The Pyramid of Communication Visions

Many people associate communication with media. This easily leads to the opinion that a communication problem is any problem that can be solved with media, and related to that: media have strong effects and can solve almost any problem. In this view the solution to a problem is already given: it’s media.

This may be a successful opinion for media-agencies and advertisement-agencies but from an organizational perspective it is better to take a step back and apply a broader view. Consequently the solution is not already given and you as a communication expert will have to think further and analyze the problem situation.


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Solving a communication problem starts with analyzing it. This means, breaking up the communication problem in smaller parts to get a better understanding of it. The very first step then is to decide in which parts the communication-problem should be divided. If ‘media’ is not the only part of communication, in which parts should the communication problem be divided? Here Harold Lasswell’s question can be helpful:

          Who Says What In Which Channel To Whom With What Effect

Lasswell’s question from 1948 is still relevant because organizational communication experts are essentially consulted to answer it in their advice or plan. This may seem easy but you will have to answer some relevant questions.

Some relevant questions that the organizational communication expert has to answer:
* What is the organizational problem that we can help to solve?
* Who actually influences this problem?
* Which individuals should be influenced in what they know, feel and do?
* Which media do they use?
* Which places do they visit?
* To which people and brands are they open?
* For what message may they  be sensitive?

This is why you will have to do research in order to know and understand the target audience!

So, communication is mainly about people, not about media. More specifically organizational communication is about influencing what people know, feel and want to do – in order to reach organizational goals.


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Not media are leading but the effect on people. Indeed media can be used to reach the desired effect, but also activities and the whole organizational strategy should be adapted in order to influence people into the desired direction. In fact the whole organization can be seen as an instrument to influence what people know, feel and want to do in relation to the organization.

This view is different from the view that many managers have. Many managers hope that they and their organizations can continue to act as they do and that communication experts can help them with it; often they even hope that communication can repair mistakes that they have made.

These managers can be your client. They often feel that they have a communication problem but they are not able to make the right analysis and find the best solution. That’s why they come to you. Often, their view is part of the problem and you can only help to solve it by applying another view: focus on people instead of on media and on the organizational problem.

This shift in focus is necessary because the environment for organizations has changed. The answer to the new situation is a more feminine view. Why? Read more below.


Shift from ‘old’ masculine view to ‘contemporary’ feminine view
The playing-field for organizations is becoming more and more dynamic – internet is an important driver for this. Internet makes time and space less relevant, everyone from all over the world can contact the organization and people can contact each other. Thus individuals can form communities and pressure-groups, everyone can produce news and create an issue or a problem for the organization.

At the same time people are bombarded with information from all over the world and they have to divide their attention on several senders, such as organizations, brands and friends. As a result the share of attention in this attention-market is under constant pressure.

The solution is to win the individual’s preference by making him feel connected to the organization. In other words: the organization has to build relations with people.

Consequently organizations are forced to listen and interact with consumers, communities, bloggers, their own employees etc. But the mind-set of many managers is still based on telling others (consumers, employees, etc.) what to do, not on listening and co-creating.


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Here we see a shift in the ‘old view’ on the world as a stable environment that can be influenced, versus the ‘contemporary view’ on the world as a dynamic playing-field in which the organization continuously has to interact, react and plan ahead.


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The ‘old view’ is related to ‘old management’: setting concrete goals and organizing resources to get things done. One of these resources are people – the human resource – they are subject to reaching organizational goals. In the ‘contemporary view’, however, people are more active, they are not ‘human resources’ but ‘human beings’ with their own will, and this will has to be taken into regard.

‘Contemporary management’ then is more concerned with keeping people together, motivating employees, consumers, etc. to be in favor of the organization. As a result the organization continuously has to adapt to what these people want.

In the ‘old view’ people had to help solving organizational problems such as ‘we need more money to reach our goals, therefore consumers have to buy more of our products’. In the ‘contemporary view’ it is more important to really add value to people’s lives.

In the word ‘manager’ we see ‘man’, this may be a coincidence but managers traditionally are mainly men and the ‘old view’ fits to a masculine view on life: being the boss, influencing others, planning, hunting. Whereas the ‘contemporary view’ better fits to a feminine view on life: keeping the group together, maintaining values, gathering.

In short: Not every organizational problem can be solved with media, but many organizational problems can be solved – or prevented – with an organizational communication view because it aims at effects on people.


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Masculine versus feminine view on communication
The word ‘communication’ is derived from the Latin word ‘commune’, group. We see this also in the word ‘communism’. ‘Communism’ means sharing goods. Similarly ‘communication’ means sharing information.

The masculine way of sharing information is different from the feminine way of sharing information.

Masculine vs feminine view

The masculine view and feminine view are extremes, the manager and the organization should find a balance between them. It is up to you to advice which balance should be chosen. The Pyramid of Communication Visions could help here.

