between Personal Experience, Word of Mouth and a Community Hospital’s Reputation, (Anne Marie Males, Supervisor: Prof. David Scholz)

Looking at the importance of corporate reputation building and reputation management in the context of community hospitals. The importance of reputation is recognized by hospital administrators, and this study illustrates that standard models of corporate reputation do have direct application to the community hospital setting. Personal experience and word of mouth, and in particular the appeal to emotion, came out as prominent influence in patient evaluations of treatment. The results suggested that “feeling cared about” and a positive experience positively influenced how patients and families evaluated outcomes of treatment. Good experiences in hospital translated into a positive hospital experience, even when clinical outcomes where poor.

Thought Leadership in Canadian Professional Service Firms (Wendy McLean-Cobban, Supervisor: Prof. David Scholz)

A new reputation based economy and increasing value of intellectual capitol create the opportunity for Canadian service firms to gain a competitive advantage through Thought Leadership. Becoming ‘leaders in the field’ is an important goal and strategy in reputation management for professional firms. There is an opportunity for implementation of long-term strategies that will position the leaders in those firms as experts on the topics and industries most relevant to their existing and potential client base. This study examined the need for a holistic approach and mechanisms for tracking reputation and thought leadership strategy.

The New Lobbyist Rolodex: PR, (Jennifer Tomlinson, Supervisor: Prof. Michael Meath)

An in-depth inquiry on lobbying in Canada through a communications management and public relations perspective. The findings indicated that PR and Communications intersect in the practice of Lobbying, with “soft lines” of separation between them. Social media is breaking down the traditional singular networks of power in government relations, increasing the need for public relations and communications strategy to play a more strategic role in lobbying.

Reputation and Perception of Value: Online vs. Traditional Degrees (Amber Wallace, Supervisor: Prof. David Scholz)

Online education is becoming increasingly more popular, with the rise of online universities and the increasing number of traditional “bricks-and-mortar” post-secondary institutions offering online courses. It found that educational programs based solely online are poorly perceived, lacking institutional reputation. Established classroom based institutions offering online education benefited from a “halo-effect” based on their established relationship. The study found that the executives, administrators and hiring managers expressed concern for the “un-tested” nature of online learning. That is, that online education programs are a relatively new development and the graduates looking to enter the workforce don’t have the long-standing reputation of classroom based programs and established universities.

Dr. Al Seaman teaching MCM students about how financial market trading works in our McMaster Trading Floor Simulator.
Dr. Al Seaman teaching MCM students about how financial market trading works in our McMaster Trading Floor Simulator. (photo: Sarah Parent)
A candid moment during the MCM Saturday Gala Dinner.
A candid moment during the MCM Saturday Gala Dinner. (photo: Sarah Parent)


Terry O'Reilly in conversation with MCM Exec. Director, Alex Sévigny.
Terry O’Reilly in conversation with Alex Sévigny, MCM Executive Director. (photo: Sarah Parent)
John Clinton, president, Edelman Canada presenting the 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer.
John Clinton, president, Edelman Canada presenting the 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer. (Photo: Sarah Parent)
Students who completed their capstones successfully.
Happy moment, post-capstone defense! (Photo: Sarah Parent)
Alex Sévigny, MCM Executive Director, giving a capstone briefing for 2nd year students.
Alex Sévigny, MCM Executive Director, giving a capstone briefing for 2nd year students. (photo: Sarah Parent)



McMaster launches a new Bachelor of Professional Communication (BPC)

Our world is changing at light speed and it need a new class of highly qualified, well-educated, ethical professional communicators.

This change is creating the need for highly competent and well-educated professional communicators, whose role in winning battles in the court of public opinion will work in parallel with lawyers who fight in the court of law.

McMaster University, in partnership with Mohawk College, is responding to this need for highly qualified, entrepreneurial leaders in professional communication by launching a brand new, highly selective Honours Bachelor of Professional Communication, pending ministry approval.

