The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Tag Archives: two-way symmetric

Without doubt the information age has brought with the idea of ‘real’ dialogical communication, in which the global extent of networked society has blossomed.  A quick history lesson in from the classrooms of public relations adequately plots the transition from the hypodermic method of communication aimed at a centralised model of society, through to the two-step flow approach focussed on a decentralised society and finally into the contemporary networked communication process of a distributed system.

Hypodermic to networked models

Amongst the vast majority of communication practitioners, and beyond, this shift is explained and celebrated by new/now/digital/social media.  So far so good – nothing earthshattering and novel yet.  But does modern day ‘messaging’ cater for this environment?

The very idea of a message – something transmitted to an audience, the very fact one ‘sends’ messages infers indeed a one-way transaction.  But as we’re constantly informed by the social media gurus the new world is all about the ‘conversation’, dialogue, two-way communication, the community etc.  The notion of a message, purveyed hypodermically, is anathema to the new protocols and ethos of the information environment.   It grates against the sensitivities of the community involved.

Getting into a conversation not just getting a message out

One example is thst conducted by the Obama campaign forged around a slogan of ‘Yes, we can!’.  Throughout Obama’s campaign, in every media interview he gave, he embodied a sense that his ideas, his objectives, his desires, via the words and phrases he used were those of a larger community, not of a single man or entity, such as a future administration.  Less of the message, more of the idea.  His engagements with traditional media translated very well into the cyber domain, took place as part of a conversation and the techniques used, subtle as they were, allowed traditional media to converge with the needs of new, social media.

Does traditional media training cater for this change in the environment?

The output of a modern media interview is now one that is part of a wider conversation, one that is placed on the web immediately, directly or indirectly, inviting immediate comment and, if required, a response.  It’s not a one-off maneouvre.  But much media training relies on the interview being such a singularity – get your message out, full stop.

Much would be gained by interviewees being aware and being trained to treat their interviews as not just a transmission mechanism for their message but as part of a conversation.  This requires knowledge and understanding of that conversation, what it is centred around, how it is conducted, its tone and style.  Once again basic presentation is important – hands out of pockets, body language, dress code etc – but the timbre, wording, structure and emphasis are subtly altered, to align with the nature of contemporary information exchange and the format of the medium.

The media interviews of old for TV, radio or print are still relevant and require specific techniques.  But more frequently these interviews form part of a wider format of communication, relying less on the message and more on the conversation.


In a recent post, Mountainrunner poses the following question:

Which of the below completes this sentence: Public Diplomacy…

  • is the same as Public Relations. (PD=PR)
  • involves more than the practice of Public Relations. (PD>PR)
  • is contained within a larger practice of Public Relations. (PD<PR)

CB3 comments that it’s a question of perspective. As taught by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) in the UK, where Grunig’s assessment of PR is an aspiration, PR (or more commonly termed ‘communications’) is defined roughly as using communication (one-way publicity, press agentry and public information and two way assymmetric amd symmetrical communication) to support an organization’s objectives, at the strategic to the tactical levels. It is, or aspires to be, much more than presenting and promoting a cause, but also understanding, persuading and influencing. In terms of ethos and objectives, this points to a high degree of similiarity between PR and PD, although the specific mechanics and publics may vary, and the underlying motives may differ – i.e. a foreign policy goal versus an economic one.

Academic work by Grunig, Signitzer & Coombs, Gilboa, Wang and Yun all indicate a convergence of the practices over the last two decades, although the academic study of the interconnections between international relations and PR leaves much to be desired.

However, it is noteworthy that placing some form of firewall or hierarchy between the two practices can be counterproductive – there are many lessons to be learned in both PD and PR which may enhance the performance of both. And although PR often gets a bad press (especially in the US*), there are many PR practitioners who would be able to serve the needs of PD very well, certainly in the operational and tactical areas.

So, in apiration and ethos at least, PD=PR.

For a more detailed response see CB3’s previous musings.

Many communications practitioners could serve PD well ... but not all.

Many communications practitioners could serve PD well ... but not all.

*  Note:  However, the nefarious activities of McBride and Draper in ‘smeargate’ are certainly helping to tar the communications practice here in the UK as well.  Indeed, CB3’s comments in no way suggests that the PR industry in the UK is in any way better, cleaner etc than in the US.


When the miltary do their business, they regularly ‘engage targets’.  When a missile is thrown into a surface-to-air missile site, it is very much a one-way transaction, precisely designed to prevent two-way transaction of fires!  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having the ability to put steel onto a target rapidly, precisely, decisively and overwhelmingly – hard power has its place.  But the very wording of this phrase causes problems for those in military public affairs, media operations and public diplomacy.

Engaging a target - Definately a one-way transaction!

Engaging a target - Definately a one-way transaction!

Engagement should be, and is in political and foreign policy circles, a two way process.  Further, when communicating in military interventions, peacekeeping, post-conflict reconstruction and development, all too often we refer to ‘target ‘audiences, normally referred to as ‘publics’ amongst public relations professionals.  However, a target is something to aim at, to attain, to achieve; it infers a one-way, omni-directional action.  Referring to an audience as a ‘target’ encourages, in the a parlance of PR Guru James Grunig, one-way communication.  Even if military or foreign policy communicators do conduct two-way asymmetric communications,i.e. conduct deep research and cultural analysis, before conducting comms campaigns, they often still end up aiming at a ‘target’.

The cornerstone of effective communications relies not only in knowing what those ‘publics’ are about – how they think, what makes them tick –  but also what they want and need (eg, marketing will fail utterly if the product is not what the publics/consumers want or need, no matter how good the product is).  This requires two-way symmetrical communications, or dialogue, with people, not targets.  Otherwise, one ends up communicating messages, ideas and products that simply will, at best, not resonate and, at worst, produce animosity.

Publics to engage with, not targets to transmit to.

Publics to engage with, not targets to transmit to.

Strategic communication itself is a multi-facted beast, which includes internal conversation in order to distil one’s raison d’etre.  Without that essence, strategic guidance and objectives will be ill-formed, creating inefficiency, even harbouring unseen but certain failure.  Without understanding what can be achieved – in other words finding those objectives which serve both one’s own and the concerned public’s (in this case a foreign population’s) needs – achieving policy aims will always be hampered.  Vague, unachievable objectives, as a result of a failure to broach coincident needs after neglecting to engage in a dialogical communications, are harbingers of policy disaster. The targeting mentality of communications can only encourage this.  As a practical example, such results are summed  up by a US Civil Affairs officer:

‘We have built so many schools that the Iraqis do not need. You
know what happens to them? They get blown up, because no
teachers show up, because no students come, no books are there,
the [mujahideen] walks in, they blow them up. It happens time
and time again, we give them something they do not ask for, they
do not need, because it’s something that we can do.’

They may not have asked for them but did anyone even hear what they did ask for?  A little bit of dialogue with people, not dictating to targets, would go a long way to prevent such policy failures.