Communication Theory Base


A commanding understanding of communication involves a theory base that informs us about how communication operates in both personal and organizational settings and, more usefully, what journalists, advertisers, media producers, and public relations practitioners can learn from these theories.   

Don’t be afraid of the idea of communication theory. It simply is the field of study that tries to make sense of how people communicate, in part by explaining the effects of mass communication and to suggest ways to use the media effectively. It may deal with interpersonal communication, involving how individual people as well as groups and organizations use both words and nonverbal forms of communication. It also gives insight into how culture and social context support or interfere with effective communication.


Communication theory also involves the role of media in its various forms: advertising, broadcast, digital, print, recordings and social media.

One broad-based way of looking at communication theory is to see the evolution of research and the conclusions drawn from this. Since communication research began in earnest in the mid-20th century, the studies have yielded three successive paradigms about how the media affect audiences. Together they are called media effects models.

Growing from stimulus-response research (remember Pavlov and his slobbering dogs?), early research suggested that the media have direct, immediate and powerful effects on their audiences. It was called the powerful-effects model, and metaphors of this model as the hypodermic needle theory and the magic bullet theory reflected the concern of the 1940s and ‘50s about Hitler’s successful use of the media during the Holocaust and World War II and continuing propaganda surrounding the Cold War. The idea was that, if media generate irresistible messages to influence people to do bad things, could they also employ messages and symbols that would induce people for socially positive outcomes.


In either situation, people were seen as pawns to be moved around, incapable of resisting the powerful effects of the media. But the powerful-effects model had many flaws, not the least of which was that it didn’t prove out. Research shows that the media simply do not consistently and single-handedly exert a strong impact on audiences.

Researchers then shifted their attention to a paradigm of a limited-effects model in which the media were seen as being rather impotent in affecting people’s attitudes, opinions and behaviors. Many people simply do not believe information they obtain through the media. More important is the influence of family, friends and respected experts and their own psychological reinterpretation of media messages.


But this limited-effects model also has flaws in that it doesn’t explain the observations that, in many situations, media do seem to play a significant role in what people think, say and do.


More recently, the topic has re-centered on a moderate-effects model. This model acknowledges that, over time, the media have a cumulative effect on people. Many studies have focused on violence, social tolerance, and sexual issues as they are depicted by the media. While no single media message exerts a powerful-enough to control audiences, they do seem to be instrumental over time in affecting audiences on issues such as sex and violence and on topics such as social tolerance and acceptance of racial minorities, gay people, and people of various religions affiliations and ethnic backgrounds in participating in society.

Through each of the paradigm models and the many theories associated with them, it has become clear to communication researchers that people are so wonderfully complex that it is difficult to predict how they will be impacted by media. What works for one audience may be counterproductive for another.

Among the many variables that shape how the media will affect people are sex, age, educational achievement, self esteem, media-use habits, group involvement, and their own sense of identity as its relates to culture, religion, lifestyle, ethnicity and race.


Here are some selected examples of public relations theories and other communication models (presented alphabetically) that can be practical application in various communication fields.


Accounts. Using communication to manage relationships in the wake of rebuke or criticism is the focus of the theory of accounts associated with Michael Cody and Margaret McLaughlin. An account is the language (verbal and nonverbal) that explains why a person or organization took a particular action. It is a narrative that is particularly important in public relations crisis situations and is useful in conflict resolution, whether interpersonal or organizational.


Agenda Setting. The agenda-setting model deals with the influence of the media, particularly the news media, and their ability to tell audiences what issues are important. Researchers Max McCombs and Donald Shaw developed the notion is that the media don’t tell us what to think but rather tell us what to think about. The issue has been studied in many contexts, most often in relation to government and voting. Two assumptions are that the news media do not reflect society but instead help shape it by raising up certain issues as being important. A criticism of this is the herd mentality of the media, whereby a newspaper or TV network feels compelled to report on something just because its competitors are focusing on the same topic. And by concentrating reporting on a topic, the public is left to think that the issue really is important because coverage seems to be everywhere. 


