How the Situational Theory of Publics helps you communicate with your audiences

I am not sharing this theory with you because I studied it at UT, was brainwashed by my professors (just kidding) and have nothing else to write about. I am sharing it because it is a great tool when figuring out what channels to use when communicating to an audience. So prepare to let James E. Grunig, creator and master of the STP (Situational Theory of Publics, not Stone Temple Pilots), teach you how to apply this theory when deciding what medium best fits your publics, i.e. your audiences.

This STP theory divides people into three types of publics. To demonstrate how the theory works, I will use the following crisis situation as an example.

Crisis Scenario: Toy manufacturer accidently produced harmful toys.

Public #1 (Impacted by the crisis but not aware): Kids and parents who posses the toy and do not know it is harmful

Public #2 (Impacted by the crisis and aware): Kids and parents who possess the toy and know it is harmful

Public #3 (Impacted by the crisis, are aware and take action): Kids and parents who possess the toy, are aware it is harmful and take action against the manufacturer

All three audiences are similar – yet different. Choosing how to communicate to the parents in the different publics is crucial.  The STP theory explains how to do this.


Since public #1 is not aware of the problem yet, they have not formed a negative opinion toward the manufacturer. As a result, announcing the news to them directly through a press conference could be a good idea.  That way the parents would hear the manufacturer’s side of the story first, eliminating misunderstandings and negative perceptions the parents may have had if they first heard the story from someone else – or the press.


Since public #2 and #3 are already aware of the problem, negative perceptions toward the manufacturer probably exist. Being aware of this is beneficial -- now you know to change the way you communicate to these audiences. These parents may not trust the manufacturer, so the company must communicate to them through a channel they do trust. Using a local figure with a trustful interpersonal relationship with these parents might be the most effective way to talk to them.


Determining your audience categories helps you understand how to communicate with them. This helps you avoid wasting the wrong communication strategies on the wrong audiences. To learn more about this theory and how it can help with you communicate with your audiences, check out the book “The Future of Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management.”