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Communication in the Real World: Blog

Entries in communication competence (4)

Wednesday
Aug202014

Communication Competence Part 1: Getting Started on your Road to Communication Competence

Note: This is the first post in a series that will focus on communication competence.

As we prepare for a new academic year, many students will take a communication course for the first time. Perhaps you visited this blog because my textbook, Communication in the Real World, is being used in your course. If so, thank you for visiting, and please feel free to contact me with any questions or feedback about the book.

 For many students, their introductory course in communication is the only communication course they ever take. But, that doesn't mean that the need for improving our communication skills and increasing our communication knowledge will be met completely.

Being competent at something basically means you know what you're doing. Communication competence refers to the knowledge of effective and appropriate communication patterns and the ability to use and adapt that knowledge in various contexts.  To better understand this definition, let’s break apart its components.

Gaining Knowledge and Communication Competence

The first part of the definition we will unpack deals with knowledge. The cognitive elements of competence include knowing how to do something and understanding why things are done the way they are.[i]

People can develop cognitive competence by observing and evaluating the actions of others.

Cognitive competence can also be developed through instruction.

If you are currently taking a communication class, I encourage you to try to observe the communication concepts you are learning in the communication practices of others and yourself. This will help bring the concepts to life and also help you evaluate how communication in the real world matches up with communication concepts. As you build a repertoire of communication knowledge based on your experiential and classroom knowledge, you will also be developing behavioral competence.

Using Your Knowledge to Communicate Competently

The second part of the definition of communication competence that we will unpack is the ability to use.

Individual factors affect our ability to do anything. Not everyone has the same athletic, musical, or intellectual ability. At the individual level, a person’s physiological and psychological characteristics affect competence.

In terms of physiology, age, maturity, and ability to communicate affect competence.

In terms of psychology, a person’s mood, stress level, personality, and level of communication apprehension (level of anxiety regarding communication) affect competence.[ii]

All these factors will either help or hinder you when you try to apply the knowledge you have learned to actual communication behaviors. For example, you might know strategies for being an effective speaker, but public speaking anxiety that kicks in when you get in front of the audience may prevent you from fully putting that knowledge into practice.

Adaptability and Communication Competence

The third part of the definition we will unpack is ability to adapt to various contexts.

What is competent or not varies based on social and cultural context, which makes it impossible to only have one standard for what counts as communication competence.[iii]

Social variables such as status and power affect competence. In a social situation where one person—say, a supervisor—has more power than another—for example, his or her employee—then the supervisor is typically the one who sets the standard for competence.

Cultural variables such as race and nationality also affect competence. A Taiwanese woman who speaks English as her second language may be praised for her competence in the English language in her home country but be viewed as less competent in the United States because of her accent.

In summary, although we have a clear definition of communication competence, there are not definitions for how to be competent in any given situation, since competence varies at the individual, social, and cultural level.

Developing communication competence takes time and effort, but it can also bring many rewards. In the next entry, we will learn more about the types of communication competence that college students should gain and the potential benefits of them.


[i] Owen Hargie, Skilled Interpersonal Interaction: Research, Theory, and Practice (London: Routledge, 2011), 9.

[ii] Ralph E. Cooley and Deborah A Roach, “A Conceptual Framework,” in Competence in Communication: A Multidisciplinary Approach, ed. Robert N. Bostrom (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1984), 24.

[iii] Ralph E. Cooley and Deborah A Roach, “A Conceptual Framework,” in Competence in Communication: A Multidisciplinary Approach, ed. Robert N. Bostrom (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1984), 26.


Monday
Jan062014

A PR Director's PR Disaster: A Lesson For Competent and Professional Social Media Usage

A PR Director's PR Disaster: A Lesson For Competent and Professional Social Media Usage

A PR director with InterActiveCorp, Justine Sacco, tweeted the following before taking off to South Africa: 

Obviously, such a comment draws on stereotypes of Africa and AIDS, and adding the "I'm white" part at the end brings up outdated tropes that position white, especially white heterosexuals, as immune to AIDS. Shouldn't a public relations professional know that what she says online can go viral in seconds? As a professional at a company that represents clients like OKCupid and UrbanSpoon know how to use competently her own social media? As a communication professional myself, I think the obvious answer to these questions is: yes!

Reliable Sources did a great segment on this called, "Trial By Social Media," in which they discuss how the internet exploded with reaction to Sacco's tweet, while she was presumably enjoying her long flight to Africa. By the time she landed, reporters had already gathered to question her about the tweet. Subsequently, she issued a public apology and lost her job. 

In my book, Communication in the Real World, I outline some guidlines for competent social media usage in my chapter titled, "New Media and Communication." What follows is an excerpt with advice that might have helped Ms. Sacco and may help us all. 

