Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 8, 2009

How to replace a simple message with a complex one: the H1N1 case

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on October 8, 2009

[First the simple part: This very lengthy post describes a complexity-based alternative to the conventional “message influence” strategic communications model.]

I had lunch with my friend Harold the other day. We were talking about H1N1. Harold mentioned someone named “Dr. Fauci.”

I had no idea who Dr. Fauci was.

Harold never gets a flu shot because, as he said, “I just never get flu shots.”

Harold had dinner with Dr. Fauci a few weeks ago. As one outcome of the dinner, Harold decided to get a flu shot.

“He’s an amazing man,” Harold told me. “He’s knowledgeable. He speaks in plain English. He’s convincing. I’m getting a flu shot.”

I now know Dr. Anthony Fauci is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.  USA Today published an interview with Fauci, calling him “the government’s point man for tracking flu and finding answers to it.”

Now that some vaccine is available, government wants to remind people what H1N1 is, why it’s important, and what people can do about it.

“The H1N1 virus that’s circulating now, for 99% of the people, is a relatively mild to, at most, moderate influenza… The … sort of the gray cloud over everything is that the virus can mutate and become virulent. And if it maintains its high transmissibility and mutates to become virulent, then we have a really, really serious problem. Which we don’t have now.”

What about the new H1N1 vaccine that is about to be unleashed on the American public, with only minimal testing?

“This really is not a new vaccine.” Fauci says. “No matter how much we try, it’s a tough message [my emphasis] to get across. Every year when we put out the seasonal influenza vaccine we change it slightly from year to year to match the drift in the virus in society. In essence, it’s what we call a “strain change.” That’s exactly what we’re doing with this H1N1 vaccine. But because it’s been billed as a pandemic virus that’s new to society, people are perceiving this is an untested, brand new vaccine. One of the problematic issues in biology is that nothing is 100% safe. It is as safe really as any of the vaccines that we take each year with a strain change. But that sometimes is a difficult message to get across.”

I’m motivated to understand government’s message because I want to know what my family and I should do.

I’ve read a lot about H1N1. I’ve talked about it with public safety people. The more I look into it, the more uncertainty I discover.

For me, deciding what to do about H1N1 means understanding medical science and trusting experts. I do not know much about medical science. I trust experts to be wrong sometimes.

When I think about my general ignorance of medical science, I recall what Carl Sagan said in Demon Haunted World: “We have … arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

Do I want to bet the H1N1 experts are right or wrong? How could this blow up in my face?

USA Today asks Fauci if he’s “…worried that in the media and in the general population, myths and misinformation are being spread?”

“We are putting in an extraordinary amount of time into messaging.” He answered. [There’s that word “messaging” again.] “ We try to spend as much time as we possibly can with the media, on TV, in meetings like this, putting things on websites to try and dispel myths. I’ve been doing these public health-type things for a very long time, going back to HIV/AIDS and SARS and the anthrax attacks, and the ability of misinformation to get propagated continually astounds me.”

Fauci talks a lot in the interview about messaging:

So this is a tough message here.

No matter how much we try, it’s a tough message to get across.

But that sometimes is a difficult message to get across.

We’re getting the message out to try to get it out to the five target groups first….

The messaging is difficult.

The almost purring emphasis on “messaging” reminded me of an innovative article (by S.R. Corman, A. Trethewey, & B Goodall) called “A 21st Century Model for Communication in the Global War of Ideas: From Simplistic Influence to Pragmatic Complexity.” It’s worth a read if you’re interested in strategic communication. You can download a copy here. I found it to be sometimes technical, but always thought provoking.

The paper is about the way the United States does strategic communication. The authors claim the conventional “messaging model” is wrong for today’s complex communications environment. The conventional model has been with us since the 1950s. The authors suggest we need a different approach — something they call a “pragmatic complexity model.”

The article is nominally about communication in the war on terror. But I think the perspective is applicable to strategic communication about other homeland security issues — H1N1 for example.

Here is my edited summary of the author’s argument.

The BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front)

Current strategic communication practice in the United States and Western countries is based on an outdated message influence model from the 1950s that views communication as a process of transmission from a source to a receiver using simple, consistent, repeated messages.

This model fails because it doe not recognize communication as a meaning-making process.

