Leadership is crucial to the success, reputation, and future of nations, organizations, and professions. Hundreds of studies have explored leadership qualities and proposed theories to explain leadership. However, surprisingly little research has been devoted to leadership in PR.
We should be concerned not just about the lack of research, but also about the perceptions of current leaders in our industry, and the education, development, and recognition of young pros who will be our leaders tomorrow.
For example, a recent study of leaders and leadership qualities in PR yielded puzzling findings. Conducted by University of Alabama (UA) graduate students in partnership with Heyman Associates of New York, the survey found a vacuum of nationally recognized leaders in the field. More than half of the 222 participants said they couldn't name any national leaders, or felt there weren't any. Those who did name individuals mentioned Harold Burson six times, but cited Barack Obama nine times.
When members of the Southern Public Relations Federation completed the same survey, Oprah Winfrey was named most often. Politicians, celebrities, and CEOs were mentioned more frequently than practitioners in both surveys.
But why is that? Some said that true PR leaders are those who are highly visible and project an organization's or a nation's image. Others said that true PR leaders remain behind the scenes. Others equated national leadership with the amount of media coverage and exposure gained.
Professionals in the survey were divided when asked if leadership in PR is different from leadership in other fields. Those who said it was different named two distinguishing characteristics. First, PR leaders must possess a compelling vision for how communication connects an organization to diverse stakeholders and the larger social system. Second, PR leaders must understand the strategic use of media and technologies.
The survey also found that strong role models at work, home, or the classroom exert the greatest influence on practitioners' beliefs about leadership values and qualities, and that a strategic decision-making capability is the most important dimension of PR leadership.
These findings raise other issues and questions. For example, what can we do in education to help develop leadership values and skills? What can we do in our organizations to help prepare leaders for tomorrow? What can we do to better recognize outstanding leadership behaviors?
One step we can take is to put the leadership issue squarely on the agendas of organizations, and professional and academic associations. The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations at UA embraced this challenge in 2005, and has a number of initiatives underway to recognize and advance leadership.
Learning from these experiences and embracing the leadership challenge will benefit all of us, but especially students, young practitioners, and our professional future.
Bruce Berger is professor and chair of the Advertising & Public Relations Department at UA and the former corporate VP of PR at Whirlpool Corporation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Bill Heyman is CEO of PR executive search firm Heyman Associates. He can be reached at email@example.com.