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
- Ben and Jerry: Same, Same But Different
- Same Demographic, Different Publics
- How Media Choice Influence Behaviour
- The ‘P’ in Public Relations
- What Are Different Types of Publics?
- How To Segment Publics
- Case Study: Global Warming’s Six Americas
- Publics and Ethics
- Digital-First Makes Publics Relevant
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).
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).
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.”
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.
Here’s how Ben and Jerry are (demographically) similar:
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
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.
“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:
These three types of segmentations work differently and are used for different purposes:
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.
Stakeholders in PR = incentivised representatives with various interests in 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:
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
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:
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.
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:
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 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.
|Lippmann, Walter. 1960. Public Opinion (1922). New York: Macmillan.|
|Hargis, M. & Watt, John. (2010). Organizational perception management: A framework to overcome crisis events. Organization Development Journal. 28. 73-87.|
|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.)|
|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.|
|The Handbook of Research for Communication and Technology, 34.5 Measuring Attitudes.|
|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.|
|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.|