Friday, October 18, 2013

Agenda-setting theory: helped or hindered by social media?

I frequently read the editorials and columns in the opinion section of my hometown newspaper. I like their digital subscription option these days since the print version mostly ended up in the recycling bin unless I needed to wrap something breakable. But that's a different story. I like catching up on what those veteran newspaper journalists have to say in and about this city.

Recently, Jim Witt, executive editor, included an intriguing bit of insight into working in the media in a piece about a former colleague who left the newspaper business. 
“When you work at a newspaper, you get to be around a lot of smart people every day. You get to be “in the know” about almost everything going on, and — until Facebook and Twitter — you decide what the public knows. You can do things that help the community by pointing out problems and offering solutions.”
Did you catch it? He's alluding to a disruption to agenda-setting theory by a couple of social media tools. Agenda-setting theory describes the "ability [of the news media] to influence the salience of topics on the public agenda."1 
“In other words, the media shape top-of-mind presence regarding issues. The typical news consumer focuses on a handful of topics daily, and these topics are presented to him or her, in one form or another, by the media. With the next news cycle, a topic from the day before may disappear, and so does its importance among news consumers.” 2  
Now, PR pros understand that we play an important function in this multi-directional process since journalists cannot possibly cover all of the possible angles, stories, or topics. It's our role to augment and advance the issues through media relations that impact the communities and organizations we represent. 

But what about Facebook and Twitter? The behemoths of the social web. As the editor mentions, journalists used to have the market cornered on what the public knows. As masters of mass communication, media outlets laid out the news of the day. And then new media tools changed things. Over time, the eyeball economy has shifted to what some might describe as a democratized system of attention.  

A local reporter told me recently their assignment editor had been coming down on all of the reporters about being more entrepreneurial with the development of stories. Translation: dig deeper into those Facebook messages and Twitter leads. Sources are just waiting to help tell a story. (This reporter was not thrilled at this concept but understood the expectation.)

I believe it's important for PR people to understand that this shift has taken place. We need to use this to frame our thinking for issues management since their are tools to help monitor some of these very same sources. We still need to follow the conversation, streamline access to the facts, truth and subject-matter experts as needed, so we ultimately position our organizations for success.

The agenda-setting theory is still spinning today, it just has a few (million) more spokes in the wheel.

1 McCombs, M; Reynolds, A (2002). "News influence on our pictures of the world". Media effects: Advances in theory and research.
2 Study Guide for the Examination for Accreditation in Public Relations (Communication Models and Theories)

Photo credit: rustman via Flickr Creative Commons