Your messages are designed to change attitudes and opinions, reinforce existing attitudes and opinions, and influence people to use a product (goods and services). At other times, the organisation’s objective is simply to create a two-way dialog between itself and its various publics.
To be an effective writer, you need to understand the basic elements of communication and the complex process of how individuals respond to different messages. In an age of information overload, writers must constantly analyze public attitudes and shape messages that cut through the clutter. How do you appeal to self-interests? Which spokesperson has the most credibility? What information is most salient to the target audience? What is the most effective communication channel? This chapter provides answers to these questions and discusses your responsibilities as a persuader.
The Basics of Communication
To be successful, a message must be received by the intended individual or audience. It must get the audience’s attention. It must be understood. It must be believed. It must be remembered. And ultimately, in some fashion, it must be acted upon. Failure to accomplish any of these tasks means the entire message fails.
To communicate is to make known—to project ideas into the minds of others. This process depends on four elements: a sender, a message, a medium, and a receiver. If all these elements are present, there will be communication. If anyone is missing or not operating, there will be no communication. Since your purpose is to persuade, you want to communicate your ideas to a particular group of people—those who can help or hinder your organisation in attaining its objectives. In describing the process of communication, the four elements usually start with the sender, but it may be better to think of the process in reverse order:
The receivers are the people you must reach. In public relations, potential or actual audiences are commonly referred to as publics. A public can be defined in many ways. For marketing purposes, a public is often defined as a market segment—a group of people who have comparable demographic (income, age, education, etc.) characteristics that will cause them to respond to messages in a similar way. A public also can be defined as natural groupings of elected officials, customers, stock-holders, or employees. At times, geography defines a particular public—citizens of a town or voters in an area.
You will also hear the word stakeholder mentioned in relation to publics. Stake-holders, by definition, are groups of people who can be affected by the actions of an organisation. The obvious example is the organisation’s employees, but the list can become quite long when you consider the fact that many “publics” can be affected—consumers, neighbors, suppliers, environmental groups, investors, just to name a few.
Thus, it is extremely important always to think of publics in the plural instead of as a collective entity called “the general public.” By defining publics by income, age, gender, geography, and even psychographic characteristics, you are much better prepared to design message strategies that are more targeted and relevant to each public or audience. In sum, the more you can segment your publics and under-stand their characteristics, the better you can communicate with them.
As business becomes more global, there is also a growing need to understand the attitudes, customs, and cultures of people in other nations. Poor conceptualization of messages can cause a number of gaffs when one does not understand the language and culture of a nation – or group
The media are the physical and electronic channels that carry the message to the receiver. They may include newspapers, magazines, radio, television, letters, speeches, audiovisuals, pictures, newsletters, leaflets, brochures, and the World Wide Web. Every medium has advantages and disadvantages.
Your job is to determine which medium or combination of media will be most effective in reaching a selected public. If you are trying to reach “female college students”, it is important to know that there is a vast difference between the readers and viewers of different media
It is also important to know the message format that each media requires. Television, for example, requires highly visual material and short sound-bites. Home pages on web pages often require strong graphics and interactive mechanisms. A news story requires a strong headline and lead paragraph that attracts the reader.
Planning the message starts with a determination of exactly what key messages you want your receivers to receive, and what you want them to think, believe, or do. Then you must acquire a solid knowledge of what your audience currently knows and believes. If you want to affect attitudes and opinions, you must find out about those that already exist. This calls for research.
Your message must be applicable, believable, realistic, and convincing. It must be expressed clearly and understandably in familiar words and phrases. Above all, you must convince the receivers that the idea you are presenting is beneficial to them.
The sender is the organisation from which the message comes. Every organisation has different publics, divergent interests, dissimilar objectives, unique problems, distinctive beliefs and peculiarities. As a writer, you must know the organisation’s objectives so that the messages you prepare will advance these objectives.
Theories of Communication
A message may move from the sender through the media to the receiver without necessarily conveying ideas and getting them accepted. Yet ideas do get accepted, and there are several theories about how this is accomplished. Space does not allow a full discussion of each theory, but here is a brief summary of the major theories that are most salient to public relations writers.
Two-Step Flow Theory
The flow of communication might be described as a series of expanding contacts. It assumes that opinion leaders first pay attention to messages in the media, analyze them, interpret them, and then pass on the information to their friends and associates.
There are formal opinion leaders, such as an elected official or the president of a company, but there are also informal opinion leaders. All of us rely on various people for information and guidance because we believe they are knowledgeable about a particular subject, whether it be cricket or how to get a file transferred on a tablet.
Later research has shown that the two-step flow theory is really a multistep model—communication going from opinion leaders to an attentive public and ultimately to an inattentive public. However, the basic idea about the role of opinion leaders in communication remains intact. High-technology companies, for example, often design their marketing strategy to first reach respected journalists and experts who really know the industry. They are the opinion leaders who will ultimately tell the public whether the product is any good. A later section discusses adoption theory.
