In this era of instant communication, with thousands of media outlets competing for scoops and audiences 24/7, the opportunity for reflective and thoughtful conversation seems nearly impossible. In its place is the more strident and spontaneous action/reaction that has led to a startling increase in sweeping generalities, news as entertainment, polarization of Americans, name calling and in far too many cases, irrevocable harm to individuals whose words or actions were misinterpreted or re-framed for some other’s agenda.
Last week I attended a luncheon where Juan Williams, former NPR news analyst and current FOX News contributor, was the keynote speaker. For the first time since he was unexpectedly fired from NPR last October, Mr. Williams spoke publicly about the entire incident.
Though the details and timetable of his firing were interesting as a story, and obviously still very painful to him, the true focus of his remarks struck a chord with me that is still ringing. While calling his firing, “a chilling assault on free speech,” he made a passionate plea for honesty in public discourse and the need to be civil as difficult things are discussed. He urged the audience to loosen the bonds of extreme political correctness — bonds that “can cause people to become so paralyzed that they don’t deal with reality.”
As a public relations professional and as a citizen, I admit to the frustration that comes with the constant pressure to be “on guard” and to measure my words, thoughts and feelings so that I offend no one or raise the specter of political incorrectness. There are times that I wonder what would happen if I just spoke what I felt — not with wanton insensitivity, but with the desire to honestly discuss the truth of the matter, however challenging the truth might be.
I have been in meetings with the proverbial “pink elephant” in the room and no one, including myself, has had the courage to name it and talk about it. I’m not alone in this sentiment. A recent Rasmussen Reports survey found that 57 percent of adults said that America has become too politically correct, while 23 percent said the nation is not politically correct enough. Seventy-four percent regard political correctness as a problem in the United States today.
Despite all of this, our profession’s core values, as found in PRSA’s Code of Ethics, ask us to “protect and advance the free flow of accurate and truthful information,” as well as, “foster informed decision making through open communication.”
How do we do that? How do we overcome some of the barriers that we will encounter? Do we not wish honesty and civility for our employers, for ourselves, for the profession? Is there a way to agree to disagree and still maintain respect and high standards?
I believe this is at the core of public relations. As thought leaders and counselors, we should be the role models, the reflective voice, the courageous souls who ask our organizations, businesses, clients or students to take a step back and ask if we are being the agents of civil and honest discourse. In spite of 24/7 news and social media and sensationalism, we can and must be the voice of reason. There has never been a greater need for public relations professionals nor a more challenging time.
I invite you to respond.
Geri A. Evans, APR, is a member of the PRSA Board of Directors and president of Evans PR Group in Longwood, Fla.