The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Monthly Archives: January 2010

The possibility of reform of the UK’s unjust libel laws appears to be growing. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Justice,  Jack Straw is hoping to push through the findings of the working party on libel reform, before the next general election. 

Our current laws create a chilling effect on the writing, reporting and broadcasting of information, when powerful concerns can threaten debilitating libel action against any who threaten their interests.  It’s not that the libel laws are themselves completely at fault but that they encourage astronomical costs to be involved in libel action, in some cases nore than 100 times more costly than in Europe.  The horrific costs of a libel case mean that losing can result in a legal bill running to over £1m (even if the damages are just £10,000).  The result is that the UK has become the top global location for libel tourism or even, as some have termed it, libel terrorism.

Libel Laws - keeping these guys busy.

The cases highlighted by the Libel Reform Campaign should add greater pressure for reform. The cases of Simon Singh and Peter Wilmshurst highlight the real dangers and distortion that the suppression of free expression through the courts can present to the public.  Wilmshurst is being sued in the UK by a US company, NMT Medical Inc, for an article written by a Canadian medical journalist and published on a US website. The journalist was reporting a lecture given by Wilmshurst at a major medical conference in the US.  Simon Singh was sued by the British Chiropractic Association after he wrote an article in the Guardian criticising the association for supporting members who claim that chiropractic treatments – which involve manipulation of the spine – can treat children’s colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying.  As Bad Science author Ben Goldacre puts it, any law that stifles critical appraisal is a danger to patients and the public.  Most recently, Danish radiologist Henrik Thomsen has spoken of his fears of discussing his work after a subsidiary of General Electric claimed he had damaged its reputation by raising concerns about a product.

The campaigning done by Index on Censorship, English PEN and Sense about Science under the banner of the Libel Reform Coalition has led over 20,000 people to sign a petition and MPs to receive 7,000 letters and emails in just a few months.   Supporters include Stephen Fry, Lord Rees of Ludlow, Ricky Gervais, Martin Amis, Jonathan Ross, James Randi, Professor Richard Dawkins, Penn & Teller and Professor Sir David King, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government.

These, and other, cases present a clear reminder that English libel laws need to change. The US has already realised that there is something fundamentally wrong with our legal system and is taking action. Indeed, American states are now individually passing laws to protect their citizens from libel actions in the UK and as a result English libel judgments will soon carry no weight in America.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg are already considering reform of our libel laws seriously and the clamour for reform is being made clear from several quarters, not least the Libel Reform Campaign.


Event date: 03 March 2010

Location: Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, Shrivenham

The ioia symposium is back for its third year providing a unique unclassified gathering held in the secure environment of The Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. This valuable networking context provides the main calendar event for the professional and educational exchanges between military and civilian proponents of Info Ops and Influence Activity in the UK and Europe. Last year we hosted over 150 practitioner and academic delegates from around the world. This year we will be seeking to build on this success to host a truly inclusive event that gathers diverse experts and their opinions from this growing and dynamic field of Military and Government activity. This year’s theme is Influence in Insurgency.

The ‘people as the prize’ puts influence at the heart of insurgency operations.  It demands that the application of violence be undertaken in such a way that the support of the public can be maintained. It necessitates that political, military and economic functions are closely coordinated for effect. It requires that every soldier acts in accordance with the values and aims of the most demanding of home audience and political leadership. This symposium will take stock of our thinking and practice in influence in insurgency.

In particular the symposium will consider:

  • The degree to which influence is a whole organisation activity rather than a discipline of specific branch
  • The extent to which planning processes and concepts are able to take account of the whole organisation approach to influence
  • The degree to which the comprehensive approach can be viewed as an influence activity
  • The extent to which intelligence is geared to planning influence activity
  • The degree to which the military needs to, or is trained and educated to deliver, influence effect other than through the bluntest use of punishment and reward.
  • The extent to which strategic and operational level influence should and can be delivered by the military
  • The development of tactical level doctrine and concepts in influence.
  • Operational and country updates

