What are ‘publics’ in public relations?
Definition: A public is a group based on their situational communication behaviour (where, why and how they choose to communicate).
But what does this mean exactly?
And why does this matter?
Somewhat Alike, Yet Still Different
Imagine two ordinary individuals. They’re demographically similar.
Imagine that both of these two individuals:
From a demographic perspective, they seem to be more or less identical to each other. So, are you likely to reach both of them through the same media channels?
The short answer is—no.
Demographic Segmentation is Overrated
We must find our way back to the publics in public relations. We must stop grouping people based on their age, gender, location etc.
Let’s return to the two seemingly alike individuals mentioned above.
They both have opposite-sex partners and 2-3 children. They are white-collar workers in a big city and live in one of the more affluent suburbs just outside of town. With their university degrees and SUVs, they even live on the same street—and their children are playing in the same junior soccer teams. They’re both 40-45-year olds with stable incomes and married to working partners with competitive careers and incomes.
Yes, both these men belong to a very attractive demographic to lots of advertisers.
But here’s the thing:
One of these men could be anti-Facebook (“It’s a bloody waste of time!”) and prefer to read business news on paper over a cup of coffee in the morning. During the day, they add some public radio on the commute back and forth from work. Most of his online sharing is transmitted via dark social.
But the other individual is just nothing like that:
The other man spends night after night in the basement immersed in a 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 consume news via friends’ social graphs.
That’s quite the difference.
In short: Demographic segmentation isn’t a very reliable public relations tool.
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 manifests their buying decisions—and how they group themselves around opinions together with others.
“I’m Not Your Marketing Persona”
I’m not the sum of my socio-economic class, my job; my age; my geographic location; my sexuality; my gender. Neither are you.
Traditional demographics (compared to behavioural data and psychographics) tells us very little about how individuals consume their media.
There was a time when you could reach out to a media agency and get questions like, “how do we reach university-educated 43-year old suburban dwellers who are also SUV-owners?”
They were able to answer how much you needed to spend to reach your target group. Like, “the reader of Magazine X is single, 24-34 years old, male, and has a gym membership. It will cost Y dollars to reach Z of them with your message.”
Today, most of us try hard to break away from assigned demographic stereotypes. And rightly so.
Advertising talks to us as if we’re just foregone conclusions.
To most advertisers, we’re nothing but wallets with legs.
When a brand is talking to me like I’m a white male in my mid-thirties, a father and a husband, living apartment-life in the city, working in the media industry (all of which is true, by the way)—I stop listening.
This way of talking to people is not how you develop meaningful relationships or become successful in your communication efforts.
Talking with publics, on the other hand, is another story.
The “P” in Public Relations
In public relations and marketing alike, grouping people is often referred to as ‘segmentation’. And how you segment your market is essential.
How To Define Public Relations
Stakeholders — with various interests in the organisation.
Influencers — gatekeepers with important audiences.
Publics — groups with key communicative behaviours.
Learn more about public relations.
Publics are groups of people segmented based on their communicative behaviour. It’s a situational phenomenon (you only belong to a specific public based on the context of each situation).
Publics 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” love the idea of a new bridge.
“The environmentalists” think that a new bridge will disturb the wildlife.
“The conservatives” argue that the bridge is a change we don’t need.
“The opponents” resort to political action to stop the new bridge.
And so on. Note that PR professionals might get somewhat more creative with naming their publics.
The above segmentations are based not on their demographic characteristics but on how, when and where they communicate.
Everywhere in society, there are plenty of latent publics, just waiting for external situations to activate them, bringing them together in cooperative, communicative behaviours.
Example: Everyone who uses a search engine to enter a specific search term to land on your site shares the same communicative behaviour created by their mutual situational context. They are an active public. And what’s more, is that we know how to accommodate this public since we see the situation that created them—and in which channel they are active.
Active publics essentially wants to be grouped. They want to be heard and reacted to. They are activists of sorts, either fighting for or against what’s strategically important to your brand.
To segment people in publics, group people based on where, when, and how they communicate.
A Brief History of Publics in PR
How did we forget about publics in public relations? The psychologist John Dewey (1859-1852) formulated the concept of publics due to situational stimuli. Dewey was contemporary with the famous public opinion writer Walter Lippman (1889-1974). The idea of publics was partly a way to deepen how opinions work in a media-centric democracy.
The father of PR, Edward Bernays (1891-1995), was very much into human psychology. Maybe this was influenced by his uncle, famous psychologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)? Bernays focused on activating latent publics through creating word-of-mouth, directly influencing influencers and creating situations that would spark the formation of publics.
Over time, the practice of segmenting publics got pushed out. PR professionals often report to marketing officers who know and understand target groups and personas.
Demographic segmentation makes sense—if you’re focusing on paid channels.
The PESO Model
It makes sense for PR to focus on publics, stakeholders, and influencers. And it makes sense for marketers to focus on target groups and personas.
In PR- and communications, we focus on earned, shared, and owned media channels. Marketers focus on paid media channels.
Earned, shared, and owned media channels are typically open for two-way communication. When groups of people form in these channels, their demographical makeup doesn’t really matter. They’re joined together by how they communicate.
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.
Social Media Makes Publics Relevant
So, forget about target groups.
Forget about personas.
Forget about grouping people according to where they live, how old they are or where they live.
As the media landscape went from one-way to two-way, demographics suddenly lost much of their usefulness and efficiency.
Group people based on what situation created them and how, when and where they choose to communicate. It’s easier, it’s faster, it makes more sense, and most of all—it makes your PR activities much more relevant and efficient.