WYSIWYG? Communication management: navigating between the map and the territory

“And yet it moves” is a phrase defiantly uttered by Galileo Galilei after being pressured by the Inquisition to retract his findings on heliocentrism, the theory that the planets revolve around the sun. Much, and sometimes even everything, depends on the realistic portrayal and assessment of all that is the case. That rings all the more true in a time in which our access to reality, as Niklas Luhmann noted back in the mid-1990s, is largely media-based. In all aspects of societal life, we are guided by the picture of the world painted daily by the media. Moreover, in the age of digital and, most notably, social media, we ourselves have become shapers of a liquid cartography of reality. Communication management is driven by the aspiration to seismographically measure media landscapes and then (help) shape them – with an eye to opportunities and risks. Like Michel Houellebecq’s alter ego Jed Martin in his novel The Map and the Territory, we too operate as navigators and interpreters of maps and territories, which in the book evolve into a unique art form by overlaying Michelin maps onto satellite images.

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The triumph of a failing discipline – on apprehension in communication management

Rarely has the importance of successful communication been as unilaterally invoked as during the pandemic. Policy makers, the business world, and the sciences have elevated the quality of how messages are communicated to the same level as the search for appropriate practical solutions, leading them to systematically devote a significant amount of time and resources to the matter. What has ultimately emerged, however, is a feeling of disillusionment triggered by how very visible the limits of communication have become. Johannes Vogel, a professor of biodiversity and public science at Germany’s Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, has called it naive to imagine “communicating facts and science to society, where they are then miraculously absorbed, internalized, and translated into rational action and decision-making.” Alongside other trends such as virtualization and sustainability, denialism – the practice of denying the truth of something despite proof or strong evidence that it is true – is currently one of the most influential underlying factors in our field, according to the Academic Society for Corporate Management & Communication’s “Communications Trend Radar 2021.”

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Cui bono? Risk competence as a success factor in strategic communications

Making decisions under time pressure and without complete information while anticipating the consequences is in the nature of communication management. Still, the complexity and dynamics of this role have grown significantly in the age of digital communication networks and social media. Alongside the skyrocketing quantitative growth of media offerings, factors such as selection criteria in the attention economy are especially important here. These factors are not new, but their impact is more important in a period of fundamental change. As a study published in Political Communication in the fall of 2020 on the basis of 300,000 reports in English-language media on scientific and academic topics such as climate change and the repercussions of migration shows, there is a media bias toward emphasizing dissent even where there is general consensus. Just 3 percent of the reports analyzed explicitly refer to the fact of majority consensus. Conflict generates more attention, and media platforms that set the stage for conflict or offer access to it are in high demand. The pressure on companies to get involved is mounting.

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Spare a thought and bear the dissonance – communication in the Anthropocene

Recently, the findings of a survey of social science students at Goethe University in the German city of Frankfurt raised a few eyebrows. There, at a place where most would have expected a hotbed of discourse ethics in the grand tradition of the Frankfurt School, the researchers Matthias Revers and Richard Traunmüller discovered that students often felt verbally attacked – and that between one-third and half were in favor of restricting freedom of expression when it comes to controversial issues such as gender or immigration. According to Ingolf Dalferth, a philosopher of religion, the findings indicate that universities have been ideologized, as a result of which their purpose has shifted from reflection and investigation to the enforcement of values.

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Communications in times of pandemic – dealing with a tricky substance

There is no doubt that Covid-19 presents us with fundamental challenges – and not just medical ones. The virus also confronts us with a “gigantic test of civilizatory values,” as the Tübingen-based media theorist Bernhard Pörksen has aptly remarked. And for weeks now, our lives have been determined by the attempt – at the interface of hope and fear, control and trust, science and the mundane – to pass this test. Indeed, under the impact of this new challenge, which has become a watershed for the post-war generation, dividing its life into a time before and after, habits are being subjected to a stress test, things that were previously inconceivable are being imposed, and completely new approaches are being tried out – also in communications management.

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How do new developments find their way into PR? – On progress in communications management

Public relations did not become established as a modern management function until the second half of the 20th century. But as Günter Bentele has convincingly shown in his studies of the history of PR in Germany, the roots of the profession go back to the Prussian reform movement, well over 200 years ago. Since then, the discipline has evolved and grown more professional in a multi-phase development. Bentele identifies seven such phases, the last of which – “digitalization, internet, and globalization” – ushered in the epoch of strategically based communications management.

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Next stop sunlit uplands? – Transformation needs communication and patience

In October, a team at the University of Leipzig headed up by Ansgar Zerfaß published a study that revealed – not for the first time – a considerable lack of trust and understanding among the German and European populace for those who are mainly responsible for creating public opinion: only just over eight percent of all Germans trust communicators and the PR industry. And with trust rates hovering around 17 percent, journalists don’t come off much better. By way of comparison, external consultants and academics score 37 percent. In all European countries, 36 percent believe that the main objective of communications management is to guide communications toward a specific outcome. Only 26 percent believe that PR’s main objective is the establishment of constructive dialogue.

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Speechless – some thoughts on the sound of communication in the digital age

Language: the dominance of still and moving images had almost made us forget it. Now concern is increasingly being voiced about the growing brutalization, instrumentalization, and simplification of the written and spoken word in public debate.

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Staking out where we stand in communications work – companies between purpose and posturing

In an interview with the New York Times magazine in 1970, the subsequent Nobel laureate Milton Friedman gave his view of a company’s social responsibility: “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” He was thus advocating the same view of business and enterprise as Adam Smith in the 18th century, who employed the metaphor of the “invisible hand.” Smith believed that the self-interested market player did not strive directly to improve the common good but, guided by the invisible hand, ensured that scarce goods were distributed in the best possible way. Just under half a century after Friedman’s pithy statement, the expectations placed on companies by society have changed dramatically, and thus also the way companies and their executives see themselves.

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Why communications isn’t a bullshit job

If you’ve been in the business a while, then you’re well aware that PR people are paid to take care of things for which no one is really responsible. I mean, who else handles everything from vague requests to “cooperate” that aren’t addressed to anyone in particular, to cryptic customer complaints based on mystical facts and figures, to that yearly yet fateful question so delightfully chock-full of pitfalls: How should we design our Christmas card? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As communicators, our very job description includes assuming responsibility for things for which no one person could possibly be personally responsible. Who seriously believes that an organization’s reputation hinges on one individual or, for that matter, that it can be casually shaped from an Archimedean point provided by the communications department.

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