Sustainability public relations is new professor’s forte

portrait of Attila Schillinger
Photo by Jeremy Parker.

Meet the Faculty: Attila Schillinger

Professor of practice in public relations and director of the Strategic Communication Master’s program for the UO School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC)

Hometown: Ercsi, Hungary (outside of Budapest)

Primary interests: International strategic communication; sustainability communication working with companies to facilitate environmental, social and governance (ESG) transformations; climate change specialized conflict resolution; nonprofits  

Favorite quote: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” —Nelson Mandela 

Say “hello!”: Connect with him on LinkedIn

When Atilla Schillinger graduated from ELTE Faculty of Law in Budapest with a law degree, he quickly discovered it wasn’t the path for him. He found he wanted to do more creative thinking and inspire change through that thinking. So he pivoted to communication and earned a master’s degree in public relations from Ball State University. For Schillinger, public relations was the perfect fit, since bringing people together is what drives him.

Most of Schillinger’s recent work has been advising organizations on corporate sustainability performance. In 2003, he co-founded the Avantgarde Group, a consultancy that has worked with large corporations like L’Oréal and American International Group on special projects and crises.

In 2020, he came to the UO to pursue a master’s degree in conflict and dispute resolution with a focus on climate change. Schillinger said that for him, the expression “once a duck, always a duck” rang true. He fell in love with Eugene and kept in contact with staff, and the UO finally drew him back to stay.

In addition to teaching at the SOJC, Schillinger is an adjunct professor at the University of Budapest and a member of the Sustainability Council of the Budapest Business School. He also founded a nonprofit, Greenterest, that focuses on bringing climate scientists and communicators together.

We had the opportunity to sit down with Schillinger to find out how he will use his skills at the SOJC.

You’ve done a lot of work in sustainability communication. Why do you think it’s important to include sustainability in public relations?

When you graduate, and anybody in the future, there will be a double-expectation for anyone in any kind of organization. One thing is how you run the organization to make money or raise funding, to be successful that way. But then how do you get there while meeting sustainability requirements? How do you treat your people? How do you treat the environment? How do you treat our resources? Our resources are limited, I think by now we understand.

You’ve worked with many large corporations to facilitate ESG transformations. Can you tell us more about that?

Let’s first talk about sustainability and ESG because a lot of people think it’s the same. It really isn’t. Sustainability is a state of being, where we want to be, or where we want to get to be. Sustainability is something that we aspire to and want to reach as organizations, as individuals, as businesses.

ESG is a set of factors investors look at when deciding to invest in a company. It’s a company’s method to get to sustainability. It just gives you a handle on how an organization is driving its environmental and social performance, and the governance systems to get there.

Of course, there are all types of arguments, pro and con, because the measurement of that performance is not yet crystal clear. We are getting to a unified metrics system globally that will clarify how ESG is measured. Then we can compare apples with apples in the future. Especially for companies who are on the stock exchange, it’s very important that it’s transparent so Apple and Microsoft are compared on the same standards.

What has been your experience working internationally in public relations?

You need to be very conscious of the cultural differences. I can give you an example. When you have a good relationship with a Hungarian journalist, you can invite them to lunch, and if you pay for lunch that’s kind of OK. When you do that with the Financial Times correspondent in the same country, you’re in trouble. They can’t accept that. You just need to know what you are doing, who you are dealing with and understand the cultural context.

The companies that I’ve worked for have always been involved in government relations and public affairs. That’s even more sensitive because you have to understand how the systems work.

Hungary has a similar democratic political system as the U.S., but the layers are different. Our president is kind of a figurehead, and our prime minister is the one who drives the government and change.

Plus, I think it’s wonderful to have an international network. No matter where I go, from Singapore to New Zealand, I have a colleague to call. And hopefully, I can invite them to [speak in] some of the classes I will be teaching so my students can talk to them about their experiences in public relations.

How do you plan to bring your interest in sustainability into the classroom?

I’ll definitely try to focus on explaining to students and showing examples of why business success and sustainability success are tied, and how we can manage that together with good communication, how we can facilitate organizational transformations.

I’ve been dealing with organizations like McDonald’s and Nestle, some of the largest corporations, and everybody is challenged by just getting capacity building around sustainability. Ramping up internal connections is equally important. How do you rally your team? How do you get them to realize that it is important?

What are your goals for the master’s program?

The Strategic Communication Master’s Program paves the way to managerial and leadership positions for communicators. We must represent the forefront of a fast-evolving discipline, stay relevant and deliver a program that provides highly marketable skills and capabilities. My predecessor Donna Davis has done an incredible job creating a strong program we can build on. I cannot wait to think and work together with our faculty and take the program to the next level.

How do you plan to incorporate your sustainability communication ideas into the master’s program?

I would like to see sustainability saturate everything we do, from syllabi to seminars, courses and internships. Communicators must be able to support organizations in reaching sustainability. That means we must all operate within our planetary boundaries. It is my view that one cannot be considered a leader or strategic without facilitating and acting in this arena. For this reason, I think sustainability must be incorporated into our curriculum in a 360-degree fashion.

What do you hope are the biggest takeaways from the master’s program?

Our students can be beneficiaries of the transformation happening around us. Look at the number of new jobs and business opportunities in sustainability, ESG, energy, renewables, electric vehicles, public transportation and new infrastructure. Think about how many organizations must start communicating and reporting their business and sustainability performance in an integrated manner. There is more market demand than we can currently meet. I would like to see our alumni succeed in this new era.

Ella Norton, public relations, class of ’24

Ella Norton (she/her/hers) is a third-year student majoring in public relations and French from Kansas City, Missouri. She is a copy editor for Align Magazine, an account executive for Allen Hall Public Relations and a student ambassador for the School of Journalism and Communication.