“We do not first see, and then define; we define first and then see.”
– Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (1922)
In the fall of 2001 I was working as Associate Director of the UCLA Center for Communications and Community. The Center was a service, research, and training institution working at the intersection of communications, race, and community transformation. Dr. Frank Gilliam, now Dean of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, was Director of the Center. Many of the communities we worked with (Oakland, Des Moines, Hartford, Inglewood) faced challenges in how they were covered by their local media.
For instance, the “inner city” has certain connotations for many in the media—often negative, driven by pictures of crime scene yellow tape and disaffected minority youth. So-called “bedroom communities” connote something entirely different—tranquility, affluence, and drug-free zones. Whether accurate or not, these “pictures in our head” that Walter Lippmann first wrote about over ninety years ago still persist in our media minds today.
We sought to address these media stereotypes head on with training programs whereby we brought together community leaders with media research scholars, working journalists, and policymakers. We tried to create an atmosphere of trust-building and mutual understanding.
Thirteen years later I still believe in the power of communications and the personal power to communicate. Despite the rise of the Internet and Social Media, we are still tethered to mainstream media influence, particularly our local television news. We are susceptible to the agenda-setting process of the news media—not having the power to tell us what to think, but certainly having the power to tell us what to think about and find important.
The news media provides a lens through which we frame or interpret issues. One of the media frames in Japan this November is that Abenomics is in trouble. Two months ago in September, the media frame had not only Abenomics holding steady but also Abe’s Womenomics in vogue. Media power anywhere in the world sounds a lot like Frank Sinatra singing “That’s Life”:
“You’re riding high in April, shot down in May.” – Frank Sinatra – “That’s Life”
The media as a whole seems to love to build up personalities but also bring them down. That’s why media relations management for a company or individual is so important. It cannot be neglected. There are just too many opportunities for the media system (sometimes we call it the “media beast”) to set the agenda and control the message. Add to that power the reality of our limited carrying capacity: all of us who consume media live in a world of mental shortcuts.
In order to take in increasingly larger amounts of data and information, we often resort to certain scripts, stereotypes or prototypes in our memory that are efficient go-to measures but also incomplete pictures. We never complete the picture because we are easily distracted or left inattentive by our day-to-day responsibilities.
A good media relations advisor can help you make sense of a media environment filled with clutter and noise. The best piece of advice that I learned from my years at UCLA is to seek out media engagement over media confrontation. It’s easy to “blame the media” for the world’s ills, but there are better ways beyond the blame game.
Dr. Nancy Snow
Dr. Nancy Snow is Langley Esquire’s chief advisor for public relations, media relations, public diplomacy, and leadership branding. Dr. Snow is a two-time recipient of the Fulbright Fellowship, as a Fulbright student in the Federal Republic of Germany, and as Fulbright professor of international relations at Sophia University. She is an Abe Fellow at Keio University’s Institute of Media and Communications Research, where she is conducting research for a forthcoming book on Japan’s nation brand global image and reputation. Dr. Snow also completed the two-year Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF) at the United States Information Agency and U.S. Department of State.
When she’s not seeking out hidden meanings and spreading Southern hospitality, Dr. Snow can be found on Twitter at @drpersuasion