Presentation: Report Card on PR Leaders


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.

Nearly 1,200 PR leaders and professionals in the U.S. recently 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.

Dr. Bruce Berger presents the findings in this recorded presentation.

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BRUCE BERGER: Hello and welcome. I’m Bruce Berger, Professor Emeritus at The University of Alabama and Research Director for The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, which is at the University of Alabama.

I’m really pleased today to share with you some key findings from our latest leadership research project that we call the Plank Center Report Card on PR Leaders 2017. This biennial study of PR leaders was sponsored by the Plank Center and by Heyman Associates, which is a leading communication executive search firm based in New York City.

Let me begin with just a few words about Betsy Plank and the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations. Betsy began a career in public relations in 1944 at a time when the profession was almost totally male. And she became a legend in public relations. In fact, she was often referred to as the first lady of public relations.

She was the first woman to serve as president of PRSA. She was the first woman to co-chair the Commission on PR Education, and she was an intense supporter of public relations education and played a leading role in creating the Public Relations Student Society of America in 1967. And she was a mentor to hundreds of folks, young and old, in our field.

Created in 2005, the Center today has 28 board members, reading professionals, and academics, and we conduct a growing number of programs in support of our mission, which is to recognize and help advance leaders and mentors in the profession and in education. These programs include things like the online Platform magazine, which is for national PR students, summer educator fellowships for teachers, the annual Milestones in Mentoring Gala in Chicago that recognizes and celebrates top mentors, among other programs.

Now one constant area of focus for us has been resurgent leadership, mentorship, and diversity. And the Center has conducted or sponsored 35 studies about leadership topics in public relations. We think our most significant contributions probably are the big global study of leadership that involved nearly 5,000 professionals in 23 countries in 2012, and the development of an integrated model of leadership in the lower left corner of the slide, which consists of seven dimensions of leadership, if you will, or competency categories within the field.

This model has been tested and validated in 12 countries and regions. It’s been used as the basis for PR leadership class at the University of Alabama, and for the Center’s new Challenge for Emerging Leaders program, which is an intensive, hands-on, two-day leadership development program for top PR seniors in the field.

In 2015, we conducted the first report card on PR leaders in the US. And the idea really was not to criticize the profession or leaders, but really to try to identify leadership gaps, areas where we could improve leadership in our field. 830 professionals were involved in this initial study, which focused on leaders’ job performance, engagement, trust, job satisfaction, and the quality of their work cultures.

We repeated the same study earlier this year, and this time nearly 1,200 US professionals participated in the 39-question online survey. As you see, the demographics reflect a very high-level group of communication professionals. Three-quarters of the participants were either the number one or two communication professionals in their organization. 90% had more than 10 years of experience. A bit more than half were female, and the majority came from public or private corporations.

Now many respondents said they belonged to professional associations like PRSA, IABC, Page Society, the Seminar, and so forth. But intriguingly to us, 45% said they didn’t belong to any professional communication association.

Well, what about the grades for the 2017 report card? They’re in, and overall, I have to say, they’re rather disappointing. We didn’t see any real improvement in them from 2015. And in fact, grades for work culture, job engagement, job satisfaction slipped lower. And overall, the grades were pretty average, a C plus.

As I quickly mentioned, we really tried to answer five questions in the research. How are PR leaders performing on the job? To what extent are they engaged in their work? To what extent do they trust their organization? What’s the relative quality of their organizational culture? And how satisfied are they, in fact, with their job? Let’s take a closer look at results for each of these five areas.

Now with respect to leadership performance, we have a split grade, because leaders and their employees’ perceptions of performance differ very sharply. This is the same grade, in fact, almost exactly as in 2015. Top leaders think they’re doing a good job. They give themselves overall an A-minus. But employees gave top leaders a C plus. Now leaders would often, I think, rate their own performance maybe a bit higher, but the gap here, statistically speaking, is huge.

Now the leaders were rated on six dimensions. Their self-insights, ethical orientation, participation in strategic decision making, team leadership capabilities, relationship-building skills, and communication knowledge management. The employees gave leaders high marks for ethical orientation and involvement in strategic decision making, but they gave much lower grades for visioning, self-insights, and team leadership capabilities.

Overall, men rated top leaders somewhat higher than women, but the overall grades for male and female leaders were virtually the same. Agency professionals rated their top leaders highest. Private corporations, they were rated lowest.

Regarding job engagement, a B minus. We used Gallup’s engagement survey, employee engagement survey, which groups respondents into three categories. Employees who are engaged, not engaged, and actively engaged.

Engaged employees gave greater discretionary effort. They work with passion and they feel strongly connected with their organization. Not engaged employees do just enough to get by. They show up, but they don’t bring any real energy or passion to their work. And disengaged employees can harm or weaken the organization because they act out their own happiness, which may adversely influence others.

