Integrating Leadership in Public Relations Education to Develop Future Leaders


  • Juan Meng, University of Georgia

Juan Meng


Organizations are operating in environments characterized by rapid change and increasing communication complexity. Thus, the development and education of communication leaders who are able to navigate and respond effectively and strategically in such dynamic environments has become equally critical for organizations. As a consequence, the implications for integrating leadership education, training, and development into public relations curriculum are profound. If we, as educators, can enhance both communication skills and leadership development for public relations majors, our graduates will be able to develop a sustainable competitive advantage and provide long-term value to organizations. Although the profession has advocated for leveraging the roles of public relations to a managerial and strategic level, the actual effort in building up the pipeline of future leaders in the profession is delayed. In higher education, there is a remarkable scarcity in designing, integrating, and delivering leadership in public relations teaching and education.

Therefore, this study uses a twin-survey to compare the perceptions of critical leadership dimensions in effective public relations practice between two groups (current leaders vs. future leaders). The purpose of this comparative research is trifold. First, it compares the level of agreement and/or disagreement on previously established leadership dimensions (Meng & Berger, 2013) between senior public relations executives (current leaders) and public relations majors (future leaders) in the U.S. to determine gaps. Second, identified perceptual gaps between the two groups may suggest potential pedagogical utility of leadership development in public relations education. Finally, the study aims to generate a discussion among public relations educators regarding how we can integrate leadership initiatives into public relations education.

Literature Review

Recently, the topic of public relations leadership has received significant attention. A plethora of research in leadership in public relations practice has focused on how public relations practitioners could apply different aspects/streams of leadership skills and behaviors (i.e., strategic decision making, ethical leadership, emotional leadership, and transformational leadership) to improve the effectiveness and organization-wide influence of public relations practice, with its roots in excellence research in public relations, managerial leadership research, and organizational communication studies (e.g., Berger, Reber, & Heyman, 2007; Jin, 2010; Lee & Cheng, 2011; Meng & Berger, 2013; Shin, Heath, & Lee, 2011; Werder & Holtzhausen, 2009).

Although existing research has investigated critical concepts related to public relations leadership, such as managerial role enactment, gender role, preferred leadership styles in crisis, effective behavioral factors, individual traits, and dimensions of excellent public relations leadership from the perspectives of public relations practitioners, only a few studies have addressed public relations majors’ perceptions (Erzikova & Berger, 2011) or have considered revamping a core public relations course by integrating leadership training (Neff, 2002). Other issues, such as investigating the most important skills, sources to learn leadership skill sets, and areas where we can help students, are still unresolved. Therefore, this study extends previous research on public relations leadership and compares the perceptual gaps in leadership dimensions between two groups with the ultimate goal of discussing potential pedagogical implications. One leading research question is proposed:

RQ: Do significant differences exist between senior public relations practitioners and students majoring in public relations regarding their perceptions of critical dimensions of leadership in public relations?

Research Method

Research design and sample

This study used a purposive sampling strategy to recruit respondents from two separate populations: senior public relations executives (current leaders), and public relations students in an upper-division standing (future leaders). Specifically, an online twin-survey was conducted.

Survey instrument

The author adopted the same survey instrument from Meng and Berger’s (2013) study although the wording of statements was geared toward the understanding from the students’ point of view. The descriptive/demographic section was also revised to capture the student sample’s features. A complete list of items is presented in Table 1. Student respondents were asked to rate on a 7-point scale how unimportant/important or helpful/unhelpful they found each of the items. The second part of the questionnaire gathered profile/demographic information.

Method of analysis

Two separate models were created, each with the respondent designation (current leaders vs. future leaders) being independent variables and each of the six separate leadership dimensions serving as the dependents (see Table 1). The one-way multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) was used as there are multiple dependent variables correlated with each other.


