DuheHeadshotI’m in the midst of a great pedagogical adventure.  I’m teaching the language of business to public relations majors. 

I began my career as a financial analyst in the oil industry.  When I later transitioned into public relations and studied it as a grad student, I noticed how my business background frequently put me in the role of interpreter between the communication and financial functions of my employers.  Having an applied understanding of each realm enhanced my credibility as a counselor, planner, and strategist.

This realization is neither new nor mine alone.  For years, the importance of business acumen has been stressed in public relations publications, conferences, and curricular recommendations of the Commission on Public Relations Education.  I’ve been singing along with the chorus, but this semester I decided to take action.

My experimental setting is SMU’s upper-level public relations management course.  We spent the first half of the semester combing through topics covered in The Portable MBA (5th edition, Wiley, 2010) including accounting, finance, economics, operations, marketing, supply chains, entrepreneurship, and risk management.   The book provides a high-level review of subjects most typically covered in an MBA program and is designed to give readers an orientation to the MBA experience.  Overall, it provides a good introduction to a number of topics without getting too bogged down in formulas and calculations.

But it’s not enough that my students just know the vocabulary of business.  To make these concepts stick and, more importantly, relevant, I need them to discover for themselves how business literacy makes one a better communication strategist.  I have to build a bridge between something that’s initially intimidating and something familiar.  If they want to transition from technician to manager in their own careers, they need to grasp this connection between business literacy and communication strategy.

To that end, we’re focused in this second half of the semester on every student presenting two case studies randomly assigned from Patricia Swann’s Cases in Public Relations Management (Routledge, 2010).  A large portion of these presentations is dedicated to students’ research into an organization’s financial health, strategic imperatives, reputational issues, and competitive challenges since the case was published.  Presenters then provide critique and counsel on what the organization did well, should have done better, and could be doing today from a communication perspective based on their understanding of the organization’s operating environment over time.  In doing so, they can experience the melding of business objectives with communication objectives.

As one would expect, my students are progressing at different speeds, but progressing nevertheless.  I enjoy a rush of pride when I see them synthesize analyst, company, and trade press reports to inform their insights; rattle off terms like “burn rate” and “capex” with confidence; and cogently discuss elasticity of demand as it relates to a story in that day’s Wall Street Journal.

Yes, I love teaching, and my career has come full circle as I return to my business roots.  But there are some concrete reasons I’m on a quest for public relations majors to speak (and apply) the language of business:

  • Communication executives from top corporations and agencies have shared with me their struggles of having to learn the fundamentals of business on the job because they didn’t have related preparation in college.  I want our young professionals to know the basics from day one, and then expand their knowledge on the job.
  • An August 18 article (“Crushed by the Cost of Child Care”) in The New York Times stated that only 9% of women in the workforce earn $75,000 or more.  We have an opportunity to give our mostly female students who want to work in management positions an early advantage by enhancing their understanding of how business works.
  • It’s important that we equip both our male and female students with business acumen.  Why?  Because there are plenty of great business thinkers, and lots of effective communicators, but how often do we find a powerful combination of each?   Those with skills in both arenas stand out in the crowd.
  • There needs to be a combination of business and communication expertise at the decision-making table in for-profits and nonprofits.  PRSA’s MBA initiative is a good start.  A disturbing finding in my recent data gathering has been a tendency for C-suite execs to assume that MBAs who have advanced in an organization must surely know enough about communication, too.  Yikes. 
  • A lack of business sense in public relations can harm an organization, particularly in small- to medium-sized enterprises that drive the U.S. economy and are more sensitive to changes in the marketplace.  For example, an uninformed effort to increase sales when, in fact, what’s really needed are better working relationships with financiers to expand production capacity, can have detrimental effects on a firm’s cash position and hence its longevity.

