Monday, February 1, 2010
Based upon your supplemental readings and your past experience, identify the major themes in the historical development of the field of strategic communication. In other words, why does the field of strategic communication exist?
If we define strategic communication as communication designed to purposefully advance a specific mission, then organizations, corporations, and individuals have always communicated strategically. However, academic study and exploration of the field have been relatively recent. Theoretical focus has instead been on narrower uses of communication within an organization, such as advertising, public relations, and marketing.
By analyzing the roots of these traditional fields, we can better understand the development and uses of strategic communications. Based on our readings, I believe the rise of strategic communications as a defined field is based on three main trends.
Technology has progressed so fast and so far in the past two decades that the communications field has been entirely restructured. These advances have made it difficult to define communication channels and tasks by traditional titles - advertising, marketing, public relations. Communicating organizational goals to an increasingly fragmented media requires a broader study of communications, based on the end goal of the corporation rather than individual departments. Messages - no matter the channel - must be deliberate, focused, and coordinated. However, the increasing speed of these media channels means that real-time responses are required. In order to coordinate the speed and size of information, communications must be managed on a holistic and strategic level.
In today’s market, increased importance is placed on transparency, interactivity, and the customer experience, rather than one-way information transmittal. Customers demand a relationship with organizations, which is by nature more communication-intensive. This requires that management takes a more central role in developing communications to ensure consistency and high level strategic content. Managers can no longer delegate a one-off press release to a lower level employee and be done with it, nor can they rely on hyperbole and advertising to get their point across. Instead, they must actively manage a high level communications strategy based on honesty and openness. Sophisticated media consumers demand truth, and corporate reputations are increasingly based on this type of consumer goodwill.
The public audience/consumer market is also increasingly segmented, specialized, and global. A high level of expertise is required to adequately address the needs of these audiences, and strategic coordination is essential.
While this trend seems to be more prevalent in today’s technological market, it actually began in the 1920s as journalists exposed the hidden workings of many industries. This era saw the emergence of the first public relations experts, including Arthur W. Page, who stated that management must thoughtfully analyze its overall relation to the public in order to engender public goodwill. Despite economic and business changes, this statement holds true today as consumers continue to hold high expectations of organizations.
As organizations grow, they tend to become more standardized, but often only within individual departments and functions. Communication between departments becomes difficult as organization charts become more complex, and organizational communications can suffer as a result. Because of this fragmentation, there has been a push to integrate interdepartmental communications at a more holistic strategic level.
Experts have suggested a number of structural changes to alleviate this tension, with the essential goal of making communications a function in and of itself, and not a division of other functions.
By allowing communications professionals to operate in different functional units, but under a centralized strategic command, allows even the largest organizations to standardize its message. However, the potential disadvantage of a centralized communications department is the loss of specific functional knowledge, which can be particularly important in a corporate setting. For example, technical communications must be done with an in-depth knowledge of the product/technology, not simply by a communications expert. This challenge of balancing product knowledge with communications expertise is an increasingly important area in the strategic communication field.
It’s particularly interesting to analyze the roots of strategic communications - the field of study is relatively young, yet the practice is as old as communication itself. It’s my belief that these three areas of discussion (technology, sophisticated consumers, and corporation size) give us a starting point for the analysis. However, the true roots of the field will most likely not be identified until many years later, when the field has better established itself and we can track trends over time.
In response to the technological shift of the Internet, an organization's identity may differ in a physical space (in real life - IRL) from its online identity. What implications does this difference have for strategic communication?
And second, strategic communicators should play a strong role in leading online communication. How would you advise an organization trying to strike a balance between the benefits of online communication and the hindrances provided in online communication?
One of the major issues facing organizations today is how to communicate their strategic mission in a consistent manner across a variety of channels. There are a number of organizations whose identities are highly linked to their brink-and-mortar presences, while others are more flexible and translate easily to the online world. Others are simply reluctant to create and develop an online identity for fear of losing control.
