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The OCR Glossary


Peter M. Smudde

Messages are any combination of signals transmitted to a receiver. In practical terms, messages are verbal and nonverbal communication acts that someone creates for someone else. So messages are not merely one statement or sentence, although they can be, but rather combinations of verbal and nonverbal communication acts that revolve around and support one core idea (thesis) and fulfill a particular purpose. This entry explains salient dimensions about messages to reveal their nature and usefulness in corporate reputation management. Those dimensions are production, content, structure, relationship, intentionality, credibility, and effects.


The message production process reflects the impact of organizational and environmental factors from the inside out and vice versa. There are several hierarchical levels of influence among these internal and external factors. At its core is the individual communication professional who entertains all aspects of a rhetorical situation for an organization, balancing an organization’s and its publics’ wants and needs. Influencing the individual practitioner are routines of organizational policies, procedures, and processes that govern what may be communicated and how. The routines of media professionals (e.g., Associated Press style, publications’ editorial policies, journalists’ assignments) have a role to play as well, as they impose certain constraints on and provide opportunities for carrying corporate messages. The next level of influence on message production is organizational, which encompasses the hierarchical, normative, and other cultural aspects that form and frame how work is done and what results are expected. Beyond this level are outside influences from groups that have or desire some stake in an organization, from journalists to government agencies, to activists, to stake seekers. The final level of influence on message production is ideology, which is the most abstract level because it concerns the broad social value scheme that directs people’s attention to what is important and guides public agenda setting.

Within the context of any given organization, the message production process ultimately concerns communication outputs. This process includes both a linear sense of time and the recursive nature of human creativity, which encompass the five hierarchical levels of influence on message production. The linear progression of time means that there is a start and a finish to any communication effort and that effort is produced in stages, as draft messages and planned discourse are conceived, prepared, reviewed, and revised for the next stage until the final publication of a finished product. Yet within that linear progression of time is a recursive process of human creativity where communication professionals, whether working individually or collaboratively and while playing with information about a given project, work more and more on it and engage their creative processes to solve a rhetorical problem within the context of the relationship between their own organization and its stakeholders.

There is constant creation, re-creation, evaluation, and reevaluation of what has been thought of, written, understood, tested, thrown out, edited, and so on throughout the development process. As a result, communication professionals more and more clearly come to understand the project and solve its problems. As practitioners discuss a project with other people and assimilate information and insights about it, they are better able to negotiate what needs to be done to the text and for the next stage in the process until the project’s completion. In this way, individuals’ own processes are the driving forces behind a communication project’s development and maturation to its final output meant to fulfill particular communicative purposes. That output may be orchestrated in ways that apply messages across multiple, integrated communication tactics, such as advertisements (digital and analog), social media, op-ed pieces, news releases, and executive speeches. So process and product both matter as both intertwine.


Messages say something that someone wants to say to someone else for a particular reason in a particular way at a particular time. Verbal content (oral or written) is the most typically considered content, but nonverbal content (behaviors, layout/design, time, place, signs, symbols, etc.) must also be considered because the verbal and the nonverbal are linked together in any message. Certain attributes (e.g., proximity or immediacy, concreteness, the vital, suspense, repetition, familiarity, simplicity, novelty, conflict, activity, repetition, visual and vivid, saliency, elite personalities, affective content, and humor) of messages are instrumental in inspiring cooperation between a sender and its audience.

A message’s content reflects simultaneously something about which both the sender and the receiver share some degree of interest, perhaps one more so than the other. Content includes information about a given topic in a given context, reasoning that relates to the topic’s components and the topic’s fit with other topics, and the presentation of information and reasoning in some medium or channel. There are mutual expectations that conform to a message’s purpose. What is said is the content of the message, but so too is what is not said. A person’s creation of messages depends on the choices made about what to say and what not to say, both of which are important for matters of ethics, understanding, results, and further communication. Particularly in terms of corporate reputations, an organization that consistently ties together its actions, identity, and reputation in all that it does and says—that is, what you see, read, and hear is what you get—is an authentic organization.

