Two years of research as part of The Organisational Listening Project and years of evaluation experience reveal key insights communication professionals need to note.

By Professor Jim Macnamara PhD, FAMI, CPM, FAMEC, FPRIA, Professor of Public Communication, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Technology Sydney. Visiting Professor, London School of Economics and Political Science, Media & Communications Department

June 2017 marks one year since the historic EU Referendum in the UK that voted for Brexit, and the anniversary brought me back to London[i], via the AMEC Global Summit on Measurement in Bangkok, for follow-up research into UK Government communication and a review of what has been learned.

The northern hemisphere summer also marks almost six months of the presidency of Donald Trump following his shock election victory against the predictions of almost all polls and the campaigning of the Democratic Party and even large sections of the Republication Party.

My keynote address to the Summit on Measurement and further research in London has afforded opportunities to reflect and review what these landmark events tell us about communication and evaluation.

Consider that the UK Referendum on the EU cost £142 million, of which tens of millions of pounds was spent on communication and research. US presidential campaigns typically cost US$500 million or more. For example, The Washington Post reported that the 2008 Obama campaign raised half a billion US dollars for campaigning, while The Huffington Post estimated that the Obama campaign raised and spent US$750 million. Ongoing spending on public communication by the US Government is estimated to be in the billions of dollars.

However, following the post-Brexit resignation of former UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, incoming PM Theresa May said: “Our democracy should work for everyone, but if you’ve been trying to say things need to change for years and your complaints fall on deaf ears, it doesn’t feel like it’s working for you”[ii]. Her acknowledgement that the government was not listening and failing to understand its constituents was emphasised by the PM in her speech to the Conservative Party conference in October 2016 when she said that Brexit was “a revolution in which millions of our fellow citizens stood up and said they were not prepared to be ignored anymore.”

‘Falling on deaf ears’ and ‘ignored’ are alarming acknowledgements when so much money is spent on communication and research. Clearly something is wrong.

Even more telling was that the PM added: “Knock on almost any door in almost any part of the country, and you will find the roots of the revolution laid bare.”[iii]

This begs the question that, if knocking on any door would reveal the stakeholder and public dissatisfaction that caused a momentous vote against the government, why had this not been discovered as part of government communication evaluation?

Two years of research as part of The Organisational Listening Project and many years studying evaluation reveal some answers and insights that communication professionals in both the public and private sector need to note.

In addition to findings revealed during six months of intensive research conducted between June and December 2016 inside the UK Government before and immediately following the Brexit vote, a follow-up review conducted in June 2017 revealed a number of key findings. Five key insights that challenge how the communication industry does its work are briefly summarised in the following.

People talking without listening …

To paraphrase Simon and Garfunkel, the overall finding of my research is that the professional practices of public relations, strategic communication, corporate communication and related fields are focussed on talking to disseminate organisations’ messages.

In particular, much effort is devoted to campaigns, which are an organisation saying what it wants to say when it wants to say it. I concluded that communication activities are mostly designed as part of an ‘architecture of speaking’. Comparatively few resources and little effort is devoted to listening to stakeholders and publics. When listening does occur, it is selective and instrumental – that is, it is designed to help the organisation target its audiences and achieve its pre-determined objectives. To quote Simon and Garfunkel again, corporate and government organisations ‘hear what they want to hear and disregard the rest’.

My research, which has now been presented to governments in Australia, Europe, the UK, and the USA, argues that organisations need to adopt architecture of listening as well as speaking. Such an architecture requires a culture of listening (i.e., management must want to listen) and policies, resources, systems, technologies, and skills for listening, as well as articulation of what is learned from listening to decision-making and policy-making.

It is important to note that listening does not necessarily require agreement, but effective listening requires recognition of all those who have something to say to an organisation (rather than selective listening), paying attention, trying to understand others’ views, and at least giving consideration to what stakeholders and publics say.

Formative as well as summative research and evaluation

Research reveals that many organisations use only summative evaluation – that is evaluation after activities have been completed.

Evaluation is defined in three stages: formative (before activities to inform design, establish baselines, and pre-test ideas), process (tracking during campaigns and projects), and summative (post-evaluation to identify effectiveness). All stages of evaluation involve listening to stakeholders and publics, but skipping over formative evaluation research is tantamount to flying blind and deaf.

Qualitative as well as quantitative dimensions

A major finding of my most recent research within the UK Government is that there is a predominant use of quantitative research – a characteristic of corporate research also.

Quantitative research is important for gaining numeric (quantified) data and for identifying averages. However, it does not produce in-depth insights and understanding of attitudes, perceptions, concerns, needs, and interests and the underlying reasons for and causes of those. Averages also eradicate ‘outliers’ from the data, which mean that significant groups and diversity of views are not heard.

Active open listening to gain deep understanding and insights requires qualitative methods such as social and market research using focus groups, interviews, and ethnography; consultation; and analysis of other feedback such as correspondence (i.e., letters, e-mails, and Web site inquiries) and complaints. These are important data sets that are often overlooked in analysis.

Data analysis

Equally important to collecting qualitative data is having the tools and skills to conduct analysis of unstructured textual data as well as statistical data. Unstructured data that are rich in insights for organisations include transcripts of focus groups and interviews, correspondence, public consultation submissions, and complaints.

In one glaring example of lack of analysis of important data, my research found that one of the largest public consultations in the UK, the NHS Mandate, expected to receive a few thousand submissions, but instead received 127,400. Many were 10–15 pages in length, resulting in almost 1.5 million pages of text. Government staff did not have the tools or skills to analyse such a large amount of textual data, resulting in missed insights and unheard voices.

Such analysis requires advanced tools including machine learning software. Introduction of such a program (Method52 was used in this research) along with staff training in textual analysis revealed a number of very significant findings including rising anti-European feeling, anger at the UK Government over NHS funding, along with distrust of the consultation process itself – which proved to be justified based on the lack of analysis of submissions discovered in this research.

Outreach

A further related finding of the research was that organisations mostly engage with what can be called the ‘usual suspects’ – major industry, professional, and community organisations and lobbyists that often comprise a vocal minority – and fail to engage with groups outside the mainstream and individuals and groups that are marginalised or silent. Active effective communication, consultation, and engagement requires outreach to such groups. Brexit and the Trump election show how such groups can mobilise and become a majority.

Conclusions

The words of the UK Prime Minister make it clear that the UK Government was not adequately listening prior to the Brexit vote, and research conducted as part of The Organisational Listening Project confirms that the voices of key stakeholders and citizens were falling on deaf ears because of a predominant focus on campaigning (i.e., organisational speaking); a narrow after-the-event focus on evaluation; a focus on numbers; a lack of analysis of data; and a lack of outreach to hear from the disengaged and the ‘silent majority’.

This reinforces the need for organisations to balance the sophisticated ‘architecture of speaking’ that has been developed in the form of advertising, PR and corporate, organisational and marketing communication with an architecture of listening.

The components of an architecture of listening are outlined in my latest research report available free online at https://www.uts.edu.au/node/230356 and in detail in a book: Organizational Listening: The Missing Essential in Public Communication (Peter Lang, New York, 2016 – publisher’s Web site link – http://bit.ly/OrganizationalListening).

[i] Jim Macnamara spent six months doing full-time research in the UK in 2016 before and following Brexit, while on sabbatical and working as a Visiting Professor at The London School of Economics and Political Science.

[ii] Statement from the new Prime Minister Theresa May. London, UK issued by The Office of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/statement-from-the-new-prime-minister-theresa-may

[iii] Address by Theresa May to the Conservative Party Conference, Birmingham. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/10/05/theresa-mays-conference-speech-in-full