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The OCR Glossary

Agenda-Building Theory

Sun Young Lee

Agenda-building theory seeks to answer the question of who builds the media agenda, the public agenda, and the policy agenda. For example, stakeholders can attempt to build the media agenda through activism or media relations strategies, and journalists can attempt to build the public agenda and the policy agenda through investigative reporting. Some might ask how agenda-building theory differs from agenda-setting theory, which deals with the effects of the media on setting the public agenda and the policy agenda. The difference is one of focus: agenda-setting theory emphasizes the power of the media in setting the public and the policy agenda, whereas agenda-building theory posits a reciprocity between the media and other sources or society in general in building the public and the policy agenda. Applying this to corporate reputation, agenda-building theory suggests that corporate reputation can be formed by various information sources, including monitoring groups, activist groups, corporations themselves, and bloggers, as well as the news media. This entry gives an overview of the two different roots of agenda-building theory, the common view of agenda-building theory in the field of mass communication, criticisms of the common view, and the implications for corporate reputation.

The Origins of Agenda-Building Theory

There are two streams of agenda-building theory, one in political science and one in mass communication studies. The term agenda building originated in the field of political science and refers to how an agenda is formed. An agenda is a general set of political issues gaining attention at a point in time; the scope of an agenda is flexible, as it could be the agenda of the media, of the public, or of policymakers. Political science views agenda building as a collective and reciprocal process of building an agenda among the media, the public, and government, with all of these influencing one another.

Agenda-building theory was further developed in the field of mass communication, where agenda building was rather narrowly defined as the relationships between information sources and the media agenda, and responds to the question “Who builds the media agenda?” Originally, mass communication scholars examined the relationships between sources—such as political candidates, the government sector, corporations, the nation, and interest groups—and the media. The premise is that the media do not operate in a vacuum: The media agenda is the result of the influence that powerful groups, notably organized business, exert as a subtle form of social control. Journalists have limited resources and time, so external sources will have influence in the gatekeeping process of the media agenda. Later, scholars framed this relationship as agenda-building theory and considered it as an extension of agenda-setting theory by considering the media agenda as an outcome rather than as a starting point, seeing an understanding of media agenda setting as a necessary prerequisite to understanding how the mass media agenda influences the public agenda.

Bryan Denham has recently pointed out the inconsistencies in agenda-building theory, and he labeled the different types of agenda building as media agenda building, intermedia agenda building, public agenda building, and policy agenda building, thus merging multiple views in an effort to clarify the concepts. Despite the conceptual inconsistencies between the two fields, a commonality of both versions of the agenda-building theory is an interest in the sources that build an agenda, whether it is the media, the public, or the policy agenda.

Agenda-Building Theory in Mass Communication

Although the theory originated in the field of political science, a majority of the literature on agenda building has been mass communication research. In this body of research, the media agenda is usually defined as media contents in the news media, and the evidence of agenda building is tracked through associations or similarities between the two agendas, (1) the agenda of sources and (2) the media agenda. An agenda has two levels. The first-level agenda is the topic level—the subject/object, such as an organization or an individual figure, or a campaign or an issue, such as social issues often advocated by the subject/object. The second-level agenda is the attributes tied to the topic. Substantive attributes refer to characteristics or traits of the topic or the framing of the topic, such as a subject’s position on an issue. Affective attributes are the tone or favorability of the content toward the topic. Accordingly, the associations or similarities between the two types of attributes can be examined at the different levels of an agenda. The unit of content also varies; for example, one can compare a topic or an attribute of a topic per document, such as press releases and news articles, or one can narrow the scope to units such as words, phrases, sentences, lines, or paragraphs.

Scholars have found empirical evidence of agenda building. For example, one study monitored the daily calendars of business of the U.S. House and Senate from March to December 2009 and explored the relationships among different types of information subsidies (from the president, federal government offices, the Congress, and eight health-care-related stakeholder groups), news media contents, and policymaking activity; they found robust linkages between the salience of the issues in the information subsidies and the news media contents. In the corporate sphere, one study examined the relationships among corporate information subsidies and financial media coverage in the 25 largest activist shareholder campaigns in the U.S. stock market for a five-year period from 2005 to 2009 and found positive relationships between the issue priorities in both press releases and shareholder letters and the news coverage.


Despite the abundance of agenda-building studies employing the unidirectional agenda-building concept of mass communication scholars, critics have pointed out several limitations. First, the assumption is of a linear process from sources to the media, from the media to the public, and from the public to policy, but in the real world, agendas are not built in a unidirectional and linear manner. Sources can influence the media, and the media can also influence the sources. Furthermore, multiple sources can participate in the agenda-building process. Second, agenda-building research usually does not consider longitudinal long-term effects: The lagged effects of sources or the media on each other have been rarely investigated. Third, the scope of the mass communication version of the theory is too narrowly confined to the relationships between sources and the media. In today’s environment of digital and social media, for example, organizations can directly reach the public through online communication channels.

