The Publics in Public Relations

How publics makes sense for communication objectives.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

What are ‘pub­lics’ in pub­lic relations?

Publics are fun­da­ment­al to the pub­lic rela­tions profession. 

But what does this mean exactly?
And why does it matter?

Here we go:

How To Define Publics in Public Relations

In pub­lic rela­tions (PR), “pub­lics” is a cent­ral concept. 

Publics are situ­ation­al groups that exhib­it sim­il­ar com­mu­nic­at­ive beha­viours, and their impact on an organ­isa­tion is crit­ic­al. These groups, formed by shared con­cerns or interests, can play a cru­cial role in shap­ing pub­lic opin­ion and determ­in­ing the suc­cess or fail­ure of an organ­isa­tion’s PR efforts. 

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You become what you think, say, and do.

The Publics in Public Relations

Here’s how to define pub­lics in pub­lic relations:

Publics in PR = a psy­cho­graph­ic seg­ment (who) with sim­il­ar com­mu­nic­a­tion beha­viours (how) formed around a spe­cif­ic issue (why).

Please note:

Psychographic seg­ment = sim­il­ar­it­ies in cog­nit­ive driv­ing factors such as reas­on­ing, motiv­a­tions, atti­tudes etc.

Communication beha­viours = how the pub­lic’s opin­ion is expressed (choice of mes­sage, rhet­or­ic­al fram­ing, and medi­um type).

Specific issue = determ­ined situ­ation­ally by a spe­cif­ic social object, often high on the agenda in news media or social media.

Learn more: The Publics in Public Relations

Publics (Public Relations) vs Target Groups (Marketing)

Marketing, a pro­fes­sion­al dis­cip­line closely related to PR, must often con­sider a vari­ety of demo­graph­ic seg­ments to ensure they tar­get the right audi­ence (i.e. tar­get groups) with their mar­ket­ing efforts. 

Some com­mon demo­graph­ic seg­ments include:

  • Age. Different age groups often have vary­ing interests, pref­er­ences, and pur­chas­ing beha­viours. Advertisers may tar­get spe­cif­ic age groups, such as chil­dren, teen­agers, young adults, middle-aged adults, or seni­ors, to tail­or their mar­ket­ing mes­sages effectively.
  • Gender. Marketing efforts can be tailored to spe­cif­ic genders, con­sid­er­ing the unique pref­er­ences, needs, and interests of men, women, or non-bin­ary individuals.
  • Income. Income levels play a sig­ni­fic­ant role in determ­in­ing an indi­vidu­al’s pur­chas­ing power and con­sump­tion pat­terns. Advertisers often seg­ment their audi­ence based on income brack­ets to ensure their products or ser­vices appeal to the tar­get mar­ket’s fin­an­cial capabilities.
  • Education. Educational back­ground can influ­ence an indi­vidu­al’s pref­er­ences, interests, and pur­chas­ing habits. Advertisers may tar­get audi­ences with vary­ing levels of edu­ca­tion, such as high school gradu­ates, col­lege gradu­ates, or indi­vidu­als with post­gradu­ate degrees.
  • Occupation. Different occu­pa­tions may require spe­cif­ic products or ser­vices or influ­ence an indi­vidu­al’s pref­er­ences and pri­or­it­ies. Advertisers can tar­get pro­fes­sion­als, blue-col­lar work­ers, entre­pren­eurs, or oth­er occu­pa­tion­al seg­ments to cater to their unique needs.
  • Marital/​Family Status. Marital and fam­ily status, such as single, mar­ried, divorced, or wid­owed indi­vidu­als and fam­il­ies with or without chil­dren, can sig­ni­fic­antly impact con­sump­tion pat­terns and pri­or­it­ies. Advertisers often con­sider these factors when craft­ing mar­ket­ing mes­sages and tar­get­ing spe­cif­ic audiences.
  • Ethnicity/​Culture. Ethnic and cul­tur­al back­grounds can influ­ence an indi­vidu­al’s pref­er­ences, val­ues, and con­sump­tion habits. Advertisers may tail­or their mar­ket­ing efforts to cater to spe­cif­ic eth­nic or cul­tur­al groups, ensur­ing their mes­sages res­on­ate with the tar­get audi­ence’s unique exper­i­ences and perspectives.

