The case of net neutrality offers an example of how the situational theory of publics can be applied. Net neutrality is the idea that a free and open internet “means that Internet service providers may not discriminate between different kinds of content and applications online,” according to Free Press’s “Save the Internet” Campaign at www.savetheinternet.com. The issue, as described by the group is this:

“The biggest cable and telephone companies would like to charge money for smooth access to Web sites, speed to run applications, and permission to plug in devices. These network giants believe they should be able to charge Web site operators, application providers and device manufacturers for the right to use the network. Those who don’t make a deal and pay up will experience discrimination: Their sites won’t load as quickly, and their applications and devices won’t work as well. Without legal protection, consumers could find that a network operator has blocked the Web site of a competitor, or slowed it down so much that it’s unusable.”

The Free Press organization advocates for net neutrality, and in doing so opposes FCC regulations that would allow for a tiered system supported by telecommunications companies. In 2014, the FCC considered adopting a rule that would allow Internet service providers to offer a ‘fast lane’ on the Internet for companies that are willing and able to pay for it. Under this rule Netflix might pay Comcast or AT&T to improve streaming speeds of its video material relative to other content providers. There is certainly more than one side to this issue, and the legal, technological, economic and societal issues underlying the debate are rather complex. For example, Netflix’s CEO actually strongly supported net neutrality for “democratizing access to ideas, services and goods,” and also because ISP interconnection fees will ultimately lead to “a poor consumer experience,” he blogged in 2014.

In any case, let’s assume Free Press’s position in favor of net neutrality for the sake of discussion of the types of publics. Are you part of a latent, aware, or active public for the issue? The answer depends on three questions.

Problem recognition.

How often do people stop to think about the issue? If people haven’t detected an issue, they won’t think about it much. This doesn’t mean they aren’t affected or don’t have a say. They may well still be part of a key public. They just don’t realize it. Think of all the Netflix viewers, YouTube uploaders, and online gamers who never stopped to think about net neutrality before 2014. These are latent publics, because even though they can be defined as a public, they themselves don’t recognize it. Once they do recognize the issue—problem recognition—and start thinking about it, they become aware publics. Most strategic public relations efforts involve not just mere awareness, but some level of understanding of the issue, and beyond that behavior.

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Image caption: The goal with this Facebook post appears to be to move publics from latent to aware or from aware to active. What types of research do you think led to this tactic?

Level of involvement.

How connected do people feel to the issue? A key factor in whether people will become active publics on an issue is their level of involvement. People who use the Internet primarily for low-bandwidth activities like checking e-mail or occasional light Web browsing may be aware of the net neutrality issue, but they just don’t see a strong enough connection between the issue and their personal situations to get active on the issue.

From a public relations planner’s perspective, research on demographics and psychographics is useful in identifying involved publics. A 2012 New York Times article stated that 1% of mobile Internet users accounted for half the world’s mobile bandwidth use. Demographic research answers questions like how old these people are and where they live. According to a study cited in the article, Finns consumed about 1 gigabyte of data a month, and that was nearly 10 times the use of average Europeans. Global strategists would be wise to consider Finland as a place to recruit activists in the net neutrality debate.

Psychographic research, on the other hand, answers questions about variables such as the personality types of heavy Internet users and their preferences for online content. Take for example, the following “digital lifestyle” categories developed by Allot Communications: Info Seekers, Info Guzzlers, Social Monitors, Social Minglers, and Digital Movers and Shakers. Digital movers and shakers are described as “akin to the hot person at a party who keeps things lively and is savvy about the way they conduct themselves.” The psychographic profile of a potential active public in the net neutrality debate is one of a heavy data user who combines personal and social use of bandwidth. In one study, the movers and shakers comprised 34% of subscribers but accounted for 58% of traffic.

Constraint recognition.

What, if anything, can people do about the issue? Let’s say your public now really understands net neutrality and they’re good and mad about it being taken away (high problem recognition) because of how badly that change will mess up their Internet experience if they are not willing to pay more to access high-quality content (high level of involvement). What are they going to do about it? The answer depends on constraint recognition, and a smart public relations plan will have a response to that question ready for publics at this stage. Free Press told Web users they had options. “Share this page to spread the word to stop them from selling out Net Neutrality!” was one option. Signing an online petition to the FCC was another.

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Image caption: Fight for the Future is a nonprofit organization that creates civic campaigns including this one advocating for net neutrality. How many specific ways can publics become active from this webpage?

Tom Kelleher on the role of Public Relations in company management