Business sense

PR pros are finding an MBA more valuable than ever. As Alex Palmer discovers, clients are increasingly adopting a similar sentiment.

PR pros are finding an MBA more valuable than ever. As Alex Palmer discovers, clients are increasingly adopting a similar sentiment.

Whether established or new to the industry, earning a Master of Business Administration (MBA) might not have seemed like an obvious next step in a PR pro's career path a few years ago. However, changes in the industry and at the business schools themselves have made both the detailed knowledge and broader perspective of running an organization that one acquires in a master's program more relevant and attractive than ever.

"When you're working in PR, you can get focused on the short-term media-relations-type targets, but an MBA exposes you to what the thoughts are in the C-suite," explains Hunter Hoffmann, US communications manager for insurance company Hiscox. "It's a broader view, and it's getting beyond the media relations tag to become a corporate communicator."

A logical progression
Hoffmann had worked at an agency, then for American Express, before deciding that an MBA would be the logical next step, earning his degree from Cornell in 2006.

He stresses that the rigor of business school, and having to learn finance, operations, and the metrics the CEO is concerned with, have proven extremely valuable to his work. Hoffmann adds that it can be easy for those who jump right into a PR position to view press hits as ends in themselves, without any context of why their work more broadly aids in the company's success.

"The goal is to become more relevant to the C-suite and the board, so having that added understanding of business issues is a nice asset," says Daniel Diermeier, professor of managerial economics and decision sciences at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. "If you are hired at JPMorgan, but you don't understand finance at some level, your usefulness is going to be very limited."

Paul Fox, Procter & Gamble

As the PR industry has become increasingly competitive, an MBA is more likely to set someone apart from the rest of the candidates applying for positions in the field. Paul Fox, director of external relations for Procter & Gamble, says that from the millions of applications the company receives, an MBA is one of the most reliable ways to catch the eye of a hiring manager.

"It's a very diverse population, but it's also highly competitive," he explains. "As people strive to attract and retain the best talent, one of the first ports of call you will always look at is their level of experience in terms of education."

Fox sees the MBA holder as more likely to have a holistic view of an organization.

"At P&G, we invest a great deal of time in the development of people so they can understand that end-to-end look at our business," he says. "We encourage our agencies to develop a more holistic view of our business in the short, medium, and long terms."

Growing respect for PR
Perhaps even more profound is the growing interest in and respect for PR at the business schools themselves. A PRSA study, released in December of last year, found that 98% of business leaders believe business schools should incorporate instruction on corporate communications and reputation management into MBA curricula.

Daniel Diermeier, Kellogg School of Management, Northwester Univ.

It also found that 97% believe CEOs themselves should understand the role of corporate reputation management, while 98% held that executives at any level ought to have a working knowledge of basic PR skills.

To do its part, the PRSA in early June partnered with five schools – Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College; Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University; School of Business at Quinnipiac University; Robert H. Smith School of Business at University of Maryland; and College of Business Administration at University of Texas at El Paso – on an initiative to incorporate PR training in MBA programs.

The quintet of schools will offer classes on PR and corporate communications in their MBA programs during the next year, and professors from the five programs will meet quarterly to share ideas and observations. Next summer, the PRSA and the schools will publish a white paper outlining guidelines for integrating PR coursework in business education.

Boardroom recognition
"We're at a moment in time where the boardroom has woken up to the fact that reputation management and communications is increasingly important and should be part of the business school curriculum," says Jen Prosek, the founder and CEO of Prosek Partners. "The profession is being recognized by people who will be your peers in the classroom."

Jen Prosek, Prosek Partners

Prosek earned her MBA at Columbia Business School, where she estimates she was the only communications person in the class over the preceding five years. She says it proved valuable not just in allowing her to learn how a business operates on every level, but also in making her part of a peer group of those who are now leading organizations.

"The ability to speak the language of business to clients is very valuable," says Prosek. "We are going to see more MBAs and leaders who value PR in the MBA curriculum."

Master Plan

Edelman CEO Richard Edelman discusses how his MBA paved the way for his legendary career.

I was born into the PR business, given that my father, Dan Edelman, founded our family company in 1952. Some of my fondest (often bizarre) childhood memories include shaking the hand of then-Miss America Phyllis George (and not washing my hand for a week) and learning how to cook popcorn with the popcorn king Orville Redenbacher. I went to Harvard Business School expecting to pursue a career in brand marketing, but my dad urged me to give PR a chance. Thirty-four years later, I've never looked back.

The new opportunity for CCOs and their external PR advisers is to be involved in business strategy and then communications. The CCO often oversees marketing and corporate reputation. The skills developed in MBA courses enable you to partner with the CEO, not simply act as a consultant in a specialist niche. You can have substantive conversations because you have understood the business model, the financing concept, and the production method.

In my case, the MBA provided me with a permanent systematic approach to life. Three cases a day, every day for weeks at a time, with 90 minutes required to prepare for each class, plus study group at night, was US Marine Corps training courtesy of Harvard Business School. Nothing that is thrown at me in life ever takes me away from my mantra: take a deep breath, look around at the competition and customer satisfaction, develop a strategy, and establish metrics to measure progress. When you're knocked down, get up again – relentless, focused, and determined to succeed.

