Most professionals need a few theories to back up their thinking and also to help give substance to their recommendations. A few theories and models give us a concrete and rational foundation for decision-making. These are especially helpful when thinking about how to tackle an issue and how to work out what is going on. They are useful too when devising plans and writing communications strategies, explaining concepts to colleagues and clients or giving focus when we need direction. These are my ten top theories, the ones I have found most useful in over thirty years as a practitioner, consultant and lecturer.
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Theory One – Shannon and Weaver – the ‘transmission’ model of communications
One of the oldest and simplest theories about communications came from Shannon and Weaver (1949). But Shannon and Weaver were not PR professionals; they worked for Bell Telephone Labs in the USA. Shannon and Weaver were focused on issues about accuracy and efficiency in telephony. Their model is both simple to understand and generally applicable and this originally made it attractive to not only people working in PR and communications but also academics who have since developed more sophisticated models and theories to explain the process of human and organisational communications.
Shannon and Weaver’s original model – often called the transmission model – consisted of five sequential elements:
An information source, that produces a message.
A transmitter, that ‘encodes’ the message into signals
A channel, that carries the signals, which have been adapted to allow transmission
A receiver, that ‘decodes’ the message from the signal
A destination, where the message arrives.
They also included a sixth element, noise, defined as any interference with the message travelling along the channel that could change or impair the signal and so change the original message into something different from that intended.
This ‘transmission’ model, which has been around for a long time, is somewhat simplistic. But it does serve as a reminder to practitioners about the basic processes involved in communications and in PR. It’s also the basis for social scientist and guru on propaganda Harold Lasswell’s explanation of communications as being
Who says What to Whom in What Channel with What Effect
Shannon and Weaver argued that there are three problems when thinking about communications:
The technical problem: how accurately can the message be transmitted?
The semantic problem: how precisely is the meaning ‘conveyed’?
The effectiveness problem: how effectively does the received meaning affect behaviour?
They assumed that sorting out the technical problems would largely solve the semantic and effectiveness problems (and that really is simplistic).
You can see that there are a few problems with this model. It is linear and one-way – there is no engagement with the receiver. The sender is called the ‘information source’ – it is not a complex sender. The receiver appears to be a passive and accepting, a simple and willing absorber of information, hardly a critical interpreter of what he or she is exposed to. There is no way to assess whether the receiver has accurately picked up the message – and then believed it or acted upon it. There is no consideration of the context of meaning (is this teacher to parent, politician to floating voter?). Nor to when – in terms of time – the communication takes place. But then again this theory was devised by and for telecommunications engineers. Consequently this simple model cannot reflect the complex psychology of the human being or the physiology of the human brain. Nor does it accommodate the existing relationships between sender and receiver, or the infinite ways a message can be encoded in terms of words and pictures. Also it does not allow for the unique characteristics of the multiple channels that could be use d to get the message across and that affect how a message will be seen and interpreted.
So theor y one is a useful start point.
Theory Two – James Carey – transportation/communications links
Invention and technology have a huge part to play in the development of corporate communications. James Carey was an American academic and journalism specialist. In his book Communication As Culture (1989) Carey discussed the development of the telegraph and its understated role in future developments in communication. The non-electric telegraph was invented by Claude Chappe in 1794 and was a visual system using semaphore, a flag-based alphabet, and depending on a line of sight for communication. The optical telegraph was subsequently replaced by the electric telegraph, the invention of Samuel Morse. Morse proved that signals could be transmitted by wire and, to facilitate this developed the Morse Code. The first news dispatched by electric telegraph was in May 1844. The death knell for the electric telegraph came with the invention of the telephone in 1877.
So before the nineteenth century the movement of information was more or less the same as the transport of goods or people and both were described as ‘communication’. Before the telegraph (and the telephone) most decisions – particularly business and political decisions – were made ‘face to face’. Carey argued that the telegraph ‘…permitted for the first time the effective separation of communication from transportation…’. So after the telegraph, as soon as messages could travel faster than the people, horses or trains that delivered them, everything changed, in terms of how humans communicated across distances and over time. Geography became irrelevant, enabling communities to move away from the local, towards the national, and international or global. The telegraph allowed people from one side of the world to communicate almost instantaneously with someone on the other side of the world.
How quaint this seems in today’s digital world but this helps us look at the origins of modern communication. Because this shows to some extent where plain English came from. The short brief telegraph demanded a prose style that Carey noted was more ‘â€¦lean and unadorned”. Think of a tweetâ€¦. So all those years ago it was the simple old telegraph that first called for the plainest of writing and, as a knock-on effect, changed the way news was written. At the same time style became more objective because these words would be read by individuals of many different beliefs and opinions, from many different communities, regions and countries.
