Tomorrow's PR leaders need an integrated education today

A few years ago, I was interviewing a candidate for a director-level PR position.

A few years ago, I was interviewing a candidate for a director-level PR position.

The individual had a terrific pedigree, an engaging personality, and a good knowledge of PR issues. At one point I asked him to explain the formula that determines the P/E ratio of a publicly traded company and to describe some of the factors that could influence it. The "deer in the headlights" look on his face made it clear that he had missed a page somewhere in his preparation. In the end, another candidate was selected.

While the question I posed wasn't an automatic disqualifier, it helped me gauge the candidate's business acumen. What I found then, and what I still find too often in college students and young pros, is a serious gap in fundamental knowledge of how business works.

I don't blame these young people solely. Educators and all managers have a role in the development of tomorrow's leaders. As I've been spending more time on college campuses, I've seen many examples of programs that seek to better educate communication students in business basics. Just as importantly, some of the more enlightened business schools are including strategic communications in regular course offerings.

But more often than not, I see a tendency to keep the programs quite separate. In some cases, communications majors are not even allowed to take courses in the business school. There are legitimate reasons for this; most notably the need to provide adequate course availability to those majoring in business. But the segregation exacerbates the problem.

Most of my colleagues agree that the best prospects have a balanced blend of education and experience in which they have learned the fundamentals of business, journalism, and communications.

Why is this important? These prospects must understand business principles to be taken seriously by their future colleagues in marketing, sales, operations, finance, and general management. No one expects them to be able to function as accountants, but they should be able to navigate around an annual report or quarterly financial statements without hitting a reef.

Those competing for entry-level PR jobs also need to understand the fundamentals of journalism. They will likely spend much of their time interacting with practicing journalists, and it helps to be able to empathize with the issues and challenges of that world.

These young pros also need a thorough grasp of PR. Their contributions, no matter the sector, will depend on the knowledge, critical thinking, writing ability, and understanding they bring to the table.

Such insight can't develop in a vacuum. As young pros become tomorrow's senior counselors, they'll need the perspective and context that a well-rounded educational and professional experience brings. Those involved in their development must break down the walls that separate business, journalism, and communications schools and departments.

The sooner we can provide educational experiences that better resemble the integrated world these young people will enter, the more likely we are to enhance the contribution they will make to the profession.

Tom Martin is SVP of corporate relations at ITT Industries.

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