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APR vs. MBA: Which letters matter more?

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It’s a common debate among folks in the PR world: What makes more sense: obtaining my APR or getting an MBA? Before we get into this discussion, note that I earned my APR a number of years ago. I do not have my MBA (although I took one class at the University of St. Thomas several years ago).

Before we go any further, let’s start by looking at the pros and cons of each:

MBA Pros

* Opportunity to get a whole lot smarter about the business side of any organization–financial accounting, operations and how to read a balance sheet.

* On the corporate side, an MBA can often be an unofficial requirement for many senior-level positions.

* Like many advanced degrees, by attending class and sitting in various group meetings, the networking can be invaluable.

MBA Cons

* Cost can be high. And, unless your company is footing the bill or chipping in, that can get spendy quickly.

* The process can be time-consuming. If you’re only taking one class at a time (which is all some people can take), an MBA can take as long as 4-5 years.

* Competition. Who doesn’t have an MBA these days? I mean, besides me 🙂 In all seriousness, it seems like more people are obtaining their MBA every day. Is it still a differentiator?

APR Pros

* More journey–less destination. I always thought the APR process was much more about the process than it was putting those three letters after my name.

* The APR opens all sorts of doors on the PRSA side. So, if you want to sit on your local chapter board or have aspirations of sitting on the National board some day, this is the ticket in.

* Supporting the industry. By getting your APR, you are, in fact, stating your support for the PR industry. Not a huge personal benefit, but industry-wise, it is.

* It’s affordable. At just $410, the APR is a bargain when compared with an advanced degree like an MBA (apples to oranges, I know).

APR Cons

* The APR certification doesn’t have near the credibility of an MBA–especially on the corporate side of the fence.

* It’s organization-specific. You need to remain a PRSA member to keep your APR–it’s not organization agnostic. Not sure most would label this a “con”, but I am for the purposes of discussion here.

Next, I think you need to consider your current–and future–employment situation. Do you work on the agency side? Corporate? As an independent consultant? All have different angles when it comes to the APR vs. MBA discussion.

* Corporate side. MBA has a huge advantage here. In many larger, Fortune 500 organizations, an MBA is an unannounced requirement for senior-level positions (see above). On the client side, an MBA is really a form of advanced business training, whereas the APR is barely recognized by those outside PRSA circles.

* Agency side. The APR probably carries more weight here. Many agencies owners and leaders cut their teeth in agencies, so they’re very familiar with PRSA and the APR. And, the learning process you go through to obtain the APR, can be extremely valuable to the PR agency counselor. But, is it necessary? That’s the debate.

* Independent consultant. I’d probably give the slight edge to the APR here, too. Merely for credibility. Most clients still know little about the APR–but by listing those letters after your name, it’s really just a conversation starter. On the other hand, the MBA does little for the independent consultant, in my view. Similar to agencies, indie consultants get paid for ideas. They get paid for creativity. The MBA really doesn’t get at either of those. Sure, you’d better understand business (including how to run your own), but I’m not sure that really helps from a consulting point of view. And remember, getting an MBA is expensive and you’d be on the hook for the entire cost. In my view, it’s simply not worth the added cost and time commitment.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I earned my APR a number of years ago. It took me about a year to go through the APR process. I took a series of classes locally with about 10 other aspiring APR candidates. I met new friends. I met speakers who came in to talk with us about key areas of the test. For me, the APR was far more about the journey than it was adding those three letters after my name (beating a dead horse now).

But, it’s important to note, after earning my APR I didn’t see any noticeable professional differences. That is, I wasn’t treated any different by my boss. I didn’t have a legion of prospective employers barking down my door chomping at the bit to hire me. And it certainly didn’t make a difference in my pay.

However, as I alluded to before, from a PRSA standpoint, all sorts of doors started to open as a result of my new APR.

I was asked to co-chair the programming committee within MN PRSA.

I was later asked to sit on the board.

I was asked to judge the Willard Thompson scholarship candidates.

And, in the process, and as a result of much of this work, I met a number of wonderful colleagues I am proud to call friends. People I lean on for advice and ideas on a regular basis.

And, as it turned out, that’s what obtaining my APR was all about. Much more journey. Far less destination. And, I’m not sure there’s a price tag I can affix to that.

I can’t really speak to the MBA side since I’ve never really pursued it. Since I didn’t envision myself staying on the corporate side for the long haul, frankly, I didn’t see the value in it. But, in the business world, the MBA carries significant weight. In both larger corporate jobs I’ve had in my life, as I said above, the MBA was basically a unannounced prerequisite for senior-level positions.

And, I would argue the same “more journey, less destination” theorem also holds true for the MBA. Many folks I know that have earned their MBA met all sorts of wonderful colleagues along the way. And, maybe more importantly, they got really smart about the inner workings of a business. In other words, they learned how to better solve business problems—not just PR or marketing problems.

And that’s the big rub with the MBA. It’s your ticket into the corporate game. Tough to serve as a CMO when you don’t know how to read a financial report. And, from a business owner standpoint, it could make sense, too. After all, there’s a ton of value in learning more about how a business works. But, then again, you’d be on the hook for the full payment—whereas on the corporate side, many companies will pay for or chip in toward your degree. That price tag has to figure in when you’re talking about tens of thousands of dollars for some of the more prestigious schools. In fact, if it was me, I’d look long and hard at the “ROI” of that degree. Would I get enough out of it to warrant a $30,000-plus price tag?

So, back to my original question: Which makes more sense? I think it depends on a few different factors: your current and future employer(s), your level of patience and your financial situation.

Now, I want to kick it to you. Which do you think makes more sense in today’s world? Is the MBA dead for agency and solo consultants? Is APR irrelevant on the corporate side? Would love your thoughts.

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APR vs. MBA: Which letters matter more?

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