Stohl and Redding (1988) define a message as “an identifiable unit of oral or written discourse” (p. 452). The entymology of the word is traced back to the Latin roots of the verb mittere which means “to send” (Stohl & Redding, 1988). Putting this into the context of the world of public affairs, the bottom line for communication activity depends on the successful delivery or sending of a message to its intended public. Creators of messages waste time and effort if their work goes unused or unattended by the target audience.
Thus, a message must have a certain degree of “competence.” O’Hair, Friedrich, and Shaver (1998) state that a message must meet a specific set of guidelines in order to be qualified as competent: (1) the message must avoid vagueness by giving enough facts and details; (2) it should have a certain degree authenticity and accuracy in order for the audience to be judged as reliable; (3) the communication needs to be easily understood and follow a rational and logical; (4) it should include facts and figures that are accurate and not misleading and be as concise as possible; and (5) the message must be sent in a timely fashion and delivered to an audience or target public that needs or wants the information. The message must be effective and appropriate before it can be expected to resonate with the intended audience. Without message competence, the overall objectives of the message cannot be met (O’Hair et al., 1998).
The next aspect in the message development process is for the correct identification of the “purpose of a message” (O’Hair et al., 1998). O’Hair et al. (1998) write, “when you consider the goal or purpose of a message, you are anticipating the … [receiver’s] response to the message” (p. 136). The intended response is nothing more than the active processing and successful delivery of the message to the intended audience. Marketers of commercial products are interested in exciting a response or “call to action” in an audience member. Military public affairs officials are often concerned with tailoring their messages, not to elicit a behavior, but rather, to get a cognitive response from the audience member. O’Hair et al. (1998) recommends achieving this response through a detailed plan for communicating “strategically” (p. 29).
There are two ways public affairs people can get the audience more involved with their messages. One of the ways is to craft the strategic message in a novel, unusual, or unfamiliar way (Maibach & Parrott, 1995). A straightforward response in a tried and tested form reflects the way “it has always been done” will not catch the attention of the target public in a way a new or unique twist can. Repackaging a theme and putting it in a form others have not seen or heard before can excite the audience to take notice and actively process your information rather than tune it out. The objective is to trigger more active thought process and get the public to absorb the message.
A second way to motivate an audience’s active thought process is to present the strategic message in an “unexpected or discrepant” way (Maibach & Parrott, 1995, p. 13). For example, if research suggests that the local public perceives military officials as normally withholding information and not telling the “full truth” when there are negative incidents inside military gates, a discrepant report could include a response of full disclosure on a potentially damaging incident. This discrepant report would send a message to the public that conflicts with the already pre-conceived idea of how they expect base officials to respond. This created state of dissonance prompts the audience to actively process and analyze the message.
McQuail (1997) says that audiences date back more than two thousand years ago to the Greco-Roman audience. The early spectators to events had several unique features, most importantly they were “localized in place and time” (McQuail, 1997, p. 3). Several thousand people would gather to witness a live event in an auditorium setting. Later, with the emergence of mass media in the form of books, “effective communication at a distance in space and time and also privacy in use” became common (McQuail, 1997, p. 4).
The new phenomenon of a “book reading” public was born and, for the first time, there were people from various locations selecting the same reading material. These dispersed publics were the forerunners of today’s mass media audiences, groups of individuals who are becoming increasingly older. Beale (1998) writes, “By the year 2030, [people] over-55 are expected to account for 43 percent of the population” (p. 8). At the moment, the median age for men is 33.5 years and slightly higher for women (Merli, 1998). This section looks at three modern mass media channels used frequently by public affairs to disseminate information: (1) radio; (2) television; and (3) newspapers. Each has a distinct audience and way in which its audience members use it. Public affairs practitioners must understand the differences and characteristics when developing a message.
The core listening audience of radio is people who are age 25 to 44 (Merli, 1998). Joinson (1998) writes, “95 percent of Americans listen to radio sometime during the week…the average person listens four hours a day” (p. 64). By comparison, the average person only spends 45 minutes each day reading a newspaper (Joinson, 1998). Radio is an effective medium for reaching a specific target audience quickly. Immediacy is one of its primary attributes. A message delivered via a radio medium is able to reach a target audience in minutes while TV and print media are slower and pre-production is more involved. TV can also broadcast a message immediately in real-time. However, it requires more set-up and preparation. A telephonic interview with a radio news reporter or announcer can reach the target public immediately, within minutes of an event taking place. When the message needs to be sent and received “now,” radio is the only medium able to do the job.
