There’s no single route to a successful career in public relations, a discipline in which people from diverse backgrounds can survive and thrive.

That’s one of the findings of a study sponsored by corporate communications executive search firm Heyman Associates in partnership with the University of Alabama’s advertising and public relations graduate program. The survey found that a successful public relations career is built on “a complex mix of communications skills, diverse experiences, risk-taking and passion.”

The study involved extensive telephone interviews with 97 senior public relations leaders at U.S. companies, public relations firms, nonprofit organizations and universities, says Professor Bruce Berger, the longtime former corporate public relations executive who led the research team. The executives interviewed averaged more than 23 years of professional experience and possessed diverse educational backgrounds.

“The research indicates that diverse work experiences, more than years of experience alone, add to the possibility of success,” says Bill Heyman, chief executive, “and that multiple pathways may lead to success, which is good news for aspiring professionals.”

Most telling, however, is that public relations leaders see success primarily at three levels: individual, organizational, and the group/work unit, in that order. “The ‘best’ public relations executives understand and realize success at multiple levels,” says Heyman

The executives defined success in more than 90 ways, including being a trusted adviser, gaining personal financial rewards, and growing the organization. The majority of respondents defined success at the personal level, followed by organizational, and finally, by group or work unit.

Speaking of their own success, the leaders identified more than 60 factors and favorable tipping points. These ranged from particular skill sets or experiences to risk-taking and high energy.

Another clear and related pattern was the relationship between on-the-job excellence and professional success. This includes problem-solving, meeting objectives, providing valuable counsel and producing results, the respondents said. 

Some respondents also emphasized that outstanding performance has short-term and long-term benefits. A specific project achievement can enhance recognition and provide new opportunities in the short term, while consistent high performance over time opens doors to public relations leadership positions and to key decision-making circles.

Others cited diverse work experiences as a determinant of success. Broad experiences enable professionals to develop problem-solving and negotiation skills, enhance interpersonal communications skills with a variety of people, and build a reservoir of knowledge – thus creating experiences to draw from in strategic and tactical decision-making, the study showed.

In addition, respondents stressed the link between the importance of developing and nurturing relationships with others in their organizations and gaining influence and success in public relations. Similarly, the cultivation of coalitions, networks and mentoring relationships also was cited as a predictor of success and as an important capability for aspiring professionals.

Overall, the findings hinted that network relationships may provide more power to professionals than their titles or formal positions within organizations. 

The executives participating in the study also emphasized the importance of being proactive on the job and passionate about the practice of public relations itself, coupled with being a self-starter and a risk-taker and doing what others are reluctant to take on. Intangible qualities, such as chemistry, likeability, fit, personality and presence, also were regularly raised in the interviews, and appeared to the researchers as having their roots in what are more visible interpersonal qualities and relationship-building skills.

Almost half of the leaders interviewed cited the inaccurate view of the value and role of public relations by top management as the most significant limitation on the function’s practice and influence.

“Executives don’t have a good understanding of what PR can do,” one interviewee said. “We are always an afterthought.”

Some respondents attributed this problem to limited resources, the absence of public relations executives in key decision-making processes, and the lack of measurements to quantify the value of public relations. Others, however, suggested that the actions of ‘spinmeisters’ in the practice were a factor. That “places a high professional priority on eliminating deceptive practices and developing convincing metrics and case studies to better explain and justify the role and value of public relations,” the study says.

The study also found female and male participants answered questions about success in generally similar ways, with a few modest differences.

Female executives, more than male executives, emphasized the power of building relationships to gaining success. With respect to skills sets, men tended to highlight the value of communication and interpersonal skills slightly more often than women, who gave somewhat greater emphasis to overall leadership skills. 

Says Heyman, “Since there has been little empirical data concerning success factors in public relations leadership, we believe the findings will be of value to public relations practitioners and will help organizations identify and develop communications professionals who embody the patterns of success outlined in the study.

“We also believe the study will be of value to those who examine issues of leadership across executive ranks, including those outside communications.”