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Leading Public Opinion: The Challenge of Persuasion at Mass Scale

Antonio Lambino's picture

In yesterday’s OP-ED page of The New York Times, Thomas Friedman suggests characteristics of what non-extremist factions of the American polity want in a leader.  I was struck by the high levels of communication capacity these criteria demand.  According to Friedman, the following are among the required traits of desired leadership:  1) the ability to persuade constituents and 2) the ability to lead, not merely read, public opinion.  Not only do these two things require expertise, they are inextricably linked.

Think about a situation in which you’re attempting to persuade a friend or colleague to accept an idea she doesn’t like or act in a way to which he doesn’t feel disposed.  If the outcome is important to you, how much energy might you be willing to expend toward this purpose?  To increase your chance of success, how much time will you need to spend imagining scenarios, formulating arguments, emotional appeals, and perhaps even ultimatums?  Similarly, in policy advocacy, the persuasion challenge is fundamental.  Many “appeals” have been studied in the applied literature on persuasion, such as the “foot in the door” technique (i.e., asking people to do or accept small things, before going for bigger things).  This technique is powerful if we couple it with the tendency of human beings to want to be perceived as consistent.  If one agrees to a relatively minor request, such as signing up to receive free text message updates on education initiatives then, on balance, this should help increase the likelihood of donating to a scholarship fund if asked to do so in the future.  And there are many other types of persuasive appeals (see, for instance, Robert Cialdini's work: http://www.influenceatwork.com/). 

In my mind, leading (as opposed to reading) public opinion is essentially deploying persuasion techniques at mass scale.  It’s certainly the case that we need to engage the media for this purpose, although we also know that the ways in which media can contribute to effective mass communication are varied.  For instance, those who have taken introductory courses on media effects are likely to know about the media’s agenda-setting function, which can essentially be boiled down to the media being good at “influencing what people think about” and not so much what people think.  We’ve also known from decades of applied research that the media agenda is influenced by the policy/elite agenda (e.g., a president’s speech) and, in turn, influences the public agenda (e.g., what people think are the most important issues of the day).  So if the president gives a speech on environmental protection and keeps talking about it in public forums, the media are likely to cover the issue for as long as the president keeps it newsworthy.  Over time, the public agenda follows and the issue will register in surveys and polls as important.  But the source and content of a message, how it is framed, and the context of transmission influence what people think about the issue; whether they believe it to be a good thing, for instance, for the country to raise vehicle emission standards.  Therefore, opinions that members of the public form about the issue rely on processes of persuasion.  Leading public opinion is a combination of agenda-setting and persuasion at mass scale.

Given the ever-changing information and communication environments in which we find ourselves, there are a lot of competencies packed into the ability to set the public agenda and persuade individuals, groups, and mass publics.  The communication function undergirds many processes of modern leadership and is complementary to various forms of technical expertise.  In many cases, successful and sustainable public sector reform requires persuasion at multiple levels: seeking support from elites, shepherding change processes within bureaucracies, and striking an ethical balance between listening to and leading public opinion. 

p.s. Click on the picture above for an example of persuasion at work.

Photo credit: Flickr user woodleywonderworks