Whether you are studying PR or work in the field you know that we talk about audiences, publics and stakeholders depending on whether we’re dealing with corporate or consumer PR, on what our companies calls them or on what we think sounds better at any given time. However, even though we tend to use these words interchangeably, this isn’t a “you say potato I say potato” situation. In truth, each one of these words means something slightly different and has different connotations. What’s the one thing they have in common? To some extent, they all focus on organizations and not just on the people they refer to which is why to complicate things even more, some experts are beginning to talk about tribes. Confusing, isn’t it? Not really. Each term is actually quite easy to define:
- Audience refers to a somewhat passive group of people who receive messages but don’t really give any feedback
- Stakeholders are people who have a vested interest in an organization which they can affect and be affected by. This name relates to people’s relation to an organization without really taking into account other roles they might fullfill at the same time (for example, the same person might be employed by a company, be its customer and be an investor)
- Publics refer to people in relation to an organization as well as considering what they think, feel and do.
- Tribes refer to what people do, how they do it and hat they believe, dividing them up into smaller groups. This is the term which focuses entirely on people and not so much on organizations.
Admittedly it would sound strange to talk to a client about what “tribes” we’re targeting through a campaign, so we’ll probably continue to talk about “audiences”. But no matter what we call them, the thing to bear in mind is that it might be time to consider making them the focus of our communications instead of keeping organizations at the centre of things.
We can already see examples this: on a scientific level studies such as the Edelman Trust Barometer focus more on people’s feelings towards companies, charities and governments, more than on organizations themselves; on a practical level, when we design campaigns we take into account audience personas, which make the people we’re trying to engage more real and tangible; and on a corporate level organizations are attempting to portray themselves as being more human by talking about the people who work there and telling stories about them that people can relate to.
Taking this a step further, it seems like there’s n increasing tendency to focus on people as individuals more than as a mass as a result of the use of social media and of strategic thinking, as well. Experts like Malcolm Gladwell (in his book The Tipping Point) and Seth Godin suggest focusing engagement on just a few, very influential people, who in turn will engage with more people, and so on. It’s kind of like developing a real-life viral campaign.
Still confused? The one thing to remember is that you’re engaging with people who are more than just customers, employees, clients; and more than members of an audience, the public or a tribe. They’re people with hopes, dreams and feelings who are many things at the same time. Take these into account when communicating with them and you’ll be fine, no matter what term you use to define the people you’re talking to, be they few or many.