All Commentary
Monday, October 1, 1973

Challenges of the Communications Explosion

Philip Lesly, president of The Philip Lesly Company, Chicago, is a leading public relations counsel and an authority on public relations end public affairs. Outstanding among his several publications is Lesly’s Public Relations Handbook (Prentice Hall, 1971).

Almost everyone is aware that there has been an explosion of communications in recent years. But while billions have been spent exploring outer space, the invisible virus and the ocean bottom, little perceptive study has been given to what that communications explosion has meant to the institutions that are the living tissues of civilization.

Almost all the premises and practices for dealing with the human climate have been transformed in the past few years. So it seems pertinent to ask, What are some of the new patterns in our human climate that challenge our stability and progress?

·         Our population is now segmented in many ways. It is divided almost evenly between those who have been trained through written media and those who are visually oriented. It is fragmented by the growing specialization in all career fields. It is split between those who seek achievement and those who seek escape. It is segmented between white and colored, between the affluent and the poor, between the educated effete and the hard hat ethnics, and, yes, between men and women.

·         Rather than finding conflict an occasional aberration to be overcome, now antagonisms are built into our society and are permanent.

·         Almost unnoticed, the liberal ethic that insists on maintaining the innocence of any individual until he has been proven guilty is also insisting that every organization must be presumed guilty until it has proved its innocence.

·         We have a whole mosaic of new life styles, new values, divergent morals and a wide spectrum of viewpoints on all questions. Where one or two elements in our equation used to be changing at any time, now virtually all the factors are changing at the same time and affecting each other even as they change.

Where our concept of purpose used to be one-dimensional, we now must recognize that nothing can succeed except through the systems approach of coordinating many simultaneous factors.

The old wisdom that when we seek to communicate with the public we must try to lead our target becomes banal when it is not only difficult to tell the course of the target but even what the target will be the next time we look.

We must see the full mosaic of the world we must cope with… recognize that events follow a chain reaction… and realize that the important move — the one that will really determine the results of our communications efforts —is the move after the move after this one. As in chess, the amateur sees one move at a time; the master is planning many moves ahead.

·         Our people have come to take for granted the massive multiplication of results made possible by computers and automation in routine paper work and factories. Now they have transferred these expectations of mass results to fields where human factors, that cannot be multiplied, are involved, such as in education and health care.

·         We now have a majority of our population that has not developed an immunity to frustration, as all previous generations did, by having to face severe restrictions on its dreams and aspirations almost from birth. Millions grow to adulthood before they encounter the frustrating reality of a world that, until a generation ago, contained far more frustrations of desires than fulfillments. So when they faced restrictions on their urges and dreams of Utopia, they lashed out at whatever symbol seemed to stand in their way — parents, college presidents, the government, or “the establishment.” It is not a coincidence that the cooling off of the violence and anarchism coincided with the recent recession, as well as with the winding down of the war in Vietnam. For the first time the reality of limits imposed by the world became clear to millions of people. But the conditions that created the aggressiveness are still present and could break out in some new direction at any time.

·         Millions of people have now been educated to think they should have a special role in our society. Colleges have been holding out degrees as the key to freedom from routine roles in life and as the marks of leadership… even while they propound the doctrine of equality for everyone. Only a few can find the kind of influence that they were led to expect, and are disillusioned when the world does not bow to their wisdom.

Those who have been led to expect great things then seek to justify themselves. They have the time, the inclination and the opportunity to attack the structure they feel is unfair to them. It is ironic that the increased leisure and affluence that the system makes available enables them to increase their attacks on the system.

·         As a result, we are creating… as a by-product of the development of our people far more rapidly than the society can absorb their expectations… a many-pronged assault on our social structure. We now have many groups whose primary outlook on life is to force major changes. Among the media, in our colleges, among social workers, many government agencies and other groups, it is presumed that the member’s worth will be measured by how much he can poke holes in the way things have been. In these areas, one often is assumed to be a failure if he or she merely contributes to the stability of our system.

Another strong trend arising out of the widespread free time and affluence now available is the sharp and varied changes in life styles. It is another irony that one of the great charges against our system is that it reduces each person’s ability to fulfill himself as an individual… and yet almost everyone now has far more choices for what he does with his life and how he spends a major part of his time than most people have ever had. The great diversity of life styles — ranging from devout fundamentalist religion to pure Communism in remote living centers — further fragments the purposefulness and cohesion of our society.

