Symbolic Interactionism in the field..

As I read more on symbolic interactionism theory, I can’t help but be mindful of peace work I had participated in with Peaceful Schools International in Northern Ireland. The troubles in Northern Ireland resulted in a divide between Protestant and Catholic members of society. Catholics want a united Ireland (with the Republic of Ireland), while Protestants generally support the reign of the United Kingdom. For this reason, there is Catholic resentment toward the monarch. The school system in Northern Ireland is segregated into Catholic and Protestant schools. While visiting the Catholic schools, our group had to adjust to our audience by being mindful of the divide. We passed out Canadian pennies as a keepsake for the children (mutually beneficial relationship), in the Protestant schools, but not Catholic, as my next experience would prove the utility in not passing them out to Catholic schoolchildren. Our group held a cross-cultural communication day in which Catholic and Protestant students came together for our workshops and activities. One of the activities involved creating and trading art work. Upon passing a child the picture that had drawn for her, she would not accept it, pointing to the penny drawn on the picture with Queen Elizabeth on it. It was incredible to see the young age at which these children had established such strong views and bias toward another religion. This is an example of the socio-cultural tradition; the reproduction of social order. It was truly amazing to see the children of both religions come together and enjoy their day, wearing their regular clothing (no uniforms to distinguish), laughing and playing as if the troubles didn’t even exist.


Privacy in the Public Sphere

As I read through my notes and try to decide what to blog about, I find myself continuously returning to the idea of our public and private life in the digital age. I find it especially interesting as other classes have touched on this idea as well. There is an apparent shift in the importance of individual values versus the importance of communal values.

“Western societies early notions of individual selfhood are now moving toward a greater emphasis on more relational notions of self-hood”. (Ess, 2014., p. 61) Our society is shifting from a focus on individual values to a focus on communal values. Why the shift? I have a few ideas.

Habermas touched upon the collision of the life world and the public sphere. These two worlds are colliding because it is inevitable in the ‘bare all’ technological world we live in. We are subjecting our information to the interpretation of our audience. Your life can only be private so long as you keep your information private. The emergence of social networking sites has resulted in an incredible amount of information being put on the internet to be used at the disposal of whomever happens to get their hands on it. Once you post information on a social networking site, you are leaving it up to interpretation of the reader (as well as creating a permanent digital footprint). Babe (2007) would suggest your message only to be of effect if it is understood by the reader in the way you intend the message to be understood. Considering your frame of reference, the information may be misinterpreted or misunderstood. In an ideal world, this misinterpretation would be impossible – a message would convey exactly what it is intended to convey. Unfortunately, due to barriers of communication, such as frame of reference and the chosen medium, this absolute truth is unattainable; but it does not mean we cannot try (what is truth anyway? – in postmodern sense) I believe the shift in the individual privacy to community privacy has emerged as a direct result of misinterpretation of information. If you wish your information to be well received by your ‘audience’ (followers, friends), you had better step into their shoes and try to imagine what it is they would like to see. Empathy is incredibly important in the use of rhetoric. As you empathize with them, and imagine what it is they would like to experience, you can create dialogue that persuades them to see a situation in a way that is mutually enjoyable for yourself and your audience. As the pleasure of your audience becomes more important, you are straying from your individual focus to that of the content of the community. Grierson alluded to the relationship between individualism and interdependence pg 107 babe 2007. There is interdependence between our community and ourselves. William Stewart explained McLuhlan’s idea of the global village as a society “interconnected by an electronic nervous system”. (2014) Interestingly enough, McLuhlan was right. He predicted the internet’s mass appeal to the world.

Babe, R.E. (2007). Canadian Communication Thought: Ten Foundational Writers.

Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Ess, Charles. (2014). Digital Media Ethics: Digital Media and Society Series.

The Bottle Versus the Breast -Fear Mongering for New Moms

In all of our readings, the idea I found myself most caught up in was that of symbolic interactionism. Perhaps because I have experienced this so much, I finally had a name to put to it. At its basic level, it says, “this is how I’ve experienced something in the world, therefore this is how I relate to it.”

Being a new mom, I find myself bombarded by other people’s experiences with babies constantly, and overwhelmed by it all. From “when your baby cries like this, it must be hungry”, to “they sleep best if you do X, whatever X happens to be.” However, all these comments are informed by individual experience that those often giving it consider universally applicable. Much like Mead discusses how an audience will adopt an overall attitude that informs individual response. While many are well meaning, there seems to be a fear mongering culture for new moms, particularly on the use of breast milk versus formula feeding.

