Key Publics

Howard Hill, often regarded as the world’s greatest bowhunter, was once quoted as saying “Unless you know your game’s feeding, sleeping and daily habits; unless you plan your hunt in great detail and follow your plan with precision, you are not hunting at all. You are merely walking in the woods.”

That’s what audience analysis is all about. Effective communications relates the organization’s objectives to the interests and concerns of its key publics. And your company’s publics don’t care about your objectives unless they can identify them with their interests and concerns.

Though it sounds elemental, most public relations agencies don’t understand the nature of a “key public.” Before we move forward, keep in mind that Stern And Company defines a “key public” as a group with common interests who are affected by the acts of a company, or whose acts affect that company.

By that definition, Stern And Company helps its clients define their “key publics” through this process:

First, we avoid the “general public,” as it’s virtually impossible  to define the interests and concerns of the broad and amorphous “general public” and were we to use it, our campaign would be “merely  walking in the woods.”

Second, we define the broad audience categories that affect our clients or are affected by our client.

Third, we break the broad audience categories into smaller, more definable groups.

Fourth, we set priorities. Who is most important. This is a crucial, if not the crucial step in the audience selection process, as no matter how many resources are available, it is virtually impossible to address each identified audience.

Fifth, we identify the gatekeepers. These are the opinion leaders; people others follow.

After defining and prioritizing our client’s key publics, we begin the process of targeting media. Too often public relations agencies focus only on external broadcast or print media. We see it differently and take a broader, more strategic approach.    While media, of course, includes newspapers, magazines, television and radio, it can equally include a letter, a conversation, a payroll stuffer, a speech or an audio visual presentation.

Stern And Company carefully examines the advantages and disadvantages of two types of media channels: controlled and uncontrolled. There are times when the need for pre-testing or presenting a message “exactly right” mandates a controlled channel. Other times the need calls for an objective viewpoint, as reflected in a newspaper editorial or magazine feature, or some other uncontrolled channel. Frequently, a combination of both is dictated.

Obviously, there is complete control over the message in a controlled channel, e.g. high planning content, timing and pre-testing. Similarly, there are disadvantages: a lower credibility quotient and the realization that the sender is presenting only one viewpoint.

However, there are important controlled communications channels frequently overlooked by public relations practitioners: media and direct mail advertising, trade show appearances, management bulletins, bulletin boards, and more subtly, the grapevine.

Controlled media presents the advantages of objectivity, frequently a saving of time and resources and letting a reporter carry the message is often easier and quicker. Of course, using uncontrolled media presents a greater chance for error, no control over the appearance of the message, problematic timing and no availability of pre-testing.

It takes time, though and creativity to select the most effective channel or combination of channels. Too frequently these judgments are superficial.  All of these considerations come together when strategies and messages are formulated. It is important in the media selection process to delay final decisions until those elements are devised.

Once the objectives have been set, publics have been identified and prioritized and preliminary media decisions made, the focus is then on message development. Stern And Company uses three principles in defining the message.  First, we never forget we are seeking to influence public opinion. Second, we are seeking to create a particular kind of image. Third, targeted publics must be able to identify their needs in our message.

At this junction, the following points guide our message development for our clients:

Understand how targeted key publics perceive our client.

Establish a definition of our client in the current business and economic environment, e.g. have there been management changes that have produced a different marketing mix and results that have not been seen by the public?

Establish the desired image. These are the concepts our clients want communicated.

Reduce image statements to key words that are visually and vocally appealing. These key words (and concepts) will be used in speeches, company literature, news releases, fact sheets and so forth – in all media selected to reach the target publics.

The great French essayist Montaigne said “Repeat the theme every 500 words…” And that is the essence: the frequent communication of key words will slowly, but absolutely change old images and build new ones. However, they must be part of thoughtfully conceived communications strategies that emphasize frequency and reach of the messages to be communicated.

Stern And Company
Strategic Communications
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