Mark Stouse is the global director at BMC Software. At one point in his 20-year career, Stouse left PR to work in the technology industry as a salesperson, marketing executive, and finally as a line executive with profit and loss responsibility. Upon his return to PR, he became one of the top communications executives at both Compaq and HP. Stouse authored an Op-Ed column in our March 26 issue titled "PR pros much act as businesspeople."
He delved a little deeper into his Op-Ed topic when he spoke with PRWeek recently.
PRWeek: What's the most valuable business lesson you learned [during your time as a business executive]?
Mark Stouse: There is a business reality out there that you have to deal with, that everything is subordinate to. A lot of PR professionals, particularly when they're junior, they're very creative and they fall in love with an idea but they fall in love with it irrespective of whether it really makes a business impact. I was probably very guilty of that myself. When I went to the business side of it and left PR for those years, that's when it crystallized in my mind and in my heart that anything we did from a PR standpoint had to support the business.
...Probably the most powerful experience I had was [having] responsibility for profit and loss... all the sales, all the employees in my division, all that kind of stuff. Until you've really had that kind of experience for yourself it's hard to understand what an executive is going through. It's a very difficult role that an executive has and unless you've walked a mile in their moccasins, you just can't understand it.
PRWeek: On a day-to-day basis, how are you applying this perspective to your work at BMC?
Stouse: I think the way that I apply it is, in many ways, contextual. It's the way that I discuss marketing and communications issues with our CEO and other business executives in the company.
My goal is to speak to them in business terms about communications rather than in communications terms about business, which is how a lot of communications people talk. I'll use their vocabulary not communications vocabulary. I won't use a lot of PR slang. If I use any slang at all, it's business slang. It gives me the credibility to talk to them about communications because they understand that I understand the business. So that gives them a lot of comfort.
There are two primary issues: there's the gap that we have with business executives in terms of our credibility as a profession and then there's the issue of our market effectiveness. I would submit to you that if we don't have a deep knowledge of both business and, in my case, technology, it's like teaching. If you don't understand the material, you're not going to be able to teach it well. In many cases, when you deal with a reporter or analyst, there's a certain amount of teaching involved; you're trying to persuade them of a point of view. And if you can't do that eloquently and really reflect a very real understanding of what you're talking about, it's not going to be effective.
Same thing with an executive. If they have a reason to believe that you really don't understand business, you're going into the rest of that relationship with at least one arm tied behind your back.
... One of the key things that many executives look at with anyone that they're dealing with in marketing is can they read and understand financial documents. That is almost an acid test. It's one of the things that gave me a lot of credibility right off the bat not only with BMC but with Compaq and HP when I was there.
...It's one thing to know communications but that is really a set of skills. I know this is going to give a lot of my colleagues heartburn, but in the same way that journalism is a trade and not a professions, PR is a trade. You have to have expertise to apply that kind of trade to in order for it to be impactful.
I want to contrast that to everyone else in the C-suite. They all have professional degrees. They not only have a business undergraduate degree, they have an MBA, [and] there are additional certifications.
...We as a profession really have to go beyond the call of duty to buttress our position with our external clients if you're on the agency side or internal clients if you're on the corporate side so that you have that credibility with them and can speak their language.
PRWeek: What are some best practices that PR professionals can employ to show their contributions to the bottom line?
Stouse: We [at BMC] have metrics that are designed by the dint of their collective impact to show that there is a relationship between what we're doing and what has happened in the business. But we've also put metrics in place to reveal that business is a part of communications.
As PR people, we all know that our success is in some degree due to whether we have the right components to the story... If you have all these pieces, your likelihood of placing a good story is reasonably high. Most executives don't understand that. They never understood that they have a very important role to play, that their business has a very important role to play, in the success of communications.
We basically reverse-engineer a whole stream of input to show the direct impact of what they've done and the story. It helps them understand in a more concrete way why it's important for them to be involved.
Another thing we do, and this is taking a page right out of the sales organization, is we want to be held accountable to the business for our performance. Many of PR people will say, "I can't force a reporter to write a story." A sales manager has the same problem. He can't force a potential customer to sign a contract... He or she has to sign up for a number. I'm going to achieve this amount of sales... And he or she and their sales teams will be held accountable by the business for that goal.
We want to do that same thing. Once we start establishing what our inputs are for the business, we are actually predictive not only about the coverage we're going to generate but the kinds of coverage and where... It gives them a lot more visibility into the causal relationships. And in many cases I think PR people don't want to go there. I don't think they want the business to understand too much about what we do and I think that's a big mistake.
PRWeek: Do you see any signs that PR professionals are beefing up their business knowledge and are at least making the beginnings of steps in the right direction?
Stouse: Individual PR executives by virtue of their own demonstrated knowledge and expertise have had a seat at many companies for a long time. The challenge that we have as a profession is that most PR people do not have a seat at the table by the time they are senior enough to be in a position to have that seat.
The great burning desire that PR people have had since I've been doing this and I've been doing this for 21 years, is the desire for credibility. They want respect...I think, finally, many are starting to say, "It's not up to them to understand our value to the business. It's up to us to demonstrate and prove and educate them on our value." I think many senior communications people are doing what I'm doing in many different ways but the outcome is the same.The goal is if you want a seat at the table, you want to be known as a business person who specializes in communications, just as the CFO is a business person who specializes in finance...We very much have to take that lesson to heart because it's the only way we're ultimately, as a profession, going to get that seat at the table.