Leaders are crucial to the success, image and future of nations, organizations, and professions. However, few studies have directly examined leadership in public relations. To deal with this knowledge gap, the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, established at the University of Alabama in 2005, has begun to build a research-based foundation of knowledge in this area. To date, 16 leadership studies have been carried out through the Center, involving surveys, interviews, and focus groups with nearly 3,900 PR practitioners, educators, and students.
Nine Qualities of Excellent Leadership in Public Relations
Many of the studies focus on the qualities of “excellent leadership” in public relations, or what practitioners suggest is the best or “ideal” leadership. We recently analyzed the 16 studies to locate recurring themes or patterns, and we identified nine qualities, or principles of excellent leaders. Our analysis suggests that excellent leaders in PR:
- Lead by example: they model the way through two-way communication and exemplary behaviors. Senior leaders said thatrole models and mentors exert the greatest influence on practitioner beliefs about leadership qualities and values. Young PR leaders suggested that “leading by example” is a crucial quality of excellent leaders.
- Participate effectively and credibly in strategic decision-making in organizations. Strategic decision-making capability is the most important dimension of leadership, according to senior practitioners: the ultimate PR leader is a valued strategic counselor who’s engaged in key decision-making moments.
- Exemplify a strong ethical orientation and set of values for doing the right thing and practicing professional standards at all times. Ethical orientation touches every aspect of practice and is crucial to individual reputation, organizational success, and the profession’s image. PR students defined leadership primarily through an ethics prism, emphasizing trustworthiness and strong values.
- Possess complex communication and rhetorical skills. We take this knowledge requirement for granted, but research reveals the multi-layered nature and complexity of this capability and suggests four levels of knowledge and skill. These include a basic technical skills level; a strategic level associated with planning; a relational level emphasizing interpersonal skills; and a political level requiring rhetorical and persuasive communication skills.
- Possess clear self-knowledge that guides successful interactions, formation of relationships, and self-development. Self knowledge–knowing the strengths and limitations of one’s character, skills, and knowledge–helps guide successful decisions and enables practitioners to interact more effectively with others.
- Possess a strong desire to lead. Individual initiative and desire to lead may be fundamental to excellent leadership over the long term. The desire to lead is a rich, continuing source of energy, power, learning, and determination.
- Employ transformational and inclusive styles of leadership that are sensitive to context and individual needs and differences. Surveys show that PR professionals strongly prefer transformational and inclusive leadership styles. Transformational leaders have a vision for the future, motivate change, and inspire others. Inclusive leaders collaborate, share decision-making, and engage in participative processes. Both styles are more effective in gaining trust with employees, managing hopes and frustrations, and resolving conflicts.
- Demonstrate passion for the work and the profession that encourages and inspires others. Passion for work and the profession may be the lifeblood of leadership. Exhibiting passion and positive energy brings projects to life, spurs hope, and builds esprit de corps. Excellent PR leaders fully engage in the challenges of leadership on the job and often in the community and profession.
- Serve as agents for change and for helping to create a culture for communication. PR leaders may be most effective in open communication environments and when organizational leaders support and model ethical behaviors. Thus, excellent PR leaders push back on restrictive or closed communication environments and inappropriate behaviors for the benefit of employees, the organization, and the profession.
More Research to Do
The 16 Plank Center studies in PR leadership collectively represent a small but important step in building a research-based foundation of knowledge in this important area. Clearly, more research is necessary to confirm these findings, refute them, or discover other important qualities and dimensions of excellent leadership in PR.
Indeed, we hope these studies inspire more research and provoke more academic and professional debate about this crucial but often invisible topic. We believe the future of our profession is closely linked to better understanding and developing excellent leaders, and that starts with research.
This summary is part of a presentation that was delivered at the PRSA International Conference in November in San Diego by Berger; Keith Burton of GolinHarris; and Ron Culp of Ketchum.