Understanding Priming in the World of Communications
Bellisario College of Communications, Penn State University
COMM 473: Pr Campaigns
September 18, 2021
Priming is a theory that conceptualizes and correlates engagement of media to human behavior. With this paper, we attempt to broaden the understanding of the theory and how it relates to public relations and benefits PR campaigns. When applied, priming helps organizations understand the impact of specific topics for users, and how that exposure leads to consumer decision making, which organizations can utilize for benefit. Through the understanding of priming, we analyze the deep implications this theory has on PR strategies and assessments. This introductory chapter serves as a summation of priming theory and how the study of human behavior overall benefits the public relations in organizations.
DEFINING PRIMING THEORY
The term priming has been a part of psychological literature for a longtime. The basis of priming has generally referred to the effects of some action or stimuli that subsequently elicits a familial response (Tulving, 1983). Within social psychology, this process is defined in terms of how events influence the initialization of stored memory/knowledge (Higgins, 1996; Higgins & Eitam, 2014). The earliest work on priming or “priming effect” was identified by social psychologists Shanto Iyengar, Mark Peters, and Donald Kinder in 1982. The theory’s fundamental understanding was that people don’t have intricate knowledge about politics, and don’t utilize what they know about politics to the highest potential, therefore when making a decision they use prior knowledge (shown in figure below). The rise of media and technology has greatly influenced human behavior in regard to knowledge and judgment.
Ideally, societies function when their citizens are well informed and making logical decisions. However, political and communication scientists note that society strays from this ideal. Citizens are more likely to be ill-informed than well informed, and are less likely to utilize available and credible resources for decision-making (Bennett, 1989; Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996). In modern day media there are cognitive psychology theories that reveal how mass media impacts humans, and research shows that analyzing the patterns of social media and technology allows developers to understand user’s behavior and produce data that conceptualizes those behaviors. This form of social sciences enables a framework of understanding towards human behavior regarding social media. Why is priming extremely vital to organizations? When applied, priming helps organizations understand the impact of specific topics for users, and how that exposure leads to consumer decision making, which organizations utilize in the short and long term for their benefit.
Priming theory is the idea that media stimulates stored preconceptions within humans that impact their decision making. The psychological basis behind priming is the idea that people cannot pay attention to everything in the media, and thus priming compartmentalizes prior knowledge, and utilizes that information for when something of interest pops up on the screen. The stored memories serve as a frame of reference to the viewer, and priming enables users to assess the given media and decide how effective it is in order to make a decision based on said framed reference.
Social media provides users with easier engagement, access, and connection; with this omnipresent form of technology, this grants companies the opportunity to reach a massive audience, market product, and create engagement. A larger engagement ultimately means more financial gain and profit for said companies, but creating a more well rounded assessment of people’s media patterns is first understanding societal appeals. Understanding various communication theories is vital to implementing a successful media strategy, and more importantly understanding how a theory like priming is used in public relations.
PRIMING IN POLITICAL PR AND CAMPAIGNS
Priming is especially used for political campaigns and serves as a function to activate user memories and emotions for present and future issues. By focusing on specific issues salient to society, campaigns analyze information that corresponds with their audience, and use it as influence. Political campaigns appeal to emotions because it serves as a gateway to a better cognitive understanding of their supporters. Cognitive understanding and analysis allows political campaigns to influence public opinion through various forms of priming (Kühne, Schemer, Matthes, Wirth, 2011). The general basis of politics within media priming is to decipher how media will affect decision making; what priming provides is the basic perception and understanding of what audiences will react to.
The U.S.1986 Iran-Contra scandal is an example of media priming utilized in politics. Receiving major coverage, this political scandal occurred during Ronald Reagan’s second term, and saw the sale of arms to the Islamic Republic of Iran to fund the Nicaraguan rebel group, the Contras (Krosnick & Kinder, 1990). During the time of the scandal, the National Election Study created a before-and-after comparison of Americans’ assessment of President Reagan’s and what influenced their answers; and the study showed the Iran-Contra scandal playing a substantial role in their overall assessment of the president. As a PR representative, the main focus is to manage the crisis and get ahead of it. Analyzing the data from the survey and understanding how priming is used, serves as a resourceful tool for the PR team and enables them to figure out a strategy regarding that.
The first step is to find out and understand the general public’s attitude towards the situation. Associate director for economics and government with the US Office of Management and Budget, Annelise Anderson recalls, “the people of the United States didn’t believe that he was telling the truth. It’s not that they disagreed with him, or that he was unpopular, but that they didn’t think he was telling the truth.” As soon as the PR team finds out how the American people feel about their president then they’re going to have a better idea of what to do next. Although research showed the negative impact the Iran-Contra scandal had on Reagan’s approval rating, the information still gave the organization a better idea of what they were dealing with. In PR, utilizing research for the organization’s benefit is essential for a quality campaign, whether the campaign is on politics or advertising, understanding the public’s perspective is a part of creating a highly detailed and credible campaign.
Media priming is one theory that is researched and utilized in many scenarios, for example it can be found in President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky’s scandal. During this sex scandal, American society had a front row seat to constant information to live updates, whether that was from newspapers, radios, television, or word of mouth. The American public had a personal assessment of President Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal due to their media engagement. A survey in Oregon showed correlation between residents with frequent media use and Clinton’s job and performance (Wanta & Change, 1999). The more residents in Oregon that consumed media, the more likely they were to have an opinion of the president and his job performance; and majority of the opinions were negative. For future PR campaigns, understanding the theory of priming ultimately helps because research and data allows a more concrete understanding of how media impacts people’s perspectives on public officials. With this in mind, PR campaigns should focus on portraying a positive image that will bolster support rather than deter it.
Overall, social theories pertain to public relations on both the micro and macro levels, as well as the organizational and societal. Understanding and utilizing priming for PR purposes requires research and analysis to solve problems (Littlejohn, 1995). Every public relations professional always needs to ask themselves what is best for the organization, the public and society as a whole. The answer can be found in research and methodologies, which ultimately leads to a possible strategy. After analyzing the research, and studying and understanding specific methodologies and theories, PR experts can construct approaches that benefit the organization and the public, and will be socially oriented. Public relations is no longer beneficial for basic corporate communications, rather, it has evolved to become a theoretical and research based tool. Through the collection of media data on societal patterns, organizations can benefit from understanding the public on a more relevant and societal level.
There are many different examples of how priming works, but in regards to public relations, priming allows organizations to comprehend their audiences on a deeper level through approaches that are product-oriented, marketing oriented, and societally oriented. The basis and analysis of priming allows organizations to understand that the comprehension of human behavior within society is the basis and outcome of public relations. The main interest of a corporation or an organization is to find how their mission fits into society as a whole. In this respect, the priming theory further conceptualizes the importance of researching human behavior for the benefit of organizational success.
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Rinaldo Kühne, Christian Schemer, Jörg Matthes, Werner Wirth, Affective Priming in Political Campaigns: How Campaign-Induced Emotions Prime Political Opinions, International Journal of Public Opinion Research, Volume 23, Issue 4, Winter 2011, Pages 485–507, https://doi.org/10.1093/ijpor/edr004
Wanta, W., & Chang, K. (1999). Priming and the second level of agenda setting: Merging two theoretical approaches. Paper presented to the International Communication Association, San Francisco, CA.
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