New PRSA initiative tackles society’s most divisive issues—Q&A with 2021 Chair Michelle Olson

by | Apr 23, 2021 | Public Relations

This week, PRSA announced the launch of one of its most ambitious initiatives yet, a new resource-rich forum called Voices4Everyone, designed to help PRSA members and the broader communications profession tackle and address a host of complex societal issues.

“The turbulence brought on by the past year’s pandemic and social unrest has created a perfect storm of urgency needed to address the issues that surround us, and Voices4Everyone provides comprehensive information and robust assets to help solidify the reputation of PRSA members and communications professionals as influencers and dynamic change agents,” said Michelle Olson, APR, 2021 PRSA Chair. “We hope [the new initiative] can illuminate and contribute to the national conversation.”

New PRSA initiative tackles society’s most divisive issues—Q&A with 2021 Chair Michelle Olson

The daring new program addresses four pillar topics: civility; civic engagement and ethical behavior; diversity and inclusion in their broadest sense; and mis/disinformation. A broad range of content is available for each of the pillars, including:

Disinformation

  • Videos on the spread of disinformation and how to help prevent it.
  • Resources to test media literacy.

Diversity & Inclusion

  • PRSA’s Diverse Dialogues video conversations with D&I leaders.
  • Inclusive language guides.

Civility

  • Thought Leadership viewpoints.
  •  PRSA’s White Paper on how communicators can model civility.

Civic Engagement

  • Silver Anvil Award-winning case studies.
  • Websites to find community engagement opportunities.

New PRSA initiative tackles society’s most divisive issues—Q&A with 2021 Chair Michelle Olson

New original and curated content will be added to the Voices4Everyone website on a regular basis and will be supplemented by ongoing professional development and virtual and online training programs.

“There has never been a more important time for the profession and the need has never been greater for communicators to provide their expertise and skills to advance the public interest,” said Linda Thomas Brooks, Chief Executive Officer of PRSA. “Voices4Everyone is a marketplace of ideas and provides the resources communicators need for moving important conversations forward both in- and outside of their organizations.”

Michelle Olson, APR, 2021 PRSA Chair

Michelle Olson, APR, 2021 PRSA Chair

Olson, PRSA’s 2021 Chair, and a Managing Director and Partner at Lambert, spoke with Bulldog Reporter about the Voices4Everyone launch, and the urgency for tackling each of the pillar issues in this short Q&A:

BR: Congrats on taking the reins at PRSA, Michelle. It’s certainly a unique time for the industry and for the world. What kinds of goals are you setting for PRSA in such an unpredictable year, and what do you think the biggest challenges and priorities are for PR right now?

Olson: Thank you very much Richard. Yes, it is indeed a unique and unpredictable time for all of us, but it can also be a time of opportunity to work together to address key issues which continue to confront us, and which form the core of our new Voices4Everyone initiative. These include Mis/Disinformation, Diversity & Inclusion, Civility and Civic Engagement. These four pillars together comprise our biggest challenges as well as our central priorities.

The fake news crisis has plagued the media now for years, with media even been proclaimed to be the “enemy of the people,” and whether it’s true or not, many think PR plays a key role. What do you recommend that PR pros do (or not do) to have an impact?

PR does play a key role with regard to this issue, but as you know well it is all about combatting it, not fostering it. The best way to help communications pros have a positive impact is to commit to the values embodied in PRSA’s Code of Ethics, namely advocacy, honesty, expertise, independence, loyalty, and fairness. Consistently modeling these standards for yourself, your organizations and your various constituencies will help counter charges of “fake news” in contentious as well as calmer times.

Misinformation is a similar crisis, but perhaps even more sinister, and is perpetuating negative stereotypes of PR among the public. What can PR practitioners do to help stabilize the problem and right the ship?

