Setting the agenda for research on
Department of Communication, University of Jyvaskyla, Jyva
¨, Finland, and
Vilma Liisa Luoma-aho
Department of Communication, University of Jyvaskyla, Jyva
Purpose – This paper seeks to contribute to the ﬁeld of corporate communication by clarifying the
theoretical basis of communication in issue arenas and proposing an agenda for research on issue
Design/methodology/approach – Drawing on insights from stakeholder thinking, network
theory, issues management, and agenda-setting theory, the authors identify different levels of
analysis that could explain the behaviour of organisations in the public debate on current issues.
Findings – The organisation-centred approach is replaced by a strong emphasis on interaction in
networks of organisations, groups and individuals. Decision-making on communication strategies can
be further developed by analysing the particularities of each issue arena, in particular the
characteristics of the issue and the actors involved as well as the course of the debate and the
communication strategies utilised in stakeholder interaction.
Research limitations/implications – This theoretical approach calls for further research, but
offers an agenda and suggests four starting levels for analysis.
Practical implications – This paper provides a timely approach to the analysis of corporate
communication that may help understand the complexities of a rapidly changing organisational
environment and, ultimately, assist organisations in developing customised communication strategies
suited to each issue arena relevant to their operations.
Originality/value – Insights from various theories are brought together to serve as a starting point
for the further analysis of communication in issue arenas.
Keywords Issue arena, Issues management, Public debate
Paper type Conceptual paper
There is a growing need to understand where communication should take place in the
era of the new and social media (Castells, 2009). Corporations are embracing new tools
and services online, yet analysis of these new possibilities continues to be lacking. This
paper seeks to clarify the theoretical basis of the concept of the issue arena and propose
a research agenda for research on issue arenas. The concept of the issue arena has
previously been introduced into this ﬁeld (Luoma-aho and Vos, 2009, 2010). By further
reﬁning the concept and clarifying its theoretical basis, different levels of analysis for
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
The authors thank Niina Merila
¨inen and Aino Ruggiero for contributing to the literature search
on the theoretical areas that explain communication in issue arenas.
Received 7 August 2012
Revised 22 July 2013
Accepted 23 July 2013
Corporate Communications: An
Vol. 19 No. 2, 2014
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
issue arena research can be demonstrated. This in turn will help in identifying research
gaps, and thus offer directions for future research. By developing issue arena theory, a
foundation can be laid for corporate communication strategy making that addresses
the current complexity of the international environment by combining previous
During recent decades, the ﬁeld of communication for organisations has broadened
rapidly. Attention has shifted from the micro level of communication activities to the
meso level of communication within organisations and the macro level of the
management of communication with stakeholders in the social environment
(Stockholm Accords, 2010; Vos and Schoemaker, 2011). Currently, the emphasis is
on the strategic interface function of communication for organisations (Sutcliffe, 2001).
The discipline developed from aiming at goodwill and mutual relations to also
acknowledging possibly conﬂicting interests in the ﬁeld of forces in which
organisations operate. Different public groups have different expectations that need
to be monitored and cannot always be combined in win-win scenarios. Although most
scholars agree that self-referentiality in organisations (Van Woerkum, 1997) needs to
be counteracted, many existing models continue to reinforce a self-centred picture of
the organisation, assuming that all the stakeholders have a shared stake in the
organisation, whereas in fact the parties involved may rather have an interest in
speciﬁc issues and possibly opposite points-of-view. Stakeholders’ expectations,
formed in issue arenas, inﬂuence how the organisation is perceived, and thus the
interaction on an issue and its results will be reﬂected in the reputation of the
Furthermore, organisations have to take many evolving issues into account in a
situation that is more dynamic than ever (Stockholm Accords, 2010). It has been
suggested that communication management calls for multiple situation-dependent
strategies (Flynn, 2006). Thus, the challenges of operating in various and fast
developing issue arenas need to be addressed. Developing an analytical model to
investigate communication in issue arenas can help identify directions for research,
describe and understand interaction processes and, ultimately, facilitate the
development of communication strategy decisions in complex and turbulent
The concept of an issue arena
In corporate communication, the concept of an issue arena has been suggested to lead
to a more dynamic stakeholder model, and thus refers to the interaction of stakeholders
regarding an issue in the public debate in the traditional or virtual media (Luoma-aho
and Vos, 2010).
