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Communication in the Face of Polarization

Today's post comes to us from Workforce Institute board member David Creelman.

There used to be a safe space for corporate social policy which would roughly align with what mainstream media was saying. If the New York Times and CBS said “this policy is good for America” then a company could simply go along. No one in corporate leadership had to think too hard on whether they should take a pro or anti-communist stance or whether it was okay to celebrate Columbus Day.

However, with increased polarization in many aspects of society, that broad consensus has broken down and now just about any position is seen as unacceptable by a significant segment of the population. Even a simple decision about face masks can label a company as pro-Republican or pro-Democrat (though thankfully, for public health purposes this fact hasn't deterred many large employers from mandating them anyway). In years past that wouldn't have mattered too much, but at the moment the degree of distrust between the two political camps is extremely high (Something we at The Workforce Institute were thinking about in our predictions for this year way back in January).

This polarization affects both external communications, often handled by the Public Relations (PR) department, and internal communications, often managed by the Human Resources (HR) department. In fact, the whole distinction between internal and external communication is almost moot in today's world of social media. This means the two departments must work together more closely than ever on messaging.

Not only must PR and HR work together, they must work much harder than in the past. We are in a world where the U.S. Federal Office of Management and Budget has banned training based on Critical Race Theory. The question for both HR and PR is whether they have a sufficiently deep understanding of Critical Race Theory to take a position that won't get the company into trouble. Do you know enough about why J.K. Rowling has been banned from certain bookstores to navigate the issues around the so-called trans-exclusionary feminists?

Since you almost certainly don't want to get into the topics in detail, you need a communications strategy that somehow keeps you out of trouble without this in-depth knowledge. This is doubly hard because some activists will claim that not taking a position on these matters means you are supporting the opposite position.

The bottom line is that this blog is a warning. What used to be relatively easy has become extremely difficult. The first step towards a solution is understanding the magnitude of the polarization and its impact on communication. Next, you must set out to create project teams that can find ways to address the new communication challenges so that your internal and external voices are consistent and reflective of your brand values.

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