3 Publics

Just as the idea of a single public interest has been debunked by political philosophers, so too have scholars in fields such as public relations rejected the notion that society is made up of any single public. Rather, we live in societies made up of many publics. An early way of explaining this was John Dewey’s description in his book The Public and its Problems, in which he said “In no two ages or places is there the same public. Conditions make the consequences of associated action and the knowledge of them different” (Dewey, 1927, p. 33).

This early thinking about publics has been developed to provide many insights into how we can better understand publics as complex and dynamic parts of society.

In which consist of many and varied publics, it stands to reason that as many values and interests will be represented. Many publics – as with interests – will often be in conflict or compete with each other, existing in fragmented, forms because that is the nature of complex, contemporary societies where clear distinctions and divisions are unrealistic. Even within identifiable publics there may be many opinions and, potentially, conflicting interests. In this regard publics mirror the inter-group dynamics experienced by different individuals. Take for example the so-called ‘anti-vaxxer’ movement that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic. In their study of this fragmented public, public relations scholars Katharina Wolf and Petra Theunissen (2021) identified what they called an “eclectic collective of individuals” in this movement.

‘Colloquially referred to as ‘anti‐vaxxers’, the anti‐COVID‐19 measures movement consists of conspiracy theorists, the far right, religious groups, individuals traditionally opposed to vaccinations, those challenging the legitimacy of mandates and others who have become caught up in the increasingly diverse opposition movement due to increasing mistrust in their respective governments.’ (Wolf & Theunissen, 2021).

This illustrates that publics don’t always come together in unison — far from it. Individuals and separate groups within an identifiable public may come together for a range of reasons: for mutual benefit of members, idea exchange, alliances, advocacy, peer support, to enhance a sense of belonging or simply to amplify their voice. Some of these differences are further examined in the later chapter on social capital.

At the same time, many publics do come together with a strong degree of uniformity to form coherent groups. Often, an overarching interest will bind people together and see past their differences.

Since Dewey, scholars have linked publics to social or political problems or issues. This Situational Theory of Publics proposed by US PR scholar James Grunig (1997) suggests that publics exist depending on whether they are aware of a problem, in addition to their level of response to it. In this theory, there are three variables that will influence a public’s level of activity:

  1. Problem recognition—do I see a problem that needs to be fixed?
  2. Level of involvement—am I affected by it?
  3. Constraint recognition—can I do anything about it?

If members of a particular public answer yes to all three variables, they are considered an active public, or possibly an activist public. If they answer yes to one or two of the variables, then they may be located along a scale of aware, latent, or apathetic publics, with the potential to become active.

Based on this, a more recent definition says publics are “A group of people linked through a shared interest in an issue, whose motivation to act varies depending on their awareness of the issue, the level of concern held and the constraints that limit action” (Johnston & Glenny, 2021, p. 6).

We can therefore apply this thinking to publics that are obviously involved in or at the centre of an issue: students at a university who have problems with parking or public transport; a community affected by water contamination; a village dealing with years of drought; a religious group which is victimised due to its faith; parents who have poor facilities for their disabled children, as examples. In all these cases, and many more you may come up with, you can work through the three variables.

Even when individuals may recognise a problem, and feel affected by it, there is a high likelihood that individuals within different publics will feel disempowered at number 3. They may feel that they are not able to do much about the problem. Sometimes publics will respond to this by joining forces in an alliance (aka creating a public interest action group), or lobbying a member of parliament, or protesting online or in the street. Johnston calls this acting as “the squeaky wheel” to government, law and policy makers in bringing the issue or problem to their attention (2016, p. 154).

The #MeToo movement

Figure 1: Word cloud of words associated with the #MeToo movement

Social media is becoming an increasingly powerful arena for many publics to raise awareness and drive change. The #MeToo Twitter hashtag demonstrates how a purely online phenomena – coined in 2006 by Tarana Burke – changed what began as a grassroots campaign to help underprivileged girls deal with sexual assault into a global movement. Its peak moment was ostensibly when Time magazine named #MeToo as their ‘Person of the Year’ in 2017.

The movement has changed debate around sexual harassment around the globe and raised women’s voices to empower them to speak out. But others question: has it gone too far? Watch the video by Jubilee – ‘Has The #MeToo Movement Gone Too Far?”. What do you think?

Here, we can identify an allied field to public interest — — which political philosopher Jürgen Habermas talks of as a place in which “society engaged in critical public debate” (1989, p. 52).  This work has been particularly important for understanding the role of publics in influencing political debate and government decision-making through mobilising public opinion. Later work on the the public sphere considered how ‘counter-publics’ command inclusivity, participation and access for less powerful and marginalised people, as discussed below.

In the following sections we consider some distinctions and differences for different types of publics or allied concepts.

