The Publics in Public Relations

How publics makes sense for communication objectives.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Instagram)

What are ‘publics’ in public relations?

Publics are fundamental to the public relations profession.

But what does this mean exactly?
Why do publics matter?

And most importantly: How do you practically segment publics?

Here we go:

How To Define Publics in Public Relations

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.

Read also: The Publics in Public Relations

Publics explained in plain terms by AI:

“In public relations, the term “public” refers to any group or individual that has an interest in an organization or individual. This can include customers, investors, employees, media outlets, and the general public. Publics are important in public relations because they can be affected by the actions of an organization or individual and can also impact an organization or individual’s reputation. To effectively manage the relationship between an organization and its publics, public relations professionals must identify and understand each public’s needs, concerns, and interests.”
Source: ChatGPT

Ben and Jerry: Same, Same But Different

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

Example:

Imagine two ordinary individuals. Let’s call them Ben and Jerry.

Here’s how Ben and Jerry are (demographically) similar:

  • Both are white heterosexual males,
  • both have wives and 2-3 children,
  • both grew up in the same place,
  • both live in the same neighbourhood,
  • both have white-collar jobs in the city,
  • both drive hybrid SUVs,
  • both plays 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 identical media channels?

The short answer is—no.

Two identical demographics can be psychographically different.

Same Demographic, Different Publics

Here’s how Ben and Jerry are (psychographically) different:

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 from all corners of the world; he’s a quintessential early adopter who streams television, listens to podcasts, and consumes news via social feeds.

Alas: Ben and Jerry are demographically similar but psychographically different. So, Ben and Jerry are different publics.

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

Psychographic segments have similar communication behaviours.

How Media Choice Influence Behaviour

Perception Management

No one is basing their attitudes and behaviours on reality; we’re basing them on our perceptions of reality.

Walter Lippmann (1889–1974) proposed that our perceptions of reality differ from the actual reality. The reality is too vast and too complex for anyone to process. 1Lippmann, Walter. 1960. Public Opinion (1922). New York: Macmillan.

Those who can manage the perceptions of publics can control their attitudes and behaviours.

The research on perception management is focused on how organisations can create a desired reputation:

“The OPM [Organizational Perception Management] field focuses on the range of activities that help organisations establish and/or maintain a desired reputation (Staw et al., 1983). More specifically, OPM research has primarily focused on two interrelated factors: (1) the timing and goals of perception management activities and (2) specific perception management tactics (Elsbach, 2006).”
Source: Organizational Perception Management 2Hargis, M. & Watt, John. (2010). Organizational perception management: A framework to overcome crisis events. Organization Development Journal. 28. 73-87.

Today, our perceptions are heavily influenced by news media and influencers, algorithms, and social graphs. Therefore, perception management is more important than ever before.

“We are all captives of the picture in our head—our belief that the world we have experienced is the world that really exists.”
— Walter Lippmann

The ‘P’ in Public Relations

Grouping people in PR and marketing is called “segmentation.”

In PR, there are three main approaches to segmentation:

  • Stakeholders
  • Influencers
  • Publics

These three types of segmentations work differently and are used for different purposes:

I Love PR – Mug in Snow – Doctor Spin – The PR Blog 2
I love PR. And coffee.

How To Define Public Relations

Someone once tried to count the number of actual definitions of public relations, but they allegedly gave up after finding over 2,000+ different versions.

Amongst so many definitions of public relations, here’s the definition that I find to be most useful.

Public Relations (PR) = the strategical and tactical use of communication to develop and maintain productive relationships with stakeholders, influencers, and publics.

Please note:

Stakeholders in PR = incentivised representatives with various interests in the organisation.

Influencers in PR = independent gatekeepers with audiences of importance to the organisation.

Publics in PR = situational groups with similar communicative behaviours affecting the organisation.

Here are a few additional definitions:

“Public relations is an organizational function and a set of processes for managing communication between an organization and its publics.”
International Association of Business Communicators

“Public relations is the strategic practice of influencing attitudes and behavior through communication, which seeks to create and maintain mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and its publics.”
Public Relations Society of America

“Public relations is the management of communication between an organization and its publics, through the use of technology, social media, and other forms of communication to achieve mutual understanding, realize organizational goals, and serve the public interest.”
The Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management

“Public relations is the management function which evaluates public attitudes, identifies the policies and procedures of an organization with the public interest, and plans and executes a program of action to earn public understanding and acceptance.”
Institute for Public Relations

“Public relations is the process of creating, building, and maintaining relationships with key stakeholders in order to achieve organizational goals and objectives.”
Chartered Institute of Public Relations

“Public relations is the art and social science of analyzing trends, predicting their consequences, counseling organizational leaders, and implementing planned programs of action, which will serve both the organization and the public interest.”
IPR Commission on PR Education

Read also: How To Define Public Relations

The psychologist John Dewey (1859–1852) formulated the concept of publics due to situational stimuli. Dewey defined a public as a group of people who a) face a similar problem, b) recognise the problem exists, and c) organise to do something about the problem. 3John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems (Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press, 1927); Herbert Blumer, “The Mass, The Public and Public Opinion,” in Bernard Berelson (ed.), Reader in Public Opinion and … Continue reading

So, when and how do you segment publics in public relations?

