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The diverse public is symbolized in this sculpture, "La Foule Illumine". La Foule illuminee 03.jpg
The diverse public is symbolized in this sculpture, "La Foule Illumine".

In public relations and communication science, publics are groups of individual people, and the public (a.k.a. the general public) is the totality of such groupings. [1] [2] This is a different concept to the sociological concept of the Öffentlichkeit or public sphere. [1] The concept of a public has also been defined in political science, psychology, marketing, and advertising. In public relations and communication science, it is one of the more ambiguous concepts in the field. [3] Although it has definitions in the theory of the field that have been formulated from the early 20th century onwards, and suffered more recent years from being blurred, as a result of conflation of the idea of a public with the notions of audience, market segment, community, constituency, and stakeholder. [4]


Etymology and definitions

The name "public" originates with the Latin publicus (also poplicus ), from populus , to the English word 'populace', and in general denotes some mass population ("the people") in association with some matter of common interest. So in political science and history, a public is a population of individuals in association with civic affairs, or affairs of office or state. In social psychology, marketing, and public relations, a public has a more situational definition. [5] John Dewey defined ( Dewey 1927 ) public as a group of people who, in facing a similar problem, recognize it and organize themselves to address it. Dewey's definition of a public is thus situational: people organized about a situation. Built upon this situational definition of a public is the situational theory of publics by James E. Grunig ( Grunig 1983 ), which talks of nonpublics (who have no problem), latent publics (who have a problem), aware publics (who recognize that they have a problem), and active publics (who do something about their problem). [6] [7]

In public relations and communication theory, a public is distinct from a stakeholder or a market. A public is a subset of the set of stakeholders for an organization, that comprises those people concerned with a specific issue. Whilst a market has an exchange relationship with an organization, and is usually a passive entity that is created by the organization, a public does not necessarily have an exchange relationship, and is both self-creating and self-organizing. [8] Publics are targeted by public relations efforts. In this, target publics are those publics whose involvement is necessary for achieving organization goals; intervening publics are opinion formers and mediators, who pass information to the target publics; and influentials are publics that the target publics turn to for consultation, whose value judgements are influential upon how a target public will judge any public relations material. [6] The public is often targeted especially in regard to political agendas as their vote is necessary in order to further the progression of the cause. As seen in Massachusetts between 2003 and 2004, it was necessary to "win a critical mass of states and a critical mass of public support" in order to get same-sex marriage passed in the commonwealth. [9]

Public relations theory perspectives on publics are situational, per Dewey and Grunig; mass, where a public is simply viewed as a population of individuals; agenda-building, where a public is viewed as a condition of political involvement that is not transitory; and " homo narrans ", where a public is (in the words of Gabriel M. Vasquez, assistant professor in the School of Communication at the University of Houston) a collection of "individuals that develop a group consciousness around a problematic situation and act to solve the problematic situation" ( Vasquez 1993 , pp. 209). [5] [4] Public schools are often under controversy for their "agenda-building," especially in debates over whether to teach a religious or secular curriculum. [10] The promotion of an agenda is commonplace whenever one is in a public environment, but schools have exceptional power in that regard. In the public school system, it is the responsibility of those within the system to determine what agenda is being promoted.

One non-situational concept of a public is that of Kirk Hallahan, professor at Colorado State University, who defines a public as "a group of people who relate to an organization, who demonstrate varying degrees of activitypassivity, and who might (or might not) interact with others concerning their relationship with the organization". [4]

Samuel Mateus's 2011 paper "Public as Social Experience"[ undue weight? ] considered to view the concept by an alternative point of view: the public "is neither a simple audience constituted by media consumers nor just a rational-critical agency of a Public Sphere". He argued "the concept should also be seen in the light of a publicness principle, beyond a critic and manipulative publicity (...). In accordance, the public may be regarded as the result of the social activities made by individuals sharing symbolic representations and common emotions in publicness. Seen with lower-case, the concept is a set of subjectivities who look publicly for a feeling of belonging. So, in this perspective, the public is still a fundamental notion to social life although in a different manner in comparison to 18th century Public Sphere's Public. He means above all the social textures and configurations where successive layers of social experience are built up." [11]

The general public also sets social norms which causes people to express themselves in socially acceptable manners. Although this is present within every community, this is often especially applicable within the transgender community as they feel the need to "perform" to a certain set of expectations to be seen as their true gender. [12]

Social publics

Social publics are groups of people united by common ideas, ideology, or hobbies. Networked publics are social publics which have been socially restructured by the networking of technologies. As such, they are simultaneously both (1) the space constructed through networked technologies and (2) the imagined collective which consequently emerges as a result of the intersection of human persons, shared technologies, and their practices. [13]

See also

Related Research Articles

Communication is the act of developing meaning among entities or groups through the use of sufficiently mutually understood signs, symbols, and semiotic conventions.

