Home principles and practice of public relations THE PUBLICS OF PUBLIC RELATIONS


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While defining public relations in unit one of this module, we learnt that the success or failure of any organisation depends on creating and maintaining mutually beneficial relationship between an organisation and its publics. We shall in this unit, identify the various publics with whom an organisation relates; and ways of dealing with these publics. It is important to note that the nature and type of activity an organisation carries out determines the type of public it deals with.


At the end of this unit, you should be able to:

  1. Identify the various publics of your own organisation. 
  2. Suggest an appropriate way to deal with your publics. 


3.1 Public Relations Publics

At the beginning of this module, we attempted to define public relations. A key recurring term in almost all the definitions given was ‘public’. In the definitions, it was stated that the aim of public relations is to create and maintain mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics upon whom its success or failure depends.

It should therefore be clear to us that we cannot discuss public relations without reference to publics. This is because every public relations effort is aimed at a specific public at a given time.

The Public of PR

The publics in PR are those groups with common interest affected by the acts and policies of an institution (company, profit and non-profit organisations, schools, college, universities, the police e.t.c.) or whose acts and opinions affect the institution.

Each organisation tends to have its own particular set of target publics which are normally identified by their involvement in specific situations or issues which are also of concern to the organisation. Each issue, problem of interest creates its own publics.
John Dewey has defined publics as active social unit consisting of all those affected who recognize a common problem for which they can seek common solutions. Publics are therefore formed around issues and publics are held together by communication. Grunig and Hunt (1984) have categorized public relations publics as:

  1.  Non publics. 
  2.  Latent publics 
  3. Aware publics 
  4. Active publics. 

Non Publics: People who do not face a problem or situation in which they are mutually involved with or affected by either an organisation or other people. Their level of involvement is so low that they have no impact on the organisation and the organisation has no recognizable impact on them.

Latent Publics: These include people who are simply unaware of their connection to others and an organization with respect to some issue or other problem situation. Public relations can be used to keep latent publics aware in a fire prevention stance.

Aware Public: These are those people who recognize that they are somehow affected by or involved in a problem situation shared by others but have not communicated about it with others. When they begin to communicate and organize to do something about the situation, they become aware publics. For this group, public relations can be used to suggest ways of solving the problem.

Active Publics: These are groups who organize themselves to discuss and do something about the problem. The various environment right groups in the Niger-Delta for example, belong to this group. In dealing with active publics, public relations should be used to ensure that while the group solves the problem, it does not damage the reputation and long-term interests of the organisation. Active publics may be active on all issues (such pressure groups). On the other hand, some publics may be active on issues involving only the majority of the population e.g. Human Rights activists.

Importance of Publics in Public Relations: As Walter Lippman in his book Public Opinion (1922) has observed, we create perceptions of events, things people and places we could not experience directly ourselves. In “The World Outside and the Picture in our Heads”, he said “most of us cannot or do not have direct access to much of the world; it is out of reach, out of sight, out of mind. The mass media helps us to create a trustworthy picture of the world that is beyond our reach and direct experience.

Therefore our opinion is composed of what we think about and what we think about and what we think about includes what we know about (cognition) and what we think includes our opinions and feelings (predispositions). The dilemma of public relations is that everyone inevitably is restricted to imperfect images about everything. It is therefore the responsibility of public relations to try to correct the misapprehensions that most people have about many things, especially as it relates to our organisation. Other scholars have categorized public relations publics to include:

  1. Traditional and non-traditional publics 
  2. Primary and secondary publics 
  3.  Internal and external publics 
  4. Local and international publics. 

Traditional publics mean the groups which an organisation has ongoing, long term relationship. These include employees, customers, governments at various levels, community groups, mass media, investors, supplies, etc. Because they are always there, there is the tendency sometimes to take them for granted. This should not be so as neglecting them can be costly for any organisation. For example, the other public sees every organisation through its employees. The way a receptionist for instance treats customers may cause them to continue to have favourable image and patronage of your organisation.

Non-traditional publics on the other hand consists of groups that are presently not familiar with your organisation or not relevant to the organisations business or organizational plans and as such the organisation does not have long-term on going relationship with them. Like all potential or prospective groups, the organisations must include them in their public relations efforts. Before the 1990s, oil companies operating in the Niger-Delta and Ogoni Land did not pay much attention to the environmental pressure groups outside the traditional rulers and civic leaders. However, with the escalation of the activities of the Movement for the Emancipation of Ogoni People (MOSOP) following their declaration of Ogoni Bill of Rights in 1990, MOSOP became an important publics that Shell, the oil giant has to deal with.

Primary and Secondary Publics

Every organisation has to prioritize its publics into primary and secondary publics, depending on the extent to which they affect the pursuit of the goals of the organisation. Primary publics can be classified into such groups as employees, the immediate community, the governments at all levels, the mass media, financial institutions, suppliers and dealers, regulatory agencies like NAFDAC (for organisations in the food, beverages and cosmetics industries), etc. The purpose of identifying your primary publics is that substantial resources and public relations efforts must continually be directed to them as they are of great importance to the success or failure of the organisation.

While attention is paid to primary publics, the secondary publics should not be completely neglected. Because the resources of an organisation is limited, many organisations devote their attention to building and maintaining relationships with primary publics, the long term interests of the organisation demand that secondary publics should not be completely neglected.

