In the early afternoon of Sunday, April 28, 1996, a lone gunman entered
a cafe at Port Arthur in Tasmania and began shooting indiscriminately.
That afternoon, Martin Bryant killed 35 people and injured a further
13 using an automatic rifle. The massacre shocked the nation. While
there was immediate reaction to Bryant and disgust at his crime, attention
quickly moved to the issue of gun control. (1)
The Australian gun debate of 1996 stands as a masterful example of issue
management. The media reported on the massacre, the confrontation of
opposing factions and opinions on gun control, and the political campaign
to enact gun control legislation in all States. Over several months,
as public attention moved from the massacre to gun control, the media
informed, shocked and disgusted its national audience as the issues
unfolded. Messages and images were manufactured and maneuvered into
the media by various stakeholders in order to influence public opinion
and persuade decision makers. As the issues became politically complicated,
the salience and attention given by the media mirrored the priority
of those issues on the public agenda.
While the issues of gun control and political conflict grew in salience,
the Tasmanian massacre continued to receive attention and remained interrelated
with the other issues for some months. The salience of the issues can
be measured through the amount of media attention they received but
the management of the issues, as is usually the case, remained for the
most part unseen. This study seeks to demonstrate firstly the interrelationship
between the three issues on the public agenda during May, 1996. It also
seeks to reveal some of the issue management that occurred and the hidden
agendas that motivated the political and media activity.
This research involved surveying two Australian newspapers, the Sydney
Morning Herald and the Gold Coast Bulletin, over the month of May, 1996,
to track the reportage of three issues: the Tasmanian massacre and the
arrest of Martin Bryant; the debate over gun control; and the political
conflict and issue management campaign that followed. The Sydney Morning
Herald (SMH) is a major city daily with a national readership and covers
national issues. The Gold Coast Bulletin (GCB) is the only major daily
paper printed on the Gold Coast in South East Queensland but tends to
take a local focus on the issues and news it covers. A comparison between
the two papers was undertaken because of the difference in the nature
of the publications and because the two papers use the same type face
and line spacing in their layout, making the comparison of coverage
The results of the survey and the examination of the motives and management
behind the issues, reveal both the political complexity of such public
issues and the role of the media in the public agenda management process.
The study serves to demonstrate the role of the media in creating issue
salience but also the very existence of the issue management function
in business and politics.
The American public relations consultant, Howard Chase first coined
the phrase ‘issue management’ in the mid-1970s to identify a specialized
corporate function. He was to later define the term as; “... the capacity
to understand, mobilize, coordinate, and direct all strategic and policy
planning functions, and all public affairs and public relations skills
toward achievement of one objective: meaningful participation in the
creation of public policy that effects personal and institutional destiny.”
(2) Since Chase introduced the concept, however, issue management has
moved beyond public policy creation to incorporate the management of
public opinion and persuasion. The natural competitiveness of politics
and business has made it the breading ground for the issue management
function. The objective, however, is no longer ‘meaningful participation’
but ‘organized persuasion’. Accordingly, public opinion itself can be
used as a tool in business and politics to bring pressure to bear upon
a target audience in the persuasion process. It is suggested here that
this process of using the media and public opinion to influence decision
makes is evident from this study.
Studies of agenda setting and issue management have revealed in Australia
(3) and overseas (4) how issues rise and fall on the public agenda as
new developments occur and as the media give them attention. The gun
control debate demonstrates how the media played a role in interpreting
and relating events to the issues at hand. At the same time, while the
media heavily influence the salience of public issues, they are themselves
subject to the ever changing mosaic of issues that interest the public
at any given time. John Solaski points out; “... public issues do not
exist independently of one another.” (5) and the gun debate supports
this argument. Indeed, the involvement of so many stakeholders and issue
mangers make the gun debate an important expose of the dynamics and
interplay of the politics, the media and interest groups in a modern
The Nature of
While gun laws were a State Government responsibility, the passion of
the nation for something to be done in response to the killings motivated
Prime Minister, John Howard, to call for national laws and uniform national
restrictions on automatic and semi-automatic weapons. Gun control was,
after all, an issue Howard felt personally passionate about. (6) Passions,
however, soon gave way to political realities. Opinion surveys showed
that 85% of people supported gun control. (7) At the same time, 15% of
the national audience were gun ownership supporters. The problem was that
the vast majority of this 15% group were right wing politically conservative
voters who normally supported the National-Liberal Party Coalition.
Along with control of the Federal Government, the Coalition Parties held
5 of the 6 State Governments. The irony was that the one State held by
a Labour Government gave immediate support to Howard’s plan for national
gun control while the Coalition State Governments all resisted the proposal.
Howard faced opposition from the State Governments as well as from Federal
Members in the Coalition because of the support for gun ownership and
a highly energized gun lobby.
Howard may have represented the passions of the nation but he faced State
Government, Coalition, interest group and then bureaucratic opposition.
Police organizations, government departments and Coalition State Governments
wanted the status quo to remain and they were prepared to threaten the
existence of the Federal Government to prove it. John Howard may have
acted too quickly without counting the cost of his initiatives but, having
counted the costs, he may not have acted at all.
In his passion, and in response to increased lobbying of Coalition MPs,
Howard threatened to call a snap election to gain a national mandate against
his own Coalition. While this threatened the security of many newly elected
Members, as well as the Government, and would certainly catch the gun
lobby unprepared, it also risked loosing the Federal Senate to the control
of a right wing group of social fundamentalists.
While John Howard reacted to the horror of Port Arthur out of personal
and social concern, taking a strong stand on the issue had political attraction
for Howard because, as a new Prime Minister, it gave him the opportunity
to develop his image as a national leader. Gun control, like the other
national issues of wood chipping, pollution, and immigration, were always
going to divide public opinion. Howard’s opportunity was to win the seemingly
un-winnable while buoyed by overwhelming popular support: He aspired to
be a popular hero.
On the other side, the gun lobby, although a collective of unorganized
shooters groups and farmers, should have been more prepared for the public
opinion backlash. Mass killings in America and Britain as well as Australia
signaled that public opinion was not going to tolerate a continuance of
lax gun laws. Some years earlier, in 1989, the New South Wales Premier,
Barry Unsworth, put his political career on the line after a similar mass
killing in a Sydney shopping center. While his focus on one issue proved
to be his demise and the loss of Government in a general election, his
campaign and personal risk should have signaled to gun organizations the
increasing pressure mounting against gun ownership.
In addition to the vying interests and political opinions, the media chose
to become involved with its own agenda. Apart from reporting the news
and every twist of conflict they could discover, the commercial media
in general appeared eager to seek out drama and find ever more novel aspects
to the issues. While they had the power to report and give opinions on
the issues as they saw them, and as they could portray them, they were
also the victims often of their own enthusiasm as stories were leaked
or events staged to influence their coverage. Media activity and reportage
gave salience to the issues but the media was also a channel of communication
for others to manage the public agenda.
The Port Arthur massacre had ignited the conscience of a nation and brought
into play social and political forces powerful enough to divide that same
nation. It wasn’t just that deep seeded issues had surfaced on the public
agenda, or that there was suddenly a crisis for political and gun-owner
interest groups. The stakes were so high and the people involved were
so many that the campaign to pass anti-gun laws would involve a number
of opposing and associated forces in a contest of issue management and
to Issue Management
Public opinion is perhaps more volatile and responsive to issues than
ever before. Alvin Toffler believes that the world is in the process of
redefining its civilization as developments in information technology
and consumer choice create a new paradigms of wealth and power based on
information management. Toffler suggests that the public is being ‘demassified’
(8) to become many varied and overlapping ‘publics’ formed around interest
and choice. This empowering of the ‘public’ is a shift in the paradigm
of social and political power as consumer publics are more able and ready
to express their opinions in what they buy or how they vote. In becoming
more sensitive to their various ‘publics’ and the power of public opinion,
business and politics are realizing the importance of communications management.
While political organizations have been aware of the growth in marginal
voting habits for some time, corporations, too, Heath says, need to be
“ ... effectively encouraging dialogue between business and other critical
sections [of the public and government]. (9) It is in this context of
‘dialogue’ that the management of issues becomes important. The growing
strength of public opinion necessitates that business as well as political
organizations endeavor to manage their issues, as well as their messages
and images, clearly and in accord with a communications strategy.
From the beginning of the gun control issue, the gun lobby had an image
problem. A lone gunman with an automatic weapon killing people indiscriminately
was a horrifying scene. But the image of the gun lobby was worsened as
right wing extremists reacted to the suggestion of gun control by threatening
resistance to government and public will. From the beginning, Howard was
able to cast himself in the role of a public hero taking on all-comers,
including Coalition MPs, to bring about change for social good. Accordingly,
the gun debate was to become essentially an exercise in image management
as much as it was in issue management.
The gun debate demonstrates that the arena for public policy debate has
moved out of the legislative chamber and the board room and into the lounge
room; literally. Parliaments are now televised as are board meetings and
public rallies. Politicians and business people are now in direct communication
with their ‘publics’ whether they want to be or not. It is no longer enough
to influence the opinions of other decision makers, politicians and business
people have to also address the values of their publics.
The public and private sector are now subject to increasing public demand
for responsible action and consideration of public opinion. Indeed, Buchholz
suggests that it is this divergence between social values and organizational
policy and behavior that creates a public issue in the first place. He
says: “ Public issues emerge in our society because of the value changes
that generate pressures on our institutions by causing a gap between public
expectations and institutional performance.” (10) The point is that it
is not enough for organizations to do good things they must also be perceived
to be doing good things.
In the context of a new paradigm and an empowered public, communication
and information are the vital ingredients to the socio-commercial matrix.
Public opinion, not public policy, is the focus of the communication management
endeavor. Issue management and image management are now closely aligned.
The public agenda comprises the issues that are currently of interest
to the public and is made up of the distribution of various opinions on
those issues. (11) Over a period of time, issues rise and fall as they
receive attention or as other issues take their place. In the media, however,
news focuses on events and only secondarily follows issues. Stories and
events by nature have a short news life and for them to become issues,
new information and perspectives need to be fed to the media to maintain
public interest and attention. Yet, there are many and varied issues that
interest the public or ‘publics’ and frequently, topics get coverage because
they already exist as part of the public issues agenda. While the Tasmanian
massacre presented the public with new information and created a new issue,
it also stimulated the debate on the existing issue of gun control.
The media plays a dual role in this process public agenda creation as
it can both create an issue by revealing information previously unknown
or it can draw public attention to existing issues by the salience it
contributes through headlines, placement, spacing and photos. McCombs
suggests that: “Through its patterns of selection and play of the daily
news, the press presents the public a continuous stream of cues about
the relative importance of various topics and events.” (12) This was particularly
pertinent to the presentation of material on the gun debate as the media
played a major role in issue salience and perhaps even exasperated the
conflict in the early stages. The television interviews with right-wing,
non-aligned extremists in the first week of the debate is an example of
provoking trouble. (13)
Simon Gadir’s landmark Australian study on Agenda Setting in 1978 at Macquarie
University clearly indicated the relationship between the public agenda
and the media agenda. The study surveyed both the media and the opinions
of respondents and found that in most cases there was a disparity between
the value ascribed to issues by the public and the media. While the survey
generally showed that the public gave higher value to issues than did
the media, the movement of ascribed value over a period of time was generally
in parallel. Gadir says; “Visual patterns of public issue-salience were
substantially different from one issue to another, yet showed sufficient
similarity to visual patterns of media coverage of the respective issues
so as not to be dismissed as chance occurrence.” (14) Gadir concludes
that despite the disparity between public and media opinion, over time,
public opinion comes to reflect the salience given to issues by the media
and thereby demonstrating a clear agenda setting trend. (15)
The nature of the public agenda is such that newspapers and news reporting
tend to report on those stories which they sense will interest the public.
This may be for the purely commercial reason of selling newspapers or
air time, but issues are hard to create and the media’s attention to stories
is usually because they sense that interest in the issue already exits.
While some issues lay dormant waiting for some new initiative to give
them rebirth, other issues come on the public agenda first as topics and
grow into issues as the media or interest groups give them salience. Accordingly,
the media can influence the public agenda by weighting certain issues
and in many instances forming, as well as expressing, public opinion.
“While the press may not tell us what to think, it is stunningly successful
in telling us what to think about.” (16)
The gun debate that emerged as a consequence of the Port Arthur massacre,
may appear as simply the media reporting events and stories as they occurred.
But this is not a realistic appraisal. In the context of a political agenda,
the media was used as part of a communications campaign as much as it
sought to give salience to issues in its own right. Indeed, the media’s
insatiable desire to give ‘up-to-the-minute’ coverage of the issues and
conflicts meant that they often focused on the dramatic events and colorful
personalities and overlooked the political campaign going on behind the
scenes. The media was the means to create images and report the news but
is was not necessarily managing the issues.
As the media plays a vital role in the formation of public opinion and,
accordingly, in the formation of public policy, it has become important
for governments and business to take a greater interest in the management
of their communications. While organizations may wish to maintain order
and keep control of their image and reputation, it has become extremely
difficult to do so without a strategic plan. Simply stated; “... a strategic
plan provides a proactive and disciplined focus of resources and intelligence
to achieve a future designated goal.” (17)
Once issue management is understood as a management function, it becomes
part of an organization’s integrated communications and marketing strategy.
The Gulf War of 1991 demonstrated clearly how a well planned strategic
communications campaign can win the war of public opinion. (18) The media,
while having a certain degree of power to influence public opinion, are
at the same time vulnerable to the influence of others to present images
and issues as they want them presented.
To use the media as a communications channel to the public is common place.
Some 70% of news print information is believed to be derived from public
relations consultants now (19). In the context of a new ‘information age’,
however, communication management and strategic planning are essential
to business and political success. “The management of strategic communications
has become increasingly important because information control, image development
and the use of persuasion have become so important.” (20)
The Bill Clinton Campaign for US President in 1996, demonstrated a shift
in the political campaign paradigm (in parallel to the social paradigm
shift toward the information age) and the refocus of campaigning away
from issue debates and policy proposals to image creation. The war of
words in the parliament has given way to a war of smiles on public television.
For Clinton, it was all a matter of strategy. If he had wanted to debate
the issues and communicate through the press, there is no doubt that the
White House could have presented an informative and rigorous argument.
But the Clinton team chose to concentrate on the visual media and image
projection and, accordingly, use all the communication techniques available
to them. The Clinton strategy was to define the issues to suit their own
agenda and image. ( 21) Popular appeal, rather than constituency appeal,
and managing the issues by managing the image are intelligent strategies
in an age an television. The Clinton Campaign shows that the management
of issues is now firmly associated with the management of images and messages.
The gun debate was won and lost in the lounge rooms of the voting public.
As politics has become a matter of public viewing, so, too, the opinions
of the viewing public were used as a strategic tool to overcome political
opponents. The art of politics has become the art of communication-issues
Media Coverage Survey
On Sunday afternoon, April 28, 1996, Martin Bryant shot and killed 35
people in Port Arthur, Tasmania. Broadcast media from across Australia
were able to cover the story almost immediately transmitting live on
national evening news. All the major newspapers were able to cover the
story the following day.
As occurrences were reported in the following weeks, two other issues
emerged in addition to the issue of the Port Arthur killings; the public
debate over gun control, and the political conflict within the Liberal-National
Party Coalition Government.
The purpose of this survey was to track the salience given to the three
issues and to demonstrate how issues rise and fall on the media and
public agenda. In tracking the salience through media reportage it is
not possible to identify the deferential between media and public opinion.
Based on the Gadir study, it is to be assumed that their exists a correlation
of interest anyway. To further overcome the problem, at least to some
degree, two newspapers were chosen from different States and of different
format and style in order to gain a co-efficiency and observe a common
The Sydney Morning Herald and the Gold Coast Bulletin were examined
for 30 days from April 29, 1996 to May 29, 1996. The Sydney Morning
Herald (SMH) is a major city daily with an accent on politics, business
and world events. The Bulletin, although a Gold Coast, Queensland, major
daily, in a city of some 600,000 people is a tabloid focusing on local
issues with secondary coverage of national and international events.
This quantitative survey consisted of simply counting the amount of
line space given to each issue in both newspapers on a daily basis.
While the papers are different in format, they use the same type face
and line width making a direct comparison of the coverage possible.
Both papers used photographs to enhance their stories, the SMH more
than the Bulletin, but this aspect of the coverage has not been accounted
Apart from the comparison of the amount of space allotted to the issues,
the newspapers tended to run in parallel as they covered the stories of
the day and both clearly showed the movement of the issues on the public
The SMH and the Bulletin showed a similar topic development pattern but
utilized distinctly different styles in the vocabulary and message construction.
Because the issues were so volatile with new opinions or events unfolding
daily, the newspapers actively played a role as communications technicians
as well as serving as notice-board for the messages of others in these
The SMH with its focus on the social and political implications of the
issues, gave more background on the events of the massacre and in general
gave more coverage to the other two issues as well. The Bulletin basically
followed the larger city newspapers in its coverage. The SMH, with its
larger staff had the ability to capture information quickly and more in
depth than the Bulletin and this shows in the nature of the coverage.
In theory, the coverage of news reflects such news values as timeliness,
consequence, conflict, and drama. While these values, as well as the opportunities,
vary between the SMH and the Bulletin, it is clear in both papers that
the public agenda demanded that the papers cover these issues are regularly
as they could. The commercial interest of the papers appear to follow
the issue interest of the public.
i. Comparison of the Coverage of the Port Arthur
As a relatively local paper of limited resources, the Gold Coast Bulletin
was reliant upon other sources of information to cover the story. Because
the massacre occurred on a Sunday while many newspaper staff were off
duty, gaining news was that much harder for the Bulletin. Consequently,
while the Bulletin had to change its cover page for the Monday print it
only reported sparingly on the massacre on its first and second pages.
The SMH gave three times as much coverage than the Bulletin on the Monday
to this story.
The following day, Tuesday, April 30, the Bulletin was in a better position
to pick up on the news as reported by other papers and to increase its
sources for fresh news. As a result, it double its reportage to 717 lines,
up from 313 lines for the Monday. This was still a long way short of the
SMH with 1108 lines devoted to the story for the Tuesday. On the Wednesday,
the Bulletin ran 711 lines on the massacre while the SMH slightly decreased
For the Bulletin, its coverage involved a re-enactment of the events of
the Sunday afternoon and a catching up on the events and opinions of three
days of intense activity but it remained continually behind the current
news. Even as the Bulletin went on sale on the Monday morning, its coverage
was dated. For example, the Bulletin reported that; “A gunman who shot
32 people and injured 18 others was held up last night with three hostages.”
(22) At the time the paper went on sale, broadcast media were reporting
on the arrest and the state of the victims. In contrast to the Bulletin,
other media had named the accused, Martin Bryant, and had started interviewing
people who knew him.
