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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication


Volume 10 Numbers 1 and 2, 2000

Analyzing Web Content of Fortune 500 Companies
THE PUBLIC COMMUNICATION OF ORGANIZATIONS IN THE ENVIRONMENTAL ARENA: AN ATTEMPT AT THEORETICAL EXPLANATION AND INTEGRATION*

Michael E. Nitz
University of Idaho

    Abstract. This paper offers two theoretical frameworks as springboards for understanding the communication process among and between organizations in regards to environmental and sustainability issues. These organizations include political parties, businesses, government agencies, citizen groups (NGOs) and the media. Framing theory states that the media frame stories either thematically or episodically. Thematic framing provides issue integration, responsibility for problems and solutions, and a solid foundation for understanding political issues. Episodic framing is evident in isolated stories that do not integrate issues, do not discuss responsibility for problems and solutions, and thus inhibit prolonged study of issues over time. Organizations need to be aware of how media frame various political issues so that they can have an awareness of how they are being portrayed and how they can respond to this framing in their communication with various constituencies. Involvement theory asks three basic questions: How important is the outcome of the environmental issue to the organization and its constituents? How important is the issue to the personal value systems of the organization and its constituents? Who are the organizations concerned about making a good impression for and what strategies would enhance this impression? As the importance (based on these three questions) of a political issue increases, organizations would be more likely to prioritize and communicate on the particular issue. priority


Today's global environment is forcing organizations and groups to adopt some modicum of flexibility and adaptiveness. Goldhaber (1993) argues that organizations must be able to sense changes in their environments and meet these changes. To meet change, it becomes necessary for these organizations to send and receive messages internally and externally to important publics (p. 287). Goldhaber lists five separate external contingencies that impact on organizational communication. Each contingency is associated with an external public that organizations must communicate with in order to survive. These contingencies include economic, technological, legal, sociopoliticocultural, and environmental factors. The communication process an organization undergoes with external publics such as legislatures and regulatory agencies (legal), political groups-political parties, special interest groups, consumer advocacy groups (sociopoliticocultural), and environmental protection groups (environmental) is characterized by a shaping and forming of expectations of and by the organizations involved. These expectations develop and operate in a public communication context as the media and various other organizations influence each other in the process of public opinion building.

This paper seeks to explain this process of organizations' public communication, focussing on communication regarding environmental issues. The paper will argue that the process is one of mutual influence whereby organizations can influence public opinion and reciprocally, various publics can influence organizations. This question, whether media coverage impacts organizations or whether organizations' communication drives media agenda, has been difficult to answer in spite of a long tradition of agenda-setting research (McCombs & Shaw, 1972; Shanahan & Good, 1999). Thus, the goal of the paper is singular, yet the study is necessarily bi-faceted, dealing with how mediated communications between two entities result in each influencing and constituting the other. More specifically, this paper uses the theories of framing and involvement in an attempt to explain better the process of organizations' exchange of messages in the environmental communication arena. While it is understood that these theories have previously been conceptualized at individual levels of analyses, this paper strives to show how, due to the complexity of environmental issues and the nature of publics serving as vessels for individual opinion, they can be extended to organizational levels as well.

The context of the environment is chosen for a number of reasons. It has provoked a great deal of discussion in recent times. As Gilbreath (1984) notes, there has been a conspicuous reaching out to one another by business and environmental communities. Businesses more and more must protect the environments from which they draw their livelihood. Furthermore, the matters at issue between businesses and environmental groups are vital for society and require substantive, constructive discussion. The environmental context is complex and challenging to study. Organizations' communication activities on environmental issues are shaped and formed in response to a great variety of factors. As well, the context of environmental issues is appropriate in addressing the question set forth in the preceding paragraph as it is a contemporaneous illustration of how organizations from a variety of overlapping contexts can shape and respond to public opinion. For example, a lumber company's communication could be influenced by news media reports, legislative action by political party, environmental activist groups, and other publics of concerned citizens.

