[INSIGHTS] Are You Getting Spooked by Public Engagement?

Cartoon guy running away from zombies

If you feel like you’re facing increasing tensions in your public engagement processes, you’re not alone. Across the country the climate of public discourse has been shifting dramatically. It’s getting spooky out there.

Planners and public engagement practitioners working for government agencies increasingly find themselves on the front lines of highly polarized debates.

Are you feeling scared? The good news is there are proven ways to detoxify public engagement, but first, it’s important to understand why contention is on the rise.

Public discourse in recent years has shifted dramatically for reasons that include:

  • The biasing and organizational impacts of social media,
  • The growing divide between income groups,
  • The polarizing political tensions, and
  • The dehumanization of the opposition.

While all these trends can play a significant role (and there are undoubtedly others), perhaps the most dramatic has been the influence of social media on public opinion and the mobilization of opposition. We have reached a point where even the CEO’s of social media firms are admitting responsibility. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, this year announced measures to address his firm’s role in the poisoning of democracy.

News clipping saying: Facebook admits it might be poisoning democracy

Imagine if ten years ago … you were told that by 2018 the majority of news and information would be curated specifically for people based on their current views and interests and that conflicting information would be made more difficult to find. Creepy!

This process of curation – which describes your Facebook news feed, your customized search engine results, and other social media streams – is driven in part by a desire to keep your attention and thus, in crude terms, expose you to more advertising. It’s well-known that people tend to navigate away more frequently if exposed to conflicting information.

The polarizing effect of this curation is only one part of social media’s influence on public discourse. Social media has also provided us with easy access to tools to mobilize like-minded people to influence almost any cause or project. That’s terrifying.

Things are heating up in the public arena, and yes, we can certainly see the contributing effects of social media.

The new eBook – Facing Contention: 21 Tips to Detox Public Engagement – highlights key success factors and 21 proven tips that public engagement and planning professionals are using to mitigate some of these tensions and conduct constructive and positive outreach. It’s time to put the ghosts back in the closet.

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