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Polarization is everyone’s problem

Polarization is a problem that affects everyone in America. It is no longer just the result of disagreements, but the cause  of them. It ruins relationships, disrupts business and, at its worst, incites violence, as we saw in the January 6 insurrection  at the U.S. Capitol. And according to the survey we conducted for this report, 90%  of Americans don’t believe Polarization  is going to decrease anytime soon, and  56% are worried about what that means  for the future of our country.

In a highly polarized society, normally rational individuals lose their ability to hear, understand or empathize with anyone who has a different point of view, making productive discussions almost impossible. They see every issue, no matter how benign, through a distorted political lens that is often informed by sources who use disinformation for their own benefit. One-fifth of Americans report that polarization has damaged their friendships and divided their families. While one-third say they  are afraid to say what they think in public.

In a separate survey we conducted  of PR professionals, three-fourths of  corporate communicators state that  polarization is a problem for their organizations, because it makes it difficult to communicate on important topics and increases the risk of alienating customers and employees. Eighty-four percent  of them believe that American business should use its resources and platform  to play a role in reducing polarization.

59% of Americans say they believe com­panies should be engaging with issues that are important to them, suggesting that they donate to nonprofit organizations, speak out publicly and encourage employees  to get involved. 70% say they consider  a brand’s social profile when making  a purchase, and many say they’re willing  to pay more for a product that aligns  with their values. Almost half of our survey respondents say that they would take a pay cut to work for a company that shares their values and works to address the issues they care about like mental health, education and climate change. This is especially true for those under 30. In contrast, 40% of those surveyed think U.S. businesses should focus on their internal policies and practices and leave the social problems to others.

This same debate can be heard in corporate boardrooms across the country. Every business leader is trying to find the appropriate role for their organization to play in society. Some, like Patagonia CEO Yvon Chouinard, are leading the charge by donating their fortunes to the causes they believe in. Others are just beginning to find their way in this uncharted territory. PR people, whether they work for an activist company or not, are spending an increasing amount of time dealing with divisive issues — like gun violence and abortion — which require understanding, thoughtfulness, and good judgment.

Through our research, we’ve learned that polarization is not the creation of the Left or the Right. Depending upon the issue, it can be driven by either side of the political spectrum, often by politicians and partisan media who’ve discovered they can profit from conflict. The recent airplane delivery of 50 immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard by Florida Governor DeSantis is a perfect example of manipulating a very polarizing issue like immigration to gain attention, activate supporters and increase fundraising.

Polarization is a complex, multi-dimensional phenomenon and its costs are difficult to calculate. It can impact a company’s sales, recruiting, benefits, turnover, philanthropy, regulation, taxes, and ultimately, reputation. For example, the financial impact of Disney losing its tax-free status in Orlando over the “Don’t Say Gay” bill is estimated to be a staggering $1 billion, which may land in the laps of local homeowners.

The never-ending battle over these controversial issues has exhausted many Americans in the middle who are longing for more rational voices to join the conversation. But reducing our current level of the divide will require a fresh approach to communication from leaders in government, business and media — not to mention the rest of us. We must listen respectfully to opposing opinions, scrutinize the information we receive and share, and speak carefully with words that unite instead of divide.

If we don’t learn how to communicate better, we are destined for a future of only talking about the weather. Actually, even that is polarizing.