Listening

Notes from a lecture prepared for an MA Public Relations and Strategic Communication class at Leeds Beckett University – but not delivered in person today.

About the author

Richard Bailey FCIPR MPRCA is editor of our Insights, formerly PR Place. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Photo by Uljana Maljutina on Unsplash
Photo by Uljana Maljutina on Unsplash

I’m sharing my lecture notes as I’m recording this in place of face-to-face delivery and because it’s a topic where academics and researchers have lessons that practitoners may find valuable.

This is St Patrick’s Day, celebrating Ireland’s patron saint. Yet the pubs in the Irish Republic have been closed. That shuts down a major channel for conversation. Less talking, less listening.

To our subject: public relations. This self-evidently involves relationships, and what happens when relationships break down? Very often, one or both parties blame a failure of communication; the inability of the other party to listen.

And yet, a hundred year old industry centred around relationships appears to have a blind spot around listening. As Australian scholar Jim Macnamara writes: 

While listening receives extensive attention in relation to interpersonal communication, there is little focus on organizational listening in academic and professional literature, with books and articles focussed predominantly on disseminating organizations’ messages (i.e. speaking) – a transmissional or broadcast approach to public communication.

Despite talking the talk around dialogue, consultation and engagement, ‘research shows that organization-public communication is overwhelmingly comprised of organizational speaking’.

Macamara talks of a ‘crisis of listening’ in contemporary societies. Something that sounds so easy is in practice hard as listening requires

  1. Recognition of others’ rights and views
  2. Acknowledgement
  3. Paying attention
  4. Interpreting what is said, to gain
  5. An understanding of others’ views
  6. Giving consideration to what is said and
  7. An appropriate response

What is the role of social media in this ‘crisis of listening’? On the one hand, it’s never been easier to tune in to conversations happening on social media; on the other, the cacophony of opinion and the polarising tendency of social media can make exercises in listening and empathy seem futile. Why not just join in the shouting?

Macnamara’s research revealed a tendency to use social media monitoring opportunistically (through ‘newsjacking’ and ‘memejacking’) with ‘much less attention paid to learning and gaining feedback to inform organizational change and adaptation.’

Macnamara proposes what he calls ‘an architecture of listening’ based on eight key elements:

  1. A culture of listening
  2. Policies for listening
  3. Addressing the politics of listening
  4. Structures and processes for listening
  5. Technologies for listening
  6. Resources for listening
  7. Skills for listening
  8. Articulation of listening to decision making and policy making

If it’s too risky and too challenging to develop a listening culture in public, then surely it’s much more manageable internally?

This is where we have some valuable insight. Last year, Kevin Ruck, Howard Krais and Mike Pounsford conducted some research amongst internal communication managers. Preliminary findings from their study have been published as The Listening Project

They found that organisations value listening to external stakeholders more highly than listening to employees. The communication skill most highly valued by organisations was ‘writing’ – suggesting a persistent preference for top-down and one-way communication flows.

The top channel for listening to external stakeholders was also the top channel for listening to employees: face to face meetings were the first choice for both.

‘Listen first’

A useful case study to show the priority placed on listening came from the retailer Asda in the early years of social media adoption in the UK. The case study was documented by Leeds Beckett PR graduate Dom Burch, a former Head of Social for Asda. 

Burch writes: ‘Generating engaging and relevant content (or news as it was once known) continues to be one of the most important disciplines for strategic communication professionals… The best content-led engagement strategies are built on a simple three-pronged approach: listen first, engage second and seek to influence and persuade last.’

Asda implemented a five-year plan starting in 2009:

  • Year one: listening and monitoring
  • Year two: trials of Twitter handles and a new website called Your Asda
  • Year three: engagement
  • Year four: growth
  • Year five: influence

It shows considerable planning and admirable restraint. How many other organisations would be willing to wait five years for demonstrable outcomes from their investment?

Burch recognises the power of social media to provide ‘relatively free, real-time focus groups.’

Strategic silence

So far we’ve discussed listening. We’re now going to take this in a new direction and discuss the value in silence as a communication strategy. First from a practitioner, then from an academic perspective.

Experienced corporate communicator Steven Olivant published Keeping Shtum in 2016. Though his book is not centred on Apple, he opens with the launch of the iPad in 2010 and argues that Apple, the most commercially successful business in history, deserves deeper analysis in the public relations literature. Sure, Apple is a great marketing case study, but it’s an awkward public relations case study since Apple doesn’t play by the conventional rules.

It’s notoriously closed rather than open; it does not welcome conversation on social media. Its launches are tightly controlled and it seeks competitive advantage through surprise.

In an earlier book – Crowdsurfing from 2008 – practitioners David Brain and Martin Thomas grappled with the ‘paradox of Apple’ before concluding that Apple is ‘the exception that proves the rule.’

Olivant writes: ‘By conventional wisdom, excellent communication means openness and transparency, not secrecy and surprise. In theory, keeping shtum, as Apple did for years, should have been bad for business.’

In Strategic Silence, one of the most original contributions to the public relations academic literature in recent years, Roumen Dimitrov argues ‘mainstream public relations overvalues noise, sound and voice in public communication… There is a widespread bias against silence. Either it is considered the opposite of communication or the bad side of it. Breaking silence is good. Silencing is bad.’

Dimitrov finds that while there is an extensive literature on ‘communicative silence’, there is little on ‘strategic silence’. 

 ‘Strategic silences are: (1) intentional, directed at audiences (2) mostly communicative; and (3) discursive practices that take place in (4) situations of communication, (5) at higher degrees of indirectness, which usually entail (6) a shift from speaking to actionable listening.’

The author accepts that silence seems counterintuitive to a ‘profession [that] meets its purpose when it communicates’.

If listening is challenging to management and to communicators, then silence is counter-intuitive.

Yet, the assumptions we make as communicators can be wrong-headed. As Tony Langham argues in his recent book Reputation Management, most problems are related to performance, behaviour or identity – and cannot be fixed by communication. 

If communication did not cause the problem,
it cannot fix it.’

‘Apologising when the organisation or individual did nothing wrong – as advised by many crisis managers – may stop the bleeding, but it is untruthful and bad behaviour. It will, therefore, harm reputation over the long term.’

Sources

Burch, D (2013) The Shift to Conversation: Content, context and avoiding cheap talk in Waddington, S (ed) Share This Too: More Social Media Solutions for PR Professionals, Wiley

Dimitrov, R (2018) Strategic Silence: Public Relations and Indirect Communication, Routledge

Krais, H, Ruck, R and Pounsford, M (2019) The Listening Project: Developing listening organisations in the 21st century, IABC

Langham, T (2019) Reputation Management: The future of corporate communications and public relations, Emerald

Macnamara, J (2015) Creating an ‘architecture of listening’ within organisations, University of Technology, Sydney

Olivant, S (2016) Keeping Shtum and other communication strategies, Steven Olivant

Thomas, M and Brain, D (2008) Crowd Surfing: Surviving and thriving in the age of consumer empowerment, A&C Black