Goodbye to the Golden Era of Mass Communication

By Armstrong, John | Communication World, May-June 1990 | Go to article overview

Goodbye to the Golden Era of Mass Communication


Armstrong, John, Communication World


AS NEW TECHNOLOGY for communicating proliferates, we could end up communicating less.

With the burgeoning of our technical ability to send messages - to saturate large audiences over a wide geographic area, or to zero in on one or more persons in a finite target area - comes a second phenomenon: the fragmentation of publics. No longer can we as communicators aim at a relatively few large targets based on the traditional demographic groups.

We can't depend on the conventional mass media as our primary vehicle for informing, persuading and activating our publics.

With the winding down of the second millennium, we appear also to be nearing the end of a figurative millennium the golden age of mass communication. We are moving into the age of multiple mini-communication and fractionated publics/audiences/markets.

As we communicators play catch-up with today's communication technology, we fantasize about tomorrow's and strive for the appearance of being aucourant by dropping references to exotic forms of communication into our conversation with colleagues and potential clients. The jargon is fascinaring terms like teleports, video windows, fiber optics, voice-text synthesis, ISDN (integrated services digital network). Actually, all of these have potential value to PR practitioners, but we will have to learn about them, or hire someone who does.

It is safe to say that many PR practitioners have not grasped that today's communication technology, not to mention what is to come, is both a curse - overloading the average person (public, audience, consumer) with sound, picture and printed word - and at the same time a blessing - providing an infinite number of avenues for transmitting messages.

Nor, unfortunately, have we fully grasped the extent of fragmentation of our PR publics.

Problems Confronting Communicators

Don E. Schultz, professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, Evanston, Ill., teaches a graduate program in corporate public relations. Schultz told Communication World that lie sees several problem areas confronting today's public relations practitioners. First is the loss of credibility of the traditional media, accompanied by the fact that "communication offers so many alternatives."

We have become skeptical," says Schultz. "The question now in the average person's mind is: "How much faith can I put in any particular information source"" He sees conflicts the field of communication. We get conflicting information; we are given alternatives. Therefore, it is difficult for any one medium, or medium organization, to be the authority, to be as influential as it once was."

As for communication technology, Schultz says we are becoming an aural society. "We take in information through our ears rather than reading. We can listen, or watch, while doing something else, and no longer have to concentrate on what's coming at us."

Schultz tells corporate executives in his seminars that their organizations are trying to communicate in too many voices. "The marketing department is putting out one message, the advertising agency another, the PR people another, and the sales department joins in with another pitch.

"You need to get all the parties together behind a total communication effort, an integrated communication program." Schultz advises PR practitioners to become proactive strategists, rather than merely reactive tacticians.

One Press Release Doesn't Fit An

So we in public relations are led to this: communicating selective messages to selective publics via selective communication mediums. The selection of the message and the medium depends, more than ever now on detailed, and sometimes painstaking, research into the public at which we aim. No longer can we do as we have done, send out the same basic news release with some rewrite and localizing, to all of the mass media in a geographic area. …

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