PR must lead the resurgence of constructive debate

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Flame wars. This is how computer scientists in the 1970s described brief negative comments that came to characterize electronic discussion boards. There is no questioning that the internet is one of humankind’s greatest achievements. It would, however, be unwise to assume that all the developments it has brought about are positive. By combining the power of access with the safety of anonymity, it has also fuelled the deterioration of positive debate. From the much publicised fake news to the most clandestine subreddits, the online environment is dominated by sophisticated deception, negativity, and propaganda. The integrity of our society is at stake and we need emergent learning from healthy debate to safeguard it. I believe Public Relations has a role to play in this development.

Our world is more connected than it ever has been. From ambient intelligence to smartphone penetration and multiscreen consumption, a variety of factors have resulted in an explosion of information access.  While this access has more pros than cons, for professional communicators it presents a compelling dichotomy. On the one hand, it has democratised the creation of opinion and, on the other, access to a public voice (with the benefit of anonymity) has allowed negativity to fester.

The definition of media has changed. The rise of social media, citizen journalism, and content creation technology has resulted in open access to public opinion and debate. Fake news is common parlance, and technology has made subterfuge disturbingly elegant. This video ‘featuring’ former US President Barack Obama is a strong case in point.  Couple this with the fact that smartphone usage takes up nearly half a working day in our country, and you will see that the opportunity for influence is immense.  Unfortunately, this opportunity has also cast a shadow over collective opinion, a phenomenon I see as the cornerstone of democracy.

Openness and critical thinking have given way to trolling, hate speech, and a pervading sense of cynicism. An assertion is no longer a chance for conversation, but an invitation for attack. This must change. Constructive debate and the emergent learning it drives fuel our progress as a society.

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” – Evelyn Beatrice Hall in The Friends of Voltaire, 1906

 Freedom of speech is the liberty we have to express ourselves, but it’s important to note that it is also the liberty and respect we accord the expression of others. There is no greater place to observe this respect for differences than sport. From cricket and football to rugby and athletics, different countries and athletes have various, often opposing, styles of play. That does not stop them from accepting results, handling defeat with grace, and being generous in the face of victory. There is scope for no-holds-barred conflict but within the boundaries of respect and human decency.

What does any of this have to do with PR? In short, everything. Students of the field will recognise that PR’s rise to prominence was as a discipline of persuasion — one that distributed an organisation’s or individual’s information to relevant publics to build a perception, a reputation. Interestingly, PR had one other, albeit less publicised role — at a time when the fourth estate was especially vulnerable to manipulation, PR was also seen as a regulator of mainstream media, a watchdog that would help the public distinguish signal from noise. By facilitating a consistent stream of news between commerce and media, PR was able to both influence opinion and manage the spread of information. That has changed. The sheer vastness of the media landscape has ensured that controlling the dissemination and interpretation of content is an uphill task. The expansion of this landscape also has inextricably linked organisational reputations with the communities they operate within. PR has changed too.

Once solely focused on media relations, PR professionals now integrate technology, content creation, influencer marketing, and advocacy to provide clients with a holistic communication and business consulting service.  In my view, this means that PR is best placed to create and activate frameworks for constructive debate within these communities, both online and offline. In a previous piece, I recommended a model for PR to drive changes in public discourse – the 4 Cs of positive and purposeful engagement. Combined with credibility and critical thinking, I do believe that this philosophy could see us change how conversations germinate and evolve. It also elevates PR beyond just the distribution of information, and it gives the field influence over public discourse.

With new content formats, delivery channels, and data that offers profound consumer insights, I do not for a moment doubt that today is the most fascinating and challenging time to work in communication. How you will approach this challenge is now as much a matter of integrity as it is one of ingenuity.

– Amit Misra

As CEO, Amit is on a mission to evolve MSL in India from a traditional PR agency to an Integrated Communications partner. He drives business performance by aligning and adapting to a multi-brand strategy to serve the diverse needs of clients and colleagues in India. All with the overarching aim of emerging as India’s smartest and most strategic public relations firm.

He can be reached on Twitter at @Misrapolis.

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