Business, government, culture and the not-for-profit sectors are being transformed from top to bottom by digital communication technologies like social media and smartphones. All of these sectors require a new class of professional communicators who combine public relations, communications management, journalism, advocacy and market research.

Media, digital communication and mobile smartphones are transforming the way we do business, practice politics, raise money, create culture and are governed.

The BPC will combine several things:

  • Training in finance and accounting, marketing, communications management and entrepreneurship
  • A rich liberal arts approach to professional communication, steeped in ethics and a critical understanding of our culture
  • Extensive training in communication measurement: polling, audience research, cognitive and behavioural, content analysis, surveys, focus groups, ethnography, semiotics and many more.
  • Cutting edge training in photography, videography, mobile app and web design, professional/journalistic writing and project management
  • A mandatory full-term, for-credit work placement in the government, not-for-profit or private sectors
  • An honours project tied to research or a campaign in the real world of professional communication practice
We are convinced that the first graduates of the BPC will not only be market-ready when they graduate, but that they will be market leaders among junior practitioners of public relations.

The characteristics of a successful applicant to the BPC:

  • High Academic Achievement is a MUST
  • Demonstrated ability in writing or another form of digital or print creative production such as photography, video and audio
  • A mature personal outlook and a desire to make a difference in the world
  • Personal qualities of leadership, enterprising and/or advocacy and activism.

Who can apply?

  • Applicants completing their high school diploma.
  • Applicants who have completed a university degree or college diploma
  • Applicants who are in the midst of a degree and who wish to transfer into the BPC
To gain some insight into the thinking that went into the creation of the BPC, please click on our white paper, published in the Journal of Professional Communication.

We invite you to spread the word about the BPC to anyone you think would be an ethical, enterprising and bold professional communication practitioner.


Students don’t read anymore. What does this mean for democracy?

I have spent most of the last week marking papers. As professors, we sometimes grumble and complain about this task, but it is important to consider how vital evaluation and feedback is to student growth. The thing is, marking work is a two-way street.

I have been thinking a lot about the value of assignments and marking papers over the last little while. What kinds of assignments are appropriate? What do students learn from a particular assignment? Should assignments be on hypothetical situations or should the examples be drawn from the real world?

I have settled upon a compromise in the courses I teach, particularly at the fourth year level. I ask students to work on assignments incrementally, handing in a draft, which I mark up and then a final version, to which I assign a grade. I find that this is the only way to encourage a culture of constant improvement and self-evaluation. I also walk students through the elements of research methods and theory in every class I teach. It is a challenging balance to maintain, but it is valuable, since by the end of the seminar, they have produced a piece of work that they are usually proud to include in their portfolios, for presentation to potential employers.

The thing is, this strategy requires a commitment of effort and good faith on the part of the students. They have to commit to doing the readings and working through the theoretical components of the course, so that they are ready to come to class and have wide-ranging and profound discussions. There is a problem, however: many students have to work long hours to pay for their tuition and there seems to be a culture of “work hard, play hard,” which leaves very little time for reading, reflection and deep thought.

This is worrisome, because it downloads all of the learning onto the actual time students spend in class, which is not considerable. University seminars are two or three hour sessions, once a week. That just isn’t enough time to cover all of the material that would need to be covered to assure the depth and breadth of learning expected in a university level class. This means that students are leaving with a piece of paper that says “Honours Bachelor’s of Arts/Science/Commerce/Engineering/Etc.” but it is a degree that doesn’t represent what it once did. I can attest that student attitudes to reading and reflection have changed from even a few years ago, in 2001, when I started being a professor.

Whose fault is this? I don’t know. Students tell me they simply don’t have time to read, between work, internet and social commitments. They tell me that there is no culture of political, ethical or philosophical discussion – only a constant chatter about celebrity news and lifestyle information that is pulled from various outlets online. They explain that there isn’t really a desire for more heady conversation, either; that they get shut down by peers if they try to talk politics or current affairs.

