The Future of Our Profession: Developing the Next Generation of Leaders

May 1, 2015

[martin barraud/caiaimagine]
[martin barraud/caiaimagine]

In the past few months, we have been interviewing senior practitioners, recent graduates and current students nationwide to better understand perceptions of leadership development in our profession. Why does this topic matter so much? According to Deloitte’s 2014 Global Human Capital Trends report, about two-thirds of companies worldwide report a deficiency in leadership development among their millennial employees. The PR profession is not immune to this concern.

In fact, the largest global study of PR leadership to date, supported by the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, affirmed that leadership development should be a priority for our profession. Thousands of practitioners around the globe participated in that ambitious study, and the findings serve as a rigorous foundation and an important call-to-action.

Why leadership development matters

The future leaders of our profession want to make a difference in their organizations and communities. But a college degree only takes them so far on the leadership development path. They need and want your guidance on how to better adapt to changing circumstances, and how to lead others in these challenging times.

Through our interviews, we are beginning to understand how perceptions of leadership vary across generations within the PR profession, and how gaps in leadership development impact our industry and up-and-coming practitioners. We want to help senior- and mid-level practitioners identify and embrace ideas for better developing leadership competencies in their young colleagues and interns.

Prior studies have given us a solid starting point. For example, we know that leadership development generally involves work-related experiences that help a person learn how to influence group behavior and achieve team goals. And, we also know that millennials often need a more diverse blend of teaching methods when it comes to developing leadership skills. What we have heard in our initial interviews is consistent with these earlier studies, yet sheds light on several needs and challenges that are unique to the PR profession.

What aspiring leaders want and need

Our sample of interview subjects is not yet large or balanced enough to be fully representative of the profession. Broader and more systematic research will be necessary to validate initial findings. However, some consistent themes have emerged that are worth pondering:

  • Senior practitioners, recent graduates and current students have somewhat differing perceptions of leadership in public relations. Senior practitioners tend to emphasize being accountable, managing organizational reputation and having the ethics and integrity needed to serve as the conscience of an organization. Recent graduates consider leadership to be more about thinking ahead and being innovative. Current students see leadership as being ethical, yet with a focus on providing guidance to direct reports and other members of the PR team. Being more aware of these differing perceptions may help you be more in tune as a leader, and help you remind your team about the many competing demands of leadership.
  • Young professionals and students are hungry for mentoring. Thus far, the recent graduates and students have emphasized the vital role that internship supervisors, professors and parents play in their personal and professional development. Young people want to work effectively with others and better understand how to adapt to changing situations. They seek validation, but they also want to grow in maturity and independence. They would like to be more self-confident, especially when it comes to ethical challenges.
  • Young people in public relations want to step into leadership responsibilities, rather than simply watch and observe. The young professionals and students like to take on small leadership responsibilities, as they believe that this helps them much more than simply watching others lead. They have also mentioned the importance of being able to manage less-sensitive aspects of a bigger project, or to serve as team leader or primary contact for a small project or pro bono effort. 
  • Young professionals need to feel comfortable taking risks without fearing failure. Senior practitioners advocated the value of letting young professionals and students fail and teaching them how to rebound. Experience builds leadership. Young professionals and students also shared that encouragement from peers, professors, supervisors and others often motivated them to assume leadership roles. Often, this vote of confidence and gesture of support were key motivations to take on leadership challenges.
  • Young professionals know the importance of hard work. Senior- and mid-level practitioners should be happy to know that recent graduates and students proactively mentioned that hard work and proving themselves are what will earn them leadership responsibilities. Entitlement? That didn’t shine through in our interviews. Rather, young professionals seem to know the importance of basic leadership skills such as active listening and continual learning. Whether they know how to develop such competencies, or are having others help them do so, may be the bigger question.


How to move forward

Our study covers much more ground, and we look forward to sharing more detailed findings through conference presentations and subsequent publications. Truth be told, though, we are just scratching the surface when it comes to the important question of how we can better develop future generations of PR leaders. We welcome your feedback, and even more so, we encourage your active participation.

Aspiring leaders need your guidance. Please keep paying forward the many lessons that you have learned through your own career. You might be surprised to know just how big of an impact you are making on young professionals — and on the future of our profession.

David L. Remund, Ph.D., APR, is an assistant professor of public relations in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon. Connect with him via email (, Twitter (@remund) or LinkedIn.

Michele Ewing, APR, Fellow PRSA, is an associate professor of public relations in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Kent State University. Connect with her via email (, Twitter (@meewing) or LinkedIn.


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