The Importance of Public Engagement

Broadly speaking, public engagement is an aggregate reading of the population’s views and attitudes on a given issue. A range of factors affect it, from demographics like income, race, age, gender, and level of education, to external influences like the media and voices of cultural and political leaders. While strong leaders play a role in shaping public opinion, they are also shaped by it. An ability to drive and adapt to shifts in public opinion is one of the most important skills to cultivate as you prepare for a career in public administration.

How Is Public Engagement Measured?

Public Engagement
Image via Flickr by tedeytan

In today’s technology-driven world, public opinion is measured through scientific polling. Companies such as The Gallup Organization, Pew Research Center, and Rasmussen Reports regularly conduct polls with controls in place to prevent inadvertent bias in the results. It’s important for leaders and casual observers alike to recognize the difference between a scientific poll and a casual sampling of opinion, like a radio call-in show, to avoid drawing false conclusions based on skewed data.

Polling is limited in terms of what kind of information it can provide. While scientific polling provides an accurate measure of how the public feels about an issue at a given moment in time, it cannot answer deeper questions about the underlying causes of those feelings, nor can it provide strategic insight on how to influence the public’s position.

Does Public Judgement Follow Patterns?

Analyst Daniel Yankelovich believes public judgement follows a predictable seven-stage trajectory, from “dawning awareness” to “making a responsible judgement morally and emotionally.” Leaders can benefit from familiarity with this process, as public opinion tends to be unstable early on, and stronger and less changeable in the latter stages. This evolution can happen gradually, as with public attitudes toward drug addiction, or very quickly, as in the case of marriage equality.

What Role Can a Leader Play in Shaping Public Engagement?

Abraham Lincoln said, “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.” In order to succeed, leaders must strike a balance between recognizing and shaping public opinion.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt provides an example of a leader who struck that balance in the lead-up to American involvement in the second World War. By selectively exerting his influence and exercising patience, he contributed to a shift in public opinion away from the isolationism of the mid-1930s to passionate support for intervention in the months before Pearl Harbor. While some criticize Roosevelt for leading from behind, others praise him for shrewdly waiting for the public to catch up to his position on the war, thus allowing him to take action with the full support of the American people behind him.

What Role Does Public Engagement Play in Shaping Leaders?

The power of influence in the relationship between leaders and public opinion works both ways. Strong leaders recognize the importance of playing an active role in shaping public opinion. But effective leadership also means recognizing when the time has come to reevaluate one’s own positions and priorities in response to public sentiment.

In 2004, then-Senate-candidate Barack Obama went on record as supporting the idea that marriage should be between a man and a woman. In 2008, Vice Presidential candidate Joe Biden echoed that position. At the time they made their statements, their views were consistent with American public opinion on marriage equality. But the public’s views on the issue changed rapidly, and by late 2011, most Americans favored extending full marital rights to same-sex couples.

It took until May 2012 for Vice President Joe Biden to express support for marriage equality, followed a few days later by President Obama. Both leaders talked about being moved by conversations with friends and family, as well as cultural influences like the popular television series “Will and Grace.” On the issue of marriage equality, the public’s position evolved faster than that of their leaders, and that evolution played a major role in driving them to change their views. In June 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that same-sex marriage was a constitutional right, overturning dissenting states’ refusals to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Experts credit public momentum built by the “careful public relations” strategy of gay rights activists, and in an unprecedented move, Chief Justice Roberts cited multiple counts of lower courts striking down bans on same-sex marriages in an appendix supporting his decision.

Today’s leaders must walk a fine line between responding to and shaping public opinion. A solid foundation in the fundamentals of public leadership will prepare you to navigate this exciting and rapidly changing area as you contribute to the causes you care about.

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