Traditional retail stores may have made the easiest transition, as most are able to present a consistent message in both mediums. In fact, many successful retailers have promoted both outlets through special offers that differ between the channels.
For example, I received a JCrew catalog in the mail today and really liked a pretty ring on one of the models. I looked for pricing and details in the catalog, but was directed to the website instead. Apparently, some colors are only available online and some in the stores. In this way, the company promotes consistency of message (cute rings!) across several channels. The company’s variety of options is not accidental; instead, they clearly have a sophisticated understanding of consumer needs and corresponding communication solutions. We don’t normally think of a clothing store as being a strategic communicator, but I believe these companies are at the forefront.
One of the major reasons that retailers have succeeded online is due to their ability to track their communications via subsequent transactions. Other industries do not necessarily have this ability, since they are not promoting online sales. On the contrary, most organizations with an online presence are promoting their strategic message and building relationships with the consumer market - by nature, a significantly harder goal to accomplish than selling a specific ring.
These organizations might be tempted to dedicate scant resources towards their online identity, thinking it’s only a secondary part of their overall image. However, this would be a mistake. An online presence has become a necessary part of a corporation’s strategic communications, even if it’s somewhat static. Again, a corporation must include this media as yet another channel under the strategy umbrella - for the simple reason that consumers expect this presence. Secondarily, an online presence provides a corporation with the ability to react in real-time to any crisis or strategic changes.
Other organizations are hesitant to enter the online world for a number of reasons, primarily fear. Many organizations are unwilling to find out what their consumers are saying about them. These companies see the web as separate from the real world, and consequently dismiss any negative online comments as “disgruntled, pajama-wearing bloggers”. What these companies don’t realize is that online discussions mirror discussions in the real world, and by dismissing them, they are missing out on a valuable window into their consumers.
So what’s a company to do? In my opinion, they should look at their web-based presence as simply another channel for their strategic message - not as something novel or cutting-edge. By considering their online presence as nothing more than an extension of its real-world presence, an organization is able to better translate their existing communications without getting caught up in semantics and trepidation.
And to follow-up, let's get personal: Based on your experience tonight, what do you see as the major issues for communicating online (vs. having us together in class)? How can these issues be resolved through a more "strategic" communication?
Personally, this is a definitively more difficult way to analyze the material. I thrive on in-person discussions, as they are (by nature) real-time and constantly changing. However, I also realize that speaking up in class is difficult for some. Class discussions are always going to feature the opinions of a few outspoken individuals, and miss out on the contributions of others.
Meeting in person provides the following benefits:
- In-person communications allow for the analysis of non-verbal communication
- Participants are forced to defend their opinions on the spot, leading to innovative responses
- Online energy is much more passive and disconnected
- Real-time correction from the professor allows for more focused discussion
Online communications have the following benefits:
- Equal opportunity opinion sharing
- In-depth analysis of ideas
- Distancing of opinions from personalities, allowing for more objective responses
- Presentation of evidence supporting points
- Pajama wearing (no, seriously - I suppose this makes people more comfortable and more willing to contribute)
I suppose this comes down to personal preference, as neither method offers a clear-cut objective victory. Again, I prefer the Socratic method of learning, which by nature requires an active discussion leader. Perhaps I’m demonstrating a bias towards authority, but I believe a professor is an essential part of any theoretical discussion. If we, as graduate students, had all the correct answers, then we wouldn’t be in this course.
The question remains - how do we communicate effectively in an online learning environment? I have to imagine that this type of learning environment will only become more prevalent as social mores regarding online media change. How do we keep the discussion from treating incorrect answers with equal importance as more correct interpretations? Perhaps, instead of essays, the participation in an online chat or forum would allow for a more guided - yet still democratic - approach to online class. This would certainly be more in line with the goals of strategic communication. We would be advancing our mission (education) in a holistic and guided manner, while maintaining a consistent message through professorial supervision.