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Combatting incivility with Anthony D’Angelo | On Top of PR podcast

By On Top of PR

On Top of PR podcast: Using PR to combat incivility with guest Anthony D’Angelo and show host Jason Mudd episode graphicLearn how the decay of civil public discourse is hurting our democracy with our guest, Anthony D’Angelo.



The one with Anthony D’Angelo on what you can be doing to combat incivility in public discourse.



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Five things you’ll learn from this episode:

  1. How is the decay of civility in public discourse hurting our democracy?

  2. What is the Public Relations Society of America doing to promote civility? 

  3. What are the symptoms of incivility?

  4. What can you do to combat incivility? 

  5. What’s the outlook for civility in the future? 


  • “The symptoms of incivility in public discourse have to do with increased polarization that we feel in so many public and private dialogues.” — @TonyDAngelo_SU

  • “There is research that shows that there are health effects that incivility takes as a toll on those who experience it.” — @TonyDAngelo_SU

  • “If there’s a profession that can take up this mantle of trying to be the balm that soothes all the pain that’s caused by incivility, it ought to be the public relations profession.” — @TonyDAngelo_SU

  • “The civility effort is not designed to squelch dissent, it is instead designed to help advance productive dissent.” — @TonyDAngelo_SU

  • “Public relations has been said to help people and ideas at organizations adjust to one another, not force the other side to conform.” — @TonyDAngelo_SU


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About Anthony D’Angelo:

Following more than 30 years in agency and corporate public relations, Anthony D'Angelo is a professor of practice at Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications. He is a past national chair of the Public Relations Society of America and currently co-chair of the Commission on Public Relations Education. His columns and commentary have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, BusinessWeek, CNBC, Sports Illustrated and a variety of other media outlets.


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- Welcome to another episode of On Top of PR, I'm your host, Jason Mudd, and today I'm joined by Tony D'Angelo from Syracuse University. We're having a great conversation today about the decay of civility in discourse, and how it's hurting our democracy and our nation. This is a challenging conversation and one that I think you'll really enjoy. And the bottom line is that he sharing an initiative that the Public Relations Society of America is launching. And we cannot be successful in this endeavor unless we do it together, and that requires the support of you, your corporation, the news media, and social media, and just humans in general. And so I think you'll like this episode, I'm glad you're here, and I think you'll be glad you're here too. So here we go.


- [Narrator] Welcome to On Top of PR with Jason Mudd, presented by ReviewMaxer


- Hello and welcome to another episode of On Top of PR, I'm your host, Jason Mudd. And today I'm joined by Tony. Tony welcome to the show.


- Thanks very much, Jason, a pleasure to be with you.


- So before we press record, we were joking around. You said something to the effect of you've done... Been doing like a 20, 30 year internship in corporate America and then decided to get into the education field for public relations. And you've got a very well decorated bio here. I see you have columns and commentary in the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, Businessweek, CNBCs, sports illustrated event, and a variety of other news outlets. So Tony, welcome to the show. Why don't you give our listeners and our viewers, maybe just a two or three sentence bio of your additional accomplishments?


- Sure, so as you said, I worked for 30 years in the public relations field before fleeing to the ivory tower. I started as an adjunct professor and caught the teaching bug, and I became a professor of practice at Syracuse University's Newhouse School in 2015. I'm also a past chair of the Public Relations Society of America, a group I remain very active in, and my research and teaching interests in public relations are what really float my boat. I'm interested in that and sharing thoughts and ideas, and trying to be as a professor of practice, something of a bridge between professionals in the field and students and researchers, who are here with me in higher education.


- Perfect, perfect. And today we're here to talk about what you've described as the decay of civility in public discourse, how it's hurting our democracy, how it degrades our way of life, and ability to make informed decisions on public matter. And I absolutely agree with you, we must learn how to disagree productively. So on our episode today, we're gonna talk about recognizing the problem and learning what can be done to combat incivility and talk about some of the resources you and your university and the Public Relations Society of America has available to... For folks to dive into this topic. But first, we're just gonna go through and talk about at a high level through some Q and A here today. Does that sound good to you Tony?


- That's great.


