Strategic Comms Pt 38: Why the Medium Is the Message

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(This is the 38th in a continuing series on strategic communications. Click here for earlier segments)

By Owen Eagan, The Saint Consulting Group

Many people have heard the expression, “The medium is the message.”  However, few people really know what it means or heed its importance.  This aphorism, coined by Marshall McLuhan in his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, still has relevance today.

What McLuhan meant was that the content of a mediated message is secondary to the medium, or the communication channel.  For instance, McLuhan classified media as either “hot” or “cool.”  Hot media is high definition media that requires very little participation on the part of the audience because of the level of sensory data presented.  Cool media, on the other hand, is low definition media that requires more involvement from the audience due to a lack of sensory data.

To illustrate the difference, McLuhan analyzed the presidential debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960.  He discovered that Kennedy was seen to win the debates among those people who watched the debate on TV, which he characterized as a cool medium.  By contrast, Nixon was thought to win among those people who listened to the debates on the radio, described by McLuhan as a hot medium.  There is some debate as to whether McLuhan would consider radio and TV as hot and cool media respectively today.  However, the point remains that the medium certainly influenced the message.

Another great example involves a popular song about the advent of a new medium for music.  That’s right, the first video on MTV lamented the passing of radio as the predominant medium for music – “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles.  But what does this mean for developers?  It means that developers not only need to develop an effective message but they also need to ensure the proper media.

For instance, a paid media blitz on TV would certainly smack of a developer trying to buy his or her way into a community.  Therefore, developers should employ alternative strategies to engage the public directly through such means as open houses, etc., albeit in controlled environments (see Strategic Communications Part 9: Don’t Let the Mob Rule

So, as you develop your outreach plans, make sure you choose the right medium to define your message.  Otherwise, it might define you.

Owen Eagan is a Senior Consultant for Saint Consulting, an international management consulting firm specializing in land use politics.  He is also an adjunct faculty member at Emerson College, the nation’s only four-year institution dedicated exclusively to communication and the performing arts. Email

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