Public relations Broad term for the management of public communication of organizations

Public relations (PR) is the practice of deliberately managing the release and spread of information between an individual or an organization and the public in order to affect the public perception. Public relations (PR) and publicity differ in that PR is controlled internally, whereas publicity is not controlled and contributed by external parties. Public relations may include an organization or individual gaining exposure to their audiences using topics of public interest and news items that do not require direct payment. This differentiates it from advertising as a form of marketing communications. Public relations aims to create or obtain coverage for clients for free, also known as earned media, rather than paying for marketing or advertising. But in the early 21st century, advertising is also a part of broader PR activities.

Public policy is a course of action created and/or enacted, typically by a government, in response to public, real-world problems. Beyond this broad definition, public policy has been conceptualized in a variety of ways.

Social constructionism Theory that shared understandings of the world create shared assumptions about reality

Social constructionism is a theory of knowledge in sociology and communication theory that examines the development of jointly constructed understandings of the world that form the basis for shared assumptions about reality. The theory centers on the notion that meanings are developed in coordination with others rather than separately within each individual.

Civil society can be understood as the "third sector" of society, distinct from government and business, and including the family and the private sphere. By other authors, civil society is used in the sense of 1) the aggregate of non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest interests and will of citizens or 2) individuals and organizations in a society which are independent of the government.

Agenda-setting describes the "ability to influence the importance placed on the topics of the public agenda". Agenda-setting is the manipulation of public awareness and concern of salient issues by the news media. The study of agenda-setting describes the way media attempts to influence viewers, and establish a hierarchy of news prevalence. Nations with more political power receive higher media exposure. The agenda-setting by media is driven by the media's bias on things such as politics, economy and culture, etc. The evolution of agenda-setting and laissez-faire components of communication research encouraged a fast pace growth and expansion of these perspectives. Agenda-setting has phases that need to be in a specific order in order for it to succeed.

Public sphere Area in social life

The public sphere is an area in social life where individuals can come together to freely discuss and identify societal problems, and through that discussion influence political action. Such a discussion is called public debate and is defined as the expression of views on matters that are of concern to the public—often, but not always, with opposing or diverging views being expressed by participants in the discussion. Public debate takes place mostly through the mass media, but also at meetings or through social media, academic publications and government policy documents. The term was originally coined by German philosopher Jürgen Habermas who defined the public sphere as "made up of private people gathered together as a public and articulating the needs of society with the state". Communication scholar Gerard A. Hauser defines it as "a discursive space in which individuals and groups associate to discuss matters of mutual interest and, where possible, to reach a common judgment about them". The public sphere can be seen as "a theater in modern societies in which political participation is enacted through the medium of talk" and "a realm of social life in which public opinion can be formed".

Media democracy is a democratic approach to media studies that advocates for the reform of mass media to strengthen public service broadcasting and develop participation in alternative media and citizen journalism in order to create a mass media system that informs and empowers all members of society and enhances democratic values. Media is also defined as "medium" a way of communicating with others.

Mass communication is the process of imparting and exchanging information through mass media to large segments of the population. It is usually understood for relating to various forms of media, as these technologies are used for the dissemination of information, of which journalism and advertising are part. Mass communication differs from other forms of communication, such as interpersonal communication and organizational communication, because it focuses on particular resources transmitting information to numerous receivers. The study of mass communication is chiefly concerned with how the content of mass communication persuades or otherwise affects the behavior, the attitude, opinion, or emotion of the people receiving the information.

In media studies, mass communication, media psychology, communication theory, and sociology, media influence and media effects are topics relating to mass media and media culture's effects on individual or an audience's thoughts, attitudes, and behavior. Whether it is written, televised, or spoken, mass media reaches a large audience. Mass media's role and effect in shaping modern culture are central issues for study of culture.

Frame analysis is a multi-disciplinary social science research method used to analyze how people understand situations and activities. Frame analysis looks at images, stereotypes, metaphors, actors, messages, and more. It examines how important these factors are and how and why they are chosen. The concept is generally attributed to the work of Erving Goffman and his 1974 book Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of experience and has been developed in social movement theory, policy studies and elsewhere.

<i>The Theory of Communicative Action</i> 1981 book by Jürgen Habermas

The Theory of Communicative Action is a two-volume 1981 book by the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, in which the author continues his project of finding a way to ground "the social sciences in a theory of language", which had been set out in On the Logic of the Social Sciences (1967). The two volumes are Reason and the Rationalization of Society, in which Habermas establishes a concept of communicative rationality, and Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason, in which Habermas creates the two level concept of society and lays out the critical theory for modernity.

Organization–public relationships is the management of relationship between an organization and the public.

The situational theory of publics defines that publics can be identified and classified in the context to which they are aware of the problem and the extent to which they do something about the problem.

James E. Grunig is a public relations theorist, Professor Emeritus for the Department of Communication at the University of Maryland.

The study of global communication is an interdisciplinary field focusing on global communication, or the ways that people connect, share, relate and mobilize across geographic, political, economic, social and cultural divides. Global communication implies a transfer of knowledge and ideas from centers of power to peripheries and the imposition of a new intercultural hegemony by means of the "soft power" of global news and entertainment.

Interpersonal communication

Interpersonal communication is an exchange of information between two or more people. It is also an area of research that seeks to understand how humans use verbal and nonverbal cues to accomplish a number of personal and relational goals.

The Excellence theory is a general theory of public relations that “specifies how public relations makes organizations more effective, how it is organized and managed when it contributes most to organizational effectiveness, the conditions in organizations and their environments that make organizations more effective, and how the monetary value of public relations can be determined”. The excellence theory resulted from a study about the best practice in public relations, which was headed by James E. Grunig and funded by the Foundation of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) in 1985. Constructed upon a number of middle-range theories, and tested with surveys and interviews of professionals and CEOs in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, the Excellence theory provides a “theoretical and empirical benchmark” for public relations units.

Dr. Larissa "Lauri" A. Grunig is a public relations theorist and feminist, and she is known as one of the most published and influential scholars in public relations. A professor emerita at the University of Maryland, College Park, Department of Communication, Grunig taught public relations and communication research since 1979. Based on a content analysis of three academic journals from their foundation through the year 2000, Grunig was recognized as one of the five most prolific authors contributing to public relations theory development. Her research focuses on public relations, development communication, communication theory, gender issues, organizational response to activism, organization power and structure, ethics, philosophy, scientific and technical writing, and qualitative methodology.

The situational theory of problem solving attempts to explain why and how an individual communicates during a problematic situation. The situational theory of problem solving (STOPS) was proposed by Jeong-Nam Kim and James E. Grunig in 2011 though their article “problem solving and communicative action: A situational theory of problem solving.” The theory was developed from the situational theory of publics (STP) and claimed it is “an extended and generalized version” of STP. This theory has an assumption that “the more one commits to problem resolution, the more one becomes acquisitive of information pertaining to the problem, selective in dealing with information, and transmissive in giving it to others.”


  1. 1 2 Heath 2005, pp. 707.
  2. Rawlins & Bowen 2005, pp. 718.
  3. Vasquez & Taylor 2001, pp. 139.
  4. 1 2 3 Jahanzsoozi 2006, pp. 65.
  5. 1 2 Vasquez & Taylor 2001, pp. 140.
  6. 1 2 Rawlins & Bowen 2005, pp. 720721.
  7. Toth 2006, pp. 506507.
  8. Rawlins & Bowen 2005, pp. 721.
  9. Denise Lavote (November 16, 2013). "A Decade After Massachusetts' Landmark Gay Marriage Ruling, The Gains Are Clear". Huff Post Politics. Archived from the original on 2013-11-19. Retrieved 2013-11-17.
  10. Shorto, Russell (February 11, 2010). "How Christian Were the Founders?". The New York Times Magazine. Archived from the original on December 30, 2017. Retrieved May 6, 2018 via
  11. Mateus, Samuel (2011). "The Public as Social Experience". Comunicação e Sociedade. 19: 275–286. doi: 10.17231/comsoc.19(2011).911 .
  12. "TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly" (PDF). Duke University Press. May 2014.
  13. Varnelis, Kazys (October 31, 2008). "Networked Publics". MIT Press. Archived from the original on June 10, 2017.


  • Heath, Robert Lawrence, ed. (2005). "Public sphere (Öffentlichkeit)". Encyclopedia of public relations. 2. SAGE. ISBN   978-0-7619-2733-4.
  • Jahanzsoozi, Julia (2006). "Relationships, Transparency, and Evaluation: The Implications for Public Relations". In L'Etang, Jacquie; Pieczka, Magda (eds.). Public relations: critical debates and contemporary practice. Routledge. ISBN   978-0-8058-4618-8.
  • Rawlins, Brad L.; Bowen, Shannon A. (2005). "Publics". In Heath, Robert Lawrence (ed.). Encyclopedia of public relations. 2. SAGE. ISBN   978-0-7619-2733-4.
  • Toth, Elizabeth L. (2006). "Building Public Affairs Theory". In Botan, Carl H.; Hazleton, Vincent (eds.). Public relations theory II. LEA's communication series. Routledge. ISBN   978-0-8058-3384-3.
  • Vasquez, Gabriel M.; Taylor, Maureen (2001). "Research perspectives on "the Public"". In Heath, Robert Lawrence; Vasquez, Gabriel M. (eds.). Handbook of public relations . SAGE. ISBN   978-0-7619-1286-6.

Further reading