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.

Grady College professors help lead research for largest worldwide communication study

The North American Communication Monitor (NACM), an international research project that is one of the world’s largest studies of communication, was recently released thanks to the leadership of two Grady College professors, Bryan Reber and Juan Meng.

Reber, the C. Richard Yarbrough Professor in Crisis Communication Leadership and head of the Department of Advertising and Public Relations, and Meng, associate professor of public relations, helped lead a group of professors from universities within the framework of the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations at The University of Alabama.

“It is very exciting to launch the North American Communication Monitor,” said Meng, “It provides and maps the key issues, trends, impact and implications for strategic communication in the U.S. and Canada, and brings a significant part to the Global Communication Monitor Series, which truly is a powerful global initiative. One of the most striking findings about this year’s NACM is the emphasis on building and maintaining trust combined with the ongoing debate over fake news and how it challenges the industry. Solutions have never been easy, but we hope findings from this year’s monitor will provide insights,” noted Meng.

The Plank Center sponsored the NACM, the first survey of its kind in North America, to explore the status quo, qualities and trends of communication management in North America. The survey, which launched in May 2018, addresses topics including how to tackle the challenges of fake news, how communicators provide insights for decision-making, how leadership performance is assessed as well as job satisfaction and personal stress among communication professionals in the United states and Canada.

Karla K. Gower, director of the Plank Center, stated, “Not only will we have a better understanding of the communication industry in North America, we will have a greater opportunity for global comparison on issues regarding integrity and trust in what we see, hear and read.”

The NACM becomes part of the Global Communication Monitor series, the largest regular global study in the field of strategic communication and public relations. The series has analyzed trends in the field for over a decade in more than 80 countries across Europe, Latin-America and the Asia-Pacific region.

Reber explains, “I’m happy the advisors of the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations decided to financially support this survey.  There are other North American and even global studies of organizational communicators.  What makes this study different than most is its methodology.  We used a probability sampling method rather than a non-probability method such as the convenience samples that most studies like this employ.  In addition, the link to the Global Communication Monitor network will provide exciting opportunities to identify and, I hope eventually, predict trends in organizational communication issues.  We look forward to continuing to dig in to the rich data from this survey and to plan for the next one in 2020.”

In November, the latest results and findings from a survey of 1,020 communications professionals were presented at the Institute for PR Research Symposium in New York City by Reber and Meng. The study tracked trends in fake news, issues management, leadership, work stress, social media skills and job satisfaction. The presentation, including results from the survey, can be found here.

Grady AdPR faculty participate in expansive communication mangement survey

Bryan Reber, the C. Richard Yarbrough Professor in Crisis Communication Leadership, and Juan Meng, associate professor of public relations, are among five professors directing a worldwide survey to understand changes in the communication industry.

The survey is the North American Communication Monitor (NACM), the first survey of its kind in North America, to explore the status quo, qualities and trends of communication management in North America. The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations is helping to direct the survey.

The survey, which was launched in May, addresses topics including “fake news” and how to tackle it, how communicators provide insights for decision-making, as well as leadership performance, job satisfaction and personal stress among communication professionals in the United States and Canada. Characteristics of excellent communication departments will be identified and benchmarked against results from other key markets in Asia-Pacific, Europe and Latin America.

In addition to Reber and Meng, the NACM is led by three other professors from universities affiliated with The Plank Center, including Bruce K. Berger and Karla K. Gower, The University of Alabama; and Ansgar Zerfass, from Leipzig University in Germany.

“Not only will we have a better understanding of the communication industry in North America, we will have a greater opportunity for global comparison on issues regarding integrity and trust in what we see, hear and read,” said Gower, director of The Plank Center.

The NACM becomes part of the Global Communication Monitor series, the largest regular global study in the field of strategic communication and public relations. The series, initiated and led by Zerfass with renowned PR professors across the world, has analyzed trends in the field for more than a decade and covers more than 80 countries across Europe, Latin-America and the Asia-Pacific region.

Almost 35,000 communication professionals worldwide working in diverse organizations have been surveyed. Comparative data will be made available for key markets worldwide, e.g. China, India, Germany, France, Italy, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Mexico, Canada and the United States.

“The NACM is a continuation of the [Plank] Center’s goal to build a research-based foundation of knowledge regarding the values, qualities and dimensions of leadership in public relations,” Reber said.

In addition to this study, the Center has conducted more than 35 research studies in areas of public relations leadership, mentorship, and diversity and inclusion.

Results of the NACM will be released in October 2018. Visit the NACM webpage to register to receive findings from the survey.

Gender differences deepen, leader-employee gap remains in 2017 ‘Report Card on PR Leaders’

In 2015 the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations and Heyman Associates produced its first “Report Card on PR Leaders.” Leaders earned passing grades for the five areas examined—leadership performance, job engagement, trust in the organization, work culture and job satisfaction—but crucial gaps highlighted areas for improvement.

Nearly 1,200 PR leaders and professionals in the U.S. recently completed the survey again.

Juan Meng, associate professor of public relations at Grady College, was the co-investigator along with Bruce K. Berger, research director of the Plank Center at the University of Alabama.

Grades for leadership performance and trust were unchanged in 2017, but slipped for work culture, job engagement and job satisfaction. The overall grade for PR leaders fell from “B-“ to “C+.” Gaps between leaders’ and employees’ perceptions of the five areas remained wide, while gender differences deepened.

Women in public relations were significantly less engaged, less satisfied with their jobs, less confident in their work cultures, less trusting of their organizations and more critical of top leaders than men. Previous concerns about two-way communication, shared decision-making and diversity were again underscored by men and women.

