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UM business school gets the word out

The Baltimore Sun

It's the size of a small office - in fact, it used to be one - but the University of Maryland's business school hopes its new television studio will have an impact far beyond its walls.

The Robert H. Smith School of Business sees the fiber-optic-equipped room, set up so faculty can do "live talkbacks" for broadcast and cable news programs, as one part of its continual effort to distinguish itself in a crowded market. Like its Interstate 95 billboard and its lighted signs inside Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, its professors on screen can draw thousands of eyes.

The school, which has faculty on TV once or twice a month, hopes to increase that number now that no travel - by TV crews or professors - is necessary.

"The reputation of any business school is built largely on the strength of its faculty," said Jeff Heebner, managing director of the Smith school's office of marketing communications, who helped plan and launch the studio. "We think we have a responsibility to showcase that."

As marketing department chairman Roland T. Rust puts it: "Unpaid advertising is always better than advertising."

It's unclear how many business schools have their own studios, but it doesn't appear to be common. Rust thinks the recognition that can come with media exposure is particularly important for a business school on the rise, like the University of Maryland's, because it has more branding work to do than Harvard University or University of Pennsylvania's Wharton.

Undergraduate applications to UM's business school have more than doubled in recent years and MBA applicants rose by 25 percent last year alone. But the school could face stiff competition in the future from the Johns Hopkins University, which launched a business school in January with a $50 million gift.

Villa Julie College in Baltimore County is also launching a business school; it broke ground May 31 on a building to house it.

University of Baltimore's Merrick School of Business, meanwhile, increased its number of new MBA students by about 75 percent last year. This year its applications for all graduate-level programs are up 40 percent.

Darlene Brannigan Smith, associate dean of the Merrick school, credits better marketing of all sorts: print and radio ads, mailings to alumni urging them to "tell a friend," efforts to improve the Web site in Google search rankings. The school will launch a new Web site in July with a blog, videos and podcasts aimed at pulling in the community.

"It's kind of like an octopus - you want to be out there in the market wherever you think prospective students are," Smith said.

Business school rivalries aren't simply local, either. Not with more than 1,600 U.S. institutions offering at least 10 business degrees at the bachelor's level or higher and European schools increasingly trying to recruit American students.

At issue isn't just competition to fill student slots. Even more so, it's competition for funds.

Tuition doesn't cover the full tab, said John Fernandes, president and chief executive of AACSB, a key business-school accrediting agency. So schools need to persuade alumni to donate. The schools can do so more easily if they place well in the annual rankings by publications such as U.S. News & World Report, which is more likely to happen if they recruit excellent students - and that's where marketing comes in.

"Anytime you can get on television, you position the school as being an expert in the area of expertise for the faculty member," said Fernandes. "It's a great exposure."

But Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communication at Dartmouth College's well-ranked Tuck School of Business, thinks a business-school-centric studio might not offer the best bang for the buck. No individual school within a university needs much studio time, he said.

"You build your reputation by placing stories about the school itself," he said.

Only a handful of the 100 or so television interviews at the University of Michigan's studio every year involve experts from its Stephen M. Ross School of Business - even though the studio, run by the university's news service, is in the business school. But Roger Sutton, manager of broadcast media and information technology with the news service, believes in the value of every satellite feed.

"You get a fellow on the air for two to four minutes, think of that as four to eight 30-second [advertising] spots," Sutton said. Plus, "if someone appears on a major news show, it isn't long before other news shows are calling."

The Smith school's studio doesn't seem hugely pricey as marketing goes: $50,000 to install and $375 a month in maintenance. There's no technician on hand. The interviewee sits down, clips on a microphone and puts in an earpiece. A Massachusetts-based contractor called VideoLink handles the rest - remotely setting up the shot and sending the feed.

But the school, which announced the studio's availability last month, hasn't yet had any TV interviews of business faculty there. It's used the space to produce in-house video, and the university took advantage of it to make an administrator available for an out-of-state news conference.

It came close: Professor Anil K. Gupta was supposed to go on CNBC to speak about a piece he co-wrote for The Wall Street Journal. He was sitting in the chair and everything.

Alas, breaking news bumped him. "That happens often in television," Heebner said philosophically.

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