I recently wrote a column for PRWeek in which I discussed some of the issues involved in developing tomorrow’s leaders in PR and communication. In the column, I noted that what I find too often in college students and young practitioners is a serious gap in the fundamental knowledge of how business works.

I am currently serving as vice chair of the Advisory Council to the College of Charleston’s Department of Communication. As a result of this involvement, as well as the guest lecturing that I do on other college campuses, I am spending an increasing amount of time with college students and faculty members. I have seen many excellent examples of programs that seek to better educate communication students in business basics. Just as importantly, some of the more enlightened business schools are including strategic communication in their regular course offerings.

I learned from my friend Jim O’Rourke at Notre Dame that in a 2005 study of 34 leading business schools, two-thirds were requiring communication courses in their graduate level MBA curricula. Yet eight of the schools offered no communication courses and another six did not require that students take them. An earlier study of undergraduate business programs found that of 280 schools in the survey, three-fourths required at least one communication course. It would be good to see how many undergraduate and graduate communication programs require at least one business course. I know that many do.

More often than not, what I have observed is a tendency to keep these programs quite separate. In some cases, students in communication majors are not even allowed to take courses in the business school. There are legitimate reasons for this; most notably the need to provide adequate course availability to those majoring in business. But the segregation exacerbates the problem.

When I speak to colleagues about what we are seeking in new hires, many have shared my view that the best prospects tend to have a balanced blend of education and experience in which they have learned the fundamentals of business, journalism, and communication. O’Rourke’s study notes other desired qualities, such as interpersonal skills, demonstrated leadership and analytical/problem solving skills.

Why is this blend so important? I believe that the on-the-job reality that these prospects will face means that to be taken seriously by their future colleagues in marketing, sales, operations, finance and general management they must possess a genuine understanding of business principles. No one expects them to be able to function as an accountant, but they should be able to navigate around an annual report or quarterly financial statement with ease.

I think it is just as important that someone competing for an entry level PR job understands the fundamentals of journalism. He or she is likely to be spending at least some of the time interacting with practicing journalists, and it helps to be able to empathize with the issues and challenges of that world.

It goes without saying that these young people must also display a thorough understanding of communication. They must be competent writers. They must be persuasive. They must be comfortable preparing and giving presentations. The contribution they will make will depend on the knowledge, critical thinking, and understanding they bring to the table.

The challenge facing educators and others involved in professional development is to break down the walls that currently separate business schools, journalism schools and schools and departments of communication. I’m surprised when I suggest this in academic settings and it is treated as if it is a revolutionary concept.

These young people will soon be practicing in a highly integrated world, along with their colleagues in marketing, advertising, finance and operations. The sooner we can provide educational experiences that more closely resemble this world, the more likely we are to enhance the contribution they will collectively make to the profession.

In the next phase of my career, I truly hope I can help facilitate the discussion of these issues and the continued evolution of the educational experience upon which we are building our future.

Tom Martin
Senior Vice President, Corporate Relations, ITT Corporation
Trustee, Institute for Public Relations

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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7 thoughts on “Tom Martin: Getting Measured for Three Hats

  1. Clearly, we need to know more about business basics to practice PR but in my experience most of that knowledge evolves on the job for most practitioners, especially for those who are young and easy in their ways.  They learn—or should learn—as they work with their employer or clients.  Or, if they’re lucky, their companies send them to courses on the subject.  That’s how I learned when I started in public relations at Western Electric, the manufacturing and supply unit of the famous Bell System (hold, please, while I shed a tear). 

    As youngsters we were sent to the company’s training operation in Princeton where we sat at the feet of top managers and an array of outside management gurus who took us through the intricacies of the annual report, a profit and loss statement, a glossary of financial terminology, a treatise on what non-PR people worry about, and advice and counsel for what we as PR agents should do when we dealt with the people who ran the numbers and the show.  It was a wonderful experience for a roomful of bright-eyed, bushy tailed practitioners whose primary concern as English and Journalism graduates was writing and being writers. Few of us at the time were concerned with being in or understanding business.  The training programs helped to shift our goals toward profits rather than poverty.

    But maybe there’s more that the PR profession itself can do with this challenge that could serve as a springboard for greater action among employers as well as colleges and universities.  To wit, have the Institute, Arthur Page Society, PRSA and other organizations encourage or run school-break “boot camps” on business essentials. Maybe we could generate a curriculum that volunteers could use to teach on campus or in their geographic areas.  Maybe we could host a program at the annual PRSSA conference.  Maybe we could publish a primer that corporations would underwrite or that we could sell for a few bucks in order to recoup our costs.

    Yes, as Ted Levitt warned us 40 years ago in the Harvard Business Review, ideas are only good if they can be acted upon—and most aren’t—but maybe we ought to give something a try since the challenge persists and in the absence of a solution our performance and reputation suffers accordingly.

  2. I agree with all of your points, Tom. I would add one other.  What I have observed among the interns from university communications schools who have worked at Makovsky over the years is real lack of “laboratory” experience in our business.  Perhaps schools of communications ought to emphasize engagement in a real job or internship before admittance – if they are not going to do laboratory work.  Perhaps the schools can have more professionals in our field do workshops rather than just having academics give lectures.

