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Is Social Marketing a Tool for Agenda-Setting, Framing, and Priming Employed in Corporate Communication? A Critical Approach.

An essay conducted for the course “Political Communication in the Digital Age”, of the Department of Journalism, Media and Communication, University of Gothenburg


The new stakeholder groups that caused a need for more efficient communication by corporates, the growing numbers of messages and media to which people are exposed that now demand a higher degree of coordination as companies need to get their messages as consistent and clear as possible, and the increased demand for effectiveness and positioning of the companies are the main reasons that corporate communication emerged in the 1990’s (Frandsen & Johansen, 2018). This paper argues that social marketing might be employed by corporates on a strategic purpose in order to make some issues salient in the media and public agendas, symbolically construct them in a beneficial for themselves way and finally, influence the way that citizens evaluate politics. Berger et. al. (2002) suggest that corporate communication techniques might also have direct or indirect effects on the policymaking processes. Social marketing and campaigning are some of those techniques employed, and however, on their vast majority, those efforts are conducted by groups possessing social and financial power (Salmon, 1989). This paper will provide a literature review on social marketing and corporate communication and will present how policymaking can be influenced, discussing on the corporates’ capability of disseminating messages to create beneficial conditions for them. Finally, a discussion based on the Herman’s and Chomsky’s (1988) “Propaganda Model” and the Social Problems’ “constructionist approach” (Barkan, 2015) will provide a critical approach to the topic.

Corporate Communication and Social Marketing

Corporate communication has been conceptualized by Frandsen and Johansen (2014 in Frandsen & Johansen, 2018) as a synthesis of four key elements. First, it entails the strategic management of the communication activities of a private company, which are linked to the overall company’s strategy. Second, it includes both external and internal communication activities which are distributed among a set of subdisciplines selected and combined from company to company. Third, the integration of those activities aims at building, maintaining, changing or/and repairing one or more positive images and reputations regarding the company. Final, those procedures of building, maintaining, changing or/and repairing take place inside relationships with external and internal stakeholders of the company such as clients, investors, competitors, the media, local community, etc. One important aspect of corporate communication is the strategic issues management, a concept that blends communication and management strategic practices. Through strategic issues management corporates create, respond to, and engage in operations and discourse, and political discourse more specifically. Corporates can also benefit in promoting mutual interests with the communities they operate in and reducing the threats that public policies might have on their strategic business operation (Waymer & Heath, 2019).

Social marketing, on the other hand, applies commercial marketing technologies, has as its bottom line the influencing of citizens’ voluntary behavior and not necessarily changing it, and seeks on benefiting individuals or the broader society and not the corporate itself.  (Andreasen, 1994). Kolter and Zaltman (1971: 5) described social marketing as the explicit use of marketing skills contributing to translating social action efforts into more effectively designed and communicated programs that aim at desired audience response. Apart from individual behavior influencing, those marketing campaigns might also attempt to change policy. Individual behavior-change campaigns try to decrease the behaviors that lead to social problems or to promote behaviors that lead to improved individual or social well-being. Such campaigns are related to smoking, drug use, driving, violence, crime prevention, etc. On the other hand, policy-change campaigns, attempt to mobilize public and decision-maker support to support or change the policy. Employing message dissemination and media advocacy, aims at occupying space within the media coverage with preferred framing, gain public and policymaker support, and finally, succeed in changing the policy (Coffman, 2003).

Types of Influence on Policy Making

Corporates attempt to influence the debates and the policymaking processes regarding issues through the communication techniques they employ. They strategically invest resources in many communication roles and activities as an attempt to influence public policy agendas and outcomes. Berger and his colleagues (2002) proposed three communication-based perspectives regarding the types of influence on policymaking. First, corporates try to identify issues and eventually set the agendas resulting to the influencing of policy formation, definitions, alternatives, and outcomes, as an active form of political participation. Succeeding in influencing or set the agenda can result in the salience of specific issues among the public and even influence the expression of opinions about specific political actors. This agenda-setting effect is the priming of public opinion. Being aware that citizens rely upon the agenda including the most salient issues, corporates know that managing to influence the agenda will allow them to set the criteria on which an opinion regarding an issue is formed (McCombs, 2014). Corporates employ various techniques in order to influence the agenda. Some of them are the use of diverse communication channels through which the beneficial for the corporate messages are being disseminated; the employment of information subsidies such as news releases, issue ads and lobbying in order to influence the media, public and policy agendas; the employment of less direct techniques such as employees, retirees, shareholders and different forms of personal appeals so that mobilization can be achieved (Berger, 2002).