To register for this event please visit :
www.symposiaatshrivenham.com/ioia10


An intellectual, but subtly practical, argument continues within the communications field – that which claims that, essentially, publics are not the same as markets and have to be treated in a different manner than that used by the marketeer.  This argument is has been epitomized by such communications scholars as Richard Varey and Phillip Kitchen.  Although predated by Grunig (cited in Varey, 1997, p.94), boldly stating that ‘marketing deals with markets and public relations with publics,’  Richard Varey’s argument, found in Public Relations: Principle and Practice, edited by Kitchen, claiming a definitive difference between “publics” and “markets”, sounds a note of clarity amidst much nebulous thought concerning the relationship between public relations and marketing.  Much of this relational theory accumulates around Marketing Public Relations (MPR) and Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC), areas in which public relations and marketing are effectively fused but yet continues to remain a subject of heated debate (Kitchen & Papasolomou, 2005, p. 150).

However, Varey’s argument is also premised upon several apparently concrete factors or characteristics which clearly delineate “publics” from “markets”, notably those of creational, chronological, structural, technical and organizational, as well as impinging upon the relationship between marketing and public relations.  By taking a holistic view of each and then delving into the details of their characteristics, it is intended to explore the nature of publics and markets and examine the credibility of Varey’s argument.

A brief review of glossary terms of publics provides several subtly differing definitions of publics, one of which neatly sums the predominant sentiment:

“Public relations terminology describing groups of people which can readily be identified as having some special relevance to a business or other organization, eg customers, employees, shareholders, suppliers and the local community generally.” (Hart & Stapleton, 1987)

Definitions of markets are much less frequent, although explanation of marketing as an activity is plentiful.  Even Hart & Stapleton’s effort in defining a market, is somewhat bland:

“Group of persons and/or organization identified through a common need and with resources to satisfy that need.” (Hart & Stapleton, 1987)

Relational definitions shed clearer light on what these entities are and, more notably, are not.  A key concept emerges pointing out that publics are groups of people that an organization is not directly trying to sell products to, and hence termed, in the marketing arena, as secondary target groups.  Yet, such publics are seen as influencing opinions about such an organization (De Pelsmacher et al, 2001, p. 247).

Throughout the research of definitions, wider reputation and understanding of an organization surfaces as an objective aimed at publics, and thereby the role of public relations.  As Varey himself observes, much of the effort of marketing, aimed at markets, consisting of advertising, publicity and persuasion through selling activities, is inappropriate for building and maintaining positive relationships between an organization and those publics affected by decisions or behaviour of that organization (Varey, 1997, p. 97).  Here, the core of the deeper identity of a public arises, in that publics have an interest in the behaviour of an organization.  Eighty years ago, Dewey recognized this in his seminal book, The Public and its Problems, defining a public as a group of individuals who together are affected by a particular action or idea (Cutlip et al, 1985, p.185).

A nice picture of a market.

This points to a fundamental difference between markets and publics; organizations directly choose their markets whereas publics are perceived to arise on their own in reaction to an organization’s activities.  Yet considerable debate exists around the creation and existential nature of publics (Tench & Yeomans, 2006, p. 620) and much literature views publics through an organizational lens.  Whether one takes the strategic perspective, seeing publics as message consumers, or dialogic view, with publics playing a major part in communication exchange, it is largely predicated by the fact that publics are effectively a construct of the organization’s making, if indirectly (Leitch & Neilson, 2001, p.128).  Regardless, there is substance behind the theory that active publics are created and maintained through a large degree of their own self awareness, albeit centred upon an issue raised by an external agency, namely an organization.  Dewey claimed that each issue, problem or interest creates its own public in which people face a similar indeterminate situation, recognize what is indeterminate in that situation and organize to do something about it (Dewey 1927 cited in Baskin et al, 1997, p.119).  Similarly Grunig states that ‘publics create themselves … whenever organizations make decisions that affect a group of people adversely’ (cited in Varey, 1997, p.94).

