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The Evolution of Communication

Most of Us Trust Personal Interactions More Than We Trust Mediated Messages.

Every profession experiences changes as it matures, but few have changed as much as communication. It is worth taking stock of the major developments in the field over the last 100 years. There were three game-changing shifts.

For most of the 20th century, we were called public relations practitioners. Our efforts were concentrated on external communication through newspapers and internal communication through employee publications.

  1. The first major change was brought about by television. Prior to the 1950s, business communication professionals got to know reporters who covered their industries. They fed them information when they were getting along, and they battled them with letters to the editor and advertisements when they were not. At the end of the day everyone went to the same bar and had a beer. Television news coverage changed those relationships, because television news programs became more influential over public opinion, but spent less time and effort researching stories, and television offered few opportunities for company spokespersons to respond. Television was also more impersonal. Different people researched, wrote, and read the stories into microphones. Once something aired on television, you had to live with it.
  2. Then we went online. The impact of digital technology is multifaceted. Most of the changes brought about by the World Wide Web were good for business. Getting messages into print, even when they were self-published was a time-consuming and expensive process. Messages were planned, drafted, reviewed by committees, edited, laid out, typeset, proofed, and finally printed and distributed, often by mail. The ease of digitally composing and publishing speeded up the process.
  3. Then companies discovered they could create their own websites and get information out without going through the news media to buy ads or publish press releases. Of course, journalists initially still had an upper hand in public debate because of their claim of objectivity.

More significantly, the web technology evolved to include social media. For the first time business communicators could collect immediate feedback on their messages and engage in dialogue with their publics without being mediated by journalists. Email mailing lists, blogs and Facebook all contributed to the feedback and exchange possibilities. Research on public opinion and public reactions to messages was slow and expensive in the days of print, but social media made feedback part of the ongoing process.

More importantly, social media diffused the forum for public debate. Formerly, the consensus formed in newspapers and on television news broadcasts was recognized as the voice of the public. Social media has made consensus a moving target. Now, managing one’s reputation in the newspaper only impacts one of many publics.

And as watchdog journalists became fewer and fewer as newspapers closed, readers moved online to get their news from less credible sources. This meant less scrutiny of questionable business practices, but it also meant less public trust, as objective third-party analysis waned.

I believe the third game-changing shift is happening right now, and it is a social aftereffect of the advent of television and the web. As we become more dependent on television and social media, interpersonal communication becomes more and more valuable.

Online communication isn’t governed by a skeptical profession of journalists like in the heyday of newsprint. At one time people actually said, “It must be true, I read it in the newspaper,” or “I saw it on television.” This is no longer the case. Today most of us trust personal interactions more than we trust mediated messages.

While professional communicators need to continue to adapt to advances in computer technology and the Internet, those who are looking ahead are beginning to realize that in most cases interpersonal communication is preferable to media communication and should be preferred whenever it is feasible

Thomas J. Roach, Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Calumet since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..