Public sentiment: the new form of political power
Political power has become more diffuse. Whereas earlier generations may have been satisfied by the right to vote in general elections or to join a union, today people expect to actively shape aspects of their political and consumer lives. Mass communication platforms make it easier for people to speak up and for individuals to mobilise as groups – and through their efforts, people are forcing change.
This poses a problem for politicians, who are faced with a reactive public that monitors and responds to what the government is doing. It equally poses a problem for businesses: reputations are made and unmade quickly, and products can take off or bomb in an instant. Stakeholders who represent their own specific goals can only get so far if they do not bring the public on board. Any professional interested in influencing public policy must therefore also consider how to engage public opinion.
The difficulty lies in working out how to measure public opinion accurately. In old politics, Churchill took the view that “there is no such thing as public opinion. There is only published opinion.” Now, the amount of opinion published daily is so prolific that it is difficult to tell which views reflect majority sentiment. Social media acts as a loudspeaker that amplifies certain voices and distorts those not active in the online debate. An understanding of social media is necessary precisely because it is not representative, thanks to the role of ‘activated’ voices in influencing and even manipulating public opinion. These can quickly – and unpredictably – become a serious challenge to sectors and individual companies. But to focus exclusively on opinions expressed on these platforms risks ignoring the quiet majority whose views are revealed through consumer and voting behaviour – to the detriment of the inattentive corporation.
To create a more accurate understanding of public sentiment, we need to use representative methods. This means polling a large number of respondents, whose demographic characteristics reflect the diversity of the population as a whole. These can be used to gauge net public acceptability, support, and red lines for a policy. Thorough public surveys can produce an evidence-based picture of the different attitudinal tribes comprising our society, and can indicate the best ways to engage with these groups. By monitoring attitudes over time, businesses can anticipate trends by better understanding how public opinion is shifting. This in turn can help future-proof strategy and design communications which are more likely to hit the right notes.
Yet opinion polling alone may not to be enough. Polling can indicate the public acceptability of surface-level, headline policies, but closed questions generally do not reflect the necessary costs and trade-offs of policy decisions. Polls can act as a thermostat for the public’s immediate or emotional response to policy, but unpacking issues in any depth requires something more. This has led to a rise in the popularity of non-survey approaches by businesses, such as focus groups and deliberative events.
The most accurate gauge of public opinion will combine different elements of the social research toolkit: conducting surveys and opinion polls to measure immediate public reactions, and delving deeper via qualitative methods for the details. Quantitative data acts as a summary of thousands of individual experiences: illustrating some of these experiences helps put that data in context.
By taking time to accurately understand public opinion, businesses can mitigate reputational risk and design communications strategies which bring the public on board. They can arm themselves against ‘populist’ policies which are in fact driven by unrepresentative social media or political pressure groups, even when these are close to main party leaderships. To thrive in a new political world of diffuse power, social media, and a reactive public, businesses must engage with the public just as much as with politics.
Click here to find out more about Lexington’s Public Opinion & Engagement work.