TV comes in a close second to radio with immediacy. A TV station with “live” hook-up capability can be on-the-scene and broadcasting within 30 minutes to 2 hours. Unlike radio that usually has news reports at the top of every hour, most TV stations have available news programs only three or four times a day. This limits the timing of message delivery and can cause a delay of several hours, even though the broadcast may be “live.”
Coming in third in the race for immediacy is print media. Hometown newspapers publish, at the most, daily. This means message delivery is dependent on daily deadlines. As with messages sent via TV, public affairs practitioners must be acutely aware of the times of deadlines for the next available avenue of delivery. If a message needs immediate dissemination, it does not accomplish this objective when a critical time deadline is missed. At that point there is no longer a vehicle for message delivery.
Joinson (1998) says the only time radio does not properly reach an audience is when the message does not demographically match the target public. For instance, if an event is best-suited for retirees, a good match of message-audience would be to get the information out on a radio station that plays Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby not Matchbox 20. Radio is limited to the local area it serves (Joinson, 1998). However, radio is able to reach 84 percent of people with children every week (Merli, 1998).
Radio devotes less time per message than the other two media do. Less time means less information content and less of the specifics of the message can be relayed to the audience member. Ideally the message must be less complex.
Unlike radio, television is delivered to audiences spread over greater distances due to cable and an on-average, stronger over-the-air signals. TV adds the social presence of a video picture and increased non-verbal signals to the audio signal giving it more “bandwidth” to deliver a message to a target audience. This fact provides TV with greater information delivery capabilities than is possible on radio. Also, TV devotes slightly more time to each message than radio. Thus, the message content can be more complex than a message sent with radio.
Newspaper, though slower in reaching target audiences with its product, has an advantage over TV and radio in the ability to deliver the most complex messages. More information and specific facts and figures can be delivered to the target public. Audience members have the benefit of re-reading information if it is not understood the first time. Radio and TV messages must be understood the first time and at the moment they are received; there is usually no replaying the message for clarification.
Print media, such as newspapers, consist of at least four different audiences, all of which are demographically slightly older than radio and TV audiences. First, there is the aggregate reading public which includes everyone who is able to read, has access to reading material, and who engages in reading (McQuail, 1997). McQuail (1997) says the reading public actually comes close to being the entire adult population. Second, there are the people who buy newspapers or other print media. Third, there are the audience members who actually read the newspaper. These people include more than those who purchase copies of a periodical, because many times more than one person will read the same copy (McQuail, 1997). Lastly, within the targeted audience of a single publication, there are “internal audiences” (McQuail, 1997, p. 46). The internal audience includes persons who read only specific sections within a periodical, i.e. the sports section, financial news, etc.
Targeting a Public
Research shows that men aged 25-54 are the primary radio listeners (Merli, 1998). Radio has the largest share of the audience, with this group listening to the radio at least four hours per day. Whether this is active or passive listening was not reviewed here. Based on this research, it would stand to reason that the radio group would be able to recollect more and have more positive answers on the survey. Radio newscasts are heard many times throughout the broadcast day, with heavy emphasis at morning and afternoon drive time.
If one were to watch any of the morning television news magazine shows (Good Morning America, Today or CBS This Morning), they would also see the national news repeated throughout the morning and all of those shows go back to local newscasts several times throughout the show. It would only stand to reason that multiple exposures to the same message would increase retention. To find out if this indeed is true, research would have to be done to find listening and viewing patterns among various audiences.
Because a PAO is not an advertiser, i.e., someone who can accurately measure an increase or decrease in their customer traffic after they have begun to advertise, it is difficult at best to gauge whether information put out by a PAO is effective. It becomes incumbent on that PAO to know who the audience is that they are trying to reach. If there is an event at the base club and the manager of that club is looking for a particular audience to show up and asks the PAO to help him publicize that event, then the PAO has to know what form of media channel will work best to get the word out.
The PAO also has to think about a desired result. Are they looking for increased attendance at a base function, or are they trying to inform the public about a crime that was committed on base? Targeting the public is essential in both instances. Who is going to come to the base function? How old are they? Men or women? Which parts of that audience listens to the radio? Watches television? Reads the paper? These are all questions the PAO must need to be able to answer if they are going to tailor the message to reach the desired public.
