From The Ivory Tower to Main Street: How Communication Theory Plays Out in the Real World

Introducing companies A and B….

Scenario A: A small businesscreates an expensive advertising campaign to sell a brand of tennis shoe. Company A invests a whole bunch of money in print and online ads, in addition to holding a series of events (nightlife) around town to introduce these shoes.

Results: Company A makes enough money to break even that year.

Scenario B: Another small business in the same small town, yes, is selling similar tennis shoes. Like in Scenario A, Company B invests money into a campaign that would advertise their products in online and print ads. Unlike Company A, though, this company actually does their research on their target population. Then, it sets up a booth at high school athletic events, in addition to holding athletic events around town focused on young people in which the shoes’ are promoted.

Results: Company B makes over a million dollars in just the first year AND lands one of its first major endorsement deals with a former gold medal Olympian!

MORE IMPORTANTLY, the company has the opportunity to place the shoe in a high traffic area—a shoe store that sits on a highly visible boardwalk of some seaside, touristy town.

…The difference in the two scenarios—Company B has a basic understanding of communications theory.

Why is communication theory of import to real world public relations?

Like most theories in academia, communication theory simply explains the way a phenomena is manifested in our everyday living, in this case communications among populations. More significantly, these theories help professionals look for and establish patterns in behavior for a number of purposes.

Also, the role of communication theory in public relations is to explain not only the way in which businesses relate to their publics but to also explain how, and if, these publics have been persuaded. Furthermore, communications theory pretty much can help public relations professionals better serve their publics by establishing proactive steps or campaigns of persuasion.

And what does communications theory say?

Communications theory encompasses some of the most popular modes of thought in public relations.

  • Information Processing Model basically explains communication as series of actions in which the message is sent from a source through a channel to a receiver. In layman’s terms, the relationship is one-way where information is disseminated to the public from the business but there is little interaction between the two.
  • The Domino and the Hierarchy of Effects Models explain communication between sender and recipient as a series of stages comprising of recipient awareness, comprehension, conviction and action. The public is made aware of an issue, and if interested, feels compelled to understand the issue. From there, the public takes a stand.
  • Theory of Cognitive Dissonance basically says that attitudes that differ from those of a public CAN BE changed, but the likelihood is that publics accept messages and attitudes that are similar to their own.
  • The Hedging and Wedging Theory says that most people when faced with a viewpoint that is opposite of their own will hedge. This typically occurs when the individual is faced with multiple conflicting views.

Probably, the most popular communication model, though, was created by….

  • Jim Grunig and Todd Hunt developed a four-pronged model explaining communications in terms of four types of public relationships.
  • Press agency model relies on a one-way relationship where propaganda is disseminated to the public.
  • Public information model also relies on a one-way relationship, but it focuses on disseminating the truth.
  • Two-way asymmetrical model relies on a two-way relationship but focuses on getting the public to change its attitude. More importantly, this model relies on using research to understand the public’s attitude.
  • Two-way symmetrical model also relies on a two-way relationship where research is used to change attitudes but an open dialogue is established between the organization and the public.

…So,how does communications theory apply to public relations?

Well, because one of the foundations of public relations is to develop relationships with publics, communications theory explains the various types of relationships that organizations might have with their publics all for the purpose of helping organizations inform, persuade and build relationships between or among populations to achieve a given goal.


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