What Can PRSA Do to Demystify PR For Business Leaders?


A lot of people say that many C-suite executives don’t truly understand and appreciate the value public relations brings to an organization. There’s lots of talk about the PR industry being chock full of strategic communicators who can’t or haven’t successfully communicated their own worth to the business world.

My friend Arik Hanson and I were talking about this on Twitter a few weeks ago.

Neither of us claim that the lack of understanding about our profession is the sole fault of PRSA nor that educating others about the value we bring is the sole responsibility of PRSA. But I think we’d all agree that, as the main association in our industry, it does certainly play a role.

You’ll notice that I ended the conversation with Arik pointing out that PRSA surely is taking steps to help overcome this challenge that I don’t know about. What I thought we could do is help spur new ideas that the organization may not have thought of yet. You know, be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. I’ll kick it off.

Start at the Beginning. This is a long-term plan, but too many schools aren’t adequately preparing PR majors to understand Business – sales cycles, financials, product development, etc. And too many business majors never learn the benefits that PR can bring to companies beyond writing press releases. These are the business leaders of tomorrow. Could PRSA work with universities to help bridge this gap and require a class or two for each major that focuses on these areas?

Start a Roadshow. Think desk-side briefings for C-suite executives. We’re supposed to be strategic communicators and expert storytellers. Could PRSA create a compelling, 30-minute case for PR and take it on the road?

What ideas do you have? Share them in the comments and then let’s share the cumulative ideas with PRSA.

*Image by Isobel T.

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18 responses to “What Can PRSA Do to Demystify PR For Business Leaders?

  1. Let me start off by saying I am NOT active in PRSA and haven’t been for several years. I haven’t been because as David says in this Twitter feed with Arik, “…PRSA does a good job focusing on us w/in the bubble.” I was active in PRSSA as a college student and found tremendous value in this and PRSA early on in my PR career. Primarily because it was a great place to get mentors and learn about the ABCs of the industry. Unfortunately, at a certain point your conversations and topics begin to run full circle. For example, how many times can we hear a panel of journalists tell us to “read more”, “don’t call on deadline”, etc. Ultimately, my problem is I don’t buy into all of the “mainstream” PR practices and philosophies that I believe PRSA supports. For example, I’m not a big fan of the traditional PR agency model that casts an image of media relations as something you do when you start at an agency. Then as you move up the proverbial ladder you move away from MR and focus on “strategy”, client & employee management. Attending PRSA events in the past has typically catered to this audience and hasn’t engaged with those working closely with the C-levels and/or the C-levels themselves.

    In a roundabout way I’m agreeing with your charge that we might be able to help PRSA change its focus starting with students…then hitting the road and advocating. Social media could also be a great way for us to effectively lead this charge.

    Finally, my lack of involvement with PRSA is no reflection of their efforts, but my takeaways from PRSA in the past. I’m anxious to advocate for the industry and hopefully be a part of this movement! Thanks for the post and for starting this initiative…count me in!

  2. Ya’ know what’s funny about this..? I’ve been talking about the REAL NEED (not necessarily with the PRSA) to educated and inform people on
    * what PR *really* is
    * what PR is NOT
    * how PR can help change the world

    And I’m not just joshing about that last part. Think about it – if we used what we know for ‘the force’ and essentially rally up an army of folks ‘in the know’ to conduct SMART and SAVVY PR, the industry itself would not be so much of the ‘necessary evil’ that some folks claim it to be.

    This is why a ROAD SHOW of sorts (or even mini road shows) could go a very long way. You could mix it up with students, practitioners, teachers, etc. and enhance the overall awareness for the DIRE need for quality PR.

    MOREOVER, the things that could be done with social media to further these kinds of efforts….oh….my….goodness….!

    So, let the record show that I would LOVE to be part of this charge – be it as a presenter, a mixer-upper, a soundboard, whatever.

    Count me IN.

  3. David,
    I think your point about business being intertwined with PR courses is spot on. I’m a PR student right now and this summer, in order to supplement my PR courses I plan on taking a course in the Business school. Without an understanding of business how can I effectively relay the benefits to managers who sometimes only see the bottom line? I need to be able to speak their language.
    I am not a member of PRSA yet (broke grad student 🙂 but I think it would be really beneficial (although I don’t know how it would possibly work) for the organization to submit curriculum ideas to business programs and suggestions on how they can be integrated into their courses.
    Btw, I really value the info. you provide on the blog. Keep it up 😀

  4. Great post. I think education is a huge key, and I love the idea of helping PR professionals become more savvy when it comes to understanding business and marketing operations. However, things will never really change until PR professionals become more adept at measurement and showing the impact of at least some of their initiatives to the bottom line. New technology and processes now exist to help PR professionals better measure their impact in terms of web traffic, leads and conversions. This is one step in helping PR professionals get a bigger seat at the table.

