Juan Meng co-edits book exploring strategic communication during COVID

Strategic Communication in a Global Crisis: National and International Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic” is co-edited by Ralph Tench, Juan Meng and Ángeles Moreno. (Photo: courtesy of Juan Meng)

While 2020 was a period of time many want to leave in the rearview mirror because of the global pandemic, the public relations lessons from COVID-19 deserve to be documented for current and future study. Three scholars have done that with their new book, “Strategic Communication in a Global Crisis: National and International Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

The book is co-edited by Juan Meng, professor of public relations and head of the Department of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Georgia Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, along with Ralph Tench, professor of communication, Leeds Beckett University in the UK and Ángeles Moreno, professor at the University of Rey Juan Carlos in Spain.

“Our goal was to design a global collaboration research project that focuses on the strategic communication and the COVID-19 pandemic that we hope to make a unique and timely contribution,” Meng said.

The book captures valuable insight from nearly 40 scholars and communication professionals representing 16 countries from five continents, including Africa, Asia, Europe, North America and South America. Such a scope has marked this book as a first global and international investigation of the COVID-19 pandemic and strategic communication. Subjects covered in the book include, but are not limited to:

  • public health messaging and the effectiveness of health communication campaigns;
  • the successes and failures of the communication strategies used during the pandemic;
  • the trust of information sources and source credibility in the context of a global pandemic;
  • the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the public perception of research, science and scientists;
  • trust building and communication strategies in public health emergencies; and
  • national and regional experiences and discrepancies on pubic health responses and global communication.

Meng said the goal in writing the book was to share the benefits of strategic communication in a time of enforced social, political and economic transformation.

“As a global research project, it is challenging but important to accomplish the goal of managing it from a variety of different perspectives: from scholars who are interested in doing global research and students who want to learn global communications; to public health and governmental institutions and entities to aid in developing effective strategic communication amid uncertainty in any public health and safety crises.”

Meng said the book also explored the impact of misinformation and disinformation on public’s likelihood to follow public health guidelines during the pandemic. National responses addressed in the contributing chapters are tailored to reflect the uniqueness in the coping strategies in each specific country and culture.

“It’s full of multi-levels of insights and perspective from different groups of responses,” Meng said.

Infographic from the new strategic communication book.
Each chapter in the new “Strategic Communication in a Global Crisis” book features an infographic summary.

Many of the chapter authors from different countries were invited to participate through their membership in the European Public Relations Education and Research Association, or through Meng’s research network as the lead researcher for the North American Communication Monitor, sponsored and organized through  The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations

The book is divided into four sections: An introduction; a section written by communication professionals about how they managed the influx of information during COVID; a section examining the response of 16 countries including the trust level of citizens and how each government communicated information; and a conclusion. Each chapter incorporates a visually engaging infographic summarizing key findings and practical implications.

“As editors, we believe it is necessary to provide engaging visual communication information in today’s digital communication environment to advance the meaning of strategic communication and bridge the knowledge gap between social science research and practical implications,” Meng said.

In addition to Meng, several other Grady College faculty, doctoral students and alumni contributed chapters to the book including Yan Jin, the C. Richard Yarbrough Professor of Crisis Communication Leadership; Ruoyu Sun (MA ’17), assistant professor of public relations; Bryan Reber, professor emeritus; Ton Xie (PhD ‘22); and Sung In Choi, a current doctoral student.

The book is part of the Routledge New Directions in PR & Communication Research series.

AdPR Academy renamed, revamped after gift from Myra Blackmon

Quote card that reads " “For communications professionals to be truly effective, they have to reflect their varied audiences. A visceral understanding of our diverse audiences requires constant commitment. I am proud to be able to support such an effort through the college that has been such an important part of my life since 1969!”AdPR Academy of Grady College’s Department of Advertising and Public Relations has changed its name to the Myra Blackmon AdPR Academy for Diversity and Inclusion.

The six-year-old educational outreach program is designed to amplify the power of diversity, equity and inclusion while growing the pipeline of diverse advertising and public relations professionals. This year’s Academy will happen in Atlanta from Nov. 9-13. 

Myra Blackmon (ABJ ’72, M.Ed ’08) has enjoyed a long and varied career in industry and nonprofit organizations. For many years, she owned M. Blackmon Public Relations in Athens, serving a diverse clientele in finance, food products, health care, public affairs and fundraising. She and her husband, the late Dr. Thomas P. Holland, consulted internationally on management and governance of nonprofit organizations. Blackmon also taught public relations courses in Grady College’s AdPR Department for several years. 

“For communications professionals to be truly effective, they have to reflect their varied audiences,” said Blackmon. “A visceral understanding of our diverse audiences requires constant commitment. I am proud to be able to support such an effort through the college that has been such an important part of my life since 1969!”

Students in the Academy receive over 35 hours of training and mentoring by experts working in the advertising and public relations industries, participate in daily networking opportunities with corporate executives and agency professionals, and compete in teams representing real-life clients for cash prizes. 

