Ron Smith's Teaching Notes on ...



Updated Spring 2016 as a supplement to Professor Smith's textbooks
Strategic Planning for Public Relations and Becoming a Public Relations Writer, (Routledge/Taylor and Francis).


The "public" in public relations offers an important insight into what the profession is all about. Organization generally focus their public relations not on individuals, not even on every group that exists. Rather, public relations focuses on a select and carefully identified groups known as publics. 



A public is a group of people who
   face a similar situation
   recognize the consequences
   seek to deal with the situation
        --John Dewey, philosopher of sociology


A public is ...
   - Identifiable
   - Homogenous
   - Important to the organization
   - Large enough to matter
   - Reachable


general public is a logical impossibility because it does not refer to a group of people, as defined above. Instead, speak about populations, but any identification of publics must be specific.



Public, Market, Audience, or Stakeholder?


public is a group within a population that has mutual concerns and consequences vis-a-vis the organization. Public may be helpful or annoying, friendly or not, but an organization must deal with each regardless. Think of a public as being like family. You don't pick them, they just are. Publics exist because of their interaction with an organization.


A market is a type of public. This is a more like a friend, with shared interests and common values. A market is a public based on a producer-consumer relationship.


An audience is an aggregation of individuals who share the use of a particular channel of communication. An audience may overlap with a public, but they are not the same. Following the friends and family analogy, an audience is more like fellow passengers on the bus, neither friend nor family (though they could be) using a common conveyance. 


Stakeholder is a more confusing term. Some use it as an umbrella term, synonymous with public. Others use it as an alternative for shareholder, defining people who have a vested interest in an organization. The Public Relations Society of America has given its preference for "public" as the best umbrella term for the profession.


Discussion Point: It has been said that consequences create publics. With an understanding of the information above, what does this statement mean to you?





Linkage is a sociological concept that identifies a pattern of relationships between an organization and its publics within interdependent or interpenetrating systems. Linkage theory is associated with Milton Esman, a researcher studying the Agency for Internal Development.

Every organization is moving toward equilibrium, with a continuing series of actions and reactions. This perennial adjustment creates a dialectical pattern of social change
-- Peter Blau, sociologist


Types of Linkages (identified by Esman)
1. Enabling Linkages
2. Functional Linkages (input / output)
3. Normative Linkages
4. Diffused Linkages



Types of Publics (Linkages)

1. Customers - publics who receive the output of the organization, either directly or indirectly
2. Producers - publics who create the output of the organization
3. Enablers - publics who establish the climate and generate support for the organization
4. Limiters - publics who limit the work of the organization


Examples of publics within each category of linkages


Occasional / Regular
Competitive / Loyal
By age, ethnicity, spending potential, or other variable
Current / Potential / Former


Employees / Volunteers
Veteran / Novice
Line / Staff
Management / Nonmanagement
Supervisory / Staff / Maintenance / Production / Uniformed
Management / Union
Families / Retirees
Investors / Donors
Current / Potential / Former


Community Leaders (government, professional, business, union, educational, religious, ethnic...)
Organizations (service, professional, religious, cultural, political, environmental, activist, etc...)
Regulators (industry, association, regulatory agencies, accreditation bodies...)
Professional experts, consultants, analysts
Government Bodies Town, city, county, state, federal, international; Elective, appointive
Legislative, executive, judicial
Staff, advisory, committee, department
Military / Civilian

Media (local, state, regional, national, international

Specialized (professional, financial, consumer, religious, ethnic, trade, advocacy, academic...)
By availability (general, limited, restricted)
Print / Broadcast / Digital / Social
Print (newspaper, magazine, newsletter)
Newspapers (Daily / nondaily; metropolitan / community)
Broadcast (television, terrestrial radio, online radio)
Television (broadcast / cable; commercial / public)
Radio (AM / FM, commercial / public

Social Media (website, wiki, microwiki (Twitter), social networking (Facebook, LinkedIn...), share sites (Flickr, YouTube, Vimeo)





Stages in the Development of Publics


- have nothing in common
- no consequences between organization and group of people
Public Relations Activity: Monitor


Latent Public
- face a similar situation
- unaware of consequences
Public Relation Activity: Plan for communication


Apathetic Public
- face a similar situation
- don't care; consequences not perceived as important
Public Relation Activity: Monitor


Aware Public
- face a situation
- perceive it as relevant
- not organized or active on the issue
Public Relation Activity: Initiate proactive communication


Active Public
- face a situation
- perceive it as relevant
- organized for action
Active publics may be active on all issues, on popular issues, or on single issues
Public Relation Activity: Engage in reactive communication


The more a public...
- recognizes a situation
- perceives it as relevant
- feels able to affect it
        ... the more the public will appreciate and participate in communication



Grunig Situational Theory of Communication Behavior


Purpose: To explain when and how people communicate
And when communication aimed at people is likely to be effective


Publics can be understood
by measuring how members of publics perceive situations
in which they are affected by organizational consequences


Communication behavior is affected by three conditions:

  1. Problem Regognition - The extent to which people detect a problem

  2. Constraint Recognition - the extent to which people identify obstacles to act on the problem

  3. Level of Involvement - The extent to which people feel connected to an issue

                For additional information on the theory, see Managing Public Relations, Grunig & Hunt



Analyzing Publics


Re: Issue
- wants, interests, needs
- level of awareness
- level of involvement
- level of organization or activity
- recognition of constraints
- potential development


Re: Organization
- knowledge about organization
- perceptions
- expectations


Re: Communication
- information patterns (active or passive)
- opinion leaders
- media-use habits