The term channel is commonly used in at least two different ways. The first is to describe the format into which information is encoded for transmission between a sender and a receiver. For example, the entries in this encyclopedia utilize primarily a text-based channel. As a text-based message, the encyclopedia entries may be read in a variety of formats, whether in an electronic format (e.g., on one’s computer monitor, tablet, or smartphone) or printed into hard copy (e.g., as a page from a printer or in a bound book). With any of these methods, the information retains the original text-based channel that is perceived visually to be processed by the reader.
The second way the term is used is to characterize the mechanism that carries a message from sender(s) to receiver(s). Often used in a manner synonymous with medium, this use of the term describes the methods and devices used for transporting information. For instance, contributors of these encyclopedia entries encoded their messages using a text-based format; however, readers can choose from a variety of different methods for reading the information, which could include different devices for reading, such as one’s tablet or a printed page. The different methods that readers can select represent their choices of a channel for receiving each contributor’s message.
Understanding either usage of the term is important for corporate reputation scholars and practitioners because channels are essential for any form of information exchange. When considering channel as an information format, the way a message is encoded can affect the degree to which a recipient interprets the message as intended (or not intended) by the message designer. And when considering channel as medium, the method used for delivering a message can have a meaning of its own (e.g., some communication methods are viewed as more formal while others are informal) and simultaneously influence the degree to which a recipient is able to interpret the message as intended.
Channel as Information Format
When considering information format, any type of sensory data has the potential to convey meaning. Visual channels include text, photographs, the visual component of video feeds, and so on. Auditory channels would include any sound-based component of a message, including spoken language, musical accompaniment, and audio components of video messages. Although information expressed via visual and audio channels tends to be the most common, information can also have meaning for recipients when conveyed with other sensory modalities. For instance, sharing information about a new food product by sending customers a sample would convey information via all channels: visual (text and graphics on the packaging as well as the appearance of the item), audio (sound of the package, audible aspects of consumption such as crunchiness), taste, smell, and touch (feeling of the product as it is held, placed in the mouth, etc.).
There are a variety of factors to consider when determining which channel is appropriate for accomplishing a communication objective. Considerations for making these decisions may focus on the following:
- The message format for the original message: This refers to whether the original message was designed in a way that would make it appropriate to keep in the original form or whether there are practical advantages associated with conversion.
- Costs: These are expenses associated with the time, effort, and money that would be associated with conversion.
- Characteristics and expectations of recipients: Do recipients have access to the types of equipment needed for receiving the message in the chosen format?
- Characteristics of the mechanism (medium; see next section) used to deliver the message: Does the preferred medium have features that make it possible to deliver the medium in one format, or is conversion necessary?
Channel as Message Carrier or Medium
A second definition of channel focuses more on the medium used to carry information from sender(s) to receiver(s). For instance, a spoken message encoded in an audio channel can be delivered to a recipient using a variety of different communication media. In some cases, the message may be presented to audiences using radio, or in other cases, the content may be transcribed into a text-based format and delivered as content within an e-mail message. In these instances, the differences between the media and their inherent features can have an impact on the way the same message is perceived and interpreted.
A variety of channels are available to organizational members for the dissemination of information to internal as well as external audiences. Among the most common is typical face-to-face conversation, which could include variations in the number of participants (one-on-one vs. a large meeting). Technological developments and reconfigurations of the workplace have introduced a larger set of communication options. A report from the Pew Research Center points to five communication channels as being the most important for today’s online workers: email, the Internet, landline telephone, cell phone or smartphone, and social networking sites (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn).
Terri Griffith and Gregory Northcraft problematized the notion that the term channel can be used interchangeably to represent both information format and transmission medium. From their perspective, communication medium (e.g., face-to-face conversation, telephone, e-mail) is the more global term to use to describe the methods for conveying messages from person to person. All media, they argue, vary in terms of the different capabilities, or features, that they include. A channel for encoding information, then, is one necessary feature of a medium. For instance, an organization may send a notice about a product or service to customers using e-mail—a medium. In many cases, the primary message may be conveyed using a text-based channel. However, the content of more sophisticated e-mail may also be conveyed by a variety of sensory-based channels. For instance, text-based information may provide key details about the service, images may provide visual illustrations, and embedded audio/video content may provide demonstrations of clients using and benefiting from the new service.
