Lonely at the Top: Survey Reveals Wide Gaps Between PR Leaders and Their Employees

July 20, 2015

[jetta productions/getty]
[jetta productions/getty]

Leadership is a crucial strategic asset, and our profession has been blessed with some outstanding leaders, past and present. Yet research at the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations suggests that this asset is underdeveloped. A great deal of potential or latent leadership capital remains to be enriched, mobilized and invested in practice.

Our recent report card on communication leaders underscores this opportunity. The report reveals a Grand Canyon-size gap between leaders’ evaluations of their own performance and how their employees rate them, as well as sharply differing perceptions regarding work engagement, job satisfaction, organizational trust and culture.

The grades are based on a recent survey, conducted by the Plank Center at the University of Alabama and Heyman Associates, of 838 U.S.-based PR executives and managers. Participants rated the performance of their top PR leader, the quality of their workplace culture, and their own levels of work engagement, trust in their organization and job satisfaction.

The goal of this biennial report is to assess the state of leadership and identify gaps or opportunities to enrich the development of communication leaders. If we know where the gaps are, then we can close them and strengthen the overall quality of our profession’s crucial leadership capital.

Here’s a quick review of the grades:

The grades

Job performance of the top leader (A-/C+)

Leaders’ and employees’ perceptions of the top leader’s performance differed sharply: Leaders gave themselves an A-, while employees gave them a C+. Leaders received high marks for ethical orientation and involvement in strategic decision-making, but earned lower marks for their vision, relationship-building skills and team leadership capabilities.
This gap doesn’t necessarily mean that leaders are ineffective. Employees may be unhappy about other issues in their lives, or with a recent assignment or work review. But closing the gap is important because leaders influenced all other issues in our study.

Work engagement (B+)

Sixty percent of PR leaders were engaged in their work, 34 percent were not engaged and 6 percent were disengaged. Based on previous Gallup Q12 studies, more PR leaders were engaged — and fewer disengaged — than leaders in many other professions. High-ranking and long-service professionals were most engaged, and women were a bit more engaged than men. According to Gallup’s “State of the American Workforce Report” (2013), organizations with more engaged employees enjoy higher productivity, profits and service ratings, and lower absenteeism and turnover. 

Trust in the organization (C+)

Trust received the lowest grade and was an issue at all levels, though lower-level PR professionals were more distrusting. Professionals trusted their organization’s ability to compete successfully and achieve its goals, but they expressed less trust in their organization to keep promises and to be concerned about employees when making important decisions. Leaders influence trust and engagement through their communications and their behaviors.

Job satisfaction (B-)

Two-thirds (67 percent) of PR professionals were satisfied or very satisfied with their jobs; 11 percent were neither satisfied nor dissatisfied; and 22 percent were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied. Top leaders were more satisfied with their jobs than those at all other levels. Agency PR professionals were most satisfied compared with those working in companies or nonprofits. Job satisfaction is strongly affected by engagement and trust, which are strongly influenced by leaders and culture.

Organizational culture (B-)

Culture refers to the internal environment, processes and structures that help or impede communication practices. The CEO’s understanding and valuing of public relations was rated highly, while that of other functional leaders was rated lower. Shared decision-making practices and the presence of two-way communications and diversity were graded far lower. Women rated most cultural factors lower than men did — the same goes for shared decision-making power. Among organizational types, agency professionals rated culture highest.

A major disconnect

Our study revealed four gaps that professionals and organizations must reduce in order to strengthen leadership, communication practice and results for their organizations: 

1. The perceptions of top leaders and followers:

Things look different — and far better — at the top. Leaders rated their performance, trust, work engagement, job satisfaction and organizational culture significantly higher than their employees did at all levels.

Leaders may often rate their own performance higher than followers do, but the size of the gaps in the study is substantial. Leaders can reduce the gaps by:

  • Increasing power sharing
  • Strengthening two-way communications
  • Enhancing interpersonal skills to enrich relationships and teamwork

2. Existing culture and a culture for communication:

Several issues — lack of two-way communication, limited shared power in decision-making and concerns about diversity — point to differences between professionals’ work cultures and an ideal type referred to as a culture for communication.

This is characterized by:

  • An open communication system
  • Dialogue, discussion and learning
  • The use of two-way communications
  • A climate in which employees can speak up without fear of retribution

PR leaders can be change agents and work with others to reduce or eliminate restrictive actions, practices and structures. 

3. Professional women and men:

The perceptions of work culture, shared power, two-way communications and the valuing of opinions differed sharply between women and men. Women seek more involvement in strategic decision-making. They want their opinions to count for more, and they advocate for a more open communication system and climate. Because top PR leaders hold decision-making power over some inequities in the field (e.g., pay and promotion) and exert influence on many others, they can close these gaps. 

4. Agencies and other organizational types:

Professionals in agencies rated most items and categories higher than other organizational types did. The Gallup Report indicated engagement levels are often higher in smaller work teams, which can be characteristic of agencies. Also, an organization with a CEO who is likely a PR professional, and employees who are largely communication professionals, may provide a clearer vision, mission and objectives. The agency structure and culture should be examined to identify best practices.

The power of engagement

The good grade for work engagement provides a solid foundation for enriching leadership because top leaders and frontline managers strongly influence engagement levels through their communications and behaviors. Highly engaged leaders energize and inspire greater discretionary efforts, and engagement links to each of the other issues in the study.

Engaged PR professionals viewed their organization’s culture as more supportive, rated leader performance higher, placed greater trust in their organization and expressed greater job satisfaction. 

In addition, employee engagement is strongly influenced by organizational culture and leadership. Culture and leadership very strongly influence each other and, in turn, they exert strong influence on engagement and moderate influence on trust. Engagement exerts strong influence on trust, and both engagement and trust strongly influence professionals’ job satisfaction. 

In short, employee engagement is a key outcome and a powerful driver. Engaged employees are productive workers and positive influencers and role models.

What’s next?

Research by CEB, a talent measurement firm, points to a growing leadership crisis across organizations around the world because the process of globalization is outpacing leadership identification and development. The crisis is no less acute in our burgeoning global profession despite pronouncements about the coming “golden age” of public relations, where leaders will become creative content producers, digital masters, data analytics experts and cultural curators.

These are crucial capabilities in our professional future for sure, but our research reveals that some less glamorous foundations of leadership — effective listening skills and two-way communications, shared power and creation of a culture for communication — remain vital to engaging employees and building trust, which drive productivity and performance. 

It’s time for our profession to strategically and systematically address the development of future leaders in the practice field and the classroom.

To that end, the Plank Center is opening dialogues with the PRSA College of Fellows, PRSSA and other interested groups to enhance the preparation of young leaders for a dynamic but uncertain future. We welcome your ideas, insights and energy.


Notes About the Survey

The Plank Center distributed a 39-question survey online to 17,000 PR leaders and managers, and 838 completed the survey. This response provides a 95 percent confidence level (+/- 5 percent) that the results represent the larger population of surveyed professionals.

Most participants were senior leaders and managers: 75 percent of respondents were the No. 1 or No. 2 communications professional in their organization and 60 percent had more than 20 years of experience. A few more women (429, or 51.2 percent) than men (409, or 48.8 percent) completed the survey. The majority of participants worked in public (341, or 40.7 percent) or private (110, or 13.1 percent) corporations, followed by nonprofits (228, or 27.2 percent), communication agencies (114, or 13.6 percent) and others (45, or 5.3 percent). — B.B.

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.


Jill Feldon says:

This is extremely important research that should cause all of us to step back and assess our own leadership skills and the environments we are creating.

Aug. 2, 2016

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