In order to understand any relationship between public relations and public opinion we must first look at public opinion in a deeper context. This means we must understand what constitutes public opinion and how it is formed. After this we can then look in more depth at the theories and techniques of public opinion and the public relations situations in which they arise. By definition Public opinion is the shared opinions of large groups of people (sometimes called 'publics') who have particular characteristics in common, for example all adult female citizens within the city of Preston. However, there are certain aspects of this definition and others that have provoked debate between psychologists.
The main reason for this is that research has found that most issues do not affect or interest the overall majority of people. Therefore, because most people are apathetic, the general public are usually passive. This means that so called "public" opposition to issues such as abortion and gay rights, are in reality the opinions of a small but significant number of concerned people. It is in turn fair to say that certain issues only affect certain parts of the population. Students, for example may form public opinion on the rise of tuition fees, while parents of young children would form the bulk of the public opinion on the current debate surrounding the MMR vaccination. With these examples it would be more justified to define public opinion as the assembly of individual views and opinions held by persons affected or interested in the issue.
The relationship between public opinion and public relations is ultimately a relationship between media and society. The media itself is a separate social institution within society with its own rules and practices, these are in turn affected by such factors as the social setting and the consequences of time and place. It is these factors which mean public relations practitioners must use a structured communication process involving systems of related campaigns and activities. This process requires not only the interaction of public relations and other organisation communicators but of the media and the publics. It is from the interactions of all these mediums of mass media and communication that public opinion is formed. Walter Lippman (1982) established the conceptual basis for public relations.
Lippman pointed out most of us can not and do not have direct contact to the rest of the world; as it is 'out of reach, out of sight, out of mind'. Therefore the mass media are there to help us create an 'honest' picture of the world that is beyond our capable reach. It was this notion that brought about the theory of agenda-setting as a media influence by which the importance of news events or issues in the public mind is affected by the way they are presented in news reports. The main assumption with this theory is that the more attention the media give to an issue the greater the sense of importance surrounding it. Moloch and Lester (1974) showed how news could be controlled by those in a position to manage publicity about events, if not the events themselves.
One of the main examples of this is Public Relations involvement in the Gulf war. On august 2, 1990 Iraqi troops led by Dictator Saddam Hussein invaded the oil-producing nation of Kuwait. Viewed in strictly moral terms, Kuwait did not look like the type of country that deserved defending at the time. Hal Steward, a retired army public relations official, was quoted as saying "If and when a shooting war starts, reporters will begin to wonder why American soldiers are dying for oil-rich sheiks." Kuwait was aware of American opinion surrounding the invasion and its government funded as many as twenty public relations, law and lobby firms in its campaign to mobilize US public opinion and force against Hussein. Hill and Knowlton, (then the world's largest public relations firm) was the mastermind for the Kuwait campaign.
Hill and Knowlton formed 'Citizens for a free Kuwait', a public relations group which employed a variety of opinion-forming devices and techniques to help keep US opinion in the side of the Kuwait's. The techniques ranged from full scale press conferences and dozens of video news stories showing torture and other abuses by the Iraqis, to the distribution of tens of thousands of 'Free Kuwait' t-shirts and bumper stickers to university campuses across America. This resulted in millions of dollars of free air time from eager TV news directors around the world. Later on when a research team from the university of Massachusetts surveyed public opinion they found the more television people watched, the more likely they were to back the Bush administration and the 'Free Kuwait' campaign. This is a prime example of media framing, as the videos were shaped and contextualized by the public relations firm then shown on television as news stories, this meant viewers assumed they were watching 'real' journalism.
Every public relations campaign is set in motion with different levels of activity at different stages of public awareness and involvement. Both the public opinion model (Van Leuven, 1991) and the life cycle of public opinion theory (Wilcox, 2000) show how a campaign develops in five different stages of public awareness. Stage one being the awareness of the issue (which is usually confined at this time to special interest or activist groups) and the gaining of media attention. This is usually in the form of a press release or a special event such as a rally. On the other hand if we move forward to stage four we now see that public awareness has grown vastly about the issue and a consensus has started to build for a resolution. This makes the issue easier to cover from a visual standpoint now it is in the public eye, and television becomes the key medium for the public relations company to work with.