Now the grade fell in 2017 from the B plus in 2015, because the number of engaged professionals dropped. Number or percentage of engaged professionals dropped nearly three points from 59.7% to 57.2%. And while nearly three quarters or 71.7% of top leaders were engaged, only about half of their employees were.

Now the decline largely is tied to lower engagement levels among women. In 2015, more women– 61.3%– were engaged than men, 57.9%. But in 2017, more men– 62.1%– were engaged than women, 52.9%. In the non-top leader group, less than half of women were engaged– 46.4%– and nearly one in 10– 9.7%– was actively disengaged.

Turning to trust, the trust score was virtually the same as in 2015, a C plus. Six items were examined here, and highest trust marks were given to the trust in the organization’s skills and abilities to accomplish goals and to be able to compete successfully in the global marketplace.

Lower marks were given to trusting the organization to keep its promises to employees, and to valuing employees when big strategic decisions are being made. Trust levels among women were significantly lower, especially for taking employee opinions into account when making decisions and to having concerns for employees when big strategic decisions are being made. Trust levels were highest in agencies and lowest in private corporations.

Looking at organizational culture– and culture here really refers to the internal environment, the processes, the structures that help or hinder communication. The grade fell from a B minus to a C plus. How the CEO valued and understood PR was rated higher than that of other functional leaders in the organization, and other cultural elements like shared decision making, two-way communication, diversity were graded much lower.

Women rated all cultural elements lower than men, significantly lower than men, and shared decision making received one of the lowest scores in the survey for women. Culture was rated highest in agencies, lowest in private companies. And you’re starting to see a pattern there in terms of type of organization.

OK. Job satisfaction, the last category here. Job satisfaction also fell from a B minus in 2015 to a C plus this year. The percentage of those who were satisfied or very satisfied or very satisfied declined nearly five points from 66.7% to 61.9%.

More men– 65.9%– than women– 58.3%– were satisfied or very satisfied with their job. More than one quarter of women– more than one quarter, 26.8%– were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their job, an issue across all types of the organizations that were in our study.

Satisfaction was highest in nonprofit organizations and lowest in private corporations. Now job satisfaction is directly influenced by trust and engagement and indirectly by leaders and culture.

So, looking at this model, it really expresses the relationships among the five areas that I just covered very quickly. Leadership and culture on the left very strongly influence each other. That’s no surprise, really. The culture influences and pushes on leaders, and leaders, in fact, can push back on culture.

Leaders strongly influence employee engagement. Very strongly influence that engagement. And culture strongly influences trust in the organization. Engagement strongly influences job satisfaction. Trust, somewhat less so.

So organizational culture and leadership performance help predict job satisfaction, but they’re mediated really by engagement levels and by trust in the organization. So, the bottom line to me is that enriching leaders’ performance and organizational culture– and I repeat– enriching leaders’ performance and organizational culture drives engagement trust and job satisfaction.

OK. Now that’s a quick review of some key findings in our study of nearly 1,200 professionals. And given the response level, over 95% confidence these findings represent the population of 31,000 professionals who, in fact, were in our survey population.

Now I’m going to highlight three implications of the findings and what we think they mean, in fact, for the profession. The three areas are some important gaps that need to be addressed, the issues of engagement, the need for more strategic and systematic development of leaders in the field. Let’s look at the gaps first.

Gap number one, top leaders and employees. Top leaders rated their performance and all other areas much higher than employees. Things look different and far better at the top. Now, this isn’t surprising. As I mentioned, I think leaders often would rate their performance higher. But statistically, the gap is huge.

One of the interesting aspects of this, though, is that there’s no gender gap in this finding. In fact, this is one of the few, and maybe the only one in the study, where there’s no difference. Women and men at the top rated their performance and all other areas virtually the same as men. OK?

Now, what does it mean for us in practice? Well, leaders can benefit from relying less on the transmission mode and more on the reception and listening mode when communicating with employees. Solutions include increased power-sharing or leader-empowering behaviors, strengthened two-way communication, and enhanced interpersonal skills like listening and conflict management.

Gap number two. Existing culture. Existing culture and a culture for communication. Now issues like a lack of two-way communication, power sharing, and diversity highlight differences between these existing cultures and a rich system that is sometimes referred to as a culture for communication. This was a term or an approach first used and described by Professor Jim [INAUDIBLE].

This culture is characterized, as you can see here, by an open system where information is widely shared by dialogue, discussion, and learning, by the use of two-way and multiple channels, a climate in which employees can speak up without fear of retribution, and leaders who support and value communications. Creating and nurturing a culture like this is one of the areas in which PR leaders do need to push back on culture to be agents for cultural change. That is a key part of the leadership role.

Gap number three. Perceptions of women and men in the profession. The gender differences in perceptions of the five areas deepened in 2017. Women’s perceptions of their lack of shared power, limited two-way communication, and devaluing of their opinions are reflected in lower levels of trust in the organization, less confidence in leaders, and sharply declining job engagement and job satisfaction.

