Understanding How Public Opinion is Shaped, Measured, Changed, Managed– is Crucial for Enterprise Success…

A wise man makes his own decisions, an ignorant man follows public opinion ~Chinese Proverb… Too often we… enjoy the comfort of public opinion without the discomfort of thought ~John F. Kennedy… Public opinion in this country is everything ~Abraham Lincoln

Public opinion is a largely uncontrollable phenomenon that had the power to make – or break – a company’s reputation and potential for success. While the influence of public opinion is as strong as ever, the practice of public relations has given savvy– businesses, politicians… measured control over how they are perceived by their target audiences and general public.

Public opinion can be defined as the complex collection of opinions of many different people and the sum of all their views or as a single opinion held by an individual about a business, social, political topic… The meaning of public opinion has changed dramatically over time.

The English term public opinion dates back to the eighteenth century and derived from the French l’opinion, which was first used in 1588 by Montaigne. Adam Smith, one of the earliest classical economists, refers to public opinion in his ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments’, but it was Jeremy Bentham, the famous utilitarian Philosopher, who fully developed theories of public opinion…

According to Herbert Blumer; public opinion is discussed as a form of collective behavior which is made up of those who are discussing a given public issue at any one time… Although  reality of public opinion is now almost universally accepted, contrasting understandings of public opinion have taken shape over the centuries, especially as new methods of measuring public opinion are applied to politics, commerce, religion, social activism…

However, according to Ian Welsh; public opinion does not matter– it’s irrelevant. What matters isn’t what the public thinks, what matters are what the public does… Nearly all scholars of public opinion, regardless of the way they may define it, agree that, in order for a phenomenon to count as public opinion, at least four conditions must be satisfied: (1) there must be an issue, (2) there must be a significant number of individuals who express opinions on the issue, (3) there must be some kind of a consensus among at least some of these opinions, and (4) this consensus must directly or indirectly exert influence.

In contrast to scholars, those who aim to influence public opinion are less concerned with theoretical issues than with the practical problem of shaping the opinions of specified ‘publics’, such as employees, stockholders, neighborhood associations, or any other group whose actions may affect the fortunes of a client, stakeholder…

Politicians and publicists, for example, seek ways to influence voting and purchasing decisions, respectively– hence their wish to determine any attitudes and opinions that may affect the desired behavior. It’s often the case that opinions expressed in public differ from those expressed in private. Some views– even though widely shared– may not be expressed at all…

In the article Public Opinion by Daniel Yankelovich writes: Public opinion is not static. People’s views about an issue develop and change over time from disconnected, poorly informed reactions to more thoughtful and considered conclusions, from changeable public opinion to settled public judgment. This process evolves through distinct stages and unless one understands where people are in this process, survey results can frequently mislead.

People often approach an issue initially with strong, emotionally laden feelings and opinions, which tend to be unstable and changeable. People may not understand an issue or problem particularly well. They may not have thought through the consequences of their opinions, and resist confronting realistic costs and trade-offs. The quality of public opinion at this stage is raw and unformed.

However, when people’s views progress… their ideas become solid and stable, and they accept the consequences of the views they hold. When public opinion is fully developed, opinion surveys reveal reliable and stable picture of people’s thinking, picture which accurately reflects their values, priorities, and beliefs…

In the article Are Public Opinion Polls Really Accurate? by ‘thisnation.com’ writes: How many times have you looked at the results of a public opinion poll and wondered if the results were accurate? Who did they talk to? Is it really possible to measure the entire nation’s opinion on something by asking less than one thousand people a question or two? Believe it or not, when conducted properly, public opinion polling is generally quite accurate.

Conducting good survey research, however, is no simple task. To be accurate, survey questions must ask a select group of people– what pollsters call a sample– which is representative of the larger population. The questions themselves must also be good indicators of the opinions or attitudes the pollster is trying to measure and the questions must also be asked consistently from one person to the next.

Public opinion polls must generally be read with caution. Moreover, even accurately measured public opinion is often based on limited or inaccurate information and people are prone to change their minds. Survey research, however, when conducted properly, provides an accurate portrait of the– attitudes, beliefs, opinions, preferences of people…

In the article Managing Public Opinion by Linda Fanaras writes: The psychology behind public relations makes it more valuable than advertising in developing brand identity and garnering brand loyalty. According to the Public Relations Society of America; public relations… is a communications discipline that engages and informs key audiences, builds important relationships and brings vital information back into an organization for analysis and action.

