Organizational Listening

The Missing Essential in Public Communication

by Jim Macnamara (Author)
©2016 Textbook 386 Pages


Organizations, which are central in contemporary industrialized and post-industrial societies, including government departments and agencies, corporations, and non-government organizations, claim to want and practice two-way communication, dialogue, and engagement with citizens, customers, employees, and other stakeholders and publics. But do they in reality? Voice – speaking up – is recognized as fundamental for democracy, representation, and social equity. But what if governments, corporations, institutions, and NGOs are not listening? This book reports the findings of a two-year, three-continent study that show that public and private sector organizations devote substantial and sometimes massive resources to construct an ‘architecture of speaking’ through advertising, PR, and other public communication practices, but listen poorly, sporadically, and sometimes not at all. Beyond identifying a ‘crisis of listening’ in modern societies, this landmark study proposes and describes how organizations need to create an architecture of listening to regain trust and re-engage people whose voices are unheard or ignored. It presents a compelling case to show that urgent attention to organizational listening is essential for maintaining healthy democracy, organization legitimacy, business sustainability, and social equity. This research is essential reading for all scholars, students, and practitioners involved in politics; government, corporate, marketing, and organizational communication; public relations; and all those interested in democratic participation, media, and society.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: The Fundamental Role of Communication and Voice
  • Public Communication in Society
  • The Public Sphere
  • The Market
  • Civil Society
  • The Central Role of Organizations in Contemporary Societies
  • The Valorization of Voice and Speaking
  • The Missing Corollary of Speaking—Listening
  • What Is Listening?
  • The Pre-requisite of Openness
  • Receptivity
  • Reciprocity
  • Hospitality
  • Engagement
  • Seven Canons of Listening
  • Listen To, Listen In, Listen Out For, Listen Up
  • Listening and Silence
  • Listening Requires Interactivity
  • Listening Is Contingent
  • Listening and Hearing
  • Listening vs. Agreement
  • Listening Is Work
  • What Is Organizational Listening?
  • Non-listening and Fake Listening
  • The Ethics of Listening
  • The Problematic Nature of Audiences
  • Ventriloquism—Who Is Speaking and Who Is Being Listened To?
  • The Effects of Not Listening
  • Theoretical Frameworks for Organizational Listening
  • Chapter 2: How Organizations Say They Communicate
  • Research
  • Marketing Communication
  • Customer Relations
  • Political Communication
  • Government Communication
  • Corporate Communication
  • Organizational Communication
  • Public Relations
  • Public Consultation
  • Social Media
  • Correspondence, ‘Contact Us’ Links, ‘Info’ Lines, and Help Lines
  • The Missing Link in Public Communication
  • Information vs. Communication
  • Chapter 3: The Crisis of Listening in Organizations and Society
  • The Organizational Listening Project
  • Aims and Objectives
  • Research Questions
  • Methodology
  • Sample
  • Ethics
  • Research Methods
  • Data Capture and Analysis
  • Limitations
  • How Organizations Really Communicate, or Don’t: Research Findings
  • Non-response
  • Multiple Modes of Listening
  • Multiple Sites of Listening
  • Overall Patterns, Themes, and Narratives
  • Listening in Customer Relations
  • Listening in Research
  • Listening in Social Media
  • Listening in Public Consultation
  • Listening in Government Communication
  • Listening in Organizational Communication
  • Listening in Political Communication
  • Listening in Marketing Communication
  • Listening in Corporate Communication
  • Listening in Public Relations
  • Listening in Management
  • Summary of Research Findings
  • Key Findings
  • Operational Findings
  • Chapter 4: Creating an ‘Architecture of Listening’ and Doing the Work of Listening
  • Culture of Listening
  • Policies for Listening
  • Politics of Listening
  • Structures and Processes for Listening
  • Technologies for Listening
  • Resources for Listening
  • Skills for Listening
  • Articulation of Listening to Decision Making and Policy Making
  • The Work of Listening
  • Models for Organizational Listening
  • The National Commission for Public Debate, France
  • The 2008 and 2012 Obama US Presidential Campaigns
  • The MIT Collaboratorium/Deliberatorium
  • The Dialogue Project at MIT
  • The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD)
  • The Public Dialogue Consortium (PDC)
  • The 2003 GMNation? ‘Foundation Discussion’ Workshops in the UK
  • The Restorative Gentrification Listening Project, Portland, Oregon
  • The California Report Card
  • Argumentation Mapping and Facilitation
  • Sense Making Methodology
  • Knowledge Management
  • Other Listening Tools and Methods
  • Chapter 5: The Benefits of Organizational Listening for Democratic Politics, Government, Business, and Society
  • Listening to Reinvigorate Democracy and Democratic Government
  • Citizen Participation and Engagement
  • Listening to Engage Youth
  • Listening for Business Sustainability
  • Listening for Successful Strategy
  • Listening to Create ‘the Social Organization’
  • Listening to Gain Trust and Maintain Relationships
  • Listening to Transform Professional Communication Practice
  • The ‘Bottom Line’ of Listening
  • Listening for Social Equity
  • Listening to Marginalized Voices
  • Listening to the Silent Majority
  • Listening Across Cultures
  • Listening Across Difference
  • Listening Across Borders
  • Conclusions
  • Appendices
  • Interview Question Guide
  • The ‘Top 100’ Terms Discussed by Participants in Interviews
  • References
  • Index

