Public Opinion 1
Capstone Project
Public Affairs and Agenda Setting: Passive Onlookers or Active Participants
Department of Defense Joint Course in Communication
Group III Class 2000-C
Randy Midgett, Carmen Cordoba, Michael Pope, Michael Birmingham
Public Opinion 2
Public confidence in the military is at a twenty-five year high since it reached an
apex after the Gulf War (Gallup, 1999). Since a low in 1995 of $255 billion in defense
appropriations, the defense budget has steadily risen to a proposed authorization likely
in excess of $300 billion for Fiscal Year 2001(Wolfe, 2000). The increase in defense
spending appears to have the support of Americans (Gallup, 1999, May). If public
opinion does have an effect on defense appropriations, then what effect does military
public affairs have on public opinion? Is public opinion merely a function of media
agenda-setting (McCombs & Shaw, 1972), or can the military help set the agenda? At
least two studies suggest military public affairs can help shape the agenda and have a
positive effect on public opinion (U.S. Army OCPA, 1998; NORAD, USSPACECOM, &
AFSPCOM, 2000). Based on this prior research, two hypotheses are advanced: (H1)
Defense appropriations are positively correlated with public opinion of the military, and
(H2) Military public affairs communications campaigns positively influence media
agenda-setting. A methodological framework is discussed to test these hypotheses.
Public Opinion 3
Public Affairs and Agenda Setting
Public confidence in the military is at a twenty-five year high since it reached an
apex after the Gulf War (Gallup, 1999, June). The military as an institution consistently
receives the highest public confidence ratings of twenty-six institutions according to
annual Gallup polling (1999, June). Even after the Vietnam War, the military
consistently received confidence ratings above 50% since the poll began in 1973. The
military lagged only behind organized religion until it surpassed it for good in 1986.
(Gallup, 1999, June).
The sex scandals that plagued all the services during the nineties – Tailhook and
the Navy, Aberdeen and the Army, and Lieutenant Flinn and the Air Force – appear to
be nothing more than momentary public disapproval of the individual services (Gallup,
1997, May; July, 1997). Americans view foreign interventions to Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia,
and Kosovo in terms of presidential policy not as military successes or failures (Gallup,
1993, October; 1994, July, 1994; July, 1997; 1999, April).
Currently, defense spending is at the lowest levels, as a percentage of gross
national product, since before Pearl Harbor (Bandow, 2000). However, in real dollars,
the pre-World War II GNP of $96.5 billion is about $1.2 trillion in today’s dollars.
Compared to the GNP of $8.7 trillion in 1999, one percent of GNP today, means eight
times as much spending as in 1940 (Bandow, 2000). Since a low in 1995 of $255 billion
in defense appropriations, the defense budget has steadily risen to a proposed
authorization likely in excess of $300 billion for Fiscal Year 2001(Wolfe, 2000).
The increase in defense spending appears to have the support of Americans. A
May, 1999 Gallup Poll states that 63% of Americans believe the United States’ military
Public Opinion 4
spending is “too little” or “about right.” Although the percentage is down from 71% taken
in a November 1998 Gallup Poll, it is higher than the 44% polled in 1990, and 55%
polled in 1993 by Gallup (May, 1999). The eight-percent decrease over six months
may, in fact, have more to do with United States involvement in Kosovo than any
sudden change in public opinion on defense spending (Gallup, 2000, May).
Public Affairs Perspective
Due to the institution of an all volunteer military, there is a declining population of
congressional members, media elite, and the general United States population at large
that have served in the military. This decline could have a direct negative impact on
defense appropriations and support to military issues by members of Congress if public
confidence in military wanes. We suspect that public opinion impacts congressional
voting on military issues and that military public affairs can influence public opinion
through better understanding of agenda-setting theory (McCombs & Shaw, 1972).
Public affairs professionals can cultivate support for military issues by developing,
improving and maintaining full public understanding and support of our missions through
its various programs.
Public law forbids the use funds appropriated by Congress to pay for any public
relations campaigns intended to influence in any manner a member of the Congress to
favor or oppose, by vote or otherwise, any legislation or appropriation by Congress
unless they expressly authorized it. This includes the use of news releases (Reg?).
Therefore, It is not the intent of this study to propose a plan to help public affairs
professionals influence any elected officials directly. Rather, it is intended to
demonstrate that through regular public affairs activities, the general public develops
Public Opinion 5
high confidence in the military through education on subjects of widespread concern to
the military. Congressional voting patterns on military appropriations can then be
directly attributed to the high public confidence in the military.
