Reach a Decision: Leadership’s Role in Building Cultures for Communication

November 2019
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It doesn’t take long on the job to realize how much our leaders and work cultures influence our attitudes about our team and organization, how hard we work, and our levels of trust and job satisfaction.  

This isn’t a new revelation, but recent research by the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations underscores the power of leaders and culture on our work lives and performance — and the stark differences between what is versus what might be in both areas.   

The center’s biennial Leadership Report Card evaluates PR leadership performance, culture, trust, work engagement and job satisfaction. Results from previous report cards confirm that a supportive institutional environment and excellent leadership are essential for fostering PR professionals’ engagement, trust and job satisfaction.      

The center’s newest research, the North American Communication Monitor (NACM) study, provides more evidence. This survey of 1,020 Canadian and U.S. PR professionals examined strategic issues, social media skills and excellent PR departments, among other topics. The survey also embedded the report card questions to explore culture, leadership, work engagement, trust and job satisfaction. Results are similar in both studies.   


In the NACM study, 75.7 percent of respondents said their top decision makers (e.g., the CEO or top leader) understand the value of public relations. Nearly as many (71.1 percent) said leaders of other units or clients also understand and value public relations, and two-thirds (69.2 percent) said their highest-ranking PR leader is excellent. Understanding of and support for public relations by organizational leaders are important conditions for success.

Cultural factors

Ratings for other cultural factors are lower. While 76.6 percent of respondents said their organizations value and practice diversity, fewer (69.2 percent) said their organizations practice two-way communication. It’s difficult to fathom why nearly one-third of organizations (30.8 percent) don’t use two-way approaches in today’s communication-centric world. The practice was highest in private corporations (72.9 percent) and lowest in government organizations (55 percent).

Shared decision making looms even larger: Nearly half (46.3 percent) said their organizations don’t share decision making enough, or at all, with employees or members. Again, the practice varied by type of organization: 62.7 percent working in private companies shared decision making, while the percentage fell to 43.7 percent in nonprofits and 35.7 percent in government organizations.  

Gender and hierarchy gaps

Other differences, or perception gaps, are reflected in gender and hierarchy comparisons. First, male professionals rated all cultural and leadership elements more positively than did women, who rated shared decision making significantly lower than men did. 

Second, things look far better at the top of the hierarchy. Top PR leaders (women and men) rated their performance and most cultural elements significantly higher than did professionals at lower levels (e.g., team leaders or team members). Depending on the size of such gaps, culture may be weakened or fragmented.  

Broken and rich cultures

Though our own job experiences and research studies demonstrate the crucial roles of leaders and cultures, efforts to enrich them lag behind in too many organizations. Practices like power sharing and two-way communication, and concerns about diversity and trust issues, suggest a range of organizational cultures. At one end lies “broken cultures,” characterized by competing professional silos, top-down communication, controlling leaders who don’t walk the talk, self-interests, political strife, cynicism and so forth. 

At the other end are “cultures for communication,” which embody an open communication system where: Information and best practices are widely shared, listening is valorized, two-way and multiple channels are the norm, employees feel free to speak up without fear of retribution, decision-making is widely shared in teams and work units, and leaders support and value communication. Most cultures fall somewhere between these two types. 

Bottom line: The NACM study confirms previous report card findings. Some cultures don’t support two-way communication, shared decision making, diversity and gender equality. In these cultures, trust issues are more likely, and job engagement and satisfaction are lower than desired. Men and women see things differently, as do top leaders versus employees at other levels. Leaders rate their performance and the culture far higher than their employees do. 

The Leadership Performance Model, based on statistical modeling of our NACM data, depicts the importance of leadership performance and culture on each other, as well as their effects on work engagement, trust and job satisfaction: 

  • Leaders and culture very strongly influence each other. 
  • Culture very strongly affects engagement and strongly affects trust. 
  • Leaders very strongly affect engagement and moderately affect trust. 
  • Engagement very strongly affects both trust and job satisfaction.
  • Trust affects job satisfaction.  

This suggests two things: First, the type and quality of culture, and the quality of leadership performance, have strong direct and indirect influences on employees and their work engagement, trust and job satisfaction. 

The NACM study provides even more evidence because it examines the relative quality of PR departments based on several factors. These include: the leader’s reporting relationship, the type and frequency of information-providing services and the quality of PR leadership. In this regard, 36 percent of participants in the survey worked in excellent PR departments and 64 percent worked in other departments.  

Cultural factors in excellent communication departments were rated significantly higher than those in other departments. As a result, employees in excellent departments were more trusting of their organizations, more engaged in their work and more satisfied with their jobs.

Second, leaders at all levels can impact their organization’s culture. Thus, PR leaders must possess cultural awareness and intelligence and the courage to serve as professional change agents — advocates and role models for reducing or eliminating barriers to diversity, gender equality, shared decision making, enhanced two-way communication, and ethical decision making and practices. 

We have a leadership role to play in building cultures for communication. We’ve known this for a long time in public relations: Let’s move from knowing and talking to doing.

photo credit: mathisworks

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