Self-Reflection in Public Relations Leaders


Drs. Bruce K. Berger and Elina Erzikova examine self-reflection as a foundational tool in global leadership and offer practical insights on how to improve these tools in the classroom and practice.

Executive Summary

Self-reflection is a primary way we examine ourselves and how others see us to increase self-awareness, a crucial quality for leaders. Greek philosophers believed self-knowledge was the highest form of knowledge and essential for critical thinking and self-improvement. Studies in communication, psychology and education confirm these and other benefits of SR, e.g., richer relationships and emotional intelligence, enhanced decision-making and leadership skills and more productive and engaged work teams.

Despite its importance to leaders (and others), SR has received little research attention in public relations. Various leadership theories highlight the importance of SR and self-awareness, notably authentic, servant and transformational theories. In public relations, SR is implicit in Excellence Theory but much more explicit in the Integrated Model of Leadership in PR (Meng & Berger, 2013). This model combines six personal dimensions for excellent leadership, five of which incorporate SR: self-dynamics, team leadership capabilities, relationship building and ethical orientation, and strategic decision making. This model provides the framework for this study.

To learn more about SR perceptions and practices among PR leaders, this study examined SR in diverse Russian (N=15) and North American (N=15) PR leaders via depth interviews. The interviews probed for insights to help answer five research questions: how and to what extent the leaders practiced SR, barriers to productive SR, practical benefits of SR in their work role, and the extent to which mentoring might contribute to the development of SR and leadership capabilities.

Overall, the study found all PR leaders in both countries believed SR is an important leadership capability, though practiced and valued somewhat differently in the two systems. The leaders shared similar views about the role, process, practice and benefits of SR. They:

  • Recognized the value and importance of SR in thinking, decision-making and increasing overall self-awareness.
  • Practiced SR virtually every day, though their approaches varied.
  • Identified similar barriers to productive SR, including: 1) ego or excessive self-criticism, 2) constant time pressures and 3) lack of supervisory or organizational support for SR.
  • Named similar influences SR exerts on their leadership roles, e.g., stronger relationships, better decision-making, richer communications and a healthier balance and outlook.
  • Used SR to deal with shared issues in the workplace, such as managing difficult relationships, resolving client disputes, building teams and managing crises.
  • Confirmed the value of mentors and the ways in which they can influence leadership development, as well as job preparation and performance. The PR leaders also expressed some differences, by country, in SR perceptions and processes, though most were more/less, not either/or differences. Four were more meaningful:
  • The Russians used the me-reflection approach (a nearly total focus on the self), while North Americans used the we-reflection approach (incorporating others in their SR).
  • The Russians raised far more concerns about “dangerous” SR, or excessive self-criticism that can slow down a decision-making process, while North Americans saw the SR journey as a positive step, an accelerating trip that leads to an ever-brighter horizon in their work and social lives.
  • The Americans strongly valued the role and influence of mentors, whom they suggested were the “best” SR teachers, while Russians emphasized the role of classical and educational literature in their SR development.
  • North American leaders tended to approach SR holistically by using multiple methods (e.g., self-talk, reading, seeking feedback), while Russians tended to use an atomistic approach by focusing on a single approach.

In short, North American and Russian leaders share similar ideas about the concept, practice and value of SR. However, as the differences above suggest, SR is one concept that operates somewhat differently in the two systems: the texture and scope of SR provides varying levels of value and meaningfulness to leaders in the two countries.

The study’s richest contributions are the practical, actionable implications for improving SR capabilities and practices among professionals, educators and students. The most valuable may be a six-step strategic SR process that describes how to prepare mentally for SR, and then to plan and carry out insights from the introspection. Another rich implication for mentors and mentees is a “questioning approach,” which teaches meaningful self-inquiry: mentors ask thoughtful questions to help mentees reach answers, rather than simply answering their questions. Study participants also suggested seven “building blocks” to stimulate and improve student SR in the classroom. Overall, the study sheds new light on SR in PR leadership practice and development and provides actionable implications for practice and education.

Download the Self-Reflection Study (PDF)