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Why restaurants get killed on public opinion

The traditional tools of legislative influence—lobbying, PACs, grassroots efforts—don’t cut it anymore.

Today they are merely the cost of entry, said Rick Berman, a restaurant lobbyist, consultant and political commentator, but the name of the game now is public opinion. And whoever defines public opinion first, wins.

“Lobbying, PACs, grassroots, that’s all about changing the way somebody’s going to vote,” Berman said during a presentation at the Restaurant Leadership Conference. “I want people to think about changing the debate.”

Berman argues that the restaurant industry too often finds itself in a defensive crouch because it is reacting to an agenda set by other interest groups. And by the time the industry reacts to a new issue—whether it be obesity, sodium, minimum wage, or something else—public opinion has already been defined, making it hard if not impossible to change minds.

“Something has gotten into people’s heads,” he said. “That something didn’t get there by itself. People pushed it there.”

Berman thinks the industry should be the one pushing. He laid out a few steps:

  1. Think ahead: To really influence public opinion you’ve got to be the first one to define the terms so that, hopefully, before a fight starts your opinion is already considered conventional wisdom. “Seventy to 80 percent of people believe minimum wage should be increased,” said Berman, “but they don’t know what the current minimum wage is.” The industry was too late to that fight. Public opinion is already established.
  2. Have a series of inputs: The tools of shaping public opinion are op-ed pages, web videos, research, letters to the editor, opposition research, websites and social media. “So when we lobby or do grassroots, the environment is already somewhat supportive of the industry position, so these ideas can grow.”
  3. Diminish the moral authority of the opposition. Be prepared to pick apart the claims of the opposition and to counter their opinions with research.

“We have the capacity to not always be fighting and engaging at the last minute,” said Berman. “When public opinion is with you it’s hard to lose. When it’s against you it’s hard to win.”

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