Yes. Publics. Sometimes the terms stakeholders or customers just don’t fit the bill. Also, I’ve recently been hiking through communications theory for the CIPR diploma, and those theorists do like a public.
The theory of publics caught my eye in relation to social media. In 1983, public relations academic James Grunig identified four basic publics*:
- All-issue publics – active on all issues and often focused on injustices carried out by or through organisations
- Apathetic publics – inattentive on all issues. Not aware of, or concerned by, events. Self-focused and unlikely to take part in action to make their views heard
- Single-issue publics – active on one specific issue/area. Put all their energies into one cause and are very active
- Hot–issue publics – active on one issue with high profile and broad application often seize on issue currently in the media, but for a short time
Working with Todd Hunt, Grunig further refined the theory, moving to:
- latent publics – who face a similar problem but do not recognise it
- aware publics – who recognise a common issue
- active publics – who recognise the problem and organise to do something about it.
A fourth public – non-public with no interest in the issue – was added later. In his book Online Public Relations, David Phillips states that, in web terms, this public can be identified ‘as those who do not have ready access to the Internet.’ As said in a recent We Love Local Gov blog post, we mustn’t forget this public in the general move to embrace social media.
In another well-worth-a-read blog post , Grunig points out that social media gives publics the freedom to identify themselves, rather than wait to be defined by an organisation’s self-interest. He suggests that organisations should engage all publics to the extent of available resources. If this ideal situation is not possible, publics should be prioritised “according to the impact the organisation has on them or the impact they have on the organisation … [which] requires judgement both about social responsibility and about the strategic interests of the organisation.”
It’s all too easy for organisations to focus on the benefits of social media for them, forgetting that it gives anyone the same opportunity to get their voice heard and find like-minded people. Organisations overlook the ability for publics to identify and arrange themselves using social media at their peril. Clay Shirky cites numerous examples in his book Here Comes Everybody. In Online Public Relations, Anne Gregory summarises that, “The ability of groups to form quickly and mobilise action provides a great opportunity as well as being a potential threat for PR professionals who are the guardians of organisational reputation.”
A few basic points this all throws up for me – nothing new but always important – are:
- Who are your publics, active or otherwise and where are they on social media?
- How and what are you monitoring?
- How are you reacting and engaging to issues being brought up online? Social media triage is handy here
- What issues could cause latent publics to move to aware and then active and how can/will you engage (wind farm application anyone?)
- Which of your publics aren’t online, where are they instead and how are you going to reach them/they reach you?
*Adapted from Edwards, L. ( 2009), Public Relations Theories: An Overview, Chapter 8 in Tench.R and Yeomans, L, Exploring Public Relations, Second Edition, Harlow, Pearson Education Limited