Literature Review
As early as 1922, newspaper columnist Walter Lippman reflected on the power of
the new media to present images to the public. Lippman believed the experiences of
the average person was limited and the media provided a view of the outside world
(1922). Long (1958) and Lang and Lang (1959) asserted media power over what
people talk about, think about, feel about and the way problems should be dealt with.
Political scientist Bernard Cohen (1963, p. 13) summed up the early study of media
agenda-setting succinctly when he noted that the media “may not be successful much
of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling people
what to think about. Early research focused on attitude and behavior change from
media generated awareness and presentation of information and found very limited
influence (Infante, Rancer & Womack, 1997).
The seminal empirical study of agenda-setting theory was McCombs’ and Shaw’s
(1972) study of the mass media and its effect on public opinion during the 1968
presidential campaign. Their focus was on awareness and information, not attitude or
behavior change. They assert those editorial decisions by newspapers and
broadcasters play an important role in shaping political reality. Media observers not
only learn about a given issue, but also how much importance to attach to that issue.
Importance is manifested through the amount of information in a news story and its
Public Opinion 6
placement in the newspaper or broadcast cycle. Therefore, in reporting what
candidates are saying during a campaign, mass media may well determine the
important issues through editorial decisions, thus setting the agenda (McCombs &
Shaw, 1972).
Published nearly contemporaneously with McCombs and Shaw (1972) was a
study conducted by Funkhouser (1973) who looked at the relationship between public
opinion and media content. He conducted a content analysis of the three major
newsmagazines: Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report for each year of
the 1960s focusing on the major issues of the decade. Funkhouser (1973) found a
strong correlation between the issues the public thought important and the issues the
newsmagazines were giving coverage to. These results were consistent with agendasetting theory; however, the causal direction was still a question. Perhaps it was the
publics’ interests that were setting the media agenda (Severin & Tankard, 1997).
The concept of “framing” developed in the early 1980s to describe how the media
can focus attention on an issue. Lang & Lang (1983) studied the relationship between
the press and public opinion during the Watergate era and suggest that more
complicated issues go through a process of agenda-building. They find that putting the
issue in a frame of reference over time, using language that could be easily understood,
gave the issue clarity to the public at large. Finally, greater importance will be place on
the issue by the public if a well-known person discusses the issue (Lang & Lang, 1983).
Stone and McComb (1981) conducted a study to determine how long it takes for
media content to have an effect on the public’s awareness. They studied public opinion
data and media content over an extended time period and show that a period of two to
Public Opinion 7
six months is necessary for issues to crystallize from the media agenda to the public
agenda. Other studies showed shorter time spans but could have been affected by the
importance of the issue to the public (Winter & Eyal, 1980; Shoemaker, Wanta &
Leggett, 1989). Understanding time span is important for public affairs professionals.
Public communications campaigns can be planned better if it is understood how long it
takes to raise an issue into public awareness Severin & Tankard (1997).
Just who sets the media agenda and what makes it change? Westley (1976)
suggests that in some instances pressure from special interest groups can elevate an
issue onto the media agenda. Another influence is the effect of elite media such as The
New York Times on other media. Danielian and Reese (1989) refer to this as
intermedia agenda-setting. This process was well-documented in Crouse’s The Boys
on the Bus (1973) which document the press coverage of the 1972 presidential election
campaign. Reporters from other news media looked over the shoulder of New York
Times reporter R. W. “Johnny” Apple, Jr. to see his lead story so they would know what
to focus on in their stories.
Other evidence suggests public relations practitioners are becoming savvier
about agenda-setting. Ronald Reagan’s press secretary, Larry Speakes, was
particularly adept at arranging photo opportunities that encouraged favorable press
coverage of the president (Reese, 1990). George Bush’s 1988 campaign was equally
adept at manipulating media coverage by framing a single issue every day in a made for
television setting (Katz, 1988). Was the election of Reagan and Bush as president a
coincidence, or did these agenda-setting techniques have a casual effect public opinion
and voting behavior?
Public Opinion 8
Public Opinion
British Member of Parliament and Ambassador to the United States, James
Bryce, posited the question in 1889, “What is public opinion?” Mark Twain asserted
public opinion settles everything likening it to the voice of God. President Lincoln held a
similar view citing, “public opinion is everything … With it nothing can fail. Without it,
nothing can succeed.” A bit more cynical was founding father James Madison who
stated, “I know more about Kamchatka than I do about Georgia.” Perhaps an early
admonishment to what can be perceived as the whims of public opinion was Plutarch,
“To be turned from one’s course by men’s opinions, by blame, and by
misrepresentation, shows a man unfit to hold an office” (Bogart, 1985).