Progress and diversity in our field in many senses remains very slow. Now for women in the survey, it seems that being successful in public relations is still very challenging. The pay gap is real. The opportunity gap is real. And the being heard and respected gap is real.

Now the power to act resides in the minds, hearts, and hands of current leaders at all levels in the profession, and it’s time for a lot more action and a lot less talk. We can close the gaps by equalizing pay, opportunities, recognition, and development, and by shared decision making.

OK. The second implication concerns the importance of job engagement. In 2015 this, in fact, was the strongest grade of all in our study, a B plus. Compared to other professions, in fact, more PR professionals seem to be more strongly engaged.

But the grade in 2017 dropped to a B minus, and the drop was especially big, again, for women in our field. Engagement also dropped just a bit among the most senior communication leaders in the survey. So, if we look at this focus on engagement then, it’s important for a number of reasons.

First, engagement links closely with the bottom line, as has been revealed in the comprehensive Gallup report 2013 and other studies. Organizations and work teams with more engaged employees have significantly better customer raters, higher productivities, higher profit levels, and lower turnover and absenteeism.

Second, previous research documents said top leaders and frontline managers strongly influence engagement through their communications and interactions with others. Highly engaged leaders energize and inspire greater discretionary efforts.

Third, engagement’s also strongly linked to each of the other issues in our study, as this figure reveals. Engaged PR professionals, one, view their organization’s culture as more supportive; two, they rated leader performance higher; three, they placed greater trust in their organization; and four, they expressed far greater job satisfaction. All ratings are significantly higher than the other groups in the engagement area.

OK. The third implication concerns the development of current and future PR leaders. What are we doing to prepare our leaders for our future? How do we select it? What development approaches do we use? How do we assess progress? How can we be more strategic?

Now in our large global study in 2012, as part of that, we interviewed 137 leaders in 10 countries and regions. We raised these questions with them, and their answers globally were quite discouraging. In fact, leadership was on the radar screen in only the US and German-speaking countries. And in those countries, leadership development efforts were fragmented with some companies doing some work, professional associations not doing very much, and numerous leadership development gurus and providers competing intensely for business.

Now as you can see in this slide, leadership and strategic and systemic development is important, because the journey to leadership is lifelong. There’s no expiration date for leadership development. There’s no expiration date for leadership learning. And as we develop different capabilities, we enrich our capacity in each of these five stages.

Now, this has been documented in studies in psychology, in education. And in our own Plank Center research, we very recently concluded a study in the US, Russia, Brazil, India, and China on this exact topic. Now overall, the five strongest developmental influencers throughout the phases are, as listed in the upper right-hand corner, mentors, one’s ability to think reflectively and be self-aware, meaningful work involvement, diverse group experiences, and life events and experiences.

Now some of the best leadership development work today occurs in large organizations, according to Aon Hewitt. Such companies like IBM, Procter & Gamble, GE, 3M, and so on. And says that one-third of organizations do very little leadership development, OK? Another third takes a pretty standard approach. They prepare an annual development plan for high potentials and conduct a performance review.

The one-third best-in-class companies do three things differently. First, they see leadership development differently. They have a vision for it. They see it as a continuous process. Lifelong learning, development forever.

Second, development is a strategic asset. Existing leaders are accountable for developing and carrying out talent pool plans, preparations, and evaluations. These become part of the overall strategy and culture of the organization. And existing top leaders are responsible for modeling the way and exemplifying values.

Third, best-in-class companies possess a measurement mindset. They measure many aspects of it. Talent tracking and movement, retention, levels of engagement, onboarding experiences, and so forth.

Finally, what’s at the core of leadership development? Our research around this question was used to develop a PR leadership course for seniors at Alabama, and we spent a lot of time reading the work of real specialists in the field, university leadership development experts who focus on this very much.

We’ve obviously reviewed our own research. We’ve taken a look at what the Page Society has done in this regard, PRSA. And we’ve spoken with experts at the Center for Creative Leadership, one of the best leadership resources I think we have available today.

And what we documented is six core areas for leadership development. They emerged really quite consistently in our research, and they’re indicated here. Self-awareness is highlighted, because it may be the most crucial capability of all.

We also learned interesting and with respect to students that the two best predictors for students to become successful leaders in our field in the future are, number one, the leaders, the extent to which they’ve carried out leadership roles in many respects, in high school and college. And two, the extent to which they have the opportunity to take advantage of [INAUDIBLE] from special leadership development opportunity in classes, workshops, internships, and mentorships.

OK. I’m going to close it here. I want to thank you very much for your attention. We plan to conduct the next leadership report card research in 2019. Meanwhile, we all have some work to do, I think, to advance leadership in public relations, which is the whole purpose of this study, to identify areas for improvement in order to advance us in the field.

And as Bill Heyman said, upon the release of these results, he said, the bottom line is we need to be bigger leaders. And I think he’s right there. Thank you very much.