The main reas­on mar­ket­ing focuses on tar­get groups is dir­ectly related to the his­tor­ic­al pro­cess of buy­ing ad space. For ads in tra­di­tion­al mass media, only demo­graph­ic data was available. 

  • In PR, we’ve rarely bought ad space and, there­fore, nev­er cared much for tar­get groups. Tounge in cheek, many of us pro­claim, “Advertising is the tax you pay for not being remark­able.

With a primary focus on earned and owned media, it has always been about beha­viours for us; there­fore, we use pub­lics (psy­cho­graph­ic seg­ment­a­tion).

Ben and Jerry: Same, Same But Different

What’s the dif­fer­ence between demo­graph­ic seg­ment­a­tion (typ­ic­al for mar­ket­ing) and psy­cho­graph­ic seg­ment­a­tion (typ­ic­al for pub­lic relations)?


Imagine two ordin­ary indi­vidu­als. Let’s call them Ben and Jerry. They both belong to the same demographic:

  • Both are white het­ero­sexu­al males,
  • both have wives and two children,
  • both grew up in the same neighbourhood,
  • both now live in the same suburb,
  • both have white-col­lar jobs in the city,
  • both drive hybrid SUVs,
  • both play golf, and
  • both enjoy equal socio-eco­nom­ic status.

Demographically, Ben and Jerry seem more or less identic­al. So, are you likely to reach (and influ­ence) both through the same media channels? 

The short answer is — no.

Here’s how Ben and Jerry, who belong to the same demo­graph­ic, have entirely dif­fer­ent com­mu­nic­a­tion behaviours:

Ben is hos­tile towards social media (“It’s a bloody waste of time!”) and prefers to read busi­ness news­pa­pers over cof­fee in the morn­ing. During the day, he listens to pub­lic radio on his com­mute to and from work. Ben mostly avoids the inter­net (“It’s only ads and trolls”).

But Jerry thinks (and acts) differently:

Jerry spends his nights in the base­ment, immersed in a Japanese World of Warcraft guild, col­lab­or­at­ing with mem­bers world­wide; he’s a quint­es­sen­tial early adop­ter who streams tele­vi­sion, listens to pod­casts, and con­sumes news via social feeds.

In short: Ben and Jerry are demo­graph­ic­ally sim­il­ar but psy­cho­graph­ic­ally different. 

  • Ben and Jerry might belong to the same tar­get group, but they belong to dif­fer­ent publics.

In pub­lic rela­tions, we seek to under­stand how an indi­vidu­al con­sumes (or co-cre­ates) media and thus con­struct their view of the world, research and mani­fest their buy­ing decisions, and group them­selves around opin­ions with others.

Segmentation: Publics, Stakeholders, and Influencers

While mar­ket­ing is primar­ily focused on tar­get groups, PR has three(!) main approaches to segmentation:

Publics dif­fer from stake­hold­ers in that stake­hold­ers are incentiv­ised rep­res­ent­at­ives with vari­ous interests in the organ­isa­tion. They typ­ic­ally have a dir­ect fin­an­cial, leg­al, or emo­tion­al invest­ment in the organ­isa­tion’s suc­cess, where­as pub­lics may not have such clearly defined interests. 

However, both stake­hold­ers and pub­lics can influ­ence the organ­isa­tion’s repu­ta­tion and over­all suc­cess. The key dif­fer­ence lies in their rela­tion­ship with the organ­isa­tion and their inform­a­tion needs:

The Stakeholder Model - Doctor Spin - The PR Blog
The stake­hold­er mod­el in pub­lic relations.

Stakeholders in Public Relations

In PR, we often dis­cuss stake­hold­ers. And our PR spe­cial­isa­tions are named based on which stake­hold­ers we’re respons­ible for managing. 

In a cor­por­a­tion, a stake­hold­er is a mem­ber of ‘groups without whose sup­port the organ­isa­tion would cease to exist’, as defined in the first usage of the word in a 1963 intern­al memor­andum at the Stanford Research Institute. The the­ory was later developed and cham­pioned by R. Edward Freeman in the 1980s. Since then it has gained wide accept­ance in busi­ness prac­tice and in the­or­ising relat­ing to stra­tegic man­age­ment, cor­por­ate gov­ernance, busi­ness pur­pose and cor­por­ate social respons­ib­il­ity (CSR).”