Corporate reputation is message dependent, which means that anything interrupting a message (i.e., noise) and any kind of response to a message (i.e., feedback) all intertwine. The mental and visceral components of a corporate reputation combine to form a composite view (i.e., schema) for an organization and for what is perceived about it by its stakeholders. An organization’s reputation exists in several message-dependent forms simultaneously in the relationship between an organization and its stakeholders. Just like there are things a person knows and does not know about herself or himself, organizations also have varying levels of awareness and unawareness about what they are. The AC4ID model explains that an organization’s reputation exists through messages that evoke an actual form (what we truly are), a communicated form (what we say we are), a conceived form (what we are seen to be), a construed form (what we believe others see), a covenanted form (what our brand stands for), an ideal form (what we should be), and a desired form (what we want to be). Key to this model is the idea that stakeholders can adapt corporate messages for their own purposes (for better and for worse and in between), which means that there can be as many images of an organization as there are people.

In some instances, messages may become institutionalized, which means that they combine in ways about an organization (and across organizations) that seem to propagate messages independently though multiple channels and networks in a viral way. So now the diffusion of messages from meager beginnings, say in a single person’s Twitter tweet, can have explosive consequences as it spreads through a network and, perhaps, gains additional facets from those who pass it along with their comments. The veracity of messages, then, becomes critical as an original message, especially one that started from an organization, evolves and morphs in new ways that may or may not be anticipated.

Certain messages matter more than others and can influence the propagation of messages and, thereby, an organization’s reputation. Messages focused on products and services, citizenship (i.e., social responsibility), and sincerity (i.e., authenticity/credibility) carry more weight than messages about performance, leadership, and workplace, which still matter but to a comparatively lesser degree. The reason is simple: Stakeholders are looking critically at organizations in every way to make sure that they are worthy of trust. A company must, then, consistently demonstrate its trustworthiness to internal and external stakeholders through words and deeds that are commensurate with corporate and social values and expectations.


While organizations may say many things about themselves, there must be a strategy behind what is said. That is, as the old adage goes, “Think before you speak.” Key messages are those messages that organizational leaders are especially interested in sharing with publics so that those people can know, buy into, and act on them. Key messages serve to frame a subject in a manner that is effective and ethical, memorable, and consequently quotable. All things considered, messages that work well must make sense, which means that they must be structured well. Well-structured messages are those that, in the course of their entire text, follow a particular organizational pattern, such as one of the following:

  • Deduction
  • Induction
  • Reasoning from sign
  • Reasoning from cause or effect
  • Reasoning from analogy
  • Temporal/chronological
  • Spatial
  • Topical
  • Problem/solution
  • Structure/function
  • Comparison/contrast
  • Pro-con
  • Advantage/disadvantage
  • Claim and proof
  • Multiple definition
  • 5 Ws + H (who, what, where, when, why, and how)
  • Models of argument structure (e.g., motivated sequence, stasis formula, stock issues)

What is important is that the organizational pattern be appropriate for the message’s topic, purpose, and target audience. Reasoning within any organizational pattern must avoid logical fallacies (e.g., ad hominem [name-calling], ad absurdum [red herring/straw man], either/or, post hoc and ergo propter hoc [false cause], false authority, ad populum fallacy [bandwagon], and hasty generalization). Messages that present more than one side of a topic or issue must also address opposing/counter arguments in addition to the favored position.

In every case, evidence is the essential support for messages—not the messages themselves—and must be. The message must be

  • relevant;
  • easily understood by the audience;
  • striking, novel, or remarkable;
  • of the appropriate length;
  • significant;
  • from a credible source (biases known/revealed);
  • consistent with what is known;
  • true or clearly identified as hypothetical;
  • up-to-date or clearly identified as from another period of time;
  • provable or verifiable;
  • complete; and
  • not overdramatized for effect.

Evidence can be organized in different ways too. The best/strongest evidence can be given first as the most powerful point that must be made (primacy), or the best/strongest evidence can be given last as a “clincher” that people will most remember (recency). Alternatively, evidence can be arranged by specificity (i.e., specific to general, or vice versa) or by complexity (i.e., from the simplest idea to the most complex one). Another way to arrange evidence is “soft” (e.g., hypothetical illustrations, definitions, analogies, opinions) to “hard” (e.g., facts, data, statistics), which reflects recency, or the reversed order of “hard” to “soft” evidence can be used, which reflects primacy. Drawing a sound conclusion and, if possible, presenting the next steps move people to assent to a message’s thesis.