It is worth pondering this further.  The study of the emergence of publics is immersed, somewhat controversially, in Stakeholder theory.  Freeman’s definition of stakeholders as “any individual or group who can affect, or is affected by, the achievement of the firm’s objectives” (1984) encompasses shareholders, employees, suppliers, customers and the communities in which the organization operates.  Indeed, this is strikingly close to that definition supplied by Hart and Stapleton above.  In fact stakeholder mapping presented by Johnson et al (2006, p.181) in the form of a power/interest matrix, bears remarkable resemblance to Grunig’s representation of a public’s problem/constraint recognition matrix (Varey, 1997, p. 95).  Likewise, Cornelissen’s (2004, p. 62) breakdown of stakeholders in seven different types is reminiscent of Grunig & Hunt’s (1984, p. 145) identification of non-public, latent, aware and active publics.   These examples beg the question of what is the relationship between stakeholders, publics and markets.

To apply the marketing technique of segmentation to Freeman’s explanation above, one impartial  analysis could represent shareholders, employees and suppliers as ‘positive stakeholders’, in that they have a positive stake in the organization and a vested interest in its success.  In the free-market economy, customers or markets do not have a vested interest in the success of a company and in fact could support rival competition, defining them as ‘ambivalent stakeholders’.  And communities or publics, reacting to a problem, can be seen as opposing an organization’s actions, thereby viewed as ‘negative shareholders’.  Although this allows another example of differentiation between publics and

Ambivalent stakeholders ... ?

markets, it also ushers in criticism against stakeholder theory.   Legal status, contractual agreements, varying degrees of vested interest, differing needs and corporate governance all indicate the extreme variation of stakeholders, almost precluding the idea of one amorphous block.  The fact that different stakeholders, including markets and publics, are predominantly defined by how they affect, or are affected by, an organization presents a challenge to the coherence of stakeholder theory.

However, the examination of how markets and publics affect, or are affected by, an organization can be illustrative.  Markets are created, or affected, through the identification of a segment of population for which a product is or could be in demand (Grunig cited in Varey, 1997, p.94).  With commercial exchange being a primary driver, markets are actively sought.  An organization’s influence over a market may be severely tempered by competitive forces, yet communication is largely one-way and short term.  As such, markets, as major stakeholders, are frequently identified in accordance with their relationship to the organization, as a central raison d’etre.  Much theory suggests that publics tend to be created, or affected, in response to the activities of an organization, largely as a counter to those activities (although occasionally in support of them).  In this, publics are mostly not actively sought but the circumstances which may lead to their formation, dependent upon their perceived power, interest, problem and constraint recognitions, may be actively avoided.  Effective management of organization-public relations is largely two-way and long term.  In this, publics are often identified according to their relationship to communication, messaging and dialogue (Rawlins, 2006, p.1)

The creation of markets and publics leads us further into examining their structures.  Markets, as a manufacture of an organization, may be structured to suit the needs of the organization and its objectives.  Thus, they are defined by the organization.  Via marketing audience demographics or age-based segmentation, markets may be approached, or affected, via various means of advertising, promotion or persuasion to suit each segment’s characteristics.  Normatively, publics are formed largely outside the purview of the organization it affects, their structures dependent upon many extra-organizational factors such as politics, activism, the media, the existence and influence of opinion leaders, inherent knowledge, ethics and the depth of civil society.  Publics are self-identifying, rallying around a cause, often seen as grass-roots groupings.  However, that is not to say that less ethically-minded public relations practices cannot ‘generate’ publics to support an organization’s objectives, through ‘astro-turfing’ (Stauber and Rampton, 2004, p. 79)  Further, NGO’s may be seen as adept at formulating, or at the very least encouraging the growth of, publics, proving that organizations are perfectly capable of generating publics.  At a tactical level, however, it is noteworthy that the individual constituents, interest-groups, sub-groups defined in any manner of ways, of publics, and markets are not mutually exclusive.  One may belong to any number of defined publics or markets at the same time and may also be a positive stakeholder.

