Understanding Your Publics: Beginning the Two-way Discourse

Poster showing soldiers running, with rifles and bayonets (Wikipedia Commons)

A review…What is the public and why are they of import?

A public is just the population with whom an organization builds a relationship. Their importance is that, whether you recognize it or not, you belong to quite a few publics.

When you look into your cell phone or sign on to your social media account (pick one), organizations in a million ways speak to you in a language that attracts your interest. Whether it is a product, idea or a service, you belong to a number of publics that are courted by business who all want your business!

Why do organizations have to understand their publics?

The ultimate goal of public relations is to promote goodwill between organizations and their publics. These publics can be comprised of employees, stockholders and/or investors, media, a community, and/or demographics.

The best way to build goodwill between an organization or organizations and their publics is through opening the gates of communication.

Appearances do matter….

In building a bridge with publics, another goal of public relations organizations might be to enhance the image of the organization, so it not only appears attractive to its perspective publics but also so the people comprising the public want to invest in the organization’s products, service or principles.

Ultimately, activities that enhance the image of the organizations are those which support transparency and educate the publics.

Conversations, discoursing and just plain chatting….

One way organizations begin the two-way discourse that opens the lines of communication is through understanding the public they want to engage.

In the early 1900s, brand-name food items, such as this one, began making a household name for themselves (Wikipedia Commons)

How do organizations begin to understand their publics?

Interestingly, before a public relations campaign is undertaken, practitioners have completed an inordinate amount of research focusing on the public’s attitude, values or sentiments regarding the issue or organization. Depending on the product or service, researchers might take a number of avenues in studying the target public.

Usually, in becoming familiar with their publics, organizations have a set of activities that prepares them for engaging with their publics. These activities include:

  • The first step is for organizations to get preliminary information regarding factors that influence their public’s perceptions of the organization.
  • The second step involves creating policy as it relates to engaging with the public.
  • The third step involves actually developing strategies and tactics to handle the public. All of these strategies are created after gathering the information regarding the public’s opinion on the subject, product or service up for discussion.
  • The fourth step begins the process of communicating and engaging with the public. Normally, this engagement involves the standard press conference or press release, but public relations professionals can also hold other types of events that perform the task of engagement.
  • The final step involves getting feedback so that organizations can best address and meet the needs of the public with whom they want to develop a relationship.

These steps all start the discourse that eventually develops between the community and the organization.

An example….

A perfect example of organizations understanding the needs of the public before engaging in discourse is the role of higher education in the community. Depending on the location of the institution, whether it is in the inner city or in the middle of a town, the institution’s public relations office has to engage the public beyond the university or college to promote the college’s educational mission.

For a college that sits in an impoverished neighborhood, a public relations program that understands the needs of the surrounding community can focus on programs that act as community outreach to prepare youth for higher education. Conversely, an institution that sits in the middle of a small affluent town might engage the community by holding events that focus on the fine arts, all for the purpose of engaging the community.

Advertisements for deodorants and other hygiene products broke social taboos about public discussion of hygiene (Wikipedia Commons)

Ultimately, in either case, both organizations understand these communities have a need, which opens up a possibility for a two-way discourse between the public and its organization.

What’s in it for them?

Beyond building opportunities for dialogue, two-way relationships provide organizations with the chance to build harmonious relationships, and more importantly, open dialogue lays the foundation for keeping the gates of communication open during crisis management.

So, every time you contact customer service for help with your online account, every time you reach for your cell phone to order a product online and every time you have filed a complaint against a company or brand, it has been through the efforts of public relations and the relationship the organizations has built with you, their customer.

For public relations in particular….

By developing a relationship that promotes transparency, the organization has established a foundation by which the public has invested a trust in more than the organization but the organization’s ideals as well.


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