24015 Changing Channels: A Theory-Based Guide to Selecting Traditional, New, and Social Media as Channels for Health Message Dissemination

Christy Ledford, MS, Department of Communication, George Mason University, Farifax, VA

Theoretical Background and research questions/hypothesis:  Many health promotion campaigns are designed to communicate complex, potentially ambiguous messages.  The strategic communication stages of formative research, strategy, tactics, and evaluation provide campaign guidance for communicating messages, but less direction is available for the specific tactics of channel selection and message delivery.  Today campaign planners benefit from a wide variety of traditional, new, and social media to disseminate messages.  The research question explored here is what channel characteristics should campaign designers consider and asses when selecting the most effective channels for disseminating their messages.

Methods and Results (informing the conceptual analysis):  A review of extant literature of channel selection theory informed the application of media richness theory and the concept of controlled/uncontrolled media.  The researcher synthesized the propositions of this organizational communication theory and public relations concept to create a message selection strategy for health communicators.  Rich media are defined by their ability to transmit immediate feedback, to communicate multiple cues, to use natural language, and to convey a personal focus.   Media richness theory proposes that rich media are more effective for communicating complex messages. Message delivery can be impeded by pairing rich media with simple messages or lean media with complex messages.  The concept of controlled media refers to the ability of the sender to control the message’s content and the audience’s attention.   Controlled media traditionally refers to paid media, face-to-face communication, and direct letters and messages to stakeholders, whereas uncontrolled media most often refers to news media.  Selecting controlled or uncontrolled media can affect the perceived credibility of the disseminating organization and its message.  However, with the increasing new and social media options available, the concept of controlled media needs to be expanded to provide communicators clearer guidance in channel selection.  Synthesizing this theory and concept provides a continuum of channels from which to match the characteristics of the channel to the ambiguity of the messages to disseminate.  This continuum integrates computer-mediated channels such as blogging and social media such as twittering alongside traditional media.  The Controlled Channel Continuum compares and contrasts channels based on the sender’s ability to control the message’s design and delivery.  The controlled end of the continuum is anchored by face-to-face stakeholder meetings; the uncontrolled end is anchored by earned news media. Communicators should first assess the ambiguity level of the message (a message’s potential to have multiple interpretations) and subsequent need for control of the message.  Using the continuum, communicators then select the appropriate channel to transmit the ambiguity of the message with the needed level of control.

Conclusions: Applying the synthesis of media richness theory and the concept of controlled/uncontrolled media to traditional, new, and social media, the proposed Controlled Channel Continuum provides health communicators guidance for communicators as they negotiate the media landscape.

Implications for research and/or practice: Often with limited resources and budgets, health communicators must make critical choices about what channels to use in disseminating their messages.  While new and social media offer exciting opportunities, communicators must consider the media’s ability to transmit potentially ambiguous messages.