In reality, messages are interpreted within a large, complex system with emergent properties and self-preserving dynamics. The old model should be replaced with a 21st century view of communication as interpretation and attribution of actions in an uncertain environment. Communicators are locked in simultaneous, mutual interdependence that reduces the value of grand strategy and makes [communication] failure the most likely outcome.

To succeed in this environment communicators should deemphasize control and embrace complexity, replace repetition of messages with experimental variation, consider moves that will disrupt the existing system, and make contingency plans for failure.

Some Details

The communication model underlying current Western strategic communication practices dates back at least to the 1950s…. It draws heavily on an analogy comparing human communication to transmission of messages over a telephone system. [Originators of the traditional “message influence model” define] … communication as a process in which one mind uses messages to affect another mind.…

A source … has “ideas, needs, intentions, information, and a purpose for communicating.” These things are formulated as a message which is translated into …symbols [i.e., language]…. The encoded message is sent via some channel (a particular medium of communication) to the receiver, who uses a decoder to “retranslate” the symbols into a usable form.

We call this a message influence model because it conceptualizes messages as a vehicle for carrying information from a source to a receiver. The purpose of the message is to influence the receiver to understand the information in the same way as the source, if not persuade him or her to change attitudes or act in a particular way….

One of the implications of this view is that failures are a matter of interference of one kind or another with the transmission of the message. …. One source of infidelity is noise occurring in the channel. It can usually be tolerated (for example we can successfully talk even on a noisy phone connection), or overcome through the repetition of the same message, or even avoided altogether by choosing a better channel. Outright distortion of messages occurs in the encoding or decoding stages. Distortion occurs because communicators lack sufficient skill to faithfully translate the information to or from symbols, or their culture or individual attitudes corrupt the translation process in some way.

A key underlying assumption of the message influence model is that communication will be successful unless the factors just described interfere with the sender/receiver connection. Accordingly “best practices” can be employed by influence-seeking sources to promote fidelity in their transmissions, [such as]:

  • Simple, concise messages are superior to complicated ones because they are easier to encode and decode faithfully.
  • Messages can be repeated to insure that unskilled receivers have multiple chances to get it right, making the transmission more reliable despite the presence of noise.
  • The sender can also try to understand the attitudes and cultural context of the receiver, and then use his or her skill to encode messages that are least likely to be distorted by them.


One might argue that government’s communication about H1N1 largely follows the message influence model.

The authors argue that model … is flawed because it fails to respond to the complexities of communication as a meaning-making process.

So what does that mean?


The message influence model assumes, incorrectly, that communication is the transfer of “meanings from person to person” and that the message sent is the one that counts. The problem is that a meaning cannot simply be transferred, like a letter mailed from point A to point B.

Instead, listeners create meanings from messages based on factors like autobiography, history, local context, culture, language/symbol systems, power relations, and immediate personal needs. [This ends up creating what can be called a meaning system.]

We should assume that meanings listeners create in their minds will probably not be identical to those intended by the receiver. As several decades of communication research has shown, the message received is the one that really counts….


Members of [a particular meaning] system, routinely and often unconsciously, work to preserve the existing framework of meaning. To accomplish this they interpret messages in ways that “fit” the existing scheme, rather than in ways that senders may intend. There is no “magic bullet”—no single message, however well-crafted—that can be delivered within the existing system that is likely to change [the meaning system].

The shortcomings of the message influence model just described make it clear that we need an updated way of thinking about strategic communication. This is not to say that we can go without messages, or that it would be good to have unclear, inconsistent messages sent by unskilled communicators. Instead we call for an updated view of the process surrounding the communication of messages that avoids simplistic view of the old message influence model, provides more realistic expectations about their impact, offers a new set of communication strategies, and in the long run leads to more strategic success.

The new model we propose [is called] pragmatic complexity (PCOM)…. [For the originator of this approach], communication is not an act of one mind transmitting a message to another mind. It is a property of a complex system in which participants interpret one-another’s actions and make attributions about the thoughts, motivations, intentions, etc., behind them. The issuing of a message by one party and its receipt by another may initiate this process, but that is far from the end of the story….

In the simplest case of a communication system with two participants A and B, we can describe [the interaction] as follows:

• The success of A’s behavior depends not only on external conditions, but on what B does and thinks.

• What B does and thinks is influenced by A’s behavior as well as B’s expectations, interpretations, and attributions with respect to A.

So there is no independent B sitting “out there” waiting to be impacted by A’s message, as the old model would have it. Instead A and B are locked in a relationship of simultaneous, mutual interdependence.