- All right. Let's get started. So one thing just as a disclaimer for anyone who's listening we talked upfront about, you know, we wanna remain, you know, neutral and not talk about anything political and instead, just focus on the issue. And focus on our audience, who is typically, you know, someone in a corporate communications or marketing role at a company. And how this you know, public discourse is an important conversation for corporate communications, well beyond just the political realm. And I think Tony is gonna bring some very interesting insights to the conversation today. So Tony, why don't you set the table for us and kind of tell us where are we in our democracy, society, republic today, with, you know, civility in public discourse?


- We are in the world of hurt right now, in terms of civility in public discourse. And the research bears this out, Jason, there was some research done in 2019 by Weber Shandwick, Powell Tate, and KRC Research that found that 93% of those they pulled believe incivility was a significant problem in 2019, with 63% describing it as a major problem. And I think we all feel this, right? We feel it not only in the political world, but we feel it in business. We feel it in our personal lives and personal interactions, and people that I have talked to in the field, and with the Public Relations Society of America, PRSA, we are implementing a civility initiative that I'd like to talk a little bit about. And a lot of research has gone into that. And it's been a great learning for me that civility and its effects are... We're working with a public health expert and communicator, whose name is Gary Saffitz. And he has pointed out some remarkable similarities between a health contagion, and what is happening now with incivility and how that has gone viral, and has taken away to a really scary extent, our ability to solve problems as a society. To engage in civic discourse and civil discourse.


- Well, obviously that's very concerning, and I think 2020 leaves us no lack of examples that we can talk about, but maybe you can just pick one or two and kind of talk through, you know what you're seeing as far as what the issues are and what the impact of that looks like, or the symptoms look like even.


- Sure, well, the symptoms, I think all of us, especially now in 2020, where we're in the midst of this awful pandemic, I think that the symptoms have to do with increased polarization, that we feel in so many public dialogues and private dialogues, even dialogues, as I mentioned within families. And that can lead to, by the way, a lack of communication, alienation. And actually there is research that shows that there are health effects that incivility takes as a toll on those who experience it. So it is an insidious disease and it's highly contagious. I have to say, Jason, that if you were incivil toward me I, my normal reaction, if I didn't stop to consider my actions may be to be incivil in return. So this is a human tendency and it does take some strategies and some tools to counteract those things, both at an interpersonal level, at a political level, at a corporate level, at a societal level.


- Around 2016, you know, I think we started to have some what I would call very uncomfortable moments in our public dialogue, I would just simply describe it as. And I, you know some conjecture I'd shared with people was, you know, it feels like we're going through a season in our nation's history, where there's a lot of pent up frustrations and anger. And a lot of societal changes happening that's making some people rejoice, and other people uncomfortable. But it seems like the people who are uncomfortable maybe have been comfortable for awhile, and the people rejoicing have been the ones that have been uncomfortable, right? And so I kind of described it like, you know, our nation is going through a metamorphosis where it's painful now, but when we're finally through the end of it, we'll be a better hopefully more civil society because of it, because change is not easy. So whether you wanna use the, you know, the butterfly metamorphis analogy, or you wanna use the metamorph... Or the analogy of, you know, you're not in good shape and you decide, I wanna change my health, well, there's some pain associated with that, right? You know, as you're going through the process you're learning a new discipline, you're making new commitments, your body's getting tired. You're... Maybe you're hungry 'cause you're eating what... You know, I don't wanna get into an area I'm not an expert in. But I just started feeling like, you know, this pain is gonna be worth it long-term because maybe as a society we're getting better. Do you sense any of that is true with the data you have? Or am I complete off base?


- I have heard it said, and I can't quote the source for you. These aren't my words, that we may be entering a period of creative destruction. In other word


- [Jason] That doesn't sound good.


- No, but you know, there is a cleansing effect, for example, in a forest fire, right? It allows new growth.


- [Jason] Right.