Conceptualization of Public Opinion

The study will use organizations as the unit of analysis. The organizations of interest comprise those publics that are involved in environmental communication. A public can be defined in many ways. This paper offers the definition that a public is a group with a stake in an issue or idea (Seitel, 1998, p. 9). A public becomes an organization when the group contains people who share common interest in a specific issue, and as Glynn, Herbst, O'Keefe, & Shapiro (1999) note, who organize in response to the issue.

The publics or organizations of primary interest in this paper include, but are not limited to, NGOs such as Greenpeace and other "pro-environmental" organizations, businesses, political parties or lobbying groups, citizen action groups, media associations, churches, and other demographic groups. Culhane (1981, p. 378) provides an illustrative example of publics in a Forest Service context. A partial listing of publics or organizations in this case would include forest products industry, cattlemen's associations, chambers of commerce, realtors, utility companies, wildlife federations, sportsmen associations, tourism associations, state game and fish departments, federal government agencies, and general environmental groups (NGOs).

Herbst (1995) notes that poll results often focus on groups, despite the fact that an individual is the unit of analysis. While citizens certainly are capable of free and individual thought, information overload combined with the human affinity for belonging to a group justifies the study of groups. O'Keefe and Shepard (1999) note that the complexity of environmental issues often drives citizens to trust like-minded agents from a variety of organizations or publics involved in environmental affairs. Moreover, organizations have goals that members wish to fulfill and they will do all they can to realise these goals. People have identities as individual citizens as well as members of various organizations. Depending on the issue and situation, certain memberships will take precedence. Consequently, in terms of understanding organizational communication, organizations can be studied as units or aggregated.

Public opinion has been defined in many ways. One common thread weaving these definitions together is publicity (Schoenbach & Becker, 1995). Publicity is critical since opinions or attitudes seem likely to have more impact when they are published or expressed. Public opinion therefore is an organization's published or expressed attitude on a topic. By published, it is meant that the opinion is known to the general public. The opinion of an organization or public cannot have an impact if it is relatively unknown.

The conceptualization of public opinion is also consistent with definitions that posit that public opinion is a function of how individuals' opinions are "cultivated, crystallized, and eventually communicated by interest groups" (Glynn et al., 1999, p. 19). This paper agrees with Glynn et al. that groups and organizations are constantly struggling to frame environmental problems. As Herbst (1995) notes, citizens are stronger when they join forces, especially since journalists and policy-makers are more likely to be interested in group opinions.

Theoretical Framework

This paper proposes two theoretical frameworks that will attempt to address some of the issues raised. While it is clear that the theories apply to a variety of political issues, the paper will focus on environmental issues. The paper will address each theory individually, then integrate the two in order to show how together they could explain mutual influence of public communication of organizations in regard to environmental issues.

Media Framing Theory

The news media play a powerful role in framing political discussion (Popkin, 1991). Mass media are an important source for information about environmental issues (Griffin & Dunwoody, 1995). In fact, the media are the primary and often the only source people turn to for this information. As Shanahan and Good (1999) note, the media can be a powerful builder and shaper of agenda on environmental issues. Goldhaber (1993) states that the media are a critical public for organizations' public communication as organizations send and receive messages via this outlet. The mass media can distribute and disseminate opinions while at the same time conveying the impression these issues are important. Policy-makers from various organizations both affect and are affected by this dissemination of opinion. They can influence public opinion by initiating policy that journalists and publics can respond to. On the other hand, they, and the media, can respond to publics' opinions that are communicated to them by these publics.

It would seem, therefore, that environmental stories are important to report. In an ideal world, the media would strive to present numerous, in-depth environmental stories producing well-informed publics. These stories would provide information that would underpin citizen belief structures and help to create a public well-informed on environmental and other political issues. Unfortunately, belief structures have been referred to as a "confusing briar patch of ideas" (Cantrill, 1993, p. 81). Much of this confusion has been blamed on media coverage.

