Effective Communication…Can You Hear Me Now?

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A Guest Post By Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA

“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” This quote by Robert McCloskey had always been, for me, the perfect example of why communication as a profession is so critical.

Then a recent “Dilbert” cartoon caught my attention and really got me thinking about the perilous minefield in which public relations professionals work.

Ours is a profession founded on both actions and words.

It should go without saying that we must produce meaningful results for clients or employers if we are to consider ourselves successful.

But those results are predicated on communicating coherent messages that are received by, understood by, and accepted as beneficial by our target audiences.

That communication process begins with research that tells us who those audiences are, what their concerns/interests are, and what our mutual points of agreement are.

From that, we are able to craft messages and design programs that, ideally, will resonate with those audiences and persuade them to take a particular action. (Hopefully they won’t do like Asok in the Dilbert cartoon and literally throw someone under a bus!)

What all this implies is something that public relations professor Jim Grunig said years ago and I emphasize in every one of my undergrad PR classes at Curry College. Communication is a two-way, synchronous process. I listen to you and formulate my messages for youyou listen to me and respond to me with your perceptions of what I suggested you consider. (Now, before the “i-dot/t-cross” mob get too hyper, I hasten to say that there’s a heck of a lot more that goes into this process…but this is a blog post, not a graduate thesis.)

The bottom line is that, as communicators, our mission is to communicate with…not talk at…those individuals, groups, or organizations whose support we need.

And to accomplish this, we have to be acutely aware of how we present thoughts and ideas in our messages. What works in one cultural scenario may possibly go up in flames in another…witness the case of that oldie-but-goodie marketing misstep, the Chevy Nova. Great idea in English-speaking populations…not so much in a Hispanic setting.

Effective communication also requires a mutual understanding of needs, wants, and desires. The Public Relations Society of America’s’ new (March 2012) definition of the term “public relations” emphasizes the relationship-building aspect of the process and rightly so. Without this synchronization of relationships, communication remains a “shotgun” effort, with a broadside salvo of words that one hopes will reach and resonate with intended audiences.

And herein lies the challenge…and the opportunity…for public relations professionals. Our mission is to craft messages and programs for clients or employers that will be heard by target audiences, comprehended by target audiences, and responded to by target audiences…no buses involved (unless you’re Vito Corleone!).

“The ever-increasing complexity of society is constantly changing our way of living. We are increasingly dependent on one another, and thus, more than ever before, we need mutual understanding.” [Edward L. Bernays, “A definitive study of Your Future in Public Relations,” 1961]


Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA, is Associate Professor of Communication (Undergraduate) at Curry College in Milton, MA. He also is Visiting Lecturer, Organizational and Professional Communication (Graduate), at Regis College in Weston, MA. Prior to his move into academia, Kirk practiced nonprofit and government public relations and marketing for more than 35 years in the US as well as Asia. Accredited by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), Kirk is a Member of PRSA’s national Board of Directors and has held leadership positions with PRSA Educators Academy and PRSA Northeast District as well as with the Boston and Hawaii PRSA chapters.




8 Responses to " Effective Communication…Can You Hear Me Now? "

  1. Kirk makes great points. Although they may seem obvious, we often get so caught up in the day to day that don’t always keep these points in mind – both in providing service to a client and in the advice given to clients. Mindfulness and practice are critical. We tackled that topic in a resent blog series that discussed media training and sound bites: http://www.newsmakergroup.com/blog/say-what-formulating-an-effective-and-accurate-sound-bite/

  2. Mike Dorman says:


    I think you made some very valid points. The quote attributed to Robert McCloskey is excellent based on my experience as a certified business coach with work focused on organizational leadership. A conversation between any two individuals can further progress if successful and effective … or it can send someone off course. And the key rests in making certain that the listener gets precisely what the communicator wants them to get from the conversation. That, then, becomes the job and goal of the one communicating and it’s as simple as asking the listener to repeat back the take-away in terms of their understanding. All that they did get … great. And wherever there is something that needs to be restated and clarified to achieve the alignment, it becomes a rather easy task of the one communicating. Failure to have everyone ‘together’ is and can be very costly. Your post inspired me to blog on this topic http://thethirdzone.com/?p=1046.

    Thanks for your insights

  3. […] PR is a profession that requires its practitioners having skills more than simply speaking well and writing well. More than words require to create an effective communication plan and to implement it. Deirdre Breakenridge well defines effective communication and talks about how to achieve it in his blog. […]

  4. Hi, Suzanne and Mike ~

    Thanks very much for your feedback, and my apologies for the delay in responding. Between PRSA International Conference and then getting back into classroom mode, I’ve been a little off-schedule.

    Really enjoyed reading your blog as well, Mike!

  5. Sarah Kanthack says:

    I would have to agree with the previous comments, you made some very valid points. I’m a public relations student at the University of Oregon and my professors also stress the importance of two-way communication. It is the public relations job to understand their company’s target market through research to ensure the message not only gets received but also understood and accepted. Your post gets to the heart of what the field of public relations is all about.

    Thank you,
    Sarah Kanthack

  6. Thanks very much, Sarah. You’re absolutely correct…it’s a MUTUAL understanding, and we, as public relations professionals, have to “drive the bus” on this one and not “assume” that someone else will do it for us or that “they should know this already.” Sounds like your professors at University of Oregon have it nailed!

    Thanks very much for reading and commenting!

  7. […] I read a blog post written by Kirk Hazlett, an Associate Professor of Communication (Undergraduate) at Curry College in Milton, MA.  He began […]

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