Leeds Business School

European communication professionals face ethical challenges, technology and data threats as well as competency gaps

At the end of May I launched the 2020 European Communication Monitor (ECM) findings evaluating the trends in strategic communications across 44 countries in Europe.

Working with my colleagues from the Universities of Leipzig, Amsterdam, Ljubljana and Rei Juan Carlos, Madrid we unravel some of the key issues facing individual practitioners and their organizations.

In this year’s study - the 15th annual survey we have conducted - the big issues facing practice seem to be ongoing ethical challenges as well as cyber security and questions of the future competencies for professional communicators.

The ECM is the world’s largest study into strategic communication and public relations and this year surveyed more than 2,300 professionals in 44 countries.  

Some brief highlights:

  • Digital communication channels bring along new ethical challenges, but the majority of communication professionals are lacking up-to-date resources to tackle them
  • Three out of four communication departments employ more women than men, but still only one out of two top leaders in the field are women – the main barriers identified are a lack of flexibility and intransparent promotion policies within organisations
  • Communication practitioners fear the hacking of websites and social media accounts – they are often involved in handling cyber security issues, but seldom help to build resilience
  • Large competence gaps are identified in the fields of technology and data, although communication professionals have completed an average of 19 training days in 2019

The full report is available for free at www.communicationmonitor.eu.

I presented the ECM 2020 results in a virtual launch event organized by the European Association of Communication Directors (EACD). Normally the results are launched at a physical conference of up to 1000 practitioners in Amsterdam, but Covid-19 has affected this year’s event as it has many others.  Together with a panel of leading European practitioners I presented and discussed the themes emerging from this year’s findings

The study includes insights on moral challenges and ethical resources, cyber security and communications, gender equality in the profession, as well as status quo and future needs of competency development. Salaries, key strategic issues and communication channels as well as the characteristics of excellent communication departments were all been researched. We use a strict selection of participants, a unique research framework based on established theories, and statistical analyses fulfilling academic standards. 

From this year’s findings it’s clear communication leaders need to think about the time after the current pandemic and possible downturn. In other words, 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?  In our report we explore these issues and provide insights that can stimulate internal debates in communication teams about their future set-up.

Our work is supported by the European Association of Communication Directors (EACD) and Kim Larsen, Head of Group Communications, Brand & Marketing at Danske Bank and Acting President of the EACD, commented on the release of the findings: “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 organisations  to respond to the crisis and move forward in a balanced and sustainable way. We are very proud to present this report, a joint project with EUPRERA for more than a decade. It sheds light on some of the key issues and opportunities we are facing as communicators.”

Ethical challenges and resources to tackle them

Today’s globalised and complex world is interconnected in many ways. This 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 mediatised societies to a huge extent. This poses severe ethical challenges to communication professionals, which are explored in the study.

Graphic 1 - Ethical concerns over communication practices on social media:  Four out of five practitioners are worried about using bots and big data analyses


Almost every second communication practitioner (47%) has experienced several ethical challenges in their day to day work during the last 12 months. A smaller portion reports about one issue of this kind (18%). The frequency of moral hazards has grown within the last years. When dealing with these issues, a clear majority (86%) relied on personal values and beliefs – codes of ethics (58%) or organisational guidelines (77%) 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, organisational and profession level. 

Graphic 2 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 organisational level: lack of flexibility to take care of family obligations (62%) and intransparent promotion policies (58%).

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.

Graphic 3 Communication professionals are often involved in handling cyber security issues; but only a minority is helping to build resilience