Imagine two ordinary guys.

They live in the same place, they have similar jobs, they drive comparable cars and they have matching family constellations and socio-economic backgrounds.

Now, will you reach both of them through the same media channels?

In corporate communication, how we group people is often referred to as ‘segmentation’. And how you segment your market is important. In fact, your success depends on it.

But we must stop grouping people on a basis of their age, gender and location. We must find our way back to the ‘publics’ in public relations.

‘Demographic’ Segmentation Sucks

For the sake of argument, let’s return to the two guys mentioned above. They both have wives and 2-3 children, they are white-collar workers in a semi-big city, but living in one of the richer suburbs just outside of town. With their university degrees and their SUVs, they even live on the same street and their children are playing in the same junior soccer teams.

They’re both 43-year old Caucasian males with stable incomes and married to women with competitive careers and incomes. needless to say, they both belong to a demographic which is very attractive to lots of advertisers.

But here’s the thing:

One of them could be an anti-Facebook guy (“It’s a bloody waste of time!”) who likes to read his business news on paper over a cup of coffee in the morning. During the day, he reads dailies and weeklies on paper to which he adds some public radio on his commute back and forth from work.

But the other guy … he’s just another story altogether:

He spends his nights in the basement immersed in a World of Warcraft guild, collaborating with members from all corners of the world. He’s an early adopter who streams his television, listens to podcasts and consume his news via his friends’ feeds. The point is that traditional demographics tells us very little about how individuals consume their media.

Therefore, demographics tells us very little (if anything!) about how an individual consumes (or co-creates!) media and thus constructs their view of the world, how they research and manifests their buying decisions — or how they group themselves around opinions with others.

Demographic segmentation simply isn’t very useful for building relationships through communication.

“I’m Not Your Marketing Persona”

There was a time when you could reach out to a media agency and get questions like “how do we reach university-educated 43-year old suburban dads and SUV-owners?” They were able to give you an answer to how much you needed to spend to reach your target group.

Like, “the reader of Magazine X is single, 24-34 years old, male and has a gym membership and it will cost Y dollars to reach Z of them with your message.”

If a company or organization would try to reach me with their message and they talked to me like I was a white male in his mid-thirties, a father and a husband, living apartment-life in the capitol city, working in the media industry, well … I would never listen.

I belong to those demographics for sure, but I’m more than a socio-economic class, more than my age, more than my sexuality, my lack of religious faith and my gender. And so are you.

Because people are in fact trying very hard to break away from their demographic stereotypes. And this is why lots of people hate most advertising messages. It talks to you as if you are a foregone conclusion. And of course, to most advertisers — you are.

This way of talking at people is not how you develop meaningful relationships or become successful in your communication efforts.

The “P” In Public Relations

Publics is groups of people segmented based on their communicative behaviour. It’s a situational phenomenon as opposed to a demographic group (which you belong to 24/7).

Think of it like this:

There is no such thing as a general public. Instead, publics is formed in given situations when external factors bring them to the surface. For instances, if a municipality announces the building of a new bridge, several publics are likely to be created:

  • “The supporters” who loves the idea about a bridge.
  • “The environmentalists” who thinks that the bridge will disturb the wildlife.
  • “The conservatives” who argues that change isn’t a good solution in this case.
  • “The opponents” who reacts negatively to any political suggestion.

And so on.

These segmentations are based not on their demographic characteristics, but on how, when and where they communicate. So everywhere in society, there are plenty of latent publics just waiting for external situations that will activate them and bring them together in joint communicative behaviours.

Example: Everyone who uses a search engine to enter a specific search term based on a specific need and subsequently ends up on your site, they all share the same communicative behaviour as created by the same situational context. They are an active public of yours.

And what’s more, is that we know how to accommodate this public since we know what situation created them — and in which channel they are active in (search engine — search query — website visit).

Publics essentially wants to be grouped together, they want to be reacted to. They are activists of sorts; either fighting for or against what’s strategically important to your brand.

A Brief History Of Publics In PR

Allow me to quickly talk about how we ended up forgetting about ‘publics’ in public relations:

The psychologist John Dewey (1859-1852) formulated the concept of publics as a result of situational stimuli. Dewey was contemporary with the famous public opinion-writer Walter Lippman (1889-1974) and the concept of publics was partly a way to deepen the discussion of how opinions work in a media-centric democracy.

The father of PR, Edward Bernays (1891-1995), was very much into human psychology. Maybe this was influenced by his uncle, famous psychologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)? Bernays focused on how to activate latent publics through creating word-of-mouth, directly influencing influencers and creating situations that would spark the formation of publics.

However, with the growing power of the “Madison Avenue” powerhouses and the rise of the mass-communication society, there where few more powerful conversation starters than the mass-media outlets. So while the mad men focused on the advertisement space, the growing PR profession took aim at the editorial space.

And who consumes mass-media? The only correlations to be found where demographic ones, simply because of the fact that mass media by its nature is one-way. Plus, the ad agencies where more professionally evolved and dealt with budget sizes that were (and still are) very aspirational for PR practitioners.

Social Media Makes Publics Relevant Again

As the media landscape went from one-way to two-way, demographics suddenly lost its usefulness and efficiency. This could have been good news for anyone working with PR if it weren’t for the fact that the PR industry had forgotten all about how to do a proper public segmentation!

But here’s the good news:

Segmenting publics is dead easy. You can absolutely do it.

Just forget about personas. Forget about grouping people according to where they live, how old they are or where they live. Forget about target groups.

Instead group people on the basis on what situation that created them and how, when and where they choose to communicate. It’s easier, it’s faster, it makes more sense and most of all — it makes your communication activities much more relevant and efficient.


  1. Love this, this is the PR I want to be doing. More than market groups and sales, more than ‘audience’ members, it’s people and what makes them tick. To your ‘How, When, Where’ of communication, I’ll what I’ve always considered the brass ring of PR – the WHY.

    Do your employees even follow your company online, do they comment about the company, even read the newsletter? Is there any WIIFM there? Do customers only ‘like’ a brand b/c they want a deal or are they following a brand they’d never buy? Are they ranting about a bad brand experience, or simply telling friends on FB that wow, that case really did protect their phone. Figure out what motivates people to communicate, get to the why – then you’re relevant, efficient, have a foundation to build those relationships we talk of so much. FWIW.

    • Thank you so much for adding value to the post, Davina! Love it.

      Reflection: There seem to be lots of conversations about customer experience going on right now, and to your point — PR really should be a big part of that conversation, too.

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