Wednesday, July 14, 2010

PRSA Has Its MBA Initiative Backwards

In the Spring issue of PRSA's The Public Relations Strategist there is an article by Ray Crockett, APR, and Anthony D'Angelo, APR, entitled "PRSA's MBA Initiative." The gist of the article is PRSA is trying to get MBA programs to include "strategic communications" in their curricula. They want MBA students to "appreciate the benefits -- and the perils -- of communicating or not communicating to key stakeholders." An additional benefit they propose is "future generations of executives who will better appreciate PR people and what the profession can accomplish...."

While this is, perhaps, a noble effort, I think they've got it backwards. They should be working to ensure that anyone who works in public relations has a basic understanding of business principles. And if PRSA wants its accreditation program (APR) to be meaningful, it should include a full unit that addresses the different parts of an organization that come together to create its business model.

By way of disclosure, I am very biased on this topic. I have an MBA. I also have been a member of PRSA for many years. I served on the Chicago chapter board of directors and have provided pro bono research support to both the Chicago and San Francisco chapters. However, I am not APR (or ABC).

PRSA's APR Study Guide offers all sorts of great information on the practice of PR, including a rather nice chapter on research. However, when it comes to business understanding, the guide offers a "Business Literacy Scavenger Hunt" in which the authors ask a number of questions regarding the organization for which the student works. This is a nice start, but it doesn't really get at what the components of a business are and how they work together to create the overall business model.

Instead of a scavenger hunt, the curriculum should include a unit on:
  1. Business strategy and policy
  2. Accounting and finance
  3. Research and development
  4. Organization behavior and/or human resources
  5. Marketing
  6. Production
  7. How these all fit together to make a successful organization
What initially provoked this entry is an underlying concept that comes from marketing, which was one of my majors when I was getting my MBA: The job of marketing is not so much to educate a target audience about what the organization offers, as it is to understand the target so the organization can develop and offer the products and services the target wants and needs. Even if the organization's product or service is immutable (which suggests the organization will not survive), the goal then should be to find the target audience that wants or needs it.

So it's great that PRSA thinks it should get MBAs to learn about communications. But if PR wants the influential seat at the table we talk about so much, PR people need to understand business and help business managers achieve business goals.

The problem is not MBAs who don't understand communicators, it is communicators who don't understand MBAs.


Unknown said...

Agreed. I've been a PR practitioner for over 25 years, but have taken courses such as "basic business finance for non-finance executives" along the way. Running the business-end of a small agency helps the understanding also. And "blood and guts" of marketing (not marcomm)studies.

Julia said...

Interesting topic and good points, Forrest. It would seem that the PRSA first needs to address an issue closer to home -- how to make the APR accreditation more relevant to PR professionals. I'm curious as to why you chose not to pursue the APR or ABC.

Forrest W. Anderson said...

David, thanks for your comment. Those are exactly the kinds of courses we PR people should be taking.

Another point, and one which I might use as the topic of another post is that the best PR practitioners do understand business. Certainly the heads of agencies do, because they run businesses.

Forrest W. Anderson said...

Hi Julia. Thanks for your comment as well.

I have considered getting the APR and/or ABC.

To be honest, I think part of the reason I never got the APR is I let my emotions get in the way. It annoyed me that without the APR, I could not be a part of the leadership of PRSA. I'd already spent four years going to school at night to get my Kellogg MBA and felt that offered value to PRSA, the organization, even if I wasn't APR. I believe the local PRSA chapters I've been involved with have found the pro bono research and recommendations I've made based on it useful; both the Chicago and San Francisco chapters asked me to do additional research for them after my first project.

Now I'm an independent consultant, and making my business successful is more than a full-time occupation. So, I don't have the time to commit to it now.

Sean Williams said...

Good points, Forrest, but I don't think it has to be either-or. There is a dearth of understanding among the C-Level about public relations(aka strategic communication - I use the PR term holistically.) The only frame they have for communication activity is marketing, which means that if it isn't marketing, they have no idea what it is. A good PR leader can educate them -- but as you say, there are too many of us who don't have a fundamental understanding of business.

Part of that is the journalism bias -- and the math aversion we're all too familiar with. But I see this issue as one needing two fronts for attack -- both from the educational and practice angles.


Anthony D'Anelo said...

As one of the authors of the Strategist article you reference, I agree that greater business literacy and experience among communicators is a significant (and obvious) issue. However, I respectfully disagree with your premise that "the problem is not MBAs who don't understand communicators, it is communicators who don't understand MBAs." It's both. Anyone who is an experienced communications professional has seen first-hand the damaging effects to companies, employees, stockholders, customers and community residents when CEOs, who commonly have NO formal education to equip them, falter in their roles as chief reputation officers. (Do any large oil companies come to mind?) Ray Crockett and I, along with a number of leading professionals and educators within and without PRSA, are particularly interested in doing something about that. That's not to suggest that PR people shouldn't complete graduate studies in business (I did) or that PRSA shouldn't consider more rigorous business requirements in its Accreditation program. Perhaps you'd like to volunteer to help with that? Our profession needs people like you to get involved in all kinds of ways.
Anthony D'Angelo, APR, Fellow PRSA

Forrest W. Anderson said...

Mr. D'Anelo, thank you very much for your comment. I'm honored that you read my Blog.

Your point is a good one, and I do agree we should be doing both. I think our only difference of opinion is where we should place the emphasis. My argument is that our primary focus should be on educating our own profession on how business works, which we don't seem to do. In addition, we are more likely to actually influence our own profession than we are corporate management.

Too, I wonder whether those CEOs who falter in their roles as chief reputation officers do so because they don't have the right training or because they are driven by a value system that places short-term profit over long-term reputation (and the value we in PR believe that generates). It seems to me that usually the really major reputation management failures are the result of companies behaving badly not just communicating badly. The oil company you site as well as the financial companies involved in the meltdown and Enron and its auditors all come to mind. Unfortunately, these are issues of values and ethics more than of communication.

Thanks again for your comment. Whether people agree with me or not, I'm pleased we're talking about the topic.

Megan B. said...

As a graduate student studying organizational and professional communication development and a member of IABC I greatly appreciate this comment. I currently work with Ball State University's Entrepreneurship Center and have been immersed in a business setting. It wasn't until recently that I realized the serious problem of academic silos. I think communication and PR scholars alike should be required to take some economics and human resource courses. In order to articulate and conceptualize situation you must have a basic but succinct understanding of "the other side of the fence." Interdisciplinary among all should be the focus.

Forrest W. Anderson said...

Hi Megan.

Thanks for your comment.

I agree with everything you wrote, but would like to take it further.

In addition to economics and HR courses, I would add management policy, finance, accounting and marketing for sure and potentially production management and R&D. A smooth running organization generally requires some variant of all these functions and understanding what role each plays and how they fit together is understanding business.