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
- Publics (Public Relations) vs Target Groups (Marketing)
- Ben and Jerry: Same, Same But Different
- Segmentation: Publics, Stakeholders, and Influencers
- The Origin Story of the ‘P’ in Public Relations
- Examples of Different Types of Publics in Public Relations
- Case Study: Global Warming’s Six Americas
- Kirk Hallahan’s Five Types of Publics
- How To Identify (And Measure) Publics
- Publics and Ethics
- Literature List
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.
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).
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).
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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:
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
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 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.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Dewey
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.
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:
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:
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
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:
There are four main types of measuring approaches:
There are four main types of measuring methods:
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.
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.
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.
|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.|
|John Dewey. (2023, March 25). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Dewey|
|John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems (Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press, 1927).|
|The Handbook of Research for Communication and Technology, 34.5 Measuring Attitudes. In AECT.|