  5. David,

    Another excellent post. PR has always been about sharing ideas with a specific purpose (mainstreaming the directed thought of a company, org, business or idea). Trouble is, the “stream” has changed… i.e. the places and methodology is vastly different than even a few years ago. Today’s PR pro needs to be (as you’ve indicated) part business consultant, part marketing maven, part strategic planner, part technology advisor and above all, a communication expert. And that means being able to communicate with and to the C-Suite, too.
    In graphic design, there is often an “emphasis” such as web, print, video, etc., since there is a recognition that the field is diverse. What about PR specialties such as business, consumer, non-profit? Maybe other divisions?

  6. You know I love to brainstorm, David. How about the following (great first two ideas, by the way. I really love the road show idea!):

    * Create a nationwide PR speakers bureau who PRSA would position as experts in the field. They’d pitch these folks to national media outlets as experts as issues and topics come up in the news that need/require a PR expert to weigh in. They’d also pitch these folks to national industry conferences–you know, the ones CEOs and CFOs attend on an annual basis–and get them to talk about the ROI of PR with these folks.

    * Highlight our PR leaders more on the grand stage. Other industries do this–why not us? Think Steven Jobs, Jack Welch and Steve Forbes. You see feature stories, books and specials on these people all the time. Why aren’t we holding up the leaders in our industry the same way? Up in MN, I’m talking about folks like Dave Mona, Doug Spong, Lisa Hannum, Rose McKinney and Lynn Casey. We need to hold up the folks who personify the essence of PR and the value it holds for our clients.

  7. Hi David –

    Great post, and food for thought. In short, it parallels some of the conversations we’ve been having here. To wind it back a bit, we did some extensive member research last year. While the research told us that the satisfaction levels of our members is high, we were focused on the ‘what else can we do’ part of the results. One of the big areas that members want to see more of is “thought leadership.”

    As a result, we’ve been working on what exactly that means, and we’ve come out very close to what the folks here are writing about: an effort to creat high level messaging and tools to focus attention on the business value of public relations, starting from the inside out – within the profession first, and then outward to the business community. We’ve got more work to do on this before we have it crystalized enough for the light of day, but I appreciated the thoughtful conversation here – it confirms the direction in which we’re moving.

    Bill Murray
    President/COO, PRSA

  8. While I’m thrilled that the current PR program at my university is moving toward teaching the importance of technology and online social media tools, I agree that PR students don’t get enough exposure to numbers. Sure, we create detailed budgets for PR campaigns, but many PR students who don’t minor in business majors (i.e. marketing) aren’t getting the business side of PR. I agree that it would be invaluable if PR programs began requiring business courses to better prepare students for the real world of PR.

    Thanks for your post, David.

  9. As an APR, thrilled to read this, and too to see Bill’s comments. And as an APR working with business leaders who think mortgages, not reputation, when they see that designation, I would suggest we engage the business community much sooner in this conversation.

  10. Great comments above, and so glad to have PRSA’s Bill Murray’s input.

    Lots of student comments here, as well, so here are a couple of thoughts for you.

    As I was growing up, my favorite journalists were also experts in the field they covered. They may have gone to med school, then become a health journalist, or studied finance, then became a finance journalist.

    I encourage PR students to carve out their interests. If business is a passion, then by all means, focus on business. And don’t just take a few classes. Combine your PR/journalism degree with an MBA.

    But if you have a passion for medicine, finance, entertainment, what have you, listen to that and look for ways to incorporate it into your work. You’ll have a lot of fun, and your insights will give you an edge that others won’t have.

  11. David-

    As a current student in PR I am already seeing the value of understanding what the business world thinks PR is and should be. I decided to take a marketing course this year and when we got to the promotion part of the 4 P’s I was shocked at what marketers consider PR. I agree, the paradigm shift has to start in education, and more schools seeking accreditation from PRSA would also benefit this movement.

    Maybe part of the certification of the school could include requiring a couple classes in business and marketing?

  12. @Bill – thanks for taking time to read the post and comment. I appreciate you sharing some insights into the conversations and thinking going on within PRSA on this topic.

    I think a two-pronged approach makes sense, as we need to make sure PR folks are up to speed, too. But I hope we don’t wait too long to also focus on the second prong – business leaders. Even if the second prong efforts begin as baby steps, I believe it would be advantageous to start sooner rather than later.

