Know your audience: An evolutionary focus on publics
If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know I’m currently studying for my master’s degree in Communications Management from Syracuse University. Since my course work is closely related to my blog’s focus of Public Relations, I draw many post ideas from there. From time to time, I will post a paper I wrote for class. This particular post is an essay exam about publics from my Public Relations Theory course in the fall of 2012 using The SAGE Handbook of Public Relations edited by Robert L. Heath, and any citations can be found there.
The primary concern for the discipline of Public Relations is publics: reaching publics; developing and maintaining beneficial relationships between an organization and its publics; interacting with publics to influence their awareness, opinions and behaviors; communicating with publics to determine any needed changes in an organization’s culture and strategies – everything PR practitioners do in their work is centered around publics. As with all evolution, publics are constantly developing into more complex and sophisticated subgroups with specific needs, desires and expectations. For PR professionals, this consistent progression means continually advancing methods and philosophies to successfully reach, interact and build meaningful relationships with these publics.
Who are Publics?
There is no universally accepted definition for a public (de Bussy, 2010), but using Freeman’s Stakeholder Enabling Principle, an organization’s customers, financiers, employees, suppliers and community (public stakeholders) can be seen as examples (R.E. Freeman, 1997, in de Bussy, 2010, pg. 134). Kim and Ni (2010) argue that “defining publics – who they are and how they behave – is the foundational task in defining the academic field and practice of public relations” (pg. 42). They go on to define publics as a primitive term referring to a general population in contrast to “private members or citizens with legal rights and obligations” (pg. 42). Leitch and Motion (2010) warn, though, the concept of the general public has become lost due to the segmentation of publics to such a degree that has led to organizations missing the opportunity to interact with a possible public “compromising all the citizens of a nation who may engage within the public sphere” (pg. 101).
Publics can be further defined based on their relational values to organizations. Based on their relationship to an organization’s decision-making model, publics are “understood as different stakeholders, each with their particular interest in and perspective on the world and on the organization” (Holmström, 2010, pg. 261). Contingency Theory takes into account a public’s size, credibility, commitment and power to determine if an organization will interact with the public through accommodation or advocacy (Pang, Jin, & Cameron, 2010). Publics Theory determines how easy it is for an organization to interact with a public based on if it has an ordered or disordered composition (S. Leitch & D. Neilson, 2001, in Leitch, et al., 2010, pg. 102). Publics with more ordered composition are always easier to reach. Intersectionality Theory predicts the organization’s prioritization of a public by the likelihood of a public communicating with or about that organization and how the public will affect the organization’s bottom line (J.E. Grunig, 1992; L.A. Grunig & D.M. Dozier, 2002, in Vardeman-Winter & Tindall, 2010, pg. 227).
Finally, publics can be defined by their power to change an organization. Further defining the Situational Theory of Publics (J.E. Grunig, 1997; J.E. Grunig & T. Hunt, 1984, in Kim, et al., 2010, pg. 41) using the Situational Theory of Problem Solving and its dependent variable of Communicative Action in Problem Solving, Kim and Ni (2010) define a public as “connected social actors who seek, select and share information in their problem-solving process” (pg. 44). In the Public Stage of the Strategic Management of Public Relations Model, publics realize they can use their stakes in the organization to influence change. From this point on, publics are grouped into four categories: 1) hot issue 2) single issue 3) all issue 4) apathetic. Those four categories evolve further into four subgroups: 1) nonpublics 2) latent 3) aware 4) active.
Publics are subjective to each organization and issue. As not all possible publics will be involved with every event, it is important for PR professionals to use the definitions and theories of publics to understand what constitutes a public; how publics develop, exist and sustain; and how publics are segmented. Thus, to provide sound counsel to an organization, PR practitioners must take into account the fluctuating and progressing nature of publics and methods to reach them.
Evolution of Publics
Three modern concepts have changed publics’ needs and expectations of and how they interact with organizations: 1) social media, 2) corporate social responsibility, and 3) diversification.
With the advent of Web 2.0 platforms, social media has maximized two-way communication interaction and transformed how publics solve problems (Kim, et al., 2010). Due to “groundswell” or the ability of publics to use technology to find information through sharing, social media has placed publics on an equal basis with organizations in addressing concerns (C. Li & J. Bernoff, 2008, in Smudde & Courtright, 2010, pg. 182). As publics have gained this foothold, they have begun to resist organizations still trying to control message meaning in a new media world (Gilpin & Murphy, 2010; Leitch, et al., 2010). Organizations now must be willing to relinquish control to these more powerful publics and their more sophisticated methods of information sharing and problem solving in order to maintain trust and positive relationships.
As publics are evolving, they are becoming more dependent upon trust (Holmström, 2010), a central idea in CSR. As that dependency on trust grows stronger than logical appeals, a public’s emotional state will affect its stance toward an organization (Pang, et al., 2010). As discussed previously, publics have become more powerful and sophisticated, and they expect organizations to “walk the talk” (Brønn, 2010, pg. 316) when it comes to CSR. Publics are more apt today at exposing organizations that are just paying lip service with a non-sincere CSR program, and they will lose trust when there is a “gap between what organizations communicate to external stakeholders and the behavior they expect from the organization” (Brønn, 2010, pg. 318). As “publics approve or disapprove of any organization according as it is responsive to community interests” (D. Kruckeberg & K. Starck, 1988, in Heath, Motion, & Leitch, 2010, pg. 200), organizations are served well to remember that publics are made up of people, and people want to interact with organizations they feel good about.
“The U.S. population is more diverse than ever before due to the continual influx of ethnically and racially diverse persons” (Waymer, 2010, pg. 237). With this diversification and other cultural and socio-economic factors, publics are now more segmented by what they care about, how they prefer interaction, and what language and word choice resonates with them. By concentrating on a well-rounded diversity communications program, PR professionals can target, reach and build relationships with each of these unique publics in a meaningful way.
How Do the Definition and Evolution of Publics Affect the Practice of Public Relations Today?
Gone are the days of mass blasting the same message with the same methods and reaching all the publics an organization depends on for success. To be successful, public relations practitioners must understand how to interact with their publics in new ways through new media channels. Organizations will fail at reaching their publics if they try to use “new media in old ways” (J.E. Grunig, 2009, in Kim, et al., 2010, pg. 51). People want to know organizations they are doing business with are socially responsible. Organizations must show they can be trusted in their CSR efforts if they hope their publics to be receptive to their messages. With publics now coming from all cultural, social and economic backgrounds, PR professionals must be able to segment publics and tailor messages that resonate with them. One message that is perfect for one subgroup may offend another. Organizations must be sensitive to these diversities in order to effectively reach target publics. PR practitioners are sure to fail if they do not adapt to the new environment of media and diverse publics looking to do business with organizations they trust.