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A Report Card for PR Leaders:
Performance, Engagement, Trust and More
Bruce K. Berger, William Heyman and Ellen East
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 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-sized gap between leaders’ evaluations of their own performance and
those of their employees, as well as sharply differing perceptions regarding work engagement,
job satisfaction, organizational trust and culture.
The grades are based on a recent survey* of 838 U.S. public relations executives and managers
conducted by the Plank Center and Heyman Associates. Participants rated the performance of
their top PR leader, the quality of their work place culture, and their own levels of work
engagement, trust in their organization and job satisfaction.
The goals of this biennial report are 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, we can close them and strengthen the overall quality of our profession’s crucial leadership
capital. Here’s a quick review of the grades first.
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 influence all other issues in our study.
Work Engagement (B+)
Sixty percent of PR leaders were engaged in their work, 34% were not engaged, and 6% 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; 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 capabilities to
compete successfully and achieve its goals, but 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 behaviors.
Job Satisfaction (B-)
Two-thirds (67%) of PR professionals were satisfied or very satisfied with their jobs; 11% were
neither satisfied nor dissatisfied; and 22% 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 to 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—and shared decision-making power much lower. Agency
professionals rated culture highest among organizational types.
Four Gaps—Implications
Our study revealed four gaps that professionals and organizations must reduce 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 at all levels. Leaders may often rate their own
performance higher than do followers, but the size of the gaps in the study is substantial. Leaders
can reduce the gaps by: 1) increasing power sharing, 2) strengthening two-way communications,
and 3) enhancing interpersonal skills to enrich relationships and team work.
2. Existing culture and a culture for communication. Several issues—lack of 2-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: 1) an open communication system; 2) dialogue,
discussion and learning; 3) the use of two-way communications; and 4) 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. Their perceptions of work culture, shared power, 2-way
communications and the valuing of their opinions differed sharply. 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. The Gallup Report indicated engagement
levels are often higher in smaller work teams, which may be more characteristic of agencies. In
addition, 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 front-line 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, as indicated
in the following chart:
Axis Title
By Engagement Level
7
6
5
4
3
2
1
0
Disengaged
Not engaged
Engaged
Organizational
culture
Leader
Performance
Trust
Satisfaction
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, per the predictive model below. 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.
Organizational culture and leadership performance
predict job satisfaction—mediated by engagement and trust.
Supportive
culture
Work
engagement
Job
satisfaction
Excellent
leadership
Trust in
organization
Mediators
Very strong effects
Strong effects
Moderate effects
What’s Next?
Research by SHL, a talent measurement firm, points to a growing leadership crisis across
organizations across 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
have 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 systemically 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, the PRSSA, and other interested groups to enhance the
preparation of young leaders for a dynamic but uncertain future. We’d welcome your ideas,
insights and energy.
Background & Demographics*
A 39-question survey was distributed online to 17,000 PR leaders and managers, and 838
completed the survey. This response provides a 95% confidence level (+/- 5%) that the results
represent the larger population of surveyed professionals.
Most participants were senior leaders and managers: 75% of respondents were the #1 or #2
communications professional in their organization, and 60% had more than 20 years of
experience. A few more women (429 or 51.2%) than men (409 or 48.8%) completed the survey.
The majority of participants worked in public (341 or 40.7%) or private (110 or 13.1%)
corporations, followed by nonprofits (228 or 27.2%), communication agencies (114 or 13.6%),
and others (45 or 5.3%).
Berger, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, University of Alabama, and research director of The Plank Center
for Leadership in Public Relations. Heyman is founder, president and CEO of Heyman Associates. East is
chief communications officer, Time Warner Cable Inc.