Listening is not enough

I just came back from SNCR’s New Communications Forum, a conference I thoroughly enjoyed. There was a lot of talk about PR 2.0, 3.0, new strategies, new tactics, new tools, and a cultural revolution in the way we (should) practice the strategic communication professions (PR, marketing, advertising, etc.). You are all familiar with the tenets of this cultural revolution from books such as the Cluetrain Manifesto, Join the Conversation, Naked conversations, and the blogs of many social media-savvy professionals (see blogroll).

The conversations indicate an evolution, if not a revolution of PR from media relations to relationship management. PR isn’t/shouldn’t be only about making noise, raising awareness, and counting eyeballs. It should be about relationships. Fine. So how are companies supposed to do this? THE answer is: LISTEN.

Listening means setting up search alerts and monitoring everything that’s said about your organization online (on blogs, twitter, flickr, facebook, etc.).

So once you find out what people say about you, what do you do? You respond. You correct misperceptions. You clarify misunderstandings. You show the poor bastards you were right, after all.

But what if you were wrong?

Listening without authentic openness to change is not enough. It’s not PR 2.0. It’s just audience research, a tool used in what we boring academics call scientific persuasion.

The more you listen, the better you know what makes your audience tick, the better able you are to persuade them. Ca-ching!

Nope, this is not PR 2.0. It’s PR 1.0 on several small channels instead of a few large ones.

PR 2.0 involves not only listening, but being open to make organizational changes as a result of naked conversations (known in academic circles as dialogue). This is what relationships are about. Partners in a relationship change to adapt to each other.


Because ultimately PR is not about listening, not about conversations, not about relationships. What’s the point of listening? Why do you engage in conversation? Why build relationships? What’s the end goal?

No, it’s not brand awareness. It’s not increased sales. It’s not improved reputation.

PR is (OK, should be, or can be) about optimizing your organization’s survival in its environment.

Think about it: Your organization operates in a complex society. Its survival and operations influence and are influenced by a large number of audiences (aka stakeholders). For all to survive and thrive, they need to be constantly adapting to each other. I think that’s called nimbleness.

Is it fair or even wise for the organization to be attempting to constantly change its environment through persuasion, but not be open to changing itself?

We know what happens to organisms that don’t adapt to their environments.

So it’s PR’s role to facilitate the mutual adaptation of organization and its environment. This is why naked conversations and relationships are important.

Now, don’t quote on me on that. All I’ve done is explain a major PR theory. One that has thought of PR 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, and 4.0 since 1984. If you want to cite someone, start with Grunig, J. E., & Hunt, T. (1984). Managing public relations. New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston.

The reason why Dell is the model for PR 2.0 is because they follow listening with real changes in the organization’s products and processes, not just talk-back.


[Edit:] Geoff Livingston’s post this morning about his experience with JetBlue provides a clear illustration to my theoretical point.

8 thoughts on “Listening is not enough”

  1. You are right, it is not just about listening, but also taking action. Plus, your point about Dell is correct, it wasn’t the fact that Dell engaged, but that the company also made some structural changes. Social media is really all about business strategy, not the tools.

  2. I’m happy this post is being read – sometimes I think this blog with its 4 readers makes more of an impact than scholarly publications 🙂 But the greatest thing is to connect with people, some I’ve just met, some from a previous life in Ohio… great to hear from you all!

  3. Hi, Dr. V!

    I continually learn from you, even after UD! 🙂

    Your blog struck several points with me that compelled me to join this conversation (is that cliche?)

    I recently read The Cluetrain Manifesto which oozes the importance of management authenticity and encourages conversations at all organizational levels: execs to employees, employees to customers, PR to the round table, etc.

    These tenets aren’t groundbreaking ideas, but the kickers are the new tools of online communication needed to facilitate this. However, an organization must understand it shouldn’t start utilizing 2.0 tools just for the hell of it or because “everybody’s doing it.” It must fit with the organization’s goals and messages and only then will the Web further authenticate its message and strengthen its relationships.

    In this regard, the organization must adapt as you say, but not change itself completely. Darwin had it right with the little idea of survival of the fittest!

    (Speaking of System’s Theory, I have to get back to the books. Yea Finals!)

  4. Mihaela, I’m so glad to have found your blog. Great recap and I hope to get to NewComms Forum myself next year. I’m getting good at the “Listening” part of social media/PR2.0 but now must get smarter, and help my clients get smarter, at the Responding part!

  5. Mihaela,

    As a PR practitioner & faculty member and Life Member of the International Listening Association (, I definitely agree that listening in its traditional form is not enough. ILA defines listening as “the process of receiving, constructing meaning from, and responding to spoken and/or nonverbal messages.” It’s the “responding to” portion of the definition that many people and many companies miss. Responding with real change based on the input of the customers is critical.


  6. Mihaela,

    I really enjoyed meeting you at New Comm last wk and your research presentation and conversations with you and others have had me thinking about what social media experts can do to help.

    I completely agree with you that a PR 2 approach that simply uses web 2 and conversation tools (twitter was cited with a near feverish frequency) as a means of pr distribution will fail. It’s a user’s medium, and while we didn’t have any web 2 users besides ourselves represented at the conference, we paid scant attention to their online conversation and relationship culture, habits, and interests. They will block us if we use their media for marketing, advertising, and PR purposes.

    If the model is engagement, then it ought to be mutual engagement. Not just engaging the user, but engaging the organization. Conversation tools should be channels, not conduits, and you’re right that the goal shouldn’t be just more of the same, in more places, across more tools and sites.

    Analysis tools for buzz and topical tracking will be popular this year, as professionals seek insight into what’s being said about them online. But real transformation comes only if those tools are used for conversation: reciprocal, mutually engaged conversation. Then and only then might organizations experience the benefits of increased trust that accrue to those who are in the flow.


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