Five ways PR execs should flex their business muscles

Communications executives have a seat at the table, but they must have the business strength to hold onto it.

Exelis Electronic Systems director of communications Courtney Reynolds
Exelis Electronic Systems director of communications Courtney Reynolds

You have a PR position open on your team, and you’re walking through the job description with human resources. The candidate needs to have agency or corporate PR experience.

She needs to have managed crises and sensitive issues. He needs to have a proven track record with industry journalists and bloggers. She needs to be able to connect earned, paid, and owned media strategies. He needs to demonstrate proficiency in both oral and written communication. She needs to have a degree in journalism, communications, or related fields.

Sound familiar? If you said "yes," is that a good thing? Many of us preach the value of diversity in our communications campaigns, but are we practicing what we preach? If we want to help shape business strategy rather than just communicate it, we have to demonstrate we are true businesspeople — and that means thinking outside of our communications box.

A CFO I worked with at a former company was invited to speak to our communications team at an offsite meeting, and this is how she started her remarks: "What we have in common is that we are all businesspeople. We may have different technical specialties — mine happens to be in finance, yours in communications — but we are all responsible for advancing our collective business goals." I couldn’t have said it better.

The message she implied is that communications professionals have a seat at the table; to keep it, we must flex our business muscle. Just as we are expected to provide counsel on a potential crisis, we must be expected to provide counsel on a potential merger or acquisition. If we don’t, then our seat will be filled by someone who can and will.

One of the best things that ever happened to my career was when a former boss pushed me out of my comfort zone and into non-communications roles. Through stints in strategic planning and business development, I became comfortable executing product distribution agreements, identifying adjacent markets, and discussing compound annual growth rates.

More important than these technical skills, however, was the broader business perspective I gained. I began to understand more fully how other functions thought and worked, and I started to have and share opinions about our business direction and operations. And, the more I shared, the more people asked for my perspective.

Outside of my own experience, I have witnessed the career paths of peers and other communications leaders whose success can be attributed to a broader business-focused approach.

In this spirit, following are five ideas to strengthen our teams and ourselves:

Venture outside traditional checklists when hiring
We shouldn’t be so quick to look for a communications degree or to discount a candidate who doesn’t have every communications box checked. I have met finance professionals who have excellent communications instincts and engineers who have made communications plans more robust. While certain positions require specific skills, we need to remember that diverse work experience provides a broader perspective and stronger ideas. When we see a smart, motivated individual who has affected an organization positively, we should take a closer look to see how this can translate to our function.

Focus on business results as much as traditional PR metrics.
Improving on-time delivery or integrating an acquisition should excite us as much as a New York Times story. When we set goals for our projects and programs, the goals of the business should be our goals. Is the business trying to enter a new market, or improve product quality, or make processes more efficient? There are ways that communications can impact these goals, from reputation management to employee alignment and engagement. A media hit may be part of the plan, but staying focused on larger organizational goals often leads to different approaches and more successful outcomes.

Actively seek opportunities to broaden expertise.
Whether it’s a project in a different department, a rotational assignment, or a complete sabbatical away from communications, give yourself and your team members the opportunity to experiment. Start small if necessary. In my current role, our team started becoming more involved in business strategy by distilling the strategy and engaging employees in it. We are now partnering with the businesses to develop the strategy and align leaders around it. After taking the first step, the second step was a logical outgrowth.

Rethink the communications organizational structure.
Along with leaders of external and internal communications, for example, do you need a data analyst? Do you need a strategist? Even if the role of this individual may not be traditional communications, the fact this person is in the communications department will broaden perspectives of the individual and the other communications team members.

Get an MBA to better connect with other business leaders.
After earning my executive MBA, I started relating better to my business counterparts, and I think they found me more relatable. Speaking the same language often inspires confidence. Instead of talking about "change management," I would refer to "Kotter’s model." Instead of speaking broadly about "innovation," I would point to where our products were on the "S-curve." In addition, since many of us work with the finance or investor relations teams for annual reports, quarterly earnings, and other financial communications, it’s become imperative to understand the numbers and how to communicate them. Of course, you can read case studies and be a student of business without having your MBA. For me, it was more effective and efficient to have a structured program versus studying independently. For others, a different path may work better.  

These five suggestions are just a starting point, and I know many smart minds in our industry have other ideas and best practices. While our approaches may be different, it’s become clear that we add value through our functional expertise, but we become invaluable when we act as businesspeople first.

Courtney Reynolds is director of communications for the Exelis Electronic Systems division.

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