Listen, Is It Even PR? Cultivating the Art of Listening in PR Best Practices for 2021 and Beyond – By Maryam Folarin
From amongst the first definitions of public relations by Ivy Lee, PR was defined as “a management function, which tabulates public attitudes, defines the policies, procedures and interests of an organization, followed by executing a program of action to earn public understanding and acceptance.”
But since then, comprehension has evolved to the understanding that “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”. Others defining PR as “the state of the relationship” between a company or other organization or a famous person and the public, and as “the promotion of rapport” and “the degree of understanding” between an individual, organization, institution, and the publics.”
Rather, in practice, the conversation around PR today is about what an organization puts out there, lacking in rapport or actual two-way communication that builds the relationships required. When done properly, public relations has an effect that shortens the gap between how an organization sees itself and how others outside perceive it, Which could be greatly achieved through listening, listening to the constituencies on which an organization depends as well as analyzing and understanding the attitudes and behaviors of those audiences.
Identified by previous studies, public relations practitioners are tasked to give voice to organizations and this process of ‘giving voice’ requires the ability to listen, as a result, listening is an essential skill that PR practitioners should hold, keeping in mind that the declining trust in corporationsis unlikely to be addressed by increasing expenditure on advertising and PR that are almost exclusively focused on persuasion and often propaganda.
With the functions of PRprimarily devoted to doing the work of speaking on behalf of organizations, most do not do the work of listening which could be seen as a contradiction to the role of a PR organization where having the ability to listen is an essential service and skill for a PR organization to have.
For a PR practitioner to give voice to organizations according to researchers Heath and Coombs, they need to have the ability to listen as listening “gives a foundation for knowing what to say and to thinking strategically of the best ways to frame and present appealing messages”.Proving it necessary for PR practitioners to understand the art of listening or rather, PR agencies need to have listening experts (and not just tools) to fundamentally succeed to practice an ethical approach to a participatory, and networked approach to strategic communication.
Although agencies and practitioners make use of listening tools, it falls short in achieving the task for relationship purposes, rather it facilitates more one-sided communication from the organization and none from its audience.
And so, in facilitating the ability to listen, the Melbourne Mandate, ( an advocacy paper developed in 2012 by the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management), has outlined requirement that is needed to build a culture of listening in an organization, some of which are:
- Culture: there needs to be a culture in place that is open to listening, one that recognizes other’s right to speak, pays attention, tries to understand, and responds with as little as an acknowledgment.
- Policy: for listening to effectively take place there need to be policies that are inviting to comments and discussions, and one that also allocates resources to listening as well as speaking.
- Systems: putting in place systems that are open and interactive, such as online forums that allow visitors to post comments, suggestions, questions, etc.
- Tools: today there are a lot of technological tools, automated acknowledgment systems, text analysis software that aid listening. These tools such as monitoring tools or services need to be employed for tracking media and online comments and making sense of large volumes of discussions and facilitating meaningful dialogue, consultation and debate.
- Staff: not only should tools be employed, but staff as well; those who will do the work of listening by operating these listening tools/systems.
- Strategy for articulation: this is connecting what is ‘heard’ into policymaking and decision making. Although listening does not necessarily imply or require that everything heard should be acted on, it will have no value or not even matter at all unless it is linked to relevant aspects of policymaking and decision-making strategies to potentially adopt the voice of those who speak to or about the organization and its activities.
Implementation of these requirements will be great steps in developing the ability to listen and effectively giving voice to organizations as improved listening can lead to increased customer retention; reduced criticism and crises; and improved reputation.
Public relations is essentially failing to put in place excellent, conversational, relationships oriented and sociocultural theories and models through lack of attention to listening. Also failing to practice a participatory and networked approach to strategic communication as it claims to do.
In this fast-changing industry, the speed at which communication takes place, and the continuing business fluctuations, assure that we need to keep learning. And the practice of effective listening could in fact, in the future, be the criteria to differentiate good PR from best PR practices.
Maryam Amoke Folarin – A Communications Specialist.