Review: Latest literature on listening

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Organizational Listening II: Expanding the Concept, Theory and Practice
By Jim Macnamara
Peter Lang, 2024, 390 pages

Leading the Listening Organisation: Creating Organisations that Flourish
By Mike Pounsford, Kevin Ruck and Howard Krais
Routledge, 2024, 203 pages

For the past decade, Distinguished Professor Jim Macnamara has been a pioneer in the emerging field of listening research, but he acknowledges his fellow travellers – Mike Pounsford, Kevin Ruck and Howard Krais amongst them. They in turn describe Macnamara as ‘the world’s leading expert on Organisational Listening’ in their book. So it seems fitting to review these two new texts together.

The first edition of Macnamara’s book was published in 2016. As he points out, most listening research has focused on interpersonal rather than organisational listening, the stated purpose of both these books. Nor should the focus be solely on ‘surveillance capitalism’.

‘Espionage and unethical listening practices are not what is proposed in this book. The organizational listening that is described and advocated is ethical listening as part of engagement and dialogue between organizations and their stakeholders. Such listening is essential for communication to occur.’

Readers will rightly conclude that listening is essential for effective public relations. But Macnamara prefers the term public communication, presenting it as progress from mass communication, rooted as it was in the age of broadcast media.

There’s another challenge to conventional wisdom when he writes: ‘Communication is not ‘sending out stuff’, and ‘communicaitons’ is not the plural of communication. Communications in modern English usage is a quite different concept, referring to electronic signal transmission systems and processes through computers and telephone networks.’

It is not possible to send out or transmit ‘communication’ to other humans. And no amount of speaking, writing, or designing visuals will ensure human communication.

Jim Macnamara

Listening. It sounds easy. So why does it require a long academic text citing numerous sources? Well, Macnamara is quick to point out that ‘listening is distinctly different to hearing… We can hear things but pay no attention to them.’ He is also critical of engagement in a marketing communication context: of course we want people to engage with us, but are we equally willing to engage with them on their terms?

Nor does he find an emphasis on listening in the public relations literature, despite the professed focus on building relationships and two-way symmetrical communication. ‘The only detailed discussion of listening in public relations literature prior to 2020 appeared in The Melbourne Mandate, a discussion paper developed in 2012 by the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management and expanded in a subsequent article by Anne Gregory.’

Macnamara accepts that it’s people that listen rather than organisations, but makes the case that organisational listening is distinctive because it’s done at scale; because it’s largely delegated; and mostly mediated; and, with the exception of face to face meeings, it’s asynchronous.

This book is impressive in its breadth. The author also digs into the scholarship of many related disciplines – but this should not be offputting to practitioners. The use of footnotes rather than academic references aids brevity and legibility and Macnamara has one foot firmly planted in practice (through his past experience and through his work with the World Health Organization among others).

His research study investigated the hypothesis that organisations have a listening problem. A pilot study in Australia led to The Organizational Listening Project conducted during the six years leading up to 2019. The UK Government Communicartion Service (GCS) was involved just as the shock Brexit referendum result in 2016 sparked introspection over the gap between the political class and many citizens based outside the large cities.

Though Macnamara was impressed by the commitment to open government and by the emphasis on evaluation of communication in GCS, he concluded that ‘consultations are more about meeting legal requirements than listening.’

Macnamara proceeds from the research findings to propose a theory and architecture of listening. This leads to a very satisfying revelation that organisational listening is a component in the ‘program logic model’ of public communication that begins with planning, production and distribution and leads to intended results. One diagram illustrates the whole process. It’s presented in monochrome in this book and also in colour in Macnamara’s 2023 paper on evaluation, as shown here.

Macnamara’s program logic model

Macnamara has written a significant contribution to the literature of a field I no longer dare call public relations; the discipline covering stakeholder relationships and embracing all aspects of corporate and organisational communication. It’s the field Macnamara prefers to call public communication.

‘While all stakeholder groups are important, employees come first.’

For more on the internal dimension, we turn to a British team of practitioner-researcher-educators. Macnamara has not been alone in noticing a research gap around listening, and Pounsford, Ruck and Krais began their enquiry in 2018. Their research parallels Macnamara’s approach, but their distinctive focus in Leading the Listening Organisation is on internal communication and organisational leadership.

‘The more we explored the topic of listening to employees, the more we heard from participants about the importance of leadership in their organisations.’

This emphasis confirms Macnamara’s observation that organisations don’t listen, but people do. Where Macnamara talks of ‘an organizational listening manifesto’, a similar aspiration is implicit as Pounsford and colleagues open with a chapter called ‘The Advent of the Listening Age’.

Where the Brexit referendum in the UK provided Macnamara with a dramatic case study to illustrate a failure to listen to citizens, so the pandemic was a stess test of the relationship between organisations and employees.

Both books are exemplars of the practicality of theory; they make a contribution to scholarship but are primarily written with the intention of improving practice.

Pounsford and colleagues end by proposing a new model of leadership listening based on core principles of social justice in the workplace, as illustrated here.

The Leadership Listening Model

This leads to the central principle in their manifesto.

‘While all stakeholder groups are important, employees come first because their motivation, performance, actions, and behaviours affect the outcomes and experiences of all stakeholders.’

Disclaimer: Kevin Ruck is a co-founder of PR Academy which publishes PR Place Insights.