- But there's pain involved in that, right? The destruction part of the metamorphosis that you've described. I think though the danger is... And this is the part that this civility initiative that PRSA is launching, seeks to address, and why actually PRSA was sought out as the seed bed for launching this by others who were involved professionally in this effort. And there are a number of institutions, the Angora Institute, the Agora Institute, I'm sorry. At Johns Hopkins, the institute for public relations has started the dialogue project. There's an organization called the Interactivity Foundation. And people who have been involved in this effort and who were worried about the corrosion and lack of effectiveness in public discourse, are saying that if there's a profession that can take up this mantle, of trying to be the bomb that sues all the pain that's caused by stability, it ought to be the public relations profession. And I happen to agree very strongly with that. And am joining with other people, in trying to take steps to equip people with the tools so they can. And I'd like to quote something up, PRSA is issuing a white paper that I'd be happy to to share with you, that provides a lot of the statistics of the research. But in terms of defining the danger, I'd like to quote a colleague of mine named John Sandberg, who is the principal author of this white paper. And I think he nails it here. He says, "As a society, the biggest danger we face is not that we perpetually default to a zero sum game, in which one side or the other must unequivocally win or lose on any given issue, the greater risk rather is the corrosion of civil dialogue to the point where all sides inexorably lose." In other words its the flip side of, you know, a rising tide lifts all boats. Well, incivility lowers the tide and lowers all the boats, and in fact, it can be argued that for the longer term there are no winners in this. So that... And I think by the way, the research bears out to a remarkable extent that people by and large field, that the civility disease is growing worse. Polarization is deepening, unproductive behavior and disagreement. And I also wanna emphasize that civility is not a couple of things, where it has been defined in the past. It's not mere politeness, although being polite and nice is a positive thing, right?


- [Jason] Sure,


- And it's also not... There are some groups that are concerned that civility might be a way to kind of wallpaper over protest, where they're really important societal conditions that deserve protest, right? Even angry protests. And that's okay. This civility effort is not designed to squelch dissent, it is instead designed to help advance productive dissent. In other words, to help enable people to disagree productively, is a better description of what we're trying to do.


- Right. And I think it's easy to figure out that what's happening today is either unproductive disagreement, or no conversation at all.


- Correct.


- And while there, one of those might be more civil than the other, neither one have a high level of productivity.


- Yes. Absolutely, and as public relations professionals, part of what we should be doing, if we're operating to the level we should be, is engaging with those publics on whom our organization's success or failure depends. And going through an exercise of mutual adjustment, public relations it's been said, helps people in ideas and organizations adjust to one another, not to force the other side to conform in a zero sum game. So if I'm coming to you as an organization, or if my corporation is going to an activist group, I'm operating at the highest plane as a public relations professional. If I am open not only to dialogue, but to your ideas, such that we may go beyond simple compromise and compromise is okay, but too many times, it's the easy way out. It means we're gonna split the difference, right? I want 10, you want five, we'll go with 7 1/2 and call it a day. The problem is that neither of us is satisfied with that. But if instead we can truly collaborate and be open to this idea of mutual adjustment, we can engage in something that the public relations sage the late Patrick Jackson called co-authorship. And now we can collaborate, so that maybe one plus one makes three. If we're open to that possibility, that takes real discipline by the way and some patience and commitment


- [Jason] And commitment.


- And it also takes civility because of, in the midst of doing that, I start calling you names and saying bad things about your ancestors, right? That's gonna cut the conversation short. And it's not gonna solve the problem.


- All right, Tony, let's take a quick break and come right back for more of this conversation.


- [Narrator] You were listening to On Top of PR with your hosts, Jason Mudd. Jason is a trusted advisor to some of America's most admired and fastest growing brands. He is the managing partner at Axiom Public Relations. A PR agency that guides news, social, and web strategies for national companies. And now back to the show.


- And welcome back, I'm joined with Tony from the Syracuse University Newhouse School of Public Communications. And we are talking about a great topic of the decay of civility in public discourse and how it's hurting our nation. And well, we're getting right into it here. So Tony, I wanna just rewind just a little bit. I was fascinated by your comment about how the PR profession is the perfect profession to lead us through this. One, what a high calling, right? And what a challenge which is exciting to me because I've believe the PR profession is arguably more relevant than ever. And you know, I know there's some people who question the future of PR and for a variety of reasons. But I think that comes from misunderstanding of what true PR is. And we were talking about, you know, the difference in the struggle of, you know, compromise versus a commitment and things like that. So I'd like to kind of just ask you very candidly. In your mind, what does success look like and how long do you think until we could start to see the influence that this initiative you've described earlier is having? And how would we measure that?


- Yeah, so I think success will look like a society that believes we're heading in the right direction. The poll numbers right now do not indicate that, the poll numbers indicate pessimism across the board and a downward trend. I think that if we are to embrace the true tenants of civility in civil discourse and productive engagement, I think we'll feel it that at the personal level, organizational level and ultimately at the societal level, and we will be able to confront ideas without degrading people. And I think that the research that's been done over the past several years will start to turn and we'll see that. And I think it needs to be modeled as well Jason, I think part of what we wanna do as a profession is to present not only the tools but the role models and role modeling, that needs to happen so that people see, I wanna behave like that, right?


