“You only have to go through one or two communications debacles as a senior executive to understand the importance of communications.” – PepsiCo chairman and chief executive officer Indra Nooyi

State Leadership: An Opportunity for Global Action: Michael Froman: Indra Nooyi

“Corporate crises often do manage to stick in people’s minds because business has such low credibility in the first place, reinforced by incessant media images of ruthless and profit-hungry corporations. A public that was already predisposed to hate big companies could not be completely surprised by what happened to the Exxon Valdez.” – Dartmouth Business Professor Paul A. Argenti

I flunked geometry in high school.

It was my one-and-only “falcon.”

I flunked it big time…and vowed to never take another math class for the rest of my life.

So far, I have kept my promise.

The obvious question that arises is why am I teaching J410 Strategic Business/Financial Communications at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication starting today? And why was the creation of this course the basis of my master’s degree in journalism?

Does not J410 Strategic Business/Financial Communications involve the very numbers that I so despised?

The answers are that I could have used this class repeatedly during the course of my professional career.

Many go into journalism, public relations and advertising because we don’t like math and/or we lack confidence in our arithmetic skills. The problem is the numbers will find us. We can run but we can’t hide from these little buggers.

We should remember that behind every number is a story. As communicators, we are trained to tell stories. Numbers do not appear out of thin air (okay, they disappeared at Enron…but that is a different tale).

One day I woke up as the press secretary of the Governor of California. Yes, the largest state of the union with approximately 37 million souls. Soon I was writing the news release for the state budget (12 agencies and 250,000 employees), about $70 billion (including bond funds) in the late 1980s. A quick Internet check can reveal the size and scope of California’s exploding budget and related bureaucracy today.

My job was to tell the story of the state budget, how it was balanced, how it did not require new taxes on the citizens of California, and how it even contained (gasp!) a $1 billion reserve for emergencies. Almost seems quaint when compared to the present day.

Shortly after arriving at LSI Logic (NYSE: LSI) in the mid-1990s, I was assigned to write the 10Q (quarterly earnings) releases, the 8-K (crisis communication) releases and the 10K CEO (annual report) letter to investors, customers, employees, partners, suppliers, distributors and other stakeholders.

Help.

What is market capitalization? What is the top line? What is the bottom line? Why is gross margin expanding (does it need to be put on a diet?). And is it better that a deal is accretive or dilutive…dilutive of precisely what?

Reading Professor Chris Roush’s book, “Show Me The Money,” I learned about the editor of a Kentucky newspaper, who was interviewing the CEO of Humana Incorporated, a major managed care company. The CEO referenced on several occasions the regulatory Securities Exchange Commission by its acronym, SEC. This prompted the editor to ask: “Excuse me, but what does the Southeastern Conference have to do with your business?”

roush

One of my academic colleagues recalled a day when she was interviewing a business executive who kept on referencing the S&P 500. She resisted the temptation to ask, what does a car race have to do with the executive’s business? (Do they use Indy Cars or Formula One in the S&P 500?)

There are approximately 5,000 publicly traded companies on the NYSE or the NASDAQ and each one has strict SEC mandated reporting requirements. There are also requirements to preclude the selective disclosure of “material” information…Factoids that would prompt someone to buy, hold or sell a company’s stock.

There are regulations that mandate that GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) are given greater or at least the same precedence as Pro Forma (Latin: “As a matter of form”) accounting. At LSI Logic, we reported using both methodologies with GAAP always coming first. One reporter from Reuters took issue with us employing both methods, prompting yours truly to reply: “You are the first reporter I have ever met that complains about more information as opposed to less information.”

I wish someone had taught me the rules of business communications as opposed to learning it in the School of Hard Knocks.

The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) announced in December 2011 the results of a quantitative survey of more than 200 corporate executives (vice president or above) on whether corporate communications/reputation management should be taught at leading business schools. Ninety-eight percent of these corporate leaders believe that U.S. business schools need to incorporate corporate communication and reputation management coursework into the standard MBA curriculum.

In addition, the PRSA survey revealed that 94 percent believe that corporate management needs additional training in core communication disciplines. Only 40 percent rated recent company MBA hires as “extremely strong” in responding to crisis situations, building and protecting company credibility.

I bet ya they would have similar sentiments about the business acumen of J-school graduates. It’s time to change these opinions through action.

The goals of J410 Strategic Business/Financial Communications is to instill in future journalists, public relations and advertising professionals with the quantitative abilities to tell the story not only about the numbers, but behind the numbers. For business majors, who are adept at numbers and spread sheets, the mission is to help them in storytelling.

The Securities Exchange Commission is a fact of life. Whether we like it or not, publicly traded companies must communicate (at least every 90 days) and they must instill confidence and conduct themselves in a manner that conveys trust. These skills cannot be outsourced with all due respect to the outsourcing nations.

SEC

The result of seven months of labor over a computer, churning out 61 pages, 15,000 words and more than 140 citations (and just about as many rewrites) becomes reality today. And if all else fails, I will always remember: Buy low, Sell high.

Almost DailyBrett Note: Roush deserves full credit for “Behind Every Number is a Story.” I will never forget this clever use of the English language.

Roush, C. (2004). Show me the money: Writing business and economics stories for mass communication. Mahwah, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers. Pages 1-407.

Argenti, P., Forman, J. (2002). The power of corporate communication. Crafting the voice and image of your business. New York, N.Y. McGraw-Hill. Page 250.

Argenti, P.A., Howell, R.A. and Beck, K.A. (2005). The strategic communication imperative. MIT Sloan Management Review. Spring 2005. Volume 46. Number 3. Pages 83-89.

http://media.prsa.org/article_display.cfm?article_id=2383

http://www.businessweek.com/business-schools/public-relations-coming-to-a-bschool-near-you-12072011.html

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