Wednesday, August 8

Being Empathetic: Objectivity In Communication

One of the most difficult lessons in public relations and communication is one that journalists used to take pride in having mastered. The lesson revolves around objectivity. It's not even what you think.

To me, the formalization of objective journalism was the cornerstone of establishing journalism as a legitimate profession. Prior to the hard work of Walter Lippmann to emphasize a journalist's role as an objective mediator or translator, journalism often had more similarity to propaganda than news.

Since then, objective journalism has taken its fair share of hits. Some people doubt the ability of human beings to be objective when faced with issues that run contrary to their personal views. Others view being objective as somehow less than human, merely applying intellect over emotion.

In some cases, journalists have at times proven this to be true, positioning themselves as the ultimate observers, unwilling to interfere with the world around them, even in the face of atrocity. In other cases, journalists have proven themselves to have hidden agendas despite an air of being objective. But \elevating such examples of human frailty does not constitute evidence that people cannot continue to strive for something better. And I believe we can do better. As communicators, we have to.

In fact, even as journalists have become more lax in being objective, public relations professionals and communicators are regularly called upon to apply it, given that their role requires they represent both organizational and public interest. And because this is the role, it makes the Chick-fil-A controversy one of the most important of our times as it underscores that there is not always one public to serve.

The issue we face is bigger than Chick-fil-A and it's not one issue. 

As a living case study, which means I intend to explore several topics directly related to and indirectly related to Chick-fil-A, I was largely undecided on which topic I wanted to tackle next. In fact, it wasn't until Saturday, after reading the comment left by a former student, that I made the decision. In order to consider the nuances of this case study, I have to write about the elephant in the room first.

The elephant isn't same-sex marriage. The elephant is our eroding ability to tackle tough issues as a nation with objectivity, empathy, and compassion. The fact that there is controversy over same-sex marriage is merely a symptom. There are dozens of issues that mirror this one, with the public being tricked into picking sides under the pretense that "unless you are with us, you are against us."

Applying objectivity and empathy to an emotionally charged topic. 

An objective view might be that the definition of marriage is not a political or state issue. It is a religious issue, with different religions observing different definitions. In other words, it may not be up to the state to define marriage or force its definition into practice as much as it is to recognize the varied definitions of a secular union (or civil union when no other secular observances apply).

However, considering history as a guide in the United States, the objective view might be wrong. Reynolds v. United States is the closest we came to defining marriage with a unanimous 1878 Supreme Court decision based on the long-standing principle that "laws are made for the government of action, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious believe and opinions, they may with practices."

Or, maybe this Supreme Court decision was wrong too. I don't know. But therein lies the conundrum of any state being given jurisdiction over personal liberties. That said, same-sex marriage does not have an easy answer. It is a question that is bigger than itself.

Some of the smaller issues are pretty obvious.

• While it is apparently clear that it would have been prudent for CEO Dan Cathy to avoid the debate, he is free to hold the belief that marriage is defined as being between a man and a woman, provided he does not discriminate against those who do not share this view, given the 6-3 Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, which reversed the 1986 Supreme Court decision in Bowers v. Hardwick.

• LGBT supporters are within their right to lobby for same-sex marriage, but it would probably serve some organizers to demonstrate empathy and realize that the motivation to define same-sex marriage is not always born out of fear or intolerance.

• Any elected officials who threatened or acted to bar Chick-fil-A based on Cathy's beliefs are wrong and only demonstrate an ineptitude for leadership and equally ignorant understanding of the U.S. Constitution. Their actions demonstrate a willfulness to exploit, incite, and limit free expression.

• Anyone who used Cathy's views to attack Christianity only showed their proclivity for ignorance and intolerance. Incidentally, Saint Augustine also saw a conflict with the definition of marriage in the Old Testament, but suggested the better example of a divine plan was plainly shown with the first union.

People sometimes make the mistake of believing that an unwillingness to promote an idea is the same thing as intolerance. Empathy doesn't require agreement or enthusiasm as much as understanding and acceptance. For public relations professionals and communicators, it starts with adhering to a code of ethics, which allows for the principles of free speech and calls for a sensitivity to cultural values.

Ergo, in this case, different people have different ideas, but the role of the communicator is best served by engaging in fair and balanced communication activities that foster and encourage mutual understanding. I'm not sure about you, but I have seen very little effort in this regard. And that's what I want to tackle.

Likewise, I called it a public relations nightmare (and not a publicity coup) because a short-term revenue spike is not the only measure of a successful communication plan. I think that will become more apparent as we work through Chick-fil-A as a living case study. As for me personally? Like the artwork (above) of my friend Ike Pigott communicates, I'd rather we all just get along.
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