How the Situational Theory of Publics Helps You Communicate with Your Audiences

Situational Theory of Publics

This post has been updated and new information can be found at the end of the blog.

How can a theory actually apply to real-world public relations and crisis situations? 

Most theories are just that, great theories that could work. But there’s one such theory I came across in my time at the University of Texas several years back that can be a great tool when determining which channels are best for reaching a particular audience. So prepare to let James E. Grunig, Ph.D., creator and master of the STP (that would be the Situational Theory of Publics, not the Stone Temple Pilots), teach you how to apply this theory when deciding what medium best fits your audiences (or your publics).

The STP in Practice

According to Grunig, a professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Situational Theory of Publics outlines how audiences can be identified, and then classified, based on their level of awareness of a problem. Grunig 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:

Let’s use the scenario of a toy manufacturer unintentionally produced harmful toys, which affects the children and their parents who bought the toys.

Public #1: Unaware

The first public is impacted by the crisis but not aware. Therefore the kids and parents who posses the toy do not know it is harmful. 

Public #2: Aware

This public is aware of the toy crisis and understand that the toys they own are harmful. 

Public #3: Aware & Actionable

The final public is the most engaged, as they are aware of the harmful toys and seek to take action against the manufacturer.

How to Communicate with Each Audience

All three audiences are similar in that they own the toys, yet have varying levels of awareness of the issue. Therefore, choosing how to communicate to the parents in the different publics is crucial so as not to create even greater alarm or more widespread action.  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 of the manufacturer. As a result, making them aware of the news firsthand through a press conference could be a good idea.  This would enable the manufacturer to communicate their side of the story first to control the message. This could help mitigate misunderstandings and negative perceptions the parents may have had, if they’d heard the story from someone else or the press first.

Since publics #2 and #3 are already aware of the problem, negative perceptions of the manufacturer likely exist. As a communicator, understanding this is awareness beneficial, as it means you can alter the ways you communicate with these audiences appropriately. The 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 trustworthy interpersonal relationship with these parents might be the most effective way to connect with 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 Grunig’s book “The Future of Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management.”

Six years after this blog post went live, it still seems relevant for today’s landscape in the media, pop culture, social media, and social issues. In addition to the theory above, we found two more theories that also related to audience behavior and awareness.  

The first is the social marketing theory, which is a collection of theories that focuses on how socially helpful information can be promoted. It has been used by social and welfare organizations to encourage or dissuade behaviors. For example, the CDC may design, implement and execute information campaigns for certain social behaviors like handwashing. Once their target audience is identified, based on their information need, they distribute the information so it can be easily accessible to the intended audience. The CDC has utilized social media to help their information campaigns and reach an audience that they might not have been able to connect with through traditional media. For more information on this theory, check out this helpful article.

Secondly, the framing theory refers to how the media packages and presents information to the public and frame the information in such a way where it tells us what to view and how to view it. The media is influencing the way we interpret and analyze the media we see and, in a sense, tells us how to think about it. This theory goes well with the situational theory of publics because, some publics are completely unaware of this situation, others are aware but not actionable, and the last public are aware and actionable, which can be all be influenced by the media. Public relations may also play a role in the packaging and delivery of information to the public as they give the media its information that can help shape the narrative. The framing theory has many aspects to it, and the information can be found here.

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