The business of PR
The MBA has also given me a different way to look at PR as a business. We began the Edelman Trust Barometer in 2000 because we wanted a signature piece of intellectual property, akin to a management consulting firm. We went into the digital business in 1996 because we saw the promise of self expression. We remained independent because we thought clients would want the best-in-class PR firm, not necessarily one allied in a holding company. We cold-called on companies when I became manager of the New York office in my mid-20s. You can substitute effort and hard work for experience while building the reputation of your company.

Lessons beyond school
My MBA education had certain shortcomings as well. I came out of school without a proper appreciation of the central role of personal relationships and trust, as if any soft edge was bred out of me through analytical training. I had a certain arrogance, as if my skills entitled me to a leadership position before I had earned it. I have turned that deficiency into an obsession to communicate and interact, from my weekly blog post to photos on Facebook as I travel around the globe, plus a deliberate effort to be a man of the people who takes subways and flies coach.

My eldest daughter, Margot, is now a student at Harvard Business School. There are several important changes to the curriculum, notably a 10-day stint in a developing market as part of a six-person team working for a multinational, a course on law and ethics in the wake of Enron and Lehman, and a three-month module on start-ups where the school gives you $3,000 toward development of a breakthrough idea. The PR business is now covered in the first year, through the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty case (talk about an out-of-body experience – watching your child in a class at your alma mater discussing a campaign in which your firm played an important role) and others dealing with corporate misbehavior.

As large PR firms approach the $1 billion revenue mark and operate across 25 countries, we must have managers trained as businesspeople, not simply as communicators. Similarly, within a corporation, the CCO should be the primary adviser to the CEO on matters from trade policy to supply chain to marketing promotion. An MBA is a vital asset for those aspiring to leadership in the next generation of our industry.

The PRSA study is part of the group's broader MBA Initiative launched last year, aimed at incorporating more corporate communications coursework into business schools. This includes a program based on the curricula developed by Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communications at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business and author of Corporate Communications, published by McGraw-Hill.

Supported in part by the Arthur W. Page Society, the program combines full-semester, mini-semester, and seminar formats to make it more flexible for easier adoption to a range of business schools. So far, the PRSA is working with four charter schools, including Tuck and Kellogg, which will incorporate the program into their fall semesters. A full nation-wide launch is planned for 2013.

"The biggest complaint I hear is that the people who do communications don't have a general management background and don't understand the business as well as the general counsel, CFO, or CMO," says Argenti. "It's about execution of strategy and involves alignment with other functional areas of the organization. You must understand the kind of things we focus on at the business schools."

Argenti believes opportunities in the industry are increasing, with the communications area expanding to include IT and marketing, making the ability to leverage an MBA that takes a broad perspective on the organization that much more valuable.

Jeffrey Sharlach, adjunct professor of management communication at NYU's Stern School of Business and CEO of JeffreyGroup, has seen that at his own company, which was run primarily from fax machines when it began 19 years ago.

"Now it's very much a strategic business and requires people who are creative, but also intelligent and able to bring critical thought to these processes," he explains. "Our business has become much more of a thinking person's business. It always required creativity, but now the mechanics and execution have gotten simpler while knowledge and expertise are more critical."

Sharlach says an MBA's value is particularly strong for those in finance or banking, where an understanding of the mathematical intricacies of a business, or a corporate M&A, will help when these points need to be translated to external audiences.

"Those tend to be the highest-paid areas of the PR profession," he says. "Anyone working with an MBA would have a leg up in that."

Speaking the language
Finance, however, is not the only complicated industry where an MBA can be valuable. 

Janet Stacey, Padilla Spear Beardsley

Janet Stacey, VP at Padilla Speer Beardsley, has spent much of her career in the healthcare and medical-device field, where she has found her master's in marketing and finance from Xavier University to be of substantial value. Her background in healthcare delivery and supply-chain issues have been especially useful.

"I understand the business of healthcare. I know what questions to ask when I sit down and advise a client," she says. "It helps me pinpoint the appropriate strategy or messaging that we might utilize around a communications effort."

Her program also incorporated in-depth case studies, providing ways to think critically about business challenges and where communications efforts could ease those challenges.

While most of the communicators at her firm have a journalism or PR background, Stacey's advanced degree has allowed her to "speak the language of the business."

"When I'm working with a client, I can go in and look at their business from the perspective of a business model, analyze all of their stakeholders, and be able to incorporate that insight into the communication," says Stacey.

Sharlach looks at his own experience of having earned a law degree. Now, more than three decades later, when lawyers get involved in business for JeffreyGroup, Sharlach is still able to come in and resolve issues by speaking the same language as the attorneys.

"Besides the knowledge and the expertise, [the MBA] elevates you to a different level of respect with the client, the same way a healthcare PR firm has a medical consultant on staff," says Sharlach, stressing that even if it's superficial, it's still useful.

MBA programs expose those enrolled in them to high-level research and academic studies that could come in handy as a reference point later in their career, helping to guide decisions or back up opinions. Sharlach gives the example of having for years urged his staff to use bolder type in PowerPoint presentations, then coming across research at Stern that found recall of bold text during presentations is higher than standard type.

Changing perspectives
Before deciding on business school in 1997, Prosek asked several top headhunters about whether they thought it would be worth pursuing.

"I was disappointed with their answer," she recalls. "‘It's nice to have,' they told me, ‘but no one is going to hire you because of it, and you're probably not going to get more pay,'" she recalls, adding that this still did not discourage her, as she was interested in the degree for many other reasons. Now, 15 years later, "I wonder if [the headhunters] would change their mind," she says. "I have a feeling they would have a very different answer."

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