This will not lead our culture, our economy and our democracy anywhere good. An uneducated, unreflective public, tuned in largely to passing fancies and trivialities can’t make good voting choices, smart investments or career and lifestyle choices. This can only lead to a two-tiered society, where people who are “tuned in” make all the decisions and have all the know-how and depth of understanding to pull the levers of power and influence, while the rest – both men and women – are chatting about celebrity gossip and dieting/workout tips.

How do we repair this situation and right the good ship education? Or is it our culture that is broken?

Descriptions and times of courses I am teaching in the Autumn Term!

I just put the final touches on my courses for this year. I am pretty excited about what the year portends!

On Tuesdays and Fridays at 2:30pm, I will be teaching CMST 1a03: Intro to Communication. I absolutely love teaching this giant course. It is the first course that I ever taught at Mac, on the morning of September 11, 2001. What a start to a career. The way we teach communications at McMaster is a little different, with a strong focus on critical, cognitive and professional approaches. The students read a big selection of interpersonal and speech communication texts, as well as a lot of communication, linguistic and cultural theory. The assignments are a combination of professional writing, presentations and, this year, public speaking!

On Tuesday mornings, 11:30-2:30, I will be teaching CMST 4N03: News Analysis, Theory & Practice. This course is designed to highlight agenda setting, framing and cultivation theory. It is also meant to pull the veil back from how news is a produced and viewed. We spend a lot of time thinking about what the move to the Internet and social media means for the news. I also schedule a good number of visiting lectures from the worlds of journalism, public relations and political communication during this class. The students do a major empirical content analysis, working in groups.

On Friday evenings, 4:30-7:30, I will be leading a graduate seminar, CSMM 704: Media, Public Relations & Reality. This course will examine the concept of reality from a variety of perspectives: social, linguistics and cognitive. It is a very challenging course that takes students on a tour of the philosophy of reality, cognition and some public relations theory. Here’s what the syllabus looks like (remember, we are reading excerpts from the philosophical works!). I am very excited about this course, since it really is a “high theory” course – a change from the courses in communications management, measurement and analysis (which I love teaching too!).

CSMM 704: Syllabus

Week 1: What is knowledge? How does it support life?

  • Aristotle, Montaigne, Nietzsche

Week 2: Does knowledge define reality? How about perspectivalism?

  • Berkeley, Nozick, Descartes, Plato (Allegory of the Cave)
  • Fiction: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Week 3: What is reality for communications? The gnostic heresy.

  • Vogelin

Week 4: Causality?

  • Hume, Laplace

Week 5: How do language, mind & society impact reality?

  • Searle, Sperber, Eco, Quine,

Week 6: What is linguistic discourse? Does language shape reality?

  • Lakoff, Pinker, Fairclough

Week 7: What is social discourse? Is reality a social construction?

  • Foucault, Rosen, Wittgenstein

Week 8: What is the mind? Who are you? Is there a self?

  • Dennett, Freud, Aristotle (De Anima)
  • Media: The Century of the Self

Week 9: Media as simulacrum of life?

  • Minsky, Kurzweil, Hofstadter, Baudrillard

Week 10: What is reality from the perspective of public relations theory?

  • Bernays, Lipmann, Ellul, Chomsky
  • Media: Necessary Illusions
  • Fiction: The Man in the High Castle

Week 11: Do our senses and our emotions shape reality?

  • McLuhan, Damasio, Minsky (emotions), Turing
  • Media: The Persuaders, The Merchants of Cool

Week 12: Borges’ story of the map & Jean Vanier’s alternative view.

  • Borges, Vanier

Gave a Speech on Social Media Risk Management in Ottawa

Last night I had a wonderful experience, giving a Mac on the Road alumni lecture on “Social Media Risk Management” in the St. Laurent Room of the Lord Elgin Hotel in Ottawa.

There was a great, diverse crowd of people out, ranging from professional communicators from the Ottawa area to different generations of McMaster alumni, to several young people who were alumni of my CMST 1A03: Intro to Communication class, across the years, since I started in 2001. There were also several current and former Hill staffers there. There were also a couple of my current students in in the Master of Communications Management Program – I was so happy to see them!

