Why do some public agencies attract more media attention than others?

Boon et alJan Boon, Heidi Houlberg Salamonsen and Koen Verhoest

The role of the media in relation to public agencies has only recently become the focus of scholarly attention within public management and administration. Many would agree that, at least in Western democracies, we live in what is referred to as mediatised societies. These are generally understood to be societies in which the media somehow penetrate and affect the way central institutions of our societies function (including the public agencies responsible for service delivery, regulation, etc). However, we have just begun to investigate the degree to which such media attention affects public agencies, how they are organized, and held accountable.  

Previous research has already demonstrated that the increasing professionalisation of media departments in many public agencies made some of them able to ‘strike back’. For instance, agencies have been found to frame their messages according to news agendas set by the media, and to train their leaders to perform well in broadcastsHowever, in our recent Policy & Politics article we argue that this line of research has somehow missed a step, in terms of identifying firstly which type of agencies are attracting which type of media attention. Agencies vary not only in the tasks they perform, but also in their size and in their (in)dependence from their minister. These distinctions reflect the most prevalent ways of characterising public agencies. 

In addition, we often end up neglecting the combined effect of all these complex variations when investigating public agencies. However, methods exist which allow us to investigate the combined effect of different (organisational) characteristics which affect how public agencies behave. One of these is Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA), which we used to investigate how different organisational features relate to the frequency and tone of how the media portrays public agencies. By applying QCA, we were able to identify the combined effect of task, (legal) independence and size to explain differences in the media attention that public agencies receive.  

Our study shows that agencies are likely to attract more media attention when they have at least two out of three of these characteristics: (ilarge organisational size(ii) perform service delivery tasks, and (iii) enjoy legal independence. Furthermore, agencies that combine all three of these characteristics tend to attract more positive and negative media attention. We argue that this may be caused by the fact that larger agencies are more prominent, thereby attracting more media attention of the positive and negative kind. In a similar vein, agencies that are legally independent from their minister also attract more media attention, as they may be more conspicuous, rather than being seen as part of the machinery of governmentFinally we found that agencies involved in service delivery are more prone to negative media attentionbut, fortunately for them, their larger organisational size allows for a more professional communication department to cultivate positive perceptions of the agency.  

Investigating which type of agencies are more likely to attract media attention is of relevance for number of reasons. From a democratic perspective, the implication is that the role of the media as a watchdog that holds politicians and bureaucrats to account is not equally intense across different types of agencies. Since this watchdog role not only benefits citizens but also politicians, a pertinent research finding for current and future governments is to supplement the media with other control mechanisms. From a managerial perspective, understanding which characteristics of their organisation attract or discourage media attention may help agencies to decide how to invest in the resources necessary to successfully manage the media attention they attract  

This blog post was originally published on the Discover Society – Policy and Politics blog on 1 May 2019.

You may read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Boon, Jan; Salamonsen, Heidi Houlberg & Verhoest, Koen (2019) The effects of organisational features on media attention for public organisations, Policy & Politics,  DOI: https://doi.org/10.1332/030557318X15407316633243

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

Entangling and disentangling governance and the media

Governance and the media: exploring the linkages

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