The Case For A Master’s In Business Communications
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The Case For A Master’s In Business Communications

Across the board, public relations practitioners would most likely agree that the overwhelming majority of senior corporate executives don’t consider their PR colleagues equals in the corporate hierarchy.

Holmes Report

Across the board, public relations practitioners would most likely agree that the overwhelming majority of senior corporate executives don’t consider their PR colleagues equals in the corporate hierarchy. While this is generally not conducive to running a corporation optimally, it is frequently well-deserved, as many corporate and agency PR practitioners are ill-prepared to hold their own in the boardroom.

Members of the C-suite, as diverse as they may be with regard to professional and academic backgrounds, have one thing in common: they speak the language of business. Revenues, earnings per share, quiet period and Sarbanes Oxley, sales conversion, return on investment, and many related concepts are essential to managing a corporation. It is safe to say that most senior corporate executives have learned these key economic and business concepts in business schools, either as undergraduates, or in MBA or executive MBA programs.

In contrast, roughly 75% of senior communication executives surveyed by the USC Annenberg's GAP study have a degree in either public relations, communication or journalism. These programs are designed to produce the next generation of reporters and general-purpose PR practitioners, and their curricula touch only very peripherally on business and economic concepts. This leaves PR pros to learn the language of the boardroom on the job, which some have done quite successfully, but many have not.

Maybe, one could argue, aspiring leaders in corporate communication should go to business school – and according to the same USC Annenberg study, just over 11 % of responding senior communicators did earn a degree in business administration.

Business degrees and MBAs can be a great investment for those planning to work directly in this field, in finance, operations, supply chain management  or marketing. But what if your planned career is in corporate communication? As it turns out, the majority of MBA programs and undergraduate business studies do not at all or only very peripherally touch on public relations. In fact, let’s be honest, PR is a dirty word for business educators. This creates a vicious cycle: if PR is not viewed as strategic enough to be included in MBA curriculum, then future corporate executives will likely continue to look down on it. This is the first reason that an MBA is probably not a great investment for future communications professionals.

The second reason an MBA education is often not money well spent has to do with where it’s earned. There are an estimated 1,136 MBA programs offered in the United States, graduating over 160,000 MBAs annually. The quality of these programs varies greatly. There are many reports and expert opinions questioning the value of MBA degrees from lower-tier programs.  In their opinion lower tier business schools just don’t pack enough of a punch.

Overall, MBA programs are often criticized for lack of differentiation, being too general, and offering questionable return on investment. A better option for PR professionals seeking a graduate degree may be a more specialized program that also teaches important concepts of business and economics.

To give an example from a different discipline, the University of California Berkeley’s College of Engineering in 2010 launched a Master in Engineering Leadership, targeting successful engineers who would otherwise have fallen into the MBA trap. The Institute for Engineering Leadership offers a complete range of programs for engineers and scientists seeking professional and executive careers. It combines engineering and leadership training with business fundamentals, industry integration and collaboration.

At the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, we are in the process of exploring a similar approach for aspiring leaders in corporate communication. The Public Relations Studies program has joined with a school-wide initiative called Media, Economics & Entrepreneurship to develop a specialization of the existing Master in Strategic Public Relations.

In addition to providing the strategic and skills-based foundations needed to succeed in communications, this program will emphasize business, economics and entrepreneurship, with a curriculum specifically designed for communicators. Our goal is to attract bright future communicators with corporate leadership aspirations.  And we believe the ROI will speak for itself.

Burghardt Tenderich is associate professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. He is a senior advisor to Edelman’s global technology practice.

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