The impetus for most of the changing currents has come from our youth. Although we cannot predict what the new pressures of youth will be, we can be reasonably sure they will not be the same as they are today or have been. The focus of youth agitation has shifted approximately every two years since 1960: From activism for Negroes to freedom from authority to the Vietnam war to “the system” to ecology to the “Jesus revolution” and now to personal fulfillment. Every thrust of the youth culture is vitiated as soon as it is “in” long enough to be identified with one age group. About the only sure thing about the thrust of youth activism is that it will be different in a couple of years.

·         Every message directed to every audience is unique in its time and impact. The individual is different from the frame of mind he was in when some previous message was aimed at him. And the importance to him of each message is a vital factor. So it is not possible to predict the response to any message on the basis of what the response has been to any previous message. A notable example was the reaction to President Nixon’s announcement of his trip to China. There was no possibility of predicting the response by looking at opinion polls of previous responses of the public on even somewhat related matters.

·         For communication to take place, the audience must be in what can be called a “posture of receptivity.” This receptivity combines the background and heritage of the individual with his predisposition toward the source. That means that when an organization’s actions and statements have developed a high degree of good will, every other message from that source will receive much more acceptability.

·         There is a “threshold of consciousness” that must be passed before an idea becomes a factor in any attitude. Every idea or image of a person or organization that does “arrive” in the public consciousness has passed through the massive barriers that people have erected.

·         In today’s highly complex and diverse world, it is necessary to use a “multiple-channel approach” in projecting an idea to the public. There is no one or a few media that can achieve this penetration. It is necessary to surround the audience with the concept to make it become part of its mental framework.

The more closely a communication is beamed to a specific audience, the more likely it is to be received and accepted.

The early reaction to events or communications may disguise their actual effects. Great publicity and furor may seem to create public opinion because of their immediacy, visibility and force.

But often there is a reaction against that furor that becomes the permanent effect. Much of the public desire to cool off the racial issues has been due to reaction against the trumpeted violence of the Black Panthers a couple of years ago.

More and more, as our organizations become bigger and more diversified, they are politically hamstrung internally, sometimes to the point of immobilization. Yet the problems of the human climate are external and must be approached forthrightly.

The prevalent feeling is that the period of multiple assaults on our institutions is a phase we are going through. Actually, there is reason to feel that it is building up inevitably and will continue to grow. Our society, by holding out the magic that a college education is supposed to bestow, is mass producing dissidents. And even when they attain any of their objectives, they are not likely to fade away but will go on to seek new and more demanding causes.

The multiplicity of causes is already bringing militants into conflict with each other. The gross over expectations that have been built up are often aimed at opposing goals such as providing all needs and comforts for everyone at low cost and devoting massive resources to environment, employing the unqualified at high cost and other expensive goals.

The position of many organizational leaders today is anomalous. The managers of American institutions and enterprises are admired all over the world as magnificently trained and disciplined for operating complex organizations. An executive trained at a good graduate school has, by his original personality and the disciplined training he has received, been indoctrinated with the importance of the facts, the tangibles, the measurable. He is told that it is fuzzy minded to consider what can’t be included in the equation, that can’t be computerized or brought down to the bottom line. The managers of America are masterful in coping with the tangibles of their operations — budgets, personnel requirements, materials, facilities and so on.

Dealing with Intangibles

Now these managers are faced increasingly with problems that are intangible — mostly based on human attitudes and not on the measurable, the predictable, the factors that can be included in computerized evaluations. The problems deal with the attitudes of youth, contributors, activist groups, employees, potential employees, minority organizations, government agencies, legislators and others.

There are a number of emerging conditions that confront those who need to communicate with the American public:

1. This is an age of action and visibility, requiring that we deal with problems in depth and yet immediately.

2. Organization and corporate leaders who are accustomed to determining events are now faced most of the time with coping with events. Many of them are not prepared for such a diametrical shift. They want to impose their disciplined methods on the human climate. They expect predictability and measurability from communications efforts, just as they do in finance, production, purchasing, bookkeeping and other areas.

3. Those people who are trained to withhold judgment until the facts are in… to give precedence to reason over passion… to base their case on merits rather than on emotions, are the most vulnerable to activist dissent. A high level of professionalism leads professors, lawyers, physicians, clergymen and others to abhor public combat.

In an age of activism and visibility, the profession with high standards, that deplores aggressive appeal for support and prefers to work in dignified silence, is a sitting duck. Academicians, lawyers and doctors, who scorn efforts to capture favorable attention, face being swept into subjugation by the nature of our times.