    Of course, my opinion and five cents will buy you a nickel’s worth of bubble gum… 🙂

  13. @erik – i think you make a critical point. The C-suite tends to be focused on bottom line results and metrics. And the traditional metrics for PR have been soft. I think there is some validity to the soft measurements. How do you accurately assign a monetary value to increasing your brand’s goodwill among consumers? Or positive comments on a blog post?

    That said, you’re absolutely right that new technologies are giving us more opportunities to measure our efforts and using them would be a step in the right direction.

    @Mandy – there is some specialization in PR. There are agencies that focus on fashion or technology or B2B, etc. Some of the larger agencies have divisions that specialize in consumer, B2B, etc. Specialization can help, but not necessarily. For many C-suite folks, the B2B PR agency is still just a publicity machine.

    @Arik – Love the first idea. Why aren’t we pitching our industry’s top folks to news media as different issues arise? You’d have to be careful not to spread the love around, of course, but I like that idea.

    @Kelly – agree wholeheartedly that we can’t wait to make measured, strategic steps toward these efforts.

    @Evan – that’s exactly what I’m thinking regarding certification. I know my college received accreditation from some organization for our program. That’s the type of thing we could target.

  14. Dear MBAs,

    We love that you can count and quantify so much, and yes, there are many ways to measure PR’s return on investment.

    Yet even good scientist Einstein said, “Not all that can be counted, counts. And not all that counts, can be counted.”

    Is it that your executive is more comfortable on TV, after having been well-coached by a person who understands interpersonal communication & presentation skills, and how they transfer to TV?

    Whose word do you take? The people who saw how awkward and clumsy the exec was before? The audience, who compares the exec to other execs they’ve seen on TV?

    Do we really drag this out for measurement, possibly embarrassing the exec for taking a risk and trying to learn better presentation skills?

    What about the insightful PR person who realizes that the exec, no matter what, is going to bomb the interview because they’re just too stiff? How do you measure that? And again, do you really want to talk about it?

    Perhaps the PR person is the one who diplomatically finds a way around putting the exec on TV and taps into the talent of other company leaders, all without embarrassing anyone at all.

    Kind of like the old MasterCard concept of, “We’ve added up all your purchases. They cost $1500.”

    But the real value to you?


  15. Funnily enough, I raised a question about the PRSA at the InsidePR.ca live podcast at Podcamp Toronto yesterday.

    I feel that until the PRSA (and similar bodies worldwide) have stronger measures in place to run the PR industry (Code of Ethics not included, as they’re not really effective), then businesses will refuse to really take the industry seriously.

    When a PR agency gets a project badly wrong, it can have a massive impact on the client’s business. Yet the PR agency can walk away to the next client, while the mess is behind them.

    Get that resolved and maybe then we can look at how PR can begin to influence decision makers.

  16. I am a member of the Cal Poly, SLO PRSSA chapter. We recruit students from all majors because we do believe that it is important to bridge the gap. Although we only have 2 business majors out of 40 members, I think that it is a good start. There are also a few students in the PRSSA who are in AMA. Since our university does not allow Journalism/PR students to take a few business classes or vice versa, I think that being involved in student pre-professional organizations is the next best alternative.

  17. I couldn’t agree more with your post. Old-school headline writing, capstone PR project and a graphics design course will not cut it anymore. I see PR as more of a trained filter to look at business. Business know-how is a must. Understanding audiences and their reactions is something PR wisdom brings to the table.

    BTW, like many others, I gave up on PRSA after first 4-5 years of career. Hugely valuable early. Not so much after.

    Need to see more progressive thinking and outreach beyond our field. Must earn credibility with execs beyond media impressions.

  18. I agree with many of the comments, though I did not have time to read them all. As a soon-to-graduate, young professional, I see many areas where PR could improve. It may start with PRSA, but it must be carried out by the practicioners.

    My educational background is primarily in public relations and marketing. The only business course I was required to take was an intro. class. Still, I took it upon myself to dig deeper and take more classes pertaining to business management … primarily because I realized it would help my career in PR.

    PRSA should do many of the things mentioned above, including the roadshow and especially starting with students. But, PRSA and PR in general, should practice what it preaches. We should work more on the ‘PR’ of public relations as a practice and industry.

    Most people I know only associate PR with “spin” and publicity. PR as an industry needs to educate the public on its purpose and benefit to business … and society for that matter. Basically, PR needs a strategic PR campaign.


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