Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Are New Communications Models Changing Old Power Structures?

In his book Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond, Axel Burns argue that the old mass-mediated model is replaced under the ‘new network paradigm’. It used to be the case that consumers, due to lack of access to a media of their own, could not respond to what they saw or heard on the traditional media in other ways than to consume (or chose not to consume).

“Under the new network paradigm, by contrast, producers and users of media content are both simply nodes in a neutral network and communicate with one another on an equal level.” (p. 14)

There is no doubt that communication (and distribution) models have changed. Some form of power shift to the consumers’ advantage has taken place, with the communication opportunities that the internet brings. However, I think there is a danger in believing that communication is done ‘on an equal level’ just because communication channels are available. It suggest that a ‘two-way symmetrical’ model of communication is possible, which I find fallacious. Despite the enabling of two-way communication, and the producers and users of media content both being nodes in a network, that communication is not neutral when it comes to power. Size, money and other forms of resources are still major factors when it comes to strength, offline as well as online. I believe the same hegemonic power structures, although online networking to some extent can challenge them, are still there.

An important question in relation to this may be if we as public relations professionals are just preserving these power structures, now with the help of new tools, online as well?


IRENE said...

My opinion about the effects of new communication and information tools in the enhancement of two-way-symmetrical communication between an organization and its stakeholders is that ICTs, in particular Internet, has decentralized ‘power’ between and among stakeholders; it provides interactive opportunities which enhance relationship development, it permits communication directly from an organization to its strategic publics and vice versa without editorial filters, it diminishes geographical barriers and distance and makes them relatively open to their external and internal environment contributing to the ideal two-way symmetrical communication model of systems theory.

J. E. Grunig (1976) argued in the 1970s that "when organizations become constrained by their technology and knowledge, they also fail to recognize problems and become closed" (p. 34).

Mattias said...

Thanks for the comment Irene!

It’s true that internet communication technologies have opened up for “communication directly from an organization to its strategic publics and vice versa without editorial filters”, as you put it, at least to some extent. Many people within the IT sector gets part of their tech news by reading press releases online via Google and Yahoo.

However, a press release or information directly from a company is read with a lot more scepticism compared to a journalistic piece. In his book Public Relations Online Tom Kelleher talks about how Callison and Youngblood (2004) “ran an experiment and found that undergraduate students who read information attributed to news media rated it as more credible than students who read the same information when it was attributed to a corporate source” (p. 79).

In regards to two-way-symmetrical communication I still believe that corporation with its resources, professional communicators and established position in society makes this virtually impossible (regardless of how well intent the communication may be). I want to suggest that two-way communications can be benefited through ICTs. For it to be symmetrical, however, the corporation must be as willing to change in all respects as the specific person or public. Having to deal with different publics who sometimes desire complete opposites, effective communication most likely will be to find an effective balance building good relations, but also know when change is or is not the intelligent thing to consider.

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