Apologia. Keith Hearit presents an apologia approach in terms of crisis management. An apologia is a formal defense of an organization’s actions (not to be confused with an apology). Hearit outlines a three-fold approach to persuasive accounts that offer an explanation, and if necessary a defense; statements of regret; and disassociation tactics to distance the organization from the problem. Some of apologia concepts are incorporated in the Public Relations Planning section of this book in Step 5, which suggests various way organizations can deal both proactively and reactively.


Consistency. Several related theories focus on the consistency of information and how people process messages. Balance theory, articulated by psychologist Fritz Heider, observes that unbalanced mental stances create tension and force an individual to try to restore balance. Charles Osgood and Percy Tannenbaum’s congruity theory added some measurement in attitude. The lesson of these consistency theories for public relations practitioners is that attitude change can be stimulated by information that cause to people to realize that two attitudes are in conflict.


Cognitive Dissonance. Drawn from social psychology, cognitive dissonance introduced by Leon Festinger deals with the psychological discomfort people feel when they realize they hold contradictory attitudes of beliefs. Festinger observed that people try to reduce the discomfort, usually b y changing one of their attitudes or beliefs. An important element of this theory is selective exposure, a theory presented by Albert Hastorf and Hadley Cantril suggesting that, because people do not like dissonance in their lives, they avoid information that they think might oppose their bias and seek information that supports a currently held attitude. The related concept of selective perception explains two people (or people on two different sides) can review the same information and reach different conclusions because they interpret the data to fit their existing bias and prejudice.


Cultivation. This theory helps public relations practitioners attempt to satisfy the interests of people who actively seek their information, which has become more common through the development of information-on-demand venues such as websites. It often is helpful for practitioners to realize if audiences are seeking information for entertainment, news-surveillance purposes, personal identity or any number of other reasons. . This theory, proposed by George Gerbner, suggests that the media (notably television) shapes or cultivates peoples’ conception of social reality. A large amount of media exposure over time affects not only individuals but also society as a whole. Gerbner argued that television cultivated a middle-of-the-road political perspective, though more recent observers have noted that, with the fragmentation of media and the 24/7 news cycle on politically oriented TV networks, the effect now is more divisive in society. Gerbner also articulated the mean world effect. This effect observes that people who use the media a lot tend to be more fearful, suspicious of the world, and susceptible to social paranoia and conspiracy theories.


Diffusion of Innovations. Everett Rogers studied how innovations are spread (or diffused) throughout society, shedding light on the likelihood that new ideas or products will be adopted. He identified five categories of adopters (innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards). The model provides insight for public relations practitioners on who and how to address in messages about new concepts.


Framing. Whereas agenda-setting deals with the perceived newsworthiness of an issue, framing focuses on the presentation of the message—how the media not only focus on a topic but, more significantly, how they present the topic to their audiences. Framing theory, first articulated by Gregory Bateson, thus provides a rhetorical context for the message. Seen often in coverage of political news or social issues, framing theory attempts to explain how the news media frame a story. Is a political candidate “ahead,” “surging” or “falling behind”? Is there an inherent “good guy” or “bad guy” in the story? Whose version of events gets top billing? Which version becomes the standard against which other points of view are measuring? Public relations practitioners also use framing, especially in communication vehicles that are aimed at their publics without needing the involvement of the news media, such as through direct mail, websites, blogs, brochures and social media.


Gatekeeping. Related to the agenda-setting theory, gatekeeping points to the power of an editor or news director to determine that the media report on, or what topics it may avoid. The theory was articulated by Kurt Lewin and rests on the notion that even journalists trying to be objective will make reporting choices based on their own biases about the presumed interests of their audiences. Public relations practitioners have learned to focus their attention on providing information to the media that the gatekeepers will judge as being of interest to their audiences. One aspect of this is to focus on a news peg, which is a topic currently being reported that in some way overlaps with an organization’s mission or interests. For example, an organization advocating for the homeless may find that attempts to interest reporters in covering the issue aren’t getting anywhere. The story has no legs, as they say. But if a vicious attack on a homeless man occurs in your community, the situation changes. The attack becomes the news peg that is likely to heighten media attention to the message of the advocacy group.


