Dubai: The focus was on the future at the Middle East Public Relations Conference — hosted by Zayed University and supported by Middle East PR Association and International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) — in Dubai this week.
The digital media revolution and corresponding role of practitioners in our information-dense world were hot topics. And how to do more with less — and do it faster and better — was also discussed.
No discussion of the future is complete, however, without examining the crucial role of communication leaders in sustaining and advancing the profession. But leadership in PR is often taken for granted; it’s little researched and appears infrequently on conference agendas. We need a lot more dialogue about leaders and the future.
Last year I led a team of 28 researchers who explored leadership in PR in 23 countries. We surveyed nearly 4,500 professionals to identify key issues in the global field, how leaders try to manage those issues and what should be done to improve the development of future leaders.
Findings from the study shed light on the profession now and provide a glimpse into the future. Here are just four headlines to consider:
* Yes, the digital revolution is global
This isn’t news, but it is global confirmation. Nearly two-thirds of participants in our survey rated four issues as most important, all linked to the digital revolution — managing the speed and flow of information (23 per cent), the role of social media (15.3 per cent), improving measurement (12.2 per cent) and dealing with fast-moving crises (11.9 per cent).
This emphasises the growing requirement for leaders everywhere to serve as astute information interpreters and decision-makers.
* Soft skills and self-insights are crucial for future leaders
One of the most consistent findings across cultures was that future leaders must improve “soft skills” — better listening, greater cultural awareness and improved conflict and change management capabilities. All countries rated change or conflict management skills the highest of 12 approaches to improving future leaders.
* Women and men: Same destination, different journey
Women and men view leadership somewhat differently. Women rated significantly higher than men in eight of the 10 top issues, all seven leadership dimensions, and all 12 approaches to future leader development. On the other hand, men perceived themselves significantly more often than did women to be leaders in the profession and to want to be a leader.
Men also rated significantly higher the performance of the top communication leader and the presence of two-way communication in their organisations. What do these differences mean to a profession that is increasingly feminised?
* Leaders read too many of their own press clippings
The study revealed striking gaps between older and younger professionals. The latter rated social responsibility, communication measurement, professional image and transparency issues much higher than older professionals. They also took a dimmer view of current leaders, often rating the performance of their senior PR leader lower than they rated the CEO’s understanding of the role of communication. The challenge is how to blend the rich experiences of more seasoned professionals with the technological sophistication of younger professionals.
In short, a sweeping global transformation of the profession is underway at warp speed. It’s driven by the digital engine, but it’s more complex than that. It enfolds a set of deep changes, including the growing need for soft skills, shifting gender and generational differences and a pronounced gap between older and younger professionals, leaders and followers.
It’s possible that the greatest needs for future professionals may be those that current leaders are least equipped to provide.
— The writer is with the University of Alabama.