29. January 2021

Facets of communication – reflected

Expert contribution

Social media // external communication

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As you know, theory and practice are two pairs of shoes. This also applies to communication. This article is not primarily based on theoretical approaches but is based on statements, insights and opinions from code of practice. The reason for this was the reading of the book “Klartext. Schönreden war gestern”, published in October 2020. Within the framework of this publication, well-regarded public figures from politics, business, science, culture and communication consulting share their experiences in the field of communication and give answers to the question of what constitutes successful communication. I would like to review some thoughts here, as far as possible in a thematically arranged manner. In other words, it’s not me who does the heavy lifting on the following lines. But I would like to counter this – according to Goethe’s writing “nur wo du zu Fuss warst, bist du auch wirklich gewesen” – by writing: “Only what I quoted, I really read.” In this sense, I quote, among others, Walter Thurnherr, Thomas Hirschhorn, Yves Böni, Martin Schröder and Christoph Brand on topics such as fake news, social media, crisis communication as well as internal and external communication.

“Those who thump the table seem clearer, but they may only be more emotional. And a sentence doesn’t get right anyway, just because you pronounce it out loud.”

Walter Thurnherr, Dipl. Sc. Nat. ETH, Chancellor (p. 22)

Competence, intention, traceability

For the Swiss installation artist Thomas Hirschhorn, everything stands and falls with competence – also with regard to communication (p. 61–62): “Any communication that clarifies a point of view that reveals an attitude makes sense. Because if I have something to say and if I want to talk about it, it is only because I am competent for something and because that in turn gives me the competence to communicate it. What I am competent for must count, not the communication about it. […] So instead of asking ourselves questions about the “right” or “ideal communication”, we ask ourselves: What am I competent for? […] Then “communication” could be called to “share a competence”. […] I believe that whoever wants to clarify something for himself – and shares this “clarifying” with others – is listened to, is geting read. The one who communicates in order to sell something does not clarify anything.”
Victor Schmid, communication and economic consultant as well as editor of the book quoted here, underlines the “pedagogical nature” of communication, but sees further legitimate intentions in “acquiring credibility and trust” and in wanting to “create or maintain reputation” (p. 208). For this to succeed, we need a consistent attitude. Astrid Epiney, Rector of the University of Fribourg (p. 198): “I have made the experience that you have to have a line in communication that cannot be modified at will. This line reflects an attitude that cannot simply change without understandable reasons. […] Then communication becomes easier and more acceptable for recipients.” Because communication with internal logic results in comprehensibility. Insufficient or unjustified deviations create irritation and can lead to loss of trust – keyword Federal Office of Public Health FOPH communication on the subject of protective masks in spring/summer 2020. These challenges are particularly great during times of crisis, as crises are particularly uncertain. Tested, indisputable knowledge is less common, which is why in crisis mode one should necessarily communicate what one does not know as well.

Crisis communication

Since spring 2020 and the outbreak of the Corona pandemic, crisis communication became important to almost each and everyone. Federal Chancellor Walter Thurnherr (p. 22): “In the crisis, this is complicated [to be informed in a factual, balanced and complete manner]. Here, communication is successful if it takes place quickly, if it takes place often or regularly, if it is transparent and credible, if it creates trust, especially by conveying what one knows, but above all what one does not know.” Further explanations on these points and on crisis communication can be seen in the article“Don’t keep silent about crises”be read. In the first place, this courage to also talk about thinks you don’t know, must exist, as Thurnherr continues (p. 24): “Of course, one has a tendency to prefer to proclaim conclusive truths […]. But you underestimate the population. It can handle uncertainties well, provided that they are peeled out, explained and weighed against each other.” For anyone who proactively mentions (yet) unknown facts in his communication prevents the danger that these “dark spots” on the communication roadmap will not be used as a playground for speculation – for example, by the suspicion of deliberate reluctance to provide information. Speculation and mistrust jeopardize the sovereignty of interpretation over the situation and this should not be given out of hands whenever possible (more on this in the article“Goal: To gain sovereignty of interpretation”). Social media accentuates this problem, because a mere conjecture or even a hoax spreads on the social media channels within a very short time. The classic corrigendum can no longer cope with this. Yves Böni, a strategic communications consultant, commented on this (p. 89): “The biggest challenge is that the flood of news and the greater “noise” has made it much more difficult to gain the power of interpretation over one’s own reporting.” With regard to social media, he sees a possible, if very time-consuming, strategy in trying to create a source reference by building your own channel. The goal: What was not communicated on this channel is not official and confirmed. If this channel enjoys a high degree of credibility, then the (re-)attaining the sovereignty of interpretation can succeed.

