According to this author, rule number one of communication is “know your audience and put them first.” Communication begins and ends with the audience; if the audience did not receive or understand the message, then the communication failed. The best way to ensure that a message has been received and understood is through audience analysis.
A fundamental technique used in public relations is to identify the target audience and to tailor every message to appeal to that audience. The audience can be local, nationwide, or worldwide, but it is more often a segment of a population. Marketers often refer to economy-driven “demographics,” such as “white males, 18-49,” but in public relations, an audience is more fluid, being whomever someone wants to reach. For example, political audiences may include “soccer moms” and “NASCAR dads,” which are admittedly stereotypes, but they’re also very visual and accessible simplifications of a large amount of complex audience analysis summarized in two words. Sometimes, that’s what PR practitioners need in conversation with their clients, rather than a complicated spreadsheet or chart.
In addition to audiences, there are usually stakeholders, literally people who have a “stake” in a given issue. All audiences are stakeholders (or presumptive stakeholders), but not all stakeholders are audiences. For example, a charitable organization may commission a public relations agency to create an advertising campaign to raise money to find a cure for a disease. The charity and the people with the disease are stakeholders, but the audience is anyone who is likely to donate money.
Sometimes the interests of differing audiences and stakeholders common to a public relations effort necessitate the creation of several distinct—but still complementary—messages. This is not always easy to do, and sometimes—especially in politics—a spokesperson or client says something to one audience that angers another audience or group of stakeholders.
4.1. Demographic Characteristics
Public relations practitioners first analyze an audience by its demographic characteristics and then by their internal psychological traits. In beginning this discussion, however, be careful about stereotyping, which is generalizing about a group of people and assuming that, because a few people in that group have a characteristic, all of them do.
At the same time, one should not totalize about a person or group of persons. Totalizing is taking one characteristic of a group or person and making that the “totality” or sum total of what that person or group is. Totalizing often happens to persons with disabilities, for example; the disability is seen as the totality of that person or all that person is about. This can be both harmful to the relationship and ineffective as a means of communicating.
Avoiding stereotyping and totalizing is important because PR practitioners cannot assume everything about an audience based on just one demographic characteristic. Only two or three might be important, but in other cases, several demographic characteristics matter.
What follows is a listing of the more common demographic characteristics that a communicator might use in understanding their audience and shaping their message and the delivery of that message to adapt to the target audience. Understand, however, that there are others, as well.
In North American culture, certain roles, behaviours, motivations, interests, and concerns have traditionally been assigned to people of certain ages. Young people are concerned about career choices; people over 60 are concerned about retirement. Most people go to college from the age of 18 to about 25. People 50 years old have raised their children and are “empty nesters.” These neat categories still exist for many, but are largely outdated. Most post-secondary classrooms have a student who is in their 40s or older; many people aged 50+ still have children living at home or never had children at all. These stereotypes are problematic, even if they more often true than not.
Gender, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity
The second demographic characteristic commonly listed is gender. This area is open to misunderstanding as much as any other. In most cases, PR practitioners will be communicating with a mixed audience, which may include people of more than one or two genders, so one needs to keep all groups in mind. Yes, there are more than two genders; this topic is complex and, while not the focus of a public relations course, demands attention and sensitivity.
While a broader consensus is emerging in North America about the politics of sexual orientation—which isn’t to say there is unanimity and acknowledges extreme regional and/or religion-based variances in attitudes—the politics of sexual identity are at the forefront of political attention. Divisive debates and policies about gender identity need to be clearly understood and navigated with the greatest care.
Age and gender are the two main ways PR practitioners categorize people: “teenaged boys,” “elderly women,” or “middle-aged men” would be examples of potential starting points for how PR practitioners would begin defining their target audience.
Race, Ethnicity, Nationality and Culture
Race, ethnicity, nationality, and culture are often lumped together; at the same time, these categorizations can be controversial. Race, ethnicity, nationality, and culture are discussed here in one section because of their interrelationship, though they are distinct categories. Most social scientists today reject the idea of race as a biological reality altogether and see it as a social construct. This means it is a view of humanity that has arisen over time and affects our thinking about others.
Unfortunately, dividing these categories and groups is not that easy and these categories are almost always clouded by complicated political and personal concerns, which this author does not have time or space to address here. However, as an example, far too many people confuse language categories with cultures and are oblivious to differences, ranging from subtle to what should be painfully obvious.
Having said this, PR practitioners must be able to consider issues of race, ethnicity, nationality, and culture without being racist. PR practitioners need to be able to consider how these factors may affect tactical communications choices not as inspired by stereotypes, but to meet the needs and sensitivities of the target audiences.
