Communication at the Crossroads: 2020 NCA Conference

Like nearly all national and international conferences held in 2020, the 106th Annual Convention of the National Communication Association (NCA) was a virtual event. This year’s theme, “Communication at the Crossroads,” offered the opportunity to explore the intersection of the Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM) theory with other disciplines and areas of scholarship and practice: including mental health, peacebuilding, and the enactment of socially responsible marketing by businesses. Each of these areas of exploration contained valuable lessons for rebuilding better post-COVID-19 social worlds.

In this short report on CMM at NCA, I am foregrounding two of the panels that I participated in directly and an individual presentation that I witnessed as an asynchronous session.

The individual presentation was titled “Legitimizing Societal Marketing Business Communications: Crossroads and New Trajectories for the Coordinated Management of Meaning.” It was presented by Kasey Clawson Hudak, Penn State University, New Kensington and sponsored by the Association for Business Communication (ABC).

Kasey Clawson Hudak used CMM conceptual models as a means of identifying and rectifying situations in which a company’s messaging of social responsibility may be at odds with the social reality it is creating or contributing to through their marketing practices. Kasey described the problem as follows: “Societal marketing considers consumers’ and society’s well-being as a company makes business decisions and communicates those intentions to consumers. However, this approach ultimately suffers from unsubstantiated moral imperatives that lead to public questioning over a company’s true motives.” In order for companies to be perceived as more “legitimate”—i.e. responsive and accountable—in their societal marketing messages, Kasey suggests that the Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM) can be applied to help reconcile these misalignments of corporate narratives through what she refers to as “authentic business communications.” In this approach, CMM heuristics are employed to reveal patterns in how both companies and consumers interpret, communicate, and co-construct the social worlds that provide context for their interaction. Some of the elements of this process include co-creating cohesive origin stories and vision and mission statements (on the corporate side), and opening space in corporate decision-making processes for inviting consumers (on the community side) to engage in conversations that structure better business practices resulting in actions that further enhance the social good.

The first of the panel discussions involving CMM was co-organized by John and Susan Parrish-Sprowl and sponsored by the NCA Communication as Social Construction Division. This panel, titled “Complexity-Informed Approaches to Mental Health,” picked up the theme of the opening keynote session for the 2020 conference, titled “Mental health at the crossroads: Intersections in health and society” sponsored by the Waterhouse Family Institute for the Study of Communication and Society.

The Chair of this panel was Asiya Odugleh-Kolev, World Health Organization. Participants were John and Susan Parrish-Sprowl, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, Jonathan Shailor, University of Wisconsin-Parkside, Natasha Rascon, Indiana State University, and Barton Buechner, Adler University, Chicago.

Topics include community engagement related to Ebola in Sierra Leone, transforming the communication ecology of a refugee medical clinic in Jordan, avoiding moral injury for veterans in transition, navigating life as a caretaker of children with special needs, and the transformative power of The Shakespeare Prison Project.

The overall theme of the panel was that our collective mental health is at risk due to the increased complexity of our social worlds and the limitations of conventional ways of thinking about communication to help us navigate this complexity. As indicators of the problem, suicide rates, interpersonal violence, psychiatric diagnoses, psychotropic prescriptions, and stress-related physical illnesses are all rising, exacerbated by the social isolation and polarized thinking brought about by uneven responses to the COVID-19 virus. Seeing this complexity-related mental health phenomenon as a public health issue requires moving beyond individual treatments, including psychotherapy and medication, and additionally pursuing innovative solutions for creating better social worlds through new forms of social constructionist communication.

The second panel which included elements of CMM was titled “Embracing Partnerships Between the Academy, International/Local Governmental, and Non-Governmental Peace Organizations.”  This was the 10th anniversary installation of a “high density panel” series originally instituted by Benjamin Broome and Mary Collier, sponsored by the NCA Peace and Conflict Communication Division (PCCD).

The Chair of the session was Nora Heist, Eastern Illinois University and the co-Chair was Eddah Mbula Mutua, St. Cloud State University. There were numerous presenters (hence the “high-density” designation) with several of them familiar with CMM, including Benjamin Broome, Arizona State University, Kelly Tenzek, Pacific Lutheran University, and Barton Buechner, Adler University. 

The purpose of this panel discussion was to bring together peace and conflict scholars and practitioners to learn with and from each other about opportunities to build cultures of peace in a world with rapidly increasing peace needs. The structure included multiple breakout sessions to create open shared space for exploration of a range of project concepts, divided into categories of “current partnerships” and “envisioned future partnerships.”

One of the proposed future partnerships discussed in this session involved engaging veterans in community dialogue through a University-centered and CMM-informed interdisciplinary inquiry into their stories of moral injury. The premise for this project is that military veterans are often unable to talk about difficult combat experiences. This creates risk to the veterans of internalization and social isolation, but also points to a deeper and more systemic issue of cultural and moral misalignments between veterans and the larger society.  The absence of a way to communicate constructively around these experiences may deepen these “moral conflicts” into a more systemic damage to underlying moral structures, or “moral injuries.” These moral injuries may include perceived personal failings or culpability, a sense of futility in the political limitations of military missions, or perceived betrayals of trust by those in authority. Many veterans also point to a lack of shared values and principles among citizens, and within social institutions and media, as one reason for the difficulty of post-service reintegration. Moral injuries in this sense have further existential implications, with important (but often unheard) messages for our entire society.

As a way of inviting academics and scholars from a range of disciplines into this conversation, this proposal suggests the development of a civic leadership-oriented framework that is organized from a social construction perspective.  The Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM) Theory is offered as a framing discipline, employing a number of heuristic tools and models to look at the way that moral injuries are “made” in misaligned communication between returning service members and families, institutions, and others at both the population level and in community settings. Mental health implications are drawn from Adlerian psychology, a body of psychological theory that shares a social constructionist/constructivist orientation with CMM. The project involves creating a replicable dialogic model which can be facilitated by universities with participation by faculty working across department and disciplinary lines. A modular video production is expected to be created as a way of framing the conversations.

Anyone interested in working on the further development of this project proposal is invited to contact Barton Buechner at buechner@adler.edu



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