Social Media

The strategic communications consultant Yves Böni expresses his opinion in detail about the danger of a so-called opinion bubble by the algorithms of the social media platforms (p.84):[Diese] feed us with content that is aligned with our interests, our friends or our worldviews. You only see one direction. Counter-arguments are increasingly hidden to help you find confirmation and spend more time on the platform. These bubbles lead to an increase in opinions and a complete difference in individual understanding of the existing problems in society.” Thanks to social media, everyone can become content producers. The gatekeepers and filters of the traditional media, Böni continues (see p. 85), fall away and everyone can create his very own “message menu” that is mouth-watering to him. In addition, you not only consume content from the specific news sources continuously, but often also contribute to the flow of messages yourself. If this continues to be done exclusively in one’s own bubble, contradiction softened or eliminated due to alternative perspectives. Böni (p. 87-88): “Social media is changing two essential things: the filter of traditional media is eliminated and the consumer becomes a producer in addition. […] By comparison, the traditional media were like restaurants. You could choose which one to go to and which bite-prepared dishes you ate from the set menu. Social media, on the other hand, is like a food market: there are different market stalls where I can source the raw ingredients. But I have to prepare them myself, and depending on my own cooking ability, this succeeds differently. Nowadays, it is therefore extremely important that every social media user builds up his media literacy and opens up a colorful universe of sources, so that one does not remain too trapped in one’s own world. […] German Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäubele said in Gabor Steingart’s Morning Briefing podcast that we are dissolving in the public debate in partial public opinion. However, a common public is a prerequisite for a functioning democracy. The decisive factor for the cohesion of society will therefore be that the population improves its media literacy, allows conflicting opinions and uses different sources of news. In this way, everyone can take on a gatekeeper role for themselves and gain a broad information horizon.”
Into this bubble-danger issue are statements about fake news, which have an all too easy game in the social media age.

Fake news and majority illusions

The fact that many statements are devoted to this topic in the book becomes clear even during the introductory thoughts of Dr. Victor Schmid. There is a suitable quotation from Bernhard Pörksen and Friedemann Schulz von Thun, from “The Art of Talking Together: About Dialogue in Society and Politics” (2020) (p. 16-17): “With just a few clicks, you can googling into your own self-confirmation environment, without much effort and without friction with the general public agenda.” Everyone finds expert opinions, media and platforms, as well as like-minded and ideologically related tribes that are conducive to their cause and conviction – from political extremists to anti-vaccination activists. Largely non-transparent processes of information filtering, as recent studies on the effects of platform recommendation algorithms show, exacerbate segmentation and polarization. They lure the individual into a tunnel of self-radicalization, making an extreme, perhaps completely marginal position appear as one of many shared views. In such information and communication environments, majority illusions arise.”

“Today, everything is everywhere: there is a complete entanglement of commercial and non-commercial content. You could say that everything is commercialised. Digitization makes it possible for algorithms to determine who is to be reached and when. This leads to brutal penetration and saturation. It is precisely in this environment that critical distance is needed.”

Andrés Luther, lic. phil. (p. 237/238)

On the Internet, you can research confirmations together – sources will always be found and to everything. But what is essential is not only one’s own conviction, but also the environment, as the sociology professor Martin Schröder emphasizes (p. 74/76): “Whether someone believes in climate change or not has less to do with the facts than with his circle of friends. What do the people who are important to him think? Praise and rebuke depend heavily on your friends – if they look a little like your friends, there is praise. Our political attitudes also depend on whether we get into our social environment. […] 80 percent of my life satisfaction is about topics that are directly related to my individual situation. Only 20 percent of my satisfaction is made in society – that is, because of issues that affect all members of society equally. Basically, media discuss topics that are relevant to the general public. But such topics only determine 20 percent of our life satisfaction…» It follows that media discourses – which are processed professionally and objectively – have only a small influence “on tribal information in a small, narrow environment” (p. 77). Schroeder continues (p. 81/83): “Fake news is so effective because it confirms the already existing opinions in certain groups. Humans are only limitedly accessible for rational arguments. In the end, they often don’t care if something is right or not. […] There used to be three stations and three relevant daily newspapers. Everyone saw the same facts and therefore had a level of knowledge as a basis. Today it is no longer the case, everyone can choose what they want. This is a danger, because in the past political discussions were based on the same facts and therefore consensus was easier. Today, many discussions no longer take place, because everyone picks their own media and has a completely different perception.”
How can this be countered? On the one hand, media literacy becomes essential for dealing with all the information and opinions found, as Yves Böni has previously pointed out. On the other hand, Walter Thurnherr also sees an importance in the fight against fake news in diversity of opinion and in education (p.28): “The best remedy against fake news is still not control [by the platforms themselves or by the state, the first of which would result in “only” limited platforms and the latter would result in delicate censorship], but diversity. As much information and arguments as possible on different opinions and facts. And just as important: education, education at all levels.”

“For clear announcements that are well understood, a number of skills are required: expertise, linguistic precision, social insight. Then you realize if empathy is there, because it helps to see the thing from the other side. Finally, people communicate well when they know how to combine self-confidence and temper. Addressees quickly notice whether the communicator takes itself or the topic more important.”

