Theoretically speaking

Updated: Apr 28

On today's Whiteboard, we are going to think deep thoughts. Theoretically speaking.

During our last class, we examined more than two dozen communication theories that have been developed over the past century plus, looking for linkages between communications and business outcomes.

Existing theories fell roughly evenly into three buckets. Framing and Cognitive Dissonance theories, for example, center on crafting messages. Media Uses and Gratifications and Selective Processes theories address the use of channels to communicate those messages. Perhaps the most famous of all, Agenda-Setting theory, seeks to explain the influence of messages driven through the press.

In terms of aligning communication outcomes to business outcomes, though, virtually all of these PR theories fall short. Many were developed decades ago, and widespread disruption of the digital media has rendered most of the older theories obsolete. Some of the theories conflated correlation and causation. In practice, many of the leading theories have been stretched well beyond their academic framework.

Only one theory in our review contemplates the role of communications in business. Relationship Management theory posits that public relations balances the interests of organizations and publics. PR "maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and the publics on whom its success or failure depends."

Aside from that somewhat aspirational lean, there are a few practical problems here:

  • For decades, PR has admittedly struggled to gain a "seat at the table" and a voice in corporate strategy. That would seem to marginalize the ability to manage relationships effectively.

  • To a great extent, PR lacks control over the news media, the critical mass media conduit for communications that reach and influence customers at scale.

  • And finally, most companies would assign customer relationships to a customer-service function, not PR.

Still, there is face validity in the alignment of communications and business outcomes. Relationships -- with customers, donors, voters -- are an organization's reason for being. Those relationships, so the theory goes, are built and sustained not only through communication, but also "organizational and public behaviors."

There it is. Read between the lines. While PR for decades has focused on media influence, business communication is rooted in customer experience. People experience brands and companies directly -- shopping online, buying products and dealing with customer service, for example -- but also indirectly, through information communicated to them by trusted sources. Friends, co-workers. Bloggers. The press.

Now we have something to work with. Building on this theoretical foundation, we can create a framework positioning communication as an external variable shaping customer experiences, and ultimately influencing business outcomes.

What might this more strategic business communication framework look like?Theoretically speaking, here's a 30,000-foot view. Full disclosure. This framework is a non-peer-reviewed, n=1 perspective. But this is a blog after all, so here goes.

To align communication to business -- to put theory into practice -- we could plot communication outcomes against business outcomes.

Communication outcomes are on the vertical axis in the chart above. At its core, communicators crafts messages. Those messages in turn are driven through channels, which could include news and paid media, but more recently also incorporate owned digital channels, with a nod to word-of-mouth conversations in social media.

Ultimately, some of the messages -- but not all -- reach and potentially influence people's perspectives. That leaves us with a familiar communication outcome. Influence.

Another way to look at this dynamic, through the lens of Relationship Management theory, is that people who read news or talk with a friend or come across a blog are experiencing a company, brand or product indirectly. If we look at it that way, the ultimate outcome of communication involves experiencing a brand, product or company. Communication = experience.

Back to the chart. In the same way, we can plot business outcomes on the horizontal axis. Operations represent the most basic things companies do -- develop products and services, hire employees, open their doors for business. Go-to-market acknowledges the competitive aspects of business, and all of the "organizational and public behaviors" that influence perceptions. Performance is measured in sales, market share, earnings -- in business terms, these are the key performance indicators.

So where does that leave us? A theory is just a theory until it is put into practice. Plotting communication outcomes against business outcomes yields a framework for aligning communications to business. And it provides business communicators with a practical trajectory for elevating their role:

  • Functional communications: Issuing press releases, managing internal communication, posting "owned" media content, integrating with paid. Reactive.

  • Tactical communications: Generating "earned" media, aligning communication tactics to business strategy; identifying headline risk. Proactive.

  • Strategic communications: Supporting sales, market share, stock price; managing headline risk. Value-driven.

If you take one thing away from this blog, it should be this. Business communication is rooted in customer experience. Not influence. Customer experience.

Theoretically speaking.

Keep that in mind as we forge ahead.

Back to the Whiteboard.

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