Communication Mattered on January 6. It Always Matters.
This reflection is by Stephanie Danes Smith, an Associate Professor in the College of Communication and Information. Before she began sharing her passion and vast knowledge of communication with Kent State students, she spent 27 years working for the U.S. Federal government, 25 of them with the CIA. There, she led thousands of employees; designed and managed programs worth several billion dollars; interacted regularly with Congress; and traveled extensively, including throughout two war zones (Afghanistan and Iraq). She was selected as a member of CIA's Senior Intelligence Service in 2000 and achieved its highest rank. Smith led the largest of CIA's four directorates, the Directorate of Support. In this role, Smith was also accountable to Congress, the American people and the media. Smith teaches a range of courses in CCI, including COMM 45091 Communication and Terrorism (co-taught with Professor Paul Haridakis), and CCI 40095 Communicating Risk: Global Pandemics and Crises.
If you’ve chosen to major in a communication discipline — if you have a degree in a communication discipline — you’ve chosen well. Never doubt that. The violence and terrorist actions that unfolded in our nation’s capital on Jan. 6, 2021 illustrate just how vital and powerful communication is every day — and especially in times like these.
Everything about the Jan. 6, 2021 violence in Washington, D.C. was a communicative act. The incendiary and insurrectionist actions —including the costuming of the insurrectionists and their decision not to wear masks — were intended to be spectacle and to send specific messages. Deliberate (if malevolent) choices were made to command our attention and to make sure we understood their manifesto. Terrorist organizations like those we watched are social movements, and they need and feed on communication with their publics. I urge you not to look away because their acts are vile and their rhetoric hateful; rather, dissect and critically analyze everything. Understand how communication fuels mob mentality, but don't lose sight of the fact that communication will also counter false and dangerous ideologies and heal a wounded and divided nation. The failure to communicate is always, always, always dangerous. As communicators, you know this to be true.
Throughout the day, statements from nearly every Member of Congress showed how important communication is, even and especially when Members are sheltering in place and when government is at its most fragile. Many of you may have the opportunity to craft and counsel elected officials on these statements in the future (some of our alumni already are). Take the time to read the statements they disseminated on January 6 and what they will say in the days ahead. What would you say? What would you do differently?
Social media posts, including those from President Trump that were later removed, again show that in times of chaos, the most human reflex is to communicate — even when the communication is dark, treacherous and self-serving. Our job is to understand these words and their impact on public opinion, public safety, national security and the future, and then to summon our best words to counter them.
The media coverage of events as they unfolded was essential and much of it was very, very good. And reporters, photographers, filmmakers and others covering the events are writing the first drafts of history. Many of you will be called upon to do so soon; some of you are already doing this. Nothing could be more important to democracy. Thank you.
Media and diplomats from across the world are watching us and waiting on our diplomatic corps and foreign services officers to provide context, insight and truth, to tell America's story, as messy as it feels right now. Some of you hope to do this work; I applaud you. Diplomacy requires communication skill. Others of you, like our late and esteemed alumnus Michael John Gallagher II, will teach English in remote corners of the world, perhaps for organizations like the Peace Corps. This, too, is an essential use of your communication skills and an important demonstration of the very best of American values.
In the Congressional session that followed later in the evening, Members of Congress delivered speeches. You may have the opportunity to craft remarks and counsel a legislator on what to say when the cameras are on and when history is beckoning them. Practice the art of speech-writing every chance you get.
Law enforcement officials are handling media questions and issuing statements. Consider how important their words are to restoring order. This sort of messaging — when casualties and property damage have occurred — is not easy. But this is your chosen craft, and it is essential.
There will be press conferences and investigations and more official statements. All of those things will require government relations, public relations, journalism, advocacy and activism. All of these things pivot on communication.
My work before coming to Kent State brought me to Capitol Hill and to those beautiful grounds countless times. I remember many hours spent giving testimony at hearings in the Capitol. It broke my heart to see guns drawn there, mobs breaking glass, ignorance and hate trumping civility. But by the end of the day on January 6, my thoughts turned to the future, and to gratitude. I am grateful and privileged to teach and learn from communication majors. I feel blessed to teach in the College of Communication and Information where I am encouraged to cover topics like how communication influences terrorism and pandemics to students brave enough and curious enough to want to go there.
Finally, dear CCI students and alumni, we know that the First Amendment matters. Those 45 words are America's super-power and you, my dears, are the guardians.