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Walter Lippmann: Public Opinion and Perception Management

A pioneering journalist, political commentator, and public intellectual.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

Walter Lippmann’s ideas have heav­ily influ­enced PR.

Walter Lippmann, one of the most prom­in­ent American journ­al­ists and polit­ic­al com­ment­at­ors of the 20th cen­tury, left an indelible mark on media, pub­lic opin­ion, and democracy.

His intel­lec­tu­al leg­acy con­tin­ues to shape our under­stand­ing of media’s role in soci­ety, the form­a­tion of pub­lic opin­ion, and the func­tion­ing of demo­crat­ic institutions.

Here goes:

Managing Perceptions of Reality

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

Walter Lippmann and the Pseudo-Environment

Born in 1889 in New York City, Lippmann began his career in journ­al­ism at an early age, writ­ing for vari­ous pub­lic­a­tions before even­tu­ally becom­ing a co-founder of the legendary pub­lic­a­tion, The New Republic. 

Over the course of his illus­tri­ous career, Lippmann penned numer­ous books, essays, and news­pa­per columns, grap­pling with some of the most press­ing issues of his time. 

Central to Lippmann’s work was his explor­a­tion of the rela­tion­ship between media and democracy. 

In his sem­in­al book, “Public Opinion” (1922), Lippmann dis­sec­ted the pro­cess through which news is dis­sem­in­ated and con­sumed, arguing that the media shapes pub­lic per­cep­tion of real­ity by con­struct­ing a “pseudo-envir­on­ment” that often dis­torts the truth. This idea, which high­lighted the lim­it­a­tions and poten­tial biases of journ­al­ism, under­scored the import­ance of accur­ate report­ing and the need for a well-informed cit­izenry in a func­tion­ing democracy.

The Manufacturing of Consent

Lippmann’s concept of the “man­u­fac­ture of con­sent” fur­ther illus­trated the power dynam­ics at play in the media landscape. 

Lippmann argued that a small group of elites, whom he called the “invis­ible gov­ern­ment,” wiel­ded sig­ni­fic­ant influ­ence over pub­lic opin­ion by con­trolling the nar­rat­ive presen­ted in the media. This idea laid the ground­work for future the­or­ies on media manip­u­la­tion and the role of pro­pa­ganda in shap­ing pub­lic discourse.

At the same time, Lippmann was acutely aware of the chal­lenges facing the aver­age cit­izen in mak­ing sense of the com­plex world around them. He pos­ited that indi­vidu­als often rely on “ste­reo­types” or sim­pli­fied men­tal con­structs to pro­cess inform­a­tion and make decisions, which can lead to biases and misconceptions. 

These “ste­reo­types” have pro­found implic­a­tions for how media organ­iz­a­tions present news and how indi­vidu­als inter­pret it, emphas­iz­ing the need for crit­ic­al think­ing and media lit­er­acy in nav­ig­at­ing the mod­ern inform­a­tion landscape.

The Omnicompetent Citizen

Despite his skep­ti­cism about the abil­ity of the gen­er­al pub­lic to engage mean­ing­fully with the com­plex­it­ies of con­tem­por­ary issues, Lippmann remained a staunch advoc­ate for demo­crat­ic principles. 

In his later work, “The Phantom Public” (1925), Lippmann grappled with the concept of the “omni­com­pet­ent cit­izen” and the role of pub­lic opin­ion in demo­crat­ic gov­ernance. He con­ten­ded that while the aver­age cit­izen may not pos­sess the expert­ise neces­sary to dir­ectly influ­ence policy decisions, they still hold the power to keep decision-makers account­able through the bal­lot box.

Lippmann’s ideas on the role of journ­al­ism in demo­cracy also exten­ded to his advocacy for a respons­ible and eth­ic­al press. He was a key pro­ponent of object­ive journ­al­ism, arguing that report­ers should strive to provide unbiased, fac­tu­al inform­a­tion to their audi­ences.

Media, Public Opinion, and Democracy

In con­clu­sion, Walter Lippmann’s con­tri­bu­tions to our under­stand­ing of media, pub­lic opin­ion, and demo­cracy have left an endur­ing impact on the fields of journ­al­ism, polit­ic­al sci­ence, and com­mu­nic­a­tion studies. 

His insights into the power dynam­ics at play in the media land­scape, the lim­it­a­tions of pub­lic know­ledge, and the respons­ib­il­it­ies of the press in a demo­crat­ic soci­ety remain as rel­ev­ant today as they were dur­ing his lifetime.

In the con­stantly evolving media land­scape, Walter Lippmann’s ideas on the inter­play between media, pub­lic opin­ion, and demo­cracy provide a valu­able frame­work for under­stand­ing the chal­lenges and respons­ib­il­it­ies that both media organ­isa­tions and indi­vidu­al cit­izens face. 

By draw­ing on Lippmann’s insights, we can strive to cre­ate more informed, engaged, and crit­ic­al pub­lics cap­able of nav­ig­at­ing the com­plex­it­ies of the mod­ern inform­a­tion land­scape and hold­ing decision-makers account­able in the pur­suit of a healthy, func­tion­ing democracy.

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

Suggested Literature

Lippmann, W. (1922). Public opin­ion. Harcourt, Brace and Company.

Lippmann, W. (1925). The phantom pub­lic. Harcourt, Brace and Company.

Steel, R. (1980). Walter Lippmann and the American Century. Little, Brown and Company.

Schudson, M. (2008). Why demo­cra­cies need an unlov­able press. Polity.

McNair, B. (2011). An intro­duc­tion to polit­ic­al com­mu­nic­a­tion (5th ed.). Routledge.

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.
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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