The Pyramid of Communication Visions

Pyramid of C Visions
The idea behind this pyramid is that sharing is the ideal for contemporary communication but sharing is only possible if people send information to each other. So sending is a condition for sharing. The consecutive visions in the pyramid build on each other. Some often used models are incorporated in the visions.

How to use the pyramid
Use these visions and models to analyze which vision the organization is currently applying, and/ or the manager believes in. Then try to find a solution by applying a vision on a higher level in the pyramid.
As the visions build on each other, you may also find improvements in communication by improving a lower level in the pyramid.
Remember that the ideal is to operate as high in the pyramid as possible but given the circumstances it may be better to find a balance lower in the pyramid.

Below, the visions will be explained.

Vision Receiving

The very first vision in the pyramid is the receiving oriented vision, this is the ground where the pyramid is built on. It is about the process of receiving information.

People receive information all the time, even if no one has sent this information. For example, if you would be in the jungle far away from people, you still would receive a lot of information from your environment; such as ‘danger’, ‘food’, ‘shelter’, etc. In this receiving oriented vision everything is communication because people never cease to make sense of things; even when they are sleeping and dreaming.

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Brains always go on working. People are creative beings. Before someone can express his thoughts he first has to create these thoughts. Therefore it is important for a communication expert to have some knowledge of consumer behavior and of psychology.

Management listen to empl environment

This receiver oriented vision promotes an outside-in view and a bottom-up approach. According to this vision management should listen to the outside world and to its employees.

Uses and gratifications approach
The ‘uses and gratifications’ approach fits in this vision. Central idea is that we should not just look at what senders and media want from the audience but what the audience does with the media. This vision implies that an audience is not a passive and homogeneous mass but it is a collection of individuals who actively use media for their own goals – not the goals of the organization.

Vision Sendingdepositphotos_3805229-Listen-herePicture from:

This is the most extreme vision on communication as sending. Indeed sending is the basis for communication because if you don’t send information no one can receive this information and then information will not be shared. Therefore this vision on communication is the basis of the pyramid.

In this vision, communication is the same as ‘sending‘. Communication then is merely ‘making public‘.  It is not relevant if someone will receive the information or not. Just the intention to send, or the intention to communicate is already considered as communication. For example spam which is received in a spam-box and never read is communication according to this vision. Or a small advertisement in a big newspaper: Millions of people read it, only 40 people react, so millions of people don’t read it, or at least don’t react, de advertisement is wasted to almost 100% of the readers. (It would have been more efficient if you already knew the address of the 40 people who react. Also, there would be less waste if the newspaper aims at fewer people, only those people who resemble the 40 who reacted.

Vision Send and Receivedepositphotos_4232984-3d-man-with-megaphone-speaking-loudPicture from

Connect the previous two visions and the pyramid starts to get shape. In this vision sent information has to be received in order to be considered as communication. Some people even go a step further by saying that the received information should be exactly the information as intended by the sender. This means that the sender decides when sending was successful. So in this vision the sender is the dominant party.

In the beginning of this blog I already introduced Laswell’s verbal model for communication:
Who Says What In Which Channel To Whom With What Effect.
This was one of the first communication models and the same elements can be found in Shannon & Weaver’s model.

Shannon & Weaver

Sh Weaver


The engineer Shannon in 1949 developed a mathematical model for the American Bell Telephone Laboratories to describe the problems of transporting signals from sources to destinations, later Weaver perfected this model for human communication.

Transport-belt model; Linear model

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The ‘transport-belt’ model fits in the S –> R vision. According to the transport-belt model, information is transported from the sender to the receiver. A medium is considered a transport-belt which brings the information from the sender to the receiver. The sender has information which he encodes, the receiver decodes this information. For example, you have a thought, you encode this into English, your audience hears this and decodes it and consequently has the same thought.

Much can go wrong during transportation. For example some members of the audience don’t speak English, other members are using their smartphones and are not really listening, others can’t hear you well, some others miss the background to understand what you mean, and there may also be some individuals who just don’t agree with you. In this vision anything that keeps the receiver from encoding the right information is called ‘noise‘.

It is a linear model. Information goes in one line from sender to receiver. Anything that prevents the intended information from reaching the receiver is a negative influence: noise. When the information was not received as intended, the only solution is: send the same information again over the same line, and again, and again, perhaps a little louder, until the receiver has received the ‘right’ information.

A handicap of this model is that someone who does not agree, will not agree after he has heard the same information three times; he can only be convinced by giving better arguments; and perhaps it is just impossible to convince him. In the linear approach there is only one way: my way or no way.

Hypodermic needle model; stimulus – response model

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The ‘hypodermic-needle’ model also fits in the S –> R vision. It suggests that media inject ideas into people and will have its effect on them. The hypodermic-needle model is a stimulus – response model: a stimulus (media) leads to a response (effect on people).

Therefore S –> R can represent ‘Sender transports information to Receiver’; also it can represent ‘Stimulus leads to Response’.

