Friday, 5 November 2010

The Utility of Communication

The problem with communication is the subjective nature of a message. Even if the message is good and honest, the perception or miscommunication can lead to big problems. An article that demonstrates this is here where web administrators failed to realise that Pen Island can be misread in a URL.

It can be as simple as not looking directly at someone important when talking to them, the method of message delivery or other conflicting messages.

I always remember the Macclesfield Express with a front page headline splash of Double stabbing after family row right next to Cheshire Police celebrate drop in crime figures. The second story might be true, but it seems insensitive and crass despite the force not having any idea the two news items would appear on the same page.

The way the communications industry gets around this is by measuring sentiment. This isn’t perfect in itself. As well as the additional cost of in depth analysis, some systems are automated picking words with emotion without checking whether there is irony implied by that word. If done by a real person, one person’s perception could be different from another.

Now although it is possible to measure and evaluate the effectiveness of communications, it isn’t always done and it is not always the main business focus.

In economics, there is a similar problem – how do you measure the feel good factor as happiness affects confidence and the decision to invest. They came up with the express utility which is the amount of happiness someone derives from a good or service.

Why is this relevant you may ask? The reason is that in the downturn cuts are made to reduce costs to minimise the impact on income. There’s an excellent TEDx presentation by Chip Conley showing how a hotel came out of a downturn by looking at making his workforce and guests happier rather than cutting the costs. It marked the company out as more than your standard hotel delivering a service.

Communication is a key area where cuts can be made. In the film Up in the air, there is the dichotomy where a firm of HR consultants, taken on to fire employees, shows its humanity by rejecting video link technology even though it saved costs. No one wants to hear they’ve broken up with someone by text or that they’ve lost their job via email. But it does happen regularly.

Companies can see communications as a soft target for sales without looking at what the function of the role is and how maintaining a good reputation can be valuable to retaining business. Equally I’ve noticed some very good communications campaigns being hamstrung by clients scaling back projects to a point where a good idea is made pointless by missing the key element of the proposal.

In difficult trading conditions I’d argue communications is more important. There is a difference between finding cheaper ways of getting a message across and falling between the two stools of a highly creative campaign without the funding. Without it how do your customers know how hard you work, the great people you employ, the innovations you’ve created and the care you deliver to each one of them.

(pictures courtesy of

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