“We truly appreciate Myra’s generosity,” said Dr. Juan Meng, Head of the Department of Advertising and Public Relations. “Her commitment in advancing diversity and inclusion plays a huge role in supporting the success of this program.” 

This year, Grady College invited partner institutions Albany State University, Clemson University, Georgia State University, Florida A&M University, Howard University, Kennesaw State University, Tuskegee University and the University of South Carolina to hand-select cohorts of their own students to participate in the program. Interested students not attending one of the partner institutions were invited to apply directly.

Myra Blackmon teaching a class at Grady College.
Myra Blackmon teaching at Grady College. (Photo: Sarah Freeman)

“It’s really about creating and amplifying the importance of diversity and building a pipeline with a particular focus on students of color,” said DeShele Taylor, Director of the Myra Blackmon AdPR Academy for Diversity and Inclusion. “We’ve really seen a nice rippling effect of the benefits of this program. Everyone who has gone through this program has said that they feel they have a clear pathway forward.”

 Over its history, the program has graduated 99 students from 21 U.S. colleges and universities. Many of the program’s alumni have stayed in the fields of advertising and public relations, working for agencies, corporations or nonprofits. Several have gone on to pursue advanced degrees before launching their careers. 

In years past, the AdPR Academy happened in the spring. This year, however, the program will run in the fall, giving students the opportunity to put the experience on their resumes before submitting applications to competitive summer internships and jobs.

“The Department of Modern Languages, Communication, and Philosophy at Tuskegee University is excited to have our Communication majors as part of AdPR Academy,” said Dr. Adaku T. Ankumah, chair of the aforementioned department. “The goal of advancing diversity is in line with the University’s mission of being a center of diversity and its strategic goals for the next five years. In addition, we seek strategic partnerships that will provide our students with hands-on experiences, so they are ready for the job market. We look forward to the opportunities that will open for them from this collaboration.”

Mira Lowe, Dean of the School of Journalism & Graphic Communications at Florida A&M University, added: “We are excited to work with AdPR Academy at the University of Georgia in helping to close the diversity gap in the advertising and public relations industries. Our partnership will open new doors to our PR students seeking career opportunities and connections in various professional networks. This collaboration with UGA enables us to expand the professional development of our students in a consequential way.”

PR leaders raise grade to B- in the Plank Center’s Report Card 2021

Did the pandemic and social turmoil drive improved performance?  Graphic illustrating the 2021 PR leadership report card grades.

Leaders in public relations improved their performance during the volatile and challenging world of 2020-2022. For the first time since the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations launched its biennial Leadership Report Card in 2015, the grade for overall leadership performance rose to B-.

“It is promising to document the improved leadership during and after times of uncertainty and radical changes,” said Juan Meng, Ph.D., co-investigator, board member at the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations and associate professor at Grady College. “It is even better to observe the closed gap between men and women when evaluating their leaders. As the society is moving rapidly to embrace DE&I, leaders should rethink what kinds of effective practices their organizations need to ensure sustainable improvements in leadership.”

The 2020-2022 survey period was a volatile time marked by: 1) the pandemic; 2) George Floyd’s murder by police in 2020, which sparked protests and marches calling for greater social justice and DE&I; and 3) a bitter presidential election pounded by waves of mis- and dis-information in social and national media that further divided the nation.

Against this background, public relations leaders were resilient and improved their leadership. Did the pandemic, or a greater focus on DE&I, or concerns about truth and accuracy drive these improvements? To some extent certainly, but the survey was not designed to measure this. The 2023 Report Card should reveal whether the leadership gains in 2021 were lasting or not.

The Grades


Leadership Performance:   A-/C+          (2019—A-/C+)

This is a split grade because leaders’ and their employees’ perceptions of performance continue to differ sharply. Top leaders (232 or 43.3%) rated their performance (6.17 /7.0 scale) about an “A-,” while other employees (304 or 56.7%) rated their top leaders’ performance (4.75/7.0) a “C+.” Scores for top leadership performance were slightly higher than in 2019 (6.09 vs. 4.49), but the size of the gap in all four Report Cards is virtually the same. For the first time, no significant differences were found between women and men on their evaluations of leadership performance.

Job Engagement:    B                       (2019—B-)

Job engagement, based on Gallup’s engagement survey, reached its highest level versus previous studies. In addition, for the first time, no significant differences were found regarding engagement between women and men. Based on responses to the questions, respondents are grouped into three categories: engaged, not engaged, and actively disengaged.

In this Report Card, 61.2% of respondents were engaged (highest level in the four studies); 31.9% were not engaged; and 6.9% were actively disengaged (down from 8.0% in 2019).

Organizational Culture:    B-        (2019—C+)

Culture refers to the internal environment, processes and structures facilitating or impeding communication practices. Cultural improvements appeared across all items in this Report Card; surveyed participants graded it a “B-,” the highest (mean) score in four reports.

