There’s been some advice floating around the PR world of late regarding a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree to which I take some exception.
Though views and opinions can vary—there are pros and cons to everything in life—I am a PR pro with an MBA, want to offer a very different perspective for balance, 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. There’s no question that 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 has inability 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. Lots of exceptional PR pros have reached the capstone of their careers in firms, in corporations, and in starting their own firms without one. However, an MBA can dramatically enhance one’s career and improve the chances of even greater success.
Five reasons PR pros 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 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. 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, only to get home and 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. Here’s why:
1. Finance. 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 startup? 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 10-K reports starting with the footnotes.
2. Accounting. I once had a boss who 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 counterintuitive disciplines in business.
Enron, for example, a company whose collapse brought down one of the largest accounting firms with it in Arthur Anderson, was based entirely on accounting tricks. The company literally sold things to itself and booked it as revenue. Because the rules of accounting are highly regulated, few businesses would attempt the shenanigans Enron did, but the fundamentals of accounting will enable you to be better prepared and adaptive whether your budget goes up or down.
3. Economics. It’s not all supply side, and it’s not all demand. Understanding economics enables you to understand a business model, 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 battlefield operating picture than my active duty brethren, because I understood economics. History tells us 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.
4. Context. 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 it’s business, government, or nonprofit. You’ll never send a bad pitch if you understand the context.
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5. Credibility. The MBA curriculum comes with a standard set of courses required for graduation. This means every employer, or every client, knows exactly what they are getting when they retain you or 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 another master’s degree?
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. Though 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.
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 my client at the time. I asked him about his thoughts on the choices of schools I was considering and whether 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.
Although Fuqua or Booth or Sloan aren’t likely to harm a resume, when it’s all said and done, you’ll get out of a program what you put into it. It’s like that with nearly everything in life. 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 must 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 three to five 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 full-time again, and I’d like to believe that says a bit about my work ethic.
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.
In the meantime, I’ve long considered going on to earn a doctorate. Top of my mind right now are behavioral economics and marketing psychology. Word is that the master-level graduate students finance the doctoral candidates; I hope I can prove that to be true.
A version of this article first appeared on Sword & the Script.