Understanding Business Basics With Ron Culp, Fellow PRSA

September 5, 2017

I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Ron Culp in person, but I feel like I’ve known him by reputation forever. Culp calls himself a “veteran corporate PR and agency executive turned educator and consultant.” He’s held senior leadership positions with Sears, Sara Lee and Pitney Bowes, and with agencies Ketchum and Sard Verbinnen & Co. Culp, PRSA’s 2015 Gold Anvil recipient, is professional director of the graduate PR and advertising program at DePaul University.

How is leadership different between the corporate and agency sides?

Agency and corporate leadership roles are more similar than you might think. The biggest difference when you are working in a corporate role is the singular and deeper focus on one “client,” while agency leaders often must keep track of dozens of clients — possessing knowledge that might be a mile wide and at least an inch deep.

As for job security, corporate PR budgets usually allow for more certainty, while agencies must closely monitor and adjust staffing according to billability and utilization — two words that never crossed my mind until I became responsible for both when I shifted to the agency world.

How are they the same?

For years, agency folks said “the grass is greener” in corporations. Not so. The work is demanding in agency and corporate settings. Corporate hiring managers have embraced the value of agency experience, so corporate teams now appreciate how agencies can help achieve corporate goals.

Trying to hold down head count while getting more work done, many corporations are asking agencies to imbed account teams in their organizations, generally for important single-focused projects. This relationship further blurs the lines between agency and corporate functions, as the consultant morphs into an extension of the corporate communications team.

Some imbedded relationships last months or even years. This is a precursor to a return to larger corporate PR teams. The business case must be made before a bottom-line focused CFO approves new staff functions. Agencies have more flexibility in expanding teams as new business justifies. However, agency CFOs must assess the longevity of it before creating an additional position. 

What are PR’s leadership outages? What skill sets do leaders need?

Our profession faces extinction if we don’t increase the financial acumen of practitioners and leaders. Many pros don’t understand or appreciate business basics. The age-old problem of poor writing skills continues to threaten public relations.

Surveys and interviews with CCOs and agency leaders underscore their desire to see more business-savvy pros who are also skillful writers. Yet, most of us avoided left-brain business courses during college and never did much to build those skills after graduation. It was forced on me early in my corporate career when my boss told me that I had to write the quarterly earnings release. I had no clue what it meant. But, thanks to a patient investor-relations director, I survived the challenge and inherited responsibility for the annual report and financial public relations, which followed me to my corporate jobs and led to an agency leadership role.

What’s your counsel on being a skilled communicator and a leader in training?

Hone your listening skills. Don’t think that always having the best idea or final say is a sign of leadership. Great leaders listen, ask the right questions, and allow their teams to help solve problems.

What’s your advice to Ron Culp, recent college graduate?

Be the first person to volunteer for the assignment that no one else wants to do. Never be first to leave the office or walk out without asking those still working if you can help. 

Ken Jacobs

Ken Jacobs is principal of Jacobs Consulting & Executive Coaching. Visit his website (www.jacobscomm.com) and contact him by email (ken@jacobscomm.com) or Twitter (@KensViews).


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