Public Affairs and Agenda Setting:

Passive On-Lookers or Active Participants?
Theory & Hypotheses 

     Understanding agenda-setting and its effects on public opinion is important to the military public affairs professional. Although the scope and process is still not understood (McCombs, 1981) and needs further research (McQuail, 1984), there is supporting evidence that agenda-setting as a concept should be taken seriously (Severin & Tankard, 1997). Understanding the implications of time lag, framing, who is elite media, and who sets the agenda is important for military public affairs. These variables can be manipulated by the savvy public affairs professional to help shape the agenda. A well thought out public communications plan using communications theory can change military public affairs from passive onlooker to aggressive participant.  
Our first hypothesis we advance is:   

Hypotheses: Military public affairs communications campaigns positively influence media agenda-setting.    

      McGuire’s (1989) theoretical foundations of campaigns is a communication persuasion theory adaptable to military public affairs campaigns. It is well-suited for communication campaigns that must reach large audiences to change their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. He characterizes two sets of components as an "input/output" matrix to be manipulated and measured when planning and evaluating communication campaigns. The list of input variables provide options to the communications planner when designing the campaign.    

     The input components are McGuire’s (1989) independent variables that are manipulated to achieve certain outputs. The input components are sources, messages, channels, receivers, and intent. The source variable refers to the characteristics of the person who presents the message to the public. Sources can vary in number, demographics, and credibility. Messages may vary in types of appeals, information presented, organization, and repetition. The channel variable refers to the mass medium through which the message is transmitted to the public. It can also refer to delivery style and context. Receivers are the target audience. Like sources, receivers can vary in number, demographics, and lifestyles. The campaign’s intent reflects the beliefs, attitudes, and/or behaviors the planner desires to change and is the goal of the communications campaign (McGuire, 1989).    

     McGuire’s (1989) model identifies twelve output variables that are measured by examining the reactions of the public to the sources, messages, channels, receivers, and intent. The output variables are endpoints in a communication campaign and can be used to determine the campaign’s level of success. Exposure, attention, liking and comprehending the message are fundamental to a communications campaign. They refer to getting the messages out to a wide audience, with clarity, appeal and, understanding.    
     Acquiring skills, changing attitudes, remembering, and retrieving information are the basis for long-term changes in beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. Deciding to act, behavior change, reinforcing a decision are the long-term changes communications campaigns often seek. Consolidating the results is essential to any communication campaign. Only through evaluating results can a campaign planner determine the success of the communications campaign (McGuire, 1989).    

     McGuire’s (1989) campaigning theory is similar to the Department of Defense (DOD) Instruction governing public affairs guidance (PAG) (5405.3, 1991). PAG is a process by which military public affairs develops a coordinated response to a command issue that may generate public interest. This ensures that spokespersons speak with a single voice. The PAG template is flexible such that it can be used at any command level from small units and installations to DOD level issues.    

     Like McGuire’s (1989) inputs, PAG identifies whom the spokesperson(s) is/are, it outlines the themes and messages, with potential questions and answers, that will be communicated and to whom they will be targeted (5405.3, 1991). PAG identifies the approach to media coverage similar to McGuire’s (1989) channels. An active approach involves efforts to stimulate media and public interest including inviting them to the activity. A passive approach involves no efforts to generate public and media interest beyond responding to inquiry. The approach will often dictate the intent of the communications plan. 

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