Mind for business

Pursuit of an MBA presents challenges to working PR pros, but the benefits make it a worthwhile consideration

Mind for business
When PR was first mentioned in Lisa Novak's MBA class at the University of California-Berkeley's Haas School of Business, most of the students were perplexed by the concept. But Novak, SVP at Ruder Finn West, noticed as the professor gave examples of crises companies have faced and how PR has helped solve these, her fellow students were listening attentively.

"When the professor explained the problem and the results people got from [PR] - everyone got it," she recalls. "You can have the best product in the world, but if you have a PR disaster you could go under immediately, so they understood having that skill."

As clients have become more focused on communications moving the bottom line, it has become more valuable for PR professionals to have MBAs.

Enhancing the discussion
Novak, who works with consumer brands like TiVo and Good Earth Coffee, says the degree has been particularly useful in discussing business objectives and strategies with brand managers.

"Now, when they're talking about distribution of the product, retail sales, pricing, promotions, packaging - it's a lot more familiar to me," she notes, adding that it is not necessary to have an MBA to be familiar with these ideas, but it certainly offers a decided edge.

In addition to applying business skills to consumer PR, Novak sees an opportunity with corporate communications because that field requires constant interaction with the C-suite.

"In that area of PR, it's even more relevant because you are expected to have some versatility and be more agile in showing how your [ideas] fit into a larger business strategy," she notes.

Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communications at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business, says companies no longer tolerate a disconnect between the business and communications functions, and senior executives are expected to have both skills. While PR executives do not necessarily need functional MBAs, he suggests managerial MBAs to make them better candidates for advancement.

"Getting a general managerial MBA is like getting a liberal arts education in business," he explains. "It gives you an overview of the whole thing. If you get the MBA, you'll look and sound a lot more like the other people you work with."

Yet for some professionals, spending the money and time necessary to earn an MBA might not be an efficient investment. But for those interested in just taking some business courses to enhance their grasp of the corporate world, it can be tricky. Many universities impose restrictions on cross-listing business and communications courses, Argenti notes.

But the degree's value isn't measured in simply having an add-on to the rŽsumŽ. It's being able to mesh with business-minded executives who ultimately dictate communications budgets and strategy, he says.

"It's about having the terminology, the jargon, the panache that comes with an MBA," he says. "For [professionals] today, there is no other real route for those top jobs."

A 'chicken and egg' conundrum

The PR industry is faced with a conundrum, contends Bob Feldman, founder of Feldman & Partners, and an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California who teaches a graduate course in corporate reputation. It needs MBAs, he notes, but the traditional business model isn't accommodating to those with that skillset.

For example, when agencies pitch clients for business, they are essentially giving away strategy and creativity, so when agencies win assignments, the clients are compensating them mostly for the tactical execution, Feldman explains.

"It's a chicken and egg problem," he notes. "Clients typically don't want to pay much for strategy, but for that to change agencies need to raise the strategy bar with more MBAs on staff. But there's no assurance that if agencies do that, clients will put more of their budget to strategy and pay the kind of hourly rates MBA salaries will require."

Even so, Feldman actively recruits MBA candidates because his is a management consulting firm that focuses on communications strategy and organizational design, rather than large-scale tactical execution.

"So when we get hired, clients pay for strategic insight; they don't expect it for free in exchange for a budget to execute tactics," he says. "It's very hard for a classic PR agency to get paid fairly for strategy, which, in turn, inhibits hiring MBAs."

In addition, perhaps because MBAs have not traditionally embarked on careers in PR, recruiters do not actively seek this educational background. Jim Delulio, president of PR Talent, says he has yet to have a client explicitly ask for a candidate with an MBA in his 10 years of working as a recruiter.

"I think [an MBA] is great and an advantage," says Delulio, who himself has an MBA. "But I think people don't see the necessity in it after somebody has a certain amount of experience."

Yet for PR pros interested in becoming a VP of corporate communications at a major company, or those looking to gain credibility in a financial position or b-to-b-focused firms, Delulio says the degree could lead to more opportunities.

Added benefits of an MBA
An MBA also offers an advantage for those looking to start their own firms. Jennifer Prosek, partner at CJP Communications, earned an MBA because she wanted to build a firm that handles complex global corporate and financial communications issues.

"I knew an MBA would give me a deep understanding of international business and a unique credential in the PR industry for counseling clients and pitching new business," says Prosek, who pursued her MBA when she was just 27. "I also knew that CEOs and CFOs would take a young PR pro more seriously if I had the same academic background as they did."

While having an MBA has helped Prosek expand her firm and offer clients more strategic recommendations and a deeper understanding of their business goals, there have been some drawbacks. Aside from the costs, the quantitative skills required for finance, accounting, and statistics can be daunting for communications-oriented pros, she admits.

Still, Prosek admits that because of her youth when she pursued her MBA, she needed it to gain credibility. For older PR practitioners, though, work experience could be a stronger selling point than an MBA.

"For someone older, working at an agency has given you a lifetime worth of experience, so you don't need [an MBA]," says Argenti.

In the case of Novak, since earning her MBA, her colleagues ask her more quantitative and profit-oriented questions - and younger staffers at the agency have shown an interest in following her path.

"A lot of junior colleagues ask questions and are curious about it," she explains. "One or two have even taken the GMAT."

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