Commenting on the results, Bill Heyman, CEO and president of Heyman Associates, co-sponsor of the study, said: “Social tensions in our world today have likely exacerbated these issues. We need to be bigger leaders to close these gaps.”

The Grades

Performance of the Top Leader (A-/C+)

Leaders’ and their employees’ perceptions of the top leader’s performance again differed sharply: Leaders gave themselves an “A-,” while followers gave them a “C+.” The grades were virtually identical to those in 2015. Leaders received higher marks for ethical orientation and involvement in strategic decision-making but earned lower grades for their vision, relationship-building skills and team leadership capabilities. Men ranked top-leader performance significantly higher than women.

“This gap doesn’t necessarily mean leaders are ineffective,” said Meng. “Employees may be upset about other issues in their lives or unhappy with a recent assignment. But closing the gap is important because leaders influence all other issues in our study.”

Job Engagement (B-)

The grade fell from a “B+” in 2015 because fewer professionals were engaged. In 2017, 57.2% of respondents were engaged (vs. 59.7% in 2015); 35.9% were not engaged (vs 34.4%); and 6.8% were actively disengaged (vs. 6.0%). Many more top leaders were more engaged (71.7%) than others (50.1%).

The decline in engagement is largely tied to lower engagement levels among women. In 2015, more women (61.3%) were engaged than men (57.9%). However, in 2017 more men (62.1%) were engaged than women (52.9%). In the non-top leader group, less than half of women were engaged (46.4%), and nearly one in ten (9.7%) was actively disengaged.

Job Engagement of PR Professionals: 2017 vs. 2015

Engaged Not Engaged Actively Disengaged
Demographic 2017 2015 2017 2015 2017 2015
Total respondents 57.2% 59.7% 35.9% 34.4% 6.8% 6.0%
Male professionals 62.1% 57.9% 32.5% 35.2% 5.4% 6.8%
Female professionals 52.9% 61.3% 39.0% 33.6% 8.1% 5.1%
Top leaders 71.7% 72.3% 24.5% 24.5% 3.8% 3.2%
Non-top leaders (all others) 50.1% 54.2% 41.6% 38.6% 8.3% 7.2%
Males (non-top leaders) 54.7% 52.7% 38.7% 39.6% 6.6% 7.6%
Females (non-top leaders) 46.4% 55.5% 43.9% 37.7% 9.7% 6.8%

Trust in the Organization (C+)

Trust in the organization again received the lowest grade and was an issue at all levels. Professionals trusted their organization’s capabilities to compete successfully and achieve its goals, but expressed less trust in their organizations to keep promises and to be concerned about employees when making important decisions. Women were much less trusting of their organizations, especially regarding the value of their concerns and opinions in decision making.

Job Satisfaction (C+)

This grade dropped from a “B-” in 2015 as the percentage of those satisfied or very satisfied with their job declined from 66.7% to 61.9%. The percentage of those dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their jobs rose from 22.1% to 24.1%, while those neither satisfied nor dissatisfied rose from 11.2% to 14.0%. Biggest declines were among top leaders and women. More men (65.9%) were satisfied or very satisfied with their job than women (58.3%). Agency PR professionals were most satisfied compared to those working in companies or nonprofits.

Organizational Culture (C+)

Culture refers to the internal environment, processes and structures that help or impede communication practices. This grade fell from a “B-” in 2015. The CEO’s understanding and valuing of public relations was rated highly, while that of other functional leaders was rated lower. Shared decision-making practices and the presence of two-way communications and diversity were graded far lower. Top leaders rated cultural factors higher than those at other levels. Women rated all cultural factors lower than men—and shared decision-making power a great deal lower. Agency professionals rated culture highest among organizational types.

Three Crucial Gaps Need Attention

  1. The perceptions of top leaders and their employees. Top leaders rated their performance and all other areas significantly higher than their employees. Things look different—and far better—at the top. Leaders may often rate their performance higher than their employees, but statistically the gap is Grand-Canyon sized. Leaders at all levels can benefit from relying less on the transmission mode and more on the reception mode when communicating with employees. Solutions include: 1) increased power sharing, or leader empowering behaviors, 2) strengthened two-way communications, and 3) enhanced interpersonal skills in team work, such as active listening and conflict management skills.
  2. Existing culture and a culture for communication. Issues like the lack of two-way communication, limited power sharing and diversity concerns point to differences between existing cultures and a rich communication system sometimes referred to as a culture for communication. Such a culture is characterized by: 1) an open communication system where information is widely shared; 2) dialogue, discussion and learning; 3) the use of two-way and multiple channels; 4) a climate in which employees can speak up without fear of retribution; and 5) leaders who support and value public relations and internal communications. Culture exerts a strong influence on trust.
  3. Perceptions of women and men in the profession. The gender gap deepened in the 2017 survey in every subject area. Women’s perceptions of their lack of shared power in decision making, insufficient two-way communication, and de-valuing of their opinions are reflected in lower levels of trust in the organization and its culture, less confidence in leaders and declining job engagement.

Progress in diversity in public relations in many senses remains painfully slow. For women in the survey, it appears that being successful in the field is still challenging; the pay gap is real; the opportunity gap is real; and the being-heard-and-respected-gap is real. These gaps require attention and action, and the power to act resides in the minds, hearts and hands of current leaders at all levels in the profession.

“The purpose of this biennial report is to assess leadership in PR and identify enrichment opportunities,” said Berger. “If we identify the gaps and work to close them, we strengthen our profession’s leadership—a crucial strategic asset. The 2017 Report Card underscores the continuing gaps and the need to act.”

A full report of the research is available at: plankcenter.ua.edu