Students and young professionals pursuing careers in public relations should study and help address issues raised in a new survey that underscores the importance to build and maintain trust.

The Plank Center’s just-published North American Communication Monitor (NACM) confirms that trust is the most crucial issue facing the PR profession, while other important issues include the gender gap, stress and social media skills.

Key findings:

  • Fake news affects the profession, but many organizations are not prepared to identify and manage it.
  • Top communication leaders are involved in organizational decision making, but that power is not shared with those lower in the hierarchy, especially women.
  • The major threat to job engagement is a lack of performance feedback and recognition, with a significant gender gap.
  • Everyone is stressed, but the sources of work stress vary.
  • Women and men rate their social media and knowledge management skills differently.

“For students preparing to enter our field, the educators who teach them and public relations professionals, this research points to a troubling gap, one the profession has a vested interest in addressing,” said Plank Center chair Keith Burton, principal at Grayson Emmett Partners. “If information can’t be trusted, what are the implications for the institutions that provide it – business, government, media – and clients that pay PR professionals to advance their brands? We believe it’s time for PR leaders to stop faking attention to fake news.”

Fellow Plank Center board member Flavia Vigio, vice president of PR & corporate communications for HBO Latin America, explained the important implications for the profession. “The work we do in public relations helps shape perceptions about brands, companies, individuals, causes. As young individuals choose to pursue our field – or get chosen by it – it’s important they know that every voice counts, that only with a diverse and multi-cultural group of people the right conversations can take place and the multiple perspectives can be considered.”

Explaining the importance of the study, Plank Center director Karla Gower, PhD., said: “If we know where the gaps are, we can work to close them and to strengthen the overall quality of our profession’s leadership—a crucial strategic asset.”

The study, which joins existing Communication Monitors in Europe, Latin America and Asia-Pacific, explored diverse topics, including fake news and strategies to deal with it, top issues for the profession in the next three years, the role of providing information to support decision making, leaders’ performance, and professionals’ job engagement, trust in their organization, job satisfaction, work stress, and social media skills and management knowledge. Some 1,020 communication professionals in the U.S. and Canada were surveyed.

University of Georgia professor Bryan H. Reber, PhD., was lead researcher for the North American Communication Monitor, which joins existing Communication Monitors in Europe, Latin America and Asia-Pacific. Here are additional insights on key study findings:

Fake news is a prominent issue but organizations lack processes to identify and manage it

Communication professionals agree fake news has become one of the most prominent issues in public discourse. More than half of surveyed professionals (57.7%) give attention to the on-going debate about fake news and consider it a much-debated topic in their country (68.2%). Results indicate governmental organizations across North America are particularly affected by fake news, with 20.9% being affected multiple times and 10.1% being affected once.

However, despite the high levels of awareness and attention to the debate about fake news, the level of relevance of fake news to the professionals’ daily work, and their concerns about it, are generally low. When it comes to identifying potential fake news, a substantial percentage of respondents (42.6%) said their organizations mainly rely on individual competencies and experience. Few organizations have in place policies, technical systems and processes to detect and manage fake news and misinformation.

Nearly half of the organizations (46.3%) do not share decision making with employees or members

The majority of surveyed professionals (71.9%) agree their top communication leader is actively involved in the organization’s decision making (78.1%) and demonstrates a strong ethical orientation to guide actions (76.7%). However, shared decision-making power receives the lowest rating across various types of organizations. Women rate the shared decision-making power significantly lower than men. A similar perceptual gap is identified along the line of hierarchy: Top communication leaders rate shared decision-making power significantly higher than team leaders and team members.

The major threat to job engagement is a lack of performance feedback and recognition, with a significant gender gap

The job engagement level is relatively high: 62.8% report they are engaged in their job. More than eight in 10 of surveyed professionals know what is expected of them at work (86.0%), and are in a positive environment where fellow employees are committed to quality work (81.3%). Professionals also said they have the opportunity to do what they can do best every day (79.1%) and their opinions count at work (75.3%). However, some are frustrated by the lack of feedback about their performance on the job (24.6%) and lack of recognition for doing good work (15.4%).

Though nearly three-quarters of communication professionals are satisfied with their job, the gender gap is big. Women (60.8%) report a much lower level of job satisfaction compared to men (70.2%).

Sources of work stress vary

One-third of surveyed professionals acknowledge they feel tense and stressed during a normal workday. Generally, the top three sources of stress are limited growth or advancement opportunities (34.3%), a too-heavy workload (33.6%), and information overload (33.3%). Top communication leaders are most stressed by information overload, team leaders by work overload, and team members by their lack of opportunity for growth and advancement. Women are most stressed by lack of advancement opportunities and heavy workload. Men are most stressed by information overload and being constantly available via email, text and phone.

Women and men rate their social media and knowledge management skills differently

Men and women see their knowledge and skill sets differently when coping with the digital evolution and social media. Women are more confident about delivering messages via social media (68.8%), identifying social media trends (55.7%), and setting up social media platforms (51.2%). Men are more confident of their understanding of the legal framework for social media (38.0%) and using algorithms to run analytics (35.7%).

When it comes to general management skills, men are significantly more confident, compared to women, about their abilities in strategic positioning, such as analyzing overall organizational goals, scenario planning, and linking communication to business agendas. Men also report higher scores on managing human and financial resources.

Juan Meng, PhD., associate professor at the University of Georgia and lead analyst of NACM, said: “The depths and the variety of investigated topics presented by this year’s NACM help us better understand the communication industry in North America. More importantly, our rich results will deliver crucial insights to inform effective practice for communication professionals at all levels, from top leaders to team leaders and team members, as they all need to tackle these challenges now or in the near future.”

To download and read the NACM 2018-2019 full report, please visit the Plank Center’s website.