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Equipped with a refreshed and clear understanding of communication and what constitutes listening from the previous chapters, we can now look at organizations and how they conduct communication. Examining organizations in this context is socially, culturally, politically, and economically important for the reasons discussed in this and following chapters.

The central role of organizations in contemporary societies

The first and paramount reason for focussing on organizations in this analysis is that organizations play central roles in industrialized and post-industrial societies with institutionalized politics and social systems, Chadwick, A. (2006). Internet Politics: States, Citizens, and New Communications Technologies. Oxford University Press. or what Couldry calls “complex societies”. Couldry, N. (2010). Why voice matters: Culture and politics after neoliberalism. Sage, p. 100. In their book, Collective Action in Organizations: Interaction and Engagement in an Era of Technological Change, Bruce Bimber and colleagues describe the organization of contemporary societies and explore how individuals today engage with organizations using an increasing array of media and communication technologies. Bimber, B., Flanagin, A., & Stohl, C. (2012). Collective action in organizations: Interaction and engagement in an era of technological change. Cambridge University Press. Most citizens not only work in organizations, but they need to interact with an array of organizations on a daily basis in accessing goods and services, complying with laws and regulations, and participating as members of communities and society. These include government departments and agencies, corporations, non-government organizations (NGOs), institutions such as police, hospitals, libraries, schools, universities, museums, associations, clubs, foundations, local businesses, councils, and so on. Organizations of various types have a major influence on people’s lives—and, ultimately, in democracies in particular, people influence the operations, success, and future of organizations.

Nick Couldry points out that organizations also serve as “mechanisms of representation” providing “distributed forms of voice” for individuals who they purportedly represent. Couldy, 2010, p. 101. Increasingly, along with the role of governments, multinational corporations are also “active participants in global political and economic affairs”. Muldoon, J. (2004). The architecture of global governance: An introduction to the study of international organizations. Westview, p. 341.

Organization communication

A second reason for focussing on organizations is that organizations deploy substantial resources ostensibly for public communication. For example, spending on paid media advertising reached almost US$800 billion a year globally in 2022. Guttman, A. (2019). Global advertising spending from 2014 to 2022. Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/273288/advertising-spending-worldwide Public relations is reported to be a $100 billion a year industry and growing. Ibid. Organizations also spend hundreds of millions of dollars on market research, marketing communication such as direct mail, customers relations, websites, social media, publications, and sponsorship of public events. Given the large and growing investment by organizations in communication, one could expect that organization-public relations would be in a healthy state. However, as reported in Chapter 2, reports on public trust in organizations and many reputation surveys show that this is far from the case.

It is not surprising that organizations make substantial commitments to communication because communication is the lifeblood of organizations to the extent that the very process of organizing is ipso facto communication. From the time of planning and proposing an organization, it is a product of communication. Furthermore, successful maintenance of an organization is a result of creating shared objectives and cooperation among participants to achieve those objectives. This fundamental role of communication in organizations has long been recognized in CCO theory, which observes that “communication constitutes organizations”, Schoeneborn, D., Kuhn, T., & Kärreman, D. (2019). The communicative constitution of organization: Organizing and organizationality. Organization Studies, 40(4), 475–496, p. 475. https://doi.org/10.1177/0170840618782284 also referred to as the communicative constitution of organizations. More broadly, it identifies “communication as constitutive of organization” (i.e., organizing) among humans per se. Vásquez, C., & Schoeneborn, D. (2018). Communication as constitutive of organization. In R. Heath & W. Johansen (Eds.), The international encyclopedia of strategic communication (pp. 1–12). John Wiley & Sons.

In democracies in particular, organizations face public expectations and demands for responsiveness and accountability. Democratic governments clearly need to be responsive to citizens. Also, public sector organizations, such as the police, the military, public hospitals, and public universities, have a requirement to be open, transparent, and accountable. This requires both reporting to and listening to their constituencies. Even privately owned companies depend on a ‘licence to operate’ Nielsen, A. (2013). Licence to operate. In S. Idowu, N. Capaldi, L. Zu, & A. Gupta (Eds.), Encyclopedia of corporate social responsibility (pp. 1585–1591). Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978–3–642–28036–8_502 in most countries, also referred to as a social licence to operate, which “refers to the acceptance granted to a company or organization by the community”. The Ethics Centre. (2018). Ethics explainer: Social licence to operate. https://ethics.org.au/ethics-explainer-social-license-to-operate

It should be noted that here the term ‘organization communication’ is used to refer broadly to communication in and by organizations—that is, external and internal communication. The adjectival term organizational communication is widely used to refer specifically to internal communication inside organizations between management and employees and among employees Conrad, C., & Scott Poole, M. (2012). Strategic organizational communication in a global economy (7th ed.). Wiley Blackwell; Goldhaber, G., Porter, D., Yates, M., & Lesniak, R. (1978). Organizational communication. Human Communication Research, 5(1), 76—96. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468–2958.1978.tb00624.x—a field of communication that is more logically called intra-organizational communication. Yang, T., & Maxwell, T. (2011). Information sharing in public organizations: A literature review of interpersonal, intra-organizational and inter-organizational success factors. Government Information Quarterly, 28(2), 164–175. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.giq.2010.06.008 Organizational communication, also referred to as internal communication and including employee communication, is discussed in this chapter along with closely related fields of practice including corporate communication and public relations.

The unique characteristics and challenges of organizational listening

The term organizational listening is not used as a misguided attempt to anthropomorphize organizations such as government department and agencies, institutions such as the Church and the military, corporations, or the plethora of NGOs and non-profit organizations that, along with individuals, comprise our societies. While recognizing that it is people in organizations who listen—or don’t listen—and affirming that the principles of interpersonal listening outlined in Chapter 2 also apply to organizations, organizations face specific challenges as well as responsibilities in relation to listening. There are at least three, if not four, key characteristics of listening in and by organizations that need to be recognized and addressed.

Scale

The first key difference between interpersonal listening and organizational listening is scale. Unlike interpersonal communication in which people are expected to listen to one or a few, or a few hundred at most in large face-to-face meetings, organizations are commonly expected to listen to thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of people, such as employees, customers, students, or other groups that have or seek some connection with an organization. Governments need to listen to millions of people, particularly in democracies that are now in place in one form or another in almost 200 countries worldwide. Marsh, I., & Miller, R. (2012). Democratic decline and democratic renewal: Political change in Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Cambridge University Press, p. 3. This involves what Andrew Dobson calls the challenge of “scaling up” listening methods from one or a few to many. Dobson, A. (2014). Listening for democracy: Recognition, representation, reconciliation. Oxford University Press, p. 124.

Delegation

Because of scale, listening in organizations is largely delegated to functions such as social and market research; customer relations; complaints departments; stakeholder engagement teams; social media monitoring staff or agencies, public consultation; and government, corporate, marketing, and internal employee communication teams or units. The role and activities of these functions are explored in the following section.

Mediation

A third key characteristic of organizational listening is that it is mostly mediated. People have limited opportunities to speak personally to someone in an organization, such as when visiting or telephoning their offices. This is increasingly rare in contemporary societies because of the closure of branches in industries such as banking and automated telephone answering systems that frequently involve long periods on hold. Most often, people speak to organizations through letters, emails, online complaints, website forms, responses in surveys, social media posts, and submissions to consultations. The voice of customers, communities, and citizens is also expressed in media reports and reports of inquiries and public hearings.

Listening to mediated communication is not something that can be done with human ears; it requires data retrieval from various documents, files, and systems and techniques such as text analysis as well as statistical analysis. Even phone calls to call centres are digitally recorded and, beyond the response of call centre operators, listening at scale requires sophisticated data retrieval and analysis.

Listening in mediated contexts was the subject of a special issue of the International Journal of Listening in 2018 (Volume 32). However, while examining listening via social media and on mobile devices, articles in the special issue focussed entirely on interpersonal listening.

The techniques of organizational listening to mediated voice expressed in multiple ways and through multiple channels at scale are the subject of detailed discussion in Chapters 5 and 6.

Asynchronous interaction

A fourth less significant, but noteworthy, characteristic of most organizational listening is that it is mostly asynchronous. Except in face-to-face meetings (physical or online), organizational listening does not happen dynamically in real time between the interactants. Those who speak to organizations are usually distanciated across time and space. Furthermore, organizations usually require some time to undertake delegated, mediated listening at scale.

Potential sites of organizational listening

Organizations engage with and therefore can listen to their stakeholders through various functions and practices that exist in most organization structures and operations. Many claim that they do listen—a claim that is critically examined based on empirical research in the following chapter. To understand how and where organizations can and should listen, it is necessary to identify the communicative functions of organizations that are typically managed by specialist departments, units, or contracted agencies and how—or whether—they identify listening as part of their role.

Research

One of the most substantive ways that organizations can listen is through research. Many types of research are conducted by organizations including:

  • Social research, such as social attitudes studies conducted by governments, institutions, and industry and professional organizations to identify citizens’ awareness, perceptions, concerns, and interests in relation to various issues. These can range from satisfaction with public transport and health services to controversial topics such as migration. An example is the British Social Attitudes Survey, which has been conducted annually since 1983;

  • Market research, which is designed to support marketing through identification of customers’ and potential customers’ needs and preferences in relation to products and services and often informs the development of new products and services;

  • Customer satisfaction studies, which specifically examine levels of customer satisfaction with existing products and services;

  • Employee satisfaction studies, which canvass the views of employees on matters such as job satisfaction, organizational culture, pay and conditions, internal communication, and so on;

  • Reputation studies, which solicit stakeholders’ perceptions of organizations, often relative to competitors;

  • Opinion polling such as studies conducted during political election campaigns to identify the popularity of parties, candidates, and policies.

Scientific and technical research conducted as part of product development, such as laboratory testing of new drugs or safety tests of motor vehicles, are not included as potential sites of organizational listening as, while very important, those fields of research are not related to communication.

All the types of research listed above can potentially involve effective listening. For instance, market research typically involves surveys, focus groups, interviews, and other research methods to collect and analyze the views, concerns, and opinions of people referred to as consumers. However, in most cases market research is administrative in research terms and instrumental—that is, it is conducted to solve specific practical problems for the organization and serve the organization’s interests. Such research is designed and framed to find out what the organization needs to know to sell its products or services more effectively. It is rarely open-ended research in which those studied can raise any issue they wish and express their views on matters of concern to them. Furthermore, much market research is quantitative, comprised of mostly closed-end questions. In many such studies, participants can do little more than tick boxes under multiple choice questions. When qualitative market research is conducted, such as focus groups, the discussion is usually concentrated on specific issues that the organization wants to know about. The views, opinions, and concerns of people outside the research brief are considered ‘off topic’ and usually ignored. Thus, administrative research tends to involve selective listening (see Table 2.1).

Sometimes organizations including government departments, agencies, and corporations partner with universities and independent research institutes to conduct research, which brings scholarly rigour to the research processes. But even in such cases, the presence of an independent research specialist cannot ensure the findings receive serious consideration, create understanding, and receive an appropriate response, which are three of the seven canons of listening proposed in Chapter 2. While research is potentially a major method of organizational listening, its efficacy from a stakeholder and public perspective depends on the purpose of the research, the research questions asked, the openness of the methodology, and particularly what is done with the findings—noting that organizations can simply ‘bury’ findings that are unfavourable to their interests and highlight and use findings that suit their purposes. Several types of research and specific examples of research undertaken by organizations in relation to public communication are examined in Chapter 4.

Marketing communication

Market research usually precedes and is undertaken to inform communication activities related to marketing, which is a multi-billion-dollar field in capitalist societies focussed on generating sales of products and services. What is called marketing communication to differentiate it from other marketing activities such as distribution arrangements (also called ‘channel’ management) is comprised of several well-known and widely deployed practices including:

  • Advertising in press, radio, TV, outdoor/out of home (OOH), and online;

  • Sales promotion such as competitions, special offers, and in-store displays;

  • Direct marketing including direct mail and e-marketing, also referred to as eDM (electronic direct mail); and

  • Sponsorships.

Advertising has been the dominant form of marketing communication throughout the 20th century and early 21st century, although there has been a significant shift away from traditional mass media advertising such as 30-second TV and radio commercials in the past decade. This shift has occurred because of audience fragmentation Anderson, C. (2006). The long tail. Hyperion, p. 181; Jenkins, H. (2006b). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. New York University Press, p, 238, 243. in the era of proliferating digital information sources and increasingly popular social media, the rise of ‘ad blocking’ technologies, and growing resistance to advertising because of persuasion knowledgerecognition by consumers of content as intentional persuasion, which reduces attention and impact. Friestad, M., & Wright, P. (1994). The persuasion knowledge model: How people cope with persuasion attempts. Journal of Consumer Research, 21(1), 1–31. https://doi.org/10.1086/209380 While advertising is deservedly the focus of much research, it is not included in this study because, notwithstanding recent developments in interactive advertising, advertising is predominantly and unashamedly about transmitting persuasive messages to potential consumers of products and services. The specialist field of corporate advertising, which involves distribution of persuasive messages about organizations, brands, and issues, is also intentionally a one-way transmissional practice.

It is significant to note that, even though market research and pre-testing that precede and inform advertising involve some listening, the largest field of organizational public communication practice involves little listening as defined in this analysis. The massive scale of advertising illustrates the overwhelming focus in organization communication to speaking.

Some new forms of advertising such as user generated advertising have incorporated receptivity and interactivity, but this is strictly limited to themes and messages set by the advertiser. User content is selectively adopted based on how closely it matches the advertiser’s objectives. Despite a variety of innovative techniques, other new forms of advertising also remain almost exclusively one-way transmission of organizations’ messages including:

  • Search advertising, which involves the placement of relevant advertising into the search results based on key words (e.g., Google Ads);

  • Rich media advertising such as promotional content in videos and animations;

  • Social media advertising such as ads appearing in Facebook; and

  • So-called native advertising, which involves the embedding of advertising content into many forms of media content from interviews to drama shows.