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Research and publication of new insights cannot happen without considerable time and effort of many people, not only the researcher. I gratefully thank all the organizations that agreed to participate in the research that informed this book, despite knowing that it would include critical analysis. Their openness and concern for their stakeholders, publics, and society are to be commended.

In particular, I must acknowledge and thank Alex Aiken, the head of government communication in the UK, who granted me largely unfettered access to senior communication staff in the UK Cabinet Office, Whitehall, and a range of UK government departments and agencies, and Paul Njoku who facilitated these interactions.

I also thank Mark Weiner, CEO of Prime Research (North America), Richard Bagnall, CEO of Prime Research (UK), and Frank Ovaitt, president and CEO of the Institute for Public Relations in the US 2011–2015, who assisted me in gaining access to communication heads in some of the world’s largest corporations.

I am indebted also to a number of academic colleagues who provided valuable advice, encouragement, and reviews of drafts of this book, particularly Nick Couldry, professor of media, communication and social theory at ← ix | x → the London School of Economics and Political Science; Stephen Coleman, professor of political communication at the University of Leeds; and Anne Gregory, professor of corporate communications at the University of Huddersfield and chair of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management. As well, I thank colleagues and collaborators at the University of Technology Sydney including Roger Dunston, associate professor in public communication, and research associate, Dr Gail Kenning; along with organizational systems consultant Paul Long.

For the production and publication of this book, I thank Peter Lang, New York, and particularly senior acquisitions editor Mary Savigar who supported publication in hardcover and paperback editions as a key research output from the Organizational Listening Project.

Jim Macnamara PhD, FAMEC, FAMI, CPM, FPRIA

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While the following are anecdotal, three incidents prompted and inspired the research and analysis reported in this book. Unfortunately for organizations and citizens, such incidents are all too often typical of organization-public communication today.

In 2010 I wrote to my local council about what a number of residents in the street where I live considered to be mismanagement of an environmental reserve adjacent to our houses. There had been a long history of politics between the local government body and the federal government over the land and who was responsible for the cost of maintenance of the reserve as well as the verge.1 Noxious weeds were growing in the reserve, undergrowth was creating a fire hazard, and plants and grass on the verge were dying. The local council’s Web site stated that the contact point for residents’ inquiries was the general manager and gave an e-mail address. So I wrote to the council as advised. But no response was received in the following three weeks. So I wrote again. Still no acknowledgement or action followed. Exasperated after writing two letters and leaving a phone message to no avail, I contacted the local newspaper and also wrote a story for an online community news site, with photos of the overgrown reserve and verge. Suddenly, within a day of media reports appearing, the council sprang into action. Council members and officials contacted me and maintenance workers were on the case within a few days. But until bad publicity appeared resulting in public embarrassment, the council was not listening to its ratepayers. ← 1 | 2 →