Aula and Mantere (2008) mentioned reputation arenas as places of interaction
between an organisation and its publics where the reputation of the organisation is
created. However, in an issue arena, the focal point is no longer the organisation but the
issue. A stakeholder is “one that holds a stake in the issue” (Van Schendelen, 2010).
Heath (1998, 2002) introduced an issues management point-of-view into the ﬁeld of
public relations, advocating corporate public policymaking and balancing interests in
society. Organisations aim at legitimacy for their activities, and therefore need to be
willing to participate in such a debate and be held accountable for the decisions made.
They may also seek change, for example in legislation, which they need to draw
attention to, or they may need to ﬁnd solutions for broader problems that could be
addressed in the public debate. In issue arenas, alliances may be sought and
negotiations initiated. As there are multiple interdependences in society, many
different interests will also be reﬂected in the debate.
The term “arena” can refer to a concrete place or an abstract concept. For an
economist, a market arena may be a concrete place, such as a trade fair, but more often
it is seen as an abstract concept referring to (all those places) where demand and
supply meet for a product or service (Leeﬂang and Beukenkamp, 1987). Similarly, an
issue arena can be a concrete place or medium for discussion on an issue, but ﬁrst and
foremost it is seen an abstract concept referring to (all those places) where exchange of
views on this issue takes place. By using the term arena rather than sphere or place, the
competitiveness of the interplay between the actors is acknowledged. An issue arena
has been compared to a theatre (Luoma-aho and Vos, 2010), where the focus of the
interaction is the stage (rather than the wings or rows of seats); similarly, in an issue
arena, the focus is on what is visible in the public sphere rather than in the lobby
outside public view.
According to Giddens (2009, p. 47), “Society needs an open public sphere in which
debate about policy issues can be carried on”. The transformation of the public sphere
has been discussed by Habermas (1991). Habermas (2006, p. 415) pictures the public
sphere as ”an intermediary system of communication between formally organised and
informal face-to-face deliberations in arenas at both the top and the bottom of the
political system” in which public opinions are jointly constructed by politicians and
diffuse audiences from published and polled opinions. Habermas (1996), p. 360)
describes the public sphere as “a network for communicating information and
points-of-view” and states that the public sphere is reproduced through communicative
action, emphasising the role of the media. However, there are failures in the
maintenance of a self-regulating media system and of proper feedback between the
public sphere and civil society, as the assimilation of political issues by entertainment
modes and polarisation of conﬂicts promote a mood of antipolitics (Habermas, 2006).
Habermas (1996) states that within the public sphere various arenas and platforms
exist. Here we address issue arenas, arenas that focus on the public debate about a
particular issue among various actors in both traditional and virtual media. It is
suggested that, nowadays, next to news media also the social media have an important
role in agenda setting of issues (Merila
¨inen and Vos, 2011).
The paper is organised as follows. First, the theoretical basis of issue arena thinking
is established, and four theoretical approaches are highlighted: stakeholder thinking,
network theory, issues management and agenda-setting. Drawing on these, the authors
propose a preliminary model with four levels of analysis: analysis relating to the issue
itself, the actors involved, the media context and the course of the debate. For each
level, examples are provided, and ideas for future studies proposed. Next, the
limitations and implications of the proposed approach are presented.
The term “issue arena” is sparingly used and often not clariﬁed further. For example,
Ungericht and Hurt (2010) mention the decision of companies to engage in corporate
social responsibility as a result of political processes in an issue arena. However, they
do not deﬁne the concept. Similarly, Wassenberg (1991) mentions an “arena approach”
to negotiations without deﬁning what this is.
