Ch. 9- Public Opinion and Persuasion

2 Nov

Text: Public Relations Strategies and Tactics-9th Edition-Wilcox, D. & Cameron, G.

What is Public Opinion?

  • Noelle-Neumann defines public opinion as…
    • Opinions on controversial issues that one can express in public without isolating oneself
    • 2 Reasons for the profound influence of vocal segments of society and public-opinion momentum
      • Psychologists have found that the public tends to be passive
        • Often a small, vocal group represents the attitude of the public when, in reality, it is more accurate to say that the majority of the people are apathetic because an issue doesn’t interest or affect them
  • Second, one issue might engage a certain part of the population, while another arouses another portion of the population
    • Psychologically, opinion is basically determined by self-interest. Events, words, or other stimuli affect opinion only insofar as their relationship to self-interest or a general concern is apparently

Opinion Leaders as Catalysts

  • Serving as catalysts for the formation of public opinion are people who are knowledgeable and articulate about specific issues. They are called opinion leaders. Sociologists describe them as:
    • Highly interested in a subject or issue
    • Better informed on an issue than the average person
    • Avid consumers of mass media
    • Early adopters of new ideas
    • Good organizers who can get other people to take action

Types of Leaders

  • Formal Opinion Leaders (aka Power Leaders)
    • Because of their positions as elected officials, presidents of companies, or heads of membership groups
    • Informal Opinion Leaders
      • They may be admired and emulated or opinion leaders who can exert peer pressure on others to go along with something. In general, informal opinion leaders exert considerable influence on their peer groups by being highly informed, articulate, and credible on particular issues
        • Public relations professionals attempt to influence these leaders
  • A survey found these opinion leaders fit the profile of:
    • Being active in the community
    • Having a college degree
    • Earning relatively high incomes
    • Regularly reading newspapers and magazines
    • Actively participating in recreational activities
    • Showing environmental concern by recycling

The Flow of Opinion

  • Two-Step Flow Theory
    • Created by sociologists Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld
    • Public opinion is really formed by the views of people who have taken the time to sift information, evaluate it, and form an opinion that is expressed to others
    • N-Step Theory
      • Individuals are seldom influenced by one opinion leader but interact with different leaders around one issue
        • Ex. Patients can seek information from their primary-care physician but may also turn to any individual in a close relationship
        • Diffusion of innovation
          • Individuals adopt new ideas or products through the 5 stages: awareness, interest, trial, evaluation, and adoption
            • Individuals often influenced by media in the first two steps,
            • Next influenced by people they are close to in the third and fourth steps
            • In the final step, each individual is the decision maker

The Role of Mass Media

Agenda-Setting Theory

  • Pioneered by Max McCombs and Don Shaw
  • Contends that media content sets the agenda for public discussion
    • People tend to talk about what they see or hear on the 6 o’clock news or read on the front page of the newspaper
    • Media tells the public what to think about, but not necessarily what to think

Media-Dependency Theory

  • When people have no past information or attitude disposition regarding a subject, the mass media play a role in telling people what to think

Framing Theory

  • Framing= how journalists select certain facts, themes, treatments, and even words to “frame” a story

Persuasion: Pervasive in Our Lives

  • “Persuasion is an activity or process in which a communicator attempts to induce a change in the belief, attitude, or behavior of another person or group of persons through the transmission of a message in a context in which the persuadee has some degree of free choice” (Richard Perloff, p. 224)

The Dominant View of Public Relations

  • Dominant view of PR is that it’s purpose is persuasive communication actions performed on behalf of its clients

Uses of Persuasion

  • Persuasion used to
    • Change or neutralize hostile opinions
      • This is the most difficult persuasive task
  • Crystallize latent opinions
  • Conserve favorable opinions
    • Preventative public relations- efforts to maintain the reservoir of goodwill (most effective type of public relations)

Factors in Persuasive Communication

Audience Analysis

  • Knowledge of audience characteristics such as beliefs, attitudes, concerns, and lifestyles helps the communicator tailor messages that are salient, answer a felt need, and provide a logical course of action
  • Psychographics
    • Audience-analysis tool
    • Attempts to classify people by lifestyle, attitudes, and beliefs
    • Channeling
      • Audience analysis, coupled with suitably tailored messages in the appropriate media outlets

Source Credibility

  • Message is more believable to the intended audience if the source has credibility
    • Aristotle’s concept of ethos

The Three Factors

  • Source credibility based on…
    • Expertise
      • “Does the audience perceive the person as an expert on the subject?”
  • Sincerity
    • “Does the person come across as believing what he or she is saying?”
  • Charisma
    • “Is the individual attractive, self-assured, and articulate, projecting an image of competence and leadership?”
    • Transfer
      • Associate the celebrity’s popularity with the product

Problems with Celebrities

  • Increasing number of celebrity endorsements, such that public can’t remember who endorses what
  • Overexposure of a celebrity
  • An endorser’s actions can undercut the product or service
    • Ex. When Kobe Bryant was charged with sexual assault, McDonald’s dropped him as spokesperson even though the case against him was dismissed
    • When a celebrity speaks out on controversial public issues
      • Ex. When Dixie Chicks criticized President Bush for invading Iraq, sales of their albums took a nosedive among fans who supported the president and the war

Appeal to Self-Interest

  • Publics become involved in issues or pay attention to messages that appeal to their psychological or economic needs
  • Sociologist Harold Laswell says that people are motivated by:
    • Power
    • Respect
    • Well-being
    • Affection
    • Wealth
    • Skill
    • Enlightenment
    • Physical and mental vitality
    • Psychologist Abraham Maslow says that any appeal to self-interest must be based on a hierarchy of needs
      • This explains why some public information campaigns have trouble getting across to those classified in the VALS lifestyle categories as “Survivors” and “Sustainers”
        • Their basic concern is needs of food and shelter

Clarity of Message

  • Most persuasive messages are direct, simply expressed, and contain only one primary idea
  • PR personnel should always ask two questions:
    • “What do I want the audience to do with the message?”
    • “Will the audience understand the message?”

Timing and Context

  • Message is more persuasive if external factors support message or if it is received within the context of other messages

Audience Participation

  • Employees are more committed to making something work if it comes from them- rather than a policy or order handed down by higher management
  • Samples
  • Activist groups
    • Help people actualize their beliefs
    • Give people a sense of belonging and reinforces their beliefs

Content and Structure of Messages

  • Drama
    • Humanizing an issue
    • Application Story
      • More mundane use of drama, send to the trade press
  • Case study technique
    • Manufacturer prepares an article on how an individual or company is using the product
    • Statistics
    • Surveys and Polls
    • Examples
    • Testimonials
    • Endorsements
    • Emotional Appeals

Persuasive Speaking

  • Yes-yes
    • Begin with points with which the audience agrees in order to develop a pattern of “yes” answers. Getting agreement to a basic premise often means that the receiver will agree to the logically developed conclusion
    • Offered structured choice
      • Give choices that force audience to choose between A and B.
        • Ex. Political candidates may ask, “D you want more free enterprise or government telling you what to do?”
        • Seek partial commitment
          • Get a commitment for some action on the part of the receiver. This leaves the door open for commitment to other parts of the proposal
          • Ask for more, settle for less
          • Speeches
            • One-sided speeches are most effective to an audience who is in favor to the message
            • Two-sided speeches are most effective with audiences that might be opposed to the message
              • By mentioning all sides, speaker accomplishes:
                • Objectivity
                • Speaker treats audience as mature, intelligent adults
                • Allows speaker to control how counterarguments are structured
                • Panel discussions
                  • Psychologists say the last person on a panel to talk will probably be the most effective in changing audience attitudes- or at least be remembered longer by the audience. But it also has been shown that the first speaker sets the standard and tone for the remainder of the discussion. Being first or last is better positioning than being between two presentations


  • Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell stated in their book Propaganda and Persuasion, “Propaganda is 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”
    • Plain folks
    • Testimonial
    • Bandwagon
    • Card Stacking
      • The selection of facts and data to build an overwhelming case on one side of the issue, while concealing the other side
  • Transfer
    • Associating a person, product, or organization with something that has high status, visibility, or credibility
  • Glittering generalities
    • The technique of associating a cause, product, or idea with favorable abstractions such as freedom, justice, democracy, and the American way

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