Rated highest again was the CEO’s or top leader’s understanding and valuing of public relations (5.69 up from 5.48 in 2019). The understanding and valuing of PR by other functional leaders, however, was rated significantly lower (5.02 versus 4.95 in 2019). Men rated culture more positively (5.23 vs. 5.07 in 2019) than women (5.04 vs. 4.83 in 2019), notably on elements like two-way communication, shared decision-making, and diversity. Among organizational types, agency professionals rated cultural factors highest (5.76).

Trust in the Organization:    B-       (2019—C+)

The overall grade for trust in the organization (5.08/7.0 scale) was a “B-,” the highest level of trust in the Report Cards to date. Trust scores once again were consistently lower at each level in the chain of command. Top leaders rated trust (5.46) significantly higher than other levels (4.71).

Women (4.96) continued to be less trusting of their organizations than male professionals (5.19), though the gap in the 2021 survey was not as pronounced as in previous surveys. The improvement in trust, after small declines in scores in the three previous studies, is noteworthy.

Job Satisfaction:    B-           (2019—C+)

Job satisfaction improved versus small declines in the two previous surveys, and the overall grade rose from a “C+” to a “B-.” In terms of percentages, the numbers rose slightly from 2019 when the percentage of PR leaders and professionals who were satisfied with their job was 62.1% versus 63.6% in this 2021 Report Card. Job satisfaction is highest among top leaders (72.8 %). Men (66.8%) were more satisfied with their job, if compared to women (60.5%).


Grades for all five areas for leaders improved, especially in job engagement and job satisfaction. Mean scores in most areas rose modestly. Thus, the overall leadership grade rose from a C+ to a B-, the first improvement since 2015. In addition, one of three crucial gaps revealed in previous studies—the gender gap—was closed in this Report Card.

The two other big gaps remain between: 1) perceptions of top communication leaders versus their employees, and 2) existing culture and a much richer culture for communication. The gaps must be reduced to strengthen leadership, practice and outcomes. The gaps may be reduced through 1) increased power sharing, or leader-empowering behaviors, 2) better two-way communication, and 3) richer interpersonal skills in conflict management, active listening and empathy, among others.

“The purpose of this biennial report is to assess PR leadership and identify enrichment opportunities for it,” said Bruce K. Berger, Ph.D., co-investigator and professor emeritus, University of Alabama. “If we identify the gaps and work to close them, we strengthen our profession’s leadership—a crucial strategic asset. This Report Card identified some improvements over the past two difficult pandemic years, but some crucial gaps and issues remain, as does the urgency to act.”   

Project Background and Demographics

The Report Card 2021 was based on responses from 536 PR leaders and professionals in the United States. A 42-question survey was distributed online to more than 22,000 public relations leaders and professionals contained within an extensive database, and 568 completed the survey; 32 surveys completed by non-US-based participants were excluded, leaving 536 surveys for data analysis. This response provides a 95% confidence level (+/- 5%) the results represent the larger population of surveyed professionals. Most participants were experienced, high-level leaders and managers. More than three-quarters (83.2%) of the 536 respondents were the #1 (43.3%) or #2 (39.9%) communication professional in their organization. More men (286 or 53.6%) than women (248 or 46.4%) completed the survey. The majority of participants worked in public (157 or 29.3%) or private/state-owned (102 or 19.0%) firms. Most participants (455 or 84.9%) were Caucasian. The percentage of non-Caucasians (e.g., Black/African American, Latino/Hispanic, Asian or Asian American, multi-racial, etc.) is 15.1%, higher than in previous surveys.

To download and read the Report Card 2021 full report, please visit the Plank Center’s website

Juan Meng named Department of Advertising and Public Relations Head

Juan Meng, an associate professor of public relations and founder and director of the Choose China Study Abroad program, has been tapped to direct the Department of Advertising and Public Relations at Grady College effective August 1, 2022.

Current department head, Bryan Reber, will retire effective August 1, 2022.

“Dr. Meng adds to the long line of distinguished faculty who have stepped up to lead AdPR over the decades,” said Charles N. Davis, dean of Grady College. “She possesses the leadership skills needed for this demanding position, and she’s earned the role through years of strong service to the college. I’m so excited to work with her.”

Meng joined the AdPR faculty in 2012 and is an affiliate graduate faculty member, serving as the founder and advisor of the UGA/SHNU cooperative education 3+1+1 degree program, which recruits undergraduate students of Shanghai Normal University in China to complete their undergraduate and graduate degrees at UGA. Meng’s teaching focus includes public relations foundations, public relations campaigns, PR ethics, diversity and leadership, and global PR. Her research specialization includes public relations leadership, leadership development, diversity and leadership in PR, measurement in PR, and global communication.

Meng has published more than 70 refereed journal articles, scholarly book chapters and research reports on leadership-related topics. She is co-editor of the book, “Public Relations Leaders as Sensemakers: A Global Study of Leadership in Public Relations and Communication Management,” published by Routledge in 2014. Her most recent scholarly book, “PR Women with Influence: Breaking through the Ethical and Leadership Challenges” (Peter Lang, 2021), is the Volume 6 of the AEJMC-Peter Lang Scholarsourcing Series. Meng has presented her research at various panels, workshops, webinars, podcasts, and symposiums nationally and internationally.

