Who are the public?
So who exactly are the public that universities are engaging with? And how are they reaching them?
The Butterfly Effect project, organised by the CUE East Beacon. A giant map is used to elicit public input to UEA research into the future of the Norfolk Broads Keiron Tovell
'Public' or 'publics'?
If you're looking for precision and clarity then the word 'public' creates as many problems as it solves. Everyone is a member of the public. However there are differences between individuals – including their backgrounds, interests, affiliations, economic circumstances, gender, sexuality etc – which profoundly shape their own sense of themselves and their agency. Thinking of the public as an undifferentiated whole is unlikely to help develop any kind of purposeful, responsive and respectful engagement.
One commonly used tactic is to replace the term 'public' with 'publics', to try to convey this complexity. A small step, admittedly, but an attempt to avoid oversimplifying the relationship between universities and the diverse individuals and groups they are engaging with.
Audience research and insight
In parallel, it is possible to build a much more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of different 'publics'. A huge amount of work has been done to research different groups; to provide insights into their interests and needs, and to develop techniques for building effective engagement with them. We are currently producing a range of guides that distil some of this work and have published a report on 'segmenting publics' which was commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to examine audience segmentation methods and tools in the area of public engagement.
It is helpful to try to avoid the temptation to communicate with the 'general public': targeting your engagement to a particular audience is important if you are to maximise the quality of the interaction. One approach is to think about 'communities of place' – targeting people by where they live – or 'communities of interest', where it is people's interests, passions or other shared circumstances which help to focus the engagement. Our guide to understanding audiences details some steps you can take to develop your work in this area.
Working with intermediaries
Once you are clear about who you are hoping to engage with, and your purpose, then a good way to reach that group can be through some kind of partnership with an intermediary organisation which already works with the group you are hoping to reach.
In practice, this is very typical of most engagement in the sector: although universities will run their own events or public lectures to and reach an interested and motivated ‘general public’, much of their engagement is in partnership with other organisations, which have strong links and networks in the community. These include schools, festivals, museums and galleries, and voluntary sector organisations and charities.
Developing and sustaining productive partnerships is therefore a key dimension to engagement. Our partnership guide describes approaches you could take.
The diagram below illustrates some of the different intermediaries that universities typically work with, in both the public sector and civil society
We have created a number of guides that distil effective approaches working with different partners or intermediary organisations.
We are also creating guides to working with different audience groups. Our first guide is an overview to thinking about the needs of different audiences.
In the next section we explore the different kinds of activities involved in public engagement.