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Fundamentals of communication,

Publics, Public Opinion and its moulders: historical evolution, term

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This chapter will familiarize the readers with the concept of 'public opinion' (while taking, simultaneously,
a brief look at the individual concepts of public and opinion) and with the modern moulders of public
opinion as they relate and dramatize a significant role in the field of modern public relations.

Historical evolution of the term 'public'

Nowadays when we use the term 'public' we infer to a specific group which is composed by persons
sharing at least one identical characteristic, i.e. age, (two examples are teenagers as a public, retired
persons and 3rd agers as another public), parenthood (mothers and fathers as a public or in contrast
childless couples as a public). Other characteristics which may function as the building base, or backbone,
of a public may range from church goers to atheists, from sports fans to joggers, from consumers of
a special brand of toothpaste to the followers of a specific political party and ideology. Combining a
number of characteristics and other variables more generalized publics emerge on a global scale and
among them such are the religious publics (Christians, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists) or the National
publics (Americans, Britons, Germans, Chinese, etc.).

Private and public enterprises and organizations have to face the reality of dealing with a variety of publics
which may include employees, suppliers, consumers, neighbours, Licensing Bureaus, Governmental
Agencies, stockholders and communication media. In the day-to-day operations it is not uncommon for
some of these publics to overlap as for example in the case of employees who are also consumers of the
products their company produces or services their organization offers and perhaps even stockholders
having purchased company shares.

Taking a very brief glimpse at the ancient Greek city-States and particularly the city of Athens, we realize
that the concept of public (το κοινόν) was used to differentiate what referred to the total city population
partaking in 'State Affairs' in a democratic processes (participation was exclusively the right of male
Athenian citizens) from the individual (το ίδιον) referring to the personal or to the single person.

The modern term idiotic, which is used pejoratively for specific forms of behaviour, has its etymological
root and origin in the Greek term mentioned above characterizing the personal in contrast to the collective
type of behaviour. Thucydides (book 2.33–46) reported that Pericles, in his 'Epitaph', the funeral oration
for the fallen Athenians at the Peloponnesian War, emphasized that in the Athenian democracy the
person who was not interested and did not participate in the common affairs preferring to be exclusively
concerned only with his own personal affairs was considered useless, if not even dangerous, for the
public, that is for the city-State.

Hoelscher (1979) has considered the term public as originating etymologically from the Latin word
poplicus which later gave its place to the word populus (people) and it was influenced by the related word
pubes which refers to the adult male population.

In this sense the conceptual implications and extensions of the term public convey the same meanings
as the ancient Greek term 'ecclesia' (εκκλησία του Δήμου) meaning the aggregate of the male Athenian
citizens in their city-State politics. In this sense the public consisted of a few thousand Athenian citizens
having the right to participate in the affairs of the city-State (Πόλις). In this exclusively male public the
women of Athens and the servants were not permitted to participate. Indeed historical estimates make
reference to less than ten thousand Athenian 'citizens' out of a population of more than half a million
city and regional residents. The Athenian public convening on the hill of Pnyx (Πνύκα), located less
than a km west of the Acropolis, as did the Roman public in the Forum, provided the right to each and
every participant to state his view but the vast majority did not use their right to speak leaving it to the
Statesmen and orators to do so employing and exhibiting publicly their rhetorical skills.

The term public continued to be used throughout history in the context of meaning described above.
As human demographics, however, expanded and increased in a parallel fashion with the geographic
boundaries of nation-States they exceeded dramatically the human and geographic dimensions of the
Athenian agora and the Roman Forum. Indeed starting with the 18th century, the public, as Gabriel
de Tarde (1901) saw it, became a non-contiguous social collectivity dispersed in space but united by
common symbols. Modern publics had acquired grand dimensions being composed of huge numbers
of humans dispersed in great distances in their geographic habitats. Thus the numbers of people and the
geographic dimensions rendered impossible the face-to-face interaction of members of the public and
the possibility of creating interpersonal acquaintances among the participants.