Similarly, sales promotions and direct marketing involve organizations sending promotional messages to consumers, with audience response limited to choosing between products and services or opting out of various interactions such as promotional email. The deluge of promotional email (‘spam’) has become such that some information technology leaders are predicting that email use will decline in the next decade and may even be abandoned altogether. Sponsorships typically involve organizations branding events and materials to gain exposure and are another form of one-way promotional communication.

The definition of marketing communication published by the American Marketing Association (AMA) puts emphasis on relationships, which have been a significant focus in marketing over the past few decades. Palmatier, R. (2008). Relationship marketing. Marketing Science Institute. In contrast with previous transaction marketing approaches that had a short-term focus on achieving sales, relationship marketing purportedly shifts focus to creating relationships with customers over time. Leonard Berry Berry, L. (1983). Relationship marketing. American Marketing Association. is attributed with being the first to propose relationship marketing and his and subsequent studies identify three key elements or principles that allegedly distinguish this type of marketing:

  1. Deployment of engagement activities throughout all stages of the relationship lifecycle, which are described as (a) identifying, (b) developing, (c) maintaining, and (d) terminating. The types of engagement differ at each stage;

  2. Recognition of the multiple relationships that are important in marketing. As well as the central role of customers, important relationships include those with suppliers, distributors of products and services (often called ‘channel partners’), and other partners such as market research firms and marketing and promotion agencies;

  3. Pursuit of mutual benefits for customers and partners as well as the organization. Palmatier, 2008, pp. 1–2.

These principles, particularly the third one, sound altruistic. A more pragmatic view is that relationship marketing is a response to the widely held view in marketing that it is less expensive to retain and sell to existing customers than it is to acquire new customers—although such claims are challenged in some studies and shown to be contextual (e.g., depending on sector, marketing methods, etc.). Pfeifer, P. (2022). The optimal ratio of acquisition and retention costs. Journal of Targeting Measurement and Analysis for Marketing, 13(2), 179–188. https://doi.org/10.1057/palgrave.jt.5740142 Whatever the relative costs of acquiring and retaining customers, ongoing relationships are sought with customers so that repeat sales can be gained and ‘upselling’ can occur (i.e., selling other higher value products and services). For example, banks routinely deploy relationship marketing, which typically involves appointing ‘relationship managers’ to make regular contact with customers, particularly ‘high net worth’ customers. While engaging in a rhetoric of relationships, the real role of these relationship ‘managers’ is to turn trading account customers into investment accounts, and to sell them insurance, superannuation, and various other products that the bank offers.

Despite claims of mutual benefits and interactivity between organizations and customers, Robert Palmatier says in his book Relationship Marketing: “Relationship marketing is the process of identifying, developing, maintaining, and terminating relational exchanges with the purpose of enhancing performance. Palmatier, 2008, p. 3. A similar definition was derived from a synthesis of 26 different definitions by Michael Harker, who concluded that relationship marketing is “an organization actively engaged in proactively creating, developing and maintaining committed, interactive and profitable exchanges”. Harker, M. (1999). Relationship marketing defined: An examination of current relationship marketing definitions. Marketing Intelligence & Planning, 17(1), 13–20, p. 16. https://doi.org/10.1108/02634509910253768 These descriptions clearly identify the real objectives of relationship marketing and suggest that listening is likely to be limited and selectively undertaken in ways that help achieve organizational performance, especially financial performance.

Customer relations, which is increasingly conceptualized and practiced as customer relationship management (CRM), is sometimes included as part of marketing communication. For instance, the AMA has defined marketing “a set of processes for creating, communicating, and delivering value to customers and for managing customer relationships in ways that benefit the organization and its stakeholders” [original emphasis]. Palmatier, 2008, p. 1. However, customer relations/CRM has evolved to be a separate department in most organizations and, because of its specific focus on engaging with customers and its substantial potential for listening, it is examined as a specialist practice in this study.

Customer relations

As noted in the previous section, customer relations is a specific area of marketing communication that ostensibly should involve a considerable amount of listening. Whereas most marketing communication is focussed on generating sales and is therefore promotional and mostly outbound, customer relations is the practice of responding to and supporting customers post-purchase. Organizations have a vested interest in maintaining the support of their customers, who are described as the lifeblood of commercial organizations and, in many cases, they have legal obligations to listen and respond to customers. This field of practice is also referred to as customer service, customer care, customer engagement and, more recently, as customer relationship management (CRM). While customer service is sometimes narrowly conceptualized as providing service to customers when they request it (e.g., repairing or replacing broken products under warranty or providing information on services), customer relations, CRM, and customer engagement increasingly denote proactive and ongoing interaction between an organization and its customers. These practices are delivered in various ways including through:

  • Call centres, which manage customer helplines, ‘info’ lines, inquiry centres, and so on. Traditionally these have been telephone centres, but are increasingly expanding to include email communication and even social media monitoring and response;

  • Physical offices for product returns, service, and customer inquiries. These may be in headquarters, country or regional offices, and/or in local offices, stores, and service centres;

  • Field staff who interact with and sometimes visit customers; and

  • Relationship managers who are specialist staff dedicated to building and maintaining relationships with customers, as discussed in the previous section.

The above mechanisms for customer relations mostly involve one-to-one communication, so unlike many other forms of interaction between organizations and their stakeholders and publics, they involve substantial interpersonal communication. In addition, customer relations and engagement include mediated public communication such as direct mail, newsletters, and sometimes events (e.g., previews of new products such as new model cars). What is collectively called customer relations here for short is a major part of many organizations’ communication with a key public and, because some and often most customer relations involves responding to customers’ inquiries, complaints, and requests, it should be a major site of organizational listening.

However, research suggests that there are disconnects between organizations and their customers. For example, in a 2012 survey of more than 1,400 corporate executives McKinsey researchers found that companies “talk past” their customers—that is, what they talk about is not what customers want to hear and talk about. The McKinsey study found that leading global companies mainly talked about (1) roles and models of corporate social responsibility; (2) practicing sustainability; (3) their global reach; (4) their power to influence and shape the market; and (5) innovation. Their customers most wanted to hear about and discuss (1) caring for and having open honest dialogue with customers and society; (2) acting responsibly along the full length of its supply chain (i.e., across its whole business operations including with partners); (3) having the right level of specialist expertise; (4) fitting with the values and beliefs of its customers; and (5) being a leader in the field. Significantly, at least three of the top five things that customers want to discuss are not addressed by organizations, and four of the top five things that organizations talk about are of little or no interest to customers. Freundt, T., Hillenbrand, P., & Lehmann, S. (2013, October). How B2B companies talk past their customers. McKinsey Quarterly. https://www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/growth-marketing-and-sales/our-insights/how-b2b-companies-talk-past-their-customers

It is also questionable whether customers want to be ‘managed’. A generous interpretation of customer relations management (CRM) sees it as a professionalized and systematic approach to supporting customers. However, it can also be interpreted as a strategic form of management designed to exploit customers. The era of ‘big data’ in which information on customers’ purchases across multiple sectors, personal interests, income level, family members, and so on makes such management potentially more manipulative than ever. The senior vice president of Google, Lorraine Twohill, said in 2015 that “it’s definitely the golden age for marketing”, pointing to the fact that marketers now “know far more about their consumers than ever before”. While she commendably stated that “you have to think about the consumer as a human being”, in an interview published in McKinsey’s Insights newsletter, Twohill spoke of Google’s excitement about “the automation of media planning and buying through the use of data and algorithms for ‘programmatic’ ” marketing and media planning. Twohill, as cited in McKinsey. (2015, February). How Google breaks through. Insights, para 9–10. https://www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/growth-marketing-and-sales/our-insights/how-google-breaks-through What Twohill was excited about in 2015 has accelerated rapidly since. Forbes magazine reported in 2022:

Big data is transforming the relationship between companies and customers. Analyzing large amounts of data for marketing purposes is not new, but recent advancements in big data technology have given advertisers powerful new ways of understanding consumers’ behaviours, needs and preferences. Garduno, C. (2022). How big data is helping advertisers solve problems, Forbes, March 15. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesagencycouncil/2022/03/15/how-big-data-is-helping-advertisers-solve-problems

It is undoubtedly true that the use of big data is transforming how companies engage with customers, but whether that is transformational in any positive sense for customers is another thing. The tone and content of most discussions in the marketing sector and business about big data indicate that it is organizations’ interests that are to the fore. This is evident in Twohill’s comments when asked specifically about whether organizations such as Google were getting better at listening through new technologies, Twohill responded in the affirmative giving the example that “we can put products in front of people and get consumer insights back almost in real time … you can more quickly get user insights, and reach more people”. Twohill, para. 22. Further, in her only explicit mention of listening, Twohill emphasized storytelling by marketers and said “we tell real-life stories. We say, ‘listen, your life will change because our product will do this”. Ibid, para. 15. In short, Twohill is saying to customers: ‘Listen to us’.

Most academic as well as professional literature on customer relations and CRM is celebratory, lauding the capabilities offered to organizations to collect information about customers and use that for targeted marketing. Listening in a marketing and CRM context is largely restricted to gaining intelligence of benefit to organizations. There can be benefits for customers, but these are usually secondary to the overarching objective of maintaining and increasing sales.

Political communication

Political communication is defined by Pippa Norris in the International Encyclopaedia of Social and Behavioural Sciences as “an interactive process concerning the transmission of information among politicians, the news media and the public”. She adds that “the process operates downwards from governing institutions towards citizens, horizontally in linkages among political actors, and also upwards from public opinion towards authorities”. Norris, P. (2001). Political communication. In N. Smelser & P. Baltes (Eds.), International Encyclopaedia of the Social and Behavioural Sciences (pp. 11631–11640). Elsevier, p. 11631. More specifically, political communication is understood as the public communication practices of politicians and other political actors such as political parties and other types of political organizations such as lobby groups, ‘think tanks’, activists, and interest groups in relation to policy and public affairs. Political communication comprises a substantial proportion of communication in the public sphere in democratic societies.

However, while Norris says political communication flows upwards from public opinion to political leaders and authorities, research shows that it more commonly flows downwards to citizens. Political communication is widely implemented as advocacy undertaken for the purpose of persuasion to win office and gain support for policies. Election campaigns are the most visible and high-profile form of political communication and exert an increasing influence on this field of practice. While election campaigns were once conducted over a period of one or two months immediately prior to elections every three or four years in most democratic countries, a troubling development for many social and political scientists is the “permanent election campaign”. Canel, M., & Sanders, K. (2012). Government communication: An emerging field in political communication research. In H. Semetko & M. Scammell (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of political communication (pp. 85–96). Sage, p. 87; McChesney, R. (2008). The political economy of media: Enduring issues, emerging dilemmas. Monthly Review Press. This refers to elected governments remaining in campaigning mode after they are elected, instead of settling down to focus on good management of the nation’s economy, infrastructure, and social systems, and even acting in a bipartisan way on issues of universal importance. Governments in permanent campaign mode are more focussed on scoring victories over their opposition parties and working to ensure re-election than they are on governing.

In permanent campaign mode, and to avoid potential criticism in independent media, many politicians and other political actors have flocked to social media, but they mostly use these channels for talking, not listening, as reported in numerous studies. Gibson, R., & Cantijoch, M. (2011). Comparing online elections in Australia and the UK: Did 2010 finally produce the internet election? Communication, Politics & Culture, 44(2), 4–17; Gibson, R., Williamson, A., & Ward, S. (2010). The Internet and the 2010 election: Putting the small ‘p’ back in politics. Hansard Society; Macnamara, J. (2011). Pre and post-election 2010 online: What happened to the conversation? Communication, Politics, Culture, 44(2), 18–36. http://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn = 627292905802447;res = IELHSS; Macnamara, J., & Kenning, G. (2011). E-electioneering 2010: Trends in social media use in Australian political communication. Media International Australia, 139, 7–22. https://doi.org/10.1177/1329878X1113900104; Rosenstiel, T., & Mitchell, A. (2012, August). How the presidential candidates use the web and social media. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center Project for Excellence in Journalism. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/8/legacy/DIRECT-ACCESS-FINAL.pdf

Furthermore, even though politicians may listen through meetings with constituents and being out ‘on the hustings’, research indicates that when they do listen, they mostly give recognition, acknowledgement, attention, interpretation, understanding, consideration, and response to a select few, predominantly elites and loud voices. For example, a study in the US by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page reported that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence”. Gilens, M., & Page, B. (2014). Testing theories of American politics: Elites, interest groups, and average citizens. Perspectives on Politics, 12(3), 564–581, p. 564. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1537592714001595 Stephen Coleman and Nick Couldry have made similar observations in relation to politics in the UK. Coleman, S. (2013). How voters feel. Cambridge University Press; Couldry, N. (2012). Media, society, world: Social theory and digital media practice. Polity.

While political communication is conducted by organizations in some cases, such as political parties, much of it is initiated and maintained by individual political actors such as elected representatives (i.e., politicians), lobbyists, journalists, and spin doctors (political public relations practitioners). This places much political communication outside the scope of this study, which focuses on organization-public communication. The partisan, increasingly celebrity-orientated, and often propagandist public communication of political leaders and their apparatchiks has been extensively examined—even more so since the era of Donald Trump, Brexit, and the revolving door of UK Prime Ministers in the early 2020s. Listening conducted by individual political representatives is noted but is not a focus of this study. However, some organizational aspects of political communication were examined in research reported in the following chapters.

Government communication

A major area of organization-public communication is government communication, a field of practice closely related to political communication and often problematically conflated with the previously discussed partisan practices. Citizens require and rely on factual, non-partisan information on a wide range of issues to access government services, to understand and comply with laws and regulations, and to exercise their democratic rights. They expect civil servants in government, who are paid by taxpayers, to be responsive to them.

Public communication researchers, some political scientists, and public administration officials express concern about a blurring and overlap of political communication and government communication. Sanders, K., & Canel, M. (Eds.). (2014). Government communication: Cases and challenges. Bloomsbury. Several studies and inquiries have recognized and reinforced a need for distinction. For example, the Phillis Review of government communication in the UK in 2004 found “a three-way breakdown in trust between government and politicians, the public, and the media” and reported that this had led to increasing disillusionment in parts of society. The report recommended that:

Modern government communication should be based on openness, not secrecy, and on more direct, unmediated communications to the public. It stressed that there needs to be genuine engagement as part of policy development, and positive presentation rather than spin. It recommended … coordinated communications which reinforce the Civil Service’s political neutrality rather than a blurring of government and party communications. Turnbull, N. (2007). Perspectives on government PR. In S. Young (Ed.), Government Communication in Australia (pp. 113–129). Cambridge University Press, pp. 128–129.