Nature of Environmental Coverage

Critics have alleged that news coverage of environmental issues is plagued by inconsistencies, distortions, and misrepresentations of data (Boyle, 1993; Nitz, Jarvis & Kenski, 1996). While some media in communities with high pollution tend to employ a reporter on the environmental beat, most media operate under a principle of least effort (Alger, 1996). King and Schudson (1995) note that Washington D.C. reporters use no documents in 75% of their stories. A prime motivator of whether of not a story gets covered and aired is its newsworthiness. Jamieson and Campbell (1992) note five criteria for newsworthiness: 1) personalized, happening to real people, 2) dramatic and conflict filled, controversial, and violent, 3) actual and concrete, not abstract, 4) novel or deviant, 5) linked to issues of ongoing concern. Schoenbach and Becker (1995), in their extensive review of European media, found similar results.

The paucity of media coverage on environmental issues in general can be extended in particular to coverage of global warming. Global warming is an environmental issue that is particularly germane to public organizational communication as governments, businesses, and NGOs negotiate solutions and approaches to solving this problem. For the most part, unfortunately, news stories on global warming make minimal effort to provide in-depth analysis of the intricacies of ozone layer depletion. Coverage of global warming goes through cyclical patterns (Shanahan & Good, 1999) and generally seems to exhibit inattention to global warming and other environmental issues. When attention is given, the media offer contradictory headlines (Ruben, 1994).

Thematic versus Episodic Framing

This paper specifically is concerned with how media frame issues, with particular concern to responsibility. Iyengar (1991) suggested that news reports might be usefully analyzed by their "thematic" or "episodic" content. The thematic framing of news attempts to place events in a broad context of related events in order to show effects of events, and to discuss possible implications and outcomes that may result. It gives helpful background knowledge regarding the cause and effect of problems. In general, thematic stories do better at informing. For example, thematic framing for an environmental story would call for a review of the nature of ozone depletion and some explanation of factors thought to be responsible for it.

Episodic framing, by contrast, presents issues as concrete events, as specific instances occurring more or less in isolation. It provides only snapshots of an issue. It too can enhance learning, but the learning is often disjointed and unconnected to a larger contextual picture. An example of episodic coverage would be a story reporting that global warming is killing frogs in Oregon lakes.

Iyengar (1991) found that television reporting was predominantly episodic. This general finding has been confirmed in studies of specific issues, including global warming and environmental coverage (Nitz et al., 1996) and European media focus on events over process (Schoenbach & Becker, 1995). The general tendency to episodic framing extends even to general opinions on how leaders are achieving in the areas of performance, competence, and integrity (Iyengar, 1991). This type of coverage can result in a priming effect in that the media have the ability to prime the perceptions of a story's salience through the selection of sources and symbols used to discuss an issue (Iyengar, 1991). The sources selected for information could be significant determinants of the media's potential ability to prime organizations about the nature of a particular issue. A focus on only one type of source, for example, environmental groups over businesses, perpetuates distortions and bias. Such bias may easily arise since journalists often use the most easily available outlets when seeking environmental sources (Davis, 1995).

Responsibility and Solutions

The seriousness of framing becomes evident when attributions of responsibility are so treated. Responsibility attributions may be classified by two criteria, cause or treatment of a problem. Causal responsibility frames the source of a problem while treatment responsibility frames the manner of solving a problem. Responsibility also deals with costs. The effect, Iyengar (1991) contends, "is generally to attribute responsibility to individual victims or perpetrators rather than to broad societal forces, and hence the ultimate political impact of framing is pro-establishment" (p. 16). There is a tendency to throw one's hands up in despair when trying to comprehend the complexities of an issue. Environmental issues are certainly complex, often obscure (O'Keefe & Shepard, 1999). It thus becomes harder to reach consensus when this complexity and obscurity make conflict and controversy the order of the day. Bennett (1996) concluded that when news is reduced to reporting spectacles that marginalize the importance of participation, democracy becomes threatened. Groups become skeptical and remove themselves from the political process. To the degree that society is not held responsible for issues, government initiatives are less apt to be favored.

A framing process that is causal, not treatment oriented, in which the media ferret out those responsible for causing problems rather than reporting potential solutions for those problems, does little to encourage rational decision-making at the policy level. Such media coverage encourages policy-makers to blame each other rather than work together to achieve a solution. When policy-makers can agree, they will need the consent of the governed. This consent is nearly impossible since causal framing in television stories hinders the ability to comprehend the significance of a problem, let alone form an opinion about potential preventive solutions.

