Ron Smith's Teaching Notes on ...


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 what come to be known as publics.

Updated Summer 2011 as a supplement to Prof. Smith's textbooks,
Strategic Planning for Public Relations and Becoming a Public Relations Writer, (Routledge/Taylor and Francis).



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

A 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, Stakeholder, Market or Audience?

A public is a group within a population that has mutual concerns and consequences vis-a-vis the organization.

A stakeholder is similarly defined as "any group or individual who is affected by or who can affect the achievement of an organization's objective." (E. Edward Freeman in Strategic Management: A Stakeholder Approach)

The different between a public and a stakeholder can be seen in how each come into being. Organizations recognize stakeholders through their marketing, recruiting, and similar plans. Publics create themselves in the development of a relationship with an organization, which in turn recognizes the mutual environment that involves both the organization and the public. This is consistent with Grunig in Excellence in Public Realtions and Communication Management.

A market is a type of public; it is a consumer-oriented segment within the population that can help the organization achieve its goals through an exchange of goods and money.

An audience is an aggregation of individual who share the use of a particular channel of communication.


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 (genera, limited, restricted)
Print/ Broadcast / Computer
Print (newspaper, magazine, newsletter)
Newspapers (Daily / nondaily; metropolitan / community)
Broadcast (television, radio)
Television (broadcast / cable; commercial / public)
Radio (AM / FM, commercial / public
Computer (news group, website, blog, social media site)



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:
Problem Recognition - the extent to which people detect a problem
Constraint Recognition - the extent to which people identify obstacles to act on the problem
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