We have come a long way in the last 40 years, but the industry still needs to learn to be better at making its business case, says Ron Culp. Also, a business degree with a minor in PR or journalism increases chances for a career in communications.
If the American PR industry had a walk of fame, Ron Culp would not have to worry about having his own star. After graduating as a Bachelor in Journalism from Indiana State University, Ron started his career in the early seventies working for a local newspaper. After that followed a succession of both in-house and agency middle management and, as his career progressed, senior leadership functions in companies such as Sara Lee, Eli Lilly, and Sears, Roebuck and Company. Today, Ron is an independent communications consultant, a coach for PR professionals, and the Professional Director at DePaul University’s Graduate PR and Advertising (PRAD) Program. When I asked him what this combination of hats entailed for the title that I should put under his name, he answered with “pracademic.”
I had a conversation with Ron on among other things the state of the U.S. public relations industry, the ideal curriculum to prepare students for a career in communications, and how PR students look at the world differently than he did when he was in school in the late sixties.
From executors to strategists
Jo: Are we, communications professionals, better at our job today then we were 40 years ago?
Ron: Well, one thing is for certain. We are more focused on strategy that we used to be. In the past, PR practitioners were given an assignment to go out and create publicity for their employer. We were executors of the communications plans made by other than communication management functions within the organization. At times, those plans made a lot of sense, but often they did not. So today, thanks to that experience running a myriad of campaigns with many different stakeholder groups, we have gained confidence, received a seat at the table and have turned ourselves into communication strategists.
So that progression is a good thing. But there is still plenty left to be done. We are still not very effective in routinely building business cases for our work. How are communication efforts driving stakeholder behaviors and ultimately yielding financial results, is a question PR professionals will not always answer sufficiently well.
Jo: That last point is a very important one. You have together with Matt Ragas written Business Essentials for Strategic Communicators, a book that helps practitioners understand how they can become more business savvy. Why is the PR profession playing catch-up here?
Ron: PR professionals are typically right brained professionals, myself included. We are more creative than anything else. We need to balance this out in education, bring more analytical skills to the curriculum, and help tomorrow’s practitioners understand business and finance. PR professionals will succeed when they balance the two, their creativity and their analytical skills.
Forming well-rounded PR practitioners
Show me a good writer and I will show you a good thinker.
Jo: PR professionals seem to be convinced at times that the job is mostly about having excellent writing skills. There are some serious issues with the perception of what it takes to be a well rounded communications professional, are there not?
Ron: That is very true. But let one thing be clear, despite your concern, you will not hear me say that writing is becoming less important, but I see writing as a skill that is of pivotal importance in the way it helps practitioners think clearly. You show me a good writer, and I will show you a great thinker. And great thinkers are something businesses have a dire need to hire.
My first job as a journalist helped me hone those writing and thinking skills, and the many bosses I have had after my career in journalism appreciated those skills tremendously because they helped me tell the media the stories of the companies I worked for in a clear and convincing manner. But that career path from journalism to the PR profession barely exists anymore, with one important reason being that you simply don’t have that many journalists anymore.
Jo: Do journalism degrees still make for strong foundations for people pursuing a career in communications?
Ron: They do. In our graduate program, we have several journalists come in. These people come with excellent writing skills. They know how the media works. Our PRAD program includes many individuals wanting a career transition towards communications management, either at the agency side or in-house. So our program is excellent for helping people accomplish that transition. And we encourage students to pick up one or more business classes to help them become well-rounded professionals.
We also have students come in who don’t have a journalism background. You would think that they would be particularly interested in our writing classes, but that is not always the case, for the reason – and I consider that the worst of all reasons possible, to be honest – that they don’t want to be criticized for their lack of writing skills. Our program is quite practical, very hands-on, with over one hundred guest speakers. We visit companies and agencies. Students get a taste and understanding of what awaits them after graduation.
The business degree as strong foundation
Jo: Let’s take a step back and focus on the 18- year-old student who does not have a Bachelor Degree yet. He or she starts with a blank slate and dreams of being a VP of Corporate Comms at Shell one day. What educational choices would you recommend that young person make?
Ron: I often encourage young men and women to pursue a business degree. And then take a minor in journalism or PR. Ambitious young people need to suck up as much general education as they can, drilling deep into the inner workings of business. If you are looking for an an-house or agency job, you will have a leg up if your undergraduate degree is non-traditional, meaning not focused on PR or advertising. Business school offers a solid foundation to build a communications career on, but as I said, ideally you then flank it with a communication related minor.
Jo: There is room for business in your graduate program. Is there also room for the behavioral sciences?
Ron: There isn’t a core course yet, but I can see it happening in the future. Students can pursue such courses via electives. We do of course have a lot of behavioral science embedded in the course material of various PR and ad courses.
Staying ahead of the curve
Technology avoidance is not the answer to the challenges at hand.
Jo: What counsel would you give students who are worried to not have a job anymore in 10 or even five years from now with all the technological change that is happening, for example in the realm of AI?
Ron: I would tell them that they need to work hard to stay one step ahead of the developing technology, that they should embrace the technological change and seek to understand it in a profound manner. Technology avoidance is something of which I see a lot and I can tell you, it is not the answer to the challenges at hand. The rudimentary PR functions will no longer be carried out by humans in 10 years from now. Nobody will need a PR professional to write a press release on a product launch. I want the people who graduate today to become the super heros of the profession who understand communication, business and psychology and who will for that reason be the ones programming those computers.