Rolf Soiron, Dr., historian and business leader (p. 112)

Internal and external communication

The question of what makes good internal and external communication was asked in one way or another on the “clear text” book pages of many personalities. However, I consider the remarks of Christoph Brand, CEO of Axpo, to be the most excellent (p. 152-155): “A priori honest communication. People have a healthy aversion to any form of Newspeak in the Orwellian sense. Newspeak is for me, if language policy measures are ultimately to abolish the freedom of thought. The less bad form is presented, for example, in management platitudes that say nothing and mist everything, thus preventing thinking in a more subtle form. In this form and in this extent, new and very bad in our democratic societies is the arbitrarily shameless lying that seeks to steer thinking in a deliberately wrong direction. The primacy of honesty and thus an obligation to the truth is for me at a fundamental level of values and therefore central in communication. In fact, it would be logical: what is not true cannot be politically correct, and what is true cannot be politically incorrect. At least you would have to think. The second criterion for me is speed. We live in a fast-paced, dynamic world, whether we like it or not, and communication must be able to deal with it. The third criterion is the specificity of communication. If you want to reach people, you need the necessary flexibility in communication to reach people where they are informed. And the communication channels have exploded to such an end that this complexity must be reacted flexibly. Overall, the requirements profile for the communication managers has increased massively in recent years. […] Overall, the weighting of the channels has been greatly differentiated and shifted. […] It is important to differentiate channels by target group. Today, this has become much more central. You can no longer reach everyone with one channel. Channel optimization is the keyword. […] Communication must have an impact. It must support the company’s goals. […] In addition, communication is also an important receptor that must feel vibrations that are important for the company. This requires a sensorium, open ears and the right analysis in order to carry important developments into the company as early as possible and to trigger appropriate measures. […] And still: The medium is the message. So communication must develop innovative, creative channels that are capable of reaching the stakeholders. So I think the communications department in a company is very important. If it does not do its job well, the potential for damage to the company is very high.”
In addition to these basic explanations on external communication, Walter Thurnherr also addresses an important aspect: always think of the target audience and their state of knowledge on the facts (p. 24-25): “The same error is often noted: it is only at the end of a longer process of internal analysis, weighing and decision-making that communication is made, and it is readily assumed that the listener is able to understand this difficult process of wrestling and thinking. , which was claimed for itself, can be understood in just under five minutes, even though he was not even aware that there was a problem at all. If possible, we should give those people who want to reach them the opportunity to understand their own thoughts. For example, in several, consciously separate steps of communication. […] In most cases, the whole process is radically abbreviated. You communicate everything at once and then you are quite amazed when many feel overwhelmed and press the brake pedal.”
With regard to internal communication, Christoph Brand pleads for personal interaction (p. 154): “It is central for me to establish a personal interaction between the management of a company and the employees. This can only be done with a certain regularity. It is also illusory to think that this interaction can only be established with emails or blogs or other written information. Dialogue is needed. Rather not perfect, but more common, more authentic and more personal. People don’t expect perfectly staged theatre, but direct communication.”

“If the message is not right, then communication is also in trouble. Even with the best communication, you can’t make a brilliant decision from a misguided decision.”

Walter Thurnherr, Dipl. Sc. Nat. ETH, Chancellor (p. 25)

It takes respectful discourse

Christoph Brand, CEO of Axpo, advocates the discourse – especially during times of crisis (p. 146-149): “We have a rampant culture of outrage that prevents the growth of knowledge, which is devastating for a society in the long run. And for me, plain language does not mean communicating unkindly, contemptuously, racistly, sexist, etc., but simply calling things by name, not twisting them and not concealing them. Because facts are important. I increasingly miss the critical rationalism of Popper’s style. […] One is awkward when, as a business leader, one expresses one’s way on potentially politically sensitive issues. This plain-text communication is then often not interpreted as constructive sparring, but as interference and thus as a reason for outrage. Such attitudes make it impossible to conduct an important discourse. […] An example of this was the treatment of people who have tried to critically question the measures taken by governments in the Corona crisis from an economic point of view. They were then very quickly lumped together with conspiracy theorists and “covidiots”. So who wants to take this upon themselves, when it is connoted and written down in this way? But this attitude is very dangerous, because it needs precisely this discourse, especially in crises. A discussion about fundamental rights, or even only about the long-term economic, that is to say, the consequences of state action that affect us all, must always be able to be conducted. And it is not led enough.”
Business leader Rolf Soiron breaks a lance for respect (p. 113): “Anyone who communicates constructively without arrogance, but simply in the knowledge that there are other points of view, now says something that others can see differently, and therefore says it all the more clearly, communicates constructively. In my opinion, communication consultants do not offer enough of this approach. […] When there is respect and credibility, plain text has room and helps far more than all the words and pink formulations.”

This article quotes in detail from the publication“Klartext. Schönreden war gestern”,edited by Dr. Victor Schmid, published by Stämpfli Verlag in October 2020, 280 pages. The publication of this post has been approved by the publisher.

Published by:

Basil Böhni

In the summer of 2018, Basil Böhni (* 1985) founded Böhni Communications Ltd liab. co. He graduated with a Major in Media Science from the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Zurich. During his career, Basil Böhni has worked for a range of organizations gaining extensive experience in communications, digital marketing, cultural administration, event management, and journalism.