Second, corporates seek to construct a symbolic structure that explains the social problem in an advantageous manner through a strategic process of professional communicators in an attempt to maximize their impact on social policy. Achieving to frame a specific issue in a specific way and managing to make it dominant in the public or policy arena, alternative perspectives will most likely be excluded from the discussion. Thus, corporates struggle for gaining access to the policy debates, will make them capable of bringing to the attention of policymakers issues that have not been emphasized in public and, manage to frame those issues more easily, efficiently and beneficially for themselves, getting a very important advantage regarding the construction of the political meaning (Berger, 2002). Framing issues has been shown to affect how citizens make sense of various socio-political issues. More specifically, framing effects can be multidimensional and influence citizens in various ways. For example, how individuals think about an issue; how people learn from the frames; how people’s attitudes and evaluative beliefs are being influenced by the frames; how people react emotionally to the frames; and how people finally behave as a result of their exposure to specific frames (Lecheler & De Vreese, 2018).

Third and final, the employment of strategic issues management and public policy involvement by corporates allows them to influence policy on a more “aggressive and organized approach”. Most specialists suggest that the earliest involvement with issues, the more the opportunities for influence will be and a good practice of issues management requires organizations to be proactive (Berger, 2002). The employment of communication practices to manage issues provides the corporates with the capability of creating, challenging, shaping and influencing politics, public opinion and public policy (Waymer & Heath, 2019). In addition, organizations increase the communication channels they use in their attempt to influence policy. For example, issues management includes grassroots campaigning, coalitions, activists’ involvement, public relations and media coverage influence. Furthermore, corporates invest in the production of issue advertising that intends to influence public perceptions about issues (Berger, 2002).

However, corporate communication can become political public relations that serve specific interests. Waymer and Heath (2019: 260) supported that “money is speech”, explaining that by the moment corporate speech can take several forms (paid advertising, financial contributions, donations to political candidates, etc.), corporations can influence public opinion and policymaking in the same way that they promote and sell their products and services to the consumers (Heath & Waymer, 2011). Therefore, corporate speech can influence political outcomes, and it is a reason why corporate entities still trying to expand corporate speech. Issues management intersects with political public relations as corporates attempt to influence public opinion while being engaged in issues communication which is a possible form of political priming. Entities with enough resources are thus capable of making attempts to influence public opinion and policy in a beneficial way. This is what is being discussed in the next section of the paper. 


Setting as a baseline, Edward Herman’s and Noam Chomsky’s (1988 in Berger, 2002) “Propaganda Model”, we can argue that a significant conscious effort from the powerful, such as the government and the corporates aims on maintaining a specific cultural system that supports their interests. Herman and Chomsky had identified five factors that support the generation of media content that strongly supports business and government power. First, media are owned and run as profit-making organizations with their owners having the right to fire the employees who generate content too critical for business, governments or other groups that are being favored by the owners. Second, media are strongly controlled by and dependent on their buying public who are the advertisers. They can, therefore, pay for their ads in media enterprises that generate content that suits their political sensitivities and completely ignore media outlets that disseminate opposing content. Third, the press depends heavily upon government and business elites as sources for their news coverage of public affairs. This kind of relationship can be described as a “give-and-take” one (Eshbauch-Soma, 2019). Both politicians and corporates seek a good relationship with the media outlets in order to be able to disseminate messages in an advantageous manner, affect the agenda and the public opinion, and the media perceive those entities as very important news sources, having their content heavily dependent on them. Fourth, business groups that regularly attack mainstream media, often fund right-wing media in order to strengthen the conservative and business voices within the media content and reduce the criticism towards them. Finally, there is a notable ideological salience of the belief in traditional liberal economy within the disseminated media content.

Adding on what has already been said above, and in combination with the “money is speech” idea as presented by Waymer and Heath (2019), Social Problems studies could shed a light on the mechanisms that enable corporates’ strategic communication through social marketing campaigning in attempting of influencing the public opinion and policy, in a way that serves their interests. Barkan (2015) suggests that social problems consist of two components. First, the objective component, where any condition or behavior that is considered a social problem must have negative consequences for many people and can be easily detected by a social group or an entity. Second, the subjective component of the definition of social problems promotes the idea that a condition or behavior in order to be considered as a social problem must first be recognized as one and be pointed as one by policymakers, large numbers of citizens or other segments of the society. As this paper argues, most social marketing efforts are conducted by groups that posses social and financial power, and usually define the location of a social problem in the public sphere and try to rationalize their influencing efforts in terms of the public interest. Defining a problem and pointing out possible solutions is highly debated, and each claims-maker adopts their position towards an issue according to their agenda. Thus, those forms of social manipulation are ethically debatable and demand a more critical approach (Salmon, 1989).