Meng serves on the editorial advisory board for six leading scholarly journals in the field of public relations and communication management, including Journal of Public Relations Research and Public Relations Review, among others. She was recently named to the advisory board of PR Daily. Meng was recently tapped to serve as an inaugural member of the Institute of Public Relations new initiative called IPR ELEVATE, a group of PR leaders dedicated to advancing the research-focused mission in the industry. She currently also serves as the Research Co-Chair on the executive leadership committee of the Educators Academy at Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).

Meng serves on the national advisory board of The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations at the University of Alabama. She has collaborated with The Plank Center over the past ten years on several signature research projects, including the largest global study of PR leadership, Millennial Communication Professionals in the Workplace, the biennial Report Card on PR Leaders and the biennial North American Communication Monitor.

She is a graduate of the UGA Women’s Leadership Fellows program, the Office of Service-Learning Fellows program and UGA Teaching Academy Fellows program.

Meng earned Ph.D. and Master of Science degrees from the University of Alabama; a Master of Arts degree from Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio; and a Bachelor of Science degree from Fudan University in Shanghai, China.

“I am honored and thankful for this opportunity. I look forward to working more closely with our talented students, dedicated colleagues, passionate alumni, and other brilliant leaders in the field to continue upholding AdPR’s legacy of excellence in education, research and service.” — Juan Meng

AdPR is the largest department at Grady College and graduated more than 200 advertising and public relations students this past Spring 2022. The department, one of the most prolific in terms of research productivity and cited articles according to a 2019 study, houses several certificate programs, labs and key programs within the College including the Crisis Communication Coalition, the student-run agency Talking Dog and the Center for Health and Risk Communication.

The 2020-2021 North American Communication Monitor identifies trends and challenges in a year of continuous crisis

Juan Meng and Bryan Reber will join Karla Gower, Ansgar Zerfass and Bridget Coffing in a panel discussion about the NACM on Wednesday, June 9 at 11 a.m. EST on the Plank Center Facebook page. All are invited to watch this free discussion.

In one of the most unusual years of our lifetime, the 2020-2021 North American Communication Monitor (NACM), organized and conducted by The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, disclosed key trends and challenges facing the communication profession.

Grady College professor Juan Meng, associate professor of public relations, was the lead researcher for the report and Bryan Reber, C. Richard Yarbrough Professor in Crisis Communication Leadership and research chair for The Plank Center, was an  author.

Some highlights include:

  • Seven out of 10 professionals were satisfied with their organization’s communication and management during the COVID-19 pandemic, although the satisfaction level significantly decreased as the scope of the leadership responsibility
  • Professionals in the U.S. were significantly more likely than their Canadian counterparts to report ethical challenges, and most ethical concerns are related to social media
  • More than half of professionals confirmed their organization had been a victim of cyberattack or data theft.
  • Nearly half (49.5%) of surveyed women acknowledged the impact of the glass ceiling in leadership advancement.
  • While building and maintaining trust remains as the top strategic issue for the communication profession, tackling diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) presents a pressing
  • Professionals recognize the need to improve competencies, especially in data, technology, and management.

The North American Communication Monitor results are based on responses from 1,046 communication professionals working in different types of organizations (25.6% in Canada and 74.4% in the United States). The sample achieved a fairly balanced gender split (47.7% men and 52.1% women) for accurate comparisons. The average age of participants was 41.2 years.

Bridget Coffing, chair of The Plank Center Board of Advisors, said, “In these unprecedented times and amid a rapidly changing landscape, the global pandemic accelerated trends around ethics, cyber security, and gender and racial inequality. The NACM provides insights into how those trends impacted communication professionals and brought into focus the skill set required to advance authentic, transparent messaging in an age of misinformation.”

This newest edition of NACM, which joins existing Communication Monitors in Europe, Latin America and Asia-Pacific, explored diverse topics, including COVID-19 and communication professionals’ responses, ethical challenges and resources for communication professionals, cybersecurity and communications, gender equality in the profession, strategic issues and communication channels, competency development, salaries, and characteristics of excellent communication departments.

Meng, Juan
Juan Meng, director of the AdPR Choose China Maymester Program, is the lead researcher for the 2020-2021 North American Communication Monitor.

Meng said: “One of the leading trends revealed by this edition of NACM confirms that change is constant and inevitable. The combined impacts of the pandemic and the digital transformation of communications during times of social and racial unrest call for a strong leadership more than ever to hold your communication accountable while developing new ways of value creation. This edition of NACM offers data-driven insights to explain the difficulties communicators faced, the lessons learned, what core competencies are here to stay, and what new skills need to be acquired and reflected upon.”

Most professionals acknowledged COVID-19 is a heavily discussed topic.

