Peter V. StantonPeter V. Stanton

The practice of public relations is largely about the delivery of information. Whether through social platforms, traditional media or other means, we talk often about framing the narrative, shaping the message and sharing the content. All of this relates to the one-way dimension of communication—speaking to our target audiences. Where we too often miss an opportunity is when we fail to listen with purpose, interest and empathy.

As someone who studied counseling psychology in college and graduate school rather than public relations, I learned early that listening had the potential to be the most critical contributor to a positive therapeutic outcome. Counselors understand that careful listening engenders trust, builds an alliance for the achievement of a shared goal, and fosters a deeper understanding of what the individual is feeling—the emotions behind their words.

Leaders in psychotherapy all emphasized the importance of listening. Sigmund Freud revolutionized psychotherapy simply by propounding the idea that mental problems could be solved by allowing the patient to talk about them and the therapist to listen. Alfred Adler, originally a colleague of Freud, parted ways to found what he called “Individual Psychology” where even the physical setting in which patient and therapist interacted was redesigned so both could speak and listen as equals. Erich Fromm, another Freud disciple, went so far as to develop six rules for listening which, Fromm argued, “… is an art like the understanding of poetry.”

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To be sure, the general importance of listening is not lost on most effective communicators practicing today. They do their listening through surveys, media monitoring and analysis, social monitoring and assessment, and more. Much of this is data collection, statistical analysis and polling. All of these approaches have value, but not as much—as a counseling psychologist might argue—as engaging with an individual one on one. In the toolbox of communication, such interpersonal dialogue must never become the missing link to a successful campaign.

In the development of a solid campaign strategy, the value of interpersonal dialogue cannot be underestimated. The process begins, in our approach to strategy, by listening to our clients. They tell us what is important to them, and they identify others they feel we may need to hear from. In fact, while we may have preliminary concepts or theories about how we will approach the client’s challenge, the process of campaign development doesn’t begin in earnest without these dialogues.

The word dialogue is intentionally chosen. We develop a discussion guide, a list of questions or prompts intended to stimulate conversation. But these are never questionnaires that must be fully completed. We allow the conversation to evolve in the direction the individual wishes it to go. A few core ingredients, however, are always included:

  • Besides communication itself, what are the “business” goals of the organization? How do you see communication enabling the achievement of these goals?
  • What is your definition of success for this campaign? What outcome would you most wish to realize?
  • As someone who is deeply immersed in your industry/profession, what guidance do you have for us?
  • What should we know as we begin strategic development?
  • Who else do you advise us to speak with?

In counseling, such questions are central to what is called “Active Listening,” giving the individual the opportunity to say in their own words where they believe the challenges and opportunities lie. Not only is this important information for communicators to learn and appreciate, it is an essential dynamic in the process of securing campaign buy-in. We reflect back in our strategic plans what we heard and understood from these discussions with key stakeholders. Individuals can see their words and concepts acknowledged in the plan. In this way, they can feel respected and acknowledged. In psychology, this often is called “affirmation,” a demonstration that the individual was not just a box to be checked off, but someone who was genuinely heard.

An interesting dimension of such discussions is the level of emotion that often accompanies personal dialogue. This would never come through in a survey or poll, but often emerges in conversation. Frustration, determination, even anger and uncertainty all have a safe space for expression when the discussion is held on a not-for-attribution basis and the individual is assured we have a real interest in hearing their perspectives. We do not challenge such feelings. We do not make judgements on their relevance or accuracy. But we do take this information into careful consideration as we formulate a plan of action. The factual information we gain in our discussions with stakeholders is essential. The emotional context and framework in which that information is delivered is of equal, if not greater, importance. If we are to devise a strategy to deal with opposition to a particular position, it helps to first hear and understand how that opposition makes our client feel and, potentially, react in emotional ways. Even if the language of the client has, thus far, been temperate, the underlying emotion affects how it is delivered and received. This shapes our thinking about approach, theme, and delivery method.

This last can be especially evident during periods of crisis. As an example, an electric utility company facing significant and prolonged service interruptions due to storms sought a communication plan to help it articulate what it was doing to improve service. The company’s leaders sought a communication plan characterized by creativity, innovation and expediency that would heighten customer awareness of their investments in reliability, and ameliorate customer antipathy. Many ideas were debated. Multiple approaches were conceived. What wasn’t initially adopted was a process for listening to customers. To be sure, customers were quoted in the media. And social platform commentary was nothing short of visceral. But the company’s leaders were not out in the community demonstrating real interest and empathy.

The strategy that ultimately enabled the company to find its footing began with doing the somewhat unpleasant job of hearing angry people share their feelings. In town halls, focus groups, and direct dialogues with customers, a lot was heard and even more was learned. Among the lessons was that customer anger was not solely related to service interruptions. There were other areas in which customers wanted, and needed, the company to improve. So, while investments in reliability were important and necessary, improvements in daily operations were just as necessary. A telling remark at one of the most vitriolic town halls was when a customer vented his anger and concluded with:

“I really hate your company, but at least you came out here and listened.” It was the affirmation needed to reorient and focus ideas about communication in the interest of customer service.

The words and the act of communication have so much power, so much potential, so much importance in a world where seemingly we have lost the ability to engage with one another. If we can demonstrate a serious commitment to listening, perhaps we can increase the opportunity for reasoned dialogue and productive discussion.

The simplest, most purposeful thing we can do as communicators is to listen. If we can do this actively, intentionally, and sincerely, we increase our potential to deliver world-class communication that enables our organizations to succeed.


Peter V. Stanton is CEO of Stanton Communications, Inc.