The term ‘government communication’ has been associated traditionally with top-level executive communication within governments (e.g., between department heads and officials). However, in contemporary use, government communication also refers to communication by “institutions established by governments to do its work at national, regional and local levels”. Canel & Sanders, 2012. In this broader “multi-layered reality”, government communication is defined as follows:

Government communication refers to the aims, role and practice of communication implemented by executive politicians and officials of public institutions in the service of a political rationale, and that are themselves constituted on the basis of the people’s indirect or direct consent and are charged to enact their will [original emphasis]. Ibid, p. 4.

This definition is cited because it helps distinguish the close but nuanced difference between political communication and government communication and draws our attention away from the beguiling spectacle of major national political events to everyday state and local government affairs, and because it reminds us that government communication should be carried out with the direct or at least indirect consent of the people, and in their interests. Also, government communication adheres, in theory at least, with the ‘neutral competence’ model of government in which the civil service offers impartial advice to ministers and interfaces in a non-partisan way with citizens. Diamond, P. (2014). Governing Britain: Power, power, politics and the Prime Minister. IB Taurus. Doris Graber, who has provided some of the most comprehensive analyses of communication in the public sector, quotes Joseph Viteritti, saying “meaningful communication between government and the people is not merely a management practicality. It is a political, albeit moral, obligation that originates from the basic covenant that exists between the government and the people”. Graber, D. (2003). The power of communication: Managing information in public sector organizations. CQ Press; Viteritti, J. (1997). The environmental context of communication: Public sector organizations. In J. Garnett & A. Kouzmin (Eds.), Handbook of administrative communication (pp.79–100). Marcel Dekker, p. 82.

Other analyses similarly argue that the existence of citizens informed about government actions is fundamental to a successful democracy and that this requires government information to be open and accessible to citizens. Fairbanks, J., Plowman, K., & Rawlins, B. (2006). Transparency in government communication. Journal of Public Affairs, 7(1), 23–37. https://doi.org/10.1002/pa.245 Government communication includes providing citizens with information about public goods and services such as health and education, social security, travel visas, and so on. Governments use the full gamut of communication media to inform citizens including media publicity, websites, newsletters, reports, brochures, and other publications (increasingly in digital form), events, and increasingly social media. Sally Young edited an extensive volume on Government Communication in Australia Young, S. (Ed.). (2007). Government communications in Australia. Cambridge University Press. that identifies communication between citizens and their governments as a key measure of the health of any democracy, but highlights criticisms of excessive government use of public relations and marketing to create a ‘PR state’. Deacon, D., & Golding, P. (1994). Taxation and representation: The media, political communication and the poll tax. John Libbey; Ward, I. (2003). An Australian PR state? Australian Journal of Communication, 30(1), 25–42. This term originated from a study of taxation and representation by David Deacon and Peter Golding that identified extensive use of public relations by governments to not only promote policy and provide information to citizens, but to outmanoeuvre opponents. They also expressed concern about the institutionalization of public relations within government. Deacon & Golding, 1994. The validity of such concern depends on how public relations is conceptualized and practiced—issues that will be examined in a following section of this chapter and very relevant to understanding organization-public relationships and interaction.

Significant also in government communication is that communication between citizens and their governments is often described in contemporary political and communication speak as G2C—government to citizens, Garson, G., & Khosrow-Pour, M. (Eds.). (2008). Handbook of research on public information technology. IGI Global. emulating the buzzwords of B2C (business to consumer) and B2B (business to business). Sometimes G2C is used as an acronym for ‘government to consumer’, Khosrow-Pour, M. (Ed.). (2008). Encyclopedia of information science and technology (2nd ed.). IGI Global. affirming the neoliberal logic that Nick Couldry says has permeated government as well as the commercial sector in contemporary capitalist societies.

The responsibilities of government communication also include public consultation on major issues and responding to inquiries from citizens. Organizational listening is central to public consultation—a specialist field of communication that will be discussed further later in this chapter.

Corporate communication

Corporate communication, sometimes referred to as corporate relations and corporate public relations (CPR) despite some differences in interpretation, began as a small specialty field of study and practice in schools of management and communication. Originally, the term was used to differentiate communication about an organization and its environment from communication about products and services, which is described as marketing communication. Argenti, P. (2016). Corporate communication (7th ed.). McGraw-Hill. In the US, the term has increasingly become associated with the public communication of large public companies (i.e., corporations). However, in Europe the term is often used more broadly based on its Latin root corpus which means body. In this context, corporate communication is used to describe communication in relation to any corporate body, not only incorporated commercial entities. van Riel, C. (1995). Principles of corporate communication. Prentice Hall; Van Riel, C., & Fombrun, C. (2007). Essentials of corporate communications. Routledge.

Others use the term as an umbrella description to refer to all internal and external communication of organizations—corporate, organizational, and marketing communication. For example, in a leading text on the subject, Joep Cornelissen describes corporate communication as “a management function that offers a framework for the effective coordination of all internal and external communication with the overall purpose of establishing and maintaining favourable reputations with stakeholder groups upon which the organisation is dependent”. Cornelissen, J. (2017). Corporate communication: A guide to theory and practice (5th ed.). Sage, p. 5. Emphasizing this holistic view, Cornelissen adds that the function of corporate communication has developed to “incorporate a whole range of specialized disciplines, including corporate design, corporate advertising, internal communication to employees, issues and crisis management, media relations, investor relations, change communication and public affairs”. Ibid, p. 4. This broad view is supported by other corporate communication scholars such as Paul Argenti, Argenti, 2016. and indicates that corporate communication is closely aligned with, overlapping, or synonymous with the practices of public relations, organizational communication, some aspects of marketing communication, and evolving notions of strategic communication.

Corporate communication activities include providing advice on communication to corporate management, production of annual reports and environmental and sustainability reports, speech writing, corporate publicity (e.g., releasing financial results for public companies), and producing and managing corporate websites, corporate blogs, and corporate social media sites.

Of relevance to this analysis, Maria Borner and Ansgar Zerfass describe corporate listening as inbound corporate communication and describe such listening as part of strategic communication. Borner, M. and 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, S. Romenti, & O. Ihlen, O. (Eds.), Public relations and the power of creativity: Strategic opportunities, innovation and critical challenges (pp. 3–22). https://doi.org/10.1108/S2398–391420180000003001 However, they are somewhat dismissive of organizational listening research as “mostly based on the relational paradigm of public relations” Ibid, p. 3. despite the wide range of research reported in the first volume of this text and the even wider range of studies of listening within the context of government, marketing, and organizational communication reported in Chapter 4. Also, the framing of corporate listening as part of strategic communication raises questions in relation to whose interests are being served and who benefits? The answer depends on one’s conceptualization of strategic communication, with various understandings discussed in a following section in this chapter.

Organizational / internal communication

As noted at the beginning of this chapter, organizational communication is commonly interpreted as internal communication within organizations. This field of practice focusses on communication between management and subordinate employees, also referred to as employee communication, employee relations, and staff relations, although it also includes peer-to-peer communication between employees. Employee relations at all levels are important for the effective functioning of organizations. Despite its focus on communication inside organizations, Conrad & Scott Poole, 2012, p. 5. it is a form of public communication because employees are a public by the definition applied in the cognate fields of organizational communication, public relations, and corporate communication. Canel & Sanders, 2012. Private interpersonal communication between employees and management, such as pay negotiations and performance reviews, are not usually considered part of organizational communication.

Focus on organizational communication originated in the US in the 1930s and 1940s, with the field of practice initially theorized and studied within the rhetorical tradition of communication and derivatives such as the specialty field of speech communication. L’Etang, J. (2008). Public relations: Concepts, practice and critique. Sage, p. 189. This heritage led to a focus on the methods of rhetoric, argument, and debate that are used in superior-subordinate relations and the technical structures of formal and informal channels of communication within organizations. More recently, organizational communication has been heavily influenced by the social sciences, particularly psychology, and has sought to develop communication science that explains communication within small groups and large organizations. Hallahan, K., Holtzhausen, D., van Ruler, B., Verčič, D., & Sriramesh, K. (2007). Defining strategic communication, International Journal of Strategic Communication, 1(1), 3–35, p. 19. https://doi.org/10.1080/15531180701285244

Stanley Deetz identified several ways of looking at organizational communication. One approach is to look at specific departments or units and how communication influences what they do and how they operate. Another way of studying organizational communication is to look at the forms and types of communication that flows within and across organizations. However, both these approaches become limiting, with one focussing on the work and processes of organizational units and the other examining communication activities and materials, without seeing the broader picture of why organizations communicate. Deetz says that “a third way to approach the issue is to think of communication as a way to describe and explain organizations”. Deetz, S. (2001). Conceptual foundations. In F. Jablin & L. Putnam (Eds.), New handbook of organizational communication: Advances in theory, research, and methods (pp. 3–46). Sage, p. 5. In other words, organizations are communication, as discussed under ‘Organization communication’ near the beginning of this chapter. Even though they exist as legal entities and have physical and human resources, it could be said that organizations are discursive accomplishments, as it is only when people come together and think and interact to achieve common goals that organizations become what they are. Without effective internal and external communication, organizations are non-functioning or dysfunctional structures. Also, the reputation and brands of organizations that exist externally are largely the stories that people such as staff, customers, and other stakeholders tell.

Pamela Shockley-Zalabak identified four major approaches to organizational communication as follows.

  • A mechanistic approach is based on views of an organization as a “well-oiled machine operating with quality precision” in planning, design, and maintenance of organizational structures and processes. This view is normative and can be seen as naïve. Shockley-Zalabak, P. (1994). Understanding organizational communication: Cases, commentaries, and conversations. Longman, p. 3.

  • A human relations approach shifts emphasis from structure and work and process design to the interactions of individuals, their motivations, and their influence on the organization. This approach, which evolved into the human resources approach, recognizes that work is accomplished by people and focuses on cooperation, participation, satisfaction, and interpersonal skills. The focus of communication in this approach remains on interpersonal relations and small group interactions.

  • A systems-interaction approach recognizes the importance of organizational structures, systems, and people inside the organization interacting, but expands thinking to explore how “people, technologies, and environments integrate to influence goal-directed behaviour”. Ibid, p. 5. This approach continues to have a strong grounding in systems theory, but incorporates a recognition of the influence of the external environment on organizations.

  • An interpretative-symbolic-culture approach draws on humanist and poststructuralist theories to identify how organizational behaviour is shaped by meaning-making among organization members who are engaged in subjective interpretation and influenced by cultures internally and externally. Human communication theories such as adaptive structuration Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society: Outline of the theory of structuration. University of California Press. and symbolic convergence Bormann, E. (1982). The symbolic convergence theory of communication: Applications and implications for teachers and consultants. Communication and Mass Media, 10(1), 1–2. https://doi.org/10.1080/00909888209365212 inform an interpretative-symbolic-culture approach to understanding organizations.

Organizational analysts Gibson Burrell and Gareth Morgan developed a similar model of organizational communication that also identified four perspectives, which they described as functionalism, interpretivism, radical structuralism, and radical humanism. Burrell, G., & Morgan, G. (1979). Sociological paradigms and organizational analysis. Heinemann. However, in the Handbook of Organizational Communication, Phil Tompkins and W. Charles Redding argue that there is not a major difference between radical structuralism and radical humanism, as both draw on critical theories and propose three perspectives which they describe as modernist, naturalistic, and critical. Tompkins, P. (1997). How to think and talk about organizational communication. In P. Byer (Ed.), Organizational communication: Theory and behaviour (pp. 362–373). Allyn & Bacon. Their modernist approach is similar to Shockley-Zalabak’s mechanistic approach and Burrell and Morgan’s functionalist approach as well as elements of the human relations approach, while the naturalistic approach is similar to the interpretative-symbolic-culture and interpretivist approaches. Other useful contemporary discussions of organizational communication include Charles Conrad and Marshall Scott Poole’s Strategic Organizational Communication in a Global Economy, Conrad & Scott Poole, 2012. Dennis Mumby’s Organizational Communication: A Critical Approach, Mumby, D. (2013). Organizational communication: A critical approach. Sage. and Katherine Miller’s Organizational Communication: Approaches and Processes. Miller, K. (2015). Organizational communication: Approaches and processes (7th ed.). Cengage Learning.

In all approaches to organizational communication, with the possible exception of the mechanistic model, listening is essential for relationships, cooperation, coordination, satisfaction of those involved, and arguably performance. Chapter 7, which examines benefits of effective organizational listening, presents specific examples of why listening to employees as well as by employees is important.

Some argue that organizational communication is internal public relations, defined as the processes of creating understanding between management and employees. Kennan, W., & Hazelton, V. (2006). Internal public relations, social capital, and the role of effective organizational communication. In C. Botan & V. Hazelton (Eds.), Public relations II (pp. 311–340). Lawrence Erlbaum, p. 332. This shows the close relationship between organizational communication and public relations, which is discussed next. In line with the dominant focus on voice in communication, Kevin Ruck and colleagues examined employee voice in a study of five organizations in the UK but did identify the importance of listening by management as well as employees listening to management. Ruck, K., Welch, M., & Menara, B. (2017). Employee voice: An antecedent to organisational engagement? Public Relations Review, 43(5), 904–914. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2017.04.008 However, many public relations studies of internal / organizational communication fail to address listening, and some do not mention listening even in discussing employee engagement. Verčič, A., & Vokić, N. (2017). Engaging employees through internal communication. Public Relations Review, 43(5), 885–893. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2017.04.005

Further territory claims expand the concept beyond intra-organizational communication to inter-organizational communication, such as that between national, state, and local levels of government, between branches and country offices of corporations and between government departments, and even internationally such as between government bodies of various countries. Crossman, J., Bordia, S., & Mills, C. (2011). Business communication for the global age. McGraw-Hill, p. 87; Yang, T., & Maxwell, T. (2011). Information sharing in public organizations: A literature review of interpersonal, intra-organizational and inter-organizational success factors. Government Information Quarterly, 28(2), 164–175. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.giq.2010.06.008

Public relations

Given contemporary theories that describe public relations as building and maintaining relationships between organizations and their stakeholders through engagement, dialogue, and even two-way symmetrical communication, Taylor, M., & Kent, K. (2023). Paradigm shifts in public relations theory. In D. Pompper, K. Place, & C. K. Weaver (Eds.), The Routledge companion to public relations (pp. 103–114). Routledge. public relations is a field of practice where one could expect to find major focus on listening. It is hard to imagine relationships, engagement, and dialogue without listening. But, despite the promise, when one dives into public relations literature—and practice as will be shown in the following chapter—listening is scantily discussed and often ignored completely.