In political science, the term “arena” has a long history (e.g. Schattschneider, 1960).
Arena analysis, in turn, is a current lobbying research approach which unites the
earlier approaches of ruler, issue and stakeholder analysis (Van Schendelen, 2010).
However, the political arena is seen as a composition of actors and issues, and the
emphasis is on inﬂuencing the political agenda rather than on communication
strategies in the public debate.
The concept of the issue arena offers a theoretical approach suitable for corporate
communication in today’s complex and turbulent social environment. The literature
provides many starting points for such a theory (Luoma-aho and Vos, 2010). Here we
focus on four of these, and show how they can be united to generate new knowledge on
communication in issue arenas:
(1) stakeholder thinking;
(2) network theory;
(3) issues management; and
(4) agenda-setting theory.
For each area, its origins and virtues will be brieﬂy described, along with criticisms
and recent insights related to communication in issue arenas. This will also show that
in all four areas some cross-pollination already exists.
An often-cited milestone in the development of the stakeholder perspective is
Freeman’s (2010) book “Strategic Management: A Stakeholder Approach”, which set in
train the development of contemporary stakeholder research (e.g. Frooman, 1999; Na
1995; Rowley, 1997). Scholars exploring stakeholder thinking have focused on
stakeholder deﬁnitions and theory debates, stakeholder identiﬁcation, stakeholder
actions and responses, organisational actions and responses, and organisational
performance (Rowley, 1997; Laplume et al., 2008). This has also contributed to
understanding of the mutual dependence between an organisation and its constituents
(Rhenman, 1964; cited in Na
¨si, 1995), and the diversity of stakeholder interests and
views (Donaldson and Preston, 1995; Rowley, 1997).
The stakeholder perspective has also been criticised for various shortcomings, in
part due to the simpliﬁed graphical presentation of the model (Fassin, 2008): these
concern, e.g. heterogeneity within stakeholder groups (Winn, 2001; Wolfe and Putler,
2002), the existence of one central organisation (e.g. Friedman and Miles, 2002;
Frooman, 1999; Rowley, 1997), multiple linkages (Key, 1999) and network relationships
(Rowley, 1997; Roloff, 2008). In addition, the model can be criticised for not adequately
accounting for various layers or spheres of the environment (Clarkson, 1995; Post et al.,
2002), dynamic aspects of the environment (Key, 1999), or the issue-speciﬁc and
changing nature of stakeholder roles and relationships (Winn, 2001; Friedman and
Consequently, the focus of stakeholder research is shifting away from studying how
stakeholders can be identiﬁed and classiﬁed from the perspective of a central
organisation (Koschmann, 2009) towards understanding and identifying stakes
(Wu, 2007) and interrelations between stakes and their holders (Luoma-aho and
Paloviita, 2010) within complex networks of multiple and sometimes conﬂicting
interests and priorities (Roloff, 2008). Accordingly, an alternative deﬁnition of a
stakeholder has been proposed: any group or individual who can affect or is affected by
an issue addressed by the network that the group or individual is involved in (Roloff,
Topics related to stakeholder theory of particular interest for communication in
issue arenas include shared interests, and how issues and stakes may be related.
