Business Acumen Is Imperative for Our Profession

By Ron Culp

During a recent Economic Club of Chicago member group discussion that I led, civic leaders vividly described the dire need to improve business literacy among high school students.

Despite their personal business accomplishments, more than a couple of the leaders mentioned how they wished their own children better understood business basics. I couldn’t help but note that not just high school students need a crash course in Business 101.

My own avoidance of business and math courses during college remains a major educational regret, but like many PR pros, I managed to get nearly 10 years into my career before my lack of this knowledge become readily apparent.

Just two weeks after starting my first corporate job at Eli Lilly and Company, I was asked to write the second-quarter earnings release. What ensued was panic and my own crash course in business and finance led by a patient director of investor relations, Bob Graper.

I often mentally thank Bob for helping launch the next phase of my career since I soon was assigned financial communications and landed my next job largely based on that bottom-line experience.

Over the years, I became an avid reader of The Wall Street Journal and still use a red Sharpie to circle business terms I don’t understand.

That early experience made it a no-brainer to say “yes” when DePaul colleague Matt Ragas approached me eight years ago about joining him in writing a business basics book for communicators. That book – Business Essentials for Strategic Communicators — is now being used at more than 40 universities in the U.S. and Europe. A second book followed a few years later, and just this month we completed our “trilogy” with the publication of Business Acumen for Strategic Communicators: A Primer.

Business Acumen co-authors Matt Ragas and Ron Culp.

As more and more communication leaders gain that proverbial “seat at the table,” Matt encourages them and his students to embrace one of his favorite Page Principles: Prove it with action. “Words are not enough,” Matt insists. “To serve as counselors and advisers to the C-suite that help organizations live up to the talk of mission, purpose, and values, communicators must build business acumen so they can be involved in strategic decision making (aka actions).”

To help communicators meet the demands of their increasingly strategic roles, we set out with Business Acumen to create an easy-to-read book with a one-of-a-kind 540-word glossary of business terms PR pros should know.  Our efforts were enthusiastically supported through insights provided by more than 70 communication leaders from major corporations, agencies, nonprofits, and academia.

In her foreword to our book, Southwest Airlines CCO Linda Rutherford describes the evolving role of today’s chief communications officer as someone who effectively works across the enterprise and is ready to be asked to step into a new role as “chief integration officer.”

To fully understand all aspects of an enterprise, Ogilvy & Mather legend Shelly Lazarus writes in her sidebar to the board of directors and C-suite chapter: “Young professionals should become comfortable with business basics.” Other leaders readily agree.

In her sidebar to the chapter on financial statements, Valerie Barker Waller, chief marketing and communications officer for YMCA of the USA, says: “For strategic communicators to be a true partner, whether internally or with clients, solid grounding in and understanding of ‘the money and the numbers’ is key.”

Matt and I hope this book helps others with their careers, especially those who don’t have the benefit of a mentor like Bob Graper to help them understand business essentials.

On a sad side note, I learned as I was writing this op-ed that Bob died last Tuesday before I had a chance to share and thank him for this important memory.

This article was written for and appears in the current issue of PRWeek.

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