While 472 different definitions of public relations were identified in a 1970s review by Rex Harlow, Harlow, R. (1976). Building a public relations definition. Public Relations Review, 2(4), 34–42. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0363–8111(76)80022–7 some of the commonly used definitions are as follows.

Public relations is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organization and its publics. Institute of Public Relations (UK) as cited in Kitchen, P. (1997). Public relations: Principles and practice. International Thomson Business Press, p. 25.

The management function that entails planning, research, publicity, promotion, and collaborative decision making to help organizations … listen to, appreciate, and respond appropriately to those persons and groups whose mutually beneficial relationships the organization needs to foster as it strives to achieve its mission and vision. Heath, R., & Coombs, T. (2006). Today’s public relations: An introduction. Sage, p. 7.

The management of communication between an organization and its publics. Grunig, J., & Hunt, T. (1984). Managing public relations. Holt, Rinehart & Winston, p. 6.

Notwithstanding these and many other definitions, the practice is not well understood outside the discipline, and public relations—commonly abbreviated to PR—has a mixed and often dubious reputation. And, interestingly from the perspective of this analysis, only one of the definitions found in the literature mentions listening, as cited later in this section.

In a 2023 review of paradigm shifts and evolving theory published in The Routledge Companion to Public Relations, Maureen Taylor identifies rhetorical perspectives as the earliest influence on the field, noting that rhetoric has existed for thousands of years as the art of speaking persuasively in public. While originally practiced by individual orators, rhetorical communication can and is widely applied by organizations today, as well as politicians and various advocates. Taylor, who is a long-serving Editor in Chief of Public Relations Review, the leading journal in the field, and therefore a recognized authority, reported that public relations theory subsequently evolved in the 1970s and 1980s to incorporate media theories such as agenda-setting and framing; For agenda-setting, see McCombs, M., & Shaw, D. (1972). The agenda-setting function of mass media. Public Opinion Quarterly, 36, 176–187. https://doi.org/10.1086/267990; McCombs, M. (2004). Setting the agenda: The mass media and public opinion. Polity. For framing, see Entman, R. (1993). Framing: Toward a clarification of a fractured paradigm. Journal of Communication, 43, 5–58. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1460–2466.1993.tb01304.x; Kitzinger, J. (2007). Framing and frame analysis. In E. Devereux (Ed.), Media studies: Key issues and debates (pp. 134–161). Sage. management contributions as evidenced in the definitions above; and a focus on organization-public relationships (OPR). Taylor & Kent, 2023. For specific information on public relations as management of organization-public relationships (OPR), see Ledingham, J. (2006). Relationship management: A general theory of public relations. In C. Botan & V. Hazelton (Eds.), Public relations theory II (pp. 465–483). Lawrence Erlbaum; Ledingham, J., & Bruning, S. (Eds.). (2000). Public relations as relationship management: A relational approach to the study and practice of public relations. Lawrence Erlbaum.

In 1984, the eminent US professor of public relations Jim Grunig co-authored a landmark book with Todd Hunt that outlined four models of PR, which they identified as (1) press agentry/publicity; (2) public information; (3) two-way asymmetrical communication; and (4) two-way symmetrical communication. Grunig & Hunt, 1984. The four models were informative in that they provided (1) a historical perspective (19th century press agentry); (2) positive theory in social science terms describing 20th century practice; and (3) normative theory (a description and explanation of what public relations ideally could be, or ought to be, in the view of the authors).

Grunig followed up his taxonomy of public relations by leading a multi-country study undertaken between 1985 and the early 2000s involving an extensive literature review; a survey of 327 organizations in the US, Canada, and the UK; and 25 in-depth qualitative interviews with senior management in the most and least ‘excellent’ In the Excellence Study, Jim Grunig and his co-researchers used definitions of ‘excellent’ companies based on the research of McKinsey consultants Tom Peters and Robert Waterman (1982) published in their popular book In Search of Excellence. One of the criticisms of the Excellence Study is that many of the organizations identified as excellent by Peters and Waterman went out of business in the following years, raising questions over the method of identifying excellence and the findings. public relations departments. The research, referred to as the Excellence Study, produced what became known as Excellence Theory of Public Relations expounded in three books authored and edited by Jim Grunig, Larissa Grunig, and David Dozier Dozier, D., Grunig, L., & Grunig, J. (1995). Manager’s guide to excellence in public relations and communication management. Lawrence Erlbaum; Grunig, J. (Ed.). (1992). Excellence in public relations and communication management. Lawrence Erlbaum; Grunig, L., Grunig J., & Dozier, D. (2002). Excellent organizations and effective organizations: A study of communication management in three countries. Lawrence Erlbaum. as well as numerous book chapters and articles. The Excellence Study identified 14 communication attributes that the authors said correlated with organizational excellence including the following key principles:

  1. The senior public relations executive has influence within the dominant coalitionthe senior management group of the organization;

  2. The public relations function is separate to marketing;

  3. A two-way symmetrical model of public relations is practiced;

  4. The senior public relations practitioner has knowledge and professionalism, including relevant academic qualifications and training in ethics;

  5. Public relations is managed strategically in that it is focussed on achieving goals and objectives, which are ideally measured and evaluated. Grunig et al., 2002, pp. 12–17.

Grunig a argued during the following decades that two-way symmetrical public relations is the only truly ethical method of practicing PR, as well as the most effective method, and actively promoted the two-way symmetrical concept of public relations worldwide. He and various co-authors claimed that this approach, which incorporates co-orientation theory and several other theories developed by colleagues, achieves an equitable balance of the interests of an organization and its stakeholders and leads to mutual achievement of objectives.

This claim lacks empirical evidence and is seen as ‘sugar coating’ of the practice and ahistorical. Brown, R. (2006). Myth of symmetry: Public relations as cultural styles. Public Relations Review, 32(3), 206–212. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2006.05.022; Duffy, M. (2009). There’s no two-way symmetric about it: A postmodern examination of public relations textbooks. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 17(3), 294–315. https://doi.org/10.1080/15295030009388397 Numerous studies of public relations show that the practice works largely, or even solely, to protect and advance the interests of employer organizations. And, given the sizeable investments required for large-scale campaigns and activities, it is ‘big business’ and ‘big government’ that mostly deploy public relations.

Despite being the “dominant paradigm” of public relations for several decades, L’Etang, J. (2008). Public relations: Concepts, practice and critique. Sage, p. 253. Excellence theory with its the claims of symmetry, and even the so-called ‘mixed model’ involving asymmetry and symmetry contingent on circumstances, has come under increasing scrutiny and critique. ‘PR’ is also broadly criticized for its track record of promoting dubious causes and products such as ‘Big Tobacco’, ‘Big Oil’, oppressive regimes, and unsavoury characters such as the convicted sex-offender Jeffrey Epstein. Macnamara, J. (2020). Beyond post-communication: Challenging disinformation, deception, and manipulation. Peter Lang, pp. 96–129. Specific reports on PR campaigns to support Jeffrey Epstein include Kitterman, T. (2019, July 25). Epstein puff pieces put focus on PR and pay-to-play publishing. Ragan’s PR Daily. https://www.prdaily.com/epstein-puff-pieces-put-focus-on-pr-and-pay-to-play-publishing

In her summary of paradigm shifts in public relations theory, Taylor said the “turn from excellence” has led to “evolving theoretical perspectives”. Taylor & Kent, 2023, p. 106. In addition to focus on organization-public relationship building, she identified these as (1) dialogic public relations in which Taylor herself is a leading proponent; (2) engagement theory; and (3 network theory reflecting influences such as globalization and technological developments. Taylor & Kent, 2023, pp. 108–110. In her conclusions, Taylor refers briefly to public relations helping marginalized groups and contributing to society, but she gives little attention to critical and social perspectives, particularly what is referred to as the “sociological turn” in public relations. Edwards, L. (2018). Understanding public relations: Theory, culture and society. Sage; Edwards, L., & Hodges, C. (Eds.). (2011). Public relations, society and culture: Theoretical and empirical explorations. Routledge. This omission is understandable in the sense that the claimed ‘turn’ that shifts the focus of the field from strategic organization management in the service of elites to a sociological and cultural context, and from functionalism and behaviourism to social interaction and humanism, exists in theory with little evidence in practice at this stage. To a large extent, this conceptualization is normative as much as Excellence theory with its focus on symmetry between organizations and their stakeholders and society.

However, there is one other omission in Taylor’s otherwise astute contributions to the literature and those written with her co-author, Michael Kent. Neither in the review cited above, nor in other extensive writing on dialogic theory of public relations, is listening discussed in any detail as an essential element of communication and the practice of dialogue. Listening can be interpreted as implicit in Taylor and Kent’s identification of six characteristics of dialogic public relations, which they listed as (1) orientation toward the other, drawing on the writing of Hans Georg Gadamer on openness; Gadamer, H. (1989). Truth and method (2nd ed., J. Weinsheimer & D. Marshall, Trans.). Crossroad. (Original work published 1960) (2) mutuality; (3) propinquity (i.e., publics are consulted on matters that affect them); (4) empathy; (5) acceptance of risk; and (6) commitment. Kent, M., & Taylor, M. (2002). Toward a dialogic theory of public relations. Public Relations Review, 28(1), 21–37, p. 26. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0363–8111(02)00108-X As well as noting early discussion of dialogue as an ethical requirement of PR by Ron Pearson, Pearson, R. (1989a). Business ethics as communication ethics: Public relations practice and the idea of dialogue. In C. Botan & V. Hazleton (Eds.), Public relations theory (pp. 111–134). Lawrence Erlbaum. Taylor and Kent’s advocacy for ‘dialogic PR’ draws heavily and appropriately on the seminal writing on dialogue of Mikhail Bakhtin Bakhtin, M. (1981). The dialogic imagination: Four essays. (M. Holquist, Ed., C. Emerson & M. Holquist, Trans.). University of Texas Press; Bakhtin, M. (1984). Problems of Dostoevsky’s poetics (C. Emerson, Ed. & Trans.). University of Minnesota Press. (Original work published 1963); Bakhtin, M. (1986). Speech genres and other late essays (C. Emerson & M. Holquist, Eds., V. McGee, Trans.). University of Texas Press. (Original work published 1979) and Martin Buber, Buber, M. (1958). I and thou (R. Smith, Trans.). Scribners. (Original work published 1923, 2nd ed. 1987); Buber, M. (2002). Between man and man (R. Smith, Trans.). Kegan Paul. (Original work published 1947) as well as Gadamer’s call for openness to the other and recent writing by the likes of David Bohm. Bohm, D. (1996). On dialogue (L. Nichol, Ed.). Routledge. Taylor and Kent call for more than specific instances of dialogue, arguing for a dialogic approach. They describe this as a philosophical stance oriented to open interactive communication in which the views and interests of others are recognized and respected. Taylor, M., & Kent, M. (2014). Dialogic engagement: Clarifying foundational concepts. Journal of Public Relations Research, 26(5), 384–398, p. 390. https://doi.org/10.1080/1062726X.2014.956106 Elsewhere, Anne Lane and Michael Kent refer to dialogue as “an orientation in which participants display positive attitudes to each other and the process of communication in which they are involved” as well as “a highly specific form of two-way communication that is generated out of that orientation” [emphasis added]. Lane, A., & Kent, M. (2018). Dialogic engagement. In K. Johnston & M. Taylor (Eds.), The handbook of communication engagement (61–72). Wiley Blackwell, p. 63. Others refer to this concept of dialogue beyond specific instances of exchanging views as deep dialogue, true dialogue, or ‘capital D Dialogue’. Lane, A. (2020). The dialogic ladder: Toward a framework of dialogue. Public Relations Review, 46. Advance online publication, pp. 2–4. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2019.101870; Davidson, S. (2016). Public relations theory: An agonistic critique of the turns to dialogue and symmetry. Public Relations Inquiry, 5(2), 145–167. https://doi.org/10.1177/2046147X16649007 But this broad philosophical conceptualization is as far as most discussion of listening goes in public relations literature. For instance, in a detailed review of the interconnected concepts of dialogue and engagement in The Handbook of Communication Engagement, Lane and Kent mention listening only once, briefly in stating that one of the characteristics of dialogic orientation is to “take time to listen, to reflect, and to respond”. Lane & Kent, 2018, p. 65.

In discussing the use of social media, Kent and Taylor go a little further in noting that “the capacity of social media … for listening and to bring images, videos, audio, access to information, genuine relationship building potential, and a host of other possibilities to organization–public interactions has barely been scratched”. Kent, M., & Taylor, M. (2016). From Homo Economicus to Homo dialogicus: Rethinking social media use in CSR communication. Public Relations Review, 42(1), 60–67, p. 63. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2015.11.003 They note that “dialogic communicators have firm beliefs and positions, but are willing to listen to new ideas, make changes, and admit when they are wrong” Ibid. and they call for organizational leaders to be trained in dialogue and be “willing to listen to the actual voices of stakeholders and publics”. Ibid, p. 66. However, this does not necessarily progress thinking beyond interpersonal listening to identify how listening to stakeholders might be accomplished in the context of delegated, mediated organizational listening at scale. Compared to the detail in which information production, distribution, and projecting the views of organizations are discussed in public relations literature (i.e., speaking), listening is scantily addressed including in contemporary discussion of dialogic interaction.

