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THE ART AND SCIENCE OF LISTENING IN PUBLIC RELATIONS

Listening is considered to be the single most important element in the communication process. It plays a central role in establishing and maintaining both interpersonal and organization-publics relationships. Effective listening solves problems, promotes understanding among people and improves performance at work. Discerning business entities, civil society organizations and governments use listening as the key to understanding and meeting the expectations of their stakeholders.

In Public Relations, listening should not be a matter left to the discretion of practitioners. It is a mandate. In 2010, Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, the global voice of the Public Relations profession, issued a set of standards to guide the performance of Public Relations activities worldwide. The Stockolm Accord, as it was called, mandated PR professionals to create internal listening cultures in the organizations they represent.

For the Melbourne Mandate, the current set of standards issued by the same body in 2012, building a culture of listening and engagement organizations is  a role of the PR professional. Unfortunately, when it comes to listening, the average PR professional preaches wine but serves vinegar. They tell you how listening uplifts the profession and the professional; but in practice, they cling to the broadcast mode, producing and disseminating messages to stakeholders and publics without ever bothering to listen to them to know how they think and feel about their organizations.

A recent study by Jim Macnamara of the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia reveals that, on the average, 80% of resources and time spent by organizations on public communication is devoted to disseminating organizations messages; and that “Communication” functions such as Public Relations, Organizational and Corporate communication are primarily devoted to doing the work of speaking on behalf of their organizations.

Furthermore, the study reveals that organizations create substantial architecture of speaking comprised of websites mailing lists, presentation software and the rest of them, but do not have architecture of listening nor do the work of listening.

The study betrays the sorry state of Public Relations and organizational listening as well as the limitations of PR professionals in carrying out their mandate as expressed in the Melbourne document. It brings out a sore point that PR, as a profession, must address if it is to be taken seriously.

I believe PR professionals neglect listening just because they do not understand what it means to Public Relations and to their careers. This article attempts to clarify these and explain what PR professionals can do to become good listeners at the interpersonal, organizational and professional levels.

What Listening Means In PR

In Public Relations, listening means much more than paying attention to the other in a face-to-face encounter in a bid to receive or construct meanings and respond as appropriate. It is the art and science of paying attention, tracking, analyzing, interpreting and responding to the needs and expectations of an organization’s stakeholders. It also involves monitoring, analyzing and interpreting trends and emerging issues in the business environment and in the PR industry, especially as they may affect an organization or the PR professional.

Listening is an art and the listener is an artist. As an artist can create a beautiful painting on a plain canvass, so can a good listener make a better person out of the one listened to. Paying attention to someone makes him feel unconditionally accepted; thus, nurturing him into a trusted and grown personality. Listening is the connecting line between trust and relationships; whether between individuals or between an organization and its stakeholders.

The science of listening is what measurement and PR research is all about. It employs all the features of science such as objectivity, employment of theories and models, emphasis on empirical evidence, verifiability precision, systematic exploration and accuracy.

In PR, Listening is a multi-dimensional endeavour. You have to listen to individual stakeholders such as employees, journalists, community leaders, government officials and the rest. This is where interpersonal listening skills are needed. You also need to listen to the dispersed stakeholders of your organization which may count in the millions. In this case, mastering of listening technologies is required. You will have to keep your ears to the ground to pick up new trends and emerging issues in the industry where your organization or client operates, and in the business environment in general. It is also expected of  you to listen for the ever changing drumbeats of the PR and media industry in order to know the PR tools that have gone obsolete and the ones that are emerging. It is also expected of you to know which media channel delivers the goods at the moment and which new skills you should acquire to remain relevant and stay on top of the game.

Apart from facilitating meaningful dialogue with stakeholders, in PR, the goal of listening is to stay in tune with trends in the PR industry in particular, and in the business environment in general. This makes it easy for PR professionals to help their organizations and clients adapt to the dynamics of change in the business environment.