Advertising campaigns, mass rallies and press conferences are now the main techniques employed. Despite these techniques it is important to recognise that public opinion is always diverse, dynamic and variable in strength. Historically public opinion was looked at as the 'informed opinions' and general view of the more educated members of society, elements of this still hold true today in the case of opinion (or power) leaders. Opinion leaders (Katz and Lazer field 1974) are people who tend to absorb more media information and are more socially active than others. They have the power to exert peer pressure or influence on other to go along with their way of thinking.
Opinion leaders are usually elected officials, presidents or companies or some sort of role model who is respected, admired and creditable on particular issues. They emphasize the theory of the two-step flow of information (name date), because they act as a mediator for information exchanged between the media and the public. This backs the theory that public opinion is not just about communication between the mass media and its audience. The audience is composed of social beings who can communicate among themselves as well. In regards to the use of opinion leaders in public relations, the opinion leader is part of the planned communications with the public. For example, a doctor could be used as an opinion leader for issues regarding health.
The public would put their faith and trust in him / her because a doctor is a respectable and well educated member of society. Public opinion leaders can also activate a third party effect on their audience. The spiral of silence (No lle Newman 1974, 1984, 1991) suggests individuals who think their opinion conflicts with the opinion of the leader's and the overall majority tend to remain silent in the issue. Society threatens people with isolation if they are different or create difficulties within a society.
Therefore, people tend to conceal their views if they feel they are a minority and are more willing to express them if they are part of a dominant group. But can the media really change our opinion or even convince us of things such as guilt or innocence? The OJ Simpson trial was one of the most publicized court battles in the 20 th century. In spite of a constant barrage of media scrutiny from news analysts and popular TV personalities on the 'did he? Didn't he?' debate, public opinion polls showed that those who believed he was guilty maintained that belief during and after the trial and the same was shown for those who believed he was innocent. The uses and gratifications theory (Mc Quail, 2000) is based on the belief that people are active users of media and selective in the media they use. People bring to the issue their own experiences and needs. They interpret in a way which is satisfying to them and form their own opinions from it.
It is part of Bernard Cohen's theory that 'the media can't tell people what to think; but it can tell people what to think about' In conclusion it is fair to say that the world's audiences can not ignore the constant stream of messages about the people, events and places the media shows them on a daily basis, although the social implications of these messages remain uncertain. Public relations does have a responsibility in the presentation (maybe even the corruption) of these messages and the forming of public opinion, but I do not believe there is no public involvement in how the messages are interpreted. Take, for example, the Tobacco industry and its youth smoking prevention programs. Its campaigning strengthens the use of tobacco as an 'adult activity', enhancing the image of the cigarette as a 'forbidden fruit' and smoking as a rebellious activity.
Parents tell their children not to smoke, then the media enhances the fact that disobeying you parents is all part of being a teenager and 'finding yourself'. Therefore, the public involvement in this case (and probably the most important piece of influence in your life) is your parents and the way you are brought up. Advertising to children under 11 is illegal in many countries in Europe, purely due to the fact that children are recognised as a highly influential group. This is why we believe audiences who are well educated and brought up with some aspect or wrong or right and 'morals' are the least influenced by the media, although many become opinion leaders in their own right.
So when we look at the social implications of Public relations' influence on public opinion, maybe we should look more closely at third-world countries and how Nestl'e's public relations company aggressively promoted its breast milk to people it knew where un-educated and less well informed. The result was people now believed the breast-milk substitute was healthier for their baby than their own milk. The same principle is being applied to cigarettes, as uneducated people are not aware of the dangers and addictive qualities of smoking. The social implication of both these campaigns is a higher mortality rate.
So we have to now ask is it dangerous to try and sway public opinion? In the case of the western world -No. Education and healthcare create well informed, educated individuals who are able to look at anything the media presents them with a critical eye. Third-world countries on the other hand have little information or education to protect individuals from the media and its influence. Therefore, I believe the ability to influence public opinion, be it through public relations or another communication medium, should only be applied when the balance of power and decision is equal between the pubic and the media.