Thursday, February 10, 2011

On PR and Business Education

I hear quite often that "PR students should study business." It is uttered as an obvious truth. Certainly it makes some sense that PR people who will be working with counterparts in marketing and finance should be able to read a balance sheet and be conversant in typical business lingo. That's one of the assertions of a recent post on about PR pros getting MBAs. However, if you read  the comments to that post, you'll see there are other advanced  degree options.

I also have an alternative view. I wouldn't discourage an undergrad from taking courses or minoring in business to supplement their PR degree, nor would I stand in the way of a PR professional getting an MBA. But I would raise a few points for consideration:

  • What if you don't end up doing PR for a business? A shock, I know. Most people who work for businesses can't fathom that the PR jobs in the OTHER TWO THIRDS of the labor sector--i.e.  nonprofits and government--outnumber them. For an aspiring PR pro who wants  to work in a nonprofit setting, or for a government agency, taking other classes in public administration, political science or some other discipline would likely make more sense. Don't get me started on the "round-peg-in-the-square-hole" that "this  nonprofit/government should be run like a business." (If only more businesses were run like some outstanding nonprofits  I know....)
  • Do you fear co-option? If you start talking the business language, and feeling compelled to prove your business chops and demonstrate your business thinking, is the PR perspective you bring going to be drowned out? Too often PR is tucked under marketing and seen only as a tactic to accomplish marketing objectives. Is getting a business degree a way of "selling out" to the narrow view that all publics are customers and the only objective is sales? Do you want to be relinquishing your unique and broader PR perspective?
  • Throw the flag for "encroachment." Encroachment is a term in academic literature that describes the phenomenon where a person from one discipline "encroaches" on the responsibilities of another discipline. For example, when the lawyer insists  on being the spokesperson instead of the PR professional, or when the marketing director turns a decent news release into a product literature brochure. Similar  to the above point, if you try too much to talk and think like your business co-workers, they will see that as a sign that your job needs to be done their way too.
  • Groupthink. I first learned about this phenomenon, developed by Irving Janus, in a communication class. It describes situations in which groups make faulty decisions because of a perceived consensus and ignoring alternatives. I don't know if they discuss it in business classes or not. But it seems likely that a management team in a business that stresses a business perspective would perceive unanimity and possibly ignore some good alternatives that, oh I don't know, someone with a PR and communication background and perspective could raise. Better decisions are made when all options and viewpoints are freely expressed to inform the decision making process. PR people think about mutual understanding, conversations, relationships, with all stakeholders. Businesses exist to make a legitimate profit, strive for efficiency, and manage for quarterly goals. But a  PR perspective, which may seem like a warm, fuzzy tangent to a business mind, can lead to "outside the box" strategy, prevent crises, strengthen repeat business, put word  of mouth outreach on legs and yield many other benefits.
It seems that some in the business education community have come around to realizing that hard core business goals of maximizing profit and efficiency are not the only priority or perspective. Just last week Harvard Business School announced it is changing its B-school curriculum to add an increased focus on ethics and teamwork (Wall Street Journal, subscription may be required). 

That's a good start. Another idea, which never comes up when people tell me with rock solid confidence (and arrogance to match) that PR people need to study business, is this: maybe business people should study PR! Most marketing texts treat it in a paragraph in chapter 20. A fundamental problem in many businesses is the limited view of PR as merely media relations. But PR is not a tactic, it's a way of thinking. It is--I'll say it again--broader than marketing in terms of publics and objectives considered. Marketing runs deeper with regard to customers to include everything from product packaging to pricing to channels of distribution.

So, yes, PR people who happen to work in business might benefit from studying business. But business people have an equal incentive to expand their understanding and respect for what public relations is all about. There needs to be what we in PR call a "mutual relationship." If there are any business people who don't understand that, I can recommend some good programs where you can get a master's in communications.


Brian said...

Great post Tim!

My Humanities Prof., Freshman yr. of college said something to me that stuck and also proved to be very true. In response to my frustration over having to take so many liberal arts "core" classes before I could jump into my major (which was communications) he said "I wish you could get you major requirements out of the way so thatyou would have more time to focus on Liberal Arts. That's the IMPORTANT stuff!"

The "real world" does not conform to any rigid boundary. Better to possess a well rounded foundation upon which to build. It makes us more relatable, more empathetic, more flexible, and ultimately more hireable.

Tim Penning, APR said...

Very good point, Brian. As an advisor, I tell my students to NOT say they need to get their general education and liberal arts requirements "out of the way." They are not in the way, they are there on purpose. Especially in PR, as you say, an understanding of psychology, sociology, art, history, etc. makes for more educated -- not just trained -- students who can think critically and creatively.