I was so very pleased to see my former students present. Their success is my success. I am very proud of them all and honoured that they would take time out of their busy day to see their old professor!

It was a good night. The lecture lasted just over an hour and then we had approximately 30 mins for questions. People were very interested in the idea of social media as a new country that has been opened up parallel to the “real” one we live, but which is just as real to many people who participate in it, especially young people who have grown up in a social media world.

I touched on security particulars for the following social media sites, for both individuals and organizations:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
  • YouTube
  • On-Line Dating
  • Geotagging
Then I discussed emergent risks that weren’t linked to any specific social media setting, but rather to more general trends as computing becomes a more fundamental part of our lives:
  • Cloud Computing
  • Surveillance
  • Facial Recognition
  • Security of information
  • Device-Specific Usage (spreading your data across a multitude of devices)
I also had a brief discussion of the concepts of trust and reputation, as foundational concepts that both individuals and organizations have to be concerned about when they use social media services.
After the talk, we had a lively discussion about how social media use is affecting our individual identities and how organizations are being affected by this seismic shift in our business and leisure cultures.
A big thanks to John Popham, from McMaster Alumni Services, who organized the talk. He did a great job!
All in all, an excellent night.
I am just getting warmed up at the Lord Elgin. (photo: John Popham)

A mind forever voyaging… seeking the Good in your life.

The antechapel where the statue stood
Of Newton with his prism and silent face,
The marble index of a mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.

– William Wordsworth

“An explanation of cause is not a justification by reason.” – C. S. Lewis

I have often reflected on the meaning of these verses, taken from Book Three of The Prelude by William Wordsworth and how they relate to this quote from C.S. Lewis.

We live in a world of ideas, symbols and signs. All around us, reality is pulled and stretched, tweaked and polished through words, images and narratives designed by influencers. It’s easy to lose track of reality in the midst of this vast and shifting sea. We are pulled  by currents that feel so strong, it feels impossible to resist simply giving in and “going with the flow.”

The problem is that there is nothing but flow and trends. There is no floor, no ground in this world of information. There is only influence and fitting in. The problem is that this means that the only principle in this world is power. The power of the influencer and the persuader. The power of the crowd.

The flow of meaning in the sea of culture and social life is something that we each can only glimpse a piece of, from a limited perspective. Actually, we are only ever seeing a “thin slice” of reality, and our understanding of it is coloured by our perspective. This is what makes reason and principle so important.

Let’s unpack this idea a little.

If we are swimming – perhaps treading water is a better way of thinking about it – in a sea of ideas, ideas that feel linked together and organized, we feel grounded. We wake up one morning and see something on the television, say, a fashionable new pair of shoes. We see somebody famous being interviewed in a friendly way on a morning show and, without too much make-up, wearing jeans, the person looks remarkably like us. Then the celebrity tells a personal story of how they came across these shoes and how they fit in to being modern, hip, cool and avant-garde.

It’s an alluring prospect. Someone famous who looks  quite a bit like people I know, who look and sound and feel like me. It makes it easy to think of those shoes as a part of being trendy, or – more likely – “fitting in.” And this way, it is so easy to begin to behave in an inhuman way. To lose yourself in the fantasies and visions of other people. People who would have power and control over your imagination.

Why does this work?

It’s because, as I said earlier, we can only know a thin slice of what there is to know about anything, whether it is shoes, or fashion, or politics or even the identities of our friends. The rest of what we feel we “know” about these things and people is really just smudgy background, but we assume that the smudgy background, if we looked at it closely enough, would become as crisp as the image of the shoes or the celebrity.

The thing is, it doesn’t. It’s a game of smoke and mirrors, where the only clear image is the one in the foreground.

