Plowman, Kenneth D.; Wakefield, Robert I.; & Winchel, Beki. (2015). Digital publics: Tracking and reaching them. Public Relations Review, 41(2), 272-277.


The utility of this study is to show how social media can reach out to digital publics in the use of tactics in strategic communications planning. A significant difference between traditional media messages and those on social media is the possibility of immediate, direct response. When organizations send out messages over traditional media, they have to measure response through indirect means. With social media, message recipients can respond back to the organization directly through the same social media channel, with relatively little elapsed time between the original message and the response. With these differences, it is possible that social media have created a situation where the longstanding notion of a “general public” needs to be re-evaluated, if not outright challenged or overthrown.

The authors found that, even with social media, we still have not reached a point where there is a general public as defined above. For one thing, the possibility of an entire given society actually caring about a message is still fairly remote. However, there arises an intriguing possibility of an organization sending out a message and having many more recipients than planned (or hoped) actually respond to it. The challenge, then, is how to identify a broader range of potential recipients—or a larger public. Rather than the non-existent general public, the authors propose the term “latent diffused publics.”


This study included interviews with 17 individuals who were working in social media-related positions and were knowledgeable regarding the strategic communications planning matrix.

Key Findings

  • Strategic Emphasis – Social media tactics can be a low-cost alternative to traditional communication methods, which makes them more appealing to organizations. However, the investment of time is noteworthy, and brands that spend strategically tend to carry out more effective social media campaigns, generally speaking.
  • Consumer Conversation – Understanding and utilizing a two-way symmetrical approach to consumer conversations is paramount in building relationships digitally as well as driving and maintaining those relationships.
  • Establishing Proper Brand Awareness – A notable trend in the public relations industry is the rise of content creation, curation, and brand publishing. Every brand is a publisher, and organizations are more focused on their own editorial content than ever before
  • Crisis Management – Social media is seen as a powerful tool in crisis management, with the ability to either create or control crisis situations.

Implications for Practice

As the communications environment continues to evolve, so must the planning processes used by public relations professionals. Even concepts related to publics may need to be reconsidered—for example, the authors’ proposal of latent diffused publics to help organizations anticipate publics that they may not have originally planned for but who may surface through digital media and communication. Social media developments also lead to an increasing need for adaptability and immediate responses to any messages shared by publics. In addition, messaging and consistency become even more important than they were before. By focusing on strategic, long-term, two-way communication, public relations professionals can achieve success and synergy in their campaigns and use of social media. The effect of digital publics and social media on this process almost mandates non-linearity, meaning as public relations professionals view the entirety, they will have to become more predictive to start the process of resolving public relations issues in an almost synergistic manner.

Article Location

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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