Be an agenda-setter
If you can be seen as an authority figure on certain issues, then the ability to set an agenda can be a powerful business tool.
The term ‘agenda-setting’ was first used in a study by Maxwell E. McCombs and Donald L. Shaw published in 1972. In the study, the researchers interviewed 100 undecided voters in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and asked them what issues they were most concerned about in the coming (1968) election.
After determining the five issues the voters deemed most important, the researchers evaluated the media serving Chapel Hill (both print and broadcast) for the content of their stories. McCombs and Shaw found an almost perfect correlation between the types of stories that were covered most often and the voters’ concern for the same issues.
McCombs and Shaw’s research into agenda-setting was not the first foray into the subject (although it was the first to coin the term ‘agenda setting’), and it would not be the last. Several studies are done each year within the various disciplines of agenda-setting research.
Generally, the studies seem mostly to confirm that agenda-setting does in fact take place, and that media attention toward stories is the most important factor involved in shaping the public’s view of the stories’ relative importance.
In fact, studies have shown that the mere number of times a story is repeated in the news will affect peoples’ perception of the story’s importance, regardless of what is said about the topic.
There are three types of agenda: the media agenda (print and broadcast), the public agenda (what the ‘word on the street’ is), and the policy agenda (usually to do with government policies). Each one tends to affect the other, but the media agenda undoubtedly wields the most power when trying to drum up a debate.
But if you think agenda-setting is achieved simply by getting stories in the media, then, I’m afraid, you’ll have to think again, and this is due in no small part to the US Presidential Election of 1940. This is when the academics Lazarsfeld, Berelson and Gaudet conducted the first full-scale investigation of the effects of political mass communication.
Their research was originally based on the simplistic ‘hypodermic needle’ model of media influence, where it was assumed that a message would be transmitted from the mass media to a ‘mass audience’, who would absorb the message, like an arm would absorb whatever was pumped into it by a hypodermic needle.
However, their investigations suggested that media effects were minimal, that the idea of a ‘mass audience’ was inadequate and misguided because social influences had a major effect on the process of opinion formation and sharply limited the media’s effect.
The study concluded that only 5% of people changed their voting behaviour as a result of media messages! Their exposure to election broadcasts turned out to be a relatively poor predictor of their voting behaviour, particularly when compared with other factors such as their communication with friends, union members, business colleagues and the political tradition they had grown up in.
No ‘opinion leader’ is an opinion leader in all aspects of life. For example, the car mechanic in your local pub may not use the media much at all because he’s always working late. Nevertheless, he knows a lot about cars and so what the rest of those in the pub ‘know’ from the media about different makes of car will be influenced by his views.
This was recognized by the Nazi party in its gradual rise to power during the 1920s and 1930s. Nazi agitation and propaganda became increasingly successful at forcing themselves onto the front pages of newspapers, thus becoming an everyday topic of conversation. They were particularly keen to capitalise on that attention, directing it in the right direction through influencing the leading members of the various small associations which were spread throughout German communities.
Where local leaders, enjoying respectability and influence, were won over, further converts often rapidly followed. In the relatively homogeneous villages in Schleswig-Holstein, where feelings about the ‘Weimar system’ were running high on account of the agrarian crisis, the push from one or two farmers’ leaders could result in a local landslide to the Nazi Party.
You should never underestimate the importance of gaining credible, heavyweight endorsement from opinion leaders, and getting them to add their weight to media agenda-setting.