Be mindful of the sensitivities associated with these topics and take time to meaningfully understand and appreciate the differences involved, being especially sensitive to those populations that have been colonized, marginalized, oppressed, or otherwise discriminated against.
Religion, casually defined as beliefs and practices about the transcendent, deities, and the meaning of life, can be thought of as an affiliation and as a life commitment. On the other hand, a person may have an affiliation with a religious group, but have no real commitment to it. The teachings and practices of the group may not affect the personal daily life of the member, but they nonetheless identify as a member.
Religion, like ethnicity and culture, is an area where PR practitioners should be conscious of the diversity of their audience. Not everyone worships in a “church” and not everyone attends a house of worship on Sunday. Not everyone celebrates Christmas the same and some do not celebrate it at all. PR practitioners need to carefully choose their words, aiming for inclusive language.
Without getting into a sociological discussion, one can note that one demographic characteristics and sources of identity for some is a group affiliation. To what groups do the audience members predominantly belong? Sometimes, a PR practitioner will want to know if the group is mostly members in a particular political party, union, recreational club, professional organization, and so on. In many cases, the reason they are the target audience is connected to a group identity. Again, be mindful of what the group values and what binds the audience together.
Region, another demographic characteristic, relates to where the audience members live. PR practitioners can think of this in two ways. Large countries have regions: Atlantic Canada, the Pacific Northwest, the Prairies, and so on. These regions can be broken down even more, such as the Gulf Islands or the Niagara Peninsula. Many are very conscious of their province or community and identify with it a great deal.
The second way to think about region is as “residence” or whether the audience lives in an urban area, the suburbs, or a rural area. If a person lives in a city, they probably do not think about being without cell phone or internet service, but many people in rural areas do not take those for granted. The clubs that students in rural schools belong to might be very different from the clubs a student in a large city would join.
Occupation may be a demographic characteristic that is central to a PR task. For the most part, people choose their occupations based on their values, interests, and abilities. As people associate with colleagues in their occupation, those values, interests, and abilities are strengthened. Readers of this OER textbook are probably in college to enter a specific career that they believe will be economically beneficial and personally fulfilling. Many people spend more time at work than any other activity, except sleeping (or even more than sleeping in extremely demanding jobs). Messages that acknowledge the importance, diversity, and reasons for occupations may be more effective in some situations, such as if the target audience is police officers, teachers, or farmers; such occupations are often central to the audience’s identity.
Education is closely tied to occupation and is often, though not always, a matter of choice. Education usually reflects what kind of information and training a person has been exposed to, but it does not reflect intelligence. Nonetheless, people of varying education levels often react quite differently to messages and PR practitioners will often target people based on education level.
Socio-economic level (sometimes socio-economic status) is also tied to occupation and education in many cases. Generally, people of certain levels of education or certain occupations to make more money. These norms can be significantly thrown off, however, by inheritance (or lack thereof) or marital status.
Marital and Family Status
Family status, such as whether the audience members are married, single, divorced, or have children or grandchildren may be very important to the concerns and values of the audience and even the reason the audience is targeted. For example, young parents could be gathered to town hall meeting because they are concerned about health and safety of children in the community. Getting married and/or having a child often creates a major shift in how people view the world and manage their priorities.
All that Diversity!
This section on demographics could leave one wondering, “With all this diversity, how can we even think about an audience?” That’s a reasonable reaction. As diversity increases, audience understanding and adaptation becomes more difficult. To address this concern, PR practitioners should keep in mind the primary reason the audience is being targeted and the demographic characteristics they have in common—their common bonds. For example, a group of classmates may be diverse in terms of age, ethnicity, or religion, but they have a common occupation (all students) and region (living near or on the campus), group identity (sharing a class together) as well as, possibly, other characteristics.
4.2. Psychographic Characteristics
Whereas demographic characteristics describe the “facts” about the people in a target audience and are focused on the external, psychographic characteristics explain the inner qualities. Although there are many ways to think about this topic, beliefs, attitudes, needs, and values are the best starting point.
Daryl Bem (1970) defined beliefs as “statements we hold to be true.” Notice this definition does not say the beliefs are true, only that people hold them to be true and, as such, they determine how people respond to the world as they encounter it. Stereotypes are a believe that all the people in a certain group are “like that” or share a trait. Beliefs are not confined to the religious or political realms, but touch all aspects of human experience.