This is the stake­hold­er mod­el in PR:

  • Corporate Communications = External and intern­al pub­lics, busi­ness journ­al­ists, reg­u­lat­ory insti­tu­tions, part­ners, sup­pli­ers, vendors etc.
  • Investor Relations (IR) = Shareholders, fin­an­cial mar­kets, mar­ket ana­lysts, fin­an­cial insti­tu­tions, trade journ­al­ists etc.
  • Media Relations = Journalists, edit­ors, influ­en­cers etc.
  • Digital PR = Inbound web traffic, brand com­munit­ies, sub­scribers, fans, fol­low­ers, influ­en­cers, social net­works etc.
  • Public Affairs (PA) = Voters, polit­ic­al journ­al­ists, polit­ic­al ana­lysts, colum­nists, interest groups etc.
  • Lobbying = Politicians, legis­lat­ors, gov­ern­ment offi­cials, com­mit­tees influ­en­cers etc.
  • Internal Communications = Coworkers, poten­tial recruits etc.
  • Crisis Communications = Crisis vic­tims, wor­ried pub­lics, the gen­er­al pub­lic, cowork­ers, journ­al­ists, influ­en­cers, cus­tom­ers, share­hold­ers etc.
  • Marketing PR = Potential cus­tom­ers, exist­ing cus­tom­ers, trade journ­al­ists, mem­bers, affil­i­ates etc.
  • Industry PR (B2B) = B2B cli­ents, B2B pro­spects, trade journ­al­ists, trade organ­isa­tions, niche influ­en­cers etc.

Developing and main­tain­ing rela­tion­ships with vari­ous stake­hold­ers is a sig­ni­fic­ant chal­lenge for PR pro­fes­sion­als since their inform­a­tion needs are typ­ic­ally very dif­fer­ent. 1A wide­spread mis­con­cep­tion is that the PR func­tion only deals with journ­al­ists, edit­ors, and influ­en­cers (Media Relations) with­in the scope of attract­ing new cus­tom­ers (Marketing PR). But such work … Continue read­ing

Stakeholders in Public Relations - Doctor Spin - The PR Blog
Different stake­hold­er needs in pub­lic relations.

Learn more: Stakeholders in Public Relations

Influencers, on the oth­er hand, are inde­pend­ent gate­keep­ers with audi­ences of import­ance to the organ­isa­tion. They pos­sess sig­ni­fic­ant reach and influ­ence over their audi­ence’s opin­ions and choices. 

While influ­en­cers can impact a pub­lic’s per­cep­tion of an organ­isa­tion, the two are not syn­onym­ous. Publics are groups formed by shared con­cerns or interests, where­as influ­en­cers are indi­vidu­als with the power to shape opin­ions and decisions. 

Publics, stake­hold­ers, and influ­en­cers all play a cru­cial role in an organ­isa­tion’s PR strategy.

The Origin Story of the ‘P’ in Public Relations

John Dewey (Wikipedia).

John Dewey and the ‘P’ in Public Relations

The term “pub­lics” can be traced back to the sem­in­al work of the American psy­cho­lo­gist and philo­soph­er John Dewey (1859 – 1952). 2John Dewey. (2023, March 25). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​J​o​h​n​_​D​e​wey

In his 1927 book, “The Public and Its Problems,” Dewey con­cep­tu­al­ised pub­lics as situ­ation­al groups formed in response to shared con­cerns or issues. He pos­ited that these groups emerge when indi­vidu­als con­front a com­mon prob­lem, recog­nise its exist­ence, and take col­lect­ive action to address it. 3John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems (Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press, 1927).

Dewey’s for­mu­la­tion of pub­lics marked a sig­ni­fic­ant depar­ture from the tra­di­tion­al under­stand­ing of the “mass pub­lic,” which assumed a more homo­gen­eous and pass­ive audience. 

By high­light­ing the situ­ation­al and dynam­ic nature of pub­lics, Dewey laid the found­a­tion for a more nuanced and adapt­ive approach to under­stand­ing the com­plex inter­ac­tions between organ­isa­tions and their vari­ous audiences.

