Public opinion and persuasion
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Public Opinion and Persuasion. Chapter 9. Defining Public Opinion. There are many definitions but our text offers two popular definitions: “Public opinion is the sum of individual opinions on an issue affecting those individuals.”

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Defining Public Opinion

There are many definitions but our text offers two popular definitions:

  • “Public opinion is the sum of individual opinions on an issue affecting those individuals.”

  • “Public opinion is a collection of views held by persons interested in the subject.”

  • Inherent in these and other definitions is the concept of self interest.

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    How Events Form Public Opinion

    • Opinion is highly sensitive to events that have an impact on the public at large or a particular segment of the public.

    • By and large, public opinion does not anticipate events. It only reacts to them.

    • Events trigger formation of public opinion.

    • Events of unusual magnitude are likely to swing public opinion temporarily from one extreme to another.

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    The Role of Opinion Leaders as Catalysts

    • Opinion leaders—Five Traits:

      • Highly interested in a subject or issue

      • Better informed on an issue than average person

      • Avid consumers of mass media

      • Early adopters of new ideas

      • Good organizers who can get other people to take action

    • Two types of opinion leaders:

      • Formal

      • informal

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    Formal Opinion Leaders

    • Formal opinion leaders are usually elected officials, presidents/CEOs of companies, or heads of membership groups.

    • News reporters often ask such people for statements when a specific issue relates to their positions of responsibility, concern and/or expertise.

    • People in formal leadership positions are also called “power leaders.”

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    Informal Opinion Leaders

    • Informal opinion leaders are those who have clout with peers because of some special characteristic.

    • They may be role models who are admired and emulated or opinion leaders who can exert pressure on others to go along with something.

    • Informal opinion leaders exert considerable influence on their peer groups by being highly informed, articulate, and credible on particular issues.

    • Think about your own friends and peers who may influence your views on, say, music, fashion, entertainment choices.

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    Characteristics of Opinion Leaders

    • A survey of 20,000 Americans by the Roper Organization found that only 10 to 12 percent of the general public are opinion leaders.

    • These “influentials”—those whom other people seek out for advice—fit the opinion leader profile of:

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    Opinion Leader Profile

    • Active in the community

    • Have a college degree

    • Earn relatively high incomes

    • Regularly read newspapers and magazines

    • Actively participate in recreational activities

    • Show environmental concern by recycling

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    The Media’s Role

    • This chapter also examines the role of mass media in being a conduit in how opinion “flows” from opinion leaders to the public.

    • By specializing in this transfer of information, PR people are major players in forming public opinion because they often provide the mass media with the information in the first place, theorists say.

    • Some studies have found that as much as 50 percent of what the media carry comes from PR sources.

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    Media Effects Theories

    • Agenda-Setting Theory- Does the media set the agenda for public discussion? People discuss what TV news covers and what’s in the newspaper, for example. Through the selection of stories, the media may “tell” (indirectly/unintentionally?) the public what to think about, but not necessarily what to think, the theory goes.

    • Media-Dependency Theory– This is the idea that people are highly dependent on the media for information. This is especially so in crises situations. In such cases, PR people can be quite influential in controlling and shaping information as journalists are dependent on official spokespeople during the first stages of crises.

    • Framing Theory– This is how journalists select certain facts, themes, treatments, and even words to “frame” a story. This can play a major role in public perceptions of an issue or problem.

    • Conflict Theory – Because the media can play a vital role in presenting and explaining conflicts, it is necessary for people involved in public relations to know how to work effectively with the media to settle conflicts.

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    • Persuasion is part of the dominant view of Public Relations as being about “persuasive communications on behalf of clients.”

    • Persuasion can be used to:

      • change or neutralize hostile opinions

      • crystallize latent (or already existing positive) opinions and positive attitudes

      • conserve favorable opinions

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    Make/Save Money

    Save Time

    Avoid Effort

    More Comfort

    Better Health


    Escape Pain

    Gain Praise

    Be Popular

    Be Loved/Accepted

    Keep Possessions

    Protect Family/Reputation

    Be Stylish

    Have Beautiful Things

    Satisfy Appetite

    Be Like Others

    Avoid Trouble/Criticism

    Be an Individual

    Be Safe/Secure

    Make Work Easier

    Persuasive Messages– Moving People to ActSuch messages often include information that appeals to an audience’s self-interest. Theme examples:

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    Drama– helps create interest and engage an audience

    Statistics– stats impress people. Use of numbers can convey objectivity, size, and importance in a credible way that can influence public opinion

    Surveys and Polls– like stats, can impress but people should read the fine print

    Examples- opinions can be bolstered and be more persuasive if supported by examples

    Testimonials– using celebrity endorsers or victims/survivors can humanize message

    Endorsements– credibility through “third party endorsements” (can be, for example, doctors, celebrities, national organizations, or media through editorials)

    Emotional Appeals– fundraising letters or commercials from nonprofit groups use this persuasive device a lot

    Persuasive Message TechniquesThroughout history these devices have been used:

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    Research on Persuasion

    • Positive appeals are generally more effective than negative appeals for message retention and compliance.

    • Radio and TV messages tend to be more persuasive than print, but if the message is complex, better comprehension is achieved through the print media.

    • Strong emotional appeals and fear arousal are most effective when the audience has minimal concern about or interest in the topic.

    • Logical appeals, using facts and figures, are better for highly educated, sophisticated audiences than strong emotional appeals.

    • Self-interest can be a strong motivator.

    • A celebrity or attractive model is most effective when the audience has low involvement, the theme is simple, and broadcast channels are used. An exciting spokesperson can attract attention to a message that may otherwise be ignored.

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    Propaganda and its techniques

    • Propaganda defined: “The deliberate and systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist.” (Jowett and O’Donnell)

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    Propaganda: Past and Present

    • In World War I and II, propaganda was associated with the information activities of the enemy. Germany and Japan were sending out “propaganda” whereas the U.S. and our allies were disseminating “truth.”

    • Today, propaganda connotes falsehood, lies, deceit, disinformation, and duplicity.

    • Social scientists say the word propaganda should be used only to denote activity that sells a belief system or constitutes political or ideological dogma.

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    Advertising and public relations messages for commercial purposes do use several techniques commonly associated with propaganda

    These techniques have interesting, colorful names such as:

    “plain folks”



    “card stacking”


    “glittering generalities.”

    (p. 238)

    Propaganda Techniques

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    Ethical Concerns purposes do use several techniques commonly associated with propaganda

    • A student of public relations should be aware of propaganda techniques to make certain that he or she doesn’t intentionally use them to deceive or mislead the public.

    • Ethical responsibilities exist in every form of persuasive communication.

      (see “Ethics of Persuasion” bullet points, page 241)