MASTERS OF PUBLIC RELATIONS: In an effort to increase their understanding of the industries they serve, PR folk are heading back to school in droves. But, as Michele Foster asks, should they pursue a general MBA, or actually get a master's in PR?

The familiar story goes something like this: a king hears that he may be the target of an attack from a neighboring kingdom. He calls his advisor and says, 'I have prepared a message for the king who is thinking of attacking us. How do you think I should deliver this?' Many years later, the same thing happens again, and the king asks his advisor, 'What should I say?' Years later still, the same thing happens, and now the king asks, 'What should I do?'

The familiar story goes something like this: a king hears that he may be the target of an attack from a neighboring kingdom. He calls his advisor and says, 'I have prepared a message for the king who is thinking of attacking us. How do you think I should deliver this?' Many years later, the same thing happens again, and the king asks his advisor, 'What should I say?' Years later still, the same thing happens, and now the king asks, 'What should I do?'

The familiar story goes something like this: a king hears that he may be the target of an attack from a neighboring kingdom. He calls his advisor and says, 'I have prepared a message for the king who is thinking of attacking us. How do you think I should deliver this?' Many years later, the same thing happens again, and the king asks his advisor, 'What should I say?' Years later still, the same thing happens, and now the king asks, 'What should I do?'

The point of the story is to show how far public relations has come.

It has gone from advising on how to say something to counseling on what to do - from tactical message delivery to strategic reputation and issues management. This movement up the corporate food chain is something the PR industry has worked hard to achieve. But are PR people ready to sit at the table with their counterparts in corporate finance and marketing?

Do they have the training necessary to speak their language and fully understand the organization they represent?

An increasing number of people contend that graduate education is important for gaining credibility with the upper management with whom PR pros are now rubbing elbows. In fact, 30% of the respondents in PRSA's most recent salary survey have a master's degree. 'It's getting more and more important,' says Maggi Heffler, information services manager at PRSA.

Education vs. experience

Proponents of an advanced degree assert that it is necessary for getting included in an organization's decision-making process. 'Higher education is critical, because we are part of the management function,' sums up Heather Robertson, who recently completed her master's in PR at Colorado State University (see sidebar).

But the naysayers pooh-pooh the idea, emphasizing the value of experience.

'Experience is over pedigree,' says Ed Lansdale, VP and partner at Fleishman-Hillard's New York office. 'We're communications managers - the most important thing is to understand the communications dynamics.'

Furthermore, they point out, there are plenty of successful people doing PR at the highest levels without an advanced degree. 'In PR, a master's is largely unnecessary and irrelevant - that's been my personal experience,' says Ned Barnett, a senior executive at UpStart Communications in Emeryville, CA. 'I thought getting a master's would help my career, because I saw jobs that said they 'absolutely require' a master's degree. But, when I got two jobs back to back that required a master's but hired me without one, I realized they really wanted someone who could do the job.'

Nevertheless, an increasing number of PR practitioners believe the benefits of having an MBA or a master's in PR outweigh the cost of a couple years of their lives and dollars 20,000 - dollars 80,000 out of their pockets. Most who opt for an MBA espouse the view that traditional public relations lacks the business fundamentals that are essential to a holistic understanding of a corporation, and are therefore necessary for contributing at the most senior levels of an organization. Those choosing a master's in PR tend to do so to keep up with evolving trends in a changing industry, to accelerate their career ascent or to learn about a practice to which they are not exposed regularly on the job.

For many MBA supporters, however, the practice of PR has outgrown the traditional journalism or communications background, and has evolved into something that, in addition to communications skills, requires good business fundamentals. 'My argument is that people in PR aren't just media relations or press release generators anymore, but strategic business consultants,' says James S. O'Rourke, Professor of Management and Director of the Eugene D. Fanning Center at Notre Dame. 'People with MBAs are well suited to PR - they understand business models and can read a balance sheet. Especially in investor relations, I would argue that a journalism school or communications school graduate is lost - doesn't have a clue.'

Elizabeth Powell, assistant professor of management communication at Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, says that an MBA helps overcome the challenge of getting early access to the decision-making process. 'The problem is, PR people really aren't able to understand financial issues, and it is difficult to bring them in at that point. So, they end up being mostly in a reactive or damage-control mode, brought in after the decision has already been made.'

