Who are the 'Publics' in Public Relations? - Target Audiences Explained

By Tiara Ogabang

Let’s start off with the question itself: ‘Who are the publics in public relations?’ If you’re already well-acquainted with the public relations industry, this question may seem to have an obvious answer, but if you’re brand new to PR, answering this question is central to understanding why PR continues to be such a large and crucial line of work.  

By the end, we’ll be taking a much closer look at how the internet and data tracking have continued to change how clients determine their audiences and who exactly they’d like to market to with their upcoming campaign. 

A simplified answer 

Is it possible that the ‘public’ in public relations could just refer to general audiences? Yes, it’s possible, but a scenario where a PR client hopes to reach absolutely everyone is quite rare. 

In reality, public relations efforts need to keep their audience relatively narrow in order to be as effective as possible. 

When a client and a PR agency agree on a specific group of people they’d like to market to with an upcoming campaign, this is referred to as a target audience. 

The concept of a target audience is simple enough to understand, but in action, the idea is actually very complex and can involve a great deal of research. 

In fact, if you decide to pursue a degree in public relations or a closely related field, a significant portion of your studies will be dedicated to understanding what a target audience is and how that target audience can be reached with a public relations campaign. 

The rest of this article will provide a basic introduction to the idea of target audiences, why they’re important and how they can be determined prior to the launch of a new campaign. 

Let’s talk target audiences 

The official definition of a target audience is “a particular group at which an advertising campaign is aimed.” 

When working in PR, understanding precisely who your target audience is can be one of the most important factors to achieving success with your campaign. 

You can’t expect a campaign to impact absolutely everyone who comes into contact with campaign materials. 

Sure, this would represent a best-case scenario, but it’s certainly not very likely.

Let’s talk target audiences

Not only that, but the costs of crafting a campaign that reaches all demographics would be exorbitant, and very few clients could ever afford that kind of PR. 

Generally speaking, the narrower the target audience, the more accurate and effective public relations professionals can be when creating a campaign

Thankfully, the internet age has offered some serious advantages to those looking to determine their target audience, and that’s what we’d like to discuss next.  

Focus testing/big data 

Several decades ago, in-person focus testing was one of the only ways that public relations professionals could get a sense of whether a new product or advertisement would be received positively by their target audience. 

They would gather members of that target audience, or people from several different demographic groups, and ask them direct questions about a new commercial or print ad. 

The responses they received would then be used to alter the campaign as needed to improve the results. 

But while focus groups are still used on occasion, the more popular option now is to use the power of big data to help inform PR campaigns. 

For example, data collection of online users could show that a client’s target audience also tends to have an interest in hobby Y. 

An intelligent PR move would be to secure placements for the client with a number of websites that cater specifically to people interested in hobby Y. 

This would immediately increase the chances that the client’s campaign would be seen by a significant portion of their target audience in a way that feels natural. 

If these placements prove to be effective, then, in the future, the PR agency could establish partnerships with some of these websites to guarantee a certain number of placements each month, therefore securing greater visibility. 

Before we move on, we should also mention that all this enhanced and accurate information can help PR professionals realize more quickly where they’re gone wrong. 

Making mistakes is part of any industry, but in the world of public relations, it’s especially important to correct mistakes as soon as possible.

Focus testing/big data

Again, in the past, it might have taken months or even years to realize that a campaign isn’t performing as it should. 

But now, feedback loops from audiences are much more immediate, especially if the client offers direct channels by which customers, users, etc. can communicate with them. 

The benefits of targeted PR 

When targeted PR works, it really works. Best of all, data collected online can allow both you and the client to see exactly how many people engaged with campaign materials. 

In the past, a PR agency might have arranged to have a press release published in several local newspapers with the hopes of alerting audiences to a new product line or a change in company leadership. 

But outside of sales numbers, there would be no way of knowing how many people even read the press release in the first place. 

That has all changed now. A client’s website alone can record incredibly detailed analytics about how many individuals visited the site within any length of time, how long those visitors stayed on the site, which links they clicked on, and what information they’re likely to have seen while on the site. 

If that site also offers an enticing reason to sign up for the client’s email list, then the site will be able to request more specific visitor information, which can then elaborate on the demographics of visitors. 

You can see how easily these advanced capabilities feed into a loop of information. As time goes on, a client can learn much more about who their ‘public’ really is, and how to reach that public with future campaigns

Thanks to the ubiquity of data tracking and analytics services for online traffic, all of these resources have become available to more and more businesses thanks to their relatively low costs.