There’s been some lackluster advice floating around the PR world of late regarding a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree. It suggests, with caveats, that PR pros that get MBAs are bored or indecisive careerists that want to schmooze with the future business leaders of America.
Such advice lacks perspective – the perspective of those who have actually done it – which counts for a lot in evaluating the pros and cons of anything. I know a bunch of lawyers but it doesn’t make me an expert on law school.
I am a PR pro with an MBA, so I’ll take the liberty to offer a different point of view to PR pros based on my experience. In an MBA program, you’ll grow personally and professionally. It’s one of the best investments a PR pro can make in themselves.
Make no mistake, such a degree is directly related to our work too. If PR pros get knocked around for a list of character flaws, I’d suggest those boil down to these three recurring themes:
a) PR pitches are bad;
b) PR lacks the ability to speak the financial language of business; and
c) PR has a poor understanding of business.
Do you have to have one to succeed? No. However, an MBA will dramatically increase the likelihood that those are characteristics that will not apply to you. It’ll improve the chances of success.
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Five reasons PRs should consider an MBA
Twice I went back to graduate school and paid for it out of pocket. The second time was in pursuit of a MBA. I attended school at night, and during the worst summer session of my life, I was in the classroom from 5:30 to 9:30 Monday through Thursdays with several hours of homework to follow.
Think about that – 16 hours a week in the classroom – after work, a lousy commute, and only to get home to face several hours of study.
It was not fun. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done. It was also one of the most rewarding and for these five reasons below.
Finance is the language of business and an MBA will help you to understand why a company can book a great quarter and go bankrupt the next day. Cash is king and managerial financial courses will teach you how a cash flow statement ties the income statement to the balance sheet.
Thinking about joining a start up? Thinking about starting your own company? Trying to understand why your company says business is good, but the financial analysts just downgraded your company’s stock? An MBA will teach you to read such statements for yourself and when you finish the program, you’ll read 10K’s starting with the footnotes.
I once had a boss that would walk over with two weeks left in the quarter and say, “Here’s $50,000 for your budget, but you’ve got to spend it before the quarter is over.”
Sure, it’s a symptom of poor planning and leadership, but I could also understand why it was happening: accounting.
Accounting is one of the most counter-intuitive disciplines in business. Enron for example, a company whose collapse brought down one of the largest accounting firms with it, was entirely based on accounting tricks. The company literally sold things to itself and booked it as revenue.
Since the rules of accounting are highly regulated, few businesses would attempt the shenanigans Ernon did, but the fundamentals of accounting will enable you to be better prepared and adaptive whether or not your budget goes up or down.
It’s not all supply-side and it’s not all demand. Understanding economics enables you to understand business models, which is the essence of how a business makes money.
This, of course, is one of the biggest complaints business clients have of PR firms: they just don’t understand our business. Creativity is a good thing, but only when it’s grounded in reality.
Further, economics has applications beyond business. A few months after I graduated with an MBA, I was recalled to active duty and deployed to Iraq. In an asymmetrical warfare environment, I had a far better understanding of the battlefield operating picture than my active duty brethren because I understood economics.
History tells us, particularly low-intensity conflicts where small enemy elements trade space for time, that war is rarely about which side has the most or the best bullets. If you understand economics, you’ll know where to apply influence.
Everything we do in PR is based in context – the ability to piece together pieces of information to see a larger story. The very term, “contextual marketing” has gained traction of late, but it’s something that ought to be second nature to PR pros.
Armed with a knowledge of finance, accounting and economics, PR pros can connect the dots in nearly any industry, whether its business, government or non-profit. You’ll never send a bad pitch with context.
The MBA curriculum comes with a standard set of courses that are a requirement to graduate. This means every employer or every client knows exactly what they are getting when they hire you, your firm or make you an offer of employment.
The credit is yours to retain or lose in the demonstration of your skillset, but most MBAs I know can come through. More than one PR firm I had worked on had a slide in their new business deck showing the percentage of their employees with advanced degrees.
Should PR pros get an MBA or Masters?
There are several other questions that come into play and often they rest on the range of academic pursuits a graduate student could take. I first earned a Master’s degree in public communication before entering an MBA program several years later. While both degrees taught me a lot – summarizing 20-page journal articles in three paragraphs is a mind-bending mental exercise – but if I had to go back in time and choose one, I’d choose an MBA.
Why? Because an MBA opens up so many more doors. It’s is a versatile degree that provides a foundation of knowledge that’s useful in nearly any occupation. No matter what line of work you choose, you will have a budget, projects will still require a financial business case, and the dearth or abundance of resources will be a factor in your options.
“Either you can discount cash flow or you can’t.”
Is an Ivy League MBA necessary?
When I was considering going back to school, I had a chance to have lunch with a venture capitalist who was also a client of mine at the time. I asked him about his thoughts on the choices of schools I was considering and whether or not the school’s name had an influence.
His response? “Either you can discount cash flow or you can’t.”
I’ll never forget the feeling of realization – here a graduate of Wharton – was telling me a no-nonsense fact.
While Fuqua, or Booth or Sloan aren’t likely to harm a resume, when it’s all said in done, you’ll get out of a program what you put into it.
Certainly, there are employers – the top tier consulting firms – that would feel my humble Jesuit-based MBA background doesn’t have quite the pedigree they prefer, but in my view, that’s their problem, not mine.
All said, there is one important consideration: accreditation. You absolutely need to be sure any MBA program you choose is accredited.
When do I go back for an MBA?
Conventional wisdom says get a few years’ experience before going back to school. I had two when I entered the master’s program and attended full time; I had five when I entered the MBA program and went part-time at night…after a long day of billable hours at a PR firm.
One of the things that kept me motivated to grind through managerial economics homework, often well past midnight, was the realization in the morning that what I had learned in yesterday’s class was directly applicable to the work at hand. I’d strongly recommend getting 3-5 years of work under your belt before getting an MBA.
Should I get an MBA full-time or part-time?
There’s something to be said about taking an academic sabbatical to pursue an MBA. You’ll be able to immerse yourself in your education, maximize your own investment, and think about big ideas that will stick with you for a lifetime. By the same token, I didn’t have the financial luxury to go off to graduate school fulltime again, and I’d like to believe that says a bit about my work ethic.
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If you are a PR pro considering earning an MBA, I’d encourage you to go for it. Don’t just think about the program in the context of your next job, but think about the value in 20 years, or over the course of your career.
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