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  • Xiaomeng Lan, Ph.D., Spiro Kiousis, Ph.D., APR

President Trump vs. CEOs: Who is more likely to influence the media agenda?

Corporate executives have increasingly been engaging in CEO activism, a trend of business leaders taking public stances on contentious issues that affect society broadly. Since Donald Trump was elected as the president of the United States, some of his controversial policy decisions and remarks have been taken up by business leaders, who voiced their own opinions through various methods including emails and memos to employees, statements, tweets, open letters, and interviews with media.

Although companies have long played an active role in the U.S. political process, principally through lobbying, until recently it was rare for corporate executives to engage aggressively in public discussions about climate change, same-sex marriage, immigration, gun control, or discrimination. Traditionally, a common concern was that companies taking a visible stand on contentious issues risked alienating—or even mobilizing—stakeholders who disagreed, and that the motivations behind such non-marketing engagement might be subject to criticism, and perhaps taken as insincere or inauthentic. But the current business climate is different from that of the past, characterized not only by a chilled relationship between the president and the business community, but also by greater expectations that CEOs will champion their values and influence “bad” government policies.

A recent study published in the Journal of Public Relations Research aims to answer a question that rises from this relatively recent trend: who is more likely to influence the media’s agenda, the president or the CEOs, when both throw their weight behind a position on the issues of social and political importance? The study draws on the agenda-building theory, which concerns the process by which strategic communication efforts are used to shape the perceived importance of certain stakeholders and issues (first-level agenda building), or certain attributes and aspects (second-level agenda building) or co-occurrence (third-level agenda building) of the stakeholders and issues, in media coverage and public opinion.

In particular, the study explores the influence of business leaders and the president on driving media discourse about the executive order barring travel to the U.S. from several Muslim-majority countries, the decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate change, the plan to end the DACA program, as well as the president’s comments about the violent clashes between alt-right protesters and counter-protesters in Charlottesville. Below are some key findings and implications:

1. President Trump remained a powerful agenda-builder, despite his strained relationship with the mainstream news media.

To a considerable degree, the news agenda of The New York Times and The Washington Post reflected the importance placed on certain stakeholders and the co-occurrence of stakeholders by the president on all but the issue of the United States leaving the Paris climate deal. That the president’s agenda influences mainstream newspapers is not surprising, as previous research has documented much evidence of presidential communications influencing media, public, and policy agendas.

2. Evidence was found that business leaders are agenda-builders for newspaper coverage on certain polarizing issues, although this linkage was not consistent across all four issues of interest.

The CEOs’ and media’s agendas showed alignment in terms of stakeholder prominence on the issue of rescinding DACA, and similarly converged regarding patterns of stakeholder cooccurrence on the travel ban. These findings suggest that corporate leaders were more likely to shape the media agenda on immigration-related issues. CEO activists may need to be careful about the topics on which they choose to weigh in.

It should be noted that the correlations observed between the CEOs’ and the media agendas do not themselves justify the adoption of CEO activism as a strategic move. Further evidence needs to be gathered to understand the impact of CEO activism on other key stakeholders, such as employees, investors, business partners, and customers. CEOs should consider how their statements and actions will be received by these groups in a politically polarized atmosphere.

3. There might be important differences between the impact of CEO activism on the media agenda when the messages were directly communicated by individual CEOs like Tim Cook as opposed to other organizational actors (i.e., their companies or corporate spokespeople).

For example, CEOs using personal messages might have influenced the particular aspects of the issue of the travel ban being highlighted in media content, while this influence was not observed for messages sent by the companies or by corporate spokespeople. Besides, when communicating directly, business leaders had a more significant impact on the media agendas around the issue of rescinding DACA with regard to stakeholder salience, and around the issue of the Paris Agreement with regard to stakeholder salience and stakeholder network salience. These results suggest that direct messages were more effective across the board than indirect ones.

Moreover, attribution of CEO activism to the individual executive versus the company may also affect how such activity is perceived. Therefore, executives must proceed thoughtfully when deciding whether to speak out. In summary, we believe that CEO activism is a fertile area of inquiry as it has been increasingly incorporated into U.S. companies’ nonmarket strategies and public relations activities, and it has become a key driver of the business-government-society dynamic. More research needs to be done to clarify the conditions and factors contributing to the effectiveness of CEO activism, particularly with regard to its influence on the agendas of the news media, the public, and legislators.

About the Authors:

Xiaomeng Lan, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of public relations in the Division of Humanities & Social Sciences at Beijing Normal University - Hong Kong Baptist University United International College. Her research interests include political public relations and online and digital public engagement. She formerly worked as a journalist/editor of international news and comments at China Times, a Beijing-based financial and economic newspaper.

Spiro Kiousis, Ph.D., APR, is an executive associate dean of the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida and is also a professor of public relations. His current research interests include political public relations, political communication, and digital communication. Specifically, this interdisciplinary research explores the interplay among political public relations efforts, news media content, and public opinion in traditional and interactive mass mediated contexts. Follow Dr. Kiousis on Twitter @skiousis.

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