The Virtue of Listening

According the European Communications Monitor 2015 communication professionals are placing more emphasis on the importance of ‘inbound communications’, in other words, identifying opportunities, integrating public concerns and collecting customer feedback.

In 2015 59.9% of professionals believed that inbound communications were vital in reaching their organisational goals, this is compared to 49.2% in 2010, a significant 10% difference over the course of five years.

Interestingly these same professionals were placing a little less significance on ‘influencing customer preferences, motivating employees, generating public attention’, down 3% from 63.6% to 60.3% in 2015.

This information tells us that the ‘equilibrium swing’ between outbound and inbound communication has leveled slightly over the last five years, with companies finding greater importance in listening to customers rather than just trying to just generate public attention for the sake of it. Informed, directed, personalized content is the name of the game.

Though while there is clear and obvious change, communication professionals still have a long way to go, with a strong emphasis still being placed on outbound activities. Overall, when asked “How do you and your department help to reach the overall goals of your organisation or your client?” External activities accounted for, on average 68.05%, whilst internal activities were 56.45%; consequently the communications equilibrium swing is still unbalanced.

C-Level Decision Making

I believe communications can achieve a higher strategic impact by employing the same rigor to inbound advisory activities as to its externally-driven strategies. Brands need to cultivate relationships with their consumers; to do that, they first have to stop talking about themselves.

In today’s communications environment, consumers are no longer passive listeners, more than ever people are empowered to make informed decisions and influence them. The point here is that outbound activities only work strategically if the analysis of the audience’s concerns and preferences has strongly influenced the C-level’s decision-making processes.

Room for Maneuver

Communications should also secure room for maneuver to enable decision making. In a world where change happens quickly, corporations need options available to them at a moment’s notice. To secure this maneuvering space, organisations establish meaningful dialogues with stakeholders on corporate decisions. Outbound activities, such as crafting externally-directed communications that puts across and explains the organisation’s decisions to stakeholders, are part and parcel of this. But this cannot be just the means to an end, it is also necessary feed these stakeholders’ responses to back into the ‘inbound’ loop.

Reputational Cost

To work as a strategic business asset, the communications function needs to convey public views on strategic matters. For instance, the communication department should be involved in risk analyses just as the legal and financial departments are. Although an investment may be legally sound and financially viable, it could represent a huge reputational cost. This cost could of course be deemed acceptable – but the reputational factor needs to be identified and assessed before deciding on the investment. In this respect, the role of the modern communications department directly influences the bottom line.

“Everyone” talks about dialogue – engaging in dialogue with stakeholders, dialogue with investors, with employees. But to really engage in a true dialogue, we need to listen – and the things we hear need to cause a reaction. As such, listening should receive just as much – ideally more – attention than speaking. This year’s European Communication Monitor show that things are starting to change, but not nearly enough. Communication professionals are more concerned about their own message than what others are saying. That needs to change.

Lars Erik Grønntun, CEO, Hill+Knowlton Strategies EMEA

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