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The OCR Glossary

Corporate Agenda Setting

Xiaoqun Zhang

Corporate agenda setting refers to corporations as the public agenda setters. As consumers, clients, employees, and/or shareholders, publics are the crucial stakeholders of corporations. Their perceptions of various aspects of corporations, such as products and services, leadership, innovation, financial performance, social responsibility, and reputation as a whole, influence their attitudes and behaviors toward these corporations. To be successful, corporations need to build a good image in the public’s minds. Therefore, corporations engage in activities that could have an influence on what and how publics think about them, that is, the public agenda. These activities could influence the public agenda directly or indirectly. Both the direct influence and the indirect influence would affect corporations’ reputations in the public’s minds. This entry outlines the direct influences of corporations as public agenda setters on the public agenda and discusses the contingent conditions of corporate agenda setting.

The Direct and Indirect Influences of Corporations on Public Agendas

Corporate agenda setting involves communicating directly with the public. Stakeholder conferences, business annual reports, newsletters, special bulletins, and brochures are the major traditional ways through which corporations have direct communication with key stakeholders, such as investors, customers, dealers, and suppliers. However, the scope of these traditional communications is limited since not many people have the opportunity to be exposed to these business messages.

The Internet and associated technological advances provide corporations more channels to communicate with the public. For example, one study found that the websites of big companies contain information on corporate social responsibility issues, such as community involvement, environmental concerns, and education. Companies can also directly disseminate their messages through e-mails and social network sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, which have become important communication and marketing tools for many corporations to attract public attention and strengthen their corporate agenda-setting power.

Corporations can also release their business information through public relations news release distribution networks, such as PR Newswire and Businesswire. However, only the savvy business information seekers use these newswires to obtain information about corporations. One study found that the number of news releases issued by a firm had no significant correlation with the firm’s public prominence (top-of-mind). Therefore, corporations have limited agenda-setting power through using news release distribution services. Advertising is another way by which corporations can have direct influence on the public. It was found that advertising expenditures have a strong influence on firms’ public prominence.

News media have agenda-setting power in that they are capable of telling people what to think about and how to think about it. These are the tenets of agenda-setting theory, and they have been verified by hundreds of empirical studies. Craig Carroll conducted several empirical studies demonstrating that business news coverage has influence on firms’ public prominence (top-of-mind awareness) and public esteem (the degree to which the public likes, trusts, and respects a firm) and shapes the attributes the public perceive as being most salient and associate cognitively with companies. To differentiate the direct and indirect influences of corporations on public agenda, he defined the direct influence—releasing news directly from corporations and advertising—as corporate agenda setting and the indirect influence—releasing news through the news media—as corporate agenda building. It was found that corporate agenda building through the news media has a larger influence on a firm’s public prominence than corporate agenda setting.

Corporations have a variety of strategies to influence media coverage, including proactive media relations, broadcast appearances, and advocacy advertising. They also have the power to hold the media accountable to journalistic standards by supporting media-monitoring activities, engaging in public journalism, acquiring media ownership and board membership, and suing the media for libel and using illegal news-gathering techniques. Scholars have also found evidence of the influence of media coverage on the economy and the stock market. The economy, stock market, and corporate reputation are correlated. Media coverage has influences on these correlated entities. And scholars applied agenda-setting theory to explore these influences. Thus, the explorations of these three aspects of media effects are regarded as the three lines of research within the corporate agenda-setting realm.

Corporations also can influence the public agenda through influencing public policy. They are active lobbyists in the public policymaking processes and exert influence through financial subsidies and building connections with policymakers. They also provide information subsidies to policymakers by reducing the government’s costs of gathering and processing information. By these means, corporations enjoy presumptive rights, that is, established access to policymakers and active participation in decision making, in identifying, defining, and acting on public policies. Public policies may enter the public agenda when they become salient on the media agenda. Given the complex dynamics of the public policymaking process, in which multiple contending actors exert influence, corporations cannot totally control public policy issues. This dynamic becomes more uncontrollable when the public policy issues enter the media agendas and become public agendas. In this regard, corporations may exert greater influence on policy decisions when they are confined to policy agendas instead of entering the public agendas. When corporations think it necessary for the issues to become public agendas, they also have the power to make the issues more salient on media and public agendas, by means of public relations actions, advertising campaigns, and coalition activities.

The Contingent Conditions of Corporate Agenda Setting

Agenda-setting theory states that the news media’s agenda-setting effects are contingent on several factors about the issue at hand, such as the public’s need for orientation (its perception of how relevant an issue is and how much is already known about it) and obtrusiveness (how much direct experience the public has with an issue). Likewise, corporations’ agenda-setting power is also constrained by these contingent conditions. The more need the public has for orientation to the corporate agenda issues, the greater agenda-setting power corporations will have. The less obtrusive the corporate agenda issues are, the stronger agenda-setting power corporations will have. In addition, according to Carroll and Maxwell McCombs, corporate agenda-setting power also depends on a number of more specific contingent conditions. The first is the size and age of a firm. Firms with a bigger size and longer history are more likely to be reported on by the news media and recalled by the public than firms with a smaller size and shorter history. The second is the diversification of a firm. Firms having more business segments attract more media coverage and public attention than firms having fewer segments. The third is the geographical proximity to news sources, which influences not only the amount of media coverage but also the tone of media coverage of firms. Besides these three major conditions, other factors such as the section of a publication where the news appears (the general news section vs. the business news section), media ownership, and corporate celebrity also influence media coverage and the perceptions of the public.

Berger, B. (2001). Private issues and public policy: Locating the corporate agenda within agenda setting theory. Journal of Public Relations Research, 13(2), 91–126. doi:

Berger, B. K., Hertog, J. K., & Park, D.-J. (2002). The political role and influence of business organizations: A communication perspective. In W. B. Gudykunst (Ed.), Communication yearbook 26. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Carroll, C. E. (2010). Should firms circumvent or work through the news media? Public Relations Review, 36(3), 278–280. doi:

Esrock, S. L., & Leichty, G. B. (1999). Corporate world wide web pages: Serving the news media and other publics. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 76(3), 456.

See Also

Agenda-Setting Theory; Corporate Communication; Public Opinion; Public Relations

See Also

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