PRSSA National Conference: Working ethically in political communications

A 45 minute Q&A with Christopher Harvin allowed students t0 discuss ethical concerns when working with international clients during the PRSSA National Conference in Atlanta on Nov. 9, 2015. (Photo credit: Ashley Lovell)

A 45-minute Q&A with Christopher Harvin allowed students to discuss ethical concerns when working with international clients during the PRSSA National Conference in Atlanta on Nov. 9, 2015. (Photo credit: Ashley Lovell)

The career path of political communications does not necessarily mean working for U.S. domestic parties, or even lobbying.

Technological advancements and globalization have transformed political communications to be more than campaign buttons and catchy slogans. Now practitioners can use public relations to influence elections, promote grassroots advocacy projects and alter domestic and international government policies.

Ethical communications work is vital to promoting global peace and progress. Practitioners can use their skill sets to unite the voice of the people against tyrants and terrorists.

Christopher Harvin, a co-founder of both Barbaricum and Sanitas International, explained how PR can promote progress in foreign countries to students at the PRSSA National Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. Harvin uses his immense foreign and political work experience to help both firms take on projects to alter public opinion for political progress.

“If you can move public opinion by educating stakeholders with terms that they understand and content that will resonate with them, their behavior will change,” Harvin said.

Some of Harvin’s recent campaigns empowered Egyptian students towards a push for democracy and impacted the Argentine elections. Many of these efforts would not have been possible without the innovations of the past 10 years.

“Technology has had the biggest influence on political communications,” Harvin said.

Harvin stressed the importance of understanding the correct channels to reach the targeted key publics of the campaign. Most communicators from developed countries must consider unique factors as they adapt communication channels for different countries and political climates.

“You have to know who has the modes of communication,” Harvin said, “Sometimes it’s billboards. Sometimes it’s whisper campaigns. Graffiti art is very effective; At two in the morning, people are spraying messages because that’s how people communicate. Everywhere you’re operating has to be a different type of campaign.”

Political communications impact more than just the pocketbooks of its constituents — it affects the legislature that frames constituents’ everyday lives.

Some students at the conference expressed their concern about ethical dilemmas that practitioners could face while working with foreign governments. They wanted to make sure they promote good causes. Harvin used his time advising the king and crown prince of Bahrain as a case study.

“It was all dealing with a political dialogue on Shia verses Sunni religious sects and the protests going on. They said ‘look, you can’t just have democracy. Because if we vote, this will be Iran in three years and they’ll kick the Americans out,'” Harvin said.

Public relations practitioners always have to juggle the agendas of different parties or brands. There’s no exception for political communications practitioners. Occasionally they must even juggle conflicting policies within their own government.

Harvin said he learned the Pentagon and State Department have different priorities for U.S. interests abroad from his experience working for the Department of Defense and the White House. The Pentagon focuses on building allies and strengthening the image of U.S. military might, while the State Department is more focused on promoting human rights and democracy.

Strategists like Harvin and his colleagues continually seek to promote positive growth, even if it is defined differently by various institutions. They prove that the persuasive art of communications can be equally effective to promote positive changes in society than just negative ones.

Harvin indicated that public opinion can be changed, but the power to change policy is in the hands of the lawmakers in each country. The next step after building public opinion is to motivate governments to make changes that will better the lives of its people.

“What you advise on is progress, building momentum. So much of what we do as communicators is strategic counseling,” he said. “You can only PR yourself out of so much.”

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