Many people still believe in this Stimulus – Response model, they think for example that advertisements directly lead to more sales, violent games lead to more violence in the streets, etc.
This model has its limitations as media and messages may have some effect, but in most cases the effect is the result of many factors, not only this medium or this message.

Two step flow

Two-step-flow model
A receiver is a person and a person can also send information. This idea is used in the two-step-flow-model: information flows from a sender to a more or less passive audience. This model described reality quite accurately when there were still few media. For example one person had a radio and received the news, he shared this with his neighbors. In this case the owner of the radio is the opinion-leader. The two-step-flow model suggests that information flows from the sender to the opinion-leader and from the opinion-leader to opinion-followers.

Domino model of communication effects
According to the S –> R vision, the sender decides if the process of sending was successful. He could consider it a success when the receiver has decoded the information as he intended. But what is the use of the ‘correct’ information in the brain of the receiver? The real effect that a sender often intended is the receiver’s behavior: behave like a gentleman, buy products of brand X, etc.Domino Grunig Hunt 1984

Another linear model that therefore is useful to mention here is the domino model of communication effects. It suggests that a message may reach many people, but only a limited amount of them will pay attention to the message and understand it. Of those people who understand the message, only a part agrees with it or will feel positive about it, and very few of these last group will actually change his behavior.

Vision S R Feedback
Also in this vision the sender decides if the process of sending was successful. But the receiver can send feedback. The sender is dominant because the feedback is only used to assess if the information was received as intended.

This is how research still is often used: in order to measure to what extend the target audience has received and understood the message as intended. Feedback is used to make the process of influencing more effective.

Multi step flow

After the two-step-flow model it seems logical to introduce more steps. And indeed this was done, but the multi-step-flow-model has an important element that makes it different from the two-step-flow-model: opinion-leaders inform each other, followers inform each other, followers inform opinion-leaders and all of them can inform mass-media. Therefore the opinion-leaders are also called influentials.
Consequently in the multi-step-flow model the difference between a sender and a receiver is less relevant, the sender is less dominant than in all models from the lower levels in the pyramid.

This brings us to the next level in the pyramid…

Vision A is B

If the difference between sender and receiver is not really relevant, then we should not label them as such. Here, high in the pyramid, organizations and managers consider everyone as equals, everyone should be able to participate in the communication process. Feedback is welcome and is used to improve the entire organization, not to manipulate the target audience more effectively.
Then communication can be seen as a dance. Similar to dance, communication ‘involves patterns, movement, and creativity. Participants as well as observers can enjoy it.’ (Clampitt 2005 p14).

Dance is C

The comparison of communication with dance makes sense, but we shouldn’t forget that organizational communication often has some aspects of the masculine view on communication, because it is often used to ‘win’. Therefore communication could also be compared to judo: both participants are equal, they sense each other, they co-orient, judo is rule-governed, participants develop a repertoire of skills, participants follow patterns, BUT: both participants try to win by exploiting each others weaknesses.

Vision ABX
Interaction becomes a more relevant aspect as we reach a higher level in the pyramid. The possible result of interaction is that participants in the communication process develop a common understanding. For example girls who are close friends develop a common dress style and groups of people develop a common (sub)culture.
Newcomb’s co-orientation model (1953) illustrates this process.

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His theory is about the interpersonal relationship of people with their environment and with each other. According to Newcomb people have a natural need to balance with their environment. Individuals have a certain attitude towards aspects in their environment. Newcomb denotes this attitude as ‘orientation’, and he states that people strive for a mental, cognitive balance. (This idea of cognitive balance is similar to the theory of cognitive dissonance, but for Newcomb cognitive balance is only a part of the whole system in which people strive for balance with each other and their environment.)
In Newcomb’s model person A orients himself on person B  (A –> B)and at the same time at a subject (A –> X); also person B orients himself on person A (B –> A) and at the same time at this subject (B –> X).

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For example: Angy feels that it is important to maintain a relationship with Betty (A –> B), she thinks about buying a dress (A –> X), she is concerned about what Betty will think about this dress (A –> B & B –> X). Betty also wants to maintain a relationship with Angy (B –> A), but she does not like the dress (B –> X). Now Angy has to find a balance. She could decide to buy the dress and don’t care about Betty’s opinion, but if this would happen regularly it would jeopardize their relationship. So she decides to chose for her relationship and leave the dress in the shop.

Similarly an organization has to decide which relationship is more relevant .For example the relationship with stakeholders and how they think about the profitability of the company, or the relationship with the users of its product and how they think about the value for money. This choice will be strongly influenced by its corporate values: is money important or is quality important.

Pyramid of C Visions

Using the pyramid

  • Analyze which vision the organization is currently applying, and/ or which vision the manager believes in.
  • Find a solution by applying a vision on a higher level in the pyramid.
  • As the visions build on each other, you may also find improvements by improving a lower level in the pyramid.
  • Remember that the ideal is to operate as high in the pyramid as possible but given the circumstances it may be better to find a balance lower in the pyramid.

Watch the PowerPoint from Communication Knowledge Center on SlideShare

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