Respondent profiles

Overall, the “current leader” group consisted of 222 senior public relations executives nationwide. The recruitment process was accomplished through Heyman Associates, Inc, a senior PR executive search firm in New York City. The majority of online survey participants are key organizational informants by residing as senior leaders in communications in the organization. They have been working in the field of public relations/communication for more than 15 years (n = 170, 76.58%). The descriptive data indicated that 40.1% of the sample were male (n=89), and 59.9% were female (n=133). Most of them work for public corporations (n=83, 37.40%), private corporations (n=43, 19.40%), or public relations agencies (n=39, 17.60%). Most in the sample were Caucasians (89.2%), with African Americans and Hispanics comprising the next two largest groups (3.6% respectively).

The comparative “future leader” group consisted of 226 public relations majors holding an upper-division standing in the U.S., including 54 from the private university and 172 from two public universities. The final sample consists of 44 male students (19.5%) and 182 female students (80.5%). The average age of students was 21.86. For ethnic backgrounds, the largest category was Caucasians (91.2% or n = 206), followed by African Americans (4.9% or n = 11), Asians (2.2% or n = 5), and Hispanics (1.8% or n = 4). A large percentage of the surveyed students were seniors (72.1% or n = 163) and 27.9% were juniors (n = 63).

RQ: Perceptions of importance of leadership dimensions

Table 1 provides the results of all means difference testing. As depicted in the table, differences were found for all seven leadership dimensions (see Table 1). For each of the significant differences tests, additional means comparisons and item-level ANOVA tests were undertaken to understand the nature of the differences between the two groups. Since there are only two groups compared in all models, post hoc tests are not performed. Using Wilks’s statistic, Wilks’s Λ = .831, F (7, 440) = 12.74, p = .000, the only significant perceptual difference between the two groups existed on two of the seven leadership dimensions: team collaboration and communication knowledge management capability. Separate univariate ANOVAs were carried out as the follow-up tests on the outcome variables at the item-level. The results revealed that several more specific skills, behaviors, and qualities were found to be salient to public relations students. A breakdown of group differences at the dimension- and item-levels is presented in the following paragraphs.

