Opinion leaders are a crucial target for any public relations program. Why? Because they have the ability to influence other people’s actions through interpersonal contact. The challenge for PR professionals is identifying these opinion leaders so they can build their understanding of and support for their organizations, enabling them to be advocates for those organizations and their actions.
Opinion leaders are in a position to influence other people’s actions because they:
–have a view that carries weight in a community.
–are catalysts for the formation of public opinion.
–are highly interested in an issue or issues.
–are better informed than the average person.
–are believed to have more knowledge of a subject or issue.
–are avid consumers of mass media.
–are interpreters of media content.
–actively search out information on a subject.
–like to let their opinions be known
–actively share information.
Opinion leaders are a vital element of the diffusion process or two-step flow decision-making process that is based on a 1944 study by sociologists Paul Lazarsfeld, Bernard Berelson and Hazel Gaudet. In “The People’s Choice” they analyzed voter decision-making during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1940 re-election campaign.
Their study showed media information did not get directly to target audiences and influence their behavior. It first reached opinion leaders, who evaluated it, then shared it with others in their social circles. The study showed only 5 percent of the voters were affected by direct exposure to media messages.
Lazarsfeld and Elihu Katz introduced the two-step flow theory of communication in “Personal Influence” in 1955. One of the key services opinion leaders provide, said fellow scholar Herbert Menzel, is that they interpret media messages for audiences who are confused by the flood of information they receive daily from the media.
More evidence of the role of opinion leaders came in 1959 when Iowa State University researchers Joe Bohlen and George Beal explained the five steps of decision-making they saw farmers go through in the adoption of a new kind of hybrid corn.
- Information or Interest
- Reinforcement (added by later researchers)
It is called two-step flow because media play an important role in the first two stages (awareness and information or interest). They play a less significant role in the last three stages, where opinion leaders and interpersonal communication take over as key elements that lead to behavior.