For many public relations professionals, selecting the prime channels to use when reaching their targeted audience can be a daunting challenge. The task is made even more demanding when the intended audience spans several generations. Sometimes targeting generations helps overcome the complexity of multiple international markets... if only there was a good way to target the generations.

BurrellesLuce has released an interesting white paper that does just this.

Broadly speaking, today’s PR audience comprises four generations. Listed below are the generally accepted parameters of each group, and historical milestones that helped to form their worldview:

* Traditionalists (born before 1946) – Were shaped by the Great Depression, World War II, and the Korean War.
* Boomers (born 1947 to 1964) – Came of age at the time of the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, space exploration, and the assassinations of prominent national figures.
* Generation Xers (born 1965 to 1976) – Were young observers of, or participants in, the Watergate hearings, the first energy shocks of the 1970s, the women’s liberation movement, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the first Gulf War.
* Millennials (born 1977 to 1989) – Grew up during a period of large-scale school shootings, the Oklahoma City bombing, rapidly advancing technology, the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton, and the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Generational values at a glance

Their research shows that each generation also possesses a distinctive set of core values. These widely shared beliefs and perceptions shape decisions and behaviors.

A generation’s core values should matter to a PR practitioner because they can significantly influence message development. The following lists the core values that are most closely associated with each generation, although not necessarily exclusive. In addition, people born in proximity to the cutoff points may internalize some of the the values that more typically characterize the generation on the other side of the chronological divide:

Traditionalist = Hard work; Dedication; Respect for rules; Duty before pleasure; Honor
Boomers = Optimism; Personal gratification; Team orientation; Involvement; Personal growth
Xers = Diversity; Fun and informality; Techno literacy; Self-reliance; Pragmatism
Millennials = Optimism; Confidence; Civic duty; Achievement; Respect for diversity

Media usage also varies

Not surprisingly, some research* shows significant differences in media consumption by generation. For example, the two older generations spend more time following the news and are more likely to read print versions of newspapers than do the two younger generations.

Another way of slicing the pie:
multi-generational media and life stages

One research model applies terms such as Traditionalist, Boomer, GenX, and Millennial not to an age group but rather to the types of media utilized. Thus, a Boomer who often logs on to social media sites, chat rooms, and online communities may actually align with Millennial values. Similarly, a Millennial who eagerly peruses the printed pages of newspapers and magazines may exhibit core values closely resembling those of their Traditionalist or Boomer counterparts.

Other research has suggested that a generation also can be understood in terms of the stage of life in which individuals find themselves. So in theory, a career-driven Xer who is experiencing all the events associated with that lifestyle could just as easily be a woman in her 30s as a woman in her 50s.

Communications tactics that bridge the generation gap

Ultimately, there is no “one size fits all” medium, as audiences vary widely. However, there are ways to ensure that you are communicating effectively with each of the commonly defined generations.

1. Understand your audience by demographic. A little research can go a long way. Determining the gender, age, and other key characteristics of your core audience is the first step in creating a successful campaign. Your marketing department should have the data to share with you; if not, start to gather it on your own.

2. Shape messages based on audience values. Knowing that Boomers often view themselves as team players who value personal growth while Millennials see themselves as confident individuals with a respect for diversity can help you build messages aligned with each constituency.

3. Use media channels most frequented by your target audience. A large part of getting your message into the right hands involves knowing how and where your audience gathers information. If you’re looking to reach a general consumer audience, you may find beneficial research from analyst firms such as Forrester or Jupiter. Better yet, conduct your own customer surveys and interviews, which will enable you to target your messages with precision.

4. Pay attention to those responding. Cross-generational values and multi-generational media outlets can cause your messages to reach more than just your intended audience. Therefore, you should closely examine who responds to the calls to action contained in your news coverage, in order to properly tailor future messages.


*The Pew Research Center, The Maturing Internet News Audience, 7.30.06
The Pew Research Center, Generation Online, 12.05
Annual Knowledge Networks, How People Use TV’s Web Connections, 3.11.08