This is the first in a two-part series regarding the state of leadership in PR.

 Communication leaders are crucial strategic assets in their organizations and the profession, but how are they performing? How much do they engage in work and trust their organizations? Are they satisfied with their jobs? Do their work cultures support or impede effective communications?

The Plank Center for Leadership Public Relations and Heyman Associates examined these issues in a recent survey of 838 U.S. PR executives and managers. We wanted to assess the state of leadership to identify gaps, or opportunities to enrich the development of current and future leaders. Our goal is to collaborate with other groups to build a critical mass to advance leadership development in the field.

The good news is that PR leaders received passing grades in this first Report Card for all five issues—job performance, trust in the organization, work engagement, workplace culture and job satisfaction. On the other hand, we discovered substantial perception gaps based on professional rank, gender, and type of organization. We examine the grades first.


Job Performance of the Top Leader (A-/C+)

Leaders’ and followers’ perceptions of the top leader’s performance differed sharply: Leaders gave themselves an “A-,” while followers gave them a “C+.” Leaders received high marks for ethical orientation and involvement in strategic decision-making but earned lower marks for their vision, relationship-building skills, and team leadership capabilities.

Work Engagement (B+)

This was the highest overall grade in the study. Sixty percent of PR leaders were engaged in their work, 34% were not engaged, and 6% were disengaged. Based on previous Gallup Q12 studies, more PR leaders were engaged, and fewer disengaged, than leaders in many other professions or organizations. High-ranking and long-service professionals were most engaged; women were a bit more engaged than men.

Trust in the Organization (C+)

Trust received the lowest grade and was an issue at all levels, though lower-level PR professionals were more distrusting. Professionals trusted their organization’s capabilities to compete successfully and achieve its goals, but expressed less trust in their organizations to keep promises and to be concerned about employees when making important decisions.

Job Satisfaction (B-)

Two-thirds (67%) of PR professionals were satisfied or very satisfied with their jobs; 11% were neither satisfied nor dissatisfied; and 22% were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied. Top leaders were more satisfied with their jobs than those at all other levels. Agency PR professionals were most satisfied compared to those working in companies or nonprofits. Job satisfaction is strongly affected by engagement and trust, which are strongly influenced by leaders and work culture.

Organizational Culture (B-)

Culture refers to the internal environment, processes and structures that support or impede communication practices. The CEO’s understanding and valuing of public relations was rated highly, while that of other functional leaders was rated lower. Shared decision-making practices and the presence of two-way communications and diversity were graded far lower. Women rated most cultural factors lower than men—and shared decision-making power a great deal lower. Agency professionals rated culture highest among organizational types.

Four Gaps—Implications

The study revealed four gaps that PR professionals and their organizations must reduce to strengthen leadership, communication practice, and results for their organizations:

  1. The perceptions of top leaders and followers. Things look different—and far better—at the top. Leaders rated their performance, trust, work engagement, job satisfaction and organizational culture significantly higher than their employees. Leaders may often rate their own performance higher than do employees, who may assign lower ratings due to personal issues, or to dissatisfaction with a recent assignment or performance review. But the gaps in our study are Grand-Canyon-sized. Leaders can reduce the gaps by: 1) increasing power sharing, 2) strengthening two-way communications, and 3) enhancing interpersonal skills to enrich relationships and team work.
  1. Existing culture and a culture for communication. Several issues—lack of 2-way communication, limited shared power in decision-making, and concerns about diversity—point to differences between professionals’ organizational cultures and an ideal type referred to as a culture for communication. This is characterized by: 1) an open communication system; 2) dialogue, discussion and learning; 3) the use of two-way communications; and 4) a climate in which employees can speak up and be listened to, without fear of retribution. PR leaders can be change agents and work with others to reduce or eliminate restrictive actions, practices, and structures in the culture.
  2. Professional women and men. Their perceptions of work culture, shared power, 2-way communications, and the valuing of their opinions differed sharply. Women seek more involvement in strategic decision making, they want their opinions to count for more, and they advocate for a more open communication system and climate. Because top public relations leaders hold decision-making power over some inequities in the field (e.g., pay and promotion) and exert influence on many others, they can close these gaps.
  1. Agencies and other organizational types. Professionals working in agencies rated most items higher than other organizational types. The Gallup Report indicated that engagement levels are often higher in smaller work teams, which may be more characteristic of agencies. In addition, an organization with a CEO who is likely a communication professional, and employees who are largely communication professionals, may provide a clearer vision, mission and objectives. The agency structure and culture should be examined to identify best practices.

We believe these findings can help enrich the development of leaders for a dynamic and uncertain future. To that end we are beginning dialogues with the PRSA College of Fellows, PRSSA, and other groups to explore collaborative development efforts.

In the second part of our series, we will focus on the crucial roles and influences of employee engagement in the profession. Our research yielded a very clear picture of the power of engagement on trust and job satisfaction.

Survey Background & Demographics

The Survey 

A 39-question survey was distributed online to about 17,000 PR leaders and managers, and 838 completed the survey. This response provides a 95% confidence level (+/- 4%) that the results represent the larger population of surveyed professionals.


Most participants were senior leaders and managers: 75% of the 838 respondents were the #1 or #2 communication professional in their organization; 60% had more than 20 years of experience; and 90% had 11 years of experience or more. A few more women (429 or 51.2%) than men (409 or 48.8%) completed the survey. The majority of participants worked in public (341 or 40.7%) or private (110 or 13.1%) corporations, followed by nonprofits (228 or 27.2%), communication agencies (114 or 13.6%), and others (45 or 5.3%).

Many respondents indicated they belong to professional associations. Those mentioned most often were: PRSA (349), IABC (130), Arthur W. Page Society (71), IPRA (32), PR Council (30), and the American Marketing Association (22). Collectively, 94 different associations were named, but nearly one-quarter (24.1%) said they didn’t belong to any professional association.

Bruce K. Berger, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, University of Alabama, and research director of The Plank Center. William Heyman is president and CEO of Heyman Associates, and a founding board member of The Plank Center. 

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
Follow on Twitter

Leave a Reply