Sample Public Relations Case Studies Paper on Situational Theory of Publics: Cosmopolitan Magazine

Situational Theory of Publics


Grunig’s situational theory of publics is widely applied as a model for understanding communicative behavior from active to passive communication. The model categorizes the public based on three variables namely problem recognition, constraint recognition and level of involvement. The objective of the theory is to classify publics and thus formulate or deign communication targeting specific public characteristics (Kim, 2011). The theory is also predictive of communication outcomes and level of communication activity in different settings. The theory is used in multi and mono cultural settings and thus is mostly influenced by the attributes of the audience rather than the importance of the communication to be made. PR communications require an understanding of the audience under consideration in order for communication to be designed as per the audience needs and attributes. Situational theory of the publics provides perspectives into the public types and subsequently helps PR communicators to fine tune their messages to the situation while also making it acceptable among the recipients (Grunig, n.d).

Cosmopolitan magazine published an article on losing weight without any exercise. The article raised a lot of concern in that the weight loss reported on by the magazine was a result of a rare type of cancer and could not have been intentional. The story headline was the major cause of concern among the publics in that Cosmo’s article disregarded the pain felt by the woman who was under consideration (Amatulli, 2017). The issue was that Cosmo was advertising weight loss without sympathizing with the individual’s condition while the public thought that the kind of advert portrayed Cosmopolitan as unsympathetic and that the magazine wanted to give the impression that weight loss should be at all costs. The magazine published an apology and the article subject was edited to incorporate cancer (Amatulli, 2017). The social media uproar on the initial mistake however remained.

Situational Theory of the Publics – Variables

The situational theory of the publics is founded on the premise of comprehending whether people understand problems and their actions towards problem solving. The nature of the publics who are targeted by a PR communication can be based on their experiences with the problem, whether they are aware or not, the level of involvement in problem solving and the probability that they seek new information pertaining to the problem instead of letting information come to them per chance. According to Grunig (1992) the situational theory of publics defines the public based on three variables of problem recognition, constraints identification and the level of public involvement. The descriptions result in the categorization of publics into four groups which are: the active public, the aware public, latent public and the passive public. Of these groups, the passive public is most uninterested in the problem under discussion as they do not know anything about the problem. They also do not seek to know more and rely solely on information that comes to them by chance. The level of involvement and interest in the problem increases from the passive public to the active public, who are more concerned of the problem, participate in its solution and are determined to understand more about the problem (Hamilton, 1992).

Understanding the public being addressed helps PR communicators to clearly set their communication goals, highlight the content of their communications and plan effectively for delivery of acceptable content to the audience. Problem recognition as the first variable in the situational publics theory is used to determine the extent to which the publics targeted by communication are aware of the problem’s existent (Kim, 2011). When dealing with the passive public, the objective of communication would be first to create an understanding of the problem scenario and to show that there needs to be action on the part of the organization. The active public on the other hand is already aware of the problem and willing to be involved in finding its solution. Communication in this case would be aimed at convincing them or providing an alternative pathway to problem solving. Cosmopolitan’s case is one in which the public was already aware of the problem. The comments from various social media platforms also confirmed the public’s awareness of the problem. While they would not participate directly in finding the solution, the push and reactions from different social media platforms resulted in the realization of a communication plan for the company.

The second variable under consideration is constraints identification. While recognizing the problem is important, understanding the constraints to its solution is equally important. For the publics interested in any case under consideration, being aware of the constraints available can help to understand the actions of the organization faced by the problem and thus making judgments based on full awareness of the situation (Kim, 2011). On the one hand, the organization under the constraints can only act within the limits of the constraints they have while on the other hand, the public desires communication that would assure them that there are at least plans to rectify the mistakes that have been made in the past. Kim (2011) shows that constraint recognition when dealing with situational publics can help formulate communications effectively by first creating an in- depth understanding of the problem. The level of constraints also determines the flexibility of the publics to let go of negative feelings for the company.

In the case of Cosmopolitan, it is difficult to pinpoint any constraints towards using the right word constructions to highlight the concept of weight loss due to cancer. Initially, the subject presented in the article had authorized the magazine to publish her story (Amatulli, 2017). The magazine’s main undoing was in advocating for cancer as a weight loss mechanism instead of recognizing the fact that although cancer is a health scare, someone found restitute in her weight loss as a result of the cancer. In this case, no amount of convincing would portray to the publics that the organization was constrained by certain factors from acting in the ethically acceptable way during the initial publication of the article.

The third variable in applying the situational theory of publics is the level of involvement of the publics. Passive publics are least involved in finding solutions to the identified problems. Latent publics are less aware of the problem; aware publics are well versed with the problem but are not involved in solving the problem while active publics are directly involved in problem solving (Hamilton, 1992). The publics being addressed determine the formulation of the message for delivery. Publics that are willing to participate in problem solving have to be given more information that would help them to take specific corrective measures towards the problem. Cosmopolitan magazine has an aware public, who understand the extent of the problem, seek to know more about the problem but do not participate actively in its solution. For the organization, the communication should target the aware public, by ensuring they understand the factors that resulted in the identified problem and the actions that the company is taking to make the necessary amends.

