Politics, incivility and public relations

Even by US standards, this has been a rough week in their national politics as mid-term elections approach next week.  Widely seen as a referendum on the Trump presidency, commentators hope the elections will re-establish checks in a political system that is increasingly dysfunctional.

President Trump called – shortly after the arrest of a man suspected of mailing pipe bombs to his political opponents and critics – for a change in tone in political debate and a return to civility (USA Today, October 28).  His critics promptly pointed to his role over past years in setting the tone of debate and undermining civility.

Undeterred, even by the truly dreadful events in Pittsburgh a few days later, he continued through appearances at last gasp rallies ahead of the elections to attack the media as ‘enemies of the people’ and purveyors of ‘fake’ and negative news, and principal contributors to the hostility he now sees in political life.

Stepping back from the febrile world of US politics – and the parallels we might see in current debate in the UK – the problems of tone and incivility in public communication are ones that must surely be of concern to those involved in public relations.

Raising these concerns follows on from an earlier post dealing with the role of public relations in countering fake news and disinformation (Influence Online, October 11). While this post suggested public relations does have a role in protecting the quality and integrity of public communication, this view is not one shared by all practitioners.

Questions of tone and civility bear on the likely quality of relationships, say between politicians and opponents, diplomats and their counterparts in other countries, businesses and their customers.  They are topics on which public relations advisors will counsel clients and employers – what sort of tone should they strike in their important relationships, and how should they behave in those relationships, how – using what almost seems like an old-fashioned term – civil should they be in their dealings with others?

In a world in which deal-making is moving to greater prominence – the US renegotiating long standing agreements, the UK looking to life beyond Brexit and years of trade negotiations even as it tries to conclude the deal that is Brexit – closer attention will need to be paid to the quality of relationships which may make deals more, rather than less likely.

The new emphasis takes public relations back to earlier models for the practice.  Research and teaching over the past thirty years has suggested that public relations works best in promoting collaboration, a symmetry in relationships where the interest of all parties to relationships are weighed and reconciled.  Now, there is a return to a more asymmetric approach – in deal-making as it will be practised emphasis will return to the winning of advantage, to triumphing over an opponent who will lose.  We’ll wait to see how productive this approach to relationships will be in solving some of the larger problems we face, in relation to climate change or immigration as examples.

Understanding, and advising on, the building of relationships is a claimed area of expertise in public relations, and it seems that we should be more vocal in arguing for the qualities that make for better relationships, such as the right tone, civility and respect.

Image courtesy of Odder via CC2.0.

Dr Jon White, FCIPR, is a consultant and visiting professor at Henley Business School and Cardiff University's School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies (JOMEC).

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