Effective communication

"I know that you believe that you understood what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant."

--Robert J. McCloskey, former State Department spokesman

What Makes Business Communication a Success

Effective communication is a fundamental characteristic of a successful business and a positive, active approach to it has the power of building invaluable relationships with the media and, through it, with its clients. It is an art that is mostly learnt through the school of experience, but once correctly applied, it can build bridges that last forever, instead of defensive barriers (Haywood, 2002).

Taking advantage of the benefits brought by using media coverage to transmit a company's message on TV, radio or in the press has proved to be a successful tool for many businesses. As Wragg, Theaker, & Bland (2005) state, the true purpose of media relations is to improve the reputation of an organization, inform the target audiences and influence their attitudes. Moreover, media can reach a large spectrum of audiences and the public's conception of media's impartiality increases the credibility of the message. Therefore, establishing solid and honest media relations and having journalists cooperate in managing a company's reputation is not an easy task, nor one to be ignored, but a vital one, especially for the idea of 'free' publicity it provides.

On the other hand, journalists possess full control over the content they publish and they cannot be obliged to reproduce the material in the same way it was supplied, nor from the same point of view. For this reason, public relations practitioners have to make sure that the appearance of the message on the screen, radio or in the press will project the most favourable image of the company, taking into account that everything that is being said can be used against it. Consequently, the message should be clear, defining comprehensible key messages, newsworthy and complete, without leaving any obvious questions unanswered. In order to create a positive relationship with the media, based on trust and respect, it is important for PR practitioners to be proactive, initiating contact with journalists to inform them about key facts. Furthermore, basic principles impose being continuously available both in good and bad times, but more importantly, being honest and never misleading deliberately, as 'bridges to the media and public collapse under the weight of deception' (Haywood, 2002, p.235). Communicating ethically means showing respect and reliance, in other words, following the "golden rule" according to which, one should treat the others (in our case the audience and journalists) the way he/she would like to be treated. David Gregory, former PR manager of Microsoft, states that journalists should be treated like customers and kept close, in a well-thought-through relationship (Haywood, 2002). This is essential for a positive and fair reporting of the company.

Sending a press release to journalists is the first step in communicating proactively with the media; therefore it is its quality that will decide whether the message will get on TV or not. If successful, an interview is most likely to be the next step: a positive opportunity for the business if the media's game, a spectacle loyal to revenue, is effectively played. Before the interview, it is important to think about the location/background that best suits the story. Deciding on three key messages and rehearsing them will help controlling the interpretation of the speech. Moreover, the interviewee should show enthusiasm, looking at the reporter and taking into consideration the body language; folding arms, for example, is perceived as creating a barrier between the audience and the person who talks. Zig Zaglar said: 'For every sale you miss because you're too enthusiastic, you will miss a hundred because you're not enthusiastic enough.' Studies show that our words account for only a small part of the total communications package; there are other aspects such as appearance, voice, style and engagement that contribute (Taylor, 2004). A great anonymous philosopher once said that people don't care what you know until they know that you care. It is an essential strategy to show empathy and concern for the others, instead of being interest-led. Another strategy for successful business communications is beginning with the desired results in mind, in other words, being results oriented (Covey, 1989).

Catching and holding the audience's attention is considered to be a key for successful communication and the use of the visual dimension helps keeping the speech catchy and dynamic (McLean, 2010). Visual aids are used in order to emphasise key messages and clarity and consistency should be their main characteristics, as the audience usually experiences frustration if they get lost during the speech. McLean (2003) provides a list of hints that is worth being taken into account when using visual aids. Firstly, a clear connection between the visual aid and the verbal messages should be established. Secondly, visual aids should be used to draw the audience's attention on key messages and not to distract them, by using complicated and incomprehensible imagery. Whether it is a diagram, sound or video, flip chart or electronic slides, if correctly chosen and effectively used, visual aids can have a significant impact on illustrating and reinforcing the key message.

In external communication, the image of the business is of utmost importance. The logo should give a clear representation of the business, the business letterhead should be designed in such a way that it can market the business by itself and the telephone messages should give a reflection of the professionalism in the business.

