UA Plank Center’s Co-Sponsored Research Study Leads to Book Release

9780415710923 copy 2Research sponsored by The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations at The University of Alabama, Heyman Associates, and IBM Corporation has led to the release of “Public Relations Leaders as Sensemakers.” The book presents foundational research on the public relations profession, providing a current and compelling picture of expanding global practice.

Communication leaders worldwide rate their own job performance much higher than do their followers, according to the book. The book probes the role of public relations leaders in the digital age and is grounded in research conducted with 4,500 communication professionals in 23 countries, the largest study of leadership ever conducted in the profession.

“The leadership gap isn’t surprising,” said Dr. Bruce Berger, co-editor of the book and research director for The Plank Center. “Individuals often rate themselves higher than others do, and like many things in life, communication leaders are normally distributed—some great, some awful, but most between the extremes.

“What’s surprising is the Grand Canyon size of the gap. Clearly, communication leaders must enrich their capabilities and capacity to lead their teams and communications efforts,” Berger said.

The book explores key issues in public relations, how leaders manage them, how they influence practice, and how future leaders will be different. Country and regional profiles depict the state of leadership development in the field today.

Though managing big data and the digital revolution are hot-button global issues today, top public relations leaders said their two biggest worries are finding and keeping top talent at all levels—the kind of people they can drop into any situation and be successful—and enriching and strengthening organizational culture to better engage employees.

Other key findings reveal gender and generational differences regarding leadership issues, the tremendous influence of the digital revolution on communication practice, and the need for future leaders to develop their soft skills—better listening, conflict and change management capabilities and emotional intelligence. The growing high-tech communication world requires a corresponding surge in high-touch approaches, leaders said.

Risk-taking was cited as an important step in leader development and advancement. The study found that favorable tipping points in the careers of many top PR leaders followed successful resolution of organizational crises or other risk-taking experiences.

Managing tough communication challenges is a daily requirement in the digital revolution. “Communication leaders as sensemakers must process vast flows of diverse information while at the same time converting this ‘bigness’ of information to the ‘smallness’ of  messages—140-character expressions and 6-second-video brand messages,” Berger said.

Communication knowledge management is one of six core dimensions of excellent leadership in public relations. The other dimensions are self-awareness and insights, a strong ethical orientation, team leader qualities, relationship-building skills, and the ability to engage effectively in strategic decision-making (the most crucial dimension). The global study confirmed these six dimensions, which constitute an integrated model of leadership that individuals and organizations can use to guide development and planning efforts.

The global study included a survey of 4,500 participants and depth interviews with 137 top PR leaders. It was conducted in nine languages by 28 international researchers in 23 countries, including Brazil, Chinese-speaking countries, German-speaking countries, India, Mexico, Russia, Spain, South Korea, United Kingdom and the U.S., among others. The book is available through online booksellers everywhere.

*BergerBK., & MengJ(2014). Public Relations Leaders as Sensemakers: A Global Study of Leadership in Public Relations and Communication Management. NewYorkRoutledge.

About The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations

In 2005, the University of Alabama Board of Trustees established The Plank Center, named for public relations leader and UA alumna, the late Betsy Plank, to develop and recognize outstanding performance in the profession and classroom. Through a variety of programs, and in concert with groups and associations, the Center works to nurture and help develop outstanding leaders.

In addition to national leaders in the practice and education, the Center Board includes an ex officio position for the president of the Public Relations Student Society of America that represents more than 11,000 members in 300-plus colleges and universities.

The Center is housed in UA’s College of Communication and Information Sciences. UA’s public relations program, with nearly 600 students, is the largest undergraduate degree program within the College. The program is certified by the Public Relations Society of America and for six consecutive years has been ranked among the top five public relations programs in the country by PRWeek magazine.

More information about The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations can be found

The University of Alabama, a student-centered research university, is experiencing significant growth in both enrollment and academic quality. This growth, which is positively impacting the campus and the state’s economy, is in keeping with UA’s vision to be the university of choice for the best and brightest students. UA, the state’s flagship university, is an academic community united in its commitment to enhancing the quality of life for all Alabamians.

  • CONTACT: Jessika White, communications specialist, 205/348-7250,
  • SOURCE: Dr. Karla Gower, Director, Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, 205/348-0132,

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