Overall, clear evidence is found that the COVID-19 pandemic is a heavily discussed topic (83.2%). Professionals also confirmed that the impact of the pandemic on their daily work is significant (65.8%) but much higher for professionals in Canada (70.9%). Seven of 10 respondents felt their organizations did a satisfactory job managing changes associated with the pandemic.

Gender comparisons revealed a significant gap. Women perceived the pandemic as a heavily discussed topic, but men reported a significantly higher level of impact on their daily work (70.0% vs. 62.3%). Professionals working in public companies reported a significantly higher level of direct impact. Results also showed a significant correlation between leadership position and perceived direct impact. For example, top communication leaders reported the highest impact of the pandemic on their daily work.

Six out of 10 communication professionals in North America encountered one or more ethical challenges in the past year.

Communicators face ethical challenges in their day-to-day work. Professionals in the U.S. were significantly more likely than their Canadian counterparts to report ethical challenges. When dealing with ethical challenges, most professionals relied on the ethical guidelines of their organization. At the same time, the code of ethics of professional associations and their personal values and beliefs were also important resources.

Ethical concerns related to social media strategies are particularly relevant. Professionals were most concerned about the use of bots to generate feedback and followers on social media.

They were also concerned about paying social media influencers for favorable mentions. In addition, professionals working in public companies were more concerned about profiling and targeting audiences based on big data analyses.

More than half of professionals confirmed their organization was a victim of cyberattack or data theft.

The reliance on the internet and digital communication has made cybersecurity a more prominent issue in practice. Six in 10 respondents confirmed cybersecurity is relevant to their daily work. Nearly one in five experienced multiple cyberattacks. Results showed cyber criminals are attacking governmental organizations (64.0%) and public companies (62.3%) more frequently.

Cyberattacks can take different formats, and the two most common ones are hacking websites and/or social media accounts (39.0%) and leaking sensitive information (37.5%). When engaging communication strategies in fighting cyber criminality, professionals actively worked on building resilience by educating their fellow employees (45.7%), developing cybersecurity guidelines (40.1%), and implementing cybersecurity technologies (42.7%).

Nearly half (49.5%) of surveyed women recognized the impact of the glass ceiling on their leadership advancement.

Almost seven out of 10 professionals (65.5%) observed an improvement in gender equality in their country. However, only half of them (45.6%) believed enough efforts have been made to advance gender equality. Specifically, disagreement arises when comparing perceptions by men (58.1%) and women (34.3%). Consistently, professionals acknowledged the issue of glass ceiling affecting women’s leadership advancement at all three levels: the communication profession (59.0%), the communication department and agency (46.0%), and the individual female practitioners (48.4%). In addition, public companies (62.8%) and nonprofits (63.9%) are criticized for their passive action to advance gender equality.

Approximately half of surveyed women stated they are personally affected by the glass ceiling in leadership advancement (49.5%). Reasons contributing to the glass ceiling problem are multifaceted, and the top two are linked to organizational barriers: lack of flexibility for family obligations (66.2%) and nontransparent, informal promotion policies (65.2%).

While building and maintaining trust remains as the top strategic issue, tackling DEI presents a pressing need for the communication profession.

When ranking the top strategic issues between now and 2023, professionals’ top-3 choices are:

  1. Building and maintaining trust (34.5%),
  2. Exploring new means of content creation and distribution (34.4%), and
  3. Tackling issues related to DEI (34.1%).

As for who is most capable of solving DEI issues, just more than half of respondents believed that organizational leaders carry the biggest responsibility (51.1%). However, only 39.9% of top communication leaders agreed with this selection. Instead, they shift such responsibility to the communication professionals themselves (42.4%).

More than half of communicators of all ages noted a “much or great need” to develop competencies.

The year 2020 taught communicators a variety of lessons including the value of maintaining a flexible skillset. More than half of communicators of all ages noted a “much or great need” to develop competencies. However, about 10% of the youngest respondents (29 years and younger) said there is no or little need for such development.

When assessing the importance and the personal qualification of six core competencies (data, technology, management, business, self-reflection and communication), large gaps were confirmed in data (-15.7%), technology (-12.4%) and management (-10.4%). Professionals working in governmental organizations and nonprofits rated their business, technology and data competencies significantly lower, as did female professionals.

Reber, Bryan
In addition to his roles at Grady College, Bryan Reber also serves as the research chair of The Plank Center.

“The NACM provides a substantive look at the issues that affect public relations leaders across the continent,” said Reber, chair of the Grady’s Department of Advertising and Public Relations. “Communication became a freshly appreciated discipline in board rooms as the need for internal and external communication expertise exploded. We learned that senior management is very involved in day-to-day tactics during a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. We learned that gender-based pay equity still has to be addressed. And we learned that cybersecurity is a communication issue, not just an IT headache. The survey shines a light on so many areas of importance in our practice.”

To download and read the NACM 2020-2021 full report, please visit The Plank Center’s website.