Communication means more than just giving out messages; it involves speaking, listening, sending, and receiving messages (Guffey, Rogin & Rhodes, 2009). In communication, listening is a key factor and most of the time listening gets people into problems because they do not practice it. Listening simply means holding back one's judgment and allowing answers to come from outside (Krizan et al, 2007). Proper research should be carried out on the target audience to help an organisation get an idea of how the audience takes in information and how they react towards it. Different messages are designed for different audience and it takes proper understanding of the audience in order to decide which information will be best for them (Harvard Business School Press, 2003). The message should be short and for it to be successful evaluations have to be done on how the audience feels about it.

Understanding the audience means being aware of how busy and bombarded with information people nowadays are, which makes it an exceptional performance to grab their attention. In these circumstances, it is sound bites that dominate the public discourse nowadays. Kerchner (1997) described a successful sound bite by the five C's: they are clear, conversational, concise, catchy and colourful, comparing the interviewee who has mastered the five C's with a driver that knows the road. To quote Marc Twain, a good sound bite is 'a minimum of sound to a maximum of sense." Moreover, since full control of selecting the sound bite out of an interview belongs to the press editor who decides what is newsworthy and would capture the audience's attention, the best rule is to never say anything on camera that should not appear on the screen, radio or in the press, as everything that is said has the chance to be quoted.

Slogans, on the other hand, are short and memorable phrases that are used in advertising movements. They are aimed at drawing public's attention towards particular features of a product. The main purpose of a slogan is to emphasize an aspect that a company may wish to be remembered such as marketing its corporate image, product, or its consumer foundation. Like sound bites, slogans should give an overview of the benefits of a certain product, they should be memorable and brief, and make the consumer feel the need for the product (Shimp, 2008). A slogan portrays the best image of a product, examples including:"Guinness is good for you", Persil -"washes whiter". A successful slogan was adopted by the famous jewellery company, DeBeers, and used for more than fifty years: 'A diamond is forever'. Behind this simple slogan, the message is profound, linking the everlasting quality of diamonds with the best way to seal a marriage and the never-ending signs of love. The slogan was named by the 'Advertising Age' magazine 'The best advertising slogan of the twentieth century' (VoaNews, 2007). Another good example is the slogan of promoting a new video recorder that featured the ability to skip commercials: 'This is the product the networks don't want you to own'. This memorable phrase summarises in a few words what might take some precious minutes of explanation. Furthermore, Nike's slogan, 'Just do it', is undoubtedly one of the most popular slogans. Although it is short and simple, it can have a different meaning for everyone who reads or hears it, just as Shakespeare said:' There are a thousand Hamlets in a thousand people`s eyes' (Articlebase, 2010). While the consumer, young people in general, can perceive the meaning as a spur to feel free in making choices, to buy and wear it, the businessman would surely link its meaning to an impulse to keep on 'doing it' until success is achieved.

In designing the messages one has to consider the audience, which can be old adults, youths, mothers or school girls among others. The first step in designing a persuasive message is to state the problem that has been identified. Then find a basis between the business goals and the interest of the audience. The last step is to design the message with a hidden question statement at the end, making the audience feel, think or be involved in something (Pride et al 2009). An example of such a message is Gillette's commercial slogan - "The best a man can get". From the message it can be implied that men are the target audience and they are left asking themselves whether Gillette is the best a man can obtain or the best a man can become. The message is also sensitive to feelings and instincts, such as men's need for possession and their satisfaction of gaining it.

Both sound bites and slogans have as main goal making the public aware of products and services that a business is offering in the market, portraying their best image. While slogans are mostly written statements, created by the company, sound bites are always audio and/or video and are excised by the editors from an interview or speech.

If well-executed, a public relations programme can play a vital role within many organizations. A good example of successful media relations concerns a multinational oil company. One of its oil tankers was damaged, causing wide spills along the holiday beaches in California. As expected, sales of petrol started to fall immediately. The company created an expensive recovery programme, including very quick cleaning of the beaches, a restocking operation and a consumer survey. All details of the disaster were relayed to the media, which, due to previous positive relation between the company and the media, ensured that the information delivered to the public was concentrated on the mopping up programme. The results, besides the company being seen as a responsible organization, concerned for the environment, were increased sales that exceeded everyone's expectations (Ridgway, 1996).

Good communication can be considered the special ingredient of any successful business. With a strong commitment to positive media relations, the results can have an extremely powerful impact on the organization. Moreover, by using the opportunities brought by media coverage, public relations practitioners can control and influence public's perception, leading to the achievement of the organisation's goals.


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