The lack of specific attention to listening in discussion of dialogue is intriguing given that dialogic listening was advocated by speech communication researcher John Stewart and his co-author Milt Thomas in a book of that title published in the 1990s, Stewart, J., & Thomas, M. (1995). Dialogic listening: Sculpting mutual meanings. In J. Stewart (Ed.), Bridges not walls (pp. 184–201). McGraw- Hill. and The Center for Public Deliberation at Colorado State University describes dialogic listening as “a central component of dialogue”. Center for Public Deliberation. (2022). Dialogic listening: Crafting mutual meanings, para. 1. https://cpd.colostate.edu/what-is-deliberation/dialogic-listening Dialogic listening proposes that people should pay attention to their own views and others’ views at the same time to negotiate meaning, rather than active listening approaches that call for focussed attention on others’ views, which may be appropriate in activities such as counselling and therapy, but can be unrealistic in public communication practice. Andrew Dobson describes dialogic listening as “respectful interplay between speaking and listening”. Dobson, 2014, p. 89. Also, in a contemporary text on communication ethics, William Neher and Paul Sandin list four criteria for what they call dialogical ethics in which they say the “litmus test for the ethics of dialogue concentrates on the unspoken component of communication: Listening—truly listening.” Neher, W., & Sandin, P. (2017). Communicating ethically: Character, duties, consequences, and relationships. Routledge, p. 143.

During The Organizational Listening Project, a search of the term listening was conducted in the archives of Public Relations Review and Journal of Public Relations Research, which are identified as the two journals “most representative” of public relations scholarship globally. Kim, S., Choi, M., Reber, B., & Kim D. (2014). Tracking public relations scholarship trends: Using semantic network analysis on PR Journals from 1975 to 2011. Public Relations Review, 40(1), 116–118, p. 116. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2013.11.017 A keyword search of Public Relations Review articles published between 1976 and 2014 found only 217 that mention listening anywhere in their text. However, only two articles focus specifically on listening—an analysis of President Nixon’s ‘Listening Posts’ that began in 1969 but were quietly closed in 1971 after being deemed a failure, Lee, M. (2012). The president’s listening post: Nixon’s failed experiment in government public relations. Public Relations Review, 38(1), 22–31. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2011.08.011 and an analysis of audience research by arts institutions. Foreman-Wernet, L., & Dervin, B. (2006). Listening to learn: ‘Inactive’ publics of the arts as exemplar. Public Relations Review, 32, 287–294. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2006.05.001 Listening is mostly referred to in passing with no examination of what listening entails at an organization-public level. For instance, in an article on ‘Revisiting the concept of dialogue in public relations’, Petra Theunissen and Wan Norbani Wan Noordin say that dialogue involves “focussing on listening and speaking”, but they provide no further discussion of listening and how it can be conducted in an organization-public context. Theunissen, P., & Nordin, W. (2012). Revisiting the concept of ‘dialogue’ in public relations. Public Relations Review, 38(1), 5–13, p. 10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2011.09.006 In an analysis of Twitter use by US Presidential candidates, Amelia Adams and Tina McCorkindale say that “retweeting, when done appropriately, can show that candidates are listening to their constituents”. Adams, A., & McCorkindale, T. (2013). Dialogue and transparency: A content analysis of how the 2012 presidential candidates used Twitter. Public Relations Review, 39, 357–359, p. 359. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2013.07.016 While retweeting involves some level of attention and response, resending 280-character tweets does not meet the definitions of listening advanced in the literature cited. On the few occasions that methods of listening are discussed in public relations literature, listening is mostly equated with monitoring and environmental scanning. Sonnenfeld, J. (1982). Public affairs execs: Orators or communicators? Public Relations Review, 8(3), 3–16, p. 6. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0363–8111(82)80027–1

A search of Journal of Public Relations Research in the same period identified 132 articles that mention the word listening but, despite considerable discussion of dialogue, even fewer articles in this journal pay attention to listening and none examined how organizational listening is operationalized in organization-public relationships.

Listening also receives little attention in public relations research books and textbooks. For instance, listening is not listed in the index of the main PR Excellence text, Grunig et al., 2002. or in the index or contents of a dozen other international public relations and corporate communication texts examined. Botan, C., & Hazelton, V. (Eds.). (2006). Public relations theory II. Lawrence Erlbaum; Wilcox, D., & Cameron, G. (2010). Public relations: Strategies and tactics (9th ed.). Allyn & Bacon. Listening is mentioned once in the edited volume The Future of Excellence in Public Relations Communication Management, Toth, E. (Ed.). (2007). The future of excellence in public relations and communication management: Challenges for the next generation. Lawrence Erlbaum. but this is in a chapter focused on interpersonal communication. In a contemporary text titled Today’s Public Relations, Bob Heath and Tim Coombs provide the only definition of public relations that makes explicit mention of listening, describing public relations as:

The management function that entails planning, research, publicity, promotion, and collaborative decision making to help any organization’s ability to listen to, appreciate, and respond appropriately to those persons and groups whose mutually beneficial relationships the organization needs to foster as it strives to achieve its mission and vision. Heath, R., & Coombs, T. (2006). Today’s public relations: An introduction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, p. 7.

On the few occasions that listening is discussed in public relations literature, it is with an organization-centric focus. For example, the widely used textbook Cutlip & Center’s Effective Public Relations commendably states that “effective public relations starts with listening, which requires openness and systematic effort”. Broom, G., & Sha, B. (2013). Cutlip & Center’s effective public relations (11th ed.). Pearson, p. 243. So far, so good. However, the text goes on to cite Wilbur Schramm saying that “feedback tells the listener how his [sic] message is being received”. Schramm, W. (1971). The nature of communication between humans. In W. Schramm & D. Roberts (Eds.), The purpose and effects of mass communication (rev. ed., pp. 1–53). University of Illinois Press, p. 26. In addition to being a gendered statement, this suggests a narrow approach to listening focussed on monitoring the effectiveness of transmitting the organization’s messages and achieving organizational goals. In Today’s Public Relations: An Introduction, Heath and Coombs say “today’s public relations practitioner gives voice to organizations” and add that “this process requires the ability to listen”. However, they similarly go on to narrowly configure listening by saying “listening gives a foundation for knowing what to say and thinking strategically of the best ways to frame and present appealing messages”. Heath & Coombs, 2006, p. 346.

The only detailed discussion of listening in public relations literature prior to 2020 appeared in the ‘Melbourne Mandate’, a paper developed in 2012 by the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management and expanded in a subsequent article by Anne Gregory. This identifies “building a culture of listening and engagement” Gregory, A. (2015). Practitioner-leaders’ representation of roles: The Melbourne Mandate. Public Relations Review, 41(5), 598–606, p. 598. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2014.02.030 as one of three roles of public relations professionals and lists eight requirements to build a culture of listening in an organization as follows.

  1. Develop research methodologies to measure an organization’s capacity to listen and apply these metrics before and after the pursuit of strategy and during any major action.

  2. Identify and activate channels to enable organizational listening.

  3. Identify all stakeholder groups affected by the pursuit of an organization’s strategy, both now and in the future.

  4. Identify all stakeholder groups that affect the pursuit of the organization’s strategy, both now and in the future.

  5. Identify these stakeholder groups’ expectations and consider them both in the organization’s strategy and before taking any action.

  6. Ensure sound reasons are communicated to stakeholders in cases where their expectations cannot be met.

  7. Prove that the organization is genuinely listening as it takes actions in pursuit of its strategy.

  8. Evaluate the effectiveness of the organization’s listening. Ibid, p. 602.

Even this commendable list of steps needs further explication to go beyond identifying stakeholders and developing measurement and evaluation methods to explain ‘how’ an organization can listen, potentially to large numbers of stakeholders through various departments, units and agencies and various mediated forms of communication. Unless the processes, methods, systems, and tools for listening in an organizational context are identified and explained, they are unlikely to be understood or operationalized in practice. What many fail to recognize is that the English word dialogue is derived from the Greek terms dia (διά), which means ‘through’—not ‘two’ as many believe—and logos (λόγος), which means ‘speech’ or ‘words’. Literally, and in practice, dialogue can be no more than two or more parties speaking to, at, or even over each other.

Despite engagement being heralded as a new paradigm for public relations in the 21st century”, Johnston, K. (2014). Public relations and engagement: Theoretical imperatives of a multidimensional concept. Journal of Public Relations Research, 26(5), 381–383, p. 381. https://doi.org/10.1080/1062726X.2014.959863 listening by organizations is also mostly overlooked in the field’s conceptualizations of engagement, as discussed in the following section on ‘Stakeholder and community engagement’.

Public relations research and practice frequently claim to include public affairs and the related practice of lobbying. However, public affairs—also referred to as corporate affairs and corporate public affairshas a distinct focus on monitoring and engagement in matters related to government policy, legislation, and regulation that affect corporations and other organizations as well as civic life. Harris, P., & Fleisher, C. (2005). The handbook of public affairs. Sage; Harris, P., & Fleisher, C. (2017). The SAGE handbook of international corporate and public affairs. Sage. The practice of lobbying drew its name from advocates meeting politicians in the lobby of the UK Houses of Parliament to present their case. Public affairs and its equivalents are mostly conducted behind closed doors and are operationalized through direct interpersonal communication with policy makers, legislators, and public administration officials supported by specialized documents such as submissions and research reports. Public affairs practitioners primarily engage in advocacy (one-way communication), wanting political and government leaders to listen to them. Public affairs is therefore not a key site of organizational listening.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the claim of ‘public relations’ to this area of practice is contested, with a review of public relations literature related to public affairs and lobbying concluding that “scholarship has privileged functional objectives over civic concerns” and arguing that if public relations asserts responsibility for this field, it should do so in “a manner that more equitably balances organizational and societal concerns”. Davidson, S. (2015). Everywhere and nowhere: Theorizing and researching public affairs and lobbying within public relations scholarship. Public Relations Review, 41(5), 615–627, p. 615. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2014.02.023

Strategic communication

The term strategic communication has increasingly come into use to refer to public communication undertaken by corporate, government, and non-government organizations to achieve goals and objectives. A pivotal point in development of strategic communication as a specific field of study and practice was an article published in the inaugural issue of the International Journal of Strategic Communication in 2007 by Kirk Hallahan and colleagues. They noted that strategic communication by an organization was widely understood as “purposeful use of communication to fulfil its mission” Hallahan, K., Holtzhausen, D., van Ruler, B., Verčič, D., & Sriramesh, K. (2007). Defining strategic communication. International Journal of Strategic Communication, 1(1), 3–35, p. 3. https://doi.org/10.1080/15531180701285244 [emphasis added]. In this view, stakeholders and publics are perceived as targets for persuasion and change in ways that serve the interests of the organization, not necessarily in ways that meet the needs or interests of stakeholders and publics

This approach reflected the origin of the term ‘strategy’, which is derived from the Greek noun strategia meaning ‘generalship’, historically associated with military planning, victory, and conquest. As noted by business and management scholar Henry Mintzberg, and others, 20th century management literature continued to associate strategy with power and decision-making Mintzberg, H. (1979). The structure of organisations. Prentice Hall. employed for organizational survival and efficiency. Perrow, C. (1992). Organizational theorists in a society of organizations. International Sociology, 7(3), 371–379. https://doi.org/10.1177/026858092007003008

Hallahan and colleagues mounted a concerted effort to redefine and rehabilitate the term strategic within public relations and communication theory. They argued that “part of the problem with the term strategic is that it has been strongly associated with a modernist approach to management” in which strategic communication “privileges a management discourse and emphasizes upper management’s goals for the organization as given and legitimate”. Hallahan et al., 2007, p. 11. They claimed that “alternative and more positive notions of strategy have … emerged since the 1950s” that “reject the use of strategic only in an asymmetrical context” Ibid, p. 13. and urged that “strategic must not be defined narrowly”. Ibid, p. 27.

Instead, Hallahan et al. argued that contemporary models of public relations are based on two-way transactional rather that one-way transmissional models of communication that recognize and engage stakeholders and publics in an inclusive ‘win-win’ process. In addition, they cited and supported Derina Holtzhausen’s view that strategic communication management includes recognition that organizational survival means that organizations must adhere to the dominant value systems of the environments in which they operate. Holtzhausen D. (2005). Public relations practice and political change in South Africa. Public Relations Review, 31(3), 407–416. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2005.05.011

In corporate communication literature, Joep Cornelissen has similarly stated that “strategy is about the organization and its environment” and that strategy involves “balancing the mission and vision of the organization … with what the environment will allow or encourage it to do”. “Strategy is therefore often adaptive”, according to Cornelissen. Cornelissen, J. (2011). Corporate communication: A guide to theory and practice (3rd ed.). Sage, p. 83.

Notwithstanding, strategic communication has come under criticism because of its inherent organization centricity Macnamara, J. (2016). Socially integrating PR and operationalising an alternative approach. In J. L’Etang, D. McKie, N. Snow & J. Xifra (Eds.), The Routledge handbook of critical public relations (pp. 335–348). Routledge; Macnamara, J., & Gregory, A. (2017, May). Escaping the spectre of organisation-centricity: Evaluation shows the need for a stakeholder turn in strategic communication. Paper presented to the International Communication Association (ICA) pre-conference, Future Directions of Strategic Communication: Towards the Second Decade of an Emerging Field, San Diego, California.—its focus on serving the interests of the organization, potentially at the expense of stakeholders’ and societal interests. Also, Priscilla Murphy has noted that “control has long been a troublesome issue in strategic communication”. Murphy, P. (2015). Contextual distortion: Strategic communication versus the contextual nature or nearly everything. In D. Holtzhausen & A. Zerfass (Eds.), The Routledge handbook of strategic communication (pp. 113–126). Routledge.