From a technical perspective, Grunig and Hunt’s Linkage Model (Grunig and Hunt, 1984, p. 141), developed from Milton Esman’s work of 1972, also provides insight into the defining characteristics of publics and markets.  By relating organizational linkages to stakeholder groupings, Grunig’s spontaneous public, akin to Dewey’s problem-identifying public, can be aligned with stakeholders connected through diffuse linkages.  Enabling linkages and normative linkages relate to control or regulatory bodies and groups with common interests, or publics.  Similarly, functional linkages represent input from employees and suppliers, also publics.  However, functional linkages providing output to retailers, distributors and consumers are representative of links to the market.  (Rawlins, 2006, p. 4)  As such, the enabling capacity, providing a ‘licence to operate’, and functional requirements, indicate a further difference between publics and markets.

This lot can also be ...

The chronological approach to examining publics and markets takes two forms, from a practical application viewpoint and also from an examination of contemporary history.  The former is typified by the notion that ‘good public relations lays the groundwork, creates the platform for successful marketing communications’ (De Pelsmacher et al, 2001, p. 248).  This implies that the successful affectation of a viable market relies on the effective engagement with, addresses the identified problems of and maintenance of reputation in the eyes of, a public.  Publics are ever present within the working environment of an organization, albeit frequently latent, although with the potential to turn devastatingly active, and ignorance of them prior to market identification and creation is likely to precursor failure.  Kitchen and Papasolomou (1999, p. 345) make the claim that ‘unsophisticated acceptance of market dominance ignores the volatile and hostile environment in which organizations function’.  Further they state that subsuming public relations into marketing communications ‘ also ignores the fact that non-marketing problems cannot be solved by marketing management and techniques.’  Further elaborating the linear process, they later (2005, p.142) state that:

“A company’s marketing activities involve a communications process aimed at achieving desired exchange outcomes with target markets.  However, in order to achieve this, the company needs to have trust and understanding with various publics that constitute the various markets.”

A certain tension between markets and publics, signifying differentiation, can also be seen as steadily developing over recent history.  Seitel (1992, cited in Kitchen and Papasolomou, 1999, p. 345) remarks that although traditionally marketing personnel have seen public relations as an ancillary part of the marketing mix, primarily providing the promotion aspect of the 4 P’s (place, price, product, promotion), changes have come about because of the developing nature of publics.  Consumer protests, especially over value and safety, product recalls, social needs, civic responsibilities and increased media scrutiny have all placed a greater importance upon the indirect effect of publics upon the maintenance of a market.

To elucidate more from the public-market relationship in exploring the separate terms, it is helpful to also look at the practices associated with them, namely public relations and marketing.  The definition of marketing as ‘the management process responsible for identifying, anticipating and satisfying consumer requirements profitably’ vibrantly states two key elements of markets and the primary objectives of marketing personnel: consumers and profit.  Within the corporate context, public relations practitioners, as reputation and relationship managers, may indirectly target the former and contribute to the realization of the latter, but only as a by product.  (Theaker, 2004, p. 5)  Further, the commercial focus of markets and marketing should not deflect from the fact that many publics are not necessarily influenced by strictly commercial issues and many public relations practitioners operate without recourse to any vagaries of a related market.  Special interest groups, political parties, religious organizations, charities and the public sector are examples whereby the concept of markets, as defined above, rarely feature but publics remain paramount.

The problem-centric notion of publics also tends to visualize a reactive stance whilst the organization’s perceived role in market-creation indicates a proactive one.  However, whilst marketing may be relatively positively targeted in its conduct, modern public relations, in its guise as reputation and relationship management, also envelopes proactivity at the core of its practice.  Reactive crisis and issues management, suggestive of firefighting those problems connected with publics, are only a part of effective public relations practice.