The best and most important thing we all can do is learn to recognize the difference between mis/disinformation and accurate, unbiased reporting, and then help others do the same. There are many dynamic tools and a wide breadth of content available in this area on the Voices4Everyone website, such as videos on what disinformation is and how to prevent it and inoculation games created to train your brain on spotting fake social media platforms and other deliberately spread disinformation.

Companies around the world are under pressure to include more diversity and inclusion initiatives, and the PR departments and agencies representing them certainly play a key role. But while many business leaders agree that it’s important, today’s executive offices and boardrooms don’t seem to reflect the urgency. How can PR help bridge this disconnect?

I have seen organizations make substantive changes in their C-suites in the last year, and I believe that it will continue. One of my clients rewrote their core values to be more inclusive, ramped up their employee resource group dialogues with the C-suite and looked at hiring practices through a new lens. That’s how change begins – small steps that grow into corporate standards. It’s incumbent upon communicators and the clients/brands/organizations they represent to make sure that the messages and promises shared are backed up by real action. If you say you’re going to pay closer attention to improving diversity & inclusion, you have to follow through. People are watching. Among the tools PRSA offers in this area is an inclusive language guide, our D&I Chapter Toolkit, and our Diverse Dialogues series of video conversation with leaders in the profession. Simply put, we’ve got to walk the talk.

As the country continues to become more divided, incivility has taken hold of our culture. What solutions do you foresee, and how can the industry and PRSA itself play a role toward resolution?

I was impressed and very happy to see that last week Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Neil Gorsuch, who don’t agree on much, were able to come together in a Zoom presentation addressing “Civics as a National Security Imperative.” Justice Gorsuch asked, “How can a democracy function if we can’t talk to one another?” which is at the heart of our Civility and Civic Engagement Voices4Everyone pillars. Civility doesn’t mean you have to see things my way, but it should mean that we can agree to disagree in a non-contentious tone, which makes it easier to hear what others are saying. We are working hard to illuminate and contribute to a national conversation, not a shouting match. The PRSA Civility Task Force has authored a white paper called Modeling Civility, and in it they’ve said that civil discourse is in a state of crisis and that “we are living in an age of rage.” They’re right. It seems that people are looking for reasons to be offended and to fight back with winning being the only goal. Life is not a zero-sum game and in the scenarios I’ve seen lately, all sides are losing. Communicators can help by modeling civility. By calling people in, rather than calling them out on social media when they feel they’ve been wronged. A simple phone call can go a long way in calming a situation and bringing resolution.

Brands and businesses are also under increasing pressure to play more meaningful roles in their communities. What kind of engagement efforts can these companies embrace that can make a real difference without risking customer alienation or other reputational damage?

Brands must do their homework to really understand who and where their core customers are. If and when they do, they can then create messages and take stands that will really resonate with those audiences without pandering to them. Social media has put a glaring spotlight on what people and brands say, and credibility and reputation can be damaged or disappear in the literal blink of an eye. And counterintuitively, sometimes risking customer alienation can actually strengthen how organizations are perceived.

The Voices4Everyone initiative is certainly an aggressive undertaking. What’s the key message to PRSA member agencies and other practitioners, and what are the best ways for them to get involved and forward this mission? 

The key message is that as professional communicators we have the ability and obligation to serve as leaders and change-agents, and Voices4Everyone was designed to help everyone achieve those goals. As for getting involved and forwarding the mission, I’ve been talking to PRSA members around the country encouraging them to not only take advantage of the wide breadth of resources but also contribute their thoughts and expertise. Voices4Everyone is one of the, if not the, most ambitious programs PRSA has ever created, and the time is now for professional communicators everywhere to help tackle and illuminate these issues, and make a difference in their organizations and their communities.

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Richard Carufel
Richard Carufel is editor of Bulldog Reporter and the Daily ’Dog, one of the web’s leading sources of PR and marketing communications news and opinions. He has been reporting on the PR and communications industry for over 12 years, and has interviewed hundreds of journalists and PR industry leaders. Reach him at richardc@bulldogreporter.com; @BulldogReporter

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