Communicating With People Whose Values Don’t Align

Posted by PRSA_MichelleB on 03/25/2021 7:49 pm  

By Melissa May, APR
Chapter Ethics Chair

The people in our publics were raised in various environments with differing norms and moral compasses. Throughout their lives, they’ve been influenced by a range of sources.

So, how can practitioners who truly aim to be ethical make decisions that support the values of the majority of their constituents?

“How can they think that way?”

I’ve often seen this question asked rhetorically on social media as well as by friends and family. Studies reveal that the communications channels and messages you’re exposed to guide your mindset. And the channels and information you surround yourself with is no doubt guided by your values and beliefs. We feel comfortable having our way of thinking reinforced. So, we seek out confirmation that our beliefs are accurate, rational, and held by others. 

Practical Implications: Health

As COVID vaccines are ramping up, public health communicators are testing their messaging. They know that half of Americans don’t get a flu shot for a range of reasons. Many hold positions on vaccines that have been disproven by the wider scientific community. Some ethnic groups hold negative attitudes about clinical trials and therapies because of unethical medical testing in the past. Others are hesitant because the COVID mRNA vaccines are still in an experimental phase, and the long-term outcomes are not known yet.

These distinct perspectives make uniform communication approaches difficult, especially in America today. In this era of political divisiveness, disagreements over science and the suppression of opposing facts and alternative viewpoints, how do PR pros guide decisions on huge issues like COVID and climate change, when constituents don’t agree on the underlying fundamental values. 

Trade-offs: Economy and Education

We’ve also witnessed a number of ethical matters related to the pandemic and education. Many children have experienced depression and fallen behind in their education due to being isolated. We also know that the digital divide and other socio-economic factors have resulted in the least-resourced families being most severely impacted by transitions to remote learning. As a result of these issues, we have an ethical face-off between allowing these students to fall farther behind and protecting their physical or mental health.

A similar conundrum is present in families whose livelihoods have been harmed by safety measures instituted in response to the pandemic. In an effort to save lives, decision-makers threaten people’s ability to care for their families.

Defining where to draw those lines should require an examination of national and regional values. But are we in an era where decisions about what’s in the best interest for the greatest good are no longer possible?  Does ideology prevent civil discourse that could lead to sage choices for the majority of Americans? 

I propose that we as PR professionals commit to open dialogue between those of varying values to ensure that all the facts on both sides are considered. Then, we can assess the ramifications of our related decisions and propose the best path forward.

How do you make decisions for your various constituents, recognizing the wide range of values held?