The mathematical foundations of the network concept can be traced back to the
nineteenth century, while interest in network approaches grew among scholars in
social anthropology and social psychology in the ﬁrst half of the twentieth century
(Quandt, 2008). It is only in the past twenty years that there has been a clear growth of
interest in this phenomenon, especially in internet research, organisational science,
policy studies and epidemiology (Wasserman, 2003), and in research on organisations
and communication (Monge and Contractor, 2003). The basic purpose behind network
analysis is to study relational systems in which actors, e.g. persons or organisations,
are “embedded” (Granovetter, 1985) in order to examine how relationships and their
structures inﬂuence behaviours (Rowley, 1997). Structure is treated as a network of
networks that may or may not be portioned into discrete groups (Wellman, 1988). In
this way, network theory addresses relationships between the actors within a network
and interdependency of various networks, creating a basis to study the communication
between an organisation and its stakeholders, as well as communication in broader
In its simplest terms, a network is “a set of interconnected nodes” (Castells, 2000,
p. 152). Networks can be depicted with network graphs and described using formal
mathematical language (Quandt, 2008). In research, while the focus may
predominantly be on the structure of networks, connections have also been studied
as a resource (Borgatti and Foster, 2003). Different roles in the network have been
identiﬁed, for example, a bigger actor may function as a gatekeeping hub (Carpenter,
2011). The roles in the network affect the interplay between the actors, for example, the
hub may prevent or allow further discussion of issues brought up by smaller actors,
inﬂuencing the spreading of issues.
The network concept has been criticised for its ambiguity. It is applied to many
different phenomena (Monge and Contractor, 2003), and is also used in a purely
metaphorical sense, as “a web-like phenomenon” (Quandt, 2008). This has caused the
concept to become rather vague.
In recent years, the relations making up a network have been emphasised. Patterns
of relationships between members of a network also affect organisational behaviour,
and rather than studying dyadic relations, an organisation’s environment is nowadays
seen as a set of social actors (Rowley, 1997). Moreover, from the perspective of
networks, connections are made with stakeholder theory and issues management. For
example, Roloff (2008, p. 238) mentions multi-stakeholder networks “in which actors
from civil society, business and governmental institutions come together in order to
ﬁnd a common approach to an issue that affects them all”.
Network theory-related topics of particular interest for communication in issue
arenas include network roles, such as being a gatekeeper, connections between
different networks, and the behaviour of hubs in issue debate.
The concept of issues management derives from the late 1970 s and underlines the
importance of public opinion for organisations (Heath and Cousino, 1990; Heath, 1986).
Issues management is a function that helps organisations to understand and
strategically adapt to their environment (Heath, 1998). Rather than creating an illusion
of being able to fully “manage” issues, issues management literature stresses ethics of
organisational behaviour and sensitivity towards the social environment. Issues
management is seen as stewardship for building, maintaining and repairing
relationships with stakeholders and stakeseekers, contributes to strategic planning
and enhances the organisation’s ability to monitor issues, achieve standards of
corporate responsibility, and engage in strategic public policy dialogue (Heath, 2002). It
is only within the context of issues management that the gathering of information is
translated into strategic organisational decision making (Lauzen, 1997). For example,
in political sciences literature it is mentioned that strategies and tactics can be used to
attempt to expand or shrink the scope of the issue (Schattschneider, 1960). In issues
management the emphasis is on preventing organisational crises (Vos and
Schoemaker, 2011). For this purpose, involvement in public policies is the objective
of issue management and a proactive task for addressing issues (Coombs, 1992).
Downs (1972) proposed an issue attention cycle comprising various stages, in which
the attention paid to an issue is low in the pre-problem stage, rises in the next stage,
creating the willingness to take action, then shows a gradual decline, and ends in the
post-problem stage. Hilgartner and Bosk (1988) criticised the issue attention cycle
because it ignores the fact that issues as well as the ways in which they are framed
compete for the public’s attention. In this view, issues management is also related to
framing. Therefore, issues management literature takes framing into account,
connecting this also with rhetorical theory. A frame is an interpretation scheme that
provides a context for understanding information and deﬁning the situation (Hallahan,
1999). Framing stresses certain aspects of issues over others, and thus it is a selective
process (Lecheler and De Vreese, 2010). The actors in the debate may frame the issue in
Game theory is also used to address how different interests are negotiated between
the actors involved in an issue and to predict outcomes (Murphy, 1987; Bueno de
Mesquita, 2009). As Weick (2001) puts it, people are enacting their environment.
