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Blogs  / July 27, 2021

What people think vs. What people think about

by Dan Beltramo, CEO

The key to public perception, public affairs, and public relations

A lot of effort in public relations and marketing communications goes into influencing what people think, but influencing what people think about is equally, if not more important. This is called Agenda-Setting theory and it is critical to understand and embrace.

In 1963 political scientist Bernard Cohen put forth the colloquial maxim, “The press may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about.” Agenda-Setting Theory came to be defined as the evolving process “in which changes in media coverage lead to or cause subsequent changes in problem awareness of issues” by academics like Lang & Lang in 1981 and Brosius and Kepplinger in 1990.

“Fools… are apt to think that events exogenously give us the news by jumping out at us, but, in fact, the news media are choosing the news because their financial success depends on their stories’ viral impact,” wrote Nobel prize-winning economist, Robert Shiller in his book called Narrative Economics. He goes on to dissect how various stories go viral and what their significant economic impact can be.

How agenda setting plays out ultimately drives the “issue attention cycle” coined by Anthony Downs in 1972 to describe the ebb and flow of issues on the public agenda.

The outcomes of this issue attention cycle are powerful enough to drive election outcomes. That was recently demonstrated by Gregory J. Martin at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Marcel Garz at Jönköping International Business School. Martin and Garz give the practitioner a strong hint at one way to manage the issue attention cycle…by employing milestones, particularly those tied to round numbers or left digit bias.

Intuitively, most people understand the relative newsworthiness of a milestone that can be expressed as a round number, e.g. 1 billion users, 5% unemployment, 50% faster, etc., but Martin and Garz proved that round, milestone numbers around unemployment rates increased newspaper coverage by 10%. They went on to show that in gubernatorial races good milestone events help raise sitting governor’s vote shares by around 5% while negative milestones cause incumbents’ vote share to drop by more than 10%.

That is the election in many cases.

So find your milestone, express it in a round number and flog it.

The difference between the results of crossing a positive milestone and a negative one is addressed in Prospect Theory and loss aversion which posits that losses of the same magnitude are overweighted in people’s minds relative to gains.

While most public relations or public affairs people naturally tend to avoid negative topics related to losses, framed the right way they can be powerful. For example, a security software company might tell the story about the millionth data breach it thwarted instead of its 50% improvement in speed.

Big tech has already embraced the agenda-setting message in a big way. On June 30th, 2021 Jane Chung reported:

  • 76 openings for ‘government affairs’ at Amazon
  • 98 openings for ‘government affairs’ at Apple
  • 89 openings for ‘public policy manager’ at Facebook
  • 103 openings for ‘public policy manager’ at Google
  • 32 openings for ‘government affairs’ at Microsoft

(Ironically, many of these jobs are likely to combat the flack these tech companies are receiving for their outsized influence on the issue attention cycle.)

So what is more important — what people think about your issue or whether they are thinking about it?

It is a chicken or egg problem, but I’d proffer that until people are thinking about your issue, idea or product, what they would think about it is a secondary consideration. Even in a crisis comms situation, when people are thinking too much about your issue, shifting the focus of their attention can be as impactful as shifting their opinions…a favorite tactic of press secretaries around the globe.

Look! What’s that over there?