Media, political and legal discourses liberally use the term ‘the public interest’ as a justification for an act or outcome that has an over-riding public good. But what exactly is ‘the public interest’? In New South Wales alone, the term ‘the public interest’ is included in almost 200 Legislative Acts (Wheeler 2006: 22) but, almost without exception, the term is not defined. Pervasive, but poorly understood, and mysterious in its own way, the public interest is described as “one of the most used terms in the lexicon of public administration, [but] it is arguably the least defined and least understood” (Wheeler 2006: 12).

This seminar paper examines the public interest as it relates to public relations and communication, but also, more broadly, as it exists within related discourses surrounding social capital, law and political philosophy. The presentation is illustrated with narratives and case studies that take the audience from West Africa, to Helsinki, to the Australian outback, to the Republic of Ireland, and to the world’s largest online encyclopedia.

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A/Professor Jane Johnston’s book Public Relations and the Public Interest is published by Routledge (2016) and a follow-up journal article Public interest: A new way of thinking for public relations? is in press. Her next book on the topic, co-edited with Magda Pieczka from Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, draws together a collection of leading international scholars to continue the exploration of the public interest across a range of social, political and economic systems. Johnston’s interdisciplinary research explores public relations, media, communication, law and justice – often at their various intersections.  She consults to government and the courts on justice communication.

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