Stating the obvious? Professional communicators need business skills

I’m not part of the online debate about who is or is not a “social-media expert.” I leave that topic to the leaders of the echo chamber. I real life, no one really cares.

What clients and employers care about is how we use the tools of communication to make their organizations more successful. Clients and employers expect us to understand the business proposition. The C-level folks look to us to help change attitudes and behaviors, because that’s what drives the bottom line.

Pardon me for stating the obvious, but I’m not the only one so compelled.

Amber Naslund

In her post yesterday at Altitude, Amber Naslund also got back to basics. I’m joining the chorus today just to make sure my readers don’t forget this simple and obvious concept: It’s about business.

I read Amber’s post during our first faculty meeting of 2010 and was struck by how her advice mirrored the points our school’s director was making in his opening remarks. (And you thought multitasking didn’t work!) To better prepare students for careers in a tough economy, Jeff Fruit said, we gotta broaden the students’ skill sets, to be sure. But we also must help them understand how those skills fit the business/entrepreneurial environment of our 2.0 world. We must create a business mindset.

These aren’t things you often hear in journalism schools. And judging from Amber’s post, we don’t hear them enough in SM circles, either.

Under the subhead, “What we need desperately,” Amber offers a list of skills and knowledge  fundamental to success in PR, marketing, social media — and business. Every item on her list, 9 in all, should be obvious to any professional communicator. But if they were, I’m guessing Amber wouldn’t have written the post.

Amber says too many in the “SM expert” world focus on the tactics of the trade and “new shiny objects.” At the same time, many of them can’t write clear, coherent sentences or follow the rules of grammar and punctuation. On the business side, too many SMers don’t understand basic business planning and budgeting. And those who do grasp the business proposition often can’t explain it to others.

This one really got me: (We desperately need) “People who know how to communicate clearly, collaborate on projects, and manage people positively.”

Is it really that bad out there? I work in the ivory tower of academe, so it would be easy to fall out of touch with the real world. I hope I haven’t, but Amber’s post has me wondering just how far the the so-called marketing and PR experts have strayed from the fundamentals.

When a prospective student asks me what it takes to succeed in PR, I present a short list. To succeed in PR you must:

  • think clearly and critically.
  • be an excellent communicator, both written and verbal.
  • understand business from management’s perspective.

Sure, there’s a lot more to PR. Good listening skills are critical. So is the ability to find and organize information. But in the end, we’re communication experts. It’s the unique skill we bring to the table, and to Amber’s point, we’d better know how to translate it into the business model.

It troubles me that a leading blogger like Amber — and now an also-ran like me — feel the need to state the obvious. But apparently we must.

13 Responses to Stating the obvious? Professional communicators need business skills

  1. Ike says:

    Bill, it’s not that things have devolved, and we must state the obvious.

    It’s that across the board, in most all disciplines, there is a dearth of students who can communicate, develop coherent thoughts, and see things from the business-side.

    Your list of “Three things to succeed in PR” might as well be “Three things to succeed in business.”

  2. So glad to hear there’s an academic leader who recognizes the need to create a business mindset in students! My biggest weakness graduating from journalism school at a liberal arts college was a COMPLETE failure of preparation for the business sector.

    Bill, I hate to be the bearer of bad news: This is an epidemic. It may be more prevalent than the academy realizes. Most, though, are content to stick their heads in the sand.

    Kudos to the folks at your university, though, for recognizing a weakness and confronting it.

  3. Chuck Hemann says:

    Bill –

    I’d echo your thoughts, and those of Ike and Scott. Unfortunately, there is an abundance of professionals focused on the “shiny objects,” and not on how those tools (whether they be traditional or social) can be used to meet those goals. By goals, I don’t just mean communications goals either. I know you are teaching this at Kent, but most pros come out of school knowing how to write a release. They, generally, know how to gather information on the Internet. They don’t, however, have a true understanding of how to synthesize information or how that information can be used most effectively to solve some problem. Would be curious to hear how we can solve this problem…

  4. Bill Sledzik says:

    Gentlemen, thanks for the comments.

    @Ike You are correct. Those three things are essential to all who hope to succeed in the business world. But in PR at least, our trump card is writing. All the other folks at the table think clearly and get the business proposition. In the end, we separate ourselves by being writers.

    I worry constantly about the number of students drawn to PR studies because they want to do entertainment publicity or event planning. They avoid anything technical — most especially math and science. And don’t ask them to interpret a balance sheet. But you know, I was much the same when I left Ohio U in 1975. I had to learn business on the job, and I made damn sure I did.

    @Scott Point taken. Maybe, just maybe, I AM living in that ivory tower. And maybe the items in Amber’s list aren’t at as obvious as they should be to PR professionals. Scary, huh? Then again, maybe I’ve simply forgotten how may clueless folks were in the biz back when I had a real job! (It’s all coming back to me!)

    As for a basic business focus at Kent State, we’ve had that in place for about 30 years now, requiring PR majors to complete a list of biz courses that includes accounting, management, marketing and economics. Biz courses provide great exposure for the students, but the trick is carrying that mindset into the PR classes. It helps that we’re able to hire former senior-level professionals. Lots of folks teaching PR don’t have that professional experience. But that’s another topic.

  5. Bill,

    Thanks for continuing the discussion over here. I’ve been spending time with other universities lately, like DePaul and Loyola here in Chicago, and they’re experiencing some of the same challenges.

