Last week at a Tweet up organized for the Research Symposium for the Society of New Communications Research in Boston I chatted with Mihaela Vorvoreanu, Ph.D. Assistant Professor of Communications at Clemson University in South Carolina and a research fellow with the society. We discussed the concept of agenda setting* in the press.
Basically the theory suggests that while the press may have little influence on the publics attitudes, the press does influence what the public discusses and thinks about because of the issues covered in the media.
The theory of agenda setting has four components:
1. Media Agenda - issues discussed in the media (newspapers, television, radio)
2. Public Agenda - issues discussed and personally relevant to members of the public
3. Policy Agenda - issues that policy makers consider important (legislators)
4. Corporate Agenda - issues that big business and corporations consider important (corporate)
However, with the advent of social media, I was wondering how the public who use social media fit into this list? If social media is used by the public to discuss issues that are personally relevant, then surely what is discovered in social media is all about the public agenda. Mihaela Vorvoreanu introduced me to another theory: intermedia agenda-setting, the process of one medium influencing the importance of issues within another medium, for example there is research that demonstrates the press is being influenced by blogs, and research that blogs being influenced by the press. A lot of research has been conducted to find correlations between political campaign news releases, political advertising and blogs. Apparently there is even some correlation between media agenda setting and the agenda developed on campaign blogs, often times the media agenda influenced the campaign blog agenda. A good article to read about the concept of intermedia agenda setting is "Intermedia Agenda Setting in Television, Advertising, and Blogs During the 2004 Election," by Kaye D. Sweetser; Guy J. Golan ; Wayne Wanta in Mass Communication and Society 2008.
A story covered by the Boston Globe about a Mother and a stroller that were hit by a police car illustrates the power of social media to set the agenda for the public and the press. A woman was crossing the street the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, pushing her child in a stroller, when a police car hit the Mother and knocked her child and stroller down in the street. The initial short article in the Boston Globe reported everyone was okay. However, there was a great deal of discussion in blogs and in a local discussion group for mothers about the incident. Eventually, in an online forum called JP Moms several members of the public were critical of the woman for not coming forward to give her side of the story. A friend of the woman posted on the site and asked the community to consider the privacy of the families involved. At that point the Boston Globe reporter who had originally reported the incident in the initial story started investigating the story in more detail, and produced an objective piece that gave the background details to the story that no member of the public had investigated, “What happened on Seaverns Avenue?.”
I thought the article laid to rest any doubts about the status of the Police officer involved in the car accident and the position of the family involved. The Globe story focused on the facts, what happened in the car accident, what the victim had to say about the accident, that members of the public posted critical statements of the victim in online communities, and how one of the victim’s friends defended the family online. I checked with the reporter, David Abel, and he stated the “hysteria,” surrounding the story drew the Globe’s interest and he wrote the Seaverns article. The second Globe story was about the hysteria that developed online surrounding the accident. I think this is an example of intermedia agenda-setting. Through investigative and objective reporting of the facts, David Abel’s story dispelled any misconceptions about what happened with the victim, and left the reader to make their own conclusions about those people who had been critical of the victim.
A company may use the agenda-setting and intermedia agenda-setting theories to understand how the media and now social media can set the agenda for issue discussion among customers and the wider community.
One example of the social media influencing the media agenda would be the case of Dell. Customers using social media gathered around a blogger called Jeff Jarvis and his blog, BuzzMachine over the issue of problems with customer service. Jeff wrote a series of blog posts about Dell. He had experienced problems with his Dell laptop, and was not satisfied with the response given to him when he contacted Dell customer service. He wrote about his issues with Dell on his blog. Those posts generated a lot of comments, and blog posts from other Dell customers. Jeff’s posts about his problems with Dell customer service and the subsequent agreement by other customers using social media became known as, “Dell Hell,” and the term came to describe Dell’s problems with customer service and their lack of response to customer’s who asked questions through their blogs and forms of social media. Due to the volume of discussion generated in social media about Dell customer support the story spread to traditional media, from newspapers to television.