Table 1

Summary of Means Comparisons at the Dimension- and Item-levels

Dimension-Level/Item-Level Means(Standard Means) Dimension-Level Multivariate/Univariate Results
Leadership Dimensions/Items Senior PR Executives (n = 222) PRMajors(n = 226) F Ratio pa
List of dimensions/measuring items
Self-dynamics 68.14 (6.19) 67.72 (6.16) .49 .483
     Be dependable 6.35 6.55 5.55 .019
     Be proactive 6.47 6.26 7.49 .006
     Engage in decision-making 6.27 6.20 .69 .407
     Act as a changing agent 6.16 6.08 .88 .348
     Apply diverse strategies 5.69 5.72 .08 .779
     Be forward looking 6.23 6.09 3.25 .072
     Vision PR as a managerial function 5.85 5.85 .00 .985
     Enlist others in shared vision 5.95 6.13 4.88 .028
     Predict potential changes 6.40 6.35 .34 .56
     Provide a vision about PR value 6.42 6.23 5.40 .021
     Align PR goals with organization goals 6.35 6.26 1.30 .256
Team Collaboration 30.26 (6.05) 31.02 (6.20) 5.00 .026
     Define PR strategies with members 6.13 6.32 5.76 .017
     Develop a proactive team 6.35 6.39 .42 .519
     Facilitate positive interdependence 5.79 6.05 8.02 .005
     Bring diverse groups together 5.82 6.06 6.54 .011
     Inspire other members 6.18 6.19 .00 .951
Ethical Orientation 31.92 (6.28) 31.92 (6.38) .00 .996
     Maintain professional standards 6.50 6.54 .39 .534
     Integrate core values into actions 6.41 6.54 3.18 .075
     Correct erroneous communications promptly 6.55 6.38 6.43 .012
     Represent consistent behaviors 6.46 6.29 5.36 .021
     Understand cultural ethical differences 6.00 6.18 3.22 .074
Relationship Building 49.42 (6.18) 50.13 (6.27) 2.61 .107
     Foster trust with organizational leaders 5.94 5.85 1.08 .299
     Develop coalitions 6.61 6.45 5.23 .023
     Mentor and help professionals achieve success 6.59 6.16 29.55 .000
     Provide advice and counsel to executives 5.59 5.92 9.23 .003
     Provide regular briefs about PR programs 5.58 6.07 25.91 .000
     Cultivate relationship with external publics 6.24 6.49 10.28 .001
     Foster trust with media representatives 6.45 6.61 5.32 .022
     Understand the needs for key publics 6.43 6.59 5.13 .024
Strategic Decision-Making Capability 25.15 (6.29) 25.15 (6.29) .00 .992
     Interpret information from publics to organizational decision makers 6.17 6.28 1.75 .187
     Know organization’s business and environment 6.27 6.35 1.02 .314
     Know organization’s decision-making process 6.25 6.25 .000 1.00
     Be a member of strategic decision-making teams 6.47 6.27 5.69 .018
Communication Knowledge Management 47.64 (5.96) 50.51 (6.31) 33.16 .000
     Apply PR knowledge to crises 5.78 6.32 36.57 .000
     Evaluate communication programs to improve 6.02 6.30 11.57 .001
     Obtain sufficient resources to support efforts 6.42 6.53 2.11 .147
     Use media knowledge to communication better 5.95 6.28 14.30 .000
     Use new technologies to interact with publics 5.58 6.17 36.03 .000
     Know how to use research to develop strategies 6.00 6.16 3.47 .063
     Know how to use research to solve problems 6.04 6.39 20.28 .000
     Convert knowledge about publics and policies into effective advocacy 5.86 6.36 30.99 .000
Supportive Organizational Culture 36.49 (6.08) 37.09 (6.18) 2.45 .118
     Share a common reporting relationship 5.69 5.95 5.65 .018
     Supports open communications 6.26 6.42 4.16 .042
     Value public relations efforts 6.55 6.40 3.62 .058
     Have access to organizational leaders 6.54 6.36 5.77 .017
     Report directly to organizational leaders 5.98 5.92 .29 .589
     Value and practice diversity 5.48 6.03 21.54 .000

Note. a. Significance in boldface.

1. The dimension of self-dynamics: No difference was identified at the dimension level.
a. Students found being dependable (Meandiff. = .20; p = .02) and enlisting others in a shared vision (Meandiff. = .18; p = .03) more important;
b. Students found being proactive (Meandiff. = -.21; p = .01) and being able to provide a vision about PR value (Meandiff. = -.19; p = .02) less important.
2. The dimension of team collaboration: Students found this dimension more important than did practitioners (Meandiff. = .76; p = .03).
a. At the item-level, students found three items: to define PR strategies with team members (Meandiff. = .19; p = .02), to facilitate positive interdependence (Meandiff. = .26; p = .01), and to bring diverse groups together (Meandiff. = .24; p = .01) more important.
3. The dimension of ethical orientation: No difference was identified.
a. However, students showed lower perceptions on two items: to correct erroneous communications promptly (Meandiff. = -.17; p = .01) and to represent consistent behaviors (Meandiff. = -.17; p = .02).
4. The dimension of relationship building: No difference was identified.
a. At the item-level, students generally rated individual items higher than did practitioners except for one item: to mentor and help young professionals achieve success (Meandiff. = -.43; p = .00);
b. Students rated two items: to provide regular briefs about PR programs (Meandiff. = .49; p = .00) and to cultivate relationships with external publics (Meandiff. = .25; p = .00) as very important, compared to practitioners.
5. The dimension of strategic decision-making capability: No difference was identified at the dimension level.
a. At the item-level, practitioners found being a member of strategic decision-making teams more important (Meandiff. = .20; p = .02).
6. The dimension of communication knowledge management capability: Students found this dimension more important than did practitioners (Meandiff. = 2.87; p = .00).
a. Students generally gave all eight items higher ratings than did practitioners, and there are four items which have been perceived as very important among student respondents: to apply PR knowledge to crises (Meandiff. = .54; p = .00), to use new technologies to interact with publics (Meandiff. = .59; p = .00), to know how to use research to solve problems (Meandiff. = .35; p = .00), and to convert knowledge about publics and policies into effective advocacy (Meandiff. = .50; p = .00).
7. The dimension of organizational culture: No difference was found.
a. Students generally rated individual items higher than did practitioners except for one item: to have access to organizational leaders (Meandiff. = -.18; p = .02);
b. Students perceived three items significantly more helpful than did practitioners: to share a common reporting relationship (Meandiff. = .26; p = .02), to support and enourage open communications (Meandiff. = .16; p = .04), and to work in an organization that values and practices diversity (Meandiff. = .55; p = .00).

