Who are your publics?

A crowd of people listening to a woman talkingYes. 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
  • Hotissue 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.

A wind turbine with the sky behind itIn 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

Images: Crowd by Wayne Large  and Wind Turbine by Ben Harrington both via Flickr



  1. Great post, Kelly. I really enjoyed how you took academic literature and applied it to the social media world – we don’t see this as often as we should. Three things in your post really caught my eye. I appreciate your comment about orgnanizations embarking on unconditional engagement (if possible). I think this is a point that we need to identify more readily. Further to that, you make not that organizations should prioritize certain publics if unconditional engagement is not possible. This is a great point. It makes organizations or brands think of who their public is and who makes up that public. I think a lot of organizations see the community as a singular entity, whereas, and you rightly note, it isn’t. Finally, I really liked your point that we cannot use social media as a self-serving tool. This is flawed thinking. It may in fact be a means to an end, but we cannot employ this tool as if that is our driving ideology.

    Well done, Kelly. Thanks for sharing this.


    1. Thank you very much Tyler, the post came out of an assignment for my CIPR Diploma course looking at how traditional communication theories can be applied to social media. The first two points are very much James Grunig’s, made in the extremely interesting post that I linked to in the post.

      Unfortunately, the use of social media solely from an organisation’s perspective appears to be fairly common – with messages being broadcast rather than meaningful two-way communication being fostered – a missed opportunity for all parties.

  2. Kelly – nice post. I like to consider publics also on a dimension from friends to foes which is a useful reminder that being aware and active isn’t necessarily a bad thing. So within the digital world, we can also look for those who understand our narrative and wish to associate themselves with it. This positive perspective is normally seen as more marketing (hence focus on Facebook likes etc) where PR has taken the negative perspective of online publics with crisis management (love your use of triage). A final thought on publics – for me, it is a more useful term than stakeholders as it should focus us on the fact that people do not belong to the organisation (even if they have commercial relationships with it). Stakeholders have this connection via the stake, whereas publics choose to have a relationship with the organisation (friend to foe that may be).

    1. Hello Heather, thank you for commenting. I absolutely agree that we always need to consider the range of publics from friend to foe, taking time to proactively establish trusted relationships wherever possible. It can be too easy to focus on the negative, or spend disproportionate amounts of time on the vocal minority, closing off other potentially beneficial relationships.

      With regard to using the term publics rather than stakeholders or customers, a similar conversation came up with Sue Wolstenhome at one of my recent Diploma classes. Working in the public sector, the majority of our publics have no choice but to have a relationship with us, but the point about them not ‘belonging’ to the organisation is one that is well worth remembering.

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