By the Thursday, May 2, the coverage had dropped off for the Bulletin
and continued to do so even though the mourning and burials were receiving
coverage elsewhere. For that Thursday, the Bulletin gave 267 lines to
the story while the SMH gave 1300 lines with large space photographs.
By the weekend, the Bulletin coverage had dropped further to 119 lines,
while the SMH’s sister Sunday paper, the Sun Herald, gave 911 lines to
Both papers gave much coverage to the issue when it began and then steadily
declined over the next week but the SMH gave far more extensive coverage
to the issue. For the Bulletin, this was not just a problem of the availability
of information but a choice to remain local in its content. While the
SMH had reported on the funerals on the Thursday, the following Weekend
Bulletin gave a memorial service front page coverage but shared the space
with a local rain report.
Comparison of the Coverage of the Gun Debate.
From as early as Monday, May 29, the issue of gun control surfaced with
the Australian Medical Association calling for an immediate national summit.
Other criminologists and opinion leaders joined in as the history of the
increased use of automatic weapons in mass murders was discussed. The
tragedy had given way to an opportunity to do something about the use
and abuse of firearms. But there were many people and organizations with
personal and vested interests in keeping liberal laws. Thus the conflict
and the debate.
Because the SMH covers national issues, its coverage reflects the salience
of the issues in different States as well as on different aspects of the
debate. Again, the SMH was the first to give broad coverage to the issue
and maintain its initial coverage continually for some three weeks. In
comparison, the Bulletin did not give the issue serious coverage until
Friday, May 10, the end of the second week, with some 500 lines devoted
to the issue. The paper then also followed along with other major papers,
and reported the debate for the next two weeks.
The Bulletin trailed in its coverage of the gun debate issue and on several
occasions failed entirely to report national events. On Friday, May 3,
for example, the Bulletin gave only 47 lines to the gun debate while the
SMH gave some 374 lines as the issue first gained precedent over the Port
By the second week, the focus had moved away from the massacre and onto
the gun debate and the political infighting. Indeed, the graphs of the
coverage show the strong interrelationship between these two issues at
this time. A movement in one issue appears to effect the movement in the
other. This entwined relationship of action and reaction makes the tracking
of the salience of these issues on the public agenda of that much more
Over the following weeks and even months, these two issues took on a vitality
of their own and some what independent of the salience that the media
gave to them. Apart from the media’s agenda and even the public agenda,
these issues were now firmly part of the public policy agenda of the nation.
The media was able to report on most of the activities that occurred but
based on the length of time the issues were sustained and the variety
of new information and the people involved, it is perhaps fair to say
that the media only reflected a degree of the salience the issues had
for the public or for public policy.
As the debate developed, the attention moved away from the arguments of
gun ownership and on to the polarization of opinions. By the second week,
and in the wake of the massacre issue, people had started to consider
the consequences, both personal and social, of the proposed gun control
laws. Accordingly, media attention moved away from covering the arguments
of the debate to those involved in the arguing.
Comparison of the Coverage of the Political Debate.
On a national level, John Howard was reported as having a personal preference
against gun ownership (23) and taking the opportunity to be a national
spokesman on the subject, initiated, either knowingly or unknowingly,
the political conflict himself. On Wednesday, May 11, as John Howard made
adamant demands of the State Governments to change their laws, the SMH
gave 809 lines to the story on the previous days events, the Bulletin,
however, gave none. While the information would have been available on
the national wires, the Bulletin chose to ignore it.
With a readership predominantly interested in political issues, the SMH
gave some coverage of political opinion from the first day, May 29. On
this occasion, the Bulletin had no coverage at all of political opinion.
Over the month of the survey, the SMH gave consistent coverage of political
events and opinions as they occurred. The Bulletin, in comparison with
its coverage of the other issues, gave a disproportionate amount of attention
to the political issue. At times, it gave more attention to the political
conflict than did the SMH. While there are the signs of the Bulletin giving
following day reportage as is evident also in the other issues, the Bulletin
seems to have habits own agenda in focusing on the political conflict
as it effected farmers and gun owners.
An explanation for this is the Bulletin’s coverage of the political conflict
as a State issue. As a local focused paper, gun ownership appears to have
a local interest value, but for Queensland, gun ownership was a major
issue for farmers who were concerned with how the State Government was
standing up to the demands of Canberra. This perspective and reader interest
value was absent from the SMH as a major city daily.
Comparison of the SMH and the Bulletin.
The Bulletin gave a succinct and easily analyzed development of the issues.
Generally, it followed the lead of the other major papers and it was obvious
that the Bulletin’s ability to cover the issues on its own was limited.
The SMH, on the other hand, had the ability to present more information
and more varied and interrelated information and opinion.
It is clear that the subjects of gun control and political conflict quickly
moved to issue status as the papers endeavored to keep up and report the
activities of the interest groups involved. Certainly, the gun debate
and associated political conflict were national and public issues involving
many Australians and many strong emotions and consequently they became
the major issues on the public agenda almost overnight.