Why Listening Matters     

If Public Relations is all about building and maintaining good relationships between an organization and its stakeholders using communication tools; then, PR professionals are essentially in the business of listening. The PR profession and PR professionals cannot do without listening. Here is why:

  • Listening is key to accumulating a wealth of knowledge, insights and fresh ideas about stakeholders that help PR professional understand their needs and expectations at any point in time. When such is fed to an organization’s decisions, legitimacy and the license to operate is gained and corporate reputation is enhanced.
  • Listening can help to reveal how stakeholders perceive an organization, its products and services; thus making a poor perception easy to track before it wrecks havoc on the reputation and fortunes of an organization.
  • By  listening,  PR professionals can pick up rumours and emerging issues, and quickly nip them in the bud. There is no better way to prevent a crisis than that.
  • Listening promotes effective communication. It alerts PR professionals to the preferred medium of communication stakeholders of an organization prefer to go information about the organization.
  • Competitive intelligence is a reward for listening. “The reason the enlightened prince and the wise general conquer the enemy whenever they move, and their achievements surpass those of ordinary men, is foreknowledge.” So says Sun Tzu.
  • Listening helps organizations to win the raging online war on corporate reputation. In this age when a negative or malicious comment, post or video on social media can go viral and reach the word in seconds, it takes listening to spot it on time and deal with it.  
  • Listening is a career builder. Career-killing developments as well as career building opportunities are only known through listening. Failure to listen not only keeps PR professionals and their organizations in the dark about happenings in their environments; it hurts relationships and damage careers.

Becoming a Good PR Listener

In his book, Mastery, Robert Green states: “Mastery is not a function of genius or talent. It is a function of time and intense focus applied to a particular field of knowledge.” He is right. No one is born a good listener. You transform yourself into one through practice.

Becoming a good PR listener begins with a commitment to put in your time and other resources to develop your listening skills in face-to-face interactions, and in organizational communication encounters. You should also acquire the required skills for listening to the PR and media industry as well.

Listening in Face-to-Face Context

Effective listening in face-to-face interactions begins with self. It begins with your mindset and how you see yourself in relation to the person you are listening to. If you see yourself as superior or inferior, you are likely to become mechanical, practicing what you have heard or  read about what good listening is. And guess what? The human connection between you and the person you are listening to will be lost. The other party is likely to see through the game and feel insulted.

To succeed, you have to become one with whoever you are listening to at the psychological or emotional level. You have to be present enough to pick up and interpret non-verbal signals such as postures, gestures and emotional undertones in the conversation.

Here are the best practices to follow:

  • Pay attention to the speaker. Maintain eye contact. Put aside all distracting thoughts and remain tuned to the body language and voice of the speaker.
  • Demonstrate to the speaker that you are listening. An occasional nod, smile or facial expression will do. Paraphrase what the speaker has said: what you mean is…
  • Don’t interrupt the speaker. It is an indication you are not listening.
  • Avoid all forms of judgment. Be open to the speaker’s ideas whether you agree with them or not. Judgment might push you to interrupt when a point of view or idea is not in consonance with yours.
  • Treat the speaker with respect. Assert your opinions with respect. Treat the speaker as you would like to be treated.

Clearly, becoming a better interpersonal listener yields many benefits. It doubles your ability to influence your subordinates and superiors alike. Your capacity to persuade others and negotiate also grows. And you can easily prevent misunderstandings and conflicts in your relationships.

Listening for Professional Growth    

Being in-charge of your professional life doesn’t mean you understand all what it takes to navigate your way to the top; rather, it means you are constantly discovering and learning new things that will get you there. It also means you are in touch with the dynamics and patterns of change… enough to spot opportunities for growth. The key to learning new things and discovering new opportunities in the PR environment is continuous listening.

