Organisational Listening-The Missing Essential in Public Communication

Mon, Dec 14 2015

Organisations need an ‘architecture of listening’ to balance their architectures of speaking and spin 

A research study has found that organisations – including government, corporate, non-government and some non-profit organisations – listen “sporadically, selectively, and sometimes not at all” to citizens, stakeholders and publics.   

This is despite claims of two-way communication and engagement, dialogue, conversations and collaboration that have become buzzwords in contemporary public communication practices such as political communication, government communication, relationship marketing, corporate communication, and public relations.   

A two-year, three-country study conducted in the US, UK and Australia reports that organisations spend millions of dollars, pounds and euros every year allegedly on public communication, but this is invested in creating an “architecture of speaking” designed and used predominantly to disseminate their messages.  

The study conducted by Professor Jim Macnamara from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) found that, on average, 80 per cent of the resources and time spent by organisations on public communication is devoted to disseminating the organisation’s messages – i.e., speaking on behalf of the organisation. In some cases, up to 95 per cent of so-called communication by organisations is focussed on speaking.  

Professor Macnamara also found that when organisations do listen, it is predominantly for instrumental purposes to serve their own interests, such as gaining intelligence to ‘target’ potential consumers of products and services.  

Professor Macnamara said organisations of various types ranging from large public service departments and multinational corporations to local councils, businesses, hospitals, and schools are central to contemporary industrialised societies.   

“Citizens have to communicate with organisations every day – and organisations need to communicate with voters, customers, employees, members, patients, students, and others,” he said.  

But Professor Macnamara said “there is extensive evidence that public communication is not working and this is negatively affecting democracy, government, business, and society.  

“Surveys show that trust in government and business is at its lowest ebb in recorded history in many countries, with as few as 15 per cent of people having a significant level of trust in government or political and business leaders.   

“In countries with voluntary voting, voter turn-out is falling to ever lower levels. For example, in the 2014 US mid-term elections, only 36.4 per cent of eligible American citizens voted – the lowest in any election since World War II. Even in Australia, which has compulsory voting, informal voting in the last federal election was the highest in 30 years.

“Youth disengagement from traditional politics and civil society is of particular concern to sociologists and political scientists,” Professor Macnamara said.  

Based on analysis of 36 case studies of organisations explored through 104 interviews with senior communication practitioners, analysis of more than 400 relevant documents such as communication and consultation plans and reports, and 25 experiments testing organisational response, Professor Macnamara concluded that the answer is not more talking, but more listening.  

He said that, while organisations make big investments in public communication activities such as advertising, direct marketing, political communication, public education programs, corporate communication, public relations, and so on, this is used to create “an architecture of speaking”. Conversely, the research study found that organisations have little or no infrastructure for effective listening.  

Professor Macnamara calls for an “architecture of listening” in organisations because he says organisations need to engage in large-scale listening to hundreds, thousands, or even millions of  people and this cannot be done one-on-one. But he warns that organisational listening cannot be achieved simply through technology such as installing a software program or online ‘listening tool’.  

He says an ‘architecture of listening’ is comprised of a culture that is open and receptive, as well as policies, resources, skills, systems and technologies that allow organisations to receive, process, consider, and respond to stakeholders and publics.    

Methods of organisational listening include research such as surveys, focus groups and interviews; public consultation; social media monitoring and analysis; customer relations; and a whole range of specialist techniques such as public meetings, citizen juries, advisory bodies, and online feedback forums.   

The study argues that there is an urgency to address the “crisis of listening” in government, political parties, corporations, and other types of organisations, and that there are major benefits from doing so, concluding that improved organisational listening is a key to citizen, customer, and stakeholder engagement; trust; healthy democracy; business sustainability; and social equity.  

The full details of the study and its 31 recommendations are available in a book released this month – Organisational Listening: The Missing Essential in Public Communication published by Peter Lang, New York (   

Further information and interviews: Professor Jim Macnamara PhD, FAMEC, FAMI, CPM, FPRIA Professor of Public Communication University of Technology Sydney 61 (0)414 998 930 E-mail:  

Organisations create an “architecture of speaking” through major investments in advertising, public relations, corporate communication, and increasingly through owned media. Even social media are used by organisations including government departments and agencies, corporations, and NGOs primarily to disseminate their messages.

“Organisations listen sporadically at best, often poorly, and sometimes not at all”.

Organisations need an “architecture of listening” if they are to achieve two-way communication, dialogue, and engagement with their stakeholders and publics.

“A wake up call” (Nick Couldry)

A “deeply original and empirically rich book” (Stephen Coleman)

“A long overdue and important contribution to the communication and public relations literature” (Anne Gregory)

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