The PR BlogMedia & PsychologyPersuasion & InfluencePublic Opinion is Beyond Right or Wrong

Public Opinion is Beyond Right or Wrong

Those who set the agenda decide what we should think, say, and do.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

Public opin­ion is bey­ond right or wrong.

It’s unfair!”

In my role as a PR adviser, I hear those words often.

Many cli­ents argue that they’re not ask­ing for mir­acles. They only want the atten­tion their organ­isa­tion right­fully deserves.

I wish it were that simple. But pub­lic opin­ion isn’t fair.

Here goes:

Public Opinion and PR

Public opin­ion is a com­pound of folly, weak­ness, pre­ju­dice, wrong feel­ing, right feel­ing, obstin­acy, and news­pa­per para­graphs.”
— Robert Peel

As a PR adviser, I encounter people who argue about fair­ness. However, when it comes to pub­lic opin­ion, right or wrong is a sec­ond­ary consideration.

How can this be?

Strictly speak­ing, right or wrong is determ­ined in the court of law; PR is determ­ined in the court of pub­lic opin­ion. The court­house may hold the keys to our leg­al stand­ings, but the court of pub­lic sen­ti­ment rules supreme over our reputations.

  • Public opin­ion, regard­less of its basis in fact or fal­lacy, wields a force that can lift us to unpar­alleled heights or bury us beneath the weight of its judgment.

And it could nev­er be any different: 

  • Almost every­one exper­i­en­cing the immense pres­sure of neg­at­ive opin­ions feels they’re being mistreated.
  • Almost no one fail­ing to be of interest to the pub­lic feels their obscur­ity is deserved.

But if every­one, through the works of magic, got the pub­lic opin­ion they think they deserve; there wouldn’t be enough men­tal band­width to go around.

The Scarcity of Attention

Public opin­ion is a per­meat­ing influ­ence, and it exacts obed­i­ence to itself; it requires us to drink oth­er men’s thoughts, to speak oth­er men’s words, to fol­low oth­er men’s habits.”
— Walter Bagehot

You could be doing PR for a lousy product or ser­vice, and the lous­i­ness would be a sig­ni­fic­ant concern. 

But you could also be doing PR for an excep­tion­al product or ser­vice but facing PR strategies great­er than yours.

Public opin­ion is an emo­tion­al eco­nomy driv­en by the scarcity of atten­tion. Beyond the con­fines of right and wrong, the pub­lic’s gaze exerts its power, elev­at­ing or anni­hil­at­ing with unwaver­ing force.

Believing you’re mor­ally or intel­lec­tu­ally super­i­or isn’t neces­sar­ily a PR strength: a closed sys­tems loop might obfus­cate com­pet­it­ive devel­op­ment. Also, the pub­lic might inter­pret overt dis­plays of right­eous­ness as enti­tle­ment, nar­ciss­ism, or megalomania.

The realm of pub­lic opin­ion is a jungle with laws to match the context.

The gen­er­al pub­lic can be mis­taken.
Consumers can make poor decisions.
Voters can elect the wrong politicians.

Right or wrong, the out­come is the out­come.
And the out­come is without mercy.

Perceptions Are Approximations

It is not at all clear how much the media influ­ences pub­lic opin­ion and how much pub­lic opin­ion influ­ences the media.”
— Bruce Jackson

Absolute truths are dif­fi­cult start­ing points:

If you scratch the sur­face, you’ll find that almost everything is con­test­able. A glass could be half empty (refill needed!) or still half full (no refill, please!).

Who’s per­cep­tion should reign?

Walter Lippmann: Public Opinion and Perception Management

No one is basing their atti­tudes and beha­viours on real­ity; we’re basing them on our per­cep­tions of real­ity.

Walter Lippmann (1889 – 1974) pro­posed that our per­cep­tions of real­ity dif­fer from the actu­al real­ity. The real­ity is too vast and too com­plex for any­one to pro­cess. 1Lippmann, Walter. 1960. Public Opinion (1922). New York: Macmillan.

  • One who effect­ively man­ages the per­cep­tions of pub­lics acts as a mor­al legis­lat­or, cap­able of shap­ing atti­tudes and beha­viours accord­ing to the cat­egor­ic­al imperative.

The research on per­cep­tion man­age­ment is focused on how organ­isa­tions can cre­ate a desired repu­ta­tion:

The OPM [Organizational Perception Management] field focuses on the range of activ­it­ies that help organ­isa­tions estab­lish and/​or main­tain a desired repu­ta­tion (Staw et al., 1983). More spe­cific­ally, OPM research has primar­ily focused on two inter­re­lated factors: (1) the tim­ing and goals of per­cep­tion man­age­ment activ­it­ies and (2) spe­cif­ic per­cep­tion man­age­ment tac­tics (Elsbach, 2006).”
Source: Hargis, M. & Watt, John 2Hargis, M. & Watt, John. (2010). Organizational per­cep­tion man­age­ment: A frame­work to over­come crisis events. Organization Development Journal. 28. 73 – 87.

