Ron Smith's Teaching Note on ...


Agenda-Setting, Priming & Framing


Updated Spring 2016 as a supplement to Professor Smith's textbooks
Strategic Planning for Public Relations and Becoming a Public Relations Writer, (Routledge/Taylor and Francis).


Much can be said about the role of the media in influencing the way people perceive public relations messages. This is true not only for journalism but also for the advertising and entertainment industries. Sometimes the media influence is intentional, sometimes apparently accidental. Regardless of the motivation, media influence is inevitable. Public relations practitioners aware of the potential media role can consider ways to deal with it. Here are some thoughts on three theories of media influence and how public relations pracvtitioners can deal with this influence.



Source: Agenda-setting theory is associated with Maxwell McCombs & Donald Shaw (1972).


Premise: Media do not tell us what to think, but rather what to think about.


Evidence: Mass media have not been proven effective in determining how audiences will accept opinions and points of view in media reports. But mass media are effective in determining what audiences see as newsworthy. By the issues they cover, media can legitimize a story or marginalize either the entire story or certain aspects of it.


Example: In political campaigns, the media may not be effective in swaying public support toward or against a particular issue or candidate. But by continually raising particular questions and issues, or simply by showing an interest in a particular political candidate or issue, the media can lead the discussion toward or away from issues important to the candidate and even to the public (as identified through polls).



Questions for Discussion: 

In a given situation, how have media placed issues X, Y, & Z on their audiences' agenda?

Why do journalists select topics for their agenda? On what basis?

How can a public relations practitioner use to advantage an issue of relevance to the organization that is already on the media agenda?

What can a public relations practitioner do to place an issue on the media agenda?




Source: Priming theory draws on politial science research of Shanto Iyengar, Mark Peters & Donald Kinder (1982).


Premise: Media provide a context for public discussion of an issue, setting the stage for audience understanding.


Evidence: The amount of time and space that media devote to an issue make an audience receptive and alert to particular themes. Likewise, audience perception of events are impacted by historical context with which they are familiar (through experience or through media).


Example: Media reporting may be very strong leading up to an event such as the Olympics, Super Bowl or World Cup, or an element of civic life such as an election, making it almost impossible for audiences to ignore the event. Such aggressive reporting thus creates an audience of people at least temporarily interested in the event, even though prior to the reporting many (perhaps most) members of the audience were not sports fans or political enthusiasts. Rather, they are people who get caught up in the moment.



Questions for Discussion:

In a given situation, how have the media primed their audiences on a particular issue of importance to an organization?

Why do journalists engage in priming?

How can a public relations practitioner use to advantage an issue of relevance for which the organization finds that an audience has been favorably primed?

What can a public relations practitioner do to gain the interest of media audiences when such priming has not occurred?




Source: Framing theory attributed to Erving Goffman (1974), drawing on work in economics.


Premise: Media provide a focus and environment for reporting a story, influencing how audiences will understand or evaluate it.


Evidence: Framing theory deals with social construction on two levels:

- Perception of a social phenomenon by journalists presenting news
- Interpretation of that phenomenon by audiences

Framing provides a rhetorical analysis of the text (an issue, or the reporting of the issue) to identify perception and/or interpretation. It involves the use of metaphor, spin, story telling, jargon, word choice, other narrative elements. Framing has been called an exercise in power (who tells the story first) and persuasion (manipulation of audiences).


Example: Through initial reporting, the media may present the facts of a story in such as way that the audience is given a particular point of view or frame of reference and interpretation. The media may report that a political candidate has extreme views on an issue, that a budget proposal is harmful to a particular group, that a new medicine is of questionable safety, and so on. By such reporting, the media thus have presented a frame through which the story is interpreted by audiences. It also sets the baseline for future reporting on the issue. (For a fuller example of framing, see Professor Smith's research The Cherokee-Freedman Story: what the Media Saw.)



Questions for Discussion

In a given situation, how have the media framed a story? 

Is there "good guy and a "bad guy"? 

Whose version of facts gets top billing?

Which version becomes the standard against other points of view inherent in the story?

What is the "meaning" of the story?

What can a public relations practitioner do to re-frame a story or counter a negative frame?





For an application of these theories, see Professor Smith's research The Cherokee-Freedmen Story: What the Media Saw