Types of publics
Organisational publics

Organisational communication has traditionally considered publics in relation to the practice and activity of an organisation or institution. In contrast, public interest communication follows the school of thought that publics exist independently; that is, they are issue or problem focussed. Nevertheless, organisations and institutions do take advantage of knowledge about publics in how they engage with and target them. This type of information draws on factors such as demographics, geographics, psychographics, and the level of influence within communities. This can be very useful for organisations or institutions when needing to communicate with certain publics on specific issues, such as when communicating around a health campaign. During COVID-19, health organisations and institutions played a critical role in engaging publics and targeting them with health specific messaging. During this time, the diversity of publics in any one country or region raised a myriad of challenges — e.g. how to communicate effectively with culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities, how to present clear messaging about vaccinations, and, how to target people who distrust mainstream spokespeople and channels of communication. (We consider different examples surrounding pandemic communication elsewhere in the book.)


Another way of thinking about publics is to consider how some exist in opposition to the status quo or the official position on an issue, sometimes called ‘counter-publics’. These publics are considered equivalent to an oppositional movement. Daniel Cefaï describes counter-publics as those which use a range of protest actions, openly confronting their adversaries in public debates while dealing with threats, censorship, disqualification, paternalism or being hijacked for other purposes (e.g. the 1960s civil rights movement or the ongoing gay rights movement). A more layered approach to this idea is so-called ‘subaltern counter-publics’ which emerge out of the theory of the public sphere. In this approach, critical theorist Nancy Fraser (1993) talks about members of ‘subordinated social groups’ which create alternative or counter narratives in opposition to the dominant view. An example of this was the ‘counter narrative’ – or alternate story – established by those who opposed the Australian Government’s 2013 Operation Sovereign Borders policy on asylum seekers. In this instance churches, NGOs, public interest and action groups, and individuals, circulated real stories about the people seeking refugee status and the conditions in which they were being detained which sat in opposition to the ‘dominant narrative’ of the Federal Government (Johnston, 2015).

Hashtag publics

In recent years, the idea that publics coalesce around specific issues or problems has seen the emergence of a new type of public – so-called ‘hashtag publics’ (Bruns & Burgess, 2015). These publics are known to self-organise or exist within constructed digital publics, providing the opportunity for organisers of causes or events to engage and rally support. Criticisms of the ‘hashtag public’ say it has evolved into the so-called ‘’ world of communication in which publics exist increasingly within echo-chambers where decision-making is not always evidence based or rational. Nevertheless, this form of communication has given voice to those who might not otherwise have had a say and brought people together who share a common social complaint – such as #metoo. It has raised awareness about fundraising for causes – such as #icebucketchallenge, and rallied people to vote for a social change – such as #hometovote. Each of these hashtag examples are briefly explained in quiz below. Can you guess who the key publics are for each?


We tend to use the terms publics and stakeholders interchangeably. Not everyone agrees with this merging of terms, but you will find both used in business, government, not for profits and activist communication. The term stakeholder is said to derive from an internal memorandum at the Stanford Research Institute in the 1960s, later popularized by business theorist Edward Freeman in the 1980s. Traditionally, the concept focused around the groups (or individuals) who can affect or be affected by an organisation’s objectives, predominantly business shareholders who have an economic stake in an organisation.  Over time, it broadened to include the environment and other non-human stakeholders (and not just people). Both terms are useful and you should consider the language used in your own field, discipline or organisation as a gauge.

Public power

The evolved theory of publics now considers publics in their own right instead of simply how they might affect an organisation (for better or worse). Professional fields of communication have become increasingly aware of the need to work with publics, rather than targeting their campaigns simply at publics. The ‘power of the public’ is illustrated in how PR giant Hill + Knowlton describe a key strategy in the following way:

‘We believe that every corporate, every brand, every client has a public and today’s public is more powerful than ever before. They have the power to topple CEOs, reshape corporate and brand strategy, influence government policy, kill products and create unicorns. Today’s public demands truth, transparency and the highest behavioral standards’. (Hill + Knowlton, 2021).

Hill + Knowlton’s strategy also highlights how publics should be given . By this we mean publics – and the individuals who make them up – should be respected for their opinions, be able to effectively engage with the structures around them, and to be agents over their own life and future. This idea reinforces how agency is integrally linked to  communication within social, political and cultural structures which in turn can empower or disempower individuals and publics.

Food Relief and Second Bite: A podcast exploring trust building, emergency food relief and social capital creation.

Aiden Taylor’s podcast explores how an emergency food relief program in Brisbane is helping people gain confidence, improve health outcomes and create stronger community ties. Through this program, Aiden argues, people who have experienced discrimination and hardship are building their sense of agency. This is a powerful example of how public interest communication in practice can help empower publics. Listen to Aiden’s podcast here.

Likewise public interest communication pivots on individuals having agency over the communication about the issues and interests that affect them. Professional communication practice can assist with providing this agency, through acting as agents themselves, but this does not dilute the need for individuals and publics, whether small or large, digital or face to face, local or global, to be able to exercise their own agency. At the same time, we know that not all individuals, publics or even public alliances have access to public debate and the decision-making process. And we are reminded that public interest communication does not guarantee access and agency, despite its best aims. These ideas are developed as we explore the final two theory chapters about discourse arenas and ethics, coming up.


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Public Interest Communication Copyright © 2022 by Jane Johnston and Robyn Gulliver is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.