In 2012 I was looking around to buy a new four-wheel-drive, as my wife and I enjoy trips to the Australian Outback (yes, unlike many 4WD owners, we do go beyond the city limits). A new model from a leading global brand was due for release and I was keen to find out details including its off-road features and its environmental impact such as fuel consumption, carbon emissions, and so on. Because local dealers could not answer my questions, I logged on to the manufacturer’s Web site and, under the ‘contact us’ section, submitted an inquiry. I made it clear that I was a seriously interested potential buyer and waited for a response. None came. Intrigued, I phoned the national sales manager and told him of my interest and the lack of response to my Web inquiry. He was apologetic and explained (made the excuse) that the company’s Web site was outsourced and that there had “been some problems with the supplier” and that the company was “in the process of changing contractors”. In the meantime, it seemed that public inquiries and comments to this multi-billion dollar corporation disappeared into the ether of cyberspace.

In 2014, after flying from Sydney to the UK for the first stage of interviews with government organizations and companies in this research project, I submitted an online complaint about an aspect of the international airline’s service. On the return leg, the seat that I was allocated was faulty, with part of the metal frame able to be felt through the seat cushion. Being a 24-hour journey, this was not a minor matter, so I reported the problem to the crew before take-off. A cabin attendant explained that there were no other seats as the flight was full, but promised to bring me an extra pillow. She never returned with the extra pillow. A further discussion with the purser of the flight after take-off evoked sympathy and a promise to report the matter, but no resolution of my problem. I ended up sitting on my blanket and suffered an unpleasant flight. The Web site of the airline—a major international carrier—states explicitly that “we welcome your feedback and comments”, so after returning home I entered a short report of my experience along with my contact details and waited. And waited. No response was ever received.

Chances are that you and most people you know have experienced an organization not listening on at least one occasion, if not many times. And it is almost certain that this caused you and them frustration and even anger because of the inconvenience, wasted time, disadvantage, or worse that was caused. In some cases, a failure of organizations to listen can cause serious jeopardy to people including financial losses, injury, and even death, as will be shown in this study.

In many cases, the ‘unlistened to’ have little choice but to tolerate the indignity and marginalization that are caused by their voice not being given attention and response. On other occasions, the ‘unlistened to’ and the ‘insufficiently listened to’ exercise agency and silently censure the offending organization by resigning, withdrawing their support, or taking their business ← 2 | 3 → elsewhere. In a few instances, but increasingly in the age of social media, long-suffering citizens, irate customers, frustrated members, and consumer activists retaliate by publicly criticizing the organization concerned. In such cases, an organization can be significantly damaged through loss of reputation, support, and sales.

Some of the incidents reported above are relatively minor matters. But at a more serious level, a lack of listening can cause voter frustration that can ultimately topple governments; poor employee morale leading to reduced loyalty and rising staff turnover; a loss of customers; and even life-threatening crises such as misdiagnoses in hospitals and accidents caused by failure to address complaints and reported faults.

But how extensive is this non-listening? Are these anecdotal examples isolated cases, or are they typical and symptomatic of a malaise in contemporary society? This is what research reported in this book set out to examine and, having found such instances alarmingly widespread, explore the reasons and identify ways in which organizational listening can be improved for the benefit of civil society as well as governments, businesses, and other types of organizations.

Research reported in this book shows that, while some social scientists and humanities researchers see a ‘crisis of voice’ in contemporary societies (e.g., Couldry, 2010), the real problem is a crisis of listening—something that Nick Couldry implicitly supports in pointing out that voice needs to have value and more explicitly contends in identifying the denial of what he calls “voice that matters” to many in neoliberal societies.

This particularly occurs at organizational level—the focus of this book. Governments including their myriad departments and agencies; corporations; institutions ranging from hospitals and the police to museums, libraries, and schools; non-government organizations (NGOs); non-profit organizations such as associations, institutes, and clubs; and countless other public and private sector organizations are expected and often required to engage with citizens, customers, members, employees, and other ‘publics’,2 ‘stakeholders’,3 and ‘stakeseekers’.4 But, in many cases, they don’t—not in any open, meaningful, and mutually satisfactory way.

