Communication in the Time of Separation

With the polarization our country is experiencing today, it’s more important now than ever to learn to work with those who think differently than you. Studio/E member Brian McClung founded his company on the notion that bringing together diverse views helps to accomplish greater good.

While running McClung Communications and Public Relations, McClung decided he wanted to do more but knew he needed great business partners to do it. He pitched the idea of creating a new firm to Minnesota’s former deputy commissioner of education Chas Anderson, and former speaker and minority leader of the Minnesota House of Representatives Kurt Zellers. Together, they launched MZA+Co, a firm helping clients craft and manage strategic communications and public affairs initiatives.

McClung did an artful job of enrolling partners with different experiences, opinions and political orientations than him, thereby deepening his network and broadening his capabilities. The result is a bipartisan firm with deep roots in local legislation and media.

We spoke with McClung about remaining relevant in a constantly changing field and communicating with people who think differently than you.

Many people avoid working with those they disagree with politically, but you seek it out. Why?

Something that’s important to me is this idea that it’s possible to work with and respect people you might have strong disagreements with. When you have relationships with people, it’s a lot harder to demonize them. You put yourself in a better place to try to work things out if you have an understanding of one another. The world has become so black and white, but I don’t see it that way. I think that to enact positive long-term change, we have to find the places where we can come together.

What is your professional background?

My first real job was in TV journalism. Having had the opportunity to work in a newsroom in Minneapolis, then as a reporter in greater Minnesota, has been beneficial in working with the media for clients. It gave me a foundation of understanding how journalists approached things, and how stressful and difficult the field of journalism has become as newsrooms have downsized and reporters are asked to do more. Having initial experience in something else and applying those skills in a different way can be really helpful.

How does MZA+Co remain relevant?

We constantly have to be changing because there’s a lot of uncertainty. Every two years there’s an election, and there are new players, which is why it’s important to be bipartisan. You have to be able to work with all sides. Many of our clients are focused on what they do, then they find themselves interacting with government or the media, and it’s not something they’re familiar with. We act as their guides when they enter that ambiguous place of telling their story or communicating information to elected officials.

What’s it really like having partners with differing political views?

It’s a lot of fun. MZA+Co is made up of people with a lot of experience and deep networks on both sides of the political aisle, and they all meld well together. We sometimes end up debating one another on public affairs shows in the Twin Cities. It shows people that you can argue in a respectful way and have disagreements but still work together to get things done.

What tips do you have for effective communication?

Define your key audiences. Figure out who you’re trying to talk to and understand them well. Hone your core message. Know exactly what you want to say and how you’re going to say it. Find a good guide. Find someone — a firm or a person — who understands the world you are entering, and work with them to figure out the best approach. As McClung and his partners at MZA+Co prove daily, working with people whose views differ from yours is not only doable but productive. We’d all do well to follow suit.

This post originally appeared in the November / December 2017 issue of Minnesota Business Magazine.

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