The process of shaping public opinion is out of control of the government and yet the public opinion influences public policy. As a social process, it is characterized by a different range of stakeholders who represent different interests. Public opinion depends on who defines the issue, who has the right to speak and be heard and what are the acceptable solutions for consideration. This makes it difficult for the government to control and shape the public opinion.
In a democracy, different interest groups including formal and informal opinion leaders and the media influence and shape the public opinion. They set the agenda of what is discussed in the social arena by including some issues while excluding others. For example, the carbon emission reduction policy in Australia is being influenced by public opinion shaped by media, environmental groups and other interest groups. In an authoritarian society, the public opinion is easier to shape as the tools used to shape public opinion such as mass media can be controlled to greater length by the state.
The politicians take note of the attitudes, issues and concerns of the public in making policies because whether the government is elected or not, the support of the public is important in policy implementation. Politicians invest in professional staffs (spin doctors) that monitor the public attitudes, discontent, dissent or issues through opinion polls and media surveys. They then apply marketing strategies to shape the public’s opinion. Using this structured interaction, the politicians acquire public support.
If the politicians do not win the support of the public, the policy implementation process might be undermined as it needs to be enforceable, legitimate and should fit with the public’s interests. Public opinion can lead to success or failure of policy implementation. In order to define and protect the public opinion, there needs to be ways of protecting the power of the citizens so that the opinions of different interest groups can be expressed freely and be considered in environmental policy making.