Insight #7: Laws of Public Opinion

Public opinion is a concept that can be interpreted in so many ways. To think critically, you can use newspaper columnist Joseph Kraft’s definition “the unkown god to which moderns burn incense” (Seitel). To simplify it, think of it as defining public and opinion separately. In chapter four of Seitel’s book, The Practice of Public Relations, he defines public first as “public signifies a group of people who share a common interest in a specific subject”. This would include employees, community members, stockholders- they’re all their own group concerned about a common issue. When defining opinion, Seitel states that “an opinion is the expression of an attitude on a particular topic” (Seitel). The result of this is attitude->opinion->action: a strong attitude becomes an opinion; a strong opinion becomes an action. Public opinion is really when there are various individuals opinions on a specific issue that affects a group of people.

Hadley Cantril, a well respected social psychologist, developed the “Laws of Public Opinion”. Public opinion can be difficult to influence on someone, but Cantril’s six step method is a great guideline that measures it. Influencing public opinion seems almost identical to winning over your audience in a persuasive speech. You must first identify and understand the opinions you desire to change or modify. Secondly, remain very clear on who the target audience is. Third, there must be a precise focus on what the “laws” are that govern public opinion.

Let’s examine how Cantril’s “Laws of Public Opinion” would play out in regards to Tiger Woods marital indiscretions? The first point states opinion is highly sensitive to important events. “Opinion doesn’t become stabilized until the implications of events are seen in some perspective” (Seitel). This directly relates to the immediate news coverage of Tiger Woods’ marital indiscretions because so many fans, and a couple endorsements, were on the fence about what to initially think- that is until all information was revealed and stamped with approval. The second point states opinion is generally determined more by events than by words– unless the words are interpreted as an event. Most of Tiger Woods’ endorsements dropped him as soon as news coverage broke, which is perceived negatively on his behalf. This also relates to the third point: people become more sensitive to the sufficiency of the leadership during critical times. Basically, if the public opinion was overall good for Tiger Woods after this scandal, his poor choices deem tolerable. If not, then the public opinion of him lacks confidence so will sway the other way. This is tricky to measure in regards to Tiger Woods because immediately after the news of his many affairs, he lost a lot of respect, a lot of money (endorsements), and almost his entire family. Now that time has passed, he has become more and more “tolerated” in public opinion since it now focuses on what he does: playing golf.

The fourth point Cantril noted was that once self-interest is present, opinions become slow to change. In relation to what I was just talking about, initially everyone was all for Tiger losing his endorsements, and potentially his family; he took them both for granted by the actions he took and should pay for them. However, over time that lack of support started to change into actual support- the public opinion figured he already paid enough by losing his wife and endorsements, but that shouldn’t keep taking away from the fact that he is ultimately the best golf player there is. In continuation, the fifth point states that people have more opinions and are able to form them much easier on goals, as opposed to the methods to take to reach those goals. There are many individuals within the public that still will never forget what Woods did, and will hold it against him. They disregard the fact that he is a great golf player, potentially the best, but instead will continue to see all the negative words they read about him. It wasn’t just the cheating, but also negative qualities about his personality that came to light: controlling, disingenuous, careless, etc. However, it’s easier for them to focus on never supporting or watching him again, than realizing if they go buy a golf hat he wears from a company that endorses him, they’re technically doing so.

The sixth and final point to Hadly Cantril’s “Laws of Public Opinion” states that if people in a democracy are provided with educational opportunities and ready access to information, public opinion shows a headstrong common sense (Seitel). In the end, people aren’t really against Tiger Woods anymore because what he did doesn’t affect them. He cheated on his wife, but still gives them the game they want to watch. Even though he’ll never be as well-liked as before the scandal was revealed,  it’s a total turn around from how the public opinion was at the start.

Seitel, Fraser. The Practice of Public Relations. 11th edition. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2010. Print.

“Top 10 Most Hated People in Sports.” Real Clear Sports. N.p., 17 May 2013. Web. 31 May 2013. <http://www.realclearsports.com/lists/most_hated_people_in_sports/intro.html?state=stop&gt;.

Image displayed is credited to The Huffington Post.

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