Communications is a complex and complicated art that is made up of rich theories and hypotheses. These theories attempt to explain the usefulness and importance of mass media, advertising, public relations and more. One theory that has always been popular and thoroughly talked about in research and academic studies is the two-step flow theory of communications. The two-step flow theory of communications explains how information from the media moves in two distinct stages. The hypothesis states “ideas often flow from radio and print to opinion leaders and from these to the less active sections of the population.” (Katz, 1957) The two-step flow theory of communications furthers the understanding of how mass media influences decision making by refining the ability to predict how messages will have an effect on audiences and why certain campaigns succeed in changing audience opinions. These actions are done through influential opinion leaders and their effects on the thought processes of their audiences.
The two-step flow theory was first formulized by Paul Lazarsfeld, Bernard Berelson and Hazel Gaudet in The People’s Choice (1944). The study primarily focused on the process of decision making during a Presidential election campaign. The three researchers were expecting that evidence would point to direct influence of media messages on voting intentions. However, they were surprised to find that personal contacts were mentioned more frequently than exposure to mass media as sources of influence on voting behavior. Friends, family and opinion leaders were more likely to sway and change opinions of large audiences over radio or newspaper. The researchers’ image of a disconnected mass audience of individuals failed to explain how interpersonal relations came into play when making decisions. From this information, the two-step flow theory of communications originated.
The model above explains how this two-step flow theory works. An intermediary is introduced between the sender, or the mass media, and the audience. This new or secondary step in the dissemination of information is typically an influential figure or opinion leader with greater access to information than the audience. They have the authority to dissect and explain the message as they please and, subsequently, influence the opinions of the final receivers, or the individuals in social contact with the opinion leader.
One of the most important parts of this theory that directly affects the movement of the message and its impact is the beliefs and ideas of the personal contact or opinion leader. The information coming from the opinion leader is altered with personal opinions and research, thus the original message is not the same as it started in the media. “Opinion leaders are much more exposed to mass media and much more engaged in active communication than the general public is” (Maurer) and are not passive gatekeepers of media information. If they did not transmit content based on their own opinions, then there would be no communications hypothesis challenging the idea of strong media effects.
Another important part of the two-step flow theory to understand is that audiences are more likely to be influenced by others like themselves, which alters where and how they are receiving the information. According to Elihu Katz, former communications scientist at Columbia University, opinion leaders are almost equal in proportions in every social group and stratum and that there is a homogeneity of opinions amongst these groups. For an audience, opinion leaders and their personal influences are trustworthy, flexible and non-purposive because they are similar. For example, religious persons are more likely to listen to their pastor because he or she is equal to their status and shares many of the same beliefs.
Applications in Public Relations
The two-step flow theory of communications is important to public relations because of the influence it has on large audiences. If media or public relations professionals are sending out information in hopes of crafting a specific message for an audience and opinion leaders heavily alter that information, then the impact of the message has also been altered. This theory changes the way PR professionals interact with audiences in several ways. First, messages must now attract and support influential figures of certain audiences. Public relations professionals cannot overlook this important step in reaching their target.
Second, public relations professionals must use these opinion leaders as vital “word of mouth” marketers, especially on social media platforms like Twitter. Although an opinion leader is traditional sense is someone who is close and connected to a specific community, it can also be a person with a wide range of followers, like a blogger or celebrity. People are more likely to buy a product or listen to someone’s suggestion when they feel like they can trust them. Celebrities can also personally connect with fans via Twitter by engaging in real time conversations that actually come from them and not someone working for them.
An example of the two-step flow theory is Al Gore’s The Climate Project and the more recent We campaign (Nisbet, Kotcher). For both, he recruited digital opinion leaders to reach more people and increase education of climate change and policy details. According to surveys, trends depict that the American public is largely disengaged from the climate change issue. The use of digital opinion leaders allows Al Gore and his campaign to sidestep the media completely and talk with their audience directly. Al Gore himself is also an opinion leader. He is heavily involved with and connected to the issue of global warming and the campaign to raise awareness. His prominent status and knowledge about the issue help sways public opinions.
The final example is the Kony 2012 campaign. The campaign, started by the non-profit called Invisible Children, shed light on Joseph Kony, the central African warlord who recruited child soldiers. They launched a video on YouTube hoping to have one million views in a year; in the first five days, they already gained 120 million views. The success of the video can be contributed to celebrities like Rihanna and Bill Gates who tweeted about the video. Their influential status helped spread awareness of the campaign and even “the technology website Mashable quickly named it the most viral video of all time.” (Sanders) Although the video was extremely popular among celebrities and their followers, it was severely criticized by experts and journalists. However, people were more likely to listen to the opinion leaders online. Invisible Children raised $32 million and ramped up on-the-ground work in Africa. The combination of a serious topic, savvy social media use and celebrity endorsements helped Kony 2012 become the success that it is.
The two-step flow theory of communications expands the understanding of how mass media influences decision making through opinion leaders, how messages will have an effect on their audiences, as well as why certain campaigns succeed in changing audience opinions. In 1944, the theory was developed as a way to explain why personal contacts were having a significant effect on voter decisions. The result was the two-step flow theory of communications. It is described as having a middle step between mass media and the intended audience. This intermediary is often an opinion leader, who can be someone has small as the head of a family to a huge celebrity on Twitter with a large follower base. These opinion leaders digest the information the mass media broadcasts to them and then regurgitates it to their audiences, altered with their own opinions and beliefs. This theory is important to PR professionals because they must take opinion leaders into consideration while creating campaigns. They must also work with the opinion leaders and use them to help bypass the media. Audiences and opinion leaders are two of the most important parts of public relations and the two-step flow theory affects them in a way that cannot be ignored.