4. The explosion of instant and visible communication has not only made a now society, but has made visibility the factor that determines what occurs in it. Repeatedly we find that it is not the facts of a situation but what it seems to people that becomes the real reality. When the television screen shows police using force on milling youth, the public concludes that the police attacked the crowd. When millions see only disheveled and obscene youth marching on campuses, it concludes that the whole young generation is like that.

5. People have seen massive advances made in those aspects of our system where technology is the key. Automation, using electronic techniques, has multipled the output of our industrial cornucopia. Computers handle masses of information and records that would inundate human capacities. But people expect the same multiplications of capabilities where human capacities are still the key. The process of teaching cannot be revolutionized by installing automated equipment. Health care cannot be turned over to great programmed machines, but still depends on the skills and dedication of highly trained people.

How often we have heard, “If we can put a man on the moon, we can solve our problems here on earth by applying the same effort and dedication.” But our scientists knew exactly where the moon would be on July 20, 1969. All factors could be fed into their considerations with a certainty they had a fixed target. But all human problems are in a constant state of change and of interaction with each other. The only certainty is that conditions ten years hence will not be just as we visualize them when we set our targets.

6. All the currents of passion and emotion and illogic, as well as reason, make it vital for every group to cope with the climate of attitudes. Yet almost every group is still concentrating on its traditional concerns. Business devotes most of its attention to production, finance and marketing —while its existence is being undermined on the issues of consumerism, minority hiring, preservation of the environment, invasion of management functions by labor and government, the reluctance of bright young people to work in large companies, and other forces that are all in the minds of men. Doctors continue to focus on caring for patients — while groups and government clamor for “restructuring” the health care system, drafting doctors for areas that lack them, and other issues that are forces in the minds of men. The colleges, despite their traumatic tumult of recent years, are still essentially concerned with courses, faculty and research —while student groups and government assault them to revolutionize not only their structures and functions but their very reasons for being.

All these professions labor conscientiously in their vineyards. But the climate of attitudes that will determine whether they will be able to function at all — and on whose terms — is being developed by the outside forces that shape public attitudes in an electronic age of action and visibility.

7. The battlefield for the human climate is the communications media and no aspect of our society has changed more than the media.

Only a few years ago a few magazines and a few major newspapers constituted the important communications network. Today we have an explosion of media —hundreds of magazines, newspapers, television, radio, books, journals, newsletters, sound tapes. No subject short of a catastrophe now can claim the attention of more than a portion of the public.

There is bitter competition for space in any of the media. The competition among ideas has expanded many fold. A new generation of journalists is attuned to “involvement,” by which they mean changing the world instead of reporting on it. The multiplication of media creates competitive pressures to grasp for attention. In this climate, the reporter who produces a sensation is rewarded; the one who comes in with a solid but unspectacular report finds it hard to be appreciated. A media man who doesn’t find a riot or crisis he can cover is tempted to wish for one.

8. The epitome of what may be the greatest of all the revolutions now facing us is that there are two electronic revolutions going on at the same time. One is the electronic revolution of TV — instant emotion and involvement… putting emphasis on “human feelings” and quick solutions… opposing the “inhumanity” of slow-moving mechanisms and institutions. The other is the electronic revolution of management of information and of systems — exemplified by the computer. It stresses facts, organization, hard reality, elimination of the nuisance variables.

Our youth are creatures of the TV revolution. Our institutions, with their libraries and their fruit of generations of thought and weighing of ideas, typify management by facts and data.

Our institutions are based on rules and standards, like computers; TV is based on emotion. Our institutions are based on history and tradition; TV on immediacy and novelty.

Required to Affect Public Attitudes

In light of the emerging problems and changing conditions, what are the requirements for anyone who needs to affect public attitudes?

1. He or she must become a very broad-gauged person. He must know the best thought in the social sciences and in mass communications by living with the best books, journals, seminars and especially the best people.

2. He must learn to see the whole picture in which his organization functions, including the whole scope of our society. He must know and understand where the various wheels mesh, where the trends are going, where the interrelationships between groups take effect.

3. He must think and work ahead — trying to command the future human climate rather than being swept along by it.

4. He must master the skills and knowledge involved in effective mass communication today, or hire that mastery.

Guidelines to Influence Opinion

There are a number of guidelines for anyone seeking to influence public opinion on behalf of an organization today:

1. He should recognize that the internal politics in the organization are a basic problem. They can immobilize an organization and prevent effective functioning. It is important to separate decision-making and functioning in the human climate areas from the internal machinations of the organization.

