Earning a Seat at the Table

9 Dec

One of the ultimate goals for this blog is to discuss what I believe is the essential intersection of business and communications.  If public relations professionals can’t find a way to connect with organizational leadership, the profession will continue to suffer and be viewed as a function that is essentially there to push out tactics rather than set leadership strategy.  What should we do about it? Complain loudly? Provide stacks of clips? Of course not, the only way to obtain a genuine leadership role is to earn it by providing value to your organization in a manner that really moves the measurement needle.  For most executives, the best measurement tool is always income.

Over the past year or so, I’ve had the opportunity to trade thoughts with a great communications and business guy in Allan Schoenberg (@AllanSchoenberg).  His perspective on the importance of business knowledge is reinforced each day in his role as the director of communications for the CME Group (@CMEGroup) where understanding intricate details about trading regulations, economic indicators, and global markets are just a portion of his day.

In this discussion, I wanted to find out more about how Allan became so involved in an arena where many PR pros are afraid to tread.  It can be intimidating to sit in a room with C-level leaders but if you want a “seat at the table” you need to understand how to be part of the discussion.

(DF): You’ve got a very strong blend of communications and economics knowledge, when did you first realize your interest in economics?

(AS): My interest in economics dates back to my years at Central Michigan University as an undergrad (1990). I decided to earn a degree in economics for two reasons:

1. I found the topics both interesting and challenging. People don’t understand that there are a number of topics to study in economics – it’s not just macro or micro. At the time I was interested in studying both labor economics and environmental economics.

2. Economics is about analyzing information and trying to make sense of it both from a past perspective (how did we get here?) and a future perspective (where are we headed?); the idea of looking at economics to me was like trying to solve a mystery.

There are also stories behind economic data and those stories are really the power behind all of the information gathered. Pulling all of that together was something I enjoyed and still do to this day. It’s hard for me to read any news about the economy today without wanting to dig deeper by talking to people and reading other sources (news media) and opinions (blogs) about the topic to get a better picture.

(DF): One of the core areas that we’ve discussed, and both feel strongly about, is PR as a critical business function.  How can PR improve its reputation with business leadership?

(AS): I don’t think this is rocket science and I think we tend to waste a lot of time as a profession trying to talk our way to the management table. There’s no other industry I can think of –except maybe IT – where a profession talks so much about getting the attention of management. And nothing you read will make this change. My belief is that you have to earn your reputation with senior management and in my mind you do that by gaining their trust and influence. How do you do that? Through time and experience. There’s no secret recipe. You have to understand the business — customers, competitors, the issues, management’s pain points, and then you have to know how to best build and executive a business strategy around communication. This is hardly anything that is easy to do. I think what it boils down to is that if you don’t know how your company operates – how it makes money – you are going to have a hard time earning the time you need with any leadership within your organization. I think the best thing we can learn to do as a profession is to learn how to ask really smart questions of our leaders and ourselves. You’ll know you are there when management asks you, “How are we going to solve this business problem?” versus, “Should we do a news release or a customer letter?”

My final point is that we also have to put this into the perspective that some public relations degree programs still reside in the journalism schools while other are very young and being a stand alone department. I hear people wondering why marketing tends to get all the glory, but we often forget that you get a marketing degree from the business school — the same schools producing CEOs and CFOs. We have a lot of work to do as a profession to earn our place.

(DF): How can a working understanding of economics help a PR pro in their daily work?

(AS): If you can understand what is driving the economy and apply it to your business – because your executives are applying it to your business – you will have an easier time understanding some of the key external factors affecting your organization.

I also feel that there are stories behind economic numbers, which is very similar to the profession of public relations and the stories we try to tell about our people and organizations. For instance, let’s look at the US dollar. In the past year it has taken a real beating in the market, and that affects a lot of things. You could leave it at that, but there are stories behind the falling value of the dollar – What is driving it geopolitically? How are commodity prices influencing its value? What federal reserve decisions are causing its value to rise or fall? And then you apply those to your business – Are we gaining more customers globally now that they can buy US goods for less money? Are we better positioned in the long term for international growth? What is our organization doing to adjust to the devaluation and can we talk about them to our publics? I’ve always felt that with economics it’s never just black and white, and I can relate that very much to the profession of public relations.
 
Some of the things I read on a regular basis include blogs like The Big Money, Cheap Talk, WSJ Real Time Economics, Business Pundit, Planet Money, Naked Capitalism, Infectious Greed and Money Supply. There are more but these have become core to my daily routine of catching up on the news and opinions in the marketplace.

(DF): Great points. I love your comparison between the disciplines and how there is no simple black and white. I believe that most PR people operate in a world of gray each day.  Can you provide a good example of when your strong financial knowledge made a strong, positive difference in your career?

(AS): It’s hard to say “this point in time I pulled out this formula” or if there is a specific example. I think I’m lucky that I’ve always had this foundation of economics – not finance; there’s a difference. That foundation and education certainly has helped me to better understand the bigger picture and think outside of the public relations box. I think having an education and interest in economics is what separates me from other professionals. I’m not saying it makes me better, but I typically approach problems always first from an economics point of view.

(DF): On the flip side of the last question, do you recall a point when you’ve unfortunately seen a PR pro struggle or fail due to a lack of knowledge in the finance arena?

(AS): I would certainly use that same example from above – me – to point that out. I have had my share of failures where I’ve either come to a meeting unprepared (thinking I knew everything ahead of time or having the wrong data because I asked the wrong questions) or not prepared at all. The lessons learned from those experiences are to never be unprepared and to admit when you don’t know the information. That doesn’t mean it can be forgotten — if you show up too many times without the right information or unprepared you won’t last long. That’s why it also pays to build key relationships with people across functions of the organization so they can help provide you with information when you most need it.

A big thank you to Allan for his time and participation on this topic.  Look for more with Allan down the road as well when we’ll touch on economics and business knowledge for students looking to enter the pr profession.

Additional background:

Allan Schoenberg (http://www.linkedin.com/in/allanschoenberg) is director of corporate communications for CME Group – a CME/CBOT/NYMEX company and is responsible for managing a staff of 15 responsible for issues management, media relations, crisis management, social media, message development, international initiatives, and broadcast/digital communications. Within an 18 month time frame he worked closely with management and the communications team through two mergers (CBOT in July 2007; NYMEX in August 2008) worth a combined value of nearly $30 billion. In August 2007, he initiated the company’s social media strategy, which includes Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, social bookmarking and reaching out to influential bloggers. In addition, he has been an adjunct professor with DePaul University since 2005 and Loyola University Chicago since 2006. He has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Central Michigan University and a master’s degree in communications management from Syracuse University. In 2002 he established an annual scholarship given to an outstanding integrative public relations student at Central Michigan.

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