Bridging Mentorship and Leadership Development to Establish a Pipeline of Inclusive and Effective Leaders in Public Relations

By Juan Meng, Ph.D., University of Georgia  & Marlene S. Neill, Ph.D., Baylor University 

Turning to a mentor for advice and support is critical in career development and leadership advancement. However, not all women in public relations have benefited from an effective mentor-mentee connection in their professional career and along their leadership development journey. According to the results revealed in our new book, PR Women with Influence: Breaking Through the Ethical and Leadership Challenges, a substantial percentage of female professionals in the industry still report having no mentor in their career; about three out of 10 surveyed female professionals admitted they do not have any mentors. About one-third said they only have one mentor, and another one-third indicated they have had about two to five mentors over their professional career. Not surprisingly, women of color are specifically disadvantaged in seeking mentors and getting support; more Black women reported not having a mentor (35.0%), compared to white women (28.6%) and other minority women (28.8%).

As mirrored in our survey of over 500 female professionals in public relations and communication in the United States, women value mentorship, and they believe mentorship and sponsorship are critical in supporting individuals’ leadership development and advancement. Mentorship does not only provide career advice, but also contributes to network building and personal growth. Mentoring involves the pairing, both informal and formal, of younger and talented professionals with senior and experienced individuals who can provide coaching, support, advice and visibility. Mentorship is not just about having a meeting with an influential senior colleague. It should focus on learning from someone’s experience to reflect on current situations and strategies. Effective mentor-mentee interaction and communication lead to mutual learning and listening. It should be a source of inspiration for self-reflection, self-exploration and self-reinvention on both sides, the mentor and the mentee.  

When asking female professionals about sources to seek mentors, three major venues were highlighted: 

  1. On-the-job communication and experiences (29.7%), 
  1. Personal connections and various networking opportunities (24.2%), and  
  1. Professional associations (17.8%) 

Informal conversations with influential colleagues/clients (15.4%) and external leadership training and coaching programs (15.0%) are other common avenues for seeking mentors. However, only one out of 10 (11.5%) confirmed that their mentor-mentee relationship was established through a mentorship program offered by their organization. Findings like these raise some critical questions about the development of mentoring initiatives in terms of quantity and quality.  

If this is what the data revealed, is there something more organizations can do to dedicate resources to build effective mentoring initiatives? We argue that organizations should strive to make mentoring part of a larger talent management system. 

To establish an inclusive culture, efforts are needed to pair young female professionals of high potential with senior and experienced executives (both men and women), within or outside of their own organization. Our research confirms that visibility and advocacy are essential components to career advancement and are closely tied to mentorship and sponsorship. Mentorship should not be simply treated as an internal program to promote better management. More strategically, it should be used as part of a broader career planning system for women (and other talented minorities) who have the desire to reach top leadership.  

At the same time, it is even more important to focus on the mutual learning and joint responsibilities that grow out of the mentor-mentee relationship. According to PRSA’s “Mentor Match” program, the profession holds a strong belief that mentoring initiatives are important as they contribute to the development of leadership capacity and offer tailored career advice. Organizations should dedicate conscious efforts in celebrating successful female professionals at all levels and providing mentoring and networking opportunities so that women can learn from each other about leadership participation and success.  

It is important for women within the organization to see role models. It is even more critical to offer the opportunity for them to connect with role models and seek advice on career planning, tracking, coaching, training, building influence, and balancing work duties and family responsibilities. By demonstrating joint responsibilities from both mentor and mentee, an effective mentoring initiative goes beyond experience sharing and storytelling.  

To learn more about the key findings revealed in our study, please check trends and challenges revealed in new book about women and leadership in public relations.  

For more information about this book, please visit

* This research project is co-sponsored by The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations and The Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication.