2 Communicating public interest
Public interest communication brings together two powerful elements—public interest and communication—which when combined, provide a potent tool for addressing social problems. While the concept of the public interest comes from a long-established political theory and a concept that is embedded in laws, policy and public discourse at a global level, public interest communication has emerged more recently as a theoretical field and practical approach to problem solving. Here the focus is on communication. In the book Public Interest Communication Johnston and Pieczka (2018) say communicating about public interests demands ideas be allowed to circulate and debated in the process of seeking solutions to public problems or contested situations. While we know not all interest conflicts can or will be resolved, communication about different interests, representing different publics, in open discourse, is vital within democratically run systems of government.
Communication in the public interest is therefore premised on the idea of open dialogue, active listening and public argument. It can take a persuasive form, but more importantly it draws on . It is about opening up mechanisms for public debate which take place in public, usually in so-called or which unfold around problematic or contested situations. These arenas take many forms — they include physical public sites such as streets or parks; community and meeting halls; and parliamentary chambers and courtrooms. They also include media channels in many forms (print, broadcast, online, social, news, ambient) plus other forms of such as citizen councils, juries and associations that may be held in various locations. Though we look at public-discourse arenas more closely in chapter 4, it’s important to understand where they fit in during the early theory-building part of the book, as they are the places – both physical and mediated – where public interest communication usually takes place.
Public interest communication can be used to represent global issues and interests, such as the 2019 Global Climate Strikes which saw millions of people from hundreds of countries protest and tell their stories to fight the climate crisis. Importantly, it is about representing minority voices, or the stories of those working on local causes, alleviating regional problems such as illustrated in the following podcast.
Podcast: Gracie Mackie investigates the wicked problem of homelessness
In this podcast Gracie delves into the wicked problem of homelessness. Beginning with a personal experience meeting a person experiencing homelessness, she began a journey investigating the problem in Australia. With over 116,000 people homeless in Australian in 2016, Gracie spoke to a senior advisor and intervention work support worker to find out how they balance competing interests and demands in their work. For more information about homelessness and efforts being taken to prevent it visit www.homelessnessaustralia.org.au.
As we heard in the podcast, public interest communication can be used to represent the voices of marginalised or minority interests; voices of those who would otherwise be lost in the chaos and clatter of modern society. Public interest communication therefore has an ethical obligation to go beyond organisational or dominant interests and, at the very least, provide oxygen for other interests to be heard (Johnston, 2022, in press). Because not all individuals or publics have access to public debate, it can be enabled when small groups or even individual voices combine forces, making strategic alliances, or partnering with those who have a like-minded cause and value system. These then form or public-private partnering, which connect social and human capital, and bring the power of alive. Non-government organisations (NGOs) are also examples of groups which form to promote a particular interest within society.
The following case study demonstrates how different groups and voices engage to debate issues in the public arena. This example began after community members sought to protect urban bushland in Perth from a proposed housing development by the University of Western Australia (UWA). Click on the image to explore the case study and reflect on questions underneath.
Case study: The Save Underwood Avenue Bushland Campaign
- What are the ‘public interests’ in this case study?
- Where do environmental needs fit in?
- How could the university, conservation groups and local council act in the best public interest to meet as many stakeholder interests as possible?
- What would you do if you worked for the university? Or if you were part of the group seeking to stop development on the bushland?
Open dialogue, active listening and dialectics
Let’s pause for a minute and go back to basics – to some of the taken for granted ideas of communication. A central component is talking. Talking is about conversations and conversations are about dialogue, right? Dialogue is a communication tool that enables us to express our views but it is also about listening to and (trying to) understand the viewpoints of others. Dialogue is described as a basic process for building common understanding. Accepting this, it makes sense to add into the dialogue mix the need to really listen to others when we take part in dialogue. Because dialogue promotes better understanding and cooperation between people it’s a central part of public interest communication – allowing and enabling two or more points of view to be aired. Dialogue occurs at high levels – between countries, for example, in seeking to find common ground, understanding and peace. For example, The International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding is a global forum which was specifically set up to facilitate political dialogue to bring together countries affected by conflict and fragility, development partners, and civil society. Dialogue also occurs at a personal level, as well as between and within different all types of organisations, from progress associations to corporates.
Dialogue has been adopted in PR as a dedicated theory, so-called ‘dialogic public relations theory’ (Kent and Tayler, 2002). This means using principles of dialogue to engage with publics openly and ethically to create effective communication. Central to this is the idea of actively listening to the other speakers or publics. Not surprisingly, PR has figured out that listening has been under-valued in our learning, teaching and practice with too great a focus on speaking. Professor Jim Macnamara from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) has developed what he calls an Architecture of listening. Macnamara suggests that to engage with publics we need the following:
- A culture of listening,
- Policies, structures and processes for listening,
- Technologies for listening,
- Resources for listening, and
- Skills for listening.
To this we would add having time for listening, because effective listening should not be rushed. The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) in the United Kingdom conducted a study into organisational listening and found, not surprisingly, that nearly everyone thinks listening to stakeholders is important. The IABC surveyed some 140 organisations and found that these organisations overwhelmingly incorporated what they learned from listening into their strategic thinking.
