Though it will take years to heal for the families directly impacted by the events in Tucson, it will forever become a part of our nation’s legacy of tragedies. We all share the sorrow, but at the same time try to place the blame in order to justify what happened and attempt to figure out how to stop it from happening again.
Last week, our country heard a compassionate plea from our President to take action — not to condemn but to comfort; not to succumb to the negative forces of anger, but to assuage.
“At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized, at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do,” President Obama said, “it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”
As saddening as this tragedy was, many have been equally distraught by the media and political maneuvering taking place around this tragedy as a means to place blame on their opponents. While one usually defends this through cries of free speech and the public’s right to know, is that what really drives the conversation? Is there a culpability of media in its impact on society? On mentally-imbalanced persons? On our youth?
Can one clearly talk about “free speech” when you delve into the business, realizing that it’s driven by advertising and ratings increased by conflict and controversy?
If we decide to open this debate to one of free speech, what, then, is the role of public relations in that discourse? If we profess to help manage the relationships and the communication for the companies and organizations we represent, we also have a role in setting the tone and managing the vitriolic messages that are rampant in the media today. And, do we counsel in one manner, and personally act in another?
Today, more than ever before, disparate voices are heard. Too often, however, they are heard in isolation — the echo chamber of the social Web or within niche websites that support only one voice, or one ideology —without any opposing view, context or explanation. Media has sequestered opinion and made it a commodity instead of helping to create a two-sided conversation. Much of this has to do with the economics and corporate board of directors that are focused on profit, not promotion of ideals. Perhaps the “fourth estate” has now become too enamored of its own influence and success to remember why it was originally protected under the First Amendment.
While public relations cannot solve this issue on its own, we can act as a profession to speak out. We can translate the principles in our Code of Ethics to actions that facilitate the free flow of accurate and truthful information and informed decision making through open communication. We have the opportunity that is afforded by technology to add a voice that inserts dialogue, promotes compromise, increases understanding and, in the end, creates a conversation that recognizes and respects difference without being vindictive.
I challenge each of you to add comment to stories and editorials that bias readers toward polarizing views. Take up your tools to add to the voice of reason when the conversation becomes too destructive or demeaning. Question those who deride others as to their real intent, when their actions ultimately drive profit for media conglomerates. But most importantly, do what we do as a profession — work to build relationships that respect and create compromise that can positively impact our communities, our society and our world.