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Strategic Communication vs. Communication

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

As we reported on this blog, CommGAP organized an Executive Course in Communication for Governance earlier this month. The communication part of the course was characterized as "strategic communication" - which made me wonder what, exactly, strategic communication is, how it is relevant for our work, and whether it's different from "communication" per se. A faculty member from the course pointed us to an article by Hallahan et al., titled "Defining Strategic Communication," which states that "strategic communication" is "the purposeful use of communication by an organization to fulfill its mission." The purposeful use of communication makes it "strategic." The authors elaborate that : "Six relevant disciplines are involved in the development, implementation, and assessment of communications by organizations: management, marketing, public relations, technical communication, political communication, and information/social marketing campaigns." Although the authors see strategic communication as "an emerging paradigm," this clarification defines strategic communication as a set of tools, not as a discipline. Marketing, public relations etc. themselves are no disciplines, but approaches drawn from broader fields, such as economics and communication.

Although the purposeful use of communication - strategic communication - is highly relevant for development, this approach alone is not sufficient to understand the breadth, depth, and wealth of communication as it affects development and reform effectiveness. Looking back on almost 15 years spent in higher education programs for communication, the disciplines that I broached are sociology, political science, psychology, and philosophy. Issues from those four fields that deal with any form of transmission of any kind of information to or from human beings seem to be extracted and put together to make up the discipline of "communication." Take, for instance, public opinion research. Today it's one of the core fields in communication, but it touches upon and derives from:

  • Psychology: How are individual opinions formed? How does information of any kind transform into opinions and how are those opinions used by people? What happens in people's heads when opinions are formed?
  • Sociology: Which group processes transform individual opinions into what we call public opinion, the predominant opinion of a specific group with regard to a specific issue?
  • Political science: What role does public opinion play in, for instance, elections? What effects does public opinion have on policy making? On political decision making?
  • Philosophy: Public opinion as understood in the classic theories is not an empirical phenomenon. It becomes an issue of philosophy when we understand it as a societal force and therefore as a matter of knowledge, ethics, morals, reality, language etc. (I leave the elaboration of public opinion as a matter of philosophy up to more knowledgeable people.)

My point is this: while strategic communication has become a buzzword in some areas, it by far does not cover the relevance and meaning of "communication" per se. Communication for development, or for governance, goes way beyond public relations, marketing, and information campaigns. It's about what happens in people's heads, what happens in social groups, what happens in political systems, and what happens to our reality. I assume that people who don't see communication as a core issue of development see only the strategic, instrumental, campaign side to it. But it goes so much beyond that. It's about the glue that makes our society, it's about what drives us, what drives politics - it's about people. And what else is development about?


Submitted by Thomas Hollihan on
I agree completely with the perspective outlined above that communication is an interdisciplinary field that draws heavily on psychology, sociology, philosophy and political science. Indeed, I do not know if this author was present or not during the session on creating effective messages that I taught in the workshop, but I made every effort to draw upon other disciplines and to emphasize how people make sense of information, construct reality, and reason through narratives. That part of the workshop that I participated in was not solely focused on instrumental or marketing communication as this blog post might suggest.

Submitted by Paolo on
Agree on the whole perpsective put forward by Ann-Katrin, but I would like to add a key element. C4D is not only only about what happens in people's heads, in social groups and political systems, but it is also and mostly the result of tne interactions among individuals and systems of thought. In other words, C4D should be first and foremost about dialogue. There is enough evidence to confirm that most effective and sustainable changes occurs when stakeholders participate and play an active part of the dialogue about change. Creation of knowledge, trust and consensus, while seeking viable options, is what is often at the heart of C4D.

Submitted by Catherine on
"It's about people".. simple yet so true. Perspective and respecting how there can be differing realities makes communication so much more effective. Here is a blog post you might enjoy, on "How Real is Reality?" I'll be back to read more of your blog.. thanks! Catherine

Submitted by Howard on
"Six relevant disciplines are involved in the development, implementation, and assessment of communications by organizations: management, marketing, public relations, technical communication, political communication, and information/social marketing campaigns." This would seem to define strategic communications as solely a means of persuasion with all ideas and messages coming from the organization. Where is the input from the recipients? Where is the reaching of a consensus? Where is active participation?

Submitted by Henk Boshoff on

An academic approach tends to categorize and abstract, while real world needs and application cross such academic boundaries as if they do not exist. Definitions and terms -like 'strategic communication', should therefor be approached in their functional role, geared to make it teachable, or easier to discuss.
Communication itself is a category concept in the larger act and phenomena of 'relation'. Words are words and the map is not the territory, so getting to perfectionist about these things is not useful. I

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