emphasized “ systematic investigation — setting clear strategic goals B u s i n e s s F i n a n c e
Traditional Theories of Communication
Books have been written on the subject of communications theory. This book is not one of them. Consequently, we won’t attempt to provide an all-encompassing discussion on how people ensure that their messages get through to others. But in its most basic sense, communication commences with a source, who sends a message through a medium to reach a receiver who, we hope, responds in the manner we intended.
Many theories exist—from the traditional to the contemporary—about the most effective ways for a source to send a message through a medium to elicit a positive response. Here are but a few.
- One early theory of communication, the two-step flow theory, stated that an organization would beam a message first to the mass media, which would then deliver that message to the great mass of readers, listeners, and viewers for their response. This theory may have given the mass media too much credit. Indeed, when media is less “mass” than it is “targeted”—through Web sites, blogs, cable TV, talk radio, etc.—people today are influenced by a great many factors, of which the mass media may be one but is not necessarily the dominant one.
- Another theory, the concentric-circle theory, developed by pollster Elmo Roper, assumed that ideas evolve gradually to the public at large, moving in concentric circles from great thinkers to great disciples to great disseminators to lesser disseminators to the politically active to the politically inert. This theory suggests that people pick up and accept ideas from leaders, whose impact on public opinion may be greater than that of the mass media. The overall study of how communication is used for direction and control is called cybernetics.
- The communications theories of the late Pat Jackson have earned considerable respect in the public relations field. Jackson’s public relations communications models, too, emphasized “systematic investigation—setting clear strategic goals and identifying key stakeholders.”4 One communications approach to stimulate behavioral change encompassed a five-step process:
- Building awareness. Build awareness through all the standard communications mechanisms that we discuss in this book, from publicity to advertising to public speaking to word of mouth.
- Developing a latent readiness. This is the stage at which people begin to form an opinion based on such factors as knowledge, emotion, intuition, memory, and relationships.
- Triggering event. A triggering event is something—either natural or planned—that makes you want to change your behavior. Slimming down in time for beach season is an example of a natural triggering event. Staged functions, rallies, campaigns, and appearances are examples of planned triggering events.
- Intermediate behavior. This is what Jackson called the “investigative” period, when an individual is determining how best to apply a desired behavior. In this stage, information about process and substance is sought.
- Behavioral change. The final step is the adoption of new behavior.
- Another traditional public relations theory of communications is the basic S-E-M-D-R communications process. This model suggests that the communication process begins with the source (S), who issues a message (M) to a receiver (R), who then decides what action to take, if any, relative to the communication. Two additional steps, an encoding stage (E), in which the source’s original message is translated and conveyed to the receiver, and a decoding stage (D), in which the receiver interprets the encoded message and takes action, complete the model. It is in these latter two stages, encoding and decoding, that the public relations function most comes into play.
- There are even those who focus on the growing import of the “silent” theories of communication. The most well known of these, Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s spiral of silence, suggests that communications that work well depend on the silence and nonparticipation of a huge majority. This so-called “silent majority” fears becoming isolated from and therefore ostracized by most of their colleagues. Thus, they invariably choose to “vote with the majority.”5
All of these theories and many others have great bearing on how public relations professionals perform their key role as organizational communicators.
Contemporary Theories of Communication
Many other communications theories abound today as Internet communication changes the ways and speed at which many of us receive our messages. Professor Everett Rogers talks about the unprecedented “diffusion” of the Internet as a communications vehicle that spans cultures and geographies. Others point to the new reality of “convergence” of video, data and voice, mobile and fixed, traditional and new age communications mechanisms with which public relations professionals must be familiar.
The complexity of communications in contemporary society—particularly in terms of understanding one’s audience—has led scholars to author additional “audiencecentric” theories of how best to communicate.
- Constructivism suggests that knowledge is constructed, not transmitted. Constructivism, therefore, is concerned with the cognitive process that precedes the actual communication within a given situation rather than with the communication itself.
- Coordinated management of meaning is a theory of communications based on social interaction. Basically, this theory posits that when we communicate—primarily through conversation—we construct our own social realities of what is going on and what kind of action is appropriate. We each have our own “stories” of life experience, which we share with others in conversation. When we interact, say the creators of this theory, we attempt to “coordinate” our own beliefs, morals, and ideas of “good” and “bad” with those of others so that a mutual outcome might occur.
- Other widely discussed theoretical models of public relations communications are the Grunig-Hunt public relations models, formulated by Professors James E. Grunig and Todd Hunt. Grunig and Hunt proposed four models that define public relations communications.
- Press agentry/publicity. This early form of communication, say the authors, is essentially one-way communication that beams messages from a source to a receiver with the express intention of winning favorable media attention.
- Public information. This is another early form of one-way communication designed not necessarily to persuade but rather to inform. Both this and the press agentry model have been linked to the common notion of “public relations as propaganda.”
- Two-way asymmetric. This is a more sophisticated two-way communication approach that allows an organization to put out its information and to receive feedback from its publics about that information. Under this model, an organization wouldn’t necessarily change decisions as a result of feedback but rather would alter its responses to more effectively persuade publics to accept its position.
- Two-way symmetric. This preferred way of communicating advocates free and equal information flow between an organization and its publics, based on mutual understanding. This approach is more “balanced”—symmetrical—with the public relations communicator serving as a mediator between the organization and the publics.8
This theory suggests that in communicating, it is important to have some knowledge of the receiver and his or her beliefs, predilections, and background. Simply dispensing information and expecting receivers to believe in or act on it, according to this theory, is a fool’s errand. The task of the communicator, rather, is to understand and identify how receivers think about the issues in question and then work to challenge these preconceived notions and, hopefully, convert audience members into altering their views.6
The point, again, is that communication, rather than being the simple “transmission” of ideas, is rather a complex, interconnected series of events, with each participant affected by the other.7
These are but a few of the prominent theories of communications—all revolving around “feedback”—of which public relations practitioners must be aware.
Question 1: Discuss a number of traditional and contemporary theories of communication. Choose one of three theories and explain in detail how this theory can guide a public relations campaign
Question 2: My employer Trinity Fireside is a very small company therefore marketing is limited to radio, social media, and word of mouth. But what really makes this company successful for over 10 years is the scarce in the services we provide and products we sell. However, our marketing director is constantly in communication with the public via social media, customer service department follow up with job check surveys and upon separation for the company there is a exiting interview all this is for the purposes of gathering data to improve and innovate to meet the needs of consumers, investors, and employees. – Do you agree with this perspective? Why or why not?