  • The term “pub­lics,” as con­cep­tu­al­ised by Dewey, has become a corner­stone of mod­ern pub­lic rela­tions and com­mu­nic­a­tion theory.

This under­stand­ing of pub­lics as situ­ation­al and ever-chan­ging high­lighted the need for organ­isa­tions to remain agile and adapt­ive in their com­mu­nic­a­tion efforts.

By recog­nising the diverse and situ­ation­al nature of pub­lics, PR pro­fes­sion­als and com­mu­nic­at­ors can bet­ter under­stand the needs and con­cerns of their vari­ous audi­ences, allow­ing them to devel­op more effect­ive com­mu­nic­a­tion strategies. 

This recog­ni­tion of the act­ive and dynam­ic nature of pub­lics has also influ­enced broad­er aca­dem­ic and pub­lic dis­course, high­light­ing the import­ance of under­stand­ing and enga­ging with dif­fer­ent groups of people who share com­mon interests, con­cerns, or problems.

Learn more: John Dewey and the ‘P’ in Public Relations

Examples of Different Types of Publics in Public Relations

Publics are situ­ation­al. They are formed when extern­al factors cre­ate them.

For instance: If a muni­cip­al­ity announces the build­ing of a new bridge, it might sud­denly cre­ate sev­er­al publics:

  • The Supporters. “We need a new bridge.”
  • The Environmentalists. “A new bridge will dis­turb wildlife.”
  • The Preservationists. “The bridge threatens our heritage.”

Where did I get those names from? 

Well, the use of pub­lics has no struc­tur­al nomen­clature. Identifying and nam­ing pub­lics cre­at­ively is part of the fun of using pub­lics in pub­lic relations!

Case Study: Global Warming’s Six Americas

The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication has used ques­tion­naires to sur­vey US atti­tudes towards glob­al warm­ing. The pro­gram has iden­ti­fied six dif­fer­ent publics:

  • The Alarmed. They are con­vinced glob­al warm­ing is hap­pen­ing, human-caused, and an urgent threat, and they strongly sup­port cli­mate policies. Most do not know what they or oth­ers can do to solve the problem.
  • The Concerned. They think human-caused glob­al warm­ing is hap­pen­ing, is a severe threat, and sup­port cli­mate policies. However, they tend to believe that cli­mate impacts are still dis­tant in time and space; thus, cli­mate change remains a lower-pri­or­ity issue.
  • The Cautious. They haven’t yet decided: Is glob­al warm­ing hap­pen­ing? Is it human-caused? Is it serious?
  • The Disengaged. They know little about glob­al warm­ing. They rarely or nev­er hear about it in the media.
  • The Doubtful. They do not think glob­al warm­ing is hap­pen­ing or believe it is a nat­ur­al cycle. They do not think much about the issue or con­sider it a severe risk.
  • The Dismissive. They believe glob­al warm­ing is not hap­pen­ing, is human-caused, or is a threat, and most endorse con­spir­acy the­or­ies (e.g., “glob­al warm­ing is a hoax”).

Understanding dif­fer­ent groups based on their per­cep­tion of a spe­cif­ic issue provides valu­able clues on how to best engage with the publics.

The research makes it clear:

To suc­cess­fully com­mu­nic­ate around the issue of glob­al warm­ing in the US, you need not one but six dif­fer­ent com­mu­nic­a­tion strategies — at least.

Kirk Hallahan’s Five Types of Publics

Everywhere in soci­ety, there are plenty of inact­ive pub­lics, just wait­ing for extern­al situ­ations to activ­ate them, bring­ing them togeth­er in coöper­at­ive, com­mu­nic­at­ive behaviours.

However, PR tends to focus on the already activ­ated publics:

By focus­ing on act­iv­ism and its con­sequences, recent pub­lic rela­tions the­ory has largely ignored inact­ive pub­lics, that is, stake­hold­er groups that demon­strate low levels of know­ledge and involve­ment in the organ­isa­tion or its products, ser­vices, can­did­ates, or causes, but are import­ant to an organ­isa­tion.”
Source: Inactive pub­lics: the for­got­ten pub­lics in pub­lic rela­tions by Kirk Hallahan

Kirk Hallahan, Professor Emeritus, Journalism and Media Communication, Colorado State University, pro­poses five types of pub­lics based on their know­ledge and involvement:

  • Aware Publics
  • Active Publics
  • Inactive Publics
  • Aroused Publics
  • Non-Publics

Hallahan sug­gests a five pub­lics model:

How To Identify (And Measure) Publics

Publics are often seg­men­ted by identi­fy­ing and group­ing exist­ing com­mu­nic­at­ive beha­viours (out­comes). While it works for many situ­ations, this approach a) focuses on act­iv­ists, b) excludes inact­ive pub­lics, and c) pushes the PR func­tion to be reactive.

