PR’s Future? Boomers Get the Hell Out of the Way

by PR Coach

What's the future of PR?

What’s the future of PR?

I was fascinated by a new global study of trends in public relations by the University of Alabama Plank Center.

The study, authored by Dr. Bruce Berger, reveals digital, gender and generational shifts that may give my generation of PR leaders heartburn.

His research identifies 10 critical issues. The real news in the report though is its in-depth look at gender and generational gaps in our profession on these important issues.

We’re not going to like what the next generation thinks about the current generation of PR leaders. Berger’s report says:

“Leaders drink too much of their own Kool-Aid. Leaders and followers hold different views about the 10 most important issues, how future leaders should be developed, and the extent to which their organizations support two-way communication and shared power. Their views diverge even more regarding the quality of leadership performance. Leaders often rate their own performance higher than do their followers, but the divide between the two in this study is Grand-Canyon sized—a very steep, very deep divide. Many participants also rated the organizational CEO’s understanding of communication higher than they rated the performance of the communication leader.”

And we’re communicators? Ouch. My generational face is red!

Not that there haven’t been challenges in the past five years. We’ve been busy, responding to rapid developments in digital technology, real-time social media impact, crisis management, recession and more. Researchers polled nearly 4,500 PR leaders in 23 countries.

According to two-thirds of respondents, four issues were of critical importance:

  1. managing the volume and speed of information (23%)
  2. the impact of social media (15.3%)
  3. need for improved measurement standards (12.2%)
  4. handling fast-moving crises better (11.9%).

Not many surprises there but these results are skewed by the older age of senior PR leaders surveyed. 76% of respondents were more than 36 years old. It’s the opinions of the next generation that are fascinating. The Plank Center’s news release said:

“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.”

Seventy percent of the PR profession is female and women tended to rank most issues higher than men. While senior professionals were concerned about the speed of information and technology challenges, practitioners under 36 were more concerned about transparency, measurement and the image of PR.

Apparently, some of our senior PR leaders didn’t get the memo.

10 Biggest Issues in Public Relations

In some ways, these research results are not surprising. I’ve seen them in action while leading three different PR agencies during my career. Let’s look at the concerns in detail. Following are the 10 biggest PR issues identified in the Plank Center study with the ranking score on a scale of seven in parentheses:

  • Dealing with the speed and volume of information flow (5.88)
  • Being ready to effectively deal with crises that may arise (5.76)
  • Managing the digital revolution and rise of social media  (5.75)
  • Improving employee engagement and commitment (5.49)
  • Improving the measurement of communication effectiveness (5.49)
  • Dealing with growing demands for transparency (5.34)
  • Finding, developing, and retaining top talent (5.25)
  • Meeting demands for corporate social responsibility (5.10)
  • Meeting communication needs in diverse cultures  (4.83)
  • Improving the image of the profession (4.47).

What’s distressing is some of these issues still plague us. My generation failed to solve some of them. Including better measurement tools and standards, higher levels of transparency, nurturing talent and improving the image of the PR profession.

Doh! Not that we haven’t tried. But we’ve been talking about several of these issues for decades. While there’s been small progress, the next generation will carry the burden of finding solutions.

PR Gender and Generation Gaps Concerning

The gender and generation gaps in the study are the biggest concerns for the future. The next generation will not worry about digital this or social media that. They already have those skills.

Let’s start planning for those issues identified by the next generation of PR professionals. Nurturing and developing talent. Emphasizing corporate social responsibility. Communicating across cultures. And improving the image of our profession.

I think we’ve already shown we can handle the challenging new roles created by digital change, new technology and social media. That’s so yesterday!

Future PR Leaders Need New Management Skills

New technology and social media enable us to focus on creating relationships. The research says future PR leaders must be trained in “soft” skills. They need to have a stronger “empathy quotient” with the skills to manage change and conflict. Measurement skills, ethics and business knowledge are also essential. What my generation needs to do now is share our experience with the next generation of talented PR newcomers. Anyone who doesn’t understand and buy into these research results should, for the most part, get the hell out of the way.

The study clearly points to the path ahead for PR leaders in the future. It’s an exciting time for our profession, if we embrace change.

The Cross-Cultural Study of Leadership in Public Relations and Communication Management is sponsored by The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, Heyman Associates and IBM. The report is rich in ideas, insight and potential solutions. It’s essential reading for today’s and tomorrow’s public relations leaders.

What do you think? Do you buy into these research findings? Have you seen evidence of the generation and gender gaps in action? I’d enjoy hearing your comments below.

As always, our PR Library offers lots of resources, PR tips and templates, and more than 7,500 curated links to topics such as strategic PR and the PR profession.

Author: Jeff Domansky
Visual credits: Shutterstock, The Plank Center

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