|Education for Health (WHO, 1988, 274 p.)|
|Chapter 6: Health education with communities|
What is an opinion leader?
In every town or village there are people who are respected by others. They may be respected because of their ability to lead, because they are good at their profession (for example have a successful farm or business), because of their long experience, or because they are able to work well with certain groups such as women or young people. Some are very well known: religious and political leaders, for example. Some are quiet, but are respected because of their special wisdom or ability.
When people respect someone, they usually go to that person for advice. When respected people talk, other people listen. Respected people are called 'opinion leaders' because other people in the community value their opinions and ideas. Opinion leaders usually have a following. Not every opinion leader is respected by everyone in the village. Each section or group has its own opinion leaders.
Finding opinion leaders
Some opinion leaders have titles, which make them easy to identify. Examples of such titles are chief, counsellor, mayor, pastor, imam and reverend, and there are many others. The title alone does not make an opinion leader. Find out if a person with a title is popular within the political, religious, economic, or social group or organization. If, after talking to members of the group, you find out that the person is popular, then he or she is probably an opinion leader.
Since not all opinion leaders have titles, you should also look for them by asking people who they go to for advice on matters of concern (farming, child care, health, and other needs). If you find that many people name one individual, then you can be certain that this person is an opinion leader.
Working with opinion leaders
Visit the opinion leaders in your town. Find out their views on the welfare of the community. See what ideas they have about improving the community's health. Ask them for their advice. Share your own ideas with them and involve them in any local project. If they accept your ideas about community health, they may pass them on in advice to others. Opinion leaders have an important role in encouraging other people to adopt healthier behavior and supporting them in their efforts to do so.
One thing to remember is that, since opinion leaders are usually elders or other important people, you should approach them in a respectful way. Let them know that you value their leadership in the community. If the leaders see that you respect them, they will listen to your ideas more closely.
The opinion leaders you will want to approach will depend on the type of programme. If your programme is about child health, visit the respected old grandmothers who influence child-raising practices. If you plan to develop a youth programme, look for youth leaders and young adults whom young people respect and listen to.
Who are the important political, social and religious opinion leaders in your village? Who are important opinion leaders among the farmers and the different craftsmen? Who are the important opinion leaders among the women?