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.”

Responding to the question of how we can rise to this challenge forces us to return to what, essentially, constitutes the core of communication. In this regard, the view is initially clouded by a rather romantic, occasionally ideological overextension of what communication between people is supposed to be. John Durham Peters, a media historian who teaches at Yale, speaks in this context of a “dream of communication” that is essentially “the dream of identical minds in concert.” He says it is necessary to wake up from this dream without losing sight of its deeper meaning: “To say that having identical minds in concert is not possible does not mean that people cannot cooperate excellently.” However, perfecting the transfer of information is not enough, as Niklas Luhmann once wrote: “Communication is by no means a transfer of meaning or information; it is the common updating of meaning that informs at least one of the participants.”

This updating of meaning eludes traditional standards of the modern age, as is the case with the public debate surrounding topics such as coronavirus, climate change, or global migration. To quote the sociologist Hans-Peter Müller, postmodern communication is marked by “changeable truths,” an “aesthetic diversity,” and the “plurality of styles” – and its atmosphere is defined by “gradual advancement” instead of “progress that works toward perfection.”

For communication management, this means the end of the “dream of communication,” with the new postmodern uncertainty presenting an opportunity for change rather than the end thereof. To get there, however, the perceived apprehension regarding unsuccessful communication has to be converted into energy for rediscovering the essence of communication management, which is something different than the trends affecting the tools, formats, and platforms used. It also necessitates a distinctive role in the concert of management disciplines. The task is to develop resilient relationships with stakeholders, which is influenced to a decisive extent by a profound understanding of mutual human expectations and needs. This is also the reason why communication knowledge can benefit from AI-supported forecasting capabilities but is, at its core, not mechanically or digitally replicable. In their analysis of the impact of AI on the economy, the U.S. economists Ajay Agrawal, Joshua Gans, and Avi Goldfarb draw a distinction here between “prediction machines” and “human judgment.”

The ability to engage in dialogue (and in debate in particular) is evolving into a key discipline in postmodern communication management. The political scientists Jürgen Falter and Eckhard Jesse point out the distinction between two forms of discussion in theology and discourse: “In an agonal debate, both sides want to win at all costs. In a symbouleutic one, the partners strive to find new insights through the exchange of arguments.” Communication management in line with this understanding – one that keeps the lines of dialogue among people and with the worlds of business and public policy open – undoubtedly has the potential to make an important contribution to social stability in light of complex economic and political challenges with an increasing tendency toward an air of crisis.

Those tempted to simply argue that the potential of digital communication will allow us to gain control over the situation should bear in mind Karl R. Popper’s concept of an abstract society, which he described back in 1945 as the degeneration of an open society: “We could conceive of a society in which men practically never meet face to face – in which all business is conducted by individuals in isolation who communicate by typed letters or by telegrams, and who go about in closed motor-cars. … Men have social needs which they cannot satisfy in an abstract society.” Or as Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales recently summed it up: “A like does not replace normal human interaction.”

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