This conclusion is based on a two-year research project examining 36 case studies involving 104 interviews, analysis of more than 400 documents such as communication plans, reports of public consultations, and evaluations of communication, and 25 experimental tests of the listening capabilities of organizations. The extant literature informing this topic, the methodology of this study, ← 3 | 4 → its findings and conclusions, and recommendations for improving public communication and engagement are reported in detail in the following chapters.

Communication and dialogue are conceptualized as two-way, interactive, and transactional (Craig & Muller, 2007; Griffin, 2009; Littlejohn & Foss, 2008). But these concepts remain normative ideals in many cases, or are operationalized as turn-taking in speaking, with little if any focus on listening. Sometimes, these ‘speech acts’ do not even involve turn-taking, with research showing that so-called communication by organizations mainly involves speaking to represent the voice and transmit the messages of the organization. Citizens are conceptualized as consumers by corporations and even by governments in many neoliberal capitalist societies, perceived primarily in the context of consuming products, services, and messages.

While the rhetoric of democratic politics, contemporary business, and professional practices such as public relations (PR), customer relations, and community relations professes dialogue, engagement, participation, consultation, collaboration, and even co-production—sometimes with good intent—listening receives little focus in scholarly or professional literature in these fields, as is shown in Chapter 1.

Furthermore, there is little recognition and examination of the particular challenges faced by organizations, many of which have thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of people with an interest in their affairs—what will be referred to as stakeholders and publics in this analysis for brevity. The term ‘stakeholders’ is used to denote those with a direct physical or emotional stake in an organization or its activities (e.g., shareholders, employees, and local communities), while ‘publics’ refers to others with a broad interest or entitlement to information, including stakeseekers. Engagement with such large and diverse groups requires large-scale listening. The well-documented practices of interpersonal communication and interpersonal listening cannot be simply transplanted into an organizational context.

In addition to identifying a crisis of listening permeating politics, government, business, and civil society, and the destructive effects that this is having, this book goes further to propose an architecture of listening as a necessary element in all public and private sector organizations, as well as the work of listening. Based on empirical research conducted inside a substantial sample of organizations internationally, it identifies that large-scale listening requires a number of features and elements to be designed into organizations. Organizational listening cannot be effectively achieved simply by adding a ‘listening post’ or installing a software application. The key features and elements of an ← 4 | 5 → architecture of listening are identified based on the case studies examined and examples drawn from reports of various initiatives around the world.

Finally, this analysis explores the benefits for organizations as well as citizens, voters, members, employees, and ‘consumers’ in neoliberal capitalist terms of undertaking the work of listening facilitated by an architecture of listening. This analysis shows that there are substantial, tangible benefits for government, business, institutions, and NGOs arising from effective ethical listening ranging from increased organizational legitimacy, public support, and reputation to increased employee satisfaction, retention, and productivity; increased brand and customer loyalty; improved policy making and decision making; and even reduced costs through participatory, collaborative, and co-production approaches, as well as reduced disruptions caused by complaints, regulatory interventions, and legal actions. Conversely, it shows that not listening creates serious threats to the stability and continuity of governments, businesses, and other types of organizations.

It is recognized that some forms of organizational listening are problematic—particularly some instances of ‘listening in’, in contrast to ‘listening to’ and ‘listening out for’. For instance, while national security is an important issue, there is considerable concern that the listening activities of intelligence and security agencies can infringe privacy and civil rights and amount to spying on citizens. However, such abuses of listening are not the focus of this book, which examines the broad range of legitimate interactions between organizations and citizens.

Ultimately, given the central role of organizations in industrialized and post-industrial societies, effective ethical organizational listening will benefit all members of society and can contribute to social equity and help address the concerning “democratic deficit” (Couldry, 2010, p. 49; Curran, 2011, p. 86; Norris, 2011) to produce an enriched democracy and civil society.


1. The strip of land between houses and a road, sidewalk, or other public areas is called a verge in the UK, a tree lawn and other terms in the US, and a nature strip in Australia.

