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The Publics in Public Relations

Segmenting publics is easier — and more efficient.

What are ‘publics’ in public relations?

A public is a group of people grouped together based not on how they are similar demographically (age, sex, income, geographical location etc.), but rather on their shared communication behaviours (where, why and how they choose to communicate).

But what does this mean exactly?
And why does this matter?

In Many Ways Alike, Yet So Different

Imagine two ordinary individuals.

Both of these two individuals:

  • grew up in the same place,
  • live in the same neighbourhood,
  • have similar jobs and family constellations,
  • drive hybrid SUVs,
  • plays golf, and
  • enjoys a similar socio-economic status.

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.

In public relations and marketing alike, how we group people is often referred to as ‘segmentation’. And how you segment your market is important.

How to define public relations

PR (public relations) = the strategic and tactical use of communication to develop and maintain relationships with stakeholders, influencers, and publics.

Please note:

stakeholders — with various interests in the organisation.

influencers — gatekeepers with important audiences.

publics — groups with key communicative behaviors.

Learn more about public relations.

Why is demographic segmentation so overrated?

We must find our way back to the publics in public relations. We must stop grouping people on a basis of 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 living in one of the richer suburbs just outside of town. With their university degrees and their 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 demographic that is very attractive 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, he or she adds 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, right?

Simply put: Demographic segmentation simply 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 Anyone’s Marketing Persona”

Traditional demographics (compared to behavioural data and psychographics) tells us very little about how individuals actually 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 give you an answer to 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 at 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 Elusive “P” in Public Relations

I’m not the sum of my socio-economic class; my job; my age; my geographic location; my sexuality; my gender. Neither are you.

Publics are groups of people segmented based on their communicative behaviour. It’s a situational phenomenon (you only belong to a certain public based on the context of each situation).

Publics are formed when external factors creates them.

For instance: If a municipality announces the building of a new bridge, several publics might suddenly be created:

“The supporters” who loves the idea about a new bridge.

“The environmentalists” who thinks that a new bridge will disturb the wildlife.

“The conservatives” who argues that the bridge is a change we don’t need.

“The opponents” who resort to political action to stop the new bridge.

And so on.

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, publics just waiting for external situations to activate them, to bring them together in joint communicative behaviours.

Example: Everyone who uses a search engine to enter a specific search term to land on your site, they all share the same communicative behaviour as 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 know the situation that created them — and in which channel they are active.

Active publics essentially wants to be grouped together, 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, simply group people based on where, when, and how they communicate.

A Brief History of Publics in Public Relations

How did we forget about publics in public relations? The psychologist John Dewey (1859-1852) formulated the concept of publics as a result of situational stimuli. Dewey was contemporary with the famous public opinion-writer Walter Lippman (1889-1974) and the concept of publics was partly a way to deepen the discussion of 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 how to activate latent publics through creating word-of-mouth, directly influencing influencers and creating situations that would spark the formation of publics.

However, with the growing power of the “Madison Avenue” powerhouses and the rise of the mass-communication society, there where few more powerful conversation starters than the mass-media outlets. So while the mad men focused on the advertisement space, the growing PR profession took aim at the editorial space.

And who consumes mass-media?

The only correlations to be found where demographic ones, simply because of the fact that mass media by its nature is one-way. Plus, the ad agencies where more professionally evolved and dealt with budget sizes that were (and still are) very aspirational for PR practitioners.

How does social media make publics relevant again?

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 its usefulness and efficiency. This could have been good news for anyone working with PR if it weren’t for the fact that the public relations industry had forgotten all about how to segment people into publics.

But here’s the good news:

Segmenting publics is easy to do!

Group people on the basis on what situation that 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.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Prints/Instagram)


Avatar of Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, aka Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Communication Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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