The Role of Communicators in Creating a Civil, Inclusive Future

Our chapter had the honor of hosting Michelle Olson, APR, National Chair of PRSA, and Linda Thomas Brooks, the newly-appointed CEO of PRSA, to hear about how communicators can maximize their impact in creating a civil, inclusive future and how PRSA is helping to navigate some of the important issues of our time. Whether it’s helping clients put their money where their mouth is when it comes to diversity and inclusion, or helping leadership understand when to speak out and when not to, PRSA through Voices4Everyone is addressing some of the issues that have plagued our society for centuries.

“In my opinion, no one is better suited than communicators are to chart this course for change,” Michelle said. “There is real power in knowing what needs to be said, not to mention knowing how and when to say it. We’re facing issues that many of us have not dealt with in our lifetime, and we need resources to help us navigate them.”

That’s why PRSA has launched Voices4Everyone, one of its most powerful membership benefits to date, which just launched in March 2021. This initiative focuses on four main pillars that are central to the role of communicators in the modern era. The four pillars of Voices4Everyone include:

  1. Disinformation

Studies have shown that most Americans view disinformation as a serious threat to democracy and the nation’s economy, Michelle said. Just as we have the responsibility to share impactful, truthful information, we also have the responsibility to pre-bunk and debunk false or harmful information, and Voices4 Everyone will help practitioners do that. This includes developing the cognitive muscles that build resistance to the onslaught of content that is intended to trigger an emotional response.

One tip Michelle shared is if you feel yourself getting angry when you see something online and you want to hit ‘share,’ just take a break and walk away for a few minutes. There’s a good chance that content was created to make you feel that way, and stepping away briefly can help stop the spreading of mis or disinformation that is aimed at triggering that type of response.

The Voices4Everyone website includes examples of best practices to keep in mind when helping your organization respond if it has been targeted with mis or disinformation, among other resources such as thought leadership, learning and media literacy tools to help you grow professionally and improve your ability to effectively handle mis or disinformation.

  1. Diversity and Inclusion

If we fail to embrace diversity, equity and inclusion, we not only fail those who are excluded, but we also fail to be the best practitioners we can be. We as communicators must understand the cultural nuances of our targeted audiences and having colleagues of diverse backgrounds makes our work better, Michelle said.

With that in mind, PRSA is working hard to increase diversity in its membership.

“Currently, PRSA is 72% female and 70% white, while the 2020 census indicates the country is 50% female and 59% white, so the low hanging fruit is to try to mirror what our U.S. census is, at the very least,” Michelle said. “Our Diversity & Inclusion committee is led by two of the most enthusiastic and connected professionals I’ve ever met, and I hope you get to meet them at some point – Anita Ford Saunders and Andrea Gils-Monzon. They’re so focused on significantly changing the demographics of not just PRSA and PRSSA, but also the industry as a whole, and they’re bringing the best minds of the tables to diversify the ranks.“

The Diversity & Inclusion committee is talking to students of diverse backgrounds, and focusing on historically Black colleges and universities, as well as talking to high school students, to let them know there is a place for them in communications and helping to break down any barriers that they might see to accessing the communications profession.

While today the PRSA membership demography very closely mirrors the industry demography, Linda added, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot more work to be done.

“On one hand, you can say that’s great – we are already completely representing the industry we’re in, but on the other hand, you can say that really tells us something about the industry that we’re in,” Linda said. “Everything that we’re looking at from a diversity and inclusion perspective is really about how do we first help ourselves, and through that, help the larger universe in which we operate,” Linda said.

  1. Civility

We are living in an “age of rage,” Michelle said. “The public relations profession has not only a professional obligation to respond to the growing crisis of incivility, but a moral one as well. Based on strategies of mutual engagement and adaption, the public relations sector has the reach and expertise to deliver guidance and positive examples at scale to help institutions and organizations of all types function more effectively and realize their goals,” Michelle said, quoting a whitepaper from the PRSA Civility Taskforce.

In practice, we don’t have to aggressively and publicly ‘win’ all disagreements at all costs. Instead of calling someone out publicly, try calling them in by having a direct conversation with them.

  1. Civic Engagement

Civic engagement allows public relations professionals to demonstrate the value of public relations, leveraging highly sought-after expertise though public service activities that ultimately promote a more cohesive society. As practitioners, we are uniquely positioned to utilize our communications expertise and improve civility within our communities and beyond. As the public relations industry continues to grow and improve through the work of the Voices4Everyone initiative, we as practitioners must carry that work forward and bring it to our communities.

“The challenges the public relations community is facing are emblematic of the challenges in society at large,” said Linda. “I think if we get it right here in PRSA, we can have an impact upon society in a much broader way.”

All of the work that needs to be done in our society can’t be completed in a silo, and while much of the heavy lifting behind the four pillars of Voices4Everyone has been done by the PRAS task force, much remains to be done. To make meaningful change, we all must come together.

The Voices4Everyone Initiative is designed to be a crowdsourced resource – created for practitioners, by practitioners. “We need all members to share their best practices, templates, statements and other materials as we figure out how to navigate the issues before us, which as we know, are evolving rapidly,” Michelle said.

To learn more about Voices4Everyone, visit voices4everyone.prsa.org.

Jeff Adkins is a senior public relations specialist with Henry Ford Health System and a PRSA Detroit board member/programming committee chair.