Internal and External Publics

Internal publics exist within the organisation while external publics are those outside the organisation. For a health institution like a teaching hospital some of its internal publics include doctors, nurses, para-medical staff doctors and nurses in training resident doctors, academic staff, non-academic staff, etc while external publics include the Nigerian Medical and Dental Council, Ministry of Education, Patients and relatives of patients, blood donors, providers of municipal services like water and electricity, donor agencies (national and international) etc.

Local and international Publics

Local or domestics publics are those within the country while international publics are those outside the country’s borders. With the rise in the number of international companies that carry out activities in several countries, the international publics are now an important component of public relation targets.

With the rapid increase in technological developments in communication, the world has shrunk to what has now been referred to a global village, global sitting room, global bedroom. The implication of this developments for companies and organisations is the issues that were regarded as local or domestic ones, have now assumed international dimension as the mass media bring the events to the attention of everyone, policy-makers and opinion leaders alike no matter wherever they are. This has helped build international public opinion on issues hitherto regarded as domestic. The internationalization of the Ogoni issue and the bad publicity that Shell suffered as a result of the execution of the Ogoni environmental activists, Ken Saro-Wiwa is a case in point.

Grunig (1992) has further described four types of publics as:

  1. All-issue publics – Groups who are aware and active on all issues in the political and social environment. 
  2.  Apathetic publics – These are groups that are inattentive and inactive on all issues.
  3. Single-issue publics – They are active on one or a limited number of related issues (like anti-abortion).
  4. Hot issue publics – They are active after media expose almost everyone and the issues becomes the topic of widespread social conversation. 

It is important to identify the publics of any organisation. The range of potential publics for an organisation could consist of some of the following:

  1.  Employees and potential recruits 
  2. Customers; existing, past and potential 
  3. Traders and distributors/retailers 
  4. Trade unions 
  5. Professional associations
  6. Community neighbors 
  7. Opinion leaders 
  8.  Mass media – national and local 
  9. Government – federal, state and local 
  10. Governmental bodies (NYSC, FRSC, NDLEA, CBN, NDIC) 
  11. Pressure groups 
  12. Research bodies and policy making units 
  13. Financial publics 
  14.  Shareholders 
  15. Banks/finance companies 
  16.  Stock exchange/stock brokers 

The task of the public relations practitioners is to identify the most relevant publics at any particular time and counsel management about which should receive priority status. The goal is to target the identified publics for effective communication which will sustain the organisation’s reputation.

Equally, the task of the PR practitioner is to identify, contact the relevant target publics and convince them of the merits of particular arguments to support specific issues, or to accept and Identifying the relevant public is essential in PR because communications directed at wrong set of publics is a waste of resources organisation’s proposal to resolve the problem or adopt the ideas advocated.

The key publics of an institution like Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) could consist of

  1. Medical staff of all categories 
  2. Other employees 
  3. Patients (outpatients, admitted patients) 
  4. Medical students 
  5. University Authority 
  6. Suppliers/contractors – Food and drug contractors 
  7. Pharmaceutical companies 
  8. The Federal Government 
  9. Nigeria Medical Association/Nurses Association 
  10. The Lagos State Government 
  11. Media Houses 
  12. Blood Donors 
  13. Philanthropists/Alumni 
  14. Banks 
  15. PHCN 
  16. Telecommunication companies 
  17. Donor Agencies (Local Foreign) 

3.2 Public Relations and the Public Image

In public relations, when we talk about images, we mean a correct impression. According to Frank Jefkins, in public relations there can be different kings of images.

The Mirror Image is how an organisation sees itself

The Current Image is how others see the company or organisation

The Wish Image is how the company would like to see itself

The Optimum Image is the possible one that can be achieved bearing in mind the competition from other claims on the public attention and interest.
A Multiple Image occurs when different representatives of an organisation e.g. salesman, each giving a different and perhaps a personal images of the organisation.
It is usually pertinent in public relations to undertake an image survey to discover the nature of the current image.

Advertising will set out to establish a particular images – a distinctive image that may not be the complete picture – which identifies the product or service as being, say, the cheapest, strongest, most reliable, most exclusive or whatever may be the most advantageous and sales promoting characteristics. While it is not the function of public relations to persuade, public relations is concerned with image making which is to establish correct impressions of an organisations, it policy, product or service. Image advertising is therefore very often in the interests of the consumer for it positions the product in the market. There is no point in marketing a product, which no one understands or about which people are skeptical, apathetic, prejudiced or hostile. This could lead to grossly wasteful expenditure on unsuccessful advertising. People tend to like the things they know and understand best, therefore people are more likely to buy the known than the unknown.

We are frequently confronted with expression such as image – making, polishing, tarnished images and creating favourable images. Correct image is a reflection of correct behaviour. It is impossible to polish a tarnished image. The biggest problem in image making is that there are limitations on both output and input of information upon which we form our images or impressions.

Self Assessment Exercises

List the publics of two commercial organisation and two non-commercial institutions known to you in Nigeria.


Publics are important because they are the target of all public relations activities and attempts must be made to properly identity our relevant public as this is crucial to the success of any PR activity that we intend to undertake.


In this unit, we stated that there are various public which include internal and external publics, latent publics, aware publics and active publics. Others include primary and secondary publics, traditional and non-traditional publics as well as local and international publics. The type of business an organisation undertakes and the goals and objectives of the organisation would largely determine the kind of public it has. We observed that identifying the relevant public will greatly achieve effectiveness of the PR programmes as messages directed to a wrong public will amount to a waste of valuable resources.


  1. Why is it necessary for a public relations practitioner to identify the relevant publics when planning a PR programme? 


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