Who are the public?

So who exactly are the public that universities are engaging with?

'Public' or 'publics'?

If you're looking for precision and clarity then the word 'public' creates as many problems as it solves. Whilst everyone is a member of the public, there are differences between individuals which profoundly shape their own sense of themselves and their agency. One commonly used tactic is to replace the term 'public' with 'publics', to try to convey this complexity.

Who are your publics?

Most universities are keen to involve the public in their work. However targeting the public as if they were an undifferentiated group of people tends not to be very effective. It can help to segment people based on some shared characteristics for example: 'communities of place' group people by where they live; 'communities of interest', group people based on their interests, passions or other shared circumstances.

It is also 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. Audience segmentation is used to help define different groups that you might like to work with. The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) published a report on 'segmenting publics'.

You can find resources to help you think about the publics you might like to engage in our do engagement pages

Working with partners

Although universities will run their own events or public lectures to 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. We have created a wide range of resources to help you develop your partnership work in our do engagement pages.

Defining the territory

It can help to consider the many types of organisations and intermediaries that you might want to work with. The 'defining the territory' diagram below illustrates some of the organisations that universities typically work with, in both the public sector and civil society.