Field Experience

Russell Mack, a strategic communication professor, brings his professional expertise to the classroom.

When Russell Mack began teaching at TCU in the Bob Schieffer College of Communication, his experience in the communication field stretched from the White House and Capitol Hill to the airline industry. Photo by Glen E. Ellman

Field Experience

Russell Mack, a strategic communication professor, brings his professional expertise to the classroom.

Russell Mack, instructor II in the Bob Schieffer College of Communication, teaches several upper-level strategic communication courses, including Strategic Writing and PR Case Studies. Before Mack began teaching, his experience in the communication field stretched from the White House and Capitol Hill to the airline industry. He shares those experiences with students as he helps them become communication professionals.  

When did you first realize that you might want to pursue a career in strategic communication? 

Probably when I was in high school, although I didn’t realize what strategic communication was — I just knew that I was a good writer and that I wanted to write. So, I started writing for my school newspaper. Then I became the editor of the newspaper and won some writing awards. Then I went to college in Washington, D.C., and was really interested in public affairs. That’s what got me into PR. Eventually I realized that I was a strategic communicator, despite not knowing that stepping into my career. 

How do you define strategic communication? 

I think it means using a wide range of communication skills, like public relations, marketing, persuasion, and others, for a specific purpose. The purpose might be to sell a product or service, it might be to tell a company’s story, to advocate for a cause or to elect a public official. It can be a lot of things; my career is an example of that. During the course of my career, I worked in a lot of different areas of strategic communication. Working in the U.S. Senate is very different from working at American Airlines. 

What sparked your interest in studying history as an undergraduate at American University? 

I’ve always loved history ever since I was a kid. To this day, when I have free time, one of the things I do is I read history books. I think that history is a repeating loop. It’s as if the same movie repeats itself again and again and again. And we, all of us, get to be actors in the movie one time. The characters change from one generation to the next, the costumes change, the scenery changes. But the basic storyline doesn’t change. And if we watch movies from previous generations, we can learn a lot that can help us in this movie that we’re actually in.  

Russell Mack spent time in the U.S. Capitol and the White House, and he can translate those experiences when teaching at TCU. Photo by Glen E. Ellman

When you read history, you’re seeing people go through a version of the same experiences we’re going through, and I think it’s a huge mistake for people to think that our experience right here and now is the first and only time that this has ever happened. I can take what’s going on right now in the political scene in this country, and I can go back to the 1850s and I can see many of the same things happening back then. Anyone who doesn’t take the time to look at history is begging for trouble. 

You went to law school at George Washington University. How did that inform your career? 

Going to law school helped my career in a thousand different ways, despite not becoming a lawyer. Most of my fellow students in law school wanted to become lawyers for a living; I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t want to become a lawyer for a living, but I did want to understand the law. When I was at American Airlines and we dealt with labor issues and labor controversy, I had taken labor law and understood what to do. When I was in the White House and we dealt with First Amendment and constitutional law issues, I had taken constitutional law. And it’s especially been useful here at TCU because I’ve been able to talk with my students about communication law, and my solid foundation of it comes from law school.  

You spent time on Capitol Hill working under senators, representatives and even President Reagan. How did those experiences impact you? 

I loved every minute that I was in D.C. Counting my four years at American University, I was there for 16 years. I got a chance to understand how our government works. I was able to see firsthand that our government is not made up of a bunch of crooks and losers; it’s actually made up almost entirely of genuinely good people who are trying to do their best. I also met my future wife there.  

One can also probably imagine what it was like for a history buff like me to walk into the Oval Office. My job allowed me to sit there and realize I’m in this historic place where these incredible things happened. You don’t even have to work in the White House to have that experience in Washington; I felt that when I would walk through the Capitol. Every time I walked through the Senate chamber or the White House, it was as if I was in a dream, because I’m thinking to myself, “Here you are going to your job every day in this incredible place, where all these giants of American history have worked. And their ghosts are all around you.” For me, that was a feeling that never got old.  

I would encourage any student who has a chance to spend even a little time in D.C. to do it. By the time I left, I had been to college and law school there, I’d worked in the House, the Senate, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Department of Education and the White House. I felt as if I had done what I wanted to do, and now it was time to turn the page and move to a completely different chapter. 

Over the course of your career, what has been the biggest change in communication? 

The most profound change was the technology of communication. And that’s both positive and negative. The positive part is, thanks to technology, the mechanics of writing have gotten easier. I can produce material, change it, and share it with people much more easily than I could, for example, back when I was in the White House. The negative of it, however, is that it’s created a lot more noise and confusion, making it harder to get your message through.  