To be transparent in expressing my comments, I will state that I have used both. I fed my baby just breast milk for the first five months of her life, and they she started getting teeth, so we introduced some formula. I have had to deal with a personal struggle of determining what is best for me and my baby, and reconciling that with what society tells me is appropriate. Again, looking to Mead we see, “and thus it is that social control, as operating in terms of self-criticism, exerts itself so intimately and extensively over individual behavior or conduct, serving to integrate the individual and his actions with reference to the organized social process of experience and behavior in which he is implicated.” (Mead, 1934)

Now my personal experience and that of my daughter have been very positive. She has taken to formula with no problems. Having been a completely formula fed baby myself, as per my mother’s choice, I do not feel I am doing harm by my baby. However, my own opinion and experience is only part of this equation, as we know that communication is participation, but from this course, no doubt from own our lives, and from how we have come to understand symbolic interactionism. Certainly others have had a negative experience with formula, which contributes to the fear mongering sometimes associated with its use.

One of the key challenges or pitfalls I learned, not just from my choice of formula, but from the symbolic interaction theory was the difficult balance between personal response informing, and harming. If balance is possible, then it is to derive your own meaning, while learning from others.

Mead,G.H. (1934). The social foundations and functions of thought and communication. In C.W. Morris (Ed.), Mind, self, and society from the standpoint of a social behaviorist (pp . 253-260; 325-328) . Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

The Public Sphere Online: The Ethics of Governmental Presence

Our discussions surrounding Habermas’s ‘public sphere’ and rhetoric have, like many of our classmates, led me to some clear and obvious connections with electronic mediums today. Jürgen Habermas’s theory of the public sphere evolved as a political attempt to reinvigorate the Enlightenment project of freedom, ‘through the reconstruction of a public sphere in which reason might prevail, not the instrumental reason of modern practice but the critical reason that represents the best of the democratic tradition’ (Ku, 2000). Habermas argued that this sphere emerged as a means for citizens to express their opinions openly and free of political constraints – democracy. These individuals are sharing opinions, thoughts, stories, and anything else they feel like sharing. As we know, the Internet, more notably, social media platforms, is facilitating this. This online discourse has been celebrated as a means for promoting democracy and giving everyone a platform to have their individual voice heard. While I agree, some recent experiences have caused me to sit back and reflect.

This semester I had the privilege of lecturing for the COMM PBRL 3013 01: Mass Media and Public Opinion undergraduate class on the subject of the discourse of fear, and the “tough on crime” agenda in media. The relationship between fear and the media dates back to as far as the First World War however now with social media engagement at an all time high, it is particularly prevalent today. I come to question if citizen journalism is a true form of democracy, as Habermas argues, or if it is just adding fuel to the fire.

I, along with the majority of our country, flew to Twitter as soon as the news of the shootings on parliament hill broke. In fact, I believe the news broke on Twitter. It was the personal accounts of those on the scene that provided us the up-to-the minute updates about the situation and the well-being of those involved. As a society, we have come to expect this speed during crisis. The public is so starved for information, the set themselves up to be vulnerable to just about anything someone has to say. As social media is a public forum and citizens are free to say what they wish, feeds can often become more of a he said, she said, rather than factual information. As the public scans through their feed, they are absorbing each post, regardless of the author’s credibility. Media has had a poor reputation of trust in the past for pushing messages of propaganda and stories that advance government agenda. As Habermas suggested, the public is looking to get away from governmental constraints and discuss openly with other citizens. People are more likely to relate with and trust the average citizen as opposed to the media’s formulated – assumed – politically driven messaging.

We are in the now generation. This is a time where society is accustomed to instant gratification and no longer enjoys it, but demands it. How we receive our news is no different. Citizen journalists are commenting on current events at such a pace, credible news outlets and law enforcement are having difficulty keeping up. In the absence of the official story, the public relies on these citizens for their information. This past fall I attended a media panel where the largest media outlets in Newfoundland gathered to discuss social media and its influence on the delivery of the news. Interestingly, a few outlets stated that many of their reporters are sent into the field to gather what they can as quickly as they can, regardless of if it has been fact checked. They simply send out a disclaimer that this is not the official story. For the general public however, if you are reading a news update from a CBC reporter, you are lead to believe it is to be true. This is the thin line that citizen journalism walks. Despite the mistrust many major news sources receive, it may be in the public’s best interest to look to them for facts rather than their fellow tweeter.

