On January 25, communications and public relations professionals from organizations such as BC Liquor Distribution Branch, Port of Vancouver, and Metro News Vancouver, joined Jim Hoggan for a morning discussion on the challenges of reaching common grounds in public discourse. For professionals involved in risk communications, disputes, environmental communications, and political communications, it is not ideal but sometimes common to face situations where healthy dialogue turns into unhealthy debate. This is particularly common when dealing with culturally and politically sensitive issues.
Sitting on the board for the David Suzuki Foundation, Jim Hoggan himself faced this challenge when he arguing for the need to address climate change. He explained that even when scientific facts are presented, emotions and fear can rule out a well-constructed proposal that promises positive outcomes. Instead of two groups discussing to reach common grounds, communications professionals face the frustration of dealing with situations where facts are disputed, and motives are attacked.
One type of conversation to avoid is what Hoggan identified as “Propaganda and Ad Hominen” attacks.
In conversations dominated by ad hominen attacks, healthy public discourse is continuously shut down. Conversation revolves around attacking a group or a person’s motives, which silences discussion and resolution. The underlying viewpoint in these types of conversations are that anything the opposing group says cannot be trusted because these people are biased and have wrong motives. Public discourse is discouraged and silenced.
Another type of conversation communications professionals should avoid, according to Hoggan, is the “Advocacy Trap”.
These are scenarios where individuals are more interested in winning an argument than resolving the issue. In our discussion, attendees agreed with Hoggan that there always tends to be at least one person who demonstrates the advocacy trap when dealing with sensitive topics. There’s always one person within a group that takes a public opinion for the sake of taking a public opinion (and not necessarily because the outcome of that opinion impacts them in any way). Someone who falls under the advocacy trap may have an attitude with the thinking process of… “If you disagree with my opinion, you offend the values of my tribe. If you offend the values of my tribe, you are a bad person and therefore I have to crush you.”
Hoggan concluded the discussion by noting that as communicators, we are at the central part of the solution, but also central to the problem. He reminded us that communications professionals are integral to public discourse on important issues concerning politics and the environment. Focussing on the need to tell stories that bring people together, Hoggan encouraged us to “speak the truth, but not to punish.” It’s also every communications professional’s responsibility not to contribute to unhealthy debates as this destroys healthy public discourse. Whether a conversation falls into the Advocacy Trap, or in a loop of Propaganda Ad Hominen attacks, it is in our own hands. As communications professionals, our decision to be part of the problem or the solution holds heavy weight. To assume that people who disagree with us are not idiots is democracy.