- [Jason] Right.


- That looks like it's effective. The good news here is because we're not talking about party manners in terms of civility, we're talking about effectiveness. People who behave in a civil fashion and are competent, are rewarded in the marketplace with credibility, with leadership status.


- [Jason] Absolutely.


- That in the corporate sector or in a commercial center if you will, and I think it all also happens in the political sector. Just this year in mid-October, two candidates for governor in the state of Utah made a joint public service announcement, saying that they are encouraging civil discussion around the elections. These are people from opposite sides of the aisle. And I think there needs to be more of that. And by the way, these are two gentlemen, as I said from Utah, I think this reflects very well on both of them, and makes the voting public feel better about the decision they're gonna make.


- You know, I agree with you and it's interesting how one action and one state can be amplified in such a way that gives people some hope, right? And I think, you know, I think I heard a pastor once say, there's nothing better than hope, right?


- All right.


- And so people have hope, then, you know, there's a future, you know kind of mindset that comes with it. So...


- Yeah. Now you know, I have this question, maybe our audience does too, and that would be, you know, did this get amplified because we inherited, you know, technology like social media and mobile phones, how do you say too quick and so suddenly we had too many resources at our fingertips, and so, and a lack of consideration and that actions have consequence? Because that comes to mind, but I don't... I mean, obviously it's our fault not necessarily the technology's fault.


- Right.


- But at the same time, you know, I'm always amazed when I'm online and I see people who I think are reasonable educated adults, who jump so quickly to name calling and finger pointing, and sensationalizing things that it just leaves me scratching my head. Where just a lot of people missing on the day at school, where our conversation with mom and dad, where they said, hey, you know, treat people with respect.


- Yeah.


- Or did we just, you know, become focused on the task and the immediacy, instead of the emotional intelligence of relationships and putting people first.


- Yes. To all of that. I think that the volume and velocity of social media has in some ways favored the most strident, right? Because you tend to stick out. If you have a wildly controversial message, it may not help you in the longterm, however


- [Jason] Right. But, you know, that could that happens with all the media that we absorb each and every day is an issue. And it forces choices in how we're going to spend our attention, and that's an exacerbating factor as has the political sector, right? Increasing polarization idea of a zero sum game and also activist movements, right? You know, both within companies, there are a lot of employee activist case examples that we could both site, where those are situations of conflict and conflict is a fact of life, that's fine.


- [Jason] Right.


- But what is productive conflict? And what's the end game? Are we making progress overall. I am though happy to say that there are reasons for optimism within this really sort of combustible mix of thousands, literally thousands of messages that we have all day that we all receive all day. And if I could, I'm gonna cite the author, consultant and frequent Ted talk presenter. Her name is Christine Porath, who speaks quite elegantly about severity. And if you think about this, I think let's talk about corporate communications. The sector where I spent most of my career. Her research has shown quite definitively that those leaders who are seen as civil are twice as likely to be you viewed as leaders. Those people within the corporate construct. So if you're in an executive position, if you conduct yourself with civility, you will earn, you're twice as likely to gain a reputation as a leader.


- [Jason] Right.


- The people that she have surveyed said that people fundamentally, their biggest need as an employee is to be respected. That's the number one need. And that sort of rings true to me at a gut level.


- [Jason] Right.


- I want my employer to respect me, right? Might not agree with me on everything. That's fine, we all get there, right? But to have fundamental respect for my dignity as a human being is essential or I'm not gonna stay there.


- [Jason] Right.


- Or I'm not gonna buy their product, or I'm not gonna contribute to their cause, or I'm not gonna cast a vote for them.


- [Jason] Right.


- So there's a lot going for civility. And in terms of leadership there are two components, poor AF posits. One is, if you aspire to be a leader, you have to be competent and smart, and you should also be warm, open and friendly. Those two pieces are important to your stature and your effectiveness as a leader. And I think we all need to consider that as we make choices.


- If only we all had those traits, right? Naturally or trained, you know, and developed, I think we would be a lot better off. You know, you reminded me, I have, you know, I have children and I'm always telling them, you know, we should respect and love those people who we may not agree with, we may not agree with their behavior, you know, and maybe they are doing things that cause harm to you or to other people, but if you can still focus on showing them respect, right?


