PR Leadership Study Highlights Global Trends, Future Needs

January 4, 2013

Leaders are crucial to the success of work teams, organizations and nations. Leaders affect our work lives, and increasingly, our social lives. They influence how we feel and what we say.

Research by management consultant Jim Shaffer found that leaders’ words and actions are responsible for 55 percent of employees’ perceptions about their work and organization, far more than formal employee communications (15 percent) or work teams (30 percent).

Despite this significance, little research has been devoted to leadership in communication management. The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations at the University of Alabama has begun to address this deficit with 20 research studies during the past five years.

Recently, the center, and sponsors Heyman Associates and IBM, conducted the largest study of leadership in public relations. Nearly 4,500 practitioners in 23 countries completed an online survey in nine languages. The study explored key issues in the profession, how PR leaders manage them and how we can improve the preparation of communication leaders for an uncertain and complex future.

We presented the results of the study to PR executives and academics at the Plank Center Leadership Summit in Chicago this past November. International researchers, panelists and speakers shared their insights about the findings and what they mean for PR professionals.

Context is key

The results underscore the global context of practice today, and the fact that “important issues are increasingly the global issues,” said Jon Iwata, senior vice president of marketing & communications at IBM.

And James Rosebush claimed in a recent Harvard Business Review article that great leaders are in short supply today because the context of leadership has changed dramatically. Leaders no longer have superior information access and control, and institutions are no longer revered, he said. The global study surveyed 10 leading issues in the field to determine their importance and provide a snapshot of the global context in which leaders operate.

Nearly two-thirds of respondents said that four issues were most crucial: dealing with the speed and flow of information (23 percent), managing the digital revolution (15.3 percent), improving measurement (12.2 percent) and dealing with fast-moving crises (11.9 percent). These technology-related issues are driving organizations everywhere to revise or create strategies to manage this digital revolution.

But technology isn’t the only issue. In India, Russia and China, for example, finding and retaining top communication talent is the most critical issue.

“To better develop future leaders, we must bring this larger external environment into every aspect of talent development,” said Gary Shafer, vice president of communications and public affairs at GE. “We need the basics of a global knowledge structure — culture, language, local practices and standards.”

Yet the study found few companies that were systematically providing cultural training for employees or strategically hiring employees with international experience.

Soft skills are the future

One of the most consistent findings across cultures was the importance of “soft skills” for future leaders.

Yes, measurement is crucial, as are social media skills, but increasing complexity and uncertainty emphasize the need for improved listening and conflict management skills, increased cultural understanding and better management of new technologies. Systemic changes, such as ethics codes, accreditation and core education curricula, are also important, but far less so than soft skills in most countries.

“Soft skills are the sweet spot in the profession,” said Dr. Linda Hon, a professor at the University of Florida. However, they are seldom the focus of sessions at professional conferences and meetings. When was the last time you or a colleague participated in a listening skills workshop?

Hon urged researchers to examine the shared vision and values that drive commitment to the field. Roger Bolton, president of the Arthur W. Page Society, described soft skills as “the potential road map to strategic leadership across the organization.”

Overall, these findings have implications for university education programs, management development programs, and association activities and priorities.

Measurement is an advantage

The study confirmed that the volume of media coverage still rules measurement approaches in many organizations worldwide.

“We need to get measurement done — now — and we need to be able to look into the future and see around corners better,” said Frank Ovaitt, president and CEO of the Institute for Public Relations (IPR).

 And Marco Herrera, founder & CEO of Grupo Public in Mexico City, and a member of IPR’s Measurement Commission, said that we need a compelling vision for measurement.

“We think of measures as standards and tools, but why not a powerful vision for measurement to convince skeptical executives and inspire practitioners?” he said. “Measurement can be the big competitive advantage we all want.”

Generational divides are deep

Younger professionals rank professional image and measurement as more important issues than older age groups. They also give significantly lower rankings to the presence of two-way communication in their organizations, and they want more. Their views diverge even further regarding the quality of performance by the top communication leader. 

Professor Kathy Fitzpatrick of Quinnipiac University explained: “We have to understand that older professionals see the practice world as ‘transformed,’ while younger practitioners see the practice world as ‘what is.’ The hustling digital world of today is what has always existed for them.”

Listening and sharing are the keys. Older professionals bring rich portfolios of experiences and practice knowledge, while younger professionals bring technological know how and high energy — they are significantly more positive about the future of the profession.

Knowledge is power

The dynamic global context underscores the crucial value of leadership. It also emphasizes the growing requirement for leaders to serve as astute information interpreters and decision makers.

PR leaders must do two things: 1) determine what is and isn’t important in the vast flow of information (and in the corresponding flow of opportunities to join, blog, tweet, like, post, share and so forth), and 2) translate  that information and those opportunities into meanings and actions in their organizations.

Doing these two things better and faster highlights the vital need for superior analytical and critical thinking skills, listening capabilities and global knowledge.

What’s the payoff? According to Iwata, successfully carrying out this role provides the opportunity “to become masters of very new ways to see the world” and to “lead our enterprises to new levels of impact and value.” 

Bruce K. Berger, Ph.D.

Bruce K. Berger, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of advertising and public relations at the University of Alabama (UA) and research director for the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations at UA. Previously, Berger was a PR professional for 20 years, working with two global companies and managing diverse projects in more than 30 countries.


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