The development of the Port Arthur massacre issue in the two newspapers
while similar, were different in execution and timing. The sudden and
extensive coverage of the massacre as a topic gave salience to the event
and thereby created public interest in the outcomes of the story. In comparison,
the media coverage of the gun debate and political conflict reveals how
the media often reports the occurrences on the public agenda rather than
creating or promoting issues along. Indeed, from the further research
of the people involved, the strategies and agendas, it is evident that
there was far more happening for the gun lobby and in politics than the
The Management of the Issues
The analysis of the coverage of the issues in the Sydney Morning Herald
and Gold Coast Bulletin reveals how issues rise and fall on the public
agenda. While the media plays a role in adding salience to such issues,
perceived news-value doesn’t last long and the media move onto other
‘news’ very quickly. Accordingly, for issues to be sustained on the
public agenda, as seen in their media coverage, there needs to be continual
activity. The theory of issue management suggests that it is possible
to influence and even create public interest in an issue and once set,
manage issues so that they rise and fall according to a plan. In theory,
it is possible for those who understand the media and agenda setting
to play an active part in manufacturing and maneuvering events and stories
to gain media and public attention.
The gun debate follows this pattern but there have been other similar
campaigns that provide for comparison and precedent. The Sydney Harbour
Tunnel Campaign for BHP in 1987 is a case in point. This was an exercise
in government relations that required a strategy to first stop the New
South Wales Cabinet from making a hasty decision and approve the construction
of the Tunnel and secondly, have the Cabinet consider another Harbour
crossing option. This was an extremely public campaign extending for
some 6 months of intense media coverage of the issues and included up
to 4 lead newspaper stories per week. As the Manager of the campaign,
I estimate from my record of news items that the campaign was responsible
for initiating some 70% of media coverage on the issue during a 6 month
period. Although the Tunnel eventually went ahead, it was a very successful
campaign for the client company in that it was able to negotiated an
alternative business arrangement with its competitor. Here was an example
of how the media was used as a public forum to influence public opinion
and political decisions.
Initially, John Howard did not plan for an issue management campaign.
He reacted with disgust to the killings and as Prime Minister saw an
opportunity to respond to the situation and win popular support in the
process. After the Port Arthur massacre occurred, John Howard’s response
to the gun issue was immediate demanding gun control as early as Monday
April 29. and Tuesday, April 30. Tuesday’s headline read; “PM Takes
on Gun Lobby - States pushed for total ban on Semi-automatics’ (24)
Bob Katter, a Federal Member for Northern Queensland believed Howard
reacted too quickly. “He jumped in without knowing who he was offsiding”,
says Katter’s Press Secretary. (25) But there could be no turning back.
John Howard had put his reputation as the Nation’s leader up against
a divergent group of individuals and organizations who wanted liberal
While 85% of people surveyed in a national poll supported reform or
a total ban on guns (26) , 15% were gun ownership supporters. The problem
was that most of this 15% were National and Liberal Party voters. John
Howard had sought to do perhaps the right thing by the nation but blindly
jeopardized his own political fortunes. To maintain his government and
to build his leadership, it was necessary for Howard to enter into campaign
mode and beat the gun lobby.
The object of the Howard issue management campaign that followed was
to persuade the gun supporters that gun reform was in their best political
interest. While the gun lobby threatened MPs who didn’t give them support,
Howard threatened the whole Government with a general election if they
did. Consequently, the gun debate became a political contest over who
could hold political power.
The media reported the occurrences and conflicts as they saw them but
were themselves part of a larger game of persuasion. Both rational and
emotional techniques were used to influence public opinion as well as
the morale and behavior of the proponents of the gun ownership. Several
techniques can be identified: First, persuasion by scarcity - there
was no time for long debates, decisions had to be made before the opportunity
was lost; second, persuasion through belonging - gun owners were encouraged
to give up their guns and join mainstream Australians; third, the Howard
team used the persuasion techniques of association and isolation. (27)
Certain people were singled out and associated with issues or organizations
that had become politically or socially unpopular in an effort to discredit
them. Ted Dane, of the Shooters Association, for example, was associated
with League of Rights supporters. Similarly, Queensland Police Commissioner,
Russell Cooper, was associated with the gun-crimping issue, which lost
support and so did Cooper.
The coup de gras of Howard’s persuasion techniques was fear. Perhaps
not since the Grime Reaper AIDS Campaign has fear been used so successfully
to influence public opinion. As the designer and writer of the National
AIDS Campaign, now commonly known as the Grim Reaper Campaign in 1986,
I was concerned to overcome social apathy and increase public awareness
of AIDS as a lethal threat. In writing the public relations strategy,
I proposed that; “... the message should be directed not only at high
risk groups but made relevant to the entire population ... the severity
of the consequences of this disease cannot be ignored and a powerful
social confrontation of the facts is necessary.” (28) The success and
social effectiveness of this campaign is now well known. The point is
that like the Grim Reaper Campaign, fear was used in the gun debate
as an issue management technique to influence the behavior of a target
audience by bringing about public awareness of the consequences associated
with the issue.
