Why You Should Master Business as a Second Language

Artwork by Roy Scott

This article first appeared in Strategies & Tactics, a monthly publication of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).

By Matt Ragas, Ph.D., and Ron Culp, Fellow PRSA

Chief communication officers are bilingual. They fluently speak the language of public relations and the idioms of business and the C-suite. In many ways, CCOs and other senior communicators are expert translators who listen to and advise business people, and then explain complex business strategies and issues in understandable messages that move stakeholders to action.

Many important observations emerged when we edited the contributions of more than 20 CCOs for our new book, “Mastering Business for Strategic Communicators: Insights and Advice From the C-suite of Leading Brands.” Chief among them was that these top communications leaders have mastered business as a second language. Along with their functional expertise, they have developed the business acumen that makes them trusted counselors and advisers to C-level executives.

Earning your leaders’ trust

Accompanying each CCO essay in our book is a sidebar response authored by a C-level executive who works with (or had worked with) that communications leader. Talking about his work relationship with Nick Tzitzon, SAP’s executive vice president of marketing and communications, Bill McDermott, the global business-software giant’s CEO, wrote: “To earn the trust of your leaders, prove to them that you understand the fundamentals of the business. Give them candid advice, based heavily on a true ‘outside-in’ perspective.”

Steve Shebik, recently promoted to vice chairman of Allstate Insurance and previously chief financial officer of that Fortune 100 company, shared a similar sentiment about working with Stacy Sharpe, Allstate’s senior vice president of corporate relations, and with other senior communications colleagues.

“Just as business leaders need to be excellent communicators, communicators need to have exceptional business acumen,” Shebik wrote. “If we’re going to work together to make the right strategic decisions for our stakeholders, we all need a deep understanding of what we’re trying to do.”

Peter Marino, chief public affairs and communications officer for MillerCoors, cites Stephen Covey, author of the best-selling book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” in explaining why business acumen now matters more than ever for public relations and communications professionals. As Covey has advised, “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

According to Marino, “any professional must first build a deep understanding of whatever problem you may be trying to solve. Once you have that understanding, you can frame your arguments to be better understood.”

Moreover, “problem-solving will be better because everybody will have a common understanding of what the problem truly may be and the solutions can be debated from that common point,” he wrote.

Recognizing his business acumen, MillerCoors recently gave Marino additional responsibility as president of Tenth and Blake Beer Company, the company’s craft and import division.

If we proceed from the assumption that PR professionals use their communication expertise to solve business problems, then they must first understand those problems before they can propose realistic communication solutions.

The PR professional’s evolution into the role of business counselor — rather than just someone who communicates messages after decisions have already been made — requires greater business acumen at all levels of the profession. That doesn’t mean every PR professional needs to earn an MBA or similar graduate degree, but they should be grounded in major business functions such as finance, accounting, legal and governance, human resources, marketing and sustainability.

Building your business acumen

Many CCOs advise PR professionals to learn the language of business and particular industries by immersing themselves in business and industry news. If you have only ten minutes each morning, read the “What’s News” summary on the front page of The Wall Street Journal to stay abreast of developments that could affect your organization or clients. Whether you’re new to the paper or have read it for decades, there’s always more to learn about the world of business.

In her contribution to our book, Linda Rutherford, senior vice president and chief communications officer of Southwest Airlines, recommends that PR professionals “get smart” on business by doing the following:

  • Read an organization’s quarterly earnings reports and financial statements.
  • Meet professionals in other departments of your company and informally exchange knowledge about your respective departments and functions.
  • Seek out mentors with subject-matter expertise who can help you grasp complex topics in your industry.
  • Take business classes and read business books to enlighten you on business terms, and industry opportunities, challenges and trends.

Rutherford’s advice pairs well with that of Clarkson Hine, senior vice president of corporate communications and public affairs for Beam Suntory, one of the world’s largest premium-spirits companies. In his contribution to our book, Hine offers suggestions for how PR professionals can become more “Street smart” (i.e., learn more about Wall Street and how investors and other financial stakeholders think and operate):

  • Review presentations from investor conferences of relevant public companies, including your own (if it’s publicly traded) and those of peers/competitors.
  • Access and read reports by Wall Street investment analysts who cover relevant public companies in your industry and sector, including your own if it’s public.
  • If you’re in a position to request a company’s strategic plan and any internal competitive analysis, do so, and study these materials.
  • Finally, watch business-news channel CNBC to hear a range of different voices, such as CEOs, analysts, investment-fund managers and business reporters, and accelerate your education in the language of Wall Street and business.

Just as you didn’t become proficient in Spanish or French after taking a few high school classes, fluency in business as a second language requires time and effort. But the rewards are substantial.

As demonstrated by these bilingual CCOs, PR and communication professionals who master the language of business gain a competitive advantage in their careers.

 Matt Ragas, Ph.D., and Ron Culp, Fellow PRSA, co-direct the public relations and advertising graduate program at Chicago’s DePaul University and are co-editors of “Mastering Business for Strategic Communicators: Insights and Advice From the C-suite of Leading Brands” (Emerald Publishing, 2017).

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