    You bring up an important point about learning on the job. Applied knowledge is every bit as important – if not more so – than the theoretical stuff. Most of the most valuable business skills I have were honed in the trenches, not in the classroom. That’s not to say the academic world doesn’t serve a crucial purpose, but it’s imperative that we teach our future generations the importance of DOING as well as talking.

    Thanks again.

  6. Bill Sledzik says:

    Glad you dropped in Amber. And happy to join the battle to boost business knowledge. As for writing, I’ve been waging that war for 40 years!

    Truth is, most of what we use in our day-to-day business lives is stuff we learned on the job or through other life experience. The classroom is such a small part of it (though I hesitate to tell that to parents who pay the tuition). Because I teach in a “professional” school, we do keep it real every day, and students learn by doing. And most of our kids do multiple internships, which also helps.

    What should probably have made my “3 Things” list — and your 9 — is something called curiosity. I’m not sure you can teach that, we can only try to instill it in those we mentor.

  7. Judy Gombita says:

    Anyone else notice this line: “…I read Amber’s post during our first faculty meeting of 2010 and was…”

    Excuse me, but is it “business-like” to be reading blog posts during your faculty meeting?

    I found this ironic/hilarious, especially after hearing a story (just last night) from a friend who is the coordinator of the public relations program at a Toronto college. This prof was telling me about receiving an email request about her class schedule, from a student who was attending a lecture. My prof friend responded, “You shouldn’t be emailing during your class. Come over to my office and talk to me when it’s done.”

    Anyhow, just thought I’d bring some levity to your post.

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      I do appreciate the levity, Judy, but have you ever attended a faculty meeting? Pretty mind-numbing stuff. I read blogs and watch the Twitter stream to keep from killing myself! 🙂

  8. In my 18 years of selling to public relations pros I’ve been stunned by the lack of business acumen at all strata of the profession, except of course, the very top, which is probably why those folks rose to the top as non-communicators had to have a part in their hire.

    I think that PR’s lack of measurement stems from this background as well. Hard to determine what and how to measure ROI if you don’t really know or understand what ROI is.

    Truth be told Bill, I’ll fault colleges. How many business-related courses must a PR student take to get a degree? Every kid graduating college should know how to read and understand balance sheets, cash flow statements etc. If they know that, I bet any campaign such a grad does would be very ROI oriented, and not “shiny and new” buzz.

  9. Bill Sledzik says:

    Sorry I’m so late on this, Steve. Still in vacation mode and not yet back in the classroom.

    To your question, too many PR programs require NO business courses. At Kent State, we require seven: Microeconomics, Marcoeconomics, Principles of Management, Principles of Marketing, Financial Accounting, and two additional marketing courses.

    If students take 2-3 more biz classes, they may earn minors in business administration or marketing. But that doesn’t make them business majors — not by a long shot. But they do understand the fundamentals. On the other hand, my students can write rings around most any student in the College of Business. They understand media and the social web at a level far beyond the business majors. And I’ll match our kids up in terms of critical problem solving against any business student in the university.

    But I have to admit, they still struggle with that balance sheet — even after the accounting class.

    So it comes back to the great debate: Does PR belong in business schools? Maybe it does. But then we risk losing the menu of skills-oriented courses that turn the students into writers, and PR professionals. You also give up a good many liberal arts courses designed to make the PR graduate more well rounded.

    It’s been argued by many that PR should be taught ONLY at the graduate level. Maybe that’s the solution, but it’s a post for another day.

    Again, I apologize for the tardiness of this response. I’ve been slackin’. Looking forward to your next visit and hearing about the new gig.

    • Bill:

      Glad to hear about the seven business courses that are required for PR students at KSU. I can see how marketing courses can be counted as biz courses, but to a financial business person (read: CEO, CFO, COO etc) they’re communications courses. I think it would serve the students well to have to take one or more financial courses. Accounting for finance is one thing, taking action on finance and affecting it is another. Financially savvy PR’s would forever end the hoo-ha of “getting a seat at the table”.


  10. 3 Marketing Success Factors In Social Media Marketing…

    Bill Sledzik riffed on Amber Naslund’s post on the importance of communicators thinking about business skills. In doing so he was nailing his flag to the mast that communication in business is about business and in the process suggesting that……

  11. Bill Sledzik says:

    I posted this comment at “PR Communications,” but I fixed the typos:

    Thanks for the shoutout, John. I’m flattered.

    It wasn’t my intention to “riff” on Amber’s post, as she raises and important point. I am astonished it needs to be said. But I guess it does.

    I don’t expect PR professionals to understand the nuances of high finance or cost accounting. But we must integrate with the business teams and learn their language and methodology. Our recommendations must undergird objectives and strategy of the business, not just the PR team.

    As I was reacting to Amber’s post, I was asking myself: Who doesn’t know this? The answers came in the comments to my post and Amber’s: Lots of people don’t know this.

    Kinda scary, huh?

    I’m NOT a marketing guy. And while I’m convinced PR must be “at the table,” I tend to approach problems a little differently than the “business team” or the marketers. But that’s also part of PR’s role: To challenge to conventional thinking from the perspective of internal and external publics.

    I call it “thinking outside the table,” and it’s a role some of the best business thinkers have trouble embracing. They don’t like folks who disagree.

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