What You Know About Who You Know


By Thomas J. Roach

Communication in business is usually directed to groups of individuals or publics who can be categorized by an infinite number of attributes. Some are self-constituted like the protesters in Ferguson, Mo., and generic indicators like age, race, or location may best define others.

Knowing how to identify publics as well as understanding how they get information is essential for effective communication strategies.

The most common error when dealing with public opinion issues is assuming all members of the public are alike. Family relationships, school systems, work experiences, peer groups, religious affiliations, chance events and genetic makeup insure that no two people are the same.

From a business perspective, while it is foolish to pretend that the public is one entity, it is also not plausible to interface with them as individuals. One has to find the middle ground. Successful communication plans identify relevant common elements and put individuals into groups or publics. The publics can then be addressed through meetings and print and electronic media.

Categories Emerge
Two important categories emerge when grouping publics: those who hold similar opinions and those who use similar information channels. Opinion studies probe influences and tendencies and attempt to document actual opinions. Channel studies identify how people get information. The channel studies are usually most important for public relations.

Public opinion issues in the aggregate industry tend to revolve around safety, noise, zoning, jobs, and reputation. It is useful to acquire survey or focus group data on already held opinions, but it is more useful to learn where publics get their information and how they arrive at their opinions.

For instance, if concerns about safety are raised, who is raising them, how are they getting their messages out, and who is listening? The message source could be a community activist, a federal commission, or a disgruntled employee. The channel might be a newspaper, a radio talk show, or an email list. And who is listening – neighbors, local political leaders, state agencies?

Different channels will carry different kinds of information, and people listening to the same channel will likely draw similar conclusions about an issue. By identifying the public with the channel, the company message can be directed to the key public and attempt to target one or two key issues identified with that public.

Local research is most desirable when it comes to quarry issues. Differences in opinion between states and even neighboring counties and cities can be significant. At ground level this research can be conducted by passing out a short questionnaire at a county fair or piggybacking a few questions on someone else’s survey or focus group project. If resources are available, a public relations specialist can be hired and tasked with putting out yearly surveys and conducting routine interviews and focus groups.

National Trends
National trends are less useful, but still helpful, especially if local information is difficult to come by. There are several sources for national data. Many of these sources are free and online. For example, in 2012 Pew Research Internet Project published a report on news consumption:

The report addresses residents in a range of large to small communities, their demographic, attitudinal and behavioral differences, and how they influence their interest in local news and news channels. Here are some of the conclusions drawn by the Pew report:

  • Suburban residents are the most likely to use social media.
  • Rural publics have the strongest community ties, for instance they are most likely to claim they know their neighbors.


The report goes on to evaluate the effectiveness of print news in different size communities, but even just these few points illustrate the value and potential impact of identifying public groups and targeting specific information channels.

The Pew study points to the need for personal interaction for quarries in small towns and the need for a social media presence in suburban areas. That means that two quarries using the same approach to an opinion issue can get opposite results.

Influence may be more dependent on who you know than what you know, but more important than that is what you know about who you know. Identifying and researching publics is essential for effective communication.

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