Coming up: Total chaos?

In one of my previous posts I tried to explain how one’s sense of self emerges through interaction with other people.

The direct consequence of this dynamic is the idea of the relational self:

The relational self is the self in relationships. We are different selves to different (groups of) people.

This is not wrong, dishonest, or flip-flopping. It is not schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder. It is healthy adaptation, both from a psychological and communication point of view. It may even be social intelligence.

Some groups are more important to us and our identity than others: They have more of an impact on who we are, because they are more important to us (significant others). We call those reference groups.

Depending on the groups with whom we interact and on context, social psychologists claim that we have situation prototypes, relational schemas – or, simply put, scripts for proper interaction in common situations.

For example, we have the script for proper interaction at a restaurant with friends, at a restaurant with clients, at a restaurant on a first date, etc.

These scripts (social norms) guide our social interactions. Not only do they help us figure out what is the appropriate thing to say in a given situation, they also help us anticipate an outcome of communication (if I say this, then… ) and, most importantly, they help us interpret the meaning of messages.

The same thing, said by someone else, in a different context, means something else – aka meaning is context-dependent.

So, hold on, this argument is taking you somewhere. Are you with me? Let’s sum it up: The relational self depends on social groups, communication scripts depend on social groups and contexts, meaning depends on social groups and contexts.

Integration of different social networking platforms (Facebook with Twitter with LinkedIn with … peanut butter,  with chocolate, with mamaliga with vegemite) mixes up social groups and social contexts and therefore, messes up meaning.

Yes, it may be easy to cross-post from Twitter to Facebook and LinkedIn, and in some situations, it may even make sense. But, don’t be fooled. Just because it’s easy and it can be done, it may not be a good idea to do it.

Keep in mind that the meaning of your tweet depends on:

  • your relational self – who you are in relation to the people you’re interacting with (if they’re different on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, you and the meaning of your words are different, too)
  • social context – and the types of conversations appropriate in each context
  • social group – and your relationships with each group.

So, we have to be careful here and maybe NOT take advantage of all the technology has to offer. The result may very well be misunderstanding, miscommunication, frustration, and, to quote Adrian Chan, total chaos.


Building relationships part 3

This is a post in a series about building relationships online. Previous posts:

1. Building relationships part 1 – bridging and bonding social capital

2. Building relationships part 2 – drawing on Dale Carnegie to build relationships on Twitter

In this post, I’d like to introduce you to one of my favorite communication theories (and if I say that about almost any communication theory, I mean it):  symbolic interactionism.

I won’t explain the entire theory here, just say that it is a theory about how meaning comes about: through social interaction (communication). One of the meanings that emerges through social interaction is the sense of self. We acquire a sense of self, of who we are and what we are like, through interacting with others. One of the ways in which this happens is that we see ourselves in others as if reflected in a mirror. We grow to believe what we see in those mirrors.

That explains why, when faced with people who believe we’re stupid, we second-guess ourselves, we become stupid. When around people who believe in us, we raise up to those expectations. It explains the influence parents have on us – they are the mirrors we see ourselves in when we’re little and fragile, and those mirrors influence who we become (reason 65,492 why I’m scared to become a parent). It explains Theory X and theory Y in management and education.

Of course, there are several factors that come into play, and we can’t entirely hold others accountable for who we are. But to a large extent, who we are depends on our history of human interaction, according to symbolic interactionism.

We seek people in whose mirrors we see images of us we like  – as we should.

So now, let me turn this around, and apply it to building relationships online. You are a mirror. You reflect others’ images back to them. How do people see themselves in your mirror?

Ask yourself – what must this person think I think about them? Who do they think I think they are? How do they see themselves in the mirror that I am?

Your attitude and beliefs about people, as manifested in your communication, form this mirror.  Do you show the best in people, or are you  the kind of mirror that emphasizes the weaknesses, the negatives?

One way of building relationships (online and off) is being the kind of mirror people seek to look into, because they like what they see, or because they’re amused, or because it helps them grow – or just because, it makes them feel good.

So, remember, how you see people is often how they come to see themselves – especially if they’re young and fragile.

Being quite a critical spirit myself, I struggle with the burden of the practical implications of this theory.

There are implications for personal relationships, but also for management, education, PR, marketing, advertising, Web usability, to name a few.

What sense do you make of this?

Can PR save a company?

There’s some discussion in the blogosphere about GM’s social media and crisis communication strategies these days, when they just filed for bankruptcy.

The arguments motivated me to finally start a new series of posts, For the Love of Theory.

In response to the question: Can PR save a company? I’d like to offer and overview of a “classic” PR theory, that of Issue Management.

PR can save a company, but not if it’s used to “get the message across”: If it’s used to listen, monitor and analyze issues, to enable the organization to adapt to its environment in a timely manner.

This is exactly what GM failed to do, and what the theory of Issue Management explains:


The theory posits that any issue in society (i.e. environmentalism, vegetarianism, etc.) has a lifecycle that revolves from dormant (no one thinks about it) to potential, as a few selected people start considering it, to imminent, when it starts picking up speed and media attention, to current, when it’s in the center of the public’s and the media’s attention, to critical, when the issue is demanding a solution. After being “resolved,” the issue goes back into the dormant stage, but it can wake up again at a later time.

The Issue Management function of public relations (which is thought of, at least in academic circles, as much more than media relations & publicity) is to continuously:

– scan the environment

– identify issues that can affect the organization

– analyze these issues to determine if action is necessary

– bring the issues to the attention of higher management, along with action recommendations

– design, implement, evaluate communication strategies around the issue (you often see companies taking positions on social or political issues)

Depending on how late/early a company identifies the issue and takes action, it can follow a reactive strategy (implementing actions imposed by others), an adaptive, dynamic, or even catalytic strategy – in this one, the company wakes an issue up from the dormant stage and moves it through the entire life cycle.

Of course, the earlier the company intervenes, the more power it has to frame the issue and to influence public discussion.

Can you see now how the issue management function of PR could have saved GM?

Many rhetorical scholars‘ view of PR is:

The good organization speaking well*

PR is widely understood as the “speaking well” part, but if the PR function is used strategically, and is given a seat at the management table, it is its job not only to speak well, but to help the organization be good.

Ultimately, the PR function can help an organization adapt to its environment (and change the environment to suit it better).

For GM, it’s a bit late. But I hope you can see now how PR can help an organization adapt, survive, and thrive. It’s just time we moved past the “free publicity” paradigm of PR and catch up to a bigger picture understanding of what PR can do for an organization.

If you’re interested in reading more:

Chase, W. H. (1977). Public issue management: The new science. Public Relations Journal, 32(10), 25-26.

* Cheney, G.D. (1992). The corporate person (re)presents itself, in: E. Lance Toth, R.L. Heath (Eds.), Rhetorical and Critical Approaches to Public Relations, Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ, p. 167.

Crable, R. E., & Vibbert, S. L. (1985). Managing issues and influencing public policy. Public Relations Review, 11(2), 3-16.

Heath, R.J., & Palenchar, M.J. (2008). Strategic Issues Management 2. Sage.