Megan O'LearyThursday, April 11, 2019
As many in Washington–and virtually anyone with a Twitter account–can attest, civil discourse seems to have taken a dive in recent years.
It is important to note that there has always been contention in public affairs, by virtue of combating opinions, and often, heated tempers. For example, in 1856, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks beat anti-slavery Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner with a cane in retaliation for the Senator’s explosive and mocking description of Brooks’ pro-slavery colleague. This event, though not the first time a riot erupted in Congressional proceedings, has come to symbolize movement towards the Civil War–as a marked devolution of civil discourse.
These days, the immediacy and accessibility offered by social platforms, as well as the mushrooming of fake news and the ubiquity of televised news as mass entertainment, have transformed the ways by which we learn from and communicate with each other. These developments have fractured political discourse in more ways than one.
As public affairs professionals, we possess unique access to the intersection between media, government, and the private sector: access with great significance. As a result, we also hold the opportunity and responsibility to help rehabilitate key tenets of civil discourse.
Here are some tips to consider in supporting civil discourse:
- Build a platform of trust with journalists. That can mean many things – offering client interviews on background in the event of sensitive discussion, anticipating the reporter’s needs for supplementary information, and preparing clients in advance to best answer the reporters’ questions through mock interviews and suggested reading material.
- Appreciate the weight of social activity. With the potential to reach thousands, if not millions, with the click of a ‘publish’ button, social is an infinitely powerful tool. Take a minute to have your posts reviewed by an objective peer. Double-check your sources, and use reputable media outlets to ensure that the information meets journalistic standards before issuing posts. This will go a long way in preventing the dissemination of ‘fake news’ to audiences around the world.
- Educate your clients on the importance of truth. Even if it means pushing back. If your client finds a questionable link from the bowels of the internet, then suggests that you post it to social media, redirect – suggest alternative links, with similar but factual information.
- Promote fact-checking internally, through example. In authoring op-eds, talking points, and research materials, always consider the source and provide support for your positioning from reputable sources.
By taking extra steps in our own digital lives, we can help to shape positive and impactful civil discourse in our own lives. As public affairs professionals, working to direct the conversation in the public sphere, we should consider this a professional duty and responsibility.