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).
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
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.
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
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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In its widest sociological sense, public relations (PR) can be seen as a mechanism for the promotion of understanding and creation of beneficial relationships or, as Edward Bernays claimed, continuing process of social integration . However, in a modern context, its aims may be seen as stretching from the enabling of the ideal citizen through to the creation of the ideal consumer. Although the contemporary ‘Western’ developed free-market democratic society relies upon the support of these entities, PR’s contribution to modern society often finds itself in constant tension between the two ends of the spectrum.
On the one hand, well managed PR is crucial to the sustenance of a collective of rational informed citizens. As Berelson commented, ‘the major decisions the ordinary citizen is called upon to make in a modern representative democracy involve basic simplifications which need not rest upon a wide range of information so long as they are based upon a certain amount of crucial information, reasonably interpreted.’ The provision of such crucial information, in between citizens, interest groups, corporations, organisations and governments is a major, if not fully appreciated, contribution of PR.
However, be they a form of systems or critical theory, of the rhetorical or relationship management paradigm, in the information age, with the mass of information available, PR is even more vital in providing that crucial information amidst a grey mass of confusion, contradiction and coercion in Nye’s ‘paradox of the plenty’ through the vehicle of new technology. Media sociology is starting to recognise the new terrain of multiple representations and infinite interpretations, irrespective of ownership structures.
To the other end of the spectrum, whilst corporate marketing preys upon ‘inner directives’ – assuming utter self-interest and private advantage, PR contributes to the provision of that information and context necessary to allow consideration as a member of the economic, free-market collective, in the interest of the public.
Whilst PR serves civil society, embedded in political economy, the above portrays a normative stance. A more positive theoretical perception reveals that PR’s contribution to modern society falls short of that ideal. Elite access, asymmetrical communication, partial and biased information, power broking and media filtering, to name but a few issues, contribute to a watering down of the ethical basis of PR in modern society. In the political sphere, ‘engineering consent’, focus-group politics, politico-industrial complexes and heavily financed political packaging have ravaged the PR environment, exploited by governments, political parties, corporations, interest groups and activists, denying publics real context. In the economic arena, the consumerist drive often subsumes the economic interest of the individual and public, in favour of maximising short-term gains for the organisation or corporation. Even if understanding is achieved, it is debatable as to whether an effectively informed citizenry given voice can actually effect change.
The result, borne of man’s psyche, has been the sociological damaging of PR’s contribution to modern society, contributing to communicative inequality.
However, the mere accepted practice of striving towards the promotion of understanding and creation of beneficial relationships is a noble cause. Its mere existence and continued furtherance towards such an ethical ideal is, at core, PR’s vital contribution to modern free society.