The publics in relations

Imagine two ordinary individuals.

Both individuals live in the same place, they have similar jobs, they drive SUVs, and they have matching family constellations and matching socio-economic backgrounds. 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.

Why demographic segmentation is 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, they do both belong to a demographic that is very attractive to lots of advertisers.

But here’s the thing:

One of them 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 online sharing goes via dark social.

But the other individual’s just another story altogether:

He or she spends night after night in the basement immersed in a World of Warcraft guild, collaborating with members from all corners of the world; a quintessential early adopter who streams television, listens to podcasts, and consume news via friends’ social graphs.

Demographic segmentation simply isn’t a very useful public relations tool. We want 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 — or how they group themselves around opinions together with others.

“Okay, so I’m not your marketing persona”

Traditional demographics (compared to behavioural data and psychographics) tells us very little about how individuals 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.”

Most of us try hard to break away from assigned demographic stereotypes. And this is why lots of people hate advertising. Advertising talks to you as if you are a foregone conclusion. And of course, to most advertisers, we are just wallets with legs. This way of talking at people is not how you develop meaningful relationships or become successful in your communication efforts.

If a brand talked to me like I was 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, I certainly wouldn’t listen.

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 as opposed to a demographic group (which you belong to 24/7). There is no such thing as a general public. Instead, publics are formed in given situations when external factors bring them to life. For instances, if a municipality announces the building of a new bridge, several publics are likely to 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. So everywhere in society, there are plenty of latent publics just waiting for external situations that will activate them and 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. Group people based on situational behaviour instead of demographic affinity.

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 social media makes 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 do a proper public segmentation!

But here’s the good news:

Segmenting publics is not rocket science.

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 public relations activities much more relevant and efficient.

Photo by Hugh Han on Unsplash.