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The Nature of Communication

Communication can be viewed as a process in which a source sends a message or messages to an audience or audiences. Of course, at times communication is an interaction where two (or more) sources exchange messages or interact in a conversation, and image repair can occur in such situations; however, in mass media situations, most often a sender disseminates a message to an audience. The source is almost always interested in learning how the audience reacts (getting some feedback in some form from the intended audience), but these mass media situations are not interactive in the same way as a conversation. Furthermore, at times even dyadic communication or conversations can be usefully understood as one person (who can be considered a source) who is trying to persuade another person (who can be thought of as an audience). The fact that both of the participants can send messages and receive messages as an audience does not invalidate the perspective of a source sending a message to a receiver as long as we keep this duality in mind as we investigate these persuasive attempts.

Communication is vital because most of our knowledge is acquired through communication rather than from direct experience. For example, as early as the 1940s, Hayakawa (1948) explained, “Most of our knowledge, acquired from parents, friends, schools, newspapers, books, conversation, speeches, and radio, is received verbally. All of our knowledge of history, for example, comes to us only in words” (p. 15). For example, most people have heard of the current U.S. president, but few have met or talked with the president, and most, if not all, of what we know about the president has come from messages rather than from direct experience. Similarly, in the scandals mentioned earlier, almost no one learned about the image problems of J. P. Morgan, General Petraeus, or Mike Rice from their own direct experience with these scandals. Communication is absolutely vital as a way to change others' attitudes about us.

It is important to stress that both message sources and audiences operate on their own individual perceptions of the world and the people, things, and ideas in the world. The person (or organization) who seeks to repair a damaged image does so because he or she believes (or has a perception) that an important audience holds an unfavorable attitude. Of course, if the audience really has an unfavorable attitude, the source's perception of an unfavorable attitude is appropriately based on the audience's perceptions. But it is also possible that I could believe that an audience thinks badly of me even if they do not—or I could be unaware of an audience's unfavorable attitudes toward me. Similarly, when one constructs an image repair message, one does so based on perceptions of the audience's beliefs and values. These perceptions may or may not reflect an accurate understanding of the audience's perceptions, but those perceptions are what the persuader has to work with to create a persuasive message. One cannot look “inside” the audience's heads to determine their “real” attitudes, and we must realize that persuaders and audiences operate based on their perceptions or misperceptions about reality.

Often our perceptions overlap; this overlap in perceptions is what makes communication possible. However, people do not share every belief. For example, some people express doubt that President
Obama was born in the United States, although that group is in the minority. Nor does everyone share the same values: Is the idea of providing health care to every American a good one or a bad one? This is why meaning resides in people, not in words or other symbols (Berlo, 1960). We use symbols in our messages in hopes of eliciting in the audience the ideas we wish to convey to them. In other words, we believe that the audience attaches the same meaning to a symbol as we do, so using that symbol in a message should evoke in the audience the meaning we want them to experience. However, poor message design or differences in the perceptions (beliefs and values) between the source and the audience can create misunderstanding. This means the person or organization attempting to repair an image must understand the audience's perceptions—and try to create the most effective message to persuade that audience. The fact that we often have similar meanings for symbols makes communication possible; the fact that we occasionally have different meanings for symbols makes miscommunication a possibility as well.

Ultimately, meaning arises from reality, but humans and their symbols give meaning to reality. A source can, potentially, persuade an audience that road salt is good (it melts ice and makes driving less dangerous) or bad (it damages cars). The “meaning” of road salt is not inherent in the salt but arises in people from their experiences with it, including messages from others about road salt. However, we are constrained by the nature of reality. If there is an object between us with a flat top and four legs, I could probably convince you that it was a desk or a table. However, unless you were impaired by alcohol or drugs, I could not expect to convince you that this thing was a car, a duck, or made entirely of water. Burke (1984) writes about the “recalcitrance” of reality. Communication is powerful, but reality imposes some limitations on what communication is capable of doing. If I am holding a sapphire gem, I might be able to get you to agree it is blue, azure, or indigo, but probably not black, yellow, or green. The recalcitrance of reality is a feature that limits all forms of communication, including image repair discourse. Furthermore, I believe that trying to convince an audience of something that is untrue (something the source believes is untrue) is unethical, and I would never recommend lying in a message. Furthermore, because the audience may know or learn the truth, lying is risky as well as wrong. Because image repair discourse is a form of communication, we must understand the nature of communication before we can understand image repair.

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