Additionally, a message’s organization must be presented according to the expectations/rules of the particular medium or discourse genre that carries it. Indeed, the combination of a message’s structure and its presentation matter, as it would in the explanation of why layoffs are necessary in a company. Such a message should, ideally, be given in person by the top-ranking leader to all employees at once at an all-employee meeting that allows for interaction, not in a short e-mail message from that same person.


Messages also matter in personal relationships. Just like in interpersonal conversations, messages between organizations and their publics reflect what one thinks of the other. The relationship dimension of messages is something that is revealed by the language that is used, the medium carrying the message, the underlying assumptions, the shared contexts, and known and unknown attitudes. The important point is that target publics are the focus of the messages, which guide practitioners in their symbolic action, to make sure that the salient points about the enacted drama are emphasized with publics effectively, ethically, and strategically. Messages’ relationship dimension, then, reveals the message’s purpose and utility, but most important it also reveals how one relates to and views the other, communicating as much.

Public relations officials work hard to make sense of the environment that an organization faces to find common ground or inspire cooperation between an organization and its publics. A big part of achieving this goal is to figure out how to make a subject resonate with other people inside and outside the organization; communicators craft key messages about it, with which target publics will identify, and develop a strategic plan to guide the application of those messages and other aspects of communication efforts. Based on what is understood about an organization’s internal and external environments, messages reflect different but related aspects of any event’s or issue’s drama. The messages should reflect areas of common ground, striking a favorable balance between the organization’s point of view and the audiences’ concerns and needs.


Messages are communicated intentionally, as they often are, and they can also be communicated unintentionally. Intentionality intersects with the relationship dimension. Messages can inspire people to relate to or unite with one another and an organization (social function); express beliefs, values, attitudes, and facts about something (expressive function); obtain certain actions toward something (control function); or impart knowledge about something (information function). Because messages grow out from a deliberate process, certain things from these functions are intended to be communicated, and great effort goes into making sure that the messages that are intended to be communicated are the same that are received, understood, and acted on. Sometimes unintended messages are accidentally embedded or attached to intended messages. In those cases, reactive communication acts may be needed to clarify or correct matters in audience members’ hearts and minds.

With the prominence of digital, online media, the question “Who has control over any communication effort and the messages?” is highly important. Sometimes companies have complete control over how and when audiences get any discourse. Other times, companies choose to give up that control and rely on the mass media to convey messages to audiences. Somewhere in between, however, companies can collaborate with the mass media in their strategic communication, which calls into question the traditional (but flawed) dichotomy of controlled and uncontrolled media. The core matter here is message integrity, which concerns the degree to which an organization’s message is used as originally provided or not.

Controlled media involve an organization’s target audiences getting exactly the messages it created for them and in the way it wanted them to get the communication (e.g., via mobile phone apps, annual reports, brochures, and websites). In this way, message integrity is at its highest. Uncontrolled media involve an organization’s target audiences not getting exactly what it would like them to get because a third party—often the mass media—makes the choices about what, how, and whether any messages would be sent from any discourse an organization provided the media (e.g., via news releases, press conferences, and interviews). In this way, message integrity is at its lowest.

Once we examine other kinds of corporate communication efforts, however, the dichotomy breaks down and becomes a continuum. Most practitioners know that there can be a certain amount of cooperation between them/their organizations and media outlets so that they both get something of what they want. An easy example is a feature story pitched and ghostwritten for an executive by a communication professional and acquired, edited, and illustrated by an editor at a top trade publication that meets readers’ needs while highlighting a company’s viewpoint and offerings. Video news releases also exhibit a fair degree of give-and-take as companies provide a finished piece and extra footage (“B-roll”) that news organizations may use, or they even might add their own footage. Such co-creation of discourse for any organization’s ultimate audiences results in a middle ground of semicontrolled/semi-uncontrolled media, depending on how far toward one end of the continuum one goes with the integrity of organizational messages.

This continuum, then, becomes much more strategically valuable as practitioners consider what discourse forms may ethically convey messages in the best genre(s) for the best reasons for the occasions they face on behalf of their organizations and audiences. Discourse competence in any or all genres is vital and involves an acute sensibility about the use, benefits, and risks of controlled, uncontrolled, and semicontrolled/semi-uncontrolled media. Proper disclosure/citation of source material (e.g., from an organization itself or a third party) used in a communication product should always be included where appropriate.


