Home > PR > Diversity, Politics and MBAs in the Business of PR; Off Script #20: James S. Walker

Diversity, Politics and MBAs in the Business of PR; Off Script #20: James S. Walker

A lot of time is spent talking about “celebrating diversity and inclusion” and creating a “great company culture.” Very few companies can honestly say that they have achieved these types of cultures if they do not understand and articulate a greater company mission than selling their products and services.

There’s a quote often attributed to Peter Drucker that says culture eats strategy for breakfast.  Maybe he said it, and maybe he didn’t, but the but the point remains:  it’s hard to execute on a business concept if your people don’t believe in the idea.

You can’t let a root culture run awry and expect PR to pitch reporters for “positive” media coverage, either. There are a few technology companies finding that out the hard way these days. Indeed, it’s a debate right now in many more circles than just technology.

That’s my takeaway from reading the answers provided below.  The answers are candid and address timely issues currently tracing the business of PR, including diversity, politics in the workplace and what an MBA means for a PR professional.

Meet James S. Walker. He’s my guest for this latest interview in the Off Script series.

Diversity, Politics and MBAs in the Business of PR

1) You’ve got a big job at big PR firm and yet you’re also working on an MBA. That’s a heavy load. Are you punishing yourself for something or what prompted you to go back? (And are you in a full-time, part-time or executive MBA program?)

I am currently Group Vice President, Social Engagement and Digital Content at Ruder Finn and I am a member of NYU Stern Executive MBA class of 2018. It’s a tall order to work full-time at an agency and then go to school all day two weekends per month, but I am enjoying this period in my career so much.

I have worked in a mix of PR firm and client-side roles, including a seven-month stint working at a copper and gold mine in Mongolia, so I am always looking for new challenges and opportunities to round out my career. I made up my mind to enroll in an MBA program because I knew it would help me transform from a global PR leader to a global business leader.

I will complete my coursework this December, and I can already see how my perspective and capabilities have grown when it comes to understanding client challenges and providing the strategies necessary for overcoming them on a global stage.

It is not easy but it is well worth it.

2) The 2016 PR Week salary survey indicated about one-fifth of PR pros have earned an MBA and the numbers are trending up.  What’s prompting this trend and do PR pros need an MBA to be successful?

An MBA is not required for success in the industry but I would highly recommend it. As PR professionals make more inroads within organizations, business leaders are recognizing the value that solid PR counsel can provide.

Boards and senior executives are more open to giving PR leaders a seat at the table, but there is an understanding that the discussion is less about awareness and behavior change as an end. The discussion is about how all types of business moves will positively or negatively impact a company.

If you’re recommending a pure PR play or an integrated communications campaign with a big budget attached to it, you have to be able to articulate what the reputational and financial impact will be for the company. Sometimes that will require you to understand operations at a granular level; other times that means studying industry acquisition trends and stock movements.

PR professionals are beginning to recognize how the training provided via MBA programs can benefit them in the long run and this is why we are seeing an uptick in MBA enrollments from the PR sector.

See these related interviews:
The Interim CMO as Change Agent; Off Script #19: Sophie Shiatis
The Benefits of Being a Good PR Agency Client; Off Script #18: Rich Young
Network Latency and Jargon Free Corp Comm; Off Script #17: Wendy Zajack

3) You published a piece on diversity and politics – that I understood to say it’s unrealistic for people to check their politics at the front of the office.  What do you think is the role of internal communications in this polarizing environment?  

A lot of time is spent talking about “celebrating diversity and inclusion” and creating a “great company culture.” Very few companies can honestly say that they have achieved these types of cultures if they do not understand and articulate a greater company mission than selling their products and services. I also do not believe that you can say you have a great culture if the idea of hosting a discussion about Black Lives Matter or the attacks on the Jewish and Muslim communities in America would cripple it.

Internal communications professionals have to work with senior leadership and multiple stakeholders to help create a culture that celebrates Cinco de Mayo and 4th of July, while also being a safe space for talking about issues that affect employees and society at large. That starts with the messages and actions of prominent, visible, respected leaders and cascades through the organizations via internal communications.

4) Is it okay for businesses to take political positions in external communications?

I champion businesses who take positions on societal issues in external communications. A major reason why I sought out MBA studies at NYU is because of their recognition of the role business plays in society, from sustainability to human rights to impact investing, there are many ways businesses can take a position. Once they do, I think it is important for business leaders to inspire others and rally business sectors around collective impact.

I think some business leaders like Paul Polman at Unilever and Marc Benioff at Salesforce provide great blueprints for how this can be done effectively.

5) You seem to do a lot of international work.  What has been the impact of globalization on corporate communications?

I love working on international projects. I learn so much from my clients and colleagues around the world, and collectively we are able to help organizations thrive and positively impact people all around the world.

As globalization becomes less trend and more norm, I am seeing a shift in the thinking around who corporate communications functions are truly serving. There are more thoughtful conversations about how messages will translate in certain languages and the political and cultural impact of certain moves around the world. I think it forces us all to produce better plans, more impactful narratives, and stronger engagement.

Want to be part of the Off Script series?
Boots on the ground interviews with PR, marketing, sales leaders
and the occasional journalist.

Please refer a credible colleague!

6) What value does the communications function bring that you think generally goes under-recognized?

I think the very nature of PR and communications means, that we are the guy behind the guy behind the top lady. We are meant to play the background, and as a result, very little credit is given to the level of innovation and impact that starts with a communications professional (in-house or agency) who is thinking about how they can tell a better story.
Some of my best strategies were developed with a simple series of questions:

  • What narrative does that company or business leader currently tell?
  • What narrative should they be telling?
  • How can we make this authentic? What steps do they need to take to make it true?
  • What positive impact can we can have if we accomplish all of this?
  • Who do we need to engage to get started?

Creating a strong narrative, built on authenticity and coupled with strong leadership, is how you build an iconic company in today’s landscape. Communications professionals help get their organizations on this path everyday!

8) Fill in the blank:

  • One company you with marketing you admire is… Apple – their ability to tap and shape culture in the right way time and time again is amazing to me.
  • You’re favorite marketing campaign of all time is… so hard to pick one. My most recent favorite is Brawny’s #StrengthHasNoGender campaign surrounding International Women’s Day.
  • One person you recommend following on Twitter is… @amandamogul – Huge inspiration for anyone who needs to think about how to take their business or career to the next level.
  • One publication or blog you read regularly is…. Fortune – I love their RaceAhead and CEO Daily email verticals.
  • If you weren’t doing what you do now you’d be… hosting a version of Inside the Actors Studio for business leaders.

* * *

You can connect with James on LinkedIn and Twitter – and his blog, One Quick Point, including these quality posts:

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:
The Blurry Edges of PR; Off Script #11: Kevin Hartman of LTPR

Photo credit: Pixabay (CC0 1.0)

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