There are not many concepts that are more embedded in the development of democratic thinking than ‘the public interest’. It is entrenched in public and political speech, in laws and policy documents, in how the media explain their business – in fact the phrase ‘the public interest’ has become so well used that there are sceptics who think it has lost its real meaning. Our aim in this book is to show that the public interest is not only a valuable concept in democratic governance, but that it provides a practical mechanism for working through problems, conundrums, and challenges in the complex modern world. It is the utility of the public interest that makes it so useful.

You may have heard of the public interest in the context of ‘public interest journalism’ or ‘public interest law’ or allied with another field of industry or practice. It is originally from the field of politics, with a long history of analysis by scholars from that field (such as Bozeman, 2007; Dewey, 1927; Flathman, 1966). It has also been ‘adopted’ by many other fields such as psychology, accounting, anthropology, to examine everything from public housing to public health. For the purposes of this book we go one step further than examining its nature and application – we are centrally interested in how it is communicated. Therefore, this book first explores the root concept of the public interest before moving onto to examining how it is circulated and enabled through communication and finally, to many contexts in which it can be seen in action.

The purpose of this book

Our book has two primary purposes: first to continue the work of scholars and practitioners who have called for and written about the connections between communication and public interest and, in so doing, continue developing a theory of public interest communication (e.g., Dutta 2018; Heath & Waymer, 2018; Johnston & Pieczka, 2018; Somerville & Davidson, 2018). The second is to explore public interest communication in action grounded in the theory building that comes before. This second part will go to different contexts in which public interest communication occurs all around us – in the work of advocacy, activism, capacity building, partnerships and alliances, and social enterprises, in dealing with so-called ‘wicked problems’ within civil society, government and business.

Image of abstract circle with five text boxes arranged in a circle. The text boxes state: Wicked problems, advocacy & activism, partnerships & alliances, capacity builiding & social capital, social enterprises.
Figure 1: Concepts and practices covered in this course

The book will introduce you to some new concepts and revisit some concepts you may be familiar with from earlier study. For example, we will examine ‘wicked problems’ which are complex and difficult to resolve. We will consider how ‘public discourse arenas’ provide places for public interest communication to occur, and how ‘publics’ sit at the centre of public interest communication. We will investigate how public interest communication is essentially an ‘action-based’ concept that prioritises workable solutions. This book aims to take you on a journey: not a journey of developing public relations campaigns, or media strategies, or writing styles; instead to help you consider:

New and pragmatic ways of thinking about communication that are not discipline-specific

New perspectives of how communication can benefit people

New ways of understanding communication in democracies

Given that public interest communication is something we do, this book situates public interest communication theory in practical examples through a range of case studies, examples, applications and other links. That does not diminish the deep theoretical underpinnings of public interest communication we look at throughout the book . In the book, we take an international focus in considering the current issues and challenges facing public interest communication: from working within different democratic societies, seeking solutions to wicked problems, or developing new partnerships to build social capital and improve the lives of communities and environments. The ultimate purpose of this book is to demonstrate the critical need for a deep understanding of public interest communication to develop solutions to our species greatest challenges.

The structure of this book

Part 1 of this book considers the theoretical basis of public interest communication. Each chapter covers a different theoretical aspect of public interest communication:

  • Chapter 1: What is the public interest?
  • Chapter 2: Communicating public interest
  • Chapter 3: Publics
  • Chapter 4: Discourse arenas
  • Chapter 5: Ethics

Part 2 situates this theory in five different contexts for public interest communication in action.

  • Chapter 6: Wicked problems
  • Chapter 7: Advocacy and activism
  • Chapter 8: Partnerships and alliances
  • Chapter 9: Capital and capacity building
  • Chapter 10: Social enterprises
  • Conclusion

In each chapter we include a selection of tasks, resources, case studies and reflections to demonstrate how public interest communication challenges apply to our daily lives plus workplace challenges of the communication professional. Further readings and activities can be accessed via the drop down menus at the end of the some chapters. Through this material we seek to demonstrate different communication approaches and contexts that have a public interest focus.

Our first learning activity goes to a topic most readers will use and take for granted in everyday life: social media. The ‘conundrum’ provides an example of thought provoking material used throughout this book, raising questions for group discussion.

Conundrum: Social media – force for good or weapon for conflict?

The following video by the International Crisis Group demonstrates the complexity and challenges of modern public interest communication around the globe. The short video considers how social media can both enable free speech, but also shape and drive social conflict that can lead to devastating consequences. Social media has been very important for supporting access to public communication and providing arenas of debate to greater numbers of people, but as this video shows, it brings new challenges. What do you think? Does social media foster positive public interest communication?

Video 1: How Social Media Shapes Conflict, by the International Crisis Centre. Licence: Creative Commons Attribution licence (reuse allowed)

We invite you to engage and reflect on how communication practices can seek to resolve problems as you read through this book. Only by acknowledging, understanding and considering the many different interests and approaches which make up our vibrant public sphere can we seek to ‘do well by doing good’ (this popular quote is usually attributed to US statesman and philosopher Benjamin Franklin and is further explored in chapter 10).


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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.