Technological advances continue to have a huge impact on how we practice communications – on what messages work, on how we encode our message, on what channels to use so that the receiver sees and hears it accurately and so on. The meaning of the message comes from the process listeners, readers and/or viewers go through when they make sense of what they see, hear and feel. Meaning is not ‘extracted’ from but ‘constructed’ by the message. It’s clear that, while we don’t need to be technician, everyone working in the field of communications must keep abreast of developments in technology because you can bet your bottom dollar they will have an impact of professional communications practice.
Theory Three – Grunig and Hunt’s Four Models for Public Relations
Managing Public Relations written by Grunig and Hunt (1984) highlighted four models for how organizations can chose to practice public relations. The four models developed more or less chronologically through the twentieth century. This is the most often cited theory of public relations and these theories are still relevant, taught as part of graduate, post-graduate and vocational qualifications across the UK and overseas.
The Four Models
Press agent model – one way communication where an organization tells an audience what it wants it to believe. Little or no research to determine audience’s needs interests or inclinations to agree with the organisation’s objectives. This is the simple, original, historic model for PR with the focus on getting favourable coverage (ie publicity) for your organization, cause, celebrity, brand via the media.
One -way transfer of information
Little or no research
Information is not always accurate
‘all publicity is good publicity’
Public information model – a journalist’s approach to public relations, offers truthful accurate information about an organisation leaving our damaging or harmful information. This model developed pretty much as a reaction to attacks on large corporations and government agencies by investigative journalists. The leaders of these institutions needed more than simple propaganda peddled by press agents to counter the attacks on them in the media. So they hired their own journalists to act as public relations practitioners, and press handouts were written and distributed to give their point of view and explain actions. This is also the model where essential information is provided to the people and persuasion or attitude change is not essential. Examples might be letting people know about the weather, about road traffic, or internally about new appointments and soon. The approach is very much “let’s get the facts out”.
One – way transfer of information
Some evaluation on effectiveness
Little or no research about the audience(s)
Used most often by government
Truthful and accurate
Two-way asymmetrical model – emphasises a change in attitudes or behaviours in the audience only in accordance with the objectives and goals of the organisation. Persuasive communication really has its origins here. In 1917 during World War 1 US President Woodrow Wilson set up The Creel Committee (AKA CPI – Committee on Public Information). Committee members included the so-called founder of modern public relations practice, social scientist Edward Bernays. Communications took a more scientific approach that made the practice two-way with practitioners both seeking information from and giving information to publics. Theories introduced by Bernays were those of propaganda, persuasion, and the “engineering of consent.” This model is clearly at work when attempts are made to influence publics to adopt a preferred point of view or behaviour. Research provides input into the process (for example research into why people buy a new car help manufacturers create motivating relevant messages).
Two-way transfer of information
Research done to persuade audience(s)
Messages created to persuade
Model slanted in favour of organization
The two-way symmetrical model – uses research to better understand the audience and to resolve disputes. Each party – the sender and receiver – is willing to alter messages – and even behaviours – to accommodate the other’s needs. The two-way symmetrical model makes use of research and other forms of two-way communication. Unlike the two-way asymmetrical model, however, it uses research to facilitate understanding and communication rather than to identify messages most likely to motivate or persuade publics. A good example might be management and workforce in a consultation process enabling a change of policies and practices resulting in higher productivity and better pay and conditions. This model includes ideas and principles like telling the truth”, “interpreting the client and public to one another” and “management understanding the viewpoints of employees and neighbours as well as employees and neighbours understanding the viewpoints of management.” It is perhaps a communications ideal as many organisations are unwilling to ‘go all the way’ and engage so fully with audiences as they wish to retain the concept of control. It could be argued that modern technology and digital communications is forcing even the most reluctant organisation to have to consider this model seriously to maintain a competitive or an ethical position that enhances reputation.
Behaviour change on both sides
Research done to understand, not manipulate, the audience
Strategies include consultation, bargaining, negotiation , discussion, compromise
Best model of communication?
Theory Four – Robert Cialdini and Influence
Arguably one of the key tasks of corporate communications is to influence others to ‘comply’ with what you want; which may be to understand an issue, engage in debate, prefer or like or support your point of view, or behave a different way.