The observation preferred here is of Gunnar Myrdar when he stated, “Americans
have, more than any other people I know, a willingness to change their opinion” (1968).
This pliability of public opinion that Myrdar purports characterizes Americans, and
suggests a diversity of open minds that military public affairs can help shape.
The common understanding of public opinion that most theorists have adopted
and that will be used here is, “that public opinion consists of the views held by members
of the general public about subjects of widespread concern” (Chisman, 1976, p.2). The
idea of public opinion is closely associate with democracy. Early liberal thinkers such
as Bentham and Mills were the first democratic theorists to commonly refer to public
opinion. More extensive discussions of the concept have been conducted by
Tocqueville, Bryce, and Lippman (Chisman, 1976).
The idea of public opinion affecting elections and government policies through
widespread enfranchisement is a democratic notion (Dahl, 1971, 1989). Scholars are
Public Opinion 9
mixed on the effect of public opinion on democratic institutions. Mayhew (1974) notes
the dominance of incumbents in congressional races. Burnham (1990) charts the
decline in voter turn-out and Ginsberg (1990) argues the lack of institutional response to
public needs. However, Page and Shapiro (1983, 1992) find that public opinion tends to
precede policy change. Other scholars have found similar results that support the
democratic theory that governments should respond to public opinion (Jacobson, 1985;
Risse-Kappen, 1991).
Defense spending reflects a policy matter of national security that is of supreme
importance to all United States citizens. How much influence, if any, should public
opinion have over national security? National security policy is typically regarded as an
area requiring some expertise, access to privileged information and best left to those in
government responsible to the common defense (Almond, 1950; Lippman, 1955). If a
threat to national security existed and was unnoticed by the public at large, it would be
expected for those who govern to act contrary to popular public will. However, in the
absence of such danger, policymakers might also act contrary to popular will (Russett,
Understanding agenda-setting and its effects on public opinion is important to the
military public affairs professional. Although the scope and process is still not
understood (McCombs, 1981) and needs further research (McQuail, 1984), there is
supporting evidence that agenda-setting as a concept should be taken seriously
(Severin & Tankard, 1997). Understanding the implications of time lag, framing, who is
elite media, and who sets the agenda is important for military public affairs. These
Public Opinion 10
variables can be manipulated by the savvy public affairs professional to help shape the
agenda. A well thought out public communications plan using communications theory
can change military public affairs from passive onlooker to aggressive participant.
Our first hypothesis we advance is:
H1: Military public affairs communications campaigns positively influence media agendasetting.
McGuire’s (1989) theoretical foundations of campaigns is a
communication persuasion theory adaptable to military public affairs campaigns. It is
well-suited for communication campaigns that must reach large audiences to change
their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. He characterizes two sets of components as an
“input/output” matrix to be manipulated and measured when planning and evaluating
communication campaigns. The list of input variables provide options to the
communications planner when designing the campaign.
The input components are McGuire’s (1989) independent variables that are
manipulated to achieve certain outputs. The input components are sources, messages,
channels, receivers, and intent. The source variable refers to the characteristics of the
person who presents the message to the public. Sources can vary in number,
demographics, and credibility. Messages may vary in types of appeals, information
presented, organization, and repetition. The channel variable refers to the mass
medium through which the message is transmitted to the public. It can also refer to
delivery style and context. Receivers are the target audience. Like sources, receivers
can vary in number, demographics, and lifestyles. The campaign’s intent reflects the
beliefs, attitudes, and/or behaviors the planner desires to change and is the goal of the
communications campaign (McGuire, 1989).
Public Opinion 11
McGuire’s (1989) model identifies twelve output variables that are measured by
examining the reactions of the public to the sources, messages, channels, receivers,
and intent. The output variables are endpoints in a communication campaign and can
be used to determine the campaign’s level of success. Exposure, attention, liking and
comprehending the message are fundamental to a communications campaign. They
refer to getting the messages out to a wide audience, with clarity, appeal and,
understanding. Acquiring skills, changing attitudes, remembering, and retrieving
information are the basis for long-term changes in beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors.
Deciding to act, behavior change, reinforcing a decision are the long-term changes
communications campaigns often seek. Consolidating the results is essential to any
communication campaign. Only through evaluating results can a campaign planner
determine the success of the communications campaign (McGuire, 1989).
