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Why a Greenlee Summit? And why a conference on Civility?

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Recently, I was chatting with a friend and was telling her that I volunteer to assist the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University. After explaining at a very high level what the Council is including some of our major initiatives, she asked these questions.

  • “What is the Greenlee Summit…and why does it exist?”
  • “What does the topic of Civility have to do with the disciplines of journalism, advertising, and public relations?”

The first question is very straightforward. It began with the Iowa State University Greenlee Alumni Advisory Council, a volunteer group of active journalists, advertising professionals, and public relations practitioners. The group exists to provide help and assistance to the faculty and staff as they prepare students for a career in one of those three respective disciplines.


A few members of the Council — with the close partnership and collaboration of school leadership — came forth with an idea for an industry summit that would bring professionals and students together in a learning environment with the goal of highlighting current issues related to each of the three communications disciplines at Greenlee. The plan was to connect professionals with students, provide a forum to meet other professionals, and learn about key communications issues of the day.


In 2018, that aspiration came to fruition as we launched our first Greenlee Summit focusing on how digital evolution continues to impact our industry. More than 200 professionals and students discussed this topic in a variety of ways, and did so in the context of each discipline that Greenlee supports. Feedback from the attendees indicated the information was appreciated, stimulating, and that they very much enjoyed meeting other professionals facing many of the same issues that they do. Most important, they wanted to see future Summit programs dealing with key industry issues.


Why Civility in 2019?

While digital evolution is a natural topic to explore at a conference like this one, civility seems less so, at least at first glance.  But upon closer examination, civility in the context of journalism, advertising, and public relations is a “right place, right time” convergence and is a topic that should be one the minds of all communicators.


Here’s why: all societies are based on human communication. Communication is based on relationships. Relationships are based upon trust. And only a trusted relationship that values civility can flourish. Without civility, communication becomes a splintered and uneven exercise where individuals or groups talk past each other, without common understanding or true information being exchanged. Nothing is understood, and as a result, neither the individuals involved — nor society at large — moves forward.


It’s easy to think that civility is confined to a personal exchange between two people, or a small group of people, or in today’s world, a Twitter or Facebook post. And, of course, all of those assumptions are accurate. Yet the same is also true for all communications professionals.  Students trained at Greenlee — and their compatriots around the world — are not only the gatekeepers of large quantities of information, but they also guide how that information reaches all of us and in what form. So it’s critically important that professionals in all of these disciplines do their best to maintain civility with each other as they share information in an honest way with every audience, whether those audiences be large or narrow.


It’s clear that most people understand the unique relationship between journalists, governments, and leaders. That’s why journalism is often referred to as the Fourth Estate. And in fact, this sometimes contentious relationship is front and center every day, especially in the context of politics.


Yet this issue is not exclusively about journalism and/or politics.


Consider that in the advent of the digital age, most of us view as many as 10,000 advertisements per day. Messaging is in your face from the time you wake until you sleep. Advertising is everywhere and it appears in many forms. It’s become so pervasive that, much of the time, we aren’t aware that we’re even receiving it. So positioning information in a truthful and civil way that results in connecting people with useful information becomes an important skill for advertising professionals, too.


Likewise, public relations professionals, while historically important partners in helping journalists obtain accurate information, have become even more critical in recent years. One report noted that the ratio of public relations professionals to journalists has grown to five to one over the past number of years. While we can debate if that’s a good or bad thing, we can all agree that the PR professional needs to have the highest ethical and civil relationships so that the public benefits in the end. More than ever before, this burden rests on the shoulders of the public relations professional as newsrooms are being systematically trimmed and there are fewer true gatekeepers of information. So again, a civil relationship between the journalist and public relations professional is a critical and growing dynamic.


For these reasons, you can see why we’re excited to feature the importance of civility and communications at the 2019 Greenlee Summit. We’d love to have you join us on the campus of Iowa State University on September 5 and 6, 2019, to hear more. We expect more than 400 professionals, alumni, students and faculty members to attend the Greenlee Summit for an engaging and highly interactive discussion about the topic that we’ve entitled, Communications and Civility in our Democracy. You can learn more about this event and register at


We hope to see you there!

Rick Phillips is Chair of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication Alumni Advisory Council and has been a member of the group for nine years. He is retired as Chief Communications Officer for Nationwide, a Fortune 100 financial services company based in Columbus, Ohio.