Doug SwansonDoug Swanson

Every PR person has experienced the workplace stress that develops in this volatile and unpredictable profession. Public relations professionals undertake their daily responsibilities amid unprecedented technological change and shifting marketplace expectations, in a cultural era in which “truth” seems to be continually under attack.

Recently, the University of Alabama’s Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations Leadership Report Card was the latest canary in the PR coal mine to sound the alarm regarding professional disengagement. The Plank narrative described “sharp perceptual differences” between public relations leadership and the rank-and-file. Women, the findings showed, are particularly susceptible to being “less engaged, less satisfied with their job, less confident in their work cultures, and more critical of top leaders.”

The Plank report followed a nationwide survey of PR professionals in 2018. That survey, conducted through California State University-Fullerton, found extensive reports of stress, career burnout, unresponsive leadership and a workplace approach of “just going through the motions.”

The unresolved stresses that PR people deal with daily—and the challenges presented by the arrival of Generation Z—necessitate a more thoughtful and systematic approach to the nature of PR work itself. That strategy is mindful engagement, an approach that’s been applied throughout many other sectors of the business workplace and in many Fortune 500 corporations. Mindful engagement is effective, on both an individual and collective level, to reduce stress and develop order among confusion.

Although mindfulness is rarely—if ever—identified in a public relations context, it’s found throughout modern life. Professional athletes and coaches credit mindfulness as key to getting “in the zone” for winning performance. Movies and television programs document mindfulness as a life-changing experience. Entertainers, celebrities and talk show hosts proclaim its calming power. Many millions of dollars are invested every year by Nike, General Mills, Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble and other Fortune 500 firms whose C-Suite executives recognize that employees who aren’t mindfully engaged lack the focus necessary to develop and implement good ideas.

To be mindfully engaged is to be thoughtful in the present moment and take action in a disciplined and beneficial way. Mindfulness involves more focus on process and less on future outcomes. It does not ignore professional obligations. It supports them.

One of the leading scholars in the field, Harvard University Psychology Professor Ellen Langer, has invested decades in the study and application of mindfulness. She calls it “an embodied awareness of what is happening in ourselves, in others, and in our environment on a moment-to-moment basis.”

Mindfulness isn’t a religion or a health care practice, although it developed from Asian meditative practices that’ve been used for thousands of years to calm the mind and aid in healing of the body. Mindful engagement at work doesn’t mean lighting a candle and banging a gong. What mindful engagement does mean has been made abundantly clear through numerous workplace case studies and examples.

Mindful engagement means:

  • Taking some time each day to be still and quiet the mind.
  • Recognizing that the mind, a trickster, often makes work appear worse than it really is.
  • Expecting workplace ambiguity to be ever-present, because even the best problem-solver never has all the facts at hand.
  • Being thoughtful and deliberate in decision-making, but not to the point of obsession.
  • Applying compassion with even the most difficult coworker or client, because no one ever knows the extent of another person’s hidden challenges.
  • Collaborating in ways that diverge from the traditional top-down model, because there are always other options to explore.
  • Seeing the organization, in the words of HR professional and leadership consultant Michael Carroll, as “a web of lively relationships, not a series of transactions about me and my opinions.”
  • Stepping away from the desk and out of the office at regular intervals, to remind oneself that the work being completed, though important, is not one’s life.
  • Maintaining a healthy balance between time spent in work and time invested in life.

Application of a strategy of mindful engagement works to calm the workplace and the workforce. It helps turn disorder into order. Mindfulness is important for PR people now, both individually and collectively. It will be essential in the future, too, as more Generation Z workers enter the public relations field.

Sixty million people identified as Gen Z were born between mid 1990s and early 2000s. These young adults have no memory of a time without social media. They’re tech savvy multitaskers who are more at home with a cell phone or tablet than a desktop computer.

Gen Zers tend to be optimistic for the future but studies show they’re challenged by poor communication skills, a misunderstanding of business realities, poor organization and a lack of follow-through. One common observation is that Gen Zers are often hesitant to pick up a phone and “cold call” a client. Sometimes it’s because they’ve not had experience doing this, and sometimes it’s because they’re more comfortable with communicating via text or instant message. Gen Z adults are expected to succeed in public relations, yet this generation often doesn’t share the same language as our clients.

Recruiting, training, motivating and rewarding a new group of employees who see work differently will add more stress to the life of the PR executive (a position already ranked among the ten most stressful in the workplace, according to the 2019 Agility Solutions PR blog).

The answer is mindful engagement. It has to be practiced individually and collectively by PR professionals at all levels of the hierarchy. It has to be recognized and invested in by leadership. Its practice by the rank-and-file needs to be rewarded. Mindfulness has to be woven throughout our daily experiences, becoming a foundation for the big decisions and the little ones.

If we can bring about a more mindful workplace, we can change the industry. We can improve collaboration with our employees, clients and communities in substantial ways. When should we start? The mindful individual would say—quite literally—there’s no time like the present.


Doug Swanson is Professor of Communications at California State University, Fullerton, where he’s also founder and director of the student-run PR agency PRactical ADvantage Communications. Swanson has a background in journalism and broadcasting and is researching the impact of mindfulness on PR professionals and students.