In The International Encylopedia of Strategic Communication published in 2018, Heath, R., Johansen, W., Hallahan, K., Steyn, B., Falkheimer, J. & Raupp, J. (2018). Strategic communication. In R. Heath & W. Johansen (Eds.), The International Encyclopedia of Strategic Communication (pp. 1–24). Wiley-Blackwell. co-editor Bob Heath and colleagues point out that strategic communication is conceptualized in four main ways as follows:

  1. An umbrella term to collectively refer to closely related practices such as public relations, corporate communication, marketing communication, etc. as a way of overcoming the blurred boundaries, overlaps, and multifarious nomenclature in these inter-related fields of practice. In this use, strategic communication does not denote a specific approach, but serves a utilitarian purpose as an overarching description;

  2. A replacement for public relations to avoid negative connotations and its association with spin and propaganda. In their 2007 paper, Kirk Hallahan and colleagues noted that “strategic communication has been used synonymously for public relations in much of the literature”. Hallahan, et al., 2007, p. 9. This use involves a rebadging of existing practices without a characteristically different approach;

  3. A cross-functional concept to facilitate integration and coordination. In this approach, the siloes of public relations, corporate communication, internal communication, etc. remain as functional units, but strategic denotes efforts to ensure common objectives and messaging aligned to organizational goals;

  4. A meta process that involves a different way of thinking about and a change to the key characteristics of organization-public communication.

Drawing on Stanley Deetz’s identification of the twin purposes of communication—participation and effectiveness Deetz, S. (1992). Democracy in an age of corporate colonization: Developments in communication and the politics of everyday life. State University of New York. In this text, Deetz advocates that communication should involve engagement with and participation of those addressed (i.e., be two-way), but also notes that in some circumstances a focus on effectively achieving persuasion of others (one-way) is justified.—Jesper Falkheimer and Mats Heide called on scholars and practitioners in a 2011 International Communication Association (ICA) preconference on strategic communication and in articles and chapters published subsequently to “break the dominant approach to strategic communication” that has focused on control, persuasion and organizational effectiveness, and adopt a participatory approach. Falkheimer, J., & Heide, M. (2015). Strategic communication in participatory culture: From one- and two-way communication to participatory communication through social media. In D. Holtzhausen & A. Zerfass (Eds.), The Routledge handbook of strategic communication (pp. 337–350). Routledge. In a pragmatic compromise, Simon Torp called for incorporation of the duality that Deetz identified in communication—open to participation while at the same time not abandoning the organizational imperative to represent and advocate its interests and seek to persuade. Torp, S. (2015). The strategic turn in communication science: On the history and role of strategy in science from ancient Greece until the present day. In D. Holtzhausen & A. Zerfass (Eds.), The Routledge handbook of strategic communication (pp. 34–52). Routledge. Priscilla Murphy argued for a networked approach to developing strategic communication, Murphy, 2011, 2015. while Cynthia King advocated emergent strategic communication King, C. (2010). Emergent communication strategies. International Journal of Strategic Communication, 4(1), 19–38. https://doi.org/10.1080/15531180903415814—an approach that develops strategy collaboratively through engagement and dialogue with stakeholders.

Participatory, networked, adaptive, and emergent approaches to strategy development are increasingly advocated in management literature. As early as 1978, eminent business and management studies scholar Henry Mintzberg argued that organizational strategy needed to progress from traditional top-down organization-centric approaches to become adaptive and emergent, taking account of the views of stakeholders and the environment as well as pursuing the objectives of the organization. Mintzberg, H. (1978). Patterns in strategy formation. Management Science, 24(9), 231–255. https://doi.org/10.1287/mnsc.24.9.934; Mintzberg, H., & Waters, J. (1985). Of strategies, deliberate and emergent. Strategic Management Journal, 6(2), 257–272. https://doi.org/10.1002/smj.4250060306 (See Figure 3.1.)

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Figure 3.1. How emergent strategy emerges through combining input from stakeholders as well as the organization’s strategic objectives. Based on Mintzberg, 1978, 1985; Mintzberg, H., Lampel, J., Quinn, J., & Ghoshal, S. (2003). The strategy process: Concepts, contexts, cases. Prentice Hall

Emergent strategy can only occur through active listening to key stakeholders. Thus, organizational listening is supported by contemporary management theory. However, the following chapter reporting empirical research shows that organizations very often fail to put this theory into practice.

More recently, change management lecturer at MIT and co-founder of the MITx u.lab, Otto Scharmer, has gone further and advocated what he calls Theory U that argues for an full about turn from top-down organization-centric approaches towards engagement, collective active, collaboration, and co-production. Scharmer, O. (2009). Leading from the future as it emerges. Berrett-Koehler Publishers; Scharmer, O. (2007–2021 Creative Commons). Theory U. https://www.u-school.org/aboutus/theory-u Management theorists and consultants are also increasingly focussing on adaptive systems theory rather than basic systems theory that spawned one-way, top down transmissional mass communication models.

Designers, architects, and many areas of business are embracing design thinking, which focuses on understanding human needs, framing or re-framing problems in human-centric ways, and ideating, prototyping, and testing solutions collaboratively with potential users, rather than imposing the views of so-called experts. Design thinking requires listening to stakeholders.

Health communication has adopted a social ecology model, Panter-Brick, C., Clarke, S., Lomas, H., Pinder, M., & Lindsay, S. (2006). Culturally compelling strategies for behaviour changes: A social ecology model and case study in malaria prevention. Social Science & Medicine, 62, 2810–2825. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2005.10.009 which seeks to understand the social dimensions of health, and a culture-centred approach Dutta, M., Anaele, A., & Jones, C. (2013). Voices of hunger: Addressing health disparities through the culture-centered approach. Journal of Communication, 63(1), 159–180. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcom.12009 that emphasizes sensitivity towards the social and cultural environment by engaging collaboratively with service users and other stakeholders. Clearly, this requires listening.

However, despite efforts over the past decade to broaden understanding of strategic communication and despite significant developments in management theory, discussion of strategic communication remains organization-centric in many quarters. For example, a 2017 journal article on communication strategy states narrowly: “communications [sic] need to serve the overall strategic goals of a company and help to fulfil its mission”. Volk, S., Berger, K., Zerfass, A., Bisswanger, L., Fetzer, M., & Köhler, K. (2017). How to play the game: Strategic tools for managing corporate communications and creating value for your organization. Communication Insights, 3, 1–43. Academic Society for Management & Communication. www.academic-society.net This description is doubly narrow in focussing specifically on business (i.e., company) interests. Tellingly, the article is titled ‘How to play the game’.

A full-day preconference on strategic communication at the 2017 International Communication Association (ICA) conference in San Diego revealed continuing functionalist and behaviourist thinking. Conflicting views and debate were pursued in a special issue of the International Journal of Strategic Communication published in early 2018 to mark a decade since Hallahan et al.’s paper.

Furthermore, a chapter in the International Encyclopedia of Strategic Communication published in 2018 reported that strategic communication professionals are “charged with the support of organizational thinking and action around strategy”. Buhmann, A., & Likely, F. (2018). Evaluation and measurement in strategic communication. In R. Heath & W. Johansen (Eds.), The International Encyclopedia of Strategic Communication (pp. 1–16). Wiley-Blackwell. The phrase ‘support of organizational thinking’ leaves little or no room for counselling organizations to alter or change their thinking or actions. It puts public relations and other forms of strategic communication entirely in the service of power. It shows the claim of ‘boundary spanning’ Grunig, J., & Hunt, T. (1984). Managing public relations. Holt, Rinehart & Winston, p. 9; Grunig et al., 2002. to be what Kant would call an “unwarranted pretension to merit”. Kant, I. (1992), Lectures on Logic, 27, as cited in Dillon, R. (2015), Humility, arrogance, and self-respect in Kant and Hill. In M. Timmons & R. Johnson (Eds.), Reason, value and respect (pp. 42–69). Oxford University Press, p. 57. It renders claims of dialogue, engagement, and relationships that are central to contemporary theories of public relations and corporate and government communication hollow and unrealized.

Organization centricity, and particularly a narrow focus on serving the needs of business, are particularly evident in North American theories and practices of public relations and corporate communication. In European conceptualizations of strategic communication and communication management, managerial and operational roles align to the dominant US paradigm. European claims of a reflective role Van Ruler, B., & Verčič, D. (2004). Overview of public relations and communication management in Europe. In B. van Ruler & D. Verčič (Eds.), Public relations and communication management in Europe (pp. 1–11). Mouton de Gruyter; Van Ruler, B., & Verčič, D. (2005). Reflective communication management, future ways for public relations research. In P. Kalbfleisch (Ed.), Communication yearbook 29 (pp. 238–273). Lawrence Erlbaum; van Ruler, B., Verčič, D., Bütschi, G., & Flodin, B. (2001). Public relations in Europe: A kaleidoscopic picture. Journal of Communication Management, 6(2), 166–175; Verčič, D., van Ruler, B., Bütschi, G., & Flodin, B. (2001). On the definition of public relations: A European view. Public Relations Review, 27(4), 373–387. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0363–8111(01)00095–9 and an educational role Verčič et al., 2001. offer promise for an alternative approach that better balances interests and power relations in organization-public relationships (OPR). The reflective role involves analyzing standards and values in society and discussing these with organization management to adjust the standards and values of the organization to ensure social responsibility and maintain legitimacy. The educational role involves helping members of the organization become sensitive to social demands and expectations and communicatively competent to respond appropriately to those social demands.

Calls for broader perspectives of strategic communication do not argue that organizations, whether they be corporations, government departments and agencies, or NGOs, need to abandon their purpose and objectives and always bow to stakeholder interests or public opinion. At times, public opinion can be misguided, and public behaviour can be undesirable (e.g., smoking, eating habits that promote obesity, polarized views in politics, etc.). Stanley Deetz’s dual roles of communication—participation and effectiveness—and Simon Torp’s call for a balanced approach including openness to participation (e.g., stakeholder engagement and consultation), while at the same time not abandoning the organizational imperative to represent and advocate its interests, offer a practical, ethical, and socially responsible way forward.

Beyond practices of strategic communication, scholars such as Ansgar Zerfass argue that strategic communication is a field of research that examines all types of purposeful public communication by organizations. This is a productive approach as, too often, strategic communication that is considered undesirable such as propaganda, disinformation, and techniques used by cults and terrorist organizations, are swept under the rug of reified normative practices. This critical research dimension of strategic communication offers promise of new insights and understandings. But, as a field of practice, strategic communication mostly follows traditional top-down, one-way approaches to inform and persuade.

The characteristics of traditional approaches and contemporary views of strategic communication are summarized in Table 3.1. This shows that traditional approaches to strategy development and strategic communication offer little scope for listening to organization stakeholders. However, emergent organization strategy and emergent strategic communication offer promise—albeit such thinking is hard to find in practice.

Table 3.1. Characteristics of strategic communication—traditional and emergent approaches.

Traditional strategic communication

‘Emergent’ strategic communication

Aligned to organizational goals and objectives

Aligned to organizational goals and objectives

Long-term focussed

Long-term focussed

Outcomes oriented

Outcomes oriented

Organization centric (i.e., focussed only or primarily on the interests of the organization)

Considers the interests of stakeholders and society and seeks mutual outcomes

Controlled as far as possible by the organization (e.g., paid media advertising and one-way information transmission)

Seeks engagement, collaboration and even co-production through stakeholder consultation and participation

Social media

Since the early 2000s, new much-lauded opportunities for organization-public communication have emerged in the form of social media. Today, most organizations and more than 4.5 billion individuals in the world use social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, LinkedIn, WeChat (Weixin), QQ, and Sina Weibo.

The important characteristic of social media in the context of this analysis is that they are open source—i.e., open for anyone to post content and comment. And billions of organizations and individuals do every day. Therefore, they are also sites where organizations can listen to posts and conversations expressing the interests, concerns, and views of organizations and individuals

Social media are defined in literature as “a group of internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0 and that allow the creation and exchange of user generated content”. Kaplan, R., & Haenlein, M. (2010). Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of social media. Business Horizons, 53(1), 59–68, p. 61. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bushor.2009.09.003 This definition is useful in that it draws attention to the ideological as well as the technological dimensions of social media. In his popular text, Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins emphasized that Web 2.0 is about culture more than technology, particularly a “participatory culture”. Jenkins, H. (2006b). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. New York University Press, p. 243. José Van Dijck states:

The very word ‘social’ associated with media implies that platforms are user centred and that they facilitate communal activities … indeed social media can be seen as online facilitators or enhancers of human networks—webs of people that promote connectedness as a social value. Van Dijck, J. (2013). The culture of connectivity: A critical history of social media. Oxford University Press, p. 11.

Most organizations now monitor social as well as traditional media through media monitoring agencies and many also subscribe to media content analysis services that summarize online discussion on specified topics and identify the reach and potential influence of content with metrics such as impressions (total potential audience), sentiment, and the number of views of pages, videos, follows, likes, shares, and retweets.

However, monitoring of social media—sometimes described and over-stated as social listeningis predominantly focussed on tracking mentions of organizations’ own brands, products, services, and topics of interest to the extent that some refer to social media evaluation reports as “vanity metrics”. Bartholomew, D. (2016). Metrics man: It doesn’t count unless you can count (Z. Chen, Ed.). Business Expert Press, p. 97.

A substantial body of research indicates that organizational use of social media is primarily for one-way transmission of their messages, such as promoting products, services, and brands through posts as well as paid advertising. In his critical introduction to social media, Christian Fuchs rejects early cyberoptimism about ‘new media’, arguing that “alternative online media can easily become commodified and transformed into capitalist businesses”. Fuchs, C. (2014). Social media: A critical introduction. Sage, p. 63. Also, other scholars report empirical studies that show the potential of social media is not necessarily realized in practice—particularly when used by governments and corporations that are intent on getting their messages across. For example, Michael Kent, who co-developed dialogic theory of public relations, has reported: “If we look at the use of social media by most large corporations, we see that the communication tools that were invented for ‘sociality’ are typically used in a one-way fashion to push messages out to publics”. Kent, M. (2013). Using social media dialogically: Public relations role in reviving democracy. Public Relations Review, 39, 337–345, p. 342. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2013.07.024. Maureen Taylor and Michael Kent similarly noted that “most social media engagement articles find engagement via social media to be a one-way communication process from an organization to followers or friends, rather than constituting any sort of participatory or interactive engagement”. Taylor & Kent, 2014, p. 386. Recent empirical research reported in the following chapter affirms this continuing transmissional focus in social as well as other media.