The fact is – the smudgy background doesn’t exist. In fact, the smudgy background is the vague totality of our feelings, our self-concept, our interpretation of our experiences in the current context. It is built of a series of assumptions that we take for granted. But the shocking thing is that the background isn’t real. It doesn’t exist. It is a projection of our subconscious mind. And that is what persuaders depend upon.

That is what takes me back to Wordsworth and Lewis.

A mind forever voyaging seeks to understand – Newton was a scientist and a mystic, trying throughout his life to reconcile faith and rationality. The problem with depending on rationality is that it is easy to be limited to the sharp foreground – the sharp, high definition image of the shoes and the celebrity in the foreground of our perception. It is less good at casting light on the background. It is easy, when you are being purely rational, to focus on the most obvious, rather than to seek what’s true. To peer into the smudgy background.

That is the trap of living in a symbolic culture. We can end up trying to piece together the two-dimensional jigsaw puzzle of symbols and narratives that swirl around us. We may even be able to establish causal relationships between things: “I saw those shoes, thought that they would look good on me, and bought them.”

But this superficial causality doesn’t necessarily capture the truth or the reason behind our actions. It just floats at the surface. Reason asks us to peer into the smudgy background of our perceptions in an attempt to transcend the limitations placed upon us by our individual perspectives. Our individual perspectives which are but the sharp, blade’s edge of our experience: the knife’s edge of our experiences, raw and thin. Our perspectives in any moment, our impulses, aren’t reasoned, but they are causal. Pure rationality, without caring and love, is but a funhouse mirror image of reality. It isn’t human. It is hard and brittle. It is driven by power. Power is ugly.

The trick is to not confuse the superficially causal with the reasoned way. Human reason requires a dimension beyond pure rationality. It demands faith and love. It demands faith in love.

So back to the mind forever voyaging.

The poet, the scholar, when he or she is motivated by love, applies loving reason to his or her experiences. S/he voyages back and forth through the slipstream of experiences, and lovingly examines them. Understanding of self is born of this. Depth and caring are born of this. Agape – the brotherly love – is born of this.

So I feel that to get to the reasoned life, we have to put aside superficial causality and attempt to illuminate the smudgy background that supports it. We must ask: Why? Who benefits? How does this make sense? How does it serve the good?

When you ask yourself these questions, you start to realize what I mean by the fact that there is no ground underneath the flow. There are no trends. There is nothing to “fit into”. In the world of images, there are only influences, patterns and power. It isn’t human. Only love is human.

So what to do?

Know your heart. Seek to be loving and open and generous. Always ask what “Good” comes of the things you see. If there is no Good, then what you are seeing isn’t constructive. Rather, it is destructive. The good is generative – it builds us up, it builds our relationships. It builds communities. It builds trust.

Seek to understand what the good means in what you see and hear in your life. Then make the good your perspective on the world.

You will be amazed at how different the world of media, fashion, images, sound and narratives and relationships will look to you. How brittle. How faded. How inhuman.

Demand the good. Free yourself from the power of illusion.

Become human.

Inaugural issue of JPC going live very soon!

I am just putting the final edits and final page layout tweaks for the inaugural issue of the Journal of Professional Communication. We have excellent content and many lively debates represented. We also have a serious policy white paper, Pathways to the Profession, which details educations pathways as outlined by the Canadian Public Relations Society. An excellent document that begins to create a system of recognition for academic programs.

Starting a journal is quite an endeavour, but definitely a pleasure. Every experience that opens new horizons of possibility for discussion is. What a satisfying and motivating idea: that our volunteer labour and the work of our paid assistants will produce an arena for debate and discussion among professional communication practitioners, academics, journalists, creatives and policy makers.

Our editorial team has been very fortunate to have the unwavering support of Dean Suzanne Crosta at McMaster University. As well, the authors have been patient as we discovered the various bumps in the road to producing a quality, fully peer-reviewed academic journal.

What a wonderful journey it has been from conception to creation to publication.

You can see the table of contents of the inaugural issue here.

JPC 1 will be going live very soon. I know the authors are excited and so am I.