About North American Communication Monitor 2020-2021

The North American Communication Monitor (NACM) is a biennial study organized and sponsored by The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations. The NACM is part of the Global Communication Monitor series. As the largest regular global study in the field of public relations and strategic communication, the Global Communication Monitor series aims at stimulating and promoting the knowledge and practice of strategic communication and communication management globally. The series covers more than 80 countries with similar surveys conducted in Asia-Pacific, Europe and Latin America.

The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations is the leading international resource working to support students, educators and practitioners who are passionate about the public relations profession by developing and recognizing outstanding diverse public relations leaders, role models and mentors. Founded in 2005, the Center is named in honor of Betsy Plank, the “First Lady” of PR.

For more information about the Global Communication Monitor series, please visit the Global Commuication Monitor website.

Trends and challenges revealed in new book about women and leadership in public relations

Advancement barriers, gaps in leadership and lack of mentors examined

A new book, PR Women with Influence: Breaking Through the Ethical and Leadership Challenges, explores how women in the profession of public relations and communication navigate through attitudinal, structural and social barriers in advancing their leadership roles. The book is led by Juan Meng, associate professor at the University of Georgia Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication and co-authored by Marlene S. Neill, associate professor at Baylor University.

Grounded by empirical research, the book illustrates the ethical and leadership challenges women in PR face. Some key highlights include:

  • Situational barriers to women’s leadership advancement in public relations;
  • The meaning of building influence to women in public relations;
  • The strategies to set out principles that uphold the core values of ethical leadership;
  • Women’s leadership development and participation opportunities in public relations; and
  • The crucial supporting roles of mentoring and sponsorship in leadership advancement.

The book was published by Peter Lang International Academic Publishers and is part of the AEJMC-Peter Lang Scholarsourcing Series. The book is developed from a research project co-sponsored by The Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication and The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations.

The results are based on responses from two phases of research. Phase I involves 51 in-depth interviews with current female executives in public relations and communication and Phase II reflects information and opinions recruited from a national panel of 512 female public relations and communication professionals.

“Our goal with this book is to examine the joint topics of ethics counseling and leadership challenges that woman in public relations and communication are facing,” Meng said. “We hope to enrich the body of knowledge in women and leadership in public relations while advancing our understanding of identity- and gender-based leadership development skills and ethics counseling strategies.”

Barriers in leadership advancement

Women in PR agree that there is a substantial percentage of women (61.9%) serving as direct supervisors at junior and/or middle management levels to fill in the leadership pipeline. However, the pattern of men outnumbering women in senior communication leadership is persistent by ethnicity, as well as across different types of organizations.

As rated by women in PR, the top three situational barriers that influence women’s leadership advancement are:

  1. Double standards in domestic roles and professional demands (58.6%),
  2. Social attitudes toward female professionals (57.4%), and
  3. Workplace structures (57.2%).

Women of color are specifically disadvantaged by race-based stereotypes.

Women in the study highlighted the top three factors contributing to the underrepresentation in top leadership:

  1. Lack of women as role models in high-level decision-making positions (43.4%);
  2. Lack of work-family balance (36.9%); and
  3. Lack of power of authority or control over important resources (35.2%).
Multiple meanings of being a female leader in public relations

The majority of surveyed professionals in the study define influence as the following ways:

  • Being valued as a trusted advisor (85.7%),
  • Having career advancement opportunities (84.0%),
  • Demonstrating expertise (83.0%), and
  • Having a voice that colleagues and co-workers listen to (82.8%).

Women of color define influence with strong opinions by highlighting the importance of gaining visibility through senior leadership positions.

At the same time, women in PR use multiple strategies to build and enact their influence when providing leadership and ethical counseling. Those widely used strategies include the following:

  • Inviting questions and building a dialogue (74.0%),
  • Referring to the core values of the organization (70.1%),
  • Providing scenarios, discussing potential consequences and providing alternative solutions (69.5%).
Efforts are needed to minimize the gap between leadership development and participation opportunities for women in PR

It is promising that nearly 64% of female professionals agree that their organization has on-the-job training programs to increase competency. Respondents also reported having access to internal and external leadership training and development programs. However, insufficient leadership development resources are particularly noticeable for women in the 31- to 40-year-old bracket.

The gap between leadership development and participation is noticeable. Female professionals reflect that as the line responsibility and the decision-making power increase, their opportunities to participate in leadership initiatives decrease. Four out of ten women don’t think they’ve been given sufficient leadership participative opportunities in organizations’ important initiatives. Quite surprisingly, a substantial percentage of women (41.5%) disagree their organization helps “women like me” participate in one or more professional associations to build networks.

Mentors are important but the numbers are insufficient

Women in PR agree that mentorship does not only provide career advice but also contributes to network building. However, results show that three out of ten female professionals admit they do not have any mentors. In addition, more Black women reported not having a mentor (35.0%), compared with white women (28.6%) and other minority women (28.8%).

“By talking to those successful women executives in PR who were willing to share their personal experiences and provide guidance,” Neill said, “we found one of the most insightful pieces of advice was regarding the role of advocates in career advancement. Senior leaders need to be more willing to identify, mentor and champion young professionals and offer them personal growth opportunities.”