Perceptions of other actors and expected reactions inﬂuence behaviour in public debate
on an issue. Recently, issues have been related to networks. Carpenter (2011) states that
only the bigger and central actors in a network, called “hubs”, can inﬂuence issue
salience in networks, while smaller actors need to collaborate with the more powerful
Topics in the area of issues management of particular interest for communication in
issue arenas include negotiating interests, monitoring development of issues, framing
and how this relates to strategic policy.
The theory of agenda setting was initiated by McCombs and Shaw (1972) on the basis
of earlier work (e.g. Lippmann, 1922), and postulates that a clear connection exists
between news media coverage and public opinion. When reporting issues, the media
underscore some of these (Sheafer, 2007), and as a result the issue gains salience in
public perception. In priming, the media repeat and emphasise the importance of
issues, and so cause particular issues to appear more relevant in the eyes of the public
(Weaver, 2007). Weaver (1990) suggests that the media agenda is, in fact, formed
together by politicians, their advisors and journalists. In this way, the agendas of the
public, the media and the decision-makers are uniﬁed (Young and McCarthy, 2009).
Uscinski (2009) argues that the classical agenda-setting theory leads to
overestimation of the power of the media to inﬂuence public opinion, and proposes
the concept of an audience-driven framework, where the public inﬂuences the media. In
an audience-driven agenda setting, issues discussed by the public lead the media to
adjust their agenda. It remains unclear what communication processes actually lead to
agenda setting and what role the various actors have. This has led some authors to
favour the concept “public debate”, which refers to the public sphere (Habermas, 1991).
Nowadays it is stressed that the news media are not the only place for agenda
setting. The prevalence of online communication channels creates more opportunities
for organisations and publics to interact directly. Internet users can discuss issues and
subsequently inﬂuence agenda setting (Roberts et al., 2002). From the perspective of
agenda setting, connections are also made with issue management and networks. For
example, Carpenter (2011) mentions issue agendas and issue salience within an
advocacy network, and Merila
¨inen and Vos (2011) connect agenda setting to the public
debate on issues.
The four theoretical areas described above provide important insights into
communication in issue arenas and show interconnections that invite their further
development into an integral basis for understanding and investigating
communication in issue arenas. Before suggesting research directions for this topic,
different levels for the analysis of an issue arena will be clariﬁed.
Within agenda-setting theory, topics of particular interest for communication in
issue arenas include drawing attention to issues, and transfer between public, media
and policy agendas.
Towards different levels of analysis
Organisations take part in various issue arenas and in each of these may encounter a
very different environment when interacting with the relevant stakeholders. Issue
arenas differ in many ways, according to the issue, the actors involved and the course
of the debate. Based on the theories presented above, we suggest four levels of analysis
that might contribute both to a better understanding of issue arenas and reveal their
diversity. The debate will be inﬂuenced not only by the characteristics and context of
the issue in question, but also by the actors and the roles they take. The discourse and
the spread of the issue debate will also be related to the places of interaction, and the
features of the media involved. In addition, the course of the debate over time needs to
be taken into account. A preliminary analytical model of the four levels of analysis of
communication in issue arenas is presented below in Figure 1.
Level 1: issue-related aspects
Issue arenas are likely to differ according to the characteristics of the issues in
question. Each issue exists in a particular situational context and thus is more or less
associated with political or economic interests, which can be considered to set the stage
for arena interaction and open up options for framing the issue (Merila
¨inen and Vos,
2013). The context also explains how a particular issue relates to the actors’
organisational policies. Perceptions of an issue can be explained by its historical
background and associations.
Issues differ in scope, with case-speciﬁc issues relating to a broader cluster of issues:
for example, whereas food safety has long been a hot topic, there may be sub-arenas
debating additives in particular products. Issue salience is inﬂuenced by the use of
framing (Hallahan, 1999), and different ways to frame social issues have been
investigated, for example, in issues of human rights (Merila
¨inen and Vos, 2013).
