Changing Public Opinion

The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right.

-- Thomas Jefferson, 1787

Your issue may be too controversial for legislation. Legislators rarely drive opinion but they respond to it. You may need to change public perception or raise an issue that people aren’t aware of.

There may be a prevailing myth about your issue that needs to change. For example, there is a myth that government, employers, and insurers pay all healthcare bills. In fact, consumers/voters pay all bills through our premiums, out-of-pocket costs, taxes, and lost wages. But until that myth is exposed, it will be difficult to get people to understand that if we accept waste and excessive prices, we will pay.

So, you need to move public opinion.

While that is very difficult for one person alone, it usually starts with one person.

  • Never underestimate the power of talking to friends, neighbors, and acquaintances about your issue. It’s a small world. Waiting with the other parents at my son’s school bus stop in the morning, I used to make small talk about issues that were important to me. Over the years, my neighbors have become far more active in healthcare advocacy. Several wrote letters and called legislators for the first time in response to a casual conversation about an upcoming vote. Now my quiet street is a powerful force in Connecticut politics, or at least in our district.
  • Do not pass up opportunities to speak to groups. Many community groups search for speakers for their events – the PTA, the League of Women Voters, or your town political clubs. Take advantage of these opportunities – they want to hear about your issue.
  • Access the media - how most people get information about public policies. Get to know the press, let them get to know you
    • Find which sources pay attention to your issue area
    • Introduce yourself
    • Send a packet of information with a personal note offering your help -- serve as a resource for information and quotes, be sure to include your contact information in the packet (do not assume they will keep the envelope)
    • Follow up with a phone call
    • Contact them on occasion (don't be a pest) with real life stories, results of a new survey or report, a different or local take on a national trend, or other timely items
    • Become a local "expert" - when a story arises on the issue, make sure they think of you
    • Write an Op-Ed or Letter to the Editor
    • Call into a talk radio show
      • If you aren’t a regular listener, tune into the show before you come on to get a sense of how it works
    • Include the media in any events you are planning

Some issues can be addressed by passing a law, getting one enforced or just by getting the right information to the right person at the right time.

But some are harder; they need minds to change. It happens slowly, but it will happen.

Related articles

Tips on public speaking

Write an Op-Ed or Letter to the Editor

Be interviewed by a reporter

Research and data

Links

Communications Toolkit – from the Center for Rural Health, University of North Dakota

University of Kansas Community Toolbox