“a moment for leadership”
By Robert Grupp
At the start of every new semester, I am struck by the timeliness of the graduate course in Public Affairs Communication that I teach for the University of Florida. The content always seems so relevant, but never more so than now.
This course is not about political points-of-view, the students’, or mine. The course is designed to help develop communication leaders who serve as the critical conscience of an enterprise, a bridge between the organization and the society it serves. Eliot Mizrachi, who heads communication and content at Page, points out that leaders of all kinds would do well to abide by many public affairs ideals, but one Page principle is particularly salient today: conduct public affairs as if the whole enterprise depends on it.
Leadership in a democracy parallels the role communicators play in business and society. Power in a democratic government, as in business, is derived from the people. Business in a democratic society cannot exist without the public’s permission and approval. Communicators maintain a social license to operate by earning trust, operating with consideration for the greater good. Events in Washington, DC in January illustrate how the enterprise of American democracy has failed to live up to these ideals, in that moment.
The disturbing events in Washington, DC are a reminder that public trust is fragile, and that freedom and democracy are not assured. The enterprise of democracy, as in business, depends upon leaders who have the courage to do what is right. Elected leaders, representatives of the people, have a duty to listen to all Americans, and to act when we see our systems are broken.
As our class opens this semester, we are discussing how public affairs leaders create opportunities to proactively and positively impact business and the social or political environments in which an organization operates. Yet, the need to manage within a social and political context often is ignored in corporate training, job specifications and recruitment.
Creating opportunity means seeing something that is not yet there, something that may come into being if certain conditions are satisfied. This requires imagination and vision together with a deep understanding of the existing environment and a realistic assessment of the strategies needed to bring the new environment into being. This defines public affairs at a mature level, and this is what we will discuss over the next 15 weeks in class.
Also, we will consider how “going global” is a game changer for public affairs. Like leadership in a democracy, public affairs executives must deal with enormous challenges in understanding how to position their company to build trust across diverse cultures.
Sadly, the unrest in Washington sent a terrible message to our country’s adversaries and more importantly a terrible message to our friends and allies.
A colleague in Belgium wrote to me, saying: “It is essential for everyone (Americans or not) who believes in the principles of democracy to try and understand why a country like the United States—for decades, an example of freedom and democracy—has changed to become a nation where an elected leader asks his supporters to march to the Capitol.
Although the principles of public affairs are global, their application is local. Global principles address the way companies understand their business responsibilities to respond to social cultures and expectations, politics, and power structures—and how they should respond to these factors.
I was heartened by what French President Emmanuel Macron said: “I want to express our friendship and our faith in the United States. What happened in Washington, D.C. is not American, definitely. We believe in the strength of our democracies. We believe in the strength of American democracy.”
General Colin Powell said, “Our great democracy is repairable. We can fix it. We will get through this.” I agree!
As our course unfolds this semester, students will consider strategies and tools to do that.
As my Belgian friend said, “It is never too late to reinforce the message: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité!”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robert Grupp is Director of StratCommWorld, and Adjunct Instructor and Director of a Global Strategic Communication Master’s Degree Program in the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida.