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College of Information and Communications


PR Prose: Reasons to listen — and really listen

Posted July 17, 2018
By Dr. Shannon Bowen, professor in the public relations sequence
Reprinted with permission from PRWeek


In the age of "alternate facts," fake news, fragmented social media, covert analytics, and rising activist publics, listening seems to have been overshadowed, yet it plays an enormously important role in ethics.

Consider House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s statement about a $1,000 tax cut being "crumbs;" United’s absurdly handled mess of dragging Dr. Dao off a plane; Evan Spiegel, Snapchat’s CEO, insulting "poor countries" India and Spain; or unhinged actors and commentators losing their shows amid a morass of allegations. People in these examples forget a basic truth: listen to the customer.

There seem to be constant examples of why listening should play an increased role in society and especially in public relations, but it is often overlooked. The evidence is there. How many tone deaf statements and proclamations have you seen only in the last week? Even the term "tone deaf" implies that you’re listening intently. We’re not.

These situations illustrate the failure of what happens when listening is not systematic and taken as a serious ethical responsibility. Here are three reasons why listening is essential in our profession:

You cannot conduct strategic issues management without listening. Listening is a form of informal research that can be incorporated into all we do in public relations. It is input to the organization or client that should help to inform our strategy.

Everything we do must rely on research to become strategic, yet we often forget that listening is a part of research. We spend thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars on surveys, focus groups, and polls. Yet oftentimes, we go by numbers alone and forget to listen to interpret what those numbers mean. We forget to take advantage of the free information provided to us in the form of listening to stakeholders, customers, and publics.

Ferreting out problems, unresolved issues, and seeking to speak with dissatisfied customers or clients can be our most valuable source of information, but first we must open ourselves or our organizations to honest critique and genuinely listen.

Listening avoids mistakes borne out of hubris. I’ve used this column before to describe what I believe is the era we are in: that of CEO hubris. Hubris, a Greek word, means excessive pride, courageousness or foolhardiness. Hubris is the opposite of ethical examination and responsibility. The hubris of assuming that we are right all the time and we must stand firmly behind our CEOs is a folly. Great organizations work hard to avoid, prevent, and resolve mistakes rather than to deny that they exist.

The above examples illustrate crises in public relations terms, but most are self-inflicted through hubris alone. Listening means suspending the tendency to rush to defend the organization, its management, or its decisions. Suspending the tendency to rush to judgment is the mark of a true professional who understands ethical responsibility. Setting aside loyalty and opening oneself to the possibility that a mistake was made and that "good" change is possible can often be freeing for the public relations pro. Objectivity offers moral autonomy and freedom to be able to examine a situation from multiple perspectives.

One averted crisis or lawsuit can save a company millions. Active listening requires an ethical awareness that is the opposite of hubris: the willingness to open one’s self to the opinions of others. A public relations professional who attempts to remain objective and help the organization to avoid mistakes arising from hubris is worth her or his weight in diamonds.

Listening maintains dignity and respect of others, even when there is no agreement. Genuine listening is morally required. Listening is an ethical act because it recognizes the equality and rationality of free moral agents, that is, clients, stakeholders, and publics. It levels the playing field in terms of balancing power differentials and offers an opportunity for genuine dialogue through which both sides can learn.

The idea of basing moral decisions on dignity and respect for others stems from Immanuel Kant’s deontology, arguably the most important school of moral decision-making ever conceived. Rational decision-makers can agree to disagree when no alternative is possible. Yet this approach rules out caprice, bias, prejudice, and the selfish factors that often constrain decision making because it requires one to genuinely consider the merit of the ideas of the other.

Truly respecting the ideas of others allows the PR pro not only to learn and gain input but also to act on ethical standards. Ultimately, better business results when stakeholders and publics feel respected. Offering stakeholders the dignity and respect of listening to their input, ideas, desires, and even gripes, maintains the open lines of communication that we may need in the future. Even when no agreement is reached we can continue the dialogue and return to the table at a later date -- as long as stakeholders feel respected.

A savvy communication pro knows that we should never create a problem where one did not exist through inept communication, or through inattentive listening. Make active listening a priority in your communication operations. Paying attention to these three reasons for listening allows us to talk about listening strategically, and to incorporate issue monitoring into daily activities of our teams, and to explain the importance of strategic listening to our management. It also avoids hubris, averts crises and problems, and keeps ethics at the center of all we do. Isn’t that what expert communication is about?