Annenberg Communication Report: Polarization, Purpose, and PR

By Andras Sztaniszlav.

The USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations published its Global Communication Report this year again. Since Fred Cook was appointed as its director, visibility has got a more prominent role (besides professional quality). This annual report always focuses on one major trend based on the outcomes of a preceding questionnaire. The research team aims at spreading its findings to as many people as possible.

So here they are:

As the campus of USC is in the US (California), their attention is drawn to the post-election era of the country. The picture is partly bright, partly dark. Let’s begin with the bad news:

  • The most recent US election has divided American society like never before, and this polarization seems to stay with us in the near future. In this, journalists and PR professionals tend to be more pessimistic: 45% think that the polarization will deteriorate in the upcoming years (compared to 31% of the average respondents). And we cannot expect the solutions exclusively from the new President.
  • Last year’s hottest issue was activism: since trust in governments started weakening (already before the Covid era), we might see more civil and corporate responsibility taken in social issues and dialogues. It is disputable, however, whether these conversations about controversial issues can remain civilized and peaceful.
  • 85% of the respondents think that the reputation of the United States will regrow with Joe Biden but it isn’t necessarily true for the American companies. Harmful environmental practices, irresponsible consumption, and inequalities are still present at many firms.
  • Fake news and verbal manipulations will stay. Although it’s a professional responsibility, our society can fight against it, too—for example, with more conscious media consumption.

Now enough of the bad news. Let’s see the good ones:

  • ⅔ of the participants are optimistic about the future. (The research was conducted at the end of 2020, and the respondents were mainly American.)
  • Equal opportunities will be more widespread for men and women, and the younger generation is enthusiastic about building a brighter new future.
  • If the trust does not get rebuilt towards governments (or only very slowly), people will expect activist movements and corporations to stand up for social rights and interests. Thus, defining and representing a clear ‘purpose’ will be a real expectation towards the corporate sector.
  • Environmentalism and climate change are literally one of the hottest issues, and each stakeholder is obliged to operate with social and environmental responsibility.

Visually, the report reflects on the 1970’s imagery, and it is no accident according to the authors. A great majority of the social expectations in that era have been met now. They are more or less obvious and natural for all of us. Thus, we might hope that what today’s young generation is fighting for will be widely practiced in the future.

The report provides some lessons for PR professionals, as well: our strategic role will definitely grow in the future since defining ‘purpose’ and presenting best HR/corporate practices will all serve as great earned content. There is an apparent expectation towards companies and their leaders to get in charge of social issues. We can already see their willingness in this—at least in the answers of the American research participants.

Let me share the research team’s advice for the change:

  1. Let our words and sentences speak to everyone.
  2. In social issues, we need to represent value-based standpoints, even if we won’t have direct profit from them.
  3. Let’s listen as much as we can and try to understand others.
  4. Be careful with evaluating news, especially before sharing them.
  5. Get in touch and cooperate with professionals, thought leaders, or stakeholders of social issues.

The original report is available here.

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