What you won't learn on the job

But aren't some people smart enough to figure things out for themselves, or learn them on the job? 'You can't learn finance on the job, you can't learn strategic business models on the job,' replies O'Rourke. Others would agree. 'Getting an MBA is a quantum leap from what you can learn on the job,' says Jim Mazzola, director of communications at Dell Corporation's Enterprise Systems Group. 'You can learn different things on the job, but not to the degree you can from an MBA - there's so much to be learned from studying other businesses, other perspectives.'

A typical MBA curriculum requires courses like accounting, finance, statistics, economics, marketing, information systems and business law.

Elective courses may include financial statement analysis, strategic planning, international business and competitive analysis. Generally, they take two years to complete and charge tuition of dollars 50,000 - dollars 80,000, depending upon the school.

While it may be tempting to think that MBA graduates price themselves out of the PR industry, MBAs can find rewarding careers in corporate communications.

'Corporate communications is a wonderful career opportunity,' points out Kevin Ramundo, VP of corporate communications at BF Goodrich. 'I don't see why anyone with an MBA would turn their nose up at corporate communications, especially now that it's become more of a senior management role - that's what MBAs aspire to.'

Corporate communications salaries can be competitive, particularly on the client side. According to Marshall Consultants' 1999 Salary Survey, managers of corporate communications or public relations at large corporations earn between dollars 67,200 and dollars 102,500, depending upon the industry; directors make between dollars 125,000 and dollars 188,000. On the agency side, a senior AE in New York makes between dollars 43,500 and dollars 69,500, depending upon the practice; an account supervisor makes between dollars 73,600 and dollars 99,900.

The theory is, with the MBA, the executive would quickly move up the ranks to earn even more. 'The fact that I advanced rapidly in my career had a lot to do with the fact that I had a business background,' asserts Ramundo. 'I don't think I could have made the contributions I made without it - it was indispensable.'

The value of an MBA boils down to understanding the entire organization, not just the communications part. 'As a PR professional I become a window through which the media see inside the business,' explains Dell's Mazzola.

'It's not just for financial PR - understanding product pricing, marketing and so on helps a PR professional represent the company better.'

But a master's in PR?

If a business background is so important, what good is a master's in PR to a PR practitioner? Plenty, some say. 'There is value in the MBA, although it is not as necessary or helpful as a communications management degree,' says John Paluszek, president of the public affairs practice in Ketchum's New York office. 'An MBA teaches business, finance and strategic planning, but maybe more than you need to know in PR - it's more focused to take a graduate degree in communications management.'

While there are good reasons for pursuing a master's in PR, it has tended to be vulnerable to criticism. 'It's basically a waste of time,' says Joanne Hvala, assistant dean of marketing and external relations at New York University's Leonard N. Stern School of Business. 'Education has started mirroring a trade school, and I really resist that.' She points out that instead of providing a strategic, big picture type of view, these programs teach tactical skills that can just as easily be learned on the job. 'Someone that comes from a communications background ends up not being very deep from an academic point of view, because they learned the tactical part; whereas people with a liberal arts background are good writers and good thinkers.'

Ned Barnett had advanced through most of a master's in PR program but stopped short of completing it after realizing that 'I learned far more on the job than I ever could in the classroom. Also, professors are not working in the business - they are not in touch with the real world They don't work in PR - they don't know what's going on. Academic theory has no basis in reality. But, if you want to teach this or go on to get a Ph.D., you need to do it.'

In spite of the critics, however, the number of master's in PR programs being offered in this country continues to grow, and students of these programs swear by them. 'Getting the master's really boosted my self confidence.

I became more polished, more well rounded and more confident in my ability,' says Robertson.

Maria Russell, department chairperson and professor at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications - one of the country's premiere public relations programs - asserts that master's graduates from Syracuse 'find themselves in managerial public relations positions very quickly.

In the distance learning program, our graduates frequently attribute their promotions and job advancement to their gaining an advanced degree,' she says.

An advantage measured in degrees

A master's in PR can be a good way to propel one's career by effectively adding the equivalent of years of experience to their resume. 'Like it or not, we live in a competitive world, and the person with an advanced degree will have an advantage over those who don't,' says Matthew Gonring, VP of corporate communications at Baxter International. He also argues that a master's in PR serves as a concrete way of demonstrating knowledge.

'People can fill the void in other ways, but on paper you can't see it or verify it as well (as you can with a master's degree).'

