Thought leadership remains the most mainstream form of marketing for most professional service firms, so it’s no surprise that the PR industry produces a wealth of surveys and studies.

Excluding our own research, and emphasizing new initiatives or new findings over well-established pieces of intellectual property (particularly those that have made this list in previous years), we have selected the most important thought leadership studies of the past 12 months, to launch our 2022 Review.

It’s a top 10 list, but we’ve taken the liberty of grouping some studies together to capture the wide spectrum of research we saw over the course of the year.

1. The Cost of Crisis
So much public relations research takes self-reported behavior (what consumers say they do, or are willing to do) and pretends it’s a reflection of their actual behavior, that it’s nice to be able to focus on a piece of thought leadership that uses real-world data and hard financial information to make its case.

The Crisis Value Erosion study from New Zealand-based corporate and public affairs firm SenateSHJ looked at the business impact of 30 major crises (the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, the 2014 Malaysian Airlines MH370 flight disappearance and Facebook privacy breaches among them) over the last 40 years, and found that 70% of companies experienced a drop in share amid crisis and that on average it took 147 days for share value to recover.

It's the kind of research that underscores the firm’s positioning and expertise and can be replicated year on year, becoming more valuable as it tracks more crises over a greater time span.

2. The Industry’s 'Me Too' Issues
The PR industry has been congratulating itself for the progress it has made on equality in recent years (with women finally ascending to C-suite roles at several major agencies) but the Global Women in PR Annual Index, produced with Opinium, found that more than half of women working in the PR and communications industry say they have experienced sexual harassment — and that an appalling 13% of respondents had experienced actual or attempted sexual assault at work.

The survey also found that women in PR continued to face other challenges in 2021. Two-thirds (66%) of senior leaders in the industry are men, up from 64% last year, in an industry that is two-thirds female. In addition, one in seven (13%) state their board is made up entirely of men, and the number of PR professionals who say that their board is made up of mostly or all women remains at 9%. The good news: flexible working practices are considered the best initiative to enable more women to take on board room roles (67%).

3. The Business Response to Ukraine
Yes, we prefer to populate this list with new research rather than established thought leadership products — of which Edelman’s Trust Barometer is probably the most established of all. But the world’s largest public relations firm is incredibly smart about finding new aspects of trust to interrogate, and its finding that the Russian invasion of Ukraine had pushed geopolitics to the top of the business agenda was timely and important.

The survey of 14,000 adults in 14 countries found 59% of consumers believe geopolitics is now a top priority for business, while 47% said they had bought or boycotted brands based on the parent company’s response to the invasion of Ukraine. Moreover, companies that have suspended business in Russia are more likely to attract and retain employees, with 79% of respondents saying they would be more loyal to and 80% more willing to recommended employers that have taken such action.

Companies that pull out of Russia also can garner “a huge net increase” of 30 points in trust, the survey found, while trust in those that continue doing business in Russia can lose 38 points.

4-6. Challenging Assumptions About Gen Z
If you’ve attended a PR conference over the past few years, you’ve probably heard quite a few generalizations about the youngest generation entering the workforce, but some of the most interesting new research of 2022 challenged those perceptions.

New research from Edelman, for example, covered six markets (China, France, Germany, Mexico, the UK and US) and found that members of Gen Z aren’t looking to be influencers or cancel brands. Nor do they see TikTok as the utmost in social media. Rather, safety and security are top of mind for Gen Z, and even more so since the Covid pandemic, while there’s a strong belief in responsibility, accountability, truth and humanity.

Meanwhile, the Workforce or Workforced report, from United Minds and KRC Research, found that despite all the talk of “quiet quitting,” Gen Z has the same lofty professional aspirations as older generations, including millennials and Gen X. In fact, according to the survey, Gen Zers are twice as likely to want to be a CEO (38%) or team leader (37%) than Gen X (18%) or boomers (21%).

And finally, Decoding the Z Mind research from DeVries Global found that while most Southeast Asian Gen Zers expect action and accountability from brands in the same vein as their Western counterparts, opinions on brand purpose vary by country, meaning companies run the risk of alienating consumers across the region by lumping them together. Gen Zers in Indonesia and the Philippines tend to be more cohesive in their views, whereas those in Thailand, and to a lesser extent Singapore, often have a wide spectrum of opinions, the study found.

7-8. Time for Climate Action
One issue that heated up in 2022 (pun intended) was the environment, with several studies focusing on the industry’s role in the climate crisis, as well as specific, underappreciated aspects of that crisis.

The second annual report from the PRCA Climate Misinformation Strategy Group and Opinium found that almost half of PR professionals have seen clients or their own organization attempting to greenwash, but 89% have pushed back and 57% have managed to change the approach, depicting an industry increasingly confident in its ability to guide organizations towards meaningful action on climate issues, and suggests that the industry is no longer willing to go along with greenwashing.

New research from Golin, meanwhile, found that 85% of Americans consider environmental justice (the fact that environmental problems impact poorer communities and communities of color more severely) an important issue, but only one-third of them believe companies are doing what they should to promote change. But while nearly half of the survey participants believe it’s incumbent on CEOs to make environmental justice a priority, only one-third of executive respondents believe their ESG or sustainability departments should be addressing the issue.

9. The Influencer Pay Gap
We’re bending the rules here, because this research was published in 2021, just after last year’s Top Thought Leadership list came out, but it sent reverberations through the increasingly important world of influencer marketing and forced the PR industry (and adjacent sectors) to take a much-needed look at their practices.

Conducted by MSL in partnership with The Influencer League (which supports influencers in monetizing content), the research found racial pay gaps in influencer marketing are far wider than they are in a range of other industries. The pay gap between white and BIPOC influencers was 29%, while the gap between white and Black influencers is wider at 35%. Nearly half (49%) of Black survey respondents said their race contributed to an offer below market value; 36% of BIPOC participants reported having the same experience.

10. Insight Into Africa
While there’s a case to be made that the PR industry in developed markets is over-surveyed at this point, there’s still relatively little research in emerging markets like Africa, which is why the PRCA’s The State of the African PR Industry Report conducted by Reputation Matters, is so worthy of attention, examining the perception of PR, attitude towards ethics, developing talent, and the challenges and opportunities facing the industry.

It found that the majority (67%) of African PR professionals believe the reputation of PR in business and society has improved since the beginning of the pandemic. One-third (33%) of respondents said their strategic counsel is valued more than ever by business leaders, and a further 27% said they feel valued at board-level. However, the pandemic has also created significant challenges for the African PR industry, with 36% of respondents having had their employment affected. And despite growing overall optimism, 62% believed reduced budgets still posed the greatest threat to the PR industry’s future.