When we think of communication, we are immediately drawn to what we say, write and publish. While instinctively we know that this is only half the equation, in practice how much emphasis do we place on the ‘other side of the coin’?
To successfully communicate and form positive impressions, organisations must be listening to their stakeholders, understanding what they are saying and demonstrating that they are meeting their needs.
A communication strategy which does not include some form of listening may ultimately fall on ‘deaf ears’ and could backfire.
There are many ways in which an organisation should be listening to its stakeholders. Here are some key initiatives to consider:
- Polling and Perception Studies
If an organisation is embarking on a major campaign, conducting a form of polling or perception study is essential to ensure the messages are going to hit the right mark.
Undertaking polling prior to the commencement of a communication campaign can be a useful investment in ensuring that the messages, language and communication methods are going to resonate with the stakeholders for whom the communication is to be addressed. Our political parties are the masters of this, some times to the detriment of brave decision-making. Yet at least they can be sure that their communication is based on language and themes which are likely to resonate with the ‘average voter’ and importantly steer away from language which may reinforce a negative sentiment about them or their party. The same principles apply when a company is commencing a large scale communication campaign. Comprehensive polling is obviously not the only way of getting a sense of what your stakeholders are thinking.
Another way is through a perception study via a series of interviews with a range of former, current and potential clients, customers, prominent industry participants and other stakeholders including analysts and media. A brand perception survey enables the development of a clear and objective understanding of how a company is perceived within the industry. It can also define any reputational issues that should be addressed by any future external marketing/communication engagement strategy.
In order to enable comparisons with former and future studies, a questionnaire is best structured to yield both qualitative and quantitative results. The qualitative questions should be deliberately structured as open-ended to foster unsolicited comments to capture the essential perceptions of a company. It is also useful if the quantitative questions are scalar so as to enable comparison with previous and future years. Even a relatively small sample of 15-20 people for a perception study can be sufficient to gather useful data to guide the communication planning and implementation.
- Deliberative Engagement
Effective listening is a vitally important aspect of stakeholder engagement. What strategy is right for you and your company should depend upon an analysis of your stakeholders and this may mean the use of a variety of strategies as opposed to ‘one size fits all’ approach. A useful method of listening is through ‘deliberative engagement’. This process involves stakeholders coming together in a ‘forum type format’ where they are provided with source information and then guided through a discussion to arrive at a common or shared way forward. The process can be useful in the development of corporate social responsibility programs and enables a company to ensure its programs and funding is in line with the priorities of the communities in which they operate. Deliberative engagement is also a useful process for the engagement of staff and an important plank in fostering a listening culture.
- Social Media
Social media makes it easy for listening to occur. On the flip side it also means that there are no excuses when an organisation does not respond. At the very least organisations should utilise free social media monitoring tools available. These include, Google Alert, Hootsuite, Tweet Reach, Klout and Social Mention amongst others. The interactive nature of social media should be incorporated in any strategy and to be effective, companies should have the ability to respond quickly and appropriately. Those charged with the responsibility to respond must be given enough authority to be able to engage with stakeholders in a two-way conversation. It does not demonstrate good listening if a company takes a day or more to respond, as in the social media world fast, real-time and accurate responses are needed.
Ultimately the most important way of demonstrating that you have listened is through action. Creating the mechanisms for listening is just one aspect. Just as vital is the demonstration that stakeholders views have been acted upon or an explanation about why you haven’t been able to act – a point that is sometimes forgotten. If you don’t demonstrate action, then stakeholders may switch off and you run the risk they might switch on to one of your competitors.
Citadel-MAGNUS would be pleased to discuss with you ways in which we can assist your company to improve its communication through enhanced listening strategies (including perception surveys, social media strategies and deliberative engagement).