    I have not done a formal survey, and I greatly value schools like the Annenberg School at Penn, where my son went, that emphasize research and the impact of communications on society. Nevertheless, much is to be said for combining practical application with research and theory.

  3. It’s not revolutionary to ask public relations students to take business courses. We have been doing that at the University of Maryland for years. At the graduate level, in particular, we advise students to take relevant courses in business. Undergraduate students must take a 12-hour minor area of study, which often is in business. Most relevant, I believe are courses in management in general and strategic management in particular–courses Tom didn’t mention. These courses help students to understand how public relations fits into the overall management of the organization. Our main problem is in getting the business school to open its courses to our students. As Tom pointed out, business schools tend to reserve seats in their courses for their own students. If seats are available, they let in outside students. At the graduate level, we have to petition the MBA director to get students in–often without success. Unfortunately, it has become more difficult each year to get our students in these courses. For me, the solution has been to study business subjects myself and incorporate them into my courses. For example, I taught a graduate seminar in Public Relations Management that, I believe, is equivalent to courses taught in the business school and is well integrated with an MBA program.

    Single courses in communication in business schools, as Tom reported from a conversation with Jim O’Rourke, are useful for providing future managers some basic knowledge about public relations. Too many of them, however, are simply courses in writing reports and making presentations. A few are comparable to public relations courses taught in communication and journalism programs, but not many.  Marketing courses often provided a biased and incomplete view of public relations–thus hindering knowledge of public relations. Marketing professors see public relations simply as product publicity and not as a strategic management function. However, the training in business schools is insufficient for public relations professionals because the course offerings are so limited. It would be like training a corporate lawyer by having him or her take the single course in business law offered by business schools. Corporate lawyers need education in a law school for adequate preparation.

    Jennifer Mullen accurately pointed out that not all public relations students work in business. We emphasize that students need an understanding of the type of organization for which they hope to work, and require a minor area of study for this purpose. One simply cannot interpret the organization to the public and the public to the organization if he or she doesn’t understand the organization and its management.

  4. Having taught for seven years as a full time PR professor in the Syracuse University Newhouse School of Communications and the Hofstra University School of Communication, both nationally acccredited programs, and having worked over 20 years as a practitioner in the private sector, public sector and city government, I strongly believe that PR student need a basic understanding of business issues.

    I don’t, however think that the only way to approach it is by adding more and more business courses. Much of that needed understanding should come from keeping current with trends in business by keeping abreast of news media coverage of business issues and of events that impact business (social, political, economic, etc.).

    Business courses are fine for providing necessary and basic insights. But I am a firm believer that public relations education should focus on producing practitioners that can be the “surveillance” for those they represent. PR students should not set out to become business experts unless that is the goal they set for themselves, in which case they may choose their courses accordingly. Rather PR students should focus on how to best use communication to address issues and events that impact organizations. A basic knowledge of business helps provide the necessary overview that PR practitioners must have, but the focus should be to learn how to best tell the story and sell the story to your target audiences.

  5. From my perspective, I think that communications and business are like the two legs of a humanbeing, they should move in tandem. I think the challenge here is in how we use communications in driving the business of an organization i-e how to map the communications plan to the business objective of any organization. In order to develop and execute an effective PR plan, we ought to have the basic knowledge and understanding of the business we are communicating its message to the shareholders group.

  6. From my perspective in the corporate communications/corporate PR environment, I agree wholeheartedly that PR/communication professionals need to be grounded in business basics.  After all, were communicating about a business, and how can a communicator talk about a business without having a basic understanding of accounting, finance, marketing and operations?  Ive taken several business courses since receiving my B.A. in Communication, and have found that every one has been relevant to my job accounting has helped me better understand financial statements and earnings releases, marketing provides a more holistic view of how PR fits into the big picture, and management and HR courses provide invaluable skills that apply to almost any discipline.

    Im not surprised that the academic community views the integration of communication and business as revolutionary because it doesnt seem to me that our profession embraces this belief, either.  I feel that professional organizations like PRSA do a disservice by giving little attention to MBA programs (or anything besides communication/journalism graduate programs, for that matter).  As I consider a graduate degree, Ive looked at several nearby PR/journalism programs and have yet to find one that has a decent mix of business and communication.  Most communication programs offer virtually the same courses I took for my undergraduate degree.  For that reason, Im leaning toward an MBA but feel that I am somehow a traitor for not following the communication/PR education path.

    Im glad to see theres movement underway to help bridge this divide.

  7. I agree that public relations students need more “finance, administration, and management”, but I don’t think the answer is “business courses”. There are three economic sectors in society: for-profit business, government, and nonprofits.  Public Relations students may find their careers going into any of those sectors, and as any of my nonprofit PR colleagues can attest, the administrative, funding, and program model for nonprofits, for instance, is vastly different than that of business.  Yes, all sectors require budgets, balancing of the books, and managing people.  But what I tell my PR students is to take additional coursework that will enhance the possible sectors they may work in.  If they see themselves in the nonprofit sector, they may want to look at nonprofit minors, sociology, or courses directly related to the mission of the nonprofit.  If they see themselves in some aspect of government or politics, they should be looking at history or political science courses.  If they see themselves in some aspect of for-profit business, they should be looking at marketing and finance.

    In conclusion, my point is that courses related to finance and budgeting are what may be needed, not business courses in general, as that represent only one economic that students will find employment in.

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