Evolving Roles and Responsibilities in Public Relations

For years, I’ve been discussing the changing roles of PR professionals as a result of social media. I’ve had hundreds of conversations with students, educators, and practitioners about the many new responsibilities, as well as the opportunities and challenges faced in our field. Recently, Dr. Marlene Neill, assistant professor, Baylor University, and Nicole Lee, assistant professor, North Carolina State University conducted a research study on this important topic. Their study, “Roles in Social Media: How the Practice of Public Relations is Evolving” was published by PR Journal in Summer / Fall 2016.

Because we all have a deep interest in the changes and the opportunities we face, here’s my Q&A with Dr. Neill and Professor Lee about their research findings.

Q: What made you pursue your research study on “Roles in Social Media?”

A. I had completed an earlier study with Dr. Mia Moody-Ramirez on social media management using focus groups and a convenience sample. I wanted to confirm those findings with a true random sample.  A colleague introduced me to Nicole Lee at an academic conference and she helped develop the survey instrument and with data analysis. – Marlene Neill

A. I had done research looking at how new public relations practitioners use social media in the workplace and the types of tasks they were performing, so when Marlene approached me it was a great fit for my interests. – Nicole Lee

Q. What are some of the interesting findings from your study?

A. We were able to identify 6 management oriented roles associated with social media (social listening and analytics, online media relations, policy maker, employee recruiter, internal social media manager, and policing) and the specific duties those roles involve.  Many of these findings support and add to what you reported in your book, “Social Media and Public Relations: Eight Practices for the PR Professional. “A new role that emerged in this study was that of an internal social media manager, which involves managing internal social media channels used to communicate with employees. – Marlene Neill

Q. Is there anything that really surprised you about your study results?

A. I think we were surprised that younger practitioners are assuming some management roles such as developing and enforcing social media policies. This finding demonstrates that social media are providing opportunities for beginning practitioners to be influential earlier in their careers.  I think it also was interesting that women continue to be responsible for day-to-day social media posts even as they advance in their careers while men are less likely to do so. That could be a personal choice or a reflection of the sectors in which they work. – Marlene Neill

A. My previous interviews with new professionals had suggested new practitioners were enacting more managerial type roles on social media, but I didn’t know if those findings were generalizable. I agree with Marlene, it’s still really interesting and exciting to see how social media is presenting opportunities for new practitioners. This is very different from traditional roles research that has consistently found the manager role to be associated with more experience. – Nicole Lee

Q. Do you think PR professionals are embracing their new roles and responsibilities?

A. This study really did not address that question as it really was focused more on identifying what their responsibilities are. In the previous study, we found challenges related to developing and enforcing social media policies. – Marlene Neill

A.We found that practitioners are taking on these responsibilities, but what we don’t know is whether it’s by choice or necessity. To be effective, practitioners have to be able to adapt to new technologies in order to research and communicate with their target publics. Change is part of the profession, but of course, that doesn’t mean it’s embraced by all. – Nicole Lee

Q. What are some of the challenges PR professionals may face with their changing roles?

A. Time management continues to be a challenge as more social media channels continue to emerge.  We also were concerned that younger practitioners are assuming such prominent roles in issues management and crisis communication due to their limited experience with these issues – Marlene Neill

Q. Are you planning or working on any additional research studies in 2016 / 2017?

A. My current research is focused on ethics and internal communication. However, the internal communication study does involve questions around use of internal and external social media for employee communication – Marlene Neill

A. My primary research area focuses on how public relations practitioners can utilize social media to effectively communicate about science, so I have a few studies going on in that area. – Nicole Lee


Dr. Marlene Neill
Dr. Marlene Neill

Marlene S. Neill is an assistant professor at Baylor University. She received her PhD in advertising from the University of Texas at Austin. She previously worked for almost 12 years in government and nonprofit public relations. Her research focuses on public relations management, organizational power, and ethics.




Professor Nicole Lee
Professor Nicole Lee

Nicole Lee is an assistant professor at North Carolina State University. Her research focuses on the intersection of science communication, public relations and digital media. Her primary program of research examines how public relations practitioners can utilize online dialogue to more effectively communicate about science with lay audiences. Lee has professional public relations experience in a variety of industries, including the sciences, which informs her research and teaching.