Several factors are sought after when identifying mentors for women in PR including:

  • On-the-job communications and experiences (29.7%),
  • Personal connections and networks (24.2%), and
  • Professional associations (17.8%).

“The depths and the insights from the book can be used to build a roadmap for younger generations and women of color who aspire to move into leadership,” Meng concluded. “Today’s public relations industry is facing enormous pressure to address gender and racial diversity at all levels. We hope our book contributes to addressing disparity, stimulating change, and leveraging the profession to be more diverse, equal and inclusive.”

For more information about this book, please visit https://www.peterlang.com/view/title/70618.

Public Relations Leaders Earn a “C+” in The Plank Center’s Report Card 2019

Bryan Reber and Juan Meng of the Department of Advertising and Public Relations were among a team of researchers evaluating perceptions about public relations leadership as part of The Plank Center’s Report Card 2019.

The 2019 report was released the end of September and reflects little change in public relations leadership from studies in 2015 and 2017. PR leaders received an overall grade of “C+” in 2019, similar to previous studies, though down a bit overall in the last five years.

“The impression about top communication leaders’ performance hasn’t changed nor improved much in the professional communication community, based on results from our three Report Cards,” said Meng, co-investigator and associate professor at Grady College. “Such consistent but not-so-promising gaps present persuasive evidence that merits serious attention. Improving top communication leaders’ performance shall be a priority. More critically, such changes and actions shall be well communicated to and received by employees in order to close the gaps.”

The Report Card 2019 had responses from 828 PR leaders and professionals nationwide, who evaluated five fundamental areas of leadership linked to outcomes in our field—organizational culture, quality of leadership performance, trust in the organization, work engagement and job satisfaction. While grades overall were little changed from 2017, job engagement, trust and job satisfaction dropped a bit. Even more concerning, previously reported gaps in evaluations grew more:

  • Differences between men’s (45.8%) and women’s (54.2%) perceptions of the organizational culture and the quality of leadership performance deepened. Similar to Report Card 2017, gaps between top leaders’ (35.1%) and others’ (64.9%) perceptions of all five evaluated areas remained wide.
  • Women in public relations remained less engaged, less satisfied with their jobs, less confident in their work cultures, less trusting of their organizations and more critical of top leaders compared to men.
  • Previous concerns of both men and women about two-way communication, shared decision-making, diversity and culture were again present.

The consistently average grades, and the sharp and growing differences among surveyed professionals noted above, beg the question of whether improving leadership in the field is a priority in the profession. Numerous blogs, articles and research studies suggest it is important and needed. However, as Bill Heyman, CEO and president of Heyman Associates, and a co-sponsor of the study, reflected, “Talking about needed changes and improvements in leadership won’t accomplish the change. We need more leaders who live and model the changes.”

Report Card on PR Leaders 2019 2017 2015
Leadership performance A-/C+ A-/C+ A-/C+
Job engagement B- B- B+
Trust in organization C+ C+ C+
Job satisfaction C+ C+ B
Culture of organization C+ C+ B-
Overall C+ C+ B-






“Organizational culture is driven by leadership,” said Bryan H. Reber, the C. Richard Yarbrough Professor in Crisis Communication Leadership at Grady College and research director at The Plank Center. “It’s rather disheartening that organizational culture remains only ‘average’ and that women give ‘shared decision-making’ such a poor score. Public relations leaders apparently need to back up verbal support of inclusive cultures with more action.”

The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations is located at the University of Alabama and is an international resource working to support students, educators and professionals.

To download the complete report, please visit the Report Card on The Plank Center’s website.


Juan Meng added to Plank Center National Board of Advisors

Juan Meng, associate professor of public relations and director of AdPR Choose China Program, has been elected to the board of advisors for The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations.

For more than 10 years, Meng has collaborated with the Center on various research projects to address current and future leadership issues, including the largest global study of PR leadershipMillennial Communication Professionals in the Workplace, the biennial Report Card on PR Leaders,and the North American Communication Monitor.

“We are thrilled to have Juan join the board,” said Dr. Karla K. Gower, director of The Plank Center. “Her impressive work ethic, scholarly research and passion for developing public relations leaders complement those of the world-class academics and professionals serving on the board.”

About the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations

The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations is shaping the future of the public relations industry through leadership and mentorship as the leading international resource for practitioners, educators and students. Founded in 2005, the Center is named after Betsy Plank, known as the First Lady of PR. Plank’s legacy and vision continue on in the Center’s programs and initiatives to bridge the gap and advance the profession and public relations education.


Focus on Faculty: Juan Meng

(Editor’s note: This feature was originally written by UGA Marketing and Communications) 

Juan Meng, an associate professor in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, gives students hands-on learning experiences that help them develop into leaders in public relations.

Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?

