10 Rules for Communication Civility


During a strategic planning meeting for a municipal client, the facilitator posed the question: “What are your strengths as a team?” One of the council members responded: “We have a sense of civility and respect towards each other.”

And I thought, “How nice is that?” And then I thought, “It’s a bit sad that we even have to call that out as a strength – isn’t it just a given?”

It’s not.

I recently read Amor Towles’ novel, Rules of Civility, which shares the story of a young woman, Katey, in 1930s New York and the cast of characters her life intersects with. One of those characters is a man named Tinker who, like many of the others, isn’t exactly as he appears. (To find out more, you’ll have to read the book, which I’d highly recommend.) While Katey is in his apartment one evening, she finds a copy of George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.

Our founding father actually wrote 110 rules on how to be civil. While some are antiquated or silly (my favorite: Shift not yourself in the Sight of others nor Gnaw your nails – good advice, Georgie), the first rule in particular resonates deeply:

Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.

We clearly live in tense times. Our economy is changing, our workplaces are changing and our societal makeup in changing – bringing passionate and emotional responses from all walks of life. As we’re finding ways to express these responses, however, we sometimes forget we’re talking to other human beings.

As communication managers, we’re often the bridge between organizations and the public. In this role, I think we have a duty to create an environment of civility – not perpetuate the trolls. So here are my 10 rules of civility for communication pros:

  1. Be respectful: If Mr. Washington will allow me, I’m going to amend his rule to include “either in-person or digitally.” Just because you can’t physically see whom you are speaking with doesn’t mean they don’t deserve respect.
  2. Be accurate: #FactsMatter and all that jazz.
  3. Don’t be an a**: I’m stealing this one from my talented colleague, Erin Nemastil, but I think it’s such an important reminder. Just be nice – it’s really not that difficult and I promise it’ll make your life easier.
  4. Don’t compromise your values: Nice doesn’t equate to being spineless or a pushover. Keep to your values – it will make you authentic and give you credibility with your stakeholders.
  5. Don’t sensationalize: Every time we do something to sensationalize a story beyond what it is, we are contributing to the problem. Seriously, guys, we have to stop this.
  6. Keep things in perspective: We see this time-and-time again, someone makes one negative comment and a company freaks out, thinking they need to cut off all communications with customers. Not true. Don’t let one loud voice detract from the good work you are doing. Deal with that one voice and then remember there are many others out there who love you.
  7. Be timely: Having (accurate) information in your stakeholders’ hands in a timely manner shows that you respect them and don’t view them as an afterthought. Being timely will also allow you to control your message more effectively.
  8. Engage: Seems so simple, but when you’re asked a question: respond, be helpful, be nice. It’s our job. But also know the signs of a troll and don’t encourage them.
  9. Be aware: Several brands have recently fallen under scrutiny for trying to piggyback on social movements in their advertising (*cough* Pepsi *cough* Uber). Taking advantage of social unrest in a superficial way will only make you seem inauthentic. Remember, consumers are smart and will quickly see through your veiled attempts.
  10. Care: At some point, it became posh to be indifferent. I’m guilty of this just as much as the next guy, but we really do need to care about what we are doing and whom we are interacting with. As Mary Ann so poignantly shared in her blog last week, you can’t forget the humanity.

I’ve taken to saying recently that we need a collective time-out as a society. While that probably isn’t physically possible, we can try our best to reach for civility in everything we do.

So, I challenge all the communicators out there – professional and amateur – to think before you Tweet.

What can we do for you?