Extension of Media Framing Theory to Organizations and Publics

This paper argues that framing theory, evidenced in television reporting, can also be extended to organizations' public communication. Citizens are intelligent but they do not have the time for analysis or adequate information resources, and so they turn to and trust like-minded agents. These like-minded agents are the organizations and publics that citizens join or pay attention to in order to facilitate a more organized, group-like expression of public opinion on environmental issues (see Herbst, 1995). Therefore these organizations and publics need consciously to shape their public communication in response to these expectations. In particular, organizations or publics operating in the environmental communication arena need to be aware of how the media frame various environmental issues. Awareness of how they are being portrayed will allow them to respond to and perhaps help shape these frames in their own public communication with various constituencies.

As an example, consider how the media might frame an environmental issue about breaching dams to save salmon. The media have numerous angles from which to present news stories on this issue. The media could frame this issue from the viewpoint(s) of various involved publics and organizations. These include farmers who irrigate their land, fishermen and their catch, governmental organizations such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and how they deal with the problem, consumer groups who might be upset by increased utility rates, and chambers of commerce from port cities along the river who might be concerned about local economies. The frame from which this issue is covered impacts the understanding of the issue. Do the media provide good background about the issue, using a treatment frame, or do they focus on conflict between two groups?

In an effort to be sensational, timely, and simple, the media often underemphasize risks and solutions and overdramatize problems and spins on disputes (Jaehne, 1990). An expectation that media will discuss actions to improve situations is often unrealistic. Publics tend to see their responsibility as simply being informed about environmental issues rather than helping with solutions. Policy-makers responsible for communicating the stance of an organization on an environmental issue cannot rally the public since environmental media coverage inadequately addresses what these problems are and provides conflicting information about these issues. The problem is exacerbated for those who have little contact with an issue. In addition, the potential effects of such media coverage of the environment may lead to uninformed publics and superficial discussion (Bennett, 1996). Furthermore, public opinion responds often not to events or social trends themselves, but to the reporting of events. It makes a good deal of difference which events are emphasized, reported, and ignored.

All this is not good for rational discussion and understanding. Edelman (1995) states that a focus on efficiency and rationality in the language of administrators and public officials is a response to the pervasive emphasis on inefficiency and malfunctioning in news reports about government and corporate actions. He laments that the language in media seems to define social problems and promise solutions, yet provide no agenda on how to implement solutions. Rather, the media basically reassure citizens that the social system as a whole reflects society's moral beliefs. Additionally, rhetorical attacks with no solutions fit with publics who empathize with victims of problems, but also with the economic interests of elite publics who may benefit from the problem.

Despite what may seem a rather negative portrayal of media, their purpose, their methods, and their effects, the media can be effective tools at motivating involvement and action on environmental issues. Their mediacy is critical in the mutual constitution of organizations and publics on environmental issues. Their effectiveness may be especially apparent in the case of NGOs trying to get publicity about their organizations' goals on the news agenda in a hope that this coverage can motivate publics to take action to solve environmental problems. On the other hand, the media may be an especially effective outlet for highly involved publics to communicate their messages. O'Keefe and Shepard (1999) note that grassroots organizations comprised of locally concerned citizens are often at the forefront of environmental action campaigns. This two-way relationship between the media and the involvement of organized publics supports the bi-faceted goal of this paper and provides an excellent opportunity to discuss the usefulness of involvement theory in explaining information-seeking and media usage.

Media and Involvement

The mass media, with their obvious power to reach large numbers of the population with relevant information and persuasive appeals, would appear to be a natural partner of those attempting to influence behavior. Television, in particular, has come to play an increasingly important role in the implementation of most contemporary influence campaigns. Other media channels such as radio, newspapers, and magazines can be important channels in many campaigns.

An intermediate objective of many mass media campaigns is to stimulate publics so that they search for additional information on issues (Freimuth, 1994). Freimuth notes that this objective is particularly appropriate with complex issues. The media attempt to increase involvement with an issue to the extent that a public is motivated to seek out information in a variety of channels.

