• MOOC coordinators Manuel Gértrudix Barrio & Rubén Arcos Martín
  • Content written by Rubén Arcos Martín
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Communication as a process, strategic, and persuasive communications

Strategic communication phenomena: Strategic communication as a process; Models of communication; Propaganda, misinformation, disinformation

Note: Adapted from Arcos (2019)

Communication entails a try to share a message, information, an idea or and attitude from a source to a destination and the messages are made of signs that stand for something in experience (Schramm, 1954). According to Harold Laswell’s classic formulation (1948), a suitable way to describe the act of communication consists on a “Who Says What In Which Channel To Whom With What Effect?” (Laswell, 1971: 84).

In his paper “How communication works” (1954), Wilbur Schramm developed a model for explaining the communication process in human communication and also for the particular case of mass communications. Schramm referred to the Latin origin of the word from communis, being the act of communication, communicate, to put in common, “trying to share information, an idea, or an attitude) (Schramm, 1954: 3).  For Schramm, the process of building that commonness by a source with an intended receiver, consist on encoding a message in a form adapted so that it can be transmitted (e.g.: spoken or written words). However, the act of communication will not be completed until the message has been decoded by the destination. Those messages are comprised of signs, and a sign is a “signal that stands for something in experience” (ibid: 6).  We are constantly involved on an endless process of decoding, interpreting, and encoding messages as a result from and to the external environment (ibid: 8). Schramm incorporates the notion of feedback developed by Wiener (1948) to the communication process: “an experience communicator is attentive to feedback, and constantly modifies his messages in light of what he observes in or hears from his audience” (ibid. 9). This interaction is developed through simultaneous channels and information is conveyed at different levels such as the quality of the voice, gestures, or facial expressions, in the case of for example face-to face interactions.

While in Schramm ‘s communication model, the production of meaning is key, being the existence of common shared experiences (of objects, events, people, etc.) between the source and the destination a prerequisite for being able to fully decode a message, in the model presented by Claude E. Shannon in his influential paper “The Mathematical Theory of Communication” (1948), the transmission of information is admittedly not associated with meaning (Shannon, 1948). However, as argued by Warren Weaver, the problem of “how accurately can symbols of communication be transmitted” (technical) addressed by Shannon’s mathematical theory of communication, is also relevant for semantic problems and problems related to the effectiveness of communication (Weaver, 1949). That is: how precisely are the transmitting symbols conveying the intended meaning, and how effective is the meaning received in affecting the behavior in the intended way (ibid.).

Propaganda and persuasion can be considered types or categories of communication phenomena. As noted by Jowett and O’Donnell, “propaganda employs persuasive strategies, but if differs from persuasion in purpose” (2006:2). These authors have defined propaganda as:

“the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist” (Ibid. 7).

As for persuasion, Perloff has define it as “a symbolic process in which communicators try to convince other people to change their own attitudes or behaviors regarding an issue through the transmission of a message in an atmosphere of free choice” (2017: 22). Discussing on the difference between persuasion and coercion, Perloff has highlighted that coercion occurs when the influence actor:

“(a) delivers a believable threat of significant physical or emotional harm to those who refuse the directive, (b) deprives the individual of some measure of freedom or autonomy, and (c) attempts to induce the individual to act contrary to her preferences” (Ibid: 32).

Corporate advertising and public relations are examples of persuasive communication practices in organizations. They are strategic in that they are deliberate and purposeful aiming to achieve specific objectives, such as create brand images or increase the sales of products and services, through tailored key messages crafted to impact specific target publics / audiences. Strategic communication is defined as “the use of words, actions, images, or symbols to influence the attitudes and opinions of target audiences to shape their behavior in order to advance interest or policies, or to achieve objectives” (Farwell 2012: xviii-xix).

From a government perspective strategic communication, at the national level, can be considered a whole of government approach developed by different departments and agencies (Paul 2011). Philip M. Taylor refers to information operations, psychological operations, public diplomacy, and public affairs, as the four “pillars” of strategic communications (Taylor 2009: 28).

Methodology and Resources

  • Arcos, Rubén (2019). "How the field of communication can contribute to the understanding and study of national security intelligence," In Researching National Security Intelligence: Multidisciplinary Approaches, edited by S. Coulthart, Landon-Murray, M., and Van Puyvelde, D. (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press): 163-176.
  • Farwell, James P (2012). Persuasion and power: the art of strategic communication. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press
  • Jowett, Garth S. and O’Donnell, Victoria (2006). Propaganda and persuasion. Thousand Oaks, London, and New Delhi: Sage.
  • Laswell, Harold D. (1971). “The structure and function of communication in society,” in Schramm, Wilbur and Donald F. Roberts (eds.). The process and effects of mass communications. Revised edition (Urbana: University of Illinois Press): 84-99.
  • Paul, Christopher (2011). Strategic communication: origin, concepts, and current debates. Santa Barbara: Praeger.
  • Perloff, Richard M. (2017). The dynamics of persuasion: communication and attitudes in the 21st Century. Oxon: Routledge.
  • Schramm, Wilbur (1954). “How Communication Works,” in The Process and Effects of Mass Communication, ed. Wilbur Schramm (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1954): 3-26.
  • Shannon, Claude E. and Weaver, Warren (1998) [1949]. The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
  • Taylor, Philip M. (2009). “Public Diplomacy and strategic communications,” in Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy, edited by Nancy Snow and Philip M. Taylor ( New York and London: Routledge) 12-16.
  • Wardle, Claire and Derakhshan, Hossein (2017). Information disorder: Toward an interdisciplinary framework for research and policy making, Council of Europe report DGI(2017)09, September 27, 2017. Strasbourg: Council of Europe.