Leaders: The Medium is NOT the Message

Posted by:

I was just reading a back issue of Harvard Business Review and came upon an article by Jorge Cauz, the president of Encyclopedia Britannica.

YOU: “Encyclopedia Britannica?! Is that still a thing? Are encyclopedias still a thing? I mean, aside from Wikipedia, of course.”

Old studying room with two leather armchairs and chess game

Old studying room with two leather armchairs and chess game

Yes, it’s still a thing, although as of last year they no longer produce a physical, bound, book version. Today they are digital only. When asked about that, Cauz said:

“I’m confident in Encyclopedia Britannica’s ability to endure in the digital age. That’s because our people have always kept the mission separate from the medium.

It’s that last part that struck me. Keeping the mission separate from the medium.

Too often—particularly in the rapid-paced world of social media—we forget about the mission. That’s because the medium is so cool!

  • Hey, look! I’m tweeting at 37,000 feet!
  • Hey, look! I’m using my Tumblr account to promote my Pinterest page!
  • Hey, look! I can make bullet points in my blog!

And none of this—none of it—is the point. Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, books, speeches, webinars, scrolls, clay tablets—these are all just delivery mechanisms.

Motivational Speaker Bill StaintonLook, what’s more important to you: the UPS truck pulling into your driveway or the package inside it? Everything I just mentioned above (the Twitter to clay tablets part) is the UPS truck. And yet we treat them as if they’re the big thing. We make the medium more important than the mission.

It’s like saying that the whole reason for sending packages is so that UPS can show off their shiny brown trucks.

Yes, I realize that way back in 1964, communication theorist Marshall McLuhan famously said, “The medium is the message.” But bear in mind three points:

  1. Marshall McLuhan said this way back in 1964.
  2. Marshall McLuhan has been dead for over 30 years.
  3. Marshall McLuhan was wrong.

Certainly the medium shapes the message. But the message—the mission—is still the big thing.

As a leader, your job is to keep your eye on the mission. Don’t get distracted by the “bright, shiny object”—the “bright, shiny object” being every new medium that pops up (and they will continue to pop up).

YOU: “Hey everybody—Stainton says we can ignore social media!”

No, no, no, no, no! I’m not saying that. Social media, just like books, webinars, and clay tablets, are tools, and you should never ignore a tool that can help you lead your team and build your business. But the tool is not your business; it’s not your reason for being. It might be useful—it might even be fun! But it’s not your mission.

Will Encyclopedia Britannica be around 10, 50, 100 years from now? I have no idea. But I do know this: if Jorge Cauz had focused just on the books (the medium) as opposed to the information within the books (the mission), Encyclopedia Britannica would have gone out of business last year.


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
  Related Posts