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Walter Lippmann: Public Opinion and Perception Management

A pioneering journalist, political commentator, and public intellectual.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

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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

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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: Organization Development Journal 2Hargis, M. & Watt, John. (2010). Organizational per­cep­tion man­age­ment: A frame­work to over­come crisis events. Organization Development Journal. 28. 73 – 87. … Continue read­ing

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 (1889 – 1974)

Learn more: Walter Lippmann: Public Opinion and Perception Management

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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 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 journ­al­is­m’s lim­it­a­tions and poten­tial biases, under­scored the import­ance of accur­ate report­ing and the need for a well-informed cit­izenry in a func­tion­ing democracy.

Lippmann’s concept of the “man­u­fac­ture of con­sent” fur­ther illus­trated the power dynam­ics 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 scep­ti­cism 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 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 pur­su­ing a healthy, func­tion­ing democracy.

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Thanks for read­ing. Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing art­icles with oth­er com­mu­nic­a­tions and mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sion­als. You might also con­sider my PR ser­vices or speak­ing engage­ments.

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.

PR Resource: Notable PR Professionals

PR Resource: The Anatomy of Attention

There’s only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
— Oscar Wilde

Spin Academy | Online PR Courses

The Anatomy of Attention

Attention is an essen­tial com­pon­ent of pub­lic rela­tions:

  • An organ­isa­tion, starved of atten­tion, trust, and loy­alty, is com­pelled to wage a per­petu­al struggle for its con­tin­ued existence.

And it’s not just organ­isa­tions. We all seem to crave atten­tion in some form or another:

People want to be loved; fail­ing that admired; fail­ing that feared; fail­ing that hated and des­pised. They want to evoke some sort of sen­ti­ment. The soul shud­ders before obli­vi­on and seeks con­nec­tion at any price.”
— Hjalmar Söderberg (1869−1941), Swedish author

It’s fear of social isol­a­tion— and atten­tion star­va­tion.

But what con­sti­tutes ‘atten­tion’?

Attention is a com­plex, real neur­al archi­tec­ture (‘RNA’) mod­el that integ­rates vari­ous cog­nit­ive mod­els and brain cen­ters to per­form tasks like visu­al search.”
Source: Trends in cog­nit­ive sci­ences 3Shipp, S. (2004). The brain cir­cuitry of atten­tion. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8, 223 – 230. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​1​6​/​j​.​t​i​c​s​.​2​0​0​4​.​0​3​.​004

Each of the below terms refers to a spe­cif­ic aspect or type of atten­tion (“men­tal band­width”), a com­plex cog­nit­ive pro­cess. 4Schweizer, K., Moosbrugger, H., & Goldhammer, F. (2005). The struc­ture of the rela­tion­ship between atten­tion and intel­li­gence. Intelligence, 33(6), 589 – 611. … Continue read­ing

Let’s explore dif­fer­ent types of attention:

