To listen, to engage: empty buzzwords?

Over the past years, we’ve seen very smart people make mistakes because they didn’t understand the context in which they were operating
this sentence is extracted from an interesting op-ed column of last Friday’s NYT under the title ‘the power elite’ signed by David Brooks and I would like to refer to this while commenting the process that the Global Alliance is conducting to arrive to the Stockholm Accords (see here).

My good friend Serra Gorpe from Istanbul University -one of the 38 participants to the first of the two scheduled digital videoconferences of global public relations leaders convened to define a first draft of the Accords- stated early on in the lively discussion the other night, that of the six themes which convenors had suggested as ‘groundbreakers’ for our profession (governance, management, internal communication, marketing, sustainability and alignment of internal and external relations), most of these are, whether or not really relevant, not appropriately nor sufficiently covered by the average of the University offer around the world.
This is, most likely, a fact.
Also, these themes imply required skills which are horizontal to all six and which again seem to be insufficiently present in public relations university curricula whether they are in the context of business, communication or even psychologic or sociologic dna’s.

Let me just cite a couple of buzzwords which are certainly familiar:
listening and engagement.

Let’s take a closer look and try to describe them somewhat more specifically, in the context of our day to day work as public relators.


To listen implies, in my opinion, at least four distinct phases, each of which uses different channels and applies different tools, which should be part of our body of knowledge.

To listen implies:
a) the gathering of sense,
b) the comprehension of the gathered sense,
c) the interpretation of the comprehension of the gathered sense,
d) the definition of the consequences of the interpretations of the comprehension of the gathered sense.

The gathering of sense necessarily needs to be ‘objective’ and unbiased, otherwise it is not reliable and poisons the following phases and the end result.
The principal competencies are desk, social, market, political quanti/litative research, with their respective tools.

The comprehension of the gathered sense also needs to be unbiased and the channels are, at least, content and network analysis, with their respective tools.

The interpretation of the comprehension of the gathered sense is instead subjective and needs to be confronted with the objectives pursued by the listener which, in turn, need to be coherent with the public interest. The competencies are issue and stakeholder expectancy analysis, with their respective tools.

The consequences of the interpretation-of the comprehension-of the gathered sense need to be explicitly related to the listener’s decision making process and are inherently fuzzy, non linear and situational. The competencies are creativity, feasibility, and time framing with their respective tools.


To engage is the third, and not the sole phase of a relationship, as the persistent buzz word is used today.

The phases of a relationship begin with acknowledgment, which may become involvement, then might turn into engagement, which could even become marriage and sometime turn into separation and finally divorce.

In terms of stakeholder relationships, this sequence implies that the organization acknowledge existing stakeholder groups, involve them through facilitated access to information with incentivated tools for interactivity, then by selecting those with which to engage not by affinity but by thoughtful priority, hoping that at least some will wish to partner and operating to avoid separation and subsequent divorce.

Not only do I see very weak signs of these competencies in University curricula in every country I ma aware of, but I notice a similar lack in public relations consultancies and departments within organizations.

Your comments ideas and feedbacks are much appreciated.

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