- Yes.


- The world will just be a better place for all of you. So you may not like someone, you may not like what they stand for, but you still need to respect them as a human being.


- Yes.


- And stay out of harm's way, of course, right? But you know, I think that sometimes those people as I talk to my kids about this, they just need to be loved. And maybe there's no one loving them or respecting them like you're describing. And that could change their heart and their minds and the relationships that they have in so many ways.


- Absolutely. And, you know, I think all of us are buoyed, whenever we see a situation where two people obviously disagree, but also are very clear that they respect the other person. And, you know public relations as a profession, is in many ways fundamentally about public relationships.


- [Jason] Right.


- And relationships means it's gonna endure beyond this encounter. So part of the idea is to go from a transactional mindset, I'm gonna get you on this deal, right? destroy you. And then, you know, what's your relationship tomorrow. Well, it's probably nothing. Right?


- [Jason] Right. That's well said, good point.


- That could be my loss, right? I mean, I would rather enter into the long game and make sure we have an enduring relationship. And again, I'll quote Christine Porath again you know, to think about, you know, I've, you know, working for fortune 500 companies, those can most certainly not be warm and friendly, warm, and fuzzy environments. I mean very tough issues, tough conversations to be had internally and externally. But I like something that Christine Porath said about this. And that is that civility would say, that when you're... Let's say that you're dealing with an employee or with a colleague, or a supervisor, that you will be more effective if you care personally and challenge directly. And that's a potent combination in my opinion, because the personal care means, that am not discounting you as a fellow human here, I care about your role in this, but I'm gonna challenge the ideas directly. I'm gonna welcome your ideas, and we'll see where you and I are able to take this as a result of what's a true dialogue.


- [Jason] Right.


- Instead of, you know, sort of the corporate version of na!na!na!na!


- Right, absolutely. Well, Tony, everything that you're referencing, we would love to share those in the show notes so that our listeners, our audience, can explore these resources further from the Ted talk to the white paper, to the other research you mentioned. And, you know, we'd love to include a link to the PRSA initiative that you mentioned as well.


- Right.


- As we're wrapping up, is there anything else you wanted to leave behind with our audience, any final closing thoughts or messages?


- In a time when we do feel the effects, deleterious effects, right? Of incivility and a pandemic that has roiled our society, I'd like to close with a thought that I really believe there are reasons for optimism. There're small things that we can all do to model civility and to inject it into our own interactions, our own relationships, our own professional lives to counter the effects. And I think that, if enough of us do that, and if PRSA is able to form a civility corp, C-O-R-P-S like Peace Corps,


- [Jason] Okay. I'm enormously optimistic about the good that we can do at a societal level.


- Well, I love optimism, and I love ending on a positive note. So Tony, am glad you're here, am glad we had we had this conversation. Thank you for sharing, and if our audience wants to connect with you you know, what's the best way for them to do that?


- I'll be happy to share my email which is dangeloa@syr.edu, or you can connect with me on LinkedIn, under Anthony DAngelo, or on Twitter TonyDAngelo_SU for Syracuse University. Jason, I really appreciate the opportunity to talk about this initiative. I really do think that it's a vitally important topic, and it's been a pleasure to have a conversation with a fellow pubic relations professional.


- Well, I appreciate that. Thank you. I've enjoyed it also. I wish we had more time to dive further into this 'cause I'm sure we could talk about it for a long time. And, you know, as I'm recapping kind of the conversation in my mind, you know, we talked about social media, and we didn't talk about the role of news media and all of this too. And I think that there's clearly responsibility there just as much as it is with, you know, the technology providers, and with the politicians, and the corporate leaders and et cetera. So there's a lot of parties who need to come together here, and I'm excited to see what the future looks like, and I appreciate your message of positivity.


- Thanks again Jason. Another topic we didn't even broach was misinformation, disinformation, and what that means for lack of trust and that leading to in severity. So there's a lot of opportunity out there to try to counter those kinds of things.


- Well, it sounds like we need to have you back again soon. And especially after this initiative gets launched, and we can start talking more about that. And how our listeners, our audience can get involved as well. So I'm looking forward to that, Tony. Thank you again for sharing and to you and your family be well.


- Thank you. Same to you, Jason, take care.


- Thank you.


- [Narrator] This has been On Top of PR with Jason Mudd, presented by ReviewMaxer.

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