Issue networks and communications strategy: an introduction

Posted on: April 14, 2011

The ‘issue network’ is a fusion of online deliberation and network theory – highly valuable for the exploration of social, political and commercial influence.

A socio-technical theory, it draws from science and technology studies (Actor Network Theory – ANT) and critical media theory (Habermas’s public sphere, and Chantal Mouffe’s agonistic pluralism) – and has mainly been developed by Noortje Marres.

Her concept enables us to conceive how connections form online between various passive and active, powerful and less powerful political actors, who may or may not agree. (As opposed to a ‘social network’ which implies positive, friendly connections between actors).

‘Issue networks’ – then – are formed around subject areas – linking what is said online, (by individuals, groups and institutions) to influence and decision-making – meaning they can well underpin research for business, governmental or NGO purposes.

Marrying quantitative and qualitative approaches

An issue network approach is particularly valuable for the ease with which it enables the researcher or communications planner to marry qualitative and quantitative information.

Begin with a node. Where are the links to? How many are there and how much traffic flies between them? How much can be statistically gaged about influence from this? Then what is happening at each end? Qualitative methods, such as ethnography, can drill into the social dynamics of participation at each node.

Issue networks, traced and visualized

From an academic perspective, the issue network has been used to underpin research carried out by Marres and others. But its value for practice may be clearly seen by this influence map – developed by Salter Baxter. Although not apparently based at all on Marres’ issue network, it follows the same principles by revealing a network of actors online in relation to the issue of palm oil.

Greenpeace’s campaign against the use of unsustainable palm oil led to a damaged reputation and loss of business, reflected by a dip in its share price, for Sinar Mas. The influence map shows how specialist media, blogs and some mainstream media were connected to, and affected this issue. The size of the icons relates to volume of mentions and/or level of influence. According to Salter Baxter:

The web is a powerful tool to track progression of an issue and stakeholder mood. It can be used to identify where and when risks to brand, reputations and company operations are peaking. Clever dovetailing of sustainability strategy and communications strategy can then be deployed to address those risks and find opportunities.

Salter Baxter have developed their own tool (S:TAR) to track issues and produce influence maps such as the one above. A much simpler tool, which can be used free, and looks at connections identified via search engines, is the touchgraph SEO navigator. A far more complex network visualiser, which is again free, is the issue crawler.

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