An Interview with Professor Bob Larson

By: Joseph Havey

In efforts to give you a look at the different areas of our PR community here at N.C. State, I decided to sit down with one of our professors for a talk about his PR experience and advice for students. Professor Bob Larson, who teaches courses like Introduction to Public Relations, Public Relations Writing and Public Relations Case Studies, shared his career background and commented on PRSSA and the importance of writing.

PRSSA thanks Professor Larson for his time and advice. We also encourage you to get to know your professors!

His Background:

Professor Larson has had quite the career in PR.

He holds a degree in journalism from Rutgers University, a degree in business from the University of South Florida, and a master’s degree in communication from the University of Florida. He also spent a year at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., studying German 10 hours a day as part of his military training.

However, education is not all there is. Professor Larson has worked for telephone, manufacturing and pharmaceutical companies. He has lived in Tampa, Chicago, Phoenix, Canada and Raleigh.

His first job was for a telephone company – now Verizon – in Florida, where he wrote and edited the company newspaper. It was a great start, as the company had a very large PR department, including a video department with equipment rivaling that of a network news show.

“I was fortunate that the vice president of the department was visionary,” Professor Larson said in our interview.

After working his way up the ranks, Professor Larson left the company as head of employee communication to work for its manufacturing division in Chicago, where he headed up the internal and external communication and government relations aspects.

Professor Larson was contacted by a head hunter, which eventually led to a job for Northern Telecom. He was the director of PR for NT’s five U.S. labs for one and a half years, during which he was promoted to global director of Communication and Technological Sales Support.

He then left to work for Rhone-Poulenc, a French pharmaceutical company, for 10 years. This company then merged with Aventis, and the part of the company for which he worked was sold to Bayer. There was an executive board shift at Bayer, and for the first time, Professor Larson found himself without a job in corporate PR.

“It was the best thing that happened,” Professor Larson said.

Why, you ask? Because it allowed him to teach full-time.

As a junior in college, Professor Larson got his first grade of F. Maurice Cullen, a professor at Rutgers University, gave Professor Larson an F on a midterm exam, explaining that Professor Larson’s performance on the exam did not meet expectations. A meeting with Dr. Cullen opened Professor Larson’s eyes to the requirements of a demanding professor. He promised himself he would work smarter and harder and earned an A in the course. Professor Larson valued Dr. Cullen’s guidance over the final two years of college and came to the realization that he wanted to be just like Dr. Cullen and teach with at the university level.

However, it would be a long time before 2002, when Professor Larson started teaching full-time here at N.C. State.

“I was seduced by the big money, benefits and travel in corporate PR,” Professor Larson said.

Eventually, though, when the choice to continue teaching or continue working in big PR arose, Professor Larson chose to teach. This choice has been reaffirmed as the right decision every day.

“I love every second of it,” Professor Larson said. “I want to stay here until I get too old to find my classroom.”

I can say personally that I want him to as well.

On PRSSA:

Although there was no PRSSA when Professor Larson was in college, there was PRSA (the same thing but without the “student” part). He is an accredited member of PRSA, and has been a member of IABC (International Association of Business Communicators).

“I don’t understand why 100 percent of PR majors aren’t in PRSSA,” Professor Larson said.

The benefits of joining are extensive. In addition to simply having access to the various panels we put on, members are opened to networking opportunities, leadership opportunities and real-world PR experience through The Pack. It also looks phenomenal on a resumé because it shows investment with your campus community.

“I’ve hired and fired a lot of people over the years,” Professor Larson said. “There were always two things I looked for in a PR major. Were they involved with their campus newspaper? And were they a member of PRSSA?”

In this economy, especially, the job market is incredibly competitive.

“You need every advantage you can get,” Professor Larson said. “Every single advantage.”

On a side note, when Professor Larson took the PRSA accreditation test, the proctor told him that he got the highest score the proctor had ever known. PR professionals were failing at the time. We have an awesome professor here at N.C. State!

Advice for college students:

Professor Larson’s advice for current PR students is to diversify. Straight A’s are great, but having perfect grades doesn’t translate into success in the real world. Professor Larson’s plea to students is to get out of the dorm room and involved in a variety of organizations on and off campus. Anything from student government to a chancellor committee is a great opportunity to develop leadership and communication skills. Other options are the student ambassadors program, intramural sports, a variety of clubs and writing for the Technician, not to mention many opportunities in the Triangle to help non-profits.

“Take advantage of everything,” Professor Larson said. “Be open and flexible.”

Professor Larson is quick to point out that his initial interest in journalism came from a whimsical decision to attend an event hosted by a local private university for student news editors when he was in high school. While there he “fell in love” with editing. There’s some trigger event that gets us excited about a certain career, and the key to experiencing this event is to explore.

Professor Larson also recommends not shying away from courses outside your specific major.

“Take a design course,” he said. “Take a business course or a course in the College of Animal and Life Sciences.”

Now that it’s common for people to live well beyond their 70s, the notion of having one job for life is outdated. Oftentimes, people switch between completely different careers. Professor Larson points out that success in the career world starts with a strong mentality and a diverse skill set. The key to cultivating these things is to start in college.

On writing:

You have probably heard of how difficult Professor Larson’s COM 316 class is.

“I was always appalled at the level of writing in the corporate world,” Professor Larson said. “I always wanted to be able to write well in the business world, and I try to convey this to my students in COM 316.”

The world of communication starts with writing. If you have been to any of PRSSA’s panels, you have already heard how important writing is to PR. According to Professor Larson, clients can fire an agency for bad writing, especially if it leads to the humiliation of the client.

“If you can’t write, how can you ever expect to get a job in the communication world?” Professor Larson asked.

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