The sphere of public relations and media relations is primarily aimed at communicating the right messages to the public. Leveraging the well-established instruments and effects of media, such as framing, agenda-setting, agenda building, and cultivation, are invaluable for a PR practitioner. The constant interplay of news sources, decision-makers, and public influencers is daunting and complicated. Extracting the right lessons from the wealth of information available on the topic will help interact with all of these diverse actors effectively.
The first important concept to a public relations practitioner is framing. The fact that the same story can be told in several different ways by emphasizing some parts and omitting others is common knowledge. However, framing goes much deeper than that and has many permutations. Hallahan (1999) describes framing as a way to define certain aspects of reality by pointing out crucial parts of it, making judgments, and proposing appropriate actions. Framing plays on people’s biases and cognitive heuristics, evoking imagery of good-versus-evil, or gain-versus-loss in a way that would influence people the most. One example the author provides is the fact that humans deem negative information more important than positive information. Different cognitive and psychological processes are engaged by the message depending on what is being framed and why. A practitioner of public relations must have an excellent knowledge of the human psyche to perform these precise manipulations. People have various biases, opinions, and philosophies, all of which change what messages they resonate with.
The framing of the message, however, does not always follow the ‘preferences’ of the target audience. The media outlets also have their biases and opinions that change the way they present information to the public. Sometimes, the story itself defines the way it will be framed to produce maximum impact. Kim, Carvalho, and Davis (2010) found that the degree to which the news outlets blamed poverty on the individual rather than societal factors is not consistent with the psychological and philosophical underpinnings of the American public. The political slant of the viewers, although statistically significant in some cases, was not a major deciding factor either. The journalists have likely framed the stories according to their own political beliefs, rather than the beliefs of their target audience. The context of the news also played a role, as blaming poverty on the individual lack of entrepreneurial spirit in the people made little sense when reporting the aftermath of an environmental disaster.
Another essential concept is agenda-setting, which is the competition among interested parties for the public spotlight to shine on their issue. Agenda is the set of issues that are being discussed at any point in time, and the issue can be some form of conflict or a social problem. Agenda is a very limited resource, and all interest groups, politicians, and businesses have their own things to tell to the masses via the media outlets. The media becomes the arbiter of what people think about through deciding what is important, and it defines its agenda-setting role. Attention from the media raises the salience of issues, turning them into public or even political agenda (Dearing & Rogers, 1996). In this process, the media coverage is more important than the real-life effects of the issue.
In recent years, the term ‘media’ has shifted from well-known radio and television to blogs and Twitter feeds. According to Meraz (2011), online sources have outstripped the legacy media in terms of popularity. They sometimes influence the media agenda by reporting on the issues to millions of followers, thus raising their salience, with the traditional news sources playing catch-up. That is a crucial development for any media relations practitioner, as online blogs and YouTube channels become significantly more effective and convenient to deliver messages to the public than television or magazines. There can no longer be an effective marketing campaign without using social media. The art of framing ties neatly into this paradigm shift, as the followers of online media respond to different messages than those who prefer legacy media, which needs to be accounted for.
Agenda-building is the process that leads to issues becoming discussed and gaining salience, which includes agenda-setting, but features other parts of the issue’s life cycle. There are several frameworks of how issues become part of the public agenda, all depicting different interplays among the media, the politicians, and the population. They also depend on the type of issue, as it stands to reason that an unexpected viral outbreak reaches the agenda through different means and at a different pace than an environmental issue that has been building up for decades. These frameworks were compiled by Zoch and Molleda (2006), as described by various scholars. Knowing these different types of agenda-building can help a practitioner of public relations to determine the appropriate point of ingress into the public spotlight. The agenda-building process is a good reminder that the public agenda does not always begin and end with formal agenda-setting in media.
Cultivation is a phenomenon that holds some insights for the media relations practitioners as well. Over the years, it has become apparent that media products shape the way people see the world (Morgan & Shanahan, 2010). It has a direct connection to the other three phenomena: the consistent valence framing of some public agenda issues may plant it in the mind of the population. It merits serious ethical considerations: if the media has a tangible effect on what people believe, it is a power that should be used responsibly. Aside from the sinister implications, insights gleaned from the cultivation studies can be used to determine what the zeitgeist is to direct the public relations and marketing efforts better.
The key insights a savvy practitioner can extract from this information all have to do with the importance of knowledge. Knowing the unconscious biases, cognitive heuristics, and other assorted mechanisms of information processing in all humans is essential for effective framing of the message. Knowing the audience, its preferences, media habits, popular beliefs, and media-induced worldviews can help target the message. Knowing what platforms set the agenda and who uses them as a source of information can help float the appropriate message to the right public. In turn, when receiving a message, knowing where it came from, through what medium, and for whom it was intended, can help determine what parts of it were emphasized or omitted. These inner workings of media resources are intricate, but they are worthwhile to investigate.
Public relations is a complicated subject that requires dedicated research on the practitioners’ part. On the surface, it relates to news stories and advertisements, but the deeper structures of it are rooted in human psychology, cognitive biases, and deeply held beliefs about the world. The framing of the messages, the agenda-setting and agenda-building role of the media, the increasing relevance of the online platforms, and the cultivation of fictitious beliefs all hold important lessons to learn. A competent public relations practitioner is the one who knows what they are doing and why they are doing it.
Dearing, J. W. & Rogers, E. M. (1996) Agenda-Setting. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
Hallahan, K. (1999). Seven Models of Framing: Implications for Public Relations. Journal of Public Relations Research, 11(3), 205–242.
Kim, S.-H., Carvalho, J. P., & Davis, A. C. (2010). Talking about Poverty: News Framing of Who is Responsible for Causing and Fixing the Problem. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 87(3-4), 563–581.
Meraz, S. (2011). Using Time Series Analysis to Measure Intermedia Agenda-Setting Influence in Traditional Media and Political Blog Networks. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 88(1), 176–194.
Morgan, M., & Shanahan, J. (2010). The State of Cultivation. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 54(2), 337–355.
Zoch, L. M., & Molleda, H.-C. (2006). Building a Theoretical Model of Media Relations Using Framing, Information Subsidies, and Agenda-Building. In: C. H. Botan & V. Hazleton (Eds.), Public Relations Theory II (pp. 279-309). New York, NY: Routledge.