Communication Public Interest Communication
Kristin Demetrious
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0302


Public interest communication (PIC) is an emerging disciplinary field in which social change rather than market-based objectives is the stated purpose of a communication campaign, strategy, or relationship. Prioritizing purpose driven by cultural values, the inverse notion of PIC appears at distance from corporate “PR,” but it draws on and/or adapts its apparatus, grammar, and functionalist “logic” to promote new activist styles of advocacy. Increasingly identified with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), not for profits, and activists competing in the digital media space, PIC campaigns attempt to ply open ground in public opinion forums by invoking imagination, visceral narratives, playfulness, poetry, and artistry in media packaging. Tactics that “call to action” include community building days, skills training and workshops, petition drives, deep canvassing, participatory social media campaigns, and call-in days. The modality of PIC subscribes to ideas about agency and empowerment within social structures to action a “progressive vision” where individuals can “change the world.” The rise of PIC has accelerated since Web 2.0 in 2004, and the establishment of social media like Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube provides platforms that enable quantitative metrics to measure influence and success. These social media platforms allow NGOs and activist groups the ability to bypass media gatekeepers to directly contact supporters with email messaging, online petitions, direct campaigns, invitations to follow or subscribe to various platforms, offer conference registrations, donation requests, and merchandising. Building personalized online collaborations with users, PIC campaigns that build support for a cause can be shared and cross promoted through transmedia storytelling, hashtagging, memes, and online contagion. PIC as an interdisciplinary hybrid of public relations, psychology, political science, and journalism and may, in prevailing neoliberal cutures, produce meanings through the lens and the language of the market; thus, in this sense, it needs further critical development.

Conceptualization and Theoretical Frameworks

There is a clear line between PIC and public relations, leading to a conceptual contradiction. PIC coheres around the ethical idea of “the common good” in democratic political traditions, with dialogue and deliberation to propel meanings, yet at the same time it adopts corporate styles of communication, and a market-based approach to meaning making, to determine the “public interest.” This might lead to thinking about advocacy campaigning in terms of being a product or brand rather than a “cause.” Shedding light on this contradiction, Bozeman 2007 suggests that, since the 1970s, the notion of public interest has been regarded as ambiguous, idealistic, and a poor fit with a market-based society where emerging cultures of consumerism and personal liberty were expressed in the countervailing idea of economic individualism. Nonetheless, recent years have seen a revival of interest in the concept, partly because of this ambiguity, as it resemebles a differentiated approach from ethically questionable PR that speaks to values like tolerance, respect, dignity, and truth. Mapping the growth of PIC in tandem with the rise of public interest journalism is useful in understanding its current cultural context. Glasser (2015: p. 1) explores the idea of the public interest and communication in various forms from the 1990s and states that at about this time, reformist ideas of “public journalism” or civic journalism manifested that were “aimed at reinvigorating the press’s commitment to the democratic ideals of citizen participation and public dialogue.” Glasser (2015: p. 1) argues that the movement of public interest journalism “embraced the simple but apparently controversial proposition that the purpose of the press is to promote and indeed improve, and not merely report on and complain about, the quality of public or civic life” Glasser (2015: p. 1). Some definitions of public interest journalism emphasize the watchdog role of the fourth estate and the public’s right to know over or outside a broader focus on the common good. As such, public interest journalism has emerged as an important values-based counterpoint to coercive digital cultures that support disinformation and circulate vested interest through “truth.” However, Bozeman 2007) argue that “public interest” should be scrutinized for its hidden subjectivity in the defining of the “common good”, measured against the (competing) plurality of values that are personally held. Similarly, and focusing on the allied concept of PIC, Johnston and Pieczka (2019) argues that “public interest” is not a neutral term and that the binary of public and private is also subject to interpretative positions that shape meaning, such as utilitarianism. Likewise, Demetrious 2022 argues that “public relations” is rooted in a corporate culture that aims to maximize profits. Nonetheless, implicit in PIC is the commitment to uphold the principles of democracy, such as a diversity of views and independence. PIC’s orientation toward competing democratic models is central to understanding its orientation to “public” language and the greater or lesser extent to which it is an awakening of social change relatively independent of market-based drivers.

  • Bozeman, B. 2007. Public values and public interest: Counterbalancing economic individualism. Washington, DC: Georgetown Univ. Press.

    This book explores the idea of the public interest and maps its appeal within different historical, social, and political contexts. Focusing on public policy, administration, and management, and the pressure bearing on the contested terrain around public values that underpin it, the final chapter sets out a path for reform. An analysis of various case studies provides an applied and theoretical exploration of the idea and its relationship to the public collective.

  • Chernin, K., and B. R. Brunner. 2022. Public interest communications in the classroom: Bringing activism to public relations education. Public Relations Education 8.2: 111–146.

