Issue management in politics refers to the process by which politicians, campaigns, parties, and other political groups identify, prioritize, develop, and convey positions on key issues. A fundamental early step in effective political issue management involves formative research where groups investigate the perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors of target audiences concerning policy preferences and problems. Some of the major research techniques used to gather such information include surveys, focus groups, content analysis, and in-depth interviews. These same approaches are also used to evaluate the success of communication efforts for issue management purposes.
From a theoretical standpoint, the concepts of agenda building and agenda setting are useful for understanding the process of political issue management. The core proposition of agenda-setting theory is that the issues made salient (or prominent) in news media often become the issues that are considered important in public opinion, though the effect is not universal (McCombs & Shaw 1972). For over three decades, extensive empirical support for agenda-setting influence has been collected in local, state, national, and international settings. While agenda setting concentrates on the relationship between news media and the public, the broader concept of agenda building suggests that issue salience is determined by several groups in addition to media and voters, such as politicians, organizations, and activists. Thus, an integral part of successful issue management entails developing strategies for dealing with these diverse sets of stakeholders.
A vital factor impacting the issue-management process involves meaningfully classifying different types of issues. Research has offered several systems for categorizing issues. For example, the difference between obtrusive issues (those with which citizens have direct experience) and unobtrusive issues (those with which citizens have little direct experience) has proved critical with regard to media influence on public perceptions of issue importance (Zucker 1978). Research suggests that mass-media impact is greatest for unobtrusive issues. A similar distinction has been drawn between abstract and concrete issues, with empirical work documenting stronger media influence on perceptions for the latter issue type (Yagade & Dozier 1990). Beyond issue type, the tone and frames associated with issues are germane for issue-management purposes because they shape how issue portrayals are generated and their subsequent effects on various constituencies.
The use of information subsidies by political groups or organizations to exert influence on news media, voters, and other audiences represents a pervasive approach for effective issue management. Among the most commonly used information subsidies are news releases, interviews, news conferences, and “op-ed pieces” (i.e., opinion editorials by contributors who are not necessarily affiliated to the publication). Research has shown that these kinds of political communications are valuable for shaping the salience of issues. For example, multiple studies have demonstrated that the issues emphasized by political campaigns in news releases often become the political issues stressed in media content. One study of the 2002 Florida gubernatorial race found a close correspondence between the salience of issues in campaign news releases and media coverage of the election (Kiousis et al. 2006). This finding is noteworthy because it shows that campaigns can indirectly have an impact on public opinion by altering the salience of issues covered in news content. Although not typical, some studies have found strong correlations between issue importance in news releases and public opinion, as well as linkages among news releases from competing campaigns (Tedesco 2005).
Though often image oriented, political advertising also wields considerable influence on issue management in politics. Research has shown that political advertising affects the perceived salience of issues among voters. Further, voters can become more knowledgeable about candidate positions on issues from exposure to political spots. Finally, news media issue agendas have been reported to closely correspond with those in political advertising, offering yet another indirect route for impacting voters and other political groups.
Much of the scholarly and applied interest in political issue management is based on the premise that issue perceptions and opinions sway elections. The concept of priming provides some insight into how this influence transpires. According to this perspective, media affect attitudes and opinions toward political candidates by shifting the criteria by which politicians are judged, through the media’s emphasis on certain issues at the expense of others. Thus, if news media stress the economy, then voters are likely to assess politicians on the basis of their performance on that issue as opposed to others. As a result, political campaigns and groups aim to influence the news media agenda by highlighting issues with which their organizations or candidates perform well. Issue-ownership theory indicates that certain political parties are thought to handle some issues more competently than other parties. For instance, research has suggested that Republicans in the US are seen as being better on defense, while Democrats are viewed as handling education more competently. As such, priming is a paramount part of understanding political issue management.
Because political power in modern media democracies has become a function of public approval, political actors are now required to go public and influence public opinion. This makes issue management a central element of the political process and a key aspect of political communication.
- Kiousis, S., Mitrook, M., Wu, X., & Seltzer, T. (2006). Firstand second-level agenda-building and agenda-setting effects: Exploring the linkages among candidate news releases, media coverage, and public opinion during the 2002 Florida gubernatorial election. Journal of Public Relations Research, 18, 265 –285.
- McCombs, M. E., & Shaw, D. L. (1972). Agenda-setting function of mass media. Public Opinion Quarterly, 36, 176 –184.
- Tedesco, J. (2005). Intercandidate agenda setting in the 2004 presidential primary. American Behavioral Scientist, 49, 92 –113.
- Yagade, A., & Dozier, D. M. (1990). The media agenda-setting effect of concrete versus abstract issues. Journalism Quarterly, 67, 3 –10.
- Zucker, H. (1978). The variable nature of news media influence. In B. D. Ruben (ed.), Communication yearbook 2. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, pp. 225 –245.