Robert Cialdini, Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University has made influence his life’s work. Having observed extensively how influence works by studying “compliance professionals” (people skilled in getting others to do what they want them to do – salespeople, fundraisers, recruiters, advertisers and so on) he published, in 1984, “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.” I was given this book when I worked in the advertising industry and I go back to these ideas time and time again.
Cialdini arrived at what he called his six ‘weapons’ of influence and we can see these six principles at work in many successful PR and communications programmes. But do take care – influence in the wrong hands becomes manipulation. There are many examples when this thinking has been used for evil ends. Use these strategies for good, not to persuade people to do things that are wrong. Examine your conscience and apply this thinking ethically
People generally aim to ‘return a compliment’. They invite people to come to dinner having been invited themselves; they pay back debts; they treat others as they are treated. It’s ‘youâ€¦meâ€¦youâ€¦meâ€¦’. This leads us to feel obliged to offer concessions or discounts to others if they have offered them to us first because we feel uncomfortable if we feel indebted to them. For example you’ll giving money to a fundraiser who has given you a little badge or sticker; a free tasting of a new food product in-store may make you buy a pack; you might decide to buy more from a supplier if they have offered you preferential terms first. You can sometimes use this principle by simply reminding the other person of how you have helped them in the past. Key thing is to give – a service, information or a concession. Your target will then be primed to return the favour. To use reciprocity ethically to influence others, identify objectives, and consider what you want the target to do. You can then identify what you can give to them in return.
2. Commitment and Consistency
Once we’ve committed to something, we’re then more inclined to go through with it because, says Cialdini, we human beings have an innate desire to be consistent.
For example people who sign a petition supporting a new community facility are more likely to donate money to that cause when asked later. Get people’s commitment early on, either verbally or in writing. For example, if the communications programme is building support for the building of a new supermarket, communicate early on with stakeholders, and take their comments and views into account.
3. Social Proof
This principle relies on people’s sense of “safety in numbers” because people tend to follow similar others. For example, we’re more likely put some money into a dish for staff tips if there’s money already in that dish, we’ll buy a product if lots of others have done so and provide testimonials that it’s good and and we’re more likely to support a policy if support seems high already. The assumption is that if lots of other people are doing something, then it must be OK, safe to do, good, right to do too. We’re more likely to be influenced if we feel uncertain and, another key factor, is whether those people already behaving a certain way are like us in terms of lifetsage and lifestyle. Internally you could use social proof when trying to get support for a new project by getting the support from influential people in your organisation whose opinions others respect. And if you are selling a product, say how many people use it and get them to recommend it on social networking sites.
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We’re more likely to be influenced by people we like. And people are more likely to buy from people like themselves, from friends, and from people they know and respect. Likability comes in many forms – people might be similar or familiar to us, they might give us compliments, or we may just simply trust them.. Put in the time and effort needed to build trust and rapport with clients and people you work with, and behave with consistency. Develop your emptional intelligence together with active listening skils. But don’t try too hard to be liked by others – people can always spot a phoney. Companies that use sales agents from within the community employ the liking principle extensively and with huge success.
We feel a sense of duty or obligation to people in positions of authority. This is why advertisers of pharmaceutical products employ doctors to front their campaigns, and why most of us will do most things that our manager requests.
Job titles, uniforms, and even accessories like cars or gadgets can lend an air of authority, and can persuade us to accept what these people say.
This principle says that things are more attractive when their availability is limited, or when we stand to lose the opportunity to acquire them on favorable terms.
For instance, we might buy something immediately if we’re told that it’s the last one, or that a special offer will soon expire.
Here you can use both your own authority, and the authority of others, as influencers.
When you use your own authority, be careful not to use it negatively. Our article onFrench and Raven’s Five Forms of Power has more on different sources of power, and explains how you can use power and authority positively.
To use authority, get support from influential and powerful people, and ask for their help in backing the idea. (Use Influence Maps to help you network with people who can help.)
If you’re marketing a product or service, highlight well-known and respected customers, use comments from industry experts, and talk about impressive research or statistics.
Things like well-produced brochures, professional presentations, impressive offices, and smart clothing can also lend authority.
With this principle, people need to know that they’re missing out if they don’t act quickly.
If you’re selling a product, limit the availability of stock, set a closing date for the offer, or create special editions of products.
This principle can be trickier to apply within your organization if you’re trying to influence others to support your ideas or projects. You can, however, use urgency to get support for your ideas. For example, you can highlight the possible urgent consequences of the problem that your idea helps to solve.