Often, a master's in PR is used to round out the education of a person who comes from a non-PR background. Russell explains that at Syracuse, 'whether it's an undergraduate degree or a master's degree, we like to think that a degree in public relations - coupled with a dual degree or undergraduate degree in the liberal arts and/or management - is the key to success in the future. Many PR people entered the field many years ago when the traditional route in was a degree and/or experience in journalism.

But while public relations will always rely on good writing and good media relations skills as one cornerstone, today's PR goes beyond just the 'art' of our profession, and relies increasingly on additional cornerstones of research and management.'

A graduate program in PR typically offers courses such as mass communications theory and research methods, PR strategies and tactics, employee communications; newsroom management, and mass communications law. Some include different areas of PR like investor relations, crisis communications and marketing communications. A few, most notably the Medill School of Journalism, have begun incorporating some business courses in the curriculum, in recognition of their importance to today's PR practitioner. These programs generally take 15 to 24 months and cost between dollars 20,000 and dollars 36,000.

We've heard what the academics and professionals think, but what about the clients? Are they impressed by a graduate degree? The answer tends to depend upon what the client expects from its agency. With agencies that do mostly marketing communications support, 'it absolutely makes no difference whatsoever,' says Ed West, director of PR at Eli Lilly.

'The college degree is irrelevant in my view. It's based purely on performance. The ability to understand clients' needs and bring projects to closure successfully - that's what you pay for.' He does note, however, that he staffs his own department with 'people with deep knowledge of finance - many with CPAs and MBAs.' This is because the corporate and financial communications are largely done in-house at Lilly, while the agencies do mostly product support.

Dell's Mazzola admits he hasn't come across too many agency people with advanced degrees, 'but I think the answer is yes, I am impressed by them.

When I have an agency that understands how my business operates, I find them to be more well-rounded and better able to contribute on a strategic level.'

HIRE EDUCATION: PR practitioners with advanced degrees


Age: 47

MBA: Marketing Concentration

Graduate institution: Averett College

Current Position: Administrative assistant to the president for public relations

Current Employer: Danville Community College, Danville, VA

The public relations field has evolved over the years, and specialization in an industry is becoming more important. My journalism degree provided me with the critical communications skills I needed, but it did not equip me with the basics in business management. The MBA helped develop my business, accounting, strategic planning, legal and marketing skills. It is not enough to know just how to write and/or communicate, it is also important to have a thorough understanding of the organization/industry in which you work. The PR practitioner needs to be at the table when all business decisions are made, as well as have an understanding of how the public relations department will play a role in those decisions. Increasingly, more companies are recognizing this trend and are citing the MBA as a preference in their job searches.


Age: 32

MBA: Corporate Communications/Marketing

Graduate institution: University of Notre Dame Current Position: Senior account executive Current Employer: Golin/Harris International, New York

Without a doubt, the MBA has helped me tremendously. Understanding the clients' businesses, the nature of their transactions and asking the right questions are all very important. There's no way I'd be able to provide counsel to our clients without a strong business education. I believe you're going to see more and more MBAs come into agencies. If you come out of a first-rate business school like Notre Dame as I did, chances are you've studied corporate communications at some point. And when you join a top-notch practice that provides strategic counsel, the MBA really pays off.


Age: 45

Graduate degree: MS Public Relations, Kogod College of Business Administration

Graduate institution: American University, Washington, DC

Current position: Vice president corporate communications

Current employer: Baxter International

An advanced degree is a credential and an indication of a focused career track. My master's has been invaluable in directing and guiding my career.

First of all, the experience of interacting with others who have a similar focus and interest is particularly helpful in developing knowledge and understanding of the factors contributing to success in a profession.

While it is hard to say for certain that a graduate degree got me any job, it did enable me to compete for things earlier in my career, and it indicated a level of learning that separated me from the masses. It gained me access and influence at times when it was key, when competing with others. The value of an advanced degree is dependent on at what point in career development an individual is.


Age: 29

Graduate degree: Master of Science in Journalism and Technical Communication

Graduate institution: Colorado State University, Denver, CO

Current position: Media relations manager

Current employer: GD&A Public Relations and Advertising

Obtaining my master's degree has provided me with added confidence in my own abilities as a communications professional and has broadened my perspective about what can be achieved using communications strategies.

For instance, I am now aware that public relations campaigns can often be enhanced by incorporating strategies from other disciplines such as advertising, marketing, design, research and business management into the communications mix. Most critically, I have learned the importance of tying communications strategies into the organization's overall objectives and the significance of showing senior management how public relations can positively influence the bottom line.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in