Fellow Mechanics

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For this posting about my reflections on this course, I’ll use a car as the metaphor for my communications skills and expertise. My entire professional career as a public relations practitioner, I’ve driven this car wherever I needed to go, with only a smidgeon of understanding about the theoretical “mechanics” of what actually makes it run. This course has been analogous to sticking my head under the hood and tinkering with the engine to gain that understanding.

A principle of public relations is that perception must change before behavior can. This is the case regardless of whether the desired behavior is voting for a candidate, buying a product, showing up at an event, or countless other actions. Communications theory helps explain the relationship between perception and behavior, and how the two influence each other. Before this course, I had mostly anecdotal understanding about this process based on my own professional experience in a variety of contexts and applications. The course provided a theoretical foundation for my understanding that simply didn’t exist before. (But don’t tell my clients that.)

For example, I know from experience that people sometimes act in ways that don’t necessarily serve their own best interests. A voter may support a candidate who espouses economic policy that is potentially damaging to that voter. Actually, this is a pretty common dynamic in public relations. But I did not know why it happens, from a psychological standpoint. Reading about the Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011, p. 95) was a revelation because I learned about the factors that give rise to this phenomenon and possible strategies for addressing it.

Of course, learning also occurred through interaction with my classmates. This was especially the case in the last two weeks when we were working on our final projects. There were a wide variety of ideas and interesting approaches on display. Neely employed a thoroughly researched and professional looking presentation, organized in way that made even the most complex principles understandable even to someone with no background in our course material. Melissa chose a film about an extremely timely and relevant issue, cyber-bullying, as a way to illustrate her understanding and application of the subject matter. Tatiana’s video narrative personalized her presentation in way that made it fun to watch and engaging. And Melinda used outstanding graphics to render her points and make them easy to understand and follow. Overall, I learned something from every presentation I watched, which is probably the highest compliment there is.

Seven Traditions

Of the seven communications traditions, the socio-cultural was easiest for me to understand and apply because of its focus on the collective rather than the individual as the most important cog in the communications process. Human interaction forms the basis on which societies are formed and sustained; “People together create the realities of their social groups, organizations and cultures” (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011, p. 55).

I found our exploration of the statement “communication is reality” in Week 1 particularly intriguing, and in hindsight, the concept appears to be right out of the socio-cultural tradition. Communication is the most fundamental form of human interaction there is, and only through communication can people define their reality and ultimately control their existence.

In this tradition, I immediately recognized Groupthink Theory (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011, pp.281-283) at work in many of my volunteer and leadership experiences. The theory explores how a group’s cohesiveness, seemingly a positive trait, can contribute to dysfunction and poor outcomes. Among the behaviors that this theory predicted — and which I have witnessed first-hand — are a tendency to invest time and energy in maintaining good will at the expense of effective decisions; failure to get expert outside counsel; focusing on data that supports the group’s view; and vilifying those who are not part of the group.

Groupthink seemed to be evident at times when I served on the board of our temple. Although the members were certainly well-intentioned, the group’s effectiveness was often hindered by institutional inertia, i.e. doing things a certain way because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” There was also a tendency to avoid confronting difficult issues out of concern for maintaining rapport and cohesion among members and with the congregation. Rather than risk alienating long-time staff, lay leaders and/or the clergy, the board often did not act critically and objectively to assess policies and approaches that kept the organization in a weak financial posture over many years. As a result, the temple moved from crisis to crisis with little hope or evidence that the pattern would ever be disrupted.

As chair of the board, I did put into place many of the tactics that Irving Janis, a noted theorist, suggests for solving some of the problems inherent in groupthink (p. 282). I often brought in outside experts for fresh ideas and different perspectives, tried not to offer my opinion on a subject until others had shared theirs, sought counsel from other community leaders outside the temple, and kept a close eye on symptoms to keep them from becoming bigger problems. But there were many other things I could have done to defeat groupthink on the board, such as assigning a members to act as “devil’s advocate” at each meeting, working more in sub-groups, and being diligent about making sure other board members felt accountable and safe in expressing concerns and being “critical evaluators” in the decision-making process (p. 282).

Week 5: Different Style Guides I Have Known

The American Psychological Association Publication Manual is not the first style guide that I have encountered. It is at least the third. That is because writing has always been something I enjoy and, at least I’ve been told, am pretty good at. The fondness for writing was the primary factor in my academic career and choice of profession. If you write a lot, there will be styles to follow and hence, guides that define those styles. (Wikipedia lists at least 20 different guides.)

I was a journalism and English major as an undergraduate, and both fields have their own style guides. The writing Bible (assume that should be capitalized) for reporters and editors is the Associated Press Style Guide, which prescribes rules for grammar, abbreviations, organizing news stories, titles and other matters regarding the mechanics of writing news stories. As the name suggests, the guide was originally developed for Associated Press reporters in the early part of the 20th century, and has since become the standard for journalists all over the world. Public relations and corporate communications professionals also use it, since many began their careers in journalism and they often produce press releases and other materials expressly for consumption by reporters. In editing class in journalism school, the first violation of AP Style on an assignment would earn you one letter grade off, and the second would result in a flat-out “F”. To editors and reporters, this is serious stuff; “That isn’t AP style” is not something you want to hear.

English majors had their own style guide, “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk and E.B. White (the author of “Charlotte’s Web”). Originally published in 1919, it is now in its fourth edition and still being used widely. EOS also addresses writing mechanics such as punctuation, agreement and possessive forms, but its main purpose in my mind was creating more effective composition; how to construct a coherent paragraph, integrating and connecting ideas, setting a positive tone, and writing with precision.

With these experiences in mind, it was not surprising to learn that there would be style conventions to follow in my graduate work. So far, I have observed similarities among APA style and the other forms. For example, AP and APA guidelines for pluralizing and some punctuation and capitalization forms are the same. EOS has advice about being precise and economical with word choice that is very similar to that found in the APA manual.

But there are a lot of differences that may create some challenges given how used I am to using AP style in particular. A small example: APA style says to use commas “between elements (including and and or) in a series of three or more items,” (p. 88) but AP style says not to use a comma before the and or or. I hope that learning the details and nuance of APA style will come mostly from deliberate study of the Publication Manual, as well as encouraging comments from my instructors, rather than mark-downs on assignments!