Anyone watching the Anchorage Assembly meetings lately has seen firsthand how civil discourse has gone out the window. While public officials have always been subjected to angry constituents, historically Assembly meetings didn’t degrade into a yelling match, complete with name-calling and slurs. Similarly, elected officials can be found saying appalling things from the safety of their social media accounts, where it is easy to be witty and smug at the expense of those with whom they disagree.
In short, it’s a mess.
Constituents are entitled to voice their opinions on public policy, and elected officials are entitled not to be shouted down or personally insulted.
So, what do we about it? Communicators, especially the Public Relations Society of America, have embarked on a mission to find solutions.
We need to. In a novel white paper, PRSA’s Civility Task Force lists several unexpected reasons it is crucial we repair this caustic environment. Notably, they look at the impacts this toxic stew is having not only on everyone’s mental health, but also the economy and health and safety.
Let’s start with the economy. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology claims workplace incivility costs companies $14,000 per employee in lost productivity and work time. Additionally, Risk & Insurance magazine reported in 2017 that episodes of workplace violence stemming from incivility cost U.S. employers $4.2 billion each year. In other words, if we want to our economy to fully recover, we need to learn to talk to one another, especially when it is uncomfortable.
When it comes to safety, incivility can lead to violence as people who feel mistreated sometimes lash out. Risk & Insurance magazine also reports workplace violence ends 1,000 lives annually. That’s an extreme example, but we all know someone who has been on a hair-trigger since the pandemic began. The anxiety caused by COVID-19 is undoubtedly leading to more incivility as the pandemic becomes more politicized.
Communicators are natural candidates for leading on this issue. After all, we specialize in improving communication between people and groups, especially when there’s a problem. There is much work to be done on the subject. In the meantime, our focus is on using our skills, tools, strategies, and creativity to inform, influence, lead, change, and, more importantly, counterbalance the situation by modeling what it means to be civil. It’s a start.