For years, writing has been the consensus #1 skill demanded of top prospective public relations talent. Nothing else came close. But as the role of communicators has pivoted from being tacticians to becoming true business partners, so has the demand shifted to individuals who are not only good writers, but also who are comfortable with an income statement.
In our survey of Arthur W. Page Society members for “Business Essentials for Strategic Communicators” that we published last year, my DePaul University colleague Matt Ragas and I asked about the importance of Business 101 as part of college training and education. A vast majority of respondents–84.5%–said “extremely important”, while an additional 13.8% chose “very important.” The PR Council did its own survey of agency heads in 2014 and found that writing remains the top desired skill, but it was followed closely by business intelligence,
James S. O’Rourke, Ph.D., professor of management at the University of Notre Dame, succinctly states the case for increasing your business IQ when he says, “Unless we each understand how our companies make money, how they grow or gain market share, and how they compete directly in the marketplace, our storytelling is likely to come off as superficial or shallow.”
Kathy Cripps, past president of the PR Council, which represents most major PR agencies agrees, adding: “In an increasingly hyper-competitive marketplace, the firms that best understand their client’s business concerns and challenges will have a decided advantage over competitors.” Hence, the increasing demand from agencies for new hires that can write and understand an earnings statement.
When I speak to PR students, I often encourage them to take a basic business course or even venture deep into the left brain with accounting. Some look pained, while others say they are worried about what it will do to their GPA. “Don’t worry about your GPA,” I respond. “No one but grad school admissions cares about your GPA and you actually may score points with reviewers if you explain a bad grade—assuming you indeed get the C- that I received in accounting.”
If you don’t want to rush into a business course with one of your remaining electives, consider the following 10 tips that Matt Ragas and I recommend for professionals wanting to better understand business basics:
- Understand how you get paid. How does your employer make money? What is the business model? Is it an agency driven by billable hours or a retailer that sells products or services?
- Seek out internal training programs. Many agencies and corporations offer business training programs.
- Pursue external professional development programs offered at organizations ranging from local community centers to more formal college programs.
- Get in the habit of reading and discussing business news. If nothing else, read the “What’s News” column on the left hand side of page one of the Wall Street Journal.
- Pick a favorite company and follow it closely. Read earnings releases and listen in on the publicly available quarterly earnings calls usually conducted by the CEO and/or Chief Financial Officer.
- Check out investing education platforms such as tastytrade, dough and mint. Great information in fun, easy-to-understand platforms.
- Watch and discuss TV shows and short films about business and the economy. My favorite is “Shark Tank,” while other good ones are “The Profit” and wetheeconomy’s 20 short films.
- Learn from the master. Read Warren Buffett’s annual letters to Berkshire-Hathaway shareholders. Every CEO in America reads every word Buffett says or writes.
- Read and discuss Michael Lewis books. My favorites are “Flash Boys” and “The Big Short.” (And see the movie, “The Big Short”).
- Check out business books for non-MBAs, such as “Show Me The Money,” “The Financial Writer’s Stylebook,” “The Portable MBA,” and a clever business “comic book” called “Economix”.
This article was written for the spring edition of FORUM, the PRSSA publication that has been edited for the past two years by Emma Finkbeiner, president-elect of PRSSA and future grad student at DePaul University. These 10 tips were compiled by Matt Ragas and me after writing Business Essentials for Strategic Communicators.