Seeking an Evolved Model in Communications Leadership

The PR field has perhaps undergone more transformation in the past five years than in the previous two or three decades. Changes in the way content is produced, distributed and consumed have had a dramatic affect on marketing communications, from mobile to social media. But there may be an even more profound change afoot; the kind of change that transcends the production values of a YouTube video or the effectiveness of a Facebook campaign and gets right to the heart of how communicators carry themselves and are viewed by stakeholders both internally and externally.

The change concerns the rise of a new “feminine” model for leadership communication, according to a new study, and how brands respond to the change could have a major impact on communications.

The third annual Ketchum Leadership Communication Monitor took the pulse of 6,509 people in 13 countries across five continents for their views on effective leadership and effective communications and the link between the two.

According to the study, female leaders came out comfortably ahead on all of the top-four most crucial traits of effective leadership, including: leading by example (57% of respondents scored female leaders higher vs. 43% rating males better), communicating in an open and transparent way (62% vs. 38%), admitting mistakes (66% vs. 34%) and bringing out the best in others (61% vs. 39%).

Male and female leaders came in roughly equal on a fifth attribute—handling controversial issues or crises calmly and confidently (48% vs. 52%). In total, female leaders won out on five of the top seven traits examined by the research.

Yet the research also found that globally, male leaders narrowly edge out their female counterparts—54% to 46%—as the gender the world expects to navigate people through the challenges of the next five years.

Rod Cartwright, partner and director of Ketchum’s global corporate and public affairs practice, stressed that the study is not “a value judgment on men,” but what values that people like to see in effective leaders.


The Ketchum survey and the perceptions it uncovers also highlight the dichotomy of the PR profession: In 2013, 73% percent of the PR industry was female, yet 80% percent of upper management was male, according to (PR News could not independently verify those statistics.)

Among the Council of PR Firms ’ 102 member companies, 16 are female-owned.

Some agencies are now doing their part to close those deficits. Take Edelman. The PR agency in 2011 launched Global Women’s Executive Network (GWEN) and task force, which is designed to increase the number of women at the most senior levels of the agency to 50%, from 35%, by 2016.

“We’ve made it a strategic initiative to ensure women are advancing in more leadership roles,” said Stephanie Smirnov, who is managing director of Edelman’s consumer marketing group in New York.

As women take on more leadership roles in PR, the trend may be accompanied by changes in the day-to-day practice.

But Smirnov cautioned against people playing to type. “With more women advancing in their PR career, you can hypothesize that behavioral traits like the feminine leadership model the Ketchum study describes will gain critical mass,” she said. “But we can’t generalize—not all women display the qualities of effective leadership. That’s why gender diversity is so important, so we can benefit from the best leadership traits—masculine or feminine—and have those float to the top of the organization.”


Regardless of gender, Smirnov said, it’s crucial that companies keep constant track of metrics that are designed for leadership success. “I’m not talking about masculine or feminine, but an evolved form of leadership,” she said. “That’s why diversity is so important. Now we’re skewing male (in PR leadership) but you don’t want to over-rotate so 10 years from now we’ll skew in the opposite direction.”

However things shake out, the command-and-control style of leadership is on the verge of its expiration date.

“That’s not going to work as well anymore,” said Frank Mulhern, professor and associate dean of Integrated Marketing Communications Dept. at Medill School. PR managers “can be very instrumental in helping their clients implement the leadership changes that will take place over the next many years.”

(Who are the women superstars on your PR team? PR News’ Top Women in PR Awards will salute women who work in communications for brands, agencies and nonprofits. To enter, please go to The entry deadline is Oct. 1, 2014.)


Rod Cartwright,; Frank Mulhern,; Stepahanie Smirnov,

This article originally appeared in the June 9, 2014 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.