Ambiguity, complexity, globalisation and societies in overdrive characterize today’s hypermodern world. Multiple stakeholders with diverging and sometimes irrational interests constantly monitor the behaviour of corporations and other organizations. Increasing stakeholder activism, such as the Greta Thunberg-inspired “Fridays for Future” movement, and rising public demands for social equality constantly challenge firms’ freedom to operate.
Traditional gatekeepers, who used to influence public communication, have lost their relevance as many stakeholders are able to reach out to companies in direct ways to state their concerns. Consequently, the ability to understand stakeholder perceptions and needs is an increasingly important driver for corporate success. This situation leads to an increased sensitivity towards stakeholders and new challenges for communication management.
FROM MESSAGING TO LISTENING
It is not surprising that many still perceive and misunderstand corporate communication as a one-way messaging activity. There is a rich academic debate about messaging strategies and integrating communication across multiple channels. Today, many organizations establish corporate newsrooms to address audiences more efficiently. They also run integrated campaigns to frame public debates and build consistent images.
From a strategic point of view, however, this perspective is shortsighted. Companies do not operate in a vacuum. They are social systems that interact with their environment and this interdependency with the outside has increased in the last decades. Therefore, it is important to consider two equally important dimensions of corporate communication: An Outside-In perspective (listening, understanding, reflecting) and an Inside-Out perspective (messaging, sending, positioning).
It is essential that a firm clarifies its interests and coordinates actions between itself and its stakeholders. Effective communication helps with understanding stakeholders’ points of view, which in turn can lead to change in corporate thinking and practices. However, this requires a mindset that leads to management decisions that encourage sensitivity towards the environment and diverse stakeholders. In other words, an outside-in listening perspective.
LISTENING AS A STRATEGIC MODE
Corporate listening is not a single activity nor a new communication instrument. However, it should be understood as a strategic mode of communication, as a strategic “attitude”.
- Corporate listening is a strategic mode that represents the outside-in dimension of corporate communication with management decisions taking into account stakeholders’ opinions and behaviors.
- Corporate messaging, on the other hand, is the inside-out dimension. It is the strategic mode focused on spreading content, where corporate positions or viewpoints, such as the corporate vision, are broken down into single key messages.
Corporate listening and corporate messaging are clearly equally important. In the real world, however, there are major gaps between corporate claims of listening and being responsive and the budgets used for this outside-in activity.
PRACTICES OF CORPORATE LISTENING
As a strategic mode, corporate listening is found in the structures, processes and activities of corporate communication.
- Structures and processes: Corporate listening must happen across divisions. As impulses from different social spheres and stakeholders are relevant for decision making, coordination across departments is necessary. This has to be formalised to a certain extent, but requires flexibility as well. The Australian communication scholar Jim Macnamara talks about the “architecture of listening” and describes real-world processes and structures that enable organisational listening. This can be feedback functions on websites as well as technical tools that encourage listening - such as monitoring services.
- Activities: A variety of methods often used for analysing or evaluating communications are relevant for corporate listening: surveys, issues monitoring, social media monitoring, etc. Stakeholder dialogue is used to communicate one’s own points, to identify the ideas of other participants or to initiate messaging and listening activities. Research has found that the outbound dimension often dominates in two-way communication settings. Social media channels can also be suitable for corporate listening.
- Strategies: Activities as well as structures and processes should be based on listening strategies. Those strategies reflect different intentions, depending on the overall strategic goal of the company and its overarching communication strategy. While there are plenty of different strategic options within corporate listening, an empirical study from Asia-Pacific revealed that listening is often used for situation analyses and only used to optimise messaging activities.
In Norway, almost 90 percent of all organisations surveyed in the European Communication Monitor follow an overall communication strategy and 74 percent have a messaging strategy. But only 53 percent claim that they have a listening strategy. This is supported by the insight that only every second communication department in the country includes listening as an activity. This data suggests that there is huge potential for corporate listening.
PART OF THE WHOLE
Economic success and legally approved corporate action are no longer enough to earn social trust. The ecological and social impact of any company is decisive for securing the freedom to operate in the long run. Companies must see themselves as part of a larger social discourse and establish processes to integrate impulses from the outside into corporate decision making. Corporate listening helps to navigate through the “shifting sands” of social, environmental and economic change.
Borner, M. & Zerfass, A. (2018). The power of listening in corporate communications: Theoretical foundations of corporate listening as a strategic mode of communication. In S. Bowman, A. Crookes, Ø. Ihlen & S. Romenti (Eds.), Public relations and the power of creativity:
Strategic opportunities, innovation and critical challenges (pp. 3-22). Bingley: Emerald.
Macnamara, J. (2014). Organisational listening: A vital missing element in public communication and the public sphere: A study of the work and ‘architecture of listening’ in organisations. Asia Pacific Public Relations Journal, 15(1), 89-108.
Zerfass, A., Verčič, D., Verhoeven, P., Moreno, A., & Tench, R. (2015). European Communication Monitor 2015: Creating communication value through listening, messaging and measurement. Results of a survey in 41 countries. Brussels: EACD/EUPRERA, Helios Media.