Research in mass media tends to indicate that high involvement with a topic promotes information-seeking in a variety of media channels (Chaffee & Roser, 1986). Nearly all audiences, regardless of demographics, can be reached if issues are communicated and perceived to be relevant. Thus, a message perceived as relevant to the needs of a public would motivate it to attend more closely to the message and to seek further information than if the message was perceived as irrelevant. The frequency of attending to media messages is determined primarily by the level of concern or interest in an issue, organization, or media channel (Yows, Salmon, Hawkins, & Love, 1991).

Related to involvement, those publics who acquire increased knowledge as a result of increased involvement should be more willing to comply with or be influenced by persuasive messages. Information gained through such a process should be more relevant and behavior-provoking. Involvement has been found to be a good predictor of knowledge-attitude-behavior consistency. If involvement increases, publics may be more likely to learn information and respond to this learning by changing their attitudes and behavior in a corresponding fashion.

In sum, as Neuman, Just, and Crigler (1992) state, television promotes interest (or disinterest) in an issue. Print media then amplify and elaborate the complexities of the issue. Publics then are able actively to reinterpret the images, fragments, and signals they find in the mass media. On the other hand, highly involved publics, or organizations with a high stake in an environmental issue, can affect media coverage, or as Shanahan and Good (1999) note, build the media's agenda about environmental issues. Involvement is a key variable in motivating this action of organizations on environmental issues. Thus, the next section of the paper examines involvement theory.

Involvement Theory

Involvement is one of the three fundamental dimensions of any communicative act (Lievrouw & Finn, 1990). As such, it is a variable that has many useful applications in the communication field. Many scholars have asserted that involvement plays a central role in the dynamic of the persuasion process (Cundy, 1990; Roser, 1990). High levels of involvement increase the likelihood of compliance, increase knowledge and knowledge seeking, and promote a variety of media usage (Nitz, 1995).

The concept of involvement could have theoretical significance for this study since it could better account for the perplexing problem of explaining differing attitudinal responses among receivers. Chaffee and Roser (1986) even go so far as to say that "involvement is the critical variable in determining how messages will be received" (p. 381). The concept of involvement has far reaching heuristic potential for communication research and is particularly promising for predicting attitude and behavior change in the area of media and political public opinion.

Rationale and Extension to Organizational Level of Analysis

Involvement has generally been studied at the individual level of analysis. Once again, however, this paper argues that it can be conceptualized at organizational levels as well. Culhane (1981) provides the best support for this claim. His book discusses the process of interest group influence in environmental issues. He argues that the reforms of the 1970s have created a system that requires the participation of publics. NGOs and other organizations or publics with environmental concerns try to exert interest-group influence on environmental issues. This influence is mitigated or counter-balanced by the involvement of professional and legal (i.e. governmental) mandates and agencies.

Involvement theory also helps predict and explain how an organization will communicate on an issue. Seitel (1998), in citing Grunig's work, states that involvement is a key variable in determining whether a public becomes active on a certain issue. How important and relevant is the outcome of an environmental issue to the organization and its constituents? How important is an environmental issue to the value system of an organization and its constituents? Who are the organizations concerned about making a good impression for and what strategies would enhance this impression? As the importance and relevance of an issue each increase, based on these three questions, organizations or publics should be more likely to prioritize and act on that particular issue.

Conceptualization and Definition

Involvement is the importance or relevance of an attitudinal issue under consideration (Petty & Cacioppo, 1979). The discussion thus far leads to the conclusion that involvement is critical in the success or failure of attempts at construction of others through communication. Reasonable approaches to defining involvement in the research literature advocate a multi-faceted view (Chaiken & Stangor, 1987). Tyebjee (1979) agrees, stating that the "multi dimensionality of involvement makes it richer in its potential to guide ... decisions" (p. 108).

Johnson and Eagly's tripartite framework (1989) of outcome-relevant, impression-relevant, and value-relevant involvement is offered as a conceptualization for involvement. Contemporary treatments of involvement and of persuasion in general typically embrace the cognitive dimension of attitudes. More recently, however, recognition is being given to those scholars who have uncovered other motivations for attitude change (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993). The work of functional theorists in attitude research points not only to instrumental, but also to expressive and social-adjustive functions. Impression-relevant involvement is consistent with social-adjustive function and value-relevant involvement is consistent with value-expressive functions. All three of these types of involvement will be extended to the organizational level.

