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The OCR Glossary

Public Opinion

Thomas Roessing

The term public opinion stands for a large number of concepts, theories, and phenomena. Some of them are not related to one another at all and only share the denomination. Thus, there are a plethora of definitions of public opinion. However, most definitions and concepts of public opinion fall into one of three categories: (1) public opinion is identical with the results of survey research; (2) public opinion results from rational, informed, public discourse; and (3) public opinion is a subliminal form of social control. All three concepts of public opinion are important for corporate reputation management, because all three are directly linked to reputation. This entry explains the three types of public opinion and their particular understanding of the term public, as well as their relationship to reputation, especially corporate reputation.

Public Opinion as Survey Research

Journalists, scientists, and others often refer to the results of survey research as public opinion. In this context, public opinion is what (most) people think according to academic and commercial polls. There is no theory behind this concept of public opinion. Public in this concept refers to everyone in a given population. This population is usually a general community or society; surveys among particular populations, such as surgeons, managers, or drug addicts, are rarely referred to as public opinion.

People’s opinions are relevant for corporate reputation management because a reputation can be defined as a set of opinions about a given subject, including corporations. What (most) people think about a corporation is naturally a keystone of corporate reputation (alongside other constructs, e.g., media tone or image among opinion leaders). Surveys may directly address corporate reputation or measure opinions on reputation-related brands, products, and services (e.g., the image of a soft drink brand, sports utility vehicles, or massages). Moreover, surveys provide corporate reputation managers with information on indirectly relevant opinions, for example, about values, fashions, and behavior. If, for example, a corporation enjoys a reputation of being family oriented, a decline in family values in public opinion would be relevant for this corporation’s reputation management.

Public Opinion as Rational, Informed, Public Discourse

The conception that public opinion is the result of a rational discourse, led by informed people and aimed at the common good, is inseparably linked to the works of Jürgen Habermas. This understanding of public opinion is based on a normative theory. Normative theories are less concerned with empirical findings (i.e., what actually is) and more with ideals (i.e., what should be). They cannot be empirically tested, but empirical research can determine to what extent reality meets the postulates of a normative theory.

According to Habermas’s theory and related concepts, public opinion must meet the following criteria:

  • Public opinion can only be held by informed people of intelligence and morality.
  • Public opinion emerges from a public discourse that is led in a rational manner, debating the pros and cons of a socially relevant issue with the objective to find the truth. The debate must be open and unrestricted and free of particular interests.
  • One result of the rational discourse is the evaluation of political acts. Public opinion functions as a counterbalance to institutionalized government and power.

According to Habermas, the golden era of public opinion was the 18th century, with its open discussions in coffeehouses and other public places. A number of recent studies have found that today the normative requirements for public opinion are never fully met by social reality. Usually, public debates are not entirely rational, open and unrestricted, or free from particular interests. It is even doubtful that they were so in the coffeehouses of the 18th century. In recent years, researchers revived Habermas’s ideas in the hope that the Internet would bring his ideal closer to reality, especially due to its openness and the almost endless opportunity for debate. Again, several studies revealed that online discussions are rarely rational (although there are some promising exceptions), and oftentimes, the discussants lack information or intelligence. Moreover, there are still plenty of restrictions, for example, the lack of high-speed Internet access in rural areas or the lack of computer skills among elderly people, keeping people from joining the online discourse.

Normative theories of public opinion have no direct importance for corporate reputation management. Whether a discussant in a coffeehouse or an online forum meets Habermas’s requirements is of no consequence for any organization’s reputation. However, real members of the informed elite and the (more or less rational) opinions they publish may influence corporate reputation. Intellectuals may act as opinion leaders (avant-gardists) in criticizing corporations, brands, products, or services or in promoting certain lifestyles. Intellectuals have access to the mass media, which spread their ideas to the general public. Having a bad reputation among respected and frequently cited members of a society’s intellectual elite makes it difficult to achieve or maintain a favorable image in the general public opinion.

Public Opinion as Social Control

Public opinion as social control is a very old concept. Philosophers and authors from Ancient Europe and Ancient China described and analyzed the phenomenon. Later on, authors such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Alexis de Tocqueville, and John Locke dwelled on the subject. Locke, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, explicitly linked public opinion, social control, and reputation when he explained his law of opinion or reputation as a measure of virtue and vice.

During the 20th century, social scientists turned their interest toward the social psychological conception of public opinion as social control. German pollster Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann is particularly renowned for her empirical and theoretical work on public opinion. Her definition of public opinion consists of several modules, all of which are important to single out public opinion from other social phenomena. These modules are as follows:

  • Public opinion is not limited to verbal expressions but includes any publicly visible behavior.
  • Public opinion is what can be said or done in public without the risk of social isolation.
  • Some things must be said or done because they are expected. This phenomenon is called solid public opinion. Examples of solid public opinion are customs and manners.
  • Issues of public opinion must have an emotional potential, a moral component, to make social control work.