McGuire’s (1989) campaigning theory is similar to the Department of Defense
(DOD) Instruction governing public affairs guidance (PAG) (5405.3, 1991). PAG is a
process by which military public affairs develops a coordinated response to a command
issue that may generate public interest. This ensures that spokespersons speak with a
single voice. The PAG template is flexible such that it can be used at any command
level from small units and installations to DOD level issues.
Like McGuire’s (1989) inputs, PAG identifies whom the spokesperson(s) is/are, it
outlines the themes and messages, with potential questions and answers, that will be
communicated and to whom they will be targeted (5405.3, 1991). PAG identifies the
approach to media coverage similar to McGuire’s (1989) channels. An active approach
involves efforts to stimulate media and public interest including inviting them to the
Public Opinion 12
activity. A passive approach involves no efforts to generate public and media interest
beyond responding to inquiry. The approach will often dictate the intent of the
communications plan.
Public Communications Case Studies
At least two military public affairs communications campaigns using the DOD
model suggest public affairs professionals can help shape the agenda and have a
positive effect on public opinion (USAOCPA, 1998; SPACECOM, 2000). The U.S. Army
Office of the Chief of Public Affairs (1998) used an extensive communications campaign
to help restore public confidence in it as an institution after the sexual misconduct
scandals of 1996-97 (Gallup, 1999, July). The majority of editorials, while condemning
the individual transgressors, reacted positively to the Army’s aggressive stance. The
combined efforts of the North American Aerospace Command, U.S. Space Command,
and Air Force Space Command (2000) to mitigate Y2K hype resulted in a decrease by
half of public concern for the effects of Y2K on United States strategic systems (Gallup,
1999, December).
The U.S. Army and Sexual Harassment
The U.S. Army (USAOCPA, 1998) faced harsh criticism across the ideological
spectrum in early 1997 with the discovery of widespread sexual misconduct primarily
throughout the Army’s training installations. An institution entrusted with America’s sons
and daughters was losing its image as a trustworthy institution and a declining pool of
recruits seemed imminent (USAOCPA, 1998). The Army studied the lessons of the
Navy’s Tailhook sexual harassment episode, its own West Point groping scandal, and
Public Opinion 13
other public affairs case studies and quickly understood that recovery was possible as
long as the Army maintained its credibility.
The U.S. Army (USAOCPA, 1998, p.1) believed credibility would only come from
“quick, forthright, contrite admissions of deficiency, media access to senior leaders, and
unfettered access to service personnel and their daily business.” The U.S. Army
(USAOCPA, 1998) set three main goals for its communications plan: (1) rebuild and
regain America’s trust, (2) recover recruiting targets, and (3) retain independence in
corrective actions.
The communications methodologies employed by the U.S. Army (USAOCPA,
1998) ensured aggressive and open communications with the public, cultivating
confidence with each audience, and providing a framework of expectations regarding
resolution. The primary tactic was ensuring “everyone spoke with one voice.” This
required a convenient, centralized database of public affairs guidance with themes and
responses to queries (USAOCPA, 1998).
Executing the plan required balance between the public’s right to know and rights
of the accused and the victims. After the initial announcement by U.S. Army leadership
in the Pentagon, several Army leaders quickly seized the opportunity to speak on major
network news of what the Army was doing about the misconduct. Army leaders
conducted 212 live interviews, including 16 in 17 days by the Army Secretary Togo
West, and facilitated 223 visits to affected posts. The primary target audience, the
American public, was served through these interviews with directed messages of regret
and a commitment to correct the problem (USAOCPA, 1998).
Public Opinion 14
Media analysis determined a positive reaction to the U.S. Army’s aggressive
course of action. The Army enhanced its standing with the public, female recruiting
surpassed recruiting goals, and re-enlistment was up. Army public affairs determined
their goals had been met and the communications plan a success (USAOCPA).
Y2K and U.S. Strategic Systems
The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), U. S. Space
Command (USSPACECOM), and Air Force Space Command (AFSPCOM) faced a
daunting task as the new millennium approached. The tri-commands, led by a single
commander-in-chief, are responsible for strategic warning, defense satellite systems,
and strategic response systems. In early 1999, they set about the task of reassuring
national and international publics that widespread predictions permeating the news
cycle of catastrophic civil and defense infrastructure failure due to Y2K computer
problems were simply not true.
Of particular public affairs significance was the concern for similar Russian
systems and a Gallup (1998, December) poll showing nearly one-third of the American
people believed a nuclear power or defense accident was likely. To assuage the fears,
the two nuclear superpowers agreed to establish a Center for Y2K Strategic Stability
(CY2KSS) to share missile warning information and guard against strategic
miscalculations. The CY2KSS was to be located on the same installation as the tricommands headquarters, Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado. These factors convinced
the tri-command’s public affairs officials to develop a comprehensive communications
plan to educate the public.