Outcome-relevant Involvement

Outcome relevant involvement is akin to Petty and Cacioppo's (1979) issue involvement. Once again, Johnson and Eagly (1989) have renamed this construct because they feel that Petty and Cacioppo's manipulations (1979) make salient to message recipients in this case organizations or publics, the relevance of an issue to their currently important goals and outcomes. Involvement has also been examined under the rubric of issue salience in political communication (Mutz, 1994; Zaller, 1992). Publics and organizations are most likely to be active and knowledgeable on issues of importance or relevance to them.

Examples of outcome-relevant involvement in the area of an organization's environmental communication include: How relevant is a clean environment to my organization or public? Does global warming have a direct and noticeable impact on the organization's life? Does the practice of sustainability increase profits? Does the lack of safety at a nuclear power plant in Russia impact my organization directly? The stronger the potential relevance of environmental issues to the organization, the more likely is a public or organization to form opinions, seek more information, use the media, and generally act on that issue.

Impression-relevant Involvement

Impression-relevant involvement is driven more by utilitarian motives. Johnson and Eagly (1989) have renamed this construct because it makes "salient the presentational consequences of postmessage positions" (p. 292). High involved publics are more concerned with the consequences of their responses and are more attentive to the instrumental meaning of their attitudes. Adopting a position that maximizes immediate situational rewards is more important than the issue itself. Publics high in impression-relevant involvement are slightly less persuaded than their low involved counterparts (Nitz, 1995). Persuadibility seemed to be a function of the topic used in a persuasive message. If the situational rewards of maintaining a particular impression were high, then resistance to persuasive messages trying to overcome the impression was stronger. Conversely, if a persuader can create messages emphasizing situational rewards that the target audience values, persuasive success can occur.

An example of impression-relevant involvement for organizations in the area of environmental communication is the importance of looking good to significant others. What are the situational rewards for my organization if it practices sustainability? Do the friends and constituencies most important to my organization think it should be environmentally friendly? If I am a politician in charge of an agency, what stance on the issue looks the best to my most significant constituencies? This last question may sound cynical, but as Schoenbach and Becker (1995) note, many politicians do indeed watch the polls for public opinion and try to act in accordance.

Value-relevant Involvement

Value-relevant involvement deals with attitudes based on a social and personal value system. It is a "psychological state created by the activation of attitudes that are linked to important values" (Johnson & Eagly, 1989, p. 290). These values are assumed to be enduring and more salient since they become part of the self-concept or image. An issue high in value-relevant involvement taps into a constellation of values.

An example of value-relevant involvement for organizational communication would be the importance that a clean environment has to the value system of an organization or public. Does the organization or public value a quiet, peaceful forest? Or does it value making the forest available to off-road enthusiasts? Or does it value the conservation of water? Does it value the preservation of animal life? Is a capitalistic or socialistic economic system more important? What role does religion play in environmental issues? Does the organization value democracy? The greater the relevance of an environmental issue to a value system, the more likely it is that a public or organization will form opinions and act on that issue.

In sum, this paper argues that all three of these types of involvement can be extended to organizational levels of analysis. Herbst (1995) argues that groups or publics often crystallize and represent individuals' opinions. These publics practice organizational activism as they promote their viewpoints on environmental issues (Culhane, 1981). This activism will increase as the issue becomes directly relevant to the organization, as the issue becomes relevant to the organization's values, and as it becomes important to "look good" on the issue to a significant constituency.

An example of how organizational-level involvement might work is the reintroduction of the wolf and grizzly bear into the American Northwest. This policy has relevance for a host of groups, including environmentalists, wildlife biologists, ranchers, hunters, tourist associations, loggers, homeowners, and governmental agencies. Each of these "organizations" or publics would have a varying degree of vested interest in the re-introduction. Some, like ranchers, might have high levels of outcome involvement since the bear or wolf could eat their livestock. Others, such as environmentalists, might have high levels of value involvement since they value a more complete ecosystem. Finally, some, such as the National Forest Service, might have high levels of impression involvement. They might be pressured by loggers to prevent the re-introduction. The implication here would be that loggers might be a significant constituency since they provide significant financial support to the Forest Service through the purchase of timber.