Remember that these are just six ways that you can influence others. Use these principles alongside other tools such as the Rhetorical Triangle, Monroe’s Motivated Sequence, Win-Win Negotiation, the Persuasion Tools Model, and the Minority Influence Strategy.
You can also use Stakeholder Analysis and Management to build support for your ideas and projects.
You can also use this tool when others are trying to influence you.
In these situations, bear the following points in mind:
Before accepting a free gift or a discounted service, or before agreeing to hear confidential information, ask yourself whether you’re going to feel obliged to give the same or more in return. Should you decline, so that you don’t feel indebted?
Before agreeing to a course of action, even at a very preliminary level, think about the consequences of your decision. Will you feel so invested in this new course of action that you won’t want to change your mind?
Though everyone else is pursuing a particular route or buying a product, it may not be right for you. Avoid falling victim to the “herd mentality.” You might decide that it’s best to go against the trend.
When you feel tempted to buy a product or sign up for a service, ask yourself whether you’ve fallen under the spell of a particularly likable salesperson. Is the salesperson similar to you, familiar to you, or extremely complimentary?
Carefully note your reaction to authority figures. Has the person you’re negotiating with triggered your respect for authority? Are you making your choice because you want to, or are you swayed by an “expert” opinion? And does this person genuinely have the authority he is implying, or is he merely using the symbols of that authority?
Before you fall for a sales pitch claiming that a product is running out of stock or that a discount deal is soon to expire, think again. Do you really want or need the product now, or has its lack of availability caught your attention?
The Six Principles of Influence were created by Robert Cialdini, and published in his 1984 book, “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.”
The principles are: reciprocity, commitment, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity.
You can use the six principles whenever you want to influence or persuade others. However, it’s also useful to use them with other tools. And, by knowing about the principles, you can become resistant to people who try to use them to manipulate you.
You also need to make sure that you don’t misuse these principles – avoid using them to deceive or mislead people, and make sure that you use them for people’s good, rather than to disadvantage them.
Theory Five – Patrick Jackson and others – the ‘people change ladder
Patrick Jackson was a public relations practitioner working in the US – he and others considered the steps communicators has to go though in order to effect behaviour change
Build awareness – eg publicity, advertising, face to face communications
Develop a latent readiness an inclination to make change during which opinions begin to form
Trigger a desire to change – via a natural or planned event
Utilise an intermediate behaviour during which an individual begins to investigate new behaviours
Changing behaviours and adopting the new behaviour
Theory Six – Mendelsohn’s Three Assumptions for Success
Mendelsohn (1973) believed campaigns often failed because campaign designers overpromised, assumed the public would automatically receive and enthusiastically accept their messages, and blanketed the public with messages not properly targeted and likely to be ignored or misinterpreted. His Three Assumptions are still a touchstone for communications planning
1.Target your messages
2. Assume your target public is uninterested in your messages.
3. Set reasonable, midrange goals and objectives.
Theory Seven – Hierarchy of effects theory of persuasion
This is a sequential representation of how advertising in particular influences a consumer’s decision to purchase – or not – a product or service. The hierarchy-of-effects theory is used to set up a structured series of message objectives with the aim of building on each successive step until the sale is achieved. Although this model is often used to plan advertising campaign it is a useful one to look at in relation to PR campaigns as often these too require a stepped approach. This thinking informs AMECs communications objectives funnel (see section on measurement and evaluation)
Step 1 Exposure. Some PR programmes get no further than this – just putting the message out. But just placing a message in an environment cannot guarantee it is seen or acknowledged.
Step 2 Attention Even paid-for placed advertising will fail if the audience is not paying attention. A PR message must be capable of attracting attention and cutting through the noise of daily life. Complex messages have to capture even higher levels of attention, especially with attention spans diminishing as they are. Creativity, presentation and encoding are key elements at this stage. Carefully selected culturally specific and acceptable multi-sensory PR and communications techniques, using symbols, colours and music, are used to grab people’s attention and wake them up.
Some aspects of attention are controlled by the potential receiver and some are involuntary responses to sensory cues. A sudden noise, for example, can get someone’s attention (essentially a human response mechanism to ensure quick responses to danger.) Conversely something amusing will draw attention because the receiver enjoys seeing it. Advertising practitioners may use physiological triggers – like fast cut video – to get and retain attention. But this is exhausting process requiring high levels of mental processing. So sometimes even though attention is gained, the desired message is lost in term sof being able to remember wht that was all about.