Implications for Corporate Reputation

The mass communication perspective on agenda-building theory provokes the question “Who builds the media agenda as regards corporations?” The media play a major role in forming corporate reputation, as it is fundamentally public opinion. Accordingly, determining the sources that may influence the formation of the media agenda with regard to corporations is vital for a corporation’s success. Media relations strategies, such as press releases, fact sheets, media advisories, and media kits, are some of the oldest and most traditional public relations strategies, but they are still relevant even in the 21st century’s digital media environment because of the news media’s capacity to reach a large audience and its credibility as a third-party endorser. Not only do corporations themselves, through their media relations strategies, contribute to building the media agenda related to corporations, but other entities in society, such as activist groups, government entities, industry associations, and auditing/monitoring organizations, contribute to it as well.

Although the mass media still has a significant influence, the public today relies on other information sources in addition to the traditional news media. In the rapidly changing environment of the 21st century, which has been characterized as a digital and global era, for instance, corporations can directly influence the public’s perception of them via social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, and YouTube, and other corporate communication channels, such as corporate websites and blogs, without the media’s intervention. Furthermore, as sharing and transferring information have become much easier than before, content from one news medium can easily affect another, and these collective processes can create shifts in public opinion. Information published in blogs and websites engages greater numbers of people who join conversations on the issues, and journalists can incorporate such conversations into news reports while they monitor the issues the public is interested in.

In sum, the mass communication version of agenda-building theory is not adequate to explain agenda-building phenomena; the political science version of agenda-building theory can be called on to enrich the model. Whereas the mass communication perspective highlights corporations’ mediated communication efforts in gaining reputation among the public, the political science perspective encourages researchers to examine the direct effects of corporate communication on the public’s perceptions of a corporation, as its assumption is that entities other than the media can equally contribute to building the public agenda. Charles Fombrun and Mark Shanley originally argued that the public form corporate reputations based on the information they receive, without restricting the information sources to the mass media, but studies to date have largely focused on the news media’s effects on corporate reputation, and other types of media are still understudied at this point.

A final implication of agenda-building theory stems from the nature of corporate reputation. Reputation is not formed in a day but is accumulated over longer periods of time. Therefore, examining the more dynamic and multifaceted interactions among information sources and the media over extended periods of time may help explain better the agenda-building process of corporate reputation than studies from a linear and unidirectional agenda-building perspective.


Agenda-building theory has been inconsistently conceptualized and applied due to its historical roots in two different fields. Each view can enrich the other, however, if they are combined. Political science agenda-building theory can broaden the scope of mass communication agenda-building theory; at the same time, the latter offers a wealth of empirical support for the effects of sources on the media agenda. In particular, in the realm of corporate reputation, adapting the political science perspective on agenda-building theory can shed more light on the process of forming corporate reputation in this changing environment. The differentiation of the concept of agenda building into three types of agenda building can be a starting point; viewing corporate reputation as part of the public agenda, identifying the sources influencing corporate reputation, and tracing the reciprocal relationships among the sources over time as they build the agenda is the task of future research if scholars are to understand the agenda-building process of corporate reputation in this global and digital era. Such processes are likely to contain multiple feedback loops and provide opportunities to study the construction of collective opinion and policymaking, which is where agenda-building theory began.

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Dearing, J. W., & Rogers, E. M. (1996). Agenda-setting. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Denham, B. E. (2010). Toward conceptual consistency in studies of agenda-building processes: A scholarly review. The Review of Communication, 10(4), 306–323.

Fombrun, C., & Shanley, M. (1990). What’s in a name? Reputation building and corporate strategy. Academy of Management Journal, 33(2), 233–258.

Kiousis, S., Park, J. M., Kim, J. Y., & Go, E. (2013). Exploring the role of agenda-building efforts in media coverage and policymaking activity of healthcare reform. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 90(4), 652–672.

Lang, G. E., & Lang, K. (1981). Watergate: An exploration of the agenda-building process. Mass Communication Review Yearbook, 2, 447–469.

Ragas, M. W. (2013). Agenda building during activist shareholder campaigns. Public Relations Review, 39(3), 219–221.

Zoch, L. M., & Molleda, J. (2006). Building a theoretical model of media relations using framing, information subsidies, and agenda-building. In C. H. Botan & V. Hazleton (Eds.), Public relations theory II (pp. 279–309). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

See Also

Agenda-Setting Theory; Communication Management; Corporate Agenda Setting; Corporate Communication; Media Effects Theory; Media Relations

See Also

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