Integration of Theoretical Frameworks

An integration of framing and involvement theory is an attempt to explain better the bi-faceted process of public communication and organizational constitution in the environmental arena, which is the goal for this paper. Organizations, through public communication, can influence publics' opinions on the environment. Reciprocally, publics can influence organizations' public communication. Framing and involvement theories offer a unique dualistic framework that can help improve our understanding of how this bi-directional public communication and mutual constitution process works. By combining these theories, both source and audience perspectives are included. Media framing theory presents to us the information that publics and organizations are receiving about environmental issues. Involvement theory helps predict and explain factors that might motivate an organization or public to form, change, and reinforce opinions. This attempt at influence could include actively trying to embed the organizational agenda in the media. Media framing theory tells us how issues will get covered on the primary information source for most citizens. These frames provide the boundaries by which organizations and publics talk about environmental issues. On the other hand, involvement theory would tell us that as an issue becomes increasingly relevant for a group, that group is more likely to try to push that issue on to the agenda.

Thus, media coverage and involvement influence the process of public organizational communication. Government policy (politics) is shaped in response to publics (public opinion) that get most of their information about issues in their living room (media). Reciprocally, public opinion is shaped in response to government policy and news stories when the media report information given to them by government policy-makers and interested publics or organizations.

An example might serve here to illustrate the dual impact of framing and involvement theory in the process of organizations' environmental communication. It is necessary to include both since the question of whether media impact organizational responses or whether organizations drive media coverage is difficult to answer in one direction. Logging has long been a critical , if not the critical, factor driving the economy in much of the Northwest. Recently, however, numerous groups have become involved in trying to prevent or prohibit logging. These publics range from environmentalists to tourist associations that want to promote outdoor activity. Opposed to these publics are associations such as chambers of commerce that depend on the money that loggers contribute to local businesses. These publics, and many others, undergo a continual process of involvement and negotiation on this environmental issue. The degree of involvement varies, but in all cases, the higher the stakes and consequent involvement, the more actively the public will communicate on the issue. The media come into play when a public wishes to make others aware of the "facts" on an issue. The public will buy advertisements or try to create publicity that the news media would then cover. However, the media, on their own, also are motivated to cover newsworthy events (Jamieson & Campbell, 1992). In this process, frames affect how other organizations or publics think about the environmental issue at hand. Depending on the perceived importance the media attach to an issue, these organizations may or may not then become involved. If they do become involved, the process comes full circle.

This paper proposes framing and involvement as key theoretical influences on the public communication process. Media coverage influences policy-making and public opinion through a number of processes including framing, but also including agenda-setting and building (McCombs & Shaw, 1972; Shanahan & Good, 1999). The media can set the agenda for environmental issues as broad as environmental protection and as specific as Chernobyl. Issues can become framed from a viewpoint that favors one public over another. Incidents such as Chernobyl can be discussed in isolation, which would inhibit rational discussion of nuclear safety (episodic framing), or they can be framed from a broader perspective of environmental safety and regulation (thematic framing). The interests of various groups (publics/organizations) are legitimated or denied by the media (Neuzil & Kovarik, 1996). Consequently, the importance of a social problem becomes accelerated or decelerated. Of course, publics can influence this agenda as well. Brosius and Kepplinger (1990) note that the television agenda would influence the public agenda when coverage of an issue was intense and varied. The public agenda, however, was likely to influence the television agenda when problem awareness was long-term and steady or decreasing with little variation (p. 205).

Involvement theory becomes necessary at this point. This paper argues that it is critical in explaining how organizations might choose to communicate on environmental issues. If an issue is really involving for an organization, it will make every effort to publicize this salience. The media are an obvious and useful vehicle for publicity. Media coverage can stress the urgency of certain problems, which leads to more public activism. This increase in activism is consistent with early agenda-setting research (McCombs & Shaw, 1972) that demonstrated how media coverage could awaken awareness and interest in an issue. Then research examined the question almost in reverse. Do the media take their cues from the world and then transmit those cues back?

