Research in Progress: Examining the influence of ethics of care and servant leadership in PR

July 22, 2021

Marlene S. Neill, Baylor University, and Juan Meng, University of Georgia

By Marlene S. Neill, Baylor University, and Juan Meng, University of Georgia

Servant leadership and ethics of care both emphasize the importance of interpersonal relationships, listening to others and empathy, all of which are critical to public relations practice. However, these two perspectives have received limited attention in public relations scholarship, despite the fact that public relations theory and practice have long advocated that public relations professionals have an obligation to seek out and consider the views of internal and external stakeholders prior to making organizational decisions. 

Servant leaders focus “on serving followers while forming meaningful, long-lasting relationships. A servant-leader listens, shows awareness of others, demonstrates empathy, does what is morally right, and commits to serving others”. According to previous research, some of the characteristics associated with servant-leaders include listening, empathy, healing, self-awareness, use of persuasion rather than positional authority, vision, humility, integrity, stewardship, commitment to the growth of others and community building.

Similarly, ethics of care is a moral perspective that involves a concern for others, particularly those who are impacted by decisions. Ethics of care emphasizes that self and others are interdependent. Ethicist and feminist Carole Gilligan wrote that “detachment, whether from self or from others, is morally problematic, since it breeds moral blindness or indifference — a failure to discern or respond to need." 

Our study will involve a series of in-depth interviews with communication professionals followed by an online survey. The purpose of this study is to understand the extent to which servant leadership and ethics of care are being practiced by public relations leaders and senior leadership.

Another unique contribution of our research will be documented by the voice of women and people of color when servant leadership is in practice. Specifically, we will investigate how women and people of color who serve in leadership positions in public relations are engaging in these leadership perspectives. Previous research has found that women leaders are more likely to display behaviors and hold values consistent with servant leadership and ethics of care.

In addition, this study will examine issues such as how public relations leaders create and communicate their vision to employees, ways they listen to their employees to guide decision making, how they mentor and develop their employees, and the degree to which ethics and empathy guide their decision making. By developing empirical research on servant leadership and ethics of care in public relations, we hope our research contributes to building a theory about servant leadership that has strong heuristic and practical value.

When communication leaders are attentive to the concerns for their team members and followers, it helps build a supportive culture to empower followers, nurture followers, and help them develop their full leadership capacities.

For further information or to participate in this study, please email Marlene Neill at or Juan Meng at Results from the study will be available in 2022. This project is supported by a Page/Johnson Legacy Scholar Grant from the Arthur W. Page Center at Penn State University.