Messages, like evidence, must be credible. Credibility relies on the sound character of the sender and the message itself. A sender’s credibility at the least depends on competence (e.g., involvement, knowledge, and experience in a subject), character (e.g., trustworthiness and ethics to present a true, supported, and accurate message with respectfulness toward the audience), and charisma. A message itself must possess its own internal consistency in terms of what it says, how it says it, who says it, why it’s said, when it’s said, and where it’s said. In effect, messages’ internal consistency is achieved by successfully fulfilling the other dimensions from the microlevel (statement/sentence) to the macrolevel (overall text).

Among the most potent message channels is an organization’s top officer. These people become the literal faces and voices of their organizations as they represent core, guiding, and enduring values vis-à-vis their words and actions. In other words, they “walk the talk.” After all, no one else truly can be blamed for failures and praised for successes. As Harry Truman put it, “The buck stops here.” Polysemic messages that appeal simultaneously to multiple audiences and advance key messages ethically and authentically have the most lasting effects, including when they are used in various media to fulfill complementary purposes. Message consistency, again, is essential and must be maintained.


Messages’ outcomes are paramount. Great pains are endured to ensure that the message perceived is the message that was intended, sent, and received. But the perception of a message is not enough. Something must come about from it, and there are three basic categories of message effects, all of which can and should be measured. The first effects category is intellectual. Messages affect what people know and how they think about a subject. In this way, messages have an epistemic quality as they build people’s knowledge about something and facilitate their cognitive processes in applying that knowledge to their worldviews. The second effects category is affectual. Messages are based on and project certain attitudes, beliefs, values, and emotions about a subject. In turn, messages should evoke people’s affectual responses that are, ideally, in concert with the intended attitudes, beliefs, values, and emotions. The third effects category is behavioral. Messages call for something to be done, and messages are meant to inspire action that is commensurate with the thesis, purpose, and argument.

With tens of thousands of messages bombarding people daily from all sources (mediated or not), cutting through that clutter is a daunting task of message design. Obtaining people’s attention is not enough; it must be maintained sufficiently to inspire cooperation between an organization’s message and the target publics. Such inspiration for cooperation is possible by appealing via messages to the head (i.e., intellectual awareness), heart (i.e., affectual attitude), and hands (i.e., behavioral action) in various combinations.

For example, a message can build awareness, which in turn leads to a desired behavior, which would lead to attitude formation. Behavior, then, can be induced through short messages that have little difference from alternative messages, are memorable, and are repeated sufficiently to “stick” in people’s hearts and minds. Good examples of this low-involvement approach’s efficacy are seatbelt use, drinking and driving, and texting and driving. Other times, a message can command a behavioral response and, soon after, be supported by messages that appeal to reason/intellect and emotion/attitude. Examples of this behavioral approach are disruptive situations where, as in an organizational crisis, decisive action must be taken and then explained thoroughly to enable rational and emotional acceptance.

As messages’ memorability becomes paramount, as much as the source matters, the audience expects something that is worth its while. Central in message memorability is both the source and the message itself—the two must be conjoined for success. If an organization is known but its core message(s) is (are) not, there’s nothing to know, embrace, and act on. If a message is remembered but its source forgotten, there is nothing of consequence about which to be concerned. The most successful messages are, as Dan and Chip Heath explain, those that are (in some combination) simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and story based.

Messages’ effects and effectiveness must be documented through measurement methods, and there are various quantitative and qualitative ways to do that. Such measurement should be done to not only discover and document what outcomes were there from the messages but also demonstrate the value the messages added to an organization’s particular and/or overall communication efforts. Note that, in terms of ethics, the ends do not justify the means. That is, an immoral or unethical message (or broad communication effort) cannot be considered moral or ethical because its effects happened to be good.


Across all texts that may be used in a communication effort, certain messages will be given in particular ways that fulfill a particular purpose and are best suited for chosen discourse forms, meet audiences’ needs, and ethically advance communication objectives. Even if two or more publics may be targeted, people receive the same message in the appropriate language and form. The goal is to establish common ground between an organization and its publics. The result, generally speaking, is that audiences are more apt to identify with the messages and cooperate with an organization’s cause because the content, structure, relationship, intentionality, credibility, and effects were successful.

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See Also

Audiences; Authenticity; Feedback; Message Design; Noise; Publics

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