This is how to do it:

  • Read latest books in the field
  • Subscribe to and read PR, marketing and business magazines,
  • Attend conferences and summits on all aspects of the discipline    
  • Get involved in online marketing, social and digital media conferences.
  • Join business and social clubs,
  • Become a member of your city’s Chamber of Commerce
  • Build your network and stay in touch with professional colleagues, especially those who are more advanced than you in the practice.
  • Stay in touch with your professional body. Become a member of international bodies in the profession.
  • Take PR, marketing and social/ digital media classes
  • Follow key PR experts on social media such as Linkedin and Twitter.

Listening for an Organization

It is the business of PR professionals to listen on behalf of their organizations. But to get the work done, a culture of listening must be in place. This explains why the Melbourne Mandate insists that PR professionals build a culture of listening and engagement in their organizations. And it expects PR professionals to go about it thus:

  • Develop appropriate research methodologies to measure an organization’s capacity to listen and apply these metrics before and after the pursuit of strategy and during any major action.
  • Identify all external and internal stakeholders groups who are currently, or in the future, affected by the pursuit of the organization’s strategy.
  • Identify all stakeholder groups who, currently or in the future, affect the pursuit of the organization’s strategy.
  • Identify these stakeholder groups’ expectations, and consider them, both in the organization’s strategy and before taking action.
  • Ensure sound reasons are communicated to stakeholders in cases where their expectations cannot be met by an organization’s strategy or actions.
  • Demonstrate, continuously, that the organization is genuinely listening as it takes actions in pursuit of its strategy.

For Jim Macnamara, organizational listening can only be effective when you create what he calls “An Architecture of Listening” which has the following eight elements as captured in his research report titled, “Creating an “Architecture of Listening” in organizations:

1)      Culture of Listening

Organizational culture determines the extent and effectiveness of listening. The attitude and approach of the CEO determines the level of attention an organization pays to listening to stakeholders and publics, according to the study. Cultural understanding of what comprises communication is also a factor.   

2)      Policies of Listening

          There should be clear policies for listening. Such should include:

  • Clear directives from the CEO and senior management
  • Policies on social media use
  • Mandated measurement and evaluation
  • Policies to demonstrate how the organization is listening to stakeholders.

3)      Politics of Listening

Organizations should have structures in place to minimize politics when deciding who to listen to. Having specific policies for listening as well as processes for listening can help.

4)      Structures and Processes for Listening

Organizational listening is mostly delegated. It should be assigned to the right department such as PR or Corporate Communication. Job descriptions should capture the assignment clearly. Criteria should be developed as the bases for determining the voices that will merit consideration and attention. Popularity of views, risk, social equity and ethics should be considered.

5)      Technology of Listening

This refers to the tools for large-scale listening required when listening on behalf of an organization. Such include: media monitoring applications and services, social media monitoring applications and services, text and content analysis software. Without them the work cannot be done.

6)      Resources for Listening

For organizational listening to be effective, the right resources, made up of people, money and other materials must be provided. Enough staff is needed to operate monitoring systems and do the listening.

7)      Skills for Listening

Skills in quantitative and qualitative research methods such as surveys, focus groups, interviews, case studies, ethnography and participatory action-research are needed. So are skills in big data and social media analysis.

8)      Articulation of Listening to decision making

It is necessary to incorporate lines of reporting and accountability so that what is heard in the course of listening that merits action is acted upon appropriately.

Jim Macnamara has given PR professionals very good guidelines in organizational listening. He is one communication scholar who has done the most research on the subject. When applied correctly, these eight elements of the architecture of listening are sure to make your organizational listening efforts abundantly fruitful. The PR professional who can execute the art of listening in interpersonal encounters will always win the admiration of his peers and subordinates. The one who can spot trends in the business environment and in the PR/media industry is always smart enough to navigate his career successfully. But the real masters of Public Relations are those who understand and can apply the art and science of listening in all professional situations. You find them at the commanding heights of their careers. Resolve to work your way there. It is the best place to be.