PR pros can help people unite or we can help them divide

In a world full of divisiveness, PR pros can enhance their own worth by being the reasonable voice.

As the news illustrates almost every day, the world has become more contentious and divided than in recent memory. As public relations pros we can help people converse, unite, understand, and listen – or we can help them divide.

What is our moral responsibility? How can we help our profession behave more ethically and have a positive impact on the communities and people around us?

Consider the public relations function itself. We strive for a competitive advantage for our organizations and clients, using the communication function to differentiate ourselves and stay connected to stakeholders.

That’s how we contribute to our organizations and earn a seat at the table. Competitiveness is key. But what if we also embraced our roles as communication facilitators?

Although being competitive is central, we can also use our roles to help resolve conflict, generate ethical awareness and responsiveness, and to build understanding with stakeholders and even the people who may not even like us.

But what does it take to accomplish this in such a contentious environment?

A communication facilitator listens intently and acts as a liaison between two or more perspectives. Building dialogue is not easy. We must act with good will, listen to understand, not to prepare counter-points, and be willing to relinquish power for a shared understanding.

Sharing power is difficult for competitive businesses. In today’s divisive environment, those seeking power seem to outnumber those who try to enhance and enable the voices of others.

One potential solution: Act as a conscientious facilitator for our organizations and clients and engage with the people who are dissatisfied with our organizations. It’s a bold move, but one filled with moral autonomy, respect, and dignity.

This must be done with good intent and to help promote understanding and resolve problems, rather than to simply pacify or silence our critics.

It can also be unpleasant. You may be rebuffed, or met with derision, suspicion, and contempt. But, the role of conscientious facilitator offers huge benefits and offers insight into the perspective of others.

In a world full of divisiveness, PR pros can enhance their own worth by being the reasonable voice, the facilitator of accord, and a leader respected by all who creates a zone of understanding.

Being a conscientious facilitator requires us to be active and mindful, rather than simply convinced of the rightness of our causes. And we’re required to be flexible, patient and resilient when forging a path through this difficult and divisive terrain.

For example, Bill Nielsen, a leader for years at Johnson & Johnson, once told me he regularly attended animal rights activist meetings so he could talk with them and understand their values and priorities.

He was routinely scowled upon, but he was in the room when others were not. Sometimes it just takes showing up with good intent to improve the world and lessen the divisiveness in our small part of it.

This is the essence of ethical, conscientious facilitation in public relations that leads to true collaboration and better relationships over time.

Shannon A. Bowen, Ph.D., Professor, researches and teaches PR ethics at the University of South Carolina. She is a member of the Board of Directors at the International Public Relations Research Conference and the Arthur W. Page Society. Her column focuses on PR education, ethics, and the C-suite. She can be reached at sbowen@sc.edu.

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