Defining Strategic Communication notes the importance of organizations assessing current communication processes in order to make messages congruent on all levels when placing the weight of a word onto the action and practice of communication. Namely, the word “strategic” carries different meanings when applied to the practice of communication. The authors outline four communication emphases for interpreting such meaning—management, communication, meaning, and influence.
First, strategic practices often place an emphasis on “management functions” because they have historically been useful when making decisions—an emphasis concerned with the success of an organization as well as the efficiency of its leaders. Second, the “communication emphasis” focuses on the actual channels of communication at any given time. Within this construct, there are two major models of communication that are prominently used in discussions about strategic communication—the Transmission and Interactive Models. The Transmission Model portrays a one-way sending out of information to an audience and yields little feedback opportunities. This model was used until the late 20th century as the main communication practice in the “superior-subordinate” relationship. In contrast, the Interactive Model—most used by modern organizations—consists of two-way communication that allows for the mutual exchange of meanings between parties. Thus, the Interactive Model is an “action-reaction” type of communication process (21). Additionally, an “emphasis on meaning” describes the process of creating value in communication—that the outcome of two or more parties interacting creates meaning. These individuals explore different ways to exchange that meaning between the organization and the audience. Finally, an “emphasis on influence” holds that persuasion is the most important tool to use in communication with its main purpose being to produce a change in the attitude of the intended audience.
While scholars as well as professionals study strategic communication and operate with varying meanings of the discipline, many theories and models exist in order to better explain strategic communication and its relationship between symbols and meanings—with modern principles rooted in two-way communication. MIT Sloan Management Review’s Strategic Communication Imperative cites FedEx as a leader in diverse communication practices with a “multifaceted” strategic approach as a means of strengthening consumer loyalty and trust (84).
Defining Strategic Communication defines strategic communication as the “use of communication purposefully to advance and fulfill an organization’s mission.” The discipline of strategic communication is rooted in how organizations promote themselves. Organizations are forced into changing environments daily due to media merging and the blurring of communication genres. Because of this, it is vital for an organization to align their messages across all media. As the mass media crafts messages with instant impact on consumers, organizations must concentrate their efforts to be heard by audiences while understanding how these audiences may view them from multiple perspectives. An example of this process is the SPIN project—an organization helping companies develop strategic communication plans and utilizing strategic planning to increase efficiency and uphold organizational visions.
With an understanding of how organizations traditionally integrate strategic communication theories and practices, we can explore what Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff deem a major power shift between consumers and communicators—the “groundswell.”
After Kevin Rose created Digg.com—an innovative site where members vote and comment on news stories—he noticed a shift in the dynamic of organization-projected messages versus consumer-generated content (3). In May 2007, major media companies forced Rose to remove popular, shared user content from his open-forum style site which they felt promoted infringement on copyright protection. The story that sparked this debate was about a blogger that leaked an encryption code for a new high-definition DVD format (4). Digg.com was not responsible for promoting the alleged illegal activity and merely served its function as a space for consumers to populate their favorite content. Inevitably, Rose could not deny users what he considered their right to share content as they pleased and posted a response to the media companies citing it was their PR fiasco to handle and not his responsibility to police user interests. Essentially, Li and Bernoff note “people, by moving together on the Internet for a moment in time, had created an irresistible, ineradicable, groundswell” (6).
Since this 2007 incident, an overwhelming number of online user-promoted movements have forced organizations and businesses to reevaluate the communication practices they once deemed “strategic” (7). Groundswell makes the point that while sudden online trends may seem like a threat to the health of an organization—since it is easy for directed, negative opinions to gain viral popularity overnight—this power shift provides opportunities for communicators to learn and understand new strategic challenges (9). This introductory chapter focuses on the overarching phenomenon of the “fundamental change in behavior now happening online” (9). Li and Bernoff make this central concept relevant to our industry by framing that social technologies used to connect people can “now assume that masses of people are there to connect” (10). With majority of mass-media consumers “almost-always-connected,” technologies are no longer just a tool for communicators to value as a tactic, but rather a means to an interactive experience with audiences (11).
Groundswell solidifies these concepts in a very tactile way. Consumers have always had an opinion of certain brands—sometimes differing from the top-down, crafted image. The modern power shift is that by sharing these views via online, hyper-populated channels, audiences are literally redefining for themselves these brand identities. Corporations and organizations can no longer rely on pushing out carefully groomed messages without investing in the experiences of users (12). By mastering groundswell thinking, strategic communicators can actively participate in the conversation—not with the intent to censor or deter consumer interests, but to strengthen relationships while promoting innovative, mutually beneficial and user-supported choices (15).
Excerpt from Forrester’s Consumer Forum 2007. Research Vice President Charlene Li speaks about how audiences contribute to the Groundswell. October 11, 2007 in Chicago, IL. (web).