Still, the gun debate and the persuasion techniques used to influence
political behavior and gun control hides the deeper political concern
of the very survival of the Coalition. As the issue emerged on the political
agenda and as Howard sought to capitalize on the opportunity, so too
an extreme right wing collective of organizations and individuals saw
an opportunity to capture political support. Leading the group was the
League of Rights and the Citizen Initiated Referendum Party (29). They
sought to move quickly and politicize the issue within conservative
ranks and speak out on behalf of the ‘bush’ concerning individual rights
to bear arms. While the National Party could see the advantage in representing
its constituents and opposing the anti-gun laws, its own pathological
loathing of this right wing group put them in a precarious position.
In the second week of the debate, Bob Katter called John Howard and
explained the ramifications of his Gun Control Bill on the ‘bush’ and
how the Coalition was playing into the hands of the loony right. (30)
So it was agreed that Bob attend the country regional gun meetings and
John would deal with the State Governments and Police Ministers. With
Bob Katter becoming the leading spokesperson in the media for the conservatives,
it set up a ‘good guy - bad guy’ routine and isolated the right wing
by excluded them from any rational debate and media coverage. There
was a conscious effort to demonise the right wing as extremists.
As a specific exercise in issue management, National Party Senator Boswell
set about to investigate how the League of Rights with no visible means
of support were able to grow so quickly (31). In discovering that the
US National Rifle Association and Christian Coalition were supporting
the gun lobby, Senator Boswell leaked the information to the media with
the explicit aim of isolating the League and the pro-gun lobby as extremists.
As support for gun ownership fell to below 10%, the major farmer organizations
such as the National Farmer Federation and the United Grazier Association
were forced to endorse the reforms. There was also a weakening in the
stand by the shooting organizations with the Professional Shooter Association
and the Sporting Shooters willing to listen more readily.
After the initial debate on gun control, the primary objective of the
Government was to stop the right wing from building its base within
the National and Liberal Parties. While the gun ownership issue presented
an opportunity to the right wing to create political support, they could
have chosen any of several such issues to draw emotional and political
reaction, such as immigration, gay rights, or euthanasia. Indeed, all
they needed was a spokesperson who could present an image and capture
the imagination of right-wing voters, and they would have themselves
a new political party. Stopping this from happening was the fundamental
political agenda behind the gun debate.
It may seem perplexing as to why the Coalition Government gave so much
attention to managing the issue and seeking to undermined the credibility
and political platform of a seemingly small politically conservative
group. The answer lies in the fact that the right wing strategy to arouse
emotional responses to social issues gave them potentially the ability
to hold more votes than the Greens and the Democrats - two small parties
- combined. (33) The emergence of a new right wing political party would
draw voters away from both the National and Liberal Parties and possibly
bring about the demise of both Parties as they are currently known.
Gun control was an issue on the public agenda because of the Tasmanian
massacre and Howard’s immediate response to ban automatic and semi-automatic
weapons. While it appears that the gun issue had a life of its own,
in reality the political and social risks were so great that the political
survival issue came to dominate how the gun debate unfolded.
As Australia and other countries become empowered through its access
to information, its citizens are more demanding of social responsibility
of both politicians and business. At the same time, it is a more segmented
public existing as many ‘publics’ of varied interests and psycho-social
combinations. Communication with a target audience is becoming a more
complicated exercise not only because publics are harder to identify
but also because the methods of persuasion are moving away from rational
appeal to emotional response. The objective, of course, is to create
positive emotional responses from the targeted public. In the gun debate,
however, Howard failed to achieve this objective. He passed his laws
but created a lot of bad feeling among the Party faithful. Still, the
gun lobby performed even worse.
The objective in issue management is to avoid crisis management. Because
the gun lobby had not taken up the issue of gun control and managed
it properly before the Tasmanian massacre, it was confronted with a
crisis after it. There were plenty of warning signs across Australia,
Britain and the US to signal that the public would react when something
as horrific as the Tasmanian massacre next occurred. But they were not
prepared. Their second mistake was to react to Howard publicly by organizing
rallies against him and at the same time letting extremists capture
the media’s attention. All they really achieved was to polarize the
The Tasmanian massacre, the gun debate and the political conflict that
followed were all emotionally charged issues. It is perhaps true to
say that for most of the debate emotion was a more powerful motivation
than reason. Howard got his legislation in the end but at a cost of
creating negative emotional baggage that will come back on him at another
time. Howard’s hard line and personal need to win at any cost, will
have repercussions for him in the future.
