I’ve been studying public relations 44 years now. Never have I witnessed anything like last week’s election. My candidate lost, but that’s happened before and likely will again. Each time the republic has survived, even though each time I worried it would not.
I’ve accepted the election outcome but remain troubled by the role communication strategists played. Truth was sacrificed in this election, and while that’s hardly news in American politics, we can’t accept lying as standard operating procedure. It’s wrong.
But what bothers me far more than the lies is that human respect and decency were also cast aside. That’s worse than wrong. It’s tragic. And we can’t forget that professional communicators created many of those messages and strategies that agitated and divided us. Messages from the Trump campaign were particularly disturbing, often featuring racist, homophobic, xenophobic, and sexist themes. Voters saw the evidence each day in the news, but mostly we shook our heads at what a circus the campaign had become. No moment was more insulting than the one depicted here, but we probably can’t blame a PR person for the mocking of a disabled person. It was just Trump being Trump.
I worry a great deal about the loss of civility in our culture and our campaigns, but I also worry for the future of the public relations profession. How many PR types working these campaigns took the same academic courses as my students? Did they ever set foot in an Ethics class or stop to consider the morality of their actions? Do they place no value on human decency and regard for others?
I’m not writing from a partisan perspective today. It’s a little late for that. I’m writing as an educator who believes the primary job of ethical communicators is to foster dialog and create understanding. We won’t accomplish this by fueling hatred and intolerance.
A friend reminded me yesterday that we live in a postmodern world where objective realities and objective truths no longer exist – or so the theory goes. And that certainly makes our job as communicators tougher than ever. We can do one thing: The next time someone proposes an unethical strategy and you’re in the room, show a little courage. Tell them it’s a line you just won’t cross.
To my students: If you want to chat about these issues one-on-one, drop me an email or reach out to your favorite faculty members. We’re all wrestling with the same concerns. Because we all believe in the ethical foundations of our profession. You also can post at the MA-JMC Facebook page.
We won’t change the world, but we can start a conversation.