To better understand how issues and stakes are related, insights from stakeholder
theory could be utilised, while for issue framing, and how this relates to organisational
policies, insights from issues management could prove useful.
Level 2: the actors involved
In some issue arenas, many stakeholders are actively involved, as in the issue of global
warming. In other arenas, only a few of the potential actors are active, such as in the
Brent Spar case, where, during the occupation of the platform by the activists,
Greenpeace primarily confronted Shell, leaving Esso, the co-owner of the platform, out
of the public discussion. Actors have different characteristics, of which credibility
(Druckman, 2001), legitimacy (Coombs, 1992) and power (Lukes, 1974), in particular,
have been suggested to be important in public debate.
Actors can become active in an issue arena because they see opportunities, or
because they are drawn into it by the course of events. Actor roles also differ, for
example the United Nations, which can act as initiator or mediator.
The roles of the actors in an issue arena also have to do with the actors’
inter-relatedness. The concept “network” seems to suggest contact; however, there may
not be direct contact, with points-of-view being encountered only in the media, while
Analytical model of
communication in issue
some actors may only want to address the audience. In a network of strong and weak
ties, contact may be direct, indirect or even absent (Granovetter, 1973).
To better understand the different roles of actors in issue arenas, insights from
network theory can be used, while stakeholder theory can shed light on the
inter-relatedness of actors operating in an issue arena.
Level 3: places of interaction
An issue can be discussed in both physical and virtual space. For example, in the
international climate change conference in Copenhagen in 2009, virtual spaces for the
exchange of opinions were also made available. Today, public debate takes place not
only in settings where people can meet and exchange views in direct contact or
supported by technology such as teleconferences, but also in traditional media, such as
newspapers, radio and television, and in virtual media in the online environment, such
as discussion platforms, social networks and Twitter.
Each place of interaction has particular features that need to be taken into account
by the participants in the debate. Journalists draw most material from well-organised
information producers, though civil society actors can also join together to promote
issues in the public sphere (Habermas, 1996). Consequently, news media pay most
attention to prominent actors, while social media provide expression possibilities for
many. It has been suggested that interaction has been accelerated by the internet (Self,
2010) and that social media interaction causes issue contagion (Coombs, 2002).
Furthermore, social media debate may lead to an issue gaining attention in the
traditional media and vice versa (Merila
¨inen and Vos, 2011).
To understand how attention is drawn to issues and how issue debate spreads from
the social to the news media, agenda-setting theory can offer useful insights.
Level 4: course of the debate
Issue arenas may develop and differ according to the issue development phase (Downs,
1972). The emphasis in the debate may also change. For example, Al Gore drew
attention to the issue of global warming, but also guided the debate on global warming
so that the focus remained exclusively on carbon dioxide, leaving other harmful
substances out of the debate.
Various factors inﬂuence the course and outcomes of a debate. In some cases
solutions sought by many may be blocked by one actor, making it difﬁcult to solve, for
example, immigration issues. Furthermore, an organisation may use different
communication strategies suited to each new issue arena in which it is active. However,
to maintain a clear identity, companies need to develop an appropriate balance zone for
their organisation (Flynn, 2006). This calls for the building of a strategy portfolio by
companies in issue arenas.
To follow the course of a debate, insights from issue management and, in particular,
the issue life cycle may be of value.
Research could further investigate communication in issue arenas by focusing on the
levels of analysis that we have described. Next, we present examples within one such
level of analysis, highlight one promising element, and describe an integral approach
using all four levels of analysis.
Research within the various levels of analysis
Future studies may focus on:
.Issue-related aspects, e.g. the way in which issues are framed in a debate, and
clarify the interrelatedness of different issue arenas and how this affects the
interplay between the actors.
.Actors involved, e.g. developing a typology of stakeholders focused on arena
behaviour. The interrelatedness of actors could be investigated. Attention could
also be given to cases in which problem solving is blocked by one actor.