From the standpoint that, in corporate circumstances, marketing deals with markets and public relations with publics (Grunig cited in Varey, 1997, p.95), analysis at several levels can provide delineations between publics and markets (Coombes et al, 1954, cited in Kitchen and Papasolomou, 2005, p. 150).  Yet, as indicated above, contemporary history has presented shifts in the relations between marketing and public relations.  Amidst much debate, there has been recognized a move in marketing thought towards public relations concepts, resulting in notions of Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) and Marketing Public Relations (MPR).  Examples of this centripetal activity are illustrative in Duncan’s (cited by Hutton, 2001, p. 211) definition of IMC as “the process of strategically or influencing all messages used to build and nourish relationships with customers and other stakeholders”, suggesting an increasing emphasis on understanding and dialogue with entities not necessarily connected to the profit mechanism. Kotler’s vision on ‘total’ or ‘mega- marketing’ further encapsulates the increasing comprehension that successful marketing relies upon relationships with markets and publics equally, remarkably evident in his idea of marketing ‘consciousness’ (Hutton, 2001, p.212).   This shift is inclined towards the full understanding of the same strategic objectives to which both publics and markets contribute, albeit that publics and markets may remain differentiated by how they contribute to those objectives.

However, the literature and various theories taken collectively reveal the underlying confusion of the identification of publics, due to definitional disparities.  Whilst, Dewey, Grunig, Repper and others position a public around problems and issues, typified by Grunig’s Situational Theory of Publics (1983), and forcing engagement and communication with publics into the realm of issue, or even crisis, management, a cold hard examination of various accepted definitions of public relations reveals a less adversarial basis for a public, upon which goodwill, mutual understanding, support and relationship management in a much more steady state condition are focused.  The former appears to base its definition upon conflict-resolution in which the public is to be assuaged, whereas the latter suggests conflict-avoidance to mutual benefit through dialogic engagement.  Indeed, following Grunig’s identification of publics, even the most unperturbed and lethargic of latent publics, inattentive and inactive on all issues, remain publics, somewhat contradicting the primary problem-centric definition of publics, which appears to espouse that if there’s no problem, then there’s no public!

The varying perspectives of theory tend to allow a merging of publics and markets.  It can be argued that both are entities upon which the future of an enterprise depends.  Both can be seen to have needs which can be satisfied by an organization.  The current debates of the exact natures of public relations, marketing, IMC and MPR are all indicative of the synonymity of the concepts of publics and markets.

All publics, even the ‘general public’, have the potential to be, or may be considered as permanent, stakeholders.  Sociologically and

... this lot, quite easily.

economically, publics form the environment in which markets can be created and sustained by an organization.  The nature of publics’ relationship with an organization will dictate the conditions of that environment.  Publics are not necessarily problem-centred and constant engagement with all publics, be they latent or active, is vital for the effective influence of an organization upon the environment within which it and its markets, exist.

Varey’s argument is that markets and publics are different and must be treated differently.  However, at the constituent level markets and publics are made of the one and the same ingredients; individual or groups of human beings.  At this level, a clear physical division between them is unsustainable, publics constituting markets and vice versa:  However, it is the very manner of their treatment, or how they affect, or are affected by, an organization, which makes them fundamentally different, not an inherent code or structure.  From an organizational view, it is what is intended to elicit from them that differentiates them; understanding from publics and commercial transaction from markets.  To subtly diverge from Varey’s argument, it is the fact that they are treated differently, to different if complementary ends, that differentiates publics and markets and from this key separation all other defining factors of difference between them are borne.

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KITCHEN, P. and PAPASOLOMOU, I. “Marketing Public Relations: Conceptual Legitimacy or Window Dressing” in KITCHEN, P., DE PELSMACHER, P., EAGLE, L. and SCHULTZ, D. A Reader in Marketing Communications, Routledge, 2005

LEITCH, S. and NEILSON, D. “Bringing Publics into Public Relations: New Theoretical Frameworks for Practice” in HEATH, R. Handbook of Public Relations, Sage, 2001

PICKTON, D. and BRODERICK, A.  Integrated Marketing Communications (2nd Ed),  Pearson Education Ltd, 2005

RAWLINS, B.L., Prioritizing Stakeholders for Public Relations, Institute for Public Relations, 2006

STAUBER, J. and RAMPTON, S. Toxic Sludge is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry (UK Ed), Constable & Robinson, 2004.

TENCH, R and YEOMANS, L. “What Next? Future Issues for Public Relations” in TENCH, R and YEOMANS, L. Exploring Public Relations, Pearson, 2006

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