Giving the Silent Majority a Voice

By Kara Roberson
Communications and Strategic Engagement Manager | City of Wentzville, Missouri

Online comments are equivalent to the water-cooler conversations of the 70s and 80s; people discussing their opinions on just about any topic and, in effect, influencing their friends and coworkers with their feedback. Social media comments are the new word of mouth. Previously private or semi-private conversations are now publicly visible. But just how accurately do these conversations and expressed opinions represent the true feelings of a particular group?

Speaking of opinions, everyone has one. These days it can feel like everyone’s opinions are negative. However it could be those who are happy and content just choose to be happy and content — without telling everyone that they’re happy and content? More often than not, municipalities hear from customers who are unhappy. But are decisions being made to try and make this group happy (and by the way, they likely never will be) at the expense of the rest of the community? Perhaps we are mistaking claims from a vocal minority for the general opinion. 

Dennis De Clercq, in his article How to Deal with Your Vocal Minority, says, “only users who vocalize their opinion generally tend to be the ones who feel so strongly about their opinion that they cannot keep it to themselves.” 

So, just how do we — as responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars — ensure that all taxpayers are represented in decision making and not just those who yell the loudest? It seems like the loud minority, especially on social media, can so easily be perceived as the majority. The implication of that can be felt in impacts to growth and economic development, employee morale and other crucial municipal issues.

When municipal leaders and elected officials hear from this loud minority the perception can be the majority of stakeholders feel a certain way about a project, program, development, etc. In fact, this perceived majority is influencing top-level decisions every day. 

It can feel like “everyone is against this project” because it’s “all over social media.” But what about the silent majority — those we don’t hear from? This group may even be upset about a project too, however they aren’t upset enough to do anything about it. Does that mean that their opinion doesn’t count?

The loud minority is becoming the voice for many communities. In most cases they aren’t doing it by overtly pushing an agenda because don’t have to. Just by being visible and involved and voicing their opinions on social media they are, by default, becoming the voice. Is that fair? Maybe it is. Maybe if the silent majority isn’t going to do anything about it then the loud minority gets a win. That seems fair, right? BUT … is anyone asking the silent majority what they think? Do we know if they are upset, content or complacent? How do we ask them? How do we get them to take steps to ensure their voices are heard?

“The mere fact that someone is overly critical can make it seem like something is going very, very wrong,” De Clercq said. “Due to our preconditioned state of almost blindly believing someone who’s complaining, many decisions are based on the outspoken opinions of a few stakeholders, when instead we should be verifying whether their input reflects the opinions of [everyone involved].”

It may seem like I’ve asked more questions than I’ve answered. I am hopeful these questions have caused you to think or rethink how you get public feedback and ensure equal representation in your communities. I know I don’t have all of the answers, but I would like to offer a few solutions.

  1. Validate feedback from the loud minority and the silent majority. I’m not insinuating that everyone is really happy about everything we are doing as a municipality, merely that we may be led to assume that everyone is unhappy. We need to find ways to validate all kinds of voices and feedback, and to encourage those on the sidelines to share their input, whether positive, neutral or negative. 
  2. Provide multiple outlets for feedback. Perhaps those who don’t provide feedback aren’t tech savvy. We must provide other ways for them to share their input. We’ve recently tweaked our public notice letters to encourage people to supply feedback whether they are in favor of a project, or not. Previously the letters only asked if they “had any concerns.” This can be a leading statement, which may only curate negative feedback. 
  3. Examine why people are silent. Remember that the social dynamics in a thread on social media can influence who remains silent. If a comment thread already has a lot of negativity, someone is unlikely to speak up in opposition. Rather, the thread will inevitably become more and more filled with comments that support the negative theme.
  4. Don’t overreact to negative feedback. Remember what I said at the beginning: everyone has an opinion, and you will likely only hear from those who are discontent. Take negative feedback into account, but take it with a grain of salt (and maybe a shot of tequila).