Is Oprah Winfrey truly the best PR leader?

I need your help interpreting some puzzling answers to a survey question.

I need your help interpreting some puzzling answers to a survey question. We all know that today's students are tomorrow's leaders. However, we don't know much about how PR students define leadership in the profession, acquire leadership skills and values, or whom they see as leaders and role models.

A recent survey of 172 PR students at two universities provides a rare glimpse into these issues. Students were asked to select the most important of 10 qualities of excellent leadership in the profession. The ability to solve problems and produce results was named most often, followed by communication knowledge and expertise and relationship-building skills. Being ethical and possessing strategic decision-making capabilities were rated lower.

A majority of students also said the best sources of leadership skills were their own initiative, their desire to lead, and the experiences they gained in leadership roles – in student government, sports teams, church groups, summer camps, and internships. PR education was seldom mentioned.

When asked to name an outstanding national PR leader, the results were more surprising. A few students cited legendary industry figures like Harold Burson and Betsy Plank. Some named teachers or local professionals. The majority, however, said they didn't know, or they named celebrities and politicians. Oprah Winfrey received the most votes (10), followed by President Obama, and other political figures.

Here's where I need your help: Why celebrities and politicians? In our message, and media- saturated, world, is national leadership in PR defined by successful media exposure and audience reach? Is there a shortage of nationally recognized leaders in the profession? Are PR leaders invisible because they work behind the scenes for Oprah and other celebrities? Do students lack access to, or information about role models in PR?

What's your interpretation of the responses to this survey question? Drop me an e-mail and I'll share your comments in a subsequent column.

Dr. Bruce Berger is Reese Phifer Professor of Advertising & Public Relations at the University of Alabama. Previously he was VP of PR at Whirlpool Corporation. His column focuses on PR students, young professionals and education. He can be reached at

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