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The OCR Glossary

Issue Ownership Theory

Heewon Cha

The concept of issue ownership concerns when a certain political candidate appears to have better issue-handling capabilities than his or her competitor. The concept developed from the field of political communication and was later applied to corporate reputation. That is, a company more capable than others of solving certain issues is more likely to experience a positive effect on its reputation. This entry introduces the theory and research of issue ownership from political science and explains how this notion is applied to corporate reputation.

History of Issue Ownership Theory

Issue ownership theory emerged from the political communication subdiscipline. One important point is that a party or a candidate who has developed a reputation of being more capable of handling certain issues than others who lack this ability is more likely to receive positive evaluations from the public when the media is concentrating on these issues and hence is more likely to eventually win the election.

This notion of issue ownership arose from the collaborative efforts of politicians and scholars, who sought to apply basic human attributes to avoid uncertainty during election campaigns. Hypothetically, issue ownership theory may be explained by cognitive dissonance theory. That is, existing knowledge and contradicting cognitive information cannot be easily assimilated by a cognitive system until they become significant, both qualitatively and quantitatively. Accordingly, people readily accept information that is consistent with their traditional cognitive system. At this point, issue ownership may be regarded as a traditional cognitive system with sufficient significance, and when new information matches with issue ownership information, it becomes that much easier to be accommodated.

Research shows that when the media cover a certain issue, a party owning the issue of public attention—that is, the party evaluated to be a better problem solver regarding the issue by the public—is more likely to attain successful election results. One study argued that in the United States, the Republican Party owned national security, diplomatic, and tax issues, whereas the Democrats owned issues involving education, health, and Social Security, and thus both parties attempt to win elections through political campaigns that take advantage of their respective issues.

Implications for Corporate Reputation

From the aforementioned arguments, issue ownership theory in corporate reputation can have the following theoretical and practical implications. A company possessing issue ownership can be more accommodative of corporate messages and recover reputations when it employs strategies reminding the public of its traditional corporate capabilities in low-crisis-responsibility situations. For instance, if a company is generally recognized by the public for its ability in resolving environmental issues, people will hold perceptions about the company as being environmentally friendly. Accordingly, even when the company is involved in cases of environmental pollution or other crises, people will recall the company’s past behaviors and its traditional positive corporate images, and thereby they will accept the company’s messages positively.

The more the company is recognized as being able to handle an issue, the higher its reputation becomes. For example, in the case where environmental pollution gains importance, a company experiences enhanced reputation if it can cope with this issue and provide solutions, whereas automobile, ship, and aircraft businesses incur a loss of their reputations if they aggravate pollution. Thus, issue ownership forms only when the agent spends extensive and consistent effort on a certain problem. Thus, it may represent the public trust in the company.

May-May Meijer and Jan Kleinnijenhuis brought issue ownership theory, mainly studied in political science, to the field of business. They confirmed the existence of issue prominence, public recognition of the respective issues owned by various companies, and measured corporate reputation to reflect it as part of an overall public evaluation of a company. First, a study on the effect of news on issue prominence showed that the more the media covered certain issues, the higher the correlation between those issues and the companies perceived as owning them in the minds of those using the media. For example, when there are many articles that relate Royal Dutch Shell to environmental issues, many people will perceive the company in relation to the environmental conditions. Also, when issue prominence increases, the issue-owning company achieves greater fame and a higher reputation. That kind of result carries importance as a two-stage approach, in which issue salience affects issue prominence and then the prominence affects the firm’s reputation.

When this issue ownership concept, which emerged from the political communication subfield, is applied to corporate reputation, it indicates that a specific issue, well known to the public, can serve as a criterion for corporate ratings. Here, corporate ratings refer to a comprehensive, overall evaluation over a long period of time by stakeholders related to a specific company, measured by corporate influence, respect, and knowledge.

Application to Reputation Crises

Specifically, in corporate crisis, issue ownership theory is studied and grafted to situational crisis communication theories. When these theories are combined with issue ownership theory, a company should be directed to use strategies reminding the public of previously owned issues in order to emphasize past good behaviors, in the case of a low crisis responsibility.

Issue ownership theory also reveals the necessity for a company to also combine corporate social responsibility and organizational identity theories. For example, let us assume that an oil company possesses a corporate philosophy or identity of protecting the environment and that it has been continually trying to protect the environment based on that. Despite the worst-case scenario of a mass oil-leaking accident leading to heavy pollution, communication efforts to remind the public of its traditional agenda and apologetic stances can reduce people’s negative attitudes toward the company. Hence, we can deduce the following practical strategies. First, a company must have a corporate philosophy, own business-related issues, and demonstrate problem-handling capabilities. Through continually communicating its owned issues, the company must gain issue prominence and enhance the correlation between the recognized issues and itself. Then, in a crisis, the company must remind the public of previously owned issues and problem-handling capabilities, to engender positive images from the public and reduce negative attitudes against the company.

Expansion of Issue Ownership Theory

More recent issue ownership studies distinguish between two concepts: (1) associative issue ownership and (2) competence issue ownership. Associative issue ownership refers to a case in which a majority group of an electorate attributes a certain issue to a certain party, whereas competence issue ownership signifies a scenario in which a certain party is considered to be in the best position to cope with the issue. Thus, a party is considered as the owner of an issue only when it possesses both associative and competence issue ownership.

In particular, the notion of associative issue ownership indicates that when a certain party or a company continues to pay attention to a certain issue for long time, it will induce the public to continually relate the issue and the party or the company. Accordingly, associative issue ownership may contribute to strengthening reputation when parties or companies consistently communicate about the owned issues. Hence, a party or company owning an issue can not only strengthen its association but also pose a positive influence on a long-term reputation through media reports. Thus, it is necessary to study associative issue ownership just as much as competence issue ownership.

In brief, companies must retain ownership on issues through continually doing good works. Hence, companies can overcome crises and recover reputations by promoting communications that remind the public of its past behaviors and problem-handling capabilities.

Cha, H., Suh, J. W., & Kim, J. R. (2015). The effect of issue obtrusiveness, issue congruence, and response strategies on the acceptance of crisis communication messages. Asian Journal of Communication, 25(3), 307–326.

Kleinnijenhuis, J., & Walter, A. S. (2014). News, discussion, and associative issue ownership: Instability at the micro level versus stability at the macro level. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 19(2), 226–245.

Meijer, M. M., & Kleinnijenhuis, J. (2006). Issue news and corporate reputation: Applying the theories of agenda setting and issue ownership in the field of business communication. Journal of Communication, 56(3), 543–559.

Petrocik, J. R. (1996). Issue ownership in presidential elections, with a 1980 case study. American Journal of Political Science, 40(3), 825–850.

Petrocik, J. R., Benoit, W. L., & Hansen, G. J. (2003). Issue ownership and presidential campaigning, 1952–2000. Political Science Quarterly, 118(4), 599–626.

See Also

Agenda-Setting Theory; Attribution Theory; Balance Theory; Cognitive Dissonance; Corporate Political Activity; Familiarity; Issues Management; Network Theory; Political Positioning; Situational Crisis Communication Theory; Thought Leadership

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