Once upon a time, sharks were poorly understood as mysterious, dangerous beasts of the sea.

Today, we know that sharks are carnivorous fish who rarely attack humans. The more we have learned about sharks, the less fearsome they have become, give or take a Jaws movie or two.

Something similar could probably said for just about any other thing that we have ever feared and later learned about, from infectious diseases to outer space.

The fear of the unknown has an upside, which is that concepts often become more comfortable when they are responsibly named and better understood.

Today, concern is building around the quality of our public conversations. Public discourse over American political and societal issues may be becoming meaner. Meanwhile, those conversations’ content seems to be drifting closer to individual agendas and farther from verifiable truth compared to previous decades.

As former president Obama said his eulogy to the late Senator John McCain on September 1, 2018:

So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insults and phony controversies and manufactured outrage. It is a politics that pretends to be brave and tough, but in fact is born of fear. John called on us to be bigger than that. He called on us to be better than that.

We do have the ability to be bigger and better than some of the worst impulses we see in public conversations, and it is partly because pieces of our large, complicated, and evolving public discourse can be understood and known. (Kind of like a Great White Shark.)

One important knowable piece is the art and science of designing a single message. When someone starts to understand that - Why this message? Why this messenger? Why here? Why now? - they can start to see the strategy and purpose behind some of the louder voices in the public square, escape some of the fear, and pursue considered action.

As an MPP student at Duke University, professors talked about political communications strategies in terms of "media effects theories," which are widely understood by professional communications people.

Three such media effects theories are agenda-setting, framing, and priming. Because these three have been studied and written about by political scientists around the world, they are a useful place to start thinking about why today's political communicators use some of the words that they do.

Agenda-setting

Imagine a candidate for Congress named Bob. Like any candidate, Bob wants to win, and he notices that people applaud him when he talks about the economy but boo him when he talks about taxes.

Obviously, it is in Bob’s interest to talk about the economy as much as possible, while avoiding talking about taxes. This becomes Bob's communications strategy.

Agenda-setting, if successful, is one way to do it. Bob can “set the agenda” by getting the economy on the front pages and trending in people’s social media feeds. This will get people focused on an issue that is favorable to him (the economy) so they will have less attention to spend on issues that are unfavorable to him (like taxes).

An agenda-setting attempt may look and/or sound like:

  • Distractions
  • Changing the subject
  • Making mountains out of molehills
  • “Wag the dog”-style deliberate actions to push desired headlines

Framing

What if candidate Bob is having a debate, taxes come up as an issue, and he cannot change the subject to the economy? For now, agenda setting is off the table.

Framing is one tool he can use. Bob can engage the topic but say things about it that are favorable to him – and, separately, try to change the subject as fast as he possibly can.

Framing may sound like this:

  • “Taxes pay our troops, pave our roads, and keep our children in school – at a time when we need our troops, our transportation, and our children’s educational opportunities more than ever.” (Framing in favor of taxes.)
  • “Taxes are a drain on human productivity.” (Framing against taxes.)
  • Introducing just enough selected facts into the conversation that people begin to doubt what they are hearing and lose interest. (Framing not to win but to achieve disbelief and disengagement.)

Priming

What if candidate Bob wants to make sure that the economy – an issue favorable to him – becomes an issue by which people judge candidates?

Priming is Bob’s possible outlet here. He can take steps to make sure that his voters understand that a good candidate must be strong on the economy, and only people who are strong on the economy make good candidates.

Here's how it might sound:

  • “Every citizen understands that their representative must be strong on the economy.”
  • “Americans want leaders who are strong on the economy – and they always have.”
  • “From George Washington onward, our best leaders have always acted to build and support a strong economy.”

Thoughts

We are bombarded by messages. Millions of people are competing for everyone else's attention, right now, for one reason or another.

Often, and probably increasingly, the messages are not worth listening to. For example, MIT researchers Vosoughi, Roy, and Aral found that lies spread faster than truth on Twitter.

Citizens deserve to be aware of the communications methods used to package and deliver an opinion column or a tweet, just as easily as we can understand the actual content. Agenda setting, framing, and priming – three main tools known to political communications professionals – are a good place to start.

A person who understands these theories can watch a Sunday morning talk show and recognize that when the senator guest speaker veers from one topic to another, it is an attempt at agenda setting; or when they are stuck on one topic, he is framing it to his advantage. And we can all cheer the facilitator, who (if they are doing their job!) will try to get the candidates off their talking points and onto stating the truth and tackling causes greater than themselves in principled, practical ways to improve life for ordinary citizens.

These three theories are also helpful for any organization striving for improved communications risk awareness and avoidance, at a time when these tools and others may be employed by your competitor or an outside third party, such as a politician or a malicious technologist, with real, rapid effects. If a competitor is trying to set the agenda in industry publications or influential online conversations in a way that is favorable to their product line, beware; you might get out-shouted.

Once a person sees a few attempts at agenda-setting, framing, and priming, future attempts can become hard not to notice.

We cannot escape the attention jockeying, but we can better understand it.

Header photo by Oleg Laptev / Unsplash