July 22, 2015
Part One: Understanding the evolution of audiences

(Note: This article is taken from a forthcoming report by the Atlantic Council on public diplomacy and its role in national security due to be released this fall.)


Much has been written about public diplomacy in the 21st century and its need to evolve. In order to do that, one must understand the larger changes in the communications field that underpins a discipline like PD. Specifically, appreciating the growing influence and power of the audience in the communications loop is key. While the sender by nature retains the narrative, the ability of that narrative to have its desired impact is now as much about the recipient as it is the transmitter, having profound impacts on the success of communications and related PD efforts. The audience can increasingly influence the rhythm of the exchange to include the flow of information, what type of information to absorb, and the need for that information to be verifiable.

The audience is now in charge of determining the flow of information. Today most audiences can pick when, where, and increasingly in what form it wants its information. Thanks to computers and increasingly smartphones they no longer need to wait for the paper to arrive or a newscast to be shown at a specific time. That same technology now also means that those same audiences, once only on the receiving end of this information exchange, can now be active participants. A person can read a piece of news when and where she wants and then offer her feedback, be it back to the originating source or through her own social network via Twitter, Reddit, and the like. This, in turn, puts pressure on the source to be transparent and creates an expectation among the audience that its voice has value and should be heard. If it feels that it isn’t being listened to it may seek out those that will, rejecting the sender and its message. It is important to note that this change in audience behavior is not uniform. Specific actors (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) in a given culture or nation (China) can dominate or even block social media and the flow of information, muscling out or silencing intended audiences. In order for the narrative to be effective, the sender must understand what the audience can and will do, how to assimilate its feedback, and what limitations may be imposed on it.

Audiences are trending towards deep-diving rather than skimming. Traditionally, a news consumer had to sit through parts of a telecast to hear about those topics he or she wanted, or leaf through pages of a newspaper to get to their desired story. As a result, the audience had a certain level of generality even if they focused on a few areas. Today, as audiences gain greater control over their information intake their ability to filter also increases. Therefore, if someone wants to know the latest about Russia and Ukraine they no longer have to sit through segments on the Iranian nuclear deal. This is both a function of the longstanding desires of personal preference and a defense against the sheer volume of information flooding the user today. As a result, a trend towards issue specialization is occurring, resulting in audiences understanding more about a given topic that they are interested in but less about the various topics in play at any given time. For a sender, the targeting of audiences and how to grab their attention requires even greater precision and creative thinking than in the past.

Persuasion is now evidence-based, not institution-based. For many, the days of believing a piece of information based only on its source are over.Skepticism in institutions and their specific narratives is at an all-time high; even a longstanding pillar such as the New York Times must constantly fight against questioning about its stories. This phenomenon is due to the sheer volume of information on a given topic as well as well-publicized breaches of trust due to the drive to add to that volume over rigorous verification of the facts. Therefore, for a narrative to be accepted it must not only be transparent in content, it must often be verified by influencers that are trusted by the audience. That stands an even better chance of acceptance if it is passed along by a personal source such as a friend or co-worker. As one example, only 13 percent of the Washington Post’s website traffic comes through the front page (i.e. institutional trust). The remaining 87 percent come in “sideways,” meaning via shared links between users on social media or within e-mails (i.e. a trusted third party). For the sender of information, understanding the influencers of a given audience now becomes as important as understanding the ultimate audience itself.

If communications-based fields like public diplomacy are to be relevant going forward, it is critical to understand how the audience is changing. Through more nuanced reception, a trend towards issue specialization, and the need to be convinced more than ever, the desired recipients are increasingly leveling the playing field between sender and receiver.  

Mark Seip is the senior Navy fellow at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense or Department of the Navy.

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