Opinion, on the other hand, is a term used in English, French and other European languages and it stems
etymologically from the Italian opinione, originating in the Latin term opinari (translated in English as
to surmise, to hold a belief or judgement).

Public Opinion

Public opinion, a term emerging from the combination of the concepts of public and opinion, is a widely
used and widely defined term. Turn on your TV set, tune into your favourite radio station at news
broadcasting time, read your newspaper or an article in your favourite magazine and you will come
across references to the term 'public opinion' again and again. Journalists, politicians, business executives
and the lay public refer to 'public opinion' when specific issues rise and it is fairly common for social
scientists do conduct research attempting to measure public opinion on these issues.

Walter Lippmann (1922 &1960) regarded public opinion as that which emanated from persons interested
in public affairs, rather than as a fixed body of individuals. He believed that public opinion was effective
only if those interested persons supported or opposed the 'actors' in public affairs. Land and Sears (1964)
are quoted by Mitchell (1970) defining public opinion as 'an implicit verbal response or 'answer' that
an individual gives in response to a particular stimulus situation in which some general 'question' is
raised' (p. 62).

Speier (1950) quoted in Altheide & Johnson (1980) thought public opinion exists when a unique 'right'
is granted to a significant portion of extra governmental persons and noted:

'In its most attenuated form this right asserts itself as the expectation that the government will reveal
and explain its decisions in order to enable people outside the government to think and talk about these
decisions, or to put it in terms of democratic amenities, in order to assure "the success" of the government's
policy.' (p. 7)

Propaganda, which will be presented and discussed more extensively in the following chapter, is most
often associated with the management of public opin ion. Mitchell (1970, pp. 60–61) gave four forms that
public opinion usually assumes: (a) popular opinion as generalized support for an institution, regime,
or political system (as opposed to apathy, withdrawal, or alienation); (b) pat terns of group loyalties and
identifications; (c) public preferences for select leaders; and (d) intensely held opinions prevalent among
a large public regarding public issues and current affairs. Mitchell (1970) likened the propagandist's
management of public opinion to:

'a burning glass which collects and focuses the diffused warmth of popular emotions, concentrating them
upon a specific issue on which the warmth becomes heat and may reach the firing-point of revivals,
risings, revolts, revolu tions' (p. 111).

The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines public opinion as 'an aggregate of the individual views, attitudes,
and beliefs about a particular topic, expressed by a significant proportion of a community. Some scholars
treat the aggregate as a synthesis of the views of all or a certain segment of society; others regard it as a
collection of many differing or opposing views.'

The official Website of the European Commission states (verbatim):

'This is the website for the Public Opinion Analysis sector of the European Commission. Since 1973, the
European Commission has been monitoring the evolution of public opinion in the Member States, thus
helping the preparation of texts, decision-making and the evaluation of its work. Our surveys and studies
address major topics concerning European citizenship: enlargement, social situation, health, culture,
information technology, environment, the Euro, defense, etc.' (http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/
index_en.htm)


  1. Communication is a universal phenomenon: system of 4 components
  2. Human Communication: scheme of human communication, defining
  3. Body Language: darwins contribution, intrigue of body language
  4. Mass Media & social media: stone inscription, printing process
  5. The Role of attitudes in human communication: defining attitudes
  6. The birth of a speciality: roots in antiquity, historic glimpse
  7. Publics, Public Opinion and its moulders: historical evolution, term
  8. Rhetoric, Persuasion and Propaganda: rome, love, definitions, variety
  9. Corporate Communication & Responsibility: corporate communication
  10. Press releases, special events and sponsorships: PR specialist
  11. Leaders and Leadership: pantheon of leaders, persons, injustice
  12. Leadership, Power, Authority & Charisma: events, political, financial
  13. Leadership research at the Universities of Iowa, Ohio & Michigan:
  14. Modern theories of leadership in Private and Public Enterprises and Or
  15. Instead of an epilogue: Women leaders remain under a glass ceiling:
  16. References: Bibliography
  17. The Author: Dr Georgios P. Piperopoulos, sociology, psychology