Advancing communications measurement and evaluation

People Talking Without Listening: A New Book Provides Lessons for PR and Communication

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Jim Macnamara presents a sneak preview of his latest book, “Organizational Listening: The Missing Essential in Public Communication.” —

In their classic song ‘The Sound of Silence’, Simon and Garfunkel referred to “people hearing without listening”. But research shows that, in a number of so-called communication practices, organizations are not even hearing. They are talking … and talking … and not hearing – or, more importantly, not listening. The difference is significant and will be explained.

But first I have to be confessional and what academics call reflexive in broaching this controversial subject. I worked in marketing and corporate communication practice for nigh on 20 years. During that time I was responsible for the destruction of quite a few forests before the transition from paper press releases, newsletters, brochures, reports, posters, etc. to digital. I then set about using much of my city’s electricity supply to transmit terabytes and petabytes of digital information into cyberspace. The work that I did, and observed many of my colleagues doing, was producing and distributing content to disseminate our employers’ and clients’ messages – what the head of the U.K. Government Communication Service, Alex Aiken, calls ‘SOS’ – sending out stuff.

“…dialogue and conversations are not simply turn-taking at talking. There has to be listening for communication to occur – ideally reciprocal listening.”

Oh sure, we did some research. Every now and again we stopped SOS to ask stakeholders and publics a few questions – mainly to gain insights to help us better target them with promotional and persuasive content. Research was most often limited to closed-ended questions carefully crafted to seek the information we wanted. If we did a ‘deep dive’ into stakeholder and public attitudes, it was a brief project every few years. For most of the time we pumped out our organization’s messages.

Those of us who took a university course or read the work of academics such as Jim Grunig, David Dozier, Glen Cameron, Michael Kent, Maureen Taylor, and other eminent figures knew the theory that communication and relationships are two-way processes (give and take), and we had heard of the importance of dialogue. But we didn’t do these things at work. I know I didn’t for a long time. Do you? Be honest now!

When social media came along we applauded the opportunity for two-way communication, ‘conversations’, and ‘engagement’. Brian Solis called it a revolution. But, research shows that PR, corporate communication, and marketing communication have colonized social media and turned them into mini-mass media – just more channels to pump out messages and post their content.

Macnamara-organizationsal-listening-coverComing out in the next few weeks is my latest book that is the culmination of a two-year, three-country study of how organizations listen. Or, more accurately, it is 150-pages of case studies and examples, 31 key findings, and 150 pages of analysis about how and why organizations don’t listen. The book is titled Organizational Listening: The Missing Essential in Public Communication and a few eminent reviewers have generously described it as ‘essential reading’ for everyone working in an organization-public communication role.

The sub-title reflects the fundamental point that listening is essential in communication. One-way transmissional models such as the 1949 model of Shannon and Weaver are long rejected by communication professionals. And dialogue and conversations are not simply turn-taking at talking. There has to be listening for communication to occur – ideally reciprocal listening.

“…80 per cent of the resources and time spent by organizations on public communication are devoted to speaking on behalf of the organization. Furthermore, when organizations do listen, it is predominantly to serve their own interests.”

Also, as noted above, listening is not the same thing as hearing. Hearing is a physiological process in humans – sound striking the eardrum. In organizations, receipt of phone calls, e-mails, letters, submissions, complaints, and research data can be equated to hearing. Listening involves the processing of what is heard through a number of stages. Drawing on psychology, communication studies, and specialist listening studies, listening can be defined as (1) recognition of others who want to say something to us; (2) paying attention; (3) acknowledging them; (4) interpreting what they say to (5) gain understanding of them and their argument; (6) giving consideration (but not necessarily agreeing); and finally (7) responding in some appropriate way.

The Organizational Listening Project involved in-depth analysis of a range of communication-related practices in 36 large, well-resourced organizations in the U.S., U.K., and Australia. These included a mix of government departments and agencies, corporations, and some non-government organizations. The study examined multiple sites of communication including research and insights; customer relations; public consultation; public relations; government, corporate, and marketing communication; social media; and even correspondence and info/help lines.

The communication functions of organizations were explored through 104 interviews with senior communication practitioners (an average of three per organization); observation; analysis of more than 400 relevant documents such as communication and consultation plans and reports; and 25 experiments testing organizational response.

The study found that, on average, 80 per cent of the resources and time spent by organizations on public communication are devoted to disseminating the organization’s messages – i.e., speaking on behalf of the organization. In some cases, up to 95 per cent of so-called communication by organizations is focussed on speaking.

Furthermore, when organizations do listen, it is predominantly for instrumental purposes to serve their own interests. For example, customer service and customer relations have evolved to customer relationship management, which is primarily focussed on upselling. Public consultation most often involves ‘the usual suspects’ such as business and industrial organizations and professional lobbyists and ignores many stakeholders and stakeseekers. Social media are used for posting organizations’ messages and publishing their content, rather than monitoring or dialogue.

In short, what we call communication is predominantly speaking. Functions such as PR as well as corporate and marketing communication construct what this study calls an ‘architecture of speaking’ comprised of resources, systems, technologies, and skills applied to speaking for organizations. This needs to be counter-balanced with an architecture of listening if communication and relationships are to occur. Eight key elements for constructing an architecture of listening, and the benefits that can accrue from improved organizational listening, are outlined in detail in Organizational Listening: The Missing Essential in Public Communication (Peter Lang, New York, 2016 – http://bit.ly/OrgListeningBook).

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 Thanks to Stop and Move for the image.

Jim Macnamara

Jim Macnamara

Jim Macnamara PhD, FAMI, CPM, FAMEC, FPRIA is Professor of Public Communication at the University of Technology Sydney, a position he took up in 2007 after a 30-year career working in journalism, PR and media research which culminated in selling the CARMA Asia Pacific franchise that he founded to iSentia (formerly Media Monitors) in 2006. He is the author of 15 books, including his latest, Organizational Listening: The Missing Essential in Public Communication (Peter Lang, 2015), as well as Public Relations Theories, Practices, Critiques (Pearson, 2012); The 21st Century Media (R)evolution: Emergent Communication Practices (Peter Lang, New York, 2010, 2014); and Journalism and PR: Unpacking ‘Spin’, Stereotypes and Media Myths (Peter Lang, New York, 2014).
Jim Macnamara
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1 Comment

  1. Fraser Likely

    Bang on, Jim.

    One can’t do strategic communication, be a communication strategist, provide the Cs with strategic insight and above all think strategically within a PR/C department if that department has not the true intent, operational mechanisms and resources in place to ‘listen’ at the other end of the two-way symmetrical process.

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