PR across the pond: European pros battle ethical challenges, data competency, gender parity

by | Jun 4, 2020 | Public Relations

The public relations industry in North America is certainly facing its share of challenges, including (but not limited to) brand reputation skepticism, misinformation and fake news proliferation, diversity and inclusion disconnects, and messaging authenticity—but lest we think our challenges outweigh those of other regions, a new study from the European Public Relations Education and Research Association (EUPRERA) paints an equally embattled picture overseas.

According to the newly released European Communication Monitor 2020, the PR industry in Europe is one struggling with moral challenges, ethical resources, cyber security and communications, and gender equality in the profession, as well as status quo and future needs of competency development.

The new study, done in conjunction with the European Association of Communication Directors (EACD) and based on responses of comms pros from 44 European countries, explores salaries, key strategic issues and communication channels, as well as the characteristics of excellent communication departments. It was conducted and supported by a team of renowned communication professors from universities across Europe.

“Communication leaders need to think about the time after the current downturn,” said Professor Ansgar Zerfass, lead researcher of the survey and Chair Professor at Leipzig University, in a news release. “Which competencies are needed in the future? What type of contribution can communications make in the field of cyber security? And how can we create a better future for the profession that enables practitioners to deal with the ethical challenges of digital technologies and how to make it easier for women to reach the top positions in communications? The European Communication Monitor explores these issues and provides insights that can stimulate internal debates in communication teams about their future set-up.”

“In times of radical disruption and uncertainty, it becomes evident for everyone, that as communicators we have an important role to help bring out the facts, facilitate dialogue and create shared meaning that will enable individuals, communities and organizations to respond to the crisis and move forward in a balanced and sustainable way,” added Kim Larsen, Head of Group Communications, Brand & Marketing at Danske Bank and Acting President of the EACD, in the release.

Ethical challenges and resources to tackle them

Today’s globalized and complex world is interconnected in many ways, which makes it difficult to assess the consequences of individual actions. Many activities might be legally acceptable, but challenging from a moral point of view. Strategic communicators influence public opinion building and the construction of reality in mediatized societies to a huge extent—and this poses severe ethical challenges to communication professionals, which are explored in the study.

Almost half of practitioners (47 percent) have experienced several ethical challenges in their day to day work during the last 12 months, while a smaller portion (18 percent) reports about one issue of this kind.

Ethical concerns over communication practices on social media:

Ethical concerns over communication practices on social media: Four out of five practitioners are worried about using bots and big data analyses

The frequency of moral hazards has grown within the last years. When dealing with these issues, a clear majority (86 percent) relied on personal values and beliefs—codes of ethics (58 percent) or organizational guidelines (77 percent) are less important. Digital communication practices like the usage of social bots and big data analyses pose new ethical challenges—perhaps because only a minority of practitioners has participated in ethics training of any kind within the past three years.

Assessing and advancing gender equality in the profession

Since the United Nations addressed gender equality as the fifth of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), business in general and the communications industry in particular have promoted discussion on the issue. Annually, the European Communication Monitor monitors female practitioners and gender issues in the profession. This year it evaluates how gender equality achievements are perceived. The study also explores the awareness of the glass ceiling and its causes and responsibilities at the individual, organizational and profession level.

Gender equality in PR

Gender equality has improved significantly in Spain, Greece, Belgium, and the Czech Republic; more support is especially asked for in Austria, Italy, and Germany

Results show that gender issues remain a particular concern in an industry where three out of four departments and agencies in Europe employ more women than men, but still only one out of two leaders are women. Over half of practitioners observe an improvement in gender equality in their country, but disagreement arises when it comes to evaluating how much has actually been done to support female practitioners. The majority identify barriers for women at the organizational level: lack of flexibility to take care of family obligations (62 percent) and intransparent promotion policies (58 percent).

Cyber security and communications

We are all becoming more and more reliant on the Internet and digital communication, which is making individuals and organizations vulnerable to cyber (in)security. These new realities are also recognized by professional communicators in Europe.

Two thirds of the surveyed professionals (63 percent) have given attention to the public debate about cyber security, and 59 percent of them see cyber security as relevant for their daily work in their communication departments or agencies. The major concerns are that cyber criminals could hack websites and/or social media accounts (42 percent) or close down digital infrastructures (29 percent). Governmental and public sector entities are more threatened than other types of organizations. More than half (54 percent) of communication practitioners in Europe have already experienced cyber attacks on their own organizations. Communication professionals are often involved in handling cyber security issues; but only a minority is helping to build resilience.

Communication professionals are often involved in handling cyber security issues

Communication professionals are often involved in handling cyber security issues; but only a minority is helping to build resilience

Competency development: Status quo and future needs

Skills, knowledge and personal attributes lead to broader competencies which have been identified as drivers of successfor communication departments. For communication professionals, competencies are the foundational abilities that are both specific to communication such as data handling and those that are relevant to organizational success more generally, such as management skills.

Almost half of the respondents (43 percent) agree that competencies are intensively discussed in their country, highlighting their importance to communicators across the continent. Most practitioners (81 percent) believe in the need for constant improvement. The awareness for competency development is strongest in Western and Northern Europe: 69 percent of practitioners believe that technological competence is important, but only 51 percent report a highly developed competence in this area.

Communication professionals in consultancies and agencies

Communication professionals in consultancies and agencies spend more time on personal development than their colleagues in other types of organisations

Despite data handling being an important skill for all communicators, a lack of data competencies is particularly striking across all levels, with 51 percent of communicators underskilled in this key area. Communication professionals have completed an average of 19 training days a year in 2019, with 10 of those taking place in their free time (weekends, holidays or evenings). Most practitioners (84 percent) report that individuals should invest in their own development, but many (83 percent) plead for development programs at the organizational level.

Download the full report here.

This year’s edition of the world’s largest survey of the communications profession is based on more than 2,300 respondents from 44 European countries, providing valuable insights for public relations, corporate communications and public affairs.

Richard Carufel
Richard Carufel is editor of Bulldog Reporter and the Daily ’Dog, one of the web’s leading sources of PR and marketing communications news and opinions. He has been reporting on the PR and communications industry for over 17 years, and has interviewed hundreds of journalists and PR industry leaders. Reach him at richard.carufel@bulldogreporter.com; @BulldogReporter


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