When I was in the airline industry, we knew what had happened before anybody else did, and we could manage the message. Whereas now the world finds out about it before we do. And so it has reversed the order of how a professional communicator operates. Most professional communicators now are reacting instead of acting. But what hasn’t changed is in the end, communication is one human being talking to another. And the people who start with that tend to be the best communicators. The people who start with the technology often are the worst communicators. 

What are the most important qualities of an effective communicator? 

Clarity and thoughtfulness, because a lot of times in communication, people just skim the surface — they communicate at the level of bumper stickers, they communicate with just short bursts, they communicate with cliches — they don’t communicate thoughtfully. They don’t think about what they’re communicating; they just blurt it out. And the best way to be a really good communicator is to spend time thinking about what you’re saying and how you’re saying it. 

 of Communication, photographed November 17, 2023. Mack teaches several upper-level strategic communication courses, including Strategic Writing and Communication Law. © Glen E. Ellman photo

When Russell Mack came to TCU, he quickly “learned that students want to hear about real-life experiences. I knew that the main thing that I had to offer was I could talk about my actual experiences and what it’s really like out in the real world.” Photo by Glen E. Ellman

You’ve received several awards, including the Bronze Medallion Seal Award from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Secretary’s Achievement Award from the U.S. Department of Education. Which honor means the most to you and why? 

The honor that means most to me is really not either of those two honors, or anything that I’ve received. As a professional communicator, the thing that makes me feel the most honored is when I get emails or communications from former students who say, “Hey, professor, I really appreciate what we learned in your class because now that I’m out in the world, I realized that something you taught me has helped me in my job, or you really helped me become a better writer.” When I get messages like that, that’s an honor, and it really touches me.  

What made you want to become a professor, and what drew you to TCU? 

Gradually throughout my career, I began to get the feeling that I’d like to share all of this knowledge someday as a teacher. I did a few lectures over the years, individual classes at various places, and I loved doing them. At a certain point, I started to feel like I had had enough of the corporate world, and I had done everything I wanted to do. A person who had worked for me at Mary Kay, who I respected very much, had subsequently left and taught here at TCU. I contacted him and said, “Hey, I’m really interested in potentially teaching at TCU. Can you introduce me to somebody there?” He introduced me to the head of the department at the time, and that led to a job offer as an adjunct. And so I taught one class one semester, and I absolutely loved it. Then the next semester, I taught two classes as an adjunct, and I liked it twice as much. So I applied for a full-time position, and here we are. 

What have you learned from teaching college students? 

I’ve learned that students want to hear about real-life experiences. When I came here, I knew that the main thing that I had to offer was I could talk about my actual experiences and what it’s really like out in the real world. They’re eager to learn, they concentrate, and they’re interested. I think one mistake students are making — not all, but many students — is they just don’t read enough. And I think if they did, it would really help them develop their skills. But I’ve been really thrilled by the students who I’ve been able to teach here these last six years; they’re bright and they’re eager to learn. They have a lot of good questions. And that’s been a real joy for me. 

The other thing I’ve learned is you can’t go into a classroom with a preprogrammed lesson; every class, every student, every day is different. When you start talking it’s a one-of-a-kind lecture; you’re not just repeating something — it’s a new conversation.  

What is the greatest piece of advice you’ve ever been given? 

Positive breeds positive and negative breeds negative. Somebody I worked with years ago said that, and I think it’s very, very true. I think it’s easy in this world, in this life, to slip into the dark hole of negativity and cynicism. Yes, there are bad things in this world, but we can’t wallow in that negativity. I think there’s so many things we should be positive about. Most people in the world — most people throughout history — would give anything to be where we are and have what we have in the TCU community in this country in 2023. I think it’s such a terrible waste to not appreciate the positives that surround us.  

How does that advice translate to students graduating and entering the communication world full-time, and to your job? 

I think the way it translates is to have a positive attitude about your job, even if you don’t love everything about it. Have a positive attitude about your responsibilities as a citizen, even though our nation has its flaws. Realize how lucky you are to have this education and to be starting down this career path. 

For me, grading papers is hard. And sometimes there can be a tendency to focus on the mistakes or the errors. But that’s why the students are here, to make errors and to learn from them. So for me, it’s knowing that even the tough parts are all part of a very positive experience. I come in to school every day, and I’m just thankful that I’m here. I mean, this is the best job I’ve ever had, the most enjoyable job I’ve ever had. The irony of my job is I work very hard, but it doesn’t feel like a job; it feels like a calling. It’s something I want to do. And I’m just thankful to be able to do it. To help my students, that’s an extraordinary blessing to be able to do that.  

What is one thing you hope students take away from your class? 

I want them to walk out of my classroom prepared to behave and act as a professional in their jobs. And that means a lot of things, like using your skills, taking your work seriously, having a high standard, being honorable and ethical. It means giving it your best. I want them to be able to look back and say, “Professor Mack helped me learn how to be a professional.” Because that’s why they’re here, right?