During PR Ethics and Leadership this term, we spent time discussing online privacy and the ethics surrounding the perceived government control over our Internet presence. As Habermas argues, the public sphere should be free for open discussion, free of governmental influence. That said, there are many occasions where, in my opinion, governmental implication has proven to be critical. If the government had not had access to the public’s social media and online activity, alerts to potential terrorist or dangerous events may not have been flagged. With the globalization of these social sites, individuals from around the world are using this medium to communicate about any subject of their choice. This could be concerning to some interest groups. Outside of clear public threats such as terrorism, there are other dangers such as child pornography, or sex trafficking. As outlined, the public sphere is meant to be a source of communication at the public’s discretion. Who is to say that a group of individuals cannot come together to discuss such disturbing activity?

Overall, I am positive about Habermas’s idea of the public sphere. As an avid user of social media and someone who goes online to gather and share my opinion, this form of free speech is both useful and crucial in my daily life. Personally, I am more than comfortable with the government have an observer role in the Internet as I don’t believe I have anything I need to hide. I take a utilitarian approach to this issue and would relinquish my privacy for the greater good if that could lead to the capture of a potential pedophile or terrorist. I understand that this comparison is quite dramatic, but I think it delivers the point.

How do you feel about the public sphere online? If the government is involved, is it still a public sphere?


Ess, Charles. (2013). Digital Media Ethics. Hoboken: Wiley. Retrieved from

Ku, Agnes S. (July 2000) ‘Revisiting the Notion of the “Public” in Habermas’s Theory – Toward a theory of politics and public credibility’, Sociological Theory 18 (2): 216-240.

Waluchow, W. J. (2003). The dimensions of ethics: An introduction to ethical theory. Peterborough, Ont: Broadview Press.

Theory, Economics and Completing the Puzzle

I’ve always struggled with theory. It’s constantly hiding somewhere behind most of what I learn and practice as a PR professional, however it’s never taken a place in the forefront of my mind. So, I wasn’t as thrilled as I could have been at the prospect of taking an entire class on theory.  However, since the first readings, I’ve slowly been able to fill in missing pieces of a theory puzzle I didn’t really realize I was putting together.

Learning about Canada’s huge contribution to communication was powerful for me. Our country’s long-standing commitment to this field definitely makes us a leader in communication theory and this knowledge has infused within me an interest to learn more. My academic interests surround cross-cultural communication practices and specifically those meant to bridge the kinds of social and economic differences that exist between citizens of developing countries and those of the developed world. Learning that Irene Spry was engaging in cross cultural communication in Canada during the mid to late 1900s (a time when our populations were arguably even more divided) was eye-opening for me.

Because my thesis will focus on best communication practices of INGOs in developing countries, navigating various cultures (especially those with an economic divide) is often at the center of my research. Spry often begins her look at cultural divides from an economic standpoint but it’s clear that she is attempting to understand the cultures that she encounters. This is such a powerful idea in a time when few leaders or citizens would have realized the absolute necessity of living in harmony in a country with strong cultural differences.

Clemencia Rodriguez is a more modern theorist who touches on communication and economics (though her focus is on citizens’ journalism). She presents interesting ideas that seem to oppose those of Spry (especially in relation to mass media), yet when viewed together, I believe the two points of view compliment cross-cultural communication theory and approaches. Such theories and ideas are especially relevant in our current communities where we are trying to reach levels of equality while still struggling to understand exactly what equality is and what an egalitarian society looks like.

At the moment, all of North America is focused on Ferguson, Missouri, a town that has erupted as a result of what parts of the community see as inequality; a power struggle resulting from a cultural and economic divide, historical subjugation and a lack of communication or understanding. Recently, NFL player Benjamin Watson released his thoughts on the resent events in Ferguson, which (reading between the lines) seemingly call for the community to calm down and think things through rationally. Really though, I wonder if he’s trying to work through the implications of what theorists like Rodriguez and Spry have identified as power disparity resulting from economic inequality.

Who would have thought communication theory was so applicable to our everyday struggles?

Note: For those who would like to learn more about Clemencia Rodriguez, I urge you to check out her book ‘Citizens’ Media Against Armed Conflict: Disrupting Violence in Colombia‘. For those of you who just want the gist, here is a review that I wrote for another class (I think you should be able to access it):


Rodriguez, C. (2011). Citizens’ Media Against Armed Conflict: Disrupting Violence in Colombia. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press.

Babe, R.E. (2000). Chapter 7. In Canadian communication thought: Ten foundational writers. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. pp. 165-181.

The objective of trust

The readings on rhetoric were profoundly applicable to the classes I teach: Communications Management I and II. Taught as a continuum, the classes begin with defining PR, including the history and ethical implications, the core competencies of the communications professional, now and in the future, and then onto strategy and planning, beginning with the RACE formula (Research Analysis Communications Evaluation).