There are two ways to rule a nation; by consensus or terror. In winning
the gun debate Howard used terror. In seeking to isolated and beat the
right wing, he ignored the demands of the conservative middle and would
not listen to their arguments or incorporate their suggestions. Accordingly,
the gun laws that passed will effect far more people than the right
wing or maniacs with automatic weapons.
It could be argued that Howard exercised bad issue management. In the
long term he may not have achieved his objective - political survival.
It may have been better to give in on some of the proponents requests
and loose some face but keep that middle conservative group in the fold.
The emergence of a new right-wing political party in Australia in 1997
has a direct relation to the political events surrounding the gun debate
It is important to observe that political campaigning has used the technique
of issue management for many years and that it is currently being more
widely used as a corporate management function as well. The composition
of both marketing and management as business functions are changing
to incorporate communications management. It is quite likely that long
term business plans will give way to short term promotional and strategic
campaigns as this integrated approach to management takes hold. It is
of interest, say Nelson, that “... a significant percentage of major
corporate advertising budgets are now spent influencing various target
audiences on image, ideological and political issues in contrast to
selling consumer goods.” (34)
For business, as well as politics, the tracking of issues on the public
agenda demonstrate the interrelationship of issues as well as the roles
the media and public opinion play in directing such issues. While communications
practitioners have sung of the virtues of issue management for some
time, it is inevitable that issue management will become more acceptable
as a strategic management function in an age where public opinion and
corporate image are so important.
1. Michael Carroll, “Doctors Seek Urgent Summit on Gun Control,” Gold
Coast Bulletin (April 29, 1996), p.2.
2. Howard Chase, “Issue Management: Origins of the Future,” (Connecticut:
Issue Action Publications,1984), pp.12.
3. Simon Gadir, ‘Media Agenda-Setting in Australia: The Rise and Fall
of Public Issues,” Media Information Australia, No. 26, ( November, 1982).
4. P. Gaunt & J. Ollenburger, “Issue Management Revisited: A Tool
That Deserves Another Look,” Public Relations Review, Issue 3. (1995).
5. John Soloski, “Unification: From Agenda-Setting to the Agenda-Setting
Process”, Monographs, (The University of Iowa, 1995), p.7.
6. The Sun Herald, Sydney, (May 4-5, 1996).
7. Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney , (May 7, 1996).
8. Alvin Toffler & Heidi Toffler, Creating a New Civilization, (Atlanta:
Turner, 1995), p.31.
9. R. Heath & R. A. Nielson, Issues Management, ( Beverly Hills: Sage,
10. R.A. Buchholz , W.D. Evans& R.T. Wagley, Management Response to
Public Issues, (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1989), p.9.
11. M. E. McCombs, “Setting the Stage for Public Attention: The Agenda
-Setting Influence of the Press,” Communication Research Center, (Syracuse
University, 1977), p.3.
12. Ibid., p.2.
13. “A Current Affair”, Channel 9 Television, Sydney, (May 3, 1996).
14. Simon Gadir, op. cit., p.19.
15. Simon Gadir, op. cit., p.20.
16. M. E. McCombs, op. cit., p.2.
17. Chrtistopher Reynolds, “Strategic Communications,” PRofessional ,
(Public Relations Institute of Australia, Sydney, August, 1996), p.8.
18. Ibid. p.8.
19. J. Schultz, “Accuracy in Australian Newspapers”, Working Paper No.1,
Australian Center for Independent Journalism, (University of Technology,
Sydney, 1990), p.29.
20. Christopher Reynolds op. cit., p.8.
21. Paul Wilson, “Clinton’s Challenge,” The Weekend Australian, (November
9, 1996), pp.19-20.
22. Gold Coast Bulletin, (Monday, April 29, 1996), p.1.
23. M. Steketee “A Fight for Gun Control”, Weekend Australian, (May 4-5,
24. Sydney Morning Herald, “PM Takes on Gun Lobby - States Pushed for
Total Ban on Semi-Automatics”, (April 29, 1996), p.9.
25. David Thomas, Press Secretary for the Hon. Robert Katter, Member for
Kennedy, personal interview, September, 1996.
26. Sydney Morning Herald, op.cit., May 7, p.9.
27. P. Zimado, “Elements of Persuasion,” ABC Open Learning Series, (Sydney:
Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1995).
28. Christopher Reynolds, “A Presentation to the National Advisory Committee
on AIDS for a Major Community Education Program”, Report to the National
Advisory Committee on AIDS, Sydney, December, 1986, pp.2-3.
29. Sydney Morning Herald, “Exposed Gun Lobby backers”, (May 3, 1996)
& “Government warns Lobby extremists”, (May 17, 1996).
30. David Thomas, op.cit.
31. David Thomas, op.cit.
32. Sydney Morning Herald, op.cit., May 3 and 17.
33. David Thomas, op.cit.
34. R. A. Nelson, “Bias Versus Fairness: The Social Utility of Issue Management,”
Public Relations Review, Vol. XVI, No. 1, (1990), p.36.