From the 4th WPRF: Listening is essential for sustainable relationship building

Sustainable Communication doesn’t work without listening. This is surely one of the outtakes of the 4th World Public Relations Festival held in Cape Town, South Africa.

Some marvellous stories about this where recently shared during the 4th WPRF held in Cape Town by the Global Alliance of Public Relations and Communication Management and the Institute for Public Relations in Southern Africa (PRISA).  

There was the story of an Italian major company who decided to create a social programme after having listened to its employees and having involved them in raising funds for the sustainability of their help (more on this soon) to an NGO’s plans to assist a specific community in Cape Town.
There was the story of a Prime Minister of one of the most recent democracies of our World who receives mobile phone calls from citizens and listens to their needs in the same moment that they feel them and does this in a direct and personal way. There was also the story of how the World Bank fought hard to be able to “listen” to the thousands of comments made in their internal Comment Boards about the recent Corporate Governance Crisis involving its President.
There was the story of another politician saying that it’s most important asset is “positive political space” and that this has much to do with “listening, consultation, adjustments, and understandable explanations”.
As a side story, one of the presenters also explained how he came to understand that many people whom he tried to reach by e-mail where not so responsive. He concluded that in Africa people value the capability to listen to the other when they are speaking, something that might also relate to the astonishing growth of mobile communications in Africa. 

Listening thus became a key word in a conference dedicated to “Communication for Sustainability”. Yet listening does seem to be more significantly related to a notion of Sustainable Communication and Sustainable Relationships. What would you add up to this?

João Duarte

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3 Replies to “From the 4th WPRF: Listening is essential for sustainable relationship building

  1. very interesting and indeed challenging ..this conversation between the two of you.
    allow me to add another question:
    °if you are heading an organization’s public relations department you listen to stakeholders expectancies which are related to the organization’s pursued aims and objectives.
    In other words, besides listening with the objective of improving your relationships and communication tools, you also try to understand and interpret to your management how different stakeholders will (or are) react(ing) differently according to each single objective that management is trying to achieve. Correct?
    This would be part of the strategic role, while the other (improving relationships and communication tools) would be part of the managerial and technical roles. Right?
    Say that management is planning to decide (or has decided to pursue) an agressive buy out of a competitor… your role is to tell management what to expect not only from shareholders, employees, suppliers of the competitor, but also what to expect from other competitors, from regulators, from their own employees, suppliers and shareholders plus opinion leaders and the media…to name just a few.
    It is clear that such ‘boundary spanning’ of the potential (or real) competitive bid needs to be performed in symbiosis and in accordance with at least the financial, marketing, human resource and procurement directors of your company. Otherwise your listening, understanding and interpretation will probably be flawed, or in any case will bear less credibility amongst your company’s leadership. Right?
    How do you suggest one should go about this?
    For example, let’s take the best case scenario..i.e. that we perform this function before leadership decides to go ahead with that bid and that your intepretation therefore helps leadership make a better decision.
    Does anyone have any cases on something similar? Bak maybe? Jean? Jon? Others?

  2. Catherine: your comment made me think that we should perhaps clarify different meanings that we have been using for the listening metaphor in Public Relations. So far I can identify:

    Listening as Formative Research – meaning that in the early stages of our professional intervention and before crafting our strategies we must be able to collect and interpret relevant information. (I guess this is what you mean with your line “First we listen, then we get results”)

    Listening as Envionmental Monitoring – meaning that we are also to accomplish the “boundary spanning” role and interpret on a continuous basis diverse environmental inputs and their implications for organisational relations. (I guess that in a way you also referr to this when you mention “sustainable relationship building” in a diverse environment).

    Listening as Evaluation Research – meaning that the continuous feedback of our actions must be processed if we are to give our organisations the capability to adjust and achieve resilience. This kind of listening capability was referred by the politician who mentioned “listening, consultation, adjusment and understandable explanations”

    However, this brings me to another question. If we are to deal with the listening metaphor only as a substitute for research, aren’t we hiding its full potential? What’s the difference between “listening as part of the dialogue approach to public relations” and listening as part of the technical process of producing, implementing and evaluating communication strategies?

  3. Listening is – and always has been – an absolute necessity for any communication or organisation that seeks to be sustainable. I’ve said here (and elsewhere on and off for twenty years or so) that public relations practitioners must be capable of fulfilling the role of ‘organisational listeners’ if they are to succeed in building and maintaining effective relationships. It is heartening, at last, to see this moving higher up the collective consciousness. When I stepped out on the road to independence in 1991, I launched with the line ‘First we listen, then we get results’. I chose the line deliberately, because I don’t believe you can get results without first listening, then understanding, then – and only then – moving forward to plans, strategies, actions and further engagement (which means, of course, more listening).
    The interaction and conversations now possible thanks to the available technology has helped to finally propel the lost art of listening into the spotlight; long may it stay there as a key driver towards sustainability. The need to listen has always existed and many practitioners have always undertaken to do so – it simply required more effort and dedication in times gone by. Those who have consistently undertaken to listen often did so in isolation, as ‘listening’ was not considered to be a ‘requirement’. Nor was it particularly fashionable during decades when organisations ‘told’ their stakeholders what was going on, whether they liked it or not.
    The next challenge to sustainable relationship building is not should we listen – that is a given. The next challenge is how we can listen effectively in diverse multi-cultural and multi-platform environments to the people we need to listen to, undistracted by the noise that surrounds them.

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