Communications in the Time of COVID

How to pick the media appropriate to the message.

Posted Oct 02, 2020

In 1964, Canadian media philosopher Marshall McLuhan wrote “the medium is the message.”  (McLuhan, 2001).  When he coined the phrase, media consisted of television, print, and radio.  He argued that identical text delivered in different media is perceived differently by the intended audience.

Wall Street Journal columnist Susan Pinker (2020) has observed that McLuhan’s idea continues to remain valid but that media options have expanded to include print, email, text, telephone, online visual, and face-to-face. 

Our purpose is to help Psychology Today readers be thoughtful in selecting the most appropriate medium to deliver an intended message.  Just because a medium is inexpensive and easy does not mean it is the best medium for leaders to use. 

Our framework is influenced by the fact that we are writing this at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic makes face-to-face communications problematic.

Emotional Leakage and Media Selection.

Andrew Brodsky is an assistant professor of management at the University of Texas at Austin.  He completed three studies with 1500 people from the United States and Vietnam.  Standardized content was presented in different media formats.  And reactions were tabulated.

According to Brodsky, if you want to be perceived as having “nothing to hide,” then face-to-face communication is the ideal medium.  The audience has the information and can make an assessment of the content of the message, including nonverbal communications.  

But face-to-face conversations can be a problem during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

If you cannot arrange for face-to-face, then video chat is the next best. Ther research behind this assertion:  Outcome studies of psychotherapy with nonpsychotic populations show that video chat and face-to-face meetings are equivalent. (Cook & Doyle, 2002).

People who use video chat are also viewed as more trustworthy and authentic.

What If You Have Something to Hide?

Sometimes you might wish to hide your emotions. Sometimes there is nothing emotional in the message you wish to convey.  Under these circumstances, email and text messages are the media of choice.  For example, they are good for confirming dates for meetings. 

Text and email media are viewed as inauthentic when emotion is attached to the message. For example, if I call you on the phone to wish you "Happy Birthday," I am perceived as more authentic than if I write “Congratulations” on your LinkedIn profile

Email and Text Have Value

Suppose you have a client who is late in paying your invoices.  Placing a phone call to the client might be easy, but the tone of your voice might send a message that could harm the relationship. it might be prudent to begin communication via email.  Next, move to voice email by leaving the message during hours when you have reason to believe your client will not be at work.  Finally, move to the telephone only if the person still is not responding.

Here is another example of selection of media for messaging with the purpose of reducing emotional leakage:

The relationship between one of the writers of this blog and a professional colleague who was an alliance partner had become strained.  This colleague had sold his firm to a larger competitor and would be exiting the alliance.  It would be churlish to refuse to acknowledge the colleague’s hard work in securing the sale of the business. 

The author thought about the media available for acknowledging this colleague’s accomplishment. He selected an email.  The message sent was, “Congratulations on the transaction.”

A day later, the colleague responded with this email message: “Thanks.”

Summary and Conclusions

Marshall McLuhan warned us that the medium selected can bias the message, and Professor Brodsky’s research provides empirical evidence. 

Do not let convenience be the key criterion used to select your media.  Focus on how important it is that you be perceived as authentic.

If you wish to be perceived as trustworthy and authentic, then you want face-to-face.  If you cannot achieve that, go for a video chat.  If you want no emotional leakage in your message, email and text are safe choices.  And if you are not sure what is important, consider the telephone as a middle-of-the-road solution.

Finally, be clear if your intent is to communicate or to have a conversation.  Communication about specific dates, times, and places can be efficiently handled via text or email.  It is not the vehicle for an honest sharing of ideas.  Face-to-face, video, and telephone are appropriate conversation vehicles.

References

Brodsky, A. (2020, July 16). “Virtual Surface Acting in Workplace Interactions: Choosing the Best Technology to Fit the Task.” Journal of Applied Psychology. Advance online publication.   http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/apl0000805

Cook, J. and Doyle, C. “Working Alliance in Online Therapy as Compared to Face-to-Face Therapy: Preliminary Results.”  CyberPsychology and Behavior.  5,2,2002, pp.95-105.

McLuhan, M.  Understanding Media, Routledge, Philadelphia, PA 200

Pinker, S. “The Medium Is Still the Message.”  Wall Street Journal, August 15-16, 2020