Stakeholder and community engagement

Engagement, which is defined in Chapter 2, is an objective of many, if not all, the practices discussed in this chapter. That is not to say that engagement is achieved in all these practices. As noted in Chapter 2, the term engagement is used frequently to describe even the most basic and superficial connections such as online clicks. Engagement should occur at a more substantial level in practices such as customer relations, employee relations, public relations, and many of the other practices discussed in this chapter.

In addition, some organizations have a specific function or team responsible for stakeholder engagement, also referred to as stakeholder relations, or community relations in the case of organizations seeking engagement with local residents or groups impacted by or seeking to impact their operations. Open, inclusive, effective listening should be central to the work of such functions in organizations, but as we will see in empirical research reported in the following chapter, this is not always the case. Very often when organizations profess to want engagement, they are seeking stakeholders such as employees and customers to engage with them and not considering or committing to engaging in genuine dialogue with their stakeholders.

Also, scholarly and professional texts on engagement, while offering noteworthy definitions and identifying key principles, mostly fail to give appropriate attention to listening by organizations—and sometimes don’t mention listening at all. For example, in an otherwise excellent chapter titled ‘Engagement’ in The International Encyclopedia of Strategic Communication, Kim Johnston does not mention listening either by the organization or its stakeholders. Johnston, K. (2018). Engagement. In R. Heath & W. Johansen (Eds.), The International Encyclopedia of Strategic Communication (pp. 1–9). International Communication Association (ICA) and Wiley-Blackwell. In a journal article on building “relational capital” through engagement, Johnston and Anne Lane mention listening once briefly, citing this author’s research and saying that engagement “must include adequate time for both deliberation and listening”. Johnston, K., & Lane. A. (2018). Building relational capital: The contribution of episodic and relational community engagement. Public Relations Review, 44(5), 633–644, p. 641. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2018.10.006 In The Handbook of Communication Engagement, Anne Lane and Michael Kent provide a detailed review of the interconnected concepts of engagement and dialogue but, as noted previously, listening is mentioned only once in stating that one of the characteristics of dialogic orientation is to “take time to listen, to reflect, and to respond”. Lane & Kent, 2018, p. 65. Despite a shift from transaction approaches to relationship marketing and engagement, listening is also discussed infrequently and marginally in marketing literature, such as three brief mentions in the recent 328-page book, Customer Engagement Marketing edited by Robert Palmatier and colleagues. Palmatier, R., Kumar, V., & Harmeling, C. (Eds.). (2018). Customer engagement marketing. Palgrave Macmillan. The purpose of this critique is to point out that listening in and by organizations is mostly presumed as part of engagement and dialogue. While many of these authors undoubtedly support listening in principle, such texts do not give sufficient guidance to practitioners in a field that focusses heavily on voice, messages, producing content, and storytelling.

Public consultation

Another significant public communication function undertaken by many organizations, and mandated in some circumstances, is public consultation. Consultation with industry, businesses, and communities that are impacted by the policies and the operations of organizations, particularly government and ‘big business’, is expected in developed democracies. In the very least, people and organizations negatively impacted by plans and decisions feel that they have a right to be consulted and their interests taken into consideration. More broadly, literature on policy and politics notes that in democracies, “citizens are no longer perceived as the passive recipient of public benefits but rather as an active part of a common solution to social problems, bringing experiential expertise and local knowledge”. Durose, C., Justice, J., & Skelcher, C. (2015). Governing at arm’s length: Eroding or enhancing democracy? Policy and Politics, 43(1), 137–153, p. 139. https://doi.org/10.1332/030557314X14029325020059 This is especially the case when organizations seek to make decisions, implement policies, or develop projects that directly affect and relate to particular communities, regions, industries, or specialist groups such as health workers, teachers, farmers, small businesses, people with disabilities, Indigenous people, and so on. People in these groups have first-hand knowledge and lived experience that is not available to ‘outsiders’ including professional experts and can constructively contribute to decisions and actions. In a guide for online citizen engagement, the OECD cites Stephen Coleman and John Gotze who say:

The old dichotomy between experts and the public is false and sterile. Considerable expertise resides within the public (which is made up, after all, of doctors, nurses, entrepreneurs, police officers, social workers, victims of crime, teachers, elders) and the trick is to find innovative ways of drawing out the expertise and feeding it into the hitherto bureaucratized decision-making process. Coleman, S. & Gotze, J. (2001), Bowling together: Online public engagement in policy deliberation. Hansard Society, p. 12; cited in Organizational for Economic Development and Cooperation (2003). Promise and problems of e-democracy: Challenges on online citizen engagement, p. 65. https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/governance/promise-and-problems-of-e-democracy_9789264019492-en

The importance of listening to and considering lived experience and local knowledge is discussed in some detail in the case studies reported in the following chapter.

Bodies such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the National Collaborating Centre for Methods and Tools (NCCMT) for citizen engagement differentiate consultation from communication and participation, although the practices are inter-related. Interestingly, in discussing government, the NCCMT states that in public communication “information is disseminated from the government to the public”. National Collaborating Centre for Methods and Tools. (2022). Engaging citizens for decision making. McMaster University, para. 3. http://www.nccmt.ca/registry/view/eng/86.html This reflects the misunderstanding that communication is a one-way process of transmitting information, as discussed in Chapter 1. Notwithstanding, the Centre goes on to state that in public consultation “government asks for public input on a specific policy issue” while, drawing on the Handbook on Citizen Engagement: Beyond Consultation, Sheedy, A., MacKinnon, M. Pitre, S., & Watling, J. (2008). Handbook on citizen engagement: Beyond consultation. Canadian Policy Research Networks. https://atrium.lib.uoguelph.ca/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10214/3133/Sheedy_Handbook_on_Citizen_Engagement-_Beyond_Consultation_complete.pdf;sequence = 26 it defines public participation as an even deeper level of engagement and exchange of information between stakeholders and government. National Collaborating Centre for Methods and Tools, 2022, para. 3.

The OECD similarly describes three forms of interaction between organizations and stakeholders as (1) notification; (2) consultation; and (3) participation. Rodrigo, D., & Amo, P. (2006). Background document on public consultation. Paper prepared for the Regulatory Policy Division, Public Governance and Territorial Development Directorate, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, p. 1. https://www.oecd.org/mena/governance/36785341.pdf Within consultation, the OECD identifies several levels or types as follows.

  • Informal public consultationThis involves discretionary ad hoc contacts between government or other organizations and their stakeholders and publics. This may occur in telephone calls, letters, emails, and informal meetings. There are differing views on the merits and ethics of informal public consultation. Informal contacts are common and encouraged in some countries such as the UK and Australia, but they are viewed suspiciously in the US. Critics argue that governments and organizations selectively seek input to support and justify their preferred position through informal, non-regulated public consultation. On the other hand, some see informal consultation as more flexible, dynamic, and accessible, being free of the fixed schedule and structure of formal consultation.

  • Circulation for comment –The first level of formal public consultation involves circulation of draft policies or proposals to those affected or likely to have an interest. This approach is more systematic, structured, and often has some basis in law, regulations, or policy within jurisdictions (i.e., it can be a legal requirement for some policy-making processes or projects). However, this process is seen as insufficiently open and transparent because the organizer maintains control over who is invited to comment.

  • Public notice and call for commentThis second level of formal public consultation is more open, transparent, and even-handed as it involves issuance of a public notice, usually through mass media, inviting all interested parties to comment. Such measures were adopted in the US as early as 1946 and a ‘public notice and comment’ system continues today.

  • Public hearingsA third level of formal public consultation is the conduct of public hearings, which are widely advertised and open to all, and which involve contributors presenting their submissions in person. A benefit of public hearings is that all presentations and submissions are available to be seen and read by others at the time of presentation, allowing response and second-round submissions if required.

Methods and mechanisms used as part of public consultation include many of the methods and tools of community and citizen engagement (see more details on these in Chapter 6 under ‘Community relations and citizen engagement’). These include:

  • Public meetings, often referred to as ‘town halls’;

  • Citizen juriessmaller groups of 12 or more people invited to comment on proposals, projects, and policies. They normally meet for two to seven days on nominated topics or issues; Involve. (2022). Citizen jury. https://involve.org.uk/resources/methods/citizens-jury

  • Citizen assembliesgroups of people, usually randomly selected, brought together to discuss an issue, or issues, and make recommendations, often involving quite large groups and national-level deliberations; New Democracy Foundation. (2022). Enabling national initiatives to take democracy beyond elections, p. 218. https://www.newdemocracy.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/newDemocracy-UNDEF-Handbook.pdf

  • Mini-publicsa term referring to small to medium-size groups that are representative of larger communities or populations, also referred to as deliberative mini-publics; Rountree, J., Anderson, C., Reedy, J., & Nowlin M. (2022). The internal dynamics of ‘scaling up’ deliberative mini-publics. Communication and the Public, 7(3), 146–164, p. 148. https://doi.org/10.1177/20570473221106025

  • Deliberative pollspolls of a representative sample of a population that provide participants with information about the issue to be discussed in advance to facilitate deliberation and responses based on informed opinion (see Chapter 6, ‘Research’);

  • Advisory boards and groups;

  • Focus groups;

  • Surveys;

  • Consensus building exercises such as consensus conferences and dialogues;

  • Online sites for submissions, comments, or discussion ranging from open websites (see Figures 3.2 to 3.4) to specialist applications such as Citizen Space (https://www.delib.net/citizen_space).

[INSERT FIGURE 3.2 ABOUT HERE]

Figure 3.2. A Gov.UK online public consultation site. https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/draft-regulations-alcoholic-products-excise-duty-regulations

Figure 3.2 is an example of an online public consultation conducted by a UK government department. The top of the landing page includes the subject, the department or agency conducting the consultation, and a summary of what the consultation is about. Immediately below this (see Figure 3.3 from the same web page), is a more detailed description; a link to documents providing background information; and details of how to submit comments. In this case, email submissions are sought, while in other cases comments can be directly entered on the web page or attached as a document.

[INSERT FIGURE 3.3 ABOUT HERE]

Figure 3.3. Figure 3.2 continued. Ibid.

The US Regulations.gov https://www.regulations.gov public consultation site has a submission page for each consultation, which has an introduction with background information on the topic on which visitors can click ‘Comment’ to access a screen that allows them to type comments directly online and/or attach up to 20 documents. The page also usefully includes a link to a ‘Comments Checklist’ that provides tips on what to include. In most online public consultation sites visitors can view submissions made by others, which provides further context.

While all the discussed methods and mechanisms used for public consultation provide opportunities for stakeholders and interested parties (stakeseekers) to have their say and make an input to decision making, they all suffer from limitations. Advisory boards and groups involve selection of members. All methods require motivation on the part of citizens and community organizations and an investment of time and effort (e.g., travel to meetings; participation in advisory boards, panels, or juries, reading online information to become informed, etc.). People working two jobs, women and men with children or adult carer responsibilities, and particularly people in low socioeconomic groups, under-educated members of society, and people lacking local language fluency typically do not come forward in public consultations. The result is that elites and the ‘usual suspects’ dominate many discussions.

As noted previously, organizations such as the OECD and some academic researchers argue for an even higher level of citizen engagement in the form of public participation in decision making and policy making. Sherry Arnstein’s ‘ladder of participation’ identifies consultation as only slightly higher than “informing” and categorizes it, along with informing and “placation”, as “tokenism”. She argues that “partnership” and “delegated power” are required for true participation, with the ultimate level of participation being “citizen control.” Arnstein, S. (1969). A ladder of citizen participation. Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 35(4), 216–224. https://doi.org/10.1080/01944366908977225 (See Figure 3.4.)

[INSERT FIGURE 3.4 ABOUT HERE]

Figure 3.5. Sherry Arnstein’s ‘ladder of participation’. https://www.nsw.gov.au/have-your-say

More recently, the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) has provided a range of training materials and guidelines including the IAP2 Public Participation Spectrum, which broadly reflects Arnstein’s ladder listing five key stages or levels of participation as follows:

  • Inform (to provide the public with balanced and objective information);

  • Consult (to obtain public feedback);

  • Involve (to work directly with the public throughout the process);

  • Collaborate (to partner with the public in each aspect of the decision);

  • Empower (to place final decision making in the hands of the public). International Association for Public Participation. (2023). The IAP2 public participation spectrum. https://iap2.org.au/resources/spectrum

It is questionable whether the higher rungs in Arnstein’s ladder and the IAP2 recommendation to empower the public to make final decisions are realistic, especially in relation to highly technical infrastructure projects and matters requiring scientific knowledge such as disease control. Nevertheless, the gap between consultation, which is often tokenistic and perfunctory, and participation is worthy of close attention. Examination of proposals, plans, and policies pre- and post-consultation often reveals little and sometimes no difference, as shown in case studies reported in the following chapter.

Public consultation is a key component of creating open government. Governments of most democratic countries have a stated commitment to open government through the Open Government Partnership (OGP), https://www.opengovpartnership.org a collaboration of government leaders and civil society advocates from 76 countries and more than 100 local government representing more than two billion people. The OGP, which was established in 2011, seeks to promote transparency, participation, inclusiveness, and accountability in government.

For example, the UK published its Fifth National Action Plan for Open Government 2021–2023 (NAP5) in January 2022 listing six commitments including open and transparent government contracting and, notably in view of contemporary issues of concern, “algorithmic transparency and accountability”. Department of Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport. (2022, January 31). Open government: UK policies on openness, transparency and public accountability. https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/open-government

In the final days of 2022, the Biden-Harris Administration released the Fifth US Open Government National Action Plan, The White House. (2022, December). Fifth US open government national action plan. https://open.usa.gov/assets/files/NAP5-fifth-open-government-national-action-plan.pdf saying it was designed to achieve “more inclusive, responsive, and accountable government”. The White House. (2022, December 28). White House releases fifth US open government national action plan to advance a more inclusive, responsive, and accountable government, para. 1. https://www.whitehouse.gov/ostp/news-updates/2022/12/28/white-house-releases-fifth-open-government-national-action-plan-to-advance-a-more-inclusive-responsive-and-accountable-government The plan includes commitments to engage the public in regulatory processes and increase public access to government records and data. Also, a key theme announced was to “increase civic space to engage the public”. Ibid, para. 5. The plan was reportedly based on “months of engagement with the public, including six public engagement sessions with hundreds of participants, over 700 public comments, and consultations with a range of civil society organizations.” Ibid, para. 1.

