An ongoing climate of political polarization in the U.S. continues to pose major risks for business as well as untold challenges for the PR profession, according to the latest Global Communications Report conducted by the USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations.

The annual USC Annenberg report, which analyzed the perils of communicating in an era of societal upheaval by surveying PR professionals, members of the press and the general public, found that PR strategists today are now more focused than ever on the practice of communicating with purpose.


An overwhelming majority of the communicators surveyed (93 percent) said they’re currently spending more time navigating a growing list of contentious societal topics such as race, healthcare and climate change than ever before. Perhaps, as a result, 73 percent now predict their organization will increase its public engagement in dialogue around one or more controversial issues this year. Currently, nearly a third (30 percent) said they sometimes engage with activist groups when planning an initiative or creating a new policy for their company or clients, three times more than they did three years ago.

More than three-quarters (77 percent) of respondents see our current climate of polarization as a challenge for both their country as well as their organization’s communications goals, 75 percent believe polarization makes it difficult to communicate effectively on important issues and 73 percent think polarization increases the risk of alienating employees. More than a quarter (29 percent) see political instability as a potential risk to their organization’s business in the coming year.

Respondents said that racial equity, gender equality, climate change and COVID vaccines are among the top issues with which they predict their organization or clients will see increased public engagement in the coming year.

On the other hand, more than half (57 percent) said they believe their company has enough information to make important decisions regarding how and when to engage in conversations about these complex societal issues. And 55 percent said they think their company’s CEO is currently “very proactive” in speaking out about societal issues.

When it comes to the top five components communicators believe are the most important components of an effective purpose-driven campaign, authentic messaging took the top spot, followed by aligning with the values of a brand, providing clear public statements of purpose, making a long-term commitment and being seen as relevant to consumers.

An overwhelming majority of respondents (85 percent) said they believe the private sector can play an effective leadership role in reducing the overall level of polarization in the U.S. That said, 60 percent admitted their company had faced resistance from clients regarding a recommendation to incorporate social issues into communication programs, and 45 percent said their team had faced similar resistance internally from management in response to such recommendations.

When it comes to the party whom communicators blame the lion’s share of our current climate of political polarization, partisan media outlets took the top spot, followed by politicians, social media platforms, political strategists, extremist organizations, social media influencers and activist groups.

USC Annenberg’s 2022 Global Communication Report, “The Future of Corporate Activism,” was compiled with data from three online surveys fielded by the USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations. One survey polled 1,600 responses from communications pros, journalists, educators and students between January and February. Another gathered 687 responses from PR professionals, 75 percent of whom were based in the United States. A final poll surveyed 475 students.