Image Repair. Bill Benoit has introduced the image restoration theory to help organizations understand and emerge from crisis situations. Benoit’s model suggests several options, including denial, evasion of responsibility, reduction of offensiveness, and corrective action. Many of the lessons of this theory emerge in the Public Relations Planning section of this book in Step 5, in which organizations consider their various options for dealing with outside criticism.


Inoculation. The inoculation theory proposed by William McGuire and Demetrios Papageorgis suggests that unchallenged beliefs and attitudes can be swayed with persuasive information, while attitudes that have been tested are more resistant to change. This latter aspect is particularly useful to strategic communicators seeking to create resistance to potentially opposing arguments.


Multi-Step Flow of Communication. Originally the two-step flow model presented by Paul Lazarsfeld and Elihu Katz this has expanded into a multi-step flow model. This theoretical model focuses on decision-making and how information affects people’s choices. The notion is that the media present information to opinion leaders, who in turn interpret that information within their own context and then extend it to others within their sphere of influence. Thus the model connects personal influence and media influence, bringing together two different aspects of communication research. This concept can be useful to public relations practitioners, especially as they identify opinion leaders among their various publics.


Models of Public Relations. James Grunig provided a matrix of four different approaches to public relations, each with different purposes and characteristics. These loosely translate at the publicity, public information, advocacy and relationship models that were presented in Chapter 2 of this book.

Rhetoric. The classical rhetorical theory associated with Aristotle continues to offer insight into the practice of public relations. The three-fold outline of ethos, logos and pathos still stands. Public relations practitioners focus on the message source, selecting a spokesperson on the basis of credibility, charisma and control or influence of the audience. It deals with the logical aspect of an argument, gathering and presenting facts and sound reasoning. And it looks to the emotional impact of messages and the nonverbal communication used to express them. Much contemporary research is conducted concerning these, particularly source credibility.


Situation. James Grunig’s situational theory looks at publics as being active or passive. It also observes that some publics are active on all issues, others on only single issues. The value of this insight to public relations practitioners is that it avoids a one-size-fits-all approach and instead helps them engage their publics in an effective way, drawing on the interests and span of the publics themselves.


Sleeper Effect. Researchers have observed that sometimes, the persuasive impact of communication increases as time elapses. Carl Hovland and Walter Weiss identified this sleeper effect. What people may have initially received from a source with low credibility can eventually become separated from the source, leading to an increase in message credibility. Conversely, what people initially considered a highly persuasive message may fade over time.


Social Judgment. The social judgment theory put forward by Muzafer Sherif and Carl Hovland observes that individuals accept or reject messages to the extent that they perceive the messages as corresponding to their internal anchors (attitudes and beliefs) and as affecting the person’s self concept.


Spiral of Silence. In an attempt to explain the formation of public opinion that gave social power to the Nazis, Elisabett Noelle-Neumann articulated the spiral of silence theory. This explains that people learn through media reporting and other social impressions what appears to the majority opinion. People holding minority viewpoints often silence themselves, preferring not to express their opinion and thus not “rock the boat.” Public relations practitioners, especially those advocating for what appears to be a minority opinion, have found that they can unsilence people by showing that other people, too, have opinions that run counter to the majority, or even that the presumed majority opinion isn’t as common as it is thought to be.


Systems. The interdisciplinary systems theory often deals with biology, engineering and technology, but it also sheds light on some organizational aspects of social psychology, particularly with its associated concepts of feedback and mid-course adjustment. Public relations practitioners have found it useful in understanding how organizations relate with their various publics. The concept of linkages is especially useful, helping practitioners identify various categories of publics. This forms the basis for part of Step 3 in the strategic planning process outlined in the second half of this book.


Uses and Gratifications. This theory, associated with Jay Blumler and Denis McQuail looks at why audience use the media and what they get out of it. This approach sees audiences as taking a proactive role in the information-exchange process. This theory helps public relations practitioners attempt to satisfy the interests of people who actively seek their information, which has become more common through the development of information-on-demand venues such as websites. It often is helpful for practitioners to realize if audiences are seeking information for entertainment, news-surveillance purposes, personal identity or any number of other reasons.


Copyright R.D. Smith 2016