This is a two-way street.  I’m not advocating that we ditch our communication studies and all head to business school.  We bring an essential, rigorous perspective to the table.  Ultimately, it’s communication that moves markets by informing and influencing expectations, perceptions, behavior, and trends.  As such, public relations practitioners have a responsibility to be well-informed voices both at the table and in the marketplace.  In addition to educating MBAs about communication, we need to educate public relations majors about business, too.


Sandra Duhé, Ph.D., APR, is an associate professor and chair of the Division of Communication Studies at Southern Methodist University.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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12 thoughts on “Teaching Business as a Second Language

  1. Nice to hear from you, Jeff. I may have started in business school, but I didn’t know anything about communication when I started in the field, hence my trek to grad school, too. I appreciate your post and the encouragement!

  2. Great idea, Sandra. As a journalist for 15 years, I had to learn about both business and public relations on the job. More precisely, after I transitioned from journalism to PR. As I have told our local PRSA chapter board, I went through accreditation (and grad studies) to help me learn about PR and communication. I went through the MBA curriculum so I could explain it to the senior executives…and understand what they are saying. I think you are absolutely correct in linking communications strategy and business objectives. Keep up the good work.

  3. Thank you, Dave. Your problem-based teaching model has been an inspiration to me and one I’m implementing in my Intro to Public Relations class. I’ll keep posting about business literacy and hope you’ll share your innovative teaching methods here, too. Happy New Year!

  4. Kudos, Sandra! Absolutely love what you’re doing. For the past few years, I have taught a ‘financial fundamentals’ seminar at the graduate level. The lack of business literacy, even among part-time graduate students working full-time professionally in the field, is disheartening. You’ve affirmed for me how important business literacy is in the study of public relations, and inspired me to re-think what is possible, at both the graduate AND undergraduate levels. Thank you for your vision and leadership!

  5. Thank you, Frasier, for your post. Hearing about your practice over a number of Miami conferences has, in large part, inspired and affirmed my belief in this essential connection between business literacy and communication strategy. I’m delighted to hear you have clients who see communication strategy as an important contributor to setting business objectives. I am dedicating my next stream of research to building this bridge and look forward to chatting with you about it. And, yes, I cover the nonprofit side in my class, too. Good idea about adding the public sector nuance.

  6. Sandra, congratulations on a very worth while initiative. I trust you will be teaching ‘business’ from three sector perspectives: for-profit; not-for-profit; and public. Each has unique business needs, under an overarching business umbrella. I say this because not all – and perhaps not even most – PR grads go into the private sector on graduation.

    Interestingly, my consulting practice focuses on the ‘management’ of the PR/Communication function and for years I have found that many Chief Communication Officers, let alone PR managers and officers, have had difficulty aligning PR direction and objectives with corporate and business line objectives. Our default becomes the supposed alignment of ‘messaging’ – whatever that is supposed to mean. But, from years of interviewing business managers, not only do they want an alignment of business and PR objectives and strategy formulation and formation, they want PR to help them set their own business objectives and strategies – because communication is so important in affecting the behavioural change inherent in a business objective.

  7. Excellent on both the business side of the house and the communication side of the house.
    George Munchus
    Professor of Management
    School of Business at UAB

  8. I was just talking with a colleague last week about different courses we’d love to see PR programs offering, and an overview of business principles was one of them. (Having taken courses in the business department myself, I’ve often thought business students could benefit from some PR training as well!) I like your model for the class. I’m checking out “The Portable MBA” to see if/how I might be able to incorporate some of these ideas in my own courses.

  9. I too, started in business –the paper and chemical industries–before heading to graduate school and academia. Interestingly enough, Sandra, you are teaching business language to communication students and I have gone the other way–I am now teaching communication/PR skills to business students. Good luck on your approach.

    Astrid Sheil, PhD
    Chair, Accounting & Finance
    College of Business and Public Administration
    California State University San Bernardino

  10. I’ve just shared this on Facebook and LinkedIn! This is definitely a trend that should encourage practitioners and give food for thought for my fellow teachers. Bridging the gap for our students is paramount!

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