The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Tag Archives: westley-maclean

Okay, CB3 is going to get a little technical.


All communicators are familiar with the message influence model, as defined by the Shannon and Weaver and upgraded by the Westly-Maclean model.  Basically, one transmits a message, often through ‘noise’, the receiver translates/decodes the message and feedback allows finer calibration for the transmitter to retransmit.  It’s fairly simple.  But that’s the point – is it too simple?



In today’s complex information environment, the message influence model is still prevalent in strategic communication.  People at Arizona State University have come up with a new approach – the Pragmatic Complexity (PCOM) Model,claiming that the message-meaning element is flawed and meaning cannot so easliy be translated or decoded. ‘Listeners create meanings from messages based on factors like autobiography, history, local context, culture, language/symbol systems, power relations, and immediate personal needs. ‘

PCOM takes its lead from ‘new systems’ perspectives, not least the communication theory of Niklas Luhmann.  Examining the communicative system in the real world, the ‘system is complex because of a double contingency that involves the participants. In the simplest case of a communication system with two participants A and B, we can describe this constraint as follows:
• The success of A’s behavior depends not only on external conditions, but on what B does and thinks.
• What B does and thinks is influenced by A’s behavior as well as B’s expectations, interpretations, and attributions with respect to A.
So there is no independent B sitting “out there” waiting to be impacted by A’s message, as the old model would have it. Instead A and B are locked in a relationship of simultaneous, mutual interdependence.’

To make this simple, CB3 sees it as the ‘ does my bum look big in this?’ scenario.  Without wishing to trivialize a potent communication idea, it goes like this.

Imagine your wife/girlfriend/partner/husband/boyfriend has been looking for that perfect dress/pair of trousers.  They’ve found them and bought them and you’re about to go out on the town.  They put the dress/trousers on and ask ‘does my bum look big in this?’  Unfortunately it does and they know it.  Answer ‘Yes’ and you’re in trouble. Answer ‘No’ and they think ‘well you would say that, wouldn’t you?  Therefore the communication is complex and you and they are locked in a relationship of simultaneous, mutual interdependence!

Does my bum look big in this?

Does my bum look big in this?

But it does raise serious questions, most importantly, how does this affect strategic communication?  Human beings have not changed since the mid 20th Century, when Shannon and Weaver first kicked around the message influence model, but the information environment within which they live has been transformed.  It is no longer enough to merely understand the culture of one’s publics but understand that the communicator and the audience is in a relationship from the start, with successful communication dependent upon each other understanding that relationship and each other’s complete worldview.  One could argue that the US administration, UK government, NATO, EU etc are already in ‘informational relationships’ with (not the same as actually in dialogue), Al Qaida, the Taliban, the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, DRC etc, but few actually recognise the fact and communicate accordingly (except that the ‘bad guys’ seem to have a better handle on it).  It involves moving from rigidity in approach to embracing complexity and variation – and in the staid, and admittedly complex, world of foreign policy communication, that’s easier said than done.