Whether the US and UK governments and other governments with similar commitments achieve such aspirations, only time will tell.

Case study: National Commission for Public Debate

A noteworthy example of public consultation with a focus on genuine participation being mandated and conducted in rigorous and professionalized ways is the Commission Nationale du Débat Public (National Commission for Public Debate) in France. https://www.debatpublic.fr/en The Commission (CNDP) was established in 1995 with a particular focus on protecting the environment, and since 2005 its powers are guaranteed under the Charter for the Environment which enshrines the principle of participation in the French Constitution.

In its 25 years, the CNDP has organized more than 120 public debates on major projects, overseen almost 300 public consultations, and carried out more than 50 consultancies in which is provides advice to organizations. Also, it has convened 25 citizens’ assemblies—the highest level of public consultation in France. While the CNPD provides independent “guarantors” to oversee public debates and consultations, as well as advisers to organizations, the organizations responsible for projects and plans pay the cost of public debates and consultations.

The threshold for mandatory public debate on projects was increased from €300 million to €600 million in 2016, with such public debates mainly focussed on major infrastructure projects. However, the CNDP’s powers and role were significantly expanded in 2016 when ordinances introduced new rights to request public consultation. These included a provision for owners of smaller projects to voluntarily refer their projects to the CNDP so that it appoints a person responsible for “guaranteeing” consultation, and a provision for representatives from the public to request the CNDP instigate a consultation. Also, some plans and programs with a significant impact on the environment are automatically subject to mandatory participation procedures, such as the national energy program and the National Strategic Plan for the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Evaluations following public debates show that they have a substantial and systematic impact on projects, with 58% modified in terms of their design and main characteristics and the governance procedures of almost all projects strengthened through consultation.

One of the concerns raised about high levels of public consultation such as mandated procedures is that they can substantially add to the cost of projects and even make them unviable and lead to their cancellation. However, the CNDP reports that only three projects have been abandoned following public debate as mandated in France.

In a public lecture at the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2015 reported in the first edition of this book, then vice president of the NCPD, Professor Laurence Monnoyer-Smith, pointed out that the success of large-scale public consultation rested on inclusion and having “reasoned argument” in the spirit of Habermas’s “rational-critical debate” (öffentliches räsonnement) by informed citizens, Habermas, J. (1989). The structural transformation of the public sphere. Polity, p. 28. (Original work published 1962) which many argue is not always possible. For example, James Curran warns of the “idealization of public reason”. Curran, J. (2002). Media and power. Routledge, p. 45. Peter Dahlgren says “there is not much chance that a vast majority of people of a Western liberal democracy will become ‘active citizens’ or even well-informed citizens”. Dahlgren, P. (2009). Media and political engagement: Citizens, communication and democracy. Cambridge University Press, p. 13. Monnoyer-Smith also warned that mandated public debates can lead to the “mobilization of opposition” and even “radicalization of opposition” when activist groups use public debates as platforms to build their profile and membership, and that institutionalized public consultation can lead to “participation fatigue”. However, on balance she acknowledged that mandated public debate on major projects forced big companies to consult rather that ride rough-shod over communities and recognized the positive contribution that local knowledge can make in many projects. Monnoyer-Smith, L. (2015, January 28). Institutionalizing public deliberation: Empowerment or appeasement? Public lecture at London School of Economics and Political Science.

In an interview with Vice-President of the NCPD, Floran Augagneur, in his office in the Ministère de la Transition Écologique on Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris in November 2022, he emphasized that a key principle of consultation and participation in France was giving people a say before policies are enacted and projects are commenced. Another key principle emphasized by Floran Augagneur, who had been a Vice-President of the CNDP for five years at the time of the interview, is proactive outreach to affected communities, which addresses concerns about inclusion. This underlines a key recommendation of The Organizational Listening Project as reported in the following chapter. He said: “Outreach is essential to achieve social equity and representativeness.” Floran Augagneur, personal communication, November 10, 2022. He gave an impressive example of outreach in explaining that during the COVID–19 pandemic when many people were not able or confident to leave their homes, the CNDP organized for consultation staff to go "porte à porte [door to door] in poor areas and marginalized communities to get people’s comments on plans and projects”. Ibid.

The CNDP implements public consultation and participation through a range of methods including meetings with community and actions groups, “public reunions” (‘town hall’ meetings), and visits to and discussions in schools, universities, and even shopping malls. Emphasis is on reaching out to citizens and stakeholders, rather than passively inviting, and then waiting for input. The Commission also uses innovative methods. Vice-President Augagneur proudly explained that the CNDP has produced an ‘app’ for children to ask their families questions and then submit them online. The cell phone application provides an element of fun and engages the next generation in mobilizing participation. Also, in a major initiative, the CNDP is using virtual reality (VR) to produce images of what projects will look like to assist people in forming an opinion and commenting. Floran Augagneur said:

It is difficult for people to envisage what a project, such as a new airport runway, or a freeway, or other major construction projects will look like. By providing them with visualizations, they are able to see into the future and make informed comment. Ibid.

Another planned initiative of the CNDP is to take public consultation into hair salons. “These are hubs where people gather and talk to catch up on local news.” Ibid. This outreach approach reflects the marketing slogan ‘fish where the fish are’.

Two further important points made by Floran Augagneur were in relation to deliberation and response. On the former, he said:

We believe organizations need to think differently about deliberation. The CNDP takes a fundamentally different approach to deliberation. Asking people to read information to become informed before giving feedback and input through forums or surveys takes up their time, leading to participation fatigue. Instead, the CNDP calls for input and publishes weekly summaries of input received for others to see, consider, and comment on if they wish. We also use local media to publish input received. So, we are creating deliberation in real time. People can follow debates and discussions and not have to invest a lot of time in doing homework.

Ultimately, he agreed that the key to effectiveness and value in public consultation and participation is “what do organizations do with public input”. This align to the ‘Seven Canons of Listening’ noted in Chapter 2, which include “giving consideration” and “responding in an appropriate way”.

Other countries have adopted similar structures and systems, including Italy. For examples, in Tuscany, public consultation and participation in relation to policies and projects is overseen by the Authority of the Promotion of Participation which shares many of the same powers and functions as the French CNDP. Participedia. (2022). https://participedia.net/method/5082

Case study: NSW Department of Customer Service

The New South Wales (NSW) State Government in Australia has ambitiously adopted a mission “to be the world’s most customer-centric government”. https://www.nsw.gov.au/nsw-government/projects-and-initiatives/towards-a-customer-centric-government Its initiatives to be a world leader in customer experience are spearheaded through the Department of Customer Service. There are signs that the department is on the way to achieving this. The department has improved services and streamlined and simplified a wide range of interactions with government, initially through Service NSW booths located in shopping centres and other convenient locations and, recently, via the Service NSW website (https://www.service.nsw.gov.au) and an easy-to-use Service NSW mobile ‘app’. The Service NSW website and mobile app guide citizens through a wide range of transactions from registering a birth to accessing a COVID–19 digital vaccination certificate, and many transactions such as renewing a motor vehicle registration can be done online in minutes by simply scanning the vehicle’s registration plate. Previously, renewing a car registration involved a trip to a Motor Registry, waiting in long queues, and hand writing information into lengthy forms.

In relation to public consultation, the department has recognized and acknowledged that in the past they were “fragmented” with “limited feedback options”, “not accessible or inclusive”, “poorly promoted”; “difficult to analyze” and often highly “technical”. This resulted in high cost to government agencies, low response rates, and wasted time with “data and insights kept in siloes” and those data not being representative of wider community views. Camper, A. (2022, September 27). Genuine customer engagement informing government decisions. Presentation to the OECD Conference on Effective Public Communication: Better Connecting with Citizens. Department of Customer Service, NSW Government.

In addition to its Service NSW ‘app’, the department has recently introduced a new Have your Say platform (see Figure 3.5) designed to make it easy for citizens to find public consultations and contribute comments on government policy, projects, and services. In public surveys to evaluate response, one NSW resident commented: “I like being able to search what ‘Have your Say’ consultations are happening in my own community and all the information that’s including to find out how I can be involved”. Another said: “I felt I was able to provide feedback on how the service could be improved to better meet my needs.” Ibid, pp. 4, 6.

The department has conducted almost 100 consultations on the new platform and surveys show that 88% of participants report that it is easy to provide feedback on the site. Ibid, p. 15.

A key element of the strategy of the Department of Customer Service and a key to the success of its Have your Say platform is that it actively promotes the platform to create wide public awareness. Promotion includes paid media advertising, social media posts, media releases to generate publicity, and electronic direct mail (eDM). Ibid, p. 13.

In its examination of public communication by governments worldwide with a focus on citizen and stakeholder engagement, the OECD Open Government Unit has identified the NSW Department of Customer Service as an exemplar, along with the UK Government Communication Service (GCS).

[INSERT FIGURE 3.5 ABOU THERE]

Figure 3.5. NSW Government ‘Have your Say’ public consultation site. https://www.nsw.gov.au/have-your-say

Case study: New Democracy Foundation Citizen Assemblies

In late 2022, the New Democracy Foundation completed a series of citizen assemblies in three developing countries under the theme Democracy Beyond Elections funded by the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF). The New Democracy Foundation, founded by Australian businessman Luca Belgiorno-Nettis in 2004, initiated the citizen assemblies on topics such as the operation of Constituency Development Funds (CDFs) because local constituents, the intended beneficiaries of these development funds, reportedly lack knowledge of the guidelines applying to such funds and lack input to decisions. As a result, many never see the benefits of funds intended to reduce poverty through developing local industry.

One independent review has reported that public policy scholars have become increasingly interested in the use and operation of CDFs noting their rapid expansion in developing countries such as Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and countries such as Malawi. The review stated:

… the issue of whether CDFs represent an effective use of development expenditure … is contentious. MPs and their supporters are often considered to be the strongest advocates, while donors and civil society groups have by and large viewed CDFs as political slush funds that can be detrimental to development. Wiltshire, C., & Batley, J. (2018). Research into Constituency Development Funds in Solomon Islands. Department of Public Affairs, Australian National University, para. 3. https://dpa.bellschool.anu.edu.au/sites/default/files/publications/attachments/2018–02/ib2018_4_wiltshire_and_batley.pdf

Five citizen assemblies were conducted in Malawi in relation to local CDF projects, with around 20 people in each assembly selected by lottery to make groups as representative of their communities as possible. Participants were given information and briefings to understand the guidelines on use of CDF money and the selection of projects to fund as part of encouraging deliberative democracy. As part of the project, the New Democracy Foundation developed and distributed a handbook on ‘Democracy Beyond Elections’ New Democracy Foundation. (2022). Enabling national initiatives to take democracy beyond elections. https://www.newdemocracy.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/newDemocracy-UNDEF-Handbook.pdf designed to show how nations at various levels of development can apply the principles of representation and deliberation in ways that are appropriate for their economic and educational circumstances. Also, the foundation funded three pilot projects to demonstrate different applications of deliberative principles and produced a documentary video based on one of these to report the results of deliberative democracy participation. New Democracy Foundation. (2022). United Nations Democracy Fund: Democracy beyond elections. https://www.newdemocracy.com.au/2018/10/17/united-nations-democracy-fund-democracy-beyond-elections

Following the citizen assemblies, one participant commented in the video that citizens in Malawi now understand the guidelines applying to the CDF including how funds should be spent to benefit the community and, therefore, can hold their leaders accountable. The video features comments from several participants in citizen assemblies reporting positively on the experience. It also shows participants dancing and celebrating following deliberative democracy activities. Teaching power. (2022). All Hands On: Films about radical democracy. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v = hM5KdkIo8pc While many citizens in affluent Western democracies may be complacent and reluctant to become active well-informed citizens, Dahlgren, 2009. these initiatives show that those in disadvantaged and marginalized communities who have not been listened to in the past appreciate and relish opportunities to gain the power that comes from being informed and having a say.

Call centres, correspondence, complaints, ‘contact us’, and chat bots

Organizations also communicate, and claim to listen, through a range of other methods such as call centres, letters and emails, complaints, website queries and questions (e.g., ‘contact us’ sections), and digital methods such as chat bots in which people can type questions or comments. Many government departments and agencies have large teams responsible for correspondence with citizens. For example, the UK Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) based in Wales has almost 1,000 staff engaging with citizens daily by phone, email, and on social media. Research reported in the next chapter records the public interactions of two large call centres operated by one of the largest insurance companies in Greece that process almost one million calls a year. Many people still write letters to organizations, although email has become the increasingly common form of correspondence. For instance, the UK Prime Minister receives up to 100,000 letters a year in email, typed, and even handwritten form, which are processed by a team of staff. Government departments and corporations usually have a complaints department responsible for reviewing and responding to issues raised by individual citizens and organizations such as suppliers, retailers, and local authorities and community groups—although increasingly it seems that these involve long periods on-hold, or virtual offices where one can only leave a typed message. The cost-reducing strategy of automated telephone systems sans humans is a salient example of organizations that not only don’t listen, but don’t want to listen. Ultimately, the cost is likely to be much higher than employing competent caring staff to communicate with customers and other callers. (See ‘The effects and costs of not listening’ in Chapter 2.)

These ways in which organizations potentially communicate with stakeholders are expanded on in Chapter 6 which examines in detail how organizational listening can be put into practice.

The multitude of often overlapping practices and multiplicity of terms used in relation to organization-public communication are summarized in Figure 3.6. This illustrates the diversity and scale of public communication by organizations, as well as the porous borders between fields and nuances in nomenclature.

[INSERT FIGURE 3.6 HERE]

Figure 3.6. Common terms used in organization-public communication.

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