Beliefs are hard to change, but perhaps more so based on each level of these characteristics:
- Stability—the longer a belief is held, the more stable or entrenched they are
- Centrality—they are in the middle of a person’s identity, self-concept, or “who we are”
- Saliency—the audience thinks about them a great deal
- Strength—the audience has a great deal of intellectual or experiential support for the belief or engage in activities that strengthen the beliefs
Beliefs can have varying levels of stability, centrality, salience, and strength. An educator’s beliefs about the educational process and importance of education would be strong (support from everyday experience and reading sources of information), central (how they make their living and define their work), salient (they spend every day thinking about it), and stable (especially if they have been an educator for a long time). Beliefs can be changed, but it is not a quick or easy process.
The next psychographic characteristic, attitude, is closely related to beliefs. Attitude is defined as a stable positive or negative response to a person, idea, object, or policy (Bem, 1970) and comes from experiences, peer groups, beliefs, rewards, and punishments.
Do not confuse attitude with “mood.” Attitudes are stable; that does not mean they are unchangeable, only that they change slowly and in response to certain experiences. Changing attitudes is a primary task of public relations professionals because attitudes are the most determining factor in what people actually do. In other words, attitudes lead to actions and, interestingly, actions lead to and strengthen attitudes.
Values are goals people strive for and what they consider important and desirable. However, values are not just basic wants. A person may want a vintage sports car from the 1960s and may value it because of the amount of money it costs, but the vintage sports car is not a value; it represents another type of value:
- Nostalgia (positive memories)
- Display (vanity, showing off)
- Materialism (greed, desire to own more or what others do not)
- Aesthetics (beauty, appearance, style, design)
- Prestige (status symbol)
- Pleasure (physical enjoyment)
Therefore, people can engage in the same behaviour, but for different values. One person may participate in a river cleanup because she values the future of the planet; another may value the appearance of the community in which she lives; another may help because friends are involved and she values those relationships.
The fourth psychographic characteristic is needs, which are important deficiencies that people are motivated to fulfill. Students may already be familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow, 1943). It is commonly discussed in the fields of management, psychology, and health professions. The hierarchy is one way to think about needs. In trying to understand human motivation, Maslow theorized that, as people’s needs represented at the base of the pyramid are fulfilled, they move up the hierarchy to fulfill other types of need (McLeod, 2014).
According to Maslow’s theory, the most basic physiological or survival needs must be met before people move to the second level, which is safety and security. When needs for safety and security are met, people move up to relationships or connection needs, often called “love and belongingness.” The fourth level up is esteem needs, which could be thought of as achievement, accomplishment, or self-confidence. The highest level, self-actualization, is achieved by those who are satisfied and secure enough in the lower four levels that they can make sacrifices for others. (As an aside, this model is sometimes shown with different levels or labels, such as “social” instead of “love/belonging.” Many scholars reject this model as inaccurate. However problematic it may be, it is still a useful tool for contemplating audience motivations. Other useful models also exist.)
So, how do these psychographic characteristics affect the work of PR practitioners? They are most applicable to understanding how audiences are likely to be persuaded to take action. This is a crucial part of a PR practitioner’s job: motivating a target audience to act (or stop acting) in a particular way or at a particular time.
4.3. Contextual Factors of Audience Analysis
The “facts about” and “inner qualities” (demographic and psychographic characteristics) of the audience influence how a PR practitioner approaches communication. The context (place and time) does also. What follows are some questions to consider when planning to communicate with a target audience.
- How much time does the audience have to receive and process a message. The less time available, the fewer details and the more simplified the message needs to be. With more time, messages can become more detailed and complex.
- What has recently happened to this audience? If a PR message is being sent to residents of a small town about water quality safety, that message is received differently if a train with hazardous materials has recently derailed nearby or if there was a fire at a chemical plant.
- Why is the target audience being targeted? If an organization needs to change a group’s behaviour, that means there’s some reason that audience isn’t already doing what the organization wants. In many PR messages, the target audience is, in some way, vulnerable, so understanding the motivations of both parties is key.
- How many people are being targeted? If a million people are being engaged, this changes the tactics considerably from engaging 400 people. If a neighbourhood is being targeted, a PR practitioner may choose to knock on everybody’s front door and talk to them. If every wheat farmer in the country is being targeted, other methods will be needed.
- What does the audience expect? This depends a lot on the communicator and/or their client. For example, audiences are usually skeptical of governments and large businesses; this influences how they view the messages delivered. On the other hand, members of a religious organization will usually accept messages from the leadership of that group—pardon the pun—on good faith.
Knowing these details about the audience can greatly impact how successful a PR message will be; not knowing them can potentially have adverse effects.
Parts of this chapter were adapted from Professional Writing Today: A Functional Approach by Sam Schechter, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, and which was in turn adapted from Exploring Public Speaking, 4th Edition by Barbara Tucker and Matthew LeHew, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Parts of this chapter were adapted from Public Relations, by New World Encyclopedia, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 International License.