  • Alertness. This is the state of being watch­ful and ready to respond. It’s the most basic form of atten­tion, rep­res­ent­ing our read­i­ness to per­ceive and pro­cess inform­a­tion from the environment.
  • Sustained atten­tion. This involves focus­ing on a spe­cif­ic task or stim­u­lus over a pro­longed peri­od. It’s cru­cial for tasks that require ongo­ing con­cen­tra­tion, like read­ing or driving.
  • Focused atten­tion. This refers to the abil­ity to con­cen­trate on one par­tic­u­lar stim­u­lus or task while ignor­ing oth­ers. It’s the abil­ity to focus nar­rowly on a single thing.
  • Attentional switch­ing. Also known as task switch­ing or cog­nit­ive flex­ib­il­ity, this involves shift­ing focus from one task to anoth­er. It’s crit­ic­al for mul­ti­task­ing and adapt­ing to chan­ging demands or priorities.
  • Divided atten­tion. This is the abil­ity to pro­cess two or more responses or react to mul­tiple tasks sim­ul­tan­eously. It’s often tested by ask­ing people to per­form two tasks sim­ul­tan­eously, like listen­ing to a con­ver­sa­tion while writing.
  • Attention accord­ing to the super­vis­ory atten­tion­al sys­tem. This concept, derived from cog­nit­ive psy­cho­logy, refers to a high­er-level con­trol sys­tem that reg­u­lates the alloc­a­tion of atten­tion, par­tic­u­larly in situ­ations requir­ing plan­ning or decision-making.
  • Attention as inhib­i­tion. This aspect of atten­tion involves sup­press­ing irrel­ev­ant or dis­tract­ing stim­uli. It’s a cru­cial com­pon­ent of focused atten­tion and self-regulation.
  • Spatial atten­tion. This type of atten­tion focuses on a spe­cif­ic area with­in the visu­al field. It’s like a spot­light that enhances inform­a­tion pro­cessing in a par­tic­u­lar location.
  • Attention as plan­ning. This per­spect­ive views atten­tion as a resource that needs to be alloc­ated effi­ciently, espe­cially in com­plex tasks requir­ing stra­tegic plan­ning and organization.
  • Interference. In the con­text of atten­tion, inter­fer­ence refers to the pro­cess by which irrel­ev­ant inform­a­tion or dis­trac­tions impede the effi­ciency of cog­nit­ive processing.
  • Attention as arous­al. This con­siders atten­tion in the con­text of the gen­er­al level of alert­ness or arous­al. It’s about the read­i­ness of the brain to engage with stim­uli or tasks.
  • Attention accord­ing to the assess­ment tra­di­tion. This refers to meas­ur­ing and eval­u­at­ing atten­tion­al pro­cesses, often in clin­ic­al or edu­ca­tion­al set­tings, to identi­fy atten­tion defi­cits or disorders.

Each type of atten­tion plays a cru­cial role in how we inter­act with and pro­cess inform­a­tion from our envir­on­ment, and under­stand­ing these dif­fer­ent aspects is key in fields like psy­cho­logy, neur­os­cience, and education.

Learn more: The Anatomy of Attention

Logo - Spin Academy - Online PR Courses

There’s only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
— Oscar Wilde

Spin Academy | Online PR Courses

The Anatomy of Attention

Attention is an essen­tial com­pon­ent of pub­lic relations:

  • An organ­isa­tion, starved of atten­tion, trust, and loy­alty, is com­pelled to wage a per­petu­al struggle for its con­tin­ued existence.

And it’s not just organ­isa­tions. We all seem to crave atten­tion in some form or another:

People want to be loved; fail­ing that admired; fail­ing that feared; fail­ing that hated and des­pised. They want to evoke some sort of sen­ti­ment. The soul shud­ders before obli­vi­on and seeks con­nec­tion at any price.”
— Hjalmar Söderberg (1869−1941), Swedish author

It’s fear of social isol­a­tion— and atten­tion star­va­tion.

But what con­sti­tutes ‘atten­tion’?

Attention is a com­plex, real neur­al archi­tec­ture (‘RNA’) mod­el that integ­rates vari­ous cog­nit­ive mod­els and brain cen­ters to per­form tasks like visu­al search.”
Source: Trends in cog­nit­ive sci­ences 5Shipp, S. (2004). The brain cir­cuitry of atten­tion. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8, 223 – 230. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​1​6​/​j​.​t​i​c​s​.​2​0​0​4​.​0​3​.​004

Each of the below terms refers to a spe­cif­ic aspect or type of atten­tion (“men­tal band­width”), a com­plex cog­nit­ive pro­cess. 6Schweizer, K., Moosbrugger, H., & Goldhammer, F. (2005). The struc­ture of the rela­tion­ship between atten­tion and intel­li­gence. Intelligence, 33(6), 589 – 611. … Continue read­ing

Let’s explore dif­fer­ent types of attention:

