Public Relations Publics: Problem or Solution?

This semester I’m taking “Public Relations Publics” at university of Maryland, which focuses on what matters (or should) the most to public relations practitioners — the people.

We discussed the difference between the terms “stakeholders” and “publics” and agreed that stakeholders are those who are affected by what the organization does and have stakes in the results of those actions. Publics are not only affected by organizations’ actions, they also have the potential to become involved in those actions and to influence organizations that way. This concept of publics comes from the Situational Theory of Publics, developed by University of Maryland Professor James E. Grunig.

The idea behind this theory is that individual members of the public exercise problem recognition, constraint recognition and level of involvement with organizations to different degrees. The publics who exercise these three factors to the greatest extent are considered “active publics.” Active publics seek and process information to a greater extent and, should they ever decide to coalesce, these publics have the potential to affect an organization. According to the theory, it would be wise for organizations to dedicate their resources to those who will affect them the most.

That makes sense.

Then, Obama came up. He has been criticized for campaigning for the Democratic Senate candidate in Massachusetts, where a republican was about to (and did) take Kennedy’s senate seat, and not being in Haiti, where an earthquake had just shattered the nation and where help was still taking time to get on its way. My professor spoke about public opinion — a prime example of what happens when publics coalesce. She said the Obama administration was catching so much flack from its publics because it failed to recognize that they were very much active and — here is where I had to chime in — active publics can create problems for organizations, which is why organizations have to keep a close eye on them and make sure their needs are met.

Enter social media. I see publics as SOLUTIONS, instead.

When news about Haiti broke on Twitter I witnessed IMMEDIATE response. People like Danny Brown started to raise funds through 12for12k, people like Ed Shahzade were making sure that everyone trying to help and donate had their facts right. On Monday, I also found out all about CrisisCamp, which extended to 12 cities in only two weeks.Publics can be a problem if they allow themselves to be that way. Regardless of what was happening in American politics and what Obama should or shouldn’t have been doing… what I saw coming from social media were SOLUTIONS.

If publics are the solution and organizations empower them to be so… more people win.

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