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What a Difference an 'S' makes

Paolo Mefalopulos's picture

A few months ago, I finalized the Development Communication Sourcebook published by the World Bank. It includes a section entitled “Ten Key Issues on (Development) Communication” that addresses misconceptions frequently encountered when working in this field. I’ll be addressing those key issues in my next few posts, starting with this one: the difference and implications of using the terms “communication” and “communications.”

In most cases, an ‘s’ at the end of a word may only signify a difference in quantity: one versus many. In this case, the difference is qualitative. “Communication”, in its singular form, usually refers to communication processes.  Hence, the singular form denotes either the crafting, transmission, and reception of messages through certain channels to intended audiences, or two-way communicative interactions based on dialogue.

The plural form, “communications”, usually refers to communication technologies and products.  The word often denotes products and the infrastructure of various media.  This is illustrated in terms such as broadcast, print, and electronic media or telecommunications (e.g., cellular phone or satellite technology).

Why is this differentiation relevant?  Using these terms correctly would cultivate better understanding of the discipline, making it clear that the focus of “communication” for development should be on the process rather than on technology and products. Of course, media technologies and specific “communications” products -- videos, leaflets and brochures -- serve important functions, but they need to be designed, deployed, and assessed with an understanding of communication processes and strategies.

All of the above being said, I do believe in the importance of media and technology. Years of field work in the Middle East, Central America and then Southern Africa made me increasingly aware that media can help bring about change, but rarely initiate it.  I am increasingly persuaded that the best communication tool for bringing about meaningful and sustainable change is using two-way communication early on to involve stakeholders in decision-making-processes, thus reducing risks and enhancing results.

Properly using the terminology is key, as it is important to start any development initiative with ‘communication’ with key stakeholders to assess and define the desired change before using ‘communications’ to support the attainment of development objectives.

Photo Credit: Flickr user Leo Reynolds


I am delighted to see an appreciation of the difference an "s" makes at the end of communication. I'd add this point: "communications" also has an implication (at least in business/public relations) of strategic top-down messages and directives (memos, press releases, etc.). Thus, the more deliberative spirit of CommGAP's work more readily fits with the idea of improving "communication" [no s] in governance, involving the public, officials, and various media.

I echo John Gastil's delight with this article. As someone who is passionate about the impact that communication and strategic communications can have on advancing development and someone who spends a lot of time "educating" and "persuading" development experts to include communication(s) in their program planning, I found this very useful, indeed. I loudly echo your last paragraph and the last line in your next-to-last paragraph. Paolo, thank you for this thought piece. I hope others will comment.

Submitted by Joanne Sharpe on
So often it seems that when it comes to trying to persuade programs to think about communication, we're actually talking about the importance and value of dialogue. Thanks Paolo, I've downloaded the Sourcebook for a closer look!

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