Another important aspect of complexity is that systems have emergent properties—the whole is more than the sum of its parts. It is impossible to reduce the success of a well-functioning work group, sports team or military unit to the skills or actions of any one member. Likewise, in our complex [communication] system the communication process is not completely under the control of either A or B. What they do matters, of course. But so does the action of the system as a whole, and it is in an important sense independent of the actions of the individual participants. The system is not necessarily under anyone’s control.

[An implication of this model]… is that the purpose of communication is not to cause acceptance and persuade the receiver to think in a particular way, as in the old model. In the PCOM framework the purpose of communication is to perturb [or disrupt] the communication [meaning] system and overcome its tendency to interpret and attribute in standard ways.


I think the above means communication has a chance of being effective if it can disrupt the existing communication meaning systems. But while Participant A (e.g., Facui) is trying to disrupt Participant B’s meaning system, Participant B (e.g., me or Harold) is countering with autobiography, history, local context, culture, language/symbol systems, power relations, and immediate personal needs.  (For other examples, look at the reader comments at the end of Facui’s USA Today article.)


This leads to our third implication, that [communication] failure is the norm. The message influence model assumes that unless …[something distorts] the message, it will successfully travel from the source and implant itself in the mind of the receiver. But given PCOM assumptions, we can understand just how unlikely this scenario is. Interpretation by a receiver is influenced by an array of factors that are outside the control of—and may even be unknown to—the sender. Not the least of these is a [meaning] system that is trying to preserve itself by resisting change.


So what to do about all this? The authors offer practical strategic ideas:

1. Deemphasize control and embrace complexity.

…. You can’t control the message; get over it. …. Communicators should accept this reality and try to work with it, just as Wall Street traders accept the chaos of the market and try to “go with the flow.” Once we let go of the idea of a well-ordered system that is under our control, we can start to think of what is possible in situations of uncertainty.

2. Replace repetition with variation.

Unwavering use of a few simple messages is no more likely to work in a complex communication system than is a plan to always buy (and only buy) the same stock on Wall Street. What is needed in both cases is strategic experimentation. …. Rather than a grand overall strategy, communicators should rely on variations on a message theme. These are backed by small (rather than large) commitments, and are followed up with careful observation of results. Communicators temporarily sustain things that “work” and perhaps add resources to them.

3. Consider disruptive moves.

While variation can contribute to system change in an evolutionary sense, large scale, transformative change typically only occurs only as a result of some major disruption in the normal operations of a system. [If the worse case H1N1 scenarios come to pass, almost everyone’s meaning system will be disrupted. Amidst the chaos there will be a significant strategic communication opportunity.  For one example of what to strategically communicate about, see“Leading during bioattacks and epidemics with the public’s trust and help,” available here.]

4. Expect and plan for failure.

The communication systems described by the PCOM model are complex. ….[It is] difficult to predict exactly what effects will result from particular messages. This means that, especially in terms of the “big picture,” it is difficult to be strategic in the sense of setting a desired future state of affairs and mapping a set of logical steps that are likely to bring it about. Given our point above that well intentioned efforts can have unanticipated perverse effects, it is perhaps just as likely that goals will be undermined as it is that they will be accomplished.

With this in mind, strategic communicators should think less in terms of grand strategy and more in terms of contingency planning. Rather than assuming a message will be understood as it is intended, they should think of the ways things could go wrong, what the consequences of those outcomes will be, and the steps that might be undertaken in response. Then, if the message has the intended effects it is all to the good, and if it does not, options are immediately available for further variation as described above.


Saying all of this another way, my friend Harold will now get a flu shot. I’m still trying to decide.

But the fact that Harold has changed his mind affects my communication meaning system in unpredictable ways.

It’s all fairly complex.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

October 8, 2009 @ 4:43 am

First of all Chris a compliment! Eat your hearts out Christian and Phil. This may be the most brilliant post ever on HLSWatch.com. Its importance cannot be understated. Second, Fauci is brilliant and possibly despite many large errors in judgement from time to time definitely the right man in the right place at the right time. I really wonder if the Secretaries DHS and HHS understand how lucky they are to have him in the saddle so to speak. I also wonder about tensions between Dr. Fauci’s Institute and CDC and WHO and all variations and combinations and permutations thereof.
Why is the post so important? Because as many know now the focus of what used to be Journalism and English majors now often become Communications Majors. Yet the academic discipline of Communications still often relies on dated research conducted long before the advent of 24/7/364 news and TV. Certainly long before the new social media such as Twitter. The post gives insights as to why Emergency Public Information is such a highly technical subject, and so very very different from the normal Public Affairs counter-propaganda efforts and spin of government agencies and bureacrats. Hey I am hoping this post will prompt huge outpouring of comments. If it does not then that alone will be worrisome to me. Thank you Chris! Thank you Chris! Thank you Chris!