Competent Communication on Social Media

We all have a growing log of personal information stored on the Internet, and some of it is under our control and some of it isn’t. We also have increasingly diverse social networks that require us to be cognizant of the information we make available and how we present ourselves. While we can’t control all the information about ourselves online or the impressions people form, we can more competently engage with social media so that we are getting the most out of it in both personal and professional contexts.

A quick search on Google for “social media dos and don’ts” will yield around 100,000 results, which shows that there’s no shortage of advice about how to competently use social media.

One key piece of advice, relevant to the case of Justine Sacco is: Think before you post.

Think Before You Post

Software that enable people to take “screen shots” or download videos and tools that archive web pages can be used without our knowledge to create records of what you post. While it is still a good idea to go through your online content and “clean up” materials that may form unfavorable impressions, it is even a better idea to not put that information out there in the first place. Posting something about how you hate school or your job or a specific person may be done in the heat of the moment and forgotten, but a potential employer might find that information and form a negative impression even if it’s months or years old.

Sunday
May262013

5 Communication Concepts to Help Leaders During a Crisis

Laura M. Foote notes in a recent article in the Journal of Management Education that, “communication by leaders in the wake of a business crisis can frequently determine whether the crisis gets resolved quickly, escalates in severity, or becomes an opportunity to transform or strengthen the organization.”

In this article, I overview 5 communication concepts that can help leaders during a crisis. They are:

  1. Audience Analysis
  2. Public Speaking Skills
  3. Mindfulness
  4. Cognitive Flexibility
  5. Tolerance for Uncertainty 

What is Crisis Communication?

Crisis communication is a fast-growing field of study within communication studies as many businesses and organizations realize the value in finding someone to prepare for potential crises, interact with stakeholders during a crisis, and assess crisis responses after they have occurred.

Crisis communication occurs as a result of a major event outside of normal expectations that:

  1. Has potential negative results
  2. Runs the risk of escalating in intensity
  3. May result in close media or government scrutiny, and 
  4. Creates pressure for a timely and effective response.[i] 

Some examples of crises include natural disasters, management/employee misconduct, product tampering or failure, and workplace violence.

The need for crisis communication professionals is increasing, as various developments have made organizations more susceptible to crises.[ii] Since the 1990s, organizations have increasingly viewed their reputations as assets that must be protected. Whereas reputations used to be built on word-of-mouth communication and one-on-one relationships, technology, mass media, and now social media have made it easier for stakeholders to praise or question an organization’s reputation. A Facebook post or a Tweet can now turn into widespread consumer activism that organizations must be able to respond to quickly and effectively.

Concept 1: Audience Analysis: Stakeholders and Crisis Communication 

Crisis communicators don’t just interact with the media; they communication with a variety of stakeholders. Stakeholders are the various audiences that have been identified as needing information during a crisis. These people and groups have a “stake” in the organization, the public interest, or as a user of a product or service. Internal stakeholders are people within an organization or focal area, such as employees and management. External stakeholders are people outside the organization or focal area such as customers, clients, media, regulators, and the general public.[iii] Foote notes in her article that leaders who delay their response while waiting on additional information can worry stakeholders, which escalates a crisis.

Concept 2: Public Speaking Skills

Crisis communicators must have good public speaking skills. Communicating during a crisis naturally increases anxiety, so it’s important that speakers have advanced skills at managing anxiety and apprehension.

In terms of delivery, while there will be times when impromptu responses are necessary—for example, during a question-and-answer period—manuscript or extemporaneous delivery are the best options.

It is also important that a crisis communicator be skilled at developing ethos, or credibility as a speaker. This is an important part of the preparatory stages of crisis communication when relationships are formed and reputations are established. The importance of ethos is related to the emphasis on honesty and disclosure over stonewalling and denial.

Concept 3: Mindfulness 

Mindfulness is a state of self- and other-monitoring that informs later reflection on communication interactions. As mindful communicators we should ask questions that focus on the interactive process like “How is our communication going? What are my reactions? What are their reactions?” Being able to adapt our communication in the moment based on our answers to these questions is a skill that comes with a high level of communication competence. Reflecting on the communication encounter later to see what can be learned is also a way to build communication competence. We should then be able to incorporate what we learned into our communication frameworks, which requires cognitive flexibility.

Concept 4: Cognitive Flexibility 

Cognitive flexibility refers to the ability to continually supplement and revise existing knowledge to create new categories rather than forcing new knowledge into old categories. Cognitive flexibility helps prevent our knowledge from becoming stale and also prevents the formation of stereotypes and can help us avoid prejudging an encounter or jumping to conclusions. To be better communicators, we should know much about others and ourselves and be able to reflect on and adapt our knowledge as we gain new experiences.

