What’s your leadership grade? The Plank Center Report Card 2017 suggests leadership in public relations is average (C+), and it’s not improving.

In 2015 the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations and Heyman Associates produced its first Report Card on PR Leaders. Leaders earned passing grades for the five areas examined—leadership performance, job engagement, trust in the organization, work culture and job satisfaction—but crucial gaps highlighted areas for improvement.

Recently, nearly 1,200 PR leaders and professionals in the U.S. completed the same survey.* Grades for leadership performance and trust were unchanged in 2017, but slipped for work culture, job engagement and job satisfaction. The overall grade for PR leaders fell from B- to C+.

Gaps between leaders’ and employees’ perceptions of the five areas remained wide, while gender differences deepened sharply. Previous concerns about two-way communication, shared decision-making and diversity were again underscored by men and women.

Four Key Findings

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

Leaders’ and their employees’ perceptions of the top leader’s performance again differed sharply: Leaders gave themselves an “A-,” while followers gave them a “C+.” The grades were virtually identical to those in 2015. Leaders received higher marks for ethical orientation and involvement in strategic decision-making but earned lower grades for their vision, relationship-building skills and team leadership capabilities.

  1. Job Engagement (B-)

The grade fell because fewer professionals were engaged. In 2017, 57.2% of respondents were engaged (vs. 59.7% in 2015); 35.9% were not engaged (vs 34.4%); and 6.8% were actively disengaged (vs. 6.0%). The decline is largely tied to lower engagement among women. In 2015, more women (61.3%) were engaged than men (57.9%). However, in 2017 more men (62.1%) were engaged than women (52.9%).

  1. Job Satisfaction (C+)

This grade dropped as those satisfied or very satisfied with their job declined from 66.7% to 61.9%. The percentage of those dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their jobs rose from 22.1% to 24.1%, while those neither satisfied nor dissatisfied rose from 11.2% to 14.0%. More men (65.9%) were satisfied or very satisfied with their job than women (58.3%). Agency PR professionals were most satisfied compared to those working in companies or nonprofits.

  1. Gender Divide

Women in public relations were significantly less engaged, less satisfied with their jobs, less confident in their work cultures, less trusting of their organizations and more critical of top leaders than men. The findings were more pronounced among women working at lower levels in the organization. The only area without a significant gender issue was at the top: top female and male leaders in organizations rated each of the five areas more or less the same.

Three Crucial Gaps

  1. The perceptions of top leaders and their employees. Top leaders rated their performance and all other areas significantly higher than their employees. Things look different—and far better—at the top. Leaders may often rate their performance higher than their employees, but statistically the gap is huge. Leaders at all levels can benefit from relying less on the transmission mode and more on the reception mode when communicating with employees. Other solutions include: 1) increased power sharing, 2) strengthened two-way communications, and 3) enhanced interpersonal skills in team work.
  2. Existing culture and a culture for communication. Issues like the lack of two-way communication, limited power sharing and diversity concerns point to differences between existing cultures and a rich communication system sometimes referred to as a culture for communication. Such a culture is characterized by: 1) an open communication system; 2) dialogue, discussion and learning; 3) the use of two-way and multiple channels; 4) a climate in which employees can speak up without fear of retribution; and 5) leaders who support and value public relations and internal communications.
  3. Perceptions of women and men in the profession. The gender gap deepened in the 2017 survey in every subject area. Women’s perceptions of their lack of shared power in decision making, insufficient two-way communication, and de-valuing of their opinions are reflected in lower levels of trust in the organization and its culture, less confidence in leaders and declining job engagement; nearly half (47.1%) of women were not engaged or actively disengaged.

Progress in diversity in several senses remains painfully slow. For women in the survey, it appears that being successful in the field is still challenging; the pay gap is real; the opportunity gap is real; and the being-heard-and-respected-gap is real. The power to act to close these gaps resides in the minds, hearts and hands of current leaders at all levels in the profession.

The purpose of this biennial report is to assess leadership in PR, identify enrichment opportunities and then act to strengthen our profession’s leadership—a crucial strategic asset. The 2017 Report Card underscores the continuing gaps. While social tensions in our world today have likely exacerbated these issues, we need to be bigger leaders and close the gaps.

A full report of the research is available at: plankcenter.ua.edu/

Background & Demographics*

A 39-question survey was distributed online to about 31,000 PR leaders and managers, and 1,185 completed the survey. This response provides a 99% confidence level (+/- 5%) the results represent the larger population of surveyed professionals. Most participants were senior leaders and managers: 75% of the 1,185 respondents were the #1 or #2 communications professional in their organization, and 92% had 11 years of experience or more. More women (631 or 53.3%) than men (554 or 46.7%) completed the survey. The majority of participants worked in public (453 or 38.2%) or private (189 or 15.9%) corporations, followed by nonprofits (357 or 30.1%), communication agencies (157 or 13.2%) and self-employed or others (29 or 2.5%).

Dr. Bruce K. Berger, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus of Advertising & PR at the University of Alabama. In addition to being the Founding Director of The Plank Center for Leadership in PR he also serves as its Research Director. He is also an IPR Trustee.

William Heyman is the Founder, President and CEO of Heyman Associates, as well as Founder and Director of Taylor Bennett Heyman, an affiliated firm with offices in Hong Kong, Singapore and Melbourne. He is also an IPR Trustee.

Juan Meng, Ph.D., is the Director of University of Georgia’s ADPR China Program and Associate Professor in Public Relations at the University of Georgia

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