To Great Women in PR in the Past And in the Future

Bruce K. Berger, Ph.D., University of Alabama & Juan Meng, Ph.D., University of Georgia | March 2021

As we celebrate Women’s History Month in public relations, and the rich contributions and legacies of great women in the field, it is a good time to acknowledge some crucial gaps in leadership between men and women in the field.

These gaps are highlighted in the only empirical study of leadership performance in PR, the Plank Center Report Card on Leadership (2015, 2017 and 2019). All three studies reveal that women and men see the profession today through starkly different eyes and experience their work cultures in contrasting ways.

Based on the 2019 Report Card, the differences have grown more pronounced. Women in PR are less engaged in their work, less satisfied with their jobs, less confident in their work cultures, less trusting of their organizations and more critical of top leaders in their organizations. Overall, PR leadership was graded a C+ by more than 800 professionals in each study–mired in mediocrity, marked by gender disparities and lacking diversity.

The chorus for change—for more female and diverse leaders—grew louder in the contentious pandemic year of 2020, intensified by heated political division and demonstrations and marches to protest social injustices and inequities. Some gains were made by women and diverse professionals in public relations, and commitments were made by more organizations to do far more in this regard, though we don’t yet know the true weight of those promises.  

The Plank Center research over the past five years provides a consistent and convincing voice for more change. Women in the profession are saying:

  • We want greater involvement in decision making.
  • We want our opinions to count for more.
  • We need a communication system that is truly two way.
  • We demand equal pay, opportunity, and respect.
  • We must diversify our profession and its leadership.  
  • We need more female role models in top leadership.
  • We want mentors and sponsors to advocate for advancement.

Collectively, these changes have the power to revitalize organizations by creating cultures for communication. Such work cultures valorize two-way communication, active listening and empathy. They also create a space where employees feel free to speak up without fear of retribution; decision-making is widely shared; and leaders are empowering and inclusive. And they provide broad and consistent support for addressing equity and diversity in leadership development practice.

We hope the profession will look back some day on the 2020s as the decade of PR history where women and diverse professionals opened new doors in their leadership roles and helped create a more diverse, engaging, ethical, inclusive and productive practice field.