Business Acumen is the New X-Factor for Communication Leaders

“Employment prospects in public relations look downright bullish, but job seekers should know that most employers have raised their expectations for PR talent.”
By Ron Culp, Fellow PRSA

Demand for business-savvy communicators is expected to continue rising in the post-pandemic era, recruiters and corporate executives say.

Unlike in past economic downturns, during the COVID-19 crisis the public relations field fared better than many other industries. Layoffs and furloughs in PR were less drastic than in past recessions and hiring has already increased. Currently, most PR agencies are aggressively hiring additional talent.

More than 30,000 PR positions are listed on LinkedIn, and posts some 15,000 job openings in the United States alone. Recruiters from one global PR agency report searching frantically to fill some 230 positions, while many small- and midsized agencies are also looking for new hires.

Employment prospects in public relations look downright bullish, but job seekers should know that most employers have raised their expectations for PR talent. As the public increasingly turns to companies and brands to provide reliable information, communicators also need to understand the fundamentals of finance, said Carol Gronlund, chief talent officer in the Chicago office of Zeno Group, an international communications agency headquartered in New York .

Today’s PR professionals must understand “the pressing issues of the day and their impact on our clients,” Gronlund said. To offer meaningful counsel to the C-suite, “communicators must know how clients operate, how they make money and the factors that may impede those processes.”

Tina Carroll Dugas, senior associate at Chaloner, a national recruiting firm, said companies find “value and increasing necessity to be armed with a strong, business-savvy team of communications navigators, strategists and tacticians.”

Travis Kessel, a vice president of talent acquisition at The Walt Disney Company, said that to gain credibility and make communications a strategic imperative for corporations, “good storytelling will have to be rooted in a complete understanding of business fundamentals.”

Trusted advisers

Nine years ago, my DePaul University colleague Matt Ragas, Ph.D., and I recognized changes taking place in the public relations industry and the demand for strategic communicators. Our first two books on the topic, “Business Essentials for Strategic Communicators” and “Mastering Business for Strategic Communicators,” made the case for what it would take for PR pros to earn that coveted “seat at the table.”

Building on those earlier works, our new book, “Business Acumen for Strategic Communicators: A Primer,” explains what it now takes for communicators to become — and to remain — trusted advisers to the C-suite. During a recent Chicago PRSA webinar and a workshop held by the Arthur W. Page Society for communications executives and educators, communications leaders gave their ideas on how to achieve this goal.

Linda Rutherford, chief communications officer for Southwest Airlines in Dallas, attended both events. In her foreword to the new book, she describes how she evolved from being a tactical to a strategic communicator.

Like many others and I in our profession, Rutherford admits she did not learn everything she needed to know about business in college. If communicators wish to contribute to their organizations at a higher level, we must commit to lifelong learning, she said.

“Those of us in the business world today are beyond being seen as ‘just spokespeople’ for our organizations,” says Rutherford. “We have the ‘seat at the table’ but the expectations have grown. Increasingly, our roles as communicators mean we need to have a pulse on all aspects of business.”

Different ways to learn

During the Page workshop, Stacey Tank, chief corporate affairs and transformation officer for the Heineken Company in Amsterdam, Holland, said “the one X-factor that gives communication leaders the guts to speak up and shape critical C-suite affairs” is to understand “how businesses really work. Stepping up your business acumen is always time well spent.”

In a sign that more PR pros are learning all aspects of business, a new Ragan Communications survey finds that as the need for corporate communications increased amid the pandemic and social unrest of 2020, 42 percent of respondents said they had forged stronger relationships with other departments. A quarter helped make strategic decisions and more than 20 percent said they now have better access to their CEOs.

The communicators surveyed also said they had forged important new alliances with peers in departments such as HR, finance and workplace wellness.

During the Chicago PRSA webinar held on April 8, Rodrigo A. Sierra, chief communications officer for the American Medical Association, said he had realized early in his corporate career that he needed a deeper understanding of business. While others opt to learn on the job, attend workshops or read business books, Sierra decided to earn a master’s degree in business.

Kelly McGrail, vice president of leadership and family communications at pet-care and candy company Mars in Chicago, said that her early career had given her the opportunity to walk factory floors, develop marketing plans, see how an innovation pipeline worked and partner with a finance team to address tough questions on business performance.

“You can take your own path of learning and development on the job,” she said. “Look to create opportunities for yourself.”

During the Page workshop, Valerie Barker Waller, chief marketing officer at the YMCA in Chicago, said she had studied finance and accounting in college and began her career as an internal auditor before moving into advertising and then public relations. Her assignments have ranged from positioning brands and launching consumer products to working in telecommunications and airlines.

“In all cases, understanding the financials and other key-performance-indicators for the product, division, company and sector has been beneficial,” she said. Such knowledge has prepared her to “participate in important conversations that have helped me deliver the best possible communications output.”

After decades of arguing that PR deserves a seat at the leadership table, people in our profession are now accomplishing that goal. To reach that coveted position, PR professionals are responding to growing demand from C-suites for strategic communicators who understand and can help achieve business goals.

This article by Ron Culp appears in the current PRSA publication, Strategies & Tactics. Top photo by Kevin Ku.

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