Step 3 Involvement/Engagement Although research indicates people pay attention to sudden changes in sounds or visual effects, it’s true too that they stop paying attention if a message seems irrelevant, uninteresting, or distasteful. Messages that are relevant keep people interested and make them primed to absorb the information. This is essentially saying that communications needs to answer the question ‘What’s in it for me?’ Once that is demonstrated, techniques like storytelling, examples and case histories and the use of novel content keeps the receiver engaged and interested.
Step 4 Comprehension Keeping the receiver’s attention does not ensure he or she will understand the message.
Step 5 Skill acquisition (learning how). Well-intentioned people may be unable to follow through on an idea if they lack the skills to do so. Potential voters without transportation to the polls will not vote; intended nonsmokers will not quit smoking without social support; interested restaurant patrons will not come if they cannot afford it; parents interested in a civic betterment program will not attend a meeting if they do not have child care. An effective campaign anticipates the target public’s needs to provide the help they require. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), for example, found, through a Burke Marketing survey, that many people had a passive attitude about fire, many believed they had much more time to escape than they really do, and only 16% had developed and practiced a home fire escape plan. As a result, NFPA’s 1998 Fire Safety Week promotion focused on teaching students about fire escape planning and practice, with incentives to encourage them to participate in a documented practice drill with their families. Although the Silver Anvil Award-winning campaign generated an enormous amount of publicity, the most dramatic result was that at least 25 lives were saved as a direct result of the families’ participation in the promotion.
Step6 Persuasion (attitude change). Although McGuire listed this step following skills acquisition, attitude change often precedes skill development. People who lack the skills to follow through on an idea may tune out the details, figuring it is not relevant for them. Attitude change is another of the necessary but often insufficient steps in the persuasion process. Sometimes, however, attitude change is all that is necessary, particularly if the goal of a campaign is to increase a public’s satisfaction with an organization in order to avoid negative consequences such as lawsuits, strikes, or boycotts. Usually, however, a campaign has an outcome behavior in mind. In that case, remember that people often have attitudes inconsistent with their behaviors. Many smokers believe smoking is a bad thing but still smoke. Many nonvoters say voting is important and they intend to vote, but they still fail to show up on election day.
Step 7 Storing the new position in memory emory storage. This step is important because people receive multiple messages from multiple sources all day, every day. For them to act on your message, they need to remember it when the appropriate time comes to buy a ticket, make a telephone call, fill out a form, or attend an event. They need to be able to store the important information about your message in their memory, which may not be easy if other messages received simultaneously demand their attention. Key elements of messages, therefore, need to be communicated in ways that make them stand out for easy memorization.
Step 8. Information retrieval. Simply storing information does not ensure that it will be retrieved at the appropriate time. People might remember your special event on the correct day but forget the location. Reminders or memory devices such as slogans, jingles, and refrigerator magnets can help.
Step 9. Motivation (decision). This is an important step that many campaign designers forget in their own enthusiasm for their campaign goals.Remember Mendelsohn’s (1973) admonition that people may not be interested in the campaign? They need reasons to follow through. The benefits need to outweigh the costs. In addition, the benefits must seem realistic and should be easily obtained. The more effort required on the part of the message recipients the less likely it is that they will make that effort. If the message recipients believe a proposed behavior is easy, will have major personal benefits, or is critically important, they are more likely to act. The challenge for the program planner is to discover what will motivate the target audience successfully, an issue addressed later in this chapter. Elgin DDB of Seattle, when asked to help reduce Puget Sound curbside disposal of grass clippings by 5%, realized motivation would be an important focus. Focus groups and phone surveys indicated that the target group, male homeowners aged 25 to 65, had an interest in grass-cycling but needed the proper tools to make it easy and practical. As a result, they arranged to recycle consumers’ old polluting gas mowers for free at a special event and sell Torro and Ryobi mulch mowers at below the normal retail price, with an additional rebate. With a goal of selling 3,000 mowers, they sold 5,000. They hoped to remove 1,500 gas mowers from the market and ended up recycling approximately 2,600. And, as for their original goal of reducing curbside disposal of grass clippings by 5%? They more than tripled the target amount, reducing grass clippings by 17%, winning a 1999 Silver Anvil Award.
10. Behavior. Success often is measured in terms of behaviors such as sales or attendance figures. Marketing experts, however, know that getting someone’s business once does not guarantee long-term success. One study (“Building Customer,” 1996) found that keeping customers loyal can boost profits up to 80%. As a result, the program planner needs to do everything possible to ensure that behavior attempts
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