Public Opinion 15
The tri-command public affairs communications plan (SPACECOM, 2000)
envisaged a dynamic, year-long campaign to educate the media and reassure national
and international publics that there would be no inadvertent nuclear exchange between
the superpowers. The plan was flexible to deal with changing information and new
measurement results as the tri-commands completed operational evaluations on their
strategic computer systems. To ensure public confidence, the media had
unprecedented access to normally high-secure areas (SPACECOM, 2000).
The year-long execution phase culminated in a five-day media event leading up
to the millennium rollover. Media had access to senior leaders of the United States and
the visiting Russian delegation who consistently portrayed confidence in their countries
systems. Access was given to national and international media to strategic sites in
Wyoming and Colorado including missile silos, underground command and control
centers, satellite operation centers, and the historic U.S./Russian CY2KSS. Media were
present in the CY2KSS and the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center (CMOC), an
underground strategic missile warning center in Colorado Springs, during the rollover
NORAD, USSPACECOM, and AFSPCOM clearly exceeded their objectives
(SPACECOM, 2000). Two-thirds of the news coverage contained at least one of the tricommand’s messages and an astounding 97% of the stories were positive or balanced.
Most importantly, the number of people who believed a nuclear power or defense
accident was likely dropped to 15% with a constant 3% having no opinion (Gallup, 1999,
Our second hypothesis we advance is:
H2: Defense appropriations are positively correlated with public opinion of the military.
Public Opinion 16
A content analysis of military related articles using Berelson’s (1952) concept that
content analysis is a research technique for the objective, systematic, and quantitative
description of the manifest content of communication will determine military public
affairs success or failure with influencing media agenda-setting. Funkhouser’s (1973)
methodology described earlier will be used to investigate the correlation between public
opinion of the military and media content. The independent variable is military public
affairs communications campaigns and the dependent variable is media agenda-setting.
A content analysis study can be conducted of six major newspapers: USA Today,
Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and the Los
Angeles Times for each year of the 1990s focusing on the major issues facing the
military. The major issues are defined as those salient issues military public affairs
deemed were important. For purposes of measurement, this could further be defined as
those topics the military thought important enough to distribute PAG.
Public affairs guidance themes, messages and questions and answers can be
correlated to the news stories using Kaid and Wadsworth’s (1989) seven-step process.
Media salience can be determined by the article’s placement in the newspaper. Stone
& McCombs’ (1981) lag-time study methods can be incorporated in the study to avoid
Funkhouser’s (1973) causal direction dilemma. PAG is posted with a date and time of
publication release. Causal direction (Funkhouser, 1973) will be measured in favor of
PAG for newspaper articles possessing PAG messages or themes published after the
PAG release date.
Public Opinion 17
Public Opinion
Our independent variable is public opinion. Public opinion concerning defense
spending is not measured at regular intervals and those survey centers that do measure
this trend do not produce enough data sets. Therefore, data sets from several survey
centers will have to be used over the 1990-1999 period we are measuring. The
extraneous variable to consider when using different survey center data sets is the
wording of the question. Surveys available
We anticipate that data analysis will confirm that military public affairs
communications campaigns positively influences media agenda-setting. Military public
affairs PAG has similar features of sound communication theory and principles.
Through an objective, systematic, and quantitative content analysis, we expect to find a
correlation between the messages, themes, and questions and answers outlined in a
specific PAG to newspaper articles on the topic. Causal direction (Funkhouser, 1973)
will be found in favor of PAG. Newspaper articles will possess PAG messages or
themes published after the PAG release date. Finally, we expect public opinion polls to
be positively correlated to PAG. We do not expect to find public opinion polls on all
PAG topics. However, topics of national importance such as sexual harassment,
military deployments or declining military enlistments can expect to have polls
measuring public opinion.
Campaign effectiveness will be measured if more than 75% of articles correlated
to a specific PAG are rated positive or balanced coverage. Positive coverage is
Public Opinion 18
measured as a ratio of two positive messages for every one negative message.
Balanced coverage is a one-to-one ratio.
We also anticipate that defense appropriations are positively correlated with
public opinion of the military. Content analysis of media changes in public opinion
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Public Opinion 19
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Public Opinion 20
Sommer, B. and Sommer, R. (1997). A practical guide to behavioral research.
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