Culp and Ragas photo (2)As the public relations industry evolves, the need for greater business acumen among professionals working in all levels of the field – not just the chief communication officer (CCO) or agency CEO – has never been more important. To be a strategic partner to the C-suite and clients requires an intimate understanding of business, and how your counsel can advance organization goals and objectives.

Several IPR contributors over the past year or so have written about the need for public relations professionals and students to develop greater business acumen. For example, Sandra Duhé of Southern Methodist University wrote about teaching business as a “second language” to public relations majors, while Jim Spangler of Navistar explained how valued communicators understand the business. The purpose of this article is to build upon and extend this discussion by summarizing recent research findings on the topic of business acumen as a critical competence for public relations professionals and graduates. We will then share some recommendations for improving public relations education and professional development in this area.

As part of our research for writing our new book, Business Essentials for Strategic Communicators, we surveyed the membership of the Arthur W. Page Society, whose members are CCOs, agency CEOs, and distinguished academics. The results of this May 2013 self-administered online survey of Page members were striking. Nearly 85% of respondents (n = 112, 28% response rate) indicated that it is “extremely important” (the highest point on this 5-point scale) for public relations and advertising professionals to have a solid grounding in “Business 101” as part of their education and training. However, almost as high of a percentage (82%) indicated that colleges and universities are not doing enough to provide PR and advertising students with an intermediate understanding of business concepts and terminology.

These findings generally correspond with a 2013 survey that the Council of Public Relations Firms (now PR Council), which represents more than one hundred PR firms, conducted of its member firms. When asked about the one thing that PR firms wished public relations and communication programs were teaching, or at least teaching better, out of a list of ten items, business 101/business strategy was the second most selected item (selected by 40% of respondents), behind only writing (selected by 62% of respondents). Number three on the list was that graduates gain a better understanding of the business of PR firms (37% selected).

Two more recent pieces of research tell a similar story. The membership of Page Up, an organization for emerging communication leaders that is affiliated with the Page Society, indicated in an October 2014 survey that business expertise is a top priority for them and their teams. When asked to rank 10 personal competencies in order of importance, a deep understanding of business strategy was number one, followed by trusted advisor to senior leaders, and business acumen. Complementing this quantitative research are the results of a February 2014 qualitative study on professional development in corporate communication released by upper90 consulting, headed by former CCO Mark Bain. This study, based on a dozen in-depth interviews with CCOs, concludes that “CCOs see business fluency/literacy as fundamental for communicators at all levels.” The interview data suggest that business knowledge has “become a paramount priority for junior, middle and senior professionals alike.”

Practitioners and academics are generally in agreement that business acumen should be an important component of public relations education and professional development. For example, the Commission on Public Relations Education, a group made up of both practitioners and educators, has long recommended that public relations majors complete business coursework and consider minoring in business. What is troubling is that, as evidenced by some of the just reviewed research, practitioners generally do not believe that public relations programs are doing enough to adequately prepare students in gaining a solid grounding in business fundamentals. In essence, there is a gap between what the field wants and what it feels it is getting.

To help close this gap, there are a variety of approaches that we believe can be taken and should be considered. Public relations programs can place a greater focus on incorporating business fundamentals and concepts into existing required courses, such as public relations management. Elective courses such as corporate social responsibility (CSR) and corporate communication are also possibilities. For example, in our program at DePaul, students learn how to read financial statements and S.E.C. filings as part of our corporate communication course.

Programs also can consider developing and offering standalone new courses in business fundamentals for public relations and strategic communication students. American University, Boston University, Marquette University, New York University, University of Oregon, and University of Southern California are examples of programs that have made this commitment. An important outgrowth of PRSA’s MBA/business program initiative, which encourages business schools to adopt an MBA-level strategic communications and reputation management course, may be greater collaboration between business and communication schools. Syracuse University’s Newhouse School and Whitman School of Management is one such example.

Outside of higher education, organizations are also taking matters into their own hands. Forward-thinking agencies and corporations are offering intensive business-oriented professional development programs and business academies to help employees build greater business acumen. For example, the Edelman Chicago office, where the agency is co-headquartered, is partnering with The University of Chicago Booth School of Business to pilot a mini-MBA-like program for several dozen senior Edelman executives. The eight-month program will cover strategy and decision making, business acumen, and strategic leadership, including a capstone learning project. Further, Edelman’s Chicago office offers in-house courses to employees of all levels on topics such as financial essentials, marketing 101 and strategic planning.

In an era of increased organizational transparency and stakeholder empowerment, the outlook for the public relations profession is bright. However, for the field to continue its ascendance as a strategic management function that impacts enterprise strategy and behavior, efforts must be redoubled at all levels to develop greater business acumen in its future leaders.

Matt Ragas, Ph.D. and Ron Culp are the directors of the graduate program in public relations and advertising at DePaul University and co-authors of “Business Essentials for Strategic Communicators: Creating Shared Value for the Organizations and its Stakeholders.”

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
Follow on Twitter

2 thoughts on “Public Relations and Business Acumen: Closing the Gap

  1. Hi, Jill-

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

    One non-agency example we came across in our book research is the Beam Business Academy, which is offered internally by Beam Inc. (Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Sauza, etc.), a division of Suntory Holdings. Clarkson Hine, SVP of corporate communications and public affairs at Beam, shared with us that the Beam Business Academy effort was launched in 2012 to build greater business acumen across different departments/functions of the organization.

    A possible next step in this research stream may be exploring the different ways (internal and external development) that in-house communication depts. and agencies of different sizes and types are building business acumen/literacy on their teams through professional development efforts and training currently – and are considering/future plans.

    Happy new year,

  2. Excellent research, and solid conclusions. I’d also like to know what non-communications organizations/companies are doing to better educate their employees — including their Communications teams — about business. Any best practices?

Leave a Reply