Motivation and knowledge can inform us as we gain new experiences, but how we feel in the moment of communication encounters is also important.

Concept 5: Tolerance for Uncertainty 

Tolerance for uncertainty refers to an individual’s attitude about and level of comfort in uncertain situations.[iv] Some people perform better in uncertain situations than others, and crisis communication experiences inherently bring up uncertainty. Whether communicating with internal or external stakeholders during a crisis, we are often wondering what we should or shouldn’t do or say.

Situations of uncertainty most often become clearer as they progress, but the anxiety that an individual with a low tolerance for uncertainty feels may lead them to leave the situation or otherwise communicate in a less competent manner.

Individuals with a high tolerance for uncertainty may exhibit more patience, waiting on new information to become available or seeking out information, which may then increase the understanding of the situation and lead to a more successful outcome.[v] 

Although each of these communication concepts corresponds to skills that must be developed over time, putting them to use in your everyday communication encounters should help better prepare you to use them when a crisis emerges.  


[i] Alan Jay Zaremba, Crisis Communication: Theory and Practice (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharp, 2010), 20–22.

[ii] W. Timothy Coombs, Ongoing Crisis Communication: Planning, Managing, and Responding, 3rd ed. (Los Angeles, CA: Sage, 2012), 14.

[iii] Alan Jay Zaremba, Crisis Communication: Theory and Practice (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharp, 2010), 30–31.

[iv] Judith N. Martin and Thomas K. Nakayama, Intercultural Communication in Contexts, 5th ed. (Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2010), 469.

[v] Margaret D. Pusch, “The Interculturally Competent Global Leader,” in The Sage Handbook of Intercultural Competence, ed. Darla K. Deardorff (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2009), 69.

Wednesday
Dec122012

Social Media Literacy: A Useful Skill for Digital Natives (And Us Converted Analogue Natives)

Leora Arnowitz recently reported on the 10 biggest celebrity social media screw ups of 2012. This is just a reminder that in our age of new and social media, we need to be more competent about what we say and how we present ourselves online. 

I'm sure you don't want to end up on a list of social media blunderers (like Kim Kardashian who decided to comment on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or Chris Brown bragging about his Grammy win) so here's some advice from my textbook about how to use social media competently. There are also plenty of sources online, like SaucySocialMedia.com (where I got the picture to the left) who can help you figure out how to manage your social media persona. 

Social Media Literacy

We have increasingly diverse social networks that require us to be cognizant of the information we make available and how we present ourselves. While we can’t control all the information about ourselves online or the impressions people form, we can more competently engage with social media so that we are getting the most out of it in both personal and professional contexts. [i] 

Be consistent. Given that most people have multiple social media accounts, it’s important to have some degree of consistency. At least at the top level of your profile (the part that isn’t limited by privacy settings), include information that you don’t mind anyone seeing.

Know what’s out there. Since the top level of many social media sites are visible in Google search results, you should monitor how these appear to others by regularly (about once a month) doing a Google search using various iterations of your name. Putting your name in quotation marks will help target your results. Make sure you’re logged out of all your accounts and then click on the various results to see what others can see.

Think before you post. Software that enable people to take “screen shots” or download videos and tools that archive web pages can be used without our knowledge to create records of what you post. While it is still a good idea to go through your online content and “clean up” materials that may form unfavorable impressions, it is even a better idea to not put that information out there in the first place. Posting something about how you hate school or your job or a specific person may be done in the heat of the moment and forgotten, but a potential employer might find that information and form a negative impression even if it’s months or years old.

Be familiar with privacy settings. If you are trying to expand your social network, it may be counterproductive to put your Facebook or Twitter account on “lockdown,” but it is beneficial to know what levels of control you have and to take advantage of them. For example, I have a “Limited Profile” list on Facebook to which I assign new contacts or people with whom I am not very close. You can also create groups of contacts on various social media sites so that only certain people see certain information.

Be a gatekeeper for your network. Do not accept friend requests or followers that you do not know. Not only could these requests be sent from “bots” that might skim your personal info or monitor your activity; they could be from people that might make you look bad. Remember, we learned earlier that people form impressions based on those with whom we are connected. You can always send a private message to someone asking how he or she knows you or do some research by Googling his or her name or username.

Questions to Consider: 

Google your name (remember to use multiple forms and to put them in quotation marks). Do the same with any usernames that are associated with your name (e.g., you can Google your Twitter handle or an e-mail address). What information came up? Were you surprised by anything?

What strategies can you use to help manage the impressions you form on social media?


[i] Alison Doyle, “Top 10 Social Media Dos and Don’ts,” About.com, accessed November 8, 2012, http://jobsearch.about.com/od/onlinecareernetworking/tp/socialmediajobsearch.htm.