In democracies, the government is obliged to act on the interests of the citizens (“sovereignty of the people”). This extends to national governments as well as the European Institutions which are often criticized for insufficient democratic legitimacy. In the public sphere citizens are able to enunciate topics and opinions which they deem important. It is through that process that the civil society is able to influence the political agenda. The public sphere is mainly mediated through mass media channels and enables the interaction between politicians and citizens. Thus, while the political decision is ultimately made within the political system, politicians are likely to adhere to public opinion in order to get re-elected. At the same time, voters receive political information mainly by the media. It seems only rational for different individual and collective actors in society to try to influence public opinion (‘agenda-building’). This logic applies even more for those actors who do not have the resources to take direct action in political progress (e.g. by lobbying or legal action). Since actors of the civil society such as Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) usually do not have extensive financial means, they rely on public relations activities (PR) as their tool to enforce their interests. Nowadays more and more decisions are taken in Brussels, therefore the importance of getting active and visible on a European level increases also for NGOs. Hence, this paper investigates if and how NGOs are able to place their topics in the public sphere in order to influence public opinion.
First, it is important to point out what the terms ‘public sphere’ and ‘public opinion’ refer to. For the theoretical analysis regarding the opportunities of NGOs to impact the public sphere, I drew on the model of Gerhards and Neidhardt. According to them, the (political) public sphere is a system between the electorate and the political decision-makers which enables both sides to observe themselves and each other. Opposing agents give input to that sphere by communicating their interests publically (Gerhards/Neidhardt 1990). The Public sphere is divided into three levels (Gerhards 1993): (1) encounter level, where people meet by accident for a short time and without scheduled topics, (2) level of organized events, (3) mass media level and in later versions of the model (4) level of virtual interaction (Gerhards 1998). Public opinion is defined as an opinion to that a person cannot openly oppose without losing prestige. According to Gerhards and Neidhardt, public opinions develop when a larger public is convinced of an opinion and willingly communicates that opinion in the public sphere (Gerhards/Neidhardt 1990). Keeping these definitions in mind, there are two steps NGOs can take in order to influence the public opinion: first, they have to make their topics and opinions visible and accessible to a broad public. Second, they have to convince the audience and make them communicate the NGO’s claim even further.
Although all levels of the public sphere need to be addressed and interlinked, Gerhards and Neidhardt point out that the mass media level is most important to influence public opinion due to the quantity of people who are reached by mass media (Neidhardt 1994). Taking a look at German opinion poll seems to support this claim: people name TV, newspapers and radio as the most important means to inform themselves and form an opinion about political issues (Breunig/Hofsümmer/Schröter 2014). The most important question, therefore, must be: How are NGOs able to introduce their content to the mass media agenda? Clearly, NGOs need to create and publish content e.g. via press releases or press conferences. After that, the content has to be picked up by journalists (Gerhards 1993). There are many theoretical approaches explaining the rules by which journalists select news (e.g. gatekeeper research, news value research). In order to create public awareness, NGOs should adapt to these rules. The content must be interesting for a broad public and contain news value (e.g. proximity, negativity, prominence) (Gerhards/Neidhardt 1990). In addition to that high quality content is more likely to be picked by the media (Gerhards 1993). This means that investing in good PR staff as well as creating high quality footage or texts ultimately pays off. Studies show public officials are over-represented in the media coverage (Schulz 2011) making it more difficult for NGOs appear in the public sphere prominently. At the same time the media are also more likely to report about negative issues (Schulz 2011). This could be a chance for NGOs if they succeed at problematizing a situation (surely ethical aspects should be considered).
As the importance of the internet grows, new avenues for NGOs to gain access to the public sphere emerge. We can assume that the most of the previously mentioned media rules still apply online. However, there will be a shift from social relevance to individual relevance as the most important feature for distribution (Schmidt 2012). Moreover NGOs are able to get in touch with their audience directly and do not rely on intermediaries such as the traditional new media. At the same time, the competition for attention has increased simultaneously. Furthermore, NGOs have to abide by additional the rules of search engines like Google to be found on the Internet (Hasebrink/Hölig 2014). To learn more on how the online communication of NGOs affects their visibility in the public sphere, further (empirical) research is needed.
When a NGO was successful in creating public awareness for a topic, the next aim is to influence public opinion. To pick up on the definition provided above, a broad audience must be convinced of an opinion and mobilized to communicate in favour of that opinion. Again, mass media seem to be powerful channels for this purpose due to their broad audience. Yet, the interpersonal level is also crucial concerning the forming of opinion (Marcinkowski/Marxer 2011). Cross-linkages of all levels contribute to dominating an opinion, so that no one can oppose it without losing prestige, which refers to our definition of public opinion (Gerhards/Neidhardt 1990). Though Gerhards and Neidhardt are pessimistic about the possibility of creating a single homogenous public opinion (Neidhardt 1994; Gerhards 1993), they point out different strategies how to convince the public. First, it is required to define a situation as a problem which must be solved by the political system (Gerhards/Neidhardt 1990). A NGO needs to make clear that this problem affects the audience and its values. Media audiences are usually non-expert audiences, so the explanations, arguments and assessments provided by the NGO have to be simple and reasonable (Gerhards/Neidhardt 1990). Because the audience wants to rely on the information given by the NGO, NGOs have to be in the audience’s confidence to be capable and trustworthy (Neidhardt 1994). Factors for gaining trustworthiness include (1) winning other trustworthy people for potential cooperations, (2) showing that the own forecasts usually turned out to be right and (3) claiming public welfare (instead of own profit). Empirical support for the arguments as well as analyses are also helpful tools to gain credibility. To mobilize the public a NGO should offer concrete and achievable solutions (Gerhards/Neidhardt 1990).
To sum it all up: Influencing public opinion is a core opportunity for NGOs to enforce their interests, because NGOs usually do not have extensive financial means. With PR activities NGOs are able to convince voters and politicians. Therefore they need to create a public sphere for their topics and make a broad audience communicate in favour for it. Here mass media and cross-linkages between all levels of public sphere seem to be most important. To gain attention NGOs should create high quality content which is likely to be picked up by the media. To convince the audience they should offer trustworthy und understandable arguments as well as concrete and achievable solutions.
Sophie Burkard is currently enrolled in the Master program of political science at the University of Münster. She holds a Bachelor degree in communication research from the University of Münster.
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