Today, our per­cep­tions are heav­ily influ­enced by news media and influ­en­cers, algorithms, and social graphs. Therefore, per­cep­tion man­age­ment is more crit­ic­al than ever before.

We are all cap­tives of the pic­ture in our head — our belief that the world we have exper­i­enced is the world that really exists.”
— Walter Lippmann

Learn more: Walter Lippmann: Public Opinion and Perception Management

The abso­lute seems to exist in the nat­ur­al world, obey­ing the laws of phys­ics, but the world of per­cep­tions is flut­ter­ing shad­ows, dan­cing in the light of the fire against the cave wall.

Public opin­ion is not about right or wrong. It’s about who gets to decide how we see the world. And that’s why pub­lic rela­tions is essen­tial in build­ing a society.

Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing it with oth­er PR- and com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

PR Resource: Amplification Hypothesis

The Amplification Hypothesis

It’s com­mon to find that coun­ter­ar­gu­ments strengthen exist­ing beliefs instead of weak­en­ing them. 

  • The harder you attack someone verbally, the more you con­vince them of their belief, not yours.

The phe­nomen­on is known as the amp­li­fic­a­tion hypo­thes­is, where dis­play­ing cer­tainty about an atti­tude when talk­ing with anoth­er per­son increases and hardens that attitude.

Across exper­i­ments, it is demon­strated that increas­ing atti­tude cer­tainty strengthens atti­tudes (e.g., increases their res­ist­ance to per­sua­sion) when atti­tudes are uni­valent but weak­ens atti­tudes (e.g., decreases their res­ist­ance to per­sua­sion) when atti­tudes are ambi­val­ent. These res­ults are con­sist­ent with the amp­li­fic­a­tion hypo­thes­is.“
Source: A new look at the con­sequences of atti­tude cer­tainty: The amp­li­fic­a­tion hypo­thes­is 3Clarkson, J. J., Tormala, Z. L., & Rucker, D. D. (2008). A new look at the con­sequences of atti­tude cer­tainty: The amp­li­fic­a­tion hypo­thes­is. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, … Continue read­ing

How does the amp­li­fic­a­tion hypo­thes­is work? 

In a threat­en­ing situ­ation or emer­gency, we resort to the prim­al (fast­est) part of the brain and sur­viv­al instincts (fight, flight and freeze). 4Surviving the Storm: Understanding the Nature of Attacks held at Animal Care Expo, 2011 in Orlando, FL.

  • Dichotomous think­ing. This think­ing style is at the heart of rad­ic­al move­ments and fun­da­ment­al­ism. Even people who exer­cise abstract think­ing, logic, reas­on, and the abil­ity to recog­nize com­plex issues can resort to this think­ing style when threatened. 5See also con­ver­sion the­ory.
  • Egocentric think­ing. People who demon­strate non-ego­centric think­ing in many areas can also use this think­ing style under stress. When a tar­get is labelled an enemy, cog­nit­ive steps jus­ti­fy viol­ent beha­viour and pre­vent altru­ism and empathy. 6Beck (1999): Homogenization, Dehumanization and Demonization.
  • Distorted think­ing. We tend to ignore details in our envir­on­ments that do not sup­port our think­ing and beliefs. 7See also cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance.

Establishing com­mon ground and exhib­it­ing empathy demon­strates a genu­ine under­stand­ing of their per­spect­ive, fos­ter­ing trust and open­ness to your ideas. Conversely, if your object­ive is to deflect per­suas­ive attempts, a stra­tegic mis­match of atti­tudes can serve as a power­ful countermeasure.


To per­suade, align your atti­tude with the tar­get. Otherwise, you will only act to cre­ate resistance.


To put off a per­suader, mis­match their atti­tudes. When they are logic­al, be emo­tion­al, and vice versa. 

Read also: The Amplification Hypothesis: How To Counter Extreme Positions

1 Lippmann, Walter. 1960. Public Opinion (1922). New York: Macmillan.
2 Hargis, M. & Watt, John. (2010). Organizational per­cep­tion man­age­ment: A frame­work to over­come crisis events. Organization Development Journal. 28. 73 – 87.
3 Clarkson, J. J., Tormala, Z. L., & Rucker, D. D. (2008). A new look at the con­sequences of atti­tude cer­tainty: The amp­li­fic­a­tion hypo­thes­is. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(4), 810 – 825. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​3​7​/​a​0​0​1​3​192
4 Surviving the Storm: Understanding the Nature of Attacks held at Animal Care Expo, 2011 in Orlando, FL.
5 See also con­ver­sion the­ory.
6 Beck (1999): Homogenization, Dehumanization and Demonization.
7 See also cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance.
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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