Because in the real world not all dialogue is simple and smooth, and sometimes involves argumentation, we introduce you to the term ‘dialectic’: a somewhat complex concept which is essentially about one idea or thesis being considered against an opposing idea or anti-thesis, ideally to reach a synthesis. Put another way, it’s about dialogue between two or more parties who hold different points of view, with the intent to learn from each other to get closer to agreement: in essence, a problem, a reaction and attempting to find a solution. Johnston and Pieczka (2018) say that public interest communication should be treated as a dialectic, as inquiry driven, with its primary orientation to ask questions, to reflect and respond. This is the ‘tug-of-war’ we occasionally refer to in this book.
Public Interest Communication in the Spotlight: The Sydney Alliance
Acting out public interest communication
There are many ways that public interest communication can be connected to action, as the second part of the book illustrates. In putting these into a theoretical perspective, we draw on the work of US PR scholar Thomas Bivins (1993) who proposed four paradigms of public interest for the field of public relations, each positioning public interest quite differently in how it is acted out in society. These are:
- Paradigm I: If every public relations practitioner acts in the best interest of his or her client, then the public interest will be automatically served.
- Paradigm II: If a public relations practitioner serves public interest causes while serving individual interests, the public interest will be served.
- Paradigm III: If public relations as a profession guarantees that every individual receives services they need or want, then the public interest will be served.
- Paradigm IV: If public relations as a profession enhances the quality of debate over issues important to the public, the public interest will be also served.
These paradigms each provide discussion points for students to consider how public interest may be applied as public interest communication.
Let’s jump straight to paradigm 4 which we think rises to the top because of the central need for public interest communication to act out and debate issues and problems in public spaces. What do we mean by ‘the quality of debate’? Well, this calls for real discussion, with real access by relevant publics, and not just a box ticking exercise. Many such examples are highlighted throughout the book in podcasts and case studies, or through examples such as the referendum for marriage equality in Ireland or the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras (later in the book).
What these paradigms and examples demonstrate is the difficulty in first establishing public interest and, second, ensuring that public interest communication enables fair, ethical, and equitable access to public arenas for all. Clearly, this a challenging task. So, maybe we need a check list for ensuring public interest communication can take place?
What are the dimensions of public interest communication?
Public interest communication may be understood as “the interplay between communication and other public-interest practices, such as regulation, decision making, circulation of knowledge, formation of opinions, attitudes and routines/scripts for performing the public interest in public” (Johnston & Pieczka, 2018, p. 23). With these many elements in mind, Johnston & Pieczka (2018) list six dimensions through which public interest communication can occur. These are:
- Publicness – ensuring debate is held in public spaces.
- Accessibility – making communication available to individuals to participate both in physical spaces and through shared cultural understanding.
- Substantive anchoring – using a language that is known and understood by those who want to take part (aka a ‘discourse environment’).
- Rationality – ensuring communication encompasses reason giving or explanations for decisions-made.
- Inter-subjectivity – having shared interests and understandings with others.
- Connectedness – taking shared interests and connecting them to action.
This final idea of ‘action’ brings us to how public interest communication may be understood as a form of pragmatic communication, which is also about managing public problems and seeking solutions through communication. Pragmatism sees a problem and seeks to find a solution through inquiry and action. Public interest communication brings to this the crucial role of publics, as we explore in more detail in the next chapter. In considering pragmatism we can return to the wisdom of John Dewey from the previous chapter who was known to be a pragmatic thinker. He proposed that in the absence of finding “absolute truth, a dialogically tested and gauged kind of knowledge is the best we can get” (Bieger, 2020, p. 3). A keen follower of Dewey, US policy scholar Barry Bozeman calls this thinking “pragmatic idealism”, which he describes as “keeping in mind an ideal of the public interest … moving toward that ideal, making the ideal more concrete as one moves toward it” (2007, p. 13).
This reminds us that public interest communication is aspirational because there are limitations in any society. The reality is that not all individuals or publics have access to public debate and sometimes it will be shut down or may represent real risk for those associated with speaking out, as we consider in Chapter 7 on Advocacy and Activism. In such environments public interest communication cannot thrive or may not even exist. Where propaganda, fake news and even one-sided communication repress alternative views, we see an environment at the opposite end of the communication spectrum to public interest communication. In moving toward that ideal, however, as the next chapter explores, counter-publics and counter-narratives can sometimes rise up.
Reflect on the following questions:
- Why is public interest communication vital for democratic societies?
- What are some of the ‘public arenas’ or ‘discourse arenas’ that you have taken part in?
- What are some of the groups that you have heard of engaging in public interest communication?
- What are some of the ethical obligations of practitioners engaged in public interest communication?
Reasoning which takes into account considerations such as values and beliefs and opinions to arrive at a preferred course of action.
A public site or environment in which discussion and debate takes place.
A site or environment in which debate and discussion takes place.
Bringing together members of the public to get input and meaningful insights into how people think about a topic.
Any group of individuals or organisations which promote and/or attempt to influence issues of public concern.
Groups and individuals, which are independent and distinct from government and business sometimes also referred to a 'the third sector'.