Truly, the primary function of public relations is the development of relationships with target audiences, which will have a positive affect on public opinion. This can only be achieved once preferences, needs, and desires of these audiences have been fully researched and understood.

This research serves as the foundation for both; messaging that resonates with audiences, and developing public relations strategies that deliver positive business results. A quality public relations strategy should include; market and target audience analysis, key messaging, tactics… 

Where the tactics are defined by the benefits to– brand visibility– tailored to the unique needs of the target audience. All tactics should be consistently measured and evaluated, so as to ensure connectivity with target audiences and improve outcomes.  The creation and execution of customized public relations strategy is an essential investment toward the achievement of long-term business performance goals… Public opinion is not the name of a ‘thing’ but a classification of ‘things’.

According to Phillips Davison; the principal approaches to the study of public opinion may be divided into four partially overlapping categories: quantitative measurement of opinion distributions; investigation of the internal relationships among the individual opinions that make up public opinion on an issue; description or analysis of the political role of public opinion; and study both of the communication media that disseminate ideas on which opinions are based and of the uses that propagandists and other manipulators make of these media.

The rapid spread of public-opinion measurement around the world is a reflection of its many uses. Governments have increasingly found surveys to be useful tools for guiding their public-information and propaganda programs and occasionally for helping in formulation of policies. Private businesses and associations have made frequent use of polling techniques.

Most of the surveys done for businesses come under the heading of market, rather than opinion research and are primarily concerned with product preferences, but large numbers of business are also concerned with public issues, such as; government regulation, economic outlook, community relationships… The art of public opinion rests not only on the measurement of people’s views, but also on understanding the motivations behind those views.

No matter how strongly they are held, attitudes are subject to change if the individual holding them learns of new facts or perspectives that challenge his or her earlier thinking. This is especially likely when people learn of a contrary position held by an individual whose judgment they respect. This course of influence, known as ‘opinion leadership’ is frequently utilized by publicists as a means of inducing people to reconsider– and quite possibly change– their views…

Public opinion polling can provide a fairly exact analysis of the distribution of opinions on almost any issue within a given population. Assuming that proper questions are asked, polling can reveal something about the intensity with which opinions are held, reasons for these opinions, and the probability that the issues have been discussed with others. Polling can, occasionally, reveal whether the people holding an opinion can be thought of as constituting a cohesive group.

However, survey findings do not provide much information about the opinion leaders who may have played an important part in developing the opinion. Polls are good tools for measuring ‘what’ or ‘how much’. Finding out ‘how’ or ‘why’, however, is the principal function of qualitative research… Well-run polls may constitute one of the most systematic and objective sources for public information, and means by which journalists, politicians, business leaders… learn what the general public is thinking…

Other things being equal, leaders who pay attention to public opinion will be better able to understand the groups they are trying to influence and better equipped to communicate overall. However, it’s possible for bias to enter into the polling process at any point, especially in cases where the entity commissioning the poll has a financial or political interest in the result or wishes to use the result to promote a specific agenda…

Also, opinion surveys can help the public by stimulating discussion of specific issues, problems… Apparently, the public itself has a lot of confidence in opinion sampling; when asked, in survey, if they think polls are good or bad? 73% said, they are good thing, while 21% admitted they didn’t know. The modern polls are designed to report– they do not usually pretend to solve problems. Whether the public is actually swayed by the results of opinion polls is hard to say.  

Businesses, public officials, media outlets… have increasingly come to depend on public opinion polls to gauge public sentiment. The selection of interviewees by the method of random probability sampling is essential for a good poll– i.e., every person in the population, theoretically, has an equal chance of being selected… But even with random probability sampling the best polls contain a margin of error, which means the results can vary by a defined probability depending on the size of the sample…

Opinion is an active propelling factor. The opinion of people is made up of different views or currents of sentiments… one writer says; when some opinions develop more strength than others (with larger numbers) or more intensity of conviction, then it begins to be called public opinion…