Cheng, Yang, Huang, Yi-Hui Christine & Chan, Ching Man (2017). Public relations, media coverage, and public opinion in contemporary China: Testing agenda building theory in a social mediated crisis. Telematics and Informatics, 34(3), 765-773.

This study investigates a social mediated crisis triggered by the Guo Meimei incident that negatively affected the Red Cross Society of China (RCSC). RCSC’s public relations efforts, media coverage, and public opinion on micro-blogs are examined through the theoretical grounding of agenda building. Evidence shows that organizational public relations activities strongly influence media coverage at the first level, but exert no influence upon online public opinion. RCSC’s agenda neither forms issue salience of online public opinion, nor effectively influences public’s attitude on the issue. This study extends the theorization of the effects of agenda building by adding contextual factors about social media, political, and cultural characteristics in China.

A quantitative content analysis was conducted for public relations materials, media coverage from newspapers, and public comments on micro-blogs. Data were collected over a period of 6 weeks (42 days). Major databases for data collection included WiseNews, Sina Weibo, and the RCSC’s official website, Weibo account, and

Key Findings

  • The salience of issues in the RCSC’s crisis responses indeed led to the salience of issues in the media agenda, but not those in the public agenda.
  • Non-state-owned media seemed to have stronger agenda-setting power in terms of transmitting the issue salience to state-owned media than vice versa.
  • When the RCSC’s messages became positive, the media tone became even more negative.
  • No matter which tonality the RCSC adopted, the public’s attitude towards this issue remained negatively oriented.
  • When the RCSC began to adopt a more positive and accommodative attitude, the tone of non-state-owned media became more negative.

Implications for Practice
This research found that the accommodative crisis responses were ineffective when the public and media were involved in a low-trust society of China, where citizens are making judgments in ways exactly opposite to the organizational and media’s arguments. Within this type of crisis, the best approach is to initiate and maintain a good relationship with the stakeholders in crises. Since crises breed uncertainty, panic and rumors, it is also important to provide accurate information in a timely and consistently manner to gain the trust of the stakeholders.

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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