22 February 2011

Audiences and Stakeholders – The ‘Publics’ of Relations?

When we think about the term ‘Public Relations’ on itself, the question remains who exactly the publics are and how the practitioner communicates with them accordingly. Several theories on audiences, stakeholders and publics have been presented over the years that prioritize certain groups of people by categorizing them via various elements and variables, which have some sort of impact towards the organization.

So what is the exact difference between stakeholders and publics?
According to Grunig and Repper (1992), they describe the difference between the two as stakeholders being affected by the decisions made by the organization, or their decisions effecting the organization. The relationship between the organization and their stakeholders is based on effects caused by either ones activity, but does not necessarily mean they will be active towards an action. Publics on the other hand, are seen as stakeholders who actively organize something about a problem an organization has done, therefor being more active than just stakeholders and tackling a problem. Additionally, Davis (2004) suggests that ‘publics sound more important’ and continues suggesting that some groups do not develop from stakeholders to publics, but to publics immediately, such as pressure and cause-related groups.

(Polonsky's Model of Stakeholders)

New problems with old models?
While discussing theories on audiences and stakeholders, we quickly see problems that the PR academics did not take into consideration while developing the models. Even though the models and theories have important elements for the academic understanding of the industry, it is required to question the models and see whether they apply to our modern age or if they need adaptation and modification in accordance with contemporary developments.

Bernstein’s communication wheel for example is not considering or implementing new variables such as social media (ea. two-way communication), which is a key aspect of modern PR practices. Also, the model puts all communication channels and their stakeholders as equal parts. Today it should be quite clear that certain stakeholders, as well as specific communication channels, need to be prioritized. This prioritization is necessary as equal focus on all audiences and channels is not very effective.

(Bernstein's Wheel of Communication)

Another model, which may need some modern changes, is Esmans linkages theory. The problem with this model is the importance of certain stakeholders of the organization. With the development of social media and the ‘bottom-up’ power of the consumer and other minorities, we clearly see the need of change of prioritizing stakeholders with their linkages towards the organization. Even though the model categorizes stakeholders somewhat basic and perhaps well for its time (1967), reconsideration of the actual linkages needs to be made. Stakeholders such as students, women and minorities should be placed in different categories or simply be eliminated and seen as part of the ‘main stakeholders’.

(Esman Linkages Theory)

With so many questions and adjustments towards the models, it is important to understand that the models were created in accordance of their time. However, with emerging technologies and new developments in communication, these models need to be either modified and adjusted to the present progress of the public relations industry. Alternatively, new models based on old theories, need to be created in order to work for contemporary public relations understanding and practices.

This well structured and clear presentation describes and explains the communication between organizations and their stakeholders, public and audiences.

Davis, Anthony. Mastering Public Relations. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Print.

Grunig, James E. Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management. Hillsdale, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates, 1992. Print.

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