    Discussion of the pedagogic ways that “creative activism” can be blended with public relations in teaching and learning environment that is accessible to undergraduates. “While public interest communication (PIC) is still an emerging field, it offers a flexibility that has the potential to engage a new generation of public relations students and to incorporate existing fields of study in an interdisciplinary manner” (p. 112).

  • Christiano, A. 2017. Foreword: Building the field of public interest communications. Journal of Public Interest Communications 1.1: 4–15.

    DOI: 10.32473/jpic.v1.i1.p4

    Important in mapping the provenance of the PIC field, it identifies US social advocate Frank Karel as key in establishing the knowledge base at the University of Florida and recognizing that “strategic communications is the accelerant on the fire of social change” (p. 6). Notable for acknowledging that US-based Fenton Communications has used the term “public interest communication” agency since 1982 and has demonstrated the applied way these ideas are being enacted in real-world contexts.

  • Croteau, D., and W. Hoynes. 2006. The business of media: Corporate media and the public interest. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

    Analyzing the media as a business in democratic society, this text examines the tensions that exist in the competing ideas of the public interest. Divided into three parts, it begins with a theoretical and conceptual mapping, followed by a focus on new media industries and changing structures, and, last, its organization the impacts for society, including regulatory policies, raising critical questions about journalism as a profession and its relationship to society.

  • Demetrious, K. 2022. Public relations and neoliberalism: The language practices of knowledge formation. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190678395.001.0001

    This book sets the groundwork to understand neoliberalism and its intimate and historic relationship with depoliticizing PR. The last chapter discusses how PIC has gained acceptance and traction as part of the “family” of PR but argues that contradictions in PIC necessitate a deep critique that investigates the models of democracy to which it is aligned, and its impacts.

  • Fessmann. J. 2016. The emerging field of public interest communications. In Strategic communication in non-profit organizations: Challenges and alternative approaches. Edited by E. Oliveira, A. D. Melo, and G. Goncalves, 13–34. Wilmington, DE: Vernon.

    An early critical discussion defines PIC as a field where social and ethical values are explicitly stated over market-based interests that seek to deny human rights. Fessmann directly aligns PIC with PR but argues that it “transcends the interests of any one organization.” He links the emergence of PIC to progress in societal change with journalism’s failures to address vested interests.

  • Fessmann, J. 2017. Conceptual foundations of public interest communications. Journal of Public Interest Communications 1.1: 16–30.

    DOI: 10.32473/jpic.v1.i1.p16

    Following Fessmann 2016, Fessmann flags the differences and similarities between PR and PIC, positioning it within activist and not-for-profit communications. The discussion centers on laying claim to the establishment of, and the setting of foundations for, a discrete field within PR.

  • Glasser, T. L. 2015. Public journalism movement. In The International encyclopedia of political communication. Edited by Gianpetro Mazzoleni, 1–5. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

    Important summary of intellectual, social, and political thought in the establishment of public interest journalism.

  • Hon, L. 2017. Editor’s essay. Journal of Public Interest Communications 1.1: 1–3.

    DOI: 10.32473/jpic.v1.i1.p1

    The only academic journal specializing in PIC. In this inaugural edition, Linda Hon discusses how the journal had its provenance at the University of Florida, and in 2016 an academic conference followed bringing together a small community scholars “who shared a research agenda and passion for social change.”

  • Johnston, J., and M. Pieczka. 2019. Public interest communication: A framework for systematic inquiry. In Public interest communication: Critical debates and global contexts. Edited by J. Johnston and M. Pieczka, 9–31. New York: Routledge.

    A timely edited volume that situates a discussion of “public interest” within the broader field of communications. The mapping process begins with a robust discussion of the concept and how it can be thought of as a framework for communications. It includes a survey of key thinkers in the field and a well-curated selection of chapters that traverse critical debates, such as climate change, and in a variety of cultural and global contexts.

  • Napoli, P. M. 2019. Social media and the public interest: Media regulation in the disinformation age. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.7312/napo18454

    A discussion of the idea of public interest in relation to rapidly changing algorithmic news cultures and digital contexts. The final chapter seeks to find a credible way through the algorithmic cultures that support misinformation. However, the author argues that the solutions may disrupt the business models that have supported the growth of large platforms like Google, Facebook, and YouTube.

  • Tilson, D. J., and E. Alozie, eds. 2004. Towards the common good: Perspectives in international public relations. Boston: Pearson.

    This edited book reflects on the changing view of society and public relations. The book’s title implies a key role for the organization and for public relations other than profit making with culturally diverse settings. “Public activism,” or specialist interest groups from the 1960s and 1970s that have used the coming media to awaken public opinion, is listed as a major development in US democracy that impacts public relations.

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