Business of public opinion
By: Gerald J. Sherman
Just because bin Laden is dead and swimming with the fishes, that doesn’t mean al Qaeda is not going to portray him as a martyr and keep delivering his message to their target audience and continue enlisting new members. Al Qaeda knows how to use the media to its advantage. Call it what you will, propaganda, indoctrination, brainwashing, they are trying to shape the public opinion of their target market in their favor. They are engaging in public relations and they are good at having it resonate among their element.
Public Opinion Researcher Hadley Cantril was a noted sociologist who did a prolific amount of research and writing about public relations. It is worthwhile to keep a number of his principles in mind when thinking about public relations.
Public opinion is influenced by actions and events rather than only by words. It is thus highly sensitive to important public events, such as changes in politics and economics, shifts in social values and customs, or occurrences—good or bad—that affect the public at large. These events can take place overnight, or stretch over a period of years.
While events of sudden and unusual magnitude can make public opinion swing from one extreme to another temporarily, changes in public opinion take time to cement; public opinion requires time to stabilize, during which the public has the chance to digest the event and evaluate it with a deeper perspective. According to Cantril, public opinion does not anticipate or plan for crises and emergencies—it merely reacts to them after the fact (Cantril & Strunk, 1951).
At the center of Cantril’s theory is the assumption that the core of public opinion is based on individual self-interest. Events, actions, or other stimuli are important to the public to the degree that they affect the interests of the individual or group; an event must concern the self-interest of the individuals to evoke an opinion.
In other words, people in general do not care about events or actions that do not have implications on their personal life. Public opinion, therefore, does not arouse people unless they feel their self-interest is at stake; people will lose interest in the event or issue after some time unless they are reminded about its effects on their self-interest. Initiatives aimed at shaping public opinion, then, should include elements that demonstrate to the public how these initiatives affect their lives as well as elements that create a sense of timely relevance (Fashion Public Relations, Sherman & Perlman, 2010).
Businesses must understand how public opinion is shaped. It is important for any business big or small to look to influence public opinion and create positive recognition. The effects of public opinion can determine the success or failure of a particular situation. Analyzing the factors that shape public opinion and exploring the ways to improve it, can work to change the public image of the product, service and influence a political decision. The ability to comprehend what comprises communication’s role and a definition of the various types and categories of media is essential if you are to get your message across.
We are fortunate in America to have lots of freedom to make many decisions about what automobiles we drive, which political candidates we select and other day-to-day decisions. These choices are often determined by public opinion. Consumer purchasing decisions are also guided by what the consumer thinks they need or want.
Political choices too are based on our needs and wants. The media, social media, and the Internet play a major factor in influencing us. Society and communication entities work off of each other through complex information sharing designed to change public opinion.
Public opinion of what is and isn’t popular is a driving force in shaping our decisions and public relations is the vehicle that makes it happen.
Excerpts from the book, Fashion Public Relations, Gerald J. Sherman & Sar S. Perlman. Fairchild Books, Division of Conde Nast Publications, (2010)