Is improving leadership even on the radar for PR?

According to the Plank Center for Leadership's Report Card 2019, there has been no positive improvement in PR leadership in the last four years, says Bruce Berger, professor emeritus at the University of Alabama.

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Is improving leadership even on the radar screen in the PR profession?

It’s a real question and a big one because, according to PR pros surveyed in the Plank Center for Leadership’s Report Card 2019, there has been no positive improvement in PR leadership since the Plank studies of 2015 and 2017.

In this year’s study, like the previous ones, PR leaders received an overall grade of "C+."

Plank recently compiled responses from 828 PR leaders and professionals nationwide, who evaluated five areas of leadership linked to outcomes in our field—organizational culture, leadership performance, trust in the organization, work engagement and job satisfaction.

The overall grades changed little from 2017. And in the specific areas of job engagement, trust and job satisfaction they actually dropped. Even more concerning is that some previously reported gaps grew larger.

The differences between men’s and women’s perceptions of their organization’s culture and leadership performance deepened. And the gaps between the perceptions of top leaders and others in all five areas remained wide.

Women in public relations remain less engaged, less satisfied with their jobs, less confident in their work cultures, less trusting of their organizations and more critical of top leaders compared to men.

Previous concerns (by men and women) about the lack of two-way communication, shared decision-making and diversity, and quality of culture, were still present.

And job engagement rates were chilling. About one-third (31.3%) of top leaders were not engaged or were actively disengaged, while nearly half (45.6%) of PR employees were not engaged or actively disengaged.

No doubt, if I asked PR pros whether improving leadership performance is important, they’d all say yes. And numerous blogs, articles and research studies claim improving leadership is vital. So what’s the problem?

As Bill Heyman, CEO and president of Heyman Associates, and a co-sponsor of the study, said, "Talking about needed changes and improvements in leadership won’t accomplish the change. We need more leaders who live and model the changes."

The book, The Knowing-Doing Gap, by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton illuminates the problem. Pfeffer and Sutton argue that knowledge, in and of itself, isn’t important. Rather, transforming knowledge into strategic action is what counts.

But it’s difficult, and many organizations aren’t good at it. They may know what the problem is, they may know what needs to be done, they may know what resources are required to get it done—but they just don’t move from knowing to doing. Why?

The authors cite many examples of how and why strategic action is not taken. Many organizations tell but don’t teach. Some leaders fear a loss of control. In some cases, the problem is faulty measurements. In others, it’s a focus on prescriptives and not the process. In yet others, the behaviors don’t match words. And finally, there is what may be the biggest problem of all: egos.

Maybe the PR profession doesn’t believe there’s a real problem or doesn’t want to believe it. Such barriers are all too familiar to many.

So how do we begin to move from knowing to doing and improve leadership in the field?

We could create knowing-doing leadership awards. Professional associations could hold conference sessions and provide case studies, and prioritize leadership in their strategic plans.

Trade publications might devote regular columns discussing how professionals can move from knowing to doing. University PR programs could provide seminars and classes on leadership and specifically, what it means in practice.

This is neither a small nor an easy issue. But, based on research and our own experiences in the workplace, it’s a real problem. And it’s not going away until the profession moves from knowing and talking to showing and doing.

I recently asked a class of PR students if they would work harder for a C+, B or A leader. You can guess the answer. But perhaps those students are the answer — the next generation of PR leaders who will be better educated, appear to be more inclusive and diverse, and are predominantly female. Maybe they are the how. I hope so.

Bruce K. Berger, Ph.D. (berger@apr.ua.edu) was a sponsor of the Report Card 2019 along with Juan Meng, Ph.D., William Heyman, CEO at Heyman Associates and Bryan H. Reber, Ph.D.

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