This paper argues that, through involvement theory, publics can offer these cues to the media. The publics attempt (the more involved, the greater and more varied the attempt) to communicate their stance on an environmental issue. Publics can seek out more information about the issue in a variety of channels, including policy-makers and media outlets. Publics can hold demonstrations to bring attention to a cause. The media would certainly be present to cover such a conflict. Publics can lobby policy-makers to focus more on and become more involved with an issue. The public communication enters in as organizations and publics (which include the media) continually negotiate and communicate on environmental issues.

Implications and Considerations

The integration of media and involvement is clear. The media can increase involvement by motivating the publics to learn more about an issue, simply by mentioning the issue. But the media go beyond simple mentioning, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally, by selecting and emphasizing views that they believe to be worthy of publication (Schoenbach & Becker, 1995). Publics may be sensitive to media coverage since they may infer logically that if an issue is reported a lot, it must be salient. The media are thus indicators of public opinion.

On the other hand, if an issue is relevant to a public, that public will seek out more information about the issue. This search definitely includes media outlets. Thus, the nature of media coverage becomes critical for an informed and enlightened democracy. The bottom line is that the media play an important role as sources of public opinion in mass publics (Schoenbach & Becker, 1995, p. 333). Whether or not they actually do influence opinion is irrelevant. It is sufficient that they are perceived to influence opinion.

The concept of involvement is also central. Involvement can occur either because of an individual's opinion or an organization's opinion. Some good can come from directly addressing this question of self-interest. It makes sense that organizations and publics would act on issues affecting their self-interest. However, this paper emphasizes that involvement is multi-dimensional. Therefore, an organization's self-interest may not line up with society's self-interest. One organization or public may have several, not necessarily agreeing, self-interests. This diversity is especially true in a world in which the "great audience" is splintered and dissolved by cable and narrow niches (Carey, 1995, p. 396). This conclusion means that the notion of any unity among those who participate in common polity is difficult to imagine. Nonetheless, involvement is a concept that can cut across political organizations. Greenpeace is active on environmental issues, yet not on welfare reform. Labor unions are active on economic issues, but not necessarily on global warming. Different political parties and countries have different agendas and address different issues. Involvement is the tie that binds in explaining public opinion and political communication. Schoenbach and Becker (1995) note that the needs and motives of the audience are the most important catalysts of media effects on mass public opinion (p. 333).

Politicians certainly try to divine these motives and self-interests. They anticipate that the media's agenda will become the publics' agenda. In many cases, politicians hope this would be true since they are trying to get their agenda to be the media agenda. Polls can force leaders of organizations to act merely because leaders believe the media will have an impact (Schoenbach & Becker, 1995). The media serve as a link among members of different sectors and, intentionally or not, help leaders communicate their ideas and opinions to publics and the general public.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the key thesis of the dualistic framework set forth in this paper is: In order to understand the bi-faceted process of organizations' public communication in the environmental arena, we need to understand the relationship between media coverage and involvement. Organizations certainly try to influence public opinion by stressing the relevance of their issues or framing the issues. They try to get their agenda aired on television. Concerned publics try to make a difference. This activity is a good social strategy since the research shows that increasing involvement makes one more likely to share similar opinions on an issue and less likely to share dissimilar opinions. However, one needs to be aware that involvement is multi-dimensional, which means that an organization's self-interests may not correlate with the public(s). Further, an organization may wish to look good to a constituency (impression-relevant involvement), but its strategies for doing so produce negative outcomes that are immediately relevant or outcomes that aren't consistent with an organization's value system. Organizations also need to realize the power of the media as a "Great Mentioner." Organizations need to try to get their issues covered on television, the primary source of information for environmental communication. They need to be cautious, however, as opposing organizations are doing the same in an attempt to increase involvement with their cause, while simultaneously reducing involvement with causes not in their own self-interests. Future research should more closely examine the intricacies of the public communication process for organizations as they try to respond to publics' concerns, while at the same time striving to communicate their own messages.


*Author's Note:
A version of this paper was presented at the annual International Conference on Media & Politics, Brussels, Belgium, February 27-March 1 1997.

 

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