Noelle-Neumann’s work began in the 1960s and the early 1970s, when she discovered that sometimes during an election campaign a considerable number of voters eventually make up their minds in favor of the expected winner and against the expected loser. Moreover, long after an election, more people claim in surveys to have voted for the winner than actually did (overclaiming). Similarly, not everyone who voted for the actual loser is willing to admit that afterward (underclaiming). There is a need among most people to belong to the winning camp and to avoid belonging to the losing camp. Noelle-Neumann launched further research on a massive scale and developed her theory of public opinion—of which the spiral of silence is the most prominent part. Spirals of silence are a process of public opinion formation—that is, the evolutionary determination of what can be said and done in public and what is socially unacceptable. In this concept of public opinion, the term public means “visible for everyone to see and to judge.” As in the expression public eye, the social psychological public functions as an evaluating entity.

Noelle-Neumann’s theory of public opinion consists of 11 assumptions and hypotheses:

  1. Most human beings fear social isolation.
  2. Due to their fear of isolation, people constantly monitor what others say or do and what meets public approval or disapproval.
  3. Saying or doing what is not accepted by public opinion leads to threats of social isolation.
  4. People tend to refrain from stating or showing their position in public when they are under the impression that this would lead to laughter, scorn, or other threats of isolation.
  5. When people expect their opinions to be met with approval, they tend to voice them freely and boldly.
  6. The opinion camp that has the more active and bolder followers appears to be in the majority or at least to be likely to win.
  7. In a spiraling process, more and more supporters of the losing camp will fall silent, and more and more followers of the winning camp will actively voice their opinions in public.
  8. Processes of public opinion as social control require an emotional potential, a moral component, to make social pressure work.
  9. The mass media play an important role in present-day public opinion. They (a) inform people about the climate of opinion (i.e., which side appears to be winning or losing), (b) inform the audience about what is socially accepted and what is not, (c) set the agenda for opinion formation, and (d) provide the public with arguments for the public display of opinions.
  10. Public opinion finds its limitations in time and space. What was acceptable in the 1960s may be outrageous today, and what is totally unacceptable in Tokyo may be completely normal behavior in New York City.
  11. Public opinion integrates societies by solving serious conflicts. This is also called the latent function of public opinion because the affected individuals usually do not consciously notice this process.

Noelle-Neumann’s theory sparked a considerable amount of research all over the world. In recent years, scientists began to expand and adapt the theory and the research methods to the Internet era. However, it also received a lot of criticism. There are still logical gaps in the theory, and it is extremely difficult to test it empirically. In addition, there is ideologically motivated criticism because of the theory’s idea of man, conceiving human beings to be passive and irrational.

Application for Corporate Reputation Management

While it is usually applied in the realm of political communication, knowledge about the social psychological concept of public opinion and the spiral of silence can be of great value to corporations. Especially those companies that deal in emotionally charged goods or services are rather likely to find themselves confronted with public opinion. For example, inflicting damage to the environment is a guarantee for negative press and negative public opinion, at least in some parts of the world. A prominent instance is the public outcry over Shell’s plan to sink the defunct oil rig Brent Spar in the 1990s. There was a boycott of Shell’s gas stations; its customers were confronted with the public threat of isolation for violating the public consensus against the company. The mass media and Greenpeace’s public relations strategy played an important role in the development of the conflict.

Means to fight against a spiral of silence are limited. A very important measure is to be on good terms with the mass media. In addition, companies with many satisfied customers could encourage them to defend the company in public—especially in times of crisis. However, companies dealing with nuclear power or genetically engineered seed, or whatever public opinion finds unacceptable, will face difficult times when public opinion is hostile to them. When they are not very popular with journalists and lack a significant number of satisfied customers, these companies will find themselves in a difficult position.

Donsbach, W. (Ed.). (2014). The spiral of silence: New perspectives on communication and public opinion. London: Routledge.

Glynn, C. J. (1999). Public opinion. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Habermas, J. (1998). The structural transformation of the public sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Noelle-Neumann, E. (1984). The spiral of silence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Noelle-Neumann, E., & Petersen, T. (2004). The spiral of silence and the social nature of man. In L. L. Kaid (Ed.), Handbook of political communication research (pp. 339–356). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Schulz, A., & Roessler, P. (2012). The spiral of silence and the Internet: Selection of online content and the perception of the public opinion climate in computer-mediated communication environments. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 24(3), 346–367. doi:

See Also

Agenda-Setting Theory; Corporate Associations; Crisis Response Strategies; Journalism; Media Effects Theory; Media Reputation; News Media; Prominence; Public Esteem; Reputation Cascades; Research Methods in Corporate Reputation; Spiral of Silence Theory

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