The following is the sixth in a series of columns highlighting the importance of putting the public at the heart of communications strategies. This latest column focuses on how government and business can best harness the power of public opinion.

Public opinion is a term that most people associate with polls, surveys and numbers-based statistics. Many tend to think of graphs, pie charts and coloured arrows pointing either up or down.  While polling can offer valuable insights into opinions that the public may have about a given issue, idea, or individual – they are only a narrow measure of public opinion.

Public opinion is constantly evolving in response to changing facts or feelings and often consists of a volatile collection of public perceptions and attitudes. As opinions continuously shift, there must be a continuous dialogue between companies, governments and the public.

In the face of hostile public opinion, many organizations and the private and public sectors have seen their best laid plans come to a sudden, screeching halt. While public opinion can be flexible, it can also be rigid. Whatever the relative merits of a policy, project or proposal, they can be meaningless if the public is vehemently opposed to them.

How, then, can organizations ensure that they are on the right side of public opinion? First, they need to engage at the earliest possible stage – before the public has formed a point of view on the idea or initiative in question. Better still, organizations should collaborate with the public to co-create their ideas and initiatives – harnessing the power of the public and earning their trust.

Second, organizations need to maintain a continuous dialogue with the public – from the start of a project until the end – to ensure that the public opinion isn’t shifting against them. Nobody can assume that support for an idea will remain static, especially in times of uncertainty where people can be mobilized with a tweet. It’s no longer enough to consult with the public on the front-end and then walk away from the conversation.

Third, organizations need to measure public opinion in as many ways as possible. Polls and surveys can be a starting point, but, in themselves, they’re insufficient. To get an accurate sense of public opinion, organizations need to meet directly – in person and online – with various segments of the public, especially those most likely to be hostile or opposed.

Swimming against a strong current of public opinion is both inefficient and ineffective, especially if you can get to the same place with the current. In other words, don’t fight public opinion, help to forge it. Work with the public to help inform their attitudes and perspectives, garner their support by incorporating their ideas, and talk to people not just pollsters.

Rob Mariani is a senior vice-president with Hill+Knowlton Strategies, and serves as general manager of their Ottawa offices.

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