When It Comes to Public Opinion, Conflict Avoidance is Not Conflict Prevention

Some quick thoughts about what we saw and heard at the September IAP2 North American conference in Montreal about capturing and responding to public opinion – specifically related to online engagement. As you may know if you attended or signed up to get our updates, we released the results of a survey of the practice, capturing the feedback of 233 of our peers and practitioners and the interesting – but not necessarily shocking – stories that came out of it.

If we go where the people are in order to listen to public opinion, that place is obviously social media. New media is an engagement game-changer, attracting more and different people to the conversation than ever before. It’s where people are getting information and it’s significantly influencing public opinion and attitudes. The question is exactly how we, businesses, and public agencies are using it and whether or not it might be increasingly used to avoid the face-to-face kind of participation.

During one Montreal conference session discussion, we heard a practitioner admit that she was scared. Often scared of the very people that she was supposed to engage and facilitate. She wasn’t alone – just maybe the first to admit it in public with her peers. A lot of people in public agencies feel the same way – and understandably so. We live in an angry world, at an angry time and government is a primary target. Public figures and “infotainment” celebrities have changed the rules, giving us all permission to act like jerks and branding civility as weakness, or worse, political correctness.

So, because it’s tough to have reasoned conversations and dialogue with people – which is still the only way to resolve real differences – we find some inclined to hide behind online media to get Public Opinionmessages out and invite comments in, but avoid meeting with people to understand public opinion. Platforms are increasingly better at exchanging facts and opinions and finding people’s priorities, but solving public problems and building consensus still requires face-to-face, interpersonal engagement. Avoiding that just kicks the can down the road and makes things ultimately worse.

If you’re looking to improve in this area and brave enough to learn what it takes to engage people and solve the problem, we invite you to attend a future Facilitation for P2 Practitioners training course.

Author: John Godec