The University of Alabama

Study of Trends in PR Reveals Digital, Gender, Generational Shifts, According to UA Plank Center

CHICAGO – The largest and most global examination to date into the state of public relations profiles a profession being reshaped by forces as current as digital networks and as timeless as generational divides.

The Cross Cultural Study of Leadership in Public Relations and Communication Management conducted by the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations at The University of Alabama reflects the views of nearly 4,500 global PR leaders across 23 nations. The research results were unveiled today at a summit of PR professionals and academic leaders at the Union League Club in Chicago, followed by the Plank Center’s annual Honoring Milestones in Mentoring awards banquet.

Respondents identify the impact of digital networks and massively available real-time information as the fundamental forces transforming the practice of contemporary public relations. The new realities and consequences of the digital revolution underlie the four most important issues identified by nearly two thirds of global respondents to the online survey. In order: managing the volume and velocity of information (23.0 percent); the role of social media (15.3 percent; improving measurement (12.2 percent); and dealing with fast-moving crises (11.9 percent).

“We’re not surprised to find organizations racing to revise or create strategies to manage this revolution, but the mandate to develop meaningful measures of impact and value in a world that’s being transformed by data – that’s new,” said Dr. Bruce Berger, the study’s lead researcher, and the Reese Phifer Professor of Advertising and Public Relations at The University of Alabama.

“Some countries are moving faster than others, but across all geographies, one emerging story will be how this transformation affects leaders and their growing roles as information decision makers and interpreters,” Berger said.

At the same time, the study, which was co-sponsored by IBM and Heyman Associates, reveals significant generational, gender and cultural variations within the profession, which is now as much as 70 percent female, with women ascending in greater numbers to leadership positions.

The headline here is that current leaders may be reading too many of their own press clips. The most striking divides in the survey are the gaps between older and more experienced professionals and younger practitioners. Practitioners take a dimmer view of leadership performance within the PR function, the type and quality of leadership development, and the relative importance of the top issues facing the profession, and it was common for practitioners to rate the performance of the senior PR leader lower than they rated the CEO’s understanding of the role of communications.

Industry professionals under the age of 36 ranked issues like improving professional image and measurement of communication effectiveness much higher than older professionals. Younger and lower-level survey participants also ranked issues of social responsibility, transparency and diverse cultures higher than top leaders. Conversely, more senior, established leaders emphasized dealing with the speed and volume of information, crisis management or employee engagement.

Top-level leaders also rated the importance of digital media significantly higher than those at other levels, while practitioners who are typically more familiar with the application and implications of digital tools were more focused on “soft” skills or attributes — organizational culture, ethical orientation and work teams.

Female respondents rated significantly higher than men all seven dimensions of leadership, and rated four significantly higher – vision, work teams, ability to form coalitions and organizational culture. On the top issues facing the profession, women rated all 10 issues higher than men, and eight of them significantly higher, or more important. Women were also more optimistic about the future of the profession in many countries.

On the other hand, men were more bullish about the performance of the top communications leader in their organization, about the presence of two-way communication and the extent to which the CEO understood the value of public relations.

Just as leadership priorities diverge along generational lines, interesting variations are evident across the national, cultural and economic spectrum. The BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) ranked finding top PR talent and improving measurement as the top two issues. Practitioners in those countries, along with Mexico, were also more optimistic about the future of the profession.

China, India, Brazil and Mexico ranked management of the digital revolution of highest importance, while digital transformation was rated lowest in Estonia, Latvia and Russia. Measuring the outcomes and effects of social media also ranked much higher in Brazil, Mexico and Chile.

Participants in those three Latin American countries rated the issue of corporate social responsibility higher than their global counterparts, and Brazilian and Mexican professionals rated the issue of employee engagement higher than others. That same issue was ranked lowest in German-speaking countries, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States.

As public relations leaders continue to focus on training employees on digital media strategies and implementing the use of analytic technologies, they must also capitalize on these technical advances to close organizational gaps among leaders, practitioners and global workforces.

Two significant future themes were consistently highlighted across countries. As communication leaders prepare for an uncertain future, efforts to develop new leaders should focus on:

  1. “Soft” skills of individuals to increase self-insight and reflection – raising the empathy quotient of the profession as a core competency; improving interpersonal skills to manage change and conflict; and creating a greater sense of cultural awareness. All countries rated change management or conflict management skills the highest of 12 approaches to improvement.
  2. Professional and educational structures that produce measurement skills and guidelines, ethical frameworks, and knowledge of economic and global environments in which they occur. Measurement skills and business knowledge were consistently highlighted.

These two factors underscore the shared view across all geographies for greater investment and attention to the development of leadership competencies along three dimensions: self-insight awareness, ethical orientation and corresponding core values and standards, and communication knowledge management.

The study concluded with a Leadership Index, based on participant perceptions about the performance of their PR leader, the relative presence of two-way communication in their organization and their CEO’s understanding of the value of public relations. The higher the score (maximum is 21.0), the richer is the organizational condition for excellent leadership. India was rated highest (16.37), and South Korea (13.41) and Brazil (13.02) lowest. Most countries, including the U.S., clustered around the mean score of 14.50. The bottom line: Clear opportunities exist for improved leadership and organizational conditions in all surveyed countries.

This study is the first of its kind to take an in-depth global look at cross-cultural leadership in Public Relations and Communication Management. To better understand the challenges and goals of today’s industry professionals, researchers from The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations surveyed nearly 4,500 professionals in nine languages across 23 countries. Seventy percent of participants surveyed currently hold the #1 or #2 leadership positions within their organization. The study was co-sponsored by IBM and Heyman Associates, with research allies, ABERJE in Brazil, Hong Kong PR Professionals Association, and the Academic Society for Corporate Leadership and Communication in Germany.

For access to the full study findings, please visit: plankcenter.ua.edu/the-summit/

The University of Alabama, a student-centered research university, is experiencing significant growth in both enrollment and academic quality. This growth, which is positively impacting the campus and the state's economy, is in keeping with UA's vision to be the university of choice for the best and brightest students. UA, the state's flagship university, is an academic community united in its commitment to enhancing the quality of life for all Alabamians.