A more fun­da­ment­al approach is to focus on psy­cho­graph­ic seg­ments (psy­cho­lo­gic­al drivers) instead.

In prac­tice, this can be done pro­act­ively using ques­tion­naires and rat­ing scales, inter­views, reports (logs, journ­als, diar­ies etc.), and observations:

How To Measure Attitudes in PR

How do you meas­ure atti­tudes? There are a few things to think about to get your meas­ure­ment right. 4The Handbook of Research for Communication and Technology, 34.5 Measuring Attitudes. In AECT.

An atti­tude meas­ure­ment should meet the fol­low­ing criteria:

  • Valid
  • Reliable
  • Simple to Administer, Explain, and Understand
  • Replicable

There are four main types of meas­ur­ing approaches:

  • Self-Reporting
  • Reports of Others
  • Internal Reporting (Sociometric Reporting)
  • Records

There are four main types of meas­ur­ing methods:

  • Questionnaires and Rating Scales
  • Interviews
  • Reports (Logs, Journals, Diaries etc.)
  • Observations

I’m a big fan of using ques­tion­naires and stand­ard­ised inter­views for PR measurements:

Validity. Attitudes are psy­cho­lo­gic­al, so I strive to cla­ri­fy what I want to meas­ure, noth­ing more, noth­ing less. And I nev­er add any unne­ces­sary complexity.

Reliability. People exper­i­ence the world dif­fer­ently. But even if atti­tude meas­ure­ments aren’t exact, their use­ful­ness for PR more than makes up for it.

Learn more: How To Measure Public Relations

Using ques­tion­naires for stat­ist­ic­ally rel­ev­ant pop­u­la­tion sub­sets, PR pro­fes­sion­als can pro­act­ively identi­fy all types of publics.

Publics and Ethics

Traditional demo­graph­ics (com­pared to psy­cho­graph­ics) tell us very little about how indi­vidu­als con­sume their media — and how they communicate. 

When a brand is talk­ing to me like I’m a white male in my early forties, a fath­er and a hus­band, liv­ing in a Scandinavian cap­it­al, and work­ing in the media industry (all of which is true, by the way) — I stop listening.

  • In the eyes of advert­isers, we are stripped of our essence, mere pup­pets of con­sump­tion with wal­lets in place of hearts.

I’m not the sum of my socio-eco­nom­ic class, my job; my age; my loc­a­tion; my sexu­al­ity; or my gender. Today, we should all refrain from basing cor­por­ate activ­it­ies on demo­graph­ic stereotypes. 

Literature List

Blumer, H. (1946). The Mass, The Public and Public Opinion. In B. Berelson (Ed.), Reader in Public Opinion and Communication (pp. 45 – 50). 2nd ed. New York: Free Press. (Reprinted in 1966).

Dewey, J. (1927). The Public and Its Problems. Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press.

Habermas, J. (1989). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. (T. Burger, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (Original work pub­lished in 1962).

Lippmann, W. (1922). Public Opinion. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.

Warner, M. (2002). Publics and Counterpublics. Public Culture, 14(1), 49 – 90.

Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing it with oth­er PR- and com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

1 A wide­spread mis­con­cep­tion is that the PR func­tion only deals with journ­al­ists, edit­ors, and influ­en­cers (Media Relations) with­in the scope of attract­ing new cus­tom­ers (Marketing PR). But such work rep­res­ents only a tiny per­cent­age of all the stake­hold­er rela­tion­ships PR pro­fes­sion­als must man­age daily.
2 John Dewey. (2023, March 25). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​J​o​h​n​_​D​e​wey
3 John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems (Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press, 1927).
4 The Handbook of Research for Communication and Technology, 34.5 Measuring Attitudes. In AECT.
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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