The Business of a Client’s Business

"The business of a client’s business." That’s a catchy phrase, isn’t it? I sure think so. In fact, we use it as firm’s our signature tagline.

We do so for a reason. Because we have so many more offerings than your average, plain vanilla PR firm, we "touch" a client in many different ways.

One day, we’ll work with a business continuity manager on a crisis/security plan for his organization. On another day, we’ll work with a chief marketer to close the communications gaps between her sales and marketing teams. On other occasions, we’ll liaise with a client’s interactive group to create its first intranet.

All of this adds up to a deeper understanding of the client’s business. And, that’s a big deal. Especially nowadays, with the markets tanking. Clients want to know their PR firms understand the role of public relations within the marketing mix. They also expect agencies to understand the implications of a stock’s rise or fall and meeting or missing the Street’s expectations.

GE CEO Jeff Immelt emphasized some of these points at his recent Arthur Page Society keynote address. Keith O’Brien’s PR Week opinion piece speaks to the need for PR people to "get" business. And, Brian McGee, who chairs the College of Charleston’s communications department, sees more and more students declaring business administration as their minor.
If our industry wants to claim (and maintain) a seat at the table during these times of
rollicking economic uncertainty, we need to know more than just the name of a Wall Street Journal editor, we need to understand what happens on Wall Street itself. Until then, we run the risk of being further marginalized on prices and continuing to be perceived as little more than press release writers, special events managers and party planners.

7 thoughts on “The Business of a Client’s Business

  1. Great point about competition within universities, Brian. For those who have worked extensively in the corporate space, I’m sure this is no surprise: internal miscommunication, politics, and out-and-out strife stymie some of the best potential. For businesses, this means that what faces the customer is not optimized. For universities, this means that what they give to students in terms of an education is limited because of these internal communication gaps.
    I know that, when I was at Western Kentucky University, I would meet a lot of great minds in various departments around the university who had a lot of common interests, only to realize most of them had never heard of one another. Around my graduation, as an experiment, I invited 25 or so of them to dinner. It was great just hearing the conversations that ensued between professors from journalism, communications, English, French, German, economics, and so on.
    I think it would be great to see all interested in these more collaborative approaches to stand up and make demands, whether it be the workforce looking for well-rounded graduates, students looking for a less-disjointed education, or faculty looking for a more collaborative working environment.

  2. Sam covers much of the ground that I would cover, and he provides evidence of encouraging efforts to deal with the walls he describes.
    To Steve’s question, though, we will need steady outside pressure on both business and communication programs to encourage crossover. To be blunt about one barrier to collaboration, business and communication programs have large enrollments but relatively low prestige at many universities. Sadly, this common problem leads some communication faculty to argue they’re smarter than the business faculty and, hence, deserving of more respect, while some business faculty are making the same argument about communication faculty.
    Greater collaboration also is prevented by the surprisingly few interactions between business and communication faculty. My only interactions with business faculty in conference settings have been at Arthur Page meetings and at events for university administrators, despite my one-time faculty appointment in a b-school. And, as a communication professor for five years at a Big 12 university in the 1990s, I had not a single substantive conversation with a member of the b-school faculty. We’re a long way from getting these faculty groups to encourage what I agree would be a win-win for many business and communication students.
    Thankfully, Steve and his counterparts in the communication professions are pushing us down the path toward collaborative relationships between business and communication students and faculty. Steve certainly gives me some great arguments to make when I work with my faculty colleagues in business and communication.

  3. This speaks to a regular problem in the academic world, Steve (and Brian). Think about the trajectory of academia. At one point, disciplines were grouped pretty broadly. Then, as the university system sprang up, various disciplines were looking to carve out niches for themselves. Thus, they built their own language, put the walls up, etc. In order to be trained as a professional in your particular discipline, you had to learn the language, important literature, techniques, and citation style of your one area. It makes sense for professional training and protecting a field by keeping it closed up, but it makes little sense for truly understanding the world, or helping students see the bigger picture, or preparing them for a career outside academia. Rather, you end up with a very fractured view of the world.
    One of my colleagues in the Convergence Culture Consortium, Lee Harrington, recently completed a study with Denise Bielby and Kimberly Schimmel, in which they found that those studying media fans and those studying sports fans had little crossover, read little of one another’s work, etc., despite the fact that there’s bound to be all sorts of crossover.
    At Western Kentucky University, I had four majors that were all fairly close together: Mass Communication, News/Editorial Journalism, English (writing), and Communication Studies. In the end, they all had different citation styles: University of Chicago, AP Style, MLA Style, and APA Style. Three of the four were in separate departments, etc. At WKU, there’s been a lot of efforts–from C3 Consulting Researcher Ted Hovet, for instance–to break down those disciplinary walls.
    For instance, he co-teaches a class with a history professor and a political science professor (with 10 students from each discipline) each semester on American studies, and it forces students to look both at the differences in their approaches when studying our own culture, as well as the many ways we’re asking the same questions…He also drove the launch of the film studies program at WKU, which stretches across all sorts of already-existing classes at the school and is interdiscplinary, just like the new pop culture program WKU is putting together.
    Once upon a time, I participated in a panel on just this topic at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association National Annual conference in Atlanta. If you’re interested, there are more notes here.

  4. Thanks for the input, Brian. Question: are there any obvious ways in which to close the gap between schools of business and communications? It seems like such an obvious win-win. Shouldn’t both be strongly suggesting their students pursue minors with the other? One of the reasons we’re seeing such a meltdown on Wall Street is that many leaders are terrible communicators and have no clue how to reassure worried investors.

  5. ‘Great post, Steve. To follow up, all of our corporate communication students take statistics, economics, and marketing courses, in addition to our business administration minors who take even more business courses. For students at many universities who want a career in corporate communication, however, crossover between the communication schools and the business schools still is rare.

  6. You hit the nail on the head, Art. It’s all about doing one’s best and letting the chips fall where they may. I do believe the cream will rise to the top in the midst of all the chaos. And, the best clients will want to work with those firms/professionals who grasp the totality of their business needs.

  7. Steve: I like what you have to say, but through the lens of your recent “bad to abysmal” post I have some concerns. You’re right to say that it’s important to have a strong business and industry knowledge–particularly with regard to your client’s business–in order to warrant a seat at the table. What, though, if you’re sitting at the table set by The Mad Hatter at his tea party? As you correctly point out in “bad to absysmal”, many companies today are run by individuals who themselves have little business acumen. When offered genuine insights into their business, these folks can be dismissive and confrontational, because they know you’re smarter than they are and they don’t want you around. I think that’s part of the reason why our economy is tanking–we assume that big companies are run by smart people, and that’s not always the case. As such, I prefer to always do the best, smartest job I can and let the chips fall where they may. If all a client wants from me is a brochure when they really need a strategic plan, then so be it–I can only do so much convincing.