Inbox: What the world thinks now

To Dr Darrell Bricker, public opinion is like smell. People either like something or they don’t and there’s often little rationale behind the reaction.
“That’s how the public makes up its mind about things,” he told group of researchers and company clients in Auckland recently. “It’s now possible to measure, predict, and even manage public opinion, and smarter companies and organisations are doing this already.”
Based in Toronto, Canada, Bricker is CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, company specialising in social research and corporate reputation. Yet, even to him, the emergence of global public opinion and, by extension, how to work with it, is relatively new phenomenon.
Bricker says it has long been possible to see what the world used to be thinking. trawl through any newspaper editorial would have provided such insights. But organisations can now measure what the world is thinking “fairly instantaneously” through multi-modal research that can integrate actions, feedback and insights from huge range of media.
There remain technical hiccups and problems, says Bricker. So don’t expect precise numbers. But it is increasingly possible to gain “some sense of direction”, around, for example, whether people think something is good or bad. And that, he says, is vital information for the decision-makers leading any organisation.
Bricker says that while the economist and political scientist Joseph Schumpeter once famously described capitalism as the world’s greatest force of creative destruction, in his opinion, the choices that citizens and consumer make are now the most destructive forces in the world.
“The public is starting to discover itself: whether it be through new media, social interaction or getting together in the streets – as they did in Cairo’s central square. Public opinion is moving in ways that it has never moved before and it moves fast. Ask [ousted Egyptian president] Hosni Mubarak. It’s destructive force. It sweeps things before it.”
Bricker cautions that organisations must increasingly take public opinion into account.
“In the past, if something didn’t fit within the four Ps of marketing, [product, price, promotion and positioning] marketers didn’t tend to take it into account. Public opinion wasn’t factored in to marketing decisions. We’re now working out ways to take it into account.”
To Bricker’s mind, the study of global public opinion is akin to trying to figure out how diseases spread: how trends develop and spread poses some of today’s most interesting unanswered questions.
“If, for example, people in Australia get upset about genetically modified foods, how long would it take for that concern to spread to New Zealand? And then on to Europe and to North America? And how does that pattern work?”
Such questions play out in world in which there is now an “enormous decline” in public trust, according to Bricker.
“People are more sceptical now – they’re not necessarily more critical but they’re asking more questions. Why? Because they know more… People now have more access to information than anyone has ever had in human history and they’re also more capable of using it than in any other time.”
Bricker sees societal shift towards more causal style of thinking in which people believe they can figure out why something happened.
“People now feel they have the right to question things: they no longer have to suffer in silence.”
All of which means that organisations must now engage with consumers and gain their trust. Effective methods include demonstrating where, or how, an idea has worked elsewhere or in the past, he says. Small-scale experiments and evidence-based policymaking work well.
“Reputation has present value,” says Bricker. “It has an impact on the bottom line. The management of trust is just about more important than anything else. And good reputation enables an organisation to weigh in on issues credibly.” M

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