Variation in Channels and Media
In addition to the idea that different communication media have different combinations of features, communication media are also thought to vary along a variety of dimensions that make it possible to characterize their effectiveness for different communication tasks. By considering these dimensions, it becomes possible to more easily recognize why the characteristics of a given medium may be more, or less, effective for certain types of communication.
Two of the most frequently used dimensions for characterizing variations across media are social presence and media richness. Ideas about social presence grew from research aimed at understanding why some communication methods allowed senders and receivers to feel a sense of closeness to one another even when communicating across a distance. In a similar manner, media richness focuses on more specific variations in different communication media and identifies four basic criteria as key factors that determine a medium’s capacity for “rich” (complex) information:
- Immediacy of feedback: The degree to which a medium allows a message sender and receiver to exchange information simultaneously instead of after a delay
- Number of cues: The number of different senses conveyed by the medium (essentially another way of describing the channel as information format)
- Natural language: The potential for a medium to allow individuals to speak in a conversational manner rather than using technical terminology and jargon
- Personal focus: The degree to which a message sent through a medium can be tailored to a specific recipient rather than to a more general audience
These concepts are used as frameworks to guide decisions about the appropriateness of a medium for accomplishing an objective. For example, when engaged in highly complex negotiations of a sensitive nature, more socially present or rich media may be preferred, which would be those that maximize feedback, increase cues, allow natural language, and maintain a more individualized focus. Of course, the same framework may be useful for acknowledging the more strategic limitations of certain media. That is, if an individual has a desire to deliver a message and minimize any potential for receiving negative feedback about the idea (e.g., when sharing information about an unavoidable and unpopular change to one’s service options), a lean medium may be more appropriate than a rich, socially present medium that places the message sender in proximity to a receiver.
Given the increasingly complex communication that must take place within organizations as well as from inside organizations to external stakeholders, more sophisticated frameworks have also been devised for representing differences in media. Andrew Finn and Derek Lane have produced one of the most comprehensive typologies of communication and information technologies to date. That framework classifies communication media using five dimensions:
- Temporality: Whether a communication medium allows for synchronous (immediate) or asynchronous (delayed) message sending and receiving, as well as timed (sending and receiving a message require the same amount of time) or untimed (sending may be quick, but the receiver has extensive time to view and review the message)
- Space: Whether message senders and receivers are copresent during message sending and delivery or distant from one another
- Capacity: The potential of the medium to carry information formatted using different channels (e.g., audio, text, visual) as well as the overall volume of information that can be transmitted
- Interactivity: The rate of exchange of content and involvement of the receiver in the communication process
- Control: The degree to which either the message sender or the receiver has the ability to manipulate message creation, reception, and storage.
Implications for Corporate Reputation
An especially applicable component of Finn and Lane’s framework lies in their consideration of control, which has profound implications for the use of communication channels for affecting corporate reputation and circles back to the original discussion of channel as information format. That is, with the exception of unrecorded, spoken messages, most communication exchanges leave behind some artifact either intentionally or unintentionally with the receivers. This information could range from e-mailed transcripts of a conference call, a tweet or brief Facebook status message available on a follower’s news feed, or a full video recording of a CEO’s keynote address posted to a website. In these cases, the organizational representative has the potential to choose the channel for conveying the information: text for the conference call transcript or social media posting and video for the keynote presentation. However, release of the information cedes control of the message to the recipients, who can modify the messages in many ways to incorporate additional channels—at the most basic level, having text-to-speech software convert the text to audio, using transcription software to convert the spoken video to text, and so on. Thus, although decisions about the channel (information format) as well as medium (message delivery mechanism) can have profound implications, the technological savvy of today’s audiences introduces a variety of new challenges for decisions about communication methods.
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