I earned my bachelor’s degree in economics from Fudan University in Shanghai, China. My first master’s degree, in communication, is from Bowling Green State University with a concentration in organizational communication. Then I went to the University of Alabama to obtain my Ph.D. in mass communication with a concentration in public relations. While I worked toward my doctorate, I also earned my second master’s degree in marketing from the University of Alabama.

I am currently an associate professor of public relations in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. I teach undergraduate courses in public relations research and campaigns as well as graduate courses related to public relations. I mentor some of our graduate students’ thesis and dissertation research. Another thing I enjoy doing here at UGA is directing the Grady College’s Choose China study abroad program, which I founded in 2013.

What are your favorite courses and why?

I enjoy teaching our capstone course, “Public Relations Campaigns” because the content of the course involves the development and presentation of a complete communication campaign for a real organization. Student teams are challenged at various levels in this course, from team collaboration, to problem/opportunity identification, to strategic planning, to creative thinking and to campaign evaluation. It is critical for students to move beyond the “knowing” perspective to the “know-how” process.

As the director of the Choose China program, I enjoy leading a group of students who travel to China each summer and offer them the best opportunities to learn current practices in advertising, public relations, social media and integrated communication from market leaders in today’s China. It feels amazing and rewarding to see students get firsthand knowledge regarding how communication agencies work in that region and how the cultural experience broadens their global view and understanding of international communication.

What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?

I hope my PR students understand the meaning and the role of leadership in public relations practice. I hope their learning journey with me inspires them to be visionary, future-oriented, lead under diversity and transform diversity into competitive advantages, no matter in a classroom setting or in public relations practice.

Please visit Focusing on Faculty: Juan Meng to view the entire Q&A about Meng’s research and time at UGA. 

Grady College alumna honored with 2017 Makovsky Best Master’s Thesis of the Year Award

Ruoyu Sun’s thesis investigated the risk perception and purchase intention of Millennials in China and the U.S. toward genetically modified food


The Institute for Public Relations has awarded Ruoyu Sun, a recent graduate of Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication’s master’s program, the 2017 Makovsky Best Master’s Thesis of the Year Award based on her work studying source credibility on digital media toward Millennial purchase intention of genetically modified foods. Thanks to the new sponsorship of the award by Makovsky, an integrated communications firm, the award annually celebrates a master’s thesis that most contributes to advancing research-based knowledge in the field of public relations.

Sun’s thesis, “Effects of Source Credibility via Social Media on The Risk Perception and Purchase Intention Toward Genetically Modified Foods: A Cross-Cultural Study between Young Millennials in China and The U.S.,” found that long-term communication and education about genetically modified foods to young Millennials are necessary before one can increase his/her purchase intention. Her thesis suggests public relations practitioners in China should have scientists serve as a credible information source to inform stakeholders about the benefits of GM foods. In the U.S., a mixed approach of scientists and government was found to be more effective.

Sun will receive a cash grant of $2,000 and Juan Meng, Sun’s faculty advisor, will receive $1,000 at the IPR Annual Distinguished Lecture and Awards Dinner on Nov. 29 in New York City.

“I am extremely honored to receive this award from IPR,” said Sun, now a doctoral student at the School of Communication, University of Miami. “It encourages me to work harder and to do more scientific research which could contribute to the effective practice of PR in the future. Thanks to IPR, Makovsky, and my advisor, Dr. Juan Meng at the University of Georgia, for her unwavering support throughout this project.”

Meng, an associate professor of public relations, described Sun as passionate about conducting research that can have an impact on the public relations profession.

“I am eager to see Ruoyu continue to develop her research expertise during her doctoral program and I look forward to collaborating with her in future research projects,” Meng said.

“The purpose in our sponsoring this award is to help attract the brightest minds to pursue a career in public relations,” said Ken Makovsky, president of Makovsky. “Large businesses are facing increasingly complex challenges such as digital disruption, marketing cyberattacks, shareholder activism and an increased focus on governance.

Established in 1981, the award honors a winning master’s thesis that focuses on the development of research-based knowledge in the field of public relations, and the degree to which the research is relevant or has an impact on the profession. This is the first year the award has been given since 2010 thanks to a new sponsorship by Makovsky to recognize and encourage graduate study and scholarship in public relations.

About Makovsky

Founded in 1979, Makovsky (www.makovsky.com) is one of the nation’s largest and most influential independent integrated communications firms. The firm attributes its success to its original vision: that the Power of Specialized Thinking™ is the best way to build reputation, sales and fair valuation for a client. Based in New York City and Washington, D.C, the firm has agency partners with nearly 2,000 professionals in 30 countries through IPREX (IPREX.com), the second largest worldwide public relations agency partnership, of which Makovsky is the founder.

About the Institute for Public Relations

The Institute for Public Relations is an independent, nonprofit research foundation dedicated to fostering greater use of research and research-based knowledge in corporate communication and the public relations practice.  IPR is dedicated to the science beneath the art of public relations™. IPR provides timely insights and applied intelligence that professionals can put to immediate use. All research, including a weekly research letter, is available for free at www.instituteforpr.org.