Media Uses and Gratification
Recipients of communication are not passive couch potatoes. The basic premise of uses and gratification theory is that the communication process is interactive. The communicator wants to inform and, ultimately, motivate people to act on the information. Recipients want to be entertained, informed, or alerted to opportunities that can fulfill their needs.
Thus, people make highly intelligent choices about what messages require their attention and meet their needs. That is why people are very selective about what articles they will read in the local daily. The role of the public relations writer, then, is to tailor messages that are meaningful to the audience. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which will be discussed shortly, relates to the basic needs of individuals.
People will not believe a message, or act on it, if it is contrary to their predispositions. A public relations writer must, in this instance, introduce information that causes them to question their beliefs.
This can be done in several ways. First, you can introduce information that says it is okay to change; perhaps the situation has changed because of new discoveries, and so on. Second, you can use sources or testimonials from people the audience trusts.
One theory postulates that the mass media have limited effects. The media may set the agenda in terms of what people think about, but they have limited influence in telling people what to think.
There is also the theory of moderate and powerful media effects. This theory postulates that the media are influential in shaping public opinion when (1) the public has little or no opinion on a subject, (2) the subject is non-ego threatening, and (3) the reader or viewer has no firsthand knowledge of the event or situation. In a highly urbanised and global society, the public is increasingly dependent on the media for information. Because of this, framing theory becomes more relevant.
The term “framing” was historically applied to journalists and editors and how they selected certain facts, themes, treatments, and even words to “frame” a story that would generate maximum interest and understanding among readers and viewers. For example, how media frame the debate over health care and the policies of health maintenance organisations (HMOs) plays a major role in public perceptions of the problem. Many people, because they lack specific knowledge and experience about an issue, usually accept the media’s version of reality.
Framing theory also applies to public relations because, according to more than one study, about half of the content found in the mass media today is supplied by public relations sources. Public relations personnel are essentially frame strategists because they construct messages that “focus selectively on key attributes and characteristics of a cause, candidate, product, or service.” This framing, in turn, is echoed in the context and content of stories that the mass media disseminate.
The introduction of the Apple iMac is a good example. The strategy of Apple’s public relations firm, Daniel Edelman Worldwide, was to frame the story in the context of Apple’s return to prosperity after several years of massive losses, turmoil in the executive suite, and erosion of customer loyalty. The framing of the new iMac, called product positioning in marketing, was a success as newspapers used head-lines such as “Apple Regains Its Stride” and “Apple’s Back on Track.” Investor and consumer confidence in the company was restored, and sales of iMacs soared as well.
Diffusion and Adoption
The diffusion theory was developed in the 1930s and expanded on by Professor Everett Rogers of Stanford University. It holds that there are five steps in the process of acquiring new ideas:
Awareness—the person discovers the idea or product.
Interest—the person tries to get more information.
Trial—the person tries the idea on others or samples the product.
Evaluation—the person decides whether the idea works for his or her own self-interest.
Adoption—the person incorporates the idea into his or her opinion or begins to use the product.
(I would add Post Purchase Evaluation – the process doesn’t end with the sale)
In this model, the writer is most influential at the awareness and interest stages of the process. People often become aware of a product, service, or idea through traditional mass outlets such as newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. Indeed, the primary purpose of advertising in the mass media is to create awareness, the first step in moving people toward the purchase of a product or sup-port of an idea.
At the interest stage, people seek more detailed information from such sources as pamphlets, brochures, direct mail, videotape presentations, meetings, and symposia. That is why initial publicity to create awareness often includes a free telephone number or an email address that people can use to request more information.
Family, peers and associates become influential in the trial and evaluation stages of the adoption model. Mass media, at this point, serves primarily to reinforce messages and predispositions.
It is important to realise that a person does not necessarily go through all five stages of adoption with any given idea or product. A number of factors affect the adoption process.
There are at least five.
Relative advantage—is the idea better than the one it replaces?
Compatibility – is the idea consistent with the person’s existing values and needs?
Complexity – is the innovation difficult to understand and use?
Trialability – can the innovation be used on a trial basis?
Observability—are the results of the innovation visible to others?
You should be aware of these factors and try to overcome as many of them as possible. Repeating a message in various ways, reducing its complexity, taking competing messages into account, and structuring the message to the needs of the audience are ways to do this.
The hierarchy-of-needs theory has been applied in a number of disciplines, including communication. It is based on the work of Abraham H. Maslow, who listed basic human needs on a scale from basic survival to more complex ones:
Physiological needs. These involve self-preservation. They include air, water, food, clothing, shelter, rest, and health—the minimum necessities of life.
Safety needs. These comprise protection against danger, loss of life or property, restriction of activity, and loss of freedom.
Social needs. These include acceptance by others, belonging to groups, and enjoying both friendship and love.
Ego needs. These include self-esteem, self-confidence, accomplishment, status, recognition, appreciation, and the respect of others.
Self-fulfillment needs. These represent the need to grow to one’s full stature—simply as a human being or in terms of some special talent, gift, or interest.