How to communicate a purposeful message in a divided world

Communicators from the Peace Corps, Ford Motor Company and Boston University spoke on the topic at PRDecoded.

Ford Motor Company’s Artealia Gilliard speaks at PRDecoded.

CHICAGO: As more opinions, and even facts, grow controversial in the eyes of politically divided consumers, brands and organizations must take extra steps to communicate their purpose, said panelists from Boston University, the Peace Corps and Ford Motor Company at PRWeek’s PRDecoded conference on Wednesday in Chicago.

Artealia Gilliard, who works on environmental leadership and sustainability at Ford, recognizes that the inherent argument for buying electric vehicles is that they’re a way to fight against climate change. Marketing around a contentious issue, Ford starts with focusing on how everyone can benefit from owning one, Gilliard said.

“What are all the benefits that we can all agree on?” she said. “Transportation doesn’t have to be a partisan issue, it can be something that lots of people can get behind.”

She added that communicating purpose, especially around controversial issues, starts internally.

“We start with our biggest allies, our own employees, reforming them around that purpose, and then we start working outwards,” Gilliard said. “We built an advocacy team. We’re focusing on aligning and activating communities around mutual beliefs, around shared values and building trust. We really engage our employees to help us carry that message out of the company.”

Marketing can be challenging on social media platforms where supercharged political opinions fly freely, said Troy Blackwell, head of communications and press at Peace Corps. Setting rules of engagement before posting on Reddit or Twitter can mitigate the need for moderating vitriolic comments, he added.

“It’s about setting the foundation of rules for that conversation,” he said, adding that conversations need “an agreed set of facts. It’s hard to have dialogue if we don’t have an agreed set of facts.”

Blackwell also said that social media platforms need to do their part by flagging misinformation.

No matter how controversial the fact, whether they be that COVID-19 vaccines are effective or that climate change is real, everyone can contribute to having civil discourse by listening more and talking less, said Arunima Krishna, assistant professor of public relations at Boston University.

“Beyond just listening, listening to understand, rather than listening to respond, is going to be important for the future generation and for our generation,” she said.

Listening trumped writing as the second most important skill to future-proof the PR profession in the fifth annual 2022 PRWeek/Boston University Communications Bellwether Survey. The ability to handle crises ranked as the first most important skill.


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