2. Public relations scholars Jim Grunig and Todd Hunt (1984) advocate the term ‘publics’ (plural) to refer to groups of people with whom interaction is desirable or necessary. The concept also is advocated by sociologists and political scientists such as Nina Eliasoph (2004), who has called for broad-based replacement of the singular term ‘public’ with the plural ‘publics’ to recognize social plurality and diversity. Kate Lacey says “the idea of a singular, overarching public is a rhetorical fiction” (2013, p. 15). ← 5 | 6 →

3. ‘Stakeholders’ is a term proposed by R. Edward Freeman (1984) in his book Strategic Management: A Stakeholder Approach to draw attention to those affected by or affecting organizations beyond stockholders. Stakeholders can include employees, suppliers, distributors, retailers, and local communities.

4. ‘Stakeseekers’ is a term that broadens the concept of stakeholders to include individuals and groups without a direct relationship with an organization but who seek to have a say or influence (Heath, 2002; Spicer, 2007).

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· 1 ·


To be means to communicate dialogically. When dialogue ends, everything ends.

—(Mikhail Bakhtin, 1963/1984, p. 252, writing about human society)

Communication theorists and sociologists identify communication as “the organizing element of human life” (Littlejohn & Foss, 2008, p. 4) and the basis of human society (Carey, 1989/2009; Dewey, 1916). John Dewey said “society exists … in communication” (1916, p. 5) and famously added that “of all things, communication is the most wonderful” (1939, p. 385)—albeit Dewey’s statements are often misinterpreted, as noted by James Carey (1989/2009). Dewey was not suggesting that communication is easy or that it is always a satisfying experience. Raymond Williams also wrote effusively about the importance of communication in creating and sustaining communities and societies, echoing Dewey in saying “society is a form of communication” (1976, p. 10). Other scholars note that humans “cannot not communicate” (Watzlawick, Beavin, & Jackson, 1967, p. 48). Even silence communicates—an important principle informing this analysis. ← 7 | 8 →

Public Communication in Society

Communication between two individuals (dyads) and within small groups, referred to as interpersonal communication, is a long-standing field of study in which there is a substantial body of literature. Some interpersonal communication is private, while in other cases it deals with matters of public concern. Communication is also essential inside organizations such as government departments, corporations, and institutions such as schools, universities, and hospitals. This is commonly referred to as organizational communication, although it would be more accurately called intra-organizational communication. This sphere of communication involves interpersonal communication between managers and individual employees as well as mediated communication through a range of channels such as newsletters and intranets.

Within societies communication also needs to occur on a larger scale between governments and citizens; between corporations and their customers and potential customers; between associations, clubs, libraries, institutes, and community groups and their members; between schools and universities and their students; between hospitals, clinics, doctors, nurses, and their patients; and so on. This broader sphere of communication, as well as organizational communication, is collectively referred to in this analysis as public communication. It is sometimes conducted interpersonally (i.e., face-to-face) such as in meetings, but it is public in the sense that it is commonly mediated to substantial numbers of people through advertising and publicity; publications such as brochures, pamphlets, and newsletters; public events; and increasingly Web sites and social media. Such communication is also public in the sense that it relates to matters in the public sphere (Habermas, 1962/1989, 2006) rather than the private sphere (Chartier, 1989; Hansson, 2007)—albeit the separation of private and the public is seen by some to denote a “false opposition” (D. Goodman, 1992, p. 2) and to be a blurred boundary in contemporary societies (Baxter, 2011). The Web site of the School of Communication at American University in Washington, DC, says of public communication:


ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (February)
NGO Voice up Democracy Organizational listening Two-way communicationEngagement Voice Engagement Organizational Listening II Expanding the Concept, Theory, and Practice Jim Macnamara
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 386 pp.

Biographical notes

Jim Macnamara (Author)

Jim Macnamara (PhD, University of Western Sydney) is Professor of Public Communication at the University of Technology Sydney, a position he took up after a 30-year professional career spanning journalism, corporate and marketing communication, and media research. He is the author of fourteen books including The 21st Century Media (R)evolution: Emergent Communication Practices (2nd ed., Peter Lang, 2014) and Journalism and PR: Unpacking ‘Spin’, Stereotypes, and Media Myths (Peter Lang, 2014).


Title: Organizational Listening