Wednesday, April 21, 2004

It's a theory, you know
One of the things I do in my job, is talk to a lot of communication planners, directors, consultants and other highly-paid communication specialists. I meet them in conferences and seminars, as supervisors of my students in interbships or as fellow members in advisory boards. They are a multi-hued group, with a wide range of backgrounds. One thing most of them have in common though: They think Communication Planning is so much more "real life" than anything I can do as a teacher or researcher. I have to admit that this is wearying, even if I don't think I live in a virtual world.

These are the things on my mind when I read articles like "Evaluating Communication Campaigns" by Thomas W. Valente, in Rice and Atkin's Public Communication Campaigns. Valente has a really good point: a communication program depends on a theory!

... three different scenarios in which the program or the theory or both might succeed or fail. In the first scenario, a successful program sets in motion a causal process specified by a theory that results in the desired outcome. In the second scenario, there is a failure of theory in which there is a successfully implemented program (as measured by process evalutation) that sets in motion a causal process that did not result in the desired outcome. In the third scenario, because of a program failure, the intervention did not start an expected causal sequence, so the theory could not be tested.

What this means is that a communication plan is just a theory about how the audience will react to certain input and certain changes in the infrastructure. It is not a recipe for communicative success, it is an idea about how it may be possible to succeed. So, next time you're about to spend a significant part of your budget on public relations, advertising or public information, and you are about to shuffle that money into the already bloated bank account of some firm that boasts their "hands-on" experience rather than buying the services of that boring old research institute, consider who you want to develop the theories you pay for. People who think academic discipline is boring and analysis a waste, or people who knows a good theory when they see one, but also knows how to test, criticize and question it?

After all, work doesn't become more real by being executed by people who have never wanted to understand the why of their job.

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