2. Administrators must recognize that in our present social climate, communication is no longer a prerogative of management; it is the essence of management. Communication determines whether anything really happens and what the consequences will be.

3. In our fast-moving times, any reading based on what people used to think or even what they think now is likely to be out-of-date by the time any new action or communication can take effect. To base plans and communications on what has gone before, or even what is occurring now, is to base one’s future on reaction rather than action.

4. Every organization must help create the climate in which it will function, rather than let that climate develop and then try to cope with it. Initiative in communication is increasingly important.

5. The publics that must be reached by communications should be clearly defined. The process of segmentation means that what will evoke a response from one group will fail with some and perhaps repel others. Each communications activity must reach specific publics in ways that can gain their interest and motivate their support.

6. Involvement and face-to-face interchange with as many publics as possible is important for three reasons:

·         It is the surest way to get a feel for how they really think and how they respond to what is said.

·         It is demonstrable evidence of real concern for them and their needs.

·         It is visible — not the visibility of being on television in thousands of homes at once, but still visibility that represents reality.

7. With today’s suspicious public, the impression of secretiveness automatically breeds distrust. If there seems to be refusal to interchange communications with the public, there is likely to be a gap in credibility and confidence.

8. Today’s American has an almost arrogant sense of his own importance and interests, and resents what seem to be efforts to use him rather than to serve him. Whatever is said must be couched in the self-interest of the audience rather than in a way that seeks to sell a viewpoint.

9. It is far more effective to inoculate the publics in advance against the virulence of criticism that may come — by establishing confidence and understanding —than to try to overcome the ravages of these attacks after they have occurred.

10. Of all the factors involved in sound communication that leads thought and gets things done, time is probably the most vital. Careful contemplation and long consideration are luxuries of the past. The critics live in the real-time world of the television camera and the dramatic event. In an age of instant communication, often a few minutes are critical.

11. The new media-activist pattern is the “smart bomb” of human affairs. It seeks out targets that were formerly hidden or operated with a low profile. In this era of activism, visibility and pervasive media, the institution that seeks to sit things out with its head down is likely to be a sitting duck.

12. The visible and the active should be stressed. Ideas and facts are important, but it is how they are packaged that determines their effectiveness. Today the overwhelming force for influencing attitudes is the visible media: dramatic events, television, motion pictures, audio-visual techniques, and face-to-face interchanges.

13. It is more vital than ever that only the best possible skills in communication be relied on —for sensing the climate of attitudes, for planning and for execution. With the overwhelming complexity and severity of the challenges, the standard skills are most likely to fail and only the extraordinary skills to succeed. The challenges of the communications explosion and the multiple revolutions in our society create heightened needs for persons disciplined in the skills of responsible public relations.

There is growing awareness among administrators that the real problems of all institutions are in the attitudes of people —the human climate in which the institution must function. Many thoughtful managers recognize that they have not been trained to be sensitive enough to the human climate or to have the expertness to deal with it unaided. The human patterns are becoming more complicated rapidly. They are harder to understand and deal with. They demand greater expertness and experience. Communications sense and skills, which have always been vital and have always been scarce, are becoming more vital and scarcer still.

At its best, public relations is a bridge to change. It is a means to adjust to new attitudes that have been caused by change. It is a means of stimulating attitudes in order to create change.

It helps an organization see the whole of our society together, rather than from one intensified viewpoint. It provides judgment, creativity and skills in accommodating groups to each other, based on wide and diverse experience.

Like all other great changes, the shifts in our human climate and the pattern of communications that shapes it present great challenges to those who strive for a wholesome and productive society. Understanding the new dynamics and utilizing the best knowledge and skills, however, can help master these challenges like all others.



Look to the People

When the people rise enmass in behalf of the Union and the liberties of this country, truly may it be said, “The gates of hell cannot prevail against them.” In all trying positions in which I shall be placed, my reliance will be upon you and the people of the United States; and I wish you to remember, now and forever, that it is your business and not mine; that if the union of these states and the liberties of this people shall be lost, it is but little to any one man of fifty-two years of age, but a great deal to the thirty millions of people who inhabit these United States, and to their posterity in all coming time. It is your business to rise up and preserve the Union and liberty for yourselves, and not for me. I appeal to you again to constantly bear in mind that not with politicians, not with Presidents, not with office seekers, but with you, is the question: Shall the Union and shall the liberties of this country be preserved to the latest generations?

ABRAHAM LINCOLN February 11, 1861