Barkan (2015) tries to explain the constructionist view with a very simple example. “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, is a sound made”? This example according to him, reinforces one of the key beliefs of the social constructionist view: that perception matters at least as much as reality. In addition, this approach mostly emphasizes that citizens, interest groups, policymakers, and other parties regularly compete to influence the popular perceptions of various conditions or behaviors. Attempts to influence news media coverage and public opinion, framing of any negative consequences a situation might have as a result, the reasons behind the situation and even the proper solutions to any problems, are some of the most important techniques employed by those who aim on influencing the perceptions of the public and the policymakers regarding an issue.

Therefore, no single definition of any problem is accurate. The capability of controlling the framing or defining of an issue is also of great importance, whilst corporates aim at gaining the acceptance of their proposed portraying of an issue (Salmon, 1989). There are also some important ethical concerns regarding social marketing which are being discussed in the relevant literature. While social marketing is supposed to be applied in order to strive towards social good, is not exclusively a technique employed by those who really wish to achieve social good. It is also applied by society groups which aim at promoting their own particular visions of what is meant to be the public good, which differs to a great extent from the general social perceptions (Andreasen, 1994). In a similar way, Goode (2005) stated that, within society, a continuous conflict takes place among different groups and deals with their interests and values and that most of the social institutions do not serve the interests of the broader society, but those of the most powerful groups, that benefit against the less powerful ones. Therefore, we can support that the existence (or construction) of specific social problems, actually serves the interests of the most powerful segments of the society. That is what Salmon (1989) also argues while describing the social marketing efforts carried out by socially disadvantaged groups as less likely to succeed, due to the lack of legitimacy and resources.


Some can argue that social marketing indeed serves the public good and has no hidden interests in it. However, taking into consideration the aspects of social marketing as have been discussed above, its way of operation, its targets and aims and the techniques it includes in order to promote specific behaviors, attitudes towards behavior and ideas in general, and combine them with what has been stated regarding the ways that corporates attempt to influence policy, we can argue that indeed, in some cases at least, social marketing can be an effective tool in the hands of the corporates which serves their own interests. In the same way, corporates employ techniques to promote their services or products through attempts to influence the publics’ consuming behavior, they can also employ the same techniques to promote specific sets of attitudes, beliefs or behaviors (Heath & Waymer, 2011), which in turn serve specific corporate objectives and can be effective at the extent that even policy is influenced.

Salmon (1989) provides a very simple example of social marketing campaigning which entails financial interests for the corporates that support it. He argues that lots of campaigns in support of obligatory seatbelt laws have been sponsored by insurance companies and automobile manufacturers. The publicly portrayed concern that those campaigns promote is public health and safety. Salmon, however, supports that a vested financial interest exists behind those campaigns, as having mandatory seatbelt laws will allow the automobile manufacturers not to install passive restraint systems for example, and insurance companies to reduce the payments in benefits to their customers. According to him, there is no single definition of what public interest is, and thus little evidence that each campaign effort is only promoting interests valued by some, but not all.

Here comes the communication perspective that has been discussed above. Corporates in order to gain the public support towards a specific issue, usually employ the communicative techniques already mentioned and thereafter, attempt to influence policymakers. As proposed by Berger (2002), corporates try to identify the issues and set the agendas as an attempt to eventually influence the policy formation, they try to frame those issues in a way that will benefit them as entities and therefore political actors and finally, they employ strategic issues management and policy involvement in order to create, challenge, shape and influence politics, public opinion and public policy (Waymer & Heath, 2019). Adding to that, the interdependency that exists between corporates, governments and the media as presented by the “Propaganda Model” (Herman & Chomsky, 1988) and the capability corporates have to invest resources on such attempts (Waymer & Heath, 2019), makes those influencing mechanisms to perform easier and more efficiently for corporates and calls for special attention when it comes to the evaluation of social marketing campaigns, which as also has been said, can be a part of the corporates’ communication strategies that aim on influencing public policy under the “cover” of the promotion of the public good.


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