A PR industry with many competitors
Jo: Would you also want those future PR professionals to be accredited? I am myself a proponent of promotion accreditations, and to be honest, I am so mainly because we do not yet have licensure in place.
Ron: I have read the piece where you urge your peers in Austin to seek accreditation. I respect your viewpoint.
Jo: [Laughs] That does not bode well. Are we on different pages with this issue?
Ron: Well, the thing is, it is not going to happen, is it? I see more value in accreditation than I see in licensure. You know, I have had 12 career changes in my life and not once has an employer asked me about whether I was accredited. So I don’t know what could possibly bring about a system of licensure. The changes brought on by technology, by the behavioral sciences, the need for practitioners to become more business savvy, everything we have just discussed, necessitates that practitioners keep in step and continue to evolve quickly.
So I am not against licensure but it would then take organizations such as PRSA, the Page Society, and the Institute for Public Relations to sit around the table and initiate an industry-wide initiative. The PRSA alone can not run this. Academia alone can not be in charge either. The problem is that with trying to keep academic curricula in sync with market demands, the moment universities have put new courses in place, they are already outdated and the world has moved on.
Do you know that only 40 percent of marketing activities report to the CMO nowadays? We have CTOs taking on a bigger role, chief brand officers, CIOs, etc. It is very possible that PR ends up being folded into one of those other functions unless we step up to be perceived as business leaders beyond PR leaders. In addition, I have not yet discussed then the large accounting firms that have set their eyes on the communication budgets. They will run a change management project from A to Z for their clients, communication trajectories included. The PR consultant is no longer needed, well, he still is, but he might work for Deloitte now.
So yes, we will have to improve our game, maybe not through accreditations and licensure, but then surely through investing heavily in technology and continuous education. We need to continue to be relevant, acquiring all the skills the world demands from us in 2019, and we need to be smarter business people who can explain their impact on the bottom line. If we don’t stay ahead of the curve, there will soon not be much of a PR industry to talk about.
Millennials looking for purpose
Jo: Allow me to broach another topic. I would like to talk about generational differences for a moment. Students nowadays have other expectations of the role of businesses in society, do they not?
Ron: That is an understatement, Jo. [Laughs] I have seen that shift coming now for years. Generation X wanted a good job above anything else. They were a pragmatic generation, you know. They would accept working for a pharma business or a tobacco business. They wanted experiences that were rewarding for their careers. Millenials are very different. They are concerned about the purpose of the organizations that employ them. They need to do something more than just make money.
Millennials take risks in favor of a purposeful job because they can afford to.
I want to add to this that this focus on more than just material things is made possible because their parents often support them financially. Fortunately, boomers have been slow in selling their homes, in other words, there is a security blanket available, where they can move in with their parents when there is a setback. They take risks in favor of a purposeful job because they can afford to. I see young people quit jobs for no other reason than not wanting to work for their employer anymore. Boomers would mostly just grin and bear it.
Today, younger employers expect more than paychecks from their employers. And many employees become internal activists to encourage their organizations to play greater roles in doing good. When I started my career, there was only philanthropy. Sara Lee was focused on the arts. That was pure philanthropy. Then later came CSR. Both still had nothing to do with corporate activism of course. Younger people put those social goals now front and center.
Jo: Will they grow out of this eventually? Are we raising the bars for companies now indefinitely or is this a generational thing that will pass, I am wondering.
Ron: They are not buying houses for now. They can’t afford to. There will come a moment however in the future where they will have to make compromises. So I think that simple economics will have millenials eventually change course, yes. Many feel that Generation Z resembles more the baby boomer generation, so that should be fun to see play out.
PR jobs in the profit center
Jo: You offer career coaching to PR professionals. Where do the peers that knock on your door need the most advice?
Ron: They need advice in not being perceived as a cost center. I help them find their way to jobs where they are contributing to the bottom line and – not less important – are perceived as much. These are the jobs that are safe, this is where careers are made. If you are running the CSR program for your organization and nobody has an idea how this CSR program is helping accomplish business outcomes, you are in a precarious position.
The advice I give to new grads who are just starting out is no different. Some of them have gone into agencies to take on business development. So of course they became of critical importance to these agencies pretty quickly. These rainmakers don’t need to worry about their jobs. Again, it’s a matter of finding a place where you can contribute in a significant manner to the bottom line.
Sharing the passion
Jo: I would like to conclude with one of your bon mots. I read on your website that people care more about what they hear about you than about what you tell them about yourself. This is of course why public relations exists in the first place. What would you want people to say about Ron Culp?
Ron: I would be a happy if they told you I am passionate about my profession, and that if you share that passion, I will be eager to support you. As a manager I have always put people first and will continue to do that till the end. I once reported to a director who told me I was not hard enough on my staff. He did not understand that I achieved so much because because of the hard work of my staff. Motivating that staff made me more successful than would have been the possible if I followed his advice to become more of a hard ass.
In other words, be yourself. Don’t get caught up in corporate or agency politics. You might get a win or two, but eventually you’re bound to lose. In those early jobs, I urge young people to simply work their butts off. When I was a middle manager, I would always ask the person I reported to right before I left for the day whether there was something I could be of help with. Almost always the answer was a friendly no, until that one day that there was an issue where I did make a difference by being available to step in. Overnight, I had suddenly turned myself into the go-to person for that boss, and a lot of goodwill came from that career defining moment.
So don’t play politics, and don’t worry about your work life balance in the beginning of your career either. That will all fall into place eventually but should not be a concern on day one.
Did you enjoy this interview with Ron Culp?
You might also like my interview with Philippe Borremans on the state of corporate communications.