Friday, November 7, 2008

Moving Toward Two-Way Communication

For those of you who don't know, I have been in communications more than 30 years, and doing research to support communications planning and evaluation for more than 20 years. It recently occurred to me that through my time in this field, we've seen a major shift in the communications model.

One- or Two-Way Communication
When I started, we would hear about two-way communications models at universities and in seminars, but in most corporate and not-for-profit organizations, corporate and communications managers talked about sending out their messages -- pushing what they wanted to say one way.

In the academic and seminar settings, presenters described communications as understanding the business goals of the organization, but also doing research with target audiences to understand how they felt about the potential topics of communication. Part of your supposed job as a communications professional was border spanning. You were supposed to bring information from outside into the organization. You were supposed to help be the voice of the external target audience inside the organization. (I use the words "target audience" rather than stakeholder, because this, too, is indicative of the way communications were thirty years ago.)

Cost Gets in the Way
In those days, one of the challenges to the two-way communication model was the expense of finding out about target audiences. Relatively speaking, focus groups were no more expensive than they are today, but most surveys cost much more then. Surveys were conducted through face-to-face, telephone or mail interviews.

The least expensive way to do a survey usually was by mail, assuming you had mailing addresses for your target audience. However, you might have to wait a month or more for the responses to come back, and to remind people to respond, you needed to mail out additional questionnaires. Telephone surveying was quicker, but more expensive, and required the phone numbers of your target audience. And in those days, not everyone had a telephone, so that could skew your sample. Face-to-face interviews took the longest time and the most money, and, again you had to have the addresses.

Once you had the questionnaires filled out, someone had to code and tabulate the data. This meant entering all the responses adding them up and making tables out of them. Before computers, this was a very time consuming and laborious process. Moreover, until we could store data in computers, manipulating the data was virtually impossible. You had to lay out your tables (rows and columns) ahead of time. If you wanted to change the way you looked at the data (your tables) later, there was a significant additional charge.

Now, Cost Less an Issue
Today, we do most surveys on line and the data tabulates as it comes in. We can manipulate the data with a few key strokes. So most survey research is much less expensive than it used to be, and cost is less an issue.

In addition, there are numerous companies that maintain panels of respondents that enable researchers to reach
audiences that formerly were very challenging. (Not long ago, I did a survey of men suffering from a condition that affects less than one-half of one percent of men. Using a panel, we were able to find more than 350 qualified respondents.)

Management Attitudes
Cost was only one of the issues. The other major issue, in my experience, was senior communications and corporate managers frequently did not believe they needed research to communicate effectively with target audiences or to achieve their business goals. So, even if they had the money, they frequently did not do research. And frequently, even if you had input regarding target audience perceptions and understanding of germane issues, managers didn't want to hear them. They preferred to stick with their own beliefs.

They worked in organizations that had a great deal of control over the information that became public. It was very difficult for interested individuals -- media, business analysts, and even shareholders -- to look into the operations and activities of the organizations. They were not very transparent.

As a result, these managers were less interested in being in tune with the stakeholders on whom they depended for capital, labor, resources and permission to operate than organizations are forced to be today. As a result, they were not nearly as worried about actually doing all the things they said they were doing and acting in the way they said they were acting (being authentic). That is, they felt that if they made a mistake, they could most likely hide it, communicate positively (even if "bending" the truth) about what had happened and get away with it.

And, unfortunately, many times they did.

Today, that seems a long time ago. As we all know, computers, multiple television channels, the Internet, digital radio and social media have completely transformed the world in which business is done. Virtually all organizations, even those privately held, are more transparent today than in the past, and this is forcing them to be authentic as well.

Management Attitudes Have Changed
Managers understand this. More seem to understand the importance of the reputation of their organizations and that reputation is something that resides in the minds of their stakeholders. They recognize they need to have two-way conversations with their stakeholders. And now they are "stakeholders," not "target audiences."

New Ways to Listen to Stakeholders
And now we have ways to learn what some of our stakeholders are thinking without spending any more money than it takes to listen. Stakeholders talk about companies, issues they care about and their wants and needs in social media, such as blogs, Facebook, Myspace, etc.

After an IABC presentation on inter-generational communication in the workplace, I spoke with Eric Hansen, Specialist, New Media and Social Technology, Dulye & Co. Another of his titles is Adjunct Professor,
School of Information Studies, Syracuse University. Eric impressed me as having a solid understanding of where social media and communications technology are going and what these changes are making possible.

I was hypothesizing that social media could enhance two-way communication between organizations and their stakeholders, if we could somehow gather and analyze all the information stakeholders themselves were making available through social media. But I was having trouble figuring out how this might work.

Eric suggested the trick to using social media this way would be to go on the Internet where stakeholders go and listen to what they are saying. He said the mistake most organizations make is they try to create some kind of social media vehicle and herd stakeholders toward it. According to Eric, this rarely works. Instead, researchers trying to understand how stakeholders feel about issues that are common to both stakeholders and organizations should go where stakeholders talk about these issues. And then listen.

I like the idea of listening.

This approach reminds me of the research cultural anthropologists do. But, instead of visiting a village in New Guinea and observing how the inhabitants relate to each other and otherwise live their lives, we would be going to villages in what might be the remote reaches of MySpace and the Blogosphere.

Much Less than a Panacea
Certainly, listening in on public Internet conversations is no replacement for formal research. The people who express themselves on the Internet are not a representative sample of any specific stakeholder group. However, there is a good chance that those speaking out on the Internet influence the group as a whole.

So, why not start listening and trying to make sense of what we hear?

Work in Process
I just started thinking about this a few weeks ago and would very much like to hear any ideas or experiences you might have with gathering information on groups of people using social media.

If you are receiving this through my e-Zine mailing list, you can reply or make comments on my blog (, where this article also is published.

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I work with organizations that are going through a change in strategic direction (merger, acquisition, building program, new product launch, change program) and are concerned about what will happen with their relationships with key stakeholders (customers, employees, investors) if they send out confusing or conflicting messages. After working with me, they have a clear understanding of what their message strategy should be. They also have recommendations on other actions they can take to enhance their relationships with stakeholders.

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The Institute for Public Relations (IPR) is dedicated to the “science beneath the art” of PR. It focuses on PR research and education. If you are interested in the topics I write about, you will almost certainly be interested in IPR. You can find it at While you’re there, check out the Essential Knowledge Project at

Best wishes,


Forrest W. Anderson

Founding Member

Institute for Public Relations

Commission on PR Measurement and Evaluation


Unknown said...

Forrest - I thought your article was excellent. You have a great way of simplifying concepts, and making good logic out of the flow. I’ve enjoyed some of the other papers, too, as time has allowed.

Of course, measurement tools abound for ‘listening.’ The ones who seem to do it well are firms like Radian6 and others who are solely devoted to the task. The problem, though, is that listening to millions of conversations takes a lot of time. How to ferret out what matters is the holy grail!

Anyway, great job! I enjoy your work!

Anonymous said...

Forrest -

The tools are certainly out there, but there still remains a significant bias in corporate life against research-based communication. The first question asked is "what will we get out of this research?" The question should be "what is our objective?" but frequently the idea of really listening isn't seen as a valuable objective. We still have a long way to go -- the thinking is still too one-way and too control-oriented in way too many institutions.

But, you are right on the money here!

Sean Williams

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your comment!


I'm glad to see I'm not the only one that perceives a bias in management against research-based communication. I do believe it is getting better, but I believe part of that has to do with the reduction in cost. Lots of moving parts out there.