I teach my students about the communications objective/engagement continuum: awareness, understanding, acceptance and then behaviour change. It originally applied to employee engagement, but it easily works when explaining the various levels of communications objectives. But the article by Robert Heath adds an added layer: trust. He argues, and I agree, that the value that public relations has to society is that of trust. (Heath, Robert, 2000). “Trust is the ultimate goal, beyond understanding and agreement” (Heath, R., p. 80).

And if we think about it, and most of our readings, and much of the news that relates to our readings, it really all comes down to trust. “People identify with those they trust,” writes Heath. “They also trust those who enact and advocate narratives that they accept and enact” (Heath, p. 81). Let’s look at a couple of examples of misplaced trust, ripped from the headlines:

1. Ghomeshi. In his mea culpa “it’s them not me” Facebook post, he uses his popularity and power — just as the mass media use their power as discussed in this week’s readings on mass media — to build trust. He all but says, “trust me, it’s their word against mine” when he writes: “But I am telling this story to you so the truth is heard.” As we witnessed in the days following, his was not the truth we trusted, despite his position of power. To their credit, his public relations firms ended their relationship with them, ensuring their trust and their reputation stayed intact. They saw, as Heath outlines, that their own credibility was based on “unfailing demonstrated commitment to advance society because of the good of society, not the singular good of the advocate” (Heath, p. 81).

2. Bill Cosby. Cosby’s reputation as everyone’s favourite 80s-sweater wearing funny dad is faltering everyday as allegations of sexual harassment and drugged rape continue. “We may be looking at America’s greatest serial rapist that ever got away with this for the longest amount of time,” his latest victim has said. “He got away with it because he was hiding behind the image of Cliff Huxtable.” And the longer he stays quiet, the longer his source credibility disintegrates. This is one situation no public relations firm would be willing to take on. It’s just too late.

If we as practitioners of public relations adhere to the Bryant-Wallace “The Oath of a Public Speaker” (Heath, p. 79), we will all be doing our profession proud — a profession that suffers from the ironic shoemaker-syndrome (our own profession suffers from bad PR). Slightly amended it could very well be our own Hippocratic Oath, perhaps a necessary step when the notion of trust is becoming increasingly just that: a notion. We must all act in the public interest, as the CPRS definition of Public Relations states, not in the interest of Jian, or Bill, or a particular government. It’s our “do no harm” clause. Trust me.

Engagement but also communications objectives

Engagement but also communications objectives

Some thoughts about “premediation”

In a class discussion earlier this semester, I remarked that I couldn’t understand the 24/7 media coverage bordering on hysteria around Ebola. Tonight, after reading Richard Grusin’s fascinating essay “Premediation” (Criticism, Winter 2004, Vol. 46, No. 1) I am beginning to understand.

Grusin argues that 9/11 — “the first live global media event ever” — was so shocking in its catastrophic scale and surprise factor that it ended the U.S. cultural desire for immediacy.  As much as the U.S. government in declaring the War on Terror vowed America would never be attached again, the media worked to ensure, Grusin states “…the immediacy of the catastrophe, the immediacy of a disaster, could not happen again – because it would always already been premediated.”  He states the media’s goal has become to cover all potential outcomes of major stories, to premediate the future, so that we can’t be blindsided again the way we were on 9/11.

The result is a public that is kept in a perpetual state of anxiety to protect them from experiencing the immediacy of another catastrophe like 9/11.  For me, this gives some insight into the round-the-clock coverage of Ebola, even if it did elicit fear among the public.  For a current example that I believe underscores Grusin’s thesis, one need only turn on the television.  For days American media have been premediating the outcome of the Ferguson, Missouri Grand Jury.  Countless hours have been spent on cable news analyzing every potential outcome, with the dominant narrative being the police offer who shot Michael Brown will not be indicted.  It its premediation of the verdict, the violence sure to come will surprise no one.

Is the Ferguson Grand Jury outcome premediated?

Is the Ferguson Grand Jury outcome premediated?

I was also fascinated by the comparison Grusin makes between the first Gulf War and the strict censorship imposed by the Pentagon, and the lead up and execution of the Iraq invasion and subsequent war in 2003. This is interesting on many levels: first the propaganda effort prior to the invasion that meant the everyone knew war was inevitable; and the military’s use of embedded media to make them part of the war’s narrative.

Beyond Grusin’s premediation thesis, the reading made me think about the consequences of a public in a perpetual state of anxiety, created primarily by the media.  This is consistent with the “power and resistance” narrative articulated by Joshua Meyrowtiz in the essay “Power, Pleasure, Patterns: Intersecting Narratives of Media Influence” also assigned this week. (Journal of Communication, 58 (208).  It also made me think about the impact that a platform like Twitter has on remediation/premediation.  It definitely makes me want to drill deeper into the subject.