5 Ways to Build Greater Business Acumen


By Matt Ragas and Ron Culp

As PR professionals strive to become more trusted business advisers to the C-Suite, business acumen has become a critical competency for all levels of the profession.

We conducted national research with our colleague, Dr. Nur Uysal of Marquette University, and found that 84.5 percent of senior communication executives believe that it is extremely important for PR professionals to have a solid grounding in business essentials. However, almost an identical number (81.9 percent) of these same executives think that college and university PR and strategic communication programs do not provide enough coursework or training in business concepts and terminology.

We see anecdotal signs that agencies and in-house PR departments are investing more in training and development programs to help close this gap and build greater business savvy across their teams.

For example, Edelman, the world’s largest PR firm, recently began piloting a mini-MBA-like program with The University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. Several dozen senior executives at Edelman are expected to participate in the eight-month program. Edelman’s Chicago office — its co-headquarters — also offers in-house courses to employees of all levels on topics such as finance essentials, marketing and strategic planning. Other large agency networks are also placing a greater focus on business acumen.

Of course, not all agencies or PR departments have the available resources to partner with an elite educational institution, or develop and roll out an elaborate in-house training and development program. This doesn’t mean, however, that developing a greater business sense is out of an organization’s reach.

Here are five free or low-cost ways that a firm of any size or industry can develop greater business acumen across their teams:

  1. Read and discuss quarterly earnings releases and coverage. If your organization or client is a public company, then a great exercise is to read the quarterly earnings release, followed by business media coverage of the earnings report. Talk about key terms and concepts. Learning how business journalists interpret company news is valuable.
  2. Listen to earnings conference calls. Listen to your organization’s or client’s quarterly conference call with the CEO and CFO, particularly the Q-and-A portion of the call with Wall Street analysts. Learning how investment analysts think about and interpret company news is also important.
  3. Review annual shareholder letters. The yearly shareholder letter and report tell a public company’s story to a range of stakeholders. Go over your organization’s or client’s letters. The famous annual shareholder letters from Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway are educational must-reads.
  4. Watch business TV shows. To learn business language, watch cable TV networks that speak it each day, such as CNBC, Bloomberg and FOX Business. Popular business TV shows such as “Shark Tank,” “The Profit” and “Restaurant Startup” are fun and entertaining ways to learn business concepts.
  5. Organize book clubs on popular business books. In addition to encouraging employees to read The Wall Street Journal and other quality business news sources, launch a book club with a focus on popular business books. There are many options, but books by Michael Lewis such as “Flash Boys,” “The Big Short” and “Boomerang” take complex financial topics from the headlines and make them not only accessible, but also entertaining.

Even testing out just one or two of these ideas will get you and your team on the path to advancing organizational or client business goals and objectives.

In short, if public relations’ purpose is to fulfill its emerging mandate as a strategic management function, then all team members — from junior communication professionals to the agency head or chief communication officer — need to be able to link PR efforts back to the actual business of the business. Business acumen provides the critical foundation in this process.

This article was written for the May issue of TACTICS, a publication of the Public Relations Society of America and shared here with permission. This article stems from our book, Business Essentials for Strategic Communicators (Palgrave Macmillan). Matt Ragas, Ph.D., an OpEd Project Public Voices Fellow, is an assistant professor of public relations at DePaul University.

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