.Places of interaction, e.g. the media aspects of issue arenas and how issue
discussion in traditional media is related to social media discourse, and the speed
and pattern pertaining to the spread of issues in the social media.
.Course of the debate, e.g. critical factors inﬂuencing the course and predicting the
outcome of a debate, and using game theory (e.g. Bueno de Mesquita, 2009) to
focus on communication strategies in the public debate.
Investigating the course of the public debate in issue arenas
In the current communication literature, the last level of analysis, in particular, has not
yet been much investigated. Drawing on the actor-network theory (Latour, 2005), we
propose to analyse balance in issue arenas. An issue arena is constantly in ﬂux and can
be more or less active. Homeostasis (a relatively stable situation) occurs when the
current situation is accepted by most actors. In such cases, the issue arena is expected
to be relatively quiet. However, the gap between the current and desired situation
regarding the issue will be different for all actors, causing more or less tension. Because
of power differences, the current situation or solution to an issue may beneﬁt some
actors more than others. However, when homeostatic imbalance is too high, for
example when a few actors have forced a particular outcome, harming other interests,
increased activity in the issue arena is likely. This could be further investigated.
There may be a point where mutual acceptance peaks, although actors have
different points-of-view and resources that also vary over time and according to the
situation. Organisations can aim at maximising their beneﬁts or at a situation closer to
homeostasis to obtain a more sustainable outcome of the debate. Such a research focus
could clarify organisational policymaking in issue arenas.
An integral approach using all four levels of analysis
First and foremost, we recommend a more thorough and integral approach to the
investigation of communication in issue arenas, one that takes all four levels of
analysis into account. To ensure that the content of the issues studied and their context
are taken into account, studies could focus on a topic ﬁeld or on particular cases within
such a ﬁeld. Examples are given in Table I.
Within the topic of energy sources, many issues are under debate and framed in
various ways, such as energy dependency and sufﬁciency, sustainability, nuclear
energy, renewable energy and the smart grid. This involves issue arenas in traditional
and virtual media, and actors such as energy producers and distributors, users,
authorities and states on various levels, and environmental NGOs. The actors have
different roles in the debate and the discussion is shaped by the international context
and the related competitive situation.
Similarly, the topic of food safety is discussed in issue arenas on, for example, BSE and
bird ﬂu, food additives and intolerances, bio-industry, and genetic modiﬁcation. Many
of these issues are health risk-related and have international relevance. The risks are
framed in different ways by the various actors that include the food and farming
industry, distributors, consumers, authorities and states on various levels, but also
animal rights NGOs and consumer unions, for example.
An integral approach to analysing issue arenas involves viewing the topic
discussed through the lenses of the organisations and other actors involved, while also
taking into account the current context to better understand the interplay present in
often complex situations.
In this paper, we proposed a theoretical foundation that draws mostly on four distinct
theoretical areas: stakeholder thinking, network theory, issues management and
agenda-setting. Through these, we identiﬁed different levels of analysis to further
investigate communication in issue arenas: the issue itself, the actors involved, media
aspects and the course of the debate. Examples of each level were provided, and a
preliminary model for analysis proposed.
To conclude, we see the concept of the issue arena as referring to the interaction
among stakeholders on an issue in the public debate in the traditional or virtual media.
Thus, issues are not seen as the social context in which an organisation functions, but
instead issues and the values behind them are central in discussions with stakeholders.