The third variable in situational theory of the publics is applicable on the publics side as well as on the PR communicator’s side too. The entire rationale about using the situational theory of publics in communication is to enable the publics see that an organization understands the problem that others may or may not be seeing and are willing to take actions towards change. For the aware public, achieving this objective can be difficult as it means the publics have to unlearn the negative thoughts they have developed as a result of the story and adopt new perspectives that would enable them maintain a high regard for the organization. For the case of Cosmopolitan, this point may have been reached based on the later comments on the story and acceptance of the company’s apology on the error that had been made in describing cancer as a weight loss mechanism. The level of involvement in a case also determines the nature the message to be delivered.

Cosmopolitan Magazine Case and the Situational Theory

James Grunig developed the situational theory to help PR communicators understand the characteristics of their audiences and thus deliver speeches that would appeal to the targeted audience and result in the intended outcomes (Grunig, n.d). Applying the theory to a case begins with measuring the variables outlined earlier. The case under consideration attracted reactions from across the media, with most fans of Cosmopolitan magazine posting on the magazine’s fan page that it was insensitive to describe cancer as a weight loss strategy. The reactions from the public alone were sufficient for the organization to understand that they were dealing with an aware public. In such a case, the theory predicts the expected communication outcomes and the strategies for achieving successful communication from the problem origin perspective (Hamilton, 1992). In this case, the communication was aimed at dispelling the presumptions that the organization had allowed the article to be published out of insensitivity and creating the perception that any negative implications had not been intended by Cosmopolitan.

Based on the storyline, the only constraint on the side of the company was that the story had already been published and to some extent, some damage had already been caused. However, the decision to edit the article title enabled the company to gain some additional trust from the fans who had responded negatively to the magazine’s publication.

While the publics were vocal about the entire publication and portrayal of cancer as a weight loss strategy, the public had no potential solution to the problem identified. The level of involvement was in seeking information pertaining to the problem, following up online with the magazine to confirm whether action was taken and directly pushing the company to apologize for the mishap. Understanding the level of involvement of the public is crucial if an organization is to act within its mandate to communicate the right information. Part of the publics may also be stakeholders in the organization and their level of involvement determines their responses to the communication being made. For Cosmopolitan, their actions had to be directed by the perceived attitude of the publics and the recommendations made by the publics. Formulating the PR message in such a case would focus on information that would result in a change of perspective.

Grunig (n.d) asserts that while understanding the publics is important in applying the situational publics theory, it is also important for the stakeholders to be identified based on their potential contributions to the development of solutions in the case. In Cosmopolitan’s case, the stakeholders can be categorized into enabling, functioning or apathetic depending on their roles in ensuring the identified problem is solved. The functioning stakeholders include editors and authors who are active in article publication as well as in responding to the customer demands and public needs. The enabling stakeholders are the investors in the company, who provide resources for auctioning the different policies within the organization. In the case under consideration, the enabling stakeholders most likely decided to provide resources for the publication of a new article and editing the old one. The participation of the stakeholders in any case depends on the extent to which the problem affects them directly (Grunig, n.d). For instance, the enabling stakeholders would be active publics in a problem that has the potential of reducing organizational market size and thus affecting organizational profitability. In such a case, they would go the extra mile to sustain the organization. In any case the enabling stakeholders withdraw their support for the business; it would not survive the public’s reactions to negative publicity. It is thus essential to understand not only the contributions and expectations of the publics to effective performance but also to ensure that the stakeholders play their roles in problem solving.

As the business environment changes, the publics are becoming more evolved. Cases involving violation of ethical expectations, human rights and general disregard for consumer concern are taken more seriously and it is getting more difficult to accomplish communication objectives through PR stunts. This means that organizations such as Cosmopolitan, whose work targets several publics, should take all the more care to ensure that their roles are understood by the public and that where mistakes are made, they are corrected immediately. The situational theory of publics provides a strong enough premise for doing this. However, it still needs flexibility even in applying the three variables.


The situational theory of publics is applicable across a variety of contexts and with a variety of publics. The key concepts in its application include reference to the three variables of problem recognition, constraint identification and level of involvement. Understanding the type of public being addressed based on these three variables should be sufficient foundation for designing a PR message. While working with different publics, the message should be packaged differently depending on the expectations of the public and their participation in problem solving. While the theory is effective as a PR communication tool, it is important to note that there are certain cases to which the three variables may not be exactly applicable as they are. The objective of such cases would be to customize the situational theory of publics to the organization in need. Cosmopolitan’s case is a perfect example of problems that would be solved through communication targeting the right group of people. Cosmopolitan’s communication and emphasis on their respect for individual autonomy and openness to new ideas, and sensitivity towards health issues is an indication of effective application of the situational theory of the publics. Grunig’s theory therefore reaches out to those who recognize problems in their organizations and are willing to change the situation to get into the minds of the publics and thus work towards the expectations of the publics in problem solving.


Amatulli, J. (2017, April 11). Cosmo’s headline about cancer survivor’s weight loss is a doozy. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Grunig, J.E. (n.d). A situational theory of environmental issues, publics and activists. The North American Association for Environmental Education. Retrieved from

Hamilton, P.K. (1992). Grunig’s situational theory: A replication, application and extension. Journal of Public Relations Research, 4(3): 123 – 149. Retrieved from

Kim, J.N. (2011). Public segmentation using the situational theory of problem solving: Illustrating summation method and testing segmented public profiles. Prism Journal, 8(2): 1- 12. Retrieved from