In short, group differences found and depicted in Table 1 provide important information for understanding both dimension-level and item-level perceptual differences that may aid not only public relations students in building their own standards of effective leadership, but also aid public relations educators in revising and updating curriculum by integrating leadership training.


To improve understanding and provide learning experiences that will help public relations students develop leadership skill sets and enhance their opportunities to be successful in the increasingly competitive work environment, the significance of this study is trifold. First, the study seeks to assess leadership perceptions held by both senior practitioners and students in the upper-division regarding critical leadership dimensions. Second, this study compares the levels of agreement on various factors (public relations leadership dimensions) between the two groups that will help determine gaps and areas of potential enhancement. By including the perceptions of students, it can help us gain a sense of what public relations students believe to be important in the self-actualization process as future leaders, thereby providing perspective on whether we should focus on those aspects of their public relations education that will best position them. Finally, the study aims to provide recommendations for educators to prepare students for the increasingly competitive job market and provide public relations majors with a sustainable competitive advantage in a rapidly changing profession and information society.
Group differences and similarities in leadership perceptions found and depicted in Table 1 provide a general picture for understanding aspects that may aid public relations students in building their own leadership skill sets and sustainable competitive advantage. At the model level, the promising news is that the very basic desired leadership dimensions have not changed significantly if compared to senior public relations executives. At the individual item level, a closer inspection actually reflected the perceptual gaps on certain skills and qualities, which further reflect a potential opportunity for public relations educators engaging students in those relatively weak areas. Such results may be indicative that these behaviors and conditions are leadership qualities that are more obviously invaluable in the profession that public relations majors are not fully aware of. This finding is noteworthy and educators should continue their efforts in providing students with a competitive advantage by incorporating and addressing ethical considerations, proactive nature, and strategic decision making issues (Benn, Todd, & Pendleton, 2010; Neff, 2002).
Pedagogical Recommendations
The results yielded in this study offer some insights for public relations educators to teach, discuss, and assess leadership learning related issues in undergraduate public relations education specific to today’s marketplace environment. The results can be pedagogically used in many ways, including the following:

As a leadership training situation checklist designed to summarize major leadership qualities, skills, behaviors, traits that have been valued by the profession and provide a foundation for discussing how to apply those leadership principles in each unique public relations or communication situation.
As an assessment tool given either before and/or after the presentation of a core undergraduate public relations course, such as public relations planning and management, case studies, and crisis communication.
As the basis for a leadership-related research assignment in which students research and write an analytical report regarding “real-world” situations that mirror the springboard’s leadership situations/scenarios.
As the basis for strategic planning and/or ethical and/or crisis role play assignment in which students role play and discuss the public relations scenarios and what leadership skills and/or behaviors should be applied.
As a set of assessment metrics to be applied to relevant supervised public relations experience in helping students monitor, re-check, and revise their perceptions and behaviors about initiatives, leading roles, and effective communication.

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Volume 1, Issue 1, August 2015
A publication of the Public Relations Division of AEJMC
© Copyright 2015 AEJMC Public Relations Division