The business of business

I know of a PR agency leader who walked into a training session for a group of rising star staff and asked them who had read their client’s annual report and who knew their client’s share price that morning. Few if any hands went up. They were all experts in the PR needs of their client, but didn’t really know the business of their client’s business.

Understanding of the business of business varies across the PR and marketing mix. Advertising has always been close to the business issues of their clients, and their relationships have been at CEO and CMO level. As the PR consulting industry pivots more to the marketers who focus on ROI and selling stuff, and moves up the ladder within business (well over half of Fortune 500 CCO’s in EMEA now report directly to the CEO and/or main board) we too need staff who are hungry to learn about business as well as PR services for business.

Some of the PR degree courses I have spoken at – Greenwich University, Leeds Beckett are examples – are rightly embedded in the business schools. Others are allied to journalism studies or humanities departments. But they should all give their students an understanding of business as well as PR theory and techniques. As increasingly people go straight from university into PR agencies without touching in-house roles, it is incumbent on agencies to make sure they address this.

One approach we are taking at Weber Shandwick, via our colleagues at Prime in Sweden, is our Trusted Advisor training programme, which has former CEO’s and CMO’s deliver deep insights into business life, so the communications we deliver are closely attuned to the business goals of the client, as well as their communications objectives. Whether it is protecting the key business asset of reputation, or increasing market share, I always say that firms don’t hire PR agencies because they want PR – they want tangible, measurable business outcomes.

Our top winning campaign at Cannes this year, a Gold Lion winner, was The House of Clicks for property firm Hemnet, a brilliant piece of big data story telling, but the outcomes highlighted were not just the gazillion media impressions globally, they were the creation of a premium new product and market segment.

I have won new clients in the past where part of the onboarding for any consultant or supplier was to go through the same onboarding any staffer would go through about the business and operations of the firm. That might be a day working on a counter or in a fast food firm’s chicken farm, or learning how to effectively deliver parcels for a courier firm. I see less of this today due to time pressures. But it was valuable.

One of our new trainees I spoke with this week did a degree in business and positively chose PR as an aspect of business – a rising discipline within the boardroom – he wanted to focus on as a result of that deep immersion into the world of business. All our staff need to understand business if they are to really partner in their client’s business goals.

On the other side I still see too little focus on communications in management training. CEO’s are as much in the media and social media spotlight as politicians, and are effectively the Chief Communications Officer of their firm. For future CEO’s to think PR was just for the PR department to worry about would be a mistake.

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