My semesters teaching for the University of Florida typically end as they begin, with memorable comments from students. My students work incredibly hard to learn the essential role of public affairs and communicating effectively in a polarized world.

For 16 weeks, 40 talented graduate students pursuing an online master’s degree in mass communication assemble virtually in MMC5648—“Public Affairs Communication”—to encounter new ideas, deeper insights, and hear via Zoom from real experts.

The course promotes the obligation that individuals, communities, and organizations must work together, to participate responsibly in democratic processes and help solve challenging problems. The intent is to equip students with tools and skills to do that during their careers.

One of my favorite modules is “Bridging the Great Divide.” Clearly, conversations about social and political issues with people who hold different views can be fraught. Lecture and readings address the need for civil discourse in our personal and professional lives, not less argument but better arguments! Students are tasked with expressing their views in a blog column on topics they are passionate about and then commenting on views held by other students.

The premise is tolerance and appreciation for diversity, and an environment of acceptance, is good. Whether for brands, customer-centric companies, or needs-focused non-profits, the ability to communicate a fair and objective attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, religion, or nationality differ from one’s own, is an essential leadership skill.

In each weekly module, I suggest the foundation for communication should be earning public trust to harness public cooperation and sustain sought-after behaviors, underpinned by transparency and civic engagement.

We explore best practices and recommendations to cultivate deeper discussion, put forward by the Aspen Institute’s Citizenship and American Identity Program.
Five major tenets of a better arguments are 1) take winning off the table,
2) prioritize relationships with passionate listening,
3) pay attention to context,
4) embrace vulnerability, and
5) make room to transform.
Every student is encouraged to hold these five principles at heart.

In a better argument, all parties must shift their common goal from winning (or at least reaching resolution) to the reinstitution of civility to build common ground.

“Before this class, I was ready to ‘cancel’ and ignore anything and anyone who had different opinions than me on major topics such as politics and vaccinations,” said one student. “While I still hold strong to my beliefs, I am working to use emotional intelligence, seeking understanding, and avoiding emotional accusations when engaging with others whose beliefs differ from my own.”

“While I am still working to implement these steps,” she admitted, “I think of this lesson often and do not believe it is one that I will soon forget.”

How does the saying go? “Teaching is more than imparting knowledge; it is inspiring change. Learning is more than absorbing facts; it is acquiring understanding.”

In another learning module—Overcoming Bias: A Communicator’s Guide to Culture and Context—students come face-to-face with inequities in organizations and societies. There are many ways to better understand the dynamics and voices at play. My assumption is our best entry point for these conversations often comes from our own experience. The assignment is for students to interview an immigrant.

My objective for that module is to identify and articulate issues that immigrants, women, people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ+, religious minorities, and other marginalized groups may face—especially on-the-job.

The interviews almost always result in sobering, eye-opening, and emotive discussions.

“This turned out to be my favorite assignment,” one initially anxious student said afterwards.

The most heartwarming conversations often are with parents or grandparents. “This week’s assignment gave me the opportunity to sit down and talk with my dad in a way we rarely do,” said another student whose father emigrated from Lebanon to the US as a young child. “I have a newfound admiration for my dad. He is kind and loving, despite the challenges he’s faced. And he is so proud to be an American.”

Said another, “It’s often difficult for me to feel appreciative for my opportunity to be American and grow up with few worries in life. It’s truly a privilege, but this assignment has made me feel a little more grateful for my experience.”

So it goes, week-to-week. No matter the topics we cover—citizen engagement, social responsibility, countering disinformation, strategy—it’s rigorous, demanding, and hopefully intellectually rewarding. Learning at the graduate level is hard work.

I tell students that a career in corporate communications and public affairs is not for the faint of heart, but you can be competitive in your career without creating enemies.

The key is learning to balance that competitive drive with humility and consideration for others. This delicate dance to succeed yet remain likable, is a challenge especially in early careers. Keep a low profile and you may be overlooked or unappreciated. Take it too far, and you burn bridges, alienate coworkers. Finding the right way means coming off as an impressive person without tearing down others.

“We should all strive to do and be better. We should work harder to accept and help others and to understand people more than what we see at a surface level,” said one student in Week 16.

Another wrote, “I have learned that tapping into the true essence of people, cultures, and feelings is key to a successful career, business, and, most importantly, relationships with those in and around your personal and professional circles.”

Or, “This course caused me to step out of my comfort zone. To communicate is essential, but to communicate well is a gift.”

Finally, “I have learned so many new skills this term. After taking the course, I feel more confident in taking a leadership role, making decisions, solving problems and conflicts, and thinking strategically. I can say that the course made me a better person.”

Yes, I try to teach public affairs strategy and skills that will be valuable on-the-job, but the gift I receive in return is realizing the power of changing one person’s life.

Robert Grupp
Robert Grupp