PR pros must act as businesspeople first

Like many PRWeek readers, I found Michael Bush's sweeping article on the 2007 salary survey results ("Help Wanted," February 26) made for very interesting reading.

Like many PRWeek readers, I found Michael Bush's sweeping article on the 2007 salary survey results ("Help Wanted," February 26) made for very interesting reading.

While the results were thought-provoking, I was struck by Tuck School professor Paul Argenti's remarks about the lower relative value that corporations place on senior communications executives vs. their CFO and CMO counterparts. Argenti echoed the old CW that the fault for this sorry state of affairs lies with all those unenlightened business people who don't accord PR executives the proper approbation and value. Like so many in our line of work, I had fervently embraced this revisionist view like some sort of red badge of courage, only to discover as my career progressed that it was really nothing but a scarlet letter.

To adapt Shakespeare, the fault lies not with our business colleagues, but with ourselves. It's time we awoke from our collective delusion about our "value" and got into the game. The following points bear directly on this issue. Unless we collectively resolve them with action, we will continue to bemoan our marginal status and collective lack of respect.

Most business executives still see PR as a trade, not a profession.
PR represents a set of skills that must be applied to some sort of desirable domain knowledge in order to be valuable. As an industry, we've interpreted that to mean deep knowledge of a market or specialization. While that's important, we continue to miss (or ignore) the elephant in our rose garden: our often deep inadequacy as competent, professional businesspeople.

Our business colleagues know this. They understand all too well why so many PR people fail to add value when they are invited to a business meeting: most of us don't understand business at all. In fact, their expectations of us are sometimes so low that they're actually surprised when we manage our budgets correctly. We're largely ignorant of the core values, processes, terminology, and disciplines of business. When we do open our mouths, we often expose the holes in our knowledge very quickly. If we stay silent, our colleagues question the value of our presence. These are the two horns on which many PR executives are regularly gored, and this has hurt the credibility of our profession like no other issue we face.

To remedy this, we should focus less on "certifying" our mastery of PR skills and more on proving ourselves to be serious business people who happen to specialize in marketing and communications. Five years into my career, I realized how illiterate I was in business. As part of a plan to fix this, I left PR for seven years to work in technology as a sales, marketing, and then line-of-business executive with a P&L. The knowledge, perspective, and experience I gained contributed greatly to my subsequent success, including my time as one of the top four communications executives at Compaq and then HP.

For proof of this, look around the C-suite. When these executives gather around the conference table, they share a respect born of rigorous professional educations. While they all have specialties, they speak about them in a common language - the language of business. They are paid more than we are because they worked very hard to possess what is valued in business today. In contrast, many PR executives have a liberal arts degree, very little training in any real business discipline, and wouldn't know how to read - much less understand -- a reasonably complex financial statement. I believe that our desire to ascend to greater heights of credibility and respect does indeed depend on that very skill and others like it.

Most business executives see PR executives as talkers, not doers. We're seen like the scribes and minstrels of old, recording and extolling the heroic deeds of others while putting precious little of our own skin in the game. Most PR pros have never actually run a business and have no firsthand concept of the pressures, fears, glories, and soul-searing judgments that go with such a role.

Yet we purport to represent CEOs whose decisions, emotions, and motives most of us do not even begin to truly comprehend or appreciate. Most of us do very little - if anything - during our career to correct this deficiency. Is it because many of us - our brave rhetoric aside - are really more comfortable as one of Theodore Roosevelt's "cold and timid souls" escaping accountability in the back of the room? Do we have the guts and fortitude to do what is necessary to earn a leading role in the Great Game?

Business executives intuitively sense this dichotomy. A famous CEO with whom I once worked observed that many PR executives expect access without scrutiny, authority without accountability, credit without proof of performance, and compensation without justification.

Most business executives feel that PR wants to avoid real measurement.
In business, performance is measured, measured, and measured again. The corporate earnings report is an unforgiving metric against which business executives live or die. Did they grow market share? Did sales increase? Did EPS sag? Did they fail to control their costs? Did R&D deliver on time? Were the customers satisfied?

The answers are typically concrete, particularly when stacked against our comparatively squishy Reach, Tonality, Share of Voice, and Message Reflection metrics. Not only are these metrics fairly uninteresting to most business executives, but we also typically can't show any connection between what we're measuring and what the business really cares about.

Ask any business person about this, and they'll tell you that if the benefit can't be measured, it isn't real. Regardless of how much they intuitively believe in PR's value, it's not hard to understand their concerns about PR's ROI.

In the end, I submit that we cannot continue to delude ourselves that this is all about a bunch of business Neanderthals that "just don't appreciate what we do." Our failure to be businesspeople first and communicators second is why so many of us still peer through a glass darkly at the seat that should be ours, sitting vacant and lonely at the center of power and influence.

Mark Stouse is the global communications leader at BMC Software.

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