Radio is the best form of media to reach a targeted audience. In a civilian market, the PAO can send the press release to a particular radio station that targets who the PAO wants to reach. In a military media market, such as overseas, the audience is more difficult to target, but not harder to reach. Americans living overseas are going to tune in because many times, the military media outlet is the only english speaking media available. Overseas audiences consist of military, their family members, DoD civilians, retirees and other Americans who just happen to be overseas for any particluar reason. While a PAO may know that they have this large number of people listening or watching, there is almost no way of knowing which combination of the audience could be listening at any given time. Military media outlets program their stations to try and reach the majority of the audience. At most military locations overseas, there is only one FM and one AM radio frequency and one television frequency available to reach the audience. A PAO must rely on repetition and frequency to reach its audience. Radio is the only portable media. It is heard in the bedroom, the bathroom and the car. If there is a late breaking event, a PAO can call the radio station during a live hosted show and get the information out within minutes, either through the use of a telephone interview or just by giving the show host the information and let he/she read the announcement over the air.
Demographics provide factual information about individuals in a potential target audience. This gives specific facts about people. Sociographics examine the broader behavior of groups and psychographics reflect the personality of groups. The segmenting public matrix gives a description of the audience, a description that provides a glimpse of the audience members but lacks explanation of the motivations for their activity.
Will the intended audience receive and retain the information published? If the PAO has done their homework, knows their audience and the media that audience goes to to get the information they need, then the chance of success increases greatly. If the PAO can go to the base commander and tell that commander that all of the above information was used correctly, then the PAO has done their job.
Social presence theory
Social presence is best described as the degree to which participants are believed to be jointly involved in the communication process (Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976). This idea of a “social presence” developed out of the Communications Studies Group in the 1970s (Hiltz, 1996). Originally, Short et al. (1976) began using the term to help understand the degree of salience of people when they interact over mediated communication. They wanted to isolate these variations and find out which are important in determining the way individuals interact. Eventually social presence expanded to include the appropriateness of different mediums for conducting distinct types of activities (Rice, 1993). For the purpose of this research paper, social presence explains how close people feel to the radio or TV communicator, specifically, the non-verbal and verbal qualities that are transmitted via the medium. The amount of closeness that can be sent over the medium depends on a second theory, media richness.
Media richness theory
O’Hair et al. (1998) define media richness as the “ability of a communication channel to handle information or convey the meaning contained in a message” (p. 60). Not all channels are created equal. The “richest” medium would be face-to-face communication. However, the majority of strategic public affairs messages will be sent via a mediated channel (TV, radio, newspaper, etc.). The least “media rich” of these channels are flyers or written memos.
Kennedy (1997) is another researcher who is expanding on the ideas of media richness. He tries to explain how people (as skilled communicators) choose one media channel over another when interacting with people in a social context (Kennedy, 1997). According to Kennedy (1997), the amount of information a channel is able to transmit helps explain the decision-making process in choosing one form of media over another. For example, television and its visuals are able to convey more information than radio. This ties into the idea of bandwidth affecting the richness of a medium. Another communication idea that explains the consumption of media products, is uses and gratifications.
Uses and gratifications theory
Finn (1997) conducted a study to focus on demonstrating the relationships between basic personality traits and media use. His investigation used a five-factor model of personality traits as a correlate of mass media use. He predicted that the traits of extroversion, neuroticism, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness as indicators of a person’s personality type, would be positively or negatively correlated with the amount of mediated communication used. In other words, extroverts would watch less television than introverts, people who are more open would devote more time to reading and less time to watching television, etc (Finn, 1997). Finn’s (1997) objective was to validate key links in a basic model of uses and gratifications theory. The strongest relationships for mass media use were between openness and pleasure reading, extroversion and negative pleasure reading, and openness and negative TV viewing. Individuals who scored higher on extroversion and agreeableness showed a preference for non-mass media activities such as face-to-face conversation (Finn, 1997).
The preceding theories, social presence, media richness, and uses and gratifications, help provide the framework for examination of strategic messages, media channels, and target publics. Public affairs practitioners must understand proper formulation of a strategic message and the best channel to get the message to the target audience. Without understanding why people select certain media over others, a PAO can fail to meet their objectives of effectively delivering a strategic message and gaining maximum retention by the target public