This approach doesn’t depict the organisation as the central node connecting
Topic ﬁeld Energy sources Food safety
Issues of current public
Energy dependency and
nuclear energy; renewable
energy; smart grid
Risks such as BSE and bird ﬂu;
food additives and intolerances;
Issue-related aspects Framing of technology and
security aspects; associations
with global warming
Framing of health and
associations with animal welfare
Actors involved Roles in the debate of, e.g. energy
producers and distributors; users,
authorities and states on various
levels; environmental NGOs;
Roles in the debate of, e.g. food
and farming industry,
authorities and states on various
levels; animal rights NGOs and
consumer unions; international
Places of interaction How issues are debated in various places and arenas, e.g. discussion
sessions, monitoring news media and social media discourse, with an
eye to the inter-relatedness of discussions in different spaces of
Course of the debate The discussion and outcomes over time, identifying the factors
inﬂuencing the course of events or testing predicted outcomes
Examples of topic ﬁelds
and speciﬁc issues for
stakeholders, with issues as the context, but emphasises the interplay among
organisations and other actors.
Organisations no longer control communication; instead, in the public debate on
issues, groups and individuals compete equally for attention. Issue arenas can be more
or less stable, depending on the perceived deviation between the current and the
desired situation regarding the issue. Various communication strategies can be
utilised, from one-way advocacy to two-way collaboration, aiming at decision-making
or non-decision making regarding the issue.
Implications for practice
Though this paper primarily focuses on setting the research agenda, the complexity
and dynamic nature of issue arenas, also addressed here, have implications for
corporate communication strategies. In issue arenas, actors compete for attention
(Luoma-aho and Nordfors, 2009). Communication strategies include information,
persuasion, consensus-building and dialogue (Van Ruler, 2004), one-way advocacy and
two-way collaboration, and symmetry versus asymmetry. A combination of strategies
is generally chosen, including framing strategies to increase issue salience (Hallahan,
1999). As different communication strategies may be chosen to ﬁt the particularities of
each issue arena, organisations may develop an integral approach, uniting these
strategies within a balance zone in order to maintain a clear identity (Flynn, 2006).
In issue arenas, we assume that the actors will use strategies of all kinds, depending
on the situation, and in addition use various platforms, including social media, to
engage in issue discussion. For example, actors may facilitate dialogue and
empowerment for problem solving and sustainable solutions. Moreover, they may aim
at decision-making or non-decision-making by keeping issues out of the discussion
(Bachrach and Baratz, 1962). Organisations may address core issue arenas, identifying
places where these issues are discussed, or discussion may be initiated, monitor
changing expectations relevant for their reputation, and develop a balanced portfolio of
corporate communication strategies.
Implications for research
As a theoretical contribution, this paper has many limitations. First, it presents an ideal
framework for issue arenas that in practice may prove difﬁcult to adhere to. Second, it
does not acknowledge that organisations are at different stages in the development of
their participation strategies, and that some are keener than others to engage in
discussions in issue arenas. Moreover, in many sectors the new and social media
continue to play a minor role, and traditional stakeholder approaches can still be applied.
Despite these limitations, we believe that further development of issue arena theory
can provide important insights for communication in complex and dynamic
environments. We provided a theoretical basis using related insights from
stakeholder thinking, network theory, issues management and agenda-setting
theory. The four levels of analysis set forth could serve as a starting point for
future studies with a focus on characteristics of the issue and context, the actors
involved and their roles and the media context, as well as the course of the debate and
the communication strategies utilised. In analysing complex issues through the lens
offered by this model, the central focus is on the interplay of actors with the aim of
clarifying communication strategies in dynamic and interrelated issue arenas.
We conclude that in corporate communication practice nowadays specialist
knowledge of communication strategies also includes identifying relevant issue arenas
and understanding that the interplay of actors has accelerated in the internet
environment. Communication strategies need to suit each issue arena, while a balance
zone is suggested to maintain a clear corporate identity. Developing an issue arenas
approach will contribute to understanding of the complexity of the current corporate
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About the authors
Marita Vos, PhD, is Professor of Organisational Communication and PR at the University of
¨, Finland. Marita Vos is the corresponding author and can be contacted at:
Henny Schoemaker, MSc, is a book author and communication consultant in Jyva
Vilma Liisa Luoma-aho, PhD, is Professor Organisational Communication and PR at the
University of Jyva
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