What Are Different Types of Publics?

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

Traditionally in PR, we often think of publics as “activist groups.”

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.”

And so on. 4Where did I get the names (The Supporters, The Environmentalists, The Preservationists) from? Well, I named them; publics have no structural nomenclature. Identifying and naming publics creatively is … Continue reading

Everywhere in society, there are plenty of inactive publics, just waiting for external situations to activate them, bringing them together in cooperative, 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:

While I agree with Hallahan regarding the importance of including inactive publics, I’ve never found it helpful to segment publics based on their level of “arousal.” My objection is anecdotal, of course, but 17+ years of practical experience will influence any approach I recommend.

Instead of determining the level of involvement, I’m taking a page from the playbook of public affairs by proposing a focus on measuring attitudes:

Segment based on psychographics (i.e. attitude measurements) instead of codifying communication behaviours as the baseline.

How To Segment 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

How do you measure attitudes? There are a few things to think about to get your measurement right. 5The Handbook of Research for Communication and Technology, 34.5 Measuring Attitudes.

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.

Read also: How To Measure Public Relations

By using questionnaires for statistically relevant population subsets, PR professionals can proactively identify all types of publics. 6Worth noting is that public affairs specialists constantly survey opinions to better understand and plan for successful political activities. The rest of the PR industry ought to draw more … Continue reading

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, an urgent threat and they strongly support climate policies. Most, however, 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 just 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 a threat, and most endorse conspiracy theories (e.g., “global warming is a hoax”).

Understanding different groups based on how they understand a specific issue provides valuable clues on how to best engage with these publics.

The research makes it abundantly clear:

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

Publics and Ethics

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.

Advertising talks to us as if we’re just foregone conclusions.
To most advertisers, we’re nothing but wallets with legs.

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

I’m not the sum of my socio-economic class, my job; my age; my geographic location; my sexuality; or my gender. Neither are you.

Today, more PR professionals are trying to break away from basing their activities on demographic stereotypes. And rightly so.

This way of talking to people is not how you develop meaningful relationships or become successful in your communication efforts. Determining behaviours based on sex, gender, race, and socio-economic status is also morally questionable.

In short: We must find our way back to the publics in public relations. 7In 2009, PR influencer Brian Solis published a book with perhaps the most appropriate (and longest) title in PR history—Putting the Public Back in Public Relations: How Social Media Is Reinventing … Continue reading

Digital-First Makes Publics Relevant

So, forget target groups.
Forget personas.
Forget grouping people according to where they live, how old they are or where they live.

Forget grouping people based on their sex, gender, race, and socio-economic status.

As the media landscape morphed from one-way to two-way, demographics ceased to be relevant for communication.

In a digital-first world, group people contextually on why, how, when and where they communicate. It makes more sense and makes your PR activities more relevant and efficient.

Thank you for reading this article. Please consider supporting my work by sharing it with other PR- and communication professionals. For questions or PR support, contact me via [email protected].

ANNOTATIONS
ANNOTATIONS
1 Lippmann, Walter. 1960. Public Opinion (1922). New York: Macmillan.
2 Hargis, M. & Watt, John. (2010). Organizational perception management: A framework to overcome crisis events. Organization Development Journal. 28. 73-87.
3 John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems (Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press, 1927); Herbert Blumer, “The Mass, The Public and Public Opinion,” in Bernard Berelson (ed.), Reader in Public Opinion and Communication, 2nd ed. (New York: Free Press, 1966), pp. 45–50. (Originally published in 1946.)
4 Where did I get the names (The Supporters, The Environmentalists, The Preservationists) from? Well, I named them; publics have no structural nomenclature. Identifying and naming publics creatively is actually part of the fun(!) of using publics in public relations.
5 The Handbook of Research for Communication and Technology, 34.5 Measuring Attitudes.
6 Worth noting is that public affairs specialists constantly survey opinions to better understand and plan for successful political activities. The rest of the PR industry ought to draw more inspiration from their level of sophistication in this respect.
7 In 2009, PR influencer Brian Solis published a book with perhaps the most appropriate (and longest) title in PR history—Putting the Public Back in Public Relations: How Social Media Is Reinventing the Aging Business of PR.

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Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://www.doctorspin.net/
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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