  • Alertness. This is the state of being watch­ful and ready to respond. It’s the most basic form of atten­tion, rep­res­ent­ing our read­i­ness to per­ceive and pro­cess inform­a­tion from the environment.
  • Sustained atten­tion. This involves focus­ing on a spe­cif­ic task or stim­u­lus over a pro­longed peri­od. It’s cru­cial for tasks that require ongo­ing con­cen­tra­tion, like read­ing or driving.
  • Focused atten­tion. This refers to the abil­ity to con­cen­trate on one par­tic­u­lar stim­u­lus or task while ignor­ing oth­ers. It’s the abil­ity to focus nar­rowly on a single thing.
  • Attentional switch­ing. Also known as task switch­ing or cog­nit­ive flex­ib­il­ity, this involves shift­ing focus from one task to anoth­er. It’s crit­ic­al for mul­ti­task­ing and adapt­ing to chan­ging demands or priorities.
  • Divided atten­tion. This is the abil­ity to pro­cess two or more responses or react to mul­tiple tasks sim­ul­tan­eously. It’s often tested by ask­ing people to per­form two tasks sim­ul­tan­eously, like listen­ing to a con­ver­sa­tion while writing.
  • Attention accord­ing to the super­vis­ory atten­tion­al sys­tem. This concept, derived from cog­nit­ive psy­cho­logy, refers to a high­er-level con­trol sys­tem that reg­u­lates the alloc­a­tion of atten­tion, par­tic­u­larly in situ­ations requir­ing plan­ning or decision-making.
  • Attention as inhib­i­tion. This aspect of atten­tion involves sup­press­ing irrel­ev­ant or dis­tract­ing stim­uli. It’s a cru­cial com­pon­ent of focused atten­tion and self-regulation.
  • Spatial atten­tion. This type of atten­tion focuses on a spe­cif­ic area with­in the visu­al field. It’s like a spot­light that enhances inform­a­tion pro­cessing in a par­tic­u­lar location.
  • Attention as plan­ning. This per­spect­ive views atten­tion as a resource that needs to be alloc­ated effi­ciently, espe­cially in com­plex tasks requir­ing stra­tegic plan­ning and organization.
  • Interference. In the con­text of atten­tion, inter­fer­ence refers to the pro­cess by which irrel­ev­ant inform­a­tion or dis­trac­tions impede the effi­ciency of cog­nit­ive processing.
  • Attention as arous­al. This con­siders atten­tion in the con­text of the gen­er­al level of alert­ness or arous­al. It’s about the read­i­ness of the brain to engage with stim­uli or tasks.
  • Attention accord­ing to the assess­ment tra­di­tion. This refers to meas­ur­ing and eval­u­at­ing atten­tion­al pro­cesses, often in clin­ic­al or edu­ca­tion­al set­tings, to identi­fy atten­tion defi­cits or disorders.

Each type of atten­tion plays a cru­cial role in how we inter­act with and pro­cess inform­a­tion from our envir­on­ment, and under­stand­ing these dif­fer­ent aspects is key in fields like psy­cho­logy, neur­os­cience, and education.

Learn more: The Anatomy of Attention

Logo - Spin Academy - Online PR Courses
ANNOTATIONS
ANNOTATIONS
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. https://​www​.researchg​ate​.net/​p​u​b​l​i​c​a​t​i​o​n​/​2​8​8​2​9​2​5​9​6​_​O​r​g​a​n​i​z​a​t​i​o​n​a​l​_​p​e​r​c​e​p​t​i​o​n​_​m​a​n​a​g​e​m​e​n​t​_​A​_​f​r​a​m​e​w​o​r​k​_​t​o​_​o​v​e​r​c​o​m​e​_​c​r​i​s​i​s​_​e​v​e​nts
3, 5 Shipp, S. (2004). The brain cir­cuitry of atten­tion. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8, 223 – 230. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​1​6​/​j​.​t​i​c​s​.​2​0​0​4​.​0​3​.​004
4, 6 Schweizer, K., Moosbrugger, H., & Goldhammer, F. (2005). The struc­ture of the rela­tion­ship between atten­tion and intel­li­gence. Intelligence, 33(6), 589 – 611. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​1​6​/​j​.​i​n​t​e​l​l​.​2​0​0​5​.​0​7​.​001
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://doctorspin.net/
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at Spin Factory and KIX Communication Index. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.
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