Study Details Timeline, Cultural Variations of Leadership Cycle Among Public Relations Practitioners

This cross-cultural exploratory study by The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations is the first known attempt to understand the process and various stages of leadership development in public relations specialists.

Featuring participants from Brazil, China, India, Russia and the United States, the study details and provides insight into similarities and variances across cultural boundaries of when practitioners begin to learn and exhibit leadership qualities. The work earned the Arthur W. Page Center Benchmarking Award on March 11 at the International Public Relations Research Conference in Orlando, FL.

Principal investigators Elina Ezrikova, Ph.D., and Diana Martinelli, Ph.D., used primary qualitative research from PR practitioners and student leaders for the study. Other investigators who assisted in the study included Nilanjana Bardhan, Ph.D., from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale; Juan Meng, Ph.D., of The University of Georgia; and Gustavo Becker and Andreia Athaydes, Universidade Luterana do Brasil (Lutheran University of Brazil).

The study indicated that having strong technical skills is viewed as the main prerequisite to develop into a PR leader; thus, this dimension seems to be the critical first step for receiving PR leadership opportunities. Other personal leadership dimensions found to be learned early in life and developed more fully over time include:

  • self-dynamics (first learned through family/peer interactions and through those of school/organizations/groups);
  • ethical orientation (first learned from family/religious values);
  • team collaboration (first learned through family, sports, church and school projects); and
  • relationship-building (first learned through interactions with peers, teachers, family members, coaches).

Study participants included 51 undergraduate and graduate students and public relations practitioners. Practitioners ranged in age from the mid-20s to 60s and had a combined 430 years of public relations experience. The study centered around six research questions about leadership development.

  1. What are public relations practitioners’ perceptions of leadership development across the lifespan?

Across all of the countries surveyed, practitioners agreed that leadership development began early in their lives, first as group members and then as leaders in environments from sports to church groups to classroom roles. Practitioners noted that much of this motivation came from external and familial factors, such as being the oldest child or circumstances in their own lives that necessitated early responsibility.


  1. What are public relations students’ perceptions of leadership development stages in the public relations field?

Students in four of the five countries – Russia, China, India and the United States – reported that their leadership skills began at age 10 or younger, during grade school. Whether placed into or assuming the roles of class leaders or through organizations such as athletics or student councils, these students’ development began at an early age. Brazilian students, however, first reported leadership skill development while they were teenagers, through their work in church, athletics and college. Collectively, these early opportunities allowed them to develop the independence and self-confidence necessary to grow as a leader over time.


  1. Are the development stages of leadership in public relations different from those of other fields or professions?

The majority of professionals in Russia and India cited that leadership development in public relations is no different from that of other fields, while the majority of Brazilian and American practitioners cited a difference. Factors such PR education, not including enough leadership elements, the critical roles of ethics and collaboration in PR practice, and the ability to respond quickly were cited as examples of this difference.

On the whole, students believed that leadership development was not different from other fields, except for the U.S. students, who cited the profession’s emphasis on communication and building relationships as distinguishing it from others. Their responses epitomize a sense that many factors seen as part of PR leadership development may not necessarily apply to other fields, or at least not at the same levels of emphasis.


  1. How effective do practitioners perceive formal educational activities and informal PR leadership education to be in developing or eliciting leadership in public relations?

The United States provides the most readily accessible leadership development programs, while other countries either gained it as part of college course work or experience, if at all. However, practitioners across cultures, except Russia, seek out leadership training opportunities for training and believe they should be incorporated into college curricula, along with sector-specific practical training.

Students provided a similar perspective: Chinese, Indian and Russian students had not received formal PR leadership training, although the majority of countries except China had students who said they had received generic leadership training in youth organizations or academic workshops. Overall, the majority of both practitioners and students believed informal leadership education was most effective, yet many desired formal training in managing teams and crisis management. The study noted that formal training should be culturally specific.


  1. What is the role of mentors and peer models in developing public relations leadership skills/abilities?

Across all cultures, practitioners reported having mentors (from parents to teachers to bosses) and cited the benefits of mentorship on personal confidence and mutual growth. Some practitioners in all countries except China cited family members as their most inspiring mentors; the majority of Chinese practitioners listed former or current bosses are seen as the most inspiring.

Students displayed a similar parallel: family members took the lead as primary mentors. As with their professional counterparts, Russian students indicated that their fathers were role models; students from China, the United States and Brazil split between family members and teachers or professors. Like professionals, students also expressed a desire to replicate or model their mentor’s styles in their own mentoring relationships.


  1. What are the effects of organizational (cultural) conditions on public relations leadership development?

Practitioners in four of the five countries (except Russia) reported that a boss’s respectful belief in others played a positive role in developing a leadership development. However, at least one respondent from each of the surveyed countries (except China and the United States) mentioned the influence of a negative authoritative environment as enhancing one’s drive to become a better practitioner, in this case out of necessity. Agency structure and perfectionism were also mentioned as influential factors—both pro and con—on leadership development, while only U.S. female practitioners said gender was a factor, noting that women practitioners need access to women leaders who can serve as mentors and role models.

For more information on the study, go to or download the complete report.

About The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations

The University of Alabama Board of Trustees established The Plank Center in 2005. Named for public relations leader and UA alumna, the late Betsy Plank, the Center develops and recognizes outstanding diverse public relations leaders, role models and mentors to advance ethical public relations in an evolving, global society through a variety of initiatives (