Oh and by the way, hoping FED and Treasury Staff, and Wall streeters read this message as we see psychology at work in the real but perhaps unreal market rise since last March. I enter the last comment because “Rumor Control” is a big part of messaging and communications and seems to me that much of MSM does nothing but spread rumors given their ad hoc and “hit and a lick” approach to substantive issues. Whatever the virulence of H1N1 this Pandemic is teaching lots of lessons and just hoping some are being learned.

Comment by Pat Longstaff

October 9, 2009 @ 8:22 am

I know Chris’ message here (ponder the irony) is hard to accept for people whose biggest need is to get CONTROL of a situation. It seems to be a very human impulse to believe in the Bullet Theory of communication – if you just shoot a message at people they will internalize it. The advertising industry has known better for years but as long as we had “mass” media it was more efficient to try to devise one message that would do the job for most people.
There is one variable for real communication that people often forget – the trust that the receiver has in the sender. Messages from a trusted source are much more likely to be believed – particularly when the message seems inconsistent with previously held beliefs about something. In many countries government is NOT a trusted source of information. It has squandered this critical resource on short-term political objectives or well-intended lies to protect their people.
If we want people to get a flu shot they need to hear that from somebody they trust. For most of us that will be our friends and family – people who will have to live with the consequences of lying to us or giving us bad advice. So MAYBE something like a post card (or email) from my own doctor (my vet sends them to me all the time about shots for my dogs) along with a local number where I can call with questions or concerns would be better than “messaging” through the media – who are, let’s face it, not trusted by everyone.
A trusted source of information will be the most critical resource anyone can have for resisting dangers (when that is possible) resilience (when it is not).

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 10, 2009 @ 4:27 am

Who is the Flu Czar?

Comment by Nick Catrantzos

October 11, 2009 @ 12:27 am

Interesting topic and artful blend of esoteric detail with folksy story. This exemplifies part of the theme-and-variations solution. Communicate with the target audience in many ways and you increase the chance of the message getting through. Thus, the virtuoso car salesman tells the visually oriented buyer, “Picture yourself driving by the beach, with the top down, looking like a movie star …” Then, in case the customer is more auditory in stimulus preference, “Listen to this baby hum while you hear the waves crashing in the background …” Now, for the tactile or kinesthetically oriented, “Feel those 150 horses tugging you forward as they pull up and round the curve at the merest hint of pressure you exert on the steering wheel, like a team of well trained thoroughbreds responding to the master’s whisper instead of his whip.”

Perhaps a first-rate advertising director can tell us something useful about how to reach a target audience in 30 seconds. But he or she might also insist on being supplied a coherent message to work with.

Don’t you find that one of the signatures of the best experts is the ability to distill a complicated idea in understandable terms? They claw the abstruse into the vulgate, stripping their own argot of it’s plumes and spangles until, suddenly, there it is — naked, warts and all — with no place to hide, blemishes and blessings equally discernible.

Loved the Carl Sagan quote, which resonates more meaningfully than “billions and billions” as he used to tell Johnny Carson when getting animated in describing the stars in some distant galaxy.

Salute, Chris,


Comment by christopher tingus

October 11, 2009 @ 10:46 pm

Despite the information age and my own age, other than receiving my regular flu shot, I cannot make an informed decision which will enable me to feel comfortable with the H1N1 flu shot.

For those teens and younger, I really do hope the parents and Grandparents talk to their personal physicians and become more educated. I would tend to encourage the younger set to get vaccinated as it appears more vulnerable.

Apparently the winter looks cold and snowy so we should be prepared for the worst! Let’s hope we are prepared for I heard earlier that swine flu has been reported in every state of the union!

Christopher Tingus

Comment by Steve Corman

October 28, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

Those of you who liked the above mentioned paper might be interested in a second one we published on a related theme: Stategic Communication on a Rugged Landscape.

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