In July of 2006 Dell conducted an analysis of bloggers and assigned a sentiment rating to each blog post, the company discovered 49% of posts about Dell were negative using their own rating system. If a significant percentage of opinion among bloggers and social media was that Dell had poor customer service, the only way to change that opinion was to take action by resolving structural issues related to customer support and product development. While Dell takes every effort to respond to every customer who had a support issue, if a customer uses social media, and has a complaint, Dell’s social media outreach strategy means that the customer will receive a connection from a Dell employee through social media. The individual who had described their problem in social media has their issue resolved and the wider community learns about the resolution through social media. Over an 18 month period Dell tracked a reduction in negative sentiment in the blogosphere down to 22%.
This public response in social media on the part of Dell is why I was thinking intermedia agenda-setting is a good model to consider for how to describe the burgeoning social media monitoring, outreach and response process among companies.
Without the public’s use of social media the “Dell Hell” incident and the raising of the issue of customer service might never have happened. Dell realized that people were reporting their problems within social media, and in aggregate their concerns were a PR if not brand headache for Dell. At its height of Dell’s negative sentiment the press agenda had turned to discussing Dell customer and public affairs issues, once the press took up the story, Dell’s bad PR escalated, affecting stock and sales. What’s interesting about the Dell story to me is that the intermedia agenda-setting theory explains what happened with Dell. (1) Crisis highlighted in social media, which spreads to the media, and back to social media, (2) Dell responds in social media and action, (3) the new story about Dell is how the company changed.
What I like about agenda setting is that the theory is a way to demonstrate the importance of social media for a company’s reputation and brand. All too often I’ve been questioned by business executives on the value of conducting a dialogue with an individual blogger, however focusing on an individual blogger relationship misses the point about the reality of social media: community! Bloggers and other social media communities are just that; communities of people. We have to think beyond the influence of an individual blogger, rather that the blogger is connected to an entire community of people who through their writings set the agenda within social media.
I think the agenda-setting model is a helpful model to describe what happens within communities and media, one that can give company’s pause for thought about what to do about monitoring and response within social media. Should a company get involved with monitoring and response? As a marketer I’d argue using social media to talk and listen too your customers makes sense if that’s the medium they use. I’d be interested to see if the intermedia agenda-setting model is a tool for demonstrating to business executives why getting involved with social media is a good idea. Social media can influence the press, and the press social media, which in turn can set the agenda for coverage of a company’s brand. An audience will not read the discussion in the press or social media and necessarily change their perception about a company, but surely the coverage about a company will affect the perception of a company’s brand.
The press itself can use the idea of intermedia agenda-setting to give support to using online media monitoring tools for the development of stories that report on issues that are important to a community. If the public discourse in social media were more widely considered by the Press perhaps the model for the press room of the future would change, where the press agenda as to what is covered includes news that's most relevant to the community in social media. Many stories may break news but does that story have legs and require further in-depth reporting? I’d suggest one idea for the newsroom of tomorrow will be to use some of the online media mining tools developed for corporations to determine the stories that are of most interest to a community. The press would use monitoring tools to determine both what is developing, and what becomes relevant and important to the community, through, references, links and comments. Those news stories that pick up steam quickly will be the agenda items for the press to investigate in greater detail, just as the Seaverns Avenue story in the Boston Globe was a story that the reporter decided to investigate because of how the community discussion unfolded within social media. Armed with the knowledge that the public is discussing a story the press will then investigate details no one else is reporting. The press is already being influenced by the issues that are highlighted in social media; the use of monitoring tools would give the media the ability to recognize what stories are important to the community within social media at an earlier stage.
* “The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass Media,” by Maxwell E. McCombs & Donald L. Shaw in Public Opinion Quarterly, 1972, XXXVI, 2.