Things Look Differently At The Top

Plank Center Report Card Reveals Wide Gap Between Performance Grades of PR Leaders and Their Employees

By: Bruce K. Berger, Ph. D., Juan Meng, Ph.D., and William Heyman

What’s the state of leadership in public relations? How are top leaders performing? Do they engage in work and trust their organizations? Are they satisfied with their jobs? Research reveals a lot about such issues in organizations and industries, but we know little about them in occupational groups like public relations.

The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations and Heyman Associates took a first look this year at these issues in the PR profession. A survey of 838 U.S. PR executives and managers revealed answers to these questions and captured views about the quality of organizational culture, which influences all of the other issues. Our report card indicates that the leaders receive passing grades for these issues, but crucial gaps highlight areas for improvement.

Five Findings in Brief…

  1. Public relations leaders receive passing grades for their job performance, trust in the organization, job satisfaction, work engagement, and organizational cultures in which they work:
  • Job performance: A-/C+     (Leaders rate their performance much higher than do followers)
  • Trust in the organization: C+ (Lowest grade; lack of concern for employees cited)
  • Job satisfaction: B-              (67% were satisfied or very satisfied)
  • Organizational culture: B-    (Shared decision-making and 2-way communication rated low)
  • Work engagement: B+          (Highest grade; 60% engaged)
  1. However, four crucial gaps highlight areas for attention and room for improvement:
    1. The great divide between leaders and followers: things look different at the top. Top leaders rated all five issues significantly higher than did followers at all levels.
    2. Differences between existing organizational cultures and rich, supportive cultures, sometimes referred to as cultures for communication. Key factors are insufficient 2-way communication, limited shared power in decision-making, and concerns about diversity.
    3. Professional women and men; they expressed significant differences regarding trust and the context for practice, or organizational culture.
    4. Agency professionals versus professionals in other types of organizations; agency professionals rated most items and issues higher than other types. Nonprofit personnel rated many items and categories lowest.
  2. Employee engagement is the key difference maker: it exerts the strongest direct effects on professionals’ levels of trust and job satisfaction.
  3. Employee engagement, in turn, is strongly affected by a supportive organizational culture and the quality of public relations leadership.
  4. Hiring the “right” professionals to lead, support, empower, and engage others becomes a crucial engagement strategy.

Background & Demographics

The Survey

A 39-question survey was developed to examine five interrelated issues in the field: 1) job performance, 2) trust, 3) job satisfaction, 4) organizational culture, and 5) work engagement. Questions for each issue were drawn from previously used item measures. The survey was distributed online to 16,800 PR leaders and managers, and 838 professionals completed the survey. This response provides a 99% confidence level (+/- 5%) that the results represent the larger population of surveyed professionals.


Most participants were experienced, high-level leaders and managers. Seventy-five percent of the 838 respondents were the #1 (30.2%) or #2 (45.6%) communication professional in their organization; 60% had more than 20 years of experience; and 90% had 11 years of experience or more. In addition, 242 professionals (28.9%) were over the age of 55; 349 (41.6%) were between 46-55 years of age; and 247 (29.5%) were under the age of 45.

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 professionals in nonprofits (228 or 27.2%), communication agencies (114 or 13.6%), self-employed (22 or 2.6%), and others (23 or 2.7%).

Many respondents indicated they belong to one or more professional associations. Those mentioned most frequently were: PRSA (349), IABC (130), Arthur W. Page Society (71), IPRA (32), PR Council (30), American Marketing Association (22), Communication Leadership Exchange (21), and Council for Advancement & Support of Education (20). Collectively, 94 different associations were named. However, nearly one-quarter (24.1%) of those surveyed don’t belong to any professional association.


The Grades

We assigned the grades for the five issues based on mean scores for item statements or grand mean scores for the five issues, and on comparative data where available. Respondents used a 7-point Likert type scale to evaluate statements, ranging from “I don’t agree at all” (1) to “I agree to a very great extent” (7).


Job Performance (A-/C+)

This is a split grade because leaders’ and followers’ perceptions of performance differ sharply. Top leaders rated their own job performance (6.3/7.0 scale) about an “A-,” while followers at one level below (4.84) and two or more levels below (4.48) gave their top leaders a “C+.” Leaders often rate their performance higher than followers, but the difference here statistically is Grand-Canyon sized. [This finding is similar to that in the global study (5.32 vs. 4.28 and 4.14), but the gap is even bigger in the current study.]

In addition to the performance question, leaders were evaluated on six dimensions: self-insights (vision), ethical orientation, participation in strategic decision making, team leadership capabilities, relationship building skills and communication knowledge management. The highest scores for dimensions were for ethical orientation (5.52) and involvement in strategic decision-making (5.54); the lowest grades were assigned to visioning (4.96) and team leadership capabilities (4.99). Leaders gave themselves significantly higher scores than did followers for all six dimensions of performance.

Men ranked leader dimensions (5.33) somewhat higher than women (5.12), and agency professionals ranked the dimensions (5.34) highest of all organizational types. Leaders in public corporations were rated lowest (5.11).

The gap between leaders and followers doesn’t necessarily mean that leaders are deficient or ineffective. Followers may assign lower grades for many reasons: they might be upset about other issues in their work or social lives, they may be unhappy with a recent project assignment or performance review, or they may unfairly attribute unpopular organizational decisions, e.g., a reduction in benefits for all employees, to their leader.

Nevertheless, closing this perception gap is important because leaders influence employee engagement, trust, culture, communication climate and other factors that bear on achievement of organizational objectives. The gaps may be reduced through 1) increased power sharing, or leader empowering behaviors, 2) strengthened two-way communications, and 3) enhanced interpersonal skills in team work. Leaders should look inward to reflect on their capabilities and behaviors.


Trust (C+)

The overall grade for trust (4.73) was a “C+,” the lowest grade among the issues. Scores were consistently lower at each level in the chain of command. Top leaders rated trust (5.37) much higher than did professionals one level lower (4.50) and two or more levels lower (4.32).

Six trust items were assessed, and participants gave highest marks to trusting their organization’s capabilities to accomplish what its goals (5.09), and to feeling confident about their organization’s skills to compete successfully (4.88). Lower marks were given to trusting their organization to take the opinions of employees into account when making decisions (4.49), and being concerned about employees when important decisions are being made (4.36). Female professionals (4.65) were less trusting than male professionals (4.81), and significantly less trusting of their organization’s commitment to keeping promises (4.50) and to taking the opinions of employees into account when making decisions (4.36).

Trust is crucial in building and sustaining relationships in our work and personal lives. Employee identification with their work teams and organizations is built around trust, which influences job satisfaction. Leaders influence trust through their communications and behaviors, which help shape the extent to which an organization’s culture is supportive and open.


Job Satisfaction (B-)

Job satisfaction (4.94) was graded a “B-.” Overall, 66.7% of the professionals were satisfied or very satisfied with their jobs; 22.1% were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their jobs; and 11.2% were neither satisfied nor dissatisfied. Job satisfaction also varied by hierarchical levels in the organizations. Top leaders (5.51) were significantly more satisfied with their jobs than those working one level lower (4.74) and two or more levels lower (4.67).

Males (4.99) were slightly more satisfied with their jobs than females (4.93). Agency professionals were more satisfied than those in other organizations; professionals in nonprofits were least satisfied.

Structural equation modeling of the data revealed that engagement and trust have strong direct effects on job satisfaction. Engagement, in turn, is strongly affected by leaders and organizational culture; trust is strongly affected by engagement and moderately affected by leadership and organizational culture (See attachment for Figure 2).


Organizational Culture (B-)

Overall, survey participants gave organizational culture (4.95) a “B-” grade. Culture refers here to the internal environment and processes and structures that facilitate or impede communication practices. Item measures for culture included the extent to which: 1) the CEO values and understands PR, 2) other functional leaders value and understand PR, 3) the organization shares decision-making power among employees, 4) two-way communication is practiced, 5) the organization values and practices diversity, and 6) the quality of the PR leader (this item was discussed in the job performance section above).

Rated highest was the CEO’s or top leader’s understanding and valuing of public relations (5.64); similar understanding and valuing by other functional leaders was rated significantly lower (5.07). Graded much lower were shared decision-making (4.07) and the practice of two-way communication (4.65). These differences–for CEO understanding and valuing PR and for the presence of 2-way communication—are quite similar to results in the global study (5.09 for CEO understanding and 4.82 for 2-way communication).

Overall, top leaders rated the cultural factors significantly higher (5.36) than professionals one level lower (4.82) and two or more levels lower (4.65) in the hierarchy. Women rated most cultural elements lower than men, and they rated shared decision-making power significantly lower (3.94), one of the poorest scores in the survey. Agency professionals rated cultural factors the highest among organizational types.

Organizational culture and structure influence what PR professionals do and even how they do it. Previous research has shown that the “best” culture may be a culture for communication, which is characterized by: 1) an open communication system where information and best practices are widely shared; 2) dialogue, discussion and learning; 3) the use of two-way and multiple communication channels; 4) a climate wherein employees can speak up, and be heard and listened to, without fear of retribution; and 5) leaders who support and value public relations and internal communications.


Work Engagement (B+)

The highest grade in the study (5.17) goes to work engagement, a “B+.” We used Gallup’s 12-item employee engagement survey (Gallup Q12) to assess work engagement among public relations leaders and managers. This survey has been used by hundreds of organizations and more than 25 million employees in the past two decades. Based on responses to the 12 questions, employees are grouped into three categories: engaged, not engaged and actively disengaged.

Engaged employees give greater discretionary effort, work with passion and feel strongly connected with their organization. Not engaged employees do the minimum, just enough to get by. They show up, go through the motions, but bring no energy or passion to the workplace. Actively disengaged employees can harm or weaken the organization. They act out their unhappiness or resentment on the job and adversely influence others—they can undercut organizational programs and goals.

In our survey, 60% of respondents were engaged; 34% were not engaged, and 6% were actively disengaged. These scores indicate that more PR leaders and managers are engaged, and fewer actively disengaged, than leaders and managers in other organizations or professions. Gallup scores over the years suggest a rough 30 – 50 – 20 ratio: 30% engaged, 50% not engaged and 20 % disengaged. Rates are higher for executives: 56% of high-level executives in the Gallup data set score are engaged. In our survey, 72% of top PR leaders were engaged, while 54% of those one level below top PR leaders were engaged and 51% of those two or more levels below.

Consistent with Gallup Q12 findings elsewhere, engagement levels were highest among high-ranking, long-service PR professionals, and lowest among lower-level professionals with less than 11 years of service. Also consistent with Gallup’s database, women (5.22) were a bit more engaged than men (5.11). The one area women rated lower was, “My opinions count at work.” Nevertheless, they were more engaged than men despite ongoing equality issues like lower pay and promotional bias.

Understanding leaders’ engagement levels is important because they strongly influence employees’ engagement, which in turn strongly affects employee trust and job satisfaction. As Gallup suggests in its comprehensive State of the American Workplace Report (2013), this puts a premium on finding and hiring the right manager and leader—a set of distinctive skills and capabilities—so that hiring itself becomes a crucial engagement strategy, i.e. a premium is placed on selecting the “right” individuals to lead, support, empower and engage others.


The good news is that overall grades for the five issues for leaders in the field are passing grades. At the same time, four gaps were revealed, which need to be reduced or closed to strengthen leadership, practice, and outcomes for the profession and organizations. These are gaps between:

  • The perceptions of top leaders and followers. Top leaders rate their performance, trust, work engagement, job satisfaction and organizational culture significantly higher than followers at all levels. Things look different—and far better—at the top. Leaders may often rate their own performance and some other factors higher than do followers, but the size of the gaps in this study is concerning. If leaders by definition have followers, then at what point do perception gaps adversely impact followers, or reduce the number of followers? Leaders should look inside themselves to consider their actions and behaviors in the workplace.
  • 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 existing organizational cultures and a rich, open 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 communication channels; 4) a climate in which employees can speak up, and be heard and listened to, without fear of retribution; and 5) leaders who support and value public relations and internal communications.
  • Women and men in the profession. Their perceptions of shared power in decision making, 2-way communications, and the valuing of their opinions differ significantly as reflected in trust, culture, and engagement issues. Women indicated that they want to be more involved in strategic decision making, they want their opinions to count for more, and they want a communication system that places greater emphasis on two-way communication. In addition to the continuing pay-gap issue between men and women (Dozier, Sha, & Shen, 2013), these perception gaps require attention.
  • Agencies and other organizational types. Professionals working in agencies rated most of the items and categories higher and significantly higher than other organizational types. Nonprofits rated many items lowest. What can we learn from this? The Gallup Report indicated that engagement levels were often higher in smaller work teams. Are smaller work teams or designated client teams more characteristic of agencies? Does an organization/culture consisting of only communication professionals provide a clearer vision and set of objectives?

The most encouraging news is the grade of “B+” for work engagement. This is good news for several reasons. First, engagement affects the bottom line. Organizations and work teams with more engaged employees have significantly better customer ratings, productivity and profit levels, and lower turnover and absenteeism (Gallup Report, 2013).

Second, top leaders and front-line managers strongly influence engagement levels through their behaviors, communications and interactions with others. Highly engaged leaders, then, can energize and inspire greater discretionary efforts. Third, engagement appears to be a key driver that strongly links to each of the other issues in the study. The following chart provides a dramatic picture of these linkages based on our research findings:

Engagement Level

Engaged PR professionals hold significantly more positive perceptions of all four issues: they viewed their organization’s culture as more supportive, they rated leader performance higher, they placed greater trust in their organization, and they expressed greater job satisfaction. All ratings are significantly higher than the other groups.

The study also found that engagement is strongly influenced by supportive organizational culture and excellent leadership. The predictive model below indicates that culture and leadership very strongly influence each other. In turn, they exert strong influence on employee engagement and moderate influence on